by Swami Krishnananda
Sankara Jayanti message given on the 17th of May, 1972.
Today is Vaisakha Sukla Panchami, the fifth day in the bright fortnight in the month of April-May, when we celebrate the advent of the great Acharya Sankara who is often referred to, by his followers, as Bhashyakara (the commentator on the Prasthana Traya – the Brahma Sutras, the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita). The famous and unforgettable event of his life and work is a consequence of the chronology of social history as well as a consequence of the logic of human thought. The immortal service that he has done for the world is thus an outcome of a chronological process as well as a logical one.
First of all, let us see what the chronological significance of the work of Acharya Sankara is, in the social history of India in particular and the world in general. Chronology is the sequence of history, and if we trace back the condition of the human society, particularly in India, during the time of the most ancient of human conditions available to us for study – the time of the Vedas from where we begin the study of human history – we realise that there was, during the time of the sages of the Vedas, a spontaneous tendency to recognise God in creation. This is the specific characteristic of the time of the Veda Samhitas – to visualise and to behold the Creator in what is created, and to see the One in the many. Destiny, perhaps, willed that this should be the beginning of our cultural history so far as it can be recollected by our memories and available data, historically as well as archaeologically. The Samhitas of the Vedas are spontaneous hymns and prayers offered to God in His multifaceted manifestation as this cosmos. To the sages of the Veda Samhitas, the rise of the sun was a manifestation of God. It was the glorious God Aditya that was rising. The dawn was a manifestation of divinity. Similarly, the sunset had its own glory, revealing the divinity of God. The heat of summer, the pouring rains, the cold of winter, and the changing seasons – all that is visible as well as conceptual became a vehicle for enshrining devotion to God. It was a spontaneity of feeling which was, in a sense, a natural result of the intuition of the sages. Throughout the Samhitas, if we make a deep study of them, we will see spread out in various places, thoughts and devotional feelings in their various emphases and stresses, all beckoning the aspiration of the human soul to what is implied and what is hidden behind the manifested phenomena.
Now here, in this psychological situation of mankind, we have a twofold significance from the point of view of cultural history. On the one hand, it was a visible expression of an inner realisation by which the sages plumbed the depths of infinity and proclaimed for all eternity and to all mankind: "Ekam sat viprah bahudha vadanti, Indram Varunam Mitram Agni...." All the variety, whether in the field of the Adhidaiva (the transcendent, the presiding principle) or the Adhibhuta (the objective, the world) or the Adhyatma (the subjective, the individual), is a glorious facet or expression of the Supreme Being who is designated in the very commencement of the Rig Veda as Ekam Sat – the One Being, without associating the Being with any cult, creed and religious faith. The most catholic definition of the Supreme Reality we have is given to us for the first time given in the body of the Rigveda Samhita: Ekam Sat – the One Being, One Reality, One Substance, One Existence that the sages recognise and designate as the manifold. In various ways they sing of the glories of this One Mighty Being. But on the other hand, for pure exoteric observation, it would rather look like an acceptance of polytheism or the worship of many gods, as if there is a real multiplicity of the realm of the Adhidaiva, as a counterpart to the multiplicity that we see in the realm of the Adhibhuta or the physical world. The variety of the physical world became the source of a susceptible feeling in the minds of people later on, through the passage of time, that, perhaps, the souls also are many and the gods also are many, because the objects in the world are many!
This is a slightly posterior period to that of the exuberance of the Veda Samhita Mantras wherein there was only a spontaneous spiritual outpouring of devotion to the One on account of Its having been recognised in realisation, in direct experience. But, when we make a study of these outpourings, they do not look like the manifestations of the One Experience. All study that is historical is exoteric, prosaic, mechanised and sensory, and hence the esoteric significance that was the background of the very origination of these Veda Mantras got lost in the process of time, in the passage of history. The outward form and the visible significance as hymns offered to the various centres of divinity – the many gods, as they usually say – got emphasised, and these gods became not only objects of reverence, but also objects of fear. It was not that gods were always beneficent. They could also be wrathful. While in the earlier stages of the Veda Samhitas, it was not fear of God or even a reverence, in the ordinary sense of the term, cherished towards God that was the cause of these hymns, but an automatic outpouring in ecstatic poetry of a diviner experience felt within; later on, these recorded hymns became historical record of the utterances of the ancient masters. These Mantras which were visibly recorded for posterity became objects of study and also vehicles for invocation of the many gods. To the originators of these Mantras, the gods were not manifold; they were the many phases of the One. But, now, they lost their connection with the original unity or the background, and only the phases are seen as the multifarious divinities presiding over the quarters of the cosmos – Indra, Agni, Varuna, Mitra, Aryama and many such celestials. These deities began to be invoked through the very same Mantras which were originally the revelations of the sages. While in the original Samhitas, in their primordial condition, they were effects of a diviner experience, now they became a cause rather than an effect of an invocation of these multifarious gods. We invoke these gods by placation, by propitiation, by begging and by requesting them not to do us any harm. We pray: "Oh mighty God, save us from calamities, from catastrophes. Oh great God, give us all our needs and desires. May our wants be fulfilled."
