|Doctrines|| ||Shankara's underlying assumption is that the Veda is eternal truth, and on the basis of this he asks the classic questions: what is the nature of the self (atman) and of Brahman? The world seems to be multiple and to provide us with multiple experience, but what is its real ontological status? What is the nature of human experience and what is it to be enlightened? Like all Indian philosophers, he is not concerned to provide his own answers to these questions, but only with expanding Vedic teaching.|
There seems to be a clear distinction between our innermost self and the world in which we live: the world seems to be multiple, and to present us with real experiences, and so we choose this or that, evaluate this or that more or less highly. The nature of our lives in response to this world helps to fuel the process of reincarnation; liberation is possible and can be achieved by undertaking certain meditative activities.
The teaching of the Veda, says Shankara, reveals that this is a total misconception. There is only Brahman, eternal Being, Consciousness and Bliss: the multiple world which we seem to see and to experience has no more reality than the imagined snake which a person mistakenly "superimposes" onto a piece of rope in the twilight, and a similar process of mistaken superimposition of qualities upon Brahman is responsible for our everyday interpretation of reality. (This famous image is one of several which recur in Advaita literature, and is used to make a variety of epistemological points).
To think of the individual soul is also a misconception: Brahman, the unitary Reality, may seem to be broken into individual souls (Samkhya teachings were unacceptable to Shankara), but such a view is equally mistaken. There is only Brahman, one without a second, hence Shankara's system is known as a-dvaita ("non-dual") Vedanta.
It is ignorance (avidya) - Shankara appears to use the term maya as a synonym (and on this see under "Vallabha") -, operating by creating apparent distinctions where none exist, which is responsible for the mistaken interpretation of everyday experience and for the everyday way of knowing. This is not pure illusion, because it is valid until it is negated ("sublated" is the term used in the classic translation) by the higher knowledge of Brahman: it is this Brahman which is the Real, since alone it is never sublated. Belief in a personal God also stands at a the lower level of knowledge, because it depends upon the notion of a person worshipping a deity Who is separate from her/him, and any notion of separate entities is part of that same misconceived "superimposition" as all other worldly perception and knowledge. However, this too is real and valid until it is transcended by higher knowledge: indeed, Shankara himself is the reputed author of many hymns to Shiva. The second Brahmasutra sets out the basic points about the lower Brahman, God.
As long as avidya operates, the soul is bound in rebirth, and desires for things and ends are formed in us: the life of the individual in the world is carried on. Shankara has to address the issue of the status of the injunctions to action which the Veda lays down, and his view is that these injunctions do not apply to the liberated person. The parts of the Veda which are concerned with action (karmakanda) are applicable to those who recognize themselves as agents; those parts which deal with knowledge (jnanakanda) are addressed to those who are on the way to recognizing that Brahman, the true Self, is without distinctions.
The Advaita view - that the distinctions which we perceive are real only at the lower level of appearance, the product of avidya - aroused a major objection, relating to an abiding concern of Indian philosophy: that change actually does occur, and that things actually do arise which were not there before. Shankara's predecessors (see under Advaita) had addressed this objection, and Shankara too formulates his theory of causality. Some of his arguments are similar to those of Saamkhya (q.v.) for the theory of satkaryavada, the theory that the effect pre-exists in the cause. However, the crucial difference is that for Shankara, the effect does not really exist at all (see above): there is an apparent relation between a comparatively unreal cause and a comparatively unreal effect.
