The celebration of the Twelfth Centenary of Sankara's birth recently has sparked off a renewed interest in the study of the most important philosopher India has produced. Not that the interest in Sankara had ever flagged, as witnessed by the unbroken continuity of Advaitic writings fro more than a millennium; but the Sankara Jayanti Mahotsava not only sought to pay homage to the best of Vedantic teachers but also to rediscover him as a great historical figure of contemporary relevance. Indeed a centenary celebration cannot simply be yet another annual remembrance, a punyasmrti; it cannot help being the celebration of a historical event of lasting significance, of which the echoes may still be heard after centuries. The celebration was bound to raise historical questions about the date and age of Sankara. Despite the existence of several legendary biographies of Sankara from medieval times and their disregard by historians, there has also been some interest in what could be described as the historical biography of the Master. A connected question which has assumed importance in recent years relates to the authenticity of the large number of writings which have been ascribed to him. The original character and development of Sankara's ideas present closely related issues.
When did Sankara live? What do we know of his history? Which works did he actually compose? Unless these questions are properly answered we cannot decide the relationship of Sankara to his 'contemporaries' and would not be able to place his life, work and thought in a meaningful historical and cultural perspective. Nor would we be able to decide whether he was simply a dry philosophical commentator or also a saint-poet of no mean order who composed enchanting, popular as well as profound, hymns. Was he also a religious reformer and organizer? How many monastic centres and schools did he found, if any? What was his attitude to Yoga, Tantra or the new bhakti schools? Was he simply the last of the old Vedantins seeking to keep close to the ancient form of the Vedic tradition, or was he one of the leaders of the new Smarta-Pauranika transformation who could be described as Sanmatasthapanacarya, the real founder of medieval Hinduism?
The answer to such questions necessarily requires a reconsideration of his doctrines with reference to their textual sources, logical compulsions and development within his won writings. How was Sankara able to reconcile his deep reverence of the Vedic tradition with the need for representing the essential truth of Vedanta so that it could meet the philosophical and religious challenges of his times? Do his commentaries help to unveil the hidden secret of the Vedantic texts encrusted in 'lesser truth' or do they foist a new philosophy on them? Was he an orthodox theologian or an original philosopher, a genuine Vedantin or a "pracchanna-bauddha"?
Thus although the historical and cultural significance of Sankara is unquestioned, his historical biography is still a desideratum. Similarly although monastic schools have sought to standardize, clarify and refine his philosophical and spiritual doctrines over more than a millennium, the later have never failed to inspire new enquiry and reflection. Nor can it be said that they have been finally defined and systematized. In fact, recently new doubts have been raised about what Sankara actually taught and the inner tensions and variations within his ideas and interpretations have been noted.
It is in the background of these and similar questions that the present study has been conceived. It attempts to assess critically the present state of evidence on Sankaracarya in the context of perennial as well as contemporary questions. It attempts to reconstruct the life and thought of Sankara on historical principles, i.e., to determine the age and biography of Sankara and also his original ideas and writings within this framework. It is primarily based on the first-hand study of the corpus of Sankara's writings or writings attributed to him, in the original, and on a critical and comparative study of all of his available traditional biographies. The works of his near contemporaries like Dharmakirti and Santaraksita, Kumarila and Mandana, as well as of his disciples like Suresvara and Padmapada have also been fully utilized as also those of others who like Gaudapada, Bhartrhari or Bharuci preceded him or who like Bhaskara, Vacaspati Misra, and Sarvajnatma Muni came later but were not too far removed. The general literary works and epigraphic records of the Age have been used where relevant. Traditional and modern interpretations of savants, philosophers, scholars and historians have been duly considered. Indeed, Sankara studies seem to be on the threshold of a new revolution of which the watchword may be said to be "Back to Sankara". However, despite the claim of enthusiasts, no actual revolutionary break-through has so far occurred. My search for the original text, historical context and the real meaning of Sankara, does not, therefore, discard the monastic tradition of Advaitic learning and creativity as irrelevant but it does seek to discover the original Sankara rather than rest content with the Sankara as interpreted by the medieval religious ethos and intellectual context. Correctly understood, the inspiration of Sankara is perennial and refreshing and should provide a particular basis for a universal, philosophical religion today.
