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Sri Sankara – a genius misunderstood

Sri Sankara, the Adi Sankara-charya is one of the greatest thinkers of all times.

This country owes him a deep debt of gratitude. He not only consolidated the classical values of life but also reorganized what we now call Hinduism. He brought together diverse strands of philosophical speculations and religious disciplines.

Unfortunately, few philosophers in the world are as misunderstood and misinterpreted as Sri Sankara. Ironically, most of the harm came from his admirers and followers.

A. Admirers

1. It became a trend in the middle ages among the lesser authors to float their work in the name of celebrated authors to ensure its acceptance by the scholars of the day. Following this custom, many of Sri Sankara’s admirers hoisted their works on him .In some other cases, brilliant works were submitted by their authors in his name. This was an act of devotion.

As a result, we have today, more than 250 works ascribed to Sankara. These include philosophical treatise (bhashyas), advices to aspirants (updaesha), minor dissertations (prakaranas), hymns addressed to various divinities, poems etc.

The quality of these works is not consistent. Some of them undoubtedly have merit. It is however, obvious not all of them could be works of one author. The ideas expressed in them are not only various but often inconsistent. In a few cases, the works contradict each other. ( E.g. Two commentaries on Kena Upanishad, both ascribed to Sankara have conflicting views) .The ideas contained in a few others came into existence much after Sankara’s time.

2. Sri Sankara during his lifetime decried and fought against Tantric practices. However, Tantric texts like Prapancha_sara, Lalitha_trisati_bashya and others are in circulation under his name. The other famous tantric work ascribed to Sri Sankara is Sandarya_lahari. The scholarly opinion is that it is not Sankara’s work, though it is an excellent composition.

3. Among the minor dissertations (prakaranas):  Sarva-vedanta-siddanta-sara_sangraha; probodha-sudhakara; Advaitanu-bhutiYoga-rathavali; Anatma-vigrahanaprakarana etc. are definitely not Sankara’s works.

4. A commentary on Vishnu_sahasra_nama is ascribed to him. It is decidedly a recent work. It is inconsistent too. It is not Sri Sankara’s commentary.

Similarly,  Jayamangala  or Samkhya- saptati-tika  (likely before 9th-century), describes itself as a commentary (Tika) on Isvarakrishna’s  Samkhya-spatasati , authored  by Sri Sankaracharya ; but , that seems highly  doubtful. 

ti śrīmat-paramahaṃsa-parivrājakācārya- śrī govinda- bhagava-pūjya- pāda- śiṣyeṇa śrī śaṅkara-bhagavatā kṛtā sāṃkhya- saptatiṭīkā samāptā //

It is likely that some one might have hoisted his work upon Sri Sankara, perhaps to ensure its  acceptability among the contemporary scholars  – Further, it is pointed out that Sri Sankara could not have described himself as, śrīmat-parama-haṃsa-parivrājakā-cārya-Sri-Sankara-bhagavata . And, the opening   benediction    lokottara-vādinaṃ praṇamya munim ,  is a typical Buddhist expression

5. A number of hymns, of inconsistent quality, in praise of various deities are known as his compositions. (E.g. Stotras on Subrahmanya, Ganapathi, Shiva, Vishnu, Devi etc.)

6. One of Sri Sankara’s missions was to wean people away from ritualistic approach advocated by Mimamsakas and to project wisdom (jnana) as the means of liberation in the light of Upanishad teachings. He criticized severely the ritualistic attitude and those who advocated such practices. However, the texts that combined rituals with wisdom (jnana_karma_samucchaya) more in favor of the Mimamsaka position came onto vogue, projecting Sankara as the rallying force of the doctrine. His followers might have found Sankara’s mission a hard task and therefore compromised the liberating wisdom with the performance of rituals.

7. Whatever be the popular opinion, the scholarly tradition recognizes only three texts as authentic works of Sri Sankara. These are his commentaries on the Upanishads, the Gita and on Vedanta Sutras; grouped under the name prasthana_thraya.

Vedanta Sutras 

1. A word about Vedanta Sutra before we proceed: Vedanta Sutras also called Brahma Sutras deal with the essential import of Upanishads. They are rendered in the form of Sutra (aphorism), terse and crisp. They are therefore open to interpretations. The work is ascribed to Badarayana, who is often identified with Krisha_dvaipayana_vyasa; the author of Mahabhatarha. Sri Sankara is however is silent on this issue.

