Shankara the Teacher

Shankara, the great yogi-philosopher of India who revivified the ancient doctrine of the Upanishads when it was in danger from Buddhist scepticism on the one hand and from the refined materialism of ritualists on the other, is the reputed author of more than 400 works. They can be roughly divided into three classes: commentaries on authoritative texts (there are about 70 of these); about 110 independent treatises which do not follow a text; and some 220 poems, philosophical or devotional. Perhaps a quarter of this great body of works has been translated into English.

It is important to note that Shankara regarded himself as a commentator, and never claimed to be an original thinker as did, for instance, the Buddha. Dr Nakamura’s history of early Vedanta has shown that most of the supposed innovations in Shankara’s work go back long before him. Shankara claimed to transmit the teaching of the Upanishads concerning Brahman, the ultimate conscious reality who projects, sustains and with-draws this apparent world as an actor projects, maintains and finally withdraws the world of a play. The Upanishads teach that what is felt to be an individual self, imprisoned in body and mind, is fundamentally Brahman, and that this can be realized in experience by first purifying and then transcending the mental preconceptions of individual identity. Shankara’s teaching is that by hearing an Upanishadic revelation in reverence, thinking and meditating on it and then transcending mind altogether, it is realized in consciousness. The thinking and meditating are really the consummation of hearing. A cardinal point of his teaching was that it is only from hearing such Upanishadic revelation that liberation is attained; it cannot be attained by unguided mental activity, which leads only to scepticism. Mental activity cannot discover its own basis, any more than arrows drawn on the surface of a paper can point into the paper itself. But a skilled artist can, by using an illusion in the form of perspective, direct attention to depth; and the Upanishadic sentences, though themselves words, can direct awareness beyond words and concepts.

Shankara is generally called Shankara Acharya, Shankara the Teacher. He was also called, especially in the early days, Holy Shankara, Shankara whose feet are holy, Shankara whose holy feet are to be worshipped. He was thus a teacher of sacred things; in one sense of the word, he was not a philosopher at all. Today some philosophers regard their task as clarifying the premisses of activities like science or criminal law. Working on data provided by others (which are, however, often changing), they try to bring out to inspection unexpressed assumptions which underlie words such as ‘law’ or ‘intention’. Using their conclusions, the scientist or lawyer can pursue his business free from irrational prejudices. The philosopher can and should discuss what are the implications, for the theory of knowledge, of the assumption that human language is the basis for discussing something biologically more fundamental, namely the hereditary DNA code. But it is not his business to inquire whether the hereditary code really has generated, of itself, the human speech code; he leaves that to the scientist. In the same way he may discuss what could be meant by a concept of diminished responsibility, but it is not his business to ask how such a doctrine can be implemented in the legal process; that is for the lawyers and social reformers.

Shankara’s view is quite different. He teaches a system of realization of new facts, not accessible to any of the normal means of acquiring knowledge, and in the end fundamentally opposed to them. He teaches realization, which has nothing to do with thinking about the things of the world; also he teaches the means to facilitate and to steady it, and these means do concern activities in the world. The means to facilitate the rise of realization is called action-yoga or karma-yoga; when Knowledge has arisen, the means to steady it, if necessary, is called Know- ledge-yoga or jnana-yoga.

Shankara’s view of the world, based as it is on the Upanishadic realizations confirmed by him in experience, will never be completely satisfactory to those whose world-view does not include realization. It will be inconceivable and perhaps nonsensical to them. The situation is well-known in the history of thought. For instance, in 1860 Whewell published his History of the Inductive Sciences, in which he actually coined the word ‘scientist’. He illustrated the type of scientific progress from the history of two great sciences, astronomy and physical optics. He took as a model of the discovery of truth, the triumph of the wave theory of light over the corpuscular theory (which he calls the emission theory) originally proposed by Newton. Whewell pointed out that there were some residual difficulties in the wave theory, associated with very weak light-sources, but he felt he had strong grounds for dismissing them as purely temporary hold-ups.

Objections were made to the undulatory theory by some English experimenters. . . . The objections depended partly on the measure of the intensity of light in the different points (a datum which it is very difficult to obtain with accuracy by experiment) and partly on misconceptions of the theory, and I believe there are none of them which would now be insisted on.

He gives an account of the stages of acceptance of a true theory:

We have been desirous of showing that the type of this progress in the histories of the two great sciences, Physical Astronomy and Physical Optics, is the same. In both we have many Laws of Phenomena detected and accumulated by acute and inventive men; we have Preludial guesses which touch the true theory, but which remain for a time imperfect, undeveloped, unconfirmed; finally, we have the Epoch when this true theory, clearly apprehended by great philosophical geniuses, is recommended by its fully explaining what it was first meant to explain, and confirmed by its explaining what it was not meant to explain. We have then its Progress struggling for a little while with adverse prepossessions and difficulties; finally overcoming all these and moving onwards, while its triumphal procession is joined by all the younger and more vigorous men of science.

