Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The Philosophy of Sri Shankarachary

Prof. K. S. Murthy

The Philosophy of Sri Shankaracharya

Vice-Chairman, University Grants Commission.

Perhaps the earliest thinker to proclaim the integrity of India was Kautilya: This country is the land which extends north to south from the Himalayas to the sea and measures a thousand yojanas across and is the field of the Chakravarti. This idea never receded from Indian consciousness. It is reiterated often in the Puranas. Says the Vishnu Purana: North of the sea stretching upto the Hima­layas is the country that is Bharata, and all its people are Bharatiyas. Aware of the essential unity and basic common culture of this great country, Shankara was the first great thinker and spiritual leader to have made the whole of it his field of activity. Jawaharlal Nehru has, with remarkahle insight, noted that “Shankara, wanted to add to this sense of national unity and common consciousness”, “tried to bring about a greater unity of thought all over the country”, and “left such an impress of his powerful mind and rich personality on India that it is very evident today”.1

F. W. Thomas has divided “the history of Indian mentality” into three main periods: “1.The Vedic, or Aryan period, which witnessed the creation of the Indian man. 2. The period of maturity and organization. 3. The post-Shankara or Vedanta period”. 2 According to him, ‘the great success’ which Shankara’s ideas achieved was due to ‘their philosophic profundity’, and ‘the genius of their author’ as well as to ‘the very energetic personal propaganda’ with which he is credited. While Thomas also mentions ‘the political prestige’ of South India in Shankara’s time as a ‘subsidiary cause’, he consi­ders that the ‘main factor’ for their great success ‘may have been the attention attracted afresh to the Upanishads themselves’. “The conditions under which the advaita of Shankara triumphed”, this Indologist comments, “suffices to prove that it did not flourish as a doctrine of pessimism, a consolation for political downfall or individual disappointment and lack of interest in life”.3 “The immense literature” to which Shankara’s philosophy gave birth and “the even more extensive literature” which it influenced, justifies theage that followed Shankara being called the “Vedanta period”. Thomas emphasizes two points: (1) “The fact that the Vedanta domination arose at a time of South Indian prosperity and prestige shows that it did not flourish as a consolatory or pessimistic faith, but as a triumph of thought”. (2) Thereafter Vedanta was supreme and “much adored by all active religions”, and its idea is implied in all subsequent literature.4 He is right when he says its doctrine “is essentially a world idea, not linked to a particular people or to any theory of a divinely ordered state”. 5

The Advaita Vedanta of Shankara, writes Heinrioh Zimmer, is “the typical and best-known philosophy of India”6and, for A. L. Basham, it is “the standard philosophy of intellectual Hinduism to thisday”.7 “It is”, Nehru asserts, “this philosophy which represents the dominant philosophic outlook of Hinduism today”. This is borne out by the following facts.

The thought of Rammohan Roy who ushered in the modern epoch in India was firmly rooted in the Vedanta. For him Vedanta was the highest philosophical peak reached by Indian thought, and Vedanta as interpreted by “the celebrated Shankaracharya” con­tained its authentic exposition. He abridged and rendered into Bengali and English Shankara’s commentaries on some Upanishads and Brahmasutras. He sought to propound ‘Vedantapratipadya Dharma’, and wrote an “Abridgement of the Vedanta or Vedanta­sar”. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the father of the Indian liberation movement, by his commentary on the Gita made it thescripture of modern India, drawing forth from it an ethic and a social and politi­cal message, capable of rejuvenating Hindu society. His metaphysics was that of Shankara.8 Vivekananda, who created “a sense of community among the Hindus”, which in turn” gave Indian nation­alism its dynamism and ultimately enabled it to weld at least the major part of India into one State”.9 was an Advaita Vedantin. On the basis of Advaita Vedanta he tried to develop a world-view in harmony with logic, experience and science. In his own way Ramatirtha attempted to develop Advaita Vedanta in a way relevant to the contemporary world. The essence of Vivekananda’s message is that: (a) in all the millions of men, from the Rajah to the labourer and the priest to the pariah, “God Liveth”, and (b) the knowledge which delivers man from all fear and weakness is “the mighty Vedantic So-ham (I AM HE). 10 Rahindranath Tagore conceived of ‘Advaitam’ as an absolute unity of harmony and bliss, the Infinite One Who is Infinite Love, the Self Unborn beyond space, and yet this person, the real Man, Who is Brahman. Mahatma Gandhi claimed to be an Advaitin, and many times spoke of the unity of life, and the soul being one in all. 11 Vinoba Bhave was much influenced by Advaita Vedanta, and it was a passage in Shankara’s Upanishad Bhashya which led him to conceive of Bhudan and Sampattidan. Jawaharlal Nehru’s fascination for Advaita Vedanta and his plea that its outlook should influence our develop­mental process is well-known. 12 Vedanta did have some influence on Indira Gandhi’s attitude to life, and she held that the colonial restrictions, feudal system and the old caste system were opposed to the “broader Vedantic view”. 13 Her greatest historical hero, she stated, was Shankaracharya. Thus a number of the leaders of our national liberation movement as well as some who shaped contemporary India owed much to the philosophy of Shankaracharya.


