Shankara: Not The Founder of Advaita Vedanta But A Link in the Timeless Tradition

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Intent of this Article
  3. Non-Human Origin of Advaita Vedanta
    1. Shrutis as Revealed Scriptures
  4. Shrutis as the Final Authority
    1. Ultimate Truth of the Shrutis : Non-Dual Brahman
    2. Why Shrutis Are the Final Authority
    3. How Shrutis are the Means to Know the Unknowable Brahman
      1. The Self-Luminosity/Witnesshood of Atman-Brahman
      2. “I” or Self is Brahman
      3. The Shrutis Do Not Posit Brahman
      4. The Traditional Method of the Shrutis to Reveal Brahman/Self/Witness: Agama (Superimposition and Retraction)
  5. Shankara as the Teacher of Agama: Traditional Method of Teaching about Brahman
  6. Agama and Support for Reason
  7. Sruti is Also Transcended After Brahman is Known
  8. Conclusion
  9. Notes

Introduction

In my past article Difficulties in Finding the True Method of Advaita Vedanta of Shankaracharya – Part 2 : Pre-Shankara Schools I illustrated that Shankara was not the first person to talk about Advaita and in fact he belonged to a tradition of teachers called Sampradya stretching back to the time of Upanishads, which is at least a thousand years.[1] There I mentioned that Shankara mentions 99 different predecessors of his school in his commentaries.[2] I discussed in detail the names of some of these thinkers mentioned by Shankara in his commentaries along with their teachings – Badarayana, Upavarsa, Sundarapandya, Kasakratsna, Brahmanandin and Dravidacarya. Shankara counts them as teachers in his tradition/sampradaya and even reverentially calls some of them by the honorific title Bhagavan. I have yet to discuss another pre-Shankara teacher: Gaudapada, who is very significant, because unlike the other pre-Shankara teachers mentioned, his works are extant and available for our scrutiny.

However, there is a widespread notion that Shankara made some personal innovations in the philosophy of Vedanta derived from the Upanishads. Many authors have claimed that he and his teacher Gaudpada have borrowed and incorporated doctrines from Buddhism. In fact in the article “No Vedantic Schools of Duality Present Till the Time of Shankara”, I showed how latter-day developments of Dvaita of Maddhvacharya and Vishishtadvaita of Ramanuja show deviations from the teachings of the Upanishads. In this article I would like to address these notions to show that Shankara was only a link in a tradition that does not have any human author and that his teachings and methodolgy was very much grounded in the Upanishads, the revealed scriptures or srutis, whose authority was held supreme by him rather than any individual teacher.

Intent of this Article

  1. To show that Shankara was not the founder of Advaita Vedanta but a link in a tradition of teachers (sampradaya) claiming the authority of the Upanishads/shrutis or the ending portion of the Vedas as supreme
  2. To show that the tradition of Vedas/Upanishads does not claim any human origin
  3. To show that the teachings of Shankara do not deviate in any sense from the teachings of the Upanishads and therefore he does not need to borrow anything from other schools such as Buddhism
  4. To show that the ultimate authority of the shrutis is not based on belief but intuition of Brahman which is an already existent fact which is clouded.
  5. To show that even the shrutis are valid means as long as one is operating in duality. With the knowledge of Self/Brahman, even they are transcended

Abbreviations Used

  • B.G – Bhagavad Gita
  • Bg.Bh. – Bhagavad Gita Bhashya – Shankara
  • Bs.Bh. – Brahmasutra Bhashya – Shankara
  • Brhad. – Brhadaranyaka Upanishad
  • Br.U.B – Brhadaranyaka Upanishad Bhashya
  • G.K – Gaudapada Karika
  • Isa. – Isha Upanishad
  • Katha – Katha Upanishad
  • Ke. – Kena Upanishad
  • Mund. – Mundaka Upanishad
  • Rig. – Rig Veda
  • Svet. – Svetasvatara Upanishad

