Philosophical and social thoughts of Acharya Shankaracharya

Philosophical and social thoughts of Acharya Shankaracharya

Adi Shankaracharya, the great Philosopher was born in 788 CE, Kaladi, Present in Kerala. He died in 820 CE at the early age of 32 only in Kedarnath, Pala Empire, Present in Uttarakhand. Shankaracharya was a noted Philosopher and theologiser from India. He reformed the rituals and doctrines in Hinduism, which was followed blindly by Hindus in those days. The Famous Philosopher Adi Shankara profoundly believes in the concept of Vedas”. He advocated against the rituals and religious practices.

Shankara’s philosophy is avowedly Vedic. Unlike Buddhists and Jains, he traced his knowledge to the Vedas and submitted to its impersonal authority, which made him a believer (astika). In his commentaries (bhasya) and monographs (prakarana), he repeatedly sought a formless divine (nirguna brahman) being the only reality, outside all binaries. This is evident in his commentary on Vedanta, the Brahma-sutra-bhasya, his Sanskrit poems Vivekachudamani and Nirvana-shatakam and his treatise Atma-bodha. Many consider this to be an acceptance of the Buddhist theme of the world being a series of disconnected transitory moments, hence amounting to nothingness (shunya-vada), while giving it a Vedic twist, which is why Shankara was often accused of being a disguised Buddhist (prachanna bauddha).

Shankara’s poetry (stotra) also celebrates several tangible forms of the divine (saguna brahmana) as they appear in the Puranas. He composed grand benedictions to Puranic gods: Shiva (Daksinamurti-stotra), Vishnu (Govinda-ashtaka) and Shakti (Saundarya-lahari). This makes him the first Vedic scholar, after Vyasa, to overtly link Vedic Hinduism to Puranic Hinduism, an idea further elaborated a few centuries later by other teachers of Vedanta, such as Ramanuja, Madhva, and Vallabha. Shankara even wrote on tantra, which made its presence explicitly felt around that time.

For all his talk of formlessness and nothingness, and the world being an illusion, Shankara went on to connect holy spots of India such as the 12 jyotirlingas, 18 shakti-peethas and four Vishnu-dhaams to create pilgrim routes that defined India as a single land. In his legends, he travelled from Kerala to Kashmir, from Puri in present-day Odisha to Dwarka in Gujarat, from Shringeri in present-day Karnataka to Badari in Uttarakhand, from Kanchi in present-day Tamil Nadu to Kashi in Uttar Pradesh, along the slopes of the Himalayas, the banks of the rivers Narmada and Ganga, and along the eastern and western coasts.

Shankara then is not an ivory tower philosopher; he is a political sage, engaging with and responding to the historical context of his time. Through philosophy, poetry and pilgrimage, he attempted to bind the subcontinent of India that was constantly referred to in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain texts as well as in the Vedic ritual of sankalpa as Jambu-dvipa, the continent of the jambul tree, and Bharat-varsha, the land of the Bharata kings.

Shankara used his yogic powers to enter the corpse of Amaru, the king of Kashmir, and animate it long enough to enjoy all kinds of pleasure of the flesh. Legend has it that it led Shankara to write erotic love poetry known as Amaru-shataka. In Kashmir then, and later in Shringeri, in present-day Karnataka, Shankara established temples to his personal deity, Sharada, who is commonly identified as Saraswati as she holds a book. However, she also holds a pot and a parrot, symbols of household and sensual life, indicating Shankara’s acknowledgment of the senses, the flesh, matter itself: in other words, tantra. Shankara’s association with the tantrik geometrical symbol of the divine feminine, the shree-yantra, reinforces this.

Shankara sees the world around him as full of fragmented ephemeral limited truths, just like Buddhists. However, unlike Buddhists, he insists that they exist on a platform of an unfragmented eternal limitless truth, that attributes meaning and value to existence. The former is accessible; the latter is transcendental and elusive. Life’s experiences are full of limited and temporary joys and sorrows. Without a transcendental underpinning, life becomes meaningless, valueless.

Rejection of brahman, that there is something permanent and unifying within and without all of us, results in nihilism, and leads to the monastic obsession with oblivion of the self (nirvana), while acceptance of brahman enables one to enjoy the beauty of life, its colours (ranga), its juices (rasa), its emotions (bhava), its experiences (anubhava), as diverse expressions of the divine, rendered more beautiful by mortality.

Adi Shankaracharya founded four monasteries (mathas) – one each at the four cardinal points in India. Here are the four mathas founded by Shankara:

Sringeri Sharada Peetham

This was the first monastery founded by Adi Shankaracharya. It is located at the southern part of India, along the banks of Tunga. Sureshvara was made the head of this matha as Shankaracharya moved on to establish other mathas. Sringeri Sharada Peetham advocates ‘Aham Brahmasmi’ (I am Brahman) and was formed on the basis of Yajur Veda.

Dvaraka Pitha

Dvaraka Pitha is located in the western part of India. Hasta Malaka, who came to be known as Hastamalakacharya, was made the head of this matha. Dvaraka Pitha advocates ‘Tattvamasi’ (That thou art) and was formed on the basis of Sama Veda.

Jyotirmatha Peetham

This monastery is located in the northern part of India. Totakacharya was made the head of this matha which advocates ‘Ayamatma Brahma’ (This Atman is Brahman). Jyotirmatha Peetham was formed on the basis of Atharva Veda.

Govardhana matha

Govardhana matha is located at the eastern part of India. The matha is a part of the famous Jagannath temple. Padmapada was made the head of this monastery which advocates ‘Prajnanam Brahma’ (Consciousness is Brahman). It was formed on the basis of Rig Veda.

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