Context

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It would be incorrect to speak about the “philosophy” of Samkara, because he and other great Indian sages never claimed a philosophy of their own but were merely expounders of the great spiritual knowledge bequeathed them by a long lineage of predecessors. They differ according to the emphasis placed on the various aspects of that knowledge, and their greatness is measured by the degree to which they mastered it. By that measure, Samkara was perhaps the greatest of the historical Hindu sages, not including, however, Gautama the Buddha.

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The Three Doctrines

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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.

The Commentaries and Treatises

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Samkara, by writing his commentary on the Brahma sutras of Badarayana, the Brahmastrabhsya (early eighth century; The Vednta Stras of Bdaryana with the Commentary of Samkara, 1890-1904), in which he stressed nondualism, became an important leader in the Advaita system of the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy. Samkara’s writings consist of a number of important commentaries as well as original treatises of various lengths. Of his commentaries, the one on the Brahma sutras is of the greatest importance for his followers. Also important are those on some of the principal Upanishads as well as his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita.

Most of Samkara’s original treatises seem to have been written for his disciples’ use only. Among these is a very short one consisting of precisely ten quatrains, and a somewhat longer one consisting of 101 quatrains. Of his two compendiums of Advaita philosophy, Upadesashasr (early eighth century; A Thousand Teachings, 1949) consists of 116 numbered prose paragraphs and 649 couplets arranged in nineteen chapters. The other compendium, whose authorship is subject to question, is The Crest Jewel of Wisdom, which consists of 581 stanzas, most of which are couplets and quatrains with a few triplets interspersed.

The Vedanta viewpoint (vedantadarsana) was firmly established by Badarayana in the Brahma sutras. Badarayana is believed to be the same person as Krishna Dvaipayana, the compiler of the Vedas, to whom the Mahabharata is attributed. However, the Vedas were compiled in 3100 b.c.e. according to Brahman chronology, and this is, perhaps, too early a date for Badarayana’s sutras.

Badarayana’s Sutras

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The Vednta Stras of Bdaryana with the Commentary of Samkara starts with an inquiry into Brahman, the world soul, then continues with a refutation of erroneous views, after which the means of reaching union with Brahman are discussed. Finally the fourth and last part is dedicated to the nature of liberation from the cycle of rebirth and discusses the kinds of liberated beings. The sutras (which are actually aphorisms) are extraordinarily terse, often consisting of only one or two words, and generally without any verbs. Commentators are needed to explain these riddles. However, as one would expect, commentators are wont to disagree among themselves, and so the Vedanta school split into three main systems, known as the Advaita, or nondual system; the Vsistadvaita, or qualifiedly nondual system; and the Dvaita, or dualistic system. Of these, the first system is that of Samkara and his commentary; the second is that of Ramanuja and his great commentary (S’ribhasya); the third system is that of Madhva, or Anandatirtha, and his Sutrabhasya.

Samkara teaches the unity of the human self with Brahman and that their apparent separation is an illusion (maya). Ramanuja, while admitting that the human self can unite with Brahman, claims that both are real. His system is theistic and anthropomorphic, based on religious devotion rather than on rules of logic, as is that of Samkara. Madhva, however, teaches that the duality of the human soul and Brahman persists, that both are real and independent of each other. His dualism is unqualified and opposes Samkara’s monistic views as well as the views of Ramanuja.

There have been other commentators on the Brahma sutras. Perhaps the most recent is Baladeva (eighteenth century), whose extensive commentary, known as Govinda Bhasya, gives the Vaisnava viewpoint, because he was a follower of Sri Chaitanya. The Govinda Bhasya is therefore theistic, like the one by Ramanuja.

