#223 Adi Shankaracharya and the teaching tradition of Advaita Vedanta
To offer our respect to Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya, we chant
श्रुतिस्मृतिपुराणानाम् आलयम करुणालयम्।
नमामि भगवत्पादम शंकरं लोक शंकरम् ॥
śruti smṛti purāṇānām ālayam karuṇālayam.
namāmi bhagavatpādam śaṅkaraṃ loka śaṅkaram.
I bow at the feet of the Lord in the form Sri Sankaracharya, who is the blessing for humanity, who is the shrine for the sruti, the smrti and the purana, and, who is the abode of compassion.
This respectful verse is a statement of fact: Sri Sankara is srutismrtipurananam alayam. A shrine, a temple, is called alaya. Books are sacred, so a library is called pustakalaya. Sri Sankaracarya is an alaya of sruti-smrti-puranas.
Sruti is all the Vedas, the karmakanda as well as the jnana kanda known as Vedanta. Since sruti is revealed knowledge to the rishis, it is apaurusheya meaning there is no human authorship, whereas, smrti has authorship, written by the sages. E.g The dharma-sastras and even Itihasa like the Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The 18 puranas talk about Bhagavan’s avataras, different manifestations of Bhagavan.
All these – sruti-smrti-puranas together abide in one shrine that is Sri Sankara and hence he is called srutismrtipurananam alayam.
Ok, so what about it? There are a lot of people who are well-informed and have in-depth knowledge. Sri Sankara, being a repository of this ocean of knowledge did not keep it to himself nor did he copyright it. Sri Sankara was not only an alaya of all-knowledge, but also an alaya of karuna, a person of great compassion through which he was able to reach out to others. He clearly saw that the permanent solution to the universal problem of sorrow was self knowledge and made it available.
Sri Sankara taught his disciples, but also made sure that the teaching came down to posterity through his writings. In those days, writing was not an easy job. There were no laptops, or even paper and pens. Sri Sankara had to do all his writing on palm leaves, and every copy was handwritten. There are hundreds of such manuscripts in India today, in spite of so many of them having been burnt or lost. They are enshrined in the homes of the people who have them. Perhaps there is no culture other than Vedic culture that accords so much value to learning.
Sri Sankara wrote extensive commentaries, bhashyas, on the following Upanishads – Isa, Kena, Katha, Prasna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya and the Brhadaranyaka Upanisads.
Why was his bhashya so important ?
The Sanskrit term “bhashya” (भाष्य) refers to a commentary on a text. It is derived from the root word “bhash” which means “to speak” or “to explain”.
“वेदार्थानां विवक्षायां पदज्ञानं तु भाष्यतः ।
व्याख्यानं तु तदन्येषां मतं स्याद्भाष्यभूमिका ॥”
Translation – The knowledge of the meaning of the Vedas and their intention is obtained through the commentary. The opinions of others can be known through their explanations, but the foundation of knowledge is the commentary
The Bhashya includes –
Padaccheda – separating the loosely combined words in a sentence. In English the word tabletop can be understood as top of the table. In Sanskrit, when words come together their beginning and end can undergo a change. For example the words chit-ananda, Consciousness, Fullness undergo an apparent change to be written as Chidananda with a d. And so when words combine in the Upanishads, they need to be separated to grasp their meaning which is called padaccheda and sometime anvaya.
Padaartha yuktih – The meaning of every word of the mantra/shloka along with the meaning of the sentence
Vigrah – Separating closely knit words in a sentence known as samaasa-s, which is more difficult as their case endings are lost.
Vakya yojana – Since words in a Sanskrit sentence can be written in any order to sound coherent, for the sake of easy understanding, putting the sentence in a clear order
Purvapaksha – siddhanta – Defending one’s position in the light of all opposing views in the form of doubts. The analysis one has written is defended against any other possible meaning, or any other meaning coming from a certain perspective like Science. Every generation has certain dominant cultural and societal factors that shape its thinking
People say that there are different schools of thought. There cannot be different schools of thought in Math because one plus one can only be two. How can there be ‘schools of thought’ in understanding Isvara? But there were people who looked at Isvara differently. Sankara valued them all and discussed in detail leaving nothing to be desired. This wisdom helps one understand that the truth is above all perceived differences. In this, it helps one to become more accommodative of all differences. It is not an accommodation with a patronising attitude, but born of understanding from where the perceptions come. In a healthy dialogue they can be resolved.
