Adi Shankara consolidated the Advaita Vedanta which was already inherent in Vedic scriptures and was approved and accepted by Gaudapada and Govinda Bhagavatpada siddhānta (system). Continuing the line of thought of some of the Upanishadic teachers, and also that of his own teacher's teacher Gaudapada, (Ajativada), Adi Shankara expounded the doctrine of Advaita — a nondualistic reality.
Brahma satyaṃ jagat mithyā, jīvo brahmaiva nāparah — Brahman is the only truth, the world is illusion, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahman and individual self
This widely quoted sentence of his is also widely misunderstood. In his metaphysics, there are three tiers of reality with each one sublating the previous. The category illusion in this system is unreal only from the viewpoint of the absolutely real and is different from the category of the Absolutely unreal. His system of vedanta introduced the method of scholarly exegesis on the accepted metaphysics of the Upanishads, and this style was adopted by all the later vedanta schools. Another distinctive feature of his work is his refusal to be literal about scriptural statements and adoption of symbolic interpretation where he considered it appropriate. In a famous passage in his commentary on the Brahmasutra's of Badarayana, he says "..For each method of knowledge has a valid domain. The domain of the scriptures is the knowledge of the Self. If the scriptures say something about another domain - like the world around us - which contradicts what perception and inference (the appropriate methods of knowledge for this domain) tells us, then, the scriptural statements have to be symbolically interpreted..."
Adi Shankara's contributions to Advaita are crucial. His main works are the commentaries on the Prasthanatrayi (Brahma Sūtras, Bhagavad Gītā and the Upanişads) and the Gaudapadiya Karikas. He also wrote a major independent treatise expounding his philosophy, called Upadeśa Sāhasrī.
Brahmaniṣṭha — literally meaning established in Brahman; must have realised the oneness of Brahman in everything and in himself
The seeker must serve the Guru and submit questions with all humility in order to remove all doubts (see Bhagavad Gita 4.34). By doing so, advaita says, the seeker will attain moksha (liberation from the cycle of births and deaths).
Any mumukṣu (one seeking moksha) has to have the following four sampattis (qualifications), collectively called Sādhana Chatuṣṭaya Sampatti (the four-fold qualifications):
Nityānitya vastu viveka — The ability (viveka) to correctly discriminate between the eternal (nitya) substance (Brahman) and the substance that is transitory existence (anitya).
Ihāmutrārtha phala bhoga virāga — The renunciation (virāga) of enjoyments of objects (artha phala bhoga) in this world (iha) and the other worlds (amutra) like heaven etc.
Śamādi ṣatka sampatti — the six-fold qualities of śama (control of the antahkaraṇa), dama (the control of external sense organs), uparati (the refraining from actions; instead concentrating on meditation), titikṣa (the tolerating of tāpatraya), śraddha (the faith in Guru and Vedas), samādhāna (the concentrating of the mind on God and Guru).
Mumukṣutva — The firm conviction that the nature of the world is misery and the intense longing for moksha (release from the cycle of births and deaths).
It has to be noted that advaita vedānta categorically states that moksha or liberation is available only to those possessing the above mentioned fourfold qualifications. Thus any seeker wishing to study advaita vedānta from a teacher must possess these.
Advaita also assigns Upādāna kāraṇatva to Brahman vide the statements from the Vedas (only two are given below):
Yathā somyaikena mṛtpinḍena sarvaṃ mṛnmayaṃ vijñātaṃ syādvācāraṃbhaṇaṃ vikāro nāmadheyaṃ mṛttiketyeva satyaṃ — Dear boy, just as through a single clod of clay all that is made of clay would become known, for all modifications is but name based upon words and the clay alone is real (Chandogya Upanishad 6.1.4)
Advaita states that kārya (effect) is non-different from kāraṇa (cause). However kāraṇa is different from kārya. This principle is called Kārya-kāraṇa ananyatva (the non-difference of the effect from the cause). To elaborate,
If the cause is destroyed, the effect will no longer exist. For example, if from the effect, cotton cloth, the cause, threads, are removed, there will be no cloth, i.e., the cloth is destroyed. Similarly if in the effect, thread, the cause, cotton, is removed, there will be no thread, i.e., the thread is destroyed. This is brought out by Adi Shankara in the Brahmasūtra Bhāṣya , commentary on the Brahma sutra, 2.1.9, as:
Ananyatve'pi kāryakāraṇayoḥ kāryasya kāraṇātmatvaṃ na tu kāraṇasya kāryātmatvaṃ — Despite the non-difference of cause and effect, the effect has its self in the cause but not the cause in the effect. The effect is of the nature of the cause and not the cause the nature of the effect. Therefore the qualities of the effect cannot touch the cause.
