In the first part of this series, it was shown that a systematic process of misrepresentation of Vedic scriptures underlies the popular perception and practice of Hinduism, so much so that instead of celebrating the glorious traditions of the land, one begins to ignore the core values of the system. It was also shown that intellectual laziness combined with an unintended hypocrisy lies at the center of the modern Hindu discourse where appeasement of all has overtaken the commitment to values taught by preceptors of the past.
In the second part of the series, we will look at how the systematic propaganda is engineered by making an appeal to Adi Sankaracharya, a prominent Vedic metaphysician.
Shanmatha and Provisional gods
An unsubstantiated claim put forward by modern godmen is that Adi Sankaracharya created six systems for people to indulge in depending on their mindset. These six systems are called Shanmatha. The six systems are used to worship six different gods – Vishnu, Siva, Shakti, Ganapati, Skandha and Surya. All six systems are claimed to be equivalent and their adoption is purely a matter of choice. Pushing this idea even further, they claim that not only the six but any number of such provisional gods can be invented and worshipped by Hindus. These gods are not real. They are merely mental constructs. They are forms and names given to worship the same truth.
Problems with Shanmatha and provisional gods
It is hard to know where to start criticizing the idea of Shanmatha because it is wrong on so many counts and completely against the intentions of Adi Sankaracharya.
- There is not a shred of evidence that Adi Sankara installed the Shanmatha. Neither his works nor his early history carry any hint that he setup this system. The systems come to be referred only in much later times.
- The hymnal works of Adi Sankara are of doubtful authorship. Even if we insist that Adi Sankara composed hymns on several gods and goddesses, it is possible that he merely offered his compositions in answer to prayers from devotees of those gods and goddesses, and they do not reflect his true intentions.
- The true intentions of Adi Sankara, an Advaitin metaphysician, come out clearly in his prasthanatraya bhashyas – commentaries on Upanishads, Gita and Brahma Sutras. In these texts, Adi Sankara comes across as a Vaishnava recognizing only Vishnu as Saguna Brahman. That he understands the Nirguna Brahman to be final and absolute does not invalidate his position as a Vaishnava with respect to the Saguna Brahman.
- The utter confusion perpetuated by some modern Advaitins due to their gross misunderstanding of the nature of Saguna Brahman has converted the Saguna Brahman to be purely a matter of whim relative to the individual practitioners. This misunderstanding underlies the idea of several provisional gods.
- Adi Sankara’s position as a Vaishnava in his commentaries does not come out as if he worships Vishnu purely as a matter of choice. His position regarding Vishnu is clear and definitive. He distinguishes Vishnu from other gods in the Vedic pantheon, and does not regard all gods as equivalent. This distinction is sustainable in the parlance of Advaita under the state of vyavaharika. Adi Sankara largely prefers Sri Vishnu Purana, the pristine of all Puranas, to substantiate his opinions in his commentaries. He does not cite Puranas praising other gods with the same interest. It is unfathomable he would advocate equality among gods and make the Saguna Brahman a matter of whim and fancy.
The above statements would find substantiation in the rest of this essay. But, before proceeding, a clarification may be necessary.
One may ask, “Why do you concern yourself with the position of Adi Sankara? Why not leave it to the Advaitins?” It is hardly in my interest to instruct Advaitins on how they must think about Adi Sankara and his teachings. My concern is regarding the misappropriation of the teaching of Adi Sankara to paint Hinduism in a particular light and create immense confusion in the modern Hindu discourse. This confusion has led modern Hindus to regard monotheistic Vaishnavism with suspicion. The intention here is to show that the position of Adi Sankara is fully consistent with monotheistic Vaishnavism and is opposed to the concept of Shanmatha and other distortions advocated by self-proclaimed godmen. If they would stop at preaching their views as “one perspective” of Advaita, we would have no problem at all. Their pretense that theirs is the core perspective of Hinduism is being called out here and shown to be absurd. The intention is to expose their lack of scholastic rooting in the words of Adi Sankara, and to show that their confidence lies entirely in their self-constructed “feel good” theories that completely disregard the opinions of the master of Advaitin thought.
