Shankara (ca. 788-820) was an Indian philosopher and reformer. He founded the advaita, or nondual, school of vedanta philosophy.
Shankara, also called Shankaracharya, "Master Shankara," was born of Brahman parentage in southern India. His intellectual powers were soon evident, and he mastered a wide range of religious and philosophical materials. His major goal was to synthesize the immensely diverse spectrum of Hindu philosophical and theistic symbolism into a single coherent system. He was quite orthodox in his commitment to the Veda—the most ancient body of Hindu religious literature; but he tried to harmonize its many paradoxical and often contradictory teachings by centering on the last Vedic section, the Upanishads ("esoteric" teachings, also called the Vedanta, "end of the Veda").
Shankara ascribed the founding of the Vedanta school to the sage Badarayana (ca. 400 B.C.), whose writings formed the basis for some of shankara's most important treatises. But despite his claim that he was only expounding the Vedanta, Shankara was unquestionably one of the most creative intellects in Indian history. he travelled widely, founding numerous monastic centers and elaborating his philosophy. Though his life was short, he was an untiring worker and a brilliant dialectician whose lasting prestige was fully established by the time of his death. The doctrine which he espoused became the most influential of all Hindu philosophies, providing the basis for theological innovations, cultic integration, and reform.
The basic elements of Shankara's philosophy are derived from selected aspects of the Upanishads. Though the texts are very diverse, they are—in shankara's view— dominated by a teaching which asserts that the true self (atman, "soul") of every individual has a qualitative and essential relationship to an overarching universal Soul (Atman) which in its ultimate sacred form is called Brahman: "Brahman exists eternal, pure, enlightened, free, omniscient, and all powerful." It is the source and end of all phenomena.
This metaphysic has two particularly important aspects: since only Brahman is ultimately real and eternal, all particular worldly entities are regarded as illusory and transient; but since these transient forms are also manifestations of Brahman, "illusion" itself has a positive ontological status. The technical term for illusion is maya; but it also signifies the power of illusion. Shankara's doctrine is therefore called advaita—nonduality—because it strives to ascribe all reality to a single dynamic, unitary source.
Through the sensual perceptions of the everyday world, man apprehends only the illusory and deceptive appearances of the ultimate reality. This conditioned and finite knowledge is, in the ultimate sense, ignorance (avidya,"nonknowledge"), because it is not attuned to that which transcends and yet incorporates all space-time phenomena. And this ignorance is exacerbated by the confusion of the transcendental spirit with empirical forms—an error which is the "source of all evil."
However, within the lower and provisional framework of existence, certain essential forms have a permanent sanctity: the sacred scriptures, the cults and forms of traditional worship, the law of karmic retribution, and the caste system itself. These are essential "qualities" (gunas) of the order of the universe. Therefore, while it is true that Brahman as absolute existence and ultimate truth transcends these forms and is "without qualities" (nirguna), in its diverse manifestations it also possesses the secondary qualities of a personalized god, Hindu institutions, law, and ethics: Brahman is the source of "scripture and all knowledge, and is responsible for the distinctions into gods, animals, humans, classes, the stages of life."
Adherence to these secondary forms through worship, self-discipline, and appropriate demeanor prepares the religiously perceptive individual for the higher knowledge of the transcendent Brahman. In this purified form, knowledge is the source of a final and transforming intuition of the absolute unity of the individual soul with Brahman—an experience of liberation and release from the snares of worldly delusion and transmigration "the Upanishads aim to eliminate delusion by the attainment of the knowledge of the unity of the self [with Brahman]." This mystical philosophy would seem to undercut all other forms of traditional Hinduism, since worldly distinctions are illusory; but they are also regarded as aspects of the divine self-manifestation. So Shankara rigorously upholds the integrity of Hindu social institutions and the Veda, interpreted through the ultimate revelation contained in the Upanishads.
There is much in Shankara's mystical teaching which suggests the influence of Buddhist philosophy, and he was accused of being a crypto-Buddhist during his own lifetime. But his successful philosophical synthesis was a factor in precipitating the final decline of Buddhism in India. In this way Shankara did much to assure the triumph of Hinduism and its institutions. In addition to his philosophical innovations, he was also an ardent exponent of the devotional poems and prayers which reflect the immense range of his religious sensibilities.
Further Reading on Shankara
Background on Shankara is in Surendra Dasgupta, A History of Indian Philosophy, 5 vols. (1922-1955), and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles Moore, eds., A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy (1957). Indian sources include V. Raghavan, trans., Prayers, Praises and Psalms (Madras, 1938); Nalinimohan Mukherji, A Study of Shankara (Calcutta, 1942); and Ram P. Singh, The Vedanta of Sankara: The Metaphysics of Value (Jaipur, 1949). For general background consult A. L. Bashman, The Wonder That Was India (1937; rev. ed. 1963).