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The Teachings of Śankara


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The Teachings of Śankara

TRADITION, our best guide in many of the dark problems of India's past, attributes the admirable philosophical work we have just translated to Śankarâchârya, the greatest name in the history of Indian Philosophy, and one of the greatest masters of pure thought the world has ever seen.

Śankara, again according to the tradition of the East, lived and taught some two thousand years ago, founding three colleges of Sanskrit learning and philosophy, the most important being at Śringeri, in southern India. He wrote Commentaries on the older Vedânta books, and many original works of great excellence, of which this is reckoned to be one.

Like all Śankara's separate works, The Essence of the Teaching is complete in itself, containing a survey of the whole of life' from a single standpoint; in the present case, from the point of view of pure intellect.

The moral problem before us, is the liberation of our souls from the idea of personality; and the opening of the door to the life of the universal Self, which will enter our hearts, and rule them, once the personal idea is put out of the way. And there is no more potent weapon for combating the personal idea than the clear and lucid understanding that what we call our personality is, in reality, only one of many pictures in the mind, a picture of the body, held before our consciousness, viewed by it, and therefore external to it. If the personality is a picture in the field of consciousness, it cannot be consciousness itself; cannot be our real

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self; but must necessarily be unreal and transient. We are the ray of consciousness, and not the image of the body which it lights up, and which, thus lit Lip, we call our personality. And here we come to one point of the highest interest, in the present work: its central ideas anticipate, almost in the same words, the most original teachings of German philosophy. Hence a right understanding of it will bridge over one of the chasms between the East and the West, the remote past and the life of today; thus showing, once more, that the mind of man is everywhere the same; that there is but one Soul making itself manifest throughout all history.

It may be enough, here, to point out that German philosophy--the teaching of Kant, as developed by Schopenhauer--regards each individual as a manifestation of the universal Will, a ray of that Will, fallen into manifestation, under the influence of the tendency called the will-towards-life.

This individualized ray of the universal Will, falling into the intellect, becomes thereby subject to the powers which make for manifestation, and which Kant analyzed as Causality, Time, and Space. For Kant has shown, with admirable cogency and lucidity, that these so solid-seeming realities are not real at all, but were forms of our thought; mere figments of our intellects. What we call manifestation, Schopenhauer calls representation; and he has very fully developed the idea of the Universe as the resultant of the universal Will, manifested through these three forms of representation--Causality, Time, and Space.

Now it is quite clear that he calls Universal Will what

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[paragraph continues] Śankara, following the Upanishads, calls the Eternal; and that the forms of representation of Schopenhauer's system, correspond to the World-glamor, or Mâyâ, of Indian thought. And it is further clear that the will-toward-life, or desire for sensuous existence, of the one system, is very close to the personal idea, or egotism, of the other.

Whoever is acquainted with the two systems, can point out a further series of analogies; we shall content ourselves with alluding to one. Schopenhauer taught that our salvation lies in denying the personal and selfish will-toward-life, within ourselves, and allowing the Universal Will to supersede it;--the very teaching which lies at the heart of Indian thought: the supersession of the individual self by the Self universal, the Self of all beings.

To turn now from the purely intellectual, to the moral side of the matter. If we consider it well, and watch the working of the powers of life we find within us, we shall see that all our misery and futility come from this very source, the personal idea--the vanity and selfishness of our own personalities, coming into strife with the equally vain and selfish personalities of others.

There is not an evil that cannot be traced to this fertile source. Sensuality, for example, with all its attendant crime and pain, is built on two forces, both springing from the personal idea: first, the desire for the stimulus of strong sensation, to keep the sense of the separate, isolated self keen and vivid; and then the vanity and foolish admiration of our personal selves, as possessors of such abundant means of gratification. Another evil, the lust of possessions, is of the same brood;

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and, curiously enough, the root of it is--fear; the cowering fear of the personal self, before the menacing forces of the world; the desperate, and--infallible accompaniment of cowardice--remorselessly cruel determination to build up a triple rampart of possessions between the personality and the mutability of things. The whole cause of the race for wealth, the cursed hunger for gold, is a fearful and poltroon longing for security, protection for the personal self; which, indeed, as a mere web of dreams and fancies, is in very bad need of protection.

The last evil, ambition, which is only vanity grown up, is so manifestly of the same color with the others that no special indication of the fact is needed. Thus we see what an immense part of human life, and that, the most futile and pitiable part of it, is built up on so slight a foundation: the wholly mythical personality, the web of dreams, the mere image of a body, itself unreal, which has usurped a sort of sovereignty over all the powers of our wills and minds.

The whole problem for us is this, and it is one that recurs in every moment of life: to disperse this web of dreams which we call our personality, and so to let the pure and universal Will pour into our hearts, to follow out its own excellent purposes, and manifest its own beneficent powers. And thus we shall for the first time enter into our inheritance; no longer as shadowy and malevolent sprites, raging between earth and heaven, a sorrow to the angels, a mockery to the fiends; but rather as undivided parts of the great soul of humanity; of that universal Self, whose own nature is perfect Being, perfect Consciousness, perfect Bliss.

Next: The Song of the Self