[Advaita-l] Sri Shankara Jayanthi - 18th May 2010

V Subrahmanian v.subrahmanian at gmail.com
Thu May 13 19:26:23 CDT 2010

भव शंकरदेशिक मे शरणम्


*An article on Acharya Shankara Bhagavatpada*

Namaste Advaitins:

An article on Acharya Shankara published in The Hindu of 2nd May, 2004 is
reproduced here.
With warm regards,


Saint as philosopher

At a time when Hinduism is going through unprecedented convulsions and
its past is being appropriated for political ends, understanding the
contribution of Sankara is of profound importance, writes K.N. PANIKKAR.
NO other religious thinker and philosopher of India has been as much at the
centre of intellectual and religious attention as Sankara. His contribution
the philosophical and religious realms are such that those who followed him
could not but take cognisance of his ideas, either in contestation or in
approval. The Indian religious and philosophical traditions have been
continuously enriched by the debates, interpretations and commentaries,
drew upon his erudition. Despite this continuous scholarly engagement, given
complex character of his contribution, there are still several grey areas,
deserve exploration and interpretation, if the real import of his
is to be holistically understood.
It is not surprising that around the life of an inspired genius like Sankara
who achieved so much within such a short period of time several myths and
legends have evolved. This raises an important question about how to study
life of a religious ascetic. The biographical literature is not a highly
genre in India, more so about religious leaders and thinkers, as the details
their life are more often enmeshed in what the devotees and followers
up, generally from imagination and, indeed, as a part of deification.
life is no exception. Except a bare outline of his life, almost everything
appears to be uncertain, be it the date of his birth or the number of works
has authored.
A fairly large corpus of literature exists on how to reconstruct and
the life and work of religious saints, employing the methods of mythology,
history, anthropology, linguistics and psychoanalysis. In an interesting
on the life of Sankara, David Lorenzen has tried to locate his life in a
religious and philosophical context. An important aspect of his essay is a
variety of questions he raises about several legends surrounding the life of
Sankara. A rereading of these legends on the lines on which he suggests is
likely to yield considerable insight. The birth myths of supernatural heroes
have been a subject of considerable interest to psychoanalysts. One of them,
Otto Rank, has identified features which are common to birth-related myths
over the world. Although Indian myths are not part of his study, they too
the common features identified by him in other myths. The legend about the
of Sankara, who according to tradition was an incarnation of
Shiva, which accounts for the miracles he performed as well as for his
intellectual accomplishments also fall within the same paradigm. The myths
legends in which Sankara's life is now submerged would perhaps never be
unravelled, as it is futile to look for historical facts in legends or to
them as historically true. Yet, since myths and legends do represent
though in an illusory manner, they deserve to be carefully dissected. The
meaning of the legends of Sankara has been variously interpreted; most of
enclosed within a religious perspective tend to be legitimatory rather than
explanatory. Subjecting them to a theoretically informed analysis might help
illumine the process by which he arrived at his intellectual position. After
we do not have the life of Sankara as the focus of a similar study as of
by the famous psychoanalyst, Eric Ericson.
In this context the formative influences on Sankara is an area, which can be
approached from a holistic perspective. At present the understanding of the
making of Sankara as a philosopher and religious saint is influenced more by
supernatural than by the analytic. Any academic exercise to probe other
dimensions and to locate him within a broader context, both intellectual and
religious, is therefore likely to have many skeptics. Yet no serious attempt
assess the contribution of such an outstanding intellect as Sankara is
without looking beyond the belief, however difficult it is. Madhava's
Sankaradigvijayam, considered the most important of the hagiographies, has
traced his intellectual development as follows:
In his first year Sankara mastered his mother tongue and to read letters. In
his second he could read and was able to intuitively understand recited
texts. By his third year he was reciting the Vedas, teaching his fellow
and defeating in debate adults. Sometime in his third year his father died.
After Sankara has been consecrated for a full year, his mother with the aid
her kinsmen, had him invested with the sacred thread. This took place in his
fifth year. By this time he had mastered everything his teacher could teach
including the Vedas and their six auxiliary subjects, analytical philosophy,
Sankhya and Mimamsa. He had also intuitively grasped the truth of Advaita.
In grasping the truth of Advaita Vedanta "intuitively", as Madhava suggests,
the existing knowledge in the field could not but have an influence over
Through his teacher Govinda who was a disciple of Gaudapada, "the first
systematic exponent of the Advaita Vedanta", Sankara was privy to the extant
discourse. How he turned that into a system of interpretation and
through commentaries and debates would ever remain a curiosity for
historians. What Prof. Belvalkar termed as "philosophical despair" about the
lack of his biographical detail may as well apply to this field. The process
this intellectual engagement and its consequences have been appropriated by
many, as suggested by Prof. G.C. Pandey. "... The medieval legend of
obscures and distorts his original history through the lavish exercise of a
