Adi Shankaracharya

The Great Sage of Advaita Vedanta

Adi Shankaracharya—Important “First” Teacher

The main acharya (teacher, preceptor) of Advaita Vedanta, Shankaracharya (788-820 A.D.) was a great Hindu mystic and scholar who brought about the greatest revival of Advaita Vedanta in Indian philosophy and spirituality. Adi Shankaracharya’s (adi means “first”) contributions to advaita thought and Hinduism in general are crucial. In his short lifespan, he alone was responsible for a country that was almost entirely Buddhist again becoming almost entirely Hindu. He revived monism in India and brought a profound understanding of existence.

The Power of Selflessness and Discrimination

Shankaracharya wrote many commentaries on the sutras and shastras (the Upanishads, etc.) and gained many disciples through his power of spiritual debate. His most important lesson was that reason and abstract philosophizing alone would not lead to moksha (liberation). He believed that it was only through selflessness and love governed by viveka (discrimination) that a devotee could realize his inner Self.

The philosophy that Shankara proposed was powerful and capitalized on years of dormant monist and mystical understandings of existence. He proposed that while the phenomenal Universe, our consciousness, and our physical being are certainly experienced, they are not the true Reality. By this, he did not mean to negate material existence, but rather the identification of our true nature with ephemeral structures, such as the body, psyche, and mind.

The Ultimate Truth is Brahman

Shankaracharya considered that the ultimate Truth is Brahman—the divine ground that is beyond time, space, and causation. While Brahman is the efficient and material cause of the Cosmos, Brahman itself is not limited by its self-projection and transcends all binary opposites/dualities—especially such individuated aspects as form and being—since it is incomprehensible by the human mind. Transcending the mind is the path to recognizing atman (our ultimate essence). A lasting statement attributed to Shankaracharya: “Brahman alone is real, the world is appearance, the Self is nothing but Brahman.”

The supreme truth of advaita is the non-dual reality of Brahman, in which atman and Brahman are absolutely united. It was Shankaracharya who gave advaita its name and actively tried to spread its ideas. He systematized his conceptions of non-dualism and its practice into coherent works such as Viveka Chudamani (“The Crest Jewel of Discrimination”) and the Brahma Bhashyas (commentaries on the Brahma Sutras).

Non-Dual Bhakti

He is also well known for putting forward a system of bhakti (selfless devotion) with a non-dual philosophy, and for composing several bhajans (devotional songs) that may bring us closer to realization. Some of his well-known bhajans are Bhaja Govindam, Sundaryalahari, and Sivanandalahari.

Later followers of Vedanta debated whether the reality of Brahman was saguna (with attributes) or nirguna (without attributes). The spreading of devotional attitudes has its roots in the belief of saguna Brahman. However, it is important to mention that Advaita Vedanta did not deny saguna Brahman. Shankaracharya counseled the worship of God in different forms. He composed numerous works deploring the uselessness of the intellect and calling for the true intuition of the Heart to be found in love of the Lord.