The position of Adi Sankara understood from his commentaries
- Adi Sankara invokes Narayana even where the original text does not make an explicit reference or require the invocation.
When the Brhadaranyaka Upanishad says, ‘yaḥ pṛthivyāṃ tiṣṭhan’ (3-7-3) [The Brahman in within the earth], Adi Sankara writes, yaḥ = idṛgīśvaro nārāyaṇākhyaḥ, pṛthivīm = pṛthivī-devatāṃ yamayati niyamati svavyāpāre. … eṣa te ātmā = te tava mama ca sarvabhūtānāṃ ca iti upalakṣaṇārtham etat.
The meaning is: Narayana, who is the Supreme Controller, controls the god/goddess of earth in his/her activities. He is your soul, my soul and everyone’s soul.
This is clearly not a reference to the Nirguna Brahman. The word Narayana itself can be explained only by admission of difference. It is obvious that the reference is to the Saguna Brahman. Only a Saguna Brahman can be a Controller or Isvara. The Upanishad does not makes any claim as to who this is. But, Adi Sankara explicitly inserts his opinion that this Isvara is known by the name Narayana.
Also, Adi Sankara does not merely say that Narayana controls the earth. Instead, he says the reference is not to the earth itself but to the god of earth. His explanation is that Narayana controls the god of earth. This explanation refutes the claim that all gods are equal, or that they are forms of the same truth. The Supreme Lord Narayana, according to Sri Sankara, controls the lower god of earth.
The vārtika for this commentary is as follows:
“kṛṣṇadvaipāyano vyāso vedātmā dhvānta hānikṛt |
prāhemameva bahuśaḥ prāṇīnāṃ hitakāṃyayā ||
nārāyaṇaḥ paro~vyaktāt aṇḍam-avyakta-sambhavam |
aṇḍasyāntastvime lokāḥ saptadvīpā ca medinī ||
tasmai namo~stu devāya nirguṇāya guṇātmane |
nārāyaṇāya viśvāya devānāṃ paramātmane ||
etameva samuddiśya mantro nārāyaṇās tathā |
vedavidbhir mahāprājñaiḥ puruṣaiḥ viniyujyate ||”
Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa, whose mind is the Veda and who destroys the darkness of ignorance, taught this many times to cause welfare to all.
Narayana is beyond the avyakta (primordial non-manifest matter); the cosmic egg is born from avyakta. This world of seven parts and other worlds are born from the cosmic egg.
I worship the God who is the Saguna appearance of the Nirguna Brahman. He is known as Narayana, who is cause of the world and is the Supreme Soul within other gods.
Knowing this (greatness of Narayana), those versed in Vedas and the intelligent men employ the Narayana mantra.
The above words cut the root of all fanciful assumptions made with respect to the system of Adi Sankara. It is again clear that we are not talking about the Nirguna Brahman in this case. The mention of avyakta, worlds, etc. shows that the discussion is on the Saguna Brahman, which is made explicit in the later statements. Also, Narayana is declared as the Supreme Soul within the gods which refuses the view of equality or sameness of all gods. Note that all this discussion about Narayana has been made in a place where the Upanishad does not mention the word “Narayana” at all.
Another Advaita acharya, Ananda Giri, who wrote the Tika for this says,
“na kevalaṃ purāṇa-āgamābhyāmeva so~adhigamyate | kintu śṛtyakṣaraiḥ api ityāha etameveti | ‘sahasraśīrṣaṃ devaṃ viśvākṣaṃ viśva-śambhuvam | viśvaṃ nārāyaṇāṃ devamakṣaraṃ paramaṃ prabhum ||’ ityādiḥ mantro vedarthavidbhiḥ antaryāmiṇamuddiśya viniyuktaḥ| ataḥ sa vaidika ityarthaḥ | ”
Narayaṇa is not known only through Puranas or Agamas. He is also known the same way through the Vedas. Those who know the Vedas use mantras such as ‘O Deva! Thou hast a thousand heads, … thou are Narayana who is the Supreme Lord’. Therefore this meaning has Vedic sanction.
