Shankaracharya and Ramana Maharshi (study)

by Maithili Vitthal Joshi | 2018 | 63,961 words

This page relates ‘Introduction’ of the comparative study of the philosophies of Shankaracharya (representing the Vedic tradition and Vedanta philosophy) and Ramana Maharshi (representing modern era). For Shankara (Achreya) his commentaries on the ten major Upanishads are studied, while for Ramana Maharshi his Ulladu Narpadu (the forty verses on Reality) is taken into consideration.

Chapter 1 - Introduction

India has a rich tradition of philosophical speculations having its roots in the ancient Upaniṣads. Indian philosophical systems, also known as darśanas, are broadly divided into two groups. The āstika darśanas accept the testimony of the Vedas, whereas the nāstika darśanas deny the validity of the Vedas. The Uttara-mīmāṃsā or the Vedāntas ystem is counted in six āstika darśanas. It is based on prasthānatrayī viz. the triple canon of the Vedānta, which includes the Upaniṣads, the Brahmasūtras and the Bhagavad-gītā. These ancient texts have been interpreted in various ways by the great commentators, such as Śaṅkarācārya, Rāmānujācārya, Madhvācārya and so on. Hence, various sub-streams arose in the Vedānta-philosophy, such as Kevala-advaita, Viśiṣṭa-advaita, Dvaita etc. The stream propagating the thought of absolute monism is known as Kevala-advaita-vedānta-philosophy. The tenets of this philosophy are clearly found in the Upaniṣadic sentences. But, this philosophy became popular as a system of thought throughout India from the period of Ādi Śaṅkarācārya. Before Śaṅkarācārya, Gaḍapādācārya, the grand-teacher of Śaṅkarācārya, wrote kārikās (verses) on the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad. He, therein, expounded the doctrine of Kevalaadvaita, or specifically speaking the Ajāti-vāda (theory of non-origination) using his dialectical skills. Later on this doctrine has been successfully maintained and enriched by various great scholars through their argumentative expositions. In a similar way, various enlightened speculators have explored the principles of this philosophy through their valuable teachings. Ramaṇa Maharṣi, a well-known sage of Arunachala in Tamil Nadu, is one of such great thinkers of Kevala-advaita-vedānta philosophy. In this dissertation, an attempt is made to present a comparative study of the philosophy of Śaṅkarācārya and Ramaṇa Maharṣi.

Ādi Śaṅkarācārya is well-known for his outstanding mission of reforming the Vedic religion and exploring the Kevala-advaita-vedānta philosophy. There is a controversy among the scholars about determining his date. Some traditional treatises decide his date before the Christ, whereas the modern scholars believe that Śaṅkarācārya lived between 788 A.D. and 820 A.D. One can get acquainted with the major life-events of Śaṅkarācārya from the Śaṅkara-vijayas, the treatises narrating the historical events of Śaṅkarācārya, and also from the literary records available in the chief maṭhas (monasteries). The tradition holds that Śaṅkarācārya was the avatāra (incarnation) of lord Śiva. He was born in Kaladi to Śivaguru and Āryāmbā. He completed the study of the Vedas and the Vedāṅgas within a very short period. He was initiated into Sannyāsa (monastic life) in the eighth year of his age by Govinda Bhagavatpāda. His grand preceptor was Gauḍapādācārya. Śaṅkarācārya wrote the scholastic and lucid commentary on the Brahmasūtras, probably, in Benares. Afterwards, he completed the commentaries on the Upaniṣads and the Bhagavad-gītā as well. Therein, he maintained the philosophy of absolute monism in a rational way. He did not oppose the rituals in the Vedas, but proved the supremacy of the knowledge over and above these rituals. He travelled all over India restoring the glory of the Vedic religion. He refuted the non-vedic philosophies such as Buddhism,

Jainism etc. in the debates and saved the principles explored in the Upaniṣads from the attacks of the non-vedic streams. Similarly, he rebutted the thoughts that were held by the āstika-darśanas, but not in agreement with the Vedas. He unified various sects spreading all over India using manifold ways, such as popularization of the Pañcāyatana worship etc. and thus maintained the religious and spiritual integrity of India. He stopped some sects, such as Tāntrikas, Kāpālikas etc. from doing the evil rituals, which caused to spoil the Vedic tradition. And, in this way, he strengthened the tradition of the Vedas. He ascended the sarvajña-pīṭha in Kashmir, which could be ascended only by the knower of all the disciplines of knowledge. He organized the sannyāsins and established four maṭhas in four corners of India to spread the teachings of the Vedas. Thus, within a short lifespan of 32 years, he restored the Vedic culture to its earlier pristine position and ended his avatāra probably in Kashmir.

