Sankara Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Sankara c. 788 - c. 820

Indian philosopher, theologian, and mystic.

Considered the most influsential figure in the history of Hindu religious thought, Sankara was the preeminent proponent of the Advaita Vedanta school, a nondualistic theology maintaining that the eternal Self (atman) and God (Brahman) are one. Known primarily for his commentary on the Brahma Sutra, Sankara also wrote seminal commentaries on the ten principal Upanisads and the Bhagavadgita, which together comprise the canonical texts of Vedanta. Sankara also translated and wrote commentaries on other sacred Hindu writings, as well as composing some poetry and hymns of praise. He established important centers of religious thought throughout India: the monastery at Sringeri is a leading center of Hindu study and worship to this day, and Sankara's followers, the Smartas, remain a large and influential group in India. His writings, especially his commentaries on the Brahma Sutra, continue to serve as models of rigorous intellectual thought and remarkable literary achievement.

Biographical Information

Much of what we know of Sankara's life has been gleaned from Sanskrit biographical material that is part recorded history and part hagiographic legend. According to the most widely accepted of these accounts, Sankara was born around 788 in the small village of Kaladi in Kerala, in South India, to a respected Sáivite Brahmin family. He was the only child of Shivaguru and Aryamba, a couple who had remained childless for a long time. According to legend, his mother, Aryamba, conceived after praying to and receiving the intercession of the Hindu God Siva. Araymba was told she could have several unremarkable children who would be blessed with long lives, or just one son who would only live a short time, but would be an extraordinary prodigy. She chose the latter. Siva became incarnate and entered Aryamba'a womb as Sankara. According to biographical accounts, Sankara quickly displayed his intellectual gifts, mastering Sanskrit and several other languages while he was still a toddler and beginning serious scriptural study by age three or four. His father died when he was five. Sankara became an ascetic while still a young boy and undertook a life of serious intellectual activity that led to his studying in Banaras. He was originally a disciple of the Yoga School, which promulgated the dual nature of reality—the self and God as distinct entities. He soon developed, however, his non-dual philosophy and completed his principal writings while still in his youth. Sankara traveled and taught throughout India, beginning in Kasi (Varanasi), a center of learning and faith. He eventually founded four major monasteries at Badarinatha (in the north), Sringeri (south), Puri (east), and Dvaraka (west). While Sankara undoubtedly had many students and disciples during his lifetime, the writings of only four of his pupils have survived—Padmapada, Suresvara, Totaka, and Hastamalaka, who each became leaders at the four monasteries. Sankara frequently gained new disciples and converts after dominating opponents from rival schools in theological debates. Though he spent almost his entire life traveling and teaching, when Sankara learned that his mother was very ill and near death, he returned home to perform her burial rites. Monks are generally prohibited from performing this duty for a family member, but Sankara ignored this proscription because of his love and gratitude for his mother. In accordance with the covenant his mother had made with Siva, Sankara died when he was only thirty-two years old at Kedarnatha in the Himalayas.

Major Works

The authentication of over three hundred writings attributed to Sankara remains the focus of contemporary scholarship and debate, but critics do not dispute the authorship of his commentaries on the three essential sacred texts of Hinduism: the Brahma Sutra, the Bhagavadgita, and the ten principal Upanisads. He reportedly completed almost all of these works when he was only about twelve years old. The equation of Atman with Brahma is the most profound tenet of Sankara's philosophy. His theology departed not only from traditional Hindu thought in his non-dual description of one Ultimate Reality, but also in his approach to achieving enlightenment. Traditional Hinduism had postulated that liberation (moska) depended on following four paths: knowledge, devotion, duty, and discipline. Instead, Sankara taught that achieving moska was solely the product of one's enlightened grasp of the true and unchanging nature of reality. The goal of escaping the cycle of transmigratory existence (samsara) is achieved by understanding that the appearance of change, individuality, and differentiation in the world are merely illusions (maya). Salvation, according to Sankara, is a matter of intellectual insight, not contingent on birth or idolatry. Studying with a guru and spiritual exercises are also important elements in Sankara's prescription for achieving spiritual liberation. In addition to the commentaries, Sankara is also credited with composing numerous poems and hymns of praise, but his authorship of the majority of these works continues to be disputed.

Critical Reception

To this day, serious theological debate in Hindu thought begins with a disputation of Sankara's writings. The simplicity, clarity, and grace of Sankara's commentaries, together with his ability to acquire converts and disciples, made him revered in his own day and contributed to his ideas becoming well-known during his lifetime. His philosophy, then as now, resonated primarily with the Brahmin caste. Sankara taught essentially in intellectual villages, which were more hospitable to his ideas than the cities where Buddhism and the emergence of Jainism predominated theological thought. There was also less of an emphasis on spirituality and more of a tendency towards materialism and hedonism in the urban centers. Regarding the substance of his work, some critics debate the originality of his thought or the degree to which he borrowed from Buddhism as well as the other Hindu sects. Much contemporary scholarship continues to be devoted to the authentication of his work. Scholars including Paul Hacker, Mayeda Sengaku, and others have determined that a number of works can definitively be included in Sankara's body of writing. In addition to the Brahma-sutra-bhasya, these works include commentaries on the ten principal Upanisads, the commentary on the Bhaga-vadgita, the commentaries on the Mandñkya Upanisad with the Gaudapadiyakarika, and the Upadeiasahasri. Sankara's legacy spans generations as well as cultures and he has attracted the admiration and devotion of many westerners. Christopher Isherwood, the twentieth-century British novelist, once remarked, "As prophet and as thinker, Sankara stands among the greatest figures in the history of the world. By means of his remarkable clearness, his supreme wisdom, and his profound spirituality, he has so stamped himself upon Vedanta that it has remained the paragon of Indian Philosophy, and has given solace to the sorrowful hearts of a large segment of mankind."