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Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker

Who is Adi Shankaracharya? Where did he live and when did he live? What did he teach? And what was his unique contribution? We can try to get some of the easy parts out of the way first. Adi Shankaracharya was one of the foremost philsophers of India. Some call him a Saint while many consider him an incarnation of Lord Shiva himself. He was born in Kaladi, a small village near the town of Kochin in the southern state Kerala in India. Modern scholars’s consensus seems to be that he lived in the 8th century CE.

In very simple words, he taught Hinduism. He consolidated a wide range of doctrines to a uniform philosophical principle, which can be called “Advaita” (dvaita means two, the a prefix negates the word, giving the literal meaning “no two-ness”, there is just one truth). But this has been a religion that has existed (even if current date estimates are to be assumed) easily a millenium before Shankara and even longer according to some. So what was special about his teachings? And finally, to reiterate, what’s unique? To answer that, one has to understand the context of what was out there first. We have to “go deep”. I will share what I learnt and understood from reading a recent biography of the great Saint.

“Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker” is a book by Pavan K Varma. It is a very good and short biography of Shankara as well as a good introduction to his philosophy “Advaita”. The author was preivously an Indian Foreign Services (IFS) officer as well as a Member of Parliament.

Sri Adi Shankara

I would consider the book to be in four parts. The first part is the biography. The second part is the Philosophy of Shankara and the teachings of the Scriptures. The third part is titled “Remarkable Validation of Science”. The final part is a list of Shankara’s works with translations - in some cases, it’s just the highlights from a particular work since the works themselves are long and complex. In my opinion, the most value I got out of the book was in this order of the parts: 2, 1, 4, 3.

The author starts with the observation that religions have a tendency to get reduced to rituals and hence “there is always the danger that the form will become more important than the substance”. The present is as good a time validating this.

Biography

There are various dates thrown around starting all the way from 500 BCE (by some Mathas) to 44 BCE. Thankfully scholars were able to put together what was there in his teachings and his references to other great philosophers and saints who have lived across various time periods (whose dates and timings were better guesses and estimates to begin with, from other writings and historical notes and findings) and arrive at a rough estimate.

There are several biographies, called Shankara Digvijaya, but the most popular is that written by Madhavacharya, who later took on the name of Sri Vidyaranya and became the 12th head of the Sringeri Sharada Peetham (1380–1386).

Lots of Saints biographies tend to be hagiographic. The author acknowledges this. The biography is crisp and short highlights the important aspects. The author personally traveled to all the important places and part of the narration is also the travelogue which wasn’t adding much but the description of the places (example : Kaladi, Kanchipuram, Dwaraka, Banks of River Narmada, Dwaraka in the West, Puri in the East, Assam in the Far East, Srinagar in Kashmir, Kasi and the River Ganges in the North) definitely provided a good context. Especially imagining it in all its pristine natural beauty in the old days does evoke the ascetic scene of piety and awe.

I will brielfly mention the story highlights.

  1. The story goes that Shankara’s mother had a dream where Lord Shiva gave her a choice between an ordinary son who will live a long life versus an extraordinary one with a short life.

  2. By the time Shankara was 3 or 4, he could recite the Vedas.

  3. When he was 7, a crocodile catches his leg and pulls him in to the river and he exclaims, ‘Mother! Save me! A crocodile has caught me and I cannot be saved until you give me permission to become a sanyasin’. That incident forces the Mother to give consent.

  4. He walks all the way to Omkareshwar Temple in Madhya Pradesh, situationed along the banks of river Narmada to find and learn from his Guru Govindapada.

  5. The story where he asks one of his disciples to come along. The ever obedient disciple (Sanandana) starts walking without realizing he is walking on water and the river Ganga providing Lotuses to support him. Hence the disciple is named Padmapada (lotus footed).

  6. The one where a Chandala (one who works in the graveyard) says that ne need not move from the way since if what Shankara says is true, then both of them are the same Brahman. Shankara’s five-stanza composition, the Manishapanchakam, goes on to confirm that it is the truth and anyone who has thus realized is his Guru.

  7. The famous hymn Bhaja Govindam which he is said to have spontaneously composed when he hears a student in Kasi, trying to memorise the rules of grammar by rote loudly.

