In Sanskrit, the word ‘Manisha’ means conclusive wisdom or determinate knowledge. Such knowledge does not arise merely due to some faith or based on dogmatic principles or emotional attachments but is born out of intellectual discrimination. It is resolute and completely free of any doubt.
The word ‘Panchakam’ refers to that which is contained in five. So Adi Sankara’s ‘Manisha Panchakam’ refers to the conclusive wisdom or determinate knowledge asserted in five verses. What is Sankara’s assertion as his determinate knowledge? What is such conclusive wisdom?
‘The Atman, the immutable energy present within me and in every life is none other than the Paramaatman, the pervasive, omnipresent energy, embedded as a thread within all lives and seated as the witness to everything. Whoever has this knowledge and remains steadfast in that wisdom of non-duality, he alone, irrespective of his stature in the world due to the caste, creed or societal classifications, is the real preceptor and Guru, worthy of worship even by the gods.’
This is the conclusive wisdom of Adi Sankara. This wisdom and the poignant rationale for its assertion are the core of Manisha Panchakam.
Why did Sankara compose these verses? What were the imperatives and the context? Why is ‘Manisha Panchakam’ important and what does it offer to humanity? These are the questions to which we seek answers through this study of Manisha Panchakam and the treasure of wisdom from the Upanisads, contained in it.
The Upanisads, that form part of the Vedanta, the end of Vedas, declare that the Self alone is real. The Upanisads are the science of Self or known as Atma-vidya. As it is said in the Taitriyopanisad, ‘Satyam Gyaanam Anandam Brahma|’, the Self is Sat, the ultimate-noumenon; it is Chit, the infinite-consciousness and it is Ananda or the absolute-bliss.
The Upanisads are the spontaneous revelation of truths, often expressed through paradoxes. Imparted by the Seers, these are meant for the students of Self-Inquiry, with sincere aspirations and appropriate maturity for the receipt of and the contemplation on such knowledge. The contents of the Upanisads are not systemized text of philosophy for learning through self-study. Only guided by a competent teacher, such knowledge and method of contemplation can be acquired, to pursue the Self-Inquiry, and ultimately towards the perfection and absolute bliss.
Of all life-forms, only human beings are capable of aspiring for, and attaining such status.
This is said in Hitopadesham as:
ज्ञानं नराणामधिको विशेषो ज्ञानेन हीनाः पशुभिः समानाः ॥
jñānaṁ narāṇāmadhiko viśeṣo jñānena hīnāḥ paśubhiḥ samānāḥ ||
aahaara = food; nithraa = sleep; bhayam = fear; maithunani = passion; saamaanya me = such general traits; thath = exist; pashubhir naraanaam = common to both animals and human-beings;
gyaanam naraanaam = The knowledge of human-beings; athiko = is much higher; vishesho = superior; gyaanena = such intellectual abilities; heena: = if wasted (without proper application); pasubhisamanaa: = human-beings are no different to the animals.
Both animals and humans are subjected to common feelings such as hunger, sleep, fear and passion and equipped with the associated faculties in their physical and intellectual make-up; yet only the human–beings are capable of using these faculties to discriminate and seek the higher pursuit of Self-realization. If such differential advantage for higher-goal is unused in one’s life, then the endowed faculties are simply wasted and the human-life is similar to that of an animal. This is the essential import of this verse.
The pursuit of Self-realization (‘Atma-vidya’) is the highest goal for human-beings. The word ‘gyanna’ in Sanskrit, denotes knowledge gained through Atma-vidya. This is gnosis or the esoteric knowledge of the Self. All other external knowledge is known as ‘vigyanam’.
This is said in the epic ‘Amarakosa’ – ‘ramaaseshadheer gyaanam anyathra vigyaanam’
The preceptor and guide who can take us towards the gyaanam is the Guru. With such wisdom, those who undertake the commitment to lead others by their exemplary conduct in the world, with steadfast devotion and compliance befitting their chosen role are known as the ‘Acharyas’.