Non-Human Origin of Advaita Vedanta

Let alone Shankara, there is no human origin for Advaita Vedanta. Advaita Vedanta traces its origins to the Upanishads or shrutis which are the concluding portion of the Vedas, dealing with philosophy rather than rituals.[3] It is an important contention of both Advaita Vedanta and Purva-Mimamsa that the Vedas are eternal, uncreated, and authorless (apauruseya). The claim for the infallibility of these texts follows directly from this contention. If a personal author is ascribed to the Vedas, they will suffer from the limitations of authorship, defect-free source of knowledge will be under doubt. It is well known to those who follow the Veda that the phrase ‘the method of the Vedanta’ refers to the method for teaching knowledge of the Absolute observed in the Upanishads. Knowledge of the Absolute first manifests at the beginning of a world-period in the mind of Hiranyagarbha or Brahma, who has received the Veda from the supreme Lord. The method, carried on continuously by a succession of Teachers beginning with Brahma, has even come down to certain Teachers of modern times. And earnest seekers of release can still today achieve their goal by. acquiring an unshakable conviction about the truths in the science of the Upanishads, taught by a true Guru. For we have the Upanishadic text, In search of release, I take refuge in that deity, the light of my intellect, who projects Brahma at the beginning of a world-period and delivers to him the Vedas’ (Svet.VI.18). And also, Brahmā taught this knowledge of the Self to Prajāpati, and Prajāpati taught it to Manu. Manu, in his turn, taught it to all human beings [Chanogya Upanishad 8.15.1]

Shrutis as revealed Scriptures

One may wonder how anyone can access information from a non-human (apauruseya) origin. The answer lies in the word “revealed”. The Shrutis (literally ‘what are heard’) are never referred to as records, scriptures or compositions of any particular great personages. They are only ‘heard’ and known by the disciples from the teachings of their masters and the truths they inculcate never depend upon the authority of the Rishis who are sometimes mentioned in them, Thus :

“One result, they say, is obtained with the aid of Vidya, and another, they say, is obtained with the aid of Avidya. So we have heard the saying of the wise ones who have explained it to us.” [Isa.10] “It is altogether other than the known, and it is beyond the unknown. Thus, have we heard our predecessors who explained it to us.” [Ke. 1-4]

Even the Rishis are said to have received the Shrutis by means of their good deeds and acts of discipline but not to have themselves composed the texts:

“By the act of worship, they got the fitness to receive the Veda, and that word they received as it had entered into the Rishis.” [Rig. 10-71-3] ”The Maharshis (great seers) got the Vedas which together with Itihas had disappeared at the end of the last cycle, by virtue of penance, with the permission of the Self-manifested One.” [Mo. Dh.]

Even if one finds this all incredulous, it does not matter because the final authority of the scriptures is not based on any belief. They are a set of teachings that ultimately result in an intuition which can be validated by anyone who subscribes to the teachings. Finally, even the teachings are transcended.

Shrutis as the Final Authority

For those who feel that Shankara may have invented any new set of concepts or teachings or borrowed any concepts from other schools like Buddhism, their notions would get dispelled when they examine how Shankara clearly considers Shruti to be the final authority. In all his commentaries he has held the word of the shrutis as the gold standard of truth against which conflicting claims are examined, resolved or discarded. As a proof I am presenting two quotes from his Brahmasutra Bhashya.

“…for Brahman is known from the Upanishads alone” (Bs.Bh. II.i.27).” This Supreme and sublime Brahman is to be known from the Veda alone, but not from reasoning” (Bs.Bh. II.i.29)

Ultimate Truth of the Shrutis – Non-Dual Brahman

Upanishadic texts proclaim non-duality: the unity of Brahman or Atman in the most unmistakable terms. This means that the world of plurality that we experience is not real. What is real is non-duality even though we are seemingly seeing plurality.

For example, we have ‘O Gargi, this the knowers of the Absolute call the Indestructible. It is not gross, not subtle, not short, not long, neither red (like fire) nor fluid (like water), neither shadow nor darkness, neither wind nor ether, not adhesive, not taste, not odour, without eyes, without ears, without voice, without mind, without brilliance, without the vital principle, without an orifice, without a measure, having nothing within and nothing without. It consumes nothing, nor does anything consume it’ (Brhad.III.viii.8), ‘‘Imperceptible, inapprehensible, having no source from which it proceeds and having no colours or features, without eyes, ears, hands or feet’ (Mund.1.i.6), and ‘Without sound, impalpable, without form, beyond decay, without taste, constant, without odour, without beginning or end, fixed, beyond Mahat (the cosmic mind)’ (Katha I.iii.15).

When Shankara tells that reality is non-dual Brahman, he is not creating his own fiction. As shown above, the Shrutis are declaring the attributeless, indestructible, non-dual Brahman as the Absolute reality. So we can now appreciate the following words from him, which speak of non-dual Brahman as the final reality: “There is no appropriate way of describing (It) other than this, hence ‘not this, not that’. (To explain:) For, indeed, there is no description of Brahman other than the negation of the phenomenal manifold.” [Bs.Bh. 3-2-22]

Why Shrutis are the Final Authority?