Here it is assumed, without discussion, that the corpuscular theory of light is opposed to, and exclusive of, a wave theory, and vice versa. Common sense tells us that a stream of particles is quite different from a succession of waves. It seems that reason tells us this also, but reason does not inform us about facts, it only organizes what is presented to it as fact. Our experience from childhood tells us that waves are different from particles, and their respective behaviours are mutually exclusive; reason carries on from there. Even Whewell’s brilliant mind never considered any other possibility, or if he did, he must have dismissed it as ridiculous.

We cannot properly say there ever was an Emission Theory of Light which was the rival of the Undulatory Theory, for while the undulatory theory provided explanations of new classes of phenomena as fast as they arose, and exhibited a consilience of theories in these explanations, the hypothesis of emitted particles required new machinery for every new set of facts, and soon ceased to be capable even of expressing the facts . . . the authority of Newton’s great name gave [his explanations] a sort of permanent notoriety, and made reflection and refraction … a standard point of comparison between a supposed Emission Theory and the Undulation Theory. And the way . . . they were to be tested was obvious: in the Newtonian theory, the velocity of light is increased by the refracting medium; in the undulatory theory it is diminished. On the former hypothesis the velocity of light in air and in water is as 3 to 4; in the latter as 4 to 3. . . .

In 1850 the difficulties were overcome by M. Fizeau and M. Foucault separately; and the result was that the velocity of light was found to be less in water than in air. And thus the Newtonian explanation of refraction, the last remnant of the Emission Theory, was proved to be false.

Thus Whewell concludes by giving the ‘crucial experiment’ which ‘refuted for ever’ the corpuscular theory first put forward as a suggestion by the great Newton.

And yet today it is generally believed that light displays the characteristics of either particles or waves, depending on the testing conditions. It is interesting that a decisive demonstration of the existence of light as consisting of particles was the photo-electric effect, associated with the very weak sources of light which Whewell had scrupulously noted as a possible difficulty for the wave theory, though he ultimately dismissed it. We are today forced to accept that light has the properties both of waves and of particles. To a scientist a hundred years ago this would have seemed meaningless, or irrational, by which he would have meant conflicting with experience so far.

Whewell had not the delicate apparatus to experiment with the photo-electric effect. There was no absolutely compelling evidence to make him revise his common-sense view of the mutually exclusive nature of the opposing theories; he had his doubts, but he brushed them aside by a sort of act of faith.

This little episode in the history of science is not mentioned to make us smile at the Victorian scientists; their achievements were very great. It can however make us see that what seem logical absurdities and impossibilities may nevertheless be facts.

In Shankara’s teaching, after a certain point, there is a challenge to the ordinary man’s most fundamental convictions. These are not unchallengeable facts supported by reason, as he believes, but arise from a confused analysis of experience. Delicate apparatus, namely a clear and concentrated mind in the meditation called samadhi, is necessary to see the true Self. Once seen, it is recognized everywhere.

In Shankara’s view, again, the world is partly an illusion, like a show put on by a magician, or the ‘world’ projected by an actor. Worldly knowledge corresponds to analysing the character of Hamlet or the geography of the play; it has interest and value, but it is not concerned with something absolutely real. It is to be noted that the worlds of Shakespeare’s plays have their own history and geography in them; no account of their real origin will make sense in terms of the play. Within Hamlet, no one has painted the castle at Elsinore; it is an ancient stronghold. Yet, in reality, it was painted a week before the performance. There is no painter and no backcloth in the play – the walls are stone. Shankara says of the various creation accounts in the Upanishads that they are true, but it is pointless to study them because they describe the projection of an illusion. They therefore will not make sense within the terms of the illusion. The one important point is that the illusion is consciously and purposefully projected. To know this fact, not as a theory subscribed to but as living experience, changes the reactions to life. If when watching

Gloucester’s eyes put out, in Lear, it is forgotten that the play is an illusion consciously projected as a form of beauty, it will be a terrible experience, from which it might take a long time to recover. When the play is known to be an illusion, the same pity and terror are experienced, but not as absolutely real. To know that the play is an illusion is not to dismiss it as valueless; it has value, but it is not ultimately real. Its value is that it has been created by a supreme genius and the final purpose is beauty. In the same way Shankara stresses that the illusion of the world-projection is projected by a divine Lord who is the ‘friend of all beings’. But this realization will have to be so complete and steady that it is not disturbed even by a sword-cut, as he says.

