Tributes by Ancient and Medieval Saints
Honey-bees from all directions seek the ambrosial nectar in the lotus which grows in the sacred lake, the Manasasaras. Like those bees, devout and disciplined seekers of wisdom draw inspiration and instruction from the Bhashyas that came out of the lotus lips of the supreme Teacher, Sri Sankara before whom I bow my head in humble obeisance.
Salutations with body, mind and speech to the glorious Sun that is Sri Sankara struck back by the lustre of whose knowledge the splendour of the solar orb became dim like the moon, and the effulgent renown of whose disciples enveloped all the countries from the Far East to the Far West and dispelled the darkness of ignorance from every region.
Hails the auspicious word (the Bhashya) flowing from the lotus face of Bhagavat-Pada explaining the Brahman bereft of all duality, destroying every possibility of rebirth taking a thousand different arms of expositions due to the contact of various Acharyas anterior to me, as the celestial river (Ganga) issuing from the feet of Vishnu assumes different shapes and colours by flowing through different types of land and helps mortals to avoid rebirth.
But India has to live, and the spirit of the Lord descended again. He who declared "I will come whenever virtue subsides", came again, and this time the manifestation was in the South, and up rose the young Brahmin of whom it has been declared that at the age of sixteen he had completed all his writings; the marvellous boy Sankaracharya. The writings of this boy of sixteen are the wonders of the modern world, and so was the boy. He wanted to bring back the Indian world to its pristine purity, but think of the amount of the task before him... The Tartars and the Baluchis and all the hideous races of mankind came to India and became Buddhists, and assimilated with us, and brought their national customs and the whole of our national life became a huge stage of the most horrible and the most bestial customs. That was the inheritance which that boy got from the Buddhists, and from that time to this day his whole work in India is a re-conquest of this Buddhistic degradation by the Vedanta. It is still going on, it is not yet finished. Sankara came as a great philosopher and showed that the real essence of Buddhism and that of the Vedanta are not very different, but that the disciples did not understand the Master and have degraded themselves, denied the existence of the soul and of God and have become atheists. That was what Shankara showed and all the Buddhists began to come back to the old religion.
The greatest teacher of the Vedanta philosophy was Shankaracharya. By solid reasoning he extracted from the Vedas the truths of Vedanta, and on them built up the wonderful system of Jnana that is taught in his commentaries. He unified all the conflicting descriptions of Brahman and showed that there is only one infinite Reality. He showed too that as man can only travel slowly on the upward road, all the varied presentations are needed to suit his varying capacity. We find something akin to this in the teachings of Jesus, which he evidently adapted to the different abilities of his hearers. First he taught them of a Father in heaven and to pray to him. Next he rose a step higher and told them, "I am the vine, you are the branches", and lastly he gave them the highest truth: "I and my Father are one," and "The kingdom of Heaven is within You" Shankara taught that three things were the great gifts of God: (1) human body (2) thirst after God and (3) a teacher who can show up the light. When these three great gifts are ours, we may know that our redemption is at hand. Only knowledge can free and save us but with knowledge must go virtue.
Books cannot teach God, but they can destroy ignorance; their action is negative. To hold to the books and at the same time open the way to freedom is Shankara's great achievement.
Shankaracharya had caught the rhythm of the Vedas, the national cadence. Indeed I always imagine that he had some vision such as mine when he was young and recovered the ancient music that way. Anyway, his whole life's work is nothing but that, the throbbing of the beauty of the Vedas and the Upanishads.
This wonderful boy-for he died at the age of thirty two had already completed a great mission when most men were still dreaming of the future. The characteristic product of oriental culture is always a commentary (on the earlier Scriptures). By this form of literature the future is knit firmly to the past, and though the dynamic power of the connecting idea may be obscure to the foreigner, it is clearly and accurately conveyed to the Eastern mind. By writing a new commentary on a given sutra, the man of genius has it in his power to re-adjust the relationship between a given question and the old answer. Hence it is not surprising to find that the masterpiece of Sankaracharya's life was a commentary on the Vedanta Sutras.
