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Vedanta Philosophy



Swami Vivekananda, Upasani Maharaj


1.    The  Upanishads

2.    Shankara  and  Advaita

3.    Shankara  and  Paul  Hacker

4.    Gaudapada  and  Buddhism

5.    The  Dashanami  Issue

6.    Ramanuja

7.    Madhva  and  Dvaita

8.    Dara Shikoh

9.    Schopenhauer  and  the  Oupnekhat

10.  Ramakrishna  and  Swami  Vivekananda

11.  Sarvepalli  Radhakrishnan  and  Gaudapada

12.  Ramana  Maharshi

13.  Upasani  Maharaj



1.  The Upanishads

The ultimate inspiration for Vedanta philosophy were the texts known as Upanishads. These are very difficult to date, especially the earliest compositions. Estimates of age have varied widely. The oldest Upanishads were apparently the Brihadaranyaka and Chandogya. Those documents are in prose, and have been classified as anthologies. These edited texts drew upon diverse materials, some of which were probably much older. The more conservative datings have attributed these prose texts to the sixth and seventh centuries BCE, which means they are pre-Buddhist.

Other early Upanishads were composed in verse, including the Kena, Katha, and Isha. Some commentators attribute these works to the formative centuries of the Buddhist era. Theistic forms of expression can here be found, antedating the Bhagavad Gita, generally regarded as a Vedantic text. The Upanishads are more complex than is often thought, and include rites to ensure pregnancy and other mundane objectives.

"These documents were composed over several centuries and in various regions, and it is futile to try to discover a single doctrine or philosophy in them." (Olivelle 1996:xxiv)

The Upanishads are traditionally described in terms of jnana-marga, the path of knowledge. This route is often contrasted with karma-marga, here meaning the path of ritual action, associated with earlier texts of the Vedic corpus (i.e., the samhitas or hymns, and the brahmana texts). The Upanishads quote the Vedas, and also resist Vedic ritualism, offering instead a more introspective route to immortality.

Some commentators treat the Upanishads in terms of a reinterpretation of brahmanical ritualism. The changes and adaptations are thought to have included a new priestly deference to the kshatriya class. A number of Upanishadic teachers are discernible as being members of the royal class. The location was North India, where Buddhism and other shramana (non-Vedic) traditions also emerged.

Certain early Upanishadic passages refer to women as participants in religious discussions. The Brihadaranyaka names Gargi and Maitreyi. The context indicates the relatively high social prerogative of some women in ancient India, as compared to the situation in later periods of the caste milieux.

Maitreyi was the wife of a sage named Yajnavalkya. A basic teaching was communicated to her in a dialogue: "You see, Maitreyi - it is one's self (atman) which one should see and hear, and on which one should reflect and concentrate. For. . . when one has reflected and concentrated on one's self, one knows this whole world" (Brihadaranyaka 4.5.6., trans. Olivelle 1996:70).

The word Brahman became a key component of Vedantic terminology. In the earliest priestly literature, the term brahman signified ritual power. Eventually, this word was generally interpreted in terms of an impersonal absolute, and the truth registered by the individual atman. The early Upanishads feature monism, and also refer to transmigration.

The law of karma is anticipated in the Brihadaranyaka (3.2.13). Yajnavalkya affirmed: "A man turns into something good by good action and into something bad by bad action" (Olivelle 1996:38). The theme of punya (merit), avoiding wrong action, was spread in a variant far and wide by Buddhism. "Early in Buddhism, good karma was said to bring a good result and bad karma to bring a bad result" (Akira 1990:189).

Another source emphasised by Vedanta tradition is the Brahma Sutra (also known as Vedanta Sutra). This text is attributed to Badarayana, and was perhaps composed over a lengthy period until the fifth century CE. The extant format of this text has been dated to 400-450 CE, but the greater part of it was probably in existence much earlier (Nakamura 1983:436). The Brahma Sutra is traditionally regarded as a summary of Upanishadic teaching, although the Chandogya was apparently the core text employed. A problem of format is the extreme brevity of statement. The aphoristic contents are notoriously difficult to comprehend, and require a commentary.

Many other Upanishads date from varying eras. The conventional number of 108 is sometimes found. This corpus gained quasi-canonical status. Scholarship has recognised that "sectarian teachings of various groups" (Klostermaier 1989:185) are involved from much later periods. Some of these works describe rules of sannyasa, while others expound Yoga. There are Shaiva, Vaishnava, and Shakta Upanishads.

2.  Shankara and Advaita

There are various hagiographies of Shankara, composed many centuries after his death. Caution is required. A well known version, by Madhava, is frequently believed to be a fourteenth century document. However, scholarship has revealed this text to be centuries later. "We have no reliable knowledge of the details of Shankara's life. The standard account is that of the Shankara Digvijaya of Madhava, which cannot be early as it quotes a seventeenth century author" (Alston 1980:43).

The birthplace of Shankara was reputedly Kaladi, a village in Kerala. His family belonged to the Nambudiri brahman community. In the genuine Shankara works, all his references to geographical locations apply to North India, in the Ganges delta. Shankara also refers to the Himalayas. These details have been viewed as "lending some support to the supposition that Shankara wrote and taught in north India" (Clark 2006:151). However, his disciple Sureshvara refers to him as a dravida, indicating his southern origin.

Shankara early became a renunciate, and reputedly established a monastic order, associated with four monasteries at Shringeri, Dwaraka, Badrinath, and Puri. Each of these monasteries gained a succession of abbots bearing the title of Shankaracharya. These pontiffs, or jagadgurus, gained considerable power and influence (Cenkner 1983). Their membership is often known as the Shankara Order, or the Dashanami Order. Many historians doubt that Shankara founded any monastic organisation (see Clark 2006).

The pre-eminent South Indian monastery of Shringeri claimed to be the first monastery founded by Shankara. This detail tends to be contradicted by recent research, which affirms that Shringeri was "originally a Jain centre taken over by Hindus in the fourteenth century and then fitted out with a spurious history" (Dundas 1992:111). The subsequent Hindu patronage of the Shringeri monastery, by the extensive and powerful kingdom of Vijayanagara, dramatically changed the situation of the Shankara Order to "a new affluence and semi-feudal authority" (Pande 1994:361).

The dating of Shankara is uncertain. His dates are sometimes given as 788-820 CE. Some commentators argue that he lived in the seventh century CE. The alternative dating of 686-718 CE has been urged. A popular but eccentric dating, i.e., the fifth century BCE, has been dismissed as a fallacy of the modern period. There are such complexities in the situation as political influence gained by various Advaita monasteries, giving access to land and revenue donated by kings. This factor "led to fierce rivalries in the past" amongst these monasteries, especially in South India.

The authenticity of Shankara works is not straightforward. Hundreds of texts are attributed to him, many of which are thought to have been composed by later monastic leaders bearing the title of Shankaracharya. Only a few works were indisputably authored by Shankara. The basic original text is a commentary (bhashya) on the Brahma Sutra. Only four Shankara texts are beyond query, meaning the famous Bhashya, the commentaries on Brihadaranyaka Upanishad and Taittiriya Upanishad, plus Upadeshasahasri (Clark 2006:104-108).

Sixteen Upanishads were recognised by Shankara as authoritative. He reputedly composed commentaries on ten of these, which came to be regarded as the principal texts in this category. These are Brihadaranyaka, Chandogya, Aitareya, Taittiriya, Katha, Kena, Isha, Mundaka, Prashna, and Mandukya. However, there are disagreements in this field. Many scholars have not questioned these texts. Yet only two of the Upanishad commentaries are unanimously considered by Sanskrit scholars to be definitive Shankara works. The only other text to gain such sanction is the non-commentarial treatise Upadeshasahasri (Thousand Teachings). In contrast, the well known Vivekachudamani has been denied authenticity by some scholars.

