Adi Shankara was a South Indian sage and the foremost teacher of Advaita Vedanta, the perennial philosophy that lies at the heart of all religions. Such is his stature that even Ramana Maharshi, probably the best-known modern exponent of Advaita, referred to him simply as Acharya – ‘The Teacher’ – and translated some of his works from Sanskrit for his own devotees.
Advaita offers a vision of life as the manifestation of an absolute, non-dual consciousness transcending all time, space and causation, and it provides the direct means to experience this divine ground of all being as our own Self.
Far from being some dry and dusty ‘Indian philosophy’, Advaita is a system of practical psychology, based on meditation and insight, that draws the practitioner into the deepest consideration of their own status and what it means to be a human being. As such, it is of immediate relevance to us today, torn as we are by questions of identity and purpose, and the struggle to resolve the age-old problems of ignorance, suffering and inequality.
This book presents the teachings of Adi Shankara in a highly approachable form through modern translations of his original writings, set in the lively context of his life and mission.
The author, Alistair Shearer, is well-known for his translations of Sanskrit classics: Selections from the Upanishads and The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. He is a long-time teacher of meditation in the lineage of Shankara.
Previous critical acclaim:
‘A lovely decanting of this very old wine into a sparkling new bottle.’ John Updike
‘This is the kind of text that one keeps close at hand like an old, wise and compassionate friend.’ Ram Dass
‘An elegant and valuable contribution to the growing corpus of Upanishadic texts in English.’ Dr. Karan Singh
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali:
‘A wonderful translation, full of contemporary insight yet luminous with eternal truth.’ Jacob Needleman
About the author
Alistair Shearer (http://www.alistairshearer.co.uk) has worked and travelled throughout the Land of the Veda over many years. He has taught courses on Indian art and architecture for several prestigious institutions, such as the British Museum, The School of Oriental and African Studies at London University and the auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s. He recently co-created an award-winning retreat hotel (http://www.neeleshwarhermitage.com) on the coast of Malabar, in the sage’s homeland Kerala.
PART THREE: THE MASTER
The courtyard of the ancient monastery, Kashi’s pre-eminent centre of spiritual learning, has been cleaned and swept. At one end stands a great peepul tree whose lovely wide-spreading branches give such welcome shade. Crows squawk as they hop from one branch to another and little squirrels dart here and there across the dusty ground beneath them. The simple regularity of the arches and doors of the cloisters around the courtyard give a neat and ordered feeling to the place and the scene has a pleasingly settled atmosphere.
About four hundred monks are sitting on the ground in a wide semi-circle facing the tree and the clusters of ochre, red and yellow robes show the various different schools that have assembled for the event. They are arranged according to rank with the senior monks of each school up at the front while young novices, many in white robes, sit at the back of the gathering. At one end of the arc is a large group of sadhus who are not wearing the robe of an official order, but many sport the bright distinguishing colours of their particular lineage.
Under the tree a raised dais has been built of wood; it is covered in saffron cloth and strewn with red and orange flowers. On this dais sits the Master with his staff and water pot beside him as he serenely surveys the crowd in front of him.
The proceedings begin with recitation by a group of twenty-one pundits, shaven headed and wearing yellow silk shawls. The verses of Rig and Sama Veda swell and dip in deep sonorous cadences of elemental power: the sounds of Mother Nature herself, like the rolls of distant thunder advancing from beyond the horizon of time. After perhaps half an hour of chanting, the Abbot, a small, dignified man in late middle age with the humble air of a true scholar, rises to his feet formally to welcome the Master.
“Respected Maharaj-ji, it is indeed an honour for us to have your august presence here with us today. Notwithstanding your lack of years, your reputation has already spread rapidly through our ancient holy city and further afield. It is said by some that you are the legitimate spiritual heir of the Masters of the Holy Tradition, those rishis, saints and enlightened beings who have taught the eternal truth of life since time immemorial. Indeed some are even saying that you are the Lord Shiva in human form, come to restore the purity of the Vedic teaching in our troubled times. So to open our debate here today, good Sir, pray present us with your essential teaching”.
