vidya at vidya at
Mon Jul 10 01:57:01 UTC 1995

Prof. Daud Ali :

> I am wondering why such
> inordinate attention is payed to Sankara's Advaita Vedanta.  ...
> ....
> especially given the European Romantic obsession with monism, and its subseque
nt elevation

The attention paid to Advaita Vedanta in Indology goes beyond the Romantic
obsession, I think. Philosophers of various colours have tried to find in
advaita, "the philosophy of India/the Brahmins/Hinduism", either to praise
it as the highest philosophia perennis, (like Paul Deussen) or to berate it
as a distorted mysticism that leads Hinduism astray. Christianity then comes
in as the rescuing religion, and as part of the white man's burden. The
utilitarians, the idealists, the romanticists have all found advaita vedanta,
or their understanding of it, to be quite useful in what they had to say
or think about India.

Wilhelm Halbfass's "India and Europe: An Essay in Understanding" and
Ronald Inden's "Imagining India" address this issue with their own perspectives.
Roughly, the historical fascination with advaita can probably be traced to
the French translation of Oupnekhat.

> My understanding of medieval history would put Sankara in a very minor
> role until the late medieval period -- say the beginning of patronage of
> the Sringeri monastery by Vijayanagar kings.

>From a historical perspective that looks at empires as milestones, you are
probably right. But purely from a philosophical perspective, Sankara's influence
in India is immense. Within a century of Sankara, there is a consolidation of
commentarial effort in Vedanta. Whatever the views of people may be about
whether advaita represents the original Vedanta or not, it is quite clear that
it is sufficiently widespread within a very short time. Ramanuja's work
VedArtha-sangraha begins with a criticism of three positions that can be traced
to one or the other advaita schools. Ramanuja's influence remains more
or less geographically restricted in the south, for a century after his time,
whereas the Dasanami sannyasi order spread throughout India, tracing its
origin to Sankara.

Still, it is somewhat hard to describe advaita as "the philosophy" that has
influenced medieval Hinduism the most. Undoubtedly, the bhakti traditions and
the Agama based traditions were more important in this regard. Thus, even in
the advaita centers, temple-building conforms to Agamic rules, e.g. the
yantra-sthApana, the installation of Goddess images on Sri chakras, etc. For
all the explicit criticism of karma mImAmSa and the implicit criticism of
bhakti in textual advaita, the reality in the lives of smArtas is quite
different. Both vaidika karma and bhakti play very important roles in
traditional Hinduism. This is quite important, because it is from smArta
families that the influential Sankaracharyas of the various mathas are

Probably a lot of the modern Indologist's attention on advaita is based upon
what is called neo-Vedanta, more specifically the Vedanta of Ramakrishna,
Vivekananda and their followers. Though Vivekananda finds occasion to
criticize Sankara, the Ramakrishna mission is now more or less closely 
identified with advaita, both by themselves and by others. There is a temple
for Ramakrishna in Kalady, Sankara's birthplace. Swami Tapasyananda's 
translation of the Madaviya Sankara-digvijaya has a quaint verse as a benediction, identifying Ramakrishna with Sankara. The face of neo-Hinduism that the 
West sees most often, is the Vedanta society's face (barring, of course,
ISKCON!). Add to this, the Chinmaya mission, the Self-Realization Fellowship
of Yogananda, and such other organizations, and one has a rather large
representation of advaita offshoots. 

S. Vidyasankar


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