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Social Scientist

Adi Sankara and His Philosophy: A Marxist View

Author(s): E. M. S. Namboodiripad
Source: Social Scientist, Vol. 17, No. 1/2 (Jan. - Feb., 1989), pp. 3-12
Published by: Social Scientist
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Accessed: 26-03-2017 05:49 UTC

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Adi Sankara and His Philosophy-

A Marxist View

The year 1989 is the 1200th year of the birth of Adi Shankara. It is
being observed in various parts of the country, his home state above all.
The cultural department of the Government of Kerala is organising at
Kaladi, the birth place of the great sage, a one-day seminar on some
aspects of the teachings of this illustrious son of Kerala.
Is the participation of Marxist theoreticians not a betrayal of
dialectical and historical materialism by intellectuals and political
activists who should be opposed to the philosophy of Adi Shankara?

This question assumes that idealism and materialism are suc

opposites that they have always and everywhere to be oppo
each other. It fails to note that, like other opposites in real
human thinking, the idealist and materialist philosophical tr
related to each other in a dialectical, rather than metaph
manner. Neither idealism nor materialism remains static, both are
ever moving forward, always negating each other, the struggle between
the two in newer and newer forms is the law of development of human
thought. There is therefore no question of materialism as such being
superior to idealism, idealism as such being inferior. As Lenin observed
in his Philosophical Notebooks.
Philosophical idealism is only nonsense from the standpoint of
crude, simple, metaphysical materialism. From the standpoint of
dialectical materialism, on the other hand, philosophical
idealism is a one-sided, exaggerated development (inflation,
distention) of one of the features, aspects, facets of knowledge into
an absolute, divorced from matter, from nature, apotheosized.
Idealism is clerical obscurantism. True. But philoso3phical
idealism is ('more correctly' and 'in addition') a road to clerical
obscurantism through one of the shades of the infinitely complex
knowledge (dialectical of man). (Collected Works, Vol. 38, p.363).

Like Marx and Engels who were the disciples of the greatest
* General Secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist).

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philosophical idealist in history (Hegel), Lenin highly

contributions made to human knowledge by idealism. D
mutual conflict for several centuries, idealisni and materialism
successively negated each other as they assumed newer and newer
forms, culminating in the emergence of Dialectical Materialism in the
nineteenth century. Marx and Engels, known earlier as talented Young
Hegelians, developed and enriched Hegelian dialectics while
assimilating all that is best in the then existing materialism.
Dialectical Materialism was therefore a negation of both existing
(Hegelian) Idealism and existing (Feurbachian) Materialism. It goes to
the credit of Lenin that he further developed and enriched the Marx-
Engels philosophy.

Dialectical (and Historical) Materialism of Marx, Engels and

the philosophy of revolutionary action. 'Philosophers', said
'have in various ways interpreted the world; the point is to cha
Theirs however, is not the philosophy of any revolutio
proletarian revolution. To quote from Marx's Contribution
Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, 'As philosophy
material weapon in the proletariat, so the proletariat
spiritual weapon in philosophy.'
Marxism-Leninism being dialectical materialism, it is of
opposed to the philosophy of Shankara which is the acme
idealist philosophy. No Marxist, however, can help seeing t
evolution of that philosophy was an important stage in the
development of Indian thought which, in its turn, is integrally
connected with the development of Indian society. For, as Marx and
Engels pointed out in the Communist Manifesto, 'Intellectual production
changes its character in proportion as material production is changed.
The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling
To make a critique of Adi Shankara's philosophy therefore, we
should make a survey of Indian society and thought. For, Shanka
like any other Indian philosopher was a product of Indian society; h
thought was the further development of Indian thought down to h
time. Though born in Kerala (the village Kaladi in what is toda
Ernakulam district in that state), he acquired name and fame as a
Indian scholar of a high order who carried forward the best in Indi
idealist philosophy. His life and thoughts were moulded by India as
whole not Kerala alone.


