Śankara Expounds Advaita Vedānta Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In his highly influential system of Advaita Vedānta, Śaṅkara synthesized disparate elements in medieval Indian religious thought, including elements of Mahāyāna Buddhism and the popular forms of devotion known as the bhakti cults.

Summary of Event

Although Śaṅkara’s life was short, he exerted a huge influence on Indian philosophical and religious thought, both during his life and after his death. He had a gift for assimilating ideas from other schools of thought in order to strengthen the system known as Advaita Vedānta. In particular, he assimilated elements of Mahāyāna Buddhism Mahāyāna Buddhism[Mahayana Buddhism];India India;Mahāyāna Buddhism[Mahayana Buddhism] into his system, as well as steering a middle path between two established strands of Hindu thought, that of Yoga (one of the classical systems of Indian philosophy Philosophy;India India;philosophy ), which emphasized ascetic contemplation, and the many bhakti cults, which emphasized the importance of religious devotion. Religion;India India;religion Hinduism Advaita Vedānta Śaṅkara [kw]Śaṅkara Expounds Advaita Vedānta (788-850) [kw]Advaita Vedānta, Śaṅkara Expounds (788-850) [kw]Vedānta, Śaṅkara Expounds Advaita (788-850) India;788-850: Śaṅkara Expounds Advaita Vedānta[0760] Philosophy;788-850: Śaṅkara Expounds Advaita Vedānta[0760] Religion;788-850: Śaṅkara Expounds Advaita Vedānta[0760] Śaṅkara

The essence of Śaṅkara’s nondualistic philosophy, which he based on his interpretations of the Upaniṣads (c. 1000-c. 200 b.c.e.), lies in the identification of the inner essence of human beings, the ātman, with the universal spirit, Brahman. There are no separate, individual souls. The only reality is Brahman, which is absolute and eternal. For Śaṅkara, nothing could be described as real if it was impermanent. It therefore follows that the transient universe that is perceived by the human senses is not real. It is māyā, or illusion, the force that makes Brahman, the One, appear as Many. Māyā is what deceives the human senses. Only by turning away from the sensual world and engaging in contemplation of Brahman can the illusion be overcome. A person who has realized, as a direct experience rather than an intellectual idea, the identity of ātman and Brahman, lives in the unalloyed eternal bliss that is Brahman. The ātman, wrote Śaṅkara in Vivekachudamani (early eighth century, authorship questionable; The Crest Jewel of Wisdom Crest Jewel of Wisdom, The (Śaṅkara) , 1890), “never ceases to experience infinite joy. It is always the same. It is consciousness itself. . . . [It] is birthless and deathless. It neither grows nor decays. It is unchangeable, eternal.” However, those whose attention still follows the senses are caught in a cycle of suffering, because the senses only incite desires and cravings, which, once satisfied, only give rise to more cravings. People who do not understand this cycle go to destruction, said Śaṅkara, ignorant of the bliss of Brahman and ignorant of reality.

This doctrine of māyā and the illusion of the senses has much in common with the Mādhyamika school Mādhyamika school[Madhyamika school] of Mahāyāna Buddhism, which was founded in the second century c.e. by Nāgārjuna. Nāgārjuna was a Brahman who adopted Buddhism, and his school retained some affinities with Brahmanism or Vedānta. According to the Mādhyamika school, humans are prevented from recognizing the ultimate truth of nirvana because they are deceived by the false appearances of the world. They must engage in meditation and contemplation in order to realize the essential nothingness of the things that only appear to be real.

Because of such similarities in doctrine, in his lifetime Śaṅkara was accused of being a Buddhist in disguise. However, he viewed himself as an opponent of Buddhist doctrines and even disparaged the Buddha himself. Whenever he could, Śaṅkara either attacked Buddhist beliefs or integrated them into his own system. For example, he rejected the Buddhist idea that the individual was nothing more than an insubstantial stream of consciousness, because this would exclude entirely the ātman, the inner consciousness and true self.

