Adi Shankara or Shankara, was an early 8th century Indian philosopher and theologian who consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta. He is credited with unifying and establishing the main currents of thought in Hinduism.
His works in Sanskrit discuss the unity of the ātman and Nirguna Brahman “brahman without attributes”. He wrote copious commentaries on the Vedic canon (Brahma Sutras, Principal Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita) in support of his thesis. His works elaborate on ideas found in the Upanishads. Shankara’s publications criticised the ritually-oriented Mīmāṃsā school of Hinduism. He also explained the key difference between Hinduism and Buddhism, stating that Hinduism asserts “Atman (Soul, Self) exists”, while Buddhism asserts that there is “no Soul, no Self”.
Shankara travelled across the Indian subcontinent to propagate his philosophy through discourses and debates with other thinkers. He established the importance of monastic life as sanctioned in the Upanishads and Brahma Sutra, in a time when the Mīmāṃsā school established strict ritualism and ridiculed monasticism. He is reputed to have founded four mathas (“monasteries”), which helped in the historical development, revival and spread of Advaita Vedanta of which he is known as the greatest revivalist. Adi Shankara is believed to be the organiser of the Dashanami monastic order and unified the Shanmata tradition of worship. He is also known as Adi Shankaracharya, Shankara Bhagavatpada, sometimes spelled as Sankaracharya, (Ādi) Śaṅkarācārya, Śaṅkara Bhagavatpāda and Śaṅkara Bhagavatpādācārya
श्रुतिस्मृतिपुराणानाम् आलयं करुणालयम् ।
नमामि भगवत्पादशङ्करं लोकशङ्करम् ॥
Pressing need for Sri Shankara Bhagavatpada Acharya’s avatar
When the Vaidic mode of communion with the ultimate was in jeopardy, with the rejuvenation and reassertion of its wisdom being a pressing need, Adi Shankara strode like a majestic lion across the country taking all other lions in his stride and converted even die hards making them opt for the path illumined by Upanishads, such a powerful leader was needed at that time when Hinduism had been almost smothered within an enticing entanglements of atheistic views and consequently the Hindu Society came to be disunited and broken up into numberless sects and denominations each championing a different new point and engaged in mutual quarrels and endless argumentations.
It was into such a chaotic intellectual atmosphere that Sri Shankara brought his life giving philosophy of non-dual Brahaman of the Upanishads. It can very well be understood what a colossal work it must have been for any one man to undertake in those days, when modern conveniences of mechanical transport and instruments of propaganda were unknown.
सदाशिवसमारम्भां शङ्कराचार्यमध्यमाम् |
अस्मदाचार्यपर्यन्तां वन्दे गुरुपरम्पराम् ||
His message in a nutshell
The message that is contained in elaborate discussions in the Bhashyas of Sri Shankara is often succinctly expressed in a century of verses, in ten verses, in one verse or even half a verse. He has reconciled the seemingly contradictory conclusions of the Upanishads and in the integrated view that He has presented the eternal, impersonal, consciousness Absolute is the Brahman, the one without a second. By His power which is inscrutable ( अनिर्वचनीया ) and called maya, or mitya, He appears as the universe, conditions by space, Time, etc., that are ever changing. The jiva is not different from the absolute Brahman, but due to Upadhis appears to be different and subject to limitations. The Upadhis limit comprehensions and are unreal like limitless space appearing like room space, pot space, etc…
Once the conditioning factors vanish, jiva is seen as one with Brahman as taught in the Mahavakya of the Upanishads. The Knowledge of this oneness is liberation or moksha. Karma and Bhakti help from a distance in the attainment of Jnana by bestowing the needed mental purity when done in a spirit of dedication to Iswara.
In His Bhashya on the topic of meditation, Sri Shankara clearly differentiates the qualification between “seeking to scale yoga’s peak ” and “having scaled the same”. He maintains that one who has ascended the yoga has to simply maintain this equipoise, i.e. till chitta shuddhi is ripe enough to maintain the meditational equipoise, karma has to be done by all in nishkama spirit as a dedication to God.
He has also declared in many places that even the obligatory works done in Nishkama spirit have punya as the fruit. He said that any karma done, having been dedicated to God may not bear fruit is improper, indeed such dedication should make work non-fruitful besides bestowing the required mental purity. He Uses the word “फलसंकल्पस्य चित्तविक्षेपहेतुत्वात्”,- in this Geeta Bhashya i.e. mental clinging to the fruits of actions distracts. Therefore any doer of actions who has given up mental clinging to the fruits is a yogin, his mind concentrated, not being distracted. Hence Karma Must not be neglected. Though Brahman alone is Absolute Truth (Paramarthika), the knowledge of the objective universe – erroneous form the highest stand point – can still be considered as a relative kind of truth for worldly transactions e.g., a mud pot, though a mud, can still be retained for keeping the water in it.
Every one of the several schools which developed in the past Shankara age, bears the influence of Sri Shankara’s teachings in one form or other. His message boils down to the formula – natural growth, assimilating what is compatible and `co-existence’ with what is incompatible.