The Upanishads on which Shankara commented were nearly all completed at least a thousand years before he was born (about 700 A.D. according to many historians). To interpret them he had to be an expert in the ancient language, and some of the commentaries attributed to him are now thought to be spurious just because they make mistakes in interpreting ancient Sanskrit, mistakes of a kind which the real Shankara does not make in his genuine works.

There were other authoritative works on which he commented which were not Upanishads, though of immense spiritual authority. One of these was the Bhagavad Gita. Some of the others later came to be called Upanishads, though Shankara had not regarded them as such. Productions attributed to Shankara which call such works ‘Upanishads’ are therefore probably not by him, but written later. Of course this does not mean that they may not be spiritual masterpieces in their own right.

Again, if a work contains references to Tantrik or other ideas which do not appear in the old Upanishads, and which have been found only after Shankara, it is unlikely to be by him. Shankara called himself a follower of the Upanishads and a teacher of Brahman; if some work does not quote even once from the Upanishads, or contains no reference to Brahman in its teaching, it would not be very characteristic of Shankara.

Only eleven of the commentaries on Upanishads by Shankara pass these and the many other critical tests. One more is doubtful – some parts may be by him.

As to other texts, Shankara is believed to have written commentaries on the Brahma-sutra, which was a systematization of

Upanishadic thought, on the Gita, on the Gaudapada verses attached to the Māndūkya Upanishad, on the Chapter of the Self in the Apastamba Law-book, and (a recent discovery) on the Yoga sutras of Patanjali. The rest of the seventy-odd commentaries attributed to him are less well attested, and some are certainly spurious.

Of the 110 independent treatises, the anthology of his verse and prose called ‘The Thousand Teachings’ is best authenticated, though the greater part of the manuscripts so far analysed omit the prose sections altogether. Perhaps another dozen of the treatises may well be by him, but this leaves nearly a hundred which are doubtful, and some of them must be later than Shankara.

In the same way many of the short philosophical, mystical or devotional poems contain things which Shankara probably would not or could not have written. But the genuine ones have been immensely influential, and some of the others also are masterpieces, though not by Shankara.

In all this it has to be remembered that the present-day critical analysis is based on only the material now available. There may be new discoveries which will upset some of the present assumptions. For example, just over twenty years ago a commentary by Shankara on the Yoga sutras of Patanjali was discovered which passes all the critical tests. This was a great surprise to scholars who had considered Shankara merely as a philosopher; because they themselves had no confidence in the genuineness of yoga practice, they assumed that Shankara would have had no interest in it either, ignoring the many passages on yoga practice in his Gita commentary.

Again, Shankara had access to Upanishads which are no longer extant. In his commentary on Brahma-sutra III.2.18, he quotes, from some Upanishad which he does not name, how Bashkalin asked Bahva to teach him Brahman.

He asked, ‘Teach me, sire,’ and the other became silent.
When he asked a second and a third time, he replied, ‘I do
teach you, but you do not realize it. Silent is this Self.’

No such passage appears in any Upanishad which is available today, and the text must have disappeared.

Still more interesting is the case where Shankara gives a commentary on Upanishadic verses whose original had already disappeared by his own time. These verses have been preserved in the Chapter of the Self in the ancient Apastamba Law-book. The Law-book is in prose, but there are verses here and there, and in a number of places some of the verses are expressly stated to have been taken from another source by being introduced by some such phrase as ‘Now we quote’. (The editorial ‘we’ occurs in several places in the Law-book.) The Chapter of the Self, as it is now called, comes in the eighth and ninth sections of the first part. (When considered as a separate work, the sutras are numbered from 1 to 14; in the original the reference is 1.8.22. 1-8 and

Shankara says in his commentary that they must come from some Upanishadic source which he cannot or does not identify. But he regards them as important, and in various places in his writings he quotes from the Chapter of the Self. In his Brahma- sutra commentary (2.1.1) he quotes the verse, ‘From him the bodies all come forth, be is the root, eternal, he is constant’ and in his Thousand Teachings (2.1.58), the verse ‘Each and every living being is the city belonging to the one lying at rest in the cave’. Several times in commentaries he quotes the sutra ‘Than attainment of the Self, there is nothing higher’, and he para-phrases it again and again in the verses of his Thousand Teachings.

The Law-book is now the only source for these texts; Shankara’s short commentary on them (which has not to my knowledge been translated before) is one of the few which passes all the tests of authenticity. The doctrine is closely connected with that set out in his Gita commentary, and it will be summarized in the next chapter, before the translation is given.


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