  8. One of the very interesting stories is that of his debate with the scholar Mandana Mishra. Very surprisingly, Shankara chooses Ubhaya Bharati (later known as Sharada Devi), Mandana’s wife, to be the arbiter. Both of them would wear garlands and debate and the one whose garland withers first loses. When Mandana’s starts withering, the judge (Ubhaya Bharati) would not concede defeat. She claims that she also is part of her husband and hence she would continue the debate on his behalf. This is where she would go on to ask about “Kama” (the pursuit of the sensual pleasures) which Shankara would have no way of knowing. Shankara is said to have entered the body of a recently deceased King and then go on to live the royal life for 30 days and then return back to his own body and be able to answer the questions satisfactorily. Both Mandana Mishra and Ubhaya Bharati (Sharada Devi) would end up becoming Shankara’s disciples and accompany him to Sringeri. This incident is meant “validate the four purusharthas or goals in the Hindu worldview: dharma (right conduct), artha (pursuit of material well being), kama (the pursuit of the sensual) and moksha or salvation”.

  9. His setting up of Mathas in Sringeri (South), Dwaraka (West), Joshimatha / Srinagar (North) and Puri (East).

  10. Incredible travels of Shankara. He traveled the length and breadth of the country a few times, all on foot!

  11. It is believed that Shankara wrote the Saundarya Lahari, his passionate ode to Shakti, while he lived in this cave in Kashmir and was well versed with the Kashmiri tantric tradition.

  12. The author goes on to mention that the matha at Kanchipuram, in Tamil Nadu, is a matter of some controversy. Many scholars believed that Shankara established only four Mathas. The Kanchi Matha claim that it was set up by Shankara to oversee the rest.

A nice info on the River Narmada.

The Narmada is the only major river in India that flows from east to west. Nar stands for male, and mada for female: the river symbolises the powers of both, or even a fusion of the powers of both as depicted in the unisex concept of Ardhanarishwara, an androgynous deity very much a part of Hindu mythology.

All said, in the space of a mere thirty two years, Shankara “plumbed the depths of the great legacy of Hindu philosophy, systematised and developed the Advaita doctrine into an imperishable school of thought, revived and reformed Hinduism, toured the length and breadth of India, from Kaladi in Kerala to Kedarnath in the Himalayas, and set up the four mathas to ensure Hinduism’s preservation and propagation”.

Hinduism has not seen a thinker of his calibre, or witnessed, before or since.

Vedas, Upanishads and Gita

Hinduism is a term coined by the West. It started off more as a geographic term (The Sanskrit Sindhu (for the river) became Indu, Indus (Indus valley civilization) which became Hindu, Hindustan, Hinduism). The Philosophy itself is called “Sanatana Dharma” (which means Eternal Tradition or Way). The word “Dharma” is hard to translate and does not have an equivalent word. But roughly it can be said to be the righteous virtuous way of living, the right thing to do, the right order. Very interesting to note that the Chinese Philosophy of Daodejing (or Tao Te Ching) means something very similar. Roughly again, Dao / Tao, means “the Way”, De / Te means “virtue, strength, integrity” and Jing / Ching meaning “Canon, great book”. This is from the 6th century BCE. Will elaborate on this in another post.

The major scriptures are the Four Vedas (Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva), these constitute the Samhitas. There are three other kinds of texts, the Brahmanas (description of rituals for priests), the Aranyakas (forest manuals, “Aranya” means forest), and the Upanishads. Because they are at the end, Upanishads are called “Vedantas” (Veda Anta (end)). It is also considered an ultimate form of learning hence the final step before self-realization. Upanishad literally means ‘to sit down near’ (at the feet of a master or teacher). Interesting to note the Greek philosophy of Stoicism comes from Greek word “Stoikos” (meaning “of the stoa, which is portico or porch”).

There are a couple of hundred Upanishads of which ten of them are considered the principal Upanishads. Shankara wrote commentaries on the principal upanishads: Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, and Brihadaranyaka.

Shankara’s primary teaching, or for that matter Hinduism’s, if I were to summarize my very minimal understanding, it would be something like this:

  1. There is a Self - all of us have it. All living things have it. It is called the Atman.

  2. There is the Brahman - which is what pervades anywhere and everywhere in the Universe.

  3. Atman is the same as Brahman.

  4. Realizing this truth is called self-realization which is the highest goal.

  5. The Atman, the Brahman, the equivalence are all beyond names, forms and description. They can only be experienced.

  6. Knowledge is the way to this self-realization.

It can be even more concisely said thus (in the words of Shankara himself):

Satyam jnanam, anantam Brahma

Satyam : Truth
Jnanam : Knowledge
Anantam : Eternal
Brahma : Brahman

Knowledge is truth and Brahman is eternal

This philosophy would make Hinduism one of the oldest (if not the oldest) to pronounce the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself.

