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Sankaracharya / Sankara 788-820 AD

Sankara / SankaracharyaMost famous of all commentators on the Sutras is Sankaracharya, the Thomas Aquinas of Hinduism. While 75 out of every 100 Hindu thinkers are said to adhere to him, 15 only adhere to Ramanuja, 5 to Vallabha, and 5 to Madhava. His exact date is a subject of controversy, for while European scholars said that he lived between 788 and 820 AD, some Hindu writers state that he was a contemporary of Vikramaditya, the founder of the Samvat era, which makes his date to be about 500 AD. Other traditions make Sankara to have lived between 650 and 740 AD.

Sankaracharya, perhaps the greatest master of the Vedanta philosophy, belonged to the Saivas. The 8th to the 13th century revival in Hinduism originated in the South. From Kerala Sankaracharya laid the foundation of modern day Hinduism. Sankara traveled to many parts of India and established centers of teaching and learning in various parts of the country. Sankara wrote extensive commentaries on Brahma Sutras, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, which are standard texts for Hindus.

Sankara led a crusade against Buddhism in the 8th and 9th centuries. He took the Buddhist institution as his model and arranged the ascetic orders of Hindus accordingly. His philosophy was also based on Mahayana Buddhism. The final disappearance of Buddhism was, however, mainly due to the destruction of its great monasteries by the Muslim invaders. The decline of Buddhism from India was not its annihilation of explusion but absorption.

Sankara's famous work is to-day more praised than read, but it remains as the one authoritative exposition of the dominant and most characteristic philosophy of India, the Vedanta. It cannot be said that Sankara's teaching is in all respects identical with that of the Sutras he expounds. In his method of teaching, Sankara is essentially scholastic. It is by appeal to authority that truth is found. As Scripture (sruti) he quotes especially the Upanishads. As Tradition (smriti) he recognizes the Sankhya and Yoga systems, the Mahabharata, especially in its most famous episode, the Bhagavadgita.

Sankara expressly preached one creed (pantheism) for the philosophic few, and another (Saivism) for the ignorant many. Sankara held that the truly enlightened become immediately one with Brahma. But those souls which are bound in the empirical world must accordingly pass through empirical spheres of recompense. They who have the lower or exoteric knowledge and worship the "qualified Brahma" pass through the "Way of the Gods" to the paradise called the " world of Brahma "; here according to their merits they either gain by degrees the saving knowledge which transports them for ever to the Absolute Brahma (krama-mukti), or else they have due enjoyment of heavenly bliss until their "works" have shrunk to a residue (anu'saya), whereupon they descend to honourable earthly incarnations. They who have done pious works travel by the "Way of the Fathers " to the moon, where they share the pleasures of paradise with the gods, and thence in due time return to earth. Those who have neither knowledge nor good works pass to hell, there to expiate their sins in part before rebirth in lower forms.

Sankara did not found any Sivite sects properly so-called. His primary object was to root out Buddhism from the country, and, in order to attain that end, he countenanced every form of Hinduism, including the worship of Siva, Sakti, Vishnu, Sun and Ganesh. He himself had great faith in the Vedantic doctrine of one God, manifesting himself by the creation of* the universe, without the help of prakriti or material basis. But he did not discard the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, and it seems very probable that either he himself or his disciples gave great encouragement to Siva worship in order to render Buddha worship obsolete. Nowhere is Sankara represented as a destroyer of Buddhistic temples and images. In all probability he and his disciples took those shrines under their protection, and found it much safer to represent the idols worshipped therein as images of the Hindu god Siva, than to throw them away into the streets, or to destroy them.

He was born in the village of Kaladi in Sankara. Malabar, of Brahmana parents. Subsequent traditions, the result of hero worship, mention various extraordinary phenomena as having attended his birth. He compiled his sixteen commentaries: 12 on the Upanishads; (13) Bhagwad Gita; (14) Brahma Sutras; (15) Sahsranama adhyaya of the Mahabharata, containing the thousand names of Vishnu, and (16) the Sanata-Sujata Gita, a dialogue between King Dhriferastra of the Mahabharata and the sage Sanata-Sujata. He then restored Hindu temples which had been destroyed by the Buddhists, established four Matha, or seats of learning. At these he installed his disciples Padama, Totaka, Hastamalaka and Sureswara. He then retired to the north and died at the age of 32.

He was essentially a man of the age, one of those great teachers who appear in the world at rare intervals of time, to leave their, mark upon its history and religion. India was at the time either degraded by the ritualism of the orthodox Brahmanas or the orgies of the Tantric worshippers or the impractical ideals of Buddhism. All life seems to have been crushed out of it, and it required a teacher who could prove the relative value of ceremonial, dogma and ritual, and show that the attainment of the ideal of the Upanishads was the only road both to individual happiness as well as national well-being. In gracefulness of language, logically close reasoning and subtlety of argument, Sankara stands foremost of all Indian commentators.

Sankara moulded the later Vedantic philosophy into its final form, and popularized it into a national religion. It is scarcely too much to say, that since his short life in the 8th or 9th century, every new Hindu sect has had to start with a personal God. He addressed himself to the high-caste philosophers on the one hand, and to the low-caste multitude on the other. He left behind, as the twofold results of his life's work, a compact Brahman sect and a popular religion.

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Page last modified: 20-05-2012 18:59:20 ZULU