Shankara is also strongly credited with a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita (different opinions have been put forward on this matter). Many analysts tend to view as authentic a famous commentary to Gaudapada's Karika on the Mandukya Upanishad. Popular works like Atmabodha have been discounted.

"Even the best of the inauthentic Vedanta works, like the Viveka Chudamani, are a source of confusion if taken as a guide to Shankara's actual views. This is because Vedanta doctrine was gradually developed and altered by his successors under pressure of new criticism from opposing schools. Once the doctrine had tended to become standardised by works like the Vivarana of Prakashatman (probably not later than the tenth century) which abound in definitions, the temptation to read the new formulae back into Shankara's genuine texts became irresistible. And the tendency was greatly strengthened and reinforced by the existence of works such as the Viveka Chudamani and others in which the later formulae occur." (Alston 1980:47-48)

Shankara was in strong opposition to some rival doctrines, including Buddhism. His Brahma Sutra Bhashya includes a refutation of Buddhist doctrines which can be dated to the fifth and sixth centuries CE, strongly associated with Dinnaga and Dharmakirti. He was also in strong friction with the Purva Mimamsa tradition, a brahmanical speciality advocating ritualism.

Shankara emphasised liberation (moksha) from the process of illusion (maya), which causes ignorance (avidya). This ignorance clouds the atman or inner self, innately identical with the spiritual absolute (Brahman). To remove this ignorance and to develop knowledge (jnana), the Vedantist must develop discrimination (viveka).

"While the idea of mystical experience (anubhava), which has been stressed in recent times in the West, is important for Shankara as the goal to which revelation leads, he is primarily concerned with the correct interpretation of scripture and the refutation of what he regards as false views. There is no reference in his works to any personal religious experience nor to the experience of the ancient sages. The Veda, of course, is not thought to be of human authorship so personal experience is here irrelevant." (Flood 1996:242)

Vedanta as a theology has some disadvantages for philosophy. The belief that texts were of divine origin imposed an obligation to exposit in conventional terminology of the brahmanical tradition. Shankara was locked in an ideological conflict with the Mimamsakas, who insisted that the karma-kanda texts of the Vedas were paramount, meaning that ritual action was all-important. In contrast, Shankara maintained that jnana-kanda texts of the Vedas are a priority, leading to a liberation in life, as distinct from the after-life heaven taught by ritualists. No ritual action can achieve the required discrimination between the real and the false. Yet ritual priests believed that merits derived from ceremonies were the path to heaven.

Mimamsaka thought involved a belief that heaven was gained by the ritualist lifestyle. To Shankara, this lifestyle was part of maya, illusion. He himself was a renunciate from an early age. His teaching became known as advaita (non-dualism). However, Shankara did make some concession to the concept of Ishvara (or Personal God), existing with attributes (saguna), as distinct from the transcendent level of nirguna (without attributes) more generally associated with his teaching. Ishvara is a temporal manifestation of Brahman, and not absolutely real. In contrast, the Buddhists denied the existence of Ishvara.

"In general, according to Advaita, the soul by its inner nature is alien to any kind of action, since from the acceptance of its activity there would necessarily follow the impossibility of moksha." (Isayeva 1993:228)

In his Brahma Sutra Bhashya, Shankara offers the analogy of a carpenter being unhappy while working with tools, but who, upon returning home, is happy when becoming self-contained and inactive (ibid). The factor of introversion is obvious. No distinction is made between crafts activity and ritual actions.

A popular Advaita theme is sadhana chatushtaya, the "fourfold discipline." Shankara mentions this in his Brahma Sutra Bhashya, and in terms of a get-out from dispositions of ritualism and legalism. Discrimination between the real and unreal is essential, not ritualism. A list of moral virtues is included, including self-control. Also emphasised here is the longing for liberation (mumukshutvam). "The definition remains a very generalised one, and there is still the question as to exactly how the desired freedom is gained" (Shepherd 1995:655).

Some enquirers are surprised to learn that Shankara classified meditation as being part of karma, and quite separate from jnana. The Advaitin is "quite emphatic that meditation falls within the ream of action and although it may be helpful and even required in some cases, it is not logically necessary for the rise of self-knowledge" (Pande 1994:230). One interpretation is that knowledge of the atman arises from hearing Upanishadic assertions known as mahavakyas, including Aham Brahmasmi ("I am Brahman"), which became a virtual mantra for monks of the Shankara Order.

A basic drawback is often avoided in Vedantic literature, including the Western variety:

"The Shankara texts do not clarify the nature of 'realisation,' a pronounced drawback for modern enthusiasts of Tat tvam asi ('That thou art'). Shankara did urge that such Upanishadic statements [mahavakya] could grant knowledge of the atman leading to liberation. That is a very open-ended theme. The commentarial style resorted to scriptural testimony (shabda) in the attempt to give priority to the Upanishads over other Vedic texts. The rather static terminology does not describe the expansion of consciousness implied by the process leading to moksha, and has the disadvantage of suggesting to some readers that they already possess the atman and are not therefore striving towards any goal. Such persons have a disastrous tendency to believe that, merely by identifying with the atman (or Brahman), they are spiritually free. To them, 'Self-realisation' amounts to a mere gesture of affirmation." (Shepherd 1995:650)

After Shankara, there were numerous Advaita exponents and commentaries, with varying inflections of exegesis. One was the Vedantasara (Essence of Vedanta), a fifteenth century text by Sadananda, "a small literary work offering a clear and full explanation of the major terms of Sankara's thought" (Klostermaier 1989:384). This aphoristic text refers to two types of enhanced consciousness or samadhi, meaning savikalpa and nirvikalpa. The former represents an inferior form of bliss. The latter is frequently simplified.

Sadananda describes the route to nirvikalpa in terms of the eightfold practice of Patanjali Yoga, "including the distraction of pranayama and the peremptory concentration technique believed to end in savikalpa" (Shepherd 1995:658). A confusion is apparent. The same work cites a warning from Gaudapada (a very early Advaitin) not to linger in savikalpa, but to remain unattached through the means of discrimination.

Shankara elevated the category of Paramahamsa renunciates, referring to them as transcending caste and ashrama (orthodox stage of life). A non-Shankara text, the Paramahamsopanishad, describes this category in terms of recognising the difference between the true Ekadandi "who holds the staff of knowledge," and the inferior holy man "who carries a mere wooden staff, who takes to all sorts of sense-objects, and is devoid of Jnana" (Madhavananda 1968:7). The same translation distinguishes between Paramahamsa Yogis and a more advanced grade. The Yogis attain concentration by means of the eightfold path of Patanjali Yoga, but in some instances, apply their powers (siddhis) to worldly ends, thus causing their downfall. In contrast, the true Paramahamsa renounces siddhis, and attains "the superconscious state in which all illusion of the world has vanished in the direct realisation of Truth, the Oneness of existence" (ibid:3).

"In the reliably authentic work BrahmaSutrabhashya, Shankara says that the Yoga Sutra can only be partially accepted, and his major work is noted for a polemical tactic against the Sankhya and Yoga systems. In another text attributed to him, Shankara extends the eight-limb path of Patanjali Yoga into a fifteen-fold path of very different complexion, one which transforms even the physical postures (asanas) into a mental discipline. He and his school appear to have had a very low estimation of breathing exercises, and the statement can be found in his name: 'The ignorant only torture the nose'." (Shepherd 2004:141)

Shankara is traditionally credited with a commentary relating to the Yoga Sutra. In a more general context, "the most important texts on the Yoga system are by teachers of Advaita Vedanta... All these commentators explain Yoga more or less in Sankhyan terms." Further, "Advaita Vedantins have completely internalised Yoga practice" (quotes from Upanishad).

