Tattvakaumudī: avatārika

I was planning a different post altogether, but got into a long discussion with Shreevatsa, in the course of which I promised to post a translation of the introductory remarks in the tattvakaumudī by vācaspati miśra. This is an important work in the sāńkhya tradition of Indian philosophy. This work must have been written some time in the 9th or 10th century AD. It is in the form of a commentary on another work (in verse form) called the sāńkhyakārikā by īśvarakṛṣṇa, whose date is not conclusively known. Here goes …

In this world, intelligent people pay attention to those who explain things that are desired to be known by them. Those who set out to explain things that are not desired to be known by them are rejected like a mad man, with the thought: “Here is one neither worldly-wise, nor fit to study lofty things!” Therefore, if the present work has to find acceptance, it should explain things that help one in attaining the supreme goal in life. With this in mind, the work starts by saying that a knowledge of the things it explains are a means of attaining mokṣa, with a view to inducing intelligent people to consider it.

duḥkhatrayābhighātājjijñāsā tadapaghātake hetau |
dṛṣṭe sāpārthā cennaikāntātyantatobhāvāt ||

Since men are tormented by the three kinds of sorrows, there is a desire to know the means by which they can be overcome. If it be claimed that a wish to study the śāstra for this purpose is unnecessary, as there are other evident means for overcoming sorrow, we claim that it is not so, for it is not clear that the other means definitely remove sorrows, or that the relief is not temporary.

There will not be a desire to study a work of śāstra in any of the following cases: 1) there is no duḥkham (sorrow or pain) in the world, 2) there is sorrow but it is not sought to be overcome, 3) it is sought to be overcome but there are no means for that, 4) even when there are means for it, the teaching of the śāstra does not contribute anything towards it, and 5) there exist alternate, easier means for overcoming sorrow.

By the words duḥkhatrayābhighātāt (in the verse) it is sought to establish that neither is there not sorrow, nor is it not sought to be overcome. duḥkhatrayam means the triad of sorrows. They are ādhyātmikam (sorrow caused by oneself), ādhibhautikam (sorrow caused by Nature), and ādhidaivikam (sorrow caused by the denizens of the other worlds). Of these, the first is further subdivided into śārīram (physical) and mānasam (mental). The first is caused by the imbalance of the equilibrium between vāta, pitta, etc. The second is caused by feelings like desire, anger, greed, delusion, fear, jealousy, disappointment, etc. All these are sorrows caused by several instruments in oneself.

The rest is caused by factors other than oneself. Sorrow caused by other people, animals, birds, reptiles, trees, etc. is ādhibhautikam, and that caused by a yakṣa, a rākṣasa, an evil spirit, etc. is ādhidaivikam. Thus it is impossible to deny the existence of sorrow that is experienced by everyone, and which is a modification of rajoguṇa.

By abhighātaḥ (torment) is meant the perception of these three kinds of sorrows (which are attributes of the antaḥkaraṇa) and which are perceived by the mind as undesirable. Thus, by saying that sorrow is perceived as undesirable, it has been established that there is a desire to overcome sorrow, and know the means for that.

Even though sorrow or pain is an eternal entity according to the sāńkhya ontology, and is therefore indestructible, we will elaborate later as to how it can be kept at bay. Thus it is not illogical to say tadapaghātake hetau (i.e. that people wish to know the means for the removal of sorrow). The purport is that the revelations of this śāstra is the only means of getting over sorrow, not any other.

Here an objection is raised, beginning with dṛṣṭe sāpārthā cet. The essence of the objection is this: let us admit that there exists the triad of sorrows; that there is a desire to know its nature; that it is possible to overcome it; and that the teachings of the śāstra show the means to overcome sorrow. Yet, it might not be the case that wise and intelligent men wish to know the teachings of this śāstra, since there exist other (easy) means of overcoming sorrow, and since a knowledge of the true purport of the śāstra (tattvajñana) is extremely hard to obtain, being the fruit of long years of study over many births. Thus is it said in this world:

atke cenmadhu vindeta kimartham parvatam vrajet |
iṣtasyārthasya samsiddhau ko vidvān yatnamācaret ||

If honey is available at one’s feet, for what need should one go to the mountain? Once the desired objective is achieved, which wise one would still struggle for it?

