Swami Satchidānandendra Sarasvati (1880-1975) was a famous sannyāsin from modern-day southern India whose work triggered polemical debates which remain unresolved. In The Heart of Śrī Śaṅkara and in his magnum opus The Method of Vedānta, he seeks to return to what he sees as the pristine teaching of Śaṅkara which would have been adulterated by his disciples. He makes the provocative argument that the notion of root-ignorance (mūla-Avidyā), closely akin to the idea of a cosmic Māyā, not only post-dates Śaṅkara but even goes against the spirit of his teaching.
The Swami makes the point that, according to Gauḍapāda, Śaṅkara and Sureśvara, who were the true exponents of Advaita Vedānta, if man forgets his own identity with the Absolute, it is only because of his failure to discriminate between the Self and the not-self. For the Swami, that is the real starting point of Advaita Vedānta. Man cannot comprehend his true nature because he lacks discrimination, and so falls victim to a false knowledge (mithyā-jñāna) based on a mutual superimposition between the Self and the not-self. This superimposition has nothing to do with the mysterious power (śākti) of ignorance of later Advaita. This is a crucial point. According to the Swami, it is in this notion of Avidyā as superimposition that we find the key to Śaṅkara’s soteriology and not in more theological or cosmological notions such as those of Śākti but also Māyā, prakṛti or mūla-Avidyā. The Swami claims that this definition of Avidyā as superimposition does not reflect some speculative reconstruction of Śaṅkara’s teaching. We encounter it at the very beginning of the Brahma Sūtra Bhāṣya. Here is Alston’s translation of the passage:
When it is clear that the object and the subject, which pertain to the notion “thou” and “I” respectively, and which are contradictory in nature like darkness and light, cannot each be of the nature of the other, it is evidently even more incorrect to identify their attributes. Whence it follows that the superimposition of the object and its attributes, pertaining to the notion of “thou,” onto the subject, which pertains to the notion “I” and is of the nature of pure Consciousness, must be erroneous. And the opposite superimposition of the subject and its attributes onto the object must be erroneous too. And yet though these two principles are utterly distinct in nature, there is a failure to distinguish one from the other, and each, together with its attributes, is superimposed on and identified with the other. And from that there results this natural worldly experience, based on wrong knowledge (mithyā-jñāna) and involving a synthesis of the real with the false, which expresses itself as “I am this” and “This is mine.” …. This very superimposition, thus defined, the wise call “nescience” (Avidyā).
From this passage and others, the Swami can therefore simply define Avidyā as “the mutual superimposition (Adhyāsa) of the Self onto the not-self and of the not-self onto the Self, and also of their attributes.” Of secondary importance are other notions, particularly that of Māyā, that received an increasing attention only in the post-Śaṅkarian era to the point that Śaṅkara was described as the exponent of the Māyāvada (the doctrine of Māyā). These notions can be traced to the scriptures, but, for the Swami, they do not play an axiomatic role in Śaṅkara’s metaphysics. On this matter, Alston seems largely to agree with the Swami’s verdict. Although he points out some inconsistencies in Śaṅkara – largely due to the fact that Śaṅkara’s works are mostly a commentary of the scriptures whose teaching is not necessarily homogenous – Alston argues that, overall,
if we keep strictly to Śaṅkara’s own text … we find the “seed of the world” (jagad-bīja), this unmanifest name-and-form traditionally known by various names such as Māyā, prakṛti, avyākṛta and others, is itself a superimposition resulting from nescience (Avidyā-kalpita). It is not that the superimpositions of the individual depend on the activity of a cosmic power presided over by the Lord. On the contrary, the whole notion of an objective world and a Divine controller governing it makes sense only from the standpoint of the waking experience of an individual experiencer, which itself depends on superimposition.
Alston also makes the important observation that in Śaṅkara the notion of “indeterminable as existent or non-existent” (sadasadbhyām anirvacanīya) does not apply to ignorance or to Māyā but to “name-and-form.” It is used in “the context of problems of cosmogony, and not of defining the reality-grade of nescience.”