"The Vivarana on Vyasa's Bhashya to the Yoga Sutras.... will be left out of consideration here, partly because it expounds a system which in his Advaita works Shankara emphatically rejects. Professor Hacker has advanced arguments for supposing that he [Shankara] began his literary career as an expositor of the Yoga system but later found the spiritual discipline of Advaita Vedanta more effective." (Alston 1980:48)

Another assessment is in terms of "probable but not certain" with regard to the authenticity of the Vivarana under discussion (Pande 1994:112). Rather more decisive is the version which strongly distinguishes between Shankara and the Vivarana author, who is suggested to have lived in Kerala after Vacaspati, but not later than the fifteenth century (Rukmani 2001). The relevant translation finds the quality of the Vivarana text much inferior to the Brahma Sutra Bhashya. Another commentator says that authenticity of the Vivarana is "highly improbable" (Clark 2006:104-108, on Shankara texts).

3.  Shankara and Paul Hacker

The assessment of Professor Paul Hacker (1913-1979) has been influential amongst specialists, but often neglected in popular media. In his German articles, Hacker bypassed the legendary dimensions of Shankara, and supplied a more realistic profile. However, critics have described Hacker as a Christian evangelist; they accuse the German Indology of his era as being afflicted by ideological limitations. Hacker certainly did oppose the Neo-Vedanta associated with Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishnan, regarding this as something aberrant. His own religious orientation transited from a Lutheran identity to that of a Roman Catholic. His scholarly supporters affirm that his religious views do not affect the potential accuracy of his conclusions relating to Shankara, whatever his biases concerning Neo-Vedanta.

Hacker urged that the Shankara monasteries were created in the fourteenth century, not earlier. He emphasised discrepancies in the traditional portrayal of Shankara by Madhava, author of the Shankara-Digvijaya (that author has been confused with Vidyaranya, who was influential in the early years of the Vijayanagara empire, and who is strongly associated with the Shringeri monastery). Cf. Pande 1994:11.

The analysis of Hacker regarded only a small portion of the Shankara corpus as authentic. That means the Brahma Sutra Bhashya, most of the commentaries on early Upanishads, the commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita, and also Upadeshasahasri ("Thousand Teachings"). The lastmentioned treatise was described by Hacker in terms of "a collection (perhaps compiled by Shankara's pupil Suresvara) of all his independent writings" (Halbfass 1995:30).

Hacker deduced that the Brahma Sutra Bhashya and other works "indicate that he [Shankara] came from a Vaishnava background" (ibid:27). Furthermore, the earliest exponents of his school seem to have been Vaishnava affiliates (ibid:38). In contrast, the theme of Shankara's Shiva nature was emphasised in a well known hagiography of later centuries. According to Hacker, this feature was "nothing more than a product of fantasy" (ibid:28). A supporting reference is: "Shankara was almost certainly a Vaishnava, and not a Shaiva as projected in the hagiographic tradition" (Clark 2006:24).

The Shankaran concept of maya is often regarded as a purely Advaitic theme. However, Hacker concluded that Shankara's "notion of maya tallies very well with the Vaishnava conception of the term" (ibid:38). In this direction, we are a long way from the traditional depiction of Shankara patronising Shaiva ascetics (who became a feature of the Dashanami phenomenon associated with the Shankara Order).

The German philologist was very sceptical of the conventional presentation of Shankara as "the great champion of Hindu unity" (ibid:30). Hacker found "not the slightest indication in Sankara's authentic works" of that unity theme (ibid). Instead, Shankara "energetically attacked the non-Advaitic religious and philosophical systems of 'Hinduism' prevalent in his day" (ibid).

4.  Gaudapada and Buddhism

A predecessor of Shankara was Gaudapada, of whom virtually nothing is known. This figure was one of the very obscure "early Advaita" exponents (Fox, 1993; King 1995; Nakamura 2004:219ff). His treatise known as Mandukya-Karika, relating to the Mandukya Upanishad, has been the subject of controversy. This is because of a Mahayanist complexion, chiefly found in the fourth and last chapter.

One modern commentary early emphasised Buddhist influence on Gaudapada (Bhattacharya 1943). This view was countered by an insistence that the Karika contents are Vedantic, and effectively resisting Buddhism (Mahadevan 1952). However, this version does not deny that Gaudapada resorted to arguments taken from Buddhist sources.

The fourth chapter of Gaudapada's Karika employed terminology of Mahayana Buddhism, mainly that of the Madhyamaka school, but with an element of Vijnanavada thought also in evidence. This debated chapter may have been composed by another writer.

"The doctrines and terminology of the Lankavatara Sutra appear as early as the second book [chapter] of the Karikas, while the last book, which begins with a salutation to the Buddha and ends with a standard Buddhist phrase referring to him, is composed in the technical terminology of the Buddhists almost throughout.... It seems clear that Gaudapada thought that the Buddhist works which he so freely quoted were only restating the old Upanishadic wisdom enunciated by Yajnavalkya, but in a clearer, more systematic form, better suited to the philosophic climate of his own day. Both the Madhyamikas and Gaudapada appeal to a special form of yoga that takes those who practice it successfully to an experience that lies beyond the distinction of subject and object." (Alston 1980:25-27)

The term asparsa yoga has been found in Buddhist works, relating to a mystical perception of reality. This factor has been described as a component of Gaudapada's teaching (Cole 2004). In terms of metaphysics, Gaudapada emphasised the illusory nature of the universe. Although doctrines of the Mahayanist Lankavatara Sutra have been discerned in the Karika, the theme of the world as an illusion is credited to earlier Vedantists. In the second chapter of the Karika, Gaudapada reflects: "Those who are experts in the Upanishadic wisdom look upon this world as if it were a cloud-city seen in a dream" (Alston 1980:25).

According to Advaita tradition, Gaudapada was the paramaguru (teacher of his teacher) of Shankara. He is often ascribed to the sixth century BC. Shankara quotes from the Karika in his Brahma Sutra Bhashya, but does not supply a name for the author. Shankara is also credited with a commentary on the Karika, a text accepted as genuine by most scholars (Clark 2006:109).

Shankara invoked Gaudapada as an adept forerunner in Advaita. However, Shankara resisted Buddhist conceptualism, and was at loggerheads with Mahayana logicians like Dharmakirti. Shankara "explained away most of the references to Buddhism.... One is still left wondering whether Shankara had any opportunity for studying the earlier Mahayana texts in sufficient depth to enable him to realise the extent of Gaudapada's borrowing" (Alston 1980:29-30).

"Perhaps the most likely factor involved in Shankara's eschewing of Mahayana is that he discerned the loss of atman in the basic exegesis of the Buddhists, a factor aggravated by the equation of nirvana with samsara which tends to characterise much Mahayanist thought" (Shepherd 1995:666).

The second chapter of the Gaudapada treatise includes some complex and provocative themes, including a well known "extremist" reference (section 11 below). A further Advaitin reflection indicates an objective desired in those circles:

"Therefore, having known this [Atman] thus, one should fix [one's] memory on non-duality; having secured [or, realised] non-duality, one should carry on the worldly activities like an insensate one" (Karmakar trans. 1953, chapter 2 verse 36 Karika).

Realisation of non-duality is more difficult than might at first sound. Many (especially Westerners) have treated this subject as an easy digest, converging with the very simplified "self-realisation" fad of the Western new age. Fixing the memory may be a long-term commitment, and securing the desired objective may be a complex and even elusive process, despite the enthusiastic repetition of Upanishadic mahavakyas that is often a resort.