What I described as few steps are much better described as the “Mahavakyas” (the great sayings). There are four main ones - representing each Veda.

  1. Prajnanam Brahma
    • “Knowledge/Consciouness is Brahman”
    • Rig Veda : Aitreya Upanishad
  2. Ayam Atma Brahma
    • “This Self is Brahman”
    • Atharva Veda : Mandukya Upanishad
  3. Tat Tvam Asi
    • “Thou art that”
    • Sama Veda : Chandogya Upanishad
  4. Aham Brahamasmi
    • “I am Brahman”
    • Yajur Veda : Brihadaranyaka Upanishad

Thus all the equivalence is established over and over.

Atman and Brahman are identical. Both are the substance of pure consciousness. One exists at the individual level, the other at the cosmic, but they are of each other, two sides of the same coin.

Two more important texts would be the “Brahma Sutra”, written by Badarayana written around 450 BCE and the “Bhagavad Gita” (Song of the Lord). A sutra ‘is a short sentence or aphorism, shorn of all verbiage and designed to convey the essence of a religious or philosophical idea in the smallest space.’

The most important concept of the Gita (part of the epic Mahabharata) is “nishkama karma”. This in short means, action without attachment or thought of reward, done without selfish desire in a spirit of surrender. It is not renunciation of action but renunciation in action.

As the Upanishads and the vedas are high forms of knowledge and even more so an experience to realize, there are multiple paths prescribed to achieve that: jnana marga, the path of knowledge, karma marga, the path of selfless activity, and bhakti marga, the path of devotion to a personal god.

Various schools of philosophy

I absolutely loved this part of the boook that gave a very good overview of the various schools of philosophy and the conditions and vast knowledge which Shankara came into and what he made out of that and contributed.

Prior to Shankara, there were five schools of philosophy. All these were essentially guided by two fundamental tenets, investigation (mimamsa) and reflection (vichara) — about the ultimate nature of the world, and the consequential purposes of life. Each of these schools believe in all or a subset of the Pramanas (Proof).

A brief copy-pasta from Wikipedia.

perception (Sanskrit pratyakṣa)
inference (anumāna)
comparison and analogy (upamāna)
postulation, derivation from circumstances (arthāpatti)
non-perception, negative/cognitive proof (anupalabdhi)
word, testimony of past or present reliable experts (Śabda)

The Carvaka school accepted only one valid source of knowledge - perception. Interesting to note that the Carvakas openly denied the existence of god or of any supernatural forces, and argued a well thought-out materialism. They would predate Marx’s thought that the “Religion is the opium of the masses” by a millenium and a half.

The Vaisheshika school accepted two : Perception and Inference.

The Sankhya, Yoga schools accept three : Perception, Inference and Word (of experts/texts).

The Yoga Sutra is attributed to Patanjali and is dated to sometime before 400 CE. In the sutra, discipline is outlined as an eightfold path, starting from yama (self-restraint), niyama (virtuous observances), asana (posture), pranayama (consciously controlling breath), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentrating the mind), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (a trance-like state in which there is complete union with the subject of meditation). The eightfold path is to prepare the disciple for this union (Yoga means Union) with Ultimate Self.

For example, Nyaya, one of the orthodox schools, which dates to third century BCE, is attributed to Sage Gautama. This agrees on four of the six (perception (pratyaksha), inference (anumana), analogy (upamana) and verbal testimony (shabda)).

Some of these schools also believed that Religion is an instrument in the hands of the priests to exploit the common person, and god is only the invention of the rich.

Buddhism in the above context, accepts two : Knowledge and Inference. In short, Buddhism has the Four Noble Truths.

The eightfold path is the way to the cessation of suffering. The eight steps are:

There is nothing like an enduring self, Brahman or Atman, or as the author puts it “Nirvana, in the Buddhist sense, is negative, an emptiness where all cravings and aversions have ceased. Vedanta is positive, where, after one has transcended the limitations of body and mind, what is left is the union with Brahman”.

