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Panchapadika of Padmapada – Explanation of Brahmasutra Bhashya of Adi Shankaracharya – The Story How the Original Text Was Burned

Panchapadika is an explanation of the bhashya of Adi Shankaracharya on Brahmasutra of Badarayana by Padmapada. The text belongs to the 8th century AD. Padmapada,also known as Sanandana, was a direct disciple of Adi Shankara. It is believed that he composed Panchapadika when he was a householder.

The current available Panchapadika is only a miniscule portion of the original work. Only explanation on the first four aphorisms of the Brahmasutra bhashya of Adi Shankaracharya is available. But from numerous other scriptures scholars have proved that Padmapada commented on the entire bhashya. There are a total of 555 aphorisms in the Brahmasutra bhashya of Adi Shankaracharya.

The Sad Story Of Original Panchapadika Burned 

After completing Panchapadika in its entirety, Padmapada decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rameshwaram. Adi Shankaracharya gave permission to his disciple after warning about the dangers involved in the journey. Padmapada is believed to have read out the first five aphorisms of Panchapadika to Adi Shankaracharya before starting his pilgrimage.

On his way Padmapada reached his uncle's house. The uncle was a staunch follower of Prabhakara – the famous exponent of the ritualistic doctrine of one school of Purva Mimamsa – naturally felt aggrieved at the attack made in the Panchapadika on the Prabhakara teaching but without revealing his mind complimented his nephew on his erudition. Padmapada left his work with him exhorting him to keep it safe till his return from Rameswaram. The uncle knew, he could not controvert the Panchapadika view by arguments and resolved therefore to destroy the work as otherwise he felt sure that his school of thought would stand discredited. To escape censure he set fire to his own house and with it perished the Panchapadika.

Returning to Adi Shankara,  Padmapada in great distress related how his work had been destroyed by fire in his uncle's house.

Adi Shankaracharya who had understood the reason for destroying the work consoled his disciple by dictating the first five padas (i.e., four sections of the first chapter and the fifth section of the second chapter) verbatim as he had heard that portion read to him earlier. Thus the first five padas was restored and the work still bears the name Panchapadika.

Lessons in Panchapadika

Panchapadika states that avidya or ignorance is explained using numerous terms like maya, avyakrta, prakriti, agrahana, avyakta, tamah, karana, laya, shakti, mahasuspti, nidra and kshara. All these terms are synonymous with the word avidya.

The differences of interpretations of the Brahma Sutra Bhashya gave rise to two different schools of Advaita – the Panchapadika Vivarana school of thought and the Bhamati school of thought.

A popular commentary of Panchapadika is seen in Vivarana. In it he mentions that Brahman as both the support and object of ignorance.

The important topics discussed in Panchapadika are:
  • Basic ignorance – it has no beginning or end. It is considered positive.
  • There is a projection of an indescribable object in connection with Brahman. This limits the Brahman to a particular definition, when Brahman in reality cannot be defined.
  • Twin superimpositions of knowledge and object
  • Superimpositions of the physical body, consciousness and ignorance on the atman.

The work is of great importance because Padmapada tries to supplement the original with something of his own thought in the process of clarification and argument.

The main source of information from which we could get to know the circumstances under which the Panchapadika was written is the Samkara Digvijaya attributed to Vidyaranya.

It is stated that at the request of Suresvara, Adi Shankaracharya  gave Padmapada permission to write a commentary on his Bhasya. Suresvara was another direct disciple of Adi Shankaracharya.