Monthly Archives: April 2014

Adi Shankara and his Advaita philosophy

According to the Advaita tradition the supreme Lord, Sri Narayana or Sadashiva himself revealed the wisdom of Advaita to Brahma, the creator, who in turn imparted it to sage Vasishtha. This wisdom was handed down first as vamsha-parampara, i.e. as line of succession from father to son; from Vasishtha to his son Shakti, from Shakti to his son Parashara, from Parashara to his son Veda Vyasa and from Veda Vyasa to his son Shuka. From Shuka commenced the sishya-parampara, i.e. the line of succession from preceptor to disciple; from Shuka to his disciple Gaudapada and from Gaudapada to his disciple to Govinda Bhagavatpada and from Govinda Bhagavatpada to Sri Adi Shankaracharya.

Sri Adi-Shankaracharya was born at Kalati in Kerala in 788 A.D. to Shivaguru and Aryamba. He became an ascetic at a young age and on the banks of river Narmada met his guru, Govinda Bhagavatpada under whom he studied for four years. Govinda Bhagavatpada taught Shankara the profound philosophy of Advaita and directed him to write a philosophical commentary on the Vedanta Sutras, also known as Brahma Sutras, then interpreted in diverse theological ways. Later Shankara went to Varanasi and wrote commentaries on the Brahma Sutras, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita. Then he travelled throughout India on foot three times from Nepal to Rameshwaram preaching the universal philosophy of Advaita in important centers of learning, places of pilgrimage and in capitals of kings. He also defeated many opponents in debates of whom the Mimamsa scholar Mandana Misra of Mahishmati and his wife Bharathi and the Sakta commentator Abhinava Gupta were famous.

 Shankara’s works

Shankara wrote commentaries on the eleven principal Upanishads like the Chandogya, the Brihadaranyaka, the Taittiriya, the Aitareya, the Svetasvatara, the Kena, the Katha, the Isa, the Prasna, the Mandukya and Mundaka. He also wrote commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutra. His other important works Atmabodha, Aptavajrasuchi, Dasasloki, Aparoksanubhuti, Upadesasahasri, Prabuddha Sudhakara and Viveka Chudamani. His religious hymns are contained in works like Dakshinamurthy Stotra, Ananda Lahari and Soundaraya Lahari.

Socio-religious reforms

Shankara’s aim was to revive the Vedic dharma based on the philosophy of Advaita. He saw to it that morally reprehensible modes of worship followed by the Kapalikas, Saktas and followers of Ganapati were abolished. For the benefit of theists Shankara instituted the Panchayatana puja or worship of the five aspect of the deity – Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, Aditya and Ganesha. He also composed hymns on them and either founded or renovated temples dedicated to them. He united various religious sects by popularizing the collective worship of Shiva, Vishnu, Surya, Ganesha, Kumara and Shakti; for which he came to be known as Shanmata Sthapanacharya. Shankara established four monasteries, at Dwaraka (Kalikapeeta with Padmapada in charge) in the east, Badri (Jyotirmatha with Totaka in charge) in the north, Puri (Govardhanapeeta with Hastamalaka in charge) in the east and Sringeri (Sri Sharadhapeeta with Sureshvara in charge) in the south. He is said to have brought five Lingas from Kailasa and consecrated them at Kedara, Nilakanta Kshetra in Nepal, Chidambaram, Sringeri and Kanchi. Shankara organized the numerous wandering monks all over the country into ten definite orders of sanyasis under the name Dasnamis. The Dasnamis add at the end of their names any one of the following suffixes, namely Saraswathi, Bharathi, Puri, Giri, Tirtha, Vana, Sagara, Aranya, Parvata and Asrama.

Advaita in practice

Shankara wanted his followers not just to theorize his Advaita philosophy but put it into practice. This message he gave in the form of an episode in which he himself was involved. Once when Shankara was on his way to have his bath at river Ganga at Kashi his pupils asked a Chandala coming in the opposite direction to make way for their guru. The Chandala asked Shankara how he might consistently teach Advaitism and practice such differentiating observances. This thought provoking question struck Shankara who composed Manisha Panchaka, containing five philosophical verses expressing the Advaita sentiments and where he (Shankara) acknowledge the Chandala as his guru. The message of Shankara was that for a follower of Advaita it is absurdity to practice discrimination between humans and that one should view all as One and the same.

