The Non-Duality of Shri Shankara

Further extracts from H P Shastri’s essay on the Outline of the Advaita of Shri Shankara

Theory and Practice (continued)
The whole practice is based on vairagya (non-attachment). Our greatest barrier is a desire for self-recognition, self-advertisement. As long as we expect to be recognized as somebody, we are in the muddy pool of deep ignorance. To keep the mind in a liquid state, to prevent it from being crystallized into attachment to worldly objects, we must devote ourselves to the study of the non-dual teachings.

What matters when we leave this body is not what we have thought but what we have contributed by practice to our own enlightenment and to the illumination of others. Mere theories have not brought peace to anybody. Many European scholars have been well versed in the theory of non-duality, but such theories by themselves are, as Swami Rama Tirtha says, ‘roses made of paper, excellent in form but without fragrance and freshness’.

The Role of the Spiritual Teacher
Although the upanishadic wisdom (Shruti*) holds a position of the utmost importance in the practice of the non-dual ideal, we can see that it is not easy to understand its appeal. The meaning is not in the words of Shruti; its real essence is the great experience of the sage which it describes. We cannot know the real meaning of Shruti and its secret without the help of one who has direct experience of the substance of its meaning.

In his commentary on the Kena Upanishad (1:3) Shri Shankara says: ‘Brahman is cognized by repeated instruction of the Teacher (one who has realised the ideal). It is not subject to comprehension through arguments, intellectual explanation, austerity, sacrifice, etc.’

Brahman-cognition is a spiritual experience which is hinted at in the Upanishad. It is to be understood only by the Shastra as explained by the teacher.

By laying down that it is essential to follow a Guru in a spirit of loving service, it is not intended to establish the sovereignty of the learned: the object is to make the path, which is indeed difficult to tread, easier. The teacher does not trespass on the independence of the students, but, by giving them the inner teachings and yet freedom of thought, he or she teaches them how to think under the light of their own experience and not only from bookish learning. It is nonsense to preach that we can obtain the knowledge of truth by our own labours, independent of any other person. The fact is that there is no external instrument of the attainment of enlightenment.

Teachings imparted in the traditional way have the power to move the heart of a well-prepared student. The heart of an enquirer in the beginning is shrouded by the darkness of not-knowing, and it is contact with the teachings on right and proper lines which pierces it with the rays of knowledge. It is clear that high literature, painting, music and other arts cannot be learnt by mere study of books. It is coming into touch with a living source of the teachings which enlightens our heart with the secret of an art. What is true in the case of aesthetics is equally true in the spiritual realm. A lamp is lighted only from a lighted lamp.

In non-duality the importance of Guruhood is in the form of the experience of the higher Self. It has been noticed that the true teachers, like the trees bent low under the burden of their fruit, were humble. Ethical living is a prerequisite for progress on the path, but no sincere seeker is deprived of the opportunities of the knowledge of Brahman. In one of the Upanishads the teacher exhorts the pupil as follows: ‘Practise those actions which are based on truth and not on show and individual profit’. (Taittiriya Upanishad 1.11.1).

It was not considered adequate only to receive formal instruction in the knowledge of Brahman. It was essential that the student should constantly cogitate on the elements of truth imparted, in order to obtain Brahman-cognition. Shruti and the teacher are mere aids in the path of Brahman-cognition. They do not intrude upon freedom of thought and freedom of moral action. Logical thinking and reasoning in a given measure are not considered contrary to Brahman-cognition.

The possibility of direct cognition of Self depends on manana—constant reflection on the teachings—the chief purpose of which is to understand by mental processes the meaning of the Shruti which implies the identity of the apparently individualised consciousness and Brahman. Shruti can throw light on the Truth but it cannot give us the inner eyes to see the Truth. The teacher only shows the path to spiritual cognition, but to walk it well and speedily is in the power of the serious enquirer. It is clear that both Shruti and teacher are necessary; but nididhyasana—deep, focused contemplation—is equally, if not more important. The higher self-cognition is possible only through nididhyasana.

