Sri Shankara described himself as a Bashyakara, one who commented on certain texts of great acclaim. Yet, his monumental work, Vedanta Sutra Bashya, a commentary on Badarayana’s Brahma Sutra is remarkable for its creative thinking, originality in approach and high literary merit. He was an original thinker. Sri Shankara’s erudition is very impressive. Though steeped in tradition he displays a disarmingly candid approach even while discussing unorthodox issues. His critics too do not accuse him of dogmatism.
He was a great logician who based his arguments on principles of logic but without contradicting intuitional revelations of the Upanishads. Scripture and reason were his two aids in his arguments. His criticism is dignified, his language restrained yet forceful and his style clear like the waters of the Ganga, as Vachaspathi Mishra describes it.
Sri Shankara’s thoughts gave a new direction to Indian philosophy. It restored the position of Upanishads as the pristine source of knowledge.
It was Badarayana the compiler of the Brahma Sutras who initially strived to uphold the authority of the Upanishads and to place God in the center of the scheme of things. He treated the Upanishads as the most meaningful portions of the Vedas, declared them as the highest authority and the most valid means of knowing. They are Shruthis, the Revelations, the supersensory intuitional perceptions of the ancient Rishis, he stressed. Badarayana’s efforts and anxieties were driven by an urgent need to rescue knowledge and freethinking from the encircling swamp of ritualistic texts and practices; as also from the ascending atheistic tendencies. His work represents a vigorous response to the challenges and demands of his times; and Brahma Sutra achieves that task amply well.
What, in effect , Badarayana was trying to accomplish was to drive away the strangling influence of rituals, dogma and atheism from the Indian spiritual scenes; and to bring back the Upanishad spirit of enquiry , intuition, knowledge, reason , open-mindedness and its values of life. It was for that good–tradition, Sampradaya, Badarayana was yearning. Brahma Sutra was an instrument to achieve those cherished objectives. Badarayana and his efforts represent the most important phase in the evolution of the Indian philosophy.
Badarayana set in motion the process of recovering the tradition of the ancients, Sampradaya, as also of cleansing of the spiritual environment; but had wait for over 1,200 years for Sri Shankara to arrive and carry the process forward.
Amazingly, when Sri Shankara arrived on the spiritual scene, Dharma of the ancients was beset with similar or even worse threats than in the time of Badarayana. Dogmatism, ritualism, corrupt and abominable practices of worship had taken a strong hold on the religious life of the people. There was no credible authority to dispense Dharma and the conditions were chaotic. In addition, there were the looming shadows cast across the ancient religion by other religions and atheists.
Both Badarayana and Sri Shankara were responding to the exigencies, demands and challenges of their times, which, as the fate would hate have it, were astonishingly similar, if not identical. They set to themselves similar tasks and priorities; and nurtured similar dreams and aspirations. Sri Shankara made a common cause with Badarayana, his forerunner, separated by history by over 1,200 years. That is the reason many consider Sri Shankara the logical successor to Badarayana.
Sri Shankara set himself the priorities : to bring back sanity, reason and quest for knowledge into the scriptures; to lend the right perspectives of relative and Absolute existence; to set lofty goals and aspirations to human existence; And, at the same time to wipeout ignorance , to wean people away from meaningless rituals and abominable practices of worship as also from Atheism. Badarayana addressed similar issues through his Brahma Sutra. Sri Shankara followed his lead and in turn wrote a powerful commentary on Brahma Sutra. Both the sages realized, the right way to go about their task was to treat Upanishads as the crest jewels of ancient wisdom; to bring back its authority into the center of human life; and to highlight the idealism, the spirit of enquiry, emphasis on virtues of knowledge and the process of self discovery and self realization, which the Upanishads valued as the summum bonunm of human existence.
The reason that Sri Shankara held Gauda-Pada, his Parama_Guru (the teacher of his teacher) in such high esteem was because he revived the Upanishads when they had fallen on bad days. Sri Shankara regarded Gauda-Pada as the true representative of the correct tradition of Vedanta.
