Shankara (788-820) was one of the most influential thinkers in Vedanta philosophy. He wrote commentaries on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma Sutras. He was a founder of Advaita (non-dualistic) Vedanta, explaining the unity of Brahman (the universal Self) and Atman (the individual Self). This viewpoint was later opposed by Dvaita (dualistic) Vedanta, which taught that there is a fundamental difference between Atman and Brahman.
Vedanta is a school of Hindu philosophy which is based on the teachings of the Upanishads. The Upanishads are ancient Hindu scriptures which constitute the final section of the Vedas. Thus, the Upanishads have also been called the Vedanta. Vedanta literally means “end of the Vedas.” Vedanta philosophy interprets and develops the teachings of the Upanishads.
The three main branches of Vedanta philosophy are: 1) Advaita (i.e. non-dualism), which is represented by the teachings of Shankara, 2)Visishtadvaita (i.e. qualified non-dualism), which is represented by the teachings of Ramanuja (c.1056-1137), and 3) Dvaita (i.e. dualism), which is represented by the teachings of Madhva (c.1197-1276).1 Shankara argued that Brahman is undifferentiated being and that Brahman and Atman are a unity. Ramanuja argued that Brahman is a unity, but that it has two forms, the self and matter. Madhva argued that Brahman is differentiated being, and that it is different from both the self and matter.
Basic teachings of Advaita Vedanta include that Brahman (or ultimate reality) is non-dual, that Brahman and Atman are a unity, that the appearance of plurality in the phenomenal world is illusory, and that illusion (maya) is the misinterpretation of appearance as reality.
For Shankara, Brahman is the one and only reality. Brahman is Being, Consciousness, and Bliss. Brahman is infinite, formless, and perfect. Brahman is all-inclusive and all-perceiving. Brahman is the eternal and unchanging Self.
Shankara explains that Brahman may be known through reading of the scriptures, but that it cannot be perceived by the senses. It cannot be expressed or described, because it transcends names, classifications, or characterizations. It cannot be known by reasoning, but its existence may be apprehended intuitively.
Shankara teaches that Brahman is the source of the Vedas, and that reading of the Vedas is a means of right knowledge of Brahman. The absolute unity of Brahman transcends any concepts of duality or plurality. Brahman is a universal reality which is absolutely indivisible. Brahman is all-powerful and all-knowing. Brahman is beginningless and endless. Brahman is the source of all being.
Shankara explains that we can know that Brahman exists, just as we can know that the Self exists (Adhyaya I, Pada 1, Sutra 1). To know Brahman is to know the Self, and to know the Self is to know Brahman. Consciousness of the existence of the Self is also consciousness of the existence of Brahman. Perfect knowledge is a true understanding of the unity of the individual Self (i.e. Atman) and the universal Self (i.e.Brahman).
According to Shankara, Atman is the spirit of the Self, and is the spirit of the individual being. Atman is not the ego or the individual personality. The ego is a form of the individual soul, and the individual soul (or jiva) is an appearance of Atman. However, the appearance of Atman should not to be confused with the reality of Atman. The reality of Atman is that it is actually no different from Brahman.
Shankara teaches that Atman is the Self of all individual beings. Atman is uncreated and eternal. It may dwell within a body, but it does not depend on the existence of a body. Wrong knowledge may be produced by the false perception that the Self actually belongs to a body.
According to Shankara, the embodiedness of the Self is an illusion. The embodied soul is actually an illusory appearance of the Self. The Self is not changed by any physical transformations which may affect the embodied soul. The Self continues to exist even after the body ceases to exist. The Self is not subject to samsara (i.e. the endless cycle of birth, life, and death).
Shankara teaches that the mind or body is not the Self, and that the mind or body is only a changing appearance of the Self. To believe that the mind or body is the Self is to try to superimpose the Non-Self on the Self. This superimposition of the Non-Self (i.e. Anatman) on the Self (i.e. Atman) is caused by wrong knowledge or ignorance of Brahman. Right knowledge may be demonstrated by an ability to distinguish between the Non-Self and the Self, and by an ability to avoid superimposing the Non-Self on the Self or the Self on the Non-Self.
Shankara emphasizes that avidya is not only nescience (i.e. ignorance, or lack of knowledge), but is also wrong or illusory knowledge. Avidya leads to the tendency to superimpose plurality upon the unity of Atman and Brahman. Right knowledge (vidya) leads to a true understanding of the absolute unity of Atman and Brahman
Shankara teaches that the existence of the embodied soul (or jiva) is only apparent, and that the embodied soul is actually the product of nescience. The appearance of the soul is the effect of nescience, but actually the soul is nothing but Brahman (II,3,50).
