Every human person is a seeker of that which makes him happy and accomplishes in him a sense of fulfillment. But he could make an error in recognizing what makes him happy and the means of attaining it. That is the reason we find different people go after different things, thinking that they would find fulfillment in them. Some seek money; others fame and power; yet others find joy in going into the forest leaving all worldly pleasures to find meaning in life. Often people walk through their life like blind men trying to find their way. So there is need for true teachers, who not only would point out the goal of life, but also provide the means of attaining it. Of the many teachers India has produced, the most significant Guru is Shankaraachaariya. He taught people that the goal of human existence is self-realization, which is the same as Brahman-realization, and the means of reaching this goal. In the first section of the introduction we attempt to look into Shankara's background and life, while the second section of the introduction lays out the plan by which we would unfold Shankara's ideal of self-realization.


In this section, we will outline the spiritual, intellectual and social situation before and during Shankara's time. We will look also into Shankara as an ascetic, a missionary and an interpreter of the Hindu scriptures. This section will also highlight the many-sided personality of Shankara and the importance of his Advaitic school of thought.

1.1. The Age of Shankara

Shankara lived at a time when society faced serious spiritual emptiness, intellectual crisis and social decadence. Historically it was more than ten centuries after the emergence of Buddhism. The spiritual situation was deplorable. Both Jainism and Buddhism had lost their original glory. The message of ahimsa and compassion preached by the Lord Buddha had fallen onto deaf ears. The original teaching of Buddha stressed the importance of moral life, in the process sidelining theistic worship. Over the centuries that followed, there emerged a number of Buddhist schools, the adherents of which used strict logic and reason to defend the rationalism and atheism inherent in Buddha's teachings, while totally forgetting the importance he gave to the supremacy of an ethical life of love and compassion. Thus, the common people were left neither with an ethical way of life nor with a religion to practice, as they could not come to terms with the rationalism and atheism propagated by the Buddhist schools. This, in turn, led to the worship of Buddha as God, the emergence of elaborate rituals of worship, and the Buddhist monks transforming themselves into priests of these new ceremonies and exponents of popular stories about Buddha. The spiritual life, therefore, among the Buddhists was at a low point, as what were left of Buddhism were mere logical schools and corrupt ritual practices. Thus, Buddhism had completed a full circle, in that the very ritualism which Buddha combatted in founding Buddhism had infected it; in the process, the vitality and purity of Buddhism taught by Lord Buddha had ceased to exist.1 Madhava-Vidhyaranya in his Shankara-Dig-Vijaya portrays the spiritual degeneration of Buddhism as follows:

In days of yore, . . . Lord Vishnu incarnated Himself as the Buddha and diverted unrighteous men from contaminating the Vedic Path by preaching a new religion for them. But today, the country is filled with the heterodox followers of that religion [Buddhism], as night is by darkness. They are indulging in carping criticism of the Veda, declaring it to be just a fraudulent means of livelihood for a few, and condemning its teachings of duties of varnas and ashramaas as mere superstitions. As people have given up the orthodox Vedic path and become heretics, there is none to do the daily devotional acts like sandhya or to take the life of renunciation.2

Thus, Buddhism had, by then, degenerated and deteriorated into innumerable philosophical schools that propagated atheism and rationalism, while popular Buddhism consisted of many corrupt religious and ritual practices. Religious practice, therefore, was left without any spiritual content.

Nor was the spiritual situation of Hinduism acceptable either. The decline of Buddhism provided an opportunity for the revival of Hinduism, but the aim of Hindu scholars at this time was not to bring genuine reform in Hinduism, but to attack and defile Buddhism. Elaborate attempts were made by Jaimini and Kumarila Bhatta to defend the teaching of Puurva Miimamsa, which contained details about Vedic rituals and sacrifices by way of logic and dialectics. The ordinary masses, who did not understand logic and rational approach, were prescribed rituals and sacrifices, often exaggerating their importance and the manner of their performance.3 Thus, the whole practice of rituals and performances of sacrifices in the Hinduism of the time were bereft of genuine spiritual fervor and the deep inner experience of the Divine. The lack of inner spirit in the practice of Hindu religion did, in no way, provide any positive guidance to the people, as these elaborate rituals were without any purposive direction. Without any inner spirit and genuine purpose, the practice of Hinduism gave way to various sects, which attempted to expound their own beliefs rather than the truth contained in the Vedas.4 Such sectarianism and varied interests of different sects turned the "benign gods and goddesses . . . into blood-thirsty ones, groveling in the mire of sensuality and lust, and demanding awesome, cruel and barbaric homage from their misguided devotees."5 

Thus, both Buddhism and Hinduism, prior to and during Shankara's age were without any spiritual content and dynamism. Swami Atmananda summarizes the spiritual state of both the religions as follows: The people able to think were caught between Buddhist logic and atheism on the one hand and the subtle interpretation of Miimamsa on the other; the masses were caught between the Hindu Puraanas and Buddhist Jataka stories, or gorgeous ceremonies before the image of Buddha or the elaboration of the Vedic sacrifice. Spiritual insight was conspicuous by its absence. Such was the atmosphere in India that called forth a Shankara.6 

At the intellectual level there was a serious crisis. Genuine interest for true knowledge was lacking. Since this period was given to religious sectarianism, each school of thought was only concerned about proving what it considered as true, rather than looking for true and objective knowledge about reality. As a result, on the one hand there were literalists and ritualists, who attempted to be faithful to the letter of the scriptures, in the process totally oblivious to the spiritual message contained in them; on the other hand there were nihilists, rationalists and atheists, who were totally opposed to the sacred teachings of the Vedas. There was a fanaticism that swayed the minds of most scholars, which led to attacks and belittlement other schools of thought, rather than really seeking the truth with an open mind. Swami Chinmayananda depicts the intellectual situation of the age of Shankara as follows: Hinduism had been almost smothered within the enticing entanglements of the Buddhist philosophy, and consequently the decadent Hindu society came to be disunited and broken up into numberless sects and denominations, each championing a different viewpoint and engaged in mutual quarrels and endless argumentations. Each pundit, as it were, had his own followers, his own philosophy, his own interpretation; each one was a vehement and powerful opponent of all other views. This intellectual disintegration, especially in the scriptural field, was never before so serious and so dangerously calamitous as in the time of Shankara.7 

