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Taking The Mystery Out of Yoga

By Gretchen Karros

THE TOPIC FOR THIS MONTH IS: ADI SHANKARA & VEDANTA

The religions of India are very hard to describe because there are so many different sects, religious leaders (Gurus), invasions of the foreigners who brought their own religions, as well as the fact that throughout their history, they have been reluctant to record important events.   For instance, there are epic poems written about groups of people during a certain era and these become part of their historical facts. This is not the case with Vedantism.  It was a later philosophy from the beginning of the second century that is now called “Advaita Vedanta”.  The term “advaita” means “non-dual” and it was an entirely different philosophy that was developed by a spiritual master called Adi Shankara.  (His name has different spellings- sometimes with an “m” instead of an “n” and sometimes it has a symbol under the  “h” that changes the pronunciation.)  Many Westerners as well as Indians consider him one of the greatest philosophers of the world, East or West.Shankara was born in the year 788  less than one hundred years after Christ was born.  In terms of importance for Yogis, Patanjali was a very important person whom people call “The Father of Yoga” and his birth, although the exact date is unknown, he supposedly wrote his Sutras in the same century as Shankara.  (Although there is much debate about exact dates for both of these important people.)Shankara’s birth took place in South India in Kerala and he was lucky to be born into a Brahmin family distinguished for their learning so his education started very early.  He did his formal education by age seven (called “upanayama” a ritual where the devotee wears a silk thread permanently over the left shoulder.)  and he finished all his Vedic studies (ancient scriptures) within the next two years.  Even at this young age, he resolved to be a sannyasa, or live a life of total renunciation.

There are no records about when he left home, but presumably at an early age.  He traveled South and joined a group of spiritual students and he was accepted there as a pupil of Govinda, a well known teacher of that time in India, who had studied with another, higher Guru called Gaudapada, who was an Indian and Buddhist scholar.  There are no records about the length of time of his stay at the hermitage.  His guru instructed him with the peripatetic life of the teacher. Shankara left for Benares, India.  It was there that he did most of the debating for which he later became known and he formulated his philosophy based on these debates.  After traveling almost the whole of India, he became well known for not only his debating but for convincing many thinkers of the rational correctness of his teachings. Since his teachings were based on the Vedas (ancient scriptures) that has for its aim of enlightenment, this had a tremendous effect on the learned aspirants of his time.  His teachings were so profound because they included “moksha” or enlightenment.  Much of his philosophy was about the ultimate nature of being and how one must “be” in order to realize moksha. This was a very profound spiritual development and it has lasted into our modern life. (see note below)

Shankara eventually founded temples and monasteries, wrote many commentaries of the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita as well as many other teachings and writings that brought together many Jains and Buddhists to Hinduism.   He died of an intestinal disorder at about the age of thirty-two.

(If you would like to visit a Vedanta Society church in St. Louis, there is one  located at 206 South Skinker Blvd.,  St. Louis, MO  phone  314-721-5118.) Gretchen.karros@gmail

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