Painting - Raja Ravi Varma / Wikipedia

Painting – Raja Ravi Varma / Wikipedia

Shankaracharya ( Shanker + Acharya – sage,seer ) is regarded as one of India’s most eminent and brilliant philosophers of the post-Vedic age. He lived in the early 9th century A.D. His brief career of 31 years was remarkable for consolidating Hindu thought contained in the Upanishads ( primal musings of sages in the forest on the nature of reality) the Bhagawat Gita (India’s most sacred religious text ), the Yoga Sutra (treatises on meditation) and Vedantic thought ( post-Vedic philosophy) in his  philosophy of Advait (non dualism). At the time Hindu thought and practices had become disparate, ritualistic, conflicting and full of superstition with the fringes even adhering to  atheism and gross materialism. The genius of an earlier age which had created great religious movements reaching out to far corners of the world had lost its dynamism, clarity and momentum and was beset by confusion and strife. His writings and debates turned much of this around breathing new warmth and life into thought, belief and practice and having a far-reaching influence in rejuvenating Hindu Philosophy and beliefs.

Shanker revived and reasserted with renewed vigour the Upanishadic premise of a grand unity underlying everything. The Upanishadic aphorism ‘thou art that’ (Tat tvam asi) became the central slogan of his Advait (non-dual) philosophical teachings which were contained in a systematic and consistent doctrine. The self (Soul – Atma) and the Universal Essence (Brahman) were the only reality, the rest of phenomenal existence and the world was illusory. The apparent reality of the ego and the cosmos was the result of ignorance. But ‘Ignorance’ indeed was a positive force with the power (Shakti) to create a grand illusion. The ego and the sheaths covering the Soul, together with the phenomenal world were like a mirage in the desert. Like a cloud covering the sun so too did ‘Ignorance’ cover up the Soul. To overcome the ‘Ignorance’ which produces the magic of phenomenality, the weapon was self-realization – getting to know the Soul

The practice begins with adopting a stern morality in life (ethical behaviour – Dharma), altruistic action without attachment towards results (dispassionate action of the Gita), Yogic practices to cleanse the mind and body (Yoga Sutras). To prepare himself he must first acquire knowledge of the scriptures, have unshakable faith and adopt a Guru to guide him and draw the road map.

According to Advait interpretation God with attributes is like a mask upon the sublime Universal Essence (Brahman), which is without attributes. The adept Vedantin seeker is warned that a stage will appear in his quest for truth and spiritual evolution when the vision of God incarnate will finally appear resplendent before him. This is the final stage of phenomenality and duality. The feelings of ecstasy and euphoria arising then have to be contained and the adept has to resist the temptation to remain in that state of bliss. For he has to move on in his search for the real truth, beyond the splendid vision, towards the sublime. silent, featureless one without attributes, one who cannot be an object for a subject. When he goes beyond this penultimate stage he finally dispels ‘Ignorance’ and attains enlightenment by realizing that ‘he is that’; there is no subject any more nor an object, there is only the One.

According to Advait, Brahman (Universal Essence) is ‘the one without a second’, the one which alone exists (Sat), which is pure consciousness (Chit), and is in a state of bliss(Anand). The Soul (Atma) does not merge with it because it never really separated from it. Brahman remains the one without a second (Advait) and the Atma’s separation is an illusion, the result of ignorance which when dispelled, produces enlightenment. The influence of Shanker’s doctrine of Advait on Hindu belief systems to this day remains far-reaching. Yet, succeeding philosophers like the sage Ramanuja in the 11th century dissented from this interpretation of Vedant philosophy, holding that the incarnated Souls were separate from the Divine Essence and only finally merged with it after the cycles of birth.

Likewise thinkers and poets of the Age of Devotion (Bhakti) of the 16th century believed in a God with attributes who became very tangible when incarnating as Avatar,  and was attainable simply through love and devotion rather than scholastic and intellectual meditation.  For them the Gita became tha main vehicle of inspiration with its qualified and deistic Monism, rather than the scholastic and esoteric path shown by Advait doctrine. Shanker never rejected devotional prayer (Bhakti) or denied its value for he held that it was a necessary but intermediate stage for the adept on his journey to the ultimate realization of the true nature of the Universal Essence.

Shankeracharya’s philosophy and doctrine was enshrined in four monastic centres (Maths) which he set up in different corners of India  surviving to this day at Sringeri (South), Govardhan (East), Kalika (West), and Jyoti (North). The heads of the four monasteries are revered in India, much as the Vatican’s Pope is in the Christian world.

In addition to his philosophical treatises Shanker wrote numerous brilliant poems which are sung and recited to this day. One of his most popular songs is recited as an aid to meditation by disciples and seekers.



At dawn I dwell on the essence

Of the shining self in my heart,

Truth, consciousness and bliss,

That Supreme Essence am I,

Indivisible, without parts,

Neither body, senses nor mind,

Not the vital breath nor intelligence,

I am not my ego

I am neither male nor female

Nor am I sexless,

Indeed I am the witness

Neither born nor ever dying

I am eternal,

The inner Self,

The blissful one.


A related inspirational Upanishadic riddle showing the relationship between the Soul and its host the body with its senses is cited below:

The blind one found the jewel;

The one without fingers picked it up;

The one with no neck put on;

And one with no voice gave it praise.

Shankaracharya statue