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Acharya Sankara's Contribution to Human Culture
by Swami Krishnananda

(Spoken on Sankaracharaya Jayanti on May 4, 1995)

The coming of this great genius many centuries back heralds the coming of a great wave of renaissance in India which touched every nook and corner of human civilisation. Usually human nature is such that it thinks only little things in a scattered manner, not even in a systematic succession of ideas. As circumstances press upon the mind of a person, only that particular conviction attracts the attention of the mind, and rarely does anyone exercise the faculty of comprehensive thinking. Moving in a haphazard manner, in a desultory way from one thing to another, is not what we may call a total approach to things.

Acharya Sankara was a great genius in tackling the problems of life at their very root. That is to say, he touched the ultimate cause of the human problem. This is the reason why his contribution to human culture is not just philosophical or metaphysical, as people imagine, but touches every aspect of human life. He was a protagonist of the Ultimate Reality of life, which manifests itself as human life or any kind of life whatsoever. It touches the problems which are purely personal, psychological in nature. It also comprehends the requirements of human society, and when we speak of human society we have touched everything that is connected with life in this world. In that sense, we may say that he was not merely a philosophical genius and a great metaphysician but a person who heralded cultural revival. Historians of today generally tell us that the Indian renaissance started from the days of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda, Rama Tirtha, etc., but these are all latecomers. The beginning of the revival of Indian culture commenced from the vigorous cultural activity in which Acharya Sankara engaged himself.

When we tackle a problem, we must go to the very root of it. A kind of surface tackling of a question is not an answer to it. It is something like taking our daily meal when we are feeling hungry, and also trying to know why we are hungry at all—what has happened to us so that we feel hungry every day.

There was during the time of Acharya Sankara's coming to the world a big forest of cults and creeds, faiths, rituals and opinions galore. From the lowest pragmatic rituals to the highest Upanishadic wisdom, we had a large gamut of the development of thought, but it was not systematically arranged.

As I mentioned, the human mind is accustomed to emphasise only certain things whenever a pressure is exerted upon it, and unless there is a pressure, the mind will not function. It is not proper that the mind should operate only because there is a pressure exerted from outside, which is to say that there is no freedom at all. It is necessary to voluntarily manoeuvre the functions of the mind for a purposive direction, and we should not helplessly live in the world under a pressure of circumstances. Even if there is a pressure of conditions prevailing in the world, it is up to us to know why there are such pressures at all. We have internal emotional pressures, intellectual doubts, social difficulties and political harassments. We can handle them one by one in the manner necessary, in a surface way of things, but we never answer the question why these occurrences are happening at all. Why should things be as they are? Why are we what we are? Why is anything what it is? These questions were originally raised in the Vedas and the Upanishads, but they were completely forgotten due to the circumstances of human history. Truth always triumphs: satyameva jayate. Therefore, the truth of life asserted itself through the process of human history in different ways: in cultural revivals, philosophical disquisitions and even in political upheavals.

The genius that Acharya Sankara was, with the mighty reasoning and intellect that he exercised at a young age of sixteen, something astonishing for us to hear, paved the foundation for the most piercing and penetrating intellectual activity of philosophy in the world. Tradition goes that he studied the four Vedas—Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda—when he was just eight years old. A precocious and unimaginable genius he must have been at the age of eight to have become a chaturvedi, that is, a person who has learned all the four Vedas. When he was twelve he mastered all the philosophically oriented arts and sciences, and it was at the age of sixteen that he wrote the majestic commentary on the Brahmasutras. His exposition of the Brahmasutras and its contribution to intellectual thought and spiritual analysis is superb. It is a classic by itself. His commentary is a great literary contribution of philosophical profundity, touching the very heart of the human being.

Short was his life. It is believed that he was to pass away at the age of twenty-four but divine dispensation appears to have given him a further lease of life up to thirty-two for the purpose of spreading this knowledge throughout the country. There were no motor cars, no airplanes, not even roads. How would a person travel throughout the country? In that age of a total absence of communication and vehicular movement, that again speaks galore of his energy. He touched the four corners of India and established foundational stones of learning in the south, in the west, in the north, and in the east, and he himself centralised his presence in the very heart of the country.

It is difficult to write a biography of such a great Master. The greater a person is, the more difficult it is to say anything about that person because they touch the very core of the facts of life, and therefore, we do not know what to say about them. If you write a biography of the sun shining in the sky, what will you say about the sun? You will be flabbergasted. You cannot say anything. The sun is the sun; that is all. You do not know what to say. Similar is the question: “What was the way in which the battle took place between Rama and Ravana?” For that, the answer is: To what can you compare the sky? You can compare the sky to the sky only, because there is nothing second to it. To what can you compare the ocean? The ocean is like the ocean only; there is nothing like the ocean anywhere. Likewise, the battle between Rama and Ravana was like the battle between Rama and Ravana; that is all. Such is the pinnacle or the heat of that action which was the battle between Rama and Ravana.

