The Crest-Jewel of Wisdom

and other Writings of Sankaracharya

Translations and Commentaries by

Charles Johnston

First Edition 1946 by Theosophical University Press; Electronic version published 1999, ISBN 1-55700-146-4. All rights reserved. This edition may be downloaded for off-line viewing without charge. For ease in searching, no diacritical marks appear in the electronic version of the text.



This little volume with its foundation-stones of Truth is an effort to further the second object of the Theosophical Society as it was originally expressed by H. P. Blavatsky in The Key to Theosophy:

To promote the study of Aryan and other Scriptures, of the World's religion and sciences, and to vindicate the importance of old Asiatic literature, namely, of the Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Zoroastrian philosophies.

The translations herein are reprints from the Oriental Department Papers published by William Quan Judge in 1894, 1895, and 1896, as well as from Judge's Magazine, The Path. In introducing Charles Johnston, then a member of the Theosophical Society, as the translator of the Sanskrit works to be produced in his Oriental Papers, Judge writes:

Of his qualifications there is no doubt, as he has had experience in this field, has also for some time been teaching Sanskrit, and brings to the work a sincere sympathy with Indian thought as well as devotion to the Society which will without question make the matter furnished of value as well as of interest.

In Sankaracharya (the blessed teacher) we have an example of the statement that "Masters are living facts." Mankind needs such assurance these days, and needs not only the inspiration of the story of a man who has lived divinely, but also his kindly and strengthening words of wisdom. What greater gift could the Hindu sage have left us than that of a collection of soul-stirring thoughts?

For those who, with hearts fervent with compassion, seek the holy path that brings to birth a "sage of boundless vision," Sankaracharya's Crest-Jewel of Wisdom will be a practical and inspiring guide to life. Its teachings, the shared realizations of an enlightened god-man, tell us the laws by which we may "untie the bonds of unwisdom," and thus, evermore free, with minds calm and pellucid and hearts purified of reward-desiring actions, come to know and partake of the majestic power, light, and universal kinship of the Divine within us, our birthright as humans, and our passport to grander attainments in vaster spheres of consciousness.

Just as the sun with its splendor and its glories greets us every morning when we awake and silently through the day nourishes us in all parts of our being, and later as it sets at night, leaves a glow of rich color suggesting a spiritual mystery to be grasped somewhere, somehow — maybe in the morn's returning light — so the challenging message of Sankaracharya's jewel-thoughts braces the spirits of world-weary ones as they turn to its radiant wisdom. They become illumined by the divine fire permeating its words, and as they turn from the study of its verses enriched for another of life's experiences, the glow of the gleaned awakenings will become a haunting memory leading them back to its precepts for another sunrise and sunset of the spirit.

Judith Tyberg
Theosophical University
March, 1946

Introductory: Sankara, the Teacher

By Charles Johnston

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. 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.


A Symposium on the Life of Sankaracharya

Prepared for presentation by the Theosophical Club in the Temple of Peace at Point Loma (adapted from many sources).

I love to think of those great beings, those royal-hearted Ones, who return to earth to shed their divine compassion in order to lift the veil into those inner realms of light for those who are ready to look within. Could we not recount among ourselves here tonight some of the strange legendary tales that have been woven about the life of Sankaracharya, who lived from 510 BC to 478 BC? For all that mystic lore is a magic tapestry woven of Truth itself.

Have you ever heard of the portents that attended Sankara's birth? It is said that the whole celestial host gave forth paeans of gladness. With no selfish or partial joy, but for the sake of religion they rejoiced, because creation, engulfed in the ocean of pain, was now to obtain perfect release.

The mountains themselves were swayed by the wind of his perfect merit. On every hand the world was greatly shaken, as the wind drives the tossing boat; so also the minutest atoms of sandal perfume, and the hidden sweetness of precious lilies floated on the air, and rose through space, and then commingling, came back to earth; so again the garments of Devas descending from heaven touching the body, caused delightful thrills of joy; the sun and moon with constant course redoubled the brilliancy of their light, whilst in the world the fire's gleam of itself prevailed without the use of fuel. Pure water flowed from springs self-caused, and rare and special flowers in great abundance bloomed out of season.

And more marvelous still, whatever wealth was requisite, there did it appear upon earth. From the midst of the pure snowy mountains a wild herd of white elephants came of themselves without noise, not curbed by any, self-subdued, and every kind of colored horse, in shape and quality surpassingly excellent, with sparkling jewelled manes and flowing tails, came prancing 'round, as if with wings.

Among men enmity and envy gave way to peace. Content and rest prevailed on every side; whilst there was closer union amongst the true of heart. Discord and variance were entirely appeased, and all possessed themselves in harmony.

Who was this babe that heaven and earth should thus give forth their bounty? Were not similar tales told of the childhood of the great Buddha? And have we not also been taught that Buddha and Sankaracharya are most closely connected? Both were Avataras of a high mystical order, though not belonging to the same class of these superior Beings.

But to return to the marvelous boy himself. It is said that in his first year he acquired the Sanskrit alphabet and his own language. At the age of two he learned to read. At three he studied the Puranas and understood many portions of them by intuition. And in his seventh year, having attained all that his preceptor could teach him, he returned home.