During the time of its existence, one can easily grasp that the effect is not different from the cause. However that the cause is different from the effect is not readily understood. As to this, it is not really possible to separate cause from effect. But this is possible by imagining so. For example, the reflection of the gold ornament seen in the mirror is only the form of the ornament but is not the ornament itself as it (the reflection) has no gold in it at all. Adi Shankara says in the Chāṃdogya Upaniṣad Bhāṣya, commentary on the Chandogya Upanishad, 6.3.2:
Sarvaṃ ca nāmarūpādi sadātmanaiva satyaṃ vikārajātaṃ svatastu anṛtameva — All names and forms are real when seen with the Sat (Brahman) but are false when seen independent of Brahman.
This way Advaita establishes the non-difference of effect from cause. To put it in a nutshell,
Kārya is not different from kāraṇa; however kāraṇa is different from kārya
In the context of Advaita Vedanta,
Jagat (the world) is not different from Brahman; however Brahman is different from Jagat
According to Adi Shankara, God, the Supreme Cosmic Spirit or Brahman (pronounced as /brəh mən/; nominative singular Brahma, pronounced as /brəh mə/) is the One, the whole and the only reality. Other than Brahman, everything else, including the universe, material objects and individuals are false. Brahman is at best described as that infinite, omnipresent, omnipotent, incorporeal, impersonal, transcendent reality that is the divine ground of all Being. Brahman is often described as neti neti meaning "not this, not this" because it cannot be correctly described as this or that. It is the origin of this and that, the origin of forces, substances, all of existence, the undefined, the basis of all, unborn, the essential truth, unchanging, eternal, the absolute. How can it be properly described as something in the material world when itself is the basis of reality? Brahman is also beyond the senses, it would be akin a blind man trying to correctly describe color. It (grammatically neutral, but exceptionally treated as masculine), though not a substance, is the basis of the material world, which in turn is its illusionary transformation. Brahman is not the effect of the world. Brahman is said to be the purest knowledge itself, and is illuminant like a source of infinite light.
Due to ignorance (avidyā), the Brahman is visible as the material world and its objects. The actual Brahman is attributeless and formless (see Nirguna Brahman). It is the Self-existent, the Absolute and the Imperishable (not generally the object of worship but rather of meditation). Brahman is actually indescribable. It is at best, "Sacchidananda" (merging "Sat" + "Chit" + "Ananda", ie, Infinite Truth, Infinite Consciousness and Infinite Bliss). Also, Brahman is free from any kind of differences. It does not have any sajātīya (homogeneous) differences because there is no second Brahman. It does not have any vijātīya (heterogeneous) differences because there is nobody in reality existing other than Brahman. It has neither svagata (internal) differences, because Brahman is itself homogeneous.
Though Brahman is self-proved, Adi Shankara also proposed some logical proofs:
Shruti — the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras describe Brahman in almost exact manner as Adi Shankara. This is the testimonial proof of Brahman.
Psychological — every person experiences his soul, or atman. According to Adi Shankara, Atman = Brahman. This argument also proves the omniscience of the Brahman.
Teleological — the world appears very well ordered; the reason for this cannot be an unconscious principle. The reason must be due to the Brahman.
Essential — Brahman is the basis of this created world.
Perceptible feeling — many people, when they achieve the turīya state, claim that their soul has become one with everything else.