In the Upanishads we find that access to sublime saving know­ledge is considered possible for all, including brammanas and kshatriyas, young celibates, householders and old anachorites, sons of maid­servants with unidentifiable fathers, affluent shudra chiefs, and wanderers who had no occupation. One of the Brahmasutras states that all men are entitled to Vedic study, implying that through it they may know the sublime saving truth, if they are ethically quali­fied – their martial status, occupation etc., being immaterial for this. 14  Some great ancient Mimamsa-Vedanta teachers (e.g. Badari) mentioned in the Sutras on Mimamsa- Vedanta asserted the right of all, including shudras, even to Vedic rituals.15 On the other hand, a number of Sutras reserved for the three upper classes the exclu­sive right to study the Veda, perform the rituals described in it and understand the highest truth conveyed in it.16 Some Dharmashastras and Brahmasutras laid down the necessity of going through all the life stages and performing rituals, before taking up the study of Vedanta and turning one’s mind to final release. 17 So, according to orthodoxy, only the highly born who had a right to study the Veda could perform rituals prescribed in it and later acquire the sublime saving knowledge contained in it. Transcendental truth, it considered, is a monopoly of the higher castes.

In this matter Shankara wrought a revolution. Vedic rituals are necessary, he said, only for those who sought their fruits, and those who had the desire and competence for them may perform them. Those who are not interested in obtaining the promised fruits of rituals may abandon them. It is sufficient if everyone discharges his duties and leads an ethical life; and ‘one’ may give up duties too if one gets tired of them because of acquiring (a) discrimination between the eternal and the evanescent and (b) detach­ment from the worldly and other-worldly goods, (c) Cultivation of sense-control, mental concentration, withdrawal from external objects, tolerance of suffering and misfortune, equipoise and faith, and (d) yearning for emanicipation. Such a one may utilise all his time in Vedantic Chintana. Chastity, Ahimsa, Tapas, speaking truth, sense control and mental concentration too, Shankara argues, are actions; moreover, they are pure actions as are others like Dhyana and Dharana: which can and ought to be practised by men of all castes and occupations, especially, as they are helpful for gene­ration of saving knowledge. So, he concludes, all have a light to highest knowledge: Caste and occupation are not criteria for Brahmavidya.

Shankara himself did not go through the four life-stages, in his childhood itself he took Sannyasa. As a Sannyasi, in deference to his mother’s wishes, he performed her funeral rites, defying shastraic prohibitions. For going from the celibate state straight into the state of a recluse the authority of a very late Upanishad could be cited, but for a recluse cremating his mother there is no shastraic sanction. In this lies Shankara’s boldness in flouting irra­tional taboos and conventions, and his wisdom in giving importance to reason and humane values.

This may also be the place for giving some details about the traumatic but creatively transforming incident in his life mentioned in his biographies. In Kashi on an occasion while Shankara, accom­panied by his disciples, was going towards the Ganga for a holy bath and prayers, he saw a paraiah with ferocious dogs coming across his path and shouted to him: Move away! Move away! But the paraiah replied:

When hundreds of Upanishadic texts speak about the unique, pure, relationless, indivisible One Reality of the nature of truth, awareness and happiness (satyabodh-asukharupamakhandam), your imagining difference is surprising. Some wear dress of recluses and act like them; without any real knowledge they deceive householders. When you shouted “Move away”, were you addres­sing the body or the self? All bodies are made of food, they are all material, and do not differ from one another. As for the inner witness Self, how is the consideration of its difference in a pariah and a brahmana appropriate? As there is no difference in the sun’s reflections in the divine Ganga and toddy, so there is none among the One Self’s reflections in various bodies. Neglecting the one perfect, eternal and, bodyless Person in all the bodies, why this false apprehension, “I am a pure brahman. O Dog-eater, get away”?

