Adi Shankaracharya: An Advocate of Caste System Or a Liberal Hindu Thinker?

Recently, Union minister of state (MoS) for external affairs V. Muraleedharan made an issue when Kerala’s minister for local self-government, M.B. Rajesh, made critical remarks about Vedantic exponent, Adi Shankaracharya (Shankara).

Rajesh claimed that Shankara “was an advocate and spokesperson of a cruel caste system”, while Shree Narayana Guru “worked tirelessly to weed out the caste system from the society”. He was speaking during a function at the 90th Sivagiri pilgrimage at the Sivagiri Madhom where he was comparing Shankara’s view with that of Shree Narayana Guru.

It was the contention of the MoS Muraleedharan that both Shankara and Shree Narayana Guru “belong to the same ascetic lineage of the country”. By making such a statement, he was trying to project Shankara as a visionary and a liberal Hindu thinker – one that liberal Hindus would like to espouse.

There prevails a certain kind of liberal Hindu thought that takes shape in different forms and dissociates itself from – what its advocates would term – the narrow bigoted nature of Hindu religious thought that has made its fanatical appearance in the last few years.

Also read: Tormenting Minorities Amounts To Defying the Shankaracharya Order

Describing themselves as liberal Hindus of a more progressive nature, they display a veneer of sophistication in presenting their narrative. The progressive nature, they contend, stems from certain sublime philosophical thoughts rooted in the scriptures like the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, among others. They present a discourse based on the interpretations of these scriptures provided by some saintly figures at different points in time. These saintly figures are further eulogised as the greatest philosophers with a keen sense of logic and vision who, they further claim, represent the puritanical, progressive and intellectual face of Hinduism.

One such figure that the liberal Hindus would like to project is Adi Shanakaracharya, as the MoS was attempting to do, whose philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, they claim, has profound insights to offer. Some of them would not even hesitate to draw parallels between Shankara’s doctrine and that of modern science (though it is totally unclear how any such parallel can be drawn). Further, some of the modern hagiographic accounts hail him for the humanistic values of his philosophy. Their interest is in recovering a liberal vision of Hindu thought. All these aspects come out very clearly in an interview of Pavan Varma, a diplomat turned politician, conducted at the time of his book on Adi Shankaracharya releasing.

The secondary literature on Shankara (particularly in English like the one mentioned above) presents a very sophisticated view of his doctrine as a world philosophy that is relevant for all times to come. However, what is hidden from the general readers of Shankara is the open sympathy and support that he has shown for sectarian views of the ancient treatises on Dharma or law codes. It is really surprising how, in spite of it, these modern scholars can read humanism in his philosophy. Instead of being overawed by an adulatory account of his doctrine, this lesser-known reactionary aspect of Shankara should inject a note of criticism on his view.

The whole of the extant literature on these law codes is available in two forms. They are a) Dharma sutras, works which are a collection of sutras (aphorisms), and b) Dharmashastras, also known as smritis, are treatises like Manusmriti on the religious and social codes embodying the duties and responsibilities as members of family and society. The codes command a strict adherence to the varnashrama dharma (duties of the different castes at different stages of life).

Both these treatises are sectarian as they are partial to the three upper castes, referred to as dvijas or twice-born, in terms of conferring certain privileges, and for their extremely negative views on the fourth caste, the sudras. Further, these treatises state that the only duty of the sudras is to serve the upper castes.

A statue of Shree Narayana Guru. Photo: Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

What Shankara’s philosophy tells us 

Shankara’s philosophy of Advaita Vedanta is of non-dualism. In its abstract form, it denies the differentiated plural nature of the world that is generally perceived by all. The reality according to Shankara is one all-pervasive absolute Brahman and it is the realisation of this unity of Atma (the individual self) with Brahman (absolute conscious principle) that leads to freedom. In theoretical terms, it denies all matters of practical concern, even the caste and law codes, etc., that are transactional in nature and hence are steeped in error. In short our experiencing of the world is itself an illusion or maya according to Shankara.

The oneness that Shankara expounded as a conscious principle is merely an empty commentary with abstruse expressions for erudite Sanskrit scholars to revel in (The philosophical hollowness of his exposition has been analysed in detail here). Beneath the veneer of scholarly sophistication lies the ugly sectarian view of Shankara as revealed in his own words.

The elite scholars, however, would like to give an impression of themselves as liberal Hindus and would like to project Shankara as an icon of oneness, whose philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, they claim, has profound insights to offer in the copious writings that he has left behind. The Sanskrit scholars with eloquence can go on expatiating on Shankara literature and have found enough space in cities like Bangalore for such discourses. They try their best to dissociate themselves from the narrow bigoted nature of Hindu religious thought that has made its fanatical appearance in the last few years. Though they may not overtly display bigotry, but covertly the voice of the Brahminical cultural supremacy underlies such scholarly discourses.

Though this is his professed philosophy, Shankara in his writings draws upon both the Dharma sutras and the Dharmashastras and is in complete agreement with the law codes enjoined in these treatises. Such an agreement that he affirms is in complete variance with his professed philosophy – a philosophy for which modern scholars so much admire him. It is regrettable that in their admiration they fail to notice this variance (either intentionally to suppress this aspect of Shankara or out of plain ignorance).

In his commentary on the Vedanta-sutras (aphorisms on Vedanta whose author is one Badarayana), considered to be his magnum opus, he has made many references to these treatises in different contexts. At one place (his commentary on sutra II.i.1), he enthusiastically supports the Vedic text that declares “whatever has been spoken by Manu is a curative medicine”. But one that is glaringly regressive is to be found in the commentary on the sutras I.iii.36 and I.iii.38. In his commentary (on I.iii.36), Shankara cites Manusmriti (X.126) in denying the purificatory rites for the sudras thus “the Sudra belongs to the fourth caste and has but a single birth” (Manusmriti X.4).

His most regressive and reactionary view on sudras is revealed in his commentary on the sutra I.iii.38 on how the sudras should be prohibited from hearing the Vedas. The Gotama Dharma sutra XII.4, which Shankara refers to here, says “then should he (the sudra) happen to hear the Vedas, the expiation consists in his ears being filled with (molten) lead and lac”.

He also cites Vasisitha Dharma Sutra as regards the above prohibition: “He who is a Sudra is a walking crematorium. Hence once should not read in the neighbourhood of a Sudra.” Such brutal and barbaric expiations prescribed continue to be cited like the chopping of the tongue of the sudras if he utters the Vedas and cutting of the bodies to pieces if he should commit it to memory.

These excerpts from Shankara’s commentary vindicate Kerala minister Rajesh’s view that Shankara “was an advocate of the cruel caste system”.

In projecting Shankara as a liberal face of Hinduism and philosopher par-excellence, these advocates and admirers tend to disregard the fact of his open embrace of the brutal sectarian views of the Dharma sutras and Dharmashastras. There is another point. Shankara completely and openly marginalises the role of reason and experience in his discourses. (In spite of his open rejection of reason, it is surprising how the Hindu cultural chauvinists present Shankara before the readers as a philosopher with a keen sense of logic). Such a marginalisation of reason goes well with the obscurantist views of the Dharma treatises that he so wholeheartedly supports.

S.K. Arun Murthi has taught philosophy in the Humanities and the Social Sciences department, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali, Punjab.

This article was first published on The Wire.