Māyā (/mɑːjɑː/) is the most important contribution of Adi Shankara. Māyā is that complex illusionary power of Brahman which causes the Brahman to be seen as the distinct material world. It has two main functions — one is to "cover up" Brahman from the human minds, and the other is to present the material world in its stead. Māyā is also indescribable. It is neither completely real nor completely unreal—hence indescribable. Its shelter is Brahman, but Brahman itself is untouched by the profanity of Māyā, just like a magician is not tricked by his own magic. Māyā is temporary and is destroyed with "true knowledge". This Māyāvāda of Adi Shankara was highly criticized and misunderstood. Bhaskaracharya described Adi Shankara to be indebted to the Buddhists for his concept of Māyā. The term Maya however appears in the Bhagavad Gita 7.14 and many Upanishads.
The concept of Māyā seems to be a hypothesis. Since according to the Upanishads only Brahman is real, but we see the material world to be real, Adi Shankara explained the anomaly by the concept of this illusionary power Māyā.
Advaita teachings that the universe is false often confuse people. Adi Shankara says that the world is not true, it is an illusion, but this is because of some logical reasons. Let us first analyse Adi Shankara's definition of Truth, and hence why the world is not considered true.
Adi Shankara says that whatever thing remains eternal is true, and whatever is non-eternal is untrue. Since the world is created and destroyed, it is not true.
Truth is the thing which is unchanging. Since the world is changing, it is not true.
Whatever is independent of space and time is true, and whatever has space and time in itself is untrue.
Just as one sees dreams in sleep, he sees a kind of super-dream when he is waking. The world is compared to this conscious dream.
The world is believed to be a superimposition of the Brahman. Superimposition cannot be true.
On the other hand, Adi Shankara claims that the world is not absolutely false. It appears false only when compared to Brahman. In the pragmatic state, the world is completely true—which occurs as long as we are under the influence of Maya. The world cannot be both true and false at the same time; hence Adi Shankara has classified the world as indescribable. The following points suggest that according to Adi Shankara, the world is not false (Adi Shankara himself gave most of the arguments, Sinha, 1993):
If the world were false, then with the liberation of the first human being, the world would have been annihilated. However, the world continues to exist even if a human attains liberation.
Adi Shankara believes in Karma, or good actions. This is a feature of this world. So the world cannot be false.
The Supreme Reality Brahman is the basis of this world. The world is like its reflection. Hence the world cannot be totally false.
False is something which is ascribed to nonexistent things, like Sky-lotus. The world is a logical thing which is perceived by our senses.
Consider a scientific logic. A pen is placed in front of a mirror. One can see its reflection. To our eyes, the image of the pen is perceived. Now, what should the image be called? It cannot be true, because it is an image. The truth is the pen. It cannot be false, because it is seen by our eyes.
Īshvara (pronounced as /iːʃvərə/, literally, the Supreme Lord) — when man tries to know the attributeless Brahman with his mind, under the influence of Maya, Brahman becomes the Lord. Ishvara is Brahman with Maya — the manifested form of Brahman. Adi Shankara uses a metaphor that when the "reflection" of the Cosmic Spirit falls upon the mirror of Maya, it appears as the Supreme Lord. The Supreme Lord is true only in the pragmatic level — his actual form in the transcendental level is the Cosmic Spirit.
Ishvara is Saguna Brahman or Brahman with innumerable auspicious qualities. He is all-perfect, omniscient, omnipresent, incorporeal, independent, Creator of the world, its ruler and also destroyer. He is causeless, eternal and unchangeable — and is yet the material and the instrumental cause of the world. He is both immanent (like whiteness in milk) and transcendent (like a watch-maker independent of a watch). He may be even regarded to have a personality. He is the subject of worship. He is the basis of morality and giver of the fruits of one's Karma. However, He himself is beyond sin and merit. He rules the world with his Maya — His divine power. This association with a "false" knowledge does not affect the perfection of Ishvara, in the same way as a magician is himself not tricked by his magic. However, while Ishvara is the Lord of Maya and she (ie, Maya) is always under his control, the living beings (jīva, in the sense of humans) are the servants of Maya (in the form of ignorance). This ignorance is the cause of the unhappiness and sin in the mortal world. While Ishvara is Infinite Bliss, humans are miserable. Ishvara always knows the unity of the Brahman substance, and the Mayic nature of the world. There is no place for a Satan or devil in Hinduism, unlike Abrahamic religions. Advaitins explain the misery because of ignorance. Ishvara can also be visualized and worshipped in anthropomorphic form as deities such as Vishnu, Krishna or Shiva.