Ananda Giri not only captures Adi Sankara’s opinion but also defends his Vaishnavism. He argues that unlike other gods who are praised only in Puranic and Agamic literature, Narayana is praised in the Vedas also. Therefore, Adi Sankara’s Vaishnavism is thoroughly justified. He is not forcing Narayana upon the Vedas after learning about Narayana from Vishnu Purana and Pancharatra. Instead, he is reflecting the mood of the Vedas which proclaim clearly that Narayana is the Supreme Being.
The fact that Ananda Giri goes to lengths to defend the Vaishnavism of Sri Sankara leaves little else to be said.
- Adi Sankara makes a distinction between gods. He is not using names like Narayana with the intention of conveying the meaning of the words. He is using these words to identify and distinguish between multiple Vedic gods.
In the third chapter of Chandogya Upanishad, that runs ‘brahma vā idamagra āsīt … indro varuṇaḥ somo rudraḥ’, Adi Sankara explains ‘indro devānāṃ rājā, rudraḥ paśūnām’ .
Adi Sankara identifies Indra as the king of the gods and Rudra as the king of beasts. He is following the Puranic method of identifying gods by their conventional names – Indra is Devaraja, Rudra is Pasupati, not the meaning based approach. In fact, this point does not even require to be argued. The burden of proof is on the other side to show that the meaning is the intention in the commentary. If the commentator did not choose to elaborate his use of a name, it can be taken for granted that he is using the name only for identification.
- Adi Sankara disagreement with Pancharatra is purely in its metaphysics. He agrees with the religion of Pancharatra.
Modern advocates of Advaita write carelessly that Adi Sankara rejected several systems including the Vaishnava system of Pancharatra. It is true that Adi Sankara rejected several systems. But, anyone who has read Sankara’s commentary can easily see that he treats Pancharatra differently. He makes it clear that he completely agrees with the Vaishnavism of Pancharatra but differs only in its metaphysics. He has not provided this unique explanation for other systems including Pasupata that were rejected by him.
“tatra yattāvaducyate yo~sau narayaṇaḥ paro~vyaktāt prasiddhaḥ paramātmā sarvātmā … iti tanna nirākriyate| yadapi tasya bhagavato~bhigamanādi lakṣaṇam ārādhanam ajasram ananyacittatayā abhipreyate – tadapi na pratiṣiddhyate|”
(Do note that) I do not deny the point of the Pancharatra that Narayana is beyond avyakta and is the Supreme Soul, who is the soul of all. It is not denied that Bhagavan must be known and worshiped with single-minded devotion.
The use of the word “Bhagavan”, meaning possessor of six qualities, leaves not a shadow of doubt that here Narayana is the Saguna Brahman. Also, it is clear what Adi Sankara has in mind when he used the word “Narayana” elsewhere. Where Adi Sankara uses the word “Narayana”, he is referring to the Narayana of the Pancharatra. He uses the same description “beyond avyakta” for Narayana to show that his ideas about Narayana mentioned elsewhere are consistent with the Vaishnavism of Pancharatras. He goes to great lengths to show that he is not cutting down his own idea of Vaishnavism by disagreeing with the Pancharatras and that his disagreement is only with respect to specific metaphysical points, denying which does not deny Vaishnavism. He also uses the word ‘ananyacittatayā’ to explicitly state that he agrees with the monotheism and exclusive worship of Vishnu.
It is this fervent Vaishnava, who clarifies so often and so clearly, that is being branded as the founder of “all gods are same” theory.
(I keep repeating the point that Narayana is Saguna Brahman even where it is obvious because the obscurity of Nirguna Brahman is a favourite hiding spot of modern Advaitins.)
- Narayana, Vasudeva and Vishnu are identical to Sankara.
In the introduction to Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Sri Adi Sankara follows the method of Puranas, Ithihasas and Agamas to show that the names Narayana, Vasudeva and Vishnu are references to the same Supreme Being. This is also consistent with the approach of the Vishnu Gayatri of Vedas.