The whole of the national genius awoke once more in Sankaracharya. Amidst all the brilliance and luxury of the age, in spite of the rich and florid taste of the Puranic period, his soul caught the mystic whisper of the ancient rhythm of the Vedic chants, and the dynamic power of the faith to lead the soul to super-consciousness, became for him the secret of every phase of Hinduism. He was on fire with the love of the Vedas. His own poems have something of their classical beauty and comprehensive sentences of the Upanishads, to which he has contributed links and rivets.
Sankaracharya wandered, during his short life, from his birthplace in the South as far as the Himalayas, and everything that he came across in his travels related itself to the one focus and centre in his mind. He accepted each worship, even that which he was at first adverse. But always he found that the great mood of One-without-a-second was not only the Vedic, but also the Puranic goal.
This is the doctrine that he expresses in his twelve epoch-making commentaries especially in his crowning work, the commentary on Vedanta Sutras. And this idea, known as the Advaita Philosophy constitutes,for the rest of the Hindu period, the actual unity of India.
Western people can hardly imagine a personality such as that of Sankaracharya. In the course of so few years to have nominated the founders of no less than ten great religious orders, of which four have fully retained their prestige to the present day; to have acquired such a mass of Sanskrit learning as to create a distinct philosophy, and impress himself on the scholarly imagination of India a pre-eminence that twelve hundred years have not sufficed to shake; to have written poems whose grandeur makes them unmistakable, even to the foreign and unlearned ear; and at the same time to have lived with his disciples in all the radiant joy and simple pathos of the saints-this is greatness that we may appreciate, but cannot understand...
The work of Sankaracharya was the relinking of popular practice to the theory of Brahman, the stern infusion of mythological fancies with the doctrine of the Upanishads. He took up and defined the current catchwords-maya, karma, reincarnation, and others-and left the terminology of Hinduism what it is today.
His complete appropriation by this nation only shows that he is in perfect unison with its thought and aspiration.
Hence you find in the teaching of the Lord Buddha two great divisions; one, a philosophy meant for the learned, then an ethic disjoined from the philosophy so far as the masses are concerned, noble and pure and great, yet easy to be grasped. For the Lord knew that we were going into an age of deeper and deeper materialism, that the nations were going to arise, that India for a time was going to sink down for other nations to rise above her in the scale of nations. Hence was it necessary to give a teaching of morality-fitted for a more materialistic age, so that even if nations would not believe in the gods they might still practise morality and obey the teachings of the Lord. In order also that this law might not suffer loss, in order that India itself might not lose its subtle metaphysical teachings and the widespread belief among all classes of people in the existence of the God, and their part in the affairs of men, the work of the great Lord Buddha was done. He left morality built upon a basis that could not be shaken by any change of faith, and having done His work, passed away. Then was sent another Great One, Sri Shankaracharya, in order that by His teaching He might give the Advaita Vedanta, the philosophy which would do intellectually what morally the Buddha had done, which intellectually would guard spirituality and allow a materialistic age to break its teeth on the hard knot of a flawless philosophy. Thus in India metaphysical religion triumphed, while the teaching of the Blessed One passed from the Indian soil, to do its noble work in lands other than the land of Aryavarta, which must keep unshaken its belief in gods, and where highest and lowest alike must bow before their power. That is the real truth about this much disputed question as to the teaching of the ninth Avatara (Buddha), the fact was that His teaching was not meant for His birthplace, but was meant for other younger nations that were rising up around, who did not follow the Vedas, but who yet needed instruction in the path of righteousness; not to mislead them but to guide them, was His teaching given. But, as I say, and as I repeat, what in it might have done harm in India had it been left alone was prevented by the coming of the great Teacher of Advaita. You must remember that His name has been worn by man after man, through century after century; but Shri Shankaracharya on whom was the power of Mahadeva descended was born but a few years after the passing away of the Buddha, as the records of the Dwaraka Math show plainly-taking date after date backward until they bring His birth within sixty or seventy years of the passing away of Buddha.
