All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated


SHANKARA (a.d. 788–820), Hindu Vedāntic philosopher. In the opinion of many, Shankara was India's greatest Vedāntin and one of its greatest philosopher-theologians. He is considered a theologian insofar as he bases much of his thought on revelation (shruti) and claims that many fundamental questions are unanswerable by reason alone. But he is also a philosopher because of his claim that his theological standpoint is supported by both reason and experience. What is most remarkable is how much he accomplished in his thirty-two years. Born in Kaladi, Kerala, to devout Shaivite parents, Shankara lived at a time when Buddhist influence in India was still strong—and skeptical of Brahmanic-Hindu orthodoxy. Shankara attempted to thwart this influence by absorbing what he considered useful from Buddhism—hence the ascription "crypto-Buddhist" given by his Vaishnava opponents—and then being fiercely critical of it. His ambition was to reestablish Brahmanism on a sound intellectual and institutional footing. To that end, he established four mutts, or monasteries, in the four corners of India: Badariē in the Himalayas (north), Shringeri in Karnataka (south), Puri in Orissa (east), and Dvārakā in Gujarat (west), plus an additional one at Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu. The religious ascetics who belong to this order are organized into ten divisions and are known as the Dashanāmī Samnyasis, all headed today by Shankaracaryas. He was very concerned with the vitality of these monastic communities, traveling constantly to them, preaching and defending the tenets of his Advaitic (nondualistic) position against opponents from a variety of Hindu and Buddhist schools.

The fundamental reality, according to Shankara's Advaita Vedanta, is Brahman, the name given for timeless, imperishable, immutable Being. Brahman by its very nature is beyond human language, but given the human tendency to describe the indescribable, Advaitins designate Brahman as saccidānanda, composed of sat (being), cit (consciousness), and ānanda (bliss). These are not qualities of Brahman, because Brahman as such is quality-less (nirguṇa), but rather human ascriptions based on the experience of Brahman. The world has come into being from Brahman and is wholly dependent on it, but since the world is temporal and subject to change, it is "illusory," a product of māyā. Shankara does not regard the world as a complete illusion because that would lead to nihilism and would contradict his own intense activity in the world. The world is "illusory" only when seen from the prospective of Brahman, the absolute reality. The "ordinary" human perspective (vyāvahārika) for the most part is that of relative, not absolute being but makes the mistake of identifying reality with the world. This congenital ignorance (avidyā) of which one is not even aware can be overcome only by the experience of Brahman, when the veil of māyā is pushed aside. This view is therefore called a-dvaita, or "nondual." God and the world are neither two distinct realities nor one (the latter monistic position would require God to evolve or emanate into the world) but rather nondual, a position different from both dualism and monism. Avidyā, or ignorance, applies also to our account of selves. In our "ordinary" experience we are inclined to identify selfhood with our empirical ego, but our true reality is that of ātman, which is pure consciousness and not the intentional consciousness of any particular object, including the self. This pure consciousness is identical with Brahman and carries within itself the bliss (ānanda) of Brahman.

Shankara's Advaita is thus a philosophical mysticism that takes the reality of the world seriously but attempts to transcend or sublate it into Brahman. Hence the two perspectives, that of the ultimate (parārthika) and the penultimate (vyāvahārika), and the two levels of Brahman, without qualities (nirguṇa) and with qualities (saguṇa). In the latter plane, Brahman appears as Īshvara, or God seen as personal, who presides over the world of appearances. Devotion to Īshvara (bhakti) is nonetheless seen as subordinate to the contemplative experience ( jnāna) of Brahman.

Advaita Vedanta is not just a system of thought but a way of self-realization. Disease, says Shankara, is not cured by pronouncing "medicine" but by taking it. In the same spirit, the purpose of philosophical contemplation is not just to know but to be Brahman, or rather to achieve the realization that one "always already" is Brahman. Shankara divides the Vedas into two sections, one dealing with duties and rituals action (karmakāṇda) and one dealing with right knowledge (jnānakāṇda). While the former is praiseworthy, it is the latter that leads to the overcoming of ignorance and the achievement of moksha, or liberation. This, however, calls for moral and spiritual purification prior to and alongside contemplation of Brahman, specifically for four conditions: discrimination between eternal and noneternal reality, detachment from the fruits of one's actions both here and in the hereafter, rigorous self-control undertaken with serenity, and the desire for liberation. The devout reading of the Vedas is also an essential part of spiritual training, especially given that Shankara claims that his entire philosophy is in fact an exegesis of the Vedas. To that end, he endorses the traditional prescription of shravaṇa (hearing the scriptures), manana (reflection), and dhyāsana (contemplation). It is this combination of profundity of thought and spiritual ardor that makes Shankara so attractive and powerful a figure to philosophers and spiritual aspirants alike.

Joseph Prabhu

See alsoUpanishadic Philosophy


Mayeda, S., ed. and trans. "Upadesasasahasri." In A Thousand Teachings: The Upadesasasahasri of Sankara. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1979.

Thibaut, George, ed. and trans. "Brahmasutrabhasya." In The Vedanta Sutras of Badarayana with the Commentary by Sankara. Sacred Books of the East 34, 38. Reprint, New York: Dover, 1962.


Clooney, F. X. Theology after Vedanta. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

Deutsch, Eliot. Advaita Vedanta. Honolulu: East-West Center Press, 1969.

Pande, G. C. Life and Thought of Samkaracarya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1994.

views updated


Shankara (ca. 788-820) was an Indian philosopher and reformer. He founded the advaita, or nondual, school of vedanta philosophy.