From the above it is clear that senses cannot perceive Brahman. Sankara refuses to accept that because Brahman is an existent entity, it can be the object of other sources of valid knowledge like other objects. ‘The senses are naturally capable of grasping and revealing their appropriate objects. Brahman, however, remains unapproachable through any of them because of its uniqueness. (Bs.Bh. 1.1.2) The organs can only grasp a differentiated object within their range (Br.U.B. 3.9.26) The Upanishads speak about the nature ‘and evolution of the five sense organs. Each organ evolves out of a particular element which enables it to apprehend a quality proper to that element. The eyes, for example, evolve out of the subtle sattva aspect of fire and are the organs for perceiving the quality of form which is unique to fire. It is the special relationship, therefore, between sense organ and element which empowers each one to cognize an appropriate quality. Sound, sensation, form, taste, and scent are their respective spheres of functioning. Brahman, however, has neither sound, touch, form, taste, or smell. It is without qualities (nirguna) and outside the domain of the sense organs.(“One becomes freed from the jaws of death by knowing that which is soundless, touchless, colourless, undiminishing and also tasteless, eternal, odourless, without beginning and without end, distinct from Mahat, and ever constant” (Katha. 1.3.15)) Brahman is limitless, and to become an object of sense knowledge is to be finite and delimited, to be one object among many objects. A Brahman that is sense apprehended is, therefore, a contradiction. However, perfect or magnified the capacity of a sense organ is imagined to be.

Since Shrutis are the knowledge manifested in the mind of Brahma – the Creator, at the beginning of each world cycle, which he passes down to teachers, it is the only means of knowledge (pramana) to know the reality beyond all our senses. Thus, the shrutis are also called shabda pramana. The words of the shruti are means by which Brahman can be known. This should completely wipe off any doubts a person may hold whether Shankara invented his own system of Advaita Vedanta.

How Shrutis are the Means to Know the Unknowable Brahman

The following quotes from Shankara can help us understand how shrutis help us in knowing unobjectifiable Brahman.

Objection :- If Brahman is not an object, it cannot be consistently held to be (knowable) through the (Vedanta) Sastra as a valid means of knowledge !

Reply :- No, for the Shastra purports to wipe off the difference invented by Avidya. (To explain:) The Shastra indeed does not propose to teach Brahman as such and such an entity as its object, but it teaches that as one’s inmost Self, it is unobjectifiable, and removes all differences such as that of the knowable, knower, and knowledge.” [Bs.Bh. 1-1-4]

This terse exchange needs to be fleshed out a little, in fact quite a lot

The Self-Luminosity/Witnesshood of Atman-Brahman

In Advaita, self-luminosity belongs to the atman alone. For the shruti says, “There is one Deva (the self-shining entity) hid in all creatures, all-pervading, the inmost Self of all beings, the Superintendent of all actions, residing in all beings, the Witness, the Conscious Principle, non-dual, and attributeless.” [Sve.6-11].In its light everything is illumined and known. The Self is the knower (ksetrajna) and everything else is known (ksetra) (B.G 13.1-2) As the unchanging witness of all mental modifications, it is referred to as sakshi.( B.G – 9.18) The same awareness, reflected in the mind and identified with it, becomes the jiva, who functions as the perceiver or the cognizer (pramata), the object cognized (prameya), and the cognition (pramiti) are all revealed by the Self as Witness (sakshi). In any act of perception, the cognitive mode objectifies and reveals the object because it is illumined by the Self. This cognition, however, does not require another cognitive mode for its manifestation. It is revealed directly by the Self as sakshi, as soon as it originates.

“I” or Self is Brahman

Based on the luminosity of Atman-Brahman-Witness, Sankara develops his argument about the self-evident manifestation of the Atman as the content of the “I” notion. In response to an objection that if Brahman is a completely unknown entity it cannot become the subject of inquiry, Sankara replies “that the existence of Brahman is well known from the fact of Its being the Self of all; for everyone feels that his Self exists, and he never feels “I do not exist.” Had there been no general recognition of the existence of the Self, everyone would have felt “I do not exist. And that Self is Brahman. (Bs.Bh. 1.1.1) Earlier on, also, in replying to a query that an unperceived Self cannot become the locus of superimposition, he contends that the Self is well known in the world as an immediately perceived entity. It is nothing but the content of the concept “I” (Bs.Bh. Intro)

The Shrutis Do Not Posit Brahman

From the above it should be clear that this principle of reality called the Absolute (Brahman), since it is that which manifests in the guise of the knower, is that on which all right empirical cognition and so on depend. Its existence is therefore established as logically prior to all empirical experience, including valid empirical knowledge. For, as the “I” notion and as the Self of all, it is immediately evident; and because it is self-luminous experience, it is self-evident, and does not, like pots and other objects, require anything else apart from itself to make itself known. For all these reasons it does not require any special positive teaching. So the Upanishads do not fulfil their function as authoritative means of knowledge, in this context, through revealing a hitherto unknown object, in the manner of perception and the other means of empirical knowledge.