The spiritual and intellectual degeneration had its effects in the social life of the times. The divisive mentality that marked the intellectual and spiritual spheres also was carried over to the social life. Hindu society was weighed down by the yoke of caste system.8 The lower castes were treated with contempt by the higher classes, especially by the priestly class. The suudras were often considered untouchables. They could never have a life on par with the other classes, in any sphere of social life. This led to the exploitation of the members of the lowest caste, who were ignorant and without any education. Priests used religion and rituals as a means of aggression, subordination and control over the lower castes, as it was more a means of intimidation rather than a means of solace for the people. Such religious practices led to social corruption and exploitation of the lower castes by the higher castes. Thus, the social life was not impacted by moral values. A utilitarian attitude dominated and controlled social relationships. Society was moving without any sense of direction and orientation.

Thus, the Indian heritage Shankara received to transform was like a ship without the navigator. There was an all-round degeneration. Every sphere of existence revolved around the superficial and the external, lacking true inner spirit. The following quotation truly depicts the state of India before Shankara was born.

India was going through great intellectual, spiritual and social turmoil. Vedic religion had become a mere performance of elaborate rituals as advocated by Puurva Miimamsa, which took into consideration only the Brahmana portion of the Vedic lore. Buddhism was past its heyday of freshness and purity and had degenerated into innumerable philosophical schools and as many corrupt religious practices. . . .Hinduism had developed into a number of intolerant sects. Squabbles, dissensions and corruption prevailed in the name of religion. It was into such an age of fuming confusion, chaotic intellectual anarchy and social decadence that . . . Shankara was born to destroy the wicked and crooked ways of thinking, establish Sanaatana Dharma, and to impart to it the life-giving philosophy of non-dual Brahman.9

1.2. Shankara's Birth and Early Life

There is a legend that speaks of the circumstances that led to the birth of Shankara. According to it a devout couple of the Nambhudhiri family,10 belonging to Kaaladi, a small village in the west coast of south India, did severe penance before the Swambhu Linga in Vadakkunnatha temple at Trichur, asking the Lord Shiva to bless them with a male child, as they were without children for a long time. Their prayer pleased the Lord and He appeared in a dream and placed before them the choice of a long-lived son of average intellect or a brilliant and virtuous son who would have a short life span. After much thought and prayer, they seem to have chosen the latter option.11 Thus, the baby was born by an intervention of the grace of the Lord Siva. The child was named Shankara, possibly for two reasons. Firstly, he was born because of the grace of Siva, who is also known as Shankara. Secondly, by his vocation the child is called to be the bestower (kara) of happiness (sam) to all those who come to him.12 

There is no consensus among the historians of Indian thought about the exact dates of his birth and death. According to Telang, Shankara belonged to the middle or the end of the sixth century A.D. Sir R.C. Bhaandaarkar suggests 680 A.D. as the year of Shankara's birth. Anantaanandagiri, in his biography of Shankara, Samkaravijaya, proposes that he was born in 44 B.C. and died in 12 B.C.13 None of these is based on sound evidence, but are only possible dates. Today the generally accepted dates of Shankara's birth and death are 788 A.D. and 820 A.D. respectively.14 

Though it is difficult to determine the exact dates of Shankara's life, the fact that he is an historical figure and a thinker of extraordinary merit is beyond any doubt. He was an academic prodigy, and even as a child he manifested extraordinary intelligence, capacity for memorizing and ability to communicate what he had grasped. By the age of three Shankara had not only learned the alphabet, but also was able to read, memorize and understand a whole book. Though his father, Sivaguru, wished to send Shankara to a gurugula school after upanayanam,15 he died when Shankara was three years old. His wife Aryamba carried out Sivaguru's wish for their son, when Shankara was five years old.16 Shankara rapidly learned the basics taught at the gurugula school and immersed himself in the study of the various disciplines. Madhava states Shankara's progress in learning as follows:

Very quickly he [Shankara] learnt the four Vedas and the six Sastraas from the Guru who was astonished by the prodigious intelligence and capacity of the small boy. His fellow students could not keep pace with him and the Guru himself felt embarrassed by the demands on his limited capacity to teach. His progress in study was so rapid that within two or three months he equaled the Guru himself in knowledge. . . . [Besides], assiduously he learnt Logic, Yoga Philosophy, Samkhya of Kapila, and Miimamsa doctrines as expounded by Bhatta; but his interest and joy in these subjects got completely submerged in his tremendous enthusiasm of the non-dualistic doctrine of the Upanishads, like a well in the water of flood.17

Shankara was, thus, an extremely gifted boy. At an age, when most children learn reading and writing, Shankara began to compose books and write verses. It is said that at the age of six he wrote a book entitled Balabodha-Samgraha.18 Besides, he was totally dissatisfied with the emptiness of formal learning. The teachers of his time did not practice the lofty truths they taught. He also recognized the intellectual, social and spiritual emptiness of the society in which he lived. Shankara, though a boy, realized the need for change and transformation in Hinduism, both in its philosophy and in its practice. He saw the need to understand the lofty truths of Hinduism in a new light and wanted his people to live by this new understanding of the scriptures.