Shankara, also called Shankaracharya, "Master Shankara," was born of Brahman parentage in southern India. His intellectual powers were soon evident, and he mastered a wide range of religious and philosophical materials. His major goal was to synthesize the immensely diverse spectrum of Hindu philosophical and theistic symbolism into a single coherent system. He was quite orthodox in his commitment to the Veda—the most ancient body of Hindu religious literature; but he tried to harmonize its many paradoxical and often contradictory teachings by centering on the last Vedic section, the Upanishads ("esoteric" teachings, also called the Vedanta, "end of the Veda").

Shankara ascribed the founding of the Vedanta school to the sage Badarayana (ca. 400 B.C.), whose writings formed the basis for some of shankara's most important treatises. But despite his claim that he was only expounding the Vedanta, Shankara was unquestionably one of the most creative intellects in Indian history. he travelled widely, founding numerous monastic centers and elaborating his philosophy. Though his life was short, he was an untiring worker and a brilliant dialectician whose lasting prestige was fully established by the time of his death. The doctrine which he espoused became the most influential of all Hindu philosophies, providing the basis for theological innovations, cultic integration, and reform.

The basic elements of Shankara's philosophy are derived from selected aspects of the Upanishads. Though the texts are very diverse, they are—in shankara's view— dominated by a teaching which asserts that the true self (atman, "soul") of every individual has a qualitative and essential relationship to an overarching universal Soul (Atman) which in its ultimate sacred form is called Brahman: "Brahman exists eternal, pure, enlightened, free, omniscient, and all powerful." It is the source and end of all phenomena.

This metaphysic has two particularly important aspects: since only Brahman is ultimately real and eternal, all particular worldly entities are regarded as illusory and transient; but since these transient forms are also manifestations of Brahman, "illusion" itself has a positive ontological status. The technical term for illusion is maya; but it also signifies the power of illusion. Shankara's doctrine is therefore called advaita—nonduality—because it strives to ascribe all reality to a single dynamic, unitary source.

Through the sensual perceptions of the everyday world, man apprehends only the illusory and deceptive appearances of the ultimate reality. This conditioned and finite knowledge is, in the ultimate sense, ignorance (avidya,"nonknowledge"), because it is not attuned to that which transcends and yet incorporates all space-time phenomena. And this ignorance is exacerbated by the confusion of the transcendental spirit with empirical forms—an error which is the "source of all evil."

However, within the lower and provisional framework of existence, certain essential forms have a permanent sanctity: the sacred scriptures, the cults and forms of traditional worship, the law of karmic retribution, and the caste system itself. These are essential "qualities" (gunas) of the order of the universe. Therefore, while it is true that Brahman as absolute existence and ultimate truth transcends these forms and is "without qualities" (nirguna), in its diverse manifestations it also possesses the secondary qualities of a personalized god, Hindu institutions, law, and ethics: Brahman is the source of "scripture and all knowledge, and is responsible for the distinctions into gods, animals, humans, classes, the stages of life."

Adherence to these secondary forms through worship, self-discipline, and appropriate demeanor prepares the religiously perceptive individual for the higher knowledge of the transcendent Brahman. In this purified form, knowledge is the source of a final and transforming intuition of the absolute unity of the individual soul with Brahman—an experience of liberation and release from the snares of worldly delusion and transmigration "the Upanishads aim to eliminate delusion by the attainment of the knowledge of the unity of the self [with Brahman]." This mystical philosophy would seem to undercut all other forms of traditional Hinduism, since worldly distinctions are illusory; but they are also regarded as aspects of the divine self-manifestation. So Shankara rigorously upholds the integrity of Hindu social institutions and the Veda, interpreted through the ultimate revelation contained in the Upanishads.

There is much in Shankara's mystical teaching which suggests the influence of Buddhist philosophy, and he was accused of being a crypto-Buddhist during his own lifetime. But his successful philosophical synthesis was a factor in precipitating the final decline of Buddhism in India. In this way Shankara did much to assure the triumph of Hinduism and its institutions. In addition to his philosophical innovations, he was also an ardent exponent of the devotional poems and prayers which reflect the immense range of his religious sensibilities.

Further Reading

Background on Shankara is in Surendra Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, 5 vols. (1922-1955), and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles Moore, eds., A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy (1957). Indian sources include V. Raghavan, trans., Prayers, Praises and Psalms (Madras, 1938); Nalinimohan Mukherji, A Study of Shankara (Calcutta, 1942); and Ram P. Singh, The Vedanta of Sankara: The Metaphysics of Value (Jaipur, 1949). For general background consult A. L. Bashman, The Wonder That Was India (1937; rev. ed. 1963). □

views updated

Shankara (c.700–c.750) Indian religious thinker, the most famous exponent of the Vedanta system of Hindu philosophy. According to tradition Shankara led an austere life and travelled all over India. He held discussions with philosophers belonging to various schools and became a noted religious teacher. During his wanderings he founded monasteries which were to be of great importance in helping to spread his ideas. He also wrote commentaries on the major Hindu scriptures, notably the Brahmasutra and the Upanishads. Shankara believed in the oneness of all creation. He saw Brahma (God) as the one true reality in the universe and the source of all things. He believed that it was only by understanding this that the soul could be united with God after death.

views updated

Śaṅkarācārya (teachers in the tradition of Śaṅkara): see DAŚANĀMĪ.

views updated

Shankara (pre-eminent Indian philosopher): see ŚAṄKARA.