5.  The Dashanami Issue

Naga sadhus at the Ardh Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, 2007

The Dashanamis are one of the largest sects of sadhus. Their strong association with the Shankara Order has often caused perplexity. A detailed book by Dr. Matthew Clark gives some insight into the historical background. Many of his suggestions and conclusions are of considerable interest (see Clark 2006).

"The Dashanami order has two main wings, one being what might be called the monastic tradition, represented by the dandi-s, who are 'staff-carrying' samnyasi-s, the preeminent representatives of this tradition being the reigning Sankaracaryas [in the Shankara monasteries]. The other main wing within the order is represented by paramahamsa ascetics and (previously) militant naga-s ('fighting ascetics'), the latter being organised in quasi-military divisions known as akhara-s ('wrestling ring')." (Clark 2006:23)

Shankara is traditionally credited as the founder of the Dashanamis. Clark finds that the traditions of origin are unsupported by any evidence. This issue converges with the difficulty in establishing factual context for the legends about early Shankara monasteries. The first mention of four Shankara monasteries (mathas) appears briefly in Cidvilasa's Sankaravijaya-vilasa, "produced most probably in the late sixteenth or seventeenth century" (ibid:24). That means nearly a thousand years after Shankara.

"No mention is made of the founding of any matha in the most popular of Shankara hagiographies, the Sankara-dig-vijaya attributed to Madhava, written, at the earliest, in 1650" (ibid). The extant hagiographies (about twenty of them) likewise make no mention of Shankara founding the Dashanamis. These are omissions to seriously reckon with.

The three largest sects of sadhus are the Vaishnava Ramanandis (Pinch 1996:23ff) and the Shaiva sects of Naths and Dashanamis. The number of Dashanami sadhus has been estimated in terms of "perhaps around 100,000," including a minority of females, who are often addressed as mai or mataji (Clark 2006:29-30).

The term paramahamsa was popularised over centuries, becoming a common designation for ascetics in North India. This situation should be distinguished from Shankara's usage of the word paramahamsa. In his commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Shankara separates conventional renunciation, relating to the fourth ashrama (stage of life), from "the higher type of renunciation wherein all emblems of the renouncer are abandoned, a condition he associates with the paramahamsa" (Clark 2006:102).

From the eighth century onwards, many Shaiva monasteries were established. By the tenth century, these were widespread throughout the Deccan, and especially Karnataka (ibid:183-4). Some abbots were of low caste background, receiving land grants from the state. These early monasteries provided garrisons, training in war, the manufacture of weapons, and even participation in battle (ibid:192-3). The leaders have been described as Shaiva exponents of Vedanta, and Shringeri should be viewed in this light.

A prominent monk was Vidyaranya (d.1386), living at the Shaiva monastery in Shringeri. He is credited with numerous works, but some are spurious, attributed to him in the mistaken belief that he was named Madhava before he took sannyasa (ibid:206). A Madhava of the fourteenth century was confused with the author of Shankara-digvijaya, the most well known hagiography, which could not have been composed before 1650 (ibid:209), and may be as late as 1798. There is no reference in that work to four monasteries, or the founding of an order of ascetics, and nor even the term Dashanami (ibid:148ff).

At Shringeri In the mid-fourteenth century, the early Vijayanagara rulers are thought to have patronised a new but orthodox tradition of Shaiva Advaita. This was not Shankara Advaita. Shankara was still relatively unknown. The hagiologists subsequently depicted Shankara as an incarnation of Shiva, who vanquished heresy and restored the orthodox brahmanical religion (Clark 2006:25). The indications are that Shankara was projected at a late stage onto the Shaiva monastic project in South India (ibid:177ff). There appears to be no inscriptional evidence, prior to 1652, connecting Shankara with any monasteries. The idea of Shankara founding a Dashanami order may not have been prevalent for another century (ibid:170).

The hagiographies feature Shankara's "quasi-military conquest of the four quarters, and subsequent ascent to the Throne of Omniscience" (ibid:156). These details "are evidently modelled on the royal digvijaya (conquest of the quarters) undertaken by kings of the medieval period" (ibid). Shankara was projected as a Shaiva, in the image of Vijayanagara rulers who patronised a Shaiva religion, including Vedic scholarship and Advaita Shaiva mathas (ibid:169). See also Bader 2000.

"As there is considerable evidence that Shankara and his immediate disciples were Vaishnava, there is all the more reason to doubt their connection with the early monastic tradition of either Shringeri or Kanchipuram" (Clark 2006:221). Certainly, Shankara is not mentioned in the Shringeri inscriptions during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The earliest that an Advaita tradition can be traced at Shringeri is 1346, with the earlier date of 1290 applying in this context to Kanchipuram (the "fifth monastery," near Madras). Rather more elusive is any evidence for the founding of other "Shankara monasteries" at Dwaraka, Puri, and Jyotirmatha. Furthermore, the names of all four "Shankara monasteries" do not appear in hagiographies until the seventeenth century (ibid:224). Only three hagiographies mention the founding of monasteries, and all of these are late creations (ibid:171-3).

A conclusion is that the Dashanami "order" was created in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth centuries, integrating monastic and military sannyasins, and being attributed to Shankara (ibid:227).

A pressing reflection, relating to the Mughal era, has been expressed by another scholar. The Shaiva orientation of Dashanamis is thought to have been a consequence of affiliation with the Shringeri monastery, a process involving the attribution of founding to Shankara, "who by the seventeenth century had been rebranded a Shaiva" (James Mallinson, Yogic Identities). During the seventeenth century, "the three main ascetic orders of North India - the Dashanamis, Ramanandis, and Naths - forged links with southern institutions as they staked claims to dominion over all of India" (ibid). The teachings of Shringeri monastery were "a blend of Advaita and the sanitised form of Shaivism known as Srividya" (ibid). Those teachings were adopted by the Dashanamis.

The phenomenon of warrior ascetics has a pedigree dating back to the eighth century CE, when Shaiva Pasupata holy men were armed by guilds to protect trade. The Bijak attributed to the sant Kabir (a work probably composed in the sixteenth century), has an oft-cited reference agitating against ascetics, siddhas, and yogis "who resort to arms, keep women and collect property and 'taxes' " (Clark 2006:228).

The Naths and Dashanamis appear to have been the first groups of mercenary ascetics to be in any way organised. There was a substantial recruitment of low caste shudras into Dashanami, Sikh, and Ramanandi akharas (ibid:228-229, and citing Pinch 1996:26-7).

The formation of Dashanami akharas was not primarily in response to Islamic harassment (although Muslims did sporadically attack sannyasins). Ironically, the major conflicts in the Mughal era occurred between Hindu sects. That means Vaishnava bhairagis versus Shaiva sannyasins (or gosains). In describing the Dashanamis, Clark refers to "monastic monks and armed, ash-covered gosain-s" (Clark 2006:229-232).

In North India, various rulers utilised naga armies comprising many thousands of Dashanamis (or gosains), along with Bhairagis and other fighting contingents. These warrior ascetics fought in numerous battles, both defensive and aggressive. During the latter half of the eighteenth century, they became a regularly paid standing army in service to the Maharajas of Jodhpur, Jaipur, Bikaner, Udaipur, and other places (ibid:247).

In 1760, Vaishnava bhairagis and Dashanami sannyasins (or nagas) fought pitched battles in Hardwar. This conflict related to precedence in bathing activities. The dead are reported to have numbered 1,800 (ibid:63). Such details are very sobering about the outlook involved.

