How Adi Shankaracharya united a fragmented land with philosophy, poetry and pilgrimage

Those who insist that history is real, and mythology false, go against the very grain of Adi Shankaracharya’s non-dualist maxim: Jagat mithya, brahma satyam, which means the world, including measured scientific conclusions, that we experience is essentially illusory or rather, mind-dependent epistemological truths. The only mind-independent ontological truth is brahma, variously translated as God, soul, consciousness, language, or the infinitely expanded, eternal, unconditioned mind.

This doctrine of reducing the world to mere illusion, popularly known as maya-vada, enabled Shankara to do something remarkable: unite a land with diverse communities and diverse, seemingly irreconcilable, worldviews – from the Buddhists, the Mimansakas (old Vedic householders) and the Vedantins (the later Vedic hermits), to the Shaivas, the Vaishnavas, and the Shaktas. This is evident in his copious literary outpourings.

Political Sage

Shankara’s philosophy is avowedly Vedic. Unlike Buddhists and Jains, he traced his knowledge to the Vedas and submitted to its impersonal authority, which made him a believer (astika). In his commentaries (bhasya) and monographs (prakarana), he repeatedly sought a formless divine (nirguna brahman) being the only reality, outside all binaries. This is evident in his commentary on Vedanta, the Brahma-sutra-bhasya, his Sanskrit poems Vivekachudamani and Nirvana-shatakam and his treatise Atma-bodha. Many consider this to be an acceptance of the Buddhist theme of the world being a series of disconnected transitory moments, hence amounting to nothingness (shunya-vada), while giving it a Vedic twist, which is why Shankara was often accused of being a disguised Buddhist (prachanna bauddha).

But Shankara’s poetry (stotra) also celebrates several tangible forms of the divine (saguna brahmana) as they appear in the Puranas. He composed grand benedictions to Puranic gods: Shiva (Daksinamurti-stotra), Vishnu (Govinda-ashtaka) and Shakti (Saundarya-lahari). This makes him the first Vedic scholar, after Vyasa, to overtly link Vedic Hinduism to Puranic Hinduism, an idea further elaborated a few centuries later by other teachers of Vedanta, such as Ramanuja, Madhva, and Vallabha. Shankara even wrote on tantra, which made its presence explicitly felt around that time.

For all his talk of formlessness and nothingness, and the world being an illusion, Shankara went on to connect holy spots of India such as the 12 jyotirlingas, 18 shakti-peethas and four Vishnu-dhaams to create pilgrim routes that defined India as a single land. In his legends, he travelled from Kerala to Kashmir, from Puri in present-day Odisha to Dwarka in Gujarat, from Shringeri in present-day Karnataka to Badari in Uttarakhand, from Kanchi in present-day Tamil Nadu to Kashi in Uttar Pradesh, along the slopes of the Himalayas, the banks of the rivers Narmada and Ganga, and along the eastern and western coasts.

Shankara then is not an ivory tower philosopher; he is a political sage, engaging with and responding to the historical context of his time. Through philosophy, poetry and pilgrimage, he attempted to bind the subcontinent of India that was constantly referred to in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain texts as well as in the Vedic ritual of sankalpa as Jambu-dvipa, the continent of the jambul tree, and Bharat-varsha, the land of the Bharata kings.