4 – The effect of Shankara’s Illusionism on the life of India
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This is Part 4 of the Buddha and Shankara series. Links to 1 | 2 | 3.
A study of these two powerful personalities is interesting on two levels – one, their Ideals almost define an Age in India’s past – the Age of Darshanas – or systems of philosophy; two – they represented a certain trend in national thought which has had a profound impact on India and can be felt to this day.
India eventually rejected Buddha because Buddha had rejected the Vedas. This was a civilization that – at its core – had lived and stood by Vedic knowledge, and found it impossible at a collective level to dismiss the Veda. But Shankara’s adwaita with its strong emphasis on illusionism (“jagat mithya”) captured the Indian mind more readily since his thought seemed to have the sanction of the Vedas. Even though it does not, as Sri Aurobindo points out, people bowed before his sharp intellect and took him to be the final authority.
Most Indians still regard asceticism and other-worldliness as legitimate signs of a spiritual man or woman. Well-known spiritual leaders of our time are renunciates, and still posit moksha and mukti as the goal. If we simply ask “how did this happen?” we come to recognize how profoundly Shankara and Buddha’s thought have influenced India.
We begin with a question.
Must we not abandon the world, if we would possess God?
“Must we not abandon the world, if we would possess God? forsake Maya if we would become one in the Atman? For who can serve at the same time two masters & such different masters?
We know the answer of Shankara, the answer of the later Adwaitin, the Mayavadin; and the answer of most religious minds in India since Buddhism conquered our intellects has not been substantially different. To flee the world & seek God, sums up their attitude. There have been notable exceptions, but the general trend hardly varies. The majority of the pre-Buddhistic Hindus answered the question, if I am not mistaken, in a different sense & attained to a deeper consummation. They answered it in the sense of the Isha Upanishad & the Gita; they held divine life in the Brahman here to be a possibility.
The supreme importance of the question is apparent. If the theory of the Illusionist is true, life is an inexplicable breach of Truth, an unjustifiable disturbance in the silence & stillness of the Eternal. It is a freak to be corrected, a snare to be escaped from, a delusion to be renounced, a mighty cosmic whim & blunder. The results upon the nation which produced this tremendous negation, have been prodigious. India has become the land of saints & ascetics, but progressively also of a decaying society and an inert, effete & helpless people. The indignant denunciation of the Vishnu Purana against the certain results to society of the Buddhist heresy has been fulfilled in the fate of our strongly Buddhicised Hindu nation. We see increasing upon it through the centuries the doom announced in the grave warnings of the Gita against the consequences of inaction, “utsideyur ime lokah . . sarirayatrapi akarmanah . . sankarasya cha karta syam upahanyam imah prajah . . buddhibhedam janayed ajnanam karmasanginam” etc. Verse details
The religious life of this country has divided itself into two distinct & powerful tendencies, the Hinduism of the withdrawal from lifewhich has organised itself in the monastery & the hermitage and the Hinduism of social lifewhich has resolved itself into a mass of minute ceremony & unintelligent social practice. Neither is pure; both are afflicted with sankara, mixture & confusion of dharmas; for the life of the monastery is stricken with the tendency towards a return to the cares & corruptions of life, the life of society sicklied over & rendered impotent by the sense of its own illusion & worthlessness faced with the superiority of the monastic ideal. If a man or a nation becomes profoundly convinced that this phenomenal life is an illusion, its aims & tendencies of a moment & its values all false values, you cannot expect either the man or the nation to flourish here, whatever may be gained in Nirvana. For the nation any sustained & serious greatness of aim & endeavour becomes impossible. To get through the years of life, to maintain the body and propagate the race, since for some unreasonable reason that is demanded of us, but to get done with the business as soon as possible & escape by sannyasa into the unconditioned, this must obviously be the sole preoccupation of man in a society governed by this negative ideal. What is chiefly needed by it is an elaborate set of rules, the more minute & rigid the better, which will determine every action of life both social & religious, so as to save men the labour of thought & action & give them the assurance that they are doing only the nityakarma necessary to life in the body or the shastric karma which creates the least bondage for future lives & are not heaping up on themselves the burden of long continued existence in this terrible & inexplicable nightmare of the phenomenal world. But the attachment to works remains & it tends to satisfy itself by an excessive insistence on the petty field still left to it. We see an exclusive preoccupation with a petty money-getting, with the mere maintenance of a family, with the sordid cares of a narrow personal existence.