Realization of the emptiness of the world and reflection on the death of his father, Sivaguru, made Shankara pensive. He was puzzled at the phenomena of life and death and wanted to find a solution to these mysteries of life. He saw the passing nature of this world and this life. Mohamudgaram: The Shattering of Illusion, which is believed to have been written by him at this period, reveals clearly the state of his mind, and his insight into life at this early age. In this work Shankara writes:

Who is they wife? Who is thy son?

These ways of this world are strange indeed.

Whose art thou? Whence art thou come?

Vast is thy ignorance, my beloved.

Therefore ponder these things and worship the Lord.

Behold the folly of Man:

In childhood busy with his toys,

In youth bewitched by love,

In age bowed down with cares B

And always unmindful of the Lord!

The Hours fly, the seasons roll, life ebbs,

But the breeze of hope blows continually in his heart.

Birth brings death, death brings rebirth:

This evil needs no proof.

Where then, O Man, is the happiness?

This life trembles in the balance

Like water on a lotus leaf B

And yet the sage can show us, in an instant,

How to bridge this sea of change.

When the body is wrinkled, when the hair turns gray,

When the gums are toothless, and the old man's staff shakes like a reed beneath his weight,

The cup of his desire is still full.

Thy son may bring thee suffering,

Thy wealth is no assurance of heaven;

Therefore be not vain of thy wealth,

Or of thy family, or of thy youth B

All are fleeting, all must change.

Know this and be free.

Enter the joy of the Lord.

Seek neither peace nor strife

With kith or kin, with friend or foe.

O beloved, if thou wouldst attain freedom,

Be equal unto all.19

This writing of Shankara clearly indicates his inner maturity, total detachment, perception of life and the world, rare virtues, great intelligence, and power of expression, about the time he completed the gurugula studies at the age of seven. Having completed his studies Shankara returned home to serve his mother. He also continued his study of the Vedas, offered oblations in the sacred fire twice a day and performed all the allied rituals faithfully. His fame spread so far and wide that even the king came to receive his blessings.20 

1.3. Shankara

The Ascetic and the Missionary:

Shankara's inner experience of the Divine and his perception of the world as a passing reality instilled in him a desire to transform the people, the society and the religious practices of his time. Impelled by this desire to turn society into the way of truth, he wanted to embrace the monastic life (sannyaasa). He communicated to his mother his desire of becoming a monk; but she would not give him permission. He was obedient to his mother, believing that in the long run she would give her consent to his plan of becoming an ascetic. There came an occasion when Shankara was having a bath in the river with his mother. A crocodile caught him on the leg and was pulling deep into the river. At this moment Shankara requested his mother to give him permission to become a monk, as he was going to die. Aryamba, reconciling to the fact, gave him permission. Shankara shouted thrice "I have renounced' (sannyaasthohem), and the crocodile left him. His mother also allowed him to look for a Guru, who would formally initiate him as a Sannyaasin. Leaving his mother to the care of his relatives and promising to keep her request of being with her at her death bed and performing her last rites, Shankara went looking for his Guru.21

After long travels Shankara reached the banks of the river Narmada, where he met the great philosopher and sage Gaudapada, and asked him to initiate him as a monk. Refusing his request Gaudapada directed him to Govindapada, his disciple.22 Govindapada initiated Shankara into Brahmavidhya, and thus Shankara began his training under his guidance. For the next three years Shankara stayed with his Guru and gave himself to the practice of meditation and yoga, and mastered all scriptures and yogic techniques.23 In doing so Shankara attained complete mystical realization, and Govindapada sent his gifted disciple to Banaaras to teach pure and simple Vedaantic principles.24 

At Banaaras Shankara was recognized for this wisdom and virtue. Many pupils came to him to listen to his discourses and some of them became his disciples and stayed with him. Some of his admirers and disciples, which included learned pundits and priests, conferred on him the title Aachariya (the teacher). Thus, Shankara became Shankaraachaariya.25 During his stay at Banaaras, Shankara met the great sage Vyaasa, 26 the author of Brahma-Suutras, who blessed him with a longer lease of life and commissioned him to use the rest of his life to uproot the doctrines of those who oppose Advaita philosophy, especially those who were deeply rooted in the ritualism of Puurva Miimamsa, and to establish the absoluteness of the Vedaantic teaching of unity of all existence. Accepting Vyaasa commission, Shankara began his missionary journeys for the "spiritual conquest of the whole land of Bhaarat (India)".27 

Shankara's new mission made him wander as a teacher from place to place engaging in discourses with leaders of other schools, making them realize their erroneous doctrines and practices. Per the direction of Vyaasa, the great sage, Shankara turned his attention to the teachers of Puurva Miimamsa, who had turned Hinduism into mere ritualism. The first person of this school whom Shankara met was Kumarila Bhatta, a confirmed ritualist. After his gurugula education, Bhatta disguised himself as a Buddhist monk, learned the logic of the Buddhist school under a Buddhist Guru and used the very logic to defeat Buddhism. In the process Bhatta established the ritualism of Puurva Miimamsa to its glory. But he suffered from a guilt complex because he had sinned against his Buddhist Guru (Guru-dosha). As a penance (praayachitta) he wanted to burn himself in the burning chaff (tusanala). It is when Bhatta was at the funeral pyre that Shankara came to meet him. Shankara promised to save him and requested to write an exegesis on his commentary on the Brahma-Suutra. But, Bhatta did not wish to escape his self-imposed vow of sacrificing himself for his sin. Instead, he directed Shankara to one of his illustrious disciples Mandana Mishra,28 to engage him in a debate mediated by Ubhaya-bharati, his wife, who also was a great scholar, acting as the umpire. Bhatta the wanted Shankara to defeat Mandana in the debate, accept him as Shankara's disciple and entrust him with the responsibility of annotating Shankara's works. Having said this to Shankara and listening to his chanting of Taraka-mantra, Bhatta gave up his body.29