Let us understand from Shri Shankaracharya himself the system of the cognition of Self. First the Truth is known from the Shruti and the Acharya. Then follows reasoning and logical corroboration and in the end it is spiritual contemplation, or nididhyasana which leads to the direct experience. This is the complete course of the Yoga of Self-Knowledge.

The Function of Reason
We see that dialectics occupy their proper place in the philosophy of Vedanta; but dialectics are one of the powers of our mind and we cannot say that they are the ultimate factor in the determination of Reality. Vedanta is a spiritual philosophy; it is not like the rationalism of Hegel. Dialectics therefore occupy a subsidiary position and are not the final factor in the art of Selfrealization, which is not the object of direct perception. Self, which is the ultimate element in the enquiry of Vedanta, is not subject either to visual or to inferential concepts. It is therefore clear that Shruti is the only authority on it.

Self-experience, which is the consummation of our spiritual life, is a matter of deep and direct experience. It is therefore natural that the Shruti occupies a supreme position of authority in the determination of the nature of the Self. It is a record of the spiritual experience of the ancient Rishis, confirmed by the sages of the present. It is clear that realized experience alone is the highest proof in determining the nature of Self. Shri Shankara makes it clear in his commentaries that enquiry about dharma and enquiry about Brahman do not depend on Shruti alone; their main support is experience, and nothing but experience is the final proof of the nature of Brahman.

Shruti may not be considered as the absolute proof because it awaits verification in direct experience, but it is the best proof of the validity of Brahman. Shri Shankara accepts dialectics as a subsidiary to Shruti. He pays a very high tribute to reasoning. When it is asked whether Shruti is the only means of the cognition of Advaita, Shankara says that reasoning and logic can also lead to a knowledge of Advaita (for example, see the introduction to his commentary on the Mandukya Karikas, Chapter three).

The chief purpose of dialectics is to discriminate between reality and unreality. To understand the real meaning of Shruti one must have faith and a knowledge of logic. Shankara says in his commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (4.5.15) that the truth proclaimed by the Shruti and established by logic and reasoning is a matter of great faith; there is no room for any further doubt about it.

There are some passages in which Shankara seems to throw doubt the absolute value of dialectics, and implies that life is greater than intellect, and Truth is greater than dialectics. To subject Truth to excessive dialectics may lead to doubt. Mere dialectics, as in the case of the Hegelian philosophy, leave the mind in the desert of uncertainty and doubt. Though dialectics may be useful as an intellectual exercise from the point of view of certain metaphysicians, they have no absolute value in the determination of Truth. Shankara does not underrate intellectual reflection, but he is firmly opposed to hair-splitting logic for its own sake. Logic has a certain limit, but this does not mean that it is useless.

Shankara says in his commentary on the passage in the Katha Upanishad (1:2:9): ‘Atman (Self) is not established by logic. Brahman-cognition is not attainable by mere logic, because logic is merely a function of the intellect.’ Bad reasoning, which is sometimes called logic, has no limit and is not respected. Unless dialectic is confirmed by the experience of the sages extending over thousands of years, it is not trustworthy.

There is a famous Vedanta Sutra (2:1:11), ‘Dialectics being unworthy of absolute respect’. Commenting on this Sutra, Shankara says: ‘The truth, which is to be understood by a study of the Upanishad itself, cannot be established by dialectics. If the spiritual truth is not based on direct experience and is based only on logic and reasoning, it is not worthy of respect. Mere unbridled imagination is not worthy of unquestioned acceptance. If it is said that logical reasoning can establish truth, then the reasoning of one man supersedes that of another and there is no final end of it.’ Therefore truth must be backed by the experience of the sages of the past, confirmed by the sages of the present. Shri Shankara has further said that the Truth proclaimed by Shruti, backed by dialectics, makes our enquiry easy and interesting.

The conclusion is that in the view of Shri Shankara, mere metaphysical reasoning undertaken as a sort of game is of little use in the realization of Truth. But if dialectics support our experience, then they are valuable and worthy of respect.

To be continued


* By Shruti is meant the non-dual Truth, as expressed in the Vedas and particularly the Upanishads, which reveal that the essential Self of the individual is not different from the universal Truth which underlies the universe.


This article is from the Autumn 2023 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.