What then is Indian society? How did society and thought develop
'The written history of all hitherto existing society' is according to
Marx and Engels, 'the history of class struggle' (Communist Manifesto)

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This is as true of India as of Europe about which the Manif

In India however, class struggle did not develop (as it did in
Europe) 'between freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and
serf, guild master and journeyman etc.' The first division in ancient
Indian society arose between the first two of the four Varnas (Khatriya
and Brahman) and the last two (Vaisya and Shudra). The beginnings
of this could be seen in the emergence of a class of fighters and another
of those who engaged themselves in the performance of rituals which
is as necessary for success in war as actual fighting.
The two classes whose services were thus essential for the victory
of the advancing Aryan tribes against their opponents first marked
themselves off as the 'twice-born' (dwijas), superior to the rest of the
population-Vis to begin with, later to be further divided into Vaisya
and Shudra. In course of time, the four Varnas proliferated into
innumerable castes and sub-castes at whose head stood the 'twice-born'
(Dwijas), the Brahman in particular.
Naturally therefore, the two Varnas (Khatriya and Brahman)
were dominant in Indian society. They were, by and large, the
producers of the intellectual, the aesthetic, the scientific and other
forms of spiritual wealth including philosophy, while the rest of
society produced material wealth. The division into the oppressing
and oppressed sections of society thus involved the division between
intellectual and physical labour, between the spiritual and temporal
life. The dialectical relation between these opposites constitutes the
totality of intellectual and physical life.

This explains the emergence of idealist and materialist tre

Indian philosophy. To quote Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya,
The philosophical view which arose to condemn and reject li
could only have been the result of the philosophical pursu
turning away from life itself. As with the development o
slavery in ancient Greece, so also in the Upanishadic India,
the lofty contempt for the material world with its eve
shifting phenomena was the result of the philosophic
enquiry taking free flight into the realm of 'pure reason', o
'pure knowledge', i.e. knowledge only when a section of th
community, living on the surplus produced by another
withdrew itself from the responsibilities of direct manua
labour, and therefore, from reality of the material world, for
the process of labour alone can exercise a sense of objectiv
coercion on conscious theory. Theory, in other words, was
divorced from practice and became 'pure theory', the thing
thought of became mere ideas and thus the knower, the subjec
sought to emancipate itself from the inhibitions of the known o

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the object, and a look at the latter as but products of ig

or avidya.' (Indian Philosophy: A Popular Introdu
People's Publishing House, 1986, pp. 85-86)
Adishankara with his philosophy of Advaita Veda
finest and most sophisticated exponent of this school of In
philosophy. He developed his teachings on Brahman to su
that it implied the denial of even God (everything
Brahman); for this he was denounced by his opponents
disguise' (Prachchanna Buddha). This very appellation
bitter was the conflict between the teachings of Buddha
domination, between idealism and materialism, how far the two had
gone in Indian philosophy. Despite the powerful and successful fight
put up by Shankara against what was considered to be the main
contender in opposition to Upanishadic idealism he was denounced for
making concessions to that philosophical trend which had thrown a
serious challenge to Brahmanism. Shankara was and is still revered
however, for the erudition with which he defeated the Buddhist
philosophical trend.
Debi Prasad Chattopadhyaya who traced the roots of ancient
India's idealist philosophy also explained the basis on which the
materialist trend in Indian philosophy arose and developed. In his
well-known work Science in Ancient India, he analyses the two
classical works on ancient Indian medicine-Charaka Samhita and
Susruta Samhita. The authors of the two books in their elucidation of
problems connected with the human body, its ailments, remedies f
them and so on see no iota of the soul when they give a materialist
account of these aspects of human life. Having done this of course, the
show their loyalty to the dominant ideology of the age makin
obeisance to God (as part of treatment of the sick body).