After a pause, the Master begins by chanting a few stanzas in praise of the line of gurus. Then he starts to speak in a soft and melodious voice: “Venerable Abbot, there can be no greater use of our precious human birth than to dedicate oneself to the pursuit of Truth. All of you gathered together here have had the rare intelligence to realise this and to make good use of your limited time in this unpredictable life.
You have decided to do more with your existence than just breed, struggle and die, and you have wisely turned your back on the thin yield of worldly pleasures in favour of the rich harvest of the spirit.
Your orange robes fly the noble flag of renunciation, proclaiming far and wide that you have chosen to store and circulate the sacred energy within your own bodies and not dissipate it in the market place of the world. And in your nomadic lifestyle you uphold the dharma of ‘those who are destined to move’ without whom the sedentary dharma of the householder would lose its balance and be overrun by its own aberrations. I salute you all as the noble warriors who move deftly through this great web of illusion we call the world, and it is a very great joy for me to be here today in such an illustrious company of spiritual luminaries and genuine seekers.
“My teaching, oh forest of ascetics” – here the young man uses the traditional form of address to a company of monks – “is the culmination of all Vedic knowledge. The entire range of sacred wisdom, the knowledge of the subtle powers that govern life on earth, the knowledge of how to contact and invoke their help and support through fire offerings, the knowledge of herbs and healing, the skills of archery and governmental organisation, the understanding of celestial sound and its effects, the insight into the movement of the planets and their effects on earth – all this is both contained and transcended in the Way that I teach.
“For I teach Unity Consciousness, the state of ultimate freedom, liberation and indescribable joy, that those who follow sanatana dharma call moksha and those who follow Gautama the Enlightened one call nirvana. In this state of non-duality, everything from Lord Brahma down to a clump of grass is clearly seen to be a form of the one formless Divine, and that Divine, the immaculate and omnipresent substratum of the universe, is one’s very own Self. This formless unity is to be realised here in life, whilst we are still in the body and in the world. It is not, as some erroneously teach, a state that can be reached only after physical death and it far surpasses any of the heavens or celestial realms that are won by the correct performance of rituals. Moreover, this liberation is available, O forest of ascetics, to anyone who truly wishes it and is suitably ripe for attainment”.
“And what, respected Maharaj”, responds the Abbot, “is the basis for a teaching that transcends the wealth of Vedic knowledge?”
“The basis, Venerable Abbot, is the very nature of life. Beyond the changing world of the senses, beyond the mind, beyond all our normal boundaries of individuality, there exists an ultimate Reality. This field of ultimate Reality is transcendental and silent; it is divine, absolute and all-pervading. As such, it gives rise to the manifold worlds of name and form but is itself ever unstained by its own creations.
Our tradition calls it brahman, ‘the unbounded expanse’, but names do not matter, as Truth is one, though the sages may describe it by different terms”. “Respected Maharaj, as we well know, there are many theories and beliefs about the nature of reality and they are not all consistent.
How can we be sure that this brahman is not just another such theory or belief?”
“You are quite correct, Venerable Abbot, in saying that there are many theories and beliefs about the nature of reality! Because of this there are also many seekers who spend their time accumulating and propagating such theories and beliefs. But to do so is to be like a starving man who seeks to satisfy his hunger by repeating to himself the words ‘rice and vegetables, rice and vegetables’. Such words will never cure his hunger; he has to eat rice and vegetables and taste and enjoy and digest and be nourished by them. Like that, a person who merely collects metaphysical theories and beliefs will never be satisfied. Such a one will have to experience the Truth directly, taste it and enjoy it and digest it fully so that it becomes a natural part of him. This is the practical benefit of the knowledge I teach”.
“What then is the most important thing for a seeker of truth, respected Sir?”