During the late eighteenth century, nagas (or gosains) began to receive increasingly lucrative land grants and payments. In North India, these militant ascetics commanded a force of up to 40,000 horse and foot soldiers, facilitated by a network of arsenals and grain stores. They were equipped with muskets and artillery. Most of their campaigns occurred in the Gangetic region. The gosains were respected as fighters by the British, who ranked them alongside Afghans and Sikhs. Gosains became famous for nocturnal guerilla operations. They also demonstrated a mercenary approach to war that could result in their changing sides advantageously (Clark 2006:248-249).

A minority of Dashanamis were businessmen (and landlords). By the early nineteenth century, when wars were terminating, many thousands of gosains had settled in Bengal and other regions. Now ex-soldiers, they engaged in money-lending, banking, and trading. In 1787, they were the dominant merchant class in Benares. By the 1780s, gosains had become the dominant money-lending and property-owning community in Allahabad, Benares, Ujjain, and Nagpur; they were also major brokers in Rajasthan and the Deccan (ibid:256ff). As a consequence of mercantile activity, by the mid-nineteenth century, Dashanami akharas had accumulated considerable wealth and extensive property (ibid:51-2).

Swami Swarupananda Saraswati, Shirdi Sai Baba

The ongoing existence of the Dashanami order, in the ascetic mode, has included episodes in which the monastic Shankaracharyas have attempted to influence their Dashanami subscribers. A recent instance was the strong criticism of Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918), who was considered to be a Muslim, and therefore an outsider to the sphere of Hinduism and Hindu temples. This argument caused a considerable stir in various regions of India, and well outside the Dashanami ranks. The counter-accusations included one of sectarian bias on the part of the Shankara Order.

In June 2014, Swami Swarupananda Saraswati, the Shankaracharya of Dwaraka (in Gujarat), mobilised naga sadhus against devotees of Shirdi Sai. He gave a command that these devotees should not be allowed to worship Rama or bathe in the Ganges. Sai devotees retaliated by burning effigies of the Shankaracharya in Varanasi. Newspaper reports were dramatic. "A storm is gathering along the bank of the river Ganges.... the akhara leaders have asked all the naga sadhus to assemble in Prayag (Allahabad) and Haridwar. Their target will be to formulate a strategy on 'demolishing the belief that Sai Baba was a God' " (Piyush Srivastava, War Cry in the Holy Cities).

"The mahant of Baghambari Mutt [matha], Swami Narendra Giri, has vowed to deface Shirdi Sai Baba's temples and let loose Naga sadhus on the sect's followers, which is a clear signal to incite violence. The UP [Uttar Pradesh] police must step in to prevent the sectarian confrontation from spiralling out of control." (Chandan Nandy, Let Dialogue Prevail)

Several legal complaints were filed against Swami Swarupananda (Swaroopanand). In September 2015, he tendered an apology for his remarks made against Shirdi Sai Baba. He requested the Madhya Pradesh High Court to dispose of the petition against him.

6.  Ramanuja and Vishishtadvaita

Ramanuja (1077-1157) was the exponent of Vishishtadvaita Vedanta. The term vishishtadvaita is often translated as "qualified non-dualism." Some think that "negated non-dualism" is more accurate. Ramanuja was certainly a strong critic of the Advaita doctrine.

This brahman was born in Tamil Nadu, at the small town of Shri Perumbudur (near Chennai). After his marriage, the family of Ramanuja moved to the city of Kanchipuram. Here he reputedly learned from Yadava Prakasha, a Vaishnava teacher of Vedanta, apparently in a form convergent with Shankara Advaita. "It is impossible to determine the historical accuracy of these stories" (Olivelle 1995:1). The pupil is said to have disagreed with the guru about Vedantic exegesis, and the two parted company. "Yadavaprakasha favoured an amoral, impersonal, non-theistic interpretation of the Upanishads. Ramanuja, in contrast, favoured a theistic interpretation of the Upanishads that placed a premium on the aesthetic and moral excellences of Brahman" (quote from "Ramanuja," Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

Ramanuja subsequently joined the Tamil grouping known as Shri Vaishnavas and became a sannyasin. He reputedly travelled to different regions, engaging in public debates with rivals of the Vaishnava version of Vedanta. Ramanuja became the leader of a temple monastery at Shrirangam, in South India. A strong Vaishnava complexion is found in the hagiographies. Ramanuja is said to have restored many Vaishnava temples during his journeys. He was evidently concerned to support ceremonial worship. His major opponents were apparently Shaivas and Advaitins.

"Salvation or liberation for the Shri Vaishnavas was conceived as transcending the cycle of reincarnation (samsara) and karma and going to Vishnu's heaven (vaikuntha) at death, where the soul is united with the Lord in a loving relationship, while yet maintaining its distinction" (Flood 1996:136-137).

Ramanuja composed the Vedanta Samgraha, and also an influential commentary on the Brahma Sutra, known as Shribashya. He produced another commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. These texts relay his theistic worldview. Ramanuja argued against the Nirguna Brahman promoted by Shankara, believing in Saguna Brahman as Vishnu. He championed the marginalised Tamil tradition of the Alvar bhaktas (his shudra disciple Pillan composed the first Sanskrit-Tamil commentary on a Tamil text). Modern coverages have varied widely in charting the components of this argument.

"Despite the prevalent opinion, also held by Western scholars, that Shankara represents Vedanta in its purest form, we must say that it is probably Ramanuja who can claim to have Hindu tradition on his side and that, on the whole, his interpretation of the Upanishads may be fairer than Shankara's." (Klostermaier 1989:379)

Ramanuja's systematic theism asserts the material world, the multiplicity of souls (jivatmas), and Ishvara or Saguna Brahman (identified with Vishnu in this tradition). "According to Ramanuja, each jiva shares with Brahman an essential nature of being a knower. However, due to beginningless past actions (karma) our true nature (as being knowers and dependants upon Brahman) are obscured from us.... In other words, our likeness in one respect with Brahman does not imply that we ourselves are either omnipotent, omniscient or all good" (quote from "Ramanuja," Internet Ency. Philos).

This version of Vedanta emphasises bhakti (love, devotion) as a means to liberation (moksha). The highest form of bhakti is parabhakti. Ramanuja views bhakti as a form of perception. "In all cases, however, bhakti is a direct awareness of Brahman's nature, and thus constitutes a type of knowledge (jnana)" (ibid).

Ramanuja regarded Advaita monism as transgressing the scriptures. He expresses himself strongly on this issue. "The Advaitins, to hold such groundless opinions, must be plagued by the impressions of beginningless sin" (Flood 1996:243). Despite this strident form of condemnation, Ramanuja indicates a significant alternative to the Advaitin version of enlightenment. "For Ramanuja there is real separation of a distinct self from the Lord until such a time as that self is liberated. This liberation is the removal of past karma, not the removal of ignorance" (ibid:245).

Unfortunately, there is no detailed explanation of how the past karma is removed. However, certain formulations of Ramanuja have as much logic as those of Shankara, who did not sufficiently explain the nature of "realisation."

Both of these famous exponents, in modern estimation, are compromised by the subject of animal sacrifice. They were both concerned, though in different ways, to vindicate scriptural text. The Bhagavad Gita emphasises karuna or compassion for all creatures, and also promotes ahimsa (non-violence) as a virtue essential to jnana. Yet when such virtues conflicted with duties prescribed by the Vedas, Ramanuja opted for the latter.

