Article of the Month - February 2005
Life of Shankaracharya - The Adventures of a Poet Philosopher
The 'Philosophical' Birth of a Philosopher
In the south Indian state of Kerala there once lived a learned
Nambudiri brahmin couple. Even though this pious duo enjoyed all
the blessings of life - fertile fields, abundant milch cows,
plentiful wealth, well-built mansions and hosts of loving
relatives - all this failed to give joy to them for the simple
reason that even after many years of conjugal bliss, they were
still not blessed with a symbol of their affection - an
offspring. In their distress they called upon Lord Shiva for
mercy. It is said that the great god himself appeared in the
husband's dream and asked his desire. Shiva gave the distressed
scholar two choices: an all-knowing talented but short-lived son,
or one who would live very long but without any special virtue or
greatness. The childless man, instead of declaring his
preference, replied, "What do you think? Please do whatever is
best for humanity." Though this story may or may not be accurate
in the modern 'historical' sense, it does hold a significant
moral. When confronted with a choice, one can learn from this
incident that if the person giving the choice is much greater
than oneself, the best option would appear to be to defer the
decision to the boon giver.
In due course the worthy wife became pregnant. That she carried
within herself an exceptional foetus was evident and is
glorifyingly described in the traditional biographies: "as her
pregnancy advanced, her whole body became lustrous like a blazing
sun difficult to look at. What wonder is there if in course of
time it became difficult for her to move about, bearing within,
as she did, the energy of Shiva who is the support of all the
worlds. She began to feel the contact of even tender and sweet
smelling flowers a burden. What then to speak of ornaments? A
general lassitude gradually crept on her, making everything
burdensome to her. Another psychological change, characteristic
of women in pregnancy, came over her. Whatever was rare she would
like to have, but on obtaining it, would immediately lose all
interest in it. Thus the relatives brought many delicacies to
please the expectant mother, but her interest would abate as soon
as she had tasted them. Well, the life of a pregnant mother is
indeed full of ordeals. The line of her abdominal hair,
resembling the mossy growth in the rivulet of radiance that
flowed to the navel after encircling her hillock-like bosom,
shone as the staff carried by accomplished yogis, placed there by
the creator himself for the use of the divine child within - as
if to declare that he was a sannayasi, even in his pre natal
state. In the guise of hr two breasts for suckling the child, the
creator had verily made two jars filled with a new type of nectar
that was enlightenment (mukti) itself. It looked as if the two
breasts of the mother stood for the theory of difference and the
thinness of the middle region for the doctrine of Shunyata
(nothingness), and the child within was refuting and correcting
these by causing the enlargement of the breasts and the abdomen."
The newborn was named Shankara, which is but another epithet for
Lord Shiva It means the bestower (kara) of happiness (sam) to
all. Shankara grew up as a precocious child and exhibited
exceptional talent in imbibing the ancient Vedic texts. His
parents thus naturally had high hopes from him. Unfortunately,
his father wasn't around to witness the full flowering of his
talents and passed away when Shankara was just three. It fell to
the lot of his mother to care for the child and bring him up
single-handedly. The dutiful mother performed his upanayanam
ceremony (sacred thread ritual of the twice born) when he turned
five, after which he was packed off to a gurukula for his primary
education. The lad was blessed with prodigious powers of
retention and it was said that he could remember anything once he
had heard it. He thus quickly mastered all the required branches
of learning, including logic, philosophy of yoga and grammar.
Even at that young age however, the perceptive Shankara showed a
marked preference for the non-dualistic (Advaita) doctrine laid
down in the ancient texts known as the Upanishads.
After finishing his studies, Shankara returned home and continued
to lead a life devoted to learning, and serving his mother.
During this time Shankara's reputation as an extraordinary child
traveled far and wide, so much so that the king of Kerala
desiring to see him sent a minister with a large retinue to
invite him to the royal palace. Shankara, however, was not
enamored by the regal splendor and politely refused the
invitation saying "I am a brahamchari (celibate monk), who should
not leave his studies lured by the luxury of riding an elephant
and the chances of being honored at a king's court. It is
therefore difficult for me to comply with the request and I am
sorry I have to send you back home disappointed." On hearing
this the king, who himself was an accomplished poet, visited
Shankara and enjoyed with him many hours of enlightened
Though Shankara lived a regular life at home, his ascetic
tendencies were obvious to those around him. This caused much
distress to his mother, for he was her sole emotional anchor.