The Hindu does not worship many Gods. What he does is that he has the same respect for the faith of others as he has for his own. (Post-script to the introduction to Prapanchasaara, Vol. XVIII of the Tantrik Texts, edited by Aruthur Avalon).
Sankaracharya's record is a remarkable one. Buddhism, which had been driven south from the north, now almost disappears, from India. Hinduism becomes stirred up intellectually by Shankara's books and commentaries and argument. Not only does he become the great leader of the Brahman class, but he seems to catch imagination of the masses. It is an unusual thing for a man to become a great leader chiefly because of his powerful intellect, and for such a person to impress himself on millions of people and on history. Great soldiers and conquerors seem to stand out in history. They become popular or are hatred, and sometimes they mould history. Great religious leaders have moved millions and fired with enthusiasm, but always this has been on the basis of faith. The emotions have been appealed to have been touched.
It is difficult for an appeal to the mind and to the intellect to go far. Most people unfortunately do not think: they feel and act according to their feelings. Yet Shankara's appeal was to the mind and intellect and to reason. It was not just the repetition of a dogma contained in an old book. Whether his argument was right or wrong is immaterial for the moment. What is interesting is his intellectual approach to religious problems, and even more so to the success he gained inspite of this method of approach.
The Vedanta system arising out of the Upanishads, developed and took many shapes and forms, but was always based on the foundation of the early Vedanta. Shankara (or Shankaracharya), built a system which is called the Advaita Vedanta or non-dualist Vedanta. It is this philosophy which represents the dominating philosophic outlook of Hinduism to-day.
How the Absolute Soul, the Atman, pervades everything, how the one appears as the many, and yet retains its wholeness, for the Absolute is indivisible, all these cannot be accounted for by the process of logical reasoning, for our minds are limited by the finite world. Finite individuals cannot ima- gine the infinite without limiting it; they can only form limited and objective conception of it. Yet even these finite forms and concepts rest ultimately in the Infinite and Absolute. Hence the form of religion becomes a relative affair and each individual has liberty to form such conceptions as he is capable of.
Shankara accepted the Brahminical organization of social life on the caste basis, as representing the collective experience and wisdom of the race. But he held that any person belonging to any caste could attain the highest knowledge.
There is about Shankara's attitude and philo- sophy a sense of world-negation and withdrawal from the normal activities of the world in search of that freedom of the self which was to him the final goal for every person. There is also a continual insistence on self-sacrifice and detachment.
And yet Shankara was a man of amazing energy and vast activity. He was no escapist retiring into his shell or into a corner of the forest, seeking his own individual perfection and oblivious of what happened to others. Born in Malabar in the far south of India, meeting innumerable people, arguing debating, reasoning, convicing, and filling them with a part of his own passing and tremendous vitality, he was evidently a man who was intensely conscious of his mission, a man who looked upon the whole of India from Cape Comorin to the Himalayas as his field of action and as something that held together culturally and was infused by the same spirit, though this might take many external forms. He strove hard to synthesize the diverse currents that were troubling the mind of the India of his day and to build a unity of outlook out of that diversity. In a brief life of thirty-two years he did the work of as many long lives and left such an impress of his powerful mind and rich personality on India that it is very evident today. He was a curious mixture of a philosopher and scholar, an agnostic and a mystic, a poet and a saint, and, in addition to all this, a practical reformer and an able organizer...
There is a significance about (the) long journeys of Shankara throught out this vast land at a time when travel was difficult and the means of transport very slow and primitive. It would seem that Shankara wanted to add to the sense of national unity and common consciousness. He functioned on the intellectual, philosophical and religious planes and tried to bring about a greater unity of thought all over the country. He functioned also on the popular plane in many ways, destroying many a dogma and opening the door of his philosophic sanctuary to everyone who was capable of entering it.