Śaṅkara did not directly attack the popular bhakti (devotion) cults Bhakti cults , which emphasized service or surrender to God. Bhakti does not figure prominently in his system, which is one of knowledge rather than love. Because there is no separation between the ātman (humans) and God (Brahman), there is no need for worship or devotion. Some commentators argue that what Śaṅkara referred to as the highest bhakti was simply another term for the impersonal self-knowledge that comes from conscious awareness of the identity of the ātman with Brahman. However, part of Śaṅkara’s genius was to accommodate existing beliefs, and to satisfy the ordinary worshiper, he developed the idea of two levels of truth. At the highest level of truth, ātman is identical with Brahman, and for the one who has attained this knowledge, practices of religious worship and devotion have no meaning. However, if that truth has not yet been realized, such practices may serve a useful function. Thus, for the ordinary person who has not attained the higher knowledge, it would be acceptable for him or her to offer devotion and rituals to a personal God.


Although Buddhism in India was already fading when Śaṅkara began his teaching, Śaṅkara has sometimes been referred to as the architect of the decline of Buddhism in India. Śaṅkara’s philosophy also forced the advocates of bhakti to develop defenses of their own position because they perceived Śaṅkara’s philosophy as a threat. The most influential of these did not come until the twelfth century and is associated with Rāmānuja. Rāmānuja’s system set out to redress what he perceived as an imbalance in Śaṅkara’s thought. He emphasized the personal aspect of God and the necessity of ritual, devotion, and adoration, while upholding the value of the ascetic life of contemplation.

Whatever the influence of Rāmānuja’s qualified nondualism, as well as another school of Vedānta founded by Madhva in the thirteenth century, which included a distinction between God and the individual soul, Śaṅkara’s philosophy became the dominant spiritual teaching in India.

Śaṅkara laid the basis for this dominance by establishing monastic settlements all over India to preserve and propagate his teaching, as the Buddhists had earlier. This establishment of the monastery Monasticism;India India;monasticism as a spiritual center became a characteristic of medieval Hinduism. There were four main monasteries, Sringeri, Dwaraka, Puri, and Badrinatha, established in the south, west, east, and north (respectively) of the country. These monasteries are still in existence today, and they are able to trace an unbroken line of teachers, or Śaṅkarācāryas, from Śaṅkara’s time to the present. The monasteries today are centers of spiritual education and also serve as destinations for pilgrimages. Major Hindu temples are either attached to them or stand nearby. During the twentieth century, eleven centuries after Śaṅkara lived, the vitality of the tradition he established continued to thrive, mainly because of the strong leadership of the Śaṅkarācāryas. The fact that most educated, nonsecular Indians adhere to the Advaita Vedantic philosophy is a tribute to Śaṅkara, who more than any other philosopher or teacher in Indian history is considered to have brought this about.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bader, Jonathan. Conquest of the Four Quarters: Traditional Accounts of the Life of Śaṅkara. New Delhi, India: Aditya Prakashan, 2000. Focuses on how Śaṅkara is portrayed in eight hagiographies written seven hundred years after his death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cenkner, William. A Tradition of Teachers: Śaṅkara and the Jagadgurus Today. Columbia, Mo.: South Asia Books, 1983. A study of the tradition of gurus established by Śaṅkara and described in his writings. Tests the ideal outlined by Śaṅkara against the reality of present-day gurus who follow in his tradition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cronk, George, Worth Hawes, and Steve Wainwright. On Shankara. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing, 2002. Offers a concise yet comprehensive introduction to Śaṅkara’s most important ideas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Isayeva, Natalia. Shankara and Indian Philosophy. New York: State University of New York Press, 1993. Sketches Śaṅkara’s life and creative activity, and provides a consistent exposition and interpretation of his teaching.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Masih, Y. Shankara’s Universal Philosophy of Religion. New Delhi, India: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1987. Gives a new interpretation of Śaṅkara’s religious philosophy and gives a defense of Advaitism in the current language of Western philosophy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pande, Govind Chandra. Life and Thought of Śaṅkarācārya. Delhi, India: Motital Banaresidass, 1994. Reconsiders Śaṅkara’s writings in the context of his textual sources, answering such questions as how Śaṅkara represented the essential truth of Vedānta while also meeting the philosophical and religious challenges of his time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Śaṅkara. Crest-Jewel of Discrimination. Translated with an introduction by Swami Prabhavanda and Christopher Isherwood. 3d ed. Hollywood, Calif.: Vedanta Press, 1978. A classic Vedantic text regarding the path to God through knowledge. Lucid and informative introduction.

Categories: History