Is our current
understanding of Shankara contaminated by the ambitions of his
not-so-intellectual followers who relish the idea of domination?
credit: Raja Ravi Varma
Monday, September 19th 2016
Those who insist that history is
real, and mythology false, go against the very grain of Adi Shankaracharya’s
non-dualist maxim: Jagat mithya, brahma satyam, which means the world,
including measured scientific conclusions, that we experience is essentially
illusory or rather, mind-dependent epistemological truths. The only
mind-independent ontological truth is brahma, variously translated as God,
soul, consciousness, language, or the infinitely expanded, eternal,
This doctrine of reducing the world
to mere illusion, popularly known as maya-vada, enabled Shankara to do
something remarkable: unite a land with diverse communities and diverse,
seemingly irreconcilable, worldviews – from the Buddhists, the Mimansakas (old
Vedic householders) and the Vedantins (the later Vedic hermits), to the
Shaivas, the Vaishnavas, and the Shaktas. This is evident in his copious
Shankara’s philosophy is avowedly
Vedic. Unlike Buddhists and Jains, he traced his knowledge to the Vedas and
submitted to its impersonal authority, which made him a believer (astika). In
his commentaries (bhasya) and monographs (prakarana), he repeatedly sought a
formless divine (nirguna brahman) being the only reality, outside all binaries.
This is evident in his commentary on Vedanta, the Brahma-sutra-bhasya,
his Sanskrit poems Vivekachudamani and Nirvana-shatakam and
his treatise Atma-bodha. Many consider this to be an acceptance of the
Buddhist theme of the world being a series of disconnected transitory moments,
hence amounting to nothingness (shunya-vada), while giving it a Vedic twist,
which is why Shankara was often accused of being a disguised Buddhist
But Shankara’s poetry (stotra) also
celebrates several tangible forms of the divine (saguna brahmana) as they
appear in the Puranas. He composed grand benedictions to Puranic gods: Shiva (Daksinamurti-stotra),
Vishnu (Govinda-ashtaka) and Shakti (Saundarya-lahari). This
makes him the first Vedic scholar, after Vyasa, to overtly link Vedic Hinduism
to Puranic Hinduism, an idea further elaborated a few centuries later by other
teachers of Vedanta, such as Ramanuja, Madhva, and Vallabha. Shankara even
wrote on tantra, which made its presence explicitly felt around that time.
For all his talk of formlessness and
nothingness, and the world being an illusion, Shankara went on to connect holy
spots of India such as the 12 jyotirlingas, 18 shakti-peethas and four
Vishnu-dhaams to create pilgrim routes that defined India as a single land. In
his legends, he travelled from Kerala to Kashmir, from Puri in present-day
Odisha to Dwarka in Gujarat, from Shringeri in present-day Karnataka to Badari
in Uttarakhand, from Kanchi in present-day Tamil Nadu to Kashi in Uttar
Pradesh, along the slopes of the Himalayas, the banks of the rivers Narmada and
Ganga, and along the eastern and western coasts.
Shankara then is not an ivory tower
philosopher; he is a political sage, engaging with and responding to the
historical context of his time. Through philosophy, poetry and pilgrimage, he
attempted to bind the subcontinent of India that was constantly referred to in
Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain texts as well as in the Vedic ritual of sankalpa as
Jambu-dvipa, the continent of the jambul tree, and Bharat-varsha, the land of
the Bharata kings.
In his commentary on the
Brahma-sutra (1.3.33), Shankara observed, “One can say that there never was a
universal ruler as there is none now,” an acknowledgement of the fragmented
nature of his society at his time, and refusing to accept the mythology of
Chakravarti, or universal emperor, found in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu lore.
Most historians agree that Adi
Shankaracharya lived in the 8th century CE, or 1,200 years ago, 1,300 years
after the Buddha.