Sri Shankara’s commentary on Brahma Sutra, titled Vedanta Sutra Bashya (VSB) is a highly celebrated text. Shankar’s purpose in writing his commentary was to explain the traditional view. He said, the primary meaning of the word Upanishad was knowledge, while the secondary meaning was the text itself. Sri Shankara said, the purpose of Upanishads is to remove adhyasa or avidya; and once it is removed, Brahman will shine of its accord, for it is the only reality.
He regards himself as the votary of Upanishads (Aupanishada).He even calls his way of thinking or the doctrine as Aupanishadam Darshanam, the Upanishad System. He defines the Upanishads as the texts that lead the aspirants close to the highest reality. He insists Upanishads constitute the final purpose and the import of the Vedic lore; and that is the reason he chose to write commentaries on the Upanishads and on the other two texts that depend almost entirely on the Upanishads – Badarayana’s Brahma Sutra and the Bhagavad Gita. It is therefore not surprising that Sri Shankara relied heavily on Upanishad texts to interpret and comment on Brahma Sutra.
Let us take a look at the texts he referred to in his Vedanta Sutra Bashya.
He isolated the Upanishad lore from the rest of the Vedic body and narrowed it down to ten or twelve Upanishads. Even here, he did not include the ritualistic portion of the Vedas. This was in contrast to the classification followed by the later Acharyas.
Paul Deuessen the German Indologist in his work” The Systems of the Vedanta”, diligently counted the number of references made to Upanishad texts in Sri Shankara’s Vedanta Sutra Bashya. He found, Sri Shankara, in his Bashya, quoted Upanishad texts as many as 2,000 times. The Upanishads from which he quoted frequently and the number of quotes were: Chandogya (810), Brihadaranyaka (567), Taitereya (142), Manduka (129), Katha (103), Kaushitaki (88) and Svethavatara (53).
The other Upanishads he referred to were: Prashna (39), Aithereya (22), Jabaala (13), Ishavasya (8) and kena (5).
Besides he quoted from “Agni Rahasya” (Shathapatha Brahmana), Narayaniyam (Taitteriya Aranyaka) and “Pingani Rahasya Brahmana” as if to suggest they carried as much authority as the Upanishads.
As regards the Vedas, he referred to the Samhitha portions of the Rig Veda, Atharva Veda, the “Taitteriya” and “Yajasaneya” segments of the krshna and Shukla Yajur Vedas, respectively. But, his reliance on them is less frequent and lees pronounced.
Among the Brahmana texts, he cites the kausitaki and Aitereya portions of Rig Veda; the Shathapatha and Taitereya portions of the YajurVeda; Chandogya, Pancha Vimsa, Shad Vimsa and Tandya texts of the Sama Veda.
Only two Aranyakas are cited: Aitareya from Rig Veda and Taittereya from Yajur Veda.
His reliance on Puranas is meager. He cites a few from Markandeya, Shiva, Vishnu and Vayu Puranas.
He has high regard for Dharma Shastras. He quotes from a number of these texts: Manu Smriti, Ashvalayana, Kathyayana_srauta_sutra, Apasthamba Dharma sutra and Parasara_Grihya_sutra.
He is intimately acquainted with Nyaya, vaisheshika, Samkhya (of Isvara Krishna) and Yoga systems and quotes from their related Sutras.
As regards Mimamsa texts, his knowledge is extensive. He cites from Sabara’s Bashya on Jaimini, Prabhakara’s Byati and from Kumarila’s works.
He has considerable knowledge of Buddhist texts. Dharma Kirthi was his main source. He mentions Dignaga also.
Having mentioned the sources of his references, I must add that Sri Shankara above all the scriptures , relied on experience, common as well as extraordinary to build his theory of Brahman. He gave credence to an individual’s subjective experience. He placed personal experience and intuition above all the other means of cognition. He said a person’s experience could not be disputed. He declared, “Intuition is not opposed to intellect. Reality is experience. Realizing the Supreme Being is within ones experience”.
Sri Shankara and Adhyasa Bashya