Shankara's discussion of such matters as the processes of perception, the evolution of the cosmos, or the valid means of knowledge (the pramanas, of which six are accepted) is carried on against the background of meeting objections from the other darshanas. Of course, the assumption underlying all such discussions is that they are applicable only to the lower level of truth.
|History|| ||On any reckoning one of the most significant figures in the history of philosophy, Shankara is the major exponent of Advaita Vedanta. |
His life is the subject of a vast traditional literature, and scholars differ as to the extent to which they make use of it in the reconstruction of a biography. All the traditional accounts except one give his birthplace as Kaladi, a small village in modern Kerala (the western side of the tip of India). The dating which is frequently accepted is 788-820 C.E., but some modern scholarship places him in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. His father is identified as Shivaguru, son of Vidyadhiraja, and is said to have died shortly after Shankara's birth; the boy was a prodigy of learning and religiosity, and left home to take up the religious life at an early age. Two famous stories concerning his taking the samnyasa vows illustrate the tone of the traditional material. The first tells how, deciding to do so at the age of eight, he assured his despairing mother that he would return to give her the last rites, even though this was not required for a samnyasin. The second has him tricking his mother into allowing him to take the vows by pretending that a crocodile was about to swallow him and would release him only if he would become a samnyasin.
Having left home, he is said to have met, and to have studied with, his guru Govinda on the banks of the Narmada river, but he continued to travel and began to teach in Banaras, where he attracted disciples, including Padmapada, Hastamalaka, and Totaka. Accompanied by Padmapada, he went on pilgrimage to Badrinath, where he stayed for four years; according to one account, he wrote his major works at this time, although not yet sixteen. After returning to Banaras and spending several years there, he went to Prayag (Allahabad), where he met Kumarila, the now elderly Mimamsa philosopher. Kumarila sent him on to another great Mimamsaka, Mandana Mishra, and a justly popular story tells how they debated, on the understanding that the loser would become the pupil of the winner. Shankara won, but Mandana's wife challenged him to further debate, and pointed out that, as far as she was concerned, the knowledge of the ways of the world available to him as a samnyasin was inadequate, and that he had not mastered kamashastra. Shankara requested a month's leave of absence in order to gain the necessary experience, and entered the body of an amorous king; after this, he defeated Bharati, and both she and her husband became his disciples, Mandana taking the name of Sureshvara. Another story tells of how the Shaiva philosopher Abhinavagupta cursed Shankara with an ulcerated sore, but received the curse himself owing to Padmapada's intervention.
At his mother's death, Shankara returned to Kerala to perform her funeral rites, after which he began a long tour, establishing four great monasteries (mathas) at the four corners of India: Shringeri (in the south), Dwaraka (west), Badrinath (north), and Puri (east), and there is a powerful tradition which credits him with founding a fifth at Kanchi, also in the south. At each of these he installed a disciple as head, and these institutions operate to this day. Shankara's order is known as the Dashanamis ("ten names"), those who take the vows and enter it receiving one of ten names.
Shankara died at the age of only thirty-one, all sources except one giving his place of departure as a spot in the Himalayas, the exception giving it as Kanchi.
His major and authoritative work is the Brahmasutrabhashya; in addition it is accepted - in the light of modern methods of analysis - that he wrote commentaries on two of the Upanishads, the Brihadaranyakabhashya, and the Taittiriyabhashya; and the treatise (partly in verse and partly in prose) Upadeshasahasri.
Whilst modern analytical methods have not been applied, his authorship of the following commentaries on the Upanishads is unquestioned: the Chandogyopanishadbhashya, the Aitareyopanishadbhashya, the Ishopanishadbhashya, the Kathopanishadbhashya, the Kenopanishadbhashya, the Mundakopanishadbhashya, and the Prashnopanishadbhashya.
The following works have been ascribed to Shankara, but the ascription has been questioned: the three commentaries, Bhagavadgitabhashya, Mandukyopanishadbhashya and Gaudapadiyakarikabhashya; the brief hymn Dakshinamurtistotra; the short treatise Panchikarana; the Aparokshanubhuti, dealing with "direct experience"; the very popular short treatise Atmabodha; the "one hundred stanzas", Shatashloki; the Atmajnanopadeshavidhi, dealing with the nature of the Self; the Atmanatmaviveka; the Tattvabodha; the "ten stanzas", Dasashloki; the Vakyavritti; the popular Vivekachudamani; the Sarvavedantasiddhantasarasamgraha, a summary of Advaita doctrine; and several other short works
} For all these see under Dashanamis and Ramakrishna Mission.