Now the question arises as to why the Supreme Lord created the world. If one assumes that Ishvara creates the world for any incentive, this slanders the wholeness and perfection of Ishvara. For example, if one assumes that Ishvara creates the world for gaining something, it would be against His perfection. If we assume that He creates for compassion, it would be illogical, because the emotion of compassion cannot arise in a blank and void world in the beginning (when only Ishvara existed). So Adi Shankara assumes that Creation is a sport of Ishvara. It is His nature, just as it is man's nature to breathe.
The sole proof for Ishvara that Adi Shankara gives is Shruti's mentions of Ishvara, as Ishvara is beyond logic and thinking. This is similar to Kant 's philosophy about Ishvara in which he says that "faith" is the basis of theism. However, Adi Shankara has also given few other logical proofs for Ishvara, but warning us not to completely rely on them:
The world is a work, an effect, and so must have real cause. This cause must be Ishvara.
The world has a wonderful unity, coordination and order, so its creator must have been an intelligent being.
People do good and sinful work and get its fruits, either in this life or after. People themselves cannot be the giver of their fruits, as no one would give himself the fruit of his sin. Also, this giver cannot be an unconscious object. So the giver of the fruits of Karma is Ishvara.
To think that there is no place for a personal God (Ishvara) in Advaita Vedanta is a misunderstanding of the philosophy. Ishvara is, in an ultimate sense, described as "false" because Brahman appears as Ishvara only due to the curtain of Maya. However, as described earlier, just as the world is true in the pragmatic level, similarly, Ishvara is also pragmatically true. Just as the world is not absolutely false, Ishvara is also not absolutely false. He is the distributor of the fruits of one's Karma. In order to make the pragmatic life successful, it is very important to believe in God and worship him. In the pragmatic level, whenever we talk about Brahman, we are in fact talking about God. God is the highest knowledge theoretically possible in that level. Devotion (Bhakti) will cancel the effects of bad Karma and will make a person closer to the true knowledge by purifying his mind. Slowly, the difference between the worshipper and the worshipped decreases and upon true knowledge, liberation occurs.
The soul or the self (Atman) is exactly equal to Brahman. It is not a part of Brahman that ultimately dissolves into Brahman, but the whole Brahman itself. Now the arguers ask how the individual soul, which is limited and one in each body, can be the same as Brahman? Adi Shankara explains that the soul is not an individual concept. Atman is only one and unique. It is a false concept that there are several Atmans. Adi Shankara says that just as the same moon appears as several moons on its reflections on the surface of water covered with bubbles, the one Atman appears as multiple atmans in our bodies because of Maya. Atman is self-proven, however, some proofs are discussed—eg., a person says "I am blind", "I am happy", "I am fat" etc. So what is this ego here? Only that thing is the ego which is there in all the states of that person — this proves the existence of Atman, and that consciousness is its characteristic. Reality and Bliss are also its characteristics. By nature, Atman is free and beyond sin and merit. It does not experience happiness or pain. It does not do any Karma. It is incorporeal.
When the reflection of atman falls on Avidya (ignorance), atman becomes jīva — a living being with a body and senses. Each jiva feels as if he has his own, unique and distinct Atman, called jivatman. The concept of jiva is true only in the pragmatic level. In the transcendental level, only the one Atman, equal to Brahman, is true.
Adi Shankara exposed the relative nature of the world and established the truth of the Advaita by analysing the three states of experience of the atman — waking (vaishvanara), dreaming (swapna), and deep sleep (sushupti). This idea of a fourth state of consciousness (turīya) apart from these three states is presented in the Mandukya Upanishad.
Liberation or Moksha (akin to Nirvana of the Buddhists) — Advaitins also believe in the theory of reincarnation of souls (Atman) into plants, animals and humans according to their karma. They believe that suffering is due to Maya, and only knowledge (called Jnana) of Brahman can destroy Maya. When Maya is removed, there exists ultimately no difference between the Jiva-Atman and the Brahman. Such a state of bliss when achieved while living is called Jivan mukti. While one is in the pragmatic level, one can worship God in any way and in any form, like Krishna as he wishes, Adi Shankara himself was a proponent of devotional worship or Bhakti. But Adi Shankara believes that while Vedic sacrifices, puja and devotional worship can lead one in the direction of jnana, true knowledge, they cannot lead one directly to Moksha.