This is as true of other sciences as of the medical science. The artisans
and other sections of the working people skilled in one or another area
of practical activity were materialists when dealing with the
phenomena and problems of their work. But the moment they go over to
the general problems of social life, they had to become votaries fo the
dominant ideology-the philosophy of life after death, the soul,
Moksha and so on. It is out of skilled artisans, practitioners of
occupations like medicine, etc., that a distinct materialist trend in
philosophy originated. Those who followed this trend had to be
materialist in their interpretations of problems connected with their
art or professions. But, being dominated by the ideology of the ruling
class-Varna-caste-which was idealistic in essence, they had to
submit themselves to idealism.
This is true of such philosophers of the materialist school as
Nyava-Vaisesikas who are 'very near to materialism' in

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Chattopadhyaya's opinion but 'fully endorsed the autho

scriptures, argue at length to prove the should, and its s
death' etc. 'There however, remain', Chattopadhyaya
'enough of very clever and and subtle hints in the Nya
literature itself that all these were not to be taken ear
Defence of Materialism in Ancient India, People's Publis
Jan. 1989, pp. 16-17.
There were however, other schools of materialist phil
refused to bow to the ideology of the ruling class - the Cha
Lokayatas etc. They minced no words to expound their
which was opposed to that of idealism. Very little of th
however, have been handed over to us. Their arguments
quoted for purposes of refutation (as Purvapaksha), we get
the extent and sweep of materialist thinking in anc

The struggle between the two schools of philosophy was so bitte

prolonged that the outcome was decided by what Chattopadhy
calls 'politics'. What this means is explained as follows,
'The spokesmen of traditional Indian politics were above all
law-givers whose writings are generally called the Dharmasa
What these lawmakers were basically concerned with wa
course the safety of a social structure which they considered as
ideal one. Such a social structure generally goes by the n
Varnasrama, by which is meant a society in which the conduc
everybody must be regulated by the caste in which he or she is b
as also by the stage of life reached by every one. Concre
however, it stood for the norm of a society in which a minority
the population-consisting of nobles, priests and traders-w
entitled to all material privileges, though in varying degrees.
rest of the people which could only mean the direct produc
whose surplus products alone could create the material benefits f
the dwijas, was dumped under the general category called Sud
And the lawmakers insisted that these direct producers we
entitled to have nothing more than was essential to kee
themselves alive. Their only duty was to serve the upper strata
society, because the creator himself brought them into bei
exclusively for this specific purpose. (pp 17-18)

The struggle between idealism and materialism in India was

other words, the manifestation of the Indian variety of class strug
a minority of upper castes (dwijas) as opposed to the overwhel
majority of the common people. The latter being engaged in phy
labour for their livelihood were in constant touch with the various
phenomena of nature. The ideas that they formed of the universe
around them was naturally materialist. The narrow upper layer of

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society on the other hand depended on intellectual ex

therefore moved by ideas in the mental horizon,
phenomena of nature, they developed themselves into
who assert the supremacy of ideas over nature. The mos
expression of this idealistic outlook was Shankara's A
which asserted everything other than the Brahm
idea) as Avidya, non-existent.
Out of the ranks of the overwhelming majority
engaged themselves in physical labour-artisans an
the various schools of materialism. This class as a whole and the
ideological representatives of this class however, were complete
the mercy of the idealist philosophers. It was therefore, an un
battle between the toiling people who were inherently materialistic
outlook and those who lorded it over them with their idealistic
philosophy. The battle between the Buddhists and the Vedantin
in fact the final engagement between the two forces and Shankara
the commander-in-chief of the idealists in that battle in its last
stages. The defeat administered to the Buddhist materialists
therefore the victory of the dominant upper castes whose theoretici
championed idealism.