In a third stratum of thought in this march of social history, these very divinities which were thus propitiated, began to be recognised as being almost like human individuals. Now they can get angry as any human being can get angry and they can also be pleased as any human being can be pleased. Perhaps they could even be bribed through various types of offering. Thus we hear of contention among the very gods and fights among the celestials, which is really very strange. How could the gods fight amongst themselves? But that is envisaged by the mind which studied the gods and the celestials in the light of human nature. As we are, so the gods also are. So, as we please people, we have to please the gods also in the very same way, applying the same methodology as we apply towards human beings. When a friend comes, we give him a cup of tea, hot water for bathing, lunch, and a soft bed for reclining and resting, and he is mightily pleased. Even so do we appease the gods by offering the very same articles of satisfaction as we offer to human beings.
But how could we transfer these objects that we would like to offer to the gods in the celestial region? They are invisible! The celestials are not known and they are not seen. So sacrifices or Yajnas were instituted, and the holy fire, the sacred Agni became the secret messenger or the carrier of the oblations to the gods. We say, "Agnaye svaha" and make offerings to the Supreme Messenger of the Divine Being, Agni. May He be pleased. In all the Havans and Yajnas, we will find the first deity to be invoked is Agni. This ritual is called Agnisthapanam. It is invocation of the celestial behind the principle of fire, or the divinity of fire, who is called Fire-god, Agnidevata. He is first invoked and then He is told: "Please take this to Indra", "Please take this to Yama", "Please take this to Varuna", and so on. He will carry our offerings to the particular deities who are addressed through the Mantras with the suffix 'Svaha', in the Yajnas.
Now, we know very well how we have slowly drifted away from the original intention of the Veda Mantras by the degeneration of the time process – the advent of Treta, Dvapara and Kali Yuga, or whatever we may call it. So, the emphasis got completely shifted from the universal to the external, material, and even prejudiced way of thinking. The offerings in these Yajnas or sacrifices meant to propitiate the gods that are many, were in the beginning holy articles such as clarified butter, certain grains and pulses, wood from sacred trees like Asvattha, Palasa and so on, gruel cooked out of rice, Payasam, Charu, etc. But once we make a mistake, we do not stop with it. It goes on multiplying, and there is an aggregate of errors. Mistake after mistake began to be committed with the pious intention of propitiating the gods; all kinds of offerings were poured into the sacred fire. Well, it came to a climax when even living beings were mercilessly offered because of the belief that a particular Devata would be pleased. There were occasions, which we can read in the Puranas, when people who had no children prayed to the gods for bestowing upon them a child, on the condition that it would be offered again to the Devata as a Balidana. Such is the desire for a child, though it is meant only to be sacrificed later on! This practice continues in some parts even today, even in this fag end of the twentieth century. Narabali, and Yajnas such as Gomedha, Asvamedha were instituted for acquiring material gain – increasing earthly prosperity – side by side with a conviction that the gods would be pleased thereby. We have not only gone away from the centre of truth, but we have also now begun to interfere with the welfare of other people in the world. This is naturally intolerable to the very law that operates in the universe. Where is that original intention of the Veda Mantras which was only a consequence of the great Divine experience of the Supreme Being by the great sages, and where are we now, utilising these Mantras for offering oblations into the sacred fire for propitiating the multiplicity of gods for earthly suzerainty and sensory satisfaction!
