The Brahmasutras

The Brahmasutras

(M. R. Dwarakanath)

Sanatana Dharma Philosophical System:

There are six orthodox philosophical systems that accept the validity of the Vedas as contrasted with the heterodox systems that do not accept the validity of the Vedas as the basis for any philosophy. The heterodox systems include Carvaka, Buddhism, Jainism, etc. The Six orthodox systems collectively are called the Shaddarshanas – षड्दर्शनाः| They are: Nyaya, Vaishesika, Sankhya, Yoga, Purvamimamsa and Uttaramimamsa. Purvamimamsa and Uttaramimamsa are not to be regarded as two systems of philosophy that were separated in time, the former being earlier and the latter being later. Instead, Purvamimamsa may be considered to be a preparatory step towards Uttaramimamsa. Mimamsa means inquiry or investigation. The authors of these systems are Jaimini and Badarayana who quote each other suggesting they could not have been vastly separated in time. Jaimini is regarded as a pupil of Badarayana Vyasa along with Audulomi, Karshakrtsna Uttaramimamsa philosophical system is popularly known as Vedanta. The term Vedanta is derived as much from a reference to the Upanishads which form the later portion of the Vedas as well as from the Vedantasutras or Brahmasutras.

Vedanta philosophy rests firmly on a tripod of ‘three’ philosophical texts. These are the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita and the Brahmasutras. The Upanishads are revealed literature – श्रुतिः। They are authorless and numerous in number. However, 10 to 12 Upanishads hold a special position as commentaries have been written on them by the principal Acaryas. The Bhagavadgita is a well known work which was the message of Lord Krishna to his pupil Arjuna delivered on the battlefield of the great Mahabharata war. The Bhagavadgita distils the essence of the Upanishads to the common person in the form of a poem. The Brahmasutras are like an annotation to the study of the Shastras. The three legs of the philosophical stool together are called the Prasthanatrayi. We will now discuss the Brahmasutras.

The Brahmasutras:

The Brahmasutras of Badarayana Vyasa are also known as the Vedantasutras. The system of philosophy based on the Vedantasutras get the appellation Vedanta. Thus the Brahmasutras are central to Vedanta philosophy. The Brahmasutras are an Aphoristic work whose central aim is to harmonize the Upanishads and other Shastras into a unified whole. The Upanishads / Shastras appear to include statements that could prima facie look contradictory. The Brahmsutras aim to interpret the Upanishadic  / Shastraic statements into a seamless self-consistent philosophy.

Badarayana Vyasa, the author of Brahmasutras

Badarayana Vyasa, the author of Brahmasutras

The Brahamasutras are Aphoristic in nature. The Aphorisms are laconic statements using technical terms. This was a very popular literary form in ancient times in India when knowledge was an oral tradition and the Sutras helped that tradition with easy memorization. Sutras were ubiquitous – Shrautasutras, Smartasutras, Gruhyasutras, Sulbasutras, Dharmasutras, Vyakaranasutras etc. The Vyakaranasutras of Panini: the Astadhyayi is well known! These Sutras have well defined rules of interpretation. Mimamsa Shastra aims to reconcile the various Vedic texts into a coherent self-consistent whole. Whereas Purvamimamsa deals with Sacrifices and rituals, the Uttaramimamsa deals with understanding Brahman, the individual self and the world. The Uttaramimamsa is known by several names: Brahmasutras, Vedantasutras, Sharirikasutras etc. It is also a Nirnayika Shastra or a defining text that firmly settles the issues.

What exactly is a Sutra?

The classical definition of a Sutra is:

अल्पाक्षरमसंदिग्धं सारवद्विश्वतोमुखम् ।

अस्तोभमनवद्यं च सूत्रं सूत्रविदो विदुः ॥

The above verse states that a Sutra has very few words, free from ambiguity, meaningful, multi-facetted, free from excess verbiage and any flaws. This is the definition of a Sutra by the knowers of Sutras. Here स्तोभ refers to the syllables used in Sama Veda that carry no meaning but are merely musical sounds. It may truly be said that whereas the Sutra indeed has very few words, it is not necessarily free from ambiguity. The very laconic nature of the Sutras, promote ambiguity in meaning. The Brahmasutras are clearly no exception!