Shankara, the devoted son that he was, thought within himself: "I
have not the least liking for this worldly life. But mother does
not permit me to leave it. She is a guru unto me and I must not
do anything without her consent."
Life went on this manner, until one day when Shankara went to
bathe in the river. No sooner had he entered the stream than a
crocodile caught hold of his leg and began to drag him to deeper
waters. Shankara shouted to his mother on the bank: "Mother, this
alligator is pulling me to imminent death. If I die with an
unfulfilled desire in my heart, my soul will not find release.
Thus do give your consent to my becoming a sannayasi so that I
can at least fulfill my wish in principle and leave this world
peacefully." The lamenting mother consented to her son's appeal.
Just then some fishermen nearby threw their nets on the crocodile
who thus intimidated, released Shankara's leg.
The young lad now started preparations for leaving the house of
his mother since as a sannayasi the whole world was now his home.
The mother's grief knew no bounds but having given her word she
could in no way retract it. Perceiving her despair, Shankara
said: "All knowing mother, you are yourself aware that this world
is but an inn where we are together for a meager time only. One
day, on the eternal road, all souls are destined to unite with
the One Absolute Reality. For your material comforts, you have
with you all our ancestral property and I will make arrangements
that our near and dear ones will care for you in my absence." He
also promised her that he would be present to perform her last
rites when the situation arose. Thus ensuring the well being of
his mother, Shankara left his abode in the search of an
accomplished guru who could initiate him into sannayas
(monkhood), embarking on a way of life which has solitude for one
's pleasure garden, chance-obtained food for banquet and the
indwelling Shiva as sole companion.
Moving northwards, he passed through various lands, rivers,
cities, mountains, animals, men and the rest until he came to the
banks of the river Narmada, thousands of kilometers away from his
native place. The shade of the tall trees on the riverside and
the cool breeze blowing through them assuaged his bodily
exhaustion very soon. He then observed bark clothes hanging from
the branches and realized that he had reached a hermitage. His
curiosity aroused, he asked the ascetics residing there the name
of the spiritual preceptor of the ashram. It belonged to
Shankara was then led to the cave where the sage resided. He
respectfully went round the cavern three times, then prostrated
before its entrance and entreated the guru to make him his
disciple. Coming out of his samadhi (super conscious state), Guru
Govindapada asked him the following question: "Who are you?"
Shankara there and then composed a composition of ten verses, the
gist of which is as follows: "I am neither the earth, nor water,
fire, air or sky (the five subtle elements), nor composed of
their properties. I am not the sense organs nor the mind. I am
but the Supreme Consciousness underlying all, known as Shiva."
Hearing these words, which betrayed an extraordinarily high
comprehension of metaphysical principles, the guru was
transported into the realms of ecstasy and recognizing Shankara's
talent, initiated him into sannayasa.
Govindapada instructed Shankara on the nuances of Vedic
philosophy. He also introduced his pupil to the Brahma Sutra
penned by sage Vyasa (author of the epic Mahabharata). The Brahma
Sutra is so called because its theme is Brahman (the Ultimate
Reality). It is also called Shaririksutra (bodily, since it is
concerned with the embodied soul); Bhikshusutra, because those
who are competent to study it are the sannayasins;
Uttaramimamsasutra (Uttara - final; mimamsa - enquiry) as it is
an enquiry into the final sections of the Vedas. This sacred
text, dealing with the ultimate questions of philosophy, consists
of 552 propositions or aphorisms (known as sutras), each tersely
worded and brief enough to leave the first time reader perplexed.
This factor coupled with its undisputed authority among ancient
texts has ensured that it has been commented on by almost every
major figure in the Indian philosophic tradition. In fact, it
would be possible to trace much of the history of Indian
philosophy by examining the commentaries on this work alone.
At the particular moment when Shankara was studying under
Govindapada, there was no unanimity amongst scholars regarding
the interpretation of the Brahma Sutra. His guru therefore
directed Shankara to repair to the holy city of Varanasi, which
even then, as today, was a great seat of learning and education,
and write a commentary on the text, which would clarify matters
and put an end to the prevailing confusion.
