Sankaracharya’s Magnificent Vision of Life
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on Sankaracharya Jayanti on April 23rd, 1977 evening.)

This is a very auspicious occasion when we are told the advent of the great master Acharya Sankara took place. He was born in the spring season when the whole of nature is vibrant with a new life and activity, as if to indicate that the life and teachings of this great saint and savant also heralded the spring of the culture of India, perhaps the culture of the world.

Acharya Sankara lived for only 30 years in this world. It is said that when he was only eight years old he mastered the four Vedas; when he was 12 he completed the study of all other scriptures and the schools of thought existing during this time; when he was 16 he wrote the great commentary on the Brahma Sutra, whose meaning requires racking of one’s brain even by scholars today; and when he was 32 he completed his mission.

Several other great men such as Jesus Christ, Swami Vivekananda, and Swami Ramakrishna also lived for 32 years. They did not go beyond the age of 32, but they shook the whole world with their mental age, irrespective of their physical span of life on Earth.

Acharya Sankara was a great coordinator of religions and a universaliser of religious concepts and principles. It cannot be said that his teachings are merely religious in the ordinary sense, though nothing can be said to be more religious in its spirit than what he has taught to the world. The quintessence of the religious life and the religious view of life is presented in the teachings of Sankara, and yet it was he, perhaps for the first time in history, who could discover a realm of life and thought which could transcend even religion – at least religion as it is understood by people throughout the world.

While religious life is regarded as perhaps the highest type of life that one may lead, Sankara tells us that there is something even greater than religious life. Well, this type of research and discovery naturally is not intended for the common man, but it was the uniqueness of the life and teachings of Sankara that was applicable, adaptable and necessary even to the lowest category of thought, though what he reached was the apex of human thought.

Generally it is said that he was a teacher of Advaita, a hackneyed term whose meaning is very profound indeed; but by common usage even a profundity of concept can be distorted into a very prosaic and common way of thinking. It is difficult to understand what this Advaita means. It is not just glibly saying, “I am Brahman. This is Advaita.” This is a travesty of a definition, a mockery or a joke, as it were, of the real connotation of the term Advaita, though there is a point in saying that it culminated in the realisation of the unity of all existence – well, the unity of everything with God.

He was a master psychologist in the art of teaching, and so a master expounder of the abstruse principles of religion. It is impossible to teach unless the teacher knows the minds of the students. There is no use merely vomiting what has been learned. Teaching is an art which transforms, transfigures, enlivens and enhances the lives of the students. The intention of an Avatara, an Incarnation, a prophet of Sankara’s type, is not merely to speak what one knows but to bring new life into the community or society. The Incarnations, whatever be their intensity, all come for the transfiguration of humanity to a higher purpose, a higher type of living, so that the teachings of Sankara may be said to be teachings on the art of living, and not an exposition of a scripture or an academic subject.

The concept of Advaita, as I mentioned already, is something hard to grasp because it is a technique of harmonising existence in all the levels of our manifestation. It is not a sudden jump of an identity of A with B. It is not like that. It is an art of supreme harmonisation, equilibration and unity in the sense that the plurality is not negatived outright but is given its own place in the context of unity. This is a very important point to remember. Unity need not necessarily mean an abolition of plurality. We can be united among ourselves, though we are independent individuals. We need not be chaotic individuals cast into different directions. We can be a single force as a society, as a community, as a nation or as humanity, notwithstanding that we are individuals with a personal status of our own.

So the Advaita technique does not soar to the skies of an abolition of plurality, as the critics of Advaita generally define it to be. It starts like a master such as Socrates who takes the standpoint of the disciple and not his own standpoint, as the greatest teacher is he who starts his teaching from the standpoint of the student and not from his own standpoint. Like an architect raising a huge edifice on the foundation of the strongest material, the teacher raises the structure of teaching on the foundation of what the student can accept by way of conviction and feeling, and not by shaking the foundation of the conviction of the student. The great teaching of Advaita is also such an artistic, architectural or structural pattern of philosophical achievement which is based on the rock foundation of utter conviction and infallible validity of experience.