Surprised and deeply shaken, Shankara immediately recognised the truth of this and replied: “O you best among the embodied, you have but asserted what is Truth. So because of the words of you who are the knower of the Self. I am at once abandoning the notion “this is an outcaste”.

Shankara at once broke forth into five verses, each ending with: “he who has such steadfast insight is my Guru, whether he be an outcaste or a brahmana. This is my firm understanding.

The first verse, for example, says: “I am the Awareness (Samvit) which clearly shines forth in waking dream and witnesses the world, –and not the thing seen. He who has such steadfast insight is my Guru…..” The other verses reiterate the truth of Unity in different ways. According to the story, while Shankara was thus rhapsodising about Oneness, he was blessed with a vision of Siva in the untouchable and his four dogs appeared to him as the four Vedas. Shankara’s encounter with the chandala must have been as ‘creative’ as the Maritzburg experience was for Mahatma Gandhi.

In his Bhashya on the Brahmasutras which exclude shudras from access to the supreme liberating knowledge in the Veda, Shan­kara cites the cases of Vidura and the righteous butcher of the Mahabharata and explains: “As in them there was generation of sublime knowledge due to the impressions of their past actions (puravakritasamskara), their attaining the fruit of it cannot be prohi­bited or prevented. Knowledge must culminate in its fruit. Further, according to the smritis, the four castes have a right of access to Itihasa-Puranas; so through them they can attain the highest know­ledge, but not through the Veda18: Such was Shankara’s conclu­sion, which in fact, makes the prohibition of Vedic study for sudras ridiculous, for they may get the very same knowledge from other sources!

Tradition has preserved an instance of Shankara actually reduc­ing this prohibition to absurdity. Once during his extensive travels through the country, in a village he came across an outcaste leper in a pitiable state, but with the Sadhana-sampatti mentioned above. To free him from transmigration, tradition avers, Shankara composed for him a sloka in the form of question and answer19, which was nothing but a faithful echo of Yajnavalkya-Janaka dialogue of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (IV.3.1.ff)

“What is your Ligiht? The sun during the day and lamps, etc. during the night. Let it be so, but tell me what is the Light that beholds (cognises) the sun, moon, etc., as shining? That is my eye. And, when it is closed, what beholds them? My mind (reason). What is that beholds (cognises) your mind? “I”. So, you are the supreme Light. That I AM, my Master”.

Hearing this the outcaste leper, according to tradition, forthwith became a Brahmajnani (Knower of the Absolute) and had a vision of Truth!

This was an ingenious way of circumventing superstitious ortho­doxy. If one wishes to enlighten those whom orthodoxy does not permit to hear the holy texts, let one express their meaning in other words. A quiet peaceful revolution, indeed! No other great Vedantic teacher of medieval India who commented on the Brahma­sutra showed such liberalism and humanism. Shankara was, indeed, a most compassionate Brahmajnani (Karunalaya).


Shankara gave the greatest importance to self-effort and self-­enquiry culminating in personal experience of Truth. One does need a Guru to show one how to proceed on the path to the spiritual goal. As the Upanishad says, a man blindfolded and brought from Gandhara to a solitary place in, say, madhya-desa and left there needs someone to free him and direct him as to how to go to his own place; and then going from village to village in due course he reaches his destination. In the same way, the passage says, one who has an Acharya knows the Real. But Shankara enjoins that one should not rest content for ever relying on What the teacher taught; the nature of the Real must be known by oneself very clearly and directly. Moreover, a true teacher, according to him, “creates in the disciple his own same­ness” (i.e. makes him exactly equal to himself)20 Shankara empha­sizes that without enquiry, by no other means (such as rituals or worship) will knowledge be generated. Intense intellectual effort preceded by rigorous moral discipline resulting in the purification of the mind is indispensable for direct Advaitic knowledge.