It is well known that all learning and knowledge in the ancient
times had to be tested at Varanasi, in front of its learned
pundits, for which the city was justly famous. Shankara thus
started his mission of the grand unification of the various
strands of the Indian ethos, which were then moving in divergent
directions. It is interesting to note here the sense of unity
that pervaded the thinking of all scholars throughout the history
of ancient India known as Bharatadesha at the time. Scholars from
the east, west, north or south, all had to prove themselves at
this great center of scholarship and spirituality. While the
concept of a nation-state in a political sense may have been
alien to early Indian thought it was alive to the much more
enduring and stable ideas of spiritual unity of this land
extending from the Himalayas in the north to Kanyakumari in the
south. It is this idea of being one country which prompted
Shankara and many others, even in times when there was no easy
access through any means of transport, to travel to the four
corners of the land. In this regard, the situation of many
pilgrim centers located throughout the country at strategic
points seems to be a deliberate exercise aimed at bringing all
spiritually inclined pilgrims in contact with one another and
reinforcing the concept of unity as a nation. Shankara thus
settled down at Varanasi, and derived great satisfaction and
inspiration from this holy city. Over a period of time, many
young people were attracted to his radiant presence and became
Confrontation with an Untouchable
One scorching day of summer, the worthy saint and his followers
were going to bathe in the river Ganges at the Manikarna ghat. On
their way, the party encountered a chandal (keeper of cremation
grounds) who is considered the lowest amongst lowest in the
hierarchy of Indian castes. Accompanying the outcaste were his
four repulsive dogs. Addressing the untouchable, Shankaracharya
asked him to move away and make way for them. The hunter then
raised some interesting questions:
"You are always going about preaching that the Vedas teach the
non dual Brahman to be the only reality which is immutable and
unpollutable. If this is so how has this sense of difference
overtaken you? There are hundreds of yogis going around indulging
in high sounding philosophical talk, donning the ochre robe and
exhibiting other insignia of holy life like the water pot and
staff. But not even a ray of knowledge having found entrance into
their hearts, their holy exterior serves only to dupe
householders. You have asked me to move aside and make way for
you. To whom were your words addressed O learned Sir? To the body
which comes from the same source and performs the same functions
in the case of both a brahmin (the highest caste) and an
outcaste? Or to the atman (soul), which too is the same in all,
unaffected by anything material like the body? How do such
differences as 'this is a brahmin, or this is an outcaste,' arise
in the essentially non-dual world, which is the philosophy you
preach. O revered teacher, is the sun changed in the least, if it
reflects in the liquor pot or in the holy Ganga? How can you
indulge in such false sentiments as 'Being a brahmin I am pure;
and you, dog-eater, must therefore give way for me,' when the
truth is that the one universal and unblemishable bodiless spirit
is shining alike in each of our physical forms. Forgetting, due
to false attachment, one's own true nature as the material-less
spirit - beyond thoughts and words, unmanifest, beginningless,
endless and pure - how indeed have you come to identify yourself
with the body which is but unsteady like the ears of an elephant."
It is believed that the chandala was none other than Lord Shiva
in disguise, and the four canines the four Vedas. The sage
immediately fell to the feet of the outcaste and composed there a
quintad of scintillating verses, called the 'Manishapanchakam,'
summing up the absolute truth as follows:
From the standpoint of the body, O Shiva, I am thy servant;
from the standpoint of the soul, O Thou with three eyes, I become
a part of Thine; and
O the Self of all, from the standpoint of the Self, I am verily
This is my settled conclusion reached with the help of all
In a fortunate turn of events, the date for the auspicious Kumbha
mela at Prayag (Allahabad of today), fell concurrent with his
sojourn in Varanasi, eighty kilometers from the site of the fair.
His discourses on the banks of the Ganga there attracted many
pilgrims and spiritual seekers who felt exceptionally blessed on
partaking the nectar of his teachings.
Meeting with a Philosopher Committing Suicide
During the time of Shankaracharya, the school of Purvamimamsa,
which believed in the strict and theoretical observance of
rituals, reigned supreme. Shankara realized that unless he was
able to win over this powerful rival, his goal of spiritually
re-unifying India would remain difficult to fulfill. The foremost
proponent of this sect was the great scholar Kumarila Bhatta, who
lived in Prayag itself.
When Shankara reached Kumarila's place he saw a strange and
horrific sight. Placed in a courtyard was a huge pyre lighted
with slow burning rice-husk. At the center of the flames could be
discerned the head of a radiant figure, draped in white. This was
none other than the great philosopher Bhatta himself.