Structure of the Brahmasutras:

The Brahmasutras are divided into 4 chapters and each chapter is further divided into 4 quarters or sub-chapters. Each quarter (Pada) is divided into a number of Adhikaranas or topics. An Adhikarana is a technical term which can be regarded as unit of subject matter consisting of one or more Sutras. The technical definition of an Adhikarana is as follows:

विषयो विशयश्चैव पूर्वपक्षस्तथोत्तरम्।

निर्णयश्चेति सिद्धान्तः शास्त्रेऽधिकरणं स्मृतम् ॥

(प्रयोजनं च पञ्चैतान् प्राञ्चोऽधिकरणं विदुः॥)

The second line of this verse has an alternate version as indicated. Basically, a topic can be divided into 1) subject matter under discussion, 2) doubts there-in, 3) objections there-to, 4) rebuttal, 5) settlement of the subject matter (the final verdict.) These 5 topics go to establish the doctrine after refuting all objections to such a doctrine. The Adhikaranas being relatively short, they cannot all possibly be cast into this format.

As a text, the Sutras run freely without demarcation of the Sutras or Adhikaranas. There is general agreement among the commentators on the division into chapters and Padas. However, there is no similar agreement on what constitutes a Sutra or an Adhikarana.. What is regarded as 1 Sutra may be split into 2 or more Sutras by a different commentator just as an Adhikarana may be regarded by one as having fewer or more Sutras by another. Whereas, these differences exist, they are not too many.

The subject matter of the 4 chapters is generally agreed to be: 1) समन्वयाध्यायः – Harmonizing of all Shastra texts to show internal consistency and a single tenet, 2) अविरोधाध्यायः – Displaying that there are no conflicts within the corpus of Shatras, 3) साधनाध्यायः – the steps to be followed for release and 4) फलाध्यायः – the benefit of such a study of the Sutras and practice as in chapter 3.

The Brahmasutras have commentaries written by various Acaryas. Chief among them are: Sri Sankaracarya, Sri Bhaskaracarya, Sri Ramanujacarya, Sri Madhvacarya, Sri Vallbhacarya, Sri Vijnanabhikshu, Sri Nimbarkacarya, Sri Baladeva and many others. Then again there are countless number of sub-commentaries, glosses, notes etc. These commentators differ in the number of Sutras and Adhikaranas they recognize as follows:


Shakaracarya Ramanujacarya Madhvacarya Nimbarkacarya Vallabhacarya













 Interpretation of Sutras:

The following verse states how the Sutras have to be interpreted:

सूत्रार्थो वर्ण्यते यत्र पदैः सूत्रानुसारिभिः।

स्वपदानि च वर्ण्यन्ते भाष्यं भाष्यविदो विदुः ॥

The commentary should utilize the words present in the Sutra as implied by the Sutra. It should also include the words of the commentator. The words of the Sutras are to be interpreted, as far as possible, in the same sense as the words are normally understood.

The Purvamimamsa Sutras state: श्रुतिलिङ्गवाक्यप्रकरणस्थानसमाख्यानां समवाये परदौर्बल्यमर्थविप्रकर्षात्। Among the collection of qualifiers such as: Scripture, Characteristic, Sentence, Topic, Position and Celebrity, that which appears later is weaker than the preceding property. Thus scripture has the highest weight while celebrity has the lowest weight in interpretation. The same rules may perhaps be applied to the interpretation of the Brahmasutras also; though rarely do all these properties are at play in a given Adhikarana. Similarly, there are other principles that may be applied as in:

उपक्रमोपसंहारावभ्यासोऽपूर्वता फलम्।

अर्थवादोपपत्ती च लिङ्गं तात्पर्यनिर्णये॥

Here, we consider the following principles to capture the essence of any text: 1) the introduction, 2) the conclusion, 3) emphasis by way of reiteration, 4) novelty, 5) the desired goal, 6) explanatory language, 7) etymology and 8 ) metaphor. Here again the principles that appear early in the verse have more strength than the subsequent principles. However, the introduction and conclusion have to be taken together and they should have the same import. Application of all these criteria, are clearly not applicable at the level of an Adhikarana but would make logical sense at the Pada and chapter levels.