Taking the advice of Kumarila Bhatta seriously, Shankara and his disciples proceeded to meet Mandana Mishra. At their first meeting Shankara expressed his desire to debate with Mandana, to which he agreed readily. It was decided that Ubhaya-bharati, the wife of Mandana, would moderate the debate and that the one defeated would become the disciple of the victor. The debate between them lasted for eighteen days, at the end of which Ubhaya-bharati gave the verdict announcing the defeat of her husband Mandana.30 Though agreed to the defeat of her husband, Ubhaya-bharati challenged Shankara to have a debate with her, Mandana's partner in life, in order that he could claim complete victory. Shankara consented and was victorious in every aspect of the debate, except Ubhaya-bharati's question about the art of sex love, since he was a brahmachaari. Shankara did not admit defeat in the debate, but requested a month's time to study and master the art of love, after which he would continue the debate. Ubhaya-bharati readily agreed to Shankara's proposal. By yogic power, Shankara shed his own body and entered the dead body of the King of Amaruka and lived in the palace and learned the art of sex love. After a month he left the body of the king and entered his body that was being cared for by his disciples, and came to Ubhaya-bharati to continue the debate. She did not enter into further discussion, recognizing Shankara's power of transmigration. While she gave up her physical body and ascended into Brahmaloka, Mandana became a disciple of Shankara, accepting sannyaasa,31 taking a new name, Sureshvaraa, who later is said to have annotated Shankara's commentary on Brahma-Suutras.32 

From the time of Shankara's victory over Mandana Mishra, until the end of his life, it was a continuous journey accomplishing his mission of eradication of false doctrines. This mission, known as Dig-Vijayam (conquest of all quarters), involved meeting learned persons, religious leaders, kings and chieftains, visiting various temples and reforming their administration and religious practices, getting to know people's problems and remedying them. Practically every major temple in India has stories of Shankara's visit to the temple, the reforms he carried out, the hymns he composed to honor the presiding deity of the temple and darshan given to both pundits and laymen.33 The Dig-Vijayam of Shankara included journeys to the south, to the north, to the west and to the east of Bhaarat (India). These journeys were never without the dangers of various types, including attempts on Shankara's life by enemies. During these missionary journeys, Shankara and his disciples visited all of the important towns, temples and other cultural centers of the country, preaching the non-dualistic philosophy of Vedaanta, and reforming the social, cultural and religious life of the people. Despite the seeming differences in customs, traditions and ways of religious practice,34 Shankara envisaged Bhaarat -- from the Himalayas to Kanyakumari and from Kamaruup (Assam) to Gandhara (Afganistan) -- as one cultural unit, that is based on the principle of the essential oneness of all in Brahman. Shankara's Dig-Vijayam, i.e., his missionary journeys, was fundamentally aimed at this spiritual conquest of Bhaarat.

Shankara's Dig-Vijayam finally took him and his disciples to Kedaarinaath, where he was to experience his final release (Mahaasamaadhi). As he sat with his disciples giving them final discourse, King Sudhanva, who was with them, requested Shankara to establish four monasteries (mutts) in different parts of Bhaarat, under the leadership of four of his distinguished disciples, so that his wisdom of the scriptures might not be lost, but be preserved for the generations to come through the teacher -- disciple system (guru-shshya parampara). Shankara, agreeing to this suggestion, appointed his disciples Padmapada, Sureshvaraa, Hastaamalaka and Totaka to establish mutts in the Four Corners of Bhaarat. The mutts were to be established at Sringeri in the south, at Puuri in the east, at Dvaarakaa in the west and Baderinaath in the north. Of these the chief was the one at Sringeri. Then Shankara dictated a book entitled Mahaanusaasanam, in which he gave all the rules and regulations that were to be followed in the running and administration of these mutts. Responding his disciples' final request to teach them the essence of Vedaantic teaching, Shankara chanted Dasa-Sloki (ten verses), which he had sung when he first met his Guru Govindapada. Shankara advised them that constant meditation on the meaning of these verses would take them to the essence of Vedaantic teaching. After this Shankara went into a prolonged contemplation. Then, using his yogic power, he dissolved his human body into the final elements and attained his Mahasamaadhi, i.e., his final release. 35 Thus, Shankara's short but active life came to an end at Kedaaarinaath in the Himalayas at the young age of thirty-two.36 

1.4. Shankara: The Writer and the Interpreter of the Scriptures

Though Shankara's life was brief, his literary output was enormous. During his lifetime Shankara presented himself as the commentator par excellence of the Vedas. Shankarite literature can be grouped into three sections, viz., the commentaries (Bhaashyas), books dealing with fundamental concepts of Vedaanta (Prakriya Granthas) and hymns and meditation verses (Stotras). Shankara wrote about eighteen commentaries. These included the three great institutions of Hindu thought (Prasthanatrayii), i.e., Vedaanta-Suutras, Bhagavat Giita and the Upanishads. Besides, he also wrote commentaries on Sree Vishnu Shahasranaama and a few others. The second group of writings of Shankara, which dealt with the fundamental concepts of Vedaanta, are about twenty-three in number. Books, such as, Viveeka Chuudaamani, Aatmabhooda, Upadeeshasaahasrii and Mohamuduharam belong to this group of Shankara's writings. The third group, the Stotras, is basically devotional literature used for chanting and meditation. These are about seventy-two in number.37 This vast literature shows Shankara's place as a great writer and a scholar. Besides being a great writer and scholar, Shankara was an original thinker and a significant interpreter of the scriptures. In all his major works Shankara formulated an integral, speculative system of great logical subtlety. Though, he gave prime importance to the scriptures, he was not hesitant to use logic and reason to elaborate the doctrine of Advaita on firm philosophical grounds. George Thaibaut, in his introduction to the Vedaanta-Suutra notes:

