The secret identity of Sripad Shankaracarya
Over time, the ancient land of India has been witness to many changes in the lives of its residents by way of shifting cultures and changing philosophies. Many have, over the past several centuries espoused a variety of views about the very nature of this world and its inhabitants. Few have even searched for transcendence.
Amongst this myriad variety, few cultures could measure up in terms of both-time and space-to the Vedic culture. Practiced since time immemorial, this culture is deep-seated in the hearts of people here. Try as they might, it is difficult for them to escape the impressions within. But, around 200 BC, Emperor Asoka’s acceptance of Buddhism led to a major shift in the religious landscape of the land. Buddhism is veiled atheism. Propagated by Lord Buddha as an emergency measure to counteract the rampant animal-killing in the name of Vedic sacrifices, it proverbially “threw the baby out with the bath water.” Along with the rejection of the Vedic injunctions for sacrifices(which were exploited by a few to kill animals), it led to a wholesale rejection of the entire Vedas. Losing respect for their traditions, people became atheists. In such adverse times, one spiritual teacher re-established the supremacy of the Vedic tradition. He was Sripad Shankaracarya. In a life of a mere 32 years, Shankara drove out the Buddhists from India and unfurled the flag of the Vedas on the monument of the subcontinent’s culture.
The acarya’s advent
Appearing in the year 788 AD, in a religious brahmana family in South India, Sri Shankaracarya was quick to attract the attention of people around him. With a prodigious intelligence and memory, he quickly mastered the Sanskrit language. Accepting sannyasa at the tender age of eight, Shankara marched throughout India and used all his might to turn the tide of Buddhism, widespread in India at the time.
To achieve this, he had to make the transition easy. He devised a philosophy of advaita-vedanta or absolute non-dualism. Denying the Buddhist understanding of the ultimate truth being void, Shankara argued that the truth is Brahman, spirit. He also replaced the Buddhist idea of no soul with the Vedic truth of atma or individual soul. Further, he described the atma and Brahman as undifferentiated spiritual reality without any qualities, varieties or relations. Obviously, there is no cognitive difference between “void” and “Brahman” presented without qualities or distinctions. Shankara's Brahman was thus a clever, scriptural replacement of the Buddhist “void.”
Even as it may seem that Shankaracarya’s preaching of impersonalism tends to be a disservice to the Supreme Lord, it is very important to understand a passage from the Padma Purana which details a conversation of Lord Shiva and Parvati Devi.
Srila Prabhupada comments in his purport to Bhagavatam 4.24.17:
Since Lord Shiva does not incarnate himself unless there is some special reason, it is very difficult for an ordinary person to contact him. However, Lord Shiva does descend on a special occasion when he is ordered by the Supreme Personality of Godhead. In this regard, it is stated in the Padma Purana Uttara-khanda (25.7)that Lord Shiva appeared as a brahmana in the age of Kali to preach the Mayavada philosophy, which is nothing but a type of Buddhist philosophy.
pracchannam bauddham ucyate
mayaiva vihitam devi
Lord Shiva, speaking to Parvati-Devi, foretold that he would spread the Mayavada philosophy in the guise of a sannyasi brahmana just to eradicate Buddhist philosophy. This sannyasi was Sripada Shankaracarya. In order to overcome the effects of Buddhist philosophy and spread Vedanta philosophy, Sripada Shankaracarya had to make some compromise with the Buddhist philosophy, and as such he preached the philosophy of monism, for it was required at that time.
To prove his scholarly might, Shankaracarya commented vigorously on Upanisads like the Brhad-aranyaka Upanisad, Katha Upanisad, etc., the Bhagavad-gita and even the Vedanta-sutra giving his impersonal conclusions. However, he intentionally never touched the Srimad-Bhagavatam knowing that the author’s own commentary would be too difficult for him to surpass.
Even though it was required to present somewhat of a compromise of the essence of the Vedic teachings, Sripad Shankaracarya has unabashedly displayed his devotion to Lord Krishna frequently. He has compiled prayers to Lord Jagannatha called Jagannathastakam, to Lord Pandu-ranga called Pandurangastakam, where he explicitly glorifies the Supreme form of Lord Krishna. While at Benares, he compiled a beautiful text called Bhaja Govindam, which says
bhaja govindam bhaja govindam
bhaja govindam mudha mate
samprapte sannihite kale
na hi na hi raksati dukrn-karane
“You fools and rascals, all your grammatical word jugglery of suffixes, prefixes and philosophical speculation will not save you at the time of death. Just worship Govinda! Worship Govinda! Worship Govinda!”
Modern impersonalists unfortunately don’t follow their great predecessor Shankaracarya and think Krishna to be just an ordinary living entity. Shankaracarya himself in his commentary to the Bhagavad-gita, admits narayanah paro’vyaktad— “The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Narayana is beyond the material creation.”
Mayavada philosophy, as spread by Sripad Shankaracarya was less of a permanent doctrine and more of a temporary facilitation for the people of Bharata-varsa to change over from atheistic Buddhist philosophy to his presentation of scripturally respectable impersonalism. Present-day Mayavadis, however, neglecting Shankaracarya’s personal advice, continue to walk on the treacherous path of Mayavada, guiding their followers to commit grievous offense at the lotus feet of the Lord by considering the infinitesimal living entity to be equal to the infinite Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Serving to re-establish the Vedic authority, Shankaracarya’s efforts provided the foundation for further work by stalwart acharyas like Sripad Ramanujacarya (1017–1137), Sripad Madhvacarya (1239–1319), who would in the future systematically highlight the personalistic conclusions of the Vedas and progressively refute the impersonalistic conclusions of Sripad Shankaracarya with their philosophies of visista-advaita and suddha-dvaita respectively, throwing more light on the conception of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. The grand finale of this plan would be the appearance of Lord Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, who would freely distribute love of Godhead, the essence of all Vedic teachings to one and all without any discrimination.