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Shankara, the First Shankaracharya
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Introduction to Adi Shankara

Adi means 'first'. Adi Shankara taught Buddhism in the garb of Hinduism, some of his contemporaries said. It is not as simple as that, though. [WP, s.v. "Adi Shankara"; EB, "Shankara"]
Shankara painting
"I am beyond all comprehension." - Shankara

Adi Shankara, text It is said that the philosopher and theologian Shankara (Sankara) could read, write, and speak Sanskrit at the age of one. His father died when the boy was five.

A body of legendary stories and anecdotes about Shankara exists. One of them:

Wisdom After his father had died, and when the boy was bathing in a river, a crocodile caught hold of his leg and started to drag him. He used the occasion to console his mother - and he would perform her funeral rites, said he, if she would let him become a renunciant. And so he did. Later.

Some of the stories are mutually conflicting. And there are no materials to reconstruct his life with certainty from.

His date is uncertain. Britannica Online has: "born 700?, Kaladi village? [Kerala, in southern India] - died 750?, Kedarnath" [northern India]. Some hold he lived earlier. One quite founded variant date for his birth is 509 BC. Others estimate he lived later than 750 CE.

Shankara studied under Govinda, who was a pupil of Gaudapada. Gaudapada authored a Vedanta work that is markedly influenced by Mahayana Buddhism.

He sought to restore the orthodox Brahmanical tradition without paying attention to the bhakti (devotional) movement.

Only four of his pupils are known from their writings.

Shankara is said to have founded four monasteries, in the south, east, west, and north of India.

More than 300 works in Sanskrit are attributed to him. Most of them are hardly authentic. His most renowned work is the Brahma-sutra-bhasya [Gambhirananda 2013], which is a commentary on the Brahma-sutra, a text of the Vedanta school. The commentaries [Nikhilananda 1977] on the main Upanishads that are attributed to Shankara are genuine, except perhaps the commentary on the Svetasvatara Upanishad. It is likely that he is the author of a Yoga-sutras Commentary [Leggett 1990]. The Yoga Sutras contain fundamental yoga teachings.

Shankara's style of writing is deep and clear, and often analytical. Penetrating insight and analytical skill characterise his works. His approach is psychological and religious. His works reveal that he was well acquainted with Mahayana Buddhism. He is often criticized as a "Buddhist in disguise" by his opponents because of the similarity between his doctrine and Buddhism. What is more, Vedanta philosophy had been made extremely Buddhistic by Shankara's predecessors.

Shankara taught that man's essential nature is eternal and real. He affirmed a belief in one eternal unchanging reality (Godhead or Brahman) and "the illusion of plurality and differentiation." [Britannica Online, sv. "Sankara")

Shankara "would not teach his doctrine to city dwellers [for] It was difficult for Shankara to communicate Vedanta philosophy to these people." [Ibid.]

Shankara Stories

The hideous guffaw

One day Sankara with his disciples went for their bath in the Ganges. When they came close to the Manikarnika Ghat (bathing-place) they saw an untouchable worker at the cremation ground at the bottom of the social scale and devoid of any culture, primitive in their sight, extremely ugly and of a terrifying shape. The man who held four dogs in leash, was approaching in a disorderly way from the opposite direction. Finding no way of avoiding the man, Sankara, greeted him and said, "Untouchable! Step aside aside with your dogs so that we can pass."

The man did not seem to listen to his words at all, and did not wait or deflect. Instead he went on. Sankara cried out again in a somewhat excited voice, "Stop, fellow, stop! A leave a passage for us."

Still the man did not care to pay heed to Sankara. The terrible-looking man burst out into hideous guffaw. Then he turned to Sankara and spoke in Sanskrit verses,

"Who are you asking to move aside? Are you demanding an omnipresent Self to do so or the body to do so? If you ask the body to move aside - if it is inert matter, how can it move at all?

"And how is your own body distinct and different from any other body?

"You say that you are firmly established and rooted in the Supreme Truth that there is but One non-dual Entity - One without a second. I see that you are indulging in vain pride through words of wisdom.

"Now, is there any difference between the untouchable and the Brahmin in the eye of the knower of Truth?"

On hearing these words and others too, Sankara was greatly ashamed. He clasped his palms in adoration of the man and spoke,

"He who perceives all beings with an awareness of Same-sightedness, acts in consonance with that perception of sameness in all - he indeed is my Guru. I bow down at his feet many times."

