Preceptors of Advaita

by T. M. P. Mahadevan | 1968 | 179,170 words | ISBN-13: 9788185208510

The Advaita tradition traces its inspiration to God Himself — as Śrīman-Nārāyaṇa or as Sadā-Śiva. The supreme Lord revealed the wisdom of Advaita to Brahma, the Creator, who in turn imparted it to Vasiṣṭha....

8. Śaṅkara Bhagavatpāda



N. Ramesan
M.A., I.A.S.

Ādi Śaṅkara, otherwise known as Bhagavatpāda, had a remarkable career within a short span of lifetime of thirty-two years. He was not merely an intellectual philosopher of the highest calibre, but also an ardent devotee and a mystic poet singing in ecstasy of the bliss and beauty of the Divine Mother. The austere and serene philosophy of the Upaniṣads was combined by him with a mystic ardour and fervour to produce a balanced system which would satisfy the deepest religious instincts of the people and which to this day stands unrivalled in its brilliance and mystic appeal.

Śaṅkara was, in addition, a practical reformer. He re-established the Ṣaṇmatas or the worship of the six ancient Gods, viz., the Śaiva, the Śākta, the Gāṇapatya, the Vaiṣṇava, the Saura and the Kaumāra, and restored the influence of Hinduism among the people, with a belief in itself and in its capacity to satisfy the religious needs of its adherents. Just before Śaṅkara appeared on the scene there was a medley of confused religious thinking in the country. On the one hand were the groups of karma-mīmāṃsakas who concentrated on the precise and meticulous performance of the Vedic rites and rituals, independent of meditation and the soul’s worship of God. On the other were the nihilism of the Buddhists and the indeterminism of the Jainas. Kumārila Bhaṭṭa and Maṇḍana Miśra denounced the value of ‘jñāna-mārga’ and were exaggerating the importance of the strict observance of the outward forms of Vedic rites. The times were therefore ripe for an incarnation to appear on the scene and to re-establish the eternal truths of the Upaniṣads on a foundation of logical reasoning that could stand the severest tests of dialectical experts.

To this difficult task Śaṅkara applied himself and by his remarkable commentaries on the Prasthānatraya he has produced a system of philosophy based upon the strictest logical reasoning, that, to this day, stands unparalleled for the brilliance of its logic and the greatness of its universal conception. There have been few souls in the history of thinking in the world that have produced such a remarkable combination of qualities. As Dr Radhakrishnan says:

“It is impossible to read Śaṅkara’s writings, packed as they are, with serious and subtle thinking, without being conscious that one is in contact with a mind of very fine penetration and profound spirituality—The rays of his genius have illumined the dark places of thought, and soothed the sorrows of the most forlorn heart. And whether we agree or differ, the penetrating light of his mind never leaves us where we were”.

As is common with the lives of our great men in the past, Śaṅkara was more concerned with his teachings than with himself, and as such it is an extremely difficult task to weave into an acceptable pattern the events of his life. Śaṅkara himself was a great writer, and has left us a remarkable collection of his writings, including his classic commentaries on the Brahma-sūtra, the Gītā, and the Upaniṣads, and such general works as the ‘Vivekachūḍāmaṇi’, the ‘Upadeśasāhasrī’, etc., which all reflect his general tenets. Unfortunately these do not contain even stray references to the biographical details of his life. However, a number of biographies by his disciples called ‘Saṅkara-Vijayas’ are available, the oldest and most trustworthy being Ānandagiri’s Śaṅkara-vijaya. Other works like the Śivarahasya, the Patañjalivjaya, Śaṅkarābhyudaya, etc., also give us some broad events of his life.

As is the case with all of our historical personages it is difficult to determine with any finality or accuracy the date of Śaṅkara. The following evidences are generally alluded to:—

(a) The Cambodian inscription mentions one Śivasoma who styled himself as a pupil of Bhagavān Śaṅkara. This Śivasoma was the Guru of Indravarmā who is said to have lived from 878 to 887 A.D. It is therefore assumed that Śaṅkara must have lived a short while before Indravarmā and hence this Cambodian inscription is said to support the theory first propounded by Teile and Phatak that Śaṅkara was born in 788 A.D. and died in 822 A.D.