"His general inclination to positively endorse the Bhagavad Gita's disavowal of animal cruelty did not stop him from affirming the propriety of animal sacrifices. In this respect, Ramanuja agrees with his Advaitin predecessor, Shankara, who held that while violence in general is evil, ritual slaughter is not any ordinary act of violence: because it is sanctioned by the Vedas, it cannot be evil (Shankara, Brahma Sutra Bhashya, III.i.25). Ramanuja however goes further and argues that ritual slaughter is not only not evil; it is also not really a form of violence. Rather, it is a healing act like a physician's procedure.... the sacrificed animal, on Ramanuja's account, is more than compensated in the next life for being ritually slaughtered (Shri Bhashya, III.i.25)." (Quote from "Ramanuja," Internet Ency. Philosophy, accessed 22/01/2016)

An irony is that Shri Vaishnava brahmans were generally vegetarians. Ramanuja is likely to have been one of these. The discrepancy between Vedic and post-Vedic culinary trends was pronounced.

After the death of Ramanuja, his tradition became divided into two contingents. The Northern (Vadakalai) school maintained that Vedic observances were essential to Shri Vaishnavism. In contrast, the Southern school (Tenkalai) emphasised the inspiration of the twelve Tamil Alvars. An ongoing dispute occurred about the subject of divine grace.

A prominent exponent of the Northern school was Vedanta Deshika, living in the fourteenth century. He was involved in the conflict with Advaitins about renunciate protocol. Vedanta Deshika urged that the mere sight of Advaitins was polluting and that conversing with them led to hell (Olivelle 1986:55). This sectarian friction was related to the Vishishtadvaitin clause that ritual activity is an essential aspect of the path to liberation. Vedanta Deshika was a householder, and he frowned upon renouncers who were averse to rituals. Advaitin ascetics discarded the brahmanical (or sacrificial) cord (Shepherd 2004:144).

The Advaita position maintained that all action should be abandoned, and that knowledge (jnana) alone brings realisation of the atman. In contrast, Vishishtadvaita insisted that action (karma), especially religious ritual action, should accompany the quest for knowledge (Clark 2006:87).

7.  Madhva and Dvaita

Ten branches of Vedanta are celebrated, each deriving from a famous commentator. More well known than some others is Madhva (1238-1317), the founder of Dvaita ("dualism"). The translation in terms of dualism has been considered misleading, as the tenets of this tradition to do not equate with Western concepts.

Madhva was a brahman born near the town of Udipi, in what is now Karnataka. A biography was contributed by the son of one of his disciples. At the age of sixteen, he became an ascetic, joining a Vaishnava order. He was resistant to Advaita exegesis, and supported Vaishnava theism. He became the leader of a math (monastery), and gained the name of Anandatirtha. He installed an image of Krishna in his math.

Madhva undertook a tour of South India, apparently with a missionary intention. He participated in debates with Advaitins, Jains, and Buddhists. The partisan account depicts him as defeating opponents. He is said to have advised a local ruler to exile rivals, and to execute many Jains (Klostermaier 1989:382). This is not an attractive scenario, whatever the precise nature of events. "The Muslim intolerance of Hinduism might have been one of the factors that could explain Madhva's un-Hindu intolerance toward other opinions" (ibid). A more humane detail is that Madhva substituted flour-made sheep for living animals in the ongoing Vedic sacrifices (Sharma 2000:81).

The Jains were firm opponents of animal sacrifice, which they mocked. Sectarian frictions were occasionally pronounced. During the sixteenth century, "Jain writers in western India produced versions of the Mahabharata libelling Vishnu," at a time when "large numbers of Hindus in Rajasthan were being converted to Jainism" (Dundas 1992:203).

A prolific author, Madhva wrote over thirty works, including commentaries on the ten major Upanishads. He argued for a systematic interpretation in terms of Vaishnava theism. To him, Vishnu was the equivalent of Brahman. He maintained that theism was the basic doctrine of the Upanishads, despite the occasional monistic expressions in those texts. His so-called "dualism" is the polarisation between Vishnu and the finite world, the latter being dependent on the former (Sharma 2000:1-3). The world was real, not an illusion.

In this reinterpretation, Madhva "makes considerable use of linguistic analysis, grammatical and etymological sanctions, and of a large body of interpretive and expatiatory literature" (ibid:156). A drawback was the "terse and elliptical" language he employed, his works revealing "an extreme brevity of expression and a rugged simplicity and directness devoid of all literary flourish" (ibid:84).

His favourite Upanishad was the Aitareya. When interpreted literally, much of this text "appears to be grotesque, unintelligible and bizarre" (ibid:168). The exegesis of Madhva achieved an "esoteric explanation of the text in terms of the highest Brahman and its worship and meditation," a perspective which "should be deemed a revolution in Upanishadic interpretation" (ibid).

Madhva's Rig-bhashya is unusual for a Vedantin, being a commentary on hymns of the Rig Veda. He believed that the Rig was a "theosophic" document, opposing the view that the samhitas or hymns only praise a plurality of gods, the hymns being proffered on occasions of sacrifice. While conceding this view, Madhva argues that a higher aim was to convey knowledge of the one supreme being. This interpretation includes the priestly karma-kanda, involving social and religious obligations, as a means to an end (ibid:180ff).

A Dvaitin successor of Madhva was Jayatirtha (d.1388), an exponent praised for a graceful style, "free from all trace of personal animosity or bitterness of feeling towards the followers of Advaita" (ibid:244). Becoming an ascetic at an early age, Jayatirtha was apparently the means of elevating Dvaita to a position of equality with Advaita and Vishishtadvaita. Over twenty works are attributed to him.

"The followers of Ramanuja who, in an earlier age had been invited to arbitrate between the two [rival] parties, now found themselves completely outstripped and left far behind, by the dialecticians of the Dvaita and Advaita schools." (Sharma 2000:268)

In this development, the Dvaitins borrowed from the school of logic founded by Gangesha Upadhyaya of Mithila. The major Dvaita exponent after Jayatirtha was Vyasatirtha (1478-1539). Active in South India, he gained influence at the court of Vijayanagar (1336-1565), representing the last Hindu empire in India and extending overseas. Vijayanagar was a fortress capital in Karnataka, also ruling the regions of Andhra, Tamil Nadu, and parts of Kerala. The city reputedly numbered half a million inhabitants. Here Vishnu and Shiva were the popular deities. Animal sacrifices and the burning of widows were common (Spear 1970:18-19). Vijayanagar was the second largest city in the world, with major irrigation works. Conflict with the Deccan Sultanates eventually resulted in defeat.

Vyasatirtha gained the patronage of Krishnadeva Raya (rgd. 1509-1529), the "greatest Hindu emperor of South India" (Sharma 2000:347). He adopted a rationalist approach in his version of belief in scripture. His Nyayamrita is regarded as the peak achievement of Dvaita philosophy. Vyasatirtha avoided theological issues such as the Vishnu versus Shiva rivalry.

This exponent was well versed in the six systems of Hindu philosophy. Vyasatirtha employed arguments of the Nyaya-Vaiseshika and the Purva Mimamsa, and was skilled in the Sanskrit grammatical tradition known as Vyakarana. His accomplishments "cannot be properly appreciated by anyone who has not mastered the traditional learning of these systems" (ibid:342). According to Shashibushan Dasgupta, "the logical skill and depth of acute dialectical thinking shown by Vyasatirtha, stands almost unrivalled in the whole of Indian thought" (cited in Sharma 2000:342).

A basic tactic of Vyasatirtha was to set "the conflicting views of Advaitic writers against one another, in order to expose their weakness" (ibid:344). This presentation of Dvaita aroused a counter-attack from Madhusudana Sarasvati (c.1540-1600), an Advaitin logician of Bengal who composed the Advaitasiddhi. Sarasvati was also a devotee of Krishna, bridging the gulf between Vaishnavism and Advaita. He differed from Shankara in some interpretations.