mythical imagination used for the purpose of authenticating and popularising
influence of many medieval monastic institutions claiming to
derive their several traditions from Sankarachaya. This apparently required,
among other things, the projecting of a god like image of Sankara who
miracles freely and is regarded as a divine incarnation with a mission.
from the haze of exaggerations and miracles, it was also apparently felt
necessary by some to invest Sankara with a hoary antiquity which would defy
ordinary historical proof."
It may be argued that Sankara lived in an age of historical and religious
and the real import of his contribution lies in his success in giving a new
direction and epistemological foundation to the latter by emphasising that
jnana, or knowledge of the supreme spirit, as the chief end of man's
By then Buddhism was on the decline, killed as is said, by a fraternal
of Brahminism. The latter silently assimilated many Buddhist practices,
"condemned animal sacrifices, accepted Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu, and
absorbed the best elements of the Buddhist faith". Buddhism had exercised a
profound influence on Sankara's mind to the extent that the tradition
opposed to
Sankara holds that he is a Buddhist in disguise and his mayavada but
crypto-Buddhism. The influence of other religious systems on Sankara is not
pronounced, a point, however, is a matter of controversy among scholars. At
rate it was a critical period in the history of Hindu religion in
India when as Radhakrishnan has remarked, there was a general wariness with
wrangling sects. Sankara sought to give a common basis by stretching the old
moulds without breaking them and thus arose his philosophy of Advaita
Strongly opposed to any ceremonial piety Sankara imparted a sense of
unity through his interpretations of religious sources. The very tenor of
thought demarcated him from popular Hinduism, which was gaining ground at
time. It is arguable that Sankara's highly intellectualised interpretation
an antidote to the popular Hinduism of the times. Yet it was limited in its
social reach. Vivekanda has recognised this limitation: "Vedanta is too
abstruse, too elevated to be the religion of the masses. Even in India, its
birthplace, where it has been ruling supreme for the last 3,000 years, it
not been able to permeate the masses. As we go on we shall find that it is
difficult for even the most thoughtful man and woman in any country
to understand Advaitism."
What the later society made of Sankara's philosophy not only reflects its
highly abstract character and thus a limited reach but also its socially
appeal. Many see the Bhakti Movement, which gave a new synthetic credo to
popular Hinduism, as a counter to the religious path chalked out by Sankara.
then the Bhakti movement itself is not homogeneous but heterogeneous in its
religious and philosophical outlook. The Saguna Bhaktas like Chaitanya,
Tulsidas, Surdas and Mirabai and several others believed in a personal god
salvation through Bhakti. On the other hand the Nirguna Bhaktas like Kabir
Nanak upheld the monistic view of the ultimate reality and the importance of
jnana and thus were closer to the ideas of Sankara. However, a large number
heterodox sects which flourished in different parts of the country were
the influence of Sankara's philosophy, indicating thereby how differentiated
religious practices were among the Hindus. Yet, it is
worthwhile to enquire whether the influence of Advaita transgressed the
circle. The vast corpus of religious literature in regional languages which
not been adequately studied can provide interesting insights into how
ideas percolated into different strata of society. It might also reflect
the hegemonising character of Sankara's ideas.
Would it be correct to say that Advaita had a social reincarnation in the
century when the social and religious reformers were seeking a philosophy as
aid to unification and homogenisation of Hinduism? Most of them saw Advaita
as a
powerful ideological system, which can effectively undermine social
and legitimise the idea of religious universalism. One of the early writings
Rammohun Roy was the translation of an Abrigdement of the Vedanta. He also
defended Vedanta against the criticism advanced by the Christian
Afterwards almost all reformers of this period invoked Vedanta for the
they were trying to undertake. Keshab Chandra Sen's notion of universalism
rooted in his conception of Advaita. Vivekananda saw it as the future
of the world. In Kerala both Narayana Guru and Chatambi Swamikal made it the
basis of their reform efforts. Thus advaita reemerged in the 19th Century as
powerful force for the unification of Hinduism as
well as for imparting to it a higher philosophical foundation. That it was
the inspiration for the purification of religious practices is an important
factor. The Vedanta thus played a dual role in modern times: a philosophical
foundation for the homogenisation of Hindus on the one hand and the
of Hinduism on the other.
Much has been written on Sankara and much more will be written, as one
philosopher has observed, "The doctrine advocated by Sankara is from a
philosophical point of view, and apart from all theological considerations
most important and interesting one which has arisen on Indian soil."
It is indeed not possible to separate the philosopher from the religious
saint. But the religious character of such remarkable men tends to be
foregrounded and appropriated in every age. Therefore at a time when
Hinduism is
going through unprecedented convulsions and its past being appropriated for
political ends, how we understand the contribution of Sree Sankara is bound
have profound importance.

The writer is the Vice Chancellor of the Sri Sankaracharya University, Kochi

शम्भोर्मूर्तिश्चरति भुवने शंकराचार्यरूपा

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