chapter  9
Shankara
ByJOHN M. KOLLER
Pages 10

Shankara is widely regarded as one of India’s greatest thinkers. Although there is considerable controversy concerning his dates, the best recent scholarship argues that he was born in 700 and died in 750 ce. This was a time of political instability, coming after the fall of the glorious Gupta dynasty and the short-lived peace established by King Harsha in the seventh century. It was also a time of great social and cultural change, which witnessed a decline of both Buddhism and Jainism and a powerful resurgence of Hinduism, a resurgence to which Shankara made signicant contributions. His transformations of the ancient and venerable Vedanta tradition were largely responsible for it becoming India’s most important spiritual tradition for more than a thousand years. The Vedanta tradition is rooted in the Vedic quest of more than 3,000 years ago, for the ultimate reality that is the ground of all existence. In the Upanishads, the culminating portions of the Vedas, composed more than 2,500 years ago, this ultimate reality is called Brahman and is frequently said to be identical with the innermost self, the Atman. Although religious ritual continued to be important, increasingly in the Vedanta tradition – as the Upanishads, the concluding (anta) parts of the Veda, were called – it was knowledge of Brahman, not action, that was seen as the means of nal release and immortality. But the various Upanishads did not speak with a single voice. While some taught that Brahman is the only true reality and is identical with Atman, others taught that Brahman and the world are both real, and that Atman is a part of Brahman. The Brahmasutra, attributed to Badarayana (rst century bce), became a foundational text for Vedanta because it summarized and unied the diverse and sometimes conicting teachings of the Upanishads. To reconcile the Upanishadic view that Atman and Brahman are identical with the somewhat older Upanishadic view that the individual Atman is different from Brahman, the Brahmasutra argues that Brahman and Atman are, in some respects, different, but, at the deepest level, non-different (advaita), being identical. In adopting this realistic monism of the Brahmasutra, the Vedanta tradition was able to counter both the pluralistic realism of the Nyaya-Vaiseshika tradition

and the dualism of the Sankhya-Yoga tradition, establishing itself as Hinduism’s most powerful spiritual tradition. During the approximately 700 years between the establishment of Badarayana’s Vedanta tradition and Shankara’s reforms of this tradition, Buddhism had come to play a powerful role in India’s spiritual and philosophical life. Shankara wrote important commentaries on the Brahmasutra, the major Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and other texts important to the Vedanta tradition. In all of his writings he sought to overcome the Buddhist inuences that threatened the Vedanta insistence on Brahman/Atman as the fundamental, unchanging reality. He also attempted to refute various other Vedantic interpretations as he sought to establish his view that Brahman and Atman are identical, eternal, unchanging, and, ultimately, the only reality. How Shankara argued for his Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta is the subject of the rest of this chapter.