Among the many topics discussed in the present work may be mentioned the question of the authenticity of Sankara's biographical sources or of the works traditionally ascribed to him, the mode of synthesis in his thought reconciling interpretation and independent reflection, orthodoxy and heterodoxy, conservatism and the revolutionary innovation of his attitude to the social and spiritual dimensions of ethics, and the question of his active organizational work.
While I hold the Sankarite monasteries in high esteem, my examination of their historical traditions has not always led me to accept them. Indeed, since the traditions are at times mutually discrepant, one could not possibly agree with all of them. One can only hope that perhaps more evidence would be brought to light one day and the present state of doubt and disbelief would be modified to the satisfaction of all. Meanwhile, one must plead for the toleration of inevitable differences. Similarly although important questions have been raised and suggestions put forward in recent years by several historians and scholars, especially German and Japanese, their results still need critical assessment and constructive application.
That I became engaged at all in writing this book is largely due to my friend Prof. K.S. Murty who invited me to speak on Sankara in the Brighton Philosophical Conference in 1988 and later suggested that I should write a historical biography of Sankara. He also suggested that the history of Sankarite monasteries needs to be critically examined. I am deeply beholden to him for his suggestions and for his interest in the writing of this book.
Many others have helped me with books, reprints and transcripts of unavailable books and manuscripts. Among these I must specially mention Mr. Bader of the National University, Australia, Dr. Antarkar of Bombay, Prof. Balasubramanian and Prof. Veezhinathan, Sri Kuppuswami Sastri of Kanchi, Prof. G.C. Tripathi of the Allahabad Sanskrit Vidyapitha, Prof. V.N. Misra and Dr. B.N. Misra of the Sanskrit University, Varanasi, Sri R.C. Tripathi, IAS of the Departement of Culture, Government of India and Sri Munish Joshi of Archaeological Survey of India. I am also thankful to Prof. Irfan Habib, Chairman, ICHR for taking interest in the project initially. Lastly, my thanks are due to my Publishers for their kind interest and unfailing courtesy.
About the Book:
Despite the existence of several legendary biographies of Sankara from medieval times, no critical historical biography of the Master has been available so far. The present work attempts to fill the lacuna. It is based on a critical study of all the available sources in the original and attempts a historical reconstruction of Snakara's life and work.
The ideas of Sankara have been generally interpreted in the light of later Advaitic and monastic tradition. The present work, following the lead of recent critical scholarship, seeks to discover the original ideas of Sankara on the basis of his genuine works and discusses them in the light of his relationship to his predecessors, the social and cultural ethos of his times and his own mission, presuppositions and methodology.
The present work, thus, seeks to understand the ideas and achievements of Snakara in the context of perennial spiritual seeking and philosophical enquiry. It seeks to bring out the role of Sankara in the evolution of Indian culture and philosophy and to highlight the logical and spiritual, traditional and original components of his philosophical, religious and social ideas.
About the Author:
GOVIND CHANDRA PANDE (b. 1923, Allahabad), D. Phill., has taught in the universities of Allahabad, Gorakhpur and Rajasthan and retired as Vice-Chancellor, University of Allahabad. He has also been Vice-Chancellor, University of Rajasthan (Jaipur) from 1974-77.
A historian by profession, Prof. Pande is a versatile scholar and philosopher, thinker and poet by inclination. A profile writer he has authored more than 40 books and over 100 research articles.
In recognition of Prof. Pande's scholarship, he has been conferred various honorary degrees and awards. The honorary degrees include D. Litt., Vidyavaridhi, Sahitya Vacaspati, Mahamahopadhyaya and Vacpati. The awards conferred upon him include Sankar Samman, Darshan Vigyan Samman, Manisa Samman, Mangla Prasad award, Vishwabharti award and the Fellowship of the Sahitya Akademi.
Currently, he is the President-cum-Chairman, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla; Chairman, Allahabad Museum Society; Chairman, Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, Sarnath and Editorial Fellow, Project in Indian History of Science, Philosophy and Culture.
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Life of Shankaracharya - The Adventures of a Poet Philosopher
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