Advaita and caste - (was Re: The Theism of the Upanishads)
Subject: Advaita and caste - (was Re: The Theism of the Upanishads)
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Vidyasankar Sundaresan)
Date: 8 Jul 1994 19:58:23 GMT
Organization: California Institute of Technology, Pasadena
At the risk of restarting a closed discussion, I am posting this article.
It was ready at least two weeks ago, but posting got delayed due to a
variety of reasons.
My final follow-up on this thread.
I - In the absence of evidence to the contrary, there is no reason to
dismiss Sankara's authorship of slokas like Dakshinamoorthy
ashtaka, as accepted by tradition.
Mani - There is wide scholarly dispute regarding the authorship of the
Dakshinamurthy Stotram, as well as its commentary the Manasollasa.
Any critical work on Suresvara will tell you the same. It is not
as clear-cut as you make it out to be.
Well, some of this scholarly dispute begins by assuming that Sankara
didn't compose any hymns and ends up concluding that he didn't. While one
may agree that a sloka like the Bhaja Govindam is probably foisted on
Sankara, the case with other such disputes is not decided by any means.
Wide ranging evidence is presented by both sides of such a debate, and the
jury is still out on the issue, as it were. Also it has been pointed out
that the hymns popularly believed to be Sankara's are addressed to a
different audience as compared to his scholarly works like the
commentaries on the Upanishads. It is not beyond the range of human
possibility for the same person to write popular hymns and also highly
technical and scholarly tomes. The other possibility is that heads of
Advaita mathas are also known as Sankaracharyas and there might be a
genuine mix-up between the writings of these later Sankaracharyas and
those of the author of the Bhashyas.
Also, it may not be clear-cut, but that is besides the point. Sankara the
composer of the Brahmasutra Bhashya (by definition the Sankara one is
interested in here) may not have composed the Dakshinamoorthy stotram, but
the important point to note is that the message of this hymn is Advaita.
The Advaita tradition in India accepts this hymn as Sankara's and that
should suffice from the point of view of the Vedanta schools in India and
for this discussion.
I - Sankara emerges as a philosopher beyond such sectarian
considerations, both in his writings and the traditional
accounts of his life.
Mani - This is true to an extent, although his preference for Brahmins and
Brahminism (once again, leaving the spurious Manisa-pancakam aside)
can be viewed as rigid sectarianism (and is perhaps far worse).
With all due courtesy, Mani, we were discussing sectarianism, not
casteism. They are two completely orthogonal issues. Pretty nice, to jump
on to the casteism bandwagon!
Anyway, this is a serious charge, more so for us today. Therefore it
merits detailed rebuttal. First let us look at what "Brahminism" is,
before one examines Sankara's alleged preference for Brahmins.
Brahminism, like the term Hinduism, means different things to different
people. The word Brahmin itself however is more easily grasped.
Essentially the definition is circular - one who is born a Brahmin is a
Brahmin. A sociologist today would probably look at the various Sankara
mathas, the Dvaita mathas at Udipi and other places, and the Srivaishnava
mathas in addition to famous temples like Kashi, Madurai and Tirupati, to
gather data on "Brahminism".
This kind of "Brahminism" is today's fact - a fact that came into being
recently. To talk of Sankara's preference or otherwise for Brahmins, one
must ask a few important questions first. What was "Brahminism" in
Sankara's time itself? And what are Sankara's own words regarding this?