2. Sri Sankara’s commentary on this Sutra, called the Vedanta Sutra Bhashya (VSB) is a highly celebrated text. Sri  Sankara’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. 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.

3. We may assume that there were other points of view in circulation in those days and they did not entirely represent the traditional view. (No commentary on the Vedanta-sutras survives from the period before Sri Sankara.) This motivated Sri Sankara to come up with his precious commentary. Sri Sankara explained that wisdom (jnana), according to the real import of Upanishads, was the true means of liberation. Sri Sankara’s interpretation of the Upanishads marked the beginning of a new line of thought. The then existing Vedanta terms (like Brahman, maya, avidya, adhyasa, jnana, mukthi etc.) acquired in his work a deeper significance, wider context and a greater relevance.

[  Sri Sankara seems to take Brahma sutra more as an exposition of the Upanishads than as an original text. For him, therefore, the Brahma sutras derive their authority from the Upanishads; and, the sutras must therefore conform to the meaning and the spirit of the Upanishads. The Brahma sutras will have to be interpreted in the light of the Upanishads.

The sutras of Badarayana have one single purpose, that of stringing together the flowers of Vedanta akyas (Vedanta vakya- kusuma –grathanatavat sutram – BB.1.1.2)

Sri Sankara undertakes to interpret Badarayana’s Brahma Sutra in order to expound through what he understood as the philosophy of Upanishads taken as a harmonious and systematic whole. The fact that he had written commentaries on the principal Upanishads, presumably, before his commentaries on Brahma sutra and the Bhagavad-Gita goes to show that he had grasped the keynote and the essence of the Upanishads. These became central in his interpretation of Brahma sutra as also of Vedanta philosophy.

Sri Ramanuja , in turn , interprets   the Brahma sutra through the Vrtti of Bodhayana and the glosses on the Vrtti by the other purva-acharyas, the old-masters.

Sri Sankara , basically,  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.]

B. Followers 

1. The history of Advaita is replete with interpretation and reinterpretation of Sri Sankara’s Vedanta Sutra Bhashya (VSB). The generation of Advaita followers that succeeded Sri wrote a number of commentaries on Sri Sankara’s VSB. Each commentator claimed that he grasped the essence and true intent of Sri and went on to write according to his own understanding. In that process, he wove into the commentaries, his personal views and hoisted them on Sri Sankara. This kind of adulation gave rise to several versions of Advaita. The numerous glosses written by his followers tried to blend ritualistic attitude with the monistic inclination of the Master. The result was the distortion of Sri Sankara’s position.

1.1. The so-called orthodox interpretation of Sri Sankara flows in two distinct channels; the one based on Bhamathi and the other on Pancha_padica.

2. Vachaspathi Misra (c.840AD) was a well-known scholar and a commentator of his times. He wrote a number of glosses and commentaries on several schools of thought. His commentary on Sri Sankara’s VSB was titled Bhamathi.

2.1. Bhamathi revels in dialectic and relies on Mimamsa (ritualistic approach) which Sri Sankara did not approve. Further, Vachaspathi brought together, in Bhamathi, the views of Sri Sankara with the ritualistic views of Mandana (a Vedanta scholar, author of Brahma siddhi); whose views were severely criticized by Sureshvara, a direct disciple of Sri Sankara. Though Sri Sankara and Mandana belonged to the same Vedanta branch they differed on ritualistic aspects of Vedas. Yet, while interpreting Sankara, Vachaspathi introduced ideas borrowed from Mandana and hoisted them on Sankara. Many ideas that appear as Sri Sankara’s in Bhamathi  were in fact not his.

[ Mandana Misra is a seminal figure in the history of Advaita He was a contemporary of Sri Sankara and the Great Mimamsaka Gaudapada.  His work Brahma-siddhi and Gaudapada’s Karika on Mundaka Upanishad   are in fact only two  surviving works of the pre Sankara period that have come down to us. Mandana’s citations from or comments and remarks on previous other authors, either refuting or endorsing their opinions, make him one of the credible resources on the state of Advaita prior to the time of Sri Sankara.

His comments on some of the disputed concepts of Vedanta such as : Vivarta (unreal appearance) , Anirvachaniyatva (inexplicable state) or Maya-vada (doctrine of the seemingly real or unreal) have always attracted the later scholars and students of Vedanta .He is perhaps the first to attempt to establish the Advaita doctrine through means of cognition Pratyaksha , direct perception. He argued that Pratyakshya cannot prove the reality or otherwise of an object because the direct perception is incapable of truly appending the distinction between the Real and the unreal (or seemingly real).

