Author: Sonia Sikka (University of Ottawa)
Shankaracharya, also known as Adi Shankara, is an 8th century Indian philosopher and theologian who argues that ultimate reality or brahman is single and not substantially distinct from the world. Often compared with Western monists such as Parmenides, Plotinus and Spinoza, Shankara contends that the universe of distinct particulars has only a dependent and limited being, and that our everyday attribution of ultimate reality to it is a result of ignorance. While in some respects this metaphysics resembles Buddhist emphases on the conditioned and transient nature of things, Shankara posits a stable and unchanging reality behind the shifting appearances, which is said to be identical with the permanent aspect of the self (atman) as pure consciousness. Shankara is a Vedantic thinker who respects the authority of the Upanishads, to which he appeals in support of his claims. However, his metaphysical position is at the same time developed through philosophical refutations of the views of rival schools, including Buddhist ones. Shankara’s commentary on the Brahma Sutras, for instance, contains arguments against Buddhist subjective idealism maintaining the non-existence of the external world, and against the central Buddhist doctrine of no-self or anatta.
Shankara’s most comprehensive work is his Brahmasutrabhasya, commentary on the Brahma Sutras (also known as the Vedanta Sutras). Extracts from this work stating key points in Shankara’s argument are contained in the following anthologies:
– A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, ed. S. Radhakrishnan & Charles A. Moore (Princeton New Jersey Press, 1957), pp. 509-543.
– The Essential Vedanta: A New Source Book of Advaita Vedanta, ed. Eliot Deutsch & Rohit Dalvi (World Wisdom, 2004), pp. 196-258
Chapters from the commentary on the Brahma Sutras suitable for a course syllabus include:
– Preamble to Chapter I (opening pages of the work)
– I.iv.23-27 Brahman as material cause (argument for brahman as both material & efficient cause of the universe)
– II.ii.18-27: Refutation of Buddhist realism and nihilism – arguments against ontology of momentariness with no underlying identity, includes arguments against anatta or no-self
– II.ii.27-31 Refutation of Buddhist idealism – arguments against subjective idealism, and summary of argument against anatta
The anthologies listed above take their extracts from The Vedanta-Sutras: with the Commentary by Sankaracarya, trans. George Thibaut, The Sacred Books of the East, vol. 34, ed. F. Max Müller (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1890).
More recent translations are:
Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya of Sri Sankaracarya, trans. Swami Gambhirananda (Kolkata: Advaita Ashrama, 1965).
Brahma-Sutras, with Text, Word-For-Word Translation, English Rendering, Comments According to the Commentary of Sri Sankara and Index, by Vireswarananda (Mayavati, Almora, Himalayas: Advaita Ashrama, 1936):
“Advaita Vedanta,” Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy
Richard King, “Sankara and the Philosophy of Non-Dualism (Advaita Vedanta),” and “Causal Theory in Advaita,” in Indian Philosophy: An Introduction to Hindu and Buddhist Thought (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1999), pp. 213-221.
A summary of Sankara’s non-dualism, and his conception of brahman as the material cause of the universe.
Sue Hamilton, Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2001); Chapter 7: “Grammar again, and the exegetical traditions: Bartrhari, Mimamsa, Vedanta”
Concise overview of the classical Indian schools oriented around interpretations of the Vedas.
Daniel Ingalls, “Shankara’s Arguments Against the Buddhists”, Philosophy East and West, 1954
Examines Shankara’s arguments against Buddhist realism and idealism, in the context of debates about whether his monistic metaphysics genuinely opposes Buddhism or is a disguised version of it.
Brian Carr, “Sankara and the Principle of Material Causation,” Religious Studies, 1999, 35/4
Critical analysis arguing that Shankara’s position regarding the causal relation between the apparent world and ultimate reality is incoherent and reflects problems with monism generally.
William M. Indich, Consciousness in Advaita Vedanta (Delhi: Motilal Banarasidass, 1980).
A detailed but accessible account of the equation of reality with pure consciousness within the non-dualist school that centrally includes Sankara.
Elliot Deutsch, Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1969.
Classic overview of the epistemology and ontology of the Advaita school, by an eminent Western scholar of Indian philosophy.
Parmenides, Spinoza (monism)