The great ideals, the universalising & liberating movements which have continually swept rajasic Europe & revivified it, have been more & more unknown to us in the later history of our country.
We have had but one world-forgetting impulse & one world conquering passion,—the impulse of final renunciation & the passion of self-devotion to the Master of all or to a spiritual teacher. It is this habit of bhakti that alone has saved us alive; preserving an imperishable core of strength in the midst of our weakness & darkness it has returned upon us from age to age and poured its revivifying stream always through our inert mass and our petrifying society. But for all that our great fundamental mistake about life has told heavily; it has cursed our rajasic activity with continual inefficiency and our sattwic tendencies with a perpetual weight of return to tamas.
No nation, not even a chosen race, can with impunity build its life on a fundamental error about the meaning of life. We are here to manifest God in our mundane existence; our business is to express & formulate in phenomenal activity such truth as we can command about the Eternal; and in order to do that effectively we must answer the riddle set for us of the coexistence of the eternal & the phenomenal — we must harmonise God & Nature on peril of our destruction.
We can preserve ourselves only by returning to the full & harmonious truth of our religion, truth of Purana & Tantra which we have mistranslated into a collection of fables and of magic formulae, truth of Veda which we have mistranslated into the idea of vacant & pompous ceremonial & the truth of Vedanta which we have mistranslated into the inexplicable explanation, the baffling mystery of an incomprehensible Maya. Veda & Vedanta are not only the Bible of hermits or the textbook of metaphysicians, but a gospel of life and a guide to life for the individual, for the nation & for all humanity.
The Isha Upanishad stands first in the order of the Upanishads we should read as of a supreme importance for us & more almost than any of the others, because it sets itself with express purpose to solve that fundamental difficulty of life to which since Buddha & Shankara we have persisted in returning so lofty but so misleading an answer.”
On the effect of Shankara’s negation on the life of India
“Shankara, one of the mightiest of metaphysical intellects, a far greater intellect than the Buddha, though a less mighty soul, built up by his intuitions and reasonings a third position which reconciles Vedic Brahmavada and the Karmavada of Buddhistic rationalism & Rationalistic materialism. : The point of escape is for Shankara, as for Buddha, in an ultimate act of knowledge which denies the real existence of the phenomenal world. : The intellectual difference between the two systems is immense, their temperamental kinship is close. Yet we have this curious result, due to Buddha’s stress on the means of self-denial provided by life & its ethical & altruistic possibilities as a preliminary training, that Shankara’s system, less intellectually Nihilistic than Buddha’s, has been practically more fatal to the activities of the divine power & joy in life in the nation which has so largely accepted his teachings.
By denying God in life, by withdrawing the best souls from life, by discouraging through their thought & example,— the thought & example of the best, yad yad acharati sreshthah, — the sraddha of life, the full confident self-acting of Matariswan even in those who have practically accepted & cling to the burden of worldly existence, he has enlarged the original Vedantic seed of ascetic tendency into a gigantic growth of stillness & world-disgust which has overshadowed for centuries the lives & souls of hundreds of millions of human beings.
On one side the race & the world have gained immensely, on the other it has suffered an immense impoverishment.
The world fleeing saint & the hermit have multiplied, the world-helping saint & the divine warrior of life come rarely & fail for want of the right atmosphere & environment.
The Avatars of moral purity & devotional love abound, the Avatars of life, Krishna & Balarama, manifest themselves no more. Gone are Janaka & Ajatashatru, Arjuna & Vyasa, the great scientists, the great lawgivers.
The cry of OM Tapas with which God creates has grown faint in the soul of India, the cry of OM Shanti with which He withdraws from life alone arouses & directs the best energies of a national consciousness to whose thought all life is sorrow, self-delusion & an undivine blunder. Chilled is that marvellous & mighty vigour which flowed out from the Veda & Upanishads on the Indian consciousness & produced the grand & colossal forms of life eternally portrayed for us in the fragments of our ancient art & history & in the ideal descriptions of the Epics.”