Bengal Vaishnavism was likewise receptive to Dvaita. The bhakti movement of Chaitanya (d.c.1533) is thought to have gained inspiration from Madhva and Vyasatirtha (ibid:295-296).

8.   Dara Shikoh

The liberal Mughal prince Dara Shikoh (1615-59) was the loser in a contest for the throne with his brother Aurangzeb (1618-1707). Shikoh "was associated with many Sanskrit scholars and his intimate knowledge of Hinduism may be the result of that contact" (Hasrat 1982:213). These scholars were pundits of Benares who assisted his project of translating the Upanishads. The resulting Persian work was Sirr-i-Akbar (Great Secret). This was completed at Delhi in 1657, and contained diverse Upanishads.

The Muslims did not pay much attention to this work, which was "generally confined to the Persianised Hindu court nobility of the time" (ibid:258). Shikoh called his collection "a treasure of monotheism, and there are few thoroughly conversant with it even among the Indians" (ibid:266). This work was translated into Latin, at Paris, in 1801 by Anquetil Duperron, but gained the repute of being difficult to read, and a poor substitute for the original Sanskrit. .

Shikoh also produced the Majma al-Bahrain (Confluence of the Two Oceans). This work of his attempted to reconcile Hinduism and Islam, making use of technical terms drawn from Vedanta and Sufism. The introduction boldly stated that there is no fundamental difference between Hinduism and Islam. This eclectic treatise was one reason for the orthodox charge of apostasy that befell Shikoh. He was eventually exceuted by his opponents, an event comprising a tragic loss for the cause of religious liberalism.

A major barrier for European scholars, during the eighteenth century, was the reluctance of brahman pundits to teach Sanskrit to foreigners. The Hindu scriptures were not supposed to be read by outsiders. Shikoh's achievement was to provide a new focus for inter-religious study. He also commissioned Persian translations of the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Vashishta.

9.  Schopenhauer and the Oupnekhat

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) was initially a private lecturer at Berlin University, but subsequently used his private income to fund his independent study and writing. He lived in obscurity for many years. Schopenhauer contributed a well known acknowledgment of the Upanishads:

"In the whole world there is no study, except that of the originals, so beneficial and so elevating as that of the Oupnekhat (Upanishads). It has been the solace of my life, it will be the solace of my death." (Parerga and Paralipomena, 1851)

The Oupnekhat does not represent an original Sanskrit text, but a Latin translation of the Persian version of the Upanishads commissioned by Dara Shikoh in the 1650s. The translator was Anquetil Duperron, an orientalist scholar. The Oupnekhat is often described as a laborious rendition, and Schopenhauer was handicapped in reliance upon this version.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Schopenhauer is notable for his praise of the Upanishads. Although he regarded these texts in terms of the highest wisdom, his interpretation was extended in an atheistic mode. His neo-Kantian exegesis was very much in terms of a Western logic. He also favoured elements of Hinayana Buddhism. His "pessimistic" philosophy has been deemed more compatible with the nihilism of Theravada Buddhism than to Vedanta. Reincarnation was purely allegorical in his view. Schopenhauer rejected an afterlife.

"The Buddhist nirvana and the Vedantic reabsorption in Brahman were considered by Schopenhauer to be "myths and meaningless words" in terms of ultimate significations, though he was fond of using the term nirvana in a negative context. He was one of the first to point out the resemblance of the Vedantic maya (illusion) to Kant's phenomenon, but this is arguably a superficial comparison." (Shepherd 1989:131)

He was still a young man when he wrote The World as Will and Representation, published in 1818. The Oupnekhat was an inspiration for this work, but is not solely represented. Schopenhauer is unusual amongst Western philosophers for emphasising an ascetic dimension, in addition to morality and art. He allowed for a mystical state of consciousness, contrary to Kant.

10.  Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda

The activity extending from Ramakrishna of Dakshineshwar (1836-1886) is generally considered a manifestation of Neo-Vedanta. A brahman and temple priest of Kali, living near Calcutta, he emphasised the unity of religions via a series of sadhanas that he undertook, including Vaishnava and Tantric disciplines. Christianity and Islam were included in this liberalism. He is associated with Vedanta via the ascetic wanderer Tota Puri, who is credited with the attitude: "Can there be such a fit aspirant for Vedantic discipline in Bengal, which is saturated with Tantric practices?" (Saradananada 1963:247)

Ramakrishna of Dakshineshwar

Tota Puri initiated Ramakrishna into sannyasa, and appears to have been rather formalist in his approach. "Tota tried to make the Master [Ramakrishna] attain Samadhi on that day with the help of various arguments and conclusive quotations from the scriptures" (ibid:251). Ramakrishna subsequently entered a state of reputed nirvikalpa samadhi. Tota Puri departed after a year. An obscure monk, who arrived at the Kali temple, was the crucial means of anchorage, staying for six months and saving the life of Ramakrishna by tending his body (ibid:253). This saint was subsequently known by the title of Paramahamsa, a designation for Vedantic knowers of Brahman.

Ramakrishna's own testimony to his nirvikalpa phase has survived as follows:

"For six months, I was in that state from which ordinary mortals never return. Ordinarily, the body can live for twenty-one days only in that state; then it falls like a dry leaf from a tree. There is no consciousness of time; the coming of day or the passing of night.... But a holy man came here.... He recognised my state as soon as he saw it. Therefore he would bring food from time to time. He struck my body with his stick again and again, trying to bring it back to consciousness. The moment he saw signs that I was getting conscious, he would thrust some food into my mouth. Some days a little food found its way into the stomach." (Isherwood 1965:123)

Such a report indicates a process that is very seldom comprehended. However, the diverting nature of modern commentary invented a homoerotic scenario for the Vedantic sadhana and other aspects of the Ramakrishna biography. Hagiology and neo-Freudian theory have much in common at the level of obscurantism (see further Tyagananda and Vrajaprana 2010, which is a critique of Kripal 1995).

Ramakrishna became the figurehead of a monastic movement created by his Bengali disciple Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). This monk journeyed to the World Parliament of Religions convened at Chicago in 1893, and gained publicity as a distinctive representative of Hinduism, and also a "unity of religions" outlook. Vivekananda gave many lectures in America and England, and was basically an Advaitin in disposition. In 1895 he founded the Vedanta Society at New York. Returning to India, he founded the Ramakrishna Order, with an extension in the Ramakrishna Mission, promoting education and social reform.

Narendra Nath Datta, alias Vivekananda, was born in Calcutta, where he attended college, studying European history and philosophy. His father came from the kayastha sub-caste, and was an attorney at the Calcutta high court. In 1881, he encountered Ramakrishna at Dakshineshwar, at first reacting to aspects of traditional Hinduism, but eventually becoming a committed disciple. Ramakrishna introduced him to Advaita, which he initially resisted, being a follower of the theistic and reformist organisation known as the Brahmo Samaj.

In the West, Vivekananda presented an eclectic version of Hinduism, conducting classes in Patanjali Yoga, and commemorating the "four Yogas" in his lecture output. His "Victorian" oratorical style was accompanied by a distinctively forthright tendency in private, a factor which appears in a variety of reports. "His view of Vedanta was, it appears to me, a great deal different from the view that has become traditional. His complaint appeared to be that Vedanta had been treated too much as the possession of a sect competing for the loyalty of the Hindu along with other sects, and not as a life-giving perennial source of inspiration" (Bhate 1961:60).

11.  Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Gaudapada

Born in South India, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975) was early influenced by the writings of Swami Vivekananda. In 1904 he entered the Madras Christian College, studying Western philosophy, and encountering the Christian dismissal of Vedanta. Christian critics affirmed that Vedanta lacked ethical content.