A Guide to Spiritual Wisdom

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The Crest Jewel of Wisdom was written by Samkara to assist the would-be aspirant to spiritual wisdom in his efforts to free himself from incessant rebirths. There is a strong similarity between the teachings and methods of Samkara and the Buddha. Both aimed to teach humankind how to conquer pain and suffering, how to reach the acme of adulthood, and finally how to obtain the highest spiritual state possible while still living on earth. Both considered conditioned existence as unreal and stressed its illusory character (maya). Neither of the two had any use for personal gods (devas), knowing themselves superior to the latter. The Buddhists and Advaita Vedantists have been called atheists by their opponents, and Buddha as well as Samkara discarded rituals completely. There is no real difference between the path leading to Buddhahood and the path leading to the state of a Jivanmukta. All this makes it more difficult to explain the nearly complete silence of the Buddha on the subject of the self (atman) and the almost continuous reference to the atman by Samkara. Buddha’s silence led many Buddhists as well as non-Buddhists to believe that Buddha denied the existence of the atman and, therefore, of a soul, which, of course, would contradict Buddha’s statements upon a number of other subjects.

Samkara’s writings are too metaphysical, even for the average Hindu, to be useful for any but advanced disciples in Hindu mysticism. This he frankly admits at the outset of most of his treatises. In the case of The Crest Jewel of Wisdom, he directs himself to a “wise man” (vidvan) who strives for liberation and has renounced his desire for the enjoyment of external objects. He advises the wise man to apply to a true and great spiritual teacher for guidance. After some further advice of a general nature, he states the qualifications necessary for success in this venture, apart from being learned and of strong intellect: discrimination between things permanent and transitory; indifference to enjoyment of the fruits of one’s actions in this world and in the next; yearning to be liberated (mumuksuta), which is the desire to be liberated by knowing one’s own real nature and the bonds made through ignorance, from egoism down to the body; and the six accomplishments: (1) s’ama (tranquillity), which is a state of mind devoted to its goal; (2) dama (self-control), which is the fixing in their own proper sphere of both the organs of perception and of action, after reverting them from their objects; (3) uparati (cessation), which is the spontaneous abstaining from action by the mind; (4) titiksa (forbearance), which is patient endurance of all suffering, without retaliation, free from anxiety and complaint; (5) s’raddha (faith), which is reflection and meditation on the truth of the words of the guru and of the sacred texts; and (6) samadhana (deep concentration), which is the constant fixing of the discriminating mind (buddhi) on the pure Brahman and not the indulging of the mind (citta).

The Guru

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The necessary qualifications for the guru, the teacher whom the well-equipped aspirant to liberation or Nirvana must now seek, are even more severe. The guru, through whom freedom from bondage is to be attained, must be spiritually wise, conversant with sacred knowledge, sincere, and not suffering from desires; he must know the nature of Brahman; he must be one who is at rest in the eternal, like a fire that is tranquil when destitute of fuel, one who is a river of disinterested compassion, a friend of all living creatures.

Having found such a preceptor and having asked him for guidance, the disciple, when found worthy, is then instructed by the master, who praises him or her for the desire to rid the self of the bonds of ignorance (avidya). The disciple is told that liberation can be achieved only through the direct perception of the oneness of the individual self (atman) with the universal self (Brahman). Neither the Vedas nor the scriptures (sastras) nor the incantations (mantras) nor any medicine can help those who are bitten by the snake of ignorance.

It is necessary to know how to discriminate between spirit and non-spirit, between the self and not-self. In order to show the difference between spirit and non-spirit, the guru outlines the visible and invisible part of nature, beginning with the grossest of humans’ constituent vehicles.

The gross body is produced from the five subtle elements, whose functions are responsible for the five senses. The guru warns of the danger of sense enjoyments and of desires pertaining to the body, and he describes the danger in no uncertain terms. The internal organ consists of manas, the mental faculties of postulating and doubting; the intellect, having the characteristic of certainty about things; the ego-conforming power, producing the conception “I”; and the mind, having the property of concentration. The vital principle manifests itself, according to its transformations, as one of the five “vital airs.” The subtle or astral body is the vehicle of the five faculties, the five sense organs, the five vital airs, the five elements, ignorance, desire, and action. It is also known as the vehicle of characteristics, and is active in dreams. The causal body of the self is the unmanifested condition of the three universal qualities. Its state is that of dreamless sleep. The three universal qualities are purity, action, and darkness. When the purity is unalloyed there will be perception of the self.

The guru now defines in many ways the supreme spirit (paramatman), through the knowledge of which isolation (kaivalya) or freedom is obtained.

