Sankara Essay - Critical Essays



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."

Principal English Translations

Brhadaranyaka Upanisad. With the Commentary of Sankaracarya and the Gloss of Ananda Giri. [edited by E. Röer] 1849-56

Isa, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya Upanisads. With the Commentary of Sankaracarya and the Gloss of Ananda Giri. [edited by E. Röer] 1849-56

Chandogya Upanisad. With the Commentary of Sankaracarya and the Gloss of Ananda Giri. [edited by E. Röer] 1850

Taittiriya and Aitareya Upanisads. With the Commentary of Sankaracarya and the Gloss of Ananda Giri. [edited by E. Röer] 1850

The Vedanta sutras of Badarayana, with the Commentary by Sancara [translated by George Thibaut] 1890-96. Reprinted as Sacred Books of the East, Vols. 34, 38, 1968.

The Bhagavadgita. With the Commentary of Sri Sankaracarya. [translated by A. Mahedeva Sastri] 1897

Brahmasutrabhaiyam [edited by Anandajnana] 1900-03

The Brahmasutrabhaiya [edited by R. A. K. Narayan] 1904

The Works of Sankaracarya. 2 vols. [edited by T. K. Balasubramanyam Iyer Gurubhaktasikhhamani] 1910. Reprint, 1964.

The Works of Sri Sankaracarya, Vol. 1: Ten Principal Upanisads [edited by T. K. Balasubramanyam Iyer Gurubhaktasikhamani] 1910. Reprint, 1964.

Srimadbhagavadgita. With the Commentary of Sankara and the Gloss of Anandagiri. [edited by K. Sastri Agase] 1927

The Chandogya-Upanisad, a Treatise on Vedanta Philosophy, [translated by Ganganath Jha] 1942

Mandukyopanisad. With the Commentary of Sankara. [translated by Swami Nikhilananda] 1944

Srimadbhagavadgita. With the Commentary of Sankara. [edited by D. V. Gokhale] 1950

Eight Upanisads. With the Commentary of Sankara. [translated by Swami Gambhirananda] 1956

Brahmasutra Sankarabhaiya [translated by V. M. Apte] 1960

Isa and Kena Upanisads. With the Commentary of Sankara. [edited and translated by S. Gosvamin] 1964

Works of Sankaracarya. 3 vols. 1964

Brahmasutrabhasya [translated by Swami Gambhirananda] 1965

The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad. The Commentary of Sankaracarya. [translated by Swami Madhavananda] 1965

Vedanta Explained. Sankara's Commentary on the Brahmasutra. 2 vols. [translated by V. H. Date] 1973

Gita in Sankara's Own Words. 4 vols. [translated by V. Panoli] 1979


Daniel H. H. Ingalls (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "Samkara's Arguments against the Buddhists," Philosophy East and West, Vol. III, No. 4, January, 1954, pp. 291-306.

[In the essay below, Ingalls suggests a comparative textual analysis of Sankara's writings for exploring his complex views on Buddhism.]

Much has been said on the relation of Samkaracarya to the Buddhists, and the views which are current on this topic differ as much as black differs from white. The more enthusiastic of Samkara's followers claim that he is chiefly responsible for driving the Buddhists out of India. Their sectarian opponents, on the other hand, have claimed that far from opposing Buddhism Samkara secretly accepted its doctrines and...

(The entire section is 7258 words.)

Y. Keshava Menon and Richard F. Allen (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: "Epistemology" in The Pure Principle: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Shankara, Michigan State University Press, 1960, pp. 37-55.

[Below, Menon and Allen discuss Sankara's theory of knowledge and how his epistemology "steered a middle course between the two main Hindu schools of thought."]

How can we come to know the Self? The answer is that if we truly know anything at all, it is the Self; and everything else we seem to know is a product of avidya or ignorance, which splits up the pure or integral knowledge into subject and object. For if the Self is universal and is the only reality, then, as Sir S. Radhakrishnan has said, it is not the real that calls...

(The entire section is 7028 words.)

S. S. Roy (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: "The Heritage of Sankara: A Meeting of Extremes" in The Heritage of Sankara, Udayana Publications, 1965, pp. 139-82.

[In the following essay, Roy discusses how the Advaitic philosophy embodied in Sankara's work is a synthesis of two extreme schools of Hindu philosophical thought.]

