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Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Genius of Adi Sankara


                By Adi Sankara I refer to the original saint-philosopher-poet-genius who lived more than 1,000 years back to differentiate that founder of the Advaitic-Vedanta schools of Hindu philosophy from the religious heads of the four major centers (Dwaraka – Kedarnath-Puri and Sringeri) he established – some would add Kanchi to this list – who are also called Sankaraharyas.

Reading a book with collection of Adi Sankara’s commentaries on Brahma Sutra and the Upanishad was the turning point in my spiritual journey. Adi Sankara’s words influenced me greatly in the way I started thinking about life in general and about reading sacred texts. Those words influenced me also in how I read scientific works and how I think on my own on any issue.  But I did not know how much those words had influenced me subconsciously until this week when I started re-reading that book after almost 60 years!

Re-reading that book (Sankara’s Teachings in His Own Words, Swami Atmananda. Bhavan’s Publication, 1958) made me admire Adi Sankara even more for his astute, visionary, and bold thinking. Fortunately, Swami Atmananda had collected Adi Sankara’s commentaries on the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra, arranged them by topic and given them with the original Sanskrit texts in Sankara’s own words and their translations in English. There are many passages on Brahman, Atman, Karma etc. But I wish to summarize Adi Sankara’s general statements on his approach to understanding the Vedas. These ideas are easily applicable to reading any text, including modern scientific studies.

After reading the following list of his ideas, I am sure you will agree that it is sad people know about Aristotle and Plato, but not about Adi Sankara.

1.       Facts cannot be challenged on the basis of improbability.

2.       Facts of perception cannot be nullified by inference.

3.       Inference is no authority against direct perception.

4.       The means of knowledge are powerful in their own respective spheres (ear for hearing, eye for vision etc.,)

5.       But one means of knowledge does not contradict another.

6.       The scope of one source of knowledge is what is not within the scope of other sources of knowledge. (He is trying to establish that in spiritual matters, one must rely on the Vedas and not on our perceptions and inference)

7.       The Vedas are independent sources of authority on knowledge in spiritual spheres and cosmic truth.

8.       The value of statements in the Vedas is based on their capacity to generate fruitful knowledge, not whether they state facts or prescribe some action. (This rule can be applied to any sacred text)

9.       Vedas delineate the nature of Reality (वस्तु प्रतिपादनं तत्परत्वम्).

10.   Scriptures only inform us of this reality. (They are informative) They are not commands. (ज्ञापकं हि शास्त्रं न तु कारकं)

11.   Since they are not considered commands, where is the question of disobeying them?

12.   The impulse for actions (performance of rituals etc.,) come from our own nature, looking for favorable results. Action is seen in all creatures.

13.   Self-realization (Brahma Vidya) does not create something new (Atman, Brahman). Nor does it alter what there is already. It just reveals.

14.   Vedas cannot become authority as against observation. “Even if hundred Vedic texts declare that fire is cold and devoid of light”, we need to realize that this sphere is not in the domain of the Vedas.

15.   Srutis (vedas) do not seek to alter the nature of things. They supply information about spheres unknown to us.

16.   Nor can a scripture impart power to a thing.

17.   Scriptures do not hinder or direct a person by force as if he were a servant.

18.   Scriptures remain neutral, like sunlight. They just illuminate.

19.   Perception of the true nature of reality is not just a product of man’s intellect (पुरुष तन्त्र). It depends on the nature of the object. (वस्तु तन्त्र)

20.   Mere recitation without understanding the meaning is considered by some to be a meritorious act. Adi Sankara disagrees. He says that Vedas do lead to a result that can be experienced in this life but only when recited with understanding of their meaning.

21.   Mere sound of the word does not constitute the object of reality. The word is different from the object it denotes.

22.   When literal meaning is inappropriate no authority enjoins that literal meaning alone should be accepted.

23.   When literal meaning does not fit, then alone the metaphorical meaning is to be adopted.

24.   It is unreasonable to give up the plain meaning of words used in Sruti and put new meaning in their place.

25.   There can be alternatives (differences) in rituals and actions – but not in Truth.

26.   Good and evil are not absolute; they depend on each one’s opinion.

27.   The stories (aakyayika, आख्यायिका) are used in the Vedas as means of easily imparting ideas with common example from life. They should not be taken as historical facts. They are made to make us understand astute points. (example referred to is that of Indra, Virochana and Prajapati explained in on May 7, 2022)

28.   Similarly dialogues with questions and answers are used to make us understand important points.

29.   The stories in the Puranas are not given as historical facts and should not be taken at face value.

30.   “We never see a formless thing active.” This last statement is from Adi Sankara’s commentary on Briharadanyaka Upanishad 4-3-15. In an elaboration of this statement, Swami Atmananda says that Adi Sankara did not accept the position of the Meemasaka philosophy that the priests performing the yagnas have to imagine a Devata when propitiating them with ahuti.

31.   Adi Sankara’s point is that devata’s (deities) obviously have a form and a name. But Vedas say and we know that anything that has a form has a beginning and an end. In other words: “Why worship an impermanent devata for a temporary residence in heaven, when we can experience bliss during this life by experiencing the Brahman within?”

Having summarized these points, I must also say that Adi Sankara was a synthesizer. He realized that different personalities need different approaches. He encouraged actions (karma marga) and rituals and worship (bhakti marga), but as steppingstones to prepare oneself for the meditative intellectual approach (gnana marga). He did not condemn them outright but incorporated them into the mainstream.

That is the genius of Adi Sankara.

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