The doctrine advocated by Shankara, from a purely philosophical point of view, and apart from all theological considerations, is the most important and interesting one which has arisen on the Indian soil; neither those forms of Vedaanta which diverge from the view represented by Shankara, nor any other non-Vedaantic systems, can be compared with the so-called orthodox Vedaanta in boldness, depth and subtlety of speculation.38 

Though no one denies the philosophical subtlety of Shankara as a commentator of the scriptures, he is not given the prime place by some authors. S.C. Chakravarthi remarks that Shankara was a great intellectual of his time. He was a past master of dialectics. He was well qualified to be the founder of a new system. . . . But when he took upon himself the role of the commentator, he had no right to forget his position and foist upon the Upanishads a philosophy of his own. As an exponent of the art of dialectics he may be looked upon as a great success, but as an interpreter of the Upanishads, he is a huge failure.39 

S.K. Das shares almost the same view when he says: "He [Shankara] overrides others [other commentators] by the sheer force of his greatness . . . in particular of his logic of absolutism . . . his logic of apprehension. The whole host of other commentators exhibit in their interpretation what may be called the thought-arrested development, . . . [that] they all point by force of their unconscious logic to the Advaita Vedaanta of Shankarite type as their natural culmination."40 These authors do not seem to recognize Shankara as an authentic interpreter of the Upanishads. However, they accept him as a subtle thinker, who gave a logical and philosophical basis to the later systems of Vedaanta and gave new life to the Hindu Vedic culture through his writings, debates and example.

Our intention, here, is neither to decide whose interpretation of the Suutras is superior and faithful to the scripture, nor to respond to the contention of these scholars and thereby to justify Shankara. Yet it should be noted that his interpretation of the scripture is based on his own inner experience and mystical vision of truth. While interpreting the scripture, a religious genius, like Shankara cannot be faithless to his own inner experience of Brahman.41 Thus, though Shankara's interpretation of the scriptures may be different from all others yet it is one that is colored and marked by his own unique experience of the Divine, for the thirty-two years he lived as a human being in the world. Therefore, it has an originality that may be missing in the other interpretations.

1.5. Shankara's Many-sided Personality

S. Radhakrishnan commented on the personality of Shankara: "The many strands of his [Shankara's] personality found their expressions in his writings. . . . his style [of writing] . . . mirrors the qualities of his mind, its force, its logic, its feeling and its sense of humour."42 Reflecting on the person of Shankara, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India, remarks that Shankara is "a curious mixture of a philosopher and a scholar, an agnostic and a mystic, a poet and a saint, and in addition to all this, a practical reformer and an able organizer." 43 In the following pages we could spell out the greatness of Shankara, by exploring his multi-dimensional personality.

1.5.1. Shankara was a great intellectual and a literary figure. The vast literature he has authored speaks to his literary merit. Shankara was a marshal who conquered every intellectual art, whether it was literary forms like prose and poetry, or it was logic, dialectic and the art of debate. He never lacked zeal for learning and never did he claim that he backed something to learn. When he realized, during his debate with Ubhaya-bharati, that he had no experiential knowledge of the art of sex love, he accepted his inexperience and attempted to learn this art by entering the dead body of the king, by using his yogic power. It is his desire to learn and the trouble he took to learn, coupled with his great intellectual ability, that made him an intellectual giant. Commenting on the intellectual and literary ability of Shankara, Swami Chinmahananda writes:

He [Shankara] brought into his work his intellectual dexterity, both in prose and poetry, and in his hands, under the heat of his fervent ideals, the Sanskrit language became almost plastic; he could mold it into any form. From vigorous prose heavily laden with irresistible arguments to flowing rivulets of lifting tuneful songs of love and beauty, there was no technique in language that Shankara did not take up; and whatever literary form he took up, he proved himself to be a master in it. From masculine prose to soft feminine songs, from marching militant verses to dancing, songful words, be he in the halls of Upanishad commentaries or in the temple of Brahma-Suutra expositions, in the amphitheater of the Bhagavat Giita discourses, or in the open flowery fields of his devotional songs, his was a pen that danced to the rhythm of his heart and to the swing of his thoughts.44

1.5.2. Though Shankara had a scientific mind, sharp intellect, and literary dexterity in his writings and had recognized the value of logic in debates and disputations, still he believed that logic is not everything in life. He was basically a mystic, who believed that divinity exists in every person and that all a man is expected to do is to remove the veil of ignorance that hides this fundamental truth. The value of logic basically consists in helping a person to effect this removal of ignorance. Thus, for Shankara, logic is more a means rather than an end: logic is for clarity and precision in understanding the truth; but it cannot replace the stage of contemplation and experience, where the true mystic in each person come alive, and identity with the divine is experienced. To quote Swami Atmananda on this point: "In the course of his commentaries . . . he [Shankara] used his surgical knife of reason. . . . But he boldly held that logic alone would not lead to truth. The bases of logic are observed facts and observation is by the five senses. But there is a sphere beyond the senses and mind . . . [the mystical sphere]. The super conscious truths are beyond logic and thus, he set a limit to the sphere of logic."45

1.5.3. Shankara was a proponent of the path of knowledge (Jnaanayoga) for the attainment of Brahman-realization. He believed that neither Karmayoga nor Bhaktiyoga could bring about genuine release (Samaadhi), for two reasons. Firstly, both Karma and Bhakti are finite and so their results, too, have to be finite. Such a finite fruit cannot produce infinite bliss. Secondly, man creates both Karma and Bhakti by his action and so they are bound to be destroyed. Thus, what is destructible cannot produce indestructible bliss.46 But in Jnaanayoga, all we do is remove ignorance by way of physical, moral and intellectual preparations, which, in turn, open the aspirant for self-realization. Thus it is not man's action that effects the final state; but it occurs in the seeker, when ignorance is removed.