“imaṃ dviprakāraṃ dharmaṃ niḥśreyasa-prayojanaṃ paramartha-tattvaṃ ca vāsudevākhyaṃ paraṃ brahmābhidheyabhutaṃ … ”
“The Dharma of Gita is two-fold which leads to the highest goal. It teaches the Supremely Beneficial Being who is known by the name Vasudeva and Param Brahman …”
In the above statement, Sri Sankara identifies Vasudeva as the message of the Gita.
“sa ādikartā nārāyaṇākhyo viṣṇuḥ bhaumasya brahmaṇo brāhmaṇatvasya rakṣanārtham devakyāṃ vasudevādaṃśena kila saṃbabhūva”
That Original Creator, Vishnu, who goes by the name Narayana, was born as the son of Devaki and Vasudeva to protect the spiritual discipline on earth.
In the introduction, where Sri Sankara has ample scope to advance his own views, he identifies Narayana with Vishnu (not with anyone else) and declares that Vasudeva is the import of Srimad Bhagavad Gita.
He further goes on to clarify that this Narayana is the Saguna Brahman.
“sa ca bhagavān jñāna-aiśvarya-śakti-bala-vīrya-tejobhiḥ sadā saṃpannaḥ triguṇātmikāṃ vaiṣṇavīṃ svāṃ māyāṃ mūlaprakṛtiṃ vaśīkrutya ajaḥ avyayo bhūtānām īsvaro nitya-śuddha-buddha-mukta-svabhāvo~pi san, svamāyayā dehavāniva jāta iva ca lokānugraham kurvanniva lakṣyate |
sva-prayojana-abhāve~pi bhūtānujighṛkṣayā vaidikaṃ hi dharma-dvayam arjunāya śoka-moha-mahodadhau nimagnāya upadideśa guṇādhikaiḥ hi gṛhīto~nuṣṭhīyamānaḥ ca dharmaḥ pracayaṃ gamiṣyatīti |”
This Bhagavan is the eternal repose of knowledge, sovereignty, power, strength, dynamism and radiance. Controlling His Vishnu Maya which takes the form of Mulaprakrti, the unborn imperishable God of all beings, who is ever pure and enlightened by nature, adopts a form (Krishna) from His Maya potency with the intention of gracing the worlds.
Though He has no purpose for Himself, impelled by the pure desire to bless the beings of the world, He propounds the two-fold Vedic Dharma to Arjuna to subdue the deluge of sorrow and delusion by which he is overtaken.
It is beyond doubt from the above statements that Sri Sankara is a strong theist who does not believe in provisional gods – useful only for meditation. His god is a God of all beings who incarnates out of love and grace to guide the spiritual discipline on earth. He even goes to the extent of naming Maya as Vishnu Maya to show that the Maya is under the mastery of Vishnu.
He also shows by the above that Krishna is the incarnation of Narayana.
- But, other gods are not the same as Krishna/Narayana. Sankara says that worshipping them does not lead to the same end as worshipping Narayana.
Krishna says in the Gita,
“yogināmapi sarveṣāṃ madgatenāntarātmanā | śraddhāvānbhajate yo māṃ sa me yuktatamomataḥ ||” (6-47)
The passage has a simple meaning. Krishna says, “Of all the Yogis, the one who is purely dedicated to Me and worships Me, becomes associated with Me.”
But look at what Sankara writes,
“yogināmapi sarveṣām = rudra-ādityādi dhyānaparāṇāṃ madhye,
madgatena = mayi vāsudeve samāhiten …. “
“Given all the other Yogis such as those meditating on Rudra, Aditya, etc. the special Yogi who is devoted only in Me, Vasudeva …”
Sankara invokes Rudra and Aditya even when the original text makes no mention to them. Some people say that Sankara appears Vaishnavite in the Gita since the teacher is Krishna. This claim is blatantly untrue. He speaks words which even Krishna does not speak explicitly. He clearly distinguishes the devotee of Krishna from the devotees of Siva and Surya, and does not consider them the same.