The term ‘aacharam’ means the principles, values and the moral conducts that are prescribed in the Vedas and ‘Acharya’ is the one who by his words, thoughts and deeds remain true to the ‘aacharm’ and lead-by-example the followers and the society in general. The Acharyas need to ensure stern restraints and untiring efforts to ensure that their words, thoughts and deeds always remain truthful to the chosen path. They actively seek and utilize opportunities for imparting appropriate knowledge to their disciples and to the world at large.
Manisha Panchakam is the fruit of such an opportunity in Adi Sankara’s life. The five verses of Manisha Panchakam is the culmination of Acharya’s compassion to impart the profound wisdom, triggered by an event in his life.
Once, Adi Sankara was walking along the narrow streets of Varanasi, a holy city in Northern India, along with his disciples, after completing the ritual bath in the holy river Ganges. The entourage was confronted by a man, clad in dirty clothes, of unkempt appearance and holding the leash of his pet dogs. On seeing him coming towards them, the disciples of Sankara hasten to ask the Stranger to quickly move away from the path. Their tone was scornful and the haste imminent.
Those were the days when discrimination due to birth in the name of caste-system was prevalent; treating some people as untouchables was the curse dividing the Indian society. Therefore such open discrimination was not uncommon on the streets of India among those who were not truly learned. As the disciples yelled at the Stranger, he looked at Adi Sankara as the leader of the entourage and so holding him responsible for the acts of the disciples, took him to task by asking thus:
‘O, the Best amongst the Seers! What is that you want to move away? Is it this physical body, which is made-up of food and only insentient as that of yours? As the body is just a shell, void of any intelligence, how can it heed to your order? Perhaps, you are asking the indwelling intelligence to move away! Even so, is it not the same Atman that is within you and which is also pervading as an embedded thread among everything? How can the ever existing Atman separate? Or if you are deluded that the Atman enshrined in lowly bodies too become lowly, tell me, what difference is there to the Sun, the jewel of the Sky, whether its reflection falls on the waters of the holy river Ganges or on the dirty cesspool? What difference is there in the space, whether it is contained in a golden pot or in an earthen-ware? As a learned person, you must know this! How come you are able to find differences in the undifferentiated Brahmam, so as to scorn at me to get away?’
The Stranger’s question is direct and thought-provoking!
What better opportunity is needed for Adi Sankara? Is he not the Guru for the whole humanity! Is he not the true Acharya, who has demonstrated in every word, thought and action, the right conduct of a leader! What better timing is there to show the act of true wisdom to his disciples and to the humanity! At once, Sankara bows to the Stranger. In him, there was no intellectual arrogance or ‘Vidya-garvam’, which is like the most stubborn disease.
Arrogance due to wealth is more likely to vanish when the wealth is eventually lost; so too are the pride due to all perishable possessions. But it is not so easy in the case of knowledge. Unlike material wealth, knowledge only grows even when given to others. So any pride of scholarship will also grow and thus prove very difficult to get rid of. That is why the learned must be more alert, not giving any room for vain ego to take over. Ego has no sign of wisdom.
Sankara at once looked at the Stranger in reverence and responded with these five profound verses – Manisha Panchakam. The legend goes thus.
There are different versions to this story. Some say that there was no such incident in Sankara’s life. Others claim that it was indeed true and in fact, it was Sankara who scorned the Stranger, as he was not completely matured at that stage of his life and it was like a slip on his part. Few also say that the Stranger who confronted Sankara was none other than the God, Ishvara Himself.
Although my knowledge is limited, and as my adoration to Sankara is infinite, I view the context of Manisha Panchakam only as an opportunity for Adi Sankara to demonstrate to his ‘fallen’ disciples the humility of the wise and the true wisdom of non-duality.
The assumption that the Stranger was none other than Lord Shiva does not fit the very essence of Manisha Panchakam which is about the absolute surrender to the learned, no matter in what stature they may be deemed by the world.
