Sankara and the West

By Prof. Ninian Smart

Sankaracharya had become known to the West mainly as secondhand. The reason for this is his enormous influence upon modern expositions of the essentials of Hinduism. An important feature of the latter has been the thesis that all religions essentially point to the same goal, to the realization of the Self. Indeed, much of what counts as Vedanta in the West (as expounded, for example, by Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood and others) essentially derives from Sankara. By contrast the Vedantic interpretations of Ramanuja and Madhva, for example, are much less well known. One reason for this situation is that Sankara's brilliant exegetical technique and philosophical thinking were crystallized in the doctrine of differing levels of truth-a principle which can naturally be applied to the problem of seeing differing religious formulations as lying on a continuum from popular cults, through theism, to the absolutism expressed in Sankara's idealism. The principle resolves certain apparent contradictions between religious beliefs.

Another cause of the influence of Sankara in recent times has been the fact that at the time when western philosophy and Indian philosophy came into fruitful symbiosis-- in the later part of the 19th century, absolute idealism, derived from Hegel, was the dominating motif in Western philosophising. Its apparent analogy to Advaita Vedanta led to frequent expressions of a new synthesis between East and West.

In the present century also there was the pioneering work of Rudolf Otto, in his Mysticism East and West, which made an important comparison between Sankara and Eckhart, thus encouraging the interest in assimilating the results of the contemplative life, whether East or West, to the same goal of realizing an absolute lying beyond the personal God, and issued in a wider synthesis between Christian, Sufi, Buddhist and Hindu mysticism (i.e.) mysticism in the sense of the pursuit of the contemplative life, resulting in the realization of some kind of realization or union or rapport with ultimate Reality. More recently there are such works as W.T. Stace's Mysticism and Philosophy which come to general conclusions compatible with the world picture delineated in Sankara's writings.

Consequently it is not absurd to say that Sankara lies behind the picture of a Hinduism, and specially of Hinduism in its higher contemplative forms presented to the West in the present century. The interest in such an Advaitic Hinduism (admittedly modified in various ways by modern exponents, both East and West) has been boosted by the increased concern both among young and old in the West for direct experiential tests of religious truth and the interest in mysticism.

It is true that this Western concern for Eastern forms of contemplation has different forms, and is sometimes negative. It is sometimes negative in that it expresses an alienation from traditional forms of religion in the West and from the social milieu in which traditional Christianity made living sense for the majority of the population. Dissatisfaction with present religious practices and institutions is not necessarily the correct basis for an exploration of the ideas and ideals of Sankara. Nevertheless it testifies to the sense that religion, to be revitalised, needs to be made directly experiential-and the implicit experientialism of Sankara and of modern Advaitic Hinduism therefore can have a powerful appeal. However, Sankara is not the only teacher to whom people in the West, thus dissatisfied with traditional formulations and practices, are liable to turn. There is, as it happens, an even greater interest in Buddhism. This is partly because Buddhism in the past was a 'universal' or missionary religion. Whereas Sankara was primarily teaching and working within the structure of the Indian tradition, Buddhism even before the time of Sankara was already widespread over Asia. This 'universalism' of Buddhism, as expressed in the diversity of cultural forms in which it works, makes it easier to assimilate in the Western context. It also happens that the Vedic principle of transcendental revelation, less prominent in Buddhism, is less well adapted to present-day Western consciousness, which is so explicitly anti-authoritarian in matters of religion. This is where Vivekananda's Advaitic humanism scored, in that it was pitched in terms of the realization of man's potential, a theme of course implicit in Sankara, but obscured by the fact that his best-known work consists in the interpretation of a scriptural tradition.

Another problem from the point of view of the modern West is Sankara's doctrine of Maya. It is true that "illusion" is not the best translation. Nevertheless it has become commonly accepted in the West, and rather misleadingly, that the central teaching of Hinduism about the world is that it is unreal. As a merely metaphysical doctrine this might not matter, but is seems to have valuational consequences. Hence present-day concerns to alter and change the real world for the better, both materially and socially, run counter to the Western interpretation of Hinduism as world-negating. To say the least, this tension is unfortunate. As Ramanuja pointed out with critical clarity, Sankara's criterion of "illusoriness" was impermanence - a very different idea from unreality. Moreover, the usual Western picture of Hinduism is mainly grounded on ignorance and derivative from stupid folktale about Hindu self-mortification (of course, the phenomenon exists, but is almost never seen in context by Westerners). This trend against idealistic accounts of the world has created wrong judgments about the new formulations on Hinduism inspired ultimately by the revolutionary work of Sankara.

Another reaction towards Sankara in the West is represented by the specifically Christian sentiments. Since Christianity by definition focuses above all on Christ and since Christ is a personal figure-thus implying the personal character of God--there is disquiet at the transcendence of Isvara contained in Sankara's account of ultimate reality. It is also a theme in many modern Hindu writings. e.g., the late Paul Tillich in his expositions of a new Christian theology, who would seem to be in close agreement with this idea. But on the other hand, the great bulk of Christian theologians are, doubtless inevitably, wedded to a picture of ultimate reality very different from that delineated in Sankara's writings.

My own view is that these issues will be resolved in the process of the dialogue between religions. I do not think that the divergences between different schools of thought and spiritual traditions can be glossed over. Sankaracharya himself would not have approved of such a glossing over. He was a great reformer, a tremendous philosopher and exegete, and he was concerned to stake out a true picture of spiritual reality, in distinction from other viewpoints. It follows therefore that he will remain a central human exponent of religious ideas and will thus play a vital role in the dialogue of religions and ideologies to which I have referred.