Sri Shankaracharya was almost unique in the history of thought. He combined in himself the attributes of a poet, a logician, a devotee and a mystic as well as being the architect of the monistic system of philosophy that bears his name. He was an inspired poet whose appeal was, in turn, to every human feeling and sentiment. His descriptions of nature and his appraisal of human and divine personality reached the summit of art, and his command over the navarasas (nine kinds of poetic flavour or sentiments) was superb.
At the same time, In his commentaries on the Prasthanatraya ( the three bases of Vedanta, viz., the Upanishadas, Brahma-sutras and the Gita), he displayed a rare faculty or relentlessly logical and concatenated argument and refutation, and such subtlety of reasoning as has been rarely surpassed in the philosophical writings of the world. He vindicated and firmly established the Advaita philosophy which has been described as one of the supreme achievements of Hinduism.
Sankara was simultaneously the author of some of the sweetest lyrics like Saundaryalahari, which are devoted to the description of the personal God head in several manifestations....
In the Vivekachudamani Shankara says: "Deliverance is not achieved by repeating the word 'Brahman' but by directly experiencing Brahman."
Having proceeded so far, Shankara thereafter expounds the view that the nirakara (formless) Absolute becomes akaravat or embodied for the individual worshipper as a personal saguna God which is but a form in which the Absolute can be comprehended by the finite mind.
The religion of a personal God is not a mere dogma but is a product of realization and experience. As the end religion is sakshatkara, what is termed bhakti is a striving for this sakshatkara or realization by means of a personal God or a symbol, Pratika, which may be an image, a painting or an object in nature. It will thus be seen that Shankara does not exclude or expel the framework of the external world. This is an aspect which is not always understood by those who deal with the Vedanta system.
It may be observed that similar conception (about the oneness of the individual soul and the Absolute) and thought have occurred to men and women in many other countries and in other ages. St. Catherine of Genoa exclaims, "My 'me' is God, nor do I recognize any other 'me' except God Himself"; and the Sufi saint, Bayazid stated, "I went from God to God, until they cried from 'me' in 'me', 'Oh thou l'." When someone knocked at the saint's door and asked " Is Bayazid here?" his answer was "Is anybody here except God?"
In that remarkable compilation of Aldous Huxley entitled The Perennial Philosophy occurs the following passage: "That are thou. Behold but one in all things, God within a God without. There is a way to reality in and through the world, and there is a way to reality in and through the soul. But the best way is that which leads to the Divine ground simultaneously in the perceiver and in that which is perceived."
That inspired medieval philosopher, Ruysbroeck, has stated: "The image of God is found essentially and personally in all makind. In this way we are all one, intimately united in our external image which is the image of God and the source in us of all our life."
Perhaps, however, one of the truest successors of Shankara was Spinoza. According to him the totality of all existing things is God. God, according to him, is not a cause outside of things, which passes over into things and works upon things from without. He is immanent, dwelling within, working from within, penetrating and impregnating all things. In this short treatise, Spinoza utters the truth as manifested to him: "Nature consists of infinite attributes. To its essence pertains existence so that outside it there is no other essence or existence. It thus coincides exactly with the essence of God."
What may be called the Shankara system has thus pervaded and influenced not only all aspects of Indian thought but has had significant repercussions amongst medieval Christian saints, Sufi divines, and more recent thinkers like Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. There is, furthermore, a growing body of scientific thinkers, who, confronted by the phenomena and development of nuclear, atomic and cosmic theories, feel irresistibly drawn to Shankara's enunciations as the most legitimate and satisfactory explanation of the universe, physical, psychological and para-psychological.
The special glory of Shankara is that over and above being the protagonist of the monistic approach, he is the author of innumerable stotras (hymns) as already stated. The jnana of Shankara is not a cold study of books but a warm-hearted striving to realize the truth, which when turned towards a personal deity, becomes bhakti. Shankara is as insistent as Buddha on the supreme importance of ethics as one of the fundamentals of spiritual life. But his outlook on Karma, on temple worship and on domestic ceremonial is synthetic and harmonious, and not at all destructive. (Vedanta for East and West I VIII-6)