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Advaita Vedanta, Philosophy

Advaita Vedanta – The philosophical school of non-dualism

The life of Shankaracharya

Adi Shankaracharya, the main exponent of the philosophy was born in Kerala in a small village of Kaladi to a Nambudiri Brahmin family. The precise year of his birth unfortunately cannot be established as numerous conflicting evidences have been given, however the popular belief held by western academia is around 788 A.D – 820 A.D.

According to traditional narrations, he was given as a blessing from Lord Shiva to his parents, Shivaguru and Aryamaba. They in turn in appreciation and reverence named him Shankara.

Shankara at a young age showed exceptional ability in studying the Vedas and Sanskrit grammar, unfortunately Shivaguru, his father passed away whilst he was only three. This event left an impression in Shankara’s mind in studying the deeper spiritual nuances and was convinced to do so he must take renunciation. Although his mother Aryamba was reluctant to give permission, traditional narrations state she granted the request when she saw him being attacked by a crocodile and Shankara advised his mother that either he would die by the attack or survive if permission to take renunciation was granted.

Shankara was granted permission at the age of eight and had left home in search of a spiritual teacher. Shankara was then accepted by Govinda bhagavadpadacharya as a disciple and was formally ordained as a renunciate named Shankaracharya. Under the tutelage and request of Govinda bhagavadpada, Shankaracharya gained the philosophical and metaphysical stance of advaita and wrote commentaries on the canonical Vedic treatises[1]which he completed by the age of sixteen. Being pleased with the works, his master requested Shankara to propagate the Vedas as the supreme authority and establish Advaita Vedanta against the nastika philosophies prevalent at the time[2].

Between the ages of sixteen and thirty two, Shankaracharya started giving discourses on Vedanta, partook in debate, religious congregations and re-established sacred temples. Whilst writing other philosophical treatises and composing many devotional hymns in praise of God, he established four monasteries[3] around India instructing his direct disciples to undertake and manage.

Late in Shankaracharya’s life he was given the seat of ‘All-Knowledge’ and conferred the title of world teacher. At the age of thirty two it is believed that Shankaracharya retired to Kedarnath and left the mortal world.

The Philosophy of Advaita Vedanta

Scriptures

Although Advaita Vedanta recognises the exhaustive collection of Vedic scriptures, it mainly derives its fundamental philosophy from the Upanishads. The Upanishads provide Advaita the platform to discuss from the onset the metaphysical subtleties of existence with heed mainly given to knowledge and experience rather than a devotional theme.

Shankara seldom used quotes from the puranas or itihaasa although his self composed works and hymns do provide evidence that he was well versed in the various smriti and puranic texts he rather relied on the canonical scriptures for his evidence.

Upanishads

In total Shankara commented on the eleven main Upanishads. He used the Upanishads mainly to enforce the supremacy of a divine entity and mainly focused on explaining and establishing the Vedas as the complete infallible and authoritative scriptures which indicate the highest level of realisation.

The idea of Brahman being devoid of attributes was initially presented here and then later formalised in later commentaries. As the philosophy of the Upanishads is very subtle in nature, it suited Shankara’s style of philosophical thought though on one had it introduced the idea of a supreme entity on the other it prevented him from formalising a definitive school of thought .

Brahma Sutras

Although numerous commentaries had been written prior to Shankara on the Brahma sutras, the ‘Saririka Bhashya’ of Shankaracharya, unlike the Upanishads established the doctrine and formalisation of Advaita Vedanta. The commentary initially introduced the fundamental ideas of superimposition, pre-requisites for spirituality and later clarified the stance of Advaita against other philosophies.

Bhagavad Gita

Amongst the vast literature of philosophical treaties within the Mahabharata and other various Vedic treatises, Shankara was the first exponent to establish the Bhagavad-Gita as an independent work which he proposed as requiring much attention, and as such wrote the first commentary on the text.

