Adi Sankaracharya - Pre-eminent Preceptor of Advaita

23rd April, 2015 is the Jayanthi of Adi Sankaracharya. While celebrating it and paying our obeisance to the Great Acharya, it may be worthwhile to understand the philosophy he propounded. Kanchi Mahaswamigal, arguably 20th century’s most authoritative voice on Hinduism and Advaita, says:


‘Sankara established Advaita Siddhanta. Siddhantam means the ultimate or final truth. His principal works include bhasyas, or commentaries, on the three prasthanas (the Upanishads, the Bhagavat Gita and the Brahma Sutra), and, prakaranas, or manuals, including Vivekachudamani and Atmabodha. ‘Advaita’ means ‘without a second’. How can there be no ‘second’, when there are so many people, so many objects? It is because all that we see are illusions, or, maya; everything is just one and only one Ultimate Reality.’ Elsewhere the Mahaswami says, ‘According to Advaita, the ultimate bliss is the experience of non-difference between the Jivatman and Paramatman. In fact, no school of thought is foreign to Advaita. In the path to realise the ultimate bliss, advaitaanubhava, every other system is just a step.’

Prof TMP Mahadevan, for many years Professor of Philosophy, Madras University, explains: ‘According to Advaita, nothing is real, apart from the absolute spirit which is referred to as Brahman and Atman. Sankara summarises his entire philosophy in half a verse: Brahman is real; the world is illusion; the individual soul (jiva) is Brahman alone, not another. The non-duality of Brahman, the non-reality of the world, and the non-difference of the soul from the Brahman – this is the essence of Advaita.’

Mahavakyas underpinning Advaita

In Advaita, Sankara did not expound a new philosophy, but, extracted it from Brahmasutra, Upanishads and Bhagavat Gita. As these lend themselves to different interepretations, he describes his teachings not as monoism, but, as non-dualism. Sankara achieves his outcome by referring to certain seminal Upanishad statements as Mahavakyas and said that through the lense of these, Upanishad’s teachings as a whole are to be understood. These are four:

  1. ‘Sarvam Khalva idam brahma’ – All this is verily Brahman
  2. ‘Aham Brahmasmi’ - I am Brahman
  3. ‘Ayam Atma Brahman’ - This atman is brahman
  4. ‘Tat-tvam-asi’ - That thou art

Kanchi Mahaswamigal says: ‘tattvamasi’ summarises the essence of Advaita. ‘Tatvam’ means truth or reality. ‘Tat-tvam’ also means – the realization of (tat, or) That, as (tvam, or) yourself. ‘That is you’. The jnana-mudra, the yogic sign, where the tip of the right thumb and index finger meet, signifies this - that which appears to be at a distant point is actually within you. There is a dialogue between Svetaketu and his father in Chandogya Upanishad, which uses the metaphor of honey to explain this. Bees collect the essence from different trees and reduce them to a unity, but, one cannot differentiate and say ‘this is the essence from this tree’, or, ‘that from that tree’. ‘That which is the finest essence – this whole world has that as its soul. That is Reality. That is Atman (self). That thou art, Svetaketu.’

Goal of Life and How to Achieve it

The ultimate goal of jiva, the living soul, says Sankara, is to go beyond the maya. The soul is the same as Brahman, but, on account of avidya (nescience) which is the individual counterpart of maya, it identifies itsef with psycho-physical organisms and caught up in the tract of samsara. The sheaths of body, life, and mind, that cover the soul are products of maya. It should not be confused with Atma, which Krishna says, na jayate, is not born, equally, na miryate, does not die (Gita 2 -20). Our body is merely a suit of clothes: jirnani vasamsi, old clothes are given up and navani grahnati, new ones taken up; the soul discards old bodies and moves into new bodies (Gita 2 – 22). Swami Dayananda Saraswathi points out that Adi Sankara also highlights that it is only the body, not the soul, that vardahate, grows, or, apaksiyate, declines. This is what is referred to in the well known Bhaja Govindam phrase, ‘punarapi maranam, punarapi janman’, cycle of births deaths.

