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Theosophical Encyclopedia

Sankaracarya

(Śankarācārya) (Shankaracharya). Principal philosopher in the Advaita Vedanta school of Indian Philosophy. His name is also transliterated Sankara, Sankara, Sankaracarya, etc. He is dated by scholars 788-820 CE, but by early Theosophists, such as Helena P. BLAVATSKY and T. SUBBA ROW, much earlier (mid 5th cent. BCE). Since there is a great deal of corroboratory evidence for the former date for the author of the commentaries on the Vedanta Sutras, principal Upanisads, and Bhagavad-Gita, as well as author of original works, such as Upadesasahasri (“Thousand Teachings”) and Vivekacudamani (“Crest Jewel of Discrimination”), the claims about a Sankara who was born shortly after the death of the Buddha in 486 BCE must refer to a different person. To make sense of this confusion, it will be well to refer to the earlier Sankara as “Adi-Sankara” and discuss each of them separately.

Adi- (i.e., first) Sankara is said in theosophical literature to have been a very highly evolved personage who was asked to incarnate shortly after the death of Gautama BUDDHA to help revive and reform Hinduism by establishing “certain centers of religion called mathas” and oppose animal sacrifice, according to Charles W. LEADBEATER (see The Masters and the Path, 1975 ed., p. 264). Leadbeater explicitly states that this Sankara was “not he who wrote the commentaries, but the great Founder of his line . . .” (idem). T. Subba Row puts the birth date of Adi-Sankara at 510 BCE (see Esoteric Writings, 1931 ed., p. 50), though he, unlike Leadbeater, conflates the two Sankaras. That there were more than one person called Sankara is well-known, since the name is just one of the designations of Siva and could be taken by any number of Saivite monastics; and acarya is an honorific title meaning “spiritual guide” (from a-car, “lead hither”). In fact, the heads of the mathas or maths established two and a half millenia ago by Adi-Sankara were, and still are, called Sankaracaryas. As T. Subba Row points out (loc. cit., p. 36), there was even a poet called Sankara.

The 8th-9th cent. Sankaracarya, principal philosopher of the Advaita Vedanta school, is called by H. P. Blavatsky (with the Buddha) a “sixth rounder” (SD I:162), i.e., a person greatly in advance of the present level of human development. She also refers to him as “the greatest Initiate living in the historical ages” (SD I:271) and “one of the greatest minds that ever appeared on Earth” (SDI:522). According to tradition, he was born in what is now Kerala State in south India. His father is said to have died when the boy was very young, and he was raised by his mother. The boy is reputed to have had a desire from a very early age to become a sannyasin (renunciate monk) against the wishes of his mother, who would then have no son to light her cremation pyre when she died. According to one story, probably unreliable, when the two of them were bathing in a stream one day, the boy was attacked by a crocodile and begged his mother to allow him to become a sannyasin before he was killed; when she consented, the crocodile released him and swam away. The boy took the renunciate vows as a very young boy probably at the age of eight or so. He is supposed to have studied with a teacher named Govinda. Sankara wrote voluminously in classical Sanskrit — a lengthy commentary on the Vedanta Sutras, commentaries (some quite lengthy) on the principal Upaniads, a commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, and at least the two original (i.e., non-commentary) works mentioned above. It is also very likely that he wrote at least some of the devotional poems (stotras) attributed to him. He is said to have traveled widely (presumably by foot) throughout India during his life, visiting his mathas and debating with proponents of other schools of philosophy. All of this was within a life span of only 32 years. Numerous other works (some quite at variance with his known works) have been ascribed to him. Possibly they are the works of other men who called themselves Sankaracarya, or possibly they are the writings of lesser thinkers who sought acceptance of their ideas by attributing their works to a greater man.

Sankara attracted four disciples: Padmapada, Suresvara, Hastamalaka, and Totaka. The first two wrote important (and rather lengthy) sub-commentaries on his Vedanta Sutras commentary. There is a story that Padmapada’s uncle was antagonistic to Sankara’s (and, therefore, his nephew’s) philosophy and while his nephew was away from his humble dwelling burned it down in order to destroy Padmapada’s sub-commentary inside it. When Padmapada returned, Sankara allayed his pupil’s distress by reciting the sub-commentary back to him from memory, having had it previously read to him only once by Padmapada! H. P. Blavatsky claims that some of Sankara’s “original treatises” are unknown to Western scholars “for they are too jealously preserved in his mathas” (SD I:271). She also states, “This sect, founded by Sankaracarya (which is still very powerful in Southern India) is now almost the only one to produce students who have preserved sufficient knowledge to comprehend the dead-letter of the Bhashyas [commentaries]. The reason for this is that they alone, I am informed, have occasionally real Initiates at their head in their mathas, as for instance, in the Sringa-giri,’ in the Western Ghats of Mysore” (loc. cit., vol. 1, pp. 271-2). Certainly the Sankaracarya of Srigeri in the 1960s was highly regarded by many people in India.

R.W.B.

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