But Sankara saw something else too: A divine Being, radiant and shining like the sun and the fire, had met him in all glory, holding the four Vedas (the four dogs) in his hands. [See Apurvananda 1983, 61-62)


The right helper sustains or brings strength, and hardly ever uncalled-for flows of tears. He makes you focus in steps that could work well and bring good into your life little by little or much faster. Make efforts to learn by straight observation and good cognition - it could be from animals, birds and other humans. Disciplines of science exist and have reached boon-giving competence thanks to similar efforts. And some are put into some sort of system or discipline.


Shankara Quotations

Some Deep Words

Adi Shankara was one day walking along a street in Varanasi, with fourteen disciples. Taking pity on a grammar-reciting old scholar, he went up to him and advised him not to waste his time on grammar at his age but to turn his mind within. Shankara is stated to have sung twelve verses there and then, and the disciples who were with him, are said to have added one verse each.

What follows, is gist from the alledged verses on the occasion, verses that say "Wealth often brings with it fears, and family affection will not save you." Great words of India will not save you either, even though some of them may point to the way.


Family affection will not save you

So long as a man is fit and able to support his family, see the affection all those around him show. But no one at home cares to even have a word with him when his body totters due to old age .

When one is alive, his family members enquire kindly about his welfare. But when the soul departs from the body, even his wife runs away in fear of the corpse. ✪ 

Rules of grammar will not save you at the time of your death (1).

Do not get drowned in delusion by going wild with passions and lust . . . Bodies are flesh, fat and blood (3).

Fools are they who are blind to the Self (Attributed, 27).

Wealth often brings with it fears

Do not boast of wealth, friends, and youth (11).

A rich man fears even his own son (Attributed, 30).

Is taking delight to be with relatives when wealth is gone, a fit way, then?

[Time] passes away by thinking over many past things (7).

Devote your mind to thoughts to the Real.

Take delight to be with the noble and the holy (Attributed, 28).

Where are the relatives when wealth is gone? (10).

Freedom from delusion [can lead] to self-settledness. From self-settledness comes Jivanmukti ("being inwardly free or liberated while still living") (9). 

Bottom Lines


  1. Family affection will not exactly save you.
  2. Wealth often brings with it cheating and fears.
  3. You may wonder, "Is taking delight to be with relatives when wealth is gone, a fit way, then?"

IN NUCE To say good-bye to familiar affections, wealth, and most worldly delights is the Hindu ideal of the final stage of life, of the Hindu monk. The rigor mortis crowns it in some way or other. They say all life must end, which is a golden thread in these verses.


More Quotations and Extracts

How Shankara Really Is: Without Form, Beyond Understanding, and not Limited:

I am . . . without any form . . .

I am beyond all comprehension,

free from all alternatives and all-pervading.

I am without any attribute or activity.

I am eternal, ever free and imperishable.

I am . . . unlimited . . . and immortal.

[Shankara - Aparokshanubhuti]

No Need to Study the Scriptures

Study of the scriptures is fruitless as long as Brahman [God] has not been experienced. And when Brahman has been experienced, it is useless to read the scriptures. [Shankara)

When the Great Reality is not known, the study of the scriptures is fruitless. When the Great Reality is known, the study of the scriptures is also fruitless. [The same, reworded]

The Absolute Witness, according to Shankara

If you recognize it [the Absolute Witness], you will be freed from the bonds of ignorance and obtain liberation. There is a self-existent Reality, which is the basis of our consciousness of ego. That Reality is the Witness of the state of ego consciousness and of the body. That Reality is the constant Witness in all three states of consciousness -- waking, dreaming and dreamless sleep. It is your real Self. That Reality pervades the universe. It alone shines. The universe shines with its reflected light. Its nature is timeless Awareness. It knows all things. Witnesses all things, from the ego to the body. It is the Witness of pleasure and pain and the sense objects. This is your real Self. the Supreme Being, the Ancient. It never ceases to experience infinite release. It is unwavering. It is Spirit itself. [Shankara]

I dwell within all beings as the soul . . . the ground of all phenomena . . . In the days of my ignorance, I used to think . . . [Shankara]

Grasping it, not attaining it

Who does not look for liberation in the Divine Self [is] deluded in heart . . . through grasping at the unreal . . . Without awakening to the unity of the Divine Self - [Shankara, Crest Jewel of Discrimination]


From the Crest-Jewel of Discrimination

This section is rooted in an introduction by Charles Johnston.

Rites cannot lead to Freedom. - Therefore let the wise one strive after Freedom – Much remains to be done by readers themselves.