Though Mandana may have been influenced by Sri Sankara’s Advaita Vedanta, he did retain some of his own position on certain matters. Certain features of his doctrine are, in fact, not found among the principles laid out by Sri Sankara.  Just to mention a few of his own elaborations the following could be cited: the inexplicable nature of Avidya (ignorance);   making out a distinction between two sorts of Avidya; importance he placed on Sat (Being) and Bliss (Ananda) as the more significant attributes of Brahma etc.

Interestingly, Vachaspathi Misra, in his commentary (titled Bhamathi) on Sri Sankara’s Brahma-Sutra-Bhashya tended to follow, on certain issues and explanations, the lead of Mandana Misra rather than that of Sri Sankara.

Vachaspathi Misra’s commentary (Bhamathi) juxtaposed with another commentary of Padmapada (one of the direct disciples of Sri Sankara) on the Brahma Sutras caused a major split or schism in the Advaita School. From then on, two rival streams of Advaita School – one called the Bhamathi School based on Vachaspathi Misra’s interpretation of , and the other Vivarana School based on the explanations provided Padmapada in his Pancha-padika-vivarana, came into being.

Amazingly, both the Schools of Advaita had drifted away from the basic tenets postulated Sri Sankara. And yet; both Schools have their followers and both are studied by the students of Advaita philosophy, in general.]

[It seems that for several centuries following Sri Sankara and Mandana, it was Mandana who was viewed by other schools as the major figure in Advaita. Vachaspathi Misra is said to have continued Mandana’s brand of Advaita in his commentary on Brahmasiddhi  (now lost), and in his Bhamathi a commentary on Sri Sankara’s Brahma sutra Bhashya. Mandana differed from Sri Sankara on some issues.

For instance, Mandana accepts and advocates the doctrine of Sphota a grammatical theory put forward by Bhartruhari, while Sri Sankara rejects Sphota theory and opts for Varna vada.

Again, Mandana on the question of false judgement tries to assimilate the views of Bhatta Mimamsaka, whereas Sri Sankara is ambivalent of the view and his disciple Suresvara criticizes Bhatta’s view on error severely.

Mandana also appears to lean towards the Mimamsa view of the relevance of meditation in achieving liberation and his tendency to accommodate the combined view (jnana-karma-samucchaya-vada). These tendencies are not surprising, since Mandana, a student of Mimamsaka Kumarila Bhatta, was a well recognized scholar in the Grammar – philosophy as the author of Sphotasiddhi and also as the author of other Mimamsa texts. ]

2.2. Regardless of this position, a branch of Advaita literature grew thereafter with Bhamathi as the official version of Sri Sankara’s view. Further, Bhaskara’s views were fused or confused with Sri Sankara’s views. The interpretations and arguments of that branch were lined up accordingly. Akandanandaa’s Rju-prakasika, Anandagiri’s Saririka_nyaya_nirnaya and Govindananda’s Bashya_rathna_prabha were some of the texts produced in this school. These texts do not reflect original Sri  Sankara.

2.3. Today, the study of Sri Sankara, in orthodox circles, is based, mostly, on the Bhamathi and the annotations on it by Amalananda (Vedanta_kalpataru c.1250) together with notes of Shri Appaiah Ditkshita (c.1550). These three together with Vedanta Sutra and Sri Sankara’s commentary on it constitute the basic Advaita literature (pancha granthi). This is despite the fact the views of Sri Sankara and Vachaspathi are divergent on issues relating to rituals and scriptural authority.

3.Pancha_padica is a running annotation on the first four aphorisms of Sri Sankara’s VSB. It is an incomplete work. It is ascribed to Padmapada; a direct disciple of Sri Sankara. That again, is disputed. However, a distinct school of Advaita grew with Pancha_padica as its nucleus. A major work in this tradition was Prakasathman’s Vivarana, a treatise. Later Akhanada_ananda_muni (c.1350 AD) wrote a gloss on the Vivarana

The most celebrated work in this school was, undoubtedly, the Pancha_dashi written by Vidyaranya, who also abridged the Vivarana (Vivarana prameya sangraha).

3.1. A large number of glosses, annotations, notes, and digests followed Bhamathi and Pancha_ padica. Vimuktatman’s Ishtasiddhi, Chitsukha’s Bhava_dyotankia and other works contradicted Sri Sankara. Besides these, there were independent texts that stayed clear of the recognized schools. In the post-Sankara period, many terms and concepts like-moola_avidya, vivarta, six fold pramana, avidya_lesha; became a part of Advaita vocabulary. Some of those concepts might have looked unfamiliar to Sri Sankara.

