The Theosophical Forum – October 1946

SANKARACHARYA: THE WISDOM OF AN AVATARA — Madeline Clark

There are times, especially in these days of Kali-Yuga, when humanity seems like a wayward child, playing its dangerous games, oblivious of certain highly-evolved men, its Elder Brothers, who stand in the background laboring to save it from itself. Of these labors by men who have arrived at spiritual maturity, and of their gifts to mankind, the race as a whole is equally ignorant; it remains for the individual thinker to admit into his consciousness the thought of these Great Sages, the belief in their existence, and the inclination to follow in their footsteps.

Among such individual thinkers — and they are numerous — who want to penetrate to the very source of Truth, many will find refreshment of spirit in this little volume, (1) which contains not only Sankaracharya's The Crest-Jewel of Wisdom, but also his shorter treatises, The Awakening to the Self, The Awakening to Reality (a key to his Crest-Jewel), The Essence of the Teaching, and a poem, The Song of the Self, together with explanatory matter by the Translator, and an Appendix with an account of the life of the Sage.

Charles Johnston, a thorough Sanskrit scholar, associate of the early Leaders of the Theosophical Society, H. P. Blavatsky and W. Q. Judge, made this excellent translation during the eighteen-nineties as part of the Oriental Department Papers, published separately or in the pages of Mr. Judge's magazine The Path. A devoted Theosophist, Johnston described these classics of Sankara's as "matchless theosophic documents. . . ." "They really teach," he adds, "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; . . .

"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. . . ." "But," he adds, "It is not enough for the mind to follow the lucid sentences of Sankara. . . . The teaching must be woven into life and character if it is to bear fruit."

The reader is always at the mercy of the translator: but in this case we may be grateful that the text is so fully and sympathetically interpreted, and rendered into English that achieves such beauty of expression.

The famous opening passage of the Prologue in The Crest-Jewel brings us instantly the urgent eloquence and direct spiritual appeal that characterize all these treatises:

"For beings a human birth is hard to win, then manhood and holiness, then excellence in the path of wise law; hardest of all to win is wisdom. Discernment between Self and not-Self, true judgment, nearness to the Self of the Eternal and Freedom are not gained without a myriad of right acts in a hundred births. . . . After gaining at last a human birth, hard to win, then manhood and knowledge of the teaching, if one strives not after Freedom he is a fool. He, suicidal, destroys himself by grasping after the unreal."

Thereafter the whole tenor of these living words is to turn us away from the unreal, the unenduring, and gradually to bring us to love and cleave to the Real, the lasting and Eternal. From the "First Steps on the Path" to the last chapter, "Forever Free," the teaching turns on the motivating idea of "an utter turning back from lust after unenduring things. . . . Thereafter Restfulness, Control, Endurance" and the cultivation of "love, as the food of the gods serenity, pity, pardon, rectitude, peacefulness and self-control."

All that is less than the Eternal is but a vesture of the Eternal. This insistence that all that is less than the Self is Maya, or "Disguise," or "Vesture," is what has been bitterly discarded in the West as a pessimistic philosophy, and yet . . . the Real is in everything: THAT THOU ART: "Every pot and vessel has clay as its cause, and its material is clay; just like this, this world is engendered by the Real, and has the Real as its Self, the Real is its material altogether." So life, action, high enjoyment, creative activity, are enriched as we live them in the light of the Eternal. It is a philosophy that penetrates beneath the veils of illusion, leading us to see things as they are — the traditional aim of all true esoteric training.

The verses on the Three Potencies: Substance, Force and Darkness, are illuminating: they correspond to the Sattva, Rajas and Tamas of the Gita undoubtedly, for Substance is "pure like water . . . a reflected part of the Self, and lights up the inert like the Sun." But "Desire, wrath, greed, vanity, malice, self-assertion, jealousy, envy, are the terrible works of Force . ."; and as for Darkness: "Though a man be full of knowledge, learned, skillful, very subtle-sighted, if Darkness has wrapped him round, he sees not, though he be full of manifold instruction . . . wrong thinking, contradictory thinking, confused thinking — these are its workings. . . ." The mind being "the cause of man's bondage, and in turn of his liberation," we are told that "purification of the mind should be undertaken with strong effort by him who seeks liberation. . . ."