The Five Sheaths

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A description follows of the five sheaths (kosa), another way of looking at the constituents of a human being. They are the annamaya-sheath, sustained by physical food—that is, the gross body; the pranamaya-sheath, the vehicle of the vital forces, through which the ego performs all the actions of the gross body; the manomaya-sheath, consisting of the organs of sensation and manas, the latter mental faculty being the cause of ignorance and consequently the cause of the bondage of conditioned existence, although the same manas when pure becomes the cause of liberation; the vijnanamaya-sheath, consisting of intellect and the powers of perception, the doer of actions and the cause of the rounds of rebirth, the embodied ego that has no beginning in time and that is the guide of all actions; the anandamaya-sheath, the reflection of absolute bliss, yet not free from the quality of darkness.

The guru explains that these five sheaths are not the Self. The latter is self-illumined and remains after the subtraction of these sheaths. It is the witness of the three states, of the waking, dreaming, and deep-sleep state.

The Disciple Advances

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The disciple is now given subtler teachings about the self and the supreme spirit. The mystic formula: “This is Brahman, that thou art (tat tvam asi),” paraphrasing the Chandogya-Upanishad, is repeated in a number of stanzas.

The subject of the mental impressions that are the seeds in the mind through which karma manifests subsequently to any act is now discussed by the guru, and the disciple is told how to exhaust them. At the same time, the disciple must overcome the feeling of “I,” the power of egoism, and many stanzas are dedicated to the elaboration of this subject. Other subjects are interwoven in the discussion, such as that of nirvikalpa samadhi, a superior type of meditation.

The stanzas become more and more abstruse as the disciple advances in spiritual matters. The characteristics of jivanmukta, a person who is liberated while living on earth, are described, and also the consequences of this achievement, especially in relation to the three kinds of karma.

Finally comes the moment when the disciple, through the guru’s teaching, through the evidence of the revealed scriptures, and through his or her own efforts, realizes the full truth and becomes absorbed in the universal self. The disciple speaks and informs the master about his or her spiritual experiences, describing the absolute (parabrahman) and spiritual bliss. He or she is without attachment and without limbs, sexless, and indestructible. The disciple is neither the doer nor the enjoyer, for he or she is without change and without action. The disciple, now the self-illumined atman, bows down before the guru through whose compassion and greatly esteemed favor the disciple has achieved the goal of his or her existence.

The guru, greatly pleased, explains the position of the knower of Brahman in the remaining stanzas. At the end, the disciple salutes the guru respectfully. Liberated from bondage, with the guru’s permission, the disciple goes away.

Bibliography

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Additional Reading

Aleaz, K. P. The Relevance of Relation in Samkara’s Advaita Vedanta. Delhi: Kant, 1996. This work looks at the concept of relation in Samakara’s philosophy. Includes index.

Isaeva, N. V. Shankara and Indian Philosophy. SUNY Series in Religious Studies. Albany: State University of New York, 1993. This volume looks at Samkara and Indian philosophy with an emphasis on religion. Includes index.

Pande, Govind Chandra. Life and Thought of Sankaracarya. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1994. This biography of Samkara traces his life and examines his work and beliefs. Includes indexes.

Potter, K. H., ed. Advaita Vedanta Up to Samkara and His Pupils. Vol. 3. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies. Delhi, India: Motilal Barnasidas, 1981. Summary of many works by Advaita Vedantins with an introduction by a leading interpreter of Indian philosophy.

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. Indian Philosophy. 2 vols. London: Allen and Unwin, 1923. A history of Indian philosophy from an unrelentingly Advaita Vedanta standpoint.

Ru, S. Suba. The Vedanta-Sutras with the Commentary by Sri Madwacharya: A Complete Translation. Madras: Minerva Press, 1904. The only translation of Madhva’s interpretation; extremely rare translation of the work of a great scholar.

Sankaranarayanan, S. Sri Sankara: His LIfe, Philosophy, and Relevance to Man in Modern Times. Madras, India: Adyar Library and Research Center, 1995. This volume published by the Theosophical Society looks at Samkara and attempts to relate his philosophy to modern times. Includes index.

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