In the relative level, Adi Shankara believes in the Creation of the world through Satkaryavada. It is like the philosophy of Samkhya, which says that the cause is always hidden into its effect—and the effect is just a transformation of the cause. However, Samkhya believes in a sub-form of Satkaryavada called Parinamavada (evolution) — whereby the cause really becomes an effect. Instead, Adi Shankara believes in a sub-form called Vivartavada. According to this, the effect is merely an apparent transformation of its cause — like illusion. eg., In darkness, a man often confuses a rope to be a snake. But this does not mean that the rope has actually transformed into a snake.
At the pragmatic level, the universe is believed to be the creation of the Supreme Lord Ishvara. Maya is the divine magic of Ishvara, with the help of which Ishvara creates the world. The serial of Creation is taken from the Upanishads. First of all, the five subtle elements (ether, air, fire, water and earth) are created from Ishvara. Ether is created by Maya. From ether, air is born. From air, fire is born. From fire, water is born. From water, earth is born. From a proportional combination of all five subtle elements, the five gross elements are created, like the gross sky, the gross fire, etc. From these gross elements, the universe and life are created. This series is exactly the opposite during destruction.
Some people have criticized that these principles are against Satkaryavada. According to Satkaryavada, the cause is hidden inside the effect. How can Ishvara, whose form is spiritual, be the effect of this material world? Adi Shankara says that just as from a conscious living human, inanimate objects like hair and nails are formed, similarly, the inanimate world is formed from the spiritual Ishvara.
Some claim that there is no place for ethics in Advaita, because everything is ultimately illusionary. But on analysis, ethics also has a firm place in this philosophy—the same place as the world and God. Ethics, which implies doing good Karma, indirectly helps in attaining true knowledge. The basis of merit and sin is the Shruti (the Vedas and the Upanishads). Truth, non-violence, service of others, pity, etc are Dharma, and lies, violence, cheating, selfishness, greed, etc are adharma (sin).
Adi Shankara's treatises on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras are his principal and almost undeniably his own works. Although he mostly adhered to traditional means of commenting on the Brahma Sutra, there are a number of original ideas and arguments. He taught that it was only through direct knowledge of nonduality that one could be enlightened.
Adi Shankara's opponents accused him of teaching Buddhism in the garb of Hinduism, because his non-dualistic ideals were a bit radical to contemporary Hindu philosophy. However, it may be noted that while the Later Buddhists arrived at a changeless, deathless, absolute truth after their insightful understanding of the unreality of samsara, historically Vedantins never liked this idea. Although Advaita also proposes the theory of Maya, explaining the universe as a "trick of a magician", Adi Shankara and his followers see this as a consequence of their basic premise that Brahman is real. Their idea of Maya emerges from their belief in the reality of Brahman, rather than the other way around.
Adi Shankara was a peripatetic orthodox Hindu monk who traveled the length and breadth of India. The more enthusiastic followers of the Advaita tradition claim that he was chiefly responsible for "driving the Buddhists away". Historically the decline of Buddhism in India is known to have taken place long after Adi Shankara or even Kumarila Bhatta (who according to a legend had "driven the Buddhists away" by defeating them in debates), sometime before the Muslim invasion into Afghanistan (earlier Gandhara).
Although today's followers of Advaita believe Adi Shankara argued against Buddhists in person, a historical source, the Madhaviya Shankara Vijayam, indicates that Adi Shankara sought debates with Mimamsa, Samkhya, Nyaya, Vaisheshika and Yoga scholars as keenly as with any Buddhists. In fact his arguments against the Buddhists are quite mild in the Upanishad Bhashyas, while they border on the acrimonious in the Brahma Sutra Bhashya.