The battle between the two ideological trends did much to develop th
various branches of natural sciences. Astronomy, mathemat
chemistry, medicine etc. were so developed in ancient India that
country not only equalled but excelled most other countries in term
ancient civilisation and science. The defeat of the Buddhist
materialists at the hands of Shankara however, meant a big setback
the development of Indian science. The pioneer historian of In
science, P.C. Ray, observes:
The Vedanta philosophy, as modified and expanded by Shanka
which teaches the unreality of the material world is to a la
extent responsible for bringing the study of physical science int
disrepute. Shankara is unsparing in his strictures on Kanada a
his system.
One or two extracts from Shankara's commentary on the Ved
Sutras will make the point clear: (Observes Shankara) 'It t
appears that the atomic doctrine is supported by every w
arguments only, is opposed to those scriptural passages whi
declare the Lord to be the general cause and is not accepted by an
of the authorities taking their stand on scripture, such as Manu
others. Hence it is to be altogether disregarded by high-mind
men who have a regard for their own spiritual welfare'. (Aga
'The reasons on account of which the doctrine of the Vaiseshikas
cannot be accepted have been stated above. That doctrine may be
called semi-destructive'.

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Having quoted the above from Shankara, Ray added: 'Amo

people ridden by caste and hide-bound by authorities and injunctio
Vedas, Puranas and Smritis and having their intellect thus cl
and paralysed, no Boyle could arise to lay down sound principl
guidance'. (Quoted by Chattopadhyaya,In Defence of Materiali
Ancient India, pp. 103-104)


While India after the defeat of the materialists at the hands of the
idealists was thus stagnant, Europe which had earlier been behind
India in ancient days was going through fundamental socio-cultural
transformation. The eminent scientist and historian of science, J.D.
Barnal, refers to the European Renaissance as having 'healed, though
only partially, the breach between aristocratic theory and plebeian
practice' (Chattopadhyaya, P. 101). Barnal goes on (as quoted in
Chattopadyaya, pp. 101-102)
What was really new was the respect given to the practical arts of
spinning, weaving, pottery, glass-making and, most of all, to the
arts that provided for the twin needs of wealth and war-those of
the miners and metal workers. The techniques of the arts were of
more account in the Renaissance than in classical times because
they were no longer in the hands of slaves but of free man and thes
were not, as they had been in the middle ages, far removed socially
and economically from the rulers of the new society.
The enhancement of the status of the craftsman made it possible to
renew the link between his traditions and those of the scholars
that have been broken almost since the beginning of the early


The question, however, was not merely of the decline of science

Indian history. It was a question of what Karl Marx called
'undignified, stagnatory and vegetative life' in pre-British India. The
village communities in India as Marx saw them 'were contaminated by
distinctions of caste and slavery'. Marx further noted such 'a
brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact
that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of
Hanuman, the money and Sabala the cow.'
This had its political implication that the country lost its
independence. Say, Marx:
The paramount power of the Moguls was broken by the Mogul
Viceroys. The power of the Viceroys was broken by the
Mahrattas. The power of the Mahrattas was broken by the
Afghans, and while all were struggling against, all, the Briton
rushed in and was enabled to subdue them all.

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Considering that this happened to a country which, once

quote Marx, 'has been the source of our (Europeans') langu
religion', the question naturally arises: why and how did ou
fall from its brilliant antiquity to the degradation of pre
days? The answer is that the defeat of the oppressed cast
hands of the Brahminic overlordship, of materialism by th
constituted the beginning of the fall of India's civilisation and
which in the end led to the loss of national independence.


Having reviewed the evolution of the Shankara philosophy and

socio-political implications thereof, let me now proceed to discus
relevance of that philosophy to present-day world with partic
reference to India.
Shankara lived and worked in an era in which furious battles were
being waged all over the world between the idealist and materialist
schools of philosophy. India was no exception. There was however, one
big difference: the battle did not end in the decisive victory of either in
Europe; both schools developed as parallel forces with their mutual
conflicts, producing giant personalities in their respective fields,
culminating in the nineteenth century giants, Hegel on one side and
Fierbach on the other. Marx and Engels were the pioneers of a new
school of philosophy in world history-the school which carried
forward the dialectics of Hegel and the materialism of Fierbach while
rejecting the Hegelian idealism and Fierbachian metaphysics. The
theory of Dialectical and Historical Materialism that emerged, with
Marx and Engels as its proponents, marked a new stage in the history of
world philosophy.
In India, on the other hand, the battle of the two philosophical
schools ended in the defeat of one (the materialists) and the
domination of the other. This battle however, was an unequal one, th
full force of the socio-political establishment (the regime of cas
comination) being made use of in favour of the idealist and against th
materialist school. The victor and the vanquished in our country w
not two philosophies in the abstract but two social classes-t
dominant and oppressed castes-using the two philosophie
weapons in their arsenal. The victory of Shankara and his philosop
therefore was the victory of the Brahmin and other dominant cas
the defeat of the rest of Indian society.


