What exactly is meant by India’s “national” philosophy?
Indian philosophy is an incredibly rich, complex and diverse bouquet of thoughts and ideas that can be divided, at the most fundamental level, between the Astika and the Nastika schools. The Astikas believe in the supremacy of the Vedas (and not, significantly, in God). There are six major branches of Astika thought: Mimamsa, Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika and Vedanta. Mimamsa and Sankhya do not believe in God as the Creator.
The three chief Nastika strands are Charvaka, Jaina and Bauddha. All of them emerged in opposition to Vedic supremacy. They do not believe in God and the Vedas.
Indian philosophy has been occupied with ontological and metaphysical questions such as ‘Who are we?’, ‘What is the relation between the body and the self?’, ‘What is this world all about?’, ‘Who is the creator?’, ‘What is knowledge and its nature?’, ‘What are the various levels of reality?, ‘How does one attain knowledge?’, etc. Unlike western systems of philosophy, in India, the various branches co-existed over centuries, and sometimes evolved after intense debates among them. There is no one ‘national’ Indian philosophy, unless the very diversity of its many streams is considered the national characteristic of the Indian system of thought.
What is Vedanta, the system with which Sankara is most closely associated?
As the nomenclature indicates, Vedanta or the Upanishads mark the ‘end of the Vedas’. Vedanta represents the culmination of the vast Vedic thought. The Vedas are polytheistic, with a belief in many gods. However, all of these gods have a supreme lord above them. Upanishadic or Vedantic thought shifts the centre from God to the Self (Atma), and the entire endevaour is to realise this Self.
There have been many commentators on Vedanta, such as Sankaracharya (early 9th century), Ramanujacharya (11th century), Madhavacharya (13th-14th centuries) and Vallabhacharya (15th-16th centuries). Each differs from others on many aspects. But Sankara is almost unanimously seen as the most prominent.
So what are Sankaracharya’s main philosophical thoughts?
It is generally accepted that Sankara was born in Kaladi, not far from today’s Kochi, in 788 AD. At the heart of his philosophy of Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism) is Tat Twam Asi or Thou Art That, the famous phrase from the Chhandogya Upanishad, which perceives the Self (Atman) as the Absolute Reality (Brahman). Brahman is the sole cause, creator and consumer of the universe.
Sankara is also famous for his theory of Maya, which, according to him, is the charismatic power that creates the world, and is inseparable (ananya, abhinna, aprithak) from Brahman. Change, according to Sankara, is an illusion — nothing that did not exist earlier will come into existence. The change of outer form is visible to some eyes due to the operation of Maya, but truth remains the same.
Still, the world does possesses a practical reality. The dream is real until we wake up. Sankara doesn’t refute the dream, only points at the Maya that creates the illusion of dream. His notion of Brahman or Absolute Reality states that there exists just one infinite existence that reveals itself in myriad forms. Brahman is beyond distinctions, qualities, descriptions or definitions. It is Parabrahman, Nirguna Brahman (formless entity). Sankara’s philosophy has evoked the admiration of a spectrum of thinkers through the centuries.
So, can Sankara be called India’s ‘National Philosopher’?
Sankara came at a time when the Sanatan Dharma was divided and battered, and Buddhism was advancing; he established four maths in four corners of the country, unified the divided Santana Dharma, and is credited with the philosophical ‘defeat’ of Bauddhas.
For many Indian and western thinkers, Sankara’s non-dualism is the acme of Indian philosophy. It is generally agreed that he established a fine but strong balance among various levels of reality, and it is difficult to find a logical flaw in the formulations of this philosopher who was only 32 at the time of his death. Even as he propagated the Nirgun (formless) Brahman, he created the epistemic space for Sagun or Sakar Isvara (God) as well.
Despite some later criticism, Sankara is almost unanimously seen as the most logical and coherent of the Vedanta masters. S Radhakrishnan termed him a “mind of very fine penetration and profound spirituality”. He wrote: “His (Sankara’s) philosophy stands forth complete, needing neither a before nor an after… whether we agree or differ, the penetrating light of his mind never leaves us where we were.”
What about the other philosophical strands Sankara was opposed to?
There is a fundamental contradiction with Nastik philosophy, which India’s ‘National Philosopher’ should not ideally have. Sankara was extremely caustic about Buddhist philosphers, and equated their ideas with “a well in sand that has no foundation”. In Sharirika Bhashya, he wrote that The Buddha was “either fond of making contradictory statements, or his hatred of people made him teach three contradictory doctrines so that people may be utterly confused and deluded… All persons who desire the Good should at once reject Buddhism.”
Significantly, the RSS has been trying to assimilate the contemporary Buddhist icon Dr B R Ambedkar in its pantheon.