[Advaita-l] An article on Sri Sankara and Advaita Vedanta

Krunal Makwana makwanakb at googlemail.com
Wed Jun 15 06:43:48 CDT 2011

Jai Sri Krsna

Namaste All,

I've recently written an academic journal type article on our beloved
acharya which I've pasted below. My humble request is to critique if and
when the scholars of this list can. Please keep in mind as i've written it
from an academic view point, so my devotional emotions do not and cannot
translate on to this. I intend to also write three other articles on
ramanuja, vallabha and madhva but as Ad- Shankara is the closest to my
heart, i thought i'd start with him :)


Advaita Vedanta – The philosophical school of non-dualism

The life of Shankaracharya
Adi Shankaracharya, the main exponent of the philosophy was born in Kerala
in a small village of Kaladi to a Nambudiri Brahmin family. The precise year
of his birth unfortunately cannot be established as numerous conflicting
evidences have been given, however the popular belief held by western
academia is around 788 A.D – 820 A.D.

According to traditional narrations, he was given as a blessing from Lord
Shiva to his parents, Shivaguru and Aryamaba. They in turn in appreciation
and reverence named him Shankara.

Shankara at a young age showed exceptional ability in studying the Vedas and
Sanskrit grammar, unfortunately Shivaguru, his father passed away whilst he
was only three. This event left an impression in Shankara’s mind in studying
the deeper spiritual nuances and was convinced to do so he must take
renunciation. Although his mother Aryamba was reluctant to give permission,
traditional narrations state she granted the request when she saw him being
attacked by a crocodile and Shankara advised his mother that either he would
die by the attack or survive if permission to take renunciation was granted.

Shankara was granted permission at the age of eight and had left home in
search of a spiritual teacher. Shankara was then accepted by Govinda
bhagavadpadacharya as a disciple and was formally ordained as a renunciate
named Shankaracharya. Under the tutelage and request of Govinda
bhagavadpada, Shankaracharya gained the philosophical and metaphysical
stance of advaita and wrote commentaries on the canonical Vedic treatises
which he completed by the age of sixteen. Being pleased with the works, his
master requested Shankara to propagate the Vedas as the supreme authority
and establish Advaita Vedanta against the nastika philosophies prevalent at
the time .

Between the ages of sixteen and thirty two, Shankaracharya started giving
discourses on Vedanta, partook in debate, religious congregations and
re-established sacred temples. Whilst writing other philosophical treatises
and composing many devotional hymns in praise of God, he established four
monasteries  around India instructing his direct disciples to undertake and

Late in Shankaracharya’s life he was given the seat of ‘All-Knowledge’ and
conferred the title of world teacher. At the age of thirty two it is
believed that Shankaracharya retired to Kedarnath and left the mortal world.

The Philosophy of Advaita Vedanta

Although Advaita Vedanta recognises the exhaustive collection of Vedic
scriptures, it mainly derives its fundamental philosophy from the
Upanishads. The Upanishads provide Advaita the platform to discuss from the
onset the metaphysical subtleties of existence with heed mainly given to
knowledge and experience rather than a devotional theme.

Shankara seldom used quotes from the puranas or itihaasa although his self
composed works and hymns do provide evidence that he was well versed in the
various smriti and puranic texts he rather relied on the canonical
scriptures for his evidence.

In total Shankara commented on the eleven main Upanishads. He used the
Upanishads mainly to enforce the supremacy of a divine entity and mainly
focused on explaining and establishing the Vedas as the complete infallible
and authoritative scriptures which indicate the highest level of

The idea of Brahman being devoid of attributes was initially presented here
and then later formalised in later commentaries. As the philosophy of the
Upanishads is very subtle in nature, it suited Shankara’s style of
philosophical thought though on one had it introduced the idea of a supreme
entity on the other it prevented him from formalising a definitive school of
thought .

