Download Samkara Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Author Profile

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

Samkara is the most influential philosopher of the Advaita, or nondualistic, school of Vedānta philosophy in India. He was considered the incarnation of the god Śiva. His view is representative of the main teachings of the Upanisads, which do not portray any consistent view of the universe and of reality. Samkara detected a synthesis underlying the Upanisads and insisted on interpreting them in a single coherent manner. He tried to revive the intellectual speculation of the Upanisads through his reaction against the ascetic tendency of Buddhism and the devotional tendencies stressed by the Mimāmsa school. The central position of Samkara’s philosophy is that all is one; only the ultimate principle has any real existence, and everything else is an illusion (māyā). The basic teaching of Advaita Vedānta is that the direct method of realization of Brahman is the path of knowledge, which consists of getting instruction from a teacher, reflecting on its meaning, and meditating on truth with single-minded devotion. For Samkara, philosophical discrimination and renunciation of the unreal are the basic disciplines for the realization of Brahman. Finite humanity can catch a glimpse of Brahman through a personal god, who is the highest manifestation of the infinite.

The self, or ātman, according to Samkara, is pure subject and is never an object of consciousness. It is not a duality; it is different from the phenomenal, the spatial, the temporal, and the sensible. It is assumed to be foundational but it is in no sense a substance. Self is the ever-existent and self-existent first principle. It is not something that is unknown. One must come to the realization that one is Brahman. This is self-knowledge, the knowledge of self being the self of all things. One must realize one’s identity as Brahman, for Brahman is knowledge. Self-knowledge and realization are one and the same. From the level of Brahman, nothing is seen to be real—not the existential self that people view as ego, not the worlds, and not the universes.

According to Advaita Vedānta philosophy, the highest good consists in breaking down the bonds that shut one out of the reality that one is. It is only the realization of Brahman that can give one permanent satisfaction. Samkara wrote, “Attaining the Knowledge of Reality, one sees the universe as the nondual Brahman, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute.” It is not possible for everyone to achieve this highest state, yet everyone can try to achieve it progressively, through his or her inner light. It is up to the individual to choose any course of action (karma) that is of value to that person. When one clings to the world, one looks for rewards for action and feels disappointed when the objects of desire are not achieved. This applies even to praiseworthy actions such as worship and giving alms. If these actions are performed with desire or attachment, they cause bondage. Therefore, nonattachment must be cultivated if one wants to progress to the highest good.

It is often believed that Samkara discourages the performance of duties and advocates the discipline of nonaction for the realization of truth. This is not true, however, because Samkara’s position is that because of māyā , or ignorance, one does not recognize one’s true nature and finds oneself involved with the relative world of good and evil, life and death, and other pairs of opposites. Therefore, one tries to avoid evil and to do good, rising and falling according to the results of one’s actions. Gradually, one discovers that it is impossible to attain lasting happiness and peace by clinging to rewards and realizes that work performed in the spirit of surrendering the results to God, in the spirit of calm, unattached by love or hate, by reward or punishment, purifies the heart and makes it inclined toward the cultivation of meditation and self-knowledge. The liberated person engages in service to humanity but not in an egoistic way, because a...

(The entire section is 1,045 words.)