“Direct spiritual experience is the most important thing for a seeker of truth; true knowledge depends on our direct experience. Of all the means of gaining knowledge that are accepted as valid by our sacred tradition, direct experience is said to be supreme. Indeed, if even a thousand scriptures were to tell me that fire was cold, I would still not ignore my own direct experience of putting my hand into the flames and finding that fire was not, in fact, cold”.
At this a ripple runs around the assembly, and a mixture of surprise and consternation appears on some faces, particularly among the older monks. There is some shaking of heads.
“Are we to understand from this, young Sir, that you impugn the authority of the holy scriptures?” asks the Abbot.
“Indeed, I certainly do not impugn the authority of the holy scriptures, Venerable Abbot”, comes the measured reply. “Our sacred texts are eternal and true, for they are not just the products of the human mind, but life’s record of its own intrinsic wisdom, passed down age after age, time after time. And no-one can claim to be a truly proficient teacher unless he is thoroughly versed in the Veda. But the ultimate role of these scriptures is to inspire, verify and corroborate that direct personal experience of the absolute Self, without which the teaching of brahman would indeed be just one of those many theories about the ultimate nature of reality. Truly, the absolute brahman lies beyond the individual mind and its concepts or opinions. But the inmost Self, which is one with the absolute brahman, can be directly experienced when the mind goes beyond the limits of individuality”.
“If it is beyond the mind, then can anything really be said about this ultimate brahman?”
“You will all know well that our sacred Upanishads ascribe to this eternal level of life three attributes: Truth, Consciousness and Bliss: sat – chit – ananda. Truth is that which does not change, for brahman is a level of pure Being that knows no change, no diminishment, no death. This pure Being is a unified field of unbounded Consciousness, it is the divine intelligence from which all creation springs, by which it is maintained and into which it eventually returns. And coming into contact with that unbounded Consciousness is a state of constant loving bliss, compared to which the joys of the senses pale into insignificance. And this pure Being, O forest of ascetics, is your very own Self”.
Many in the assembly are visibly moved by the calm authority of the young man’s words.
“Well said, respected Maharaj!” responds the Abbot. Initially concerned that he might find himself having to defend Vedic orthodoxy against this young teacher who has defeated and converted the great Mandana Mishra, he is beginning to suspect that what he sees before him is the Upanishadic wisdom in living form.
“And how, then, is the life of one who knows this Self?”
“The life of one who knows this Self, Venerable Abbot, is one of peace, bliss, wisdom and unity. In this awareness there is no burden whatsoever, all is immaculate, pure and full of grace. Such are the blessings of this level of life. Truly, the enlightened state is the goal of all yoga, all worship and all spiritual disciplines”.
The Abbot pauses and looks around at the audience. He can see they are captivated by what they are hearing. It is not just the words that hold them, for many present are accustomed to impressive oratory, it is the fact that the young man on the dais is transparent to the reality of which he speaks. Even the novices are held by his lucent countenance, aware that they are in the presence of something very unusual.
“Respected Maharaj” he continues, warming to the debate and conscious of his role as mediator. “You have spoken very eloquently about the state of enlightenment and we thank you for that. But what about the world? It is well-known that you and your tradition teach that the world is maya, an illusion. This is not a doctrine that is easy for the masses to understand and even many of us in the robe who belong to orders renowned for their scholarship and discipline, find such an extreme viewpoint difficult to comprehend. This hesitation is all the more so when, with all due respect, such a radical doctrine is heard issuing from the lips of one as young in worldly experience as yourself. Pray enlighten us further on this cosmic force of illusion that you call maya”.
“Venerable Abbot, your question is a beautiful one”, responds the Master smiling slightly, “for it has gone to the very heart of the whole matter. You have asked what should be asked and your question deserves a fit answer. So, then, listen carefully, O forest of ascetics, to what I have to say”.
He pauses a moment before continuing:
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published December 2017
Size: 229 x 152 mm