Before Sankara's time, (7th cent. A. D.), Buddhism was widely prevalent
among the scholarly community. About 50 years or so before Sankara,
Kumarila Bhatta, Prabhakara and Mandana Misra had firmly established the
pUrva mImAmSA as the major philosophy of Brahminism. By pUrva mImAmSA is
meant the philosophy that holds that the karmakAnDa of the Vedas is
supreme, and that all the Vedas are mainly with a view to provide
injunctions to man. Under this thought, the injunction is to perform Vedic
karmas, ranging from the simple nityakarmAs to the elaborate nimitta and
kAmya karmAs like putrakameshti or aSwamedha. Essentially this translates
as ritualism - the ritualism is for its own sake. The pUrva mImAmSA went
so far as to say that one need not worry about the existence or otherwise
of Vedic gods; mere performance of Vedic rituals would yield moksha, the
A little thought will indicate that performance of such sacrificial
rituals requires wealth, social status as a learned Brahmin or a powerful
Kshatriya king, and other such requisites. Social status as a learned
Brahmin is required because otherwise people would not attend the
sacrifice and the sacrifice would not yield its expected fruit. Such was
the orthodox Brahminism of the 7th century, and it worked perfectly well
for some time. Kings were able to assert their royal authority and collect
much needed revenue through this device, smart Brahmins were able to amass
wealth and influence affairs of state, while at the same time aserting
that their moksha is assured. What about the general populace, mostly
vaiSyas and more importantly the poor SUdras? The answer of this orthodox
Brahminism was that the vaiSyA gained liberation through their king's
performance of the major rituals and as for the SUdra, he had no other go
but to gain rebirth in a higher caste in order to achieve liberation. Let
us see what Sankara himself has to say about this.
I shall not quote the mAnIshA panchakam here, which Mani has already
dismissed as spurious. I shall return to it later though. Let us quote
only from the BrahmasUtra bhAshya and the bhAshya on the BrihadAraNyaka
Sankara's first answer to the orthodox Brahmin of his day is that all his
ritualism will get him nowhere but to endless rebirth. Performance of
ritual is based on the very acceptance of the duality that needs to be
annihilated. Nothing really good can be gained out of it.
Also, performance of ritual required money. The Br. Ar. upanishad tells us
"amrtatvasya nASAsti vittena" - wealth is not going to secure liberation.
Now, it is obvious that mere possession of wealth was not going to
liberate. Sankara's argument is this - because the upanishad has nothing
to gain by stating the obvious, what it means by wealth is really the
performance of rituals for which the amassed wealth is used - this is what
the upanishad really wants to convey. Assuredly, this was not music to
the ears of the orthodox Brahmin of his day. Acquisition of wealth is
always pleasant to any man. Performance of rituals justified this in the
minds of the Brahmin. To be told that this is of no use for liberation
must have definitely rankled the wealthy, influential and orthodox Brahmin
of the 7th century.
More importantly, Sankara does not reject ritualism by rejecting the
Vedas, unlike the Buddhist or the Jain. He rejects ritualism by accepting
the Vedas, and by pointing out that the karmakANDa is meant for one
audience and the jnanakANDa to another totally different audience. The
karmakANDa addresses itself to people whose thinking is limited to worldly
affairs, like obtaining a son, or celebrating kingship. The jnanakANDa on
the other hand is addressed to the mumukshu, the one who seeks liberation,
by definition an other-worldly good. Thus in addition to telling the
orthodox Brahmin of his day that ritualism will get him nowhere, Sankara
is really telling him that the karmakANDa that he thinks to be supreme is
really not so supreme at all. Again this was not going to endear Sankara
and his philosophy to the prevalent Brahminism of his day. Sankara's
attitude towards ritual is usually cited as yet another indication of a
general "Buddhist influence" - you cannot at the same time quite
arbitrarily claim that he had a decided preference for Brahmins also.
Typically, the Advaita position is that even after countless performances
of sacrifices or other meritorious deeds, without the knowledge of the
Unity of Atman, there is no liberation. Conversely, the only truly
liberating thing which is itself liberation, is Brahman-knowledge. Now who
is qualified for gaining such knowledge? Does Sankara say one needs to be
born a Brahmin in order to gain such knowledge? Does he say the SUdra has
no other go but to be reborn in a higher caste before he can gain such
knowledge? No sir. In his BrahmasUtra bhAshya, in the very first chapter,
he says the SUdra though not traditionally entitled to the sacred thread
or study of the Vedas, can also definitely gain such knowledge through
other means. Read the previous sentence again - it means that a SUdra does
not have to take rebirth in a higher caste for liberation, he can acheive
Brahman-knowledge rightaway! Orthodox Brahminical casteism, right?