There are plenty of evidences in Sankara’s life to show that he was a complete and realized soul from his young age, immensely soaked in the principles of Advaita (non-duality), wielding the light of supreme knowledge and holding equanimity to all. To him, Guru is like God and to be treated in reverence as God.
It is futile to invest effort and time to research the validity or historical evidence for this story in Sankara’s life. More important and useful would be the understanding of the verses and the truth these convey, which is the purpose of this study.
It was the time when the society was divided in India, mainly due to the caste-system, a birth-based differentiation; It had no rational or moral basis, yet the caste-based discrimination was widely spread that even led a section of the society to be treated as untouchables. People wrongly attached status due to birth and inflicted on to themselves and others undue sufferings. Disparities on such irrational views existed and still exist across many societies, yet the caste-based discrimination is the most unjust imposition that India was and is suffocated with.
In Sanskrit, the term ‘jaadhi’ means classification. In everyday life, we deal with differences; all things are classified in one way or the other, based on some inherent or acquired differences. Differences are necessary and we have to deal with these in our lives. For example, there are many different varieties of mango; so are differences in the varieties of the same grain. The blood is also found to be of different types. Such inherent and acquired differences in the nature are to be accepted and handled in our lives. These differences are termed as ‘vyavahaariha’ in Sanskrit. These are also to be well understood in order to engage in the world.
All analysis leads to deeper scrutiny and more differentiation. That is the trait of a discriminating intellect. Yet, this differentiating intellect must be balanced with the integrating wisdom, to realize that what is differentiated at one level becomes integrated at another level. Like the difference of fingers unseen when viewed as the hand, all differences at one level disappear at another.
In the question of the Stranger, the differences of the bodies are raised. All bodies are nourished by food only which is made-up of the five primordial elements. When such integrated understanding is instilled, the apparent differences of the bodies can be handled, not with scornful disrespect, but with reverence because all bodies are of the same cause. Therefore, ‘vyavahaariha’ differences are to be understood and managed in our worldly life.
There is another type of differentiation, namely ‘prathipaasika’.
These are perceptual differences, or differences that exist only in the imagination of the beholder. The discrimination due to birth-based caste-system is an apt example of prathipaasika. The notion that one is superior or inferior based only on the birth is clearly irrational. It has no basis, yet such prathipaasika exists in different forms amongst us even today. In every human society, we see such ‘prathipassika’ burden, causing infinite stress on the society in one form or the other. The caste-system is a compelling example due to the prathipassika only, rooted as a disease in India, and continues to be advocated by those who really do not comprehend or adhere to the truth of Vedas. Only to rid of such evil and promote the true value in the conduct of the humanity, Jagadguru Adi Sankara lived amongst us and taught us by his exemplary life.
A key lesson from the Manisha Panchakam is that the evil of cast-system must be totally rejected and removed.
Mistakenly, the word ‘shudra’ is taken to mean a lowly person and the word ‘brahmin’ to a holy person, merely by the reasons of birth. There is also a misconception that the entire notion of birth-based discrimination is only due to the use of words such as ‘shudra’ or ‘brahmin’ in the Vedas. This is totally incorrect and nothing is far from truth. By spreading such notion, the universality of Vedas and in particular, its most appealing wisdom of Upanisads have been eclipsed and gone beyond the reach of the very human-being these are meant to guide. Vedas speak of truth and nothing but the truth.
Then, in what context in the Vedas, the words ‘shudra’ or ‘brahmana’ are used?
In order to promote progression for every human-being both in material world and in spiritual development, there are indeed four different classifications as suggested in Manusmriti, an ancient Sanskrit text on the code of conduct.
वेदद्यायि भवेदिप्रो ब्रह्म जानाति ब्रह्मणः||
vedadyāyi bhavedipro brahma jānāti brahmaṇaḥ||
janmanaa = by birth; jayate shudra: = all are born as shudra (who are ignorant of righteous living); karmanaa = by (righteous) actions; jayate dhvija: = twice-born (beginning a new way of life);
veda adyaayi = who properly learn the Vedas; bhvade vipro: = and conduct accordingly is the Vipran; bhrahma jaanaadhi bhrahmana: = who attains the knowledge of Brahmam is the brahmin
This verse conveys that only the right character and the right-conduct of a person differentiate one from others in the world.
