The System of Sankara

Dr. Will Durant

The word 'Vedanta' meant originally the end of the Vedas, that is; the Upanishads. Today India applies it to that system of philosophy which sought to give logical structure and support to the essential doctrine of the Upanishads, the organ-point that sounds throughout Indian thought-that God (Brahman) and the soul (Atman) are one. The oldest known form of this widely accepted of all Hindu philosophies is the Brahma- sutra of Badarayana (c.200 B.C.)- in 555 aphorisms, of which the first announces the purpose of all: Now, then a desire to know Brahman. Almost a thousand years later, Gaudapada taught the esoteric doctrine of the system of Govinda, who taught it to Sankara, who composed the most famous of Vedanta commentaries, and made himself the greatest of Indian philosophers.

In his short life of thirty-two years Sankara achieved that union of sage and saint, of wisdom and kindliness, which characterizes the loftiest type of man produced in India. Born among the studious Nambudiri Brahmans of Malabar, he rejected the luxuries of the world, and while still a youth became a Sannyasi, worshipping unpretentiously the gods of the Hindu pantheon, and yet mystically absorbed in the vision of all-embracing Brahman. It seemed to him that the profoundest religion and the profoundest philosophy were those of the Upanishads. He could pardon the polytheism of the people, but not the atheism of Sankhya, or the agnosticism of Buddha. Arriving in the north as a delegate of the south, he won such popularity at the assemblies of Benaras that it crowned him with its highest honour, and sent him forth, with a retinue of disciples, to champion Brahmanism in all the debating halls of India. At Banaras, probably, he wrote his famous commentaries on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, and Brahma Sutras in which he attacked with theological ardour and scholastic subtlety all the heretics of India, and restored Brahmanism to the position of intellectual leadership from which Buddha and Kapila had deposed it.

There is much metaphysical wind in these discourses, and arid deserts of textual exposition; but they may be forgiven in a man who at the age of thirty could be at once the Aquinas and the Kant of India. Like Aquinas, Sankara accepts the full authority of his country's Scriptures as a divine revelation, and then sallies forth to find proofs in experience and reason for all scriptural teachings. Unlike Aquinas, however, he does not believe that reason can suffice for such a task. On the contrary he wonders 'Have we not exaggerated the power and role, the clarity and reliability of reason?' Jaimini was right: reason is a lawyer, and will prove anything we wish. For every argument it can find an equal and opposite argument, and its upshot is a skepticism that weakens all force of character and undermines all values of life. It is not logic that we need, says Sankara, it is insight, the faculty (akin to art) of grasping at once the essential out of the irrelevant, the eternal out of the temporal, the whole out of the part. This is the first pre-requisite to philosophy. The second is a willingness, to observe, inquire and think for understanding's sake not for the sage of invention, wealth or power; it is a withdrawal of the spirit from all the excitement, bias and fruits of action. Thirdly, the philosopher must acquire self-restraint, patience and tranquility. He must learn to live above physical temptation or material concerns. Finally, there must burn, deeper his soul, the desire for a blissful absorption in the Brahman of complete understanding and infinite unity. In a word, the student needs not the logic or reason so much as a cleansing and deepening discipline of the Soul. This, perhaps, has been the secret of all profound education.

Sankara establishes the source of his philosophy at a remote and subtle point never quite clearly visioned again until a thousand years later. Immaunel Kant wrote his Critique of Pure Reason. How, he asks, is knowledge possible? Apparently, all our knowledge comes from the senses, and reveals not the external itself, but our sensory adaptation-perhaps transformation of that reality. By sense, then, we can never quite know the "real"; we can know it only in the garb of space, time and cause which may be a web created by our organs of sense and understanding, designed or evolved to catch and hold that fluent and elusive reality whose existence we can surmise, but whose character we never objectively describe; our way of perceiving will forever be inextricable mingled with the thing perceived.

This is not the airy subjectivism of the solipsist who thinks that he can destroy the world by going to sleep. The world exists, but it is Maya-not delusion, but phenomenon, an appearance created partly by our thought. Our incapacity to perceive things except through the film of space and time, or to think of them except in terms of cause and change, is an innate limitation, an ajnana or ignorance whence we see a multiplicity of objects and a flux of change. In truth there is only one Being, and change is 'a mere name' for the superficial fluctuations of forms. Behind the Maya or Veil of change and things, to be reached not by sensation or intellect but only by the insight and intuition of the trained spirits, is the one universal reality, Brahman.

This natural obscuration of sense and intellect by the organs and forms of sensation and understanding bars us likewise from perceiving the one unchanging soul that stands beneath all individual souls and minds. Our separate selves, visible to perception and thought, are as unreal as the phantasmagoria of space and time; individual differences and distinct personalities are bound up with body and matter. They belong to the kaleidoscopic world of change; and these merely phenomenal selves will pass away with the material conditions of which they are a part. But the underlying life which we feel in ourselves when we forget space and time, cause and change, is the very essence and reality of that Atman which we share with all selves and things and which, undivided and omnipresent, is identical with Brahman, God.