From around the same time, there is Jainism. Mahavira is accepted as the principal icon of the Jaina faith. Like the Buddha (born 563 BCE in Lumbini in Nepal), Mahavira was born in a royal family, in the Muzzafarpur district of Bihar in 599 BCE.

Jainism consciously postulates a doctrine of uncertainty, which has saptabhangi or seven-step theory, whose purpose is to establish that knowledge of reality is relative. The seven possibilities (roughly translated) are:

The one word that is common to all seven viewpoints is ‘maybe’. In Jainism, ‘maybe’ is the antidote to dogmatism, and, in particular that of Hindu and Buddhist metaphysics. On the moral front, it has its own three jewels or triratna — right faith, right knowledge, and right conduct. Through this one obtains nirvana.

I honestly am only parroting most of what I read. I definitely would like to go deep in to some of these texts and learn more and even more importantly understand all this better (or rather experience it).

With that as the context, we get to what Shankara sought out to do.

Shankara’s AUDACITY OF THOUGHT

Given the above context, to summarize, first there was Hinduism itself which was many many centuries old with lots of scriptures and prescriptions. Then there was the many schools of thought and philosophy that had come to exist along the way. In addition to that we have more religions propping up such as Buddhism and Jainism. Furthermore, even within the Hinduism tradition, religion and rituals have taken over the way of life rather than it just supposed to have been a sign post on the way.

Shankara’s contributions are as follows.

  1. First he thoroughly read, learnt and understood (and experienced) the teachings of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). He knew the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Puranas and other works inside and out and at a level few could ever get to.

  2. Then he was able to provide commentaries on some of the most complex of texts.

  3. He created a set of new works that could also be considered as the condensed essence of the teachings of Hinduism (such as from the Upanishads).

  4. Shankara traveled all throughout the country, traversing the length and breadth by foot, many times, to visit various places of significance and to learn from scholars all over. He would debate and convince them as well as synthesize everything that appealed to his philosophy. He united varying schools of thought with common fundamental basis.

  5. He then built a stronger foundation of the “Advaita Philosophy”. Non-Duality. Once again built on the foundation of the Vedic scriptures. He also prescribed a way to learn this as well as realize this.

  6. He taught this philosophy to everyone all along the country.

  7. To further strengthen this teaching of truth, he established many centers (called Mathas) in many important cities of the times.

  8. Even though his philosophy is of “Advaita”, he sanctioned the use of religion and deities, so that could be a way to tame the mind enroute to the ultimate realization.

Any one of the above tasks would by itself be a monumental one. He did it all and he would do it in the mere 32 years he lived.

As Sri Ramaha Maharishi would guide anyone to keep asking themselves “Naan Yaar? (Who am I?)” in the quest for self-realization, for Shankara, it is “Neti, neti! (not this, not this)”.

As Dr Radhakrishnan quips, ‘the highest intelligence consists in the knowledge that intelligence is not enough.’

Logical learning or paroksha jnana needs the catapult to put us in the orbit of the actual experience of what is learnt, aparoksha jnana. A quantum leap has to be made, beyond knowledge to insight. Shankara calls that insight brahmanubhava, the experience of Brahman. This is that explosive moment when knowledge is instantly transformed into intuitional consciousness.

Some of the other Saints who lived later and who would fork this philosophy itself are Sri Ramanuja and Chaitanya.

Ramanuja’s chosen path for salvation was not jnana or knowledge as Shankara emphasised, nor karma or action as the mimamshaks advocated and Shankara decried, but bhakti or devotion.

Chaitanya carried forward this theism to a new level of devotional fervour. By his time, Jayadeva, the author of the Gitagovinda (twelfth century CE), had elevated the worship of Radha-Krishna to a cult.

Shankara exalted religion to philosophy, while Ramanuja tempered philosophy to the level of religion.

But above all, Shankara, contrary to many other gurus or schools of thought, believed that anybody could attain this knowledge. There is hope!

Shankaracharya is called Sanmatha Sthapanacharya: the man who brought together under one grand intellectual awning the six systems of Hindu worship: Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakta, Ganapatya, Saura and Kaumara (or Kapali), thereby reviving and restoring Hinduism both as a philosophy and a religion that appealed to its followers. In this endeavour, his great achievement was to strengthen the core intellectual foundations of Hindu philosophy, while accommodating long established traditions of religious practice within that philosophical framework.

