The Essence of the Philosophy of Shri Shankara

What is the essence of the philosophy of Shri Shankara?

Shri Shankara is a follower of the Shruti, the revealed knowledge as transmitted and recorded in the Upanishads, and which concerns ultimate Reality. The essence of Reality must be its absoluteness; it must remain ever the same, unconditioned by time, space and causality.

The human intellect, conditioned and varied as it is, can never comprehend Reality in its entirety. Therefore revelation is the only source of knowledge of the ultimate Reality. The value of reasoning is fully appreciated. In matters of philosophical enquiry, perception, inference and other human evidence are as indispensable as Shruti, but ultimate Truth is above reasoning.

The enquiry has its consummation in direct realisation. Reality is self-evident. It would be otherwise if you depend on evidence. Arguments, to be fruit-bearing, must supplement and help to elucidate Shruti, not vice versa.

Shri Shankara revealed by his holy life and most active career, a discipline for sincere seekers after truth and bliss eternal. He sought to alleviate the suffering which is the lot of individuals, and show human beings the way to avoid pain and attain a perfect state of happiness.

What is the cause of suffering? It must be the result of our own acts and thoughts. The difference between man and man, and the roots of individual sufferings, are explainable on the basis of pre-existence and karma. The law of karma in the moral world is a counterpart of the law of the conservation of energy. Nothing is ever lost. Suffering is the result of our karma, and unless the wheel of karma be stopped, suffering will not end. How can the cause; of birth and death—karma—be stopped?

If the ultimate nature of the individual is a doer, all attempts to stop karma will be useless. For how can a person rise above his nature? Salvation is only possible if the individual, by nature, is neither a doer nor an enjoyer. And this is the great truth revealed by the Shruti. The Atman, or Self, is immutable and indestructible. It is that consciousness within us to which changes appear. This a self-evident truth. If Atman were held to be mutable, there would be none to witness change, and hence the impossibility of experience.

One cannot deny the experience of one’s own existence. Being immutable, Atman cannot be the body or mind, for they change constantly. Our ego or ahankara is in existence only so long as it is recognised with reference to events. If there is anything existing which is independent of the mind, it might be accepted as Atman, the everlasting and unchanging essence of individuals. The difficulty of discovering such an immutable Reality through the unaided intellect is evident.

There are two sources of the discovery of the eternal, timeless essence of one’s own being: the Shruti and the mind. The mind itself is phenomenal—a succession of appearances. There are obvious limitations to its power of understanding. How can the mind claim to know Atman? How can a grain of salt fathom the depth of the sea? Besides, anything which is discovered by the mind is coloured by it.

Shri Shankara proves that the subject witnessesing change, can never be the object, which belongs to the realm of change. The subject is our ‘I’ as the ultimate principle of awareness. The ‘I’ can never be anything but the ‘I’. What is known is something other than the Self; the Knower is unknowable.

The body, the intellect, the mind and the ego are objects of knowledge and therefore cannot be the Self. Atman is ever the subject. Its apparent identification with the body, the mind and the world, is due solely to our ignorance of the true nature of the Self. This ‘ignorance’ is more than an intellectual limitation; it is the fundamental condition, ultimately illusory, of our existence in the world. And it manifests as the false identification of the pure, infinite consciousness of Atman with the body and mind.

Atman is never affected by the mental and bodily changes, which are extraneous to it. By nature Atman is neither the doer nor the enjoyer of the fruits of deeds. In reality it is ever free. Bondage is the false identification of the Self with the not-self. When we discover our true Self, the bondage ceases.

Shri Shankara’s fundamental doctrine is ‘Brahman (the Absolute—the Supreme Self) alone is real. The world is false. The nature of the individual, when rightly understood, is Brahman, none else.’ The highest truth is expressed in the great sentence from the Shruti (Chandogya Upanishad): ‘That Thou Art’, ‘Tat Tvam Asi’.

Brahman is totally free from limitations. It is nir-guna, without attributes; nish-kriya, without activity or movement; nir-avayava, without parts; nir-upadhic, unconditioned and absolute; and nir-vishesha, having no distinguishing element in it. It is indicated by the term sat-chit-ananda, meaning pure being, pure consciousness, pure blessedness—each implying the other.

The nature of the individual person seems to be just the reverse of that of Brahman. How can the individualised consciousness be identical with the supreme Reality which both underlies the whole cosmos and also transcends it?

The world is always in a state of flux. How can the unrelational, attributeless Brahman be both its material and efficient cause (i.e. the material out of which the world is formed, and the intelligence which brings about the formation)? In what sense can the world be said to emanate, subsist and be withdrawn into Brahman?

The principle of unifying contradictions is explained on the basis of Maya (illusion) or Adhyasa (superimposition). Maya is the mysterious principle which unifies contradictions. It makes a thing appear as what it is not. You take a rope to be a snake; in a similar sense, you take Brahman to be the world. This is called Adhyasa. The appearance of anything other than Brahman is, relatively speaking, ascribed to the seeming power called Maya; the fact that the illusory productions of Maya cover and conceal the Reality, is called Adhyasa—false superimposition.

Though Maya has no reason to exist, like the snake imagined in a rope, it is indispensable for human affairs. As long as one believes oneself to be a human being, and acts and reacts accordingly, one needs guidance in how to transcend Maya, which the Bhagavad Gita describes as ‘hard to cross over’. As far as the phenomenal world is concerned, Maya is no abstraction; it is concrete. The ultimate cause of the illusion of the world-appearance and the conviction of being a separate individual, is the absence of right knowledge of the nature of the Self as Brahman. Although there is no real ignorance in Brahman, as there is no darkness in the sun, ignorance appears to be a positive entity, and one must work to decrease and dispel it, until its ‘authority’ is totally undermined by right knowledge—Self-knowledge.

Therefore, the sense of individuality is an appearance—Adhyasa. It is Brahman, the supreme, attributeless Reality, that appears as the world, through the mysterious, not entirely real power of illusion called Maya. Maya is not the cause of the world; Brahman is the cause. It is Brahman which appears to condition itself and become the cause of the world—but this is only a way of explaining experience to the unenlightened mind. Mutation has no place in the nirguna Absolute.

Shri Shankara accepts the world as a fact, so long as Brahman is not realised. When this is the case, the empirical world will continue to be perceived and for all practical purposes should be treated as if real. It is false only when right knowledge arises. Brahman is the only reality, but it appears as the world, as the rope appears as a snake.

The knowledge of the identity of the individualised consciousness (jiva) and Brahman, as indicated in the sentence ‘That Thou Art’, is realisable in this very life. All misery ceases, divine light floods our being, and we are free from error, free for ever.

All prescribed works and moral and social rules must be adhered to until Brahman is realised.

Hari Prasad Shastri

This article is from the Spring 2017 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.