BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES ABOUT SANKARA AND GAUDAPADA
Shankara lived between 788 and 820 A.D. He was the author of several important commentaries (bhasya) to the Prastahnatraya (Upanishads, Bhagavadgita, Shankara). Numerous are the books he wrote about the Advaita Vedanta philosophy. In these books, he summarized the teachings and the practice that lead to realization according to the Advaita philosophy. His teacher was Govindapada. This latter was one of Gaudapadas disciples. During his meeting with Guadapada, Shankara expressed the essence of the Advaita philosophy in a sutra; he said: Brahaman is the only reality; this world is not real; jiva is nothing else but Brahaman itself (Brahma satyam jagan mithya jivo brahmaiva naparah...).
Shankara was the teacher of many eminent advaitins such as Padmapadacarya, Hastamalakacarya, Suresvaracarya, and Totakacarya.
Shankara is undoubtedly one of the most relevant figures in the history of India. He came in a period of severe uncertainties and conflicts. At that time, the very unity of Brahatavarsa was endangered. In this scenario, he acted both as strenuous champion of the Doctrine of the Pure Vedic Tradition (Sanatanadharma) and as great spiritual reformer.
Advaita Vedanta had its formal philosophical and institutional beginnings with Shankara, Through his writings and through his action, i.e. the institution of ten monastic orders (dashanamin) to forestall degeneration in the spiritual practice as well as the foundation of monasteries (matha) at the four cardinal points of India for the continuity of Tradition. These sacred temples were and still are focal points of convergence for Spiritual Light . The erection of these monasteries represented a concrete act to ensure the continuity of the Tradition.
He carried out a powerful work of "rectification" giving new life to the Veda-Upanishad Tradition.
The Advaita Vedanta was Shankaras most important accomplishment in the field of pure metaphysics. The Advaita is the Doctrine of non-duality. Shankara saw that, according to the metaphysics of the Veda-Upanisad, Brahman nirguna was Absolute Principle , One without second, a Totality emanating ontological oneness. Shankara repeatedly emphasized this fundamental teaching of the Upanishads in all his works (see works listed below).
Shankara has been considered by many a philosopher, a mystic, an exegetic of Sruti, a founder of monastic orders and monasteries, a national hero, the supreme Instructor (Acarya), that who was able to identify the true and supreme goal of human existence. His work first and foremost expresses what is any beings true nature and how liberation from samsara can be achieved.
Shankara acknowledges that the spiritual and philosophical heritage of Advaita Vedanta,which was already present in the Upanishad, comes from the teaching transmitted through a succession of gurus (guru-parampara).
They are recalled in a Hymn, the Paramparastotra, that includes the list of the early Advaita teachers and that is recited by the Shankarian followers at the beginning of the study of the Great Commentaries. Here it is:
«Narayanam padmabhuvam vasistham shaktiæ ca tatputraæ parasharam ca | vyasam shukam gaudapadam mahantam govindam yogindram athasya shishyam | Srishankaracaryamathasya padmapadam ca hastamalakam ca shishyam | tam totrakam vartikakaramanyanasmadguru-nsantatamanato smi».
«To Narayana, to the lotus-born [Brahma], to Vasistha, to Shakti and to his son Parashara, to Vyasa, to Shuka, to great Gaudapada, to Govinda-Yogindra and to his disciple Sri Shankaracarya, then to his disciples Padmapada, Hastamalaka, Totraka and Vartikakara [Suresvara], to these our Masters we pay our respectful obeisance now and forever».
The lineage of succession from Narayana to Suka is called vamsharshiparampara or from father to son and the one from Suka onwards shishyaparampara, from teacher to disciple.
Master and Philosopher
The place of Gaudapada in the Advaita Tradition
With Gaudapada begins what has been called the manavasampradaya, the transmission of the teaching through human beings.