A man is not set free by the name 'Eternal', but by discerning [kenning] the Eternal. – Moksha (freedom) means "Inner freedom (with detachment) from the world and its bondages. (p 5-9)

The system formed by Shankara within the Brahman order largely continues at the present day. The radiant points of this system are the monasteries founded by the Teacher, where a succession of teachers, each initiated by his predecessor, carry on the spiritual tradition of Shankara unbroken. (p 4)

The fit teaching must be woven into life and character if it is to bear fruit, and one may also have to bulwark well. (p 6) (3)

Something should be learned by heart and taken to heart. (cf. p 6)

Necessary qualities for succeeding on the path are the rather simple qualities of sterling honesty, of freedom from selfishness (etc.)

When one steadily examines one's situation, things like this stands out: He is ripe to seek the Self who has enough knowledge, wisdom, and sensible reason - who can discern well and is much dispassionate; who is restful and has other graces too. These and other qualities that are good to have, are numbered in scriptures. With them, there is success, otherwise hardly so. Besides, as Shankara points out: "Sickness is not cured by saying 'Medicine,' but by drinking it." (p 5) 

Beginning Steps (from verses 1-15)

Much knowledge is gained by examining, and by instruction, and let the seeker after self-knowledge find the Self (as Teacher), full of kindness and knowledge of the Eternal. (p 10)

Discernment between Self and not-Self, true judgment, nearness to the Self of the Eternal and Freedom are not gained without a myriad of right acts (p 9)

Setting [many] rites aside, strive for Freedom from the bondage of the world – After gaining manhood and knowledge of the teaching, if one strives not after Freedom he is a fool. He destroys himself in suicidal ways by grasping after the unreal. (p 9-10)

SUCCESS demands first ripeness; questions of time and place are subsidiary. (p 10)

A human birth is hard to win – Humanity and rest in the great spirit is hard to gain. – And excellence in the path of wise law [dharma] is hard to win. Hardest of all to win is wisdom. (p 9)

Let the wise one strive after Freedom, let him by the Self raise the Self, sunk in the ocean of the world, following the path of union. (p 9-10)

The real is gained by great wisdom, not by a myriad of rites. (p 10) (7) 

Four Perfections (from verses 16-34)

Serving the Teacher in harmony together, seek the needed knowledge of the Self – From a wise Teacher (the Higher Self) comes the loosing of bonds. (p 12)

He is ready to seek the Eternal who has Discernment and Dispassion; who has Restfulness and the other graces. (p 10)

First of them should be discerning well between things lasting and unlasting – Piousness suggests intentness of the soul on its own nature.* (p 10-12)

He is ripe to seek the Self who has plenty of knowledge and wisdom, reason and discernment. (cf p 10)

The graces are restfulness, the longing for Great Freedom, dispassion - [and dealing with sensual gratification - TK]. The raising of the mind above external things is true Withdrawal (Sanskrit: pratyahara). The intentness of the soul on the pure Eternal; - this is right contemplation [meditation], not the indulgence of fancy. At first imperfect, these qualities gradually grow through sound dispassion, restfulness, other graces, and the Teacher's help, and may gain their due. (p 11)

Piousness may also be called intentness on the reality of the Self (cf. above).* (p 12)

When four perfections are present there is success, but in their absence is failure. (p 10)

A wise teacher is full of knowledge and perfect; is not beaten by desire, really knows the Eternal; has found rest in the Eternal, is at peace like a fuel-less fire; is full of selfless kindness, the friend of all that lives. (p 12) 

Appeal to the Higher Self (from verses 35-40)

As for great souls (Mahatmas): some aid weary others – Great good ones dwell in peace; they can bring joy to the world like the return of spring. (cf p 12, 13)

Having crossed the ocean of the world, the happy ones reach harmony with God, and divine [inner] light rests on them. And some such ones may help others to cross over. (cf p 12-13)

The counsel is: Submit to the river of selfless kindness who is your Master and friend of the bowed-down world and take refuge in that One. (p 12) 

The Beginning of the Teaching (from verses 41-71)

When the Self is veiled by unwisdom there arises a binding to the not-self, and from this comes the pain of world-life. (p 14)

Without piercing through the visible, without knowing the reality of the Self, how can men gain Freedom by mere outward words that end with utterances? – By steady effort is gained the knowledge of those who know the Eternal, the Lonely, Stainless Reality above all illusion; but not by desultory study – With earnest effort the wise must strive themselves. (p 16)

You seek to become the Eternal by freeing yourself from the bond of unwisdom. (p 14)

The learning of the learned may bring enjoyment but not freedom – Freedom is won by a perception of the Self's oneness with the Eternal, not by rites and sciences. (p 15)

Sons and kin can pay a father's debts, but none but a man's self can set him free. (p 14)

Understanding [what matters] you shall be free from the bondage of the world: – Through information, digging, and casting aside the stones, a treasure may be found, but not by calling it to come forth. (p 16) (3)

By ridding yourself fully of doubt, proceeding in a right way inside and reaching transparent wisdom, even here you can enjoys the bliss of Nirvana. (p 17?)

