Sankara vs. Ramanuja

When I read a column on the occasion of the birth anniversary of both Sankara and Ramanuja by Sri Pranav Khullar, I thought of writing my thoughts about Sri Sankara.

After explaining about Sankara’s advaita and Ramanjua’s vishistadvaita and recognizing their difference in theology, the author closed the article saying:

“Both Sankara and Ramanuja were seminal thinkers; they were also great apostles of bhakti. Here in lay their mass appeal. Sankara’s devotional outpourings were meant to inspire and arouse people to their innate divine self while Ramanuja was already a torch-bearer of the Vaishnava tradition.”

Being a student of scripture in my own limited way, I have some personal reservations about such general comments about our great acharyas.

It is one thing to appreciate and write for common people about the good and great things of great people, and it is another thing to remain faithful to oneself. I am also writing this not to any one but to myself. Born in an advaitic home, where Sri Sankara is the only undisputed acharya, I have great respect for him. However after my elementary level of reading about the theology of Sankara, Ramanuja and other acharyas, if I had to choose one acharya as my guru, I would prefer Ramanuja to Sankara. The reason for this is that I believe that Ramanuja’s writings remain faithful both to the text and to (his) theology. It is left to the scholars to prove this point more clearly, but I will also make an attempt to share my views based on my reading later.

By saying this I am not ascertaining any of my own ability to judge the theology of Sankara, God forbid. And I must confess that I have never ready any of Sankara’s original writings in either English or Tamil. All of my basic knowledge about Sankara is my reading through books about Sankara by various authors. Accepting my limitations, if someone tries to project Sankara as one of the undisputable acharyas, I have to question it based on my readings.

I will again begin with Khullar who says,

“Sankara’s appeal lay as much in his erudition and dialectical skill as in his being a child prodigy. He lived for barely 30 years; yet he set ablaze the intellectual world of his times, redefining, revamping and revitalizing old concepts not only with great strength but humility too. From the backwaters of Kaladi in Kerala to the northern Gangetic plains he took on all, scholars, sages and savants, engaging them in debates of the Yajnavalkya-Maitreyi kind.  Equally, he was a rebel with a social cause – he insisted on performing the last rites of his mother despite being a sanyasi and that too in the backyard of his ancestral house. He authored simple but profound hymns like the Bhaja Govindam and Saundaryalahari which appealed to a large cross-section of people. Sankara believed his mission was cosmic.”

Can one really find any ‘humility’ on the part of ancient theologians regarding their attitude, appraisal and attack about their opponent’s theological stand? Because as Richard Fox Young has said, “Hindu apologists did not defend Hinduism as such, but proponents of the great darsanas, philosophical views or systems, endeavored to brace their own ideas or doctrines by exposing the fallacies in others. Apologetics was so much a part of classical works on religion and philosophy that a text without at least an adumbration of the standard criticisms of its rivals would surely seem incomplete…’1 (Richard Fox Young, Resistant Hinduism, Vienna 1981, p.13).

In several cases this criticism of the rivals was never limited to their doctrine and theology, but went even to the extent of personal attack. For example,

…it is particularly interesting to note that Sankara, following the Upanisad, regards the various ascetic exercises as reduced to insignificance by access to knowledge: he does not condemn them, but the way in which he places the sramanas and the tapasvins in the same series as the thief and the Candaala suggests that the suffering they undertake is not what brings them to knowledge (the Buddha said nothing different). – Biardeau, p.86

Of course Sankara is not the only one having such ‘humility’, and Ramanuja called Sankara an atheist and Madhava called Sanakra a bastard.2 The reason to say all this is not to settle any personal score against any of such great acharyas, but only to point to people like Khullar that all they say about such great people is not the whole truth.

Another point that Khullar says about Sankara is that he was a ‘rebel with a social cause.’ If the story about Sankara is true, then he rebelled not so much against social injustice but for those against sannyasi to do the final rites of his mother. But when the Mimamsikas of his time opposed his Vedanta that challenged their Vedic sacrifice, they refused to allow him to do the final rite of his mother, because Sankara, as a sannyasi had already renounced all forms of rites. As he tried to violate his dharma as a sannyasi, (who cannot perform any kind of [Vedic] ritual) they, assuming the role as the custodians of dharma, opposed him. Above all he only opposed them as a fellow Brahman and didn’t fight against any social cause. His dispute with his own relatives was doctrinal and not social.