It is with Gaudapada that the Advaita Tra-dition becomes historically evident as the visible mani-festation of an already existing Tradition. He was the first human teacher to receive the Advaita knowledge and to teach it to his disci-ples; for this fact he is paid the highest respect within the Advaita Tradition.
Gaudapadas greatness is testified by Shankara who at the end of his commentary to the Mandukyakarika addresses the following salutation to the Author of the Karika calling him paramaguru, an expression that is to be seen as the avowal of the spiritual lineage and the authority of "supreme preceptor" because of his profound knowledge of the Vedas:
«I prostrate before the Master of my Master (paramaguru), the most venerable among the venerable who, seeing the beings immersed in the ocean of this world, ocean infested by frightening sharks such as birth and death, has given, out of compassion towards all beings, this nectar difficult to drink even by the gods and that is hidden in the depths of the great sea of the Vedas, Vedas that he reveals by the power of his enlightened intellect».
We are told by Tradition that there have been Rishis who saw (the term Veda stems from vid = to see, to know) life differentiation and expounded it, others who saw the unity of the All and others yet that saw Non-duality.
Gaudapada, having touched the highest peaks of realization, saw that the ultimate Reality can neither be born nor die, and with the support of the Principle-Narayana was able to reveal for the first time to the human beings in a clear and concise way the ajativada, the doctrine of "non-generation", and the asparshayoga, the yoga of "no support or not relation". These Teachings were already present in the rutii but were not recognised by yogis and seekers because they were unable to lift their consciousness and realize the truth of the Advaita.
In order to enounce the ajativada and the asparshayoga Gaudapada chose to comment the Mandukya Upanishad. This Upanishad deals with the three states of Being (Virat, Hiranyagarbha, Isvara) and the Fourth state (Turiya) which represents the absolute Reality. For its doctrine and philosophy it is the most meaningful and profound Upanishad of Advaita Vedanta and represents by itself the very foundation of metaphysical realization. The Mukti Upanishad says to this regard: «If the goal is the attainment of the supreme truth, the Mandukya Upanishad is altogether sufficient».
Gaudapada divided his commentary (karika) into four chapters called respectively: Agama prakarana, Vaitathya prakarana, Advaita prakarana, Alatashanti prakarana.
He states that there is a unchangeable Reality, eternal, in act, with no generation and extinction, free of cause-effect and time-space, devoid of contradiction, One-without-a-second; and, as Reality is constant and perfect Unity, all differentiation, multiplicity, impermanence and change cannot be the ultimate and supreme Reality but only appearance, representation, which acquires reality only when viewed from the standpoint of "opinion".
Gaudapada sets out from the standpoint of the Absolute or the One-without-a-second and comes to the following conclusion: «The supreme truth is this: there is no birth and no dissolution, no aspirant to liberation and no liberated, and no one who is in slavery» (Mandukyakarika, II, 32).
Shankara takes up the advaita-asparsha theme of Gaudapada, expounds it with great dilectical accura-cy never to be equalled nor exceeded and in his Vivekacudamani (sutra 574) comes to the same conclusions.
It is appropriate to point out that these bold statements are not to be taken for the subjective idealism nor the nihilism of certain philosophical currents.
The non-generation (ajati) does not posit a void-null, but maintains a Substrate, self-existing and free form all qualification and duality, which is pure Consciousness, Infinite and Fullness; It can be realized only through an act of identity by the negation of all that is variable, changeable or, in other words, that belongs to the world of maya-appearance. This substrate is Brahman who is reflected in all beings as their atman, and is "One-without-a-second".
Shankara wrote a Commentary to the Karika of Gaudapada and this is of a particular significance because it shows that the two greatest representatives of Advaita are in perfect agreement at the level of doctrine, and not only at this level, giving a decisive contribution towards the understanding of the Vedanta metaphysics both in its knowledge and operative aspects.
Major works by Shankara:
Commentaries to Upanishad
Commentary to Brahmasutra
Commentary to Bhagavadgita
Commentary to Mandukyakarika