Nor was he lacking in occult powers at an early age. Once when his mother lay in a swoon, as he stood beside her he drew the river that flowed on the hither side of the field up out of its bed that its pure waters might refresh her.

Kings and others of high birth and intellect sought him even at this early age that he might teach them of secret wisdom never uttered except in guarded places.

Do you know the tale of how he gained his mother's consent to letting him become a holy ascetic? It runs in this wise: She with her mother's pride in his lofty attainments of soul and mind, could not endure the idea that he should shut himself away from the beauties and pleasures of life, and firm was she in her refusal of his request. But the young Sankara could sometimes act with the wile of a young and clever god. So going down to the river one day to bathe he soon was alarming his mother by his cries for help. She ran to the river's brink and saw that a great alligator held the boy's foot in a deadly grip. In helpless agony she stood by the edge of the stream. Then said the boy, "The beast has imparted to me that if you will grant my request and let me become a holy ascetic, he will loosen his hold." Whereupon the mother gave her consent, and the alligator with great tranquillity opened its jaws and released the youth, who clambered out of the river and lost no time in preparing to leave his home, giving over his mother into the care of friends and relatives, and telling her he would come back to her whenever she should need his presence.

There was living at this time in a cave in the hillside near the Nerbudda River a sage, Govind Yati by name. Years ago Vyasa had appeared to him telling of the coming of a youth who would demonstrate the most miraculous powers. And so it came to pass. When Sankara left his mother he traveled for many days through forests, over hills, by towns and across rivers, led by an irresistible force, he knew not what. After a time he found himself at the opening of the cave in the hillside where dwelt the sage Govind Yati. Straightway he became the pupil of the wise man and was taught the four great truths of Brahma, namely: Knowledge is Brahma, the soul is Brahma, Thou art That, and I am Brahma. Then one day as Govind Yati was immersed in contemplation a furious tempest arose. Violent thunder shook the heavens, the ethereal vault was riven with tongues of lightning; rain deluged the earth, and Sankara, without awaking his master, quelled the storm, as quietly as a child is soothed by the sound of sweet music. And when the sage returned to consciousness and learned of what had befallen, he was filled with great joy and said: "Thus has the prophecy of Vyasa been fulfilled."

Then the sage blessed Sankara, and knowing that the youth's sojourn with him had come to an end, bestowed his benediction upon him and bade him proceed to the holy city of Benares that he might there receive the blessing of the Deity. "Go," said he, "on thy glorious work, then enter, and begin to save mankind!"

Thus admonished, Sankara turned his steps to Benares, and here it was that he received his first pupil, Sanandana, the same who afterwards became celebrated as his greatest favorite under the title of Padmapada, he for whom the enlightened youth reserved his greatest powers of instruction.

Is there not a tale connected with the acquiring of the name Padmapada by this dear pupil?

The chroniclers of old tell the story thus: There were among Sankara's disciples some within whom envy was aroused at witnessing the unusual attachment that existed between the youthful sage and his cherished pupil. Sankara wished to dispel these envious feelings and show them that it was through superior merit alone that Sanandana was chosen among them for higher instruction and closer communion with the Teacher. So standing one day on the banks of the river which ran near his dwelling-place, he called to Sanandana who stood on the other side among his companions, to come over to him directly. Sanandana forthwith without any hesitation and with dauntless spirit stepped upon the flowing waters of the river and moved towards his Teacher with steadfast and graceful mien. And lo! At each step a lovely lotus sprang from the bosom of the waters, trailing a starry line of blossoms behind him as he stepped lightly upon the bank. Then said Sankaracharya, as he embraced Sanandana: "Henceforth shall you be known among us as Padmapada, 'He of the Lotus-path.' "

But tarry a moment. Have we not run ahead of our story? It was many years ere this, indeed when he was but twelve years of age that he made his dwelling upon the banks of the Ganges and there wrote the great works that men who seek wisdom have studied ever since: his Commentaries on the Sutras, the Upanishads, and on the Bhagavad-Gita. In later years when Padmapada came to him bewailing the loss of one of his precious Commentaries which as it chanced had been destroyed by his uncle, Sankara without any perturbation recited the contents of that which had been destroyed in the exact words familiar to all his pupils while Padmapada rewrote them as he spoke.

Nor did such feats as this mark the limit of his mental powers. He was so wise and so well versed in the vast learning of the Vedas, that his name was sounded as victor in all philosophical discussions and debates. Once he went to the city of Mahishmati where dwelt the sage Mandana Misra. He was led towards the house of this wise man by a number of parrots miraculously endowed with human speech, who, so the story runs, discoursed upon weighty philosophical questions. But when he reached the door of the dwelling he found it fast shut. Undismayed he arose in the air and entered from above, alighting just beside Mandana Misra in his spacious hall. Then began an animated discussion between the astonished host and his unexpected guest. The sun rose high in the heavens and found them deep in their debate; it sloped down the sky in its westering course and yet the two, each of redoubtable intellect, continued. At length as evening crept upon them they called on the wife of Mandana Misra to act as umpire between them; but she, busy housewife that she was, deemed it not thrifty to let the hours pass attending to the discourse of word-spinners, so with ready wit she brought two garlands of fresh flowers saying: "Wear these as you talk, and he whose garland does not wither shall be deemed victor." So the two each put on his garland and in no long time Mandana Misra's was limp and faded like the leaves of a delicate tree beneath the rays of the summer sun. But Sankara's remained fresh as when first brought in at dewy eve.