Shankara also teaches that if the Self is known, then Brahman is known. In Brahman there is no duality between the knower and the known. In Brahman there is no duality between subject and object. Any duality between subject and object in the empirical world is the effect of not having knowledge of the absolute unity of Brahman.
According to Shankara, Brahman cannot become an object of sensory perception. However, anything that is perceived by the senses is dependent on Brahman. Although Brahman itself is not an empirical object, all empirical phenomena depend on it for their reality. Thus, whatever reality belongs to empirical phenomena depends on the degree to which they manifest the absolute unity of Brahman. The appearance of plurality in the empirical world is an effect of maya, and is illusory.
To say that the appearance of plurality in the empirical world is illusory is not to say that the empirical world does not exist. What Shankara is saying is that the empirical world depends for its existence upon Brahman. Therefore, the empirical world does not have an independent reality.2
Shankara explains that the way in which Brahman may appear to be changeable or divisible may be similar to the way in which a rope may appear to be a snake. The plurality of appearances of the empirical world may be mistaken for Brahman, just as a rope may be mistaken for a snake (II,1,14).
Shankara explains that knowledge of the empirical world should not be mistaken for knowledge of ultimate reality. Knowledge of the empirical world has the same relation to knowledge of Brahman as the phantoms of a dream have to the awareness of reality when a sleeping individual wakes up (II,1,14). Ignorance (avidya) of Brahman may consist of not knowing the difference between the empirical world and the world of ultimate reality.
According to Shankara, maya is the mistaken tendency to regard appearance as reality. The unconscious tendency to perceive the world of appearances as the world of ultimate reality provides an illusory form of knowledge. This illusory or wrong knowledge of the phenomenal world may be 'sublated' or corrected by right knowledge of Brahman.
Shankara explains that maya conceals Brahman, and that it creates the plurality of phenomena which characterize the empirical world. Maya enables us to develop diverse concepts of the empirical world, and sustains the world as an appearance of Brahman. However, any empirical knowledge which we may attain of the world may be sublated by direct, intuitive knowledge of Brahman.
Thus, Shankara argues that there are two types of knowledge: 1) lower knowledge, by which the phenomenal world is apprehended, and 2) higher knowledge, by which Brahman is apprehended.
According to Shankara, time, space, and causality belong to the empirical world, but do not belong to Brahman. Brahman transcends time, space, and causality. Brahman is not caused by anything, and the concept of Brahman as a cause of the plurality of its own appearances may be the result of nescience.
Shankara also believes that God is Brahman, insofar as Brahman refers to the world of existence. While Brahman itself is without cause or effect, God (Ishvara) is the material cause, as well as the operative cause, of the world of existence.
For Shankara, God is the creator of the world and is the ruler of the universe. The universe is an appearance of Brahman. Thus, God is also the supreme being who causes and directs the unfolding of the universe.
Shankara asserts that God (Saguna-Brahman) has attributes, but that Brahman (Nirguna-Brahman) is without attributes.
According to Shankara, being and non-being, life and death, existence and non-existence are not limiting conditions of the universal Self. The plurality of conditions of the individual soul are actually nothing but illusory appearances of the eternal and unchanging Self.
Shankara teaches that spiritual release (moksha) is attained by means of knowledge of the individual Self. The individual soul is held in bondage to the body by ignorance of the individual Self, but is released from the body by knowledge of the individual Self. Moksha is release from samsara (i.e. the endless cycle of migratory existence). The released soul dwells in perfect unity with the eternal and unchanging Self.
Shankara also teaches that moksha is not dependent on action, but that it depends on Self-knowledge. Moksha is freedom from avidya (i.e. ignorance of the Self). Moksha is also release from bondage to maya (i.e. the illusory appearances of empirical phenomena), and is freedom from the tendency to superimpose the Non-Self on the Self or the Self on the Non-Self.
For Shankara, knowledge (jnana) is more important than action (karma) as a means of spiritual release or salvation. Love and devotion, right conduct, and good action are important as methods of preparation for spiritual release, but the discipline of knowledge (jnana yoga) is the right way to gain an intuitive understanding of the absolute unity of Atman and Brahman.
1S. Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore, A Source Book in Indian Philosophy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), pp. 506-8.
2 R. Puligandla, Fundamentals of Indian Philosophy (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1975), p. 218.
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