In the East, the belief is common that there is a “soul-redeeming” truth that can make of its possessor a divine being, one liberated from the wheel of samsara, that is, from obligatory rebirth. The state of liberation, Nirvana, is the supreme aim, the summum bonum of all six Hindu schools of philosophy, as well as of the various Buddhist sects. The Western reader must, therefore, constantly keep in mind that there are three basic doctrines of Asian philosophy: (1) the doctrine of rebirth, or reincarnation, meaning the periodic appearance of the same human egos in new physical bodies; (2) the doctrine of karma, or moral retribution, the regulatory law under which rebirth takes place; and (3) the doctrine of spiritual evolution by which a relative perfection is attainable, in principle, by all beings—those of the lower kingdoms of nature included.
We can realize why no Hindu sage bothers to prove or defend these three doctrines, for they are never questioned even by an opponent. This will also explain the universal belief in India of the existence of advanced human beings who have acquired supernormal powers (siddhis) and who are no longer subject to the normal laws of birth and death. Having learned the hidden secrets of nature—mainly by following the Delphic injunction “Man, know thyself!”—they discovered that a thorough knowledge and understanding of their own egos enabled them to become masters not only of themselves (that is, of the actions of the outer body and the inner mind) but also of external nature to an extent that the Western reader would be inclined to call miraculous. Yet it is claimed by these sages that their supernormal powers are definitely not supernatural, but are exerted within the framework of nature’s laws, which therefore, they are able to make use of, whenever the occasion calls for the exercise of their siddhis.
Such a sage was Samkara. Because many of his successors adopted the same name, Samkara, there is a great confusion as to when he lived as well as what he wrote. Many of the writings of the later Samkaras have been fathered upon their illustrious predecessor, not always to the benefit of the latter. Although some biographers place him as early as 510 b.c.e., most scholars are agreed that he was born much later, in about the eighth century c.e.