Even though Shankara was convinced of the ultimate effectiveness of Jnaana, he never proposed the abolition of either Karma or Bhakti. On the other hand, he encouraged both Vedic rites and devotion to gods as a means to attain higher level of knowledge about Brahman because Shankara evaluated people realistically and knew that all would find it hard to pursue the Jnaana path. Therefore, both Karma and Bhakti, if practiced with sincerity, would take the aspirant to the higher level of knowledge. For instance after his debate with Shankara, Mandana Mishra became his disciple and pursued the Jnaana path, not because he was defeated by Shankara, but because, he had realized during the debate that the time had come for him to leave the Karma path and to move towards the Jnaana path. Thus, for Shankara, each path has its own role in the spiritual journey of the seeker; but the Jnaana path finally leads one to self-realization.47

1.5.4. Such an open attitude prevented Shankara -- though a strict adherent of the true import of the Vedas, i.e., the oneness of everything in Brahman -- from being a fanatic, both in his personal living and in his preaching. If we look into the personal life of Shankara, he was a realized Jnaani, a Jiivanmukta. From the perspective of a Brahmajnaani, Vedic rites and sacrifices made no sense for him. Bhakti was not a necessity for him, since he was a realized soul. Yet we see Shankara on his journeys visiting every Saivite, Vishnavite or Saakta temple, performing worship (puuja) and singing devotional hymns (stotras) in praise of the officiating deities. Most of the stotras are prayers for the true light of knowledge and discrimination. Not only did he practice it, but he also preached it to others. Both by his example and by his preaching, Shankara took people to the underlying reality of Brahman, that is, behind the varied forms of worship and devotion.48 

The following quotation illustrates this point with great clarity:

He [Shankara] was not an exclusive Saivite or Vaishnavite or Saakta, and yet when he praised Siva, Vishnu, or Durga in his hymns, he stood to be the best among the Saivites, Vaishnavites and Saaktas, thus setting a model for the respective group for the correct method of worship. Though he was established far above all groupism [by his Samaadhi], his magnanimous mind, laden with compassion for ordinary folk, came down many a time to their level, guided them and elevated them in their beliefs and practices, so that they would also reach the supreme understanding of the One Reality [Brahman]. In doing so he took meticulous care to remove false notions and superstitions which plagued their respective paths.49 

1.5.5. Such an open outlook, flexible mind-set and accommodative spirit caused Shankara, the exquisite and original thinker, with a sharp intellect, to be always focused on the vision of truth. Nothing could bias the attitude of Shankara from being a seeker of truth. He was open to the truth, no matter from where it came. This attitude of Shankara is evident from the manner in which he was critical of other schools of Indian thought. He never rejected the value of a system in an outright manner. He always recognized truth in them; he also accepted the logical and argumentative techniques used by each school for the investigation of truth. Shankara never attempted to belittle any system for the sake of destroying its value. He exposed weaknesses in an appropriate manner, simply to point out the right path to people.50 

We could also illustrate Shankara's absolute commitment to the truth, irrespective of where it came from, with the help of an event that took place in his life. One morning Shankara was going to bathe in the river Ganges. On his way he met a chandala, a member of the lowest caste, i.e., an untouchable, who had four dogs with him and was blocking Shankara's way. The caste-prejudice in the blood of Shankara, the brahmin, prompted him to ask the chandala to get out of his way. The chandala replied with two questions: `Whom he was calling to move from -- the body or the soul?' and `if there is one absolute Brahman in all, how can there be caste and creed?' These questions opened the mind of Shankara. Recognizing his mistake, he prostrated himself at the feet of the chandala and composed the famous Manisha Panchaka, the five verses (slokas), which have the refrain: "He, who has learned to see the existence of Brahman everywhere, is my Guru B be he brahmin or chandala."51 Thus, Shankara was totally open to the truth whatever its source.

1.5.6. Shankara's total dedication to truth and his willingness to recognize it with humility wherever he found it made him a religious reformer par excellence rather than a rebel. Though many of Shankara's teaching might have been looked as rebellious upon by those whom he opposed, yet the manner in which he exposed their errors and the truth of his philosophical position made him acceptable even to his enemies. He never maliciously belittled the one he was debating. Shankara was more concerned with the spirit of the scriptural teaching rather than the literal import of scriptures. That is why Shankara: while holding on to the oneness of all in Brahman, could sing stotras to many deities; while accepting the supremacy of the Jnaanayoga, he could hold for the relevance of Karmayoga and Bhaktiyoga; while respecting value of the rules of orthodoxy, Shankara could not recognize them as absolute. It is this attitude that allowed Shankara to break the orthodox rule guiding the order of Sannyaasins -- which forbade Sannyaasins who had left all karmas to perform funeral rites. This he did in order to fulfill the promise he made to his mother that he would be with her at her death bed and conduct her funeral rite. For Shankara, no act would be un-saastric (unscriptural), if it would accomplish the true spirit of the scripture.52 Thus, the main elements of Shankara's reform program for the religious life of his time was to remove all negative aspects from the religious practices and instill the true spirit of the scripture.

