Buddhist in disguise

38ShankaraNew Illustration: Binesh Sreedharan
  • Shankara might have lived during early 8th century CE, probably between c.700 CE and c.750 CE.


What we know about the life of Shankara is almost entirely based on undated oral traditions and later biographies. That he was born in a Nampudiri-Brahmin family in Kalady is a belief so entrenched that nobody looks for historical evidence. There are other popular traditional beliefs. There is an anecdote about his return only to perform his mother’s cremation rites amid the opposition from the Mīmamsakas. Yet another is of his own death at the age of 32 in Badrinath. Traditional beliefs likely to be historical are Shankara’s tutelage under Govindapada, higher learning at Kanchi, travel to Varanasi, debates with scholars, journey to the source of the Ganga, return to Varanasi, composing of main texts, continuation of debates, attainment of digvijaya and founding of a monastic order.

Shankara was of the acharya-brahmachari tradition of upanishadic learning that was confined to a relatively small number of Nampudiri households in Kerala. His acharya, Govindapada, was a brahmachari of Gauaapada. Traditions show that the Mīmamsakas had started gaining precedence over the upanishads in Kerala during Shankara’s times, though the temple-centred Nampudiri-Brahmin settlements were yet to be hegemonic. By the turn of the 9th century, the Mīmamsakas had become dominant in Kerala through their temple-centred settlements of extensive land control. Hence, Shankara might have lived during early 8th century CE, probably between c.700 CE and c.750 CE. He was mostly in Kanchi, learning and debating across the subcontinent. Perhaps it implies the absence of Mīmamsakas worth debating for Shankara.

Shankara, desiring to be an ascetic opting out of the social order, owning nothing, travelling from place to place as a mendicant begging for basic needs, and aiming at emancipation from the cycle of death and rebirth, reminds us of a Buddhist monk. His gathering of disciples, conduct of discourses and founding of a monastic order resemble the Buddhist approach. Tradition mentions Padmapada, Sureshwara, Trōtaka and Hastamalaka as Shankara’s prominent disciples. The four monasteries said to have been founded by Shankara are: Sringeri in the south, Puri in the east, Dwaraka in the west, and Badrinath in the north. Since the Buddha owed his intellectual approach to the Upanishads, we cannot identify Shankara’s logic as Buddhistic. However, Shankara did owe his mode of philosophising to the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, whose Mūlamadhyamakakarika was the hermeneutic model for his Brahma-sūtra Bhashya. Recognition of Shankara as ‘a Buddhist in disguise’ indeed makes sense.

According to him, Vedas offer the normative for the commons while Upanishads provide the universal truth to the wise. Shankara philosophised the ontological unity of the atman (self), the worldly transient and the Brahmin (the cosmic energy), the eternal unchangeable. Brahmin is everything (sarvam khalvidam brahma), both the cause and the result—the absolute combine that precludes the need for a creator. Shankara hence characterised the phenomenal, external world as an illusion (maya) and the individual identity, a reflection of it.

Shankara is recognised in world history as the most accomplished acharya, who provided philosophical foundation for Advaita Vedanta through his commentaries of the Bṛihadaraṇyaka and the Taittirīya Upanishads, Badarayana’s Brahma-sūtra, and Gauaapada’s Manaūkya-karika. He had always been fascinated by the ultimate truth that defies sentiments and devotion. Still, all kinds of works, including devotional songs and metaphysical texts, are attributed to him, obviously for their legitimacy. Shankara could not have composed such works.

Like many other intellectuals, Shankara was contained by the dominant power relations. The Tamil Bhakti movement of the hymnists belonging to the Shaiva and Vaishṇava sects was the first to contain Shankara. Soon Ramanuja contained him through Viśishṭadvaita of the temple-centred Srīvaishṇavism. Madhava also did the same thing. His own followers betrayed him for sectarian interests. Wealth and power did degenerate his monastic order. Today, Shankara is of academic importance to philosophy departments where he is being taught as an Indian theologian or as a proto-Hegelian. His relevance to the contemporary world is that of an acharya who uncompromisingly fought ritualistic religion.
Rajan Gurukkal is visiting professor, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.

Ramanuja and Madhava
Proficient, prolific

The starting point for both Ramanuja (born 1017) and Madhava (born 1238) was Shankara's non-dualism. Ramanuja propounded what is now known as the qualified non-dualism or Vishishtadvaita, while Madhava's philosophy leaned towards Dvaita siddhanta (the philosophy of difference), or dualism. They produced an impressive body of work explaining their concepts and commentaries on the Vedic corpus.

Both were child prodigies who mastered Vedic and Upanishadic teachings at an early age. They travelled extensively to preach their philosophy in the face of strong opposition from the traditional Brahmin hierarchy. Yet, they prevailed and established a considerable following that still continues.

Madhava founded the Sri Krishna temple in Udupi and established eight mutts. He wrote 37 works, collectively called Sarvamoola Granthas.

Ramanuja, who took as his life's mission the restoration of Vishnu temples, was equally prolific. He established 74 mutts to promote Vaishnava philosophy. His works include Vedanta Sangraha, Sri Bhashyam, Gita Bhashyam and Gadya Trayam, which advocates complete surrender to Vishnu.

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