Author: , Hindu, studied Veda (incl. Upanishads), Vedanta, Gita (Apr 26, 2017)
Whoever says Adi Shankara has no value in Hinduism is out-of-this-world ignorant about his life and work. It is like saying the sun has zero value in the blooming of the sunflower.
On the other hand, I can let go of some modern-day “Shankaracharyas” without any remorse.
After Veda Vyasa “bAdarAyaNa”, Adi Shankara is the second brightest star of the figurative Hindu night sky.
Apparently, during Buddha’s time there was no Vedic scholar who could match his charisma and outreach, nor was anyone capable enough to bring out the universal and lofty philosophy hidden behind the yajnas or in the Upanishads. Or we don’t know enough of this period and every history textbook is parroting the same old theory that all the brahmins were greedy and butchering animals in sacrifices, and the holy savior Buddha came and threw them into the gutters. I, for one, do not believe we have the full story of this period, and it is a one-sided story of the apparent triumph of Buddhism. What is not believable about this story is how Vedic philosophy suddenly fell from grace when the Upanishads were supposedly just on the horizon before Buddha’s time? Even the Brahmana and Aranyaka texts which are much older than Buddha have symbolic interpretations of yajnas and recommend no animal sacrifice. Our Vedic ancestors were not given to frequent bouts of new trends in religion. They had maintained the Vedic culture for more than 2500 years before Buddha. It is just not convincing enough that a radical internal revolution would be needed at any time in Indian history.
OK, so that was my rant about the biases and very possible errors of history-recording.
In any case, going with the conventional story, Adi Shankara was born at a time when Buddhism, Jainism, and other heterodox systems were stronger, and traditional Vedic adherents were dwindling. To his credit, he systematized the Vedanta doctrines existing since the time of Veda Vyasa, through other illustrious AcAryas such as Gaudapada and Govindapada.
Adi Shankara was a child genius who had mastered the required Vedic expertise by the age of 8. Then he took sannyAsa and traveled all over India and revived the dormant Vedanta traditions that existed everywhere. In this respect, he can be rightly called a great integrator of the Indian subcontinent. He integrated a larger portion of the subcontinent than any other person before he had done single-handedly. Note that I did not say “conqueror”. Adi Shankara integrated the entire mind of the subcontinent by showing that the Vedic heritage of the different regions of India was valuable and had some intrinsic higher purpose than a mundane one.
He reinforced the logic and systematization of Vyasa’s Brahmasutra and updated his commentary with the latest arguments and logical counter-arguments to defeat anti-Vedic objections. Vyasa still depends on Upanishadic “shraddhA” on several aspects of his philosophy. Adi Shankara thoroughly uses hard and pure logic and experience to support the Upanishad statements and put forth his arguments. This counters the objection of non-Vedic opponents that they don’t even believe in the Vedas, so for them, statements like “vedAh pramANam – Vedas are an authority” are totally meaningless. So Adi Shankara based his entire exposition on actual experience and indisputable logic, and then also backed it up by Upanishad references.
The one astounding fact about Adi Shankara is that he traveled to all four corners of the subcontinent and was so influential at every location that his originally established monasteries (maTha) are still functional and prestigious (notwithstanding the occasional politics and underhanded activities in recent times). All this he accomplished before he hit the age of 32! So in his 20s, he was constantly moving around, debating hundreds of scholars of all ages in various towns, defeating them, and changing their thought process permanently. And to imagine that he didn’t have access to the internet, nor to airplanes, trains, buses, cars, or even a personal horse or bullock cart. He would have been traveling through dense jungles full of wild animals and tribes without a constant source of food.
Adi Shankara also instituted some standard practices in popular religion through his pancAyatana paddhati, i.e. worship of 5 deities (Vishnu, Shiva, Surya, Devi, and Ganesha). He restored numerous old dilapidated temples and revived daily worship in them. He brought some reforms in some of the extremist forms of Devi worship by discouraging regular bloody sacrifices. He convinced people to worship the more benign (saumya) forms of Devi rather than the aggressive (ugra) forms. All of this was in keeping with the popular side of Vedic philosophy.
I could go on and on. However, in conclusion, Hinduism wouldn’t have survived and flourished all over the subcontinent for the successive 2000 years without Adi Shankara’s labor.