This period was a major cusp in Indian
history – between the collapse of the Gupta Empire 1,500 years ago, and the
Muslim conquest of South Asia 1,000 years ago. Harshavardhan of Kannauj had
died, the Rashtrakutas held sway on either side of the river Narmada,
constantly at war with the Pratiharas of the North, Palas of the East, and
Chalukyas of the South. Regional languages and scripts which are now so
familiar had not yet emerged. South Indian temples did not have their
characteristic gopuram gateways, the Ramayana had yet to be translated into
Tamil, Jayadeva had yet to write the Gita Govinda that introduced the
world to Radha.
Adi Shankara, who travelled the
breadth of the land, communicated through the one language that connected the
intellectual elite of the land: Sanskrit.
To appreciate the spirit of this
time, we must understand the fundamental tension of Indian society between the
world-affirming, ritual-bound householder and world-renouncing,
Householder vs hermit
When Alexander of Macedon attacked
India in 327 BCE, the Vedic worldview favoured the householder, while the
Buddhist (and Jain, and Ajivika) worldview favoured the hermit.
In Shankara’s time, the Vedic
worldview was split into the Mimansaka worldview that favoured the householder,
and the Vedantik worldview that favoured the hermit.
Some people argue that this shows
the influence of Buddhism on Vedism, causing Hindu supremacists to bristle.
What is often overlooked is the influence of Vedism on Buddhism, for by
Shankara’s time, the intellectual hermit Buddha had been replaced by the
more-worldly Bodhisattva, and his feminine form, Tara, who valued compassion
(karuna) over wisdom (pragnya).
And while the Brahminical elite
argued over the ritual ways (karma marga) of the Mimansika and the intellectual
ways (gyan marga) of the Vedantin, the storytellers (suta) of India from Vyasa
to Valmiki were reshaping Hinduism dramatically with the composition of the
Puranas, where the hermit Shiva was being compelled to marry the Goddess,
Shakti, and Vishnu was duty-bound to take care of Lakshmi and Saraswati.
Shankara was born to a poor Brahmin
(Namboodri) family in Kerala. His father’s name was Shivaguru, suggesting
Shaiva roots. His father died when he was very young, and he was raised by his
mother, known to us only as Aryamba (noble lady). She was a worshipper of
Krishna, indicating Vaishnava roots. Despite his mother’s protests, he chose to
become a hermit as he favoured the prevailing Vedantik worldview to the
Mimansik. His guru, Govinda Bhagavatapada, whose name suggests Vaishnava roots,
who chose the hermit’s life on the banks of the river Narmada, was deeply
influenced by Buddhism.
From Central India, Shankara moved
to Kashi where he encountered a chandala, keeper of the crematorium, the most
polluted of professions in the Hindu caste hierarchy. When Shankara asked him
to move aside, the chandala chastised him saying, “My body, or my soul, the
form, or the formless, the limited, or the limitless?” This incident had a deep
impact on Shankara, as it made him question the invalidity of the flesh
proposed by the hermit tradition. Shankara was steeped in the traditional
varna-ashrama-dharma, where caste purity and pollution mattered, so his
acceptance of the chandala as his guru holds special significance. The incident
led him to compose the Manisha-panchakam where he looks beyond
divisions that create dualities (dvaita) and affirms non-duality (advaita).
Wisdom is seen here as the tool to transcend caste.
Shankara then encountered the great
Mimansaka scholar Mandana Mishra at Mahismati in Bihar and convinced him of the
superiority of knowledge (gyana) over ritual (karma). But then, Mandana’s wife,
Ubhaya Bharati, playfully challenged him to knowledge of erotics
(kama-shastra). When the celibate Shankara pleaded ignorance, the lady asked
him how he could claim to have understood the world without experiencing
sensual pleasure and emotional intimacy. What followed is shrouded in mystery,
and edited by latter-day puritans.