Shankara’s Advaita philosophy

Reality or Brahman

According to Shankara nothing really exists but the Supreme Spirit known as Brahman. Brahman is pure Existence, Consciousness and Bliss (Sat-cit-aananda). He is Absolute, impersonal, changeless, eternal and all-pervading. What is commonly called Nature (animate and inanimate) is but an illusion (Maya) and a dream caused by the ignorance (avidya) which surrounds the Supreme Spirit and hides it. This has been summed up in the words ‘Brahma Sathya, Jagan Mithya’. Phenomena appear real for the same reason that things seen in a dream are real so long as the dream lasts. The aim of life is therefore to cast of the gross sheaths that surround the Spirit within us and to realize its identity with the Supreme Spirit.

Orders of Reality

Shankara distinguishes four kinds of reality.

  • Paramarthikasatta– The ultimate metaphysical reality (of Brahman).
  • Vyavaharikasatta– The pragmatic or empirical reality which is experienced by humanity as a whole for all time.
  • Pratibhasikasatta– The apparent reality which belongs to the objects of illusions, hallucinations and dreams. This is privately experienced and is of short duration. For example, mistaking a rope for a snake.
  • Tuccasatta– The reality which is inexperienceable, imaginary objects, some of which may be self-contradictory or impossible. For example, one may speak of ‘the son of a barren woman’. A barren woman cannot have any sons, so the existence of the son of a barren woman is impossible and self-contradictory.

Soul or Atman

The Atman is the individual human soul clothed in the upaadhis or limiting adjuncts and is called Jiva. The Jiva or individual soul is essentially the same Brahman and is therefore self-luminous, unlimited and free. Its limitedness and all its consequent effects are due to certain conditions (upaadhis), which again appear through nescience (avidhya) and as such are unreal. Thus an elimination of the upaadhis amounts to an elimination of the apparently dual natural of the jiva.

States of experiences

Advaita Vedanta identifies four state of experience for a jiva. They are

  • The waking state (Jagrat avastha)
  • The dream state (Svapna avastha)
  • The deep sleep state (Sushupti avastha)
  • The pure consciousness state (Turiya)

The world of duality is available for our experience only in the waking and dream state. But in deep sleep state we are not aware of any objects or any world of plurality. It is a state wherein we experience only the knowledge of ignorance; we neither know the truth or falsehood. In the Turiya state the entire pluralistic world rolls away and the experience of the non-dual reality alone remaining as eternally true; for Turiya is Brahman, indivisible and immanent. Hence attaining this state of experience which is the highest upasana (worship) is instructed upon ascetics.

The Universe or Jagat

Brahman as a sole Reality appears as the objective universe and it an illusory manifestation of Brahman. Reality or Brahman has the power of taking an existential form, namely the universe without undergoing any modification. The existence of the universe is relative and is not original, separate or independent of Brahman. How Brahman manifest itself is beyond human comprehension and can be answered only by some theory such as that of Maya.

Maya and Avidya

Maya is the cosmic illusion and the potency of Brahman which makes the jiva experience duality. It is the medium for the reflection of Brahman (as jivas) and for the projection of this world. Maya presents to the human mind Reality broken up into subject and object. This division, splitting up is unreal; but as the mind works only as an organ of differentiation, it cannot disclose truth which is ever one and undivided. Maya has no real entity and has only an apparent existence and the moment truth is known it is dissolved. Maya, which is also called, avidya, (or nescience in English) has two powers, called, avarana sakti and vikshepa sakti. Avarana sakti covers Brahman, as it were, as a cloud covers the sun and makes us, the jivatmas, forget that, in our true nature, we are Brahman. At the macrocosmic level, vikshepa Sakti is the force that projects the differentiated nama roopa, i.e., the world of objects and bodies and minds and superimposes them on the sub-stratum, i. e., Brahman. At the microcosmic level, vikahepa sakti makes Jivatmas make the mistake of looking upon themselves as limited individuals and the universe of nama roopas as real. As a result, we, the ordinary human beings, identify ourselves with our body mind complex and regard ourselves as separate individuals, limited in space, time and entity, subject to all the vicissitudes, changes, joys and sorrows of life and go through the cycle of births and deaths. When we understand that we are not different from the infinite Brahman, we are freed from this cycle. Until this happens, one goes through the cycle of births and deaths.

