Shankara the Great

‘Adi Shankara and his disciples’ – by Raja Ravi Varma, 1904 – Wikimedia

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अहं निर्विकल्पो निराकार रूपो, 
विभुत्वाच सर्वत्र सर्वेन्द्रियाणाम् । 
न चासङ्गतं नैव मुक्तिर्न मेयः, 
चिदानन्दरूपः शिवोऽहम् शिवोऽहम् ।

ahaṃ nirvikalpo nirākāra rūpo
vibhutvā ca sarvatra sarvendriyāṇaṃ |
na cāsaṅgataṃ naiva muktir na meyaḥ
cidānandarūpaḥ śivo’ham śivo’ham |

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The early spiritual works produced in India were anonymous, probably stated by some ancient sages whose identities got lost. There is one name though that rose and was brought to fame and excellence, a teacher whose life has been narrated in many hagiographies and legends. His name: Adi Shankara, or Shankaracharya. His work as a philosopher and religious reformer is considered prominent in the unfolding of Hinduism. He is also known for having formulated and codified the ancient spiritual current of Non-duality, called in India Advaita Vedanta.

India’s most celebrated teacher was born in Kerala, in a village called Kaladi, in the accepted year of 788. Everything is uncertain about Shankara, since his numerous biographies were written centuries after his death and were designed to build a legend around his life. The name ‘Shankaracharya’ means the teacher ‘acharya’ of the way to bring about happiness (‘sham’ means ‘auspicious’ and ‘kara’ ‘maker’). He died at the early age of 32. A short life that nevertheless allowed him to travel widely all over India, initiating debates, founding monasteries ‘Matha’, and writing numerous pieces of work among which commentaries of ancient texts like the Brahma Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, or the Principal Upanishads. 

Amongst the many works authentically attributed to him is the Atmashatkam, also known as Nirvanashatkam. The legend says that Shankara, aged only eight at the time, wrote this devotional poem of six slokas as an answer to his newly found guru Govindapada who asked him the simple question “Who are you?”. This is a very striking and moving exposition of everything that we are not, everything that has been wrongly attributed as being our identity. Through experientially discarding every such thing, one comes to dawn on the simple realisation of our true nature, namely the Self or, as it is named in this translation, ‘the auspicious, love and pure consciousness’. This was concluding each stanza in the original Sanskrit as ‘I am Shiva! I am Shiva!’ (Shivoham)…

I am not mind, nor intellect, nor ego, 
nor the reflections of inner self. 
I am not the five senses. I am beyond that. 
I am not the seven elements or the five sheaths. 
I am indeed, That eternal knowing and bliss, 
the auspicious, love and pure consciousness.

[…]

A discovery of the ancient teachings of Adi Shankara… (READ MORE…)

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In the Morning I Remember

Here is a beautiful prayer composed by Adi Shankara around the 8th century. These three verses, meant to be recited in the early morning, are a beautiful and touching summary of the heart of Advaita. I have chosen here a simple version, devoid of the Sanskrit terms…

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प्रातः स्मरामि हृदि संस्फुरदात्मतत्त्वं
सच्चित्सुखं परमहंसगतिं तुरीयम् ।
यत्स्वप्नजागरसुषुप्तिमवैति नित्यं
तद्ब्रह्म निष्कलमहं न च भूतसङ्घः ॥१॥

prātaḥ smarāmi hṛdi saṃsphuradātmatattvaṃ
saccitsukhaṃ paramahaṃsagatiṃ turīyam |
yatsvapnajāgarasuṣuptimavaiti nityaṃ
tadbrahma niṣkalamahaṃ na ca bhūtasaṅghaḥ ||1||

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At dawn, I meditate in my heart on the truth of the radiant inner Self.
This true Self is Pure Being, Awareness, and Joy, the transcendent goal of the great sages.
The eternal witness of the waking, dream and deep sleep states.
I am more than my body, mind and emotions, I am that undivided Spirit.

At dawn, I worship the true Self that is beyond the reach of mind and speech,
By whose grace, speech is even made possible,
This Self is described in the scriptures as “Not this, Not this”.
It is called the God of the Gods, It is unborn, undying, one with the All.

At dawn, I salute the true Self that is beyond all darkness, brilliant as the sun,
The infinite, eternal reality, the highest.
On whom this whole universe of infinite forms is superimposed.
It is like a snake on a rope. The snake seems so real, but when you pick it up, it’s just a rope.
This world is ever-changing, fleeting, but this eternal Light is real and everlasting.

Who recites in the early morning these three sacred Slokas,
which are the ornaments of the three worlds,
obtains the Supreme Abode.

~ Adi Shankara (8th century)

 

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  • Vimala Thakar wrote a beautiful translation and commentary on these lines, starting eloquently: 

In the morning as I meet the dawn, I remember that my heart contains the God, the Beloved, who has not yet been defined and described. I remember that it is He who vibrates within my heart, enables me to breathe, to talk, to listen, to move.”

  • Sanskrit language has infinite subtleties that don’t always appear, even in the best translations. Here, Vimala gives the beautiful analogy of the swan present in the original language:

I arrive at a state of being that has been called by the ancient wise Indians “Paramahansa”, a swan that swims through the waters of duality.”

  • Further down, she exposes the impossibility for the mind to attain the reality of Presence by these beautiful lines:

On the frontiers of the mind I give the mind a job to explore that which lies beyond its own frontiers, that which is not accessible to the word, to the speech, as well as to the mind.

I ask the mind to travel back, through the word, to the source of the word, the sound, and find out how the sound is born.”

“The source can only be experienced, the source can only be perceived and understood, but never defined and described. That is how the mind becomes silent.”

  • She then exemplifies the famous vedantic analogy of the serpent and the rope, and ends up with a perfect conclusion:

I had mistaken the rope of duality for the snake and cobra of misery and sorrow. But the light dispels the darkness and I see that the duality is only a rope that cannot bind me in any way unless I bind myself with it.”

The perfect eternity. The God divine. That is really my nature. I had mistaken the tensions of duality to be me, but then the light dispels all the darkness, and I get rooted back into the ‘ajam’, the ‘aychuta’ – that which can never be swept off its feet. Ajam – that which was never born, and can never die. I am that.”

 

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Prayer by Adi Shankara (8th century)

Translation & Commentary by Vimala Thakar
(Hunger Mountain, MA – October, 1972)

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– The prayer by Adi Shankara comes from Aghori.it

– Here is the full commentary from Vimala Thakar.

– Photo by Alain Joly

Bibliography:
– ‘The Crest-Jewel of Wisdom’ – by Shankaracharya / Translated by Charles Johnston – (The Freedom Religion Press)
– ‘Blossoms of Friendship’ – by Vimala Thakar – (Rodmell Press)

Website:
Adi Shankara (Wikipedia)
Vimala Thakar (Wikipedia)

 

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