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A grand social idealist

posted Jan 10, 2013, 8:40 AM by Sarat Kumar Sarvepalli   [ updated Jan 10, 2013, 8:43 AM ]
By Dr. S. Radhakrishnan

The Advaitism of Sankara is a system of great speculative daring and logical subtlety. It's austere intellectualism, its remorseless logic, which marches on in different to the hopes and beliefs of man, its relative freedom from theological obsessions, make it a great example of a purely philosophical scheme. Thibaut, who cannot be charged with any partiality for Sankara, speaks of his philosophy in these words "The doctrine advocated by Sankara is, from a purely philosophical point of view, and apart from all theological considerations, the most important and interesting one which has arisen on Indian soil; neither those forms of the Vedanta which diverge from the view represented by Sankara, nor any of the non-Vedantic systems can be compared with the so called orthodox Vedanta in boldness, depth and subtlety of speculations." It is impossible to read Sankara's writings packed as they are with serious and subtle thinking, without being conscious that one is in contact with a mind of a very fine penetration and profound spirituality. With his acute feeling of the immeasurable world, his stirring gaze into the abysmal mysteries of spirit, his unswerving resolve to say neither more nor less than what could be proved, Sankara stands out as a heroic figure of the first rank in the somewhat motley crowd of the religious thinkers of medieval India. His philosophy stands forth complete, needing neither a before nor an after. It has a self-justifying wholeness characteristic of works of art. It expounds its own presuppositions, is related by its own end, and holds all its elements in a stable, reasoned equipoise.

The list of qualifications which Sankara lays down for a student of Philosophy brings out how, for him, philosophy is not an intellectual pursuit but a dedicated life. The first, "discrimination between things eternal and non-eternal" demands of the student the power of thought, which helps him to distinguish between the unchanging reality and the changing world. For those who possess this power, it is impossible to desist from the enterprise of metaphysics. "Renunciation of the enjoyment of the reward here and in the other world" is the second requirement. In the empirical world and man's temporal life within it there is little to satisfy the aspirations of spirit. Philosophy gets its chance, as well as its justification, through the disillusionment which life brings. The seeker after truth must refuse to abase himself before things as they are and develop an austere detachment characteristic of the superior mind. Moral preparation is insisted on as the third requisite, and, lastly, longing for liberation (mumukshutvam) is mentioned. We must have a mind disposed, as St. Luke expresses it, "for eternal life."

Sankara present to us the true ideal of philosophy, which is not so much knowledge as wisdom, not so much logical learning as spiritual freedom. For Sankara, as for some of the greatest thinkers of the world like Plato and Plotinus, Spinoza and Hegel, Philosophy is the austere vision of eternal truth, majestic in its freedom from the petty cares of man's paltry life. Through the massive and at the same time subtle dialectic of Sankara there shows forth a vivid, emotional temperament, without which philosophy tends to become a mere game of logic. A master of the strictest logic, he is also master of a noble and animated poetry which belongs to another order. The rays of his genius have illumined the dark places of thought and soothed the sorrows of the most forlorn heart. While his philosophy fortifies and consoles many, there are, of course, those to whom it seems to be an abyss of contradiction and darkness. But whether we agree or differ, the penetrating light of his mind never leaves us where we were.

Sankara appeared, at one and the same time, as an eager champion of the orthodox faith and a spiritual reformer. He tried to bring back the age from the brilliant luxury of the Puranas to the mystic truth of the Upanishads. The power of the faith to lead the soul to the higher life became for him the test of its strength. He felt impelled to attempt the spiritual direction of his age by formulating a philosophy and religion which could satisfy the ethical and spiritual needs of the people better than the systems of Buddhism, Mimamsa and Bhakti. The theists were veiling the truth in a mist of sentiment. With their genius for mystical experience, they were indifferent to the practical concerns of life. The Mimamsaka emphasis on karma developed ritualism devoid of spirit. Virtue can face the dark perils of life and survive only if it be the fine flower of thought. The Advaita philosophy alone, in the opinion of Sankara, could do justice to the truth of the conflicting creeds, and so he wrote all his works with the one purpose of helping the individual to a realisation of the identity of his soul with Brahman, which is the means of liberation from samsara.

