Sankara's Philosophy of Life
by Swami Krishnananda

Man does not live by bread alone; he lives by the Spirit within. Spiritual hunger continues even if this physical body is cast off. Unless this innate hunger for knowledge and perfection is appeased, one cannot hope to have any rest. The saints, sages and Avataras purvey to man, now and then, the required spiritual food. Sankara is one such great feeder of mankind. It was Sankara who finally and satisfactorily answered the perplexing questions of life – questions concerning the inward, the outward, the above, and their mutual relations, questions which embrace the entire existence itself in their scope. There is the seer, the seen and also something which cannot be either the seer or the seen, as corroborated by a necessity felt for a reality which must be other than the individual who is the seer and the world which is the seen, both of which are known to be appearances due to their inherent character of changing, passing away, and giving rise to something else.

Man exists, and he feels that he exists; he has a direct apprehension of his existence. But he also knows that he is not a permanent being; that death spares no man; that all men, animals and plants have an end. Man also knows that the world which he is in and which presents itself before him as an object of his knowledge, too, is subject to destruction and, therefore, not ultimately real. What, then, is real? If man shall die one day, if all living beings shall pass away, and if the whole world, even the galaxy of solar systems, shall not last, what is it that shall last? Though it is true that everything that is seen perishes, is it also true that there is nothing imperishable? Acharya Shankara, the genius, comes forward and lifts the reason of man above by freeing it from the trammels of empirical vision when he boldly declares that if everything is impermanent, something should be permanent; if all shall come to a limit or end some time or other, there must be something which does not have limit or end at any time. If the whole world is transient, God must exist, and He alone can be eternal.

Sankara was not a dogmatist or a mere authoritarian but a very clear-headed and highly intelligent logical thinker. He established the reality of the existence of God, not simply on the ground of scripture or tradition, but on the unshakable basis of immediate perception and deduction therefrom. It is Sankara's firm conviction that nothing can be said to be transitory unless something is enduring, that no appearance is possible without a reality underlying it. The fact of the death of the individual, the changing nature of thought, and the fleeting behaviour of the world is enough to posit the existence of a great Reality which does not vanish with the individual or perish with the world. This Supreme Being is God, and to know Him is to know the truth of all things in all forms in time as well as in space.

The destiny of man is unity with God, for man is essentially inseparable from God. Man is a part of the world, and the world is rooted in God; it cannot exist if God is not. The reality of the world is the reality of God. Whatever has any value in the world belongs to the nature of God. Sankara avers that God, or lshvara, is ultimately independent of all things and cannot be related to any externalised condition. When He is thought to be so related, He is called the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer of the world. As He is in Himself, He is the Absolute Whole, Brahman, Satchidananda (Existence-Knowledge-Bliss-Absolute). Man being only an appearance, his truth is in God, and man is, in the highest sense, God Himself; the jiva, when it is completely disillusioned, is the same as Brahman.

What, then, is the relation between the individual, the world and God? Sankara would forbid any such idea or use of expressions even suggesting a tripartite nature of existence. Only to man, the blinded individual, the world seems to be different from God and also from himself, who, too, seems to him to be different from God. The moment the screen is lifted, it will be seen that what really is, is an ocean of pure consciousness, the boundless Absolute, where the world and the individual are no more separate beings, but are united in Its indivisible glory of Infinity and Immortality. This is the grand destination of life, the purpose of everyone's existence, the goal of all aspirations and endeavours. Brahman alone is real; all else has no reality independent of Brahman.

The incarnation of Sankara had the supreme mission of opening the eyes of humanity to the Transcendent Ideal, for the attainment of which life is meant. The human being is asked to discipline and regulate his life so as to conform to the Eternal Reality of God, Atman or Brahman, the direct realisation of which alone is the aim of the activities in this universe. Sankara teaches the religion for all mankind, the one true religion of Brahmanubhava or Absolute experience. The practice of this eternal religion means, as a prerequisite thereto, the culture and nurture of the virtues of non-irritability, self-restraint, peace, fortitude, faith and collectedness of mind, which are to be carefully practised with the aid of clear discrimination of Truth and non-attachment to external objects and states. This implies a spontaneous implementation of personal, social and national as well as international peace as a natural consequence of the Universal Selfhood of Reality. In the history of the human race, there were indeed very few who preached with such an ardour of feeling and clarity of understanding the great doctrine of Truth, that in the realisation of the immortal Atman alone lies the real solace of the individual and of society. Glory to Sankara-Bhagavatpada, the eye-opener, the light-giver, the consoler, the healer of the wound of limitation, the remedier of the disease of ignorance!