However, even though our real “I” being Self/Brahman, the unique nature of the Self remains unknown due to impediments. As evidence of this, Shankara cites the divergent and mutually contradictory views which different systems hold about the nature of the Self (Bs.Bh.1.1.1).[4][5] The point, therefore, is that even though we are not completely debarred from all awareness of ultimate reality, we do not recognize its existence and our understanding is incomplete. What is needed is a valid source of knowledge through which we can apprehend accurately the unique nature of the Self. The Vedas, Sankara contends, is just such a pramana.

The Traditional Method of the Shrutis to Reveal Brahman/Self/Witness: Agama (Superimposition and Retraction)

The competent authorities in this field quote the text ‘But when all has become his own Self, then what could a person see and with what?’: (Brhad.IV.v.15). And they say that it is only by a figure of speech that the Upanishads are spoken of as an authoritative means of knowledge. For their function is to communicate that reality in its true nature, beyond the play of the means of knowledge and their objects, merely by putting an end to the superimposition onto it of attributes it does not possess.

The Upanishads do not derive their authority as a means of knowledge solely from the fact of their being included among the texts of the Veda. They derive it from their power to lead ultimately to a direct experience of the Self, arising from the cancellation of all play of the empirical means of knowledge with their objects. This power is associated with their demonstration of the fact that the state of being an individual knowing subject, which is the prior condition for all empirical experience, is itself based on metaphysical Ignorance.

Thus, the Shrutis are using a definite method for teaching the Self which is based on superimposition and negation. This traditional method is based on adhyAropa apavAda[6] by which different attributes are superimposed on Brahman, and then they are negated step-by-step till all attributes are negated and only Brahman shines. This traditional method is called Agama.

Gaudapada taught this traditional method. For he says, ‘The text denies ail that it had previously taught, by saying “He (the Self) is neither this nor that” (Brhad.II.iii.6), and by showing that the Self is beyond all perception and conception. Through this the Unborn is able to manifest’ (G.K.III.26). The meaning is that, simply for purposes of instruction, the Veda first attributes to the Self, as principle of reality, features that it does not in fact possess. And it does this even though the Self is that which alone exists, within and without (Mund.II.i.2), and is also unborn and without differentiation. Then, when the Self has been thus taught, and the work of positive instruction is complete, the Veda itself retracts whatever it had previously taught, to show that none of it was the final truth.

Shankara as the Teacher of Agama: Traditional Method of Teaching about Brahman

The following quote by Shankara shows that he was a teacher following the same tradition of Agama as outlined above and not creating his own new fangled teaching:

“The collection of specific features in the Kshetrajna due to the different conditioning associates is wholly unreal and therefore He has been taught to be known as neither being nor non-being, by denying that (specific nature. But here) even the unreal form is presumed as though it were the property of (the Kshetrajna) the knowable just to bring home its existence (by describing it by the expression) ‘It has hands and feet everywhere etc.

Accordingly, there is (this) saying of the knowers of the traditional method ‘That which is devoid of all multiplicity, is explained by means of (deliberate) superimposition and rescission.[Bg.Bh. 13.13]

Agama and Support for Reason

Lastly we need to understand that reason has its place in the scheme of Agama or traditional teaching of the Upanishads but it is not any form of reasoning. It is only the reasoning supported by Agama that results in the final intuition of Brahman. Regarding this we have from Shankara the following counsel:

“As for the other argument that the Shruti itself, enjoining reflection in addition to hearing or the study of Shruti, shows that reason also is to be respected, we reply:- Dry reasoning can find no admittance here on the strength of this plea. For, reasoning proffered by the Shruti alone is resorted to here as ancillary to intuition.” [Bs.Bh. 2-1-6]

“For this reason also, one should not stand up against what is to be known exclusively by the agama (traditional teaching of the Shruti; for, reasonings which are the outcome of mere surmises without any Agama for basis, would be inconclusive; since a surmise has nothing to check it.” [Bs.Bh. 2-1-10]

“We have already observed that being devoid of colour (or form) etc., this entity is no object of perception, and being devoid of the grounds etc., it is not an object of logical inference and other valid means of knowledge.” [Bs.Bh. 2-1-11]

Sruti is Also Transcended After Brahman is Known

Lest it still bother rational minded people that everything is based on authority of a scripture there are two things which shall quash these botherations.

