ŚAṄKARA (c. 700 ce), also known as Saṃkara or Śaṅkarācārya, was a Hindu metaphysician, religious leader, and proponent of Advaita Vedānta. Śaṅkara is generally acknowledged to be the most influential of all Hindu religious thinkers. The many modern interpretations and popularizations of his uncompromisingly intellectual metaphysics represent the dominant current of contemporary Hindu religious thought. For scholars of Sanskrit his compositions, above all his famous commentary (bhāṣya ) on the Brahma Sūtra of Bādarāyaṇa, serve as models of philosophical and literary excellence.
Śaṅkara's dates remain a matter of scholarly controversy. Many accept the traditional dates 788–820; in recent years, however, several scholars have argued for a longer life span centered around the beginning of the eighth century. The considerable number of Sanskrit hagiographical accounts of the life of Śaṅkara all appear to be comparatively recent compositions. It is difficult to judge to what extent they embody factual historical traditions. The most influential of these hagiographies is the Śaṅkaradigvijaya or Saṅkṣepa Śaṅkarajaya of Mādhava, composed sometime between 1650 and 1800 and possibly reworked about the middle of the nineteenth century. This is a composite text that includes verses taken from a number of somewhat earlier works, notably those of Vyāsācala and Tirumalla Dīkṣita. The Śaṅkaravijaya of Anantānandagiri is another important hagiography representing an independent tradition associated with the Advaita center at Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu.
According to Mādhava, Śaṅkara was born to a brahman family of the brahman village of Kālaṭi in Kerala, South India. Mādhava states that his parents had long been childless, but that the god Śiva finally agreed to become incarnate as their son to reward their devotion and penances. This son, Śaṅkara, was a miraculously precocious student: By his sixth or seventh year he had already resolved to bypass the householder stage of life (gṛhasthāśrama ) and become a religious ascetic (saṃnyāsin ). With the reluctant consent of his widowed mother he left home and became a disciple of a Govindanātha or Govindapāda somewhere on the river Narmada. In some of his own works Śaṅkara identifies his guru's guru (paramaguru ) as Gauḍapāda, and tradition claims that Govindanātha was a disciple of this earlier Advaita thinker. Govindanātha later sent Śaṅkara to Varanasi (Banaras), where he acquired his first important disciple, Sanandana, later called Padmapāda. After some time Śaṅkara moved on to Badarī in the Himalayas, where he wrote (at the age of twelve, according to Mādhava) his famous Brahma-sūtra-bhāṣya. While at Badarī he also composed commentaries on various Upaniṣads and on the Bhagavadgītā, and produced other commentaries and independent treatises such as the Upadeśasāhasrĭ. The rest of his life he spent traveling from place to place defending the views of Advaita Vedānta against opponents from a variety of different religious sects and philosophical schools.
Where Śaṅkara spent his final days is disputed by his biographers. Mādhava says that toward the end of his short life Śaṅkara was afflicted with a debilitating rectal fistula occasioned by the evil magic of Abhinavagupta, a Tantric opponent. Śaṅkara was allegedly cured of this ailment but died not long afterward at Kedarnath in the Himalayas. Anantānandagiri places his death at Kanchipuram, while other sources mention still other locations.
According to traditions not preserved by either Mādhava or Anantānandagiri, Śaṅkara established four or five monastic centers for the spread of Advaita Vedānta: one at Badarī in the Himalayas (north); one at Dvāraka in Gujarat (west); one at Puri in Orissa (east); one at Śṛngerī in Karṇataka (south); and another, not considered to be of equal status by some, at Kanchipuram. Through these centers an extensive network of Advaita teachers and monasteries was organized that did much to establish the dominance of Advaita over rival sects and schools. The religious ascetics who belong to this network are divided into ten (daśa ) monastic orders, the members of each order taking a distinct final name (nāma ). For this reason they are collectively called Daśanāmīs.
The study of the enormous number of Advaita works attributed to Śaṅkara has long been handicapped by the inability of critical scholarship to distinguish his genuine compositions from works falsely attributed to him. Recently, however, Paul Hacker, Mayeda Sengaku, and others have established criteria that have largely resolved this problem. They conclude that the works that may be reliably attributed to Śaṅkara are (1) the Brahmasūtra-bhāṣya; (2) the commentaries on the Bṛhadaraṇyaka, Taittirīya, Chāndogya, Aitareya, Īśa, Kaṭha, Kena (two), Muṇḍaka, and Praśna Upaniṣads; (3) the commentary on the Bhagavadgītā; (4) the commentaries on the Māṇḍūkya Upaniṣad with the Gauḍapādīyakārikā; and (5) the Upadeśasāhasrī. All other works, including the many devotional hymns attributed to Śaṅkara, are probably compositions of later authors.
