Shankara (a.k.a. "Adi Sankara" or "Sankaracharya") (c. 788-820 C.E. or 700-750 C.E.) was an influential Indian philosopher and religious teacher who established the Advaita Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy, and founded mathas (monasteries) around India that continue to teach his philosophy today. Shankara's philosophical theories were intended to combat the influence of Buddhism in India, which was prominent in India during the eight century C.E. Shankara viewed these theories as heretical (astika) to Hindu beliefs. The system of philosophy that he established, known as Advaita (non-dualism), claims that we are all part of an unchanging, monistic reality known as Brahman- the ground of being and source of life. Shankara has often been called India’s greatest philosopher and his influence on Indian thought, religion, and culture has been highly significant.
Reconstructing the life of Shankara has proven to be problematic for scholars. While there are many works that profess to be biographies of Shankara, many of these writings are essentially hagiographies, and include material that conflicts with other sources. Additionally, much of the information in these writings appears to be based on myth or legend. Therefore, Shankara’s dates are disputed: Currently, 700 – 750 C.E. is the most acceptable dating of Sankara’s life, although 788 – 820 C.E. is also used by some scholars.
According to one tradition, Shankara was born to Brahmin parents, Shivaguru and Aryamba, in the village of Kaladi, Kerala. His parents had been childless for many years, and prayed to Shiva for a son. Shiva rewarded their prayers by incarnating himself on earth as Shankara. When he was very young, Shankara’s father passed away, and Shankara was raised under the care of his mother. At age eight, having demonstrated a great deal of intelligence, Shankara requested his mother’s permission to renounce the world and become a sannyasin (ascetic). His mother refused his request. According to one popular story, Shankara was later bathing in a river when a crocodile bit his leg and began to drag him into the water. Realizing he was on the verge of death, he asked his mother’s permission to renounce the world so he would die an ascetic. His mother agreed. Miraculously, the crocodile let him go, and Sankara emerged from the river unscathed, and with his mother’s blessing, began his life as an ascetic.
Scholars generally agree that Shankara became the disciple of Govinda, who himself was a disciple of a famous Vedanta scholar, Gaudapada. Important Vedanta works such as Madukiya-Karika are attributed to Gaudapada.
After receiving his training, Shankara first traveled to Varanasi, then all around India, teaching people about Vedanta philosophy. He generally taught villagers rather than city-dwellers, because city-dwellers were less receptive to his message of Advaita (non-dualism) due to their preoccupation with worldly pleasures, and because of the strong influence of Buddhism and Jainism in the cities of this time. Shankara worked to restore Vedic Hinduism in a period when Hinduism’s influence had waned due to the ascendancy of Buddhism.
He wrote many commentaries on scripture during his travels, including his most famous work, a commentary on the Brahma-sutra known as the Brahma-sutra-bhasya. According to common belief, he completed this work during his sixteenth year, when he was prophesied to die. However, the gods were so pleased with his work that they granted him another sixteen years. Shankara often debated his ideas with philosophers of other Hindus schools, as well as with Buddhist monks. One famous incident involves Shankara’s debate with Mandana Misra, a Mimamsa philosopher (a school which emphasizes the importance of ritual action). After a debate that lasted several days, Mandana Misra conceded defeat, and eventually became Shankara’s disciple. During his travels, Shankara established four mathas, or monasteries in different areas in India. These monasteries are located at Badari in Uttaranchal (north), Dvarka in Gujarat (west), Puri in Orissa (east), and Srngeri in Karnataka (south). The monasteries were led by Shankara’s four main disciples: Trotaka, Hastamalaka, Padmapada, and Suresvara, respectively. These monasteries are still in existence today. Shankara also established ten orders of Hindu ascetics, associated with each of the four mathas. These orders of ascetics are known as Dasanami sampradaya. The ten orders are Saraswati and Bharati, associated with the Srngeri matha, Tirtha and Ashrama, associated with the Dvarka matha, Giri, Parvata and Sagara, associated with the Badari matha, and Vana, Puri, and Aranya, associated with the Puri matha. Ascetics who belong to these orders are known as Dasanami sannyasins.
Shankara’s teachings became known as the Hindu philosophical school of Advaita Vedanta. This school teaches that there is only one absolute reality, known as Brahman, which is non-dual. They claim that Brahman is the only true reality, and everything else, which appears to exist is illusionary, including the world. The continuing cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) occurs because of human illusionary perception of difference from Brahman. However maya (illusion) can be overcome by removing ignorance of the fact that Atman is ultimately the same as Brahman; or that everything is essentially non-dual and has no individual existence.
According to Shankara, Brahman can be understood at two levels: Nirguna Brahman, which is formless and beyond comprehension, and Saguna Brahman, which is Brahman with characteristics attributed to it, known as Isvara. At the highest level, Brahman is beyond comprehension, and therefore can only be described in terms of what it is not (neti-neti), rather than what it is. Nevertheless, Brahman is sometimes described as satchitananda (Supreme Truth, Consciousness, and Bliss). Under the influence of maya, Brahman becomes the subject of worship. In Hinduism, deities such as Shiva and Vishnu are examples of Isvara, or Saguna Brahman. Qualities are projected onto gods, such as wisdom and omnipotence. Conceptualizing Brahman as Saguna Brahman is a lower realm of understanding, whereas conceptualizing Brahman as Nirguna Brahman is a higher realm of understanding. Devotion to deities (bhakti-yoga) may improve one’s karma and provide a better rebirth, but will not result in enlightenment (moksha). True enlightenment does not arise from worship, but through knowledge of Brahman (jnana-yoga) by overcoming ignorance. Thus, according to Advaita Vedanta, enlightenment arises from inner reflection, not external actions. Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta philosophy remains highly influential among neo-Vedanta Indian philosophers today.
Many writings have been attributed to Shankara. However, the majority of them cannot be considered authentic, and were likely written by later authors. It is difficult to determine with certainty which writings were written by him. However, scholars almost universally agree that the Brahma-sutra-bhasya, a commentary on the Brahma-sutra, was written by Shankara. Additionally, there is wide scholarly agreement that commentaries on the principal Upanishads are authentic, including Brhadaranyaka, Taittiriya, Chandogya, Aitareya, Isa, Katha, Kena, Mundaka and Prasna Upanishads. Commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita and the Mandukya Upanishad are also accepted by some scholars as authentic. The Upadesasahasri is also well accepted. Other works, including a large body of poetry and slokas (hymns) are not considered to have been written by Shankara.
Although Shankara lived a short life, the impact of his philosophy on Hinduism and Indian culture cannot be overemphasized. He denounced the importance of rituals and led a return to a purer Vedic thought. His philosophies paved the way for future neo-Vedanta, and he compelled other Indian philosophers, such as such as Ramanuja, to formulate arguments to refute his claims, providing an indirect impetus for the later rise of theistic movements that define Hinduism today. Most importantly, his teachings led to a resurgence of practicing Hinduism in a time when Buddhism and Jainism had gained greater influence in India.
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