Theology in Advaita Vedanta

While maintaining that on the paramarthika plane (i.e. as absolute reality), there is only the non-dual attribute less Brahman (nirguna Brahman) Advaita Vedanta accommodates, on the vyavaharika plane, (as a lower order of reality), Brahman with qualities (saguna Brahman) called Ishwara. As Ishwara, Brahman has all the characteristics of what is called a personal God; the creator, preserver and destroyer of the world and a friend and savior of finite souls. The purpose of accommodating Ishwara is to enable a spiritual aspirant (jiva) go through the ritual of devotion and worship and gradually acquire knowledge of the Self through meditation. The specialty of Advaita Vedanta is it does not make any distinction between gods of one religion and another. An aspirant can accept Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Rama, Krishna or Durga as manifestation of saguna Brahman and worship in a church, mosque or a temple. The worship in this plane is meant as a preparatory and purificatory discipline and from this he has to move to the next stage of identifying himself with the Supreme Spirit (Brahman). From metaphysical standpoint, both jiva and Ishwara are Brahman, but on the phenomenal level from the religious standpoint their relation is in terms of master and servant. Ishwara the master knows his oneness with Brahman and therefore enjoys eternal bliss whereas jiva the servant is ignorant of his higher, divine origin and is therefore subject to the self-deceptive trials and tribulations of a mundane existence.

Way to Moksha

Shankara prescribes Jnanamarga for self-realization. But a mere intellectual apprehension of the advaitic truth is of no avail. Only through a systematic approach can this is achieved through Shravana (formal study), Manana (reflection) and Nididhyaasana (meditation), i.e. to transform into direct experience the mediate knowledge of Ultimate Reality acquired by the study of Upanishad and by reflection upon their teaching. In Advaita, moksha is not something which has to be attained hereafter. The essential nature of every jiva is already Brahman and only the wheel of ignorance has concealed its real nature and therefore the jiva undergoes pains of samsara until it realizes its inherent divinity. Therefore the jiva does not lose its individuality in moksha but the limitations of that individuality are overcome by knowledge and immediately here and now it attains universal Brahman.

Advaita- A Universal philosophy

Shankara’s system of Vedanta can stand on its own feet as pure metaphysics without the help of any theology, unlike other theistic Vedanta systems like Visishtadvaita of Sri Ramanuja and Dvaita of Sri Madhvacharya. Hence those prefer a philosophy to a theology will have a natural leaning towards Shankara. But at the same time Shankara’s system also provides theologies as provisional stand-point- just a base camp for those attempting to climb the Mount Everest of Advaita. And the beauty is that not one particular theology but any number of them including foreign religions like Islam and Christianity can be fitted into the frame work of Shankara’s metaphysics provisionally. This wonderfully accommodating power of his doctrine is perhaps the most attractive feature of his philosophy to many of its followers.

To Shankara goes the credit for reviving the Sanatana Dharma and rescuing the Vedic culture from foundering. A brilliant thinker and vigorous debater he reconciled the conflicting sects prevailing in his times. He was a realized soul, a sage, philosopher, scholar, poet, socio-religious reformer and organizer; all rolled into one. He passed away in 820 A.D. at Kedarnath.


  1. Swami Mukhyananda – Sri Shankaracharya, Life and Philosophy, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata.
  2. P.T.Raju – The Philosophical Traditions of India.
  3. D. Krishna Ayyar – Advaita Vedanta, A Presentation for beginners.
  4. Svami Tapasyananda – Bhakti Schools of Vedanta, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras.
  5. Preceptors of Advaita, Published by Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Sankara Mandir, Secunderabad, 1968.
  6. C.N.Krishnasami Aiyar & Pandit Sitanath Tattvabhushan – Sri SankaracharyaHis Life and Times and Philosophy, Madras.