Those whose actions are driven by the whims and fancies of the body and mind, with no regards to the norms of the society or care for the righteous living are considered to be shudra. At birth and as young children, we have no idea of what is right or wrong. All are born as shudra.
Then through the guidance of the parents and subsequently by the teachers and the society at large, we learn to live a righteous life; our life is thus transformed so much so to be considered as a new birth, as to be called ‘dvijan’. The root ‘dhvi’ means two and ‘jan’ means birth. Termed as ‘dvijan’ or twice-born, he is the man who leads a righteous life, adhering to the code of conduct guided by the authority of Vedas and appropriate for the society he lives in. Although the guidance for his ascent starts from the parents, subsequent tutelage under qualified teachers is also necessary to be considered as a dvijan and lead a life that is proper and spiritually elevating.
Beyond righteous living and right conduct of the chosen path of life, some may dedicate their lives solely for the learning and the contemplation of Vedas. They are known as ‘vipras’. To them, the spiritual awakening is the motivation and Self-realization is the goal; by studying Vedas and performing the duties therein, the vipras carve out a specific path to live in this world, one in which their endeavors harmoniously serve both their personal quest for spiritual enlightenment and the social guidance for the moral authority.
Only a special few under the guidance of the Guru or merely by the grace of God, attains the true knowledge of the Brahmam. They are known as the brahmins. So One becomes a brahmin only by the attainment of supreme knowledge of Brahmam but not by birth or the external appearance.
Like the children who are deemed ‘shudra’ due to their ignorance, also are the grown-ups who do not acquire the knowledge or adhere to the conduct for righteous living. The term ‘shudra’ literally means one who is sad or in distress. It is so, because by not choosing to learn and follow the righteous living, they miss the opportunity to seek the true happiness and reorient their lives. That is why their life is said to be in eternal distress or sadness.
At birth therefore, all are equal and have the equal right to choose the path to lead a life as dvijan, vipran or brahmin. Such changes are not enforced by birth but only by the choice of the individuals. These classifications are not due to perceptual differences or prathipaasika, but simply the graduation of personal evolution. In this approach, birth is not an impediment. Caste-system has no role to play; there are no unfair comparisons due to birth. Only the character of the individuals matter; Righteous living is the basis; Responsible conduct in the context of society is the measure.
Differences both inherent and acquired are inevitable in the worldly affairs yet beneath all the differences is the undifferentiated Atman. Understanding this truth is the integrating wisdom. This is quoted by the famous Tamil saying ‘ yaathum onre! yaavarum kelir!’, meaning that everything is nothing but the One, and everyone is a kin! With that knowledge, comes equanimity, the ability to see the same divinity in everything. This is the truth of Advaita (‘A’ + ‘dvaita’ = not two).
How do we develop such wisdom?
Vedas define two approaches to understand the world. One is known as ‘kaariya dhrishti’ or the effect-orientation; this is about focusing on the outcome or the effect as the principle aim of study. This approach gives knowledge about the consequences and consequent objects.
The other approach is ‘kaariya dhrishti’ or cause-orientation, the study of the cause. Its outcome is the knowledge of the root-cause and the cause-objects. For example, cause-orientation looks at gold as the causal-object while effect-orientation looks at different forms of golden ornaments.
Ordinarily our orientation is towards the effect only. But cause-orientation is necessary to acquire better knowledge, and in the case of Self-Inquiry, ‘kaariya dhristi’ or cause-orientation is paramount. It leads to the wisdom that the inherent and acquired differences in the phenomenal world only mask the underlying undifferentiated Brahman. With such wisdom, living in this differentiated world becomes a play and indeed a joy. We shall be able to view the world as a joyful place and life is but a play and our role is to happily engage and duly perform.
The characteristic of the truly learned is equanimity, the ability to see divinity in all, the capacity to apply the integrating wisdom amidst the differentiated world. Equanimity is the most important requirement for the Self- realization, a key lesson imparted in Manisha Panchakam.