Science

Before we move to yet another interesting part of the book, let me sneak in this note about the section I didn’t like nor do I agree with it. Titled “THE REMARKABLE VALIDATION OF SCIENCE”, this would go on to relate many of the modern findings (be it big bang or dark matter or energy or Quantum physics), to something in the Vedas and how it has all been already explained.

Well, one could extend the poetic metaphor with literary license to anything. But that would be doing Science a disfavor. Granted there are many Saints and Gods and Incarnations who could grasp it all and preach some thing (hopefully the truth_). But there are also a hundred frauds for each one true master who at best provide mere entertainment and at worst, mislead people to their detriment.

These are the metaphysical enquiries for which, by all means, we can choose to follow what ever we feel like. As long as it does not harm anyone else or do anything bad. But for everything else, Science and the scientific method of coming up with a theory and hypothesis and rigorously testing it with observable experiments and data and validating and revalidating the truth is the best (and only) way.

Major works of Shankara

This too was one of the favorite parts of the book for me as it gave a very concise introduction to the major works of Shankara, what it is about and for some works, there were also translations provided. I tried to keep as much of the author’s description intact as possible. These too would be all considered required readings for any serious practioner. Someday I would like to read and understand all these as well.

  1. Atmabodha, meaning self-knowledge or self-awareness, consisting of sixty-eight verses or shlokas.

  2. Tattvabodha, which broadly translates to ‘the knowledge of truth’, is in the form of a hypothetical dialogue between a student and his teacher.

  3. Vivekdachudamani, which translates to ‘crest jewel of discrimination’, consists of 580 verses, focused on the need for viveka or discrimination. This discrimination is required to distinguish between the real and the unreal, the eternal and the transient, and the ephemeral and the permanent.

  4. Dwadashapanjarika Stotra, consisting of twelve stanzas, translates to ‘a cudgel for delusion’, is meant to jolt the spiritual aspirant into realising that the world around him that he takes as real, is actually, because of its fragility and transience, but a delusion, and as unstable as ‘raindrops on a lotus leaf’.

  5. Kaupina Panchakam is a sanyasin’s passionate appreciation of the life of renunciation.

  6. Guru Ashtakam is another short hymn written by Shankara—just eight stanzas—in tribute to the guru.

  7. Nirvana Shatakam, consisting of six shlokas—hence the name shatakam explains the very essence of the non-duality of the Advaita doctrine.

  8. The Manishpanchakam is a set of five (panchakam) verses, each indicating Shankara’s firm conviction.

  9. Dashashloki This composition in ten verses—dasha shloka, a summation of the unyielding non-dual vision of Advaita.

  10. Saundarya Lahari literally translates to ‘the wave of beauty’ and is specifically tantric in content. In fact, some scholars regard it as a tantric textbook, co-relating each of its hundred verses to different pujas and worship of the Sri Chakra. It is a passionate outpouring of deep obeisance, with decidedly erotic overtones in the physical description of the goddess.

  11. Upadeshasahasri literally translates to ‘a thousand teachings’, to examine the methods and means of self-knowledge and moksha..

  12. Brahmjnanavalimala, in just twenty-one verses, we see a delineation of not only the characteristics of the person who has realised Brahman, but also the means to attain it.

Stotras of Shankara

Followed by the Advaita works, is a list of Stotras which are devotional works of Shankara.

Shankara effortlessly lived this dichotomy. His belief in the formless Brahman was unflinching; but his acceptance, at the vyavaharik or practical level, of devotion to a personal deity was deeply evocative. In fact, he has penned some of the most moving stotras in Hinduism.

Other References:

Mind of Adi Shankara by Keshav Menon : available online: https://archive.org/details/MindOfAdiShankaracharyaKeshavaMenonY.

A large chunk of the texts mentioned are all available in public domain. Sadly there are many difficulties. Some works have just a mere translation (without the original Sanskrit text or a word for word meaning). Some of them are poor scans and in big voluminous files that are not as convenient to peruse. But still, it is our blessing that we live in modern times that we still do have access to everything.

Conclusion

Overall this book was a very enriching read. This provides a lot more context to the whole. It is a great first to be followed up with the original texts (Bhagavad Gita, The Upanishads and the various works of Shankara). I will write more as and when I read more of these texts.


Meaning of life series to be continued.

Happy reading and learning!