But what is God? Just as there are two selves-the ego and Atman and two worlds-the phenomenal and nominal-so there are two deities; an Ishvara or Creator worshipped by the people through the patterns of space, cause, time and change, and a Brahman or Pure Being worshipped by that philosophical piety which seeks and finds, behind all spare things and selves, one universal reality, unchanging amid all changes, indivisible amid all divisions, eternal despite all vicissitudes of form, all birth and death. Polytheism, even theism, belongs to the world of Maya and Avidya; they are forms of worship that correspond to the forms of perception and thought. They are as necessary to our moral life as space, time and cause are necessary to our intellectual life, but they have no absolute validity or objective truth.

To Sankara the existence of God is no problem for he defines God as existence and identifies all real being with God. But regarding God as creator or redeemer. There may, he thinks, be some question. Such a deity, says Sankara, cannot be proved by reason; he can only be postulated as a practical necessity, offering peace to our limited intellects, and encouragement to our fragile morality.

The philosopher, though he may worship in every temple and bow to every God, will pass beyond these forgivable forms of popular faith. Feeling the illusoriness of plurality, and the monistic unity of all things, he will adore, as the Supreme Being, Being itself indescribable, limitless, spaceless, timeless, causeless, changeless Being, the source and substance of all reality. We may apply the adjectives "conscious" intelligent, even "happy" to Brahman, since Brahman includes all selves and these may have such qualities. All other adjectives would be applicable to Brahman equally, since it includes all qualities of all things' essentially though Brahman is neuter, raised above personality and gender, beyond good and evil above all moral distinctions, all deference and attributes, all desires and ends. Brahman is the cause and effect, the timeless and secret essence of the world.

The goal of philosophy is to find that secret, and to lose the seeker in the secret found. To be one with God means, for Sankara, to rise above-or to sink beneath-the separateness and brevity of the self, with all its narrow purposes and interests, to become unconscious of all parts, divisions, things, to be placidly at one, in a desireless Nirvana, with that great ocean of Being in which there are no warring purposes, no competing selves, no parts, no space, and no time. To find this blissful peace (Ananda) a man must renounce not merely the world but himself; he must look upon suffering and death as Maya, surface incidents of body and matter, time and chance, and he must not think of his own personal qualities and fate. A single moment of self-interest or pride can destroy all his liberation. Good works cannot give a man salvation, for good works have no validity or meaning except in the world of space and time. Only the knowledge of the saintly seer can bring that salvation which is the recognition of the identity of self and the universe, Atman and Brahman, soul and God, and the absorption of the part in the whole. Only when this absorption is complete does the wheel of reincarnation stop; for then it is seen that the separate self and personality, to which reincarnation comes, is an illusion. It is Ishvara, the Maya-God, that gives rebirth to the self in punishment and reward; but "when the identity" of Atman and Brahman "has become known, then," says Sankara, " the soul's existence as wanderer and Brahman's existence as creator" (i.e., as Ishvara) "have vanished away." Ishvara and Karma, like things and selves, belong to the esoteric doctrine of Vedanta as adapted to the needs of common man; in the esoteric or secret doctrine, soul and Brahman are one, never wandering, never dying, never changed.

It was thoughtful of Sankara to confine his esoteric doctrine to philosophers; for, as Voltaire believed, as only a society of philosophers could survive without laws, so only a society of supermen could live beyond good and evil. Critics have complained that if good and evil are Maya, part of the unreal world, then all moral distinctions fall away, and devils are as good as saints. But these moral distinctions, Sankara cleverly replies, are all within the world of space and time, and are binding for those who live in the world. They are not binding upon the soul that has united itself with Brahman. Such a soul, by definition, does not move in the sphere of desire and (self-considering) action. Whoever consciously injures another lives on the plane of Maya, and is subject to its distinctions, its morals and its laws. Only the philosopher is free, only wisdom is liberty.

It was a subtle and profound philosophy to be written by a man in his twenties. Sankara not only elaborated it in teaching and defended it successfully in debate, but he expressed snatches of it in some of the most sensitive religious poetry of India.

Ten religious orders were founded in his name, and many disciples accepted and developed his philosophy. One of them, some say Sankara himself, wrote for the people a popular exposition of the Vedanta-the Mohamudgara, or "Hammer against Folly"- in which the essentials of the system were summed up with clarity and force.

"Fool! Give up thy thirst for wealth, banish all desires from thy heart. Let thy mind be satisfied with what is gained by thy Karma... Do not be proud of wealth, of friends, or of youth; time takes all away in a moment. Leaving quickly all this, which is full of illusion, enter into the place of Brahman... Life is tremulous, enter into the place of Brahman... Life is tremulous, like a water-drop on a lotus-leaf... Time is plying, life is waning-yet the breath of hope never ceases. The body is wrinkled, the hair grey, the mouth has become toothless, the stick in the hand shakes, yet man leaves not the anchor of hope... Preserve equanimity always... In thee, in me and in others there dwells the Vishnu alone; it is useless to be angry with any body, or impatient. See every self in Self, and give up thought of difference."