For Gita 7.23, Sri Sankara writes,
“antavat – vināśi tu phalaṃ teṣāṃ tad bhavati alpamēdhasāṃ alpa prajñānam | devān yajanta iti devayajaḥ te devān yānti. madbhaktaḥ yānti māmapi | evaṃ samāne api āyāse māmeva na pratipadyante ananta-phalāya aho khalu kaṣṭataraṃ vartate | iti anukrośaṃ darśayati bhagavān”
“’The less intelligent attain perishable and meagre benefits; those that worship other gods only attain those gods. Only My devotee attains Me. Though the effort of devotion is same with respect to the other gods and with respect to Me, the worshippers of other gods do not attain the infinite benefit of attaining Me. Alas! They continue to suffer.’ So Bhagavan grieves.”
Sri Sankara clearly says that the worshippers of other gods attain meagre and perishable benefits, and that only the pure devotee of Krishna attains the highest benefit. He adopts a strong monotheistic stance. Perhaps, anticipating that later Advaitins might claim that this is the Nirguna Brahman, he charmingly uses the word “Bhagavan” instead of any other name. After all, Bhagavan means ‘one who has six qualities’ and can only refer to the Saguna Brahman, which is the object of devotion.
It is this same Sankaracharya who loudly proclaims Vaishnavism to be the highest path and compares it with lesser paths, which he identifies with devotees of gods like Rudra and Aditya, that is being claimed to be the establisher of the six-fold system where two of the gods are Siva and Surya. The heights of ignorance of those who make random assumptions and declare themselves scholars of Advaita!
In the above statement, Sri Sankara even claims that the Lord is disappointed about the misplaced bhakti of those who are not devoted to Him, due to which they continue to suffer. Such sentiments can be hardly seen in the words of Krishna by a superficial, but Sri Sankara’s Vaishnavism adds the sentiment to the words of Krishna.
For Gita 9.23-25, Sri Sankara says,
“ye~pi, anyāsu devatāsu bhaktāḥ santo yajanto pūjayanto te~pi mameva yajanti avidhipūrvakam | avidhiḥ ajñānaṃ tatpūrvakaṃ yajante ityarthaḥ | devavrataḥ devān yānti … madyajanaśīlāḥ vaiṣṇavāḥ mām eva yānti | samāne api āyāse māmeva na bhajante ajñānāt | tena te alpaphalabhājaḥ bhavanti ityarthaḥ |”
“Those who worship and pray to other gods worship Me alone but in an irregular manner. The irregularity in their manner is that they worship other gods due to ignorance. Those who worship these gods attain those gods … but only a Vaishnava, who worships Me, attains Me. The effort in worship is same in both cases. But, those who worship other gods do not worship Me due to their ignorance. Therefore, they attain only meagre fruits.”
In the above statements, Sri Sankara leaves little to be said. He clarifies that a Vaishnava worships Vishnu out of enlightenment while others worship other gods out of ignorance.
The point that attaining Vishnu is the highest end is further emphasized in other places,
For Katopanishad (3-9) “tad viṣṇoḥ paramaṃ padam”, Sri Sankara says,
”tad viṣṇoḥ = vyapanaśīlasya brahmaṇaḥ paramātmano vāsudevākhyasya, paramam = utkṛṣṭam, padam = sthānam”
”The Highest Place is that of the Brahman, who is the Supreme soul and is omnipresent, who is known by the name of Vasudeva”
The interpretation of ‘padam’ as place instead of state indicates that this is a discourse with respect to the Saguna Brahman.
The same view is advanced in other places.
In Gita (2-51), “padaṃ gacchantyanāmayam”, Sankara says, “padaṃ paramaṃ viṣṇoḥ mokṣākhyaṃ gacchanti”.
“They attain the supreme place of Vishnu which is called moksha.”
Note that the Gita text does not use the word “Vishnu” or call it the place of moksha, both of which are supplied by Sri Sankara in his commentary.
In these cases the moksha is liberation in the form of attaining the Saguna Brahman. In Karyadhikarana, Sankara clarifies that where there is “going to”, one must understand it as moksha with respect to attaining the Saguna Brahman because there cannot be any “going to” with respect to the absolute Nirguna Brahman.