There is a way to cross over the ocean of the world, and by this path the sages have reached the shore. And it is the way to destroy the world's fear and win perfect joy. (p 13-14, condensed)

Skill in explaining the teaching can bring enjoyment but not freedom. (p 15)

A net of words is a great forest where the fancy wanders; therefore the reality of the Self is to be strenuously learned from the knower of that reality – Good faith, devotion, meditation, and the search for union are the means of Freedom (p 14, 15)

The Wise One can instil the truth in him who has approached him longing for Freedom, who is following the true path, also by such as calming his mind and granting (some) restfulness. (p 13) ✪  

Vestures from Inside (from verses 72-107)

This is the teaching of koshas, sheaths. The ancient teaching is that like scabbards - one inside the other - fields or "bodies" frame the soul from deep inside.

Sensuous things are dear for the sake of the inward Self, and therefore the Self is dearest of all. (p 21)

The higher Self shines of itself and rules, taking on the condition of doer, with pure thought as its disguise, an unaffected witness, largely unattached. A subtle form-vesture may do the work of the conscious Self, the real man. Hence, just as the tools do the carpenter's work; the deep Mind-Self remains largely unattached and does much secret work. (p 21)

One may reach the Pervader's [soul's] supreme abode – However, he who devotes himself to the fattening of his body, such a one thereby maims himself. (p 19)

Know that this physical body in which the whole circling life of the Spirit adheres, is but as the dwelling of the lord of the dwelling – They who, fooled in sensuous things, are bound by the wide noose of lust, hard to break asunder - they come and go [manifest and disappear from our sphere], downwards and upwards they go. (p 18, 20)

He who, soul-ruined, treads the rough path of sensuous things, death may come to him, like to him who goes out on a luckless day. But he who goes onward through the word of the good Teacher who is very friendly, he gains the reward that is the Real. (p 18)

The soul (atman) is characterised by certainty as to things and is coupled with the inward activities of mind, self-assertion, imagination, (p 20)

Deafness and dumbness are of the ear and not of the Knower, the Self. (p 21) 

The Self is perpetual bliss. (p 21) (3)

Dream-life is the mode of the Self's expansion, where it shines with reflected light, through the traces of its own impressions; for in dream-life the knowing soul shines of itself through the many and varied mind-pictures made during waking-life and others, inwardly composed ones. (cf p 21)

Hhe who seeks to behold [experience] the Self, although living to fatten his body, is like a man who is going to cross the river, holding to a toothed beast [crocodile] while thinking it is a log. (p 19)

Mind holds the life-breaths: the forward-life, the downward-life, the distributing-life, the uniting-life; their activities and forms are different. (p 20)

If the love of Freedom is yours, then put sensuous things far away. But love rectitude and enough deep self-control; love them and honour them ever. (p 19)

Great imagination manages to gather itself together and direct itself to its object. (p 20)

The Self that is bliss is enjoyed, so in waking-life it is enjoyed through the word. (p 21) ✪ 

He who is free from the great snare of longing after sensuous things - and impossible things as well - he surely may build for Freedom - but not another, even though knowing the six philosophies [the six orthodox Hindu philosophy systems]. Just build for Freedom. (p 18) 

More about Shankara on the site

Shankara Teachings: Extracts
Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Wisdom, Vivekachudamani

Shankara, First Shankaracharya, Adi Shankara, a biography, Literature  

Abhayananda, Swami. 2006. The Wisdom of Vedanta: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Nondualism. Ropley, Hants, UK: John Hunt Publishing.

Isayeva, Natalia. 1993. Shankara and Indian Philosophy. Albany NY. State University of New York Press.

Leggett, Trevor. 1990. The Complete Commentary by Sankara on the Yoga-Sutras. New York: Kegan Paul.

Nikhilananda, Swami, tr. 1947. Self-Knowledge . . . Shankaracharya's Atmabodha. Mylapore, Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math.

Nikhilananda, Swami. 1977. The Upanishads, Vols 1-4. New York: Ramakrishna.

Prabhavananda, Swami, and Christopher Isherwood, trs. 1978. Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Discrimination. 3rd ed. Hollywood: Vedanta Press.

Shankara. 1946. The Crest-Jewel of Wisdom and Other Writings of Shankaracharya. Tr. Charles Johnston. Covina: Theosophical University Press.

Harvesting the hay

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