So again to come to the point, the harmonisation of life is the aim of the philosophy and teachings of Sankara, and nothing can be a greater ideal for anyone than this. Now, there are two kinds of attempts to harmonise. One can harmonise what is visible to the eyes, or one can harmonise what is really there. You may be surprised at this distinction between what is really there and what is visible to the eyes. Unfortunately or fortunately, this happens to be the state of affairs. What is really there need not necessarily be what is seen with the eyes, and what is seen with the eyes need not necessarily be what is there. Illusions are not uncommon in our experience in life. We can be hypnotised by illusions of the senses, illusions of thought and even illusions of logical understanding. We can come a cropper even in deduction and induction. So there can be a possibility of existences which are other than what appear to the senses, yet what appears to the senses is the fact of the senses.

Again to come to the point of our initial stand, even the visible has to be taken into consideration because that is one level of experience. From the senses we go to reason, and from reason we go to intuition. This is usually the gradational ascent of thought. It may be that intuition is the highest way of knowing, but it does not mean that it can abrogate the validity of reason in its own field, or negative the value of sense experience when sense experience is what we are actually living in. It is a transcendence and not a negation, a point to remember once again. We have no such thing as negation or rejection in a true philosophy of life. There is no such thing as criticism or condemnation of values, but only a living touch given to existent conditions for the purpose of a growth into a higher state of being. We never negate any state of education or any stage in the process of study, but we transcend. The concept of negation is unknown to a real vision of life.

As our ascent is from sense to reason and from reason to intuition or direct experience, realisation, sakshatkara, we have to first of all appreciate the state in which we are. It is an attempt we make for our own welfare and for the welfare of those who are also in our own state. For instance, humanity is on a single pedestal of thought. Everyone thinks alike, generally speaking. The human way of thinking is common. Though in the details there is a difference in the ways of thinking of individuals, the general principles of thinking are common to all mankind. There is what is called a human way of thinking which does not differ from person to person.

Thus, philosophical investigations begin with the generality of thought present in the human situation, and what is precedent or earlier to this state of investigation is the life of the common man where philosophy does not begin. Where we are intent only on particulars and not on generals, we have not started philosophical investigation. To put it in one sentence, philosophy is an investigation of generals. We have to discover the general principle predominant in a group of particulars, whatever that group be; that is the beginning of philosophy. It is not a philosophy of Hinduism, or of Kant, Hegel, Plato or Schopenhauer, or of any group or section of people, but rather the art of thinking philosophically. This is the principle behind what is regarded as the discovery of the generals among the particulars.

The particulars are the people seated in this hall. The various needs of the different people seated here are the particulars. The various circumstances of life and the conditions in which people live are the particulars. But there is something common among us; that is the general. Irrespective of the particularity in which we are involved – irrespective of the fact that one is a man and another is a woman, one is a student and another is a master, one is sick and another is healthy, one is rich and another is poor, one is happy and another is unhappy – irrespective of these initial differences among the people seated in this hall, there is something common among us. Is it possible to discover this commonness among us in spite of our differences? That would be the beginning of philosophy. If we can discover no general principle among us and everything appears discrete, we have not stepped into even the initial state of philosophy.

So the technique of philosophical thinking in its comprehensiveness is adopted in the great teachings of Sankara. He adopts every technique. Philosophy in general is his teaching. It is not one kind of philosophy that he teaches. It is untrue to say that Sankara taught Advaita to the exclusion of Visistadvaita, Dvaita, etc. This is the point I am trying to make. It is not oneness that he taught, but an absence of twoness. That is why it is called Advaita and not ekatva. There is a difference between ekatva and Advaita. Sankara does not say it is one; he is simply saying it is not two. It is very difficult to define what Truth is, so he modestly says it is not two. If we say that it is one, it is a very adamant assertion of a single dogma. He does not go to that extent. What Truth is, Truth alone knows. We should be humble enough to accept that it is not what we think or feel in our minds, or understand through our intellects.