For Gita (18-62), “sthānaṃ prāpyasi śāśvatam”, the Sankara Bhashya runs thus, “sthānaṃ ca mama viṣṇoḥ paramaṃ padaṃ prāpsyasi śāśvataṃ nityaṃ” “You attain for eternity the highest place of Vishnu, which is Mine.”
For Gita (18-56), “śāśvataṃ padam avyayam”, Sankara says, “śāśvataṃ nityaṃ vaiṣṇavaṃ padam avyayam”. Note that Sri Sankara adds the adjective “vaiṣṇavam” in his commentary though it is not mentioned in the original text.
For Gita (15-6), “na tadbhāsayate sūryaḥ”, Sankara explains in detail, “yad dhāma vaiṣṇavaṃ padaṃ gatvā prāpya na nivarttante, …. tad dhāma paramaṃ viṣṇoḥ mama padaṃ, yad gatvā na nivarttante ityuktam”
“Attaining (or going to) which world or place of Vishnu, they do not return back, …. that world which is supreme and is of Vishnu, that My place, going where they do not return.”
It is clear that Sankara considers the world or place of Vishnu to be the highest and that those who reach that place do not return back to samsara.
6. No such statements explaining the greatness of other gods can be found anywhere in Sri Sankara’s commentary. Never does he employ the popular epithets of other gods to describe their worship, devotion, knowledge or role in liberation. It has been shown above that he does mention other gods, however, to compare them unfavorably with Vishnu/Krishna.
7. The Vaishnavism of Sri Sankara is not a modern discovery. In fact, it is the original position. The positions currently attributed to Sankara have no basis in history or tradition.
Even in the sixteenth century, Narayana Bhatta, an Advaitin scholar wrote in Nārāyaṇīyam thus,
“śrīśaṅkaro~pi bhagavān sakaleṣu tāvat
tvāmeva mānayati yo nahi pakṣapātī |
tvanniṣṭhameva sahi nāmasahasrakādi
vyākhyadabhavat stutiparaśca gatiṃ gato~nte ||”
“Sri Sankara, being thoroughly impartial, worshipped only You (Vishnu) among all other gods. His discipline was based in You (Vishnu). He commented on texts such as Vishnu Sahasranama and in the end attained liberation praising You.”
In the commentary of this verse by Deśamaṅgaḷavarya, another Advaitin scholar, it is explained thus –
“kiñca, śrīśaṅkaraḥ bhagavatpādācāryaḥ, tvanniṣṭhaṃ viṣṇuparaṃ| nāmasahasrakādīti, ādi śabdena śrī gītādi gṛhyate| so~pi tadubhayamapi śivaparatayā vyākhyātuṃ śakyamapi viṣṇuparatayaiva vyākhyātavān | ante ca bhavatstutiparaḥ śrīmat pādādikeśastutiṃ kurvan gatiṃ mokṣaṃ gataḥ|”
“Sri Sankara is a devotee of Vishnu. He could have commented on the teachings of Siva and on Siva Sahasranama to glorify Siva. Yet, he commented on Srimad Bhagavad Gita of Krishna and on Sri Vishnu Sahasranama. In the end, he attained liberation by praising Lord Vishnu by Srimat Padadikesa Stuti.”
Many other scholars of the Advaitin tradition, who do not make claims of performing magical feats and have remained accessible only to the scholarly, have also argued that Sri Sankara was a Vaishnava and only wore Gopi Chandana Urdhvapundra. They understand him as a thorough Vaishnava theist in the parlance of religion and as an Advaitin in metaphysics by carefully studying his works.
Several of the arguments presented in this essay are paraphrased from “Sankararum Vainavum”, a book in Thamizh, by Puthur Sri U.Ve. Krishnaswamy Iyengar Svami, and the same may be consulted for a more detailed treatment. The book takes the form of a debate and those with a sharp eye would not fail to notice the words of opponent in the debate – “what can the commentaries of Sankara do to how we worship gods!”, providing an unintended admission that the theistic outlook of popular Advaita is far removed from the assertions of its grand master.