Thus, we can imagine the enormity of effort in writing all this on palm leaves and to prevent goats from chewing them up.
How much compassion Sri Sankara must have had for the spiritual upliftment of humanity, that he wrote all these commentaries and revealed the teaching method through it as well.
Undoubtedly he is srutismrtipurananam alayam karunalayam.
Namami bhagavatpadam sankaram lokasankaram.
I salute him whose name is Sri Śankara.
Śam karoti iti Śankarah. Śankara is he who grants mangalam, an auspicious end, the grand finale to the winding journey of a jiva. The jiva’s history has to end. When will it end? Each birth is like yet another sheet of paper in a set of loose sheets that can never be bound together. It is endless; there is always a next birth. It is always an unbound book. The one who brings about that mangalam is Shankara Bhagavatpada, who is likened to Bhagavan. Unto him, my namaskara.
शंकरं शंकराचार्यं केशवं बादरायणम्।
सुत्र भाश्य कृतौ वन्दे भगवन्तौ पुनः पुनः ॥
śaṅkaraṃ śaṅkarācāryaṃ keśavaṃ bādarāyaṇam.
sutra bhāśya kṛtau vande bhagavantau punaḥ punaḥ
Salutations again and again to Lord Shiva in the form of Sri Sankaracharya and Lord Vishnu in the form of Veda Vyasa, who were the authors of sutra and bhasya
It is indeed the grace of both Lord Shiva and Vishnu that we have the Vedanta sampradaya, an unbroken lineage of teaching, learning – An unbroken lineage of Ananda – how to be happy, how to contribute to other’s happiness and how to discover happiness as your very nature.
Vedanta Saṁpradāya refers to the living teaching tradition of Advaita Vedanta as elucidated by Śaṅkaracarya. It has both the vision of non duality to transmit as well as a distinctive methodology (of using Veda as a pramāṇa) to ensure transmission and continuity.
Samyak-praadaanam iti Saṁpradāya – The complete teaching given to gurus and sisyas who became guru-s and the lineage continues. The guru is a srotriya, who has learnt Vedanta thoroughly in the teaching tradition and a brahmanista, who abides in the truth of oneself as Brahman. The Śisya is an Adhikari, a qualified person or a person qualifying oneself and learning with a guru. The robustness of the sampradaya is that there is no teacher training course. The shishya becomes a guru who teaches a few shishyas who become gurus and so on it continues to this very day.
Śrī Sankara says that a teacher should be a sampradaya-vit, a knower of the teaching tradition. He says, asampradayavid mürkhavad upekṣaniyah, just as one keeps away from a murkha, an uninformed person who seriously debates, one has to keep away from asampradayavit, someone who does not know the teaching tradition and is a self proclaimed guru. Śrī Sankara identifies with the sampradaya and reveals himself as a sampradaya-vit.
Some other great things about Shankara’s bhashya –
Sruti-yukti-anubhava – Shankara helped us see that the Sruti or the sacred Vedas are like our eyes. They reveal the truth but since these are covered by blinkers of darkness, he used a systematic and logical approach to support the words of the Sruti. That was not all. So clear and indepth is his commentary that you have anubhava, direct recognition of the Atma as sachidananda.
Gambhiryam and Prasanaam – Shankara’s bhashya is known for his depth and pleasantness. He used simple Sanskrit with great skill, elegance and precision.
References to other texts: Shankara’s bhashya brought in relevant verses and mantras from other Upanishads or the Gita, Mahabharata and even the Puranas to substantiate the mantra he was commenting on or to even present the apparent contradiction and then clarify. The oneness of the vision and the harmony between the texts comes alive.
Integration of other schools of thought: Shankara’s bhashya is also notable for its integration of various schools of thought, including Nyaya, Samkhya, and Vaisheshika. He pointed out what was correct and refuted what was not aligned with the nondual vision.
Influence on Sanatana Dharma: Shankara’s bhashya had a profound influence on the transmission of Vedanta. His teachings on Advaita Vedanta have been studied and debated for centuries and continue to this day. Many people wrote commentaries on Śrī Śankara’s bhāṣya to further their own understanding and clarity.