Sarvepalli  Radhakrishnan

Nearly twenty years later, in 1921, Radhakrishnan gained the chair in philosophy at Calcutta University, where he composed his two volume work Indian Philosophy. He is closely associated with Advaita, presenting a modernised version of this teaching. Like Vedantists in preceding centuries, he wrote commentaries on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma Sutra. His various books caused many readers in the West to award serious consideration to the formerly marginalised Indian philosophy. Radhakrishnan showed that Hinduism possessed dimensions of coherent philosophical thought. He also contested Christian critics about the ethical stature of his native religion.

In 1931 he was knighted by the British government, and subsequently became a professor of religion at Oxford University. He also became the Indian ambassador to Russia, and in 1952 became the first Vice-President of India. This distinction was followed by his role as President (1962-67) of the Raja Sabha. The academic and political prowess of Radhakrishnan resulted in a recognition of his exceptional achievement in the history of philosophy. He affords a contrast with such British contemporaries as Bertrand Russell, whose ideological commitments were so very different.

Critics of Advaita frequently focus upon the theme of maya or cosmic illusion, viewing this as a drawback in metaphysical idealism. Radhakrishnan parried this approach. In an address to a congress hosted by Harvard in 1926, he commenced with the reflection: "It is a common belief in the West that Hindu thought regards the world as an illusion we have to escape from" (Braue 1984:11). Radhakrishnan did not think this verdict was fair even to the Advaita of Shankara.

"Radhakrishnan's idealism was such that it recognised the reality and diversity of the world of experience (prakriti), while at the same time preserving the notion of a wholly transcendent Absolute (Brahman).... Radhakrishnan did not merely reiterate the metaphysics of Shankara, but.... reinterpreted what he saw as Shankara's understanding of maya strictly as illusion. For Radhakrishnan, maya ought not to be understood to imply a strict objective idealism, one in which the world is taken to be inherently disconnected from Brahman, but rather maya indicates, among other things, a subjective misperception of the world as ultimately real." (Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, accessed 22/01/2016)

In relation to this subject, Radhakrishnan would not concede the extreme non-dualism of Gaudapada. The second chapter of the latter's Karika contains a provocative statement: "There is no destruction, no creation, none in bondage, none endeavouring, none desirous of liberation, none liberated; this is the absolute truth" (Karika 2.32).

Radhakrishnan responded to the dramatic contention by commenting: "If we have to play the game of life, we cannot do so with the conviction that the play is a show and all the prizes in it mere blanks" (Radhakrishnan 1948, 2:463).

The obscure Gaudapada was a pre-Shankara Advaitin. His Karika (or Karikas) is often described as a commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad. A controversial issue is the influence of Mahayana Buddhism on Gaudapada (King 1995). One viewpoint is that the ongoing confrontation and liaison between Buddhism and Hinduism is reflected in chapter 4 of the Karika, the author being familiar with Buddhist doctrine, but not actually a Buddhist in any way (see section 4 above).

From a Hindu standpoint, Shankara modified the "extremist" Advaita of Gaudapada, and apparently did not accept description of the world as a total illusion. Nevertheless, the world-renouncing complexion of early Advaita remained strong.

12.  Ramana Maharshi

A contrast with Radhakrishnan was another type of Advaitin. Well removed from the academic milieu and the political arena, Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950) was the son of a poor brahman in Tamil Nadu. He early gained an experience of acute inner reflection. This occurred in 1896 at Madura. Ramana thereafter became a sadhu, and journeyed to Tiruvannamalai, where he eventually settled at Arunachala Hill. This location is associated with Shiva, and here he eventually became the focus of an ashram.

Ramana Maharshi

Ramana was an Advaitin in disposition, but had no link with the Shankara Order. He did not preach Advaita, but did give various explanations on the subject. "He expounded theory only in answer to the specific needs and questions of devotees and as a necessary basis for practice.... he himself would often refuse to gratify curiosity, turning the questioner instead to the need for sadhana or effort" (Osborne 1954:82-83).

This independent sage tended to elevate the theme of vichara, sometimes rendered as "the path of Self-enquiry." That is basically a variant of the Advaitin exercise in discrimination, meaning between the real and unreal. The earliest expositions of Ramana are entitled Self-Enquiry and Who Am I? The question imparts the flavour of a basic psychological exercise closely associated with him.

"He almost invariably had to be asked in order for him to state anything, and even then he kept his communication as brief and to the point as possible. He would refer to himself as a jnani, and not as a yogi. People who were attracted to him lost interest in the occult, as he gave various warnings against indulging in siddhis (powers). In general, he frowned upon yogic exercises.... He often said that the true teaching was in silence" (Shepherd 2004:155).

In one of his communicative moods, Ramana gave a succinct explanation of an Advaitin topic which has often caused puzzlement and denial.

"Shankaracharya has been criticised for his philosophy of Maya (illusion) without understanding his meaning. He made three statements: that Brahman is real, that the universe is unreal, and that Brahman is the universe. He did not stop with the second. The third statement explains the first two; it signifies that when the universe is perceived apart from Brahman, that perception is false and illusory. What it amounts to is that phenomena are real when experienced as the Self (atman) and illusory when seen apart from the Self." (Osborne 1954:82)

13.  Upasani  Maharaj

Living in Maharashtra, Upasani Maharaj (1870-1941) was born near Nasik. His grandfather was a brahman pundit, with affiliations tending to Vishishtadvaita Vedanta. Upasani early showed a strong disposition to a renunciate lifestyle, but afterwards became a householder and Ayurvedic physician. His varied career has the extra interest of a close contact with Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918), the faqir who lived in a rural mosque but who gained a majority of Hindu followers (section 5 above).

Upasani Maharaj

In 1912, Upasani was encouraged by Shirdi Sai to study the  Panchadashi, an Advaita text attributed to Vidyaranya. This work has the repute of being "the greatest among the post-Shankara Advaita treatises" (Klostermaier 1989:384). The episode at Shirdi was part of a complex series of events leading to the emergence of Upasani as a guru, establishing his own ashram at nearby Sakori. He demonstrated an affinity with Zoroastrians, and gained an unusual disciple in Meher Baba.

Upasani was often communicative, and gave discourses during the 1920s, many of which are on record. He was quite independent from the Shankara order, or any other sampradaya. He was not in the least Westernised, and does not seem to have been familiar with the English language. He achieved the very distinctive creation at Sakori of a community of nuns, known as the Kanya Kumari Sthan. This innovation was severely opposed by orthodox brahmans.

The old Mimamsaka doctrine excluded women from performance of ritual sacrifices (Shepherd 1995:637), and indeed, any Vedic rites. After the Vedic era, women lost the intellectual standing that is discernible in certain Upanishadic passages. Upasani insisted that the Sakori nuns (kanyas) should be invested with the right to recite Sanskrit scriptures and perform basic rites of Hinduism, meaning devotional arati and the post-Vedic yajna (which no longer sacrificed animals). His insular opponents responded by deeming his improvisation to be immoral. These adamant conservatives furthered an influential campaign of slander during the 1930s.

The calumnies were subsequently revealed to be distorting inventions of orthodox bias. Meanwhile, Upasani "ignored priestly protests and ensured that the kanyas in the new kumari sthan were taught Sanskrit and the professional brahmanical methods of reciting Vedic texts" (Shepherd 2005:98). The most distinctive nun was Godavari Mataji (1914-1990), who was leader of the growing Kanya Kumari Sthan after the death of Upasani.

This neo-Vedantin was comparatively obscure for many years, despite the fact that he launched a significant development to countermand the depressed status of women.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

February 2016 (modified November 2016)



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