(b) The 75th verse on Saundarya-laharī of Śaṅkara contains a reference to ‘Draviḍaśiśu’ which is said to be a reference to Tirujñāna Sambandar who is known to have lived in the 7th century A.D.

(c) Kumārila Bhaṭṭa is generally assigned to a date earlier than 700 A.D., and hence Śaṅkara is supposed to have lived sometime after him.

(d) Śaṅkara refutes the doctrines of Asaṅga, Nāgārjuna, Diṅnāga and Aśvaghoṣa who are known to have lived not earlier than the 3rd century A.D.

(e) Śaṅkara came later than Bhartṛhari who is generally assigned to 600 A.D. on the authority of I-tsing.

(f) There is the chronogram ‘Nidhi Nāgebha Vanhi’ which reversed, gives 3889 of Kali or 778 A.D. as Śaṅkara’s birth date. Similarly the other chronogram ‘Chandra Netranka Vanhi’ gives his date of Siddhi as 820 A.D.

The above are generally given as evidence in support of the theory of the western scholars that Śaṅkara was born in 778 AD., and died in 820 A.D. However, the evidence is far from being absolutely correct The difficulty of identifying Bhagvan Śaṅkara of the Cambodian inscription, with Ādi Śaṅkara is there. Draviḍa Śiśu is said to refer to Śaṅkara himself in Lakṣmīdhara’s authoritative commentary. The date of Kumārila Bhaṭṭa is not also free from doubt, as is also the date of Bhartrhari. Though Śaṅkara refutes the Vijñānavāda, he does not refer to Nāgārjuna, Asaṅga and others by name. Hence it is possible that he may be refuting the earlier exponents of the same doctrine. The chronogram is also not free from doubt since the verse which contains it gives the date of Śaṅkara’s birth, as Cyclic year Vibhave, Vaiśāka Māsa, and Daśami tithi. This goes against the accepted tradition of his being born in Nandana year in Pañcami tithi. Moreover this chronogram may not refer to Ādi Śaṅkara but perhaps to Abhinava Śaṅkara who was a renowned Jagadguru of the Kāñchī Kāmakoṭi Piṭham of the 8th century A.D.

Internal evidence about Śaṅkara’s date is practically nil. There is a reference in the 18th sūtra, 2nd adhyāyā of the 1st pāda to the cities of Srughna and Pāṭaliputra. But Pāṭaliputra was destroyed only in 756 A.D., and hence this does not help us to determine when Śaṅkara was born except that it must have been before 756 A.D. Similarly in the same Bhāṣya of the Brahma - sūtra, there is a reference to a king called Pūrṇavarman. However, confirmation of Pūrṇavarman’s date is also not forthcoming.

There are the Guruparaṃparās kept in the Dvārakā, Purī, Śṛṅgeri and Kāñchī Maṭhas. Out of these, the generally accepted date is about 500 B.C. whereas the ancient tradition of the Śṛṅgeri Maṭha takes it to 44 B.C.

It is difficult to determine with finality the date of Śaṅkara in view of the above conflicting evidence, though several attempts have been made by several scholars in the past.

Although the biographical works on Śaṅkara do not agree completely in all their details, still it is possible to ascertain the main events of Śaṅkara’s life. He was born in Kālaḍi in Malabar to Śiva Guru and Āryāṃbā. At an early age ho lost his father. He was a precocious child who could pick up easily anything that came to his notice. One day while having his bath in the river, a crocodile caught his feet and he was saved from an untimely death by adopting the Sannyāsa order and thereby attaining as it were a new life. He travelled all over the country and found his master in Śrī Govinda Bhagavatpāda on the banks of the river Narmadā. After being initiated by him and mastering all that he had to learn from him, Śaṅkara went to Benaras or Kāśī and lived for some years there. It was during this period that his great works came to be written. Śaṅkara then set out on a mission of conquest and met Kumārila Bhaṭṭa at Allahabad. Kumārila directed him to Maṇḍanamiśra living in the town of Māhishmatī. After conquering him in debate, Śaṅkara moved southwards and reached śrīśailam. From there he went to Gokarṇa, Harihar, Mukāmbi, etc., and reached Śṛṅgeri. He was so charmed by the natural beauty of the scenery of Śṛṅgeri that he is said to have lived there for 12 years. At about this time he learnt that his mother Āryāṃbā was on her death bed and went to Kālaḍi to attend to her funeral rites. He then set out on a second digvijaya and touched Rameśvaram, Chidambaram and Tirupati, and then started on a journey to Kailāsa. En route he also visited Nasik, Somanath, Dvaraka, Ujjain, Mathura and Kashmir. Finally, he reached Badrinath and Kailāsa. It was here that he obtained from the Lord the famous five sphaṭikaliṅgas. From there he went to Kāñchī after touching other Kṣetras. At Kāñchī he ascended the Sarvajña Pīṭham and ultimately attained his Siddhi also there. He established for the continuance and the correct interpretation of the Advaita doctrine propagated by him many Maṭhas and monastries all over the country, the most important of than being Śṛṅgeri, Dvārakā, Badri, Purī, and Kāñchī.