For instance, Sri Sankara treated ignorance (avidya) as an error, the removal of which led to wisdom (vidya).He left it at that. His followers however, wrote tomes speculating the causes for ignorance, nature of ignorance, different forms of ignorance etc. Had the Master watched his disciples at work he might have wondered whether they were studying about Brahman or about ignorance

3.2. The texts such as Pancha_padica, Advaita_siddhi and Pancha_dasi are brilliant works and have great merit. They are landmarks in the development of Indian thought. However, they do not correctly represent Sri Sankara’s thought; they cloud the original  Sri Sankara. The question is, no matter how brilliant the ideas, imagery and arguments introduced by the later scholars be, were the authors justified in hoisting their views on Sri Sankara?

4. If the body of Advaita literature were to be taken together, Sri Sankara would be contradicting himself. He would at once be a nihilist, a ritualist, an obscurantist and an idealist too. It is difficult to cull out the original Sankara from the mass of accretion that collected over the centuries. The best introduction to Sri Sankara’s thought is his prelude to the VSB viz. the Adhyasa_Bashya.

5. Some of the areas where  Sri Sankara differed with the Mimamsakas were briefly as under:

5.1. Mimamsakas held the view that the real purport of the scriptures was to provide injunctions and prohibitions. The scriptural injunctions were mandatory and the texts that relate to wisdom were spillover (sesha).

The real purpose of the scriptures, Sri Sankara said, was to describe the reality as it is. Sri Sankara rejected the Mimamsa view and argued that scripture were not mandatory in character, at least where it concerned pursuit of wisdom. Upanishads, he remarked, dealt with Brahman and that Brahman could not be a subject matter of injunction and prohibitions.

5.2. Sri Sankara strongly advocated study of Upanishads, and at the same time cautioned that study of Upanishad alone would not lead to moksha.. In matters of such as spiritual attainment ones own experience was the sole authority and it cannot be disputed

He also said study of Upanishad was neither indispensable nor a necessary pre requisite for attaining the human goal, the moksha. He pointed out; even those who were outside the Upanishad fold were as eligible to moksha as those within the fold were. He declared that all beings are Brahman, and therefore the question of discrimination did not arise. All that one was required to do was to get rid of Avidya (duality).

He pointed out that rituals could in no way bring about wisdom, much less moksha.. He asserted, while the rewards of the rituals were not matter of direct experience, wisdom which is the fruit of Vedanta is based on immediate and personal experience; one need not have to wait for the reward nor one be in doubt whether the reward would or would not come.

This was in sharp contrast to the position taken by Mimamsakas who asserted that rituals alone would lead one to higher levels of attainment. Further, the deities would reward only those entitled to perform the rituals alone. The entitlement involved the caste, creed and other parameters.

6. Most of the ideas that Sri Sankara rejected came back to the Advaita fold and the Mimamsa position with regard to the scriptural authority and value of rituals became a part of the Advaita posture. The wisdom –oriented teachings of Sri Sankara became as much a face of Advaita as the rituals, worships and other practices. There was therefore an obvious disparity between what Sri Sankara idealized and what his followers, even the elite, practiced.

7. By about tenth century, the Advaita scene was littered with a confusing array of texts that did not outline a well-defined doctrine. The rise of the sects and sectarian prejudices did not also help matters.8. The “rival” Vedanta doctrines when they came on stage, naturally, reacted to the Advaita texts in circulation at the time. It was that form of Advaita, which they encountered, that gave cause for dissatisfaction and annoyance. While criticizing Sri Sankara they relied on the later exponents than on Sri Sankara’s own views. The result was the distortion of Sri Sankara’s position. He was criticized for what was hoisted on him than on what he said.

For instance, by the time Sri Ramanuja (1017-1132) emerged as an exponent of orthodox Vedanta tradition, Ishta_siddhi written by Vimuktananda was the standard advaita text of the day.Ramanuja’s criticism of Sri Sankara was based mainly on this work. Interestingly, Madhva (1197-1276) another Acharya also criticized Sri Sankara based on the views presented in Ishta_siddi. It is said that Sri Madhva pointed more than thirty errors of argument in that text.