Shankara used his yogic powers to
enter the corpse of Amaru, the king of Kashmir, and animate it long enough to
enjoy all kinds of pleasure of the flesh. Legend has it that it led Shankara to
write erotic love poetry known as Amaru-shataka. In Kashmir then, and
later in Shringeri, in present-day Karnataka, Shankara established temples to
his personal deity, Sharada, who is commonly identified as Saraswati as she
holds a book. However, she also holds a pot and a parrot, symbols of household
and sensual life, indicating Shankara’s acknowledgment of the senses, the
flesh, matter itself: in other words, tantra. Shankara’s association with the
tantrik geometrical symbol of the divine feminine, the shree-yantra, reinforces
this. Was the goddess inspired by Ubhaya Bharati, or his mother, who kept
presenting householder wisdom? We can only speculate.
Shankara returned to Kerala to
perform his mother’s last rites on learning of her death. This was his promise
to her when she finally gave him permission to become a hermit, after he
survived an attack by a crocodile.
However, in Vedic tradition, having
renounced household life, a hermit cannot perform household rituals like
funerals. As a hermit, Shankara had given up his role as son, and so had no
obligations to the woman who was once his mother. But Shankara here displayed
the spirit of a defiant revolutionary. When prevented from performing her rites
in the crematorium, he carried his mother’s body to the backyard of her house
and performed the rituals there.
He then proceeded to travel across
India, establishing his institution (matha) in the four corners of India, all
the while visiting and mapping pilgrim routes. He is said to have established
the various akharas of hermits who were told to use their knowledge and their
physical and yogic powers to protect Hinduism. He even organised their
movements across pilgrim spots and their meetings during the Kumbha mela.
Shankara died at the young age of
32 in the Himalayan region. The story goes that his father, on being given a
choice by the gods, wanted a great son with a short lifespan, rather than an
ordinary son with a long lifespan. According to legend, a child prodigy, he was
supposed to die at the age of eight, but was given an extension of eight years so
that he could excavate the truth of the Vedas. His commentaries and monographs
were so brilliant that Vyasa, the mythical organiser of the Vedas, himself
extended his life by another 16 years to spread his ideas to the world.
Scholars wonder if Shankara, the
philosopher, who valorised knowledge, was also the Shankara who composed
devotional poetry? Was the Shankara who established pilgrimages the one who
also spoke the futility of mindless ritual, so beautifully expressed in Bhaja
Govindam? Was he Vedic or Tantric? Was he Shaivite, Vaishnavite, or
Shakta? Is he this or that, or both, or neither? Was he anti-Buddhist or a
subversive pro-Buddhist? The diverse fragments of his life mirror the diverse
fragmented worldviews that shaped India in his time, and continue to do so
The diversity of India relative to
the Middle East, Europe and America is undeniable. It bewilders the world. For
outsiders, it is chaotic, on the verge of collapse and division. For insiders,
there is meaning underlying the madness. The outsider and insider view of India
is therefore divergent.
Outsiders tend to see India’s
diversity in divisive terms: it is either the outcome of hierarchy (casteism,
Brahminism imposed through Manusmriti), or complex postmodern arguments are
used to say India did not exist, mirroring the shunya-vada of Buddhists that
denies continuity. By contrast, Shankara, an insider, used the doctrine of
illusion to democratise fragmented and limited worldviews: all views, all
perceptions, all understanding of these words are imperfect and incomplete, but
they delude us into assuming they are perfect and complete.
To understand Shankara, we need to
break free from the fixed Abrahamic binary of one true God and other false
gods, which even influences much of today’s political and scientific discourse,
and move into the Hindu, rather fluid, binary where the divine can be limited
(god, without capitalisation) and limitless (God, with capitalisation), and
where the relationship of form and formless divine is much like the
relationship between sound and meaning without which no word can exist.
Shankara sees the world around him
as full of fragmented ephemeral limited truths, just like Buddhists. However,
unlike Buddhists, he insists that they exist on a platform of an unfragmented
eternal limitless truth, that attributes meaning and value to existence. The
former is accessible; the latter is transcendental and elusive. Life’s
experiences are full of limited and temporary joys and sorrows. Without a transcendental
underpinning, life becomes meaningless, valueless.