Based on this (minimalist) equation of “Avidyā = superimposition,” Swami Satchidānandendra Saraswati claims that whatever might be the position of the late disciples of Śaṅkara, there exists a single and uniquely legitimate method in Vedānta. According to this method, called adyārōpa apavāda, “the Absolute can be revealed only through false attributions (upādhis) followed by retractions.”
For instance, we find places in Śaṅkara where the Absolute will be objectivized as the supreme Cause, the Īśvara, the creator and the controller of the universe. To present Brahman as the supreme cause denies the dependence of the Lord on anything but Himself. But this approach also projects theological categories onto the Nirguṇa Brahman. In a second step, Śaṅkara therefore proceeds to a purification and a retraction by denying that Brahman really relates to the world as its Cause. Śaṅkara, in the footsteps of Gauḍapāda, ends up negating that creation ever took place. The category of causality was mobilized only as a temporary means that ultimately needs to be abandoned, left behind as one approaches the mystery of the Eternally Unborn.
The Swami’s point is that the various approaches to Ātman found in Śaṅkarian and post-Śaṅkarian literature based on the doctrine of the five sheaths, the four states of consciousness, the distinction between the general and the particular etc., represent only variations on this fundamental pattern: false attributions followed by retractions. From this follow two important consequences for us.
First, kataphatic approaches to the Absolute are subordinated to the apophatic one. We do find in Śaṅkara (in addition to theological statements) the description of the Absolute as an impersonal ground, as Being, Consciousness and Infinity (Satyam Jñānam Anantam). Still, as Alston explains, the theological path is the path of bhakti and this kataphatic approach is the path of vicāra (metaphysical enquiry), but both are subordinated to the path of negation, the only one that can lead to a direct experience (anubhava) of the Self, beyond all dualities.
Second, none of these sophisticated distinctions communicate to us any real knowledge of the cosmic manifestation or of the relationship between God and his creation. They purport only to create the conditions for the final cancellation of the Great Illusion. In other words, they do not point in the direction of a neoplatonist scalar ontology because all statements about the cosmic order, including those regarding the Īśvara, belong only to the domain of Avidyā. The distinction between the standpoint of Avidyā and the standpoint of Vidyā is therefore not to be confused with other distinctions found in post-Śaṅkarian literature. As Alston puts it:
Śaṅkara’s distinction between the standpoint of nesciences and the standpoint of knowledge is not the same as that between different grades of reality (prātibhāsika, vyāvahārika, pāramārthika) set up by his followers.
It is this distinction, and not a doctrine of the levels of reality, that is used by Śaṅkara to account for the multiple.
In a systematic survey of the Advaitin literature, the author of The Method of Vedānta makes the argument that post-Śaṅkarians betrayed Śaṅkara by gradually identifying Avidyā with a cosmic power (śākti) distinct from Brahman. Historically, it is Padmapāda who would have first formulated a doctrine that defines Avidyā positively, not simply as superimposition (Adhyāsa) but as the material cause of the many, similar to the prakṛti in the Sāṃkhya. However, the Swami attributes the well-known definition of Avidyā as a two-fold power (one concealing and one projecting) to another Vedāntist, Maṇḍana Miśra.
For Swami Satchidānandendra Saraswati, it is the Vivaraṇa school, arguably the dominant school in the late Advaita Vedānta, that departed the most from Śaṅkara. As we know, post-Śaṅkarian scholasticism split relatively early into two branches, namely the Bhāmatī and the Vivaraṇa schools. The former tends to adopt a more existential approach. Ignorance comes from the individual. The jīva is a part of Brahman. When Liberation takes places, the illusory limitations in which the jīva was enclosed disappear and the jīva merges into the Whole. The approach of the Vivaraṇa school is more speculative. It insists on the cosmic nature of ignorance and the discontinuity between Brahman and the jīva. The jīva is only a reflection of Brahman in the mirror of the universal prakṛti. The Swami criticizes the Vivaraṇa school for its theory of a cosmic Māyā, although we should keep in mind that, rigorously speaking, Avidyā is neither cosmic (as per the Vivaraṇa school) nor individual (as per the Bhāmatī school), being ontologically and logically anterior to the distinction between the microcosm and the macrocosm.