Anubhava or integral experience in which Brahman is known as one’s self is, in other words, the realisation of oneself as Brah­man. The means for this is the ‘hearing’ of the Upanishadic Mahavakya. As soon as an individual self knows that he is in fact Brahman, he becomes Brahman, and such realisation is anubhava: that is liberation itself. Just as a prince kidnapped by robbers in his childhood does not know that he is a prince, but realises him­self to be a prince as soon as he is told, an individual realizes himself to be Brahman as soon as he hearkens to the Mahavakya. Whether a man has knowledge of Brahman is to be judged by his own heart’s conviction alone. Anubhava is the assured conviction, the clear undoubted awareness that one is Brahman, generated by Vedantic sentences. 21

There is no inferential proof for Brahman. Shankara’s school has criticized theological proofs, showing they cannot give any cer­tain knowledge. But arguments showing the probability of Advaita being truth can be formulated, and arguments against it can be demolished. Sense-perception is impossible in the case of Brah­man, nor can yogic intuition independently apprehend the oneness of the Self. Only the ‘hearing’ of Vedantic sentences, meditation on them and contemplation of their meaning results in Sakshatkara (‘vision’ of Brahman).22 This is Shankara’s standpoint. “Only when scripture and rational arguments join together to throw light on the Oneness of the Self, they can show it as clearly as a bael fruit in one’s palm” 23


Shankara emphasizes that “even a hundred scriptural texts do not become valid if they say fire is cold or does not give light; for no one can cognise anything opposed to what is seen”. 24 Advaita Vedanta is not opposed to empirical experience, history and science; nor does it need confirmation by them. Vedantic sen­tences and one’s own experience: these only are the Pramanas for the truth of Advaita. 25

As the Gita points out, those for whom duality has been destroyed (Chinnadvaidhah) and who have become equalminded (samabaddhayah), will be engaged in the welfare of the world. 26 The great men who have won Peace, says Shankara, work for the world’s welfare. Humility and non-hatred constitute the very nature of a Brahmajnani, who would be an ethical personality of a high order.27

According to Erwin Schrodinger, the Upanishadic Doctrine of Identity has an ethical dimension, that of Equality. It provides, he thought, the only adequate and satisfying basis for an ethics of altruism and unselfishness. 28

May the Mahotsava of Bhagavatpada Shankaracharya’s Jayanti result in a sincere quest for Real Identity on the part of all of us.


1 Discovery of India pp. 191, 190
2 Indianism and its Expansion, Calcutta, 1942, p. 7.
3 Op. cit.. pp. 48-9.
4 Ibid., p. 53 & 50.
5Ibid., p. 53.
6 Philosophies of India, New York, 1953, p. 460.
7 The Wonder that was India, London, 1985, p. 328.
8 Satchidananda Murty, Indian Philosophy since. 1498, Andhra University, Waltair, 1982, pp. 36-44.
9 K. M. Panikkar, quoted in Murty, op. cit., p.39.
10 Quitting Aurobindo, S. M. Banerjee, Vedanta As a School Force, Calcutta, 1972, pp. 46-47.
11 Murty, loc. cit., p. 66.
12  “In considering these economic aspects of our problems, ….. perhaps we might also keep in view the old Vedantic ideal of the life force which is the inner base of everything that exists”, Nehru, “The Basic Approach” in The Economic Review, quoted in Imprint, Vol. I, no. 7, Oct. 1961, Bombay.
13 N. S. Bose, Indira Gandhi all Herself & Her Times, Calcutta. 1987, pp. 54, 55.
14 Brahmasutra. I. 3 25 : Sutra, III. 4. 36-8.
15 Mimamsasutra, VI. 1.70:
16 Mimamsasutra, VI. 1.25-28.
17 Manusmriti, V. 35-7. Brahmasutra. III. 4.26, 32-4: IV. 1.16.
18 Brahmasutrabhashya, 1. 3.9.38
19 R. Thangaswamy, Advaita-Vedanta Literature, A. Bibliographical Survey, Madras, 1980, p. 216. M. Venkalarama Shastri, Vedanta Sarvasvamu (Telugu), Hyderabad, 1981, pp. 103-105.
20 Satassloki, 1
21 For details regarding “Anubhava” and references: K. Satchidananda Murty. Revelation & Reason on Advaita Vedanta, Reprint. New Delhi, 1974, pp. 112 ff.
22 Ibid., Chapters on ‘Yogic Intuition’, ‘Reason’ & ‘Reason & Scripture’.
23 Brihadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya, Ill. 1.1
24 Gitabhashya, XVIII. 67. Brihadaranyakabhashya, 1.4.10.
25 On this, see ‘D’in K. Satchidananda Murty. The Advaitic Nation, Sringeri, 1985.
26 V. 25 XII. 4.
27 Naishkarmyasiddhi, IV. 69, 62-7.
28 My View of the World, Cambridge, Mass., USA. 1964.

(Inauguration Address, Rashtriya Sri Shankaracharya Mahotsava. New Delhi, April 21, 1988)

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