A Journey through Vedantic History - Advaita in the Pre-Sankara, Sankara and Post- Sankara Periods

Dr Godavarisha Mishra Shivdasani Visiting Fellow Lecture Two

These lectures were delivered in Michaelmas Term (Oct.-Dec. 2003). They are intended to introduce the basic tenets of Advaita tracing it from the period of Gaudapada through Sankara to the present day Advaitins. They examine the philosophical subtleties of Advaita, its enrichment through productive dialogue with other schools and also its impact on the society. These are designed for students in Indian Philosophy, Theology and Religious studies and do not require in-depth understanding of Indian scriptures. However, they could also be of particular interest to advanced students of Indology and Sanskrit studies.

Pre-Shankara Advaita:

Since the Advaita tradition has its roots in the Vedas, which have been expounded from times immemorial, it cannot be dated with great accuracy. However, the earliest formulation of the system can be traced back to the Mandukya-karikas of Gaudapada. 1 The predecessor and teacher of Gaudapada is said to be Suka the famous author of the Bhagavatapurana. To this day, however, there is no hard evidence to support this traditional belief. Prior to Suka seems to be the sage Vyasa whom Vacaspati identifies with the author of the Brahmasutras in the introductory verse of his commentary Bhamati: "brahmasutrakrte tasmai vedavyasaya dhimate." Further, because of some references concerning Vyasa in early Samkhya, Vaishesika and Buddhist texts, we may tentatively place him in the third century BCE. Previous teachers like Parasara may very well be mythological figures. Hence the Brahmasutras and the Mandukyakarikas are the sole reliable pre-Shankara Advaita works available to us. The line of preceptors ranging from Narayana to Suka is a familial one- the teachings were passed on from father to son. The Upanisads themselves tell us of celebrated teachers like Atharvan, Bharadvaja, Yajnavalya, and Uddalaka, who engaged in "meaningful" discourses with their kith and kin. These sages had ashramas in different parts of the country and Shankara must have followed their example in his decision to establish his Mathas.

The Brahmasutras:

It is very likely that there were many works called Brahmasutras, which object were to give a concise summary of the Upanisadic teachings. Unfortunatly, the Sarirakamimamsa of Badarayana is the sole to have survived. In his work, Badarayana refers to Badari, Jaimini, Kasakrtsnam, Karsnajini, Asmarathya and Atreya, suggesting that each of the latter had written his aphorisms on the Upanisads. 3 The Bhakti-sutras of Sandilya 4 and Kasyapa that were written before Shankara seem to teach theistic non-dualism and dualism, respectively. If different teachers wrote about the Upanisads highlighting different things, Badarayana, whom Vacaspati calls the universal teacher (sarvabhauma) seems to have been more thorough in his outlook, writing on karma, jnana, as well as yoga. 

The well-known pre-Shankara teachers were Bartrprapanca, Dravidacarya, Sundarapandya, Bhatrmitra, Brahmanandin and Upavarsha. They must have been Vedantins of great stature since they are named in the works of Shankara, Sureshvara and Vacaspati Mishra. Both Shankara and Sureshvara refer to Bhartrprapanca as Upanisadam-manya, i.e., thinking that he knew the Upanisads. He was thoroughly criticized by Sureshvara. Brahmanandin wrote the Chandogya-vakya wherein he gives the summary of the Upanisadic teachings. Dravidacarya wrote a commentary on the Chandogyopanisad. The schools of Advaita and Vishistadvaita claim Dravidacarya as a traditional teacher. Both Shankara and Ramanuja refer to Dravida in their respective commentarial works. The Advaitin Polagam Rama Sastri gives us but a glimpse of Dravida’s thinking in a text published under the auspices of the Kanci Shankara Matha. Many scholars like Hiriyanna and Sudarsanasuri have attempted to formulate the philosophy of Brahmadatta and Sudarsanasuri, for instance, calls Brahmadatta as an old mayavadin (jaranmayavadin).Notwithstanding Shankara and Vacaspati’s critiques of the views of Brahmadatta, the latter still remained influential within the Advaita tradition. 

Visit: https://web.archive.org/web/20060622102818/http://ochs.org.uk/downloads/classes/gmishra02mmas04.pdf