Kumarila Bhatta, in order to equip himself with the nuances of
Buddhist philosophy, so that he could better counter its
onslaught against the Vedic ethos, had once studied at a
monastery pretending to be a Buddhist. He was committing
self-immolation as an expiation for his sins, which included the
pretension of being a Buddhist and learning their doctrines at
the feet of a guru, and then, the impropriety of all
improprieties, challenging his own guru to debate and defeating
him (guru-droha). These unworthy acts not befitting one who
'practiced what he preached,' an ocean of guilt overwhelmed
Kumarila, and to atone for his sins resorted to this fatal,
Shankara's appeal to step down from the flames proved to be of no
avail. Before succumbing however, Kumarila advised him to go and
meet his disciple Mandana Mishra, who was the most renowned
protagonist of the Purvamimamsa School.
Mandana Mishra resided in the town of Mahishamati (Madhya
Pradesh). When Shankara reached the city and asked for directions
from some maids on the way, he was told: "You will find nearby a
house at whose gates there a number of parrots in cages,
discussing topics like: 'Do the Vedas have self validity or do
they depend on some external authority for their validity? Are
karmas capable of yielding their fruits directly, or do they
require the intervention of god to do so? Is the world eternal,
or is it a mere appearance?' Where you find this strange
phenomenon of caged parrots discussing such abstruse
philosophical problems, know that to be the gate of Mandana's
These precise and unique instructions made it easy for Shankara
to locate the house and it was not long before he challenged
Mandana Mishra to debate. By mutual consent it was decided to
make Bharati, the wife of Mandana Mishra, the judge of this
contest. Indeed, the wise and sagacious Bharati was renowned all
over as a veritable incarnation of Goddess Saraswati herself.
Before the debate formally began, Bharati put a garland of fresh
flowers round the neck of each philosopher and declared that
whose wreath faded first would be the loser. The propriety of
such an action is questionable since a Hindu woman will garland
with her own hands no man except her husband. Such a ceremony
forms an integral ritual at Indian weddings. Is it that Saraswati
(incarnated as Bharati) had already chosen Shankara as her
suitor, thus symbolically crowning him with victory before the
debate even began? The precise answer we will never know.
The dialogue between the two stalwarts is said to have gone on
for a number of days and renowned scholars from all around came
in droves to witness this extraordinary event. It is interesting
to note here that while the debate was on, Bharati would invite
them both at noon for food, first inviting the ascetic for his
alms (bhiksha) and then the householder (Mandana) for his meal.
The verbal duel encompassed the entire gamut of Vedic philosophy
covering all its various manifestations and subtle elements. As
time progressed however, Mandana's necklace of flowers began to
fade. His wife Bharati thus declared her verdict in favor of the
sannayasi. Then, unlike other days, she invited both of them for
bhiksha, since it had been already agreed that the defeated
philosopher would adopt the stage of life (asharama) practiced by
the victor. Thus the householder (grihastha) became a renunciant
(sannayasi) and it was appropriate to invite both of them for
alms. To his credit, Mandana accepted his defeat gracefully and
became a disciple of Shankaracharya, who rechristened him as
An Ascetic Discusses the Science of Love
The transformation of her husband into a sannayasi distressed
Bharati to no end. Wise and prudent as she was, she kept her
counsel and addressed Shankara thus: "You do know that the sacred
texts enjoin that a wife forms one-half of a husband's body
(ardhangini: ardha- half; angini - body). Therefore, by defeating
my lord, you have but won over only half of him. Your victory can
be complete only when you engage in debate with me also, and
manage to prove yourself better."
The entire congregation sat agape at the unexpected turn of
events. Shankara spoke with folded hands: "Mother that is not
possible. It is not advisable for a man and a woman to engage in
verbal duel." "But why?" retorted Bharati. "How come a wise
philosopher like yourself holds such an erroneous view? Is not
our tradition replete with examples where talented women have
engaged in constructive debate with accomplished saints and
yogis? Recall the verbal duel between king Janaka and his worthy
opponent Sulabha. A debate is undertaken keeping a firm belief in
one's faith. How then can a difference of gender be of any
Speechless against the soundness of her argument, Shankara
reluctantly agreed to the contest. Seventeen days passed in this
intellectual exercise before Bharati realized that Shankara was
invincible in Vedic lore and philosophies. She thus gave a new
strategic direction to the whole discussion saying: "O wise one,
discuss with me the science and art of love between the sexes.
Enumerate the number of positions envisaged in our ancient erotic
manuals? How do the preferences of the two genders manifest and
vary with the bright and dark fortnights?"