In his wanderings from his birthplace in Malabar to the Himalayas in the north he came across many phases of worship and accepted all those which had in them the power to elevate man and refine his life. He did not preach a single exclusive method of salvation, but composed hymns of unmistakable grandeur addressed to the different gods of popular Hinduism-Vishnu, Siva Sakti, Surya. All this affords a striking testimony to the universality of his sympathies and the wealth of natural endowment. While revivifying the popular religion, he also purified it. He put down the grosser manifestations of the Sakta worship in South India. In the Deccan, it is said that he suppressed the unclean worship of Siva as a dog under the name of Mallari, and the per-nicious practices of Kapalikas whose god Bhairava desired human victims. He condemned branding or marking the body with the metallic designs. He learned from the Buddhist Church that discipline, freedom from superstition and ecclesiastical organisations help to preserve the faith clean and strong, and himself established ten religious orders of which four retain their prestige till to-day.

The life of Sankara makes a strong impression of contraries. He is a philosopher and a poet, a savant and a saint, a mystic and a religious reformer. Such diverse gifts did he possess that different images present themselves, if we try to recall his personality. One sees him in youth, on fire with intellectual ambition, a stiff and intrepid debater. Another regards him as a shrewd political genius, attempting to impress on the people a sense of unity. For a third, he is a calm philosopher engaged in the single effort to expose the contradictions of life and though with an unmatched incisiveness. For a fourth, he is the mystic who declares that we are all greater than we know. There have been few minds more universal than his.

Sankara's system is unmatched for its metaphysical depth and logical power. Thought follows through naturally, until Advaitism is seen to complete and crown the edifice. It is a great example of monistic idealism which it is difficult to meet with a absolutely conclusive metaphysical refutation. Sankara holds up a vision of life acceptable in the highest moments of poetry and religion, when we are inclined to sympathise with his preference for intuition to the light of the understanding. So long as he remains on this high ground, he is unanswerable. But a lingering doubt oppresses the large majority of mankind, who very rarely get into these exalted heights. They feel that it is unjust to leave in such high disdain the world in which they live, move and have their being, and relegate it to ajnana or darkness, offering merely a solace that all disagreeable appearances will quickly vanish in the eternal light. For them the all - transforming sunlight of the heights is spurious, and they declare that Sankara's system is one of mystical indifference to fact. That human suffering will be healed, that the whole world will vanish like a pitiful mirage, that all our trouble is of our own making, and that in the world's finale all people will find that absolute oneness which will suffice for all hearts, compose all resentments and atone for all crimes, seem to many to be pious assumptions. The entranced self-absorption which arms itself with sanctity, involves a cruel indifference to practical life hardly acceptable to average intelligence.

Sankara knows all this, and so gives us a logical theism which does not slight the intellect, does not scorn the wisdom of ages and is at the same time the highest intellectual account of the truth. What is the relation between the absolutism of intuition and the empirical theism of logic, Sankara does not tell us; for as Goethe wisely observed, "man is born not to solve the problem of the universe, but to find out where the problem begins, and then to restrain himself within the limits of the comprehensible". Sankara recognises that there is a region which we cannot penetrate, and a wise agnosticism is the only rational attitude. The greatness of Sankara's achievements rests on the peculiar intensity and splendour of thought with which the search for reality is conducted on the high idealism of spirit grappling with the difficult problems of life, regardless of theological consequences, and on the vision of a consummation which places divine glory on human life.

Supreme as a philosopher and a dialectician, great as a man of calm judgment and wide toleration, Sankara taught us to love truth, respect reason and realise the purpose of life. Twelve centuries have passed, and yet his influence is visible. He destroyed many an old dogma, not by violently attacking it, but by quietly suggesting something more spiritual too. He put into general circulation a vast body of important knowledge and formative ideas which, though contained in the Upanishads, were forgotten by the people, and thus recreated for us the distant past. He was not a dreaming idealist, but a practical visionary, a philosopher, and at the same time a man of action, what we may call a social idealist on the grand scale. Even those who do not agree with his general attitude to life will not be reluctant to allow him a place among the immortals.
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