Shankara, the Great Yogi
Shankaracharya, or Shankara the teacher, is one of the greatest spiritual masters in the history of India. Shankara has often been called the greatest philosopher of India, if not of all time and of the entire world. His teaching is highly rational, clear and concise, as well deeply mystical, unfolding all the mysteries of Self, God, the universe, the Absolute and immortality. Most of what today is called Advaita (non-dualistic) Vedanta reflects the mark of his insights. He is the main classical teacher of the Advaita Vedanta tradition.
Shankara’s greatness has been hailed by such monumental modern gurus of India as Swami Vivekananda, Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, Ramana Maharshi, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and Paramahansa Yogananda, to name a few. In fact, most of what Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta taught as Advaita is pure Shankara Advaita. Perhaps more notably, most of the original Yoga that came to the West starting with Vivekananda was styled “Yoga-Vedanta,” reflecting Shankara’s influence, and aimed at Self-realization through meditation, not simply at skill in asana practice. Indeed Shankara has been a much more dominant figure than Patanjali in for these great Yoga-Vedanta masters and for India as a whole historically. He has been regarded as a veritable manifestation of Lord Shiva, the king of the Yogis himself, evidenced by his name Shankara, which is one of the main names for Shiva as well.
Shankara is the main traditional teacher of Jnana Yoga or the “Yoga of Knowledge,” which is usually regarded as the highest yogic path. Even Patanjali states that liberation or Self-realization is gained by knowledge, not by any other means and makes Yoga a means of achieving that higher knowledge. Shankara’s many written works, including extensive commentaries on the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Brahma Sutras, and his shorter philosophical works like Vivekachudamani or the Crest Jewel of Discrimination remain the core teachings behind Jnana Yoga even today.
However, people tend to forget that Shankara was a great Raja Yogi as well, one of the greatest of all time. Shankara discusses all the main aspects of Raja Yoga in his different books and shows he knew the secrets of the chakras, mantra, pranayama, concentration and meditation, as well as the intricacies of Nirvikalpa Samadhi, the highest yogic state. Shankara’s great poem Saundarya Lahiri or the Wave of Bliss remains the most famous work of Tantric Yoga and Shakti Sadhana reflecting all the secrets of Sri Vidya, mantra, yantra and Tantra.
In addition, Shankara composed more beautiful chants to the Hindu Gods and Goddesses that remain repeated and sung today probably more than any other poet. These include chants to Shiva, Sundari, Vishnu, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, Rama, Krishna and Ganesha. In these hymns he shows that he also mastered all the intricacies of Bhakti Yoga or the Yoga of Devotion and was not a mere dry philosopher. The musical cadence of some of his chants like Shivo’ham, or “I am Shiva,” has entered into the western kirtan movement as well.
Shankara is usually dated to the eighth century by western scholars but is placed much earlier by most Indian scholars. Though he lived only to the short age of 32, he left a legacy of teachings, temples and lineages that affected the whole of India and marked an entire era.
Shankara’s Non-dualistic Raja Yoga
It has often been highlighted, particularly by academics, that Shankara does refute Samkhya-Yoga philosophy, particularly in his commentaries on Vedic texts, and so appears to be against Yoga. This is a misunderstanding. It is not the practice of Yoga overall that Shankara criticizes but the ideas of Purusha and Prakriti as separate realities and that the Purushas are many, which do occur in Samkhya and Yoga Sutra philosophy. Counter to these ideas, Shankara proclaims Kevala Advaita or pure unity as the highest reality instead.
Shankara has a broader view of Raja Yoga as something more than the philosophy of Samkhya or Patanjali, and teaches his own system of Raja Yoga based upon Advaita or the non-dualistic view. It is not Yoga per se that Shankara refutes, but simply the dualistic aspects of Samkhya and Yoga philosophy, which are arguably not their real implication, or necessary for the practice of Yoga overall, which after all aims at unity consciousness.
Specifically, Shankara taught a fifteenfold Raja Yoga in his important short work Aparokshanubhuti. Aparoksha refers to the knowledge gained by direct perception in consciousness itself, which is beyond both reason and sensory perception. Anubhuti is the experience of that from moment to moment as the ground of one’s own being.
Shankara’s fifteenfold Yoga combines Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga rather than the physical practices of Hatha Yoga. This fifteenfold Raja Yoga of Shankara is quite advanced, even for advanced Yogis. There may be not a single person in the world, much less in the West, who can follow it directly without already having undergone considerable training and preliminary support practices. We are not necessarily recommending that the ordinary Yoga student take up Shankara’s Raja Yoga as their primary practice, but rather to use it to see greater depths of Yoga that remain far beyond what modern Yoga has become, particularly in its commercial and exercise approaches. In it Shankara takes the main outer practices and techniques of Yoga and replaces them with inner meditational ways or ways of Self knowledge or the realization of non-duality.