We also learn that the possession of right knowledge alone is not sufficient. It is necessary to live accordingly, as said in the famous Tamil epic Thirukkural ‘karrapin nirka adharkut thaha’ – (karrapin = after acquiring the appropriate knowledge, nirka = have steadfast devotion, adharku thaha = accordingly). Righteous living requires steadfast commitment to the wisdom acquired. This is known as ‘gyaana nishta’. The word ‘nishta’ means strict adherence. When there is no ‘nishta’, the acquired knowledge, however superior it may be, is just a laden weight. One may err and fail sometimes to comply; yet the truly learned will unreservedly rectify the error, realign and reestablish in the chosen ‘nishta’.
The main impediment to recognize mistakes and to seek recourse is the arrogance of scholarship. Possession of superior knowledge is totally incompatible to vain ego of scholarship. This ‘vidya-garvam’ should be completely annihilated; the ability to do so and the courage to submit when corrections are needed are the marks of the learned. By the way of his response to the Stranger. Adi Sankara has shown that humility, completely void of ego is the character of the learned.
Through the assertion of his determinate knowledge in Manisha Panchakam, Adi Sankara brings the essence of all Upanisads for our understanding by poignantly unveiling the ‘maha-vakayas’ or the greatest sentences of Vedanta.
Advaita inquiry is Atma-vidya or Self-Inquiry. Upanisads which constitute the Vedanta part of the Vedas is study of our selves. These reveal who we really are, and lead us to the truth that the Self is none other than the whole or the Brahmam. This is also known as ‘atma tatvam’. The Sanskrit word ‘tatvam’ is generally taken to mean ‘philosophy’; actually ‘tat’ means ‘that’ which is external and ‘tvam’ means ‘your-self’. So the maha-vaakyam ‘You are that’ is the implied declaration of the word ‘tatvam’.
Manisha Panchakam is the revelation of such astounding truth. A true understanding of Manisha Panchakam requires devoted study and contemplation under a competent Guru. Even a casual reading of the text requires a considerable understanding of Vedanta and the doctrine of Advaita. Although it is not the purpose of this book, in order to aid a better understanding of the Manisha Panchakam, relevant concepts of Vedanta are briefly introduced. These are no way complete except to provide a context for understanding the concepts conveyed in these verses.
None equals Adi Sankara for the systematic, coherent and logical presentation of thoughts, making even the most complex ideas as easier comprehension and the most profound wisdom as the trivial knowledge. His mastery of poetry, deft handling of the language, forthright approach to the core of the matter, the brilliance of articulation and synthesis of purport are all unparallel and even admired for the rigors of scientific scrutiny. In these verses lay the most exhilarating wisdom to fulfill our quest and raise the awareness. To understand, contemplate and uphold such knowledge, one needs to posses clear intellect, focused and serene mind and the grace and guidance of the divine Guru, as prescribed in the final verse of Manisha Panchakam,
Impoverished of these qualities, how can I unearth the hidden treasures of wisdom from this magnum opus called Manisha Panchakam? How can this feeble attempt of interpretation in both Tamil and English, serve the noble purpose? I pray that my apparent bravery although masked by ignorance, is only guided by the grace of God, to render just service to the aspiring readers.
There are many books and texts by the scholars on Manisha Panchakam. The teachings of gracious guru, Sri Sri Maha Periava of Kanchi include excellent interpretation of many intricate aspects of Vedanta and the works of Adi Sankara.
So with immense humility I submit this interpretation, as a drizzle over the vast ocean and pray that it quenches some thirst for someone and propel them towards able teachers for more refined understanding. I seek pardon for all errors, wholly as my folly and offer immense gratitude to everyone who cares to correct.
I humbly submit to the lineage of Adi Sankara, the ever graceful Sri Sri Maha Periava of Kanchi Mutt and its reigning heads Sri Sri Periava and Sri Sri Bala Periava, to their divine feet and grace.