Notes From The Handbook Of Advaita Vedanta


The first 50 verses of Vivekachudamani delineate what a sincere seeker needs in his important journey. Annapurna Sarada unravels some of the teachings in Shankara’s great scripture.


Shankara’s Crest Jewel of Discrimination, Vivekachudamani, is a virtual handbook of Advaita Vedanta that begins with what one needs to know to qualify oneself for a true teacher and the highest spiritual teachings. I will focus on teachings culled from the first 50 verses that include topics such as the three great boons, causes for lack of spiritual success, solutions for lack of spiritual success, and many more. Contemplating these teachings will bring clarity and inspiration.

The first 50 verses of Vivekachudamani delineate what a sincere spiritual seeker needs, what the obstacles are along with the signs of success, and other important information for the journey. These are universal principles that can be applied and/or adapted to any path. We will go through the teachings, rather than each verse, while citing in which verses you can find each point. My aim is to share these in the context of contemporary Western life in order to help new aspirants apply these teachings to their own life, and be inspired to fully study Shankara’s great scripture.

The Eight Strata of Attainment to Spirituality – verse 2

At the very start of the scripture, Shankara lays out the needed for the path of Atmajnan, Self Knowledge. Shankara emphasises knowledge of the scriptures and spiritual self-effort as essential to Union with Brahman.

There is an idea prevalent among a certain cross section of nontraditional Nondualists and New Age adherents in our society that spiritual attainment is simple and should be quick. All one needs to do is realise “I am That,” or to realise the meaning of “Who am I?” While it is true that this is what needs to be realised, a great amount of purification leading to clarification and thus leading to peace of mind has to happen before the true meaning of “That thou art” will be revealed.

Another skewed conclusion is that sadhana, spiritual discipline, is not necessary because one is already That – pure Awareness, Brahman. One argument even says that spiritual discipline creates a false sense of separation from our true Nature. But that is only true at the most mature stages of practice. It is a misapplication of the fact that Illumination is not the effect of any finite cause. Sadhana cannot cause Illumination because Illumination transcends cause and effect, and is our true Nature already. In the meantime, the mind must be purified and clarified by coming to know what one’s true Nature is not – so that we no longer confuse the non-Self with the Self. This is the crux of Advaita Vedanta Sadhana: to engage in spiritual practice from the standpoint of one’s inherent perfection.

According to Shankara, these eight hallmarks of spiritual attainment, coming together in one lifetime, are so essential that they “cannot be obtained except through the merits of a hundred billion well-lived lives.” (Swami Prabhavananda)

The Three Great Boons: A human birth, adept preceptor, and desire for liberation

1 – A Human Birth – verses 3 – 5, #1 & 2 of the 8 Strata

This human body is a great opportunity and must not be wasted. Sri Ramakrishna, speaking to his young ardent disciples and to his householder disciples as well, stated, “That person is born to no purpose, who having been born in a human body, does not strive for Liberation.” Sri Krishna tells us in the Gita that there are many wombs in which to be born – insects, animals, and He may have also been implying births in other worlds, such as ancestors and celestials.

Why is this human body so precious? It is the only form in which self-awareness can rise to Self-Realisation. The Self, Atman, is present equally in quality and quantity in all beings, even inanimate objects; but as the contemporary seers Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda have clarified, the manifestation is different according to the vehicle. The human brain is the most capable for accessing Intelligence. Later in this scripture, Shankara delineates the five koshas (sheaths) of the body-mind mechanism: physical sheath, vital energy sheath, mental sheath, intelligence sheath, and bliss or “I-ness” sheath. These five sheaths are present for all embodied beings, but we can say that some only access the first two, body and energy. Other animals can access the first three, and others begin to evince some basic reasoning power. But only in the human brain do we see this ability to not only access the sheath of intelligence for reasoning, creativity, and other intellectual pursuits, but also in some individuals to transcend reasoning confined to matter, energy, and thought, and direct it inward beyond the sheath of bliss and individual “I-ness.”

Further, birth in the physical realm is required to neutralise karmas and samskaras (tendencies from previous births), for this is where our karmas are made. Nor can they be destroyed in the life heavens (or hells). New karmas are not created there either. It is analogous to our waking, dream, and deep sleep states. For instance, if we insult someone in the waking state and then we apologise to that person in the dream state – we still need to apologise in the waking state, and then apply the “fire of yoga” via spiritual disciplines to neutralise the residual karma resulting from actions done with desire or aversion. The destruction of karmas and samskaras is integral to attaining states of Samadhi, absorption in divine Reality. In Nirvikalpa/Asamprajnata Samadhis, wherein union with Brahman is realised, the remaining subtle karmas and samskaras are destroyed. Thus, Liberation, Mukti, is to be attained here in the physical realm. Even the gods must be reborn on earth.

The gods and goddesses will have to be reborn on earth as human beings to get rid of their desire for domination and lordship…. – Babaji Bob Kindler

A human birth leading to Liberation also requires bodily and mental strength [vs. 4-5, and #2 attainment.] The kind of body one has is predicated on one’s prarabdha karma, which is karma from prior lifetimes brought forward into this lifetime to be worked on. There is much that can be explained about this according to the tradition, the yogis and scriptures, but which is beyond the scope of these posts. The main point, however, is that we made our karma and we can make better karma. Even better is to go beyond karma all together.

Shankara’s purport in these verses is: do not waste this human birth that you have gained from great merit over lifetimes. Who knows if in the next lifetime one will bring forward a less auspicious combination of karmas? Do not waste time in mundane activities devoid of spiritual awareness. Do not squander the power of the senses and mind on finite pursuits, on pleasures and passions, but turn them instead toward the “Pearl of Great Price.” Sri Ramakrishna compares the required attitude of one intent on liberation in this life to that of a mother with an infant in a house on fire. There is extreme urgency. Nothing will prevent her from even kicking down a wall to save her child (one’s Soul) from a fiery death (bondage to maya and another death in ignorance).   A verse from “Bhaja Govindam Stotram” written by one of Shankara’s spiritual descendants states:

Be done with desire, through with anger, finished with greed, and free of delusion, and make this one effort called “Self-inquiry – Who am I.”  There are fools who, devoid of Self-knowledge in this life, and like captives, simply torture themselves in hell.



— Annapurna Sarada is president, Sarada Ramakrishna Vivekananda (SRV) Associations and an assistant teacher for the sangha and its children.  She received initiation from Swami Aseshananda of the Ramakrishna Order and continues her study of Advaita Vedanta and other philosophical systems with his disciple, Babaji Bob Kindler, spiritual director, SRV Associations.