Śaṅkarācārya is credited with several works. He wrote the commentaries on the prasthānatrayī. Apart from these great commentaries, it is accepted that he composed various devotional and philosophical stotras (poems), such as Saudarya-laharī, Dakṣiṇāmūrtistotra etc. Moreover, various prakaraṇa-granthas (auxiliary texts) such as Ātma-bodha, Upadeśa-sāhasrī, Viveka-cūḍāmaṇi etc. have been attributed to Śaṅkarācārya by the tradition. But, his authorship of some of these treatises is still in dispute. So, the philosophy of Śaṅkarācārya is thought over in this thesis on the basis of his commentaries, written on the ten major Upaniṣads, the Brahma-sūtras, the Bhagavad-gītā, and the Gauḍapāda-kārikās. The Motilal Banarsidass editions of these commentaries (Brahma-sūtra with Śāṅkara-bhāṣya: 2012, Śrīmadbhagavadgītā with Śāṅkara-bhāṣya: 2011, Īśādidaśopaniṣadaḥ with Śāṅkara-bhāṣya: 2007) are used for this dissertation.

Ramaṇa Maharṣi (30th December, 1879 to 14th April 1950) is known as one of the greatest sages in the modern era. He was born to Sundaram Ayyar and Alagammal in Tiruchuzhi, a village in Tamil Nadu. He was named Venkataraman. There was not any noticeable spiritual sign seen in him, till the beginning of 1896. He had not read the spiritual and the philosophical books, except some passages from the Bible and the Periya Puranam, in which the life-stories of sixty-three Tamil Saivite saints are narrated. In 1896, about middle of July, he faced a sudden fear of death while sitting alone in his uncle’s house. The fear made him introverted and he started to investigate the true nature of the individuality. He realized that the ‘I’ or pure Consciousness is deathless and it is different from the inert body. The result of this enquiry was the absorption of the notion of individuality in the supreme Self.[1] This experience of the supreme Self changed his life. After six weeks of this experience, he moved to Tiruvannamalai i.e. Arunachala and never left that place again. Till November 1922, he resided there mainly in the premises of Arunachaleswara’s temple and also in various caves of the hill of Arunachala. In earlier days in Tiruvannamalai, he was known by the name ‘Brahmana-swami’. It was Ganapati Muni, who first called him Ramaṇa Maharṣi. In December 1922, the Ramanasramam was founded at the southern side of the Arunachala hill and thenceforth Maharṣi lived there till the mahāsamādhi.

Ramaṇa Maharṣi had not formally studied any philosophical treatises before his experience of the Self. He read the philosophical doctrines, mainly when the visitors and devotees brought the particular books to him and asked their queries about the contents of these books.[2] Ramaṇa Maharṣi mostly taught through the silence. He instructed through the speech only when one was unable to understand his silence. He composed very few works. Even these works too were written by him mainly on the request of the devotees. He composed five hymns to Sri Arunachala Siva as well as other spiritual verses on various occasions. He wrote the Ulladu Narpadu i.e. the forty verses on Reality, in which one can find the essence of his philosophy. Various translations and commentaries have been written on these verses. For this dissertation, the Sanskrit rendering of these verses by Ganapati Muni is used. It is known as Saddarśanam and a Sanskrit commentary has been written on it by Kapali Sastry. After some period, other forty verses, some of which were composed by Maharṣi himself, were collected together as a supplement to the forty verses on Reality. Ramaṇa Maharṣi composed a small Tamil treatise ‘Upadesha Undiar’ as well. Later on he himself translated it into Sanskrit, Malayalam and Telugu languages. The Sanskrit rendering is known as Upadeśasāraḥ. The Sanskrit commentary by Ganapati Muni is available on this work. Additionally, Maharṣi wrote the remaining part of the treatise ‘Ramana Puranam’.

Apart from these works, one can get acquainted with the philosophical ideas of Ramaṇa Maharṣi by reading his conversations with the devotees. Such conversations were recorded carefully by some of his devotees at different times and many of them were checked and edited by Maharṣi himself along with necessary suggestions. Some of the treatises based on the conversations are as follows: Self-enquiry, Who am I?, Ramaṇa-gītā, Guru Vachaka Kovai, Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi, Day by Day with Bhagavan, Maharshi’s Gospel and Spiritual Instruction.[3] Additionally, the philosophical views of Ramaṇa Maharṣi can be assumed by his

translations and introductions of some treatises, such as Devikalottara, Viveka-cūḍāmani etc. and also from his compilation of some of the verses of Bhagavad-gītā in a specific order.