In these works Śaṅkara generally subordinates philosophizing to the goal of liberation (mokṣa ) from the bonds of transmigratory existence (saṃsāra ), which arise from the consequences of one's action (karman ). Unlike some of his more scholastic successors, Śaṅkara often prefers to leave certain perplexing, and perhaps insolvable, philosophical problems unanswered. In his view, the sole means to achieve this liberation is right knowledge (jñāna ) leading to an instantaneous spiritual illumination that somehow dissolves all except the residual effects of past deeds (prārabdhakarman ). After death, liberation is complete and final. The alternative religious paths of devotion (bhakti ) and moral or religious works (karman ) may lead to a better rebirth either in this world or in the world of the gods, but they are of no use whatsoever for the illumination that is absolute liberation. For this the sole prerequisites are nonattachment to the things of this world; mental and emotional restraint and tranquillity; a suitable guru; and the study, under his supervision, of the "knowledge portion" (jñānakāṇḍa ) of the Vedas, especially the Upaniṣads. Since this last prerequisite is permitted only to members of the higher castes, śūdra s are explicitly ineligible for this illumination.
The word advaita means "non-dual." In contrast to the rival school called Sāṃkhya, which assigns a separate but full reality to both spirit (puruṣa ) and matter (prakṛti ), Advaita Vedānta asserts that absolute (paramārthika ) reality, called brahman, is non-dual. The manifold visible world around one (saṃsāra ) has merely a functional (vyāvahārika ) reality. It is considered to be a transformation (pariṇāma ) or, more commonly in Advaita, a mere appearance (vivarta ) that somehow arises from brahman.
A central doctrine of Śaṅkara's thought claims that from the point of view of the supreme truth (paramārthataḥ ) one's inner self or soul (ātman ), the essence of consciousness (cit ), is identical with the essence of being (sat ), brahman itself. This doctrine, Śaṅkara believes, cannot be fully established by rational discourse alone. In the final analysis its truth rests on revelation, namely the texts called Upaniṣads, which form the "end of the Vedas" (vedānta ). The Upaniṣads, the Brahma Sūtra, and the Bhagavadgītā constitute the threefold scriptural foundation of all schools of Vedānta. Although each school interprets these texts in often radically different senses, the texts do establish definite parameters within which the discussion must operate. These include the ideas that ātman and brahman are entities somehow closely related to each other and to individual living beings (jīva s) and to God (Īśvara) respectively, and that these living beings are subject to karman and the pains of transmigratory existence until they somehow manage to win liberation.
How and why does saṃsāra make its appearance? According to Śaṅkara it is ignorance (avidyā ), sometimes called illusion (māyā ), that occasions the appearance of saṃsāra through a process known as superimposition (adhyāsa ). Through this process ātman-brahman becomes reflected as many individual conscious beings (jīva s) on the one hand and as God (Īśvara) on the other. God in turn becomes the cause, both efficient and material, of the physical universe, which evolves indirectly from a primal "substance" called "name-and-form" (nāma-rūpa). In this psychophysical cosmology, liberation is nothing but the removal of ignorance, the deep realization that from the point of view of the ultimate truth ātman and brahman are identical and represent the only reality, the very substance of being and consciousness. All else—the physical universe, one's individual self, even God—are things conditioned by ignorance and hence ultimately unreal.
But how does this process of superimposition operate? On this subject Śaṅkara elaborates a series of sophisticated and often controversial epistemological arguments based in part on a set of analogies drawn from everyday experience. The most famous is that of the rope and the snake. When in a dim light one mistakes a rope for a snake, one is making a superimposition of false attributes derived from memory. Once one realizes the error, the real object, the rope, eliminates and replaces one's false perception of a snake. In an analogous way one superimposes false attributes on ātman-brahman. If one eliminates ignorance, this superimposition is dissolved and ātman-brahman alone shines forth. Transmigratory existence and one's bondage to it are immediately broken. One becomes liberated. It is as simple, and as difficult, as that.
Most of the traditional "biographies" of Śaṅkara remain untranslated, but a complete English translation of Mādhava's Śaṅkaradigvijaya by Swami Tapasyananda has been published (Madras, 1979). A thematic analysis of this text is attempted in my "The Life of Śaṅkarācārya," in The Biographical Process, edited by Frank E. Reynolds and Donald Capps (The Hague, 1976). For the understanding of Śaṅkara's thought, two recent publications contain long introductions that are models of clarity and perspicacity: Advaita Vedānta up to Śaṃkara and His Pupils, edited and with an introduction by Karl H. Potter, vol. 3 of his Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies (Delhi, 1981), and A Thousand Teachings: The Upadeśasāhasrī of Śaṅkara, translated by Mayeda Sengaku (Tokyo, 1979). For Śaṅkara's famous Brahmasūtra-bhāṣya, the 1904 translation of George Thibaut, The Vedānta Sūtra, with the Commentary by Śaṅkara, in "Sacred Books of the East" (reprint; New York, 1962) is still basic, as is Thibaut's introduction.
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David N. Lorenzen (1987)