Published On: Tue, Feb 14th, 2017

Shankara’s Concept of Advaita: The Foundational Concept of Hinduism

By – Kanaka Nagaraj Sabapathy

Origins of Advaitic Philosophy

The Advaita School of philosophy or Nondualism is believed to have existed long before the 7th century saint Adi Shankara propounded it. Centuries before Shankara, the Advaita School existed both as a philosophy and a dogma. Its roots can be traced to the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita and many schools of Shaivism.

The distinction Shankara achieved was to make Advaita more contemporary and popular by giving an easy-to-grasp logical and scriptural base to the philosophy. Shankara’s actions were considered timely as it saved generations of Hindus from confusion and conversion during the Islamic onslaught based on the One God concept.

It is to the credit of Shankara’s followers that they continued the exposition of the philosophy even after his short life span of 32 years. His disciples and their disciples added a rich body of religious literature in support of this school and preserved its tradition and philosophy for the modern world.1

Shankara’s one-line Summary of Advaita

Shankara summarized his entire philosophy of Advaita in his work Brahma Jnanavali Mala as follows:

Brahma satyam jagat mithyaa, jivo brahmaiva naparah

“Brahman is the only truth, the world is illusion, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahman and individual self.” This, in a nutshell, is Advaita Vedanta.

In an excerpt from his book “Non-dualism – A Brief History of a Timeless Concept”, author Michael W. Taft recites from the English translation of Shankara’s work Crest Jewel of Discrimination, Shankara’s understanding of Advaita. In this work Shankara states that “Brahman is the one and only reality, the one existence, the one without a second. It is pure consciousness, free from any taint, beginningless and endless. It is joy, forever beyond the reach of pain, indivisible, immeasurable, formless, nameless, and immutable.” According to an article in the Wikipedia, Advaita Vedanta “is the infinite, omnipresent, omnipotent, incorporeal, impersonal, transcendent reality that is the ground of all being.”

Taft says that although such words are all attempts at describing the Brahman, the highest Brahman is actually completely without any attributes whatsoever. This highest Brahman is called nirguna brahman, which literally means “Brahman without attributes.” Any appearance of a God or deity of any kind (saguna brahman – “Brahman with attributes”) is merely Brahman taking on a mask or persona, and does not represent the actual nature of Brahman.

As one can clearly see, in the early centuries of this millennium, Advaita became a powerful tool against conversion of Hindus into other monastic religions which preach the concept of One God.

Advaita – The Individual and the Universal Soul

According to Taft, Shankara’s formulation is that the individual soul and Brahman are identical. The soul (atman) is not some small part of Brahman that eventually merges back into Brahman. The soul is actually the entirety of Brahman. According to Shankara (unlike in the Western religions, and some forms of Hinduism), each person does not have a unique, individual soul that then returns to Brahman upon enlightenment or death. Instead there is no individual soul whatsoever.

There is only one Atman, and it is identical with Brahman. The false idea that there are many souls, arises from the tricks of maya. Individuals (jiva) live in a state of ignorance in a body with senses, which causes the delusion that we feel as if we have an individual soul. The author says in Shankara’s metaphor, “it is as if the one moon in the sky were reflected by many bubbles.”2

Advaita Practices for Moksha or Liberation

Taft’s book says Enlightenment (Moksha or Liberation) is possible, according to Advaita, by overcoming the delusion of maya, and thereby seeing the identity of Atman with Brahman. We see that there is absolutely no difference, that they are one and the same.

There are several well-known Advaita techniques for achieving liberation. Probably the most famous traditional practice is that of neti-neti. As we saw in the Upanishad section, this is a statement from the Brihardaranyaka Upanishad, describing Brahman as “not this, not that.” The practitioner applies this statement to any and all sensory experiences (including thoughts) that arise in consciousness. This is done as an active, phenomenological inquiry, not the rote repetition of a mantra. Whatever arises is seen to be the product of maya, of something other than perfect, nondual awareness. It is just an illusion. This practice functions as a kind of pointing out instruction that constantly draws attention to awareness itself, rather than the object of awareness.

Aham Brahma’smi

Another practice is the mantra aham brahma’smi, which means, “I am Brahman,” (also found in the Brihardaranyaka Upanishad). This sentence is called the “great proclamation,” because it not only represents the philosophical understanding of the essence of Advaita, but it is also said to be the realization or proclamation of a yogi at the moment of enlightenment: “Eureka! I am Brahman!”[3]

Advaitic Practices of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa

Taft recounts what he terms as a “fascinating story” about the Advaita practices of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the most famous Indian saint of the nineteenth century. At the time of the story, Ramakrishna was already a master of dualistic mysticism, fully steeped in the meditation of the Goddess Kali. Nevertheless he agreed to receive the Advaita teachings from a wandering, naked, ash-besmeared master of nondualism named Totapuri.

Totapuri regarded all forms of worship which were so dear to Ramakrishna, as childish and ridiculous. He instructed Ramakrishna the basics of Advaita Vedanta, saying:

“Destroy the prison house of name and form and rush out of it with the strength of a lion. Dive deep in search of the Self and realize it through Samadhi. You will find the world of name and form vanishing into void, and the puny ego dissolving in Brahman-Consciousness. You will realize your identity with Brahman, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute.”

He also taught Ramakrishna the practice of formless meditation (technically different from nondual meditation, but nevertheless a major step in that direction). But that first night as Ramakrishna sat to meditate, he was immediately lost in dualistic absorption of the Goddess Kali. When he reported this failure to Totapuri the next day, his teacher picked up a tiny shard of glass from the ground and stuck it into the skin between Ramakrishna’s eyes, ordering him to concentrate on that spot. So Ramakrishna sat in meditation, and when Kali arrived again, he – in his own metaphor – picked up the “sword of nondual wisdom and cut her down with it.” She instantly disappeared and Ramakrishna was thrust into a nondual absorption that lasted several days. He thanked Totapuri, saying, “If you had not come, I would have lived my whole life with the hallucination. My last barrier has fallen away.”



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