Sankaracharya historians and philosophers of India consider Shankara, better known as Shankaracharya, to be the greatest of all the philosophers born in this sub-continent. There are some differences of opinion regarding the exact date of his birth. For example, Bhenkateswara holds that Sankara was born in 805 and died at the age of 92 in 897. But almost all the scholars in this field are of the opinion that Sankara was born in 788 and died in 820 at the age of 32. Of all the modern scholars who hold that Sankara died at the age of 32 the names of RG Bhanderkar, Sarvapalli Radhakrishna, Surendra Nath Dasgupta, Ashutosh Bhattcarya Shastri etc. are worth mentioning.
Sankaracharya was born in a Brahmin family of Kerala. His father's name is Shivagura and mother's name is Visista. At a very early stage of his life he became well versed in different aspects of religious education. He embraced sanyasa or asetic life at the hand of Acarya Govindapada and under his direct supervision Sankara studied the Vedas and the Upanishads until he was 12.
According to Sankara, only Brahman is real and the world is false or maya. His philosophy has earned many names, such as Vishudha Advaitavada (Pure Non-dualism), Kevaladvaitavada (Absolute Non-dualism), Vivartavada (Theory of Apparent Change), Mayavada (Philosophy of Appearance), Anirvacyavada (Theory of Indefinability) and Nirvishesvada (Theory of Indetermenability). To establish his own point of view Sankara refuted Sankhya Vivartanvada, Buddhist Doctrine of Momentariness, Jaina Syadvada (or the theory of relativity), Vaishesika Atomism etc.
To give a proper shape of his philosophical ideas and ideals he wrote Bhasyas (commentaries) on Brahm-sutra, and ten Upanisads namely, Isha, Kena, Kath, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Aitareya, Tauttiriya, Chandogya and Brihadarnayaka. Besides, he wrote Vishnusahasranama-Bhasya, Sanatsujatiya-Bhasya, Hastamalaka-Bhasya, etc. Other than commentaries he authored books like Atmabodha, Vivekachuramoni, Upadeshsahasri etc. Sankara lived for 32 years only and it is really amazing how could he write so many books in such a short span of time. For this reason Venkateswara wants to say that Sankara lived as long as 92 years. But Venkateswara's view has not been supported by the historians related to this field.
Sankara holds: Brahma satyam jagat mithya, jivo brahmaiva naparah. In other words, only Brahman is true, the world is false and the individual souls are nothing but Brahman. According to him, only Brahman is real and other than Brahman nothing is real. Brahman is eternally pure, all knowing and ever liberated. Brahman is beyond any kind of difference, be it space or time. There are three kinds of differences: homogenous difference, heterogeneous difference and internal difference. But Brahman is beyond any of these differences. In deed, Brahman is the only example of pure differencelessness. Brahman is Nirguna or beyond any quality. But because of our ignorance we impose qualities upon Brahman.
To prove that only Brahman is real Sankara puts forward certain criterion of truth: (1) truth must be beyond any change, (2) truth must be self-existent and' (3) truth must be beyond any contradiction. He holds that other than Brahman nothing is beyond change, nothing is self-existent and nothing is beyond any contradiction. Therefore, Brahman is the only Truth. Again, to prove that this world is not real Sankara puts forward many arguments. Of these, two are the most important ones. (1) Whatever is transitory is not real. Everything in the world is transitory. Therefore, nothing in this world can be said to be real. (2) Again, whatever is perceptible is subject to destruction. The objects of the world are perceptible. Therefore, the objects of the world are subject to destruction. Whatever is subject to destruction cannot be said to be real. The objects of the world are subject to destruction. Therefore, the objects of the world cannot be said to be real.
There are many scholars who hold that through this process Sankara has altogether denied the existence of the world. But this view is not correct. Sankara holds that the world is mithya or false and nowhere he mentioned that the world is unreal or non-existent. On the contrary, he has said that the son of a barren woman is unreal or non-existent. Nobody can claim to have seen a son of a barren woman. In fact, it is logically contradictory. But since the world is perceived by innumerable people of the world, nobody has any right to hold that the world is unreal or non-existent. To prove his position he has put forward his view on Truth. He has divided truth into two categories: avabhashika satya or vyavaharic satya (truth from empirical or pragmatic point of view) and paramarthika (transcendental) point of view. He further holds that from vyavaharic or empirical point of view, the world is true, but from paramarthic or transcendental point of view, the world is false.
With an end in view to make his position further clear Sankara constantly draws on the analogy of the magician. He argues that a magician is a juggler only to those ignorant people who are deceived by his trick and who fancy that they perceived the objects conjured up. But the enlightened few who can see through the trick and have no illusion, the juggler really fails to be a juggler. Much in the same way, those who behave in jagatprapancha or world-show think of God through this show and mistakenly call Him its Creator. On the contrary, for those enlightened few who can understand that the world is a mere show, there is no real world or any real creator.
Sankara's philosophy is also known as 'Mayavada'. According to him, this world is nothing but the creation of maya. About the nature of maya he holds that it is an indescribable power. Maya is indeterminable or indescribable because it is neither real nor unreal. It is not sat or real because to an enlightened one, only Brahman is real and the world is not. Again, maya is not asat or unreal because the product of maya that is the world is perceived by everybody. That is why Sankara claims that since maya is neither real nor unreal there is only alternative that it is indescribable. He holds that Iswara and maya are inseparable or indistinguishable from one another just as the burning power or fire is from the fire itself. Maya is illusion producing ignorance and it is by this that God, the great magician conjures up the world-show. By ignorance the appearance of the world is taken to be real. But the enlightened one considers it to be mithya or false or mere appearance. In fact, appearance it is, but unreal it is not.
Of all the schools of Indian philosophy excepting Carvaka all other schools (Sankya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaixesika, Mimamsa, Vedanta, Jainism and Buddhism) hold that this world is full of suffering and ignorance is the root cause of our suffering. Excepting Buddhism the other seven schools hold that our souls are in a state of bondage and that is why all are suffering from the time of our birth till death. How to get rid of this sufferingFoodgrain To answer this question, Sankara holds that when self-knowledge (atmajxana) emerges, ignorance evaporates. As a consequence, the individual soul realizes the real nature of the Divine Soul or Brahman.
When the individual soul realizes that it is identical with Brahman it attains Moksa or liberation. According to Sankara, to attain this state we need four stages of sadhana or intensive training: 1. One should be able to differentiate between what is eternal and what is not eternal; 2. He should learn how to give up all desires for enjoyment of objects in this world or hereafter; 3. He should constantly control his internal sense organ (mind) and external sense organs (five sense organs) and develop qualities like detachment, patience, power of concentration etc; 4.Last but not the least, he should have an ardent desire for liberation. After one has undergone this sadhana or training one will realize that there is no difference between the Divine Soul and the individual soul. As a consequence, one will also realize that everything is Brahman and this will lead to the state of Moksa, the summum bonum or the highest goal of man's life. [Kazi Nurul Islam]