Complications in interpretation

Although there are some rules for interpretation, there are even more hurdles to the proper understanding of the Sutras. Chief among them is the laconic nature of the Sutras and not having access to पदपाठ। This allows ambiguous splitting of words. Added to this not having markers to delineate Sutras and Adhikaranas allows yet other decompositions of topics. The final complication arises from the विषयवाक्याः। The Visayavakyas form the subject matter under discussion in a given Sutra. The Visayavakyas are short snippets from the Shastras that are regarded to be the subject matter of the Adhikarana under discussion. The Adhikarana is annotating the Visayavakya. There is no unanimity among the Acaryas as to the particular Visayavakya of a given Adhikarana. Even more seriously there is no unanimity about what Shastra texts can be the source of Visayavakyas. Generally, they are taken as the principal Upanishads with occasionally other Shastra texts providing the source.

It appears the Acaryas have developed a system of philosophy from their extensive study of the Shastras and subsequently have split the Sutras, formed Adhikaranas and picked the Visayavakyas to their advantage and to suit their particular philosophy. This is not to imply the Sutras have not influenced their philosophical approach. When a Sutra is clearly injurious to one’s position, it is often dubbed पूर्वपक्ष or a contrarian position to be debunked! Thus a study of the Brahmasutras is fraught by difficulties and has to be handled with care and an open mind. Interpretations that depend too much on linguistic skills (युक्ति) have to be viewed cautiously.

Concluding Remarks:

Whereas Panini’s Sutras on grammar take up 8 chapters and a total of about 4000 Sutras, the Brahmasutras consist merely of about 550 Sutras; with some Sutras comprising just a couple of words! The Shastras are quite extensive and the short span of the Sutras makes it a difficult study.

A Bird’s eye view:

Just as a flavor into the Sutras, the Purvamimamsa starts with: अथातो धर्मजिज्ञासा। (Now, therefore, an inquiry into Dharma/Rituals.) Similarly the Uttaramimamsa opens with: अथातो ब्रह्मजिज्ञासा। (Now, therefore, an inquiry into Brahman.) The Acaryas are all unanimous in their opinion that this single Sutra forms the 1st Adhikarana – जिज्ञासाधिकरणम्। the inquiry into Brahman. The Visayavakya for this opening Brahmasutra is taken as the Taittiriya shruti: तद्विजिज्ञासस्व। तद्ब्रह्म। by Sri Shankaracarya while many others consider the Bruhadaranyaka shruti: आत्मा वा अरे द्रष्टव्यः श्रोतव्यो मन्तव्यो निदिध्यासितव्यः। The next 3 Adhikaranas also comprise of a single Sutra. They are given below along with the Sutra, meaning in English and a representative Visayavakya:

2) जन्माद्यधिकरणम्। जन्माद्यस्य यतः। From which (Brahman) origin (birth) etc. proceeds. यतो वा इमानि भूतानि जायन्ते। येन जातानि जीवन्ति।

3) शास्त्रयोनित्वाधिकरणम्। शास्त्रयोनित्वात्। Shastras being the source of (knowledge of Brahman.) सर्वे वेदा यत्पदमामनन्ति।

4) समन्वयाधिकरणम्। तत्तु समन्वयात्। This (inquiry leading) to harmonizing the (Shastras.) No obvious Visayavakya.

Whereas the Sutras are regarded by some as sometimes stating Purvapaksha, Sri Madhvacarya holds the view that the entirety of the Sutras is Siddhanta. Sri Sankaracarya has provided a special introduction in his commentary on the Brahmasutras on the topic of अध्यास or superimposition caused by अविद्या – nescience. Such are the differences in the interpretations.

॥सर्वं श्रीकृष्णार्पणमस्तु॥


Sringeri Vidya Bharati Foundation (SVBF) is established as an international extension of the ancient Sri Sharada Peetham, Sringeri, Karnataka State, India. It is incorporated as a non-profit religious and charitable organization in the USA. The Foundation functions under the direct guidance of the Jagadguru Shankaracharya, His Holiness Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamigal of the Sringeri Sharada Peetham.

2 Responses to “The Brahmasutras”

  1. Shankar A. Iyer says:

    SAIRAM, SvAmi sharaNam. A very informative and interesting introduction. I look forward to your subsequent articles covering the sutras themselves. SvAmi sharaNam, SAIRAM.

  2. Padmanabha.C says:

    What a treasure!!!

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