In This Article Śaṅkara

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

Hinduism Śaṅkara
by
Reid B. Locklin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0079

Introduction

Śaṅkara (or Śaṃkara, c. 8th century CE) is widely recognized as the most influential teacher in the early development of the Hindu tradition of Advaita or nondualist Vedanta, as well as one of the most significant philosophers of South Asia. Vedanta, “the end of the Vedas,” comprehends both the last major portion of the Vedas, the Upanishads, and their systematization in the terse Brahma-Sūtras. As the author of the first extant commentary on these sutras and other core Vedanta texts, including the Bhagavad Gita, Śaṅkara largely set the terms for later debates among the exponents of different theological positions within the broader Vedanta tradition. Due to his insistence on the ultimate nondifference (advaita) of the highest brahman and the innermost self (ātman) of each and every conscious being, Śaṅkara has often been labeled as a “Buddhist in disguise” by theist Vedantins and other rivals; yet, in later hagiographical traditions, he is credited with defeating many Buddhist opponents and contributing to its disappearance from the subcontinent. He is also credited with founding the Daśanāmī monastic order and its presiding Śaṅkarācāryas as guardians of Brahmanical orthodoxy, yet we gain little confirmation for such claims from his certainly authentic writings. In the midst of these historical debates and challenges to traditional claims about Śaṅkara, his nondualist teaching continues to generate lively interest among practitioners and scholars alike. This article offers an overview of several approaches to Śaṅkara’s life and work, texts and translations of his writings, major themes and contested questions in his construction of Advaita Vedanta, his relations with other major Indian schools of thought, and selected engagements with his teaching in the modern and contemporary fields of comparative philosophy and comparative theology.

General Overviews

Due to his prominence in histories of Indian intellectual and social life, the literature on Śaṅkara is truly immense. Innumerable summaries of the Advaita teaching and profiles of Śaṅkara himself have been published, particularly in India. Potter 1995 provides a comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary literature, continuously updated online. Mahadevan 1968 offers a responsible overview of Śaṅkara’s life and thought for the general reader, though it draws freely on the hagiographical portrait and includes some works whose authenticity is disputed. Deutsch 1969 avoids these problems by abstracting the core teaching of Advaita into a concise, insightful contemporary synthesis—albeit without much in the way of historical context. For those embarking on more sustained study, Potter 1981, Comans 2000, Hulin 2001, and Suthren Hirst 2005 are useful orientations to historical questions of authorship, Śaṅkara’s core teaching, and contemporary debates in the academy. Of these, Potter 1981 and Hulin 2001 take a critical, philosophical approach attuned to Western history and scholarship, whereas Comans 2000 engages this scholarship from a standpoint more closely aligned within the Advaita tradition. Suthren Hirst 2005 commends itself not only for its balanced approach to Śaṅkara as a teacher of liberation, sympathetic both to historical-critical studies and to critiques from more traditional scholars, but also for its copious bibliography and notes. Śaṅkara’s primary Sanskrit texts have been gathered together in Śaṅkarācārya 1981–1983. Accessible English translations are available in Alston 2004, excerpted and organized by theme to allow readers to follow key aspects of Śaṅkara’s thought. Very helpful outlines and summaries of Śaṅkara’s writings in their integrity are available in Potter 1981; for full translations of individual works, see Śaṅkara’s Writings.

  • Alston, A. J. A Śaṃkara Source-Book. 6 vols. London: Shanti Sadan, 2004.

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    Accessible translations of excerpts from Śaṅkara’s writings, organized according to key themes such as “Creation,” “Enlightenment” and “Rival Views.” Though the excerpts are de-contextualized, helpful introductory essays and notes make this a good place to start an investigation of particular aspects of Śaṅkara’s teaching. Individual volumes published between 1980 and 1989.

  • Comans, Michael. The Method of Early Advaita Vedānta: A Study of Gauḍapāda, Śaṅkara, Sureśvara and Padmapāda. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000.

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    This work situates Śaṅkara’s core teaching on liberation in relation to other early Advaitins, focusing particularly on the issues of the Lord (Īśvara) and the role of the Upanishads. Comans writes in part to defend the integrity of Advaita teaching, but he does so in constructive dialogue with modern historical scholarship.

  • Deutsch, Eliot. Advaita Vedānta: A Philosophical Reconstruction. Honolulu, HI: East-West Center Press, 1969.

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    Though not strictly limited to Śaṅkara’s thought, this work offers a very lucid, accessible presentation of major themes of Advaita teaching. By design, Deutsch’s discussions are abstracted from their original historical and literary contexts, and engagement with primary sources is largely consigned to footnotes.

  • Hulin, Michel. Śaṅkara et la non-dualité. Paris: Bayard Éditions, 2001.

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    This work offers a useful critical overview of Śaṅkara’s life and work, key points of his philosophy, excerpts organized according to theme, and an account of his institutional legacy from the 8th century to the 20th. A good introduction to Śaṅkara as a figure of intellectual and cultural history.

  • Mahadevan, T. M. P. Sankaracharya. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1968.

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    Written for a general audience, this short work includes a summary of Śaṅkara’s life according to the traditional hagiographies (see Śaṅkara Hagiographies), a précis of his thought, and excerpts of key texts. An accessible introduction from one of the most influential Advaita philosophers of the 20th century.

  • Potter, Karl H. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies: Bibliography. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1995.

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    Originally published in 1970, this invaluable resource underwent two revisions, in 1983 and 1995, and then moved entirely online. It is kept very current, and aspires to cite every relevant publication, organized by text and by school of thought.

  • Potter, Karl H., ed. Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies. Vol. 3, Advaita Vedānta up to Śaṃkara and His Pupils. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.

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    Though somewhat dated, this volume still offers one of the best starting points for the student of Śaṅkara, offering critical discussions of authorship, dating, and key aspects of his thought. This is followed by summaries of key texts, including not only Śaṅkara’s works, but also those of important interlocutors and disciples.

  • Śaṅkarācārya. Śrīśāṅkaragranthāvaliḥ: Complete Works of Sri Sankaracharya in the Original Sanskrit. 10 vols. Madras: Samata, 1981–1983.

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    Originally published in 1910 under the auspices of the modern Śaṅkarācārya of the Śṛṅgerī Maṭha, this Sanskrit text was revised and republished by Samata Books, beginning in 1981. It offers a convenient source for Śaṅkara’s primary texts, both the certainly authentic works and many other works attributed to him.

  • Suthren Hirst, Jacqueline. Śaṃkara’s Advaita Vedānta: A Way of Teaching. RoutledgeCurzon Hindu Studies Series. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005.

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    Arguably the strongest general introduction to Śaṅkara’s teaching published in the 2000s. The bibliography and notes are extensive, and Suthren Hirst gives appropriate attention to Śaṅkara’s historical context and the traditional hagiographical portraits, while also offering a credible account of his Advaita teaching, rooted in primary texts.

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