Archives for posts with tag: Shankaracharya

The great Indian sage – philosopher – poet Shankaracharya, the apostle of Vedanta, the Advait or Non-Dual tradition of Hindu philosophy, in the 8th century A.D. composed many immaculate poems and chants for his disciples to recite in meditation to experience the essential truth of the inconceivable nature of the soul. The Atma (Soul) Shatakam ( a composition in six stanzas) also known as the Nirvana (enlightenment) Shatakam was one such which when recited through Vedic musical chants moved my innermost being to a rare and ecstatic realization of ones deepest essence, as was intended by him for disciples, The singer Ashit Desai’s rendering of the chant in his ‘Himalayan Chants’ is perhaps the most exquisite in conveying the full spiritual essence of the poem. Repeating the Sanskrit chant with closed eyes one gets a glimpse of what our virtually incomprehensible innermost core is. I have placed the original Sanskrit verse, transliterated in Latin text for those who wish to read the original composition, together with my attempt at a translation in English.

                               ATMA SHATAKAM

                                ( Song of the Self )

Mano buddhya-hankara chittani naham
Na cha shrotra jihve, na cha ghrana netre
Na cha vyoma bhumirna tejo na vayuhu
Chidananda rupah shivoham shivoham . (1)

Not mind, intellect, memory or ego
Nor the sense of hearing, taste, smell or sight
Not the sky, the earth, wind or light, I am not these,
I am consciousness I am bliss, I am the primal eternal essence.
( Shivoham Shivoham )

Na cha prana sangno na vai pancha vayuh
Na va sapta dhatur na va pancha koshaha
Na vak pani padau na chopastha payoo
Chidananda rupah shivoham shivoham .(2).

Neither am I life nor breath
Nor matter nor form, organs or senses,
Not sheaths of personality, gross or subtle,
I am consciousness I am bliss, I am the primal eternal essence.

Na me dvesha ragau na me lobha mohau
Mado naiva me naiva matsarya bhavah
Na dharmo na chartho na kamo na mokshah
Chidananda rupah shivoham shivoham .(3).

Neither with likes nor aversions
Nor wants nor attachments
Nor competition or envy
Neither pursuing righteousness, nor wrong,
Neither wealth, nor passions nor even liberation
I am consciousness I am bliss, I am the primal eternal essence.

Na punyam na papam na saukhyam na dukham
Na mantro na tirtham na veda na yagnaha
Aham bhojanam naiva bhojyam na bhokta
Chidananda rupah shivoham shivoham .(4).

Neither saintly nor sinful
Nor joyous nor sorrowful
I have no need for pious chanting or pilgrimages
Scriptures or sacrifices,
Neither edible nor the consumer nor the consumption,
I am consciousness, I am bliss, I am the primal eternal essence.

Na me mrutyu shanka na me jati bhedah
Pita naiva me naiva mata na janma
Na bandhur na mitram gurur naiva shishyah
Chidananda rupah shivoham shivoham .(5).

Neither afflicted by death, nor distinctions of race and class,                      

 Unborn, without father or mother                                                                      

 Without kin or friend, Guru or disciple,                                                                          

 I am consciousness, I am bliss, I am the primal eternal essence.

 Aham nirvikalpo nirakara rupo                                                                              

Vibhur vyapya sarvatra sarvendriyanam                                                                        

  Sada me samatvam na muktir na bandhah                                                            

Chidananda rupah shivoham shivoham .(6). 

Inconceivable and formless,                                                                                            

 All pervading and omnipresent,                                                                          

 Inherent in all senses,                                                                                          

   Impartial, neither in bondage nor in freedom,                                                                

 I am consciousness, I am bliss, I am the primal eternal essence.


Adi Shankaracharya

Upanishadic thought culminated in the non-dualism of Advait philosophy of Vedant ( appendix to Vedic hymns). Its greatest proponent was the brilliant sage-philosopher of the 8th century AD who sought to consolidate trends of thought on the subject present in different treatises (see my post/page on Adi Shankaracharya).