During his digvijaya Śaṅkara’s main purpose was to propagate the tenets of Advaita. He expounded his views by the well-known method of debate, in order to win round persons of the opposing view. Śaṅkara derived his tenets from a strict interpretation of the truths contained in the Vedas and Upaniṣads. The truths of his doctrine are as simple as they are profound. According to Advaita Reality is one, viz., Brahman. This is immutable, inscrutable and without qualities. This by its own power of Māyā appears to exhibit itself as the various phenomena of the seen world, though ultimately the entire corpus of universal existence is nothing but the original substratum. This principle of Māyā is also inscrutable. Śaṅkara does not deny the validity of the known world as is generally thought. He accepts it but denies any original and separate existence for it, apart from and independent of Brahman.

He propagated levels of truth, viz.,

  1. the Vyāvahārika Satya,
  2. the Prātibhāsika Satya
  3. and the Pāramārthika Satya.

Thus, the relative existence of the known world is not a total non-existence, like the son of a barren woman. Some measure of reality is given even to the phantom world of apparitions and dreams called Prātibhāsika Satya. The reality, being the plenary unconditional experience beyond the concepts and the categories of the mind, it is only Śruti that can testify to its truth. All the same a rational explanation of the contradictions that we see in the relative world becomes necessary and this reconciliation of the two seemingly irreconcilable principles is done in terms of the doctrine of Māyā and Adhyāsa. Adhyāsa means superimposition, as for example the superimposition of the serpent on the reality of the rope. The problem of error has been very thoroughly discussed by Śaṅkara, who concludes that the existence of error, though from the standpoint of ultimate reality, has to be denied, still has its own practical purposes. Thus Māyā is ‘tuchchha’ or negligible from the standpoint of Brahman, and the question of its existence or non-existence at that level does not arise. But from the standpoint of common experience Māyā is ‘Satya’ or real and of the world. The three ideas of truth, illusion and absolute non-existence, or in other words, ‘Satya’, ‘Mithyā’, and ‘Atyantāsat’, are expounded with the illustrations of the ‘Supreme one’, the serpent in the rope, and the son of a barren woman etc. The ‘Atyantāsat’ is never associated with the word ‘is’ or ‘asti’. Sat is never associated with the word ‘is not’ or ‘nāsti’. It is the second alone—Mithyā, which is associated with both asti and nāsti, as for example the serpent in the rope is at one time associated with the word ‘ nāsti’, from the point of view of ultimate reality, and at another time with the word ‘asti’ from the point of view of limited reality. The mundane world belongs to this category. Thus Śaṅkara’s definition of the world is not that of an illusionist as has been misrepresented by some, who denies reality to that which is seen and felt by us, in our daily activities. Śaṅkara has never said so. On the other hand, he reconciles our various experiences by the device of the various levels of truth.

Śaṅkara was not a mere dreamer but a practical missionary and an organiser of no mean ability. Within the short span of thirty-two years he travelled all over India, destroyed the unholy accretions and the other cults and established the Shanmatas on a proper footing. He was responsible for establishing the order of Sannyāsa and the institution of the Maṭhas which to this day have survived the onslaughts of time and change. As Dr Radhakrishnan so nicely puts it:

“Even those who do not agree with his general attitude of life, will not be reluctant to give him a place among the immortals”.