Śankara established his standpoint by commenting on sacred texts such as Upaniṣad-s and the Gītā. The latter is the Upaniṣad-s put into verse for aspirants heavily involved in worldly concerns. He insists that he is presenting nothing new. He wrote a short commentary on the Chapter of the Self in one of the law-books, and a lengthy one on the Yoga Sūtra-s of Patañjali. He wrote at least one independent work, called the Thousand Teachings. A couple of others, out of the very many attributed to him, may be authentic. But he saw himself primarily as a transmitter of the holy truth which passed through the Upaniṣad-s.
He interprets his texts by putting others alongside them, and applying constructive reasoning. The reasoning is constructive because the texts record actual experience of ancient sages; that experience can be, and must be, confirmed by students of the present day who want to free themselves from suffering. Śaṅkara’s interpretations are made on the basis of a tradition of experiment and confirmation.
He knows that words alone cannot describe supra-mental experience accurately. The mind itself can attain no more than a glimpsed reflection of Reality. Nevertheless he believes that words can give practical instruction as to what to seek and how to seek it.
Seemingly contradictory doctrines are given in the Gītā; for instance, the doctrine of the three guṇa-s. Śaṅkara remarks that this is not the highest truth, but says it is useful.
In the same way, a bone could be analysed by a biologist in terms of function, apparently purposeful; by a chemist, as molecular structure, in terms of apparently purposeless determinism; by a physicist, as subatomic particles, undetermined and puzzlingly non-local. The three analyses may not have too much to do with each other. Still it is recognized that they are not necessarily contradictory, but to be distinguished in terms of depth.
Certain similarities of doctrine can be pointed out between Śaṅkara and some Buddhists. It is theorized that the later must therefore have borrowed from the earlier. But this idea rests on an unspoken assumption that the doctrines are in any case mere speculations. The assumption is false.
If in a present-day adventure story… the reader finds a map very similar to that in Treasure Island, or The Lord of the Rings, it is reasonable to suppose borrowing. But if we look at a nineteenth-century ordnance map of Iceland, and compare it with the similar map of Iceland today, there is no question of borrowing. Both of them were based on surveys of an existent island. They are alike because they are based on the same thing.
In the same way, descriptions of spiritual experiences, and corollaries drawn from them, can be similar because they are based on the same thing.
The commentator on the Gītā fills out the meaning of the verse in three main ways. First, by putting alongside it other verses from the Gītā itself, and from the Upanisad-s, and from other authoritative texts of the tradition. But the mere bringing together of texts is not enough. If there is already some pre-conception in the mind of the one who selects the texts, they can be selected to mean something against the whole spirit of a text, however holy.
For instance a hostile critic can bring together texts from the New Testament to show that Christ taught hatred: ‘If anyone comes to me, and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, even his own life, he cannot be a disciple of mine’ (Luke 14.26); ‘You must not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have come to bring not peace but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a son’s wife against her mother-in-law,… and a man will find his enemies under his own roof.’ Such texts should not be ignored. They are riddles, set by Christ systematically to give the minds of his hearers a shake to stimulate them to untie the knot.
So the second requirement for interpretation is that the texts should be selected, and treated, by one who knows from experience what they are pointing towards. But this too is not quite enough.
To rule out self-delusion, a teacher’s experience must agree with that recorded by the traditional teachers. Everyone who completes the training comes to the same state. In order not to confuse the people, he should present his experience in the traditional forms. Nevertheless there is always something new in it, which attests to living inspiration.
The Indian tradition tried to get precision in words and concepts. Still, they recognized that words have limitations. It would take many words to describe the outline of a tree: one glance could tell one more.
The Pyramids of Gizeh have been well-known as a Wonder of the World for over 4,000 years. A traveller writes: ‘The Pyramids were small black triangles against the dawn’, and another: ‘The Pyramids are the most massive structures yet put together by man.’ Because we fill in the unspoken assumptions, we do not find the statements contradictory.
But then we read a guidebook which says: ‘Any active person can easily climb the crumbling stones of the Great Pyramid, and the same with the Second Pyramid.’ Another guidebook says: ‘Anyone reasonably energetic can climb the Great Pyramid, but ropes are needed for the Second Pyramid’. This is a flat contradiction as it stands, but it is resolved by one glance at a picture or drawing. The smooth casing still remains at the top of the Second Pyramid. The seeming contradiction is from the ambiguity of the word ‘climb’; to climb a tree does not necessarily mean to the very top.
In the same way, the classical commentator treats the texts in the light of experience, confirmed by generation after generation of teachers. The maps of the holy texts are read and explained by a traveller who has himself passed that way.
Second Pyramid (left), Great Pyramid (right)
In his commentary to the Brahma Sūtra, Śaṅkara explains that Śruti (literally ‘hearing’) is the sacred text of revelation of truth. It is the experience of the divine sages, expressed as far as words will allow. But he points out that words can be no more than indications; words and thoughts are not experience-of-truth itself. They are limited by the mind which conceives the expressions, and never more than that.
Just so a map, or a signpost, can never be completely accurate. But if several of them are collated, there is much greater precision. Śaṅkara’s method is to bring together holy texts referring to the same truth; the mind comes to complete immobility on it. Then there is a jump as mind is transcended and truth realized directly, not through concepts.
It may be necessary to resolve apparently conflicting and contradictory passages in the texts, and this is done by the commentator. It is not a question of verbal and intellectual ingenuity; the commentator must himself realize the truth being indicated