(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Samkara was the greatest teacher and commentator of Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, a religious and philosophical tradition based on a nondualist, monistic reading of the Hindu sacred texts, the Upanishads. This perspective has been the dominant reading of these writings among Brahman teachers and a widely accepted perspective among Hindu philosophers.

Early Life

According to tradition, Samkara (also known as Sankara, Shankara, Sankarācārya) left his mother at age eight to wander India as a Hindu ascetic, gained wisdom, came to be viewed as an incarnation of the god Shiva, and founded monasteries to preserve and spread his teachings. According to one story, he tricked his mother by pretending to be captured by a crocodile who would release him only if he adopted the life of a religious ascetic. According to another story, he left his mother at the age of eight, promising to return to do his duty by her burial needs. Some scholars doubt this story on the grounds at least that an enlightened ascetic would be free from all worldly concerns and thus not properly responsible for the burial rites of anyone, even a mother. There are stories of his winning disputes with competing philosophers. He wrote poetry and hymns to various gods.

Life’s Work

The aphorisms of Badarayana are one source of authoritative teachings within the Hindu Vedantic tradition. Samkara’s commentary on these sacred and esoteric sayings, The Vedānta Sūtras of Bādarāyana with the Commentary of Samkara, became a highly influential source of Vedantic teachings. The Bhagavad Gītā (“the song of the blessed lord”), technically not an authoritative scripture but treated with great respect and in practical terms treated as having scriptural status, is perhaps the most loved of Hindu religious texts. The Upanishads, of which there are many, are Hindu scripture, as are the Vedas; the former are the more doctrinal of these documents. Samkara’s commentaries on these works (the Bhagavad Gītā and various of the Upanishads) are essential parts of his overall corpus, and they are also part of the authoritative texts of the Advaita Vedanta tradition. Although not regarded as the founder of Advaita Vedanta, which its adherents regard as having been taught by all of the Hindu scriptures, Samkara is thought of as having given this perspective its de facto definitive statement, and his work was central to a revival of Hinduism after a period of its waning in the light of Buddhist influence in India.

Badarayana’s sutras are a series of aphorisms on which a major thinker of the Vedantic tradition must comment. Samkara’s The Vedānta Sūtras of Bādarāyana with the Commentary of Samkara is a very influential commentary on this work, reading Badarayana’s work as a presentation of Advaita Vedanta thought. Aphorisms are notoriously capable of diverse interpretations. The same work by Badarayana is interpreted very differently by other major Vedantic thinkers. Samkara’s thought is best understood in comparison with the other major thinkers within the general Vedantic tradition to which Samkara belongs. Preeminent among these are Ramanuja, whose writings express Vsistadvaita (qualifiedly nondual) Vedanta, and Madhva, whose works advocate Dvaita (dualistic) Vedanta. Ramanuja and Madhva are much closer to one another in their views than either is to Samkara; they are both monotheists and Samkara is a monist.

The major religious difference between Samkara’s view and the views of Ramanuja and Madhva, then, is that the latter are monotheists, believing in a personal deity, and Samkara is a monist, holding that Brahman or ultimate reality is apersonal. Badarayana’s aphorisms, the Bhagavad Gītā, and the Upanishads can be read monotheistically, and they can be read monistically. In particular, there are passages that, taken literally, teach that Brahman is a personal God and other passages that, taken literally, teach that Brahman is an apersonal reality. Because all these passages are taken to be scriptural and hence authoritative, none of them can be taken to be false. If both sorts of passages are properly read as literal, then one sort of passage must be false. Hence, the reasoning goes, one sort of passage must be taken literally and one sort of passage must not. The crucial question is which text merits a literal reading. Samkara reads the “Brahman is apersonal” passages literally and the “Brahman is a personal God” passages as nonliteral. Ramanuja and Madhva take exactly the reverse position. Interpreting the same authoritative text, Samkara and Ramanuja and Madhva come up with radically different religious perspectives. It is the monotheistic reading that had the greatest religious impact in India, and probably Samkara’s monistic reading that had the greatest impact on Brahman philosophers.

The basic philosophical difference between Samkara and Ramanuja and Madhva is that Samkara distinguishes between the level of appearance and the level of reality. Understanding this distinction is basic to comprehending Samkara’s philosophical perspective. The...

(The entire section is 2111 words.)