Niścaldās and his Vṛttiprabhākar: Advaita Vedānta in the Vernacular

Pahlajrai, Prem. (2014). Niścaldās and his Vṛttiprabhākar: Advaita Vedānta in the Vernacular (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Washington, Seattle.

This dissertation is a study of Swāmī Niścaldās (1791-1863 CE), a highly regarded Advaita Vedāntin and Dādūpanthī, who lived in what is now the state of Haryana in Northern India. Niścaldās is best known for his Vicārsāgar and Vṛttiprabhākar, both written in Hindi. The dissertation examines Niścaldās’s motivations for writing in the vernacular, as opposed to Sanskrit, with which he was also well-versed, by presenting his life and works, particularly the Vṛttiprabhākar. In the process, the influence on Niścaldās’s stance on caste and religion of Dādū Dayal and his sect and possibly also of Niścaldās’s patron, Rājā Rāmsiṃha of Būndī, as well as that of classical Vedānta as presented in the works of Śaṅkarācārya and others in the Advaita tradition, is explored. The latter half of this dissertation then presents an in-depth reading of his Vṛttiprabhākar in order to thoroughly understand Niścaldās's standpoint on the inter-related
issues of caste, soteriology, philosophy, scripture, tradition and theology. There, Niścaldās uses the key Advaita concept of vṛtti or “mental modification by which cognition occurs” as a novel structuring device to present a wide-ranging survey of prevailing Vedānta thought. In the process of answering three questions, namely, 1) “what is a vṛtti,” 2) “what is the cause of a vṛtti,” and 3) “what is the purpose of a vṛtti,” he presents his perspectives on the central issues of Advaita pertaining to the means of cognition (pramāṇa), the nature of valid (pramā) and indirect, erroneous cognitions (apramā), superimposition (adhyāsa) as the means of erroneous cognition, the nature of ignorance (avidyā), reality (sattā) vs. illusoriness (mithyātva), and the means for, and the nature of, the cessation of ignorance (kalpita-nivṛtti). Niścaldās’s presentation of differences in the standpoints of past Advaitins and his proposed reconciliations, his stance on the diversity of doctrinal interpretations, his relation to the Vedānta literature and tradition, his acceptance of the theory that perception is creation (dṛṣṭi-sṛṣṭi-vāda), and his position on reason versus revelation are explored. These issues provide us with a deeper insight into Niścaldās’s understanding of Advaita Vedānta and the influence it had on his radical choice to compose his works in the vernacular instead of Sanskrit.

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