Those who insist that history is real, and mythology false, go against the very grain of Adi Shankaracharya’s non-dualist maxim: Jagat mithya, brahma satyam, which means the world, including measured scientific conclusions, that we experience is essentially illusory or rather, mind-dependent epistemological truths. The only mind-independent ontological truth is brahma, variously translated as God, soul, consciousness, language, or the infinitely expanded, eternal, unconditioned mind.
This doctrine of reducing the world to mere illusion, popularly known as maya-vada, enabled Shankara to do something remarkable: unite a land with diverse communities and diverse, seemingly irreconcilable, worldviews – from the Buddhists, the Mimansakas (old Vedic householders) and the Vedantins (the later Vedic hermits), to the Shaivas, the Vaishnavas, and the Shaktas. This is evident in his copious literary outpourings.
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).
But 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.
In his commentary on the Brahma-sutra (1.3.33), Shankara observed, “One can say that there never was a universal ruler as there is none now,” an acknowledgement of the fragmented nature of his society at his time, and refusing to accept the mythology of Chakravarti, or universal emperor, found in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu lore.
Most historians agree that Adi Shankaracharya lived in the 8th century CE, or 1,200 years ago, 1,300 years after the Buddha.
This period was a major cusp in Indian history – between the collapse of the Gupta Empire 1,500 years ago, and the Muslim conquest of South Asia 1,000 years ago. Harshavardhan of Kannauj had died, the Rashtrakutas held sway on either side of the river Narmada, constantly at war with the Pratiharas of the North, Palas of the East, and Chalukyas of the South. Regional languages and scripts which are now so familiar had not yet emerged. South Indian temples did not have their characteristic gopuram gateways, the Ramayana had yet to be translated into Tamil, Jayadeva had yet to write the Gita Govinda that introduced the world to Radha.
Adi Shankara, who travelled the breadth of the land, communicated through the one language that connected the intellectual elite of the land: Sanskrit.
To appreciate the spirit of this time, we must understand the fundamental tension of Indian society between the world-affirming, ritual-bound householder and world-renouncing, ritual-rejecting hermit.
Householder vs hermit
When Alexander of Macedon attacked India in 327 BCE, the Vedic worldview favoured the householder, while the Buddhist (and Jain, and Ajivika) worldview favoured the hermit.
In Shankara’s time, the Vedic worldview was split into the Mimansaka worldview that favoured the householder, and the Vedantik worldview that favoured the hermit.
Some people argue that this shows the influence of Buddhism on Vedism, causing Hindu supremacists to bristle. What is often overlooked is the influence of Vedism on Buddhism, for by Shankara’s time, the intellectual hermit Buddha had been replaced by the more-worldly Bodhisattva, and his feminine form, Tara, who valued compassion (karuna) over wisdom (pragnya).
And while the Brahminical elite argued over the ritual ways (karma marga) of the Mimansika and the intellectual ways (gyan marga) of the Vedantin, the storytellers (suta) of India from Vyasa to Valmiki were reshaping Hinduism dramatically with the composition of the Puranas, where the hermit Shiva was being compelled to marry the Goddess, Shakti, and Vishnu was duty-bound to take care of Lakshmi and Saraswati.
Shankara was born to a poor Brahmin (Namboodri) family in Kerala. His father’s name was Shivaguru, suggesting Shaiva roots. His father died when he was very young, and he was raised by his mother, known to us only as Aryamba (noble lady). She was a worshipper of Krishna, indicating Vaishnava roots. Despite his mother’s protests, he chose to become a hermit as he favoured the prevailing Vedantik worldview to the Mimansik. His guru, Govinda Bhagavatapada, whose name suggests Vaishnava roots, who chose the hermit’s life on the banks of the river Narmada, was deeply influenced by Buddhism.
From Central India, Shankara moved to Kashi where he encountered a chandala, keeper of the crematorium, the most polluted of professions in the Hindu caste hierarchy. When Shankara asked him to move aside, the chandala chastised him saying, “My body, or my soul, the form, or the formless, the limited, or the limitless?” This incident had a deep impact on Shankara, as it made him question the invalidity of the flesh proposed by the hermit tradition. Shankara was steeped in the traditional varna-ashrama-dharma, where caste purity and pollution mattered, so his acceptance of the chandala as his guru holds special significance. The incident led him to compose the Manisha-panchakam where he looks beyond divisions that create dualities (dvaita) and affirms non-duality (advaita). Wisdom is seen here as the tool to transcend caste.
Shankara then encountered the great Mimansaka scholar Mandana Mishra at Mahismati in Bihar and convinced him of the superiority of knowledge (gyana) over ritual (karma). But then, Mandana’s wife, Ubhaya Bharati, playfully challenged him to knowledge of erotics (kama-shastra). When the celibate Shankara pleaded ignorance, the lady asked him how he could claim to have understood the world without experiencing sensual pleasure and emotional intimacy. What followed is shrouded in mystery, and edited by latter-day puritans.
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. Was the goddess inspired by Ubhaya Bharati, or his mother, who kept presenting householder wisdom? We can only speculate.
Shankara returned to Kerala to perform his mother’s last rites on learning of her death. This was his promise to her when she finally gave him permission to become a hermit, after he survived an attack by a crocodile.
However, in Vedic tradition, having renounced household life, a hermit cannot perform household rituals like funerals. As a hermit, Shankara had given up his role as son, and so had no obligations to the woman who was once his mother. But Shankara here displayed the spirit of a defiant revolutionary. When prevented from performing her rites in the crematorium, he carried his mother’s body to the backyard of her house and performed the rituals there.
He then proceeded to travel across India, establishing his institution (matha) in the four corners of India, all the while visiting and mapping pilgrim routes. He is said to have established the various akharas of hermits who were told to use their knowledge and their physical and yogic powers to protect Hinduism. He even organised their movements across pilgrim spots and their meetings during the Kumbha mela.
