The Essence of Acharya Sankara's Philosophy
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on the occasion of Sankaracharya Jayanti on April 17, 1983)

The thinking world remembers today the coming of Acharya Sankara Bhagavadpada; an annual occurrence on the fifth day of the bright half of the lunar month of Vaisakha. This annual observance is reminiscent of the great rejuvenator’s rise in this country for a purpose which we cannot limit merely to the destiny of this nation alone, but which should be considered as perennially relevant to the welfare of humanity itself. A genius of the highest rank that Acharya Sankara is reported to have been, he is regarded as a precocious child which could grasp the entire range of scholarly learning within an incredibly short period.

Ashtavarshe caturvedi, dvadashe sarva shastra viduh, shodashe krtavan bhashyam dvatrvishe munirasyavad. This oft-quoted verse tells us that this genius of an extraordinary scholar learned the four Vedas while he was only eight years old, and comprehended all the philosophical sciences when he was only twelve years old. At the age of sixteen, he wrote the great commentary on the Brahma Sutras, a marvel to learned men even to this day. He lived only for thirty-two years, and he was no more to be seen in this world.

Whatever be the historical significance that one may read into the life and work of this great human advent into this country, there is something more than that which is meaningful to all people, because the life of man is something more than an occurrence in history. We are not merely historical units; there is something more vital and significant in every one of us.

The first and foremost issue that Acharya Sankara had to tackle, to defend and to demonstrate, was the ultimate meaning of any sort of existence whatsoever. Why should anything exist all? There can be a sort of an answer to questions like “why this?” and “why that?” We have a reply to all these ‘whys’, but there is no immediate answer forthcoming to the query. Why should anything exist at all? Why should there be existence of anything, of anyone? Is there any meaning in existence? If there is a meaning, what is that meaning?

To the mind of a person who thinks only from an immediately visible point of view, survival in a physical or psycho-physiological sense may be said to be the meaning in existence. But we do not exist for the sake of survival; we survive in order that we may exist. But, why should we exist? The impulse to existence is to reveal the meaning that may be hidden there. Thus, Acharya Sankara took up this cudgel in the world of scholarship and learning: the ultimate meaning of any kind of existence. Nothing can be regarded as more significant or of greater consequence to us than the reply to this question, “Why should anything exist at all?”

There are other issues which this encyclopaedic mind did not forget to conceive and elaborate in all the varieties of its expression, in the form of his writings. While it is essential to know what existence itself means, there is a need to know something else, which has some connection with the forms of life we live as conceivable to our present setup of mind and as sensible or graspable by our own sense organs. Let the nature of the ultimate meaning of existence be there. He had also to take into consideration various other issues that cannot help rising under the circumstances of human life in the world. “How come this world?” That is also a very important question indeed. “From where has this world arisen?” This is the second important question. If it has come from somewhere, from where has it come? And if it has come from somewhere or from something, how has it come? What is the way in which it emanated from ‘that’ from which it is supposed to have arisen?

While these two are highly philosophical issues that are very rarely even thought of by the common mind, there are also other important issues which the widespread range of the thought of Sankara could conceive. This is why I mentioned it was an encyclopaedic understanding and intellect. The other issues which naturally arise as queries and problems in the context of human life are no doubt minor in comparison with these major problems mentioned, but they are nevertheless equally important, because a comprehensive system of philosophy is supposed to go to the root of every question and problem, and leave nothing unsaid finally.

The third question which may arise from the consideration of how the world came from something at all would be the point which centres round the question, “How does anyone know that there is a world?” The answer that everyone is clear as to the existence of the world is an uneducated reply, and not a philosophical reply. It is not that everything is clear to the mind. How does anyone know that the world is there? “I see it,” is a child’s answer; but a philosophical genius does not think like a child or a baby. Here again he had to probe in the mysteries of the very process of knowing itself. This issue also did not escape the mind of this great Acharya.

Is philosophy complete with the answers to these questions? There is something remaining still, after everything is said. “Yes, all that you say said is very fine indeed; but I have my own little problems. My difficulties are quite different from what you are speaking. My problems are simple little problems, pricking me daily.” Even this did not escape the mind of the genius, and questions of this type would not escape the notice of any deeply philosophical thought – the constitution of the human being himself, the structure of the human personality, jiva, as Acharya Sankara used to designate it. Who are we people sitting here? Who are you, and who am I? What are we made of? What is the substance out of which our personality is created? While the other questions as to the creation of the world are important, of course, are these questions not also important? From where have I come? Did I drop from somewhere? Everyone knows the intense pressure each one feels in this little span of life in this world, a pressure weighing heavily from every corner of our daily existence in such a way that we cannot think of a single moment, perhaps, when we would not feel a dense pressure exerting itself upon us from unknown corners of the world. We are never really sedate and peaceful in the real sense of the term.

What is the matter with people? This question can be answered only by knowing what we mean by ‘people’. Who are these people that we are referring to? This is individual psychology, the study of the structural pattern of human nature and a study of man threadbare. We will find a strata of arguments, demonstrations by logic in regard to questions of this kind; but there is something which irritates our minds again and again, in spite of a study of all these themes, which generally can be comprehended within what we call the field of philosophy.

But we are not living a philosophical life. We live a different kind of life altogether every day. What is the kind of life that we live? This is what we call social life. It has very little to do with what is called philosophy. So, with all the sweat of the brow of Acharya Sankara in the exposition of these intricate issues concerning existence and everything that emanates from it, we shall ever remain unsatisfied because we still have minor difficulties which could not apparently be covered by even a vast study of human nature in a psychological sense. There is no use merely studying the mind of a person, and there is also no use knowing many other things which are difficult to understand.