Brahma Sutras
Although numerous commentaries had been written prior to Shankara on the
Brahma sutras, the ‘Saririka Bhashya’ of Shankaracharya, unlike the
Upanishads established the doctrine and formalisation of Advaita Vedanta.
The commentary initially introduced the fundamental ideas of
superimposition, pre-requisites for spirituality and later clarified the
stance of Advaita against other philosophies.

Bhagavad Gita
Amongst the vast literature of philosophical treaties within the Mahabharata
and other various Vedic treatises, Shankara was the first exponent to
establish the Bhagavad-Gita as an independent work which he proposed as
requiring much attention, and as such wrote the first commentary on the

Although the Bhagavad Gita differs greatly in style and is a later addition
in contrast to the Upanishads and Brahma sutras, Shankara attempts to
synthesise the deep philosophical purports of the earlier texts with the
devotional and practical ideas of the Bhagavad Gita. The idea of a personal
God, which was initially a foreign concept, appears to play a role, be it
only as a secondary role. Shankara uses the words of Krsna to establish both
a personal God and a state of realisation.

Other works
Apart from the fundamental treatises to establish the Advaita Vedanta,
Shankara authored more than thirty philosophical works and sixty four
devotional hymns in praise of many deities.

Supreme Divinity
According to Advaita, the idea of an Omni-present, omniscient, Omni-potent,
attributeless cosmic consciousness introduced in the Upanishads is the
ultimate divinity, Brahman. Brahman for Shankara is impersonal, without
name, form, gender and cannot be categorised or described by language as
this would inherently limit Brahman to a specific attribute.  However being
so, Shankara describes the nature of Brahman as being existence,
consciousness and infinite .

For Shankara the only permanent reality is Brahman and categorically states
that all else outside of Brahman is a relative impermanent reality. Within
relative reality however Shankara does accept that a supreme personal being
does exist for the creation, sustenance and destruction of material
existence, nonetheless only in a limited capacity.

Although Shankara advocates the highest precedence to an impersonal spirit,
he does acknowledge that obtaining direct realisation of Brahman is arduous
and suggests initially that attention to be focused on a favoured personal
deity  with gradual progression to impersonal Brahman.

Individual Soul
Shankara explains that the individual soul and Brahman are non-different;
his explanation is based on the basis of Upanishads which declare that
Brahman is eternal, changeless and indivisible hence cannot undergo any
modification or be divided into fragments. If Brahman be divided into
fragments he states Brahman would be dependent on all souls created for its
own existence and hence making Brahman fallible .

For this reason Shankara interprets all Upanishadic statements which speak
of a duality between Brahman and the Soul as merely an appearance rather
than a realistic fact.

According to Shankara, there are three levels of reality:

Absolute Reality – Paramarthika satyam: Here only Brahman exists with no
reference to material existence or individual souls. At this stage the
individual soul has lost complete identity with the body, mind, and
intellect complex and completely merged into Brahman.

Empirical Reality – Vyavaharika satyam: This forms the higher level of
relative reality, here the false notion of material creation, the body, mind
and intellect complex and the conception of being an individual soul are
portrayed as an actual reality due to the ignorance of perception. In
summary empirical reality constitutes the common world experience of

Subjective Reality – Pratibhasika satyam: This forms the lower level of
relative reality; here erroneous perceptions which appear to be real within
material existence are perceived. This seeming reality of the mirage-water
or rope-snake is corrected in empirical reality and does not require
realisation of Brahman for resolution.

For Shankara the only reason we perceive material creation and identify with
the body is due to ignorance of not knowing ourselves as Brahman. Therefore
he only advocates that correct knowledge of Brahman leads to liberation.
Although Shankara appreciates Bhakti and Karma as methods to attain the
knowledge he does not directly link them to liberation as only knowledge is
opposed to ignorance.

Furthering his philosophy, as Shankara identifies the Atman is ultimately
Brahman, he purports that Liberation need not be achieved but realised,
hence claiming that realisation is a by-product of knowledge rather than a

More information about the Advaita-l mailing list