Similar is the glory of a great genius, a mathematical genius, a political genius, or the height of statesmanship, great poetry, a wonderful painting; you cannot write anything about these things. You can write about small things or about great things, but you cannot write anything about the greatest of all things. You can write something about your body, you can explain something about your mind, but you cannot say anything about your soul because it is the greatest of things in you. So all our knowledge is periphery and it does not touch the core of things.

Acharya Sankara was a chivalrous, adventurous young leader of people who rose up like a meteor which shot through the sky, illuminating the Earth. He created the circumstance of learning, education and philosophy that would be remembered forever and ever, as long as the sun shines in the sky.

There are pathshalas, schools of Sanskrit learning in our country and elsewhere which take up teaching on the writings of Acharya Sankara, but they follow a procedure of knowing the beauty of a building by counting the bricks that contribute to make the building. How many iron bars, how many bricks, how much of cement? Can we say the beauty of a building consists in the number of bricks and iron rods and the quantity of cement that we have used? Yet, there is nothing in the building except these things; it is perfectly true. The building is nothing but cement, brick and iron, but the building is something different from them. Likewise, these learned pundits miss the spirit of the whole thing. The soul of the teaching is missed in the counting of the grammatical textual interpretations of Sankara's teachings—going on by rotation and rote the same words again and again, repeating Panini grammar and the verbal and grammatical conjunctions. These things take up all their occupation. It is like the value of a building; who thinks what is the depth of the foundation, and what is the material that is used? This is not the value of the building. The value of the building is in the beauty of it, not in the quantity of material that has gone into it.

So in a way, it is very unfortunate that these days we do not have good students and do not have even good teachers who can actually touch the heart of this great man, who was the greatest of men, I should say. The spirit is always lost in all our activity. We are mechanical bulldozers that walk on the road doing some great work. The bulldozer has done many great works, but it has no soul. The bulldozer does not know what it is doing, but it has done great work, wonderful work.

Thus, wonderful work does not mean real work. Here is the great point of learning. Even if a person chants the Vedas and the Upanishads, and knows the whole Bhagavadgita by heart, it does not mean he is a learned person because he is only a machine that moves like a vehicle on the road, but the spirit of it is missing. Today we require not learned people who know grammar and linguistics and the composition of the language in which a particular book is written, but we require a teacher whose soul is speaking and a student whose soul is listening. That is gradually diminishing in our country due to pressures of circumstances which are purely external, so we seem to be living in the objective world of mechanical operations, and we have lost our soul completely. The world has no soul today; it has machines only, so that the person who lives in the midst of these machines also has become a machine. That is why there is a tragedy everywhere, restlessness everywhere, and no satisfaction in whatever we do. Any action that we do, whatever it is, in any field of life, does not bring satisfaction because machines are working, and the soul is dead.

So what can I tell you? This great Master requires a purely appropriate appreciation from the depths of your spirit for his great commentaries. There is no one who can write like that, no one who can think like that, and no one also who can express in that majestic language, especially as we have seen in his commentary on the Brahmasutras. So we have to become spiritual seekers, not merely intellectual, argumentative professors.

In all the processes of life that we have to pass through, whether it is personally or in the family or in society or in the workaday world, our soul has to come to the forefront. Let the soul work. It is not enough if your emotions work and your expectations work like a salary for a good life, etc. Let the soul come into the forefront. Let it do the work for you, like Sri Krishna sitting in the front of the chariot of Arjuna; the machine is Arjuna, and the soul is Krishna. A mere machine is of no utility here. Hence, the chariot of Arjuna and Krishna is the blending of the spirit and the letter of any activity, which is abundantly highlighted in the Bhagavadgita, which we miss every day because with all these things that we have heard, with all these things that we seem to have learned, we are still mechanised in every way. We admire the industrial revolution of the world, we admire airplanes, we admire robots, we admire satellites; we admire everything which is dead, without any soul. How wonderful is this world of industrial transformation and mechanical genius! But all this is soulless, so the world cannot be happy. No one in the world can be happy with any amount of effort if the machine is working beautifully but the soul is dead.

It requires a powerful spiritual leader in order that these attempts at the resuscitation of the values of life can come to the surface of life. The hope of the world is in the soul of the world and not in the mechanical activities and performances, or the industrial achievements anywhere.

Here is the great Master before us. We are observing, celebrating his birthday, and it is not enough if we do arati, take prasad and go away, saying that we have celebrated Sankaracharya Jayanti. Let the soul be stirred; go into the spirit of what he has taught, and if you can live in the light of what was actually presented to you as a honey of knowledge, you will be blessed. This is what I feel.