(1) The Heritage of Sankara: A Meeting of Extremes.

… The question is—What are the extremes in the Indian philosophical thought? And what do we actually mean by saying that these extremes have met in the heritage of Sankara? For answering the first question, we need a fundamentum divisionis, whereby we could indicate the extreme points of...

(The entire section is 7191 words.)

John A. Taber (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Indian Philosophy, Western Philosophy, and the Problem of Intelligibility" in Transformative Philosophy: A Study of Sankara, Fichte, and Heidegger, University of Hawaii Press, 1983, pp. 27-67.

[In the essay below, Taber argues that understanding Sankara's theory as transformative philosophy is an essential element in making his notions of the self and self-consciousness "intelligible" to western minds.]

After more than a hundred years of research in Indian philosophy by Western philologists, the prevailing attitude toward Indian philosophy among Western philosophers—I mean especially Anglo-Saxon philosophers—is still one of disregard. The following remarks...

(The entire section is 21662 words.)

Y. Masih (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "The Modem Relevance of Shankara" in Shankara's Universal Philosophy of Religion, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1987, pp. 130-46.

[In the following essay, Masih discusses Sankara in several contexts including comparative religion, psychology, and modern philosophy in exploring his relevancy to the modern world.]

The most important commitment of Shankara was to find out the way out of human miseries involved in earthly existence. Ontologically he established that the supreme reality is Brahman, which is eternal, unchangeable and untouched by the vicissitudes of any existents. After giving an ontological reason and defence of non-dual Brahman he...

(The entire section is 6032 words.)

Jonathan Bader (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Approaches to the Study of Sankara" in Meditation in Sankara's Vedanta, Aditya Prakashan, 1990, pp. 7-24.

[Below, Bader outlines various schools of Sankara scholarship, noting their strengths and weaknesses.]

In 1952 Professor [Daniel H. H.] Ingalls called attention to the need for new efforts in the application of historical methods to the study of Sankara.1 He suggested that the philosophical analysis of Sankara's thought could not proceed much further without the assistance of historical study. At this very time two other scholars, [Paul] Hacker and [Hajime] Nakamura, were engaged in research which was to give new direction to the study of...

(The entire section is 5876 words.)

Anantanand Rambachan (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "The Vedas as a Pramana" in Accomplishing the Accomplished: The Vedas as a Source of Valid Knowledge in Sankara, University of Hawaii Press, 1991, pp. 31-54.

[In the following essay, Rambachan analyzes Sankara's belief in sruti as the essential and true source of knowledge of brahman.]

Sabda can be seen as a pramana for our knowledge of the empirical world as well as ultimate reality. Advaita, however, is not primarily concerned with sabda-pramana as a vehicle of secular knowledge. As such a medium, sabda cannot lay claim to any particular uniqueness, for the knowledge which it conveys is, in most cases, available...

(The entire section is 13955 words.)

Natalia Isayeva (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Biography of Sankara and His Main Works" in Shankara and Indian Philosophy, State University of New York Press, 1993, pp. 69-104.

[Below, Isayeva surveys the various hagiographies of Sankara's life, outlines the three categories of his writings, and discusses the difficulty scholars have encountered in authenticating some of his work.]

1. Sankara's Life

We know both too much and too little about Sankara's life. The hagiographical tradition of Vedanta overflows with descriptions of wonderful signs and prophecies, fantastic occurrences and brilliant aphorisms that accompanied literally every day and hour of the Advaitist's earthly...

(The entire section is 11515 words.)

Further Reading

Bhattacharya, Abheda Nanda. The Idealistic Philosophy of Samkara & Spinoza. Some Typical Problems of Idealism of the Two Philosophers. Delhi: Durga Publications, 1985. 133p.

Compares the notion of one Ultimate Reality in the writings of Sankara with that in the work of Western philosopher Baruch Spinoza.

De Smet, R.V. "Sankara and Aquinas on Liberation (Mukti)." Indian Philosophical Annual 5 (1970): 239-47.

Discusses the similarities and differences between Sankara's and Thomas Aquinas's theology regarding liberation, arguing that epistemological differences ultimately underlie their divergent views.

Devaraja, N. K. "The Place of...

(The entire section is 386 words.)