Integral Samnyasa? Adi Shankaracharya and Liberation Hermeneutics

Reid B. Locklin University of Toronto

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female (Galatians 3:27-28). 

WRITING in the Women's Bible Commentary, Carolyn Osiek offers five conflicting interpretations of this controversial passage and its significance for women's liberation. At one end of the spectrum stand those . who insist that the text "endorses an end to sexism of every kind," a difficult view to square with other statements of the apostle Paul. At another extreme stand those who ascribe it exclusively to a future transfomiation at the end of time, with no contemporary relevance. 1 Other views lie somewhere between these extremes, including a suggestion that 

... in God's future the tension between human opposites-Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female-will disappear. Because life in the grace of Christ anticipates in part what the future can be like, it is possible to live without these unhealthy tensions even now. 

Though this is not the only alternative offered by Osiek, it reveals a hermeneutical strategy employed by a number of Christian liberationists. In A Theology 0/ Liberation, for example, Gustavo Gutierrez similarly argues that scriptural texts such as the Exodus narrative or Romans 8 emerge in a new light when one "sees in the world beyond not the 'true life,' but rather the transformation and fulfillment of the present life.',3 Borrowing language from Rita Sherma, we might say that such liberationist interpretations hinge upon establishing a strong connection between a theological vision of the "ultimate goal" of human life and a social vision of "penultimate" ethical values in the here and now. 

In this essay, I would like to suggest that a comparable henneneutical strategy can be discerned in selected arguments of the Hindu teacher Adi Shankaracharya. At first glanceeven a sustained first glance-the non-dualist theology of Shankara and his followers would seem an unlikely source for a world-affirming view of human life and political transformation. Sherma herself suggests that Shankara represents a particularly striking example of the general Hindu trend to neglect "the relevance of moksa to dharma," and S.L. Malhotra has noted the tendency among some modem Advaitins to reject Shankara or radically to reinterpret his teaching in the interests of social activism. 5 One influential such re-interpretation is the so-called "Tat-Tvam-Asi Ethic" developed by P~ml Deussen and adopted by Vivekananda and other neo-V edantins: that is, the idea that recognition of the same self in all beings can directly motivate egalitarian concern. This interpretative strategy has, however, been roundly criticized  by Paul Hacker and Karl Potter on exegetical and philosophical grounds. 6 Whether or not one accepts this critique, it does suggest that arguing for the social relevance of Advaita teaching remains an important, ongoing and unfinished task in the tradition. 

Taking up this challenge, Anantanand Rambachan has recently modeled a "top down" approach, questioning traditional Advaita distinctions between "qualified" and "unqualified" Brahman. By setting these two characterizations of Brahman in a parMoxical mutual relation rather than in hierarchical order, he suggests, the Advaitin interpreter can recover a positive sense of divine creatorship and worldaffirming social action. 7 I propose a different tack in this essay, building "from the bottom up" by identifying just one point on which Shankara himself consistently drew definite social consequences from his teaching on final liberation: the highly disputed issue of worldrenunciation (samnyasa). In his avid defence of samnyasa, I argue, Shankara implicitly problematizes his own social conservatism, thereby opening a door to a broader HinduChristian conversation about liberation hermeneutics and social reform. 

Shankara's Teaching on Samnyasa: Sine Qua Non or Non-Exclusive Norm? 

There is a voluminous body of scholarship on Shankara, of course, much of it dealing with his teaching on samnyasa. One fairly recent contribution is Roger Marcaurelle's Freedom through Inner Renunciation. 8 In this exhaustive study, Marcaurelle makes a case-against the weight of prior interpretation, traditional and modem-that Shankara did not view the breaking of the sacred thread, abandonment of ritual and adoption of renunciant life as a "sine qua non" for liberation. It is "direct Selfknowledge" and the accompanying interior "renunciation of doership" (kartrtva-samnyasa) that stand at the centre of Shankara's vision, making liberation accessible to anyone, regardless of caste, gender or state of life. 9 Entrance into the fourth stage of life through physical renUnCiatIOn (karma-samnyasa) represents one particularly helpful means, albeit one restricted by Shankara to members of the Brahmin caste, for supporting the pursuit of direct Self-knowledge. "It is clear," Marcaurelle claims, "that for the seeker-after-liberation the value of physical renunciation lies in allowing full-time dedication to the. most direct means of Self-knowledge, and not in being the only way of living capable of bringing about that knowledge."

Marcaurelle's account is attractive, not least because it attempts to free the Advaita tradition' from monastic elitism. II Yet Marcaurelle' s interpretation is weakened, in my judgement, by the very narrow scope of his enquiry. He asks, "according to Shankara, is physical renunciation a necessary indirect means, for liberation?,,12 The answer to this question may well be negative. But our perspective might nevertheless be enriched by ~approaching the same data with a broader, less reductive question in mind. Specifically, we can gain' a broader view on Shankara's teaching if we ask how and why he upholds karma-samnyasa as a central, governing norm for liberating Self-knowledge- ' whether absolutely necessary, or not. 

That Shankara gives this samnyasa some . normative significance emerges clearly from two texts Maurcarelle finds most difficult to harness to his thesis: Brahma-Sutra-Bhasya 3.4.20 and the independent treatise Upadesasahasri. 13 In the mbst relevant adhikarana of the BrahmaSutra-Bhasya, Shankani. vigorously defends the legitimacy of samnyasa as the state of life proper to those who remain "steadfast in Brahman" (Brahma-samstha), on the evidence of Chandogya Upanishad 2.23.1 and the Jabala Upanishad, against Purva-Mimamsa objections. 14 "The tenn 'steadfastness in Brahman," he writes, "implies a consummation in Brahman, a total absorption in Brahman, which is the same as absence of any other preoccupation except that. And that is not possible for people in the other three stages," due to their preoccupation with ritual obligations and other duties. 15 The special status of samnyasa is underscored in the Upadesasahasri, especially its first prose chapter, where the ideal student of Advaita is explicitly described as a Brahmin renunciant of the paramahamsa order. 16 Elsewhere, Shankara will take such affirmations one step further, associating the discipline of knowledge so closely with paramahamsa ascetics as, by all appearances, to restrict liberation to these persons alone. 17 Marcaurelle readily allows Shankara' s very strong emphases upon Brahmin caste and physical renunciation, as well as their close mutual connection, but he grants such emphases merely concessive force: 

Although Sankara understood his teaching to be accessible to all castes, for sociohistorical and/or strategic reasons, in practice, he may have taught mainly to Brahmins, who were probably the most qualified to understand the subtle argumentation of his revival Additionally, Sankara's specific mention of physical renunciation as a requirement for the discipline of knowledge in the [Upadesasahasri] may have been a way to emphasize that, because physical renunciation allows full-time dedication to enquiry into the nature of Brahman-Atman, it is most supportive 9f Self-knowledge and therefore preferable for those who are qualified for it.