Herein lies the seed for the true emancipation of man from caste. The
caste in which one is born is just an incidental. It is yet another
construct of superimposition. The Atman has no caste. One can be born a
Brahmin and not gain Brahman-knowledge at all. One can be born a SUdra at
the other end of the social status scale and gain Brahman knowledge. In
the Br. Ar. upanishad bhAshya Sankara again points out that no
qualification of caste is necessary for liberation. In fact, performance
of rituals which the orthodox Brahmin so loves even till today, can be a
positve hindrance to gaining Brahman knowledge! Real preference for
Brahminism, wouldn't you say?
Coming to samnyAsa. Sankara goes against the established orthodoxy of his
time and says that one doesn't need to go through the middle two ASramas
before samnyAsa. The orthodox Brahmin quotes scripture and says
"brahmachAryam samApya grhI bhavet, grhAdvanI bhUtvA pravrajet" - one
should become a householder after completing Brahmacharya, and then later
beome a samnyAsi. Sankara quotes the scripture "brahmachAryAdeva
pravrajet, grhAdvA vanAdvA yadahareva virajet tadahareva pravrajet" -
whether from the ASramas of Brahmacharya or grhastha or vAnaprastha, the
moment one gets vairAgya, one should take up samnyAsa. Sankara himself
became a samnyAsi without going through marriage and the life of a
householder. In his time, this was not at all acceptable to orthodox
Brahminism. As late as the 14th century A. D. Vidyaranya draws attention
to this in his Sankara-dig-vijaya. So much for Sankara's preference for
the Brahminism of his day.
Again, is any caste qualification necessary to become a sannyAsi? No. In
fact, Sankara says of the parivrAjaka (the wandering monk) "katham
varNASrami bhavet?" - how can a monk be bound by varNa and ASrama? A monk
is totally outside the caste system. Caste is another mAyA-like thing of
this world that he gets liberated from. Pretty comforting to the Brahmin,
In keeping with such an attitude towards caste, there are thousands of
daSanAmi sannyAsis in India and the rest of the world who are not Brahmins
by birth. They are by no means "less" in any way than the samnyAsis who
were originally Brahmin. Famous examples in recent times are Paramahamsa
Yogananda and Swami ChinmayAnanda. The Saiva monks of the Tamil
sampradAyas, who are technically SUdra by birth are also highly regarded
by the Sankarite monks of south India.
Every society structures itself one way or the other. If not caste, it is
class. If not class, it is race or something else. Maybe Sankara did not
actively try to elevate lower castes the way Ramanuja tried to do. But
then one can hardly expect Sankara who lived only 32 years (to be fair,
subtract the years of his infancy and studies) to have eradicated caste.
His work in such a short lifetime was rightly preoccupied with philosophy
rather than activist social reform. As it is, his views were sufficiently
radical in his time for the then Brahmin orthodoxy to have hated him. Part
of Sankara's genius lies in pointing out to such orthodoxy that his own
views were based on the same scriptures that the orthodox Brahmin upheld.
Going by these views of his, Max Weber, the famous sociologist, concludes
that Sankara must have been a "half-breed" by birth!
That said, I turn to the 'spurious' hymn mAnIshA panchakam. This is
related to the popular episode in Sankara's life when he met a chandala on
the river ghats. Whether the episode is real or not, whether the hymn was
actually composed by Sankara or not, in the minds of people it forms part
of the personality that he was. Not just by popular mention, but genuine
Advaitins like the Sankaracharyas of today accept this episode of their
main guru's life. The hymn is completely in keeping with the spirit of
Advaita. The chandala episode can be traced back at least to the time of
Vidyaranya when caste held mighty sway. Vidyaranya had nothing to gain by
recounting such a story - that Sankara recognized a chandala as a jnAnI -
as tradition. As it turns out, I don't need to use this hymn to say
anything about Sankara's own views about caste. His bhAshyas on the
Upanishads and the Brahma sUtras suffice.