The Vishistadvaita and Dvaita schools believe in an ultimately saguna Brahman. They differ passionately with Advaita, and believe that his nirguna Brahman is not different from the Buddhist Sunyata (wholeness or zeroness) — much to the dismay of the Advaita school. A careful study of the Buddhist Sunyata will show that it is in some ways metaphysically similar as Brahman. Whether Adi Shankara agrees with the Buddhists is not very clear from his commentaries on the Upanishads. His arguments against Buddhism in the Brahma Sutra Bhashyas are more a representation of Vedantic traditional debate with Buddhists than a true representation of his own individual belief.
The Amarakosha-grantha, the Sanskrit dictionary, written by Amarasimha one of the nine gems of the Gupta court, lists many of the names and epithets by which the Buddha is traditionally known:
sarvajñas sugato buddho dharmarājas tathāgatah
samastabhadro bhagavān mārajil-lokajij-jinah
şadabhijño daśabalo ’dvayavādī vināyakah
munīndraś śrīghanaś śāstā muniś śākyamunis tu yah
“All-knowing, transcendental, awakened, king of righteousness, he who has come, beneficent, all-encompassing, lord, conqueror of the god of love-mara, victorious of three worlds, he who controls his senses, protector from the six enemies, possessor of the ten powers, speaker of non-dualism, peerless, lord of the sages, embodiment of splendor, teacher, the saint known as Śākyamuni.”
David Loy of the National Univ. of Singapore writes, "The similarities between Mahayana and Advaita Vedanta have been much noticed; they are so great that some commentators conceive of the two as different stages of the same system. Curiously, both Shankara and his predecessor Gaudapada were accused of being crypto-Buddhists, while on the other side, Theravadins criticized Mahayana for being a degeneration back into Hinduism."
However, the above criticisms misunderstand both Advaita Vedānta and the non-dualist school within Mahayana Buddhism. There is also a great variety of modern scholarly research devoted to comparing the non-dualistic Buddhism with the classical Advaita Vedānta. The primary difference lies in the fact that unlike Mahayana Buddhism, Advaita Vedānta, is rooted, by definition, in the source texts of the Vedānta. For the Advaita Vedāntin, the ultimately non-dual nature of reality is not a matter of logical inference or philosophical analysis; rather, it is a scriptural given, to be known, understood and experienced. Furthermore, this ultimate, eternal, non-dual reality is equated with one's innermost Self, whereas, Buddhism fundamentally questions the eternality of the Self.
Ever since Shankara, Advaita Vedanta has so thoroughly dominated the philosophical and spiritual circles in India that the word "Vedanta" has become synonymous with Advaita Vedanta. Each of the later 4 Vedanta schools are successively more theistic along the lines of an anthropomorphic god. Advaita rejuvenated much of Hindu thought and also spurred on debate that led to the expounding of Vishishtadvaita (qualified nondualism) and Dvaita (dualism).
According to some followers of Advaita, it may very well be a place where the scientific world intersects with the spiritual world. They point to the relationships between mass, frequency, and energy that 20th century physics has established and the Advaitic 'Unity of the Universe' as the common ground. They feel that these relationships, formalized as equations by Planck and Einstein, suggest that the whole mesh of the Universe blend into a One that exhibits itself as many (namely, mass, energy, wave etc), and that this follows Advaita's view that everything is but the manifestation of an omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent "One".
They also connect the De Broglie waves of modern physics to Aum in Hindu philosophy. However, scientists in India and abroad clarify that the de Broglie waves (or matter waves) are neither optical nor acoustic waves, but are "just functions of a probability distribution of finding a particle, which may be represented as a Fourier sum of constituent probability waves."
It must be noted that Advaita does not share the same ground on science as other schools of philosophy do. For example, Adi Shankara rejected the idea of momentariness of the universe in his Brahma Sutra commentary since Brahman is immanent in the Universe, while Buddhists affirm that the universe on its own accord, due to the causality of the dharmas, is constantly changing. The Dvaita-enthusiasts on the contrary, blame Adi Shankara for inconsistency, since he adopts the view that the Universe is momentary in many of his other works like the Upanishad Bhashya. Dvaita-enthusiasts see the Universe as a creation of God, while Advaitins see it as a manifestation of Brahman; Buddhists on the other hand see it as a flux of changes, originating from natural phenomena leading to its formation.
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