Shankaracharya gave a calm reply to her missives: "Holy mother,
here we are discussing the shastras (scriptures)."
"Has not the science of love too been deified as a scripture? It
has indeed been granted the status of a shastra (Kamashastra:
kama - desire; shastra - canon). A sannayasi is supposed to have
conquered all his physical desires, and there is no scope for any
debilitating thought to ever enter his mind. Thus, if you feel
that a mere discussion on the science of love will distract and
titillate you, there definitely is some fundamental gap in your
knowledge. How then can you be a guru to my husband?"
Shankaracharya contemplated for a moment and then replied:
"Mother, I will indeed reply to your questions. However I have
two requests. First, I need a month's time to prepare myself and
secondly, I will submit the answers in writing only." Bharati
accepted both his pleas.
It is said that Shankara, making use of his yogic powers, entered
the dead body of a king, granting it a new lease of life. Thus
embodied, Shankaracharya then traversed the perfumed gardens of
love, gaining a first hand experience in the practical aspects of
the ancient Kama Sutra. Texts indicate that Shankara became so
engrossed in these amorous activities that he forgot his original
purpose and his disciples had to come to the court and sing hymns
extolling the virtues of non-dualist Vedic philosophy before he
regained his composure and reverted back to his old body. Having
successfully answered all of Bharati's queries, Shankaracharya
was now the uncrowned king of the spiritual regeneration of
India. What remained was his formal crowning, but before that a
telling incident of his life must be narrated.
The Philosopher as a Dutiful Son
Shankaracharya then continued southwards, engaging the spiritual
heads of various sects, winning them over with erudite
discussions and debates. He also restored the spiritual and
physical vitality of many important temples on his way. The
places he graced with his lotus feet include Shrishaila, Gokarna,
Mukambika, Shribali, Rameshwaram and Shringeri amongst many
One day suddenly, Shankara felt the flavor of his mother's milk
on his tongue. He realized that she was beckoning him. He rushed
to his native village to be on his mother's side. She was on her
deathbed. The sight of her beloved son relieved her of all agony
and she came to terms with the inevitable. The end thus came
peacefully. As per his promise, Shankara decided to perform her
obsequies with his own hands, even though such activities are
prohibited for the ascetic (sannayasi) who has renounced the life
of a householder. He called upon relatives and neighbors of the
family for help in this matter. They laughed at him scornfully,
and questioned his right to perform the last rites of his
deceased mother. Shankara had to then single-handedly do the
needful. The traditional sources of his life say that he made a
pile of banana leaves in the backyard of his mother's house, cut
up the corpse to be able to carry it all alone by himself and
then consigned her to flames. Since then, as a legend goes, a
curse descended on the Nambudiris, and to this day many families
still do cremate their dead in their own gardens using some
banana stems as a symbol and also mutilate their dead a little
before lighting the pyre.
Shankaracharya's Himalayan Odyssey
Shankaracharya also undertook a journey to the pilgrimage sites
of the Himalayas in the north, including Haridvar, Badarinath,
Kedaranath and Gangotri. In Badarinath, he was distressed to
observe that instead of an image, the priests there worshipped a
sanctified piece of stone (Shaligram). On enquiry it was revealed
that when iconoclastic invaders from across the borders had cast
their ominous shadow on this holy spot, the distressed priests
had submerged the idol in a nearby water body (Narada-kunda).
After the circumstances had normalized however, they had been
unable to retrieve the sacred image; hence its substitution by
the formless stone.
Seeing the despair of the devotees present there, the acharya
became engrossed in deep thought. It was only after a long time
that he came out of his reverie and before the congregation had
time to react, he rushed to the pond where the sacred icon lay
hidden and jumped into it. This water body was full of vicious
whirlpools and when Shankara did not appear even after a long
time had elapsed, there was turmoil all around. And lo, when all
had lost hope, out emerged the cynosure of all eyes, unscathed,
and carrying on his shoulders, the figurine embodying the essence
of 'Narayana.' He also established the idol in the sanctum
sanctorum and performed the necessary prescribed rituals. The
tradition lives to this day and the daily ceremonies at
Badarinath are still carried out by Nambudiri brahmins from
The Crowning of Shankaracharya in the Crown of India
The lush valley of Kashmir was in those days, an important seat
of learning, as is testified by Hsuan-Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim
in 631 AD. It was considered the Kashi (Varanasi) of north India.