The harmonisation of principles in their generals is the beginning of philosophy. This was the great task before Sankara. He had to harmonise the religions as well as the schools of thought, and also social conditions. All these three have to be borne in mind because they are inseparable like the skin, the flesh and the bones of a human being’s body. We cannot take only one into consideration. A great prophet is difficult to understand, and he has a difficult task to perform. He has to meet the social conditions of the time, he has to meet the religious demands of people, and he is also to be obedient to the law of Truth. All these three are difficult to combine, and it was a hard task before a prophet like Sankara.

It was not an easy life that he led. Sankara had opponents, but he could meet them in different ways. Where religion was the weapon, he used religion to meet people where they had to be met for his purpose. Where academic thought, logic, polemics and metaphysics were the weapons, he employed them in the utmost manner, and where it was common sense that was needed, he employed ordinary common sense.

Sankara valued ritual, the first step or the outermost encrustation of religion. He valued ordinary image worship and the concept of the various gods in religion. He valued pantheism, polytheism, monotheism and monism, but he gave a proper place for each one of them in the context of the harmony of all existence.

There is nothing wrong with anything in this world. The wrong is that we put a thing in the wrong place. That is all what Sankara discovered, what any great teacher would discover. There is nothing wrong with me; there is nothing wrong with you. But if I am in your place and you are in my place, that would be wrong because each one is meant for a particular purpose in the atmosphere of social organisation, natural phenomena and Absolute Being. Everyone has a place, but he should occupy only that place and not some other place. So the wrongness of the thing does not lie in its own intrinsic nature but in its relationship with the atmosphere in which it is living. When there is a wrong placement of existence, there is disorganisation; when there is a proper placement of individuals, there is organisation. What is organisation or administration? It is the proper placement of things in their proper way, in the proper place, at the proper time, for a proper purpose. If everything is anywhere at any time, in any manner, that is disorganisation.

Therefore, harmony does not necessarily mean an abolition of visible particulars, but a first step taken in the organisation of the individual particulars so that social harmony becomes the first step even in the realisation of the ideal of Advaita. This begins from an even more basic level of ordinary common sense. From the ordinary common sense of even the rustic and the farmer, there is a rise into a higher organisation of values by the discovery of greater generals among the particulars. From common sense we go to ordinary sense perception, and then to proper understanding. The constitution behind the method of organisation is thought over and enacted once and for all. That constitution of thought, which is the background of the administration of personal life, social life and any life, is the philosophy of life.

The history of religion is the gradational evolution of the thought of the relation among individuals, the world and God. In other words, the relationship among the individual, the world outside, and that something whose presence one always longs for due to the very finitude of one’s existence is the history of religion. As we rise higher and higher in our realisation of this ideal, we become more and more religious, so that every deep-felt feeling, every deep conviction, and every need felt about bringing about a harmony among God, world and individual is religion. Wherever this attempt is seen, religion is present. It need not be called by any particular label. Religion is not Hinduism or any ism; it is not Christianity, it is not Buddhism, it is not Islam. Religion is the human attempt to harmonise the three values of life: God, world and individual. And there is, of course, an evolution of this thought. At every stage of evolution we are likely to mistake a particular stage for one religion, exclusive of the other. That is why we have the so-called many religions in this world. They are not many religions. They are many stages of the ascent of thought in the history of religion, which aims at a final solution of the problem of this tripartite relation of God, world and man, ultimately coming to a final conclusion as to what really is.

Thus, Acharya Sankara came before us in historical times for a supreme purpose of harmonising life in its all-completeness, to bring about organisation in every stage of life as a friend of all beings, as a veritable well-wisher of humanity: sarvabhūtahite. It is not religion because it does not worship any particular God, but it is religion because it has no objection to worshipping any God. It is not a philosophy in the sense of a school which is segregated from others, but it is a philosophy in the sense that it accepts every school of thought as a stage in the development of human realisation. Thus, it is a unique religion, a unique philosophy, and a unique purpose it has behind its very advent.

I will sum up by saying that it is difficult to understand this magnificent vision of life presented before us by Acharya Sankara, but once we understand it and make it our own, we are thrice blessed. This is the message for today.