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Vachaspati Mishra

Vachaspati Mishrra was an eminent 9th century philosopher of the Advaita School. He holds a place of pride among post-Shankara exponents of Advaita. Vachaspati Mishra was a polymath, at home in every field of Hindu philosophy, be it the school of logic (Nyaya) or Mimamsa, Advaita, Yoga or Samkhya. He contributed commentaries on all these systems and touched nothing without adorning it. In the concluding verses of his magnum opus, Bhamati, the famous gloss on Shankara’s Sutra Bhashya, he enumerates some of his other works – Nyayakanika (a commentary on Mandana’s Vidhiviveka); Brahmatattvasamiksha (on Mandana’s Vidhiviveka); Brahmatattvasamiksha (on Mandana’s Brahmasiddhi); Tattvabindu (on language and meaning); Nyaya-Varttika-Tatparya-Tika (on Udyotakara’s Nyaya Varttika); Nyaya Suchinibandha (a supplement to Tatparya-tika); Samkhyatattva kaumudi (on Ishwarakrishna’s Samkhya Karika); and Tattvavaisaradi (on Vyasa’s Yogabhashya). All philosophical ideas were grist to his mill. He has been aptly called Sarvatantrasvatantra, master of all systems of thought.

Vachaspati Mishra, born in Mithila, is considered to have lived in the 9th century CE. In his Nyaya Suchinibandha, he records that it was compiled in the year 898 of the Samvat Era. This corresponds to 841 CE. The Buddhist logician, Ranakirti (about 1000 CE) refers to Trilocana, under whom Vachaspati Mishra studied. So we may safely assign Vachaspati Mishra to the 9th century CE.

In Nyaya-varttika-tatparyatika, Vachaspati Mishra mentions four schools of Buddhist philosophy – Madhyamika, Vijnanavada, Sautrantika and Vaibhashika. Therein he criticizes the redoubtable Buddhist logicians Dignaga and Dharmakirti. Quite insightful also is his treatment of the five theories of error – atmakhyati (manifestation of the self), asat-khyati (manifestation of the unreal), anirvacaniya-khyati (manifestation of the undefinable), akhyati (non-manifestation) and anyathakhyati (converse manifestation).

The phenomenological approach of Vachaspati Mishra to the different texts of the philosophic systems (darshanas) and his comments have drawn adverse criticism from some modern critics. Stephen H. Phillips, for instance, accuses Vachaspati Mishra of ‘changing hats’ like an advocate arguing for any part that briefs him. This is myopic criticism that neglects the essence of Vachaspati Mishra’s virtuosity. Vachaspati Mishra was not only a profound scholar and keen critic, he also explored with a great friendliness and acumen the different schools of philosophy that offered solutions to the riddle of existence.

To him, each school of thought has a special contribution of its own to make to the knowledge about the unknown, and in it lies its sole validity and fulfillment. The different systems then can be looked upon as different stages of Hindu thought, gradually evolving, developing and finally culminating in the most sublime, all-comprehensive philosophy of Advaita. He is reputed to have written a number of Advaitic commentaries, but Bhamati alone has survived.

There is a legend about the composition of Bhamati. On his deathbed, Vacaspati’s teacher requested him to do two things for him, - to marry his only daughter, Bhamati and to write the gloss on Shankara-Bhashya. As Bhamati had been well trained in the knowledge texts by her father, she could help Vachaspati Mishra substantially in his work. The couple labored from dawn to dusk and, after many years, heaved a mighty sigh of satisfaction that the work was completed creditably. But when they looked at each other, they realized that age had withered their looks. Vachaspati Mishra saw before him not the young, lovely maiden he had married, but a wrinkled old woman. Profusely apologizing to her for the injustice he had done to her, says the legend, he made amends by naming the gloss after her.

Though has a commentary, Bhamati is denied the advantages accruing to an independent thesis, it amply highlights Vachaspati Mishra the thinker, the commentator, the critic, the scholar and the literary artist at his best. Vachaspati does not hesitate to present, on occasions, his own judgment over opinions expressed by Shankara himself.

Vachaspati Mishra is chiefly remembered as the first propounder of two vital doctrines: that nescience is located in the self (jiva-asrita-vidya) and that the world comes into being only when perceived (Drishti-srishti-vada)and is not there when not perceived.

The locus of maya is a bone of contention between the Vivarana School of Padmapada, as interpreted by Prakasatman, and Bhamati, in which Vachaspati Mishra elucidates and extends the views of Mandana, for whom he has admiration. Both schools agree that the content of nescience is pure consciousness. The Vivarana School refutes the differentiation between the locus and content of nescience, holding that the locus and content of nescience is Brahman. Vachaspati holds that nescience has the self as its locus, but Brahman is its content. This means that it is the self (or jiva) which suffers from ignorance about the nature of Brahman.

Vachaspati Mishra holds that nescience is a manifold as empirical selves are. Ignorance varies from person to person. Each individual self has its own avidya. He propounds the theory of multiplicity of nescience located in multiple selves (aneka-jivasrita-aneka-avidya).

This, in turn, leads to the next seminal doctrine about perception leading to creation (Drishti-Srishti-Vada), for which Vachaspati Mishra laid the foundation and which later developed into a school parallel to the school that holds that creation results in perception (Srishti-drishti-vada).

Vachaspati Mishra is credited also with the theory that direct intuition of Brahman (brahma-sakshatkara) flashes when one is ripe enough to receive it through sravana (listening) to mahavakyas like ‘that thou art’, by reflecting on them through nididhyasana (deep meditation), the thing is accomplished.