Although the Bhagavad Gita differs greatly in style and is a later addition in contrast to the Upanishads and Brahma sutras, Shankara attempts to synthesise the deep philosophical purports of the earlier texts with the devotional and practical ideas of the Bhagavad Gita. The idea of a personal God, which was initially a foreign concept, appears to play a role, be it only as a secondary role. Shankara uses the words of Krsna to establish both a personal God and a state of realisation.

Other works

Apart from the fundamental treatises to establish the Advaita Vedanta, Shankara authored more than thirty philosophical works and sixty four devotional hymns in praise of many deities.

Supreme Divinity

According to Advaita, the idea of an Omni-present, omniscient, Omni-potent, attributeless cosmic consciousness introduced in the Upanishads is the ultimate divinity, Brahman. Brahman for Shankara is impersonal, without name, form, gender and cannot be categorised or described by language as this would inherently limit Brahman to a specific attribute.  However being so, Shankara describes the nature of Brahman as being existence, consciousness and infinite[4].

For Shankara the only permanent reality is Brahman and categorically states that all else outside of Brahman is a relative impermanent reality. Within relative reality however Shankara does accept that a supreme personal being does exist for the creation, sustenance and destruction of material existence, nonetheless only in a limited capacity.

Although Shankara advocates the highest precedence to an impersonal spirit, he does acknowledge that obtaining direct realisation of Brahman is arduous and suggests initially that attention to be focused on a favoured personal deity[5] with gradual progression to impersonal Brahman.

Individual Soul

Shankara explains that the individual soul and Brahman are non-different; his explanation is based on the basis of Upanishads which declare that Brahman is eternal, changeless and indivisible hence cannot undergo any modification or be divided into fragments. If Brahman be divided into fragments he states Brahman would be dependent on all souls created for its own existence and hence making Brahman fallible[6].

For this reason Shankara interprets all Upanishadic statements which speak of a duality between Brahman and the Soul as merely an appearance rather than a realistic fact.

Reality

According to Shankara, there are three levels of reality:

Absolute Reality – Paramarthika satyam: Here only Brahman exists with no reference to material existence or individual souls. At this stage the individual soul has lost complete identity with the body, mind, and intellect complex and completely merged into Brahman.

Empirical Reality – Vyavaharika satyam: This forms the higher level of relative reality, here the false notion of material creation, the body, mind and intellect complex and the conception of being an individual soul are portrayed as an actual reality due to the ignorance of perception. In summary empirical reality constitutes the common world experience of samsara.

Subjective Reality – Pratibhasika satyam: This forms the lower level of relative reality; here erroneous perceptions which appear to be real within material existence are perceived. This seeming reality of the mirage-water or rope-snake is corrected in empirical reality and does not require realisation of Brahman for resolution.

Liberation

For Shankara the only reason we perceive material creation and identify with the body is due to ignorance of not knowing ourselves as Brahman. Therefore he only advocates that correct knowledge of Brahman leads to liberation. Although Shankara appreciates Bhakti and Karma as methods to attain the knowledge he does not directly link them to liberation as only knowledge is opposed to ignorance.

Furthering his philosophy, as Shankara identifies the Atman is ultimately Brahman, he purports that Liberation need not be achieved but realised, hence claiming that realisation is a by-product of knowledge rather than a goal.


[1] Bhagavad-Gita, Brahma Sutra and the main upanishads
[2] Buddhism, Jainism, Carvaka
[3] South – Sringeri, North  – Badrinath, East  -Puri and West  -Dvaraka
[4] Satyam jnanam anantam brahma – T.U 2.1.1
[5] Pancayatan deva puja – 5 main deities of worship; visnu, siva, durga, ganesa and surya
[6] Saririka bhashya 2.2.14

The copyright of the article Advaita Vedanta – The philosophical school of non-dualism is owned by the Jigyasa Team. Permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

About Makwana

A student of Sanatan Vedic Dharma

Discussion

One thought on “Advaita Vedanta – The philosophical school of non-dualism

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