The most intent study is needed to gain even a few of the implications in the teaching of the Potencies and Vestures, and there are other problems equally deep, such as the meaning of "That Thou Art," and the Three Modes of Deeds — "deeds to come," "deeds accumulated," and "deeds entered on" — really a study of karman. But ever and always we are led back to the Source, the Self, "It," "the Witness," which wears as its "disguises" the qualities, attributes, activities, of all that is less than itself. The Appeal to the Higher Self: "Save me from the wound of the world's pain" — is only to be answered by this sublime philosophy leading ever back to the Eternal.

In all these discourses we have the attributes of body, mind, and soul as related to the Self evaluated dispassionately, held at arm's length, as it were, for study and examination, as by one who knows and understands them all and has mastered them all. The very style of the Crest-Jewel is of the same dispassionate nature — it breathes serenity, benevolent detachment, is free from the emotional element which disfigures so many of the lesser and later mystical treatises of other men and nations. Acumen, mental vitality, authoritativeness, and the spiritual strength of the Sage come through to us in the unfolding of the thought, and something higher than purely intellectual comprehension is aroused. Dwelling on these masterly analyses irradiates the whole being of the student; it clarifies his perceptions, and enables him to see the true nature of things.

In the early chapters the distinction between the Seer and the Seen is firmly established: thence we are made acquainted with the true nature of the Vestures and their attributes, and so gently led on to the contemplation of the final Freedom:

"The grub, throwing off attachment to other forms, and thinking intently on the bee, takes on the nature of the bee: even thus he who seeks for union, thinking intently on the reality of the Supreme Self, perfectly enters that Self, resting on it alone." The contemplation of this progress from "dream" to "waking," from illusion to enlightenment, while it does not enable us to accomplish so mighty a task in a short time, builds up a form for the future in the inner worlds undoubtedly: a mould to which our actions will the more easily conform. And in a sense it is accomplished ideally each time it is followed out in thought to its completion: "The Self, rising in the firmament of the heart — sun of wisdom, darkness-dispersing, all-present, all-supporting, shines forth and illumines all."

Hence the value of meditation, the power of "uninterrupted intentness." "Let him know that thinking is a hundred times better than scripture; that concentration, thinking the matter out, is a hundred times better than thinking; that ecstacy free from doubt is endlessly better than concentration. . . ." The very reading of this book induces meditation: coming into touch with the compassionate purpose of the exalted Author, who wrote for all succeeding generations of men. This is a strong help to the aspirant, for he even receives a portion of that energy of the Divine infused into this work by the Mighty One who wrote it.

Can we say that this transcendental philosophy has any immediate message for the present time? Can it meet the spiritual need of this Kali-Yuga, this Age of Iron, in which we toil? Emphatically, Yes. For when the old order is crumbling away, it is the very time to seize hold on the idea of the Immutable, the Eternal Self, the only lasting thing that we can look to. Out of the ruins of the old rises the Phoenix of the new — the very destruction of old forms is helping us to see through their tottering fabric the Reality beyond.

And once having turned our eyes that way, we see, bathed in the light of that Reality, the Sages, the Saviors of men, of whom Sankaracharya was one. Known to scholars as having left to posterity a complete system of instruction for spiritual progress in the Adwaita-Vedanta, a re-formulation of the Ancient Knowledge from the Golden Age of India, he left us the fruits of his transcendent genius in his Commentaries, his Manuals and Catechisms, and in the schools which he established for the perpetuation of the teachings.

Who was Sankaracharya? Theosophists have long known that between this holy Sage and Gautama the Buddha, "the finest flower of the human race," a mysterious connection existed. Dr. de Purucker describes Sankaracharya as one of the avataras — a combination of a pure physical vehicle and a god, brought together by the intermediate or human soul of a great and good man. In his Studies in Occult Philosophy, pp. 696-7, Dr. de Purucker shows that it was the Buddha himself who in his compassion brought about the coming of the Avatara Sankaracharya, and who lent his own human essence to be the intermediate part of the Avatara who was to carry out the work of supplying the insufficiencies of mystical and religious doctrine left unfinished in Gautama's own period of teaching. This brings us close indeed to the divinities when we take to heart the teachings of this jewel of learning, this Crest-Jewel of Wisdom. The book is, literally, a gift of the gods.

FOOTNOTE:

1. The Crest-Jewel of Wisdom and other Writings of Sankarachirya. Translations and Commentaries by Charles Johnston. Theosophical University Press, Covina, California, 1946. 163 pp, $2.00. (return to text)


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