What is our difficulty? It is the daily bread we eat, the clothing we put on, the house we live in, the illness we suffer from, and the tension we face. Are these not important for us? This is a set of sociological issues which cover everything that can be comprehended with this area, and very few indeed go deeply into the vast literature which masters like this produced. Our students, and our so-called scholars, professors, read one chapter or two chapters prescribed only for the examination, and the rest of the book is eaten by moths, and no one knows what is there at all. Whether it is philosophical study, study of literature, poetry, drama, rhetoric, whatever it be, what do we learn? The reading is confined to a few pages of the prescribed portions of the curriculum of the school or the college, and we not concerned with the rest.

Therefore, the difficulty with even so-called learned people these days is that they have never really learned anything deeply, whatever be the subject that they might have taken up for their research. And more so is the case with students of philosophy. They know precious little, and there is practically nothing that they grasp as an ultimate fact about these issues. So, while in a casual way people go on chanting certain formulae occurring here and there in the writings of these great saints and sages, they mean practically nothing to our day-to-day life. The dangers arising from inadequate study of a serious subject are such that they need no explanation. A little study of medicine, a little study of philosophy, a little knowledge of science, a little study of literature – these ‘littles’ are not going to create even a single completeness in our lives, because many littles cannot make one whole. A wholeness is a different speciality by itself.

So is the case with the mighty writings of Acharya Sankara; and very few can be said to have read through them right from the beginning to the end. Firstly, where is the time to study? Who can pour through these tomes, which are hundreds of pages of print? And his writings are in Sanskrit. How many know that kind of Sanskrit in which he has written his thoughts. Apart from that – apart from the difficulty of our finding time to go through these large writings, and apart from the difficulty of the language itself – there is the difficulty of the subject. The theme that he propounds is novel. It is not a story that he is narrating before us; it is not a cock and bull tale that is told for our diversion. It is something which cannot be regarded as satisfactory and complete unless it goes to the very substance of the whole issue.

The sociological or social values that we consider as so important and sacred are again certain illusions before our minds. They are illusions because there is a secret knife that is lying beneath this beauty of social existence, and that is something which escapes our notice always. Below, beneath the soft bed of social comfort there is a cutting sword, a sharp knife, which is the principle of destruction of all things, which is death that overtakes everyone, which cannot and will not come to anyone with premeditated notice. All the structure of social well-being that we may raise can be demolished in a second by this sword of death which hides itself behind the veneer of beauty in the world, which hides itself in ambush to pounce upon anyone at any time. ‘Anyone at any time’ is important to note.

It was also important for thinkers like Sankara to bestow some thought on not merely the personal and social life of man in the world, but also on the life of man after he leaves this world. Our life beyond is not unimportant; it is as important as our life here. In a way, it is more important than our life here because considering the transiency of our existence in this world – the momentary character of everything here – it is scarcely worthwhile doting upon our comfortable physical existence in this world, knowing very well that it is a transitory show which can be wiped out of existence by powers and forces over which we have no say, even in the least. The life beyond is important. But here comes the masterstroke of the philosopher-genius: What do we mean by life beyond? Here is a critical issue again, which is beautifully expounded throughout the literature of Acharya Sankara. The life beyond is not merely one rung above the present rung in the ladder of life; it is a pressure and a push of the force of life beyond itself, a power of transcendence inherent in everything that is finite and limited.

Death is not merely an historical occurrence that takes place after some years; it is a perpetual occurrence every moment of time. Death is taking place at every moment, and what is called catabolic activity of the body is only that. But there is a stunning catabolism which we call death generally – stunning because of the fact that it does not get mitigated by the anabolic work of constructive forces, as it happens usually in our physical existence here. There is only catabolism minus anabolism, and so it is a perpetual annihilation, as it were, for all practical purposes. This gives us a shock.

But death, the pressure to the beyond, is the impulsion present in everything that is finite to outgrow its limitations; and nobody can escape death until limitation is completely overcome. What is limitation? It is the restricting of one’s life to space, time and causality. This is, again, to speak in the language of pure philosophy. Whoever confined to space, time and causal relation is finite. And who is not so confined? And, therefore, who can escape death? No one. But, what is the purpose of the destruction of things and the presence of this impulse in the finite to outgrow its limitations? The final breaking through all these barriers, whether they be in the form of the space-time complex or any type of limitation – the impulse to break through the limitations of space and time, which is the reason behind the transiency of all things – is the impulse to outgrow finitude.

Thus, death is not a destruction, but it is a preparation for a new kind of enhanced existence, which also is transitory, and which also has to come to an end. There is a beyond further still, and there is a further beyond, until there is the final beyond wherein no further transcendence is called for. Thus, the end of the philosophy of Sankara is also the beginning of its philosophy. All great philosophy begins and ends with the same theme. It begins with the description, the exposition, and the demonstration of the nature of the meaning of existence itself, and it ends by saying that all life is wound up finally in the realisation of this existence. This is what is called moksha, liberation, once and for all.

What is it that Acharya Sankara has not touched in his writings? Practically nothing. But who has read these writings? Nobody entirely, because it is not enough if we go through these writings as little students, for the purpose of passing an examination. It has to be undertaken as a life’s dedication. What can be more serious for us than the knowledge of these essentials? What good is there in the achievement of anything in this world, minus this understanding?

Therefore, we have before the whole of learned humanity this majestic person who shall shine forever in the firmament of knowledge. Acharya Sankara coming today is the occasion during which I have offered these flowers of words at his feet.