In the picture above – the Temple in Kaladi, the birthplace of Saint Adi Shankaracharya
„Jagat mithya, brahma satyam”
जगत मिथ्या, ब्रह्मा सत्यम
Means that the world we experience, including tangible scientific conclusions, are essentially illusory. The only original truth that is independent of the mind is brahma – translated as soul, consciousness, language or infinite, eternal, unconditioned mind. Those who insist that history is true and false mythology oppose this non-dualistic sentence of Adi Shankaracharya.
This doctrine of reducing the world to mere illusion, popularly known as Maya Vada, has allowed Shankara to do something extraordinary: unite the earth with various communities and bring together diverse, seemingly incompatible communities – from Buddhists, mimansaki (orthodox devotees of the Vedas) and Vedantins ( later Vedic hermits), to the Shaivas (one of the oldest sects of Hinduism), Vaishnava and Shakti.
Sage in the arena of politics
Shankar’s philosophy is completely Vedic.
Unlike Buddhists and Jainists, he followed the teachings of the Vedas and completely surrendered to his impersonal authority, which made him a devotee. In his comments and monographs he constantly searched for this formless divinity, which is the only reality existing beyond all duality. Many consider this a Buddhist version of the Vedic version, and Shankar is often accused of the hidden Buddhist philosophy – prachanna bauddha -प्रचंणा बौद्ध .
Shankar’s poems also praise several specific divine figures that appear in the Purana scriptures. He paid tribute to Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti in these writings. This makes him – after Vyasa – the first Vedic scholar who openly links Vedic Hinduism with Puranic Hinduism, which several centuries later was presented as a doctrine by other Vedanta teachers such as Ramanuja, Madhva and Vallabha.
With the help of his teachings about formlessness and nothingness, and the illusion of all being, Shankar united many of India’s holy places, creating the pilgrimage routes that defined India as one country. According to the application, he traveled from Kerala to Kashmir, from Pune in contemporary Odessa to the ancient Dwarka in Gujarata, from Shringeri in today’s Karnataka to Badari in Uttarkhand, from Kanchi (Kanchipuram) in Tamil Nadu to Kashi (Varanasi) in Uttar Pradesh, along the himalayan slopes and the rivers Narmada and Ganga and along the east and west coasts.
Shankar was not an ivory philosopher; he was a political sage, engaging and responding to the historical context of his time. Through philosophy, poetry and pilgrim practices, he tried to connect the Indian subcontinent notoriously divided by the newly emerging doctrines and governments of the then rulers.
In his commentary on Brahma Sutra (1.3.33), Adi Shankara remarked, ‘One can say that there has never been a universal ruler, just as he is now’ – his society is fragmented and there is a lack of universal acceptance for the universal mythology of Chakravarti, or omnipresent consciousness existing in both Buddhist, Jainist and Hindu religions.
Most historians agree that Adi Shankaracharya lived in the 8th century, or 1200 years ago – around 1300 years after the Buddha. This period was an important bend in Indian history – between the collapse of the Gupt empire 1500 years ago and the Muslim conquest of South Asia 1000 years ago. Harshavardhan, who ruled Kannauj, died, the Rashtrakut maintained power on both sides of the Narmada River, continuing in wartime relations with the Pratiharami in the north, Palas in the east, and Chalukya in the south of the subcontinent. Regional languages and scripts that are now so well known have not yet appeared. Temples from South India did not have the characteristic gopuram-style gates, Ramayana was not yet translated into Tamil, Jayadeva did not write Gita Govind yet. Adi Shankar traveled all over the country communicating with the only language that connected the intellectual elite of the Earth: Sanskrit.
In order to understand properly the spirit of time, we must feel the fundamental tension of the Indian society then existing between the world sustaining rituals, binding the life of the farm with ritual activities and leaving the ritual, simple hermit life.
Brahmin life vs the life of a hermit
When Alexander of Macedonia invaded India in 327 BC, the Vedic view favored household life, while Buddhism at that time – as well as Jainism and Ajivika – supported the practice of recluses.
In Shankar’s time, the Vedic view was split into Mimansaki’s worldview, which favored the economic life of the brahmins, and the worldview of Vedantik, who protege the hermit’s life.