In fact in Sankara’s theological system, there is no hope and place for salvation even to the other high caste people except Brahmins, and that too for only a sanyasi. There is no hope for Shudras3 and others including woman in his system for salvation. “Sankara only speaks to the ‘twice-born’ and, if he teaches that one must reject rites and adopt the life of the sannyaasin – “renouncer” – in order to attain liberation, his very conception of sannyaasa is only meaningful within the context of the higher varnas, who have a share in Vedic Revelation and brahmanic practice..’ (Biardeau, p.27)

Another point of Khullar with which I have to disagree is about Sankara’s ‘devotional outpourings’. Though Sankara’s followers claim he wrote so many, scholarly consensus is very limited.4 So many devotional works were composed by others and propagated them in the name of Sankara. Of course no Hindu is going to accept such a scholarly consensus, particularly if it is from a westerner. Even if it is taken for granted that Sankara wrote several devotional songs, in his theological system there is no place for God. Claiming Sankara along with Ramanuja as ‘great apostles of bhakti’, is only again a ‘mass appeal’.

But such doctrinal disputes are immaterial for a common Hindu and that’s why the flexible orthodoxy of Sankara has still been so influential among the masses:

Indeed, his non-dualism makes it relatively easy to integrate the existing religious currents, since everything that is not pure and simple Brahman is illusion-maayaa-including Isvara.  This flexible orthodoxy is one of the major reasons for Sankara’s success up to the present day.  There is not a Hindu to be found, Sankarian or not, who has not learnt to distinguish the levels of reality, and who, inside a temple dedicated to a particular deity, will fail to explain to one, ad nauseam, that the deity worshipped in that place is but a manifestation of the supreme Brahman..-( Biardeau p.75)

Later I will share in brief about Sankara’s vedantic theology and several scholars’ views on his theology, including some Indian scholars. To understand the intricacies of Advaita see the scholarly book by Srinivasa Rao, Advaita: A Contemporary Critique, New Delhi, Oxford, 2012.

Dayanand Bharati, Mathigiri, May 6, 2003.


  1. All the brahmanic systems were built up against one adversary or another, and each of them constituted itself as a coherent whole offering a complete panoply of arguments and counter-arguments., and this is as true of the systems which speak of knowledge of Brahman, such as Vedaanta, as it is of the others.- Madeleine Biardeau, (Translated from the French by Richard Nice) , Hinduism: The Anthropology of a Civilization, Oxford University Press, Original edition, Paris, 1981, English edition, 1989, Oxford India
    Paperbacks 1994, Sixth impression 2002, p.79
  2. .the Maadhvas take advantage of this fact to pun on the name of their enemy: Sankara (“He who gives peace,” an epither of Siva given to many Saivas) becomes Sankara, a word that denotes indiscriminate mixture, particularly the breaking down of barriers between castes which is the principle sign of the advent of the Kali Age.  In keeping with this name, Sankara is said to be the bastard son of a widow; similarly, the Maadhvas
    satirize Sankara’s famous monistic philosophy by stating that as a boy he was so stupid that he could only count to one. [[Grierson, G.A. “Maadhvas.” ERE(Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. Ed. James Hastings. 13 vols. Edinburg, 1908-26) 8: 232-235.p. 235]-Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty, The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, University of California Press, Berkeley. Paperback Edition, (1976) 1980, p.210
  3. Sankara presents a simple, stark version of the Miimaamsaa argument that suudras are to be excluded, simply because the Veda excludes them:

The suudra has no competence, since he cannot study the Veda; for one becomes competent regarding things spoken of in the Vedas after one has studied the Vedas and known these things from them.  But there can be no study of the Veda by a suudra, for study of the Veda presupposes investiture with the sacred thread, which is restricted to the three castes.(UMS I.3.34)- Francis X. Clooney, S.J., Theology after Vedanta, An Experiment in Comparative Theology, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1993. p.138 (for a complete discussion on this point see pp. 137-140).

  1. I will limit myself to the six works regarding whose authenticity there appears to be a scholarly consensus.  They are Samkara commentaries on the Vedaantasuutras, the Bhagavad Gita, and three Upanisads-Brhadaaranyaka, Chaandogya, and Taiitiriiya-and his independent treatise Upadesasaahasrii, See Paul Hacker’s (1978) contributions on Samkara: Nakamura 1983—Patrick Olivelle, The Aasrama system:The History and Hermeneutics of a Religious Institution, New York, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993, notes 17, p. 224