And that is but the beginning of the story, for the victor claimed his opponent as a disciple. And the wife — she we learn was none other than Sarasvati in corporeal form. Nor would Sankaracharya be content until he had held debate with her. Many were the questions put to him by his fair adversary, but always was he to the fore with a ready answer. Then Sarasvati, for so we may now call her, turned into a path of thought to which Sankara was an utter stranger. She asked him a question on the science of love! For the first time no answer was forthcoming, yet even such a question must be solved by the sage. So he left Mandana Misra's city in search of an answer. He traveled for some time with his disciples and came at length to a forest.

Now it so happened that a certain king named Amaraka lay dying here at the foot of a tree surrounded by many friends mourning his departure. As the soul of the dying man took flight an unusual thing happened. Sankara left his own body, entrusting it to the care of his disciples. He entered that of the dead king, and the monarch's followers, seeing their chief rise once again with the light of life in his eyes, were overjoyed beyond words, and went out of the forest of death back to the throne of royalty.

There king Sankara, standing as it were in the shoes of Amaraka, and indeed Amaraka himself as far as the eye could discern, learned all that pertained to the science and art of love, and so fitted himself to answer the probing questions of Sarasvati. Meanwhile, however, the Ministers of State, finding their resuscitated rajan a far wiser and better man than ever before, suspected that there had been some such change of souls as we have described. They were loth to part with their new and wonderful king, so they issued a decree that the bodies of all those who had just passed on into the inner realms should be burnt. They hoped thereby that the mortal frame of this strange and beautiful being, now deserted, would be destroyed with the rest, and that thus he would remain a captive within the body of their king.

Time sped on, and Padmapada and the other devoted disciples, knowing not of the decree of the Ministers of State, left the body of their beloved master entrusted to their care, and journeyed towards the king's city. "Let us," said Padmapada, "appear before the king as singers, and weaving a message around our sweet music, let us tell him how we long for his return." It all came to pass as they had planned; for as they stood before the supposed King Amaraka in the great hall of the palace, not only were those who listened spellbound by their marvelous music, but its pellucid strains stole into the inner consciousness of Sankaracharya. Before the bewildered attendants knew what had befallen, Sankaracharya gratefully dismissed the singers and released himself from the corporeal chains that bound him. His own body he found already upon the funeral pyre surrounded by angry flames that seemed to reach to the very heavens. But it remained untouched by their destructive power, and entering it, Sankara, shining with the illumination which streamed from his own being, descended from the pyre and rejoined his devoted pupils, and together they made their way to the house of Mandana Misra, who became a disciple of the young sage after hearing the last question of Sarasvati answered with keen wit and wisdom.

From this time on the beautiful messenger of the gods, for such in truth he was, journeyed from city to city with his faithful followers, spreading wherever he went his teachings of the Vedanta. It was indeed a spiritual and intellectual conquest. His words among the populace, in the great cities or among the smaller towns and hamlets, in the forests or along the highways, were like the falling of the gentle rain after a season of drought and famine. His presence was like the glory of the morning sunlight when the curtains of mist roll away from before the face of the sun.

Many are the stories told of his godlike powers, but were we to recount these tonight, dawn would find us still gathered here telling tales — tales of his bringing back to earth the spirit of one departing, of his power to produce fire from the palm of his right hand, of his ability to send his consciousness whithersoever he willed. Those who are ignorant call these wonder-works miracles. Those who have knowledge of things behind this veil of illusion about us, know Sankara to be the greatest Initiate living in historical ages; and to the Initiate Nature makes obeisance, laying at his feet the key to her innermost secrets.

You have heard the words of one of the Wise Ones of the earth: "A few drops of rain do not make the monsoon, though they presage it." Thus does Sankaracharya, unlike the ordinary mortal, perfected in wisdom, master of rare and occult powers, in appearance even like a god, stand as a prophecy of what we shall one day become in the far aeons of the future, yea, in that far distant time when the human host shall have made its long, long journey again and yet again through the seven spheres of its present home.

Until his thirty-second year this Sage of the East journeyed, carrying from land to land the blessing of his divine philosophy. Then his term of life was at an end, and into those heavenly realms where in joy the gods awaited him he disappeared in this wise: he absorbed his gross body into the subtle one and became existent; then destroying the subtle one into the body which is the cause of the world, he became pure intelligence; then attaining in the world of the Isvara full happiness, unbroken, like a perfect circle, he became the intelligence which pervades the whole universe. Even now does he exist as the all-pervading intelligence. From above rang the grand paean of the gods echoing within the sacred places of the earth: "Victory!"

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