It is therefore unimaginable for any thinking person to consider t

Shankara philosophy to be relevant to the present-day world, present-
day India. That philosophy like other schools of idealist philosoph
should in fact be vigorously combatted if our country and humanity a
large are to keep in step with the world-shaking developments of t
present day. For India in particular, the struggle against Hin

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revivalist, against the revival of the Vedic and Upanishadic spir

an essential prerequisite for the building of a democratic, secular, n
Let me in this context note the enormous harm caused to our national
unity by the preaching and practices of the politics of Hindu revivalist
symbolised by such 'socio-cultural' organisations as the RSS, the Viswa
Hindu Parishad, etc. and political outfits like the BJP. Such
movements as on the Ram Janma Bhoomi and other temples are
disruptive of the concepts of national unity and communal harmony
which were part of our freedom movement. The organisers of these
movements are using the names of the Vedic and Upanishadic Rishis,
the successors of these Rishis including Shankara, to buttress their
disruptive activities. Combatting the pernicious activities of these
opponents of national unity is therefore one of the foremost political
duties of the left and secular political forces in the country.
In doing this however, we Marxist-Leninists should never adopt a
nihilist attitude to the idealist school of which Shankara was the
most illustrious representative. This is a mistake committed by
number of Marxist scholars in India and abroad. A Soviet scholar
writing in Social Sciences in the USSR (No.l, 1989, p.19(a)) says
some Marxist scholars 'often identified with materialism certain
essentially non-materialist doctrines such as the anti-Brahm
attitudes or the rejection of the doctrine of 'liberation' ......
Lokayata school was arbitrarily pushed into the foreground, while th
Vedanta school was placed as the seventh and last.'
The author is of the view that 'the Vedanta was and still is the
most influential of the philosophical schools in India' and th
'Shankara occupied in Indian philosophy approximately the sam
place as Plato's doctrine holds in West European philosophy.'
Let me conclude: Shankara was one of the tallest of India's (and
world's) idealist philosophers; his Advaita Vedanta is one of the
richest contributions India has made to the treasury of human
knowledge. But so are other philosophers and their works in which
elements of materialism existed, such as the Nyaya, the Vaiseshika,
the Sankhya, the Mimamsa, the Lokayata etc. not to speak of the
Buddha whose near-materialist philosophy gripped the mass of
suppressed humanity. While we are proud that both schools of our
Indian philosophy produced geniuses of the intellect, those belonging
to the materialist school had to fight an unequal battle and were
therefore defeated. Still more unfortunately, the defeat of the
materialists in this unequal battle was the beginning of a millennium-
long age of intellectual and socio-political backwardness which
culminated in the establishment of British rule in our land.
I am however, not at all pessimistic. The dark age of all-round
backwardness has slowly been coming an end; hard knocks have
already been given to the socio-political forces which kept the mass of
toilers under subjection; the alien rulers who did this job of destroying

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the old have been forced to quit India; democratic forces h

rising as a united army fighting for freedom; India's freedom m
came to be linked with the forces of the international revolution for
peace, freedom, democracy and socialism.
In the wake of all these developments, the Indian working class
has been slowly getting organised into the position of vanguard in the
struggle for democracy, freedom, peace and socialism; Dialectical and
Historical Materialism is naturally becoming the leading ideology of
the most significant elements in politically awakened India. This
indeed is the situation in which, as Marx observed over a decade and a
half ago; 'Philosophy finds in the working class its material weapon;
the working class finds in philosophy its spiritual weapon.'

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