  1. “In the enquiry into the nature of Brahman, it is not merely Shrutis etc. alone that are the valid means of knowledge, as is the case in the enquiry into the nature of Dharma (religious duty), but also shrutis and direct intuition and the like are here the valid means according to the applicability of these. For knowledge of Brahman has to culminate in intuition, and relates to an existent entity.” [Bs.Bh. 1-1-2]
  2. All commerce between the attested means of knowledge (perception, ‘inference, revelation, etc.) and their objects, whether in the Vedic or secular sphere, proceeds on the basis of this same mutual superimposition of the Self and not-self called Ignorance, as does all Vedic tradition, whether concerned with injunctions and prohibitions or with liberation. (Bs.Bh.1-1-1, intro.)

The first point is evident. It is saying that the Shrutis are the authority only because they lead to direct intuition of Brahman. So a person who has got direct intuition of Brahman only can unfold the teachings of the Shruti. The second point says that all means of knowledge including the Vedas/shrutis are functioning in ignorance. Which means once Self is known even the shrutis are transcended. Their authority exists only in the realm of duality and ignorance.Their authority exists only in the realm of duality and ignorance. As the Smriti too says:

“For the brahmana who knows the self, all the Vedas are of only so much use as a small reservoir is when there is flood everywhere.” (B.G – 2.46)

Conclusion

If Shankara himself was so stern and clear about the Shrutis being the final adjudicator of truth and the Agamas as the only method sanctioned by them to know truth, there is absolutely no ground to believe that Shankara founded any new system or school of thought that is based on his personal reasoning and interpretation of the Vedas. As every paragraph in this article shows, Shankara was extremely sure that only the shrutis, when unfolded according to Agama by a qualified teacher, can lead a seeker to the intuition of Brahman. This Agama is a tradition that stretches right back from Brahma to the teachers of the present day who know this method and are not deluded by false teachings that have intruded and corrupted the true tradition.[7] I have not gone into the details of the method of the Agama as it would require an elaborate treatment, which I am reserving for another blog article.

For the Shrutis say, “A man having a teacher can know Brahman,” Knowledge received from a teacher alone (becomes perfect),” “The teacher is the pilot,” Right Knowledge is called in this world a raft,” etc. [Upadeshasahasri Prose 1.3 by Shankara]

Notes

  1. A History of Early Vedanta, Hajime Nakamura, page 89
  2. Bhamati and Vivarna Schools of Advaita Vedanta by Pulsath Soobah Roodurmumpage 10. A number of important early Vedanta thinkers have been listed in the Siddhitraya by Yamunācārya (c. 1050), the Vedārthasamgraha by Rāmānuja (c. 1050–1157), and the Yatīndramatadīpikā by Śrīnivāsa Dāsa. At least fourteen thinkers are known to have existed between the composition of the Brahma Sutras and Shankara’s lifetime
  3. Please see article Vedanta and the Two Sutra Traditions – Purva MimAmsA and Uttara MimAmsA (about 200 B.C – 200 A.D)
  4. There are the Vishishtadvaita and the Dvaita schools which hold different views.
  5. Confusion about the true Upanishadic doctrine was thus introduced by authors representing various schools of Vedanta, who made free use of quotation of texts, allied both to genuine reasoning and to sophistry: Then it was that Sri Gaudapada Acarya, actuated solely by a desire to serve the people, composed his Karikas and stated the true traditional method in its proper form, through the medium of an explanation of the meaning of the Mandukya Upanishad. And Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada, as well as his pupils and followers, propagated his commentaries on the three starting-points of the Vedanta (the Prasthanatraya, viz. the classical Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and Gita), thoroughly clarifying the true method, and purging away the mud of all the different spurious methods of interpretation. For their conviction was that if anyone heedlessly embraced’ any random method of interpretation he would be prevented from attaining the supreme good, and would fall into adversity. (The Method of The Vedanta by Swami Satchidanandendra, page 10)
  6. This method got practically lost post Shankara after different schools started erroneously representing the teachings of Shankara. It was discovered by Swami Satchidanandendra. I am highly indebted to him for me getting to know the path of Shankara’s Advaita, which is known only to a handful of people even today.
  7. Confusion about the true Upanishadic doctrine is introduced by authors representing various schools of Vedanta, who make free use of quotation of texts, allied both to genuine reasoning and to sophistry:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s