Pravrtti Versus Nivrtti in Vedanta

Pravrtti and Nivrtti

Karma-kanda of the Vedas contain both pravrttiand nivrtti. Pravrtti means a positive action with a new accomplishment in view. Nivrtti means restraint from action.

When the Veda says, “Perform a ritual called Agnihotra”, it is enjoining a pravrtti. When the same Veda says, “do not drink alcohol”, it is enjoining a nivrtti.

Pravrtti produces punya, which leads to pleasure in this life and hereafter. On the other hand, nivrtti is meant for avoiding papa, the cause of pains.

Unlike Karma-kanda, the Jnana-kanda does not enjoin any Pravrtti. The objective of Jnana-kanda is to make the individual free from bothpunya and papa and hence it does not reveal a means to accumulate more punya.

There are statements in Jnana-kanda which sound like injunctions of pravrtti. Brhadaranyakopanishad says “Atma should be seen, heard …”. Therefore, one may doubt whether Jnana-kanda (Vedanta) also involvespravrtti.

The great Acharyas like Sri Shankaracharya and Sri Sarvajnatmamuni have cleared this doubt. In his commentary on Brahmasutras, Shankaracharya says “All injuctions of pravrtti(vidhi) become blunt in front of the Atman, just like a sharp razor against a rock.” Therefore, he refers to the statements “Atma alone should be seen …” as apparently vidhi (vidhi-chaya).

Sri Sarvajnatmamuni, in his treatise named Sankeshepasharirakam, clarifies this point further. Such injunctions in Vedanta should be understood as injunctions of nivrtti and not ofpravrtti.

The statements like “Atma alone should be seen” should be understood as a counsel to restrain from anatma (non-self).  As long as one is engaged in non-self, i.e., identifies with non-self or seeks happiness from it, he is not free from the problem of samsara. Therefore, the Vedanta asks a mumukshu (seeker of moksha) to stop attributing reality to the non-self.

If one has to stop attributing reality to theanatma, he has to understand the true nature of atman, Therefore, he needs to engage himself in the pursuit of Atma-jnana like sravana etc. It is understood through implication, though not directly stated.

For example, the Vedic statement “Do not eat meat”, reveals the undesirable consequence of eating meat in the form of papa. Therefore, it is in one’s best interest to avoid eating meat. Therefore, one has to make effort to overcome one’s natural urge to eat meat. It may involve constantly reminding oneself of the violence and other evils associated with meat. In this example, all efforts are directed towards avoiding an undesirable result and not to accomplish anything new.

Atma is siddha-vastu, i.e, it is already present. Therefore, in Vedanta, there cannot be any effort in the direction of accomplishing Atma.Effort is needed to be free from samsara by getting rid of avidya, kama, karma and so on.

Some other Acharyas hold a slightly different view. This view is also mentioned inSankshepasharirakam. The pursuit of mokshaconsists of both pravrtti and nivrtti. There isnivrtti in terms of giving up pursuing the anatma.In the meantime, a mumukshu needs to work for self-knowledge. He should perform karma-yoga, approach a Guru, engage himself in shravana and so on. All these are pravrtti.

The shastras prescribe two-fold mandatory disciplines for a mumukshu, namely, yama andniyama. Yama is nivrtti. It stands for ahimsa – restraint from violence, satya – restraint from untruth, asteya – restraint from stealth and deceit, brahmacharya – restraint from copulation and aparigraha – restraint from possession.Niyama is pravrtti, a positive action. The Yogasutras of Patanjali lists five disciplines ofniyama. They are cleanliness, contentment, austerity, study of scriptures and focusing mind on Isvara. According to the Acharyas, shravanaetc. are also included in niyama.