1.5.7. Shankara not only planned a genuine reform process of the religious and cultural life of Bhaarat (India), but also he organized it in a systematic way during his lifetime. By his tireless journeys, by his example and teachings, by the removal of erroneous teachings through numerous debates, and by the voluminous literary output, Shankara actualized his plan for the spiritual conquest. In order to carry out these plans in the future, Shankara authorized the establishment of the mutts by his illustrious disciples, gave them direction as to the spiritual life of these mutts and instructed how they were to be administered. Thus, Shankara was a meticulous planner and an excellent organizer of his plans, both in his lifetime and after he was gone. Swami Chinmayananda writes the following about Shankara as an organizer:

He [Shankara] showed himself to be a great organizer, a farsighted diplomat, a courageous hero and a tireless servant of the country. Selfless and unassuming, this mighty angel strode up and down the length and breadth of the country serving his mother land and teaching his countrymen to live up to the dignity and glory of Bhaarat. Such a vast program can neither be accomplished by an individual, nor sustained without institutions of great discipline and perfect organization. Establishing the mutts, opening temples, organizing halls of education, and even prescribing certain ecclesiastical codes, this mighty master [Shankara] left nothing undone in maintaining what he achieved.53

Thus, Shankara, the teacher, is a many-sided personality. In a short period of approximately twenty active years of mission work, he "practiced several careers, each enough to satisfy an ordinary man."54 His greatest achievement was the establishment of the monumental system of Advaita Vedaanta, which he based totally on the interpretation of the ancient scriptural texts. He reformed the popular religious groupings of the time, such as Saivism and Vaishnavism. He established the supremacy of Jnaana over Karma and Bhakti. Shankara attempted to give spiritual direction to the people of his time by formulating a philosophy and religion that would give a sense of direction and purpose to their spiritual life. Shankara knew that the highest level, to which he wanted to take everyone, was the mystical experience of identity with Brahman. But he was realistic in his perception of human beings, and he attempted to put true spirit into the ritual worship and devotional life of the people in order that they could move towards the true knowledge of Brahman.55 We could sum up the multi-dimensional personality of Shankara in the words of S. Radhakrishnan:

The life of Shankara, makes a strong impression of contraries. He is a philosopher and poet, a servant and a saint, a mystic and a religious reformer. Such diverse gifts did he possess that different images present themselves, if we try to recall his personality. One sees him in youth, on fire with intellectual ambition, a stiff and intrepid debater; another regards him as a shrewd political genius, attempting to impress upon the people a sense of unity; for a third, he is a calm philosopher engaged in the single effort to expose the contradictions of life and thought with an unmatched incisiveness; for a fourth, he is a mystic who declares that we all are greater than we know. Such indeed was the versatile genius of Shankara.56


Having looked into Shankara's background, life and his many-sided personality, we could move on to outline a brief plan of this work entitled Self-realization: The Advaitic Perspective of Shankara. As the title itself suggests, this work aims at expounding Shankara's concept of self-realization and its attainment. We attempt to do this task in four chapters.

The first chapter, entitled "Self-realization: An Analysis," clarifies the goal, nature and characteristics of self-realization. The goal of Brahmaanubhava is the attainment of identity between Brahman and Aatman, and their inner relationship. The second section highlights the nature of self-realization, especially by expounding the true imports of the four Vedaantic aphorisms (mahaavaakyas), and by describing the state of self-realization. The third section of this chapter provides further analysis of the state of Brahmaabubhava by elaborating the basic characteristics of self-realization.

The second chapter, entitled "Removal of Ignorance: The Condition for Self-realization," elaborates the nature, cause, consequences and characteristics of the state of ignorance, the removal of which is essential for the attainment of self-realization. The first section deals with the nature and cause of ignorance. The state of ignorance is marked by superimposition. After clarifying the meaning of superimposition, the possibility of Brahman, the ultimate reality being superimposed will be discussed. The cause of ignorance and superimposition is the maayaa, both in its cosmic and individual aspects. This section will also deal with the meaning, constituents and types of maayaa, which consist in the effects of cosmic and individual maayaa, which bring about the illusion of cosmic and individual orders of existence, thereby veiling the nature of Brahman. The last section of this chapter will explain the state of ignorance further by stating the characteristics of ignorance.

The third chapter, entitled "Path to Self-realization," attempts to propose the path in which the state of ignorance can be removed and the dawn of knowledge can be attained. The first section of this chapter deals with the nature and methods of the path. The nature of the path is analyzed by stating its meaning and distinguishing it from Brahmaanubhava. The methods proposed by Shankara are both indirect and the direct. The indirect method consists of Karmayoga and Bhaktiyoga. According to Shankara, these two ways are limited but can help people to arrive at the direct path to self-realization, viz., the Jnaana path. The second section deals with the stages of Jnaanayoga. There are threefold preparations in the path of knowledge. The physical preparation is the practice of Hathayoga. The moral preparation involves the practice of four instruments of the spiritual path, the practice of four qualities and some other requirements. Having prepared by the physical and moral discipline, the aspirant can begin the intellectual preparation by the study of the scriptures. This stage involves threefold preparations, viz., hearing, reflection and meditation. The third section deals with the end of the path, viz., the release (Samaadhi). Firstly, we analyze the meaning and different types of Samaadhi, besides dealing with the obstacles that one needs to overcome to attain its final stage. Secondly, we deal with the goal of Samaadhi, i.e., the emergence of the Brahmajnaani (liberated man). Here, we distinguish the two stages of Brahmajnaani, i.e., Videhamukti and Jiivanmukti. Finally we elaborate on the nature and characteristics of Jiivanmukta, i.e., the liberated man still living on earth.

In chapter four, we make an attempt to give a critique of Shankara's philosophy of self-realization. The critique includes a negative and a positive appraisal. The conclusion highlights the relevance of Shankara's philosophy of self-realization for the present day world that is immersed in materialism and consumerism.


1. Cf. Swami Atmananda, Sri Shankara's Teaching in His Own Words,in Bhavan's Book Library, ed. K.M. Munshi and R.R. Diwakar, vol. 52, (Bombay: Baratiya Vidya Bhawan, 1960), p. 38. 

2. Madhava-Vidhyaranya, Shankara-Dig-Vijaya, trans. Swami Tapasyananda, 3rd ed., (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1986), p. 4 (Hereafter: SDV). 