Swami Satchidānandendra Sarasvati reproaches the commentators of Śaṅkara not only for reifying Avidyā but also for having gradually introduced elements from other disciples, such as yoga and, more significantly, Tantrism. In this case, the process of substantialization of ignorance goes hand-in-hand with the feminization of Māyā, of the cosmic illusion – an evolution linked with the growth of popular Śāktism in classical and post-classical Hinduism.
In making Avidyā a positive entity akin to the prakṛti of the Sāṃkhya or the Śākti of the Tantras, the disciples of Śaṅkara introduce some sort of duality between Māyā and Brahman, paving the way for Rāmāṇuja’s ferocious attacks on Advaita. Worse, they make Liberation in life (jīvanmukti) impossible. Vidyā can dispel a false knowledge, an erroneous conception about one’s own nature, but not a substantial reality created by a Divine power.
The Swami’s position is highly controversial and has been criticized by contemporary traditional teachers of Vedanta.  He remains however one of the important Vedantic figures of the 20th century and a source of inspiration for students of Advaita Vedanta.
 Śaṅkara on the Absolute, edited and translated by J. Alston, London: Shanti Sadan, 2004, p.94-96,
 Swami Satchidānandendra Saraswati, The Method of Vedānta, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publication, 1997, p.47.
 For instance, the Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad is characterized by its theistic ambiance: “Know then that prakṛti is Māyā and the wielder of Māyā is the Great Lord. This whole world is pervaded by beings that are part of Him.” The Principal Upaniṣads, translated by S. Radhakrishnan, Harper Collins, 2011, IV, 10 p. 734
 Śaṅkara on the Absolute, p.65.
 Śaṅkara on the Creation, p.143-147.
 Śaṅkara on the Absolute, p. 41-45.
 For Śaṅkara, the effect is non-different from its cause which does not undergo any real transformation. Ultimately only the cause is real and is no longer a cause at all, being the only reality there is.
 According to the Swami, the most famous triad Being, Consciousness and Beatitude (Sat-cit-ānanda) is not found in authentic works of Śaṅkara but emerged for the first time in Sureśvara.
 Śaṅkara on the Absolute p.180-181. The contrast between the via negativa and the via positiva should not be exaggerated, however, as these positive attributes acquire a negative meaning in relation with the phenomenal order. To say Brahman is Sat precludes the idea that it can be subject to change; to say Brahman is Cit indicates that is not an unconscious substance; to say Brahman is Ānanda excludes the experience of any suffering for the Absolute.
 Śaṅkara on the Absolute, p.105. These three grades designate, respectively, the empirically unreal, the empirically real (but metaphysically unreal), and the metaphysically real. According to Swami Satchidānandendra Sarasvati, the standpoint of the Absolute (pāramārthika) and the empirical standpoint (vyāvahārika) correspond to two different definitions of the reality (satya) found in the Brahma Sūtra Bhāṣya. At the level of the One without a second, reality is that which remains eternally identical to itself and never changes. That corresponds to the domain of pure Being and to the absolutely Real. By contrast, the level of name-and-form consists of “objects distinguished into ‘empirically real’ and ‘empirically unreal.” The criterion of empirical reality here is “causal efficiency, and not maintenance of self-identity.” Swami Satchidānandendra Sarasvati, Misconceptions about Śaṅkara, Adhyātma Prakasha Karyalaya, 1998, p.24.
 On the difference between the two schools, see Michel Hulin, Śaṅkara et la non-dualité, p.228-233.
 For a critical account, see Martha Doherty, “A contemporary debate among Advaita Vedāntists on the nature of Avidyā,” Journal of India Philosophy, 33-2.
Renaud Fabbri (excerpt from an unpublished manuscript)