In this region there was a temple dedicated to Mother Sharada,
this being the popular name for Saraswati in Kashmir. It had four
doors, and at the center of the shrine was a high throne, known
as the seat of omniscience, which was reserved for one with an
infallible knowledge. Before Shankara, scholars and philosophers
from east, west and north had unsuccessfully attempted to enter
the sacred precincts by their respective gates. No one till now
had however tried to enter by the south gate, which is what
Shankara resolved to do. At each step he was accosted by the
leaders and followers of various sects including the Samkhyas,
Mimamsakas, Buddhists, Shvetambers, Digambers and Shaktas. Each
put forward their point of view and thoroughly interrogated
Shankara regarding his own beliefs. They all had to retreat under
the spell of his well thought out logical replies, delivered in a
sweet speech underlined with a self-assured dignity and decorum.
When each and every query had been addressed, all the four gates
opened. He was requested to enter the temple and grace the
throne. No sooner had he placed the first step inside, than the
shrine reverberated with the voice of Saraswati herself,
challenging him thus: "That you are all-knowing is an already
proven fact. For this throne however, one should not only be
knowledgeable but also pure in conduct (charitra). Do not commit
the grave impropriety of ascending this throne, without
reflecting on whether you have been absolutely pure in life. In
spite of being an ascetic, in order to learn the secrets of
erotic love, you lived in physical relationship with women. Was
it proper for you to do so? To gain the status of omniscience,
perfect purity of life is as much important as all-round
learning." To this Shankaracharya replied: "From birth, I have
done no sin with this body. What was done with another body will
not affect this body of mine."
The voice of Saraswati became silent, accepting his explanation.
Hence was Shankara crowned the supreme philosopher of all ages.
It is said that such a profusion of flowers was showered on him
that day that even Shachi, the wife of Indra the king of gods,
had to make do without blossoms for her hair.
The scenic Kashmir valley forms the crown of the Indian
subcontinent, and it is befitting that Shankaracharya was
felicitated with this supreme honor here.
It was perhaps the sensuous beauty of this place that inspired
him to create the poetic masterpiece "Saundaryalahari," or the
"Waves of Beauty." This delightful collection of verses extols
the glory of the Mother Goddess in highly endearing and intimate
terms. At one point the poet philosopher says:
O Daughter of the king of mountains!
Great men say that the closing and opening of thy eyelids
marks the dissolution and creation of this universe.
Therefore it must be to prevent this universe,
that has sprung at the opening of thy eyes,
from going into dissolution
that thou dost not wink
But keepest thy eyes always open.
The above verse takes upon the popular belief that divinities do
not wink or blink and their eyes are always open. The poet finds
a cosmic purpose in this feature of the mother's eyes.
At another place he speculates:
O Daughter of the mountain-king!
I fancy that thy breast milk is the ocean of poetic inspiration,
emerging from your heart
For, it was by drinking it,
So graciously given by thee,
That the child of the Dravida country
became a noted poet among great composers.
Some scholars believe this to be an autobiographical reference,
with Shankara, born in Kerala, calling himself the child of the
Dravida (southern) region, drinking at the breasts of the divine
mother the milk of poesy. The joyous use of such rich imagery
reveals that Shankaracharya was not a 'dry' preacher from the
arid realms of philosophy, but also a bhakta of the highest
order, capturing his emotions in highly sensitive expressions.
Merging into the Infinite - The Death of a Philosopher
Quem di diligunt, adolescens moratur (Whom the gods love, die
In addition to composing numerous texts and verses delineating
the essential principles of non-dualistic Vedic philosophy, a
significant contribution of Shankara is his commentary on the
principal Upanishad texts and the Bhagavad Gita as also the
Brahma sutras mentioned above. His serious discussions on the
central problems of philosophy envisaged in these texts proceeds
without the use of arcane terminology, unexplained references or
convoluted arguments. Shankara'a purpose is not to intimidate the
reader with abstract technical jargon; but rather provide him/her
with spiritual insight. It is indeed a blessing that these three
commentaries have survived down the ages and are available for
the contemplation of contemporary man.
Another significant contribution, which enriched the spiritual
life of common man, was the establishment of a pilgrimage site
and seat of learning in each of the four directions (chaar-dham).
Such a network both celebrates and solidifies regional identities
and without journeying to these four spots, no Hindu's sacred
itinerary is deemed complete. The four are:
a). Badarinath in the north.
b). Puri in the east.
c). Rameshvaram in the south.
d). Dwarka in the west.