Many historians and religious scholars agree that this confirms the influence of Buddhism on Vedic science. Forget about the influence of Vedic teachings on Buddhism. Buddha as a hermit teacher was at some point replaced by a Bodhisattva and his feminine form – Tara – who is sympathetic over wisdom.
Adi Shankaracharya’s childhood
Adi Shankara was born in a poor brahmana family in the village of Kaladi in modern Kerala. His father – called Shivaguru – which suggests roots in the Shaiva tradition – died when Shankar was very young. He was raised by his mother, known by the name Aryamba – which means ‘noble’. The mother was a follower of Krishna with roots in the religious branch of Vaishnava Hinduism. Despite his mother’s protests, Shankar decided to become a hermit.
The legend is widely known about Adi Shankara’s childhood bathing near a ghat (place of cremation) in the Periyar River and was captured by a crocodile. With his foot in the mouth, the reptile once again asked his mother for permission to Sanyasam (hermitage practices), saying that if he agreed, then the crocodile would let him go. Mother then agreed and that’s what happened. Adi Shankara accepted Sanyasam and left Kaladi, and the place was named Crocodile Ghat.
A meeting with guru Govinda Bhagavatpada
Leaving his mother under the care of his relatives, Sankara left Kaladi and went north in search of a teacher who gave him initiation for Sanyasa’s practice. A few months later he reached the banks of the Narmada River, where he learned that a great yogi lived in a nearby cave. Adi Shankara went there and stood before the entrance, singing about yogis in several lines.
The yogi of Sri Govinda Bhagavatpada – whose name also suggests the roots of Vaishnava – the disciple of the great teacher Vedanta Sri Gaudapada, asked from inside the cave who is the one who is standing at the entrance. Shankar’s answer was in the form of 10 stanzas ending in the chorus of ‘Sivahkevaloham’ – ‘Siva in person’, which was recorded in Hindu literature as Dasa Sloki. A very happy guru went outside the cave, and Shankara, paralyzed by his personality, fell to his feet. Govinda Bhagavatpada accepted Shankar as his disciple and gave him initiation to all Mahavaka – the teachings of the books of the Upanishads. Shankara lived with his guru for about 3 years and learned spiritual truths and practices under his guidance.
After mastering all his abilities, the guru gave Shankar a blessing for the road and he ordered that he should make an authoritative commentary on Brahma Sutras. He also gave instructions about the teachings he should preach and instructed him to go to Benaras (Varanasi), the spiritual and cultural center of India at that time.
Meeting with the Untouchable
From central India, Shankara moved to Varanasi, where he spent four years. There he gathered many students and performed work as a teacher commissioned by his guru.
During this period, he met a chandala – guardian of the crematorium – a representative of the dirtiest caste ‘untouchable’ in the hierarchy of Hindu castes. When Shankar turned to him to move, not wanting to touch him, the chandala answered him with a question: ‘Do you want to move that body that was built from food or soul? Form, formless, what is limited or what is infinite you mean? ‘This incident had a profound effect on Shankar, prompting him to question the essence of the body as the hermit tradition suggested.
Shankar grew up in the tradition of Varna Ashrama Dharma, where the purity of the caste was of great importance, so his acceptance of the encountered chandala as his guru had a special dimension. This incident led him to arrange five lines formulating this meeting under the name Manisha Panchakam. In these verses, he formulates his view beyond the divisions that are the source of duality. Wisdom is ultimately a superior value to the caste.
Meeting with scholar Mandana Mishra
Adi Shankara soon met Mandan Mishra – a great scholar of Mimansak’s Mahismati school in the Bihar region, with whom he undertook a debate about the superiority of knowledge over the ritual. It lasted for a long time, until finally the great scholar acknowledged Shankar’s victory. After the debate, the wife of a scholar, Ubhaya Bharati, playfully challenged Shankar for a debate about knowledge of erotic art. At that time, Shankar’s celibate admitted his shortcomings in this topic, and the woman asked him how he could expect understanding of the nature of being without the experience of sensual pleasure and emotional intimacy. What happened later is covered with mystery, probably due to the puritans arriving in the sixteenth century. Other sources also report that Shankara explored Kama’s teachings through meditation in isolation.