Rejection of brahman, that there is
something permanent and unifying within and without all of us, results in
nihilism, and leads to the monastic obsession with oblivion of the self
(nirvana), while acceptance of brahman enables one to enjoy the beauty of life,
its colours (ranga), its juices (rasa), its emotions (bhava), its experiences
(anubhava), as diverse expressions of the divine, rendered more beautiful by
mortality. Hence, the importance given by Shankara to the exciting characters
of Hindu mythology whose tales in the Puranas evoke Vedic truths, and anchor
them to pilgrim spots across India, on the top of mountains, in caves and at
confluences of rivers, an idea that would horrify a traditional Vedic
One reason why Buddhism did not
thrive in India is its avowed distancing from the arts, viewing it as temporal
indulgence, in contrast to Puranic Hinduism, where the gods danced and sang to
The Buddhist elite shunned rituals at Buddhist shrines that were
popular with the masses. Shankara, by contrast, realised how stories and songs
connect with people and create the highway to an expanded vision of life. So he
embraced Puranic temples and their rituals, which were relatively more
inclusive (caste rules still prevailed), and far more artistic, and public,
than the more rigid exclusivist Vedic rituals. And this played a huge role in
establishing Shankara’s popularity as the saviour of Hinduism.
Rather than arguing which commentary,
poetry, pilgrimage, worldview, or god, is a superior or comprehensive fragment,
Shankara insists that the only truth that matters is brahman, which is
unreachable through reason and argument, and can only be accessed through
faith, via the Vedas.
Is this real, or strategic? We
cannot be sure. What we can be sure is that, with nothing superior, and
everything illusory, there can be mutual respect, awareness of each other’s
inadequacies, and the empathy to mutually complement, or supplement, rather
Tranquillity escapes us as long as
we shun knowledge. Knowledge is acquired when we make our pilgrimage into other
views – as Shankara engaged with his guru, the chandala, Ubhaya Bharati and
finally his mother – and have faith in a larger transcendental mind-independent
reality, the brahman.
There are many who believe that
Shankara’s philosophy is for the intellectual elite, and his poetry and
pilgrimage routes for the less intellectual masses. This condescending
suggestion is often made by those who imagine themselves to be intellectual for
they fail to see Shankara’s diverse body of work as an integrated whole.
Like any ancient or medieval figure
of Indian history, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction about
Shankara’s life. Scholars are not sure which of his literary works are
authentically his, and which are attributed to him to gain legitimacy or
popularity. Depending on what one cherry picks, Shankara can be turned into an
incarnation of Shiva, a champion of Hinduism who drove out Buddhists, a
prodigious and prolific logician and poet, a savarna casteist Hindu, or a
reconciler of paradoxes.
What is most interesting is that
his hagiography (exaggerated biographies), composed centuries after his birth,
are often referred to as dig-vijaya, or conquests, and his encounters with
philosophers such as Mandana Mishra are described in combative and triumphalist
This obsession of defeating
intellectuals in debates has more to do with indulging the ego than expanding
knowledge. And it is highly unlikely that a Vedic philosopher would engage in
such activity, for the Vedas view ego (aham) as the eclipse that blocks our
view of brahma, which resides within everyone as atma.
Ego thrives on violence and
violation and so chooses argument (vi-vaad) over discussion (sam-vaad). In
vi-vaad, we listen not to understand but to retort, thus remaining trapped in
ignorance (avidya). In sam-vaad, we listen to refine our ideas, gain knowledge
(vidya). Perhaps our understanding of Shankara is contaminated by the ambitions
of his not-so-intellectual fans and followers who relish the idea of
domination. Sounds familiar?
But the more we argue with a bad
idea, the more it entraps us. We end up as loyal opposition. It is important to
let go, and seek alternate ideas. This essay is an attempt to present that
alternate idea: see jagat mithya, brahma satyam (verse 20, Brahmajnanavalimala),
not as a statement to invalidate experience, or establish Hindu supremacy, but
as a simple framework to allow, accept and even assimilate myriad ideas, find
unity in diversity, in India, and the global village.