His life purpose accomplished, the acharya then retired to
Kedaranath (experts differ on the exact place of his demise), and
gave up his physical body. He was all of thirty-two years of age.
For men like Shankara, there can however be no end in the real
sense. As an exponent of Advaita, he lives as the ever-present
non-material Brahman in each of us.
Conclusion: Was Shankara a Philosopher?
Shankaracharya's philosophical outlook can be summed up in one
word Advaita, 'Dvaita' meaning duality and the prefix 'A'
negating it. The goal of Advaita is to make an individual realize
his or her essential (spiritual) identity with the supreme realty
Brahman. What significance does it have for the everyday life of
an ordinary individual? Advaita teaches us to see the face of our
own child in that of our neighbor's offspring; to perceive our
brother in the parking lot attendant shivering in the freezing
night and also to view the lady traveling in the bus without a
seat as our own mother. Advaita is more a way of life than an
abstract philosophical system. Thus the appropriation of Shankara
's legacy by the staid philosopher and the reduction of his
creative output to abstract niceties is indeed a grave betrayal
of his contribution. Such an approach transforms what is
essentially a way to redemption into mere intellectual
speculation, while the truth remains that Shankaracharya is, in
every way, our guru and guide, who leads us to the experience of
the ultimate truth (atmanubhava) which resides not anywhere
'outside,' but is present within each of us. If we wish to
understand the true meaning of Shankara's teachings, we have to
follow India's rich tradition of sages and seers and not learned
philosophers who have changed what was a cure for the malady
called life, into a complex system of philosophy. Studying
Shankara as if he were a mere philosopher, even 'the greatest of
all philosophers,' is a sure way of not understanding him - the
one whose 'style' always was both analytic and participatory at
the same time.
Shankara's life demonstrates that one is not a philosopher by
great discourses; rather, it is the way one lives and experiences
life, soaking in all its adventures, that shows our level of
perception and understanding. In this context, it may also be
stressed that Shankara was not the founder of the theory of
Advaita, which is eternal like the Veda itself. What he however
did was to bring all the various streams of Indian thought,
diverging in his time in different directions, under the common
roof of Advaita, thus resolving the widespread confusion arising
out of the multiplicity of opinion.
This article by Nitin Kumar
References and Further Reading:
Audi, Robert. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy: Cambridge,
Bader, Jonathan. Conquest of the Four Quarters - Traditional
Accounts of the Life of Sankara: New Delhi, 2000.
Collinson et al. Fifty Great Eastern Thinkers: New Delhi, 2004.
Date, V.H. Vedanta Explained (Samkara's Commentary on the
Brahma-sutras) 2 vols: New Delhi, 1973.
Founders of Philosophy (Many Contributors): New Delhi, 2001.
Goenka, Harikrishendas. Vedanta Darshan (Brahma Sutra):
Grimes, John. A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy
(Sanskrit - English): University of Madras, 1988.
Grimes, John. The Vivekacudamani of Sankaracarya Bhagavatpada (An
Introduction and Translation): Delhi, 2004.
Gupta, Som Raj. The Word Speaks to the Faustian Man:(A
translation and interpretation of the Prasthanatrayi and
Sankara's Bhasya for the participation of contemporary man)
Volume One: Delhi, 1991.
Hinnells, John R. The Penguin Dictionary of Religions: London,
King, Peter J. One Hundred Philosophers - A Guide Greatest Thinkers:
Leaman, Oliver. Eastern Philosophy Key Readings: New Delhi, 2004.
Leaman, Oliver. Key Concepts in Eastern Philosophy: New Delhi,
Madhava - Vidyaranya. Sankara Digvijaya - The Traditional Life of
Sankaracharya (Trans. by Swami Tapasyananda): Chennai.
Mishra, Jairam. Adi Shankaracharya Jeevan aur Sandesh (Hindi):
Rao, Sridevi. Adi Sankaracharya - The Voice of Vedanta: New
Rukmani, T.S. Shankaracharya: New Delhi, 2000.
Sankaracharya, Sri. Saundarya Lahari (Tr. by Swami Tapasyananda):
Shyamla, Kamla Sharma. Divya Purusha Adi Shankaracharya (Hindi):
New Delhi, 2003.
Subramanian, V.K. Saundaryalahari of Sankaracharya: Delhi, 2001.
Victor, P. George. Life and Teachings of Adi Sankaracarya: New
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