There exist hundreds of means to overcome bodily suffering, like medicine recommended by competent physicians, which are moreover easy to practise. For relief from mental suffering too, one has easy means, like the company of a beloved, good food, drink, anointment of the body with sandal and the like, decking oneself in nice clothes and jewels, etc. Similarly in the case of sorrow cause by Nature, there are means to prevent it like leading a life without transgressing the law (??), taking care to live in a place with fewer chances of danger, etc. Similarly the sorrow caused by the denizens of other worlds can be mitigated by maṇi, mantra, auṣadha etc. So why would a wise man wish to learn the śāstra?

This objection is refuted thus. How? By the words ekāntātyantatobhāvāt. By ekāntaḥ is meant the necessary elimination of sorrow (by a means), by atyantaḥ is meant the complete cessation of sorrow (i.e. it does not return). By ekāntātyantatobhāvāt, it is meant that the aforementioned means for removing sorrow either do not necessarily remove sorrow, or do not remove it completely.

The point to be noted is this – even though the proper prescription of medicine, company of a beloved, life led without transgressing the law, mantra, etc. are easy and effective remedies for particular types of pain, it is experienced that sometimes there is no relief, and that sometimes the relief is not permanent. Thus it is reasonable that one wishes to know the means for permanent and definite cessation of sorrow or pain, and since this śāstra sets out to describe such means, it is appropriate for intelligent people to study the present work.

And so it goes on … The commentary for the second śloka is thrice as long as the above, and this is only the beginning, before any specific tenets of sānkhya are asserted!

Why such a post? Just to give a flavour of the kind of exposition followed in the philosophical texts in India, I guess! When I work up the requisite energy, maybe I shall post more translations from more celebrated works. That’s it for now! Bye, and thanks for a patient reading!



  1. Seems quite elaborate! I guess the imaginary opponent making the objections might refer to either hypothetical ones or actual followers of other schools making exactly those objections… either way, it is interesting that the commentaries consider several possible objections and refute them.

    Entirely unrelatedly, I happened to read recently a paper about a particular issue in poetics… somewhat pointless perhaps, but, not being familiar with the style of traditional discourse, I found it interesting the way a single verse was analysed over the centuries with differing interpretations on what makes it (or good poetry) great. :-)

    1. Thanks for the comments, and the link to the excellent paper, Shreevatsa! It is not entirely unrelated to the “mainstream” branches of Indian philosophy, as you would have figured out while reading the paper. It is of utmost importance to philosophers to analyse the different ways in which words come to denote the objects that they denote. For instance, the primary meaning of a word is called śakyārthaḥ. The primary meaning could either have been arrived at through convention (rūḍhiḥ) or the meaning could have been derived from those of other words (yogaḥ).

      But it is also recognised that sometimes one is forced to adopt an implied meaning (lakṣyārthaḥ) of a word, due to either incongruity of semantics or incongruity with the intent of the utterer if we read the word as denoting its primary meaning.

      This is an extremely important issue, since many a Vedic sentence makes sense only if certain words are not taken literally! Famous examples include tattvamasi, one of the four mahāvākyāni.

      So the major schools have built a theory of meaning which accepts these two kinds of meanings, but the experts in poetics suggest dhvani (suggestion) as a distinct kind of meaning that words can denote. Of course now people would try to reduce this to some kind of implied meaning, which might involve some logical process of elimination. You must have seen some examples cited in the paper.

      The discussion in the paper is very nice … thanks again!

    1. Thanks for the compliment! But Jha is considered a doyen among translators, and I have read other works by him. I never felt that his translations were stuffy, only that it was close to the original. (Perhaps I never gave enough thought to it!) Strangely enough, when I tried my hand at translating, I have managed to keep the English straight, despite being exposed to so much “stuffy” stuff! :-)

      1. To be honest I didn’t actually read his translation in any detail, just glanced at it to make sure it was translating the same thing as yours. :-)

        1. I want to thank you for the excellent link, by the way. This translation will definitely be of immense help when I read the original. (Gave up half-way once!)

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