Shankara died at the young age of 32 in the Himalayan region. The story goes that his father, on being given a choice by the gods, wanted a great son with a short lifespan, rather than an ordinary son with a long lifespan. According to legend, a child prodigy, he was supposed to die at the age of eight, but was given an extension of eight years so that he could excavate the truth of the Vedas. His commentaries and monographs were so brilliant that Vyasa, the mythical organiser of the Vedas, himself extended his life by another 16 years to spread his ideas to the world.
Scholars wonder if Shankara, the philosopher, who valorised knowledge, was also the Shankara who composed devotional poetry? Was the Shankara who established pilgrimages the one who also spoke the futility of mindless ritual, so beautifully expressed in Bhaja Govindam? Was he Vedic or Tantric? Was he Shaivite, Vaishnavite, or Shakta? Is he this or that, or both, or neither? Was he anti-Buddhist or a subversive pro-Buddhist? The diverse fragments of his life mirror the diverse fragmented worldviews that shaped India in his time, and continue to do so today.
The diversity of India relative to the Middle East, Europe and America is undeniable. It bewilders the world. For outsiders, it is chaotic, on the verge of collapse and division. For insiders, there is meaning underlying the madness. The outsider and insider view of India is therefore divergent.
Outsiders tend to see India’s diversity in divisive terms: it is either the outcome of hierarchy (casteism, Brahminism imposed through Manusmriti), or complex postmodern arguments are used to say India did not exist, mirroring the shunya-vada of Buddhists that denies continuity. By contrast, Shankara, an insider, used the doctrine of illusion to democratise fragmented and limited worldviews: all views, all perceptions, all understanding of these words are imperfect and incomplete, but they delude us into assuming they are perfect and complete.
To understand Shankara, we need to break free from the fixed Abrahamic binary of one true God and other false gods, which even influences much of today’s political and scientific discourse, and move into the Hindu, rather fluid, binary where the divine can be limited (god, without capitalisation) and limitless (God, with capitalisation), and where the relationship of form and formless divine is much like the relationship between sound and meaning without which no word can exist.
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. Hence, the importance given by Shankara to the exciting characters of Hindu mythology whose tales in the Puranas evoke Vedic truths, and anchor them to pilgrim spots across India, on the top of mountains, in caves and at confluences of rivers, an idea that would horrify a traditional Vedic ritualist.
One reason why Buddhism did not thrive in India is its avowed distancing from the arts, viewing it as temporal indulgence, in contrast to Puranic Hinduism, where the gods danced and sang to reveal wisdom. The Buddhist elite shunned rituals at Buddhist shrines that were popular with the masses. Shankara, by contrast, realised how stories and songs connect with people and create the highway to an expanded vision of life. So he embraced Puranic temples and their rituals, which were relatively more inclusive (caste rules still prevailed), and far more artistic, and public, than the more rigid exclusivist Vedic rituals. And this played a huge role in establishing Shankara’s popularity as the saviour of Hinduism.
Rather than arguing which commentary, poetry, pilgrimage, worldview, or god, is a superior or comprehensive fragment, Shankara insists that the only truth that matters is brahman, which is unreachable through reason and argument, and can only be accessed through faith, via the Vedas.
Is this real, or strategic? We cannot be sure. What we can be sure is that, with nothing superior, and everything illusory, there can be mutual respect, awareness of each other’s inadequacies, and the empathy to mutually complement, or supplement, rather than substitute.
Tranquillity escapes us as long as we shun knowledge. Knowledge is acquired when we make our pilgrimage into other views – as Shankara engaged with his guru, the chandala, Ubhaya Bharati and finally his mother – and have faith in a larger transcendental mind-independent reality, the brahman.
There are many who believe that Shankara’s philosophy is for the intellectual elite, and his poetry and pilgrimage routes for the less intellectual masses. This condescending suggestion is often made by those who imagine themselves to be intellectual for they fail to see Shankara’s diverse body of work as an integrated whole.
Like any ancient or medieval figure of Indian history, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction about Shankara’s life. Scholars are not sure which of his literary works are authentically his, and which are attributed to him to gain legitimacy or popularity. Depending on what one cherry picks, Shankara can be turned into an incarnation of Shiva, a champion of Hinduism who drove out Buddhists, a prodigious and prolific logician and poet, a savarna casteist Hindu, or a reconciler of paradoxes.
What is most interesting is that his hagiography (exaggerated biographies), composed centuries after his birth, are often referred to as dig-vijaya, or conquests, and his encounters with philosophers such as Mandana Mishra are described in combative and triumphalist terms.
This obsession of defeating intellectuals in debates has more to do with indulging the ego than expanding knowledge. And it is highly unlikely that a Vedic philosopher would engage in such activity, for the Vedas view ego (aham) as the eclipse that blocks our view of brahma, which resides within everyone as atma.
Ego thrives on violence and violation and so chooses argument (vi-vaad) over discussion (sam-vaad). In vi-vaad, we listen not to understand but to retort, thus remaining trapped in ignorance (avidya). In sam-vaad, we listen to refine our ideas, gain knowledge (vidya). Perhaps our understanding of Shankara is contaminated by the ambitions of his not-so-intellectual fans and followers who relish the idea of domination. Sounds familiar?
But the more we argue with a bad idea, the more it entraps us. We end up as loyal opposition. It is important to let go, and seek alternate ideas. This essay is an attempt to present that alternate idea: see jagat mithya, brahma satyam (verse 20, Brahmajnanavalimala), not as a statement to invalidate experience, or establish Hindu supremacy, but as a simple framework to allow, accept and even assimilate myriad ideas, find unity in diversity, in India, and the global village.