9. The “rival” schools of Vedanta thoughts like Vishistadvaita and Dvaita took Advaita as the common point of departure. By then the Advaita schools were in a confused state and reacted with emotion; though much of the conflict that ensued was academic. It is fair to say, the new trends emerged in fulfillment of the needs of the time.

C.  Some popular misconceptions about Sri Sankara 

A number of popular misconceptions are in circulation about Sankara .The following are a few of them:

1. Advaita: 

1.1. The popular belief is that Sri Sankara “found” Advaita system of Vedanta, promoted and popularized it. This is a misconception.

1.2. Sri Sankara clearly said he was not putting forth a new theory or a school of thought. He did not expound or defend any argument (vaada) either in his VSB or in his commentaries on Upanishads and Gita. His mission was to present the true interpretation of the Vedanta tradition. His school of thought (asmadeye darshane), according to him, was the Upanishad system (aupanishadam darshanam) or the doctrine of emancipation (moksha vada). Sri Sankara was the upholder of tradition (Evam sampradaya vido vadanti).

1.3. Sri Sankara did not claim he found Advaita school of thought or that he was an Advaitin. He used the expression “Advaita” in VSB only two times and on both occasions, he was quoting: once from Gaudapada’s karika; and, the other time from Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Gaudapada, in his karika, employed the term as a descriptive expression for Brahman (or Atman). Sri Sankara followed the lead of his guru_naam_guruhu (teacher’s teacher).

1.4. At that stage,” Advaita” was yet to emerge as a Vedanta doctrine and as a separate school of thought.. The term “Advaita” does not appear in Bhamathi , written about a hundred years after Sri Sankara . Bhamathi calls Sri Sankara’s exposition as investigation into Brahman(Brahma mimamsa), a logical procedure(tarka) and treats it as such.

1.5. The Advaita argument (Advaita_avada), as a school of thought was a post Sri Sankara development; though the essence of the doctrine was in his VSB and in Adhyasa Bhashya.

2. Attack on Dvaita:

2.1.  Sri Sankara did not attack dualists (dvaitinaha), as alleged

2.2. The logical elucidation of “oneness” of Atman in Sri Sankara’s VSB appealed to his followers. They turned that into a school of thought (Advaita_vaada), in order to distinguish it from the dualistic thought (Dvaita) that emerged after Sri Sankara.

2.3. A school of dualistic thought was not in existence at the time of Sankara. The question of his attacking them did not therefore arise. The only dualists he mentioned were Samkhya and Yoga systems.

3. World an illusion:

3.1. Among the misconceptions that have grown around Sri Sankara, the persistent and the most erroneous one is that he regarded world as an illusion. It is a gross misrepresentation of Sri Sankara.

3.2. The concept of phenomenal projection Adhyasa, which is basic to Sri Sankara’s thought is seriously misunderstood. The acceptance of twofold perspective, transcendental (absolute) and transactional (relative) is at the root of his Adhyasa concept.

3.3. Sri  Sankara neither takes the world we experience as absolutely real nor does he denies its reality altogether. He brings in the concept of the Absolute and the relative view of things.

Failure to understand the concept of Adhyasa resulted in such confusion.

4. Buddhism:

4.1. Sri  Sankara did not drive Buddhism out of India.

He came nearly 1200 years after the Buddha. By Sri Sankara’s time (c. eighth century), Buddhism had lost its vigor a couple of centuries earlier and had moved into the neighboring countries.

4.2. Sri Sankara’s dispute with the Buddhist schools (Madhyamika and Vaibashika) was purely metaphysical and not religious. By this time, Buddhism (Mahayana) had moved closer to Upanishads and the chasm between Vedanta and Buddhism had narrowed a great deal.

4.3. Gaudapada who was the teacher of  Sri Sankara’s teacher, and whom Sri Sankara addressed as the “knower of the tradition” (sampradaya vit) employed terms that were commonly in use by Mahayana Buddhism and the orthodox Schools. Gaudapada was not a Buddhist, he was a vedantin.

Shri T.M.P.Mahadevan an authority on Gaudapada confirmas this position; and,  says  Sri Sankara was wrongly handed down the  epithet of “Buddhist in disguise’(pracchanna-bauddha).


When one studies Sri Sankara, no matter one agrees with him or not one “is in contact with a mind of a very fine penetration and profound spirituality.”

-as Dr. Radhakrishnan said.

Please read next

Adhyasa Bashya of Sankara

Deeply indebted to

Prof.SKR Rao

Shri S Rajam


Posted by on September 1, 2012 in Indian Philosophy, Sri Sankara, Vedanta


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