3. Cf. Swami Atmananda, p. 39. 

4. Cf. Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Shankara: The Missionary, (Bombay: 1990), p. 7 (Hereafter: SM). 

5. Ibid. 

6. Swami Atmananda, p. 39. 

7. SM, p. 1. 

8. There are four castes in the Hindu society. They are the Brahmins (the priestly class),the Kshatriyas (the rulers), the Vaisyas (the artisans) and the Suudras (the slaves). 

9. SM, p. 18. 

10. A sect of Brahmins, who are the priestly class of the Hindu society. 

11. Cf. SDV, pp. 14-15.; Cf. Also SM, pp. 5, 21. 

12. Cf. SDV, p. 17.; Cf. Also SM, pp. 22-23. 

13. Cf. Radhakrishnan, S., Indian Philosophy, vol. 1, (London: George Allen & Unwinn Ltd., 1947), pp. 447-448. 

14. We have chosen these dates based on the authority of V. Bhattachariya. He says: "Our old traditions are so divergent that, according to them as well as modern researchers, we shall have to place Shankara some time between 6th century B.C. and 9th century A.D., viz., 6th century B.C., 4th century B.C., 1st century B.C., 4th century A.D., 6th century A.D. and 9th century A.D. (i.e., 788-820). The last date is accepted by many a scholar." Vidhusherhar Bhattachariya, ed. & trans., The Agamasaastra of Gaudapaada, (Calcutta: Calcutta University Press, 1943), p. lxxix, no. 8 (Hereafter: ASG). 

15. Upanayanam is a right of investiture of the sacred thread, by which a Hindu boy is initiated into the Brahmacharriya Aashrama and during which he studies the sacred scriptures. 

16. Cf. SDV, pp. 27-28.; Cf. Also SM, p. 23. 

17. SDV, p. 28. 

18. There are differences of opinions among the scholars about the fact of Shankara writing this book at this age. But authors generally accept Shankara's extra-ordinary ability as a boy. Cf. SM, p. 23. 

19. Shankara, Crest-Jewel of Discrimination (Viveeka Chuudaamani), trans. Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, (New York: New American Library, 1970), pp. 8-9 (Hereafter: VC).

20. Cf. SDV, pp. 40-42.; Cf. Also SM, p. 25. 

21. Cf. SDV, pp. 44-45.; Cf. Also SM, pp. 25-26. 

22. Cf. VC, p. 9. 

23. Cf. Ibid., Cf. Also SM, p. 28.; Cf. Also SDV, pp. 47-48. 

24. Cf. Swami Admananda, p. 33.; Cf. Also SDV, pp. 53-55. 

25. Cf. SM, pp. 30-31. 

26. Cf. SDV, pp. 70-73. 

27. Cf. Ibid., pp. 73-75. 

28. Mandana Mishra had several names. Mandana Mishra is the name by which he is known among the scholars. The original name given to him by his parents is Vishvaruupaa. Oomveka is his pet name. After he became the disciple of Shankara, he took the name Sureshvaraa. Cf. SDV, p. 81, fn. 1. 

29. Cf. SDV, pp. 75-80.; Cf. Also SM, pp. 34-35. 

30. Cf. SDV, pp. 81-104.; Cf. Also SM, pp. 36-38. For the text of the debate between Shankara and Mandana Mishra Cf. SDV, pp. 87-103.; Cf. Also SM, pp. 114-123. 

31. Cf. SDV, pp. 110-124.; Cf. Also SM, pp. 38-39. 

32. Cf. Radhakrishnan, S., Indian Philosophy, Vol. II, p. 448. 

33. Cf. SM, pp. 40-41. 

34. Cf. Ibid., pp. 40-47. 

35. Cf. SM, pp. 57-58.; Cf. Also Radhakrishnan, S., Indian Philosophy, Vol. II, p. 448. 

36. Cf. Swami Prabhavananda, The Spiritual Heritage of India, (London: George Allen & Unwinn Ltd., 1962), pp. 279-282.

37. Cf. SM, pp. 60-64, 129-132.; Cf. Also Radhakrishnan, S., Indian Philosophy, Vol. II, p. 450. We include a collection of works believed to be written by Shankara in the appendix. 

38. George Thaibaut, trans., The Vedaanta-Suutras with the Commentary by Shankaraachaariya, The Sacred Books of the East (Hereafter: SBE), Vol. XXXIV, ed. F. Max Mueller, (Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1890), p. xiv (Hereafter: BSB, Thaibaut). 

39. Sures Chandra Chakravarti , Human Life and Beyond, (Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1947), p. 52. 

40. Saroj Kumar Das, A Study of Vedaanta, (Calcutta: University of Calcutta Press, 1937), pp. 29-30 

41. Cf. Troy Wilson Organ, The Self in Indian Philosophy, (London: Mouton & Co., 1964), p. 93. 

42. Radhakrishnan, S., Indian Philosophy, Vol. II, pp. 450-451. 

43. SM, p. 7. 

44. SM, pp. 2-3. 

45. Swami Atmananda, p. 41. 

46. Cf. Ibid., p. 42. 

47. Cf. Ibid., pp. 42-43, 44-45, 47-48. 

48. Cf. SM, pp. 63-64. 

49. SM, p. 64. 

50. Cf. Swami Atmananda, p. 45. 

51. Cf. Ibid., p. 34.; Cf. Also SM, pp. 31-32. 

52. Cf. Swami Atmananda, p. 35.; Cf. Also SM, pp. 43-44. 

53. Cf. SM, p. 3. 

54. Cf. Radhakrishnan, S., Indian Philosophy, Vol. II, p. 449. 

55. Cf. Ibid., pp. 449-450. 

56. Radhakrishnan, S., The Vedaanta, (London: Allen and Unwin, 1928), p. 16.