Intention behind the comparison:

Śaṅkarācārya represents Vedic tradition, whereas Ramaṇa Maharṣi represents modern era. Both of them viz. Śaṅkaracārya (8th century A.D.) and Ramaṇa Maharṣi (20th century A.D.) are renowned enlightened exponents of the Kevala-advaita-vedānta-philosophy. But, there is a big time-gap between them. The environment around them is found to be different due to such a time-gap. The impact of their personal viewpoints is also seen on their philosophical exposition. This dissertation will help to understand the characteristics of thoughts of both these giant personalities. In this dissertation, the philosophical views of Śaṅkarācārya and Ramaṇa Maharṣi are discussed and also compared to understand the philosophy of absolute monism in better perspective. Even today this philosophy occupies a significant place all over India. The principles of this philosophy have been spread in various regions of the rest of the world also. Therefore, it is relevant to study the contemporary position of this philosophy and its connection with its earlier position. This dissertation will give the idea of continuity in the Kevala-advaitavedānta-philosophy. In addition to this, it will be useful to understand the practical side of this philosophy.

The philosophy of Śaṅkarācārya has been thought over by various modern and traditional scholars. Similarly, the scholars of Vedānta philosophy and the devotees of Ramaṇa Maharṣi have written several treatises explaining the teachings of Maharṣi. Some of them have shown a connection of certain views of Ramaṇa Maharṣi with the writings of Śaṅkarācārya.[4] But nobody has compared their viewpoints thoroughly as a research work. There is no dissertation available on this subject. The present dissertation attempts to make a comparative study of the philosophy of Śaṅkarācārya and Ramaṇa Maharṣi in an analytical way. The principles of their philosophy will be delineated here.

The research methods used for this research work are: descriptive method, historical method, comparative method and analytical method.

General scheme of chapters:

The objective of the present dissertation is to discuss the way in which both Śaṅkarācārya and Ramaṇa Maharṣi explain the doctrine of Kevalaadvaita and also to study the similarities and the differences in their views. A very basic theme of the Kevala-advaita-vedānta-philosophy is the Reality of the Brahman, the falsity of the jagat and the intrinsic identity between the jīva and the Brahman. The viewpoints of Śaṅkarācārya and Ramaṇa Maharṣi regarding these three major philosophical concepts viz. jīva, jagat and Brahman are taken into consideration in this thesis. The practical side of the Kevala-advaitavedānta-philosophy is also essential as much as its theoretical side. So, in addition to these three concepts, the concept of mokṣa in viewpoint of both these philosophers is also discussed here.

In the second chapter of the thesis, the viewpoints of Śaṅkarācārya regarding jīva, jagat, Brahman and mokṣa are thought over. In the third chapter, the views of Ramaṇa Maharṣi regarding these four concepts are discussed. Each of these two chapters has four sections: Jīva, Jagat, Brahman and Mokṣa. The section Mokṣa contains two sub-sections: Types of Mokṣa and Means to Mokṣa. In the end of second and third chapters, a brief summary containing the general idea of that very chapter is written. The detailed conclusion is discussed in the fourth chapter. All the observations, based on the comparasion of the philosophy of Śaṅkarācārya and Ramaṇa Maharṣi, are delineated in this fourth chapter. An attempt is made here to show the impact of specific environment and the perspectives of these philosophers on their philosophical exposition. The select bibliography is provided at the end of the dissertation.

Footnotes and references:


Narasimha B. V. (2013: 17) has recorded Ramaṇa Maharṣi’s words about this experience of the Self as follows: “All this was not a mere intellectual process. All this flashed before me vividly as living truth, something which I perceived immediately, without any argument almost. ‘I’ was something very real, the only real thing in that state and all the conscious activity that was connected with my body was centred on that.”


Regarding this, Osborne A. (2014: 90) mentions Ramaṇa Maharṣi’s words as follows: “I did not yet know that there was an Essence or Impersonal Real underlying everything and that God and I were both identical with it. Later, at Tiruvannamalai, as I listened to the Ribhu Gita and other sacred books, I learnt all this and found that they were analysing and naming what I had felt intuitively without analysis or name.”


The dialogues along with their approximate recording period:


[Sad-darśana-bhāṣya of Kapali Sastry] - Bhūmikā (Even though Kapali Sastry says this, he does not explicitly mention the differences in the views of Śaṅkarācārya and Ramaṇa Maharṣi.) Mahadevan T. M. P. (1966: 55) writes, “That there is no difference whatsoever between the teachings of Bhagavatpada Shankara and those of Bhagavan Sri Ramana will be evident to anyone who has any acquaintance with the writings of these two Great Masters. Advaita experience is what they teach, and not any system of philosophy or school of thought.”

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: