Sankara, the Teacher
Oriental Department, March, 1894
The Upanishads, Buddha, and Sankara: these are the three great lights of Indian wisdom. The Upanishads far away in the golden age; in the bright dawn that has faded so many ages ago. Buddha, the Awakened One, who, catching in his clear spirit the glow of that early dawn, sought to reflect it in the hearts of all men, of whatever race, of whatever nation; sought to break down the barriers of caste and priestly privilege; to leave each man alone with the Universe, with no mediator between. But scattering abroad the rays of wisdom, Buddha found that the genius of each man, of each race, could only reflect one little beam; and that in thus making the light the property of all men, the purity and completeness of the light might be impaired.
Then followed Sankaracharya—Sankara the Teacher—who set himself to the preservation of the light; to burnishing the casket that held the lamp of wisdom. Busying himself chiefly with India, he saw that the light must be preserved, as far as its completeness and perfection were concerned, within the Brahman order, where the advantages of heredity, of ages of high ideals and rigid discipline could best secure the purity of the light; could best supply a body of men, fitted by character and training to master the high knowledge, to sustain the moral effort that made the glory of India’s Golden Age.
This task of fitting the Brahman order to carry the torch of wisdom was undertaken by Sankara the Teacher in three ways. First, by commenting on the Great Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, he rendered the knowledge of the Golden Age into the thought and language of the Brahmans of his day. Second, by writing a series of preparatory works, of catechisms and manuals, he made smooth the path of those who would take the first steps on the path of wisdom. Thirdly, by a system of reform and discipline within the Brahman order, he did all that sound practice could do to second clear precept.
The system formed by Sankara within the Brahman order largely continues at the present day. The radiant points of this system are the monasteries founded by the Teacher, where a succession of teachers, each initiated by his predecessor, carry on the spiritual tradition of the great Sankara unbroken.
Of commentaries on the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, many, perhaps, were written in a gradual series leading up from the simple truths to the more profound mysteries; so that, with one after another of these treatises in hand, the learner was gradually led to the heart of the mystery which lies “like a germ of generation” well concealed in these matchless theosophic documents. These commentaries were followed by others, the work of Sankara’s pupils; and though these works of explanation are very numerous, all those that are published seem to belong to the earlier stages of learning, and leave the deeper passages and problems of the Upanishads still unsolved.
But the other part of Sankara’s work, the manuals and catechisms for learners, are complete and perfect. They really teach, quite plainly and lucidly, the first steps on the path of wisdom; they point out, with clear insistence, the qualities that are necessary to make these first steps fruitful; qualities without which the learner may remain, hesitating and halting, on the threshold, through lack of the force and sterling moral worth which alone make any further progress possible.
Nor are these necessary qualities difficult to understand. They are not queer psychic powers that only flatter vanity; they are not mere intellectual tricks that leave the heart cold; they are rather the simple qualities of sterling honesty, of freedom from selfishness and sensuality—which have formed the basis of every moral code; the virtues so common and commonplace on the lips, but not quite so common in the life and character.
These treatises of Sankara speak to the common understanding and moral sense in an unparalleled degree. They are an appeal to the reason that has hardly ever been equalled for clearness and simplicity by the sages of the earth. Their aim is Freedom (Moksha), “Freedom from the bondage of the world.” This aim speaks to every one, awakens an echo in every heart, appeals to the universal hope of common humanity.
But it is not enough for the mind to follow the lucid sentences of Sankara. “Freedom from the bondage of the world” demands something more. “Sickness is not cured by saying ‘Medicine,’ but by drinking it; so a man is not set free by the name of the Eternal, but by discerning the Eternal.” The teaching must be woven into life and character if it is to bear fruit; it is not enough to contemplate the virtue of freedom from selfishness and sensuality in the abstract.
One of these treatises, “The Crest-Jewel of Wisdom,” will be translated here.1 It will be divided according to the natural sections of the text, beginning with the first steps on the path and ending with the complete teaching of Sankara’s philosophy so far as that teaching can be put into words. Hardly any notes will be necessary, as the language of the teacher is lucidity itself. Every word is defined and every definition enlarged and repeated.
It is not, however, the object of these papers to put forward a presentation of eastern thought merely to be read and forgotten. We shall spare no pains of repetition and amplification to make the thoughts of the East quite clear. But much remains to be done by readers themselves. They must make the thoughts of Sankara and the sages their own spiritual property if they are to benefit by them, and as a preliminary for this first chapter of Sankara’s teaching, the “four Perfections” should be learned by heart and taken to heart.
1. This refers to the Oriental Department of the Theosophical Society, in which Johnston completed numerous translations of Eastern texts, including The Crest-Jewel of Wisdom and other works from Sankaracharya. [ED.]