Adi Shankara used his yogic forces to enter the body of Amaru – King of Kashmir – and revive them long enough to enjoy all the pleasures of the body. Legend has it that this experience led Shankar to write erotic love poetry known as Amaru Shataka. In Kashmir, and later also in Shringeri – in today’s Karnataka – Shankar established temples for his personal deity – Sharada, which is commonly referred to as Saraswati holding a book. It also holds a pot and a parrot – symbols of home and sensual life – which testify to Shankar’s recognition of erotica, body and fact of matter, in other words, of his acceptance of tantra teachings. This is the foundation of Shankar’s relationship with the tantric geometric symbol of divine feminine nature – ‘shree-yantra.’
Shankar returned to Kaladi to perform a farewell ritual for his mother, having learned of her death. However, according to the Vedic tradition, leaving the home life, the recluse can not perform home rituals such as funerals. As a hermit, Shankara gave up his role as a son and had no obligations to a woman who was once his mother. But Shankara opposed this tradition. He abstained from performing the ritual at the crematorium and carried the mother’s body to the area of his farm, where he performed the funeral ritual.
Merits for the society of then India
He then went to India, setting up his school in four parts of India, planning pilgrimages all the time. He established ‘akhara’ – a place of debate for the hermits of various sects, who were told that they use their knowledge, physical and yogic skills to protect Hinduism. He also organized joint meetings in places of pilgrimage, also during the special period of the Kumb Mela festival.
Shankar died at the tender age of 32 in the Himalayan region. The story says that his father, having received an alternative from Shiva, chose a short but unusual life for his son, instead of the usual long life. According to the legend, the miraculous child was to die at the age of eight, but he obtained an extension from Shiva for an additional eight years to dig up the truth about the Vedas. His comments and monographs were so brilliant that Vyasa, the mythical author of the Vedic books, extended the boy’s life for another 16 years so that he could spread his ideas.
Understanding the teachings of Adi Shankaracharya
The difference between the Indian mentality and the Middle East, Europe and America is undeniable. For the newcomers it seems to be chaotic, on the verge of collapse and division. For the Indian people brought up in the Vedic teachings, the teaching of the Vedas is of great genius. The external and internal view of the teachings of India is therefore divergent.
Shankar as an Indian used the doctrine of illusion to expose fragmentary and limited worldviews: all ideas and understanding of their words are imperfect and incomplete, but they mislead us, assuming that they are perfect and complete.
To understand Shankar, we would have to free ourselves from the dualistic abrahamine conception of a true god and false gods, which still has a great influence on political and scientific debates. To Hinduism, this concept arrives in its dualistic form, suggesting that there can be a finite god and an infinite god, where the relationship of form and shapeless divinity is similar to the relationship between sound and meaning, without which no word can exist.
Shankar sees the surrounding world as full of limited truths – just like Buddhists. However – in contrast to them – he emphasizes that we exist on the platform of undisturbed eternal, boundless truth, which attributes the sense and value of existence. The first one is available; the latter is transcendental and elusive. The experiences of life are full of limited and momentary joys and sorrows. Without the transcendental foundation, life becomes senseless, worthless.
The rejection of ‘brahman’ – understanding that there is something permanent and uniting within and beyond us, leads to nihilism and monastic obsession with the idea of forgetting about oneself – nirvana, whereas brahminical acceptance allows one to enjoy the beauty of life, its colors, content, emotions , experiences as various expressions of divinity, more beautiful because of their mortality.
One of the reasons why Buddhism did not finally take root in India is its abandonment of art, the perception of it as a temporary aberration of human nature standing on the road to wisdom. In contrast to Puranic Hinduism, where human ideals danced and sang, and their followers glorified art to discover wisdom.
The Buddhist elite avoided performing rituals in their sanctuaries, which were popular among the masses. Adi Shankara on the contrary, he realized how stories and songs attract people. He therefore accepted puranic rituals in their temples, which were relatively more common and more artistic and spectacular than stiffer exclusive Vedic rituals. This is what made Shankara memorable as a saint in the arena of Hinduism.
Instead of arguing which commentary, poem, pilgrimage, worldview or ideal is superior or more complete, Shankara emphasizes that the only truth is the brahmana – understanding – unattainable through logic and argumentation, and only through faith, direct understanding of the teachings of the Vedas.