By Prof. P.K. Krishnan Namboodiri – The Weekly – Great Journey – Adi Sankara – Experiencing Advaita (http://week.manoramaonline.com/cgi-bin/MMOnline.dll/portal/ep/theWeekContent.do?contentId=10650795&programId=1073755753&tabId=13&BV_ID=@@@&categoryId=-169761)
Keeping the tradition alive: Children learning to chant the Vedas at Omkareshwar / Photo by Amey Mansabdar
Too little has been said and much has been left out of the unmeasurable vastness of Shankara’s knowledge
Sree Shankara was a student of Ananta Narayana Shastrigal, under whose supervision he became adept in Kayak, Nadaka, Tharka and Vyakarana which were the accepted rungs of the educational ladder those days.
At the age of eight Shankara set out to meet his future guru, Sri Govinda Bhagavatpada, to whose question on who he was, Shankara replied in 10 verses (known as Dasasloki), all steeped in Advaitic thought. The first verse:
Na bhoomir, Na Thoyam, Na Thejo, Na Vayur
Na Kham, Nae Indriyam Va Na Thesham Samooha
Anaekanthi Kathwath Susupthiaeka Siddha
Stahethaeko Avashita Shiva Kevaloham…
(I am not the earth, nor water, fire, air, space or senses, nor the combined effect of all these elements. I am the one that is experienced during one’s deep sleep. There I stand one with absolute peace—Shanthi. When one’s involvement with the objects are removed in both gross and subtle thoughts, I shine in my own glory; I am Shiva, the attributeless.)
The stanza reveals how strongly established was Shankara in his Advaitic experience even at that age. The earliest reference about Advaita philosophy occurs in Nasadiya Sookta of the Rig Veda, the spirit of which is also reflected in Gita (Chapter II; verse 16) as: “Nasathao Vidyathae Bhavo Na Bhavo Vidyathae Satha Ubhayorapi Drshto Anthstahanyosththwa Darshi-bhi.” (By no chance can the Non–existent enter into existence, nor can the Existent be wiped out of existence.)
Any discussion on Advaita and Shankara will be incomplete without a reference to Prastana Traya, the corner stones of the edifice of Vedanta. Prastana Traya includes Shankara’s brilliant commentaries on Brahmasutra, Dasopanishads and the Gita. The subject matter in all three is Brahma Vidya, an attempt to define and describe the absolute truth, the Atman which is indefinable and indescribable.
Ancient rishis had tried to discuss the Atman from their anubhava or experience, but these are perplexing to a novice who tries to imbibe its spirit, without undergoing those experiences. Shankara’s splendid commentaries address these perplexities and put together all the different perspectives of the Truth in a cogent unifying manner, making the Absolute stand revealed for the ardent seeker.
Advaita is built on the foundation that the Atman is the only reality. The Atman is often described (actually, no description is possible) by three words—sat, chit and ananda. Sat means always existent Being, unborn, undying, beyond time and space, always present, without past, without future. Chit means knowledge, light that is spontaneous, shines in its own glory, and illuminates all other objects. Ananda is absolute peace in one’s own inner being.
This Atman may be compared (though comparison is not possible, as it is incomparable) to an ocean vast and deep without even ripples, and absolutely silent. Thus we have arrived at a certain definition for the Atman—the indefinable: sat, chit and ananda. Words always have limitations, but they can take us to the borderline from where we can leap into eternity and be one with the Golden Silence.
Another question arises here. How does this omnipresent Atman elude our understanding? Shankara offers an answer in his Mayavada (illusion doctrine). Maya has two aspects. The first one is avarana, which covers the truth, the Atman, and conceals its true nature from our vision. The second is vikshepa, which disguises truth and presents it in various forms. Avarana and vikshepa may be called the deceivers that cloud our vision.
Vedanta has prescribed a four-fold path of knowledge, known as Sadhana Chathustaya Sampathi, in order to arrive at the non-dualistic state of existence, which should be the ultimate goal of human life. Interested readers may learn more about it from Shankara’s Viveka Chudamani.
There is a misconception that Advaita, Visishtadvaita and Dvaita philosophical systems are contradictory to each other. Both Ramanujachariar who expounded Visishtadvaita and Madhwachariar who expounded Dvaita have written commentaries on Brahmasutra, Dasopanishads and Bhagavad Gita, and these are complimentary to Shankara’s Advaita.
As mentioned at the outset, too little has been said and much has been left out of the unfathomable depth and unmeasurable vastness of Shankara’s ocean of knowledge. Yet there is one consoling thought: to experience the salinity of the vast ocean we need only a drop on our tongue. As Shankara observed in Proudanubhooti: “Brahmam is truth; truth is Brahmam.”