The concepts of Karma and Rebirth had already formed in the Upanishads but had now become sophisticated concepts well entrenched in Hindu thought. Karma and Rebirth were features of the illusory world whose only reality was the self (Atman). This self however was hidden deep in the mirage of the world and could only be discovered by getting rid of Ignorance which made the physical world and the ego appear real. This could be achieved in stages through righteous actions without desire for reward, yoga, and meditation. Devotional worship was also only a preliminary stage on ones journey to realization of non-duality.( Advait techniques were prescribed by shankeracharya, followed to this day in his Muths or monastries throughout india, as study, Reflection, Postures, contolled Breathing, Withdrawal of sense functions, concentration, Meditation, absorption, dual and non-dual – a complcated series of regimes to the final goal)

Another aspect of ignorance was to conceive of a personal divine being worshipped as the creator, maintainer and terminator of the cosmos with form and characteristics . Such a being was to be regarded as the emergence of a magnificent super-ego much like the individual ego and was equally illusory. This omniscient, omnipotent, magnificent Being could never truly correspond with Brahman the essence without attributes. At best it was a mask which we had placed on the face of Brahman to understand him better, one which had to be cast away when the adept in Advait Vedant had ascended beyond the need for one – the personality of the highest and magnificent godhead would then disappear. Both the illusion of the godhead and his created world would then vanish leaving him with the reality of self, truth (Sat), consciousness (Chit) and bliss (Anand) which was an aspect of Brahman within him. (This position of Vedant challenging the reality of godhead was of course furiously opposed by Hindu devotional cults and saints of popular Hinduism who were more concerned with the object of their devotion as the godhead or his Avatar (incarnated godhead) rather than so called esoteric truths. In fact the devotional movement began to have a moderating influence on absolute Monist beliefs.)

Returning to Advait –  ‘Ignorance’ and its product ‘Illusion’ were not nothing – indeed it was ‘something’ which appears as a passing reality which has the form of becoming (Bhavarupa) – if it were real beyond change  (Sat) it could never be dispelled.  Ignorance the source of Maya or illusion was  not merely a negative principle, like lack of insight or understanding but a positive force (shakti – energy) which creates the illusion of the world and the five sheaths covering the eternal soul. It has two aspects – the negative which covers and hides the soul and in its positive aspect creates the multiplicity of phenomena – desires, fear, loathing, fulfilment, suffering and infecting our consciousness with notions of euphoria and delight.     (in my personal view the concept of illusion is connected in relative terms to the transient and changing form of the physical world where under the inexorable march of time everything changes from instant to instant – we are not what we were a moment before – so what is our reality – there is nothing unchanging, not even the sun – nothing has absolute stability – therefore it is a bit of an illusion from which we need to extract ourselves and anchor our minds on something which has permanence – a kind of fleeting reality which in the Hindu philosophical thinking has earned itself the extreme nomenclature of unreal or illusion, without qualification.)

In that so called illusory world on the physical plane, however  Karma and Rebirth held sway. Both concepts had fully evolved from their preliminary references in the Upanishads into mature doctrines in the Gita which had far reaching influence on the daily life styles, beliefs and ethics of the common man. According to Vedanta the self, remained hidden deep within the illusory world covered by five sheaths. The first was the gross body  (the waking state of the Mandukya Upanishad – see previous post ). The second the vital forces, the third, mind, the fourth, intellect – these three formed the subtle body ( the dream state of the Mandukya). While the fifth (deep dreamless sleep of Mandukya – the equivalent of the godhead) was the causal body. All these sheaths according to Advait Vedanta are illusory, including the state of realizing godhead and arose from Ignorance (avidya). Beyond it is the Silence which is the only Reality – that of Brahman( beyond the sound of Om the total silence).

The soul entrapped in these sheaths of Ignorance keeps hopping from one life to another ( after death of the gross body) carrying with it the subtle body full of Karmic traces and effects of past lives, till the subtle body is finally cleansed and refined and pure without Karmic effects whereupon the Ignorance is shed, the sheaths fall away and the soul is free to ‘merge’ back into the universal essence of Brahman. This in a sense is all a divine illusory play (Lila) which ends when the mirage of Ignorance has dispersed or been dispelled. Ultimately it can be called Brahman’s dream or again his play for which there is no audience. For after all the individual soul and Brahman the universal Soul were never separated, were always One.

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


%d bloggers like this: