Adi Shankaracharya: Crypto-Buddhist Or Karma Yogi ?

By Pankaj Jain

Adi Shankaracharya was one of greatest philosophers of Hinduism. In this article, I want to share some of my thoughts with you and hope to start an interactive discussion thread to get to the heart of the debate of Pravritti (activism) v/s Nivritti (passivism). Which of the two are applicable in globalized world of 21st century? Which one is closer to Hinduism? Or this dichotomy is not really justified?

Adi Shankaracharya is sometimes called a crypto-Buddhist by scholars because he challenged Buddhism and took away many of its concepts and merged in the mainstream Hinduism. Hence Buddhism lost its unique appeal and after external invasions on Buddhist monasteries, Buddhism had to leave India and take refuge in Tibet, China and other southeast countries. The question arises whether Buddhism really influenced Adi Shankaracharya? Is taking premature Sanyaas (renunciation) escapism as an influence of Buddhism/Jainism or is it authorized and approved by Vedic culture and Bhagwad Gita?

POINT: No, He was not crypto-Buddhist but was a Karma Yogi

Terming Shankaracharya as crypto Buddhist or escapist or Nivritti oriented person is wrong. He demonstrated in his entire life in which he reestablished Vedic culture in Bhaarat and Buddhism had to leave for other countries. Therefore, he was a true Karma Yogi. He might have written in his Gita Bhaashya about renunciation but to interpret that as escapism will be wrong. And to interpret this great philosopher/ Karma Yogi with our little intellects is a childish effort?

Now what about the tradition of starting Mathas and the wave of Sanyaasis after Adi Shankaracharya? Is this an influence of Buddhism? Is it true that Adi Shankara himself had emphasized that all the later caretakers of different Mathas must be married person. Looking beyond the Shankara Mathas, other Sanyaasi Acharyas such as Swami Chinmayananda (Chinmaya Mission), Swami Vivekananda (RK Mission), Swami Dayananda (Arsha Vidya), Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (Art of Living), I think they all can be compared to Adi Shankaracharya's tradition of Sanyaasi yet true Karma Yogis. All these modern Acharyas have been active Karma Yogis. They all have spoken, debated and argued against the onslaught of conversion, Missionaries etc. They all have traveled entire world to spread Vedic culture. So, in the true tradition of Adi Shankaracharya, none of them can be called escapists.

I think only those Sanyaasis can be called escapists who sit in the caves of Himalayas and try to just practice Yoga or meditation and remain aloof from society and current problems. Is my conclusion correct? Now let’s see the other side of the debate.

COUNTER-POINT: Yes, He was a crypto-Buddhist not a Karma Yogi

Both Buddha and Shankara did spread their ideology during their lifetime. But they both preached Sanyaasa or renunciation as the solution for all the miseries of life. They spread their wisdom throughout India and changed the prevalent notions of philosophy. Buddha challenged the rituals of Vedic culture and Shankara challenged Buddhism. Both won huge support from masses. But what was the message both preached? Both highlighted and underscored the importance of renunciation. Hence, both are Nivratti-oriented Yogis. And the followers of both have always chosen monkhood over householder life. When the today’s society needs all our energies for social/spiritual upliftment, is it an ideal role model for society? Should we rather call Buddha and Shankara both as Gnaan Yogis or Saankhya Yogis but not Karma Yogis and that would make Shankara indeed a crypto-Buddhist because he adopted all the Buddhist concepts into mainstream Vedic culture and that signaled the death of Buddhism from India.

Of course, before Buddhism, all our prior Avtaaras such as Rama, Krishna were all householders. All our authors of great scriptures were householders and so were most of the Vedic sages. Only Hanuman in Ramayana and Bhishma in Mahabharata remain celibates but to call them escapists will again be a huge mistake, both were live examples of dynamo of energy. Both actively participated in warfare and politics.

What do you think?