The Path of Jnana Yoga

How does one go beyond this maya and achieve moksha? Sankara answers ‘through jnana- yoga’: ‘Bodhohi sakshath mokshaka sadhanam’,: verily, knowledge of the Self is the direct means of Liberation. And, ‘vina jnanam moksho na sidhyati’ – without Knowledge, liberation cannot be achieved.’ (Atmabodha).

Mahadevan summarises the approach. Moksa is not a future state to be obtained. It is not about aiming for what ought to be, but, recognition of what it is. Scriptures say: tarati sokam atmavit, the knower of self crosses the sorrow; brahmavid brahmaiva bhavati, the knower of Brahma becomes Brahman; nanayah pantha vidyate yamaya, there is no other path. Jnana is not intellectual knowledge but spiritual insight: not apara vidya, e.g., of vedas, science, etc., but, para vidya, or the highest knowledge by which the Immutable is known.

There are two stages in the discipline that has to be undergone for this purpose. Adi Sankara covers this in Atmabodha, or Knowledge of Self. The first is the stage of moral, intellectual and emotional preparation and development of various virtues. Sankara sets out four qualifications for one who seeks Atmabodha: discipline at the physical level through tapas or austerities; santanam, or calmness; freedom from desires (vitaraginam) and finally an intense longing for liberation (mumuksunam). The next stage is primarily about reflection (manana) and deep concentration (nididyasana). Eventually the knowledge will become intuitive experience of the Absolute – or achieve jivan-mukthi.

In Prabodhasudharkara (or the Nector of Enlightenment), verses 88-89, Sankara says “ Knowledge arises in three ways: from the scriptures, from the preceptor and from oneself. Knowledge from scriptures is like being told ‘Jaggery is sweet.’ Knowledge from the preceptor is like looking at it from a distance. The knowledge of the Self from oneself is like the delight from actually eating it.”

To summarise: Adi Sankara asks himself the question: kim samsare saaram – what it the purpose of life? In his Prasnotharamaalika, he answers, ‘bahavopi vichintyamaanam idam eva’, or, just by intensely meditating on the question itself.

Advaita as a Guide to Way of Life


Gita has several passages on jnana and Krishna says jnani is supremely dear to him, Chapter 4, but he also says that even a jnani takes several births before he reaches Him – ‘bahajanma anthare’. The author asked Sri Vijayendra Saraswathi Swamigal, ‘Balaperiaval’ of Kanchi Mutt for his advice for those of us, who are not jnanis - at least as of now - and therefore not equipped for the ultimate experience. Balaperiaval pointed out that Adi Sankara gave us three things. He wrote bhasyas on the three prasthanas and derived authority from them for his advaita siddantam. He wrote several original prakaranas, such as Prabodhasudhakara, to cogently explain Advaitam. Most importantly, for the benefit of everyone, he also composed many stotras, or hymns, enabling people to practise the Bhakthi route to eventual moksha. Sankara provided not only the philosophical underpinnigs but the practical tools. Through ‘ananya bakthi’, or, a devotion to Lord Krishna that admits no other, one can reach the Lord, and, gain moksha.’

‘Bhaktya tvananya sakya aham evamvidho’rjuna I
Jnatum drstum cha tattvena pravestum cha parantapa
(BG 11-54)

Five verses in Maneesha Panchagam, attributed to Lord Shiva in the disguise of an untouchable in a conversation with Sankara, compacts the essence of Advaita. So one can do no better than conclude with some quotations:

  • ‘Brahmaivaahamidam’: I am Brahman itsef
  • ‘Jagascha sakalam chinmathra vistharitham’: The entire world as seen is spread out in the pure consciousness
  • ‘Sarvam chaita avidyaya’: All this has been superimposed by me through avidya and maya
  • The Supreme Self is hidden in oneself, like the Sun that is hidden by the very cloud it illuminates
  • The Supreme Self which is realised within and the Yogi who thus meditates becomes blissful
  • ‘Esha Maneesha Mama’: This is my contention!

Jaya Jaya Sankara, Hara Hara Sankara
Jaya Jaya Sankara, Hara Hara Sankara