It was at this time that Gautama, the Buddha, was born in this country. When anything goes to the extreme, the other extreme is set up. A very hot day means there will be a cyclone; winds will start blowing, breaking branches of trees, and there may be a shower of rain. Now, the clock has come full circle and the hour has struck for the other extreme step to be taken. While there was a deep feeling and conviction that there are many gods guarding the quarters of the cosmos, who are our well-wishers and without whose satisfaction we cannot be happy in this world – these very gods, who were regarded as our very life, were denied by Buddha. He said that they did not exist at all. This is the other extreme. See where we have come to! You say, the gods are protecting you; I say, they do not exist at all and it is your mind that works. So, from the spiritual realisation and mystical experience of the sages of the Veda Samhitas, we came down to a worship and inner adoration of the multiplicity of gods. Then we came still further down to the time when we began to make physical offerings to the sacred fire for the satisfaction of the gods, without any feeling or compunction in offering living beings – even human beings – in the sacrifices. There was such a thing called Naramedha or the offering of a human being in sacrifice. If the gods themselves do not exist, where comes the sacrifice? It has no meaning. So, the first historically known reformer in our land was Gautama, the Buddha. He was a reformer in the sense that he put a check to the further growth of this externalising tendency of ritualised devotion to an imagined set of multiple of gods. But for him, it would have landed people in a catastrophe. We do not know what would have happened. This tendency was checked by the psychological philosophy of Buddha, and the divinities were completely ignored. Now, the divinity, if at all there is one, is the thinking principle in the human being himself. The world is made by the mind; it is purely psychological. It is a projection of ideas. It is a notion in our minds that is this world and even these gods. This was a beautiful psychological analysis made by the Buddha, which was an ethical idealism which he propounded in contradistinction to the ritualistic ceremonialism of the Brahmanas which succeeded the Veda Samhitas.
It sometimes happens that children interfere with the transistor and spoil the whole music which the parents had tuned. This happened in the case of the followers of this great reformer, who began to interpret his teachings in their own way – even as it also happened with the followers of the Vedas, who interpreted the Mantras in their own way and landed themselves in ceremonialism, ritualism and mechanised sacrifices. That the world is only an idea, and that the gods do not exist – which was one of the predominant teachings of the Buddha – received special emphasis in certain schools of Buddhism. And Buddha's philosophy did not end with the death of Buddha. It continued, but in a ramified form, not as a single stream. It ramified itself into four streams at least – the Vijnanavada which taught that internal ideas manifest themselves as external objects, the Vaibhashika which held that really existent external objects are directly perceived, the Sautrantika which contended that the perception of external objects is entirely determined by the processes of internal ideas, and lastly we had what has been called Nihilism, Sunyavada, or the Madhyamika doctrine which was the view of there being nothing at all in reality. So this controversy was another kind of catastrophe that got introduced into human thought. From somewhere we have gone to some other place, not knowing the direction at all. The intention of the originators of the great thoughts and the sages of divine experience were all wonderful. But, time has its own say in every matter and things slowly get diluted as time passes on. The pure gets adulterated until it loses all content, meaning and reality. The worst mistake that we can do in anything is to go to the extreme in it. Even in a good thing, we should not go to the extreme. Then it ceases to be a good thing and becomes a bad thing. Even truth can become untruth, when it is taken to the extreme. Ahimsa can become Himsa when it is taken to the extreme. Virtue can become vice when it is completely taken to the breaking point. So all these good thoughts which are necessary as reformations in the history of man, got distorted by the passage of time and people began to argue in various ways, positing realities according to their own whims, fancies and predilections, and there was again another chaos.
The next step was the advent of Sankara to rectify this extreme that was brought about in human thought by the adulterated forms of Buddhistic idealism, which were all extreme types of thinking. They had some truth in them, but they were not the whole truth. For example, it is not true that the world is created by our ideas, and yet it is true that our ideas have some say in the projection of the forms of objects. It is not true that the objects are physical in their nature, yet it is true that they have some physicality in them independent of human thought. It is not true that nothing exists, as the Nihilists say, but yet it is true that things do not exist as they appear to the senses. All these aspects of truth had to be brought into relief by a new method of approach altogether which was the purpose of the mission of Acharya Sankara. This was the consequence chronologically speaking, as I mentioned to you – a historical reason for the teaching which Sankara gave in the way he did.
I started by saying that besides the chronological process, there was also a logical reason for the development of this thought which is another interesting stream of the psychological history of man, while what I have said so far is the historical, purely sociological or chronological aspect of the significance of Sankara's work in this country and in the world. Let us now see its logical significance. His thought is a logical consequence of all the thoughts that preceded his coming into being. There were systems of thought called the Darsanas. You must have heard of the schools of thought known as Nyaya, Vaiseshika, Sankhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and certain other mystical and ritualistic philosophies which were in minority, of course, yet prevalent during the time of Sankara. The immediate or rather the crudest form of human perception is taking for granted whatever is seen by the senses. "Oh, I am seeing it there, and therefore it is there. Just because I see it there, it is there." This is the uncritical acceptance of things. We know very well that just because something is there before our eyes, it need not necessarily be there, because certain things can present themselves before our eyes yet they may not be there really. Yet uncritically we accept everything that is visible to the eyes.