SHANKARA (Shri Shankaracharya)
by Hari Prasad Shastri
From Self-Knowledge Autumn 1988
(The writings of Shankara, the supreme philosopher of the non-dual tradition, have been freshly translated and presented by subject in the six-volume Shankara Source Book, published by Shanti Sadan.)
About the seventh century AD there was born in Kalati, Southern India, a boy subsequently known as Shri Shankaracharya, who was destined to become one of the greatest philosophical and mystic geniuses the world has ever seen. His parents were poor Brahmins, noted for their piety and charity. The father, Shiva Guru, died while the child was still very young. The Indians say 'The promising trees have smooth leaves'. The mother was a devout believer in the Brahmin scriptures, and she literally lived for God. The son loved his mother most deeply.
At the age of eight, having received his Initiation, the child went to study grammar, literature, logic and philosophy with the renowned monk Govindapadacharya. In a few years he had acquired proficiency in the main branches of learning, and was acknowledged as a great scholar. After completing his studies, and while yet very young, he asked for, and received, his mother's permission to become a monk.
The young Shankara now lived in complete retirement in a cave, meditating, worshipping the Lord and writing his great works. These are his commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras, documents of deep philosophical insight, which will remain as standing monuments to his great genius for all time.
In these writings, the holy Teacher develops the ancient system of philosophy known as Advaita, giving it a new dialectical garb; demonstrating, by reason, inference, authority, analogy and other means, the holy Vedic truth: 'God alone is real, all else unreal'. All the materialistic, atheistic, ritualistic and other systems of philosophy are dispassionately examined in these works, and their flaws and the untenability of their doctrines are exposed. Though Shankara quotes the authority of the Scripture (Shruti) in support of his thesis, he also says: 'I meet the objections raised by non-Vedic philosophers on the basis of pure reason.' On one occasion he wrote: 'There are no contradictions in my system, and there is nothing in it which cannot be logically established.'
According to our tradition, Shri Shankara was an incarnation (avatara) of Shiva himself, who came to restore the holy doctrine of Advaita to its original and pure form. At that time Buddhism was fast degenerating; and devotion, real mysticism and the holy traditions had become seriously debased.
The holy Teacher went to Benares - then, as now, a centre of learning - and preached his doctrine there. Though still a youth, his learning, yogic powers and purity were irresistible. It is said that every day a few hundred disciples gathered round him. Living as a monk, owning no property and not touching money in any form, he went from city to city engaging his adversaries in open controversy. An old Teacher, Kumarila Bhatta, celebrated as the greatest scholar in India, was about to immolate himself on a pyre because in his own controversies he had unwittingly insulted the aged Buddhist monks and caused them mental chagrin. Bhatta was a dualist, and when Shankara challenged him he referred the latter to his pupil Mandana. Shankara duly challenged the great Mandana and, after a nine day controversy, the wife of Mandana, who had acted as referee, gave the verdict in favour of Shri Shankara. Mandana thereupon accepted Shankara as his Guru and subsequently wrote highly metaphysical classics under the name of Sureshvaracharya.
Shankara travelled throughout the length and breadth of India, accompanied by his disciples, and established the doctrine of Advaita on a firm footing. For a detailed account of his spiritual conquests, the reader is referred to Shankara Dig Vijaya (The conquest of the world by Shankara), by one of his disciples. The holy Teacher established four great monasteries, one at each corner of India, each having a university, a library and a training school under the charge of a highly competent monk bearing his name. Of these, Sringeri, in Mysore, is still in a most flourishing condition. The monastery in the deep Himalayas, called Jyotir Math, was visited by the writer in the course of his pilgrimages. It has a spiritual atmosphere, and the then Shankaracharya was a very learned and holy monk.
In the temple at Badrinath there is enshrined a holy image of Shri Vishnu. On visiting that holy place, Shri Shankara had been shocked to discover that the image was missing from the temple. The priests told him that during the terrible Chinese invasions it had been hidden in the Ganges for safety, but they had lost trace of the exact spot. The image was recovered by Shri Shankara, who dived into a deep and swift-flowing part of the river and brought it to the surface.
At the age of 35, Shankara took leave of his four great disciples, and entering a cave near the Kedarnath peak in the Himalayas, was never seen again.
Shri Shankara is not only a great philosopher, but also a great poet. His hymns, rich in poetic beauty, still bring solace to countless hearts in India. Although the Advaita doctrine, as propounded by him, is gaining adherents in the West, yet men like Deussen, Max Muller and others have missed the more subtle points in the philosophy.
Shankara's great disciples, Padmapadacharya, Anandagiri, Madhusudana Saraswati and Sureshvaracharya, have developed their Teacher's philosophy, in its logical, psychological, ontological and epistemological aspects, in an incomparable way.