Hinduism has been a vibrant religion throughout millennia. Every religion has phases of peaks and ebbs. After a glorious epoch of the Vedic period, there came a temporary decline. The prolonged ritual ceremonies of the Aryan system, together with undue dominance of the Brahmin class, had a negative effect on the growth and sustenance of Hinduism. Excessive religious formalities and the over-exploitation of the lower castes caused severe damage to the cause of the religion. Time was thus ripe for alternative options to sprout. Jainism and Buddhism were born as alternative spiritual paths and in due course became very well established religions. From this big jolt, many attempts were made to revive and rejuvenate the decadent Hindu religion.
The Gupta Empire (320–500 CE) has been described, as an era of Hindu revival. There was Hindu activity in the form of construction of many magnificent temples, although this dynasty supported the Buddhist and Jain religions as well. This period has been hailed as the golden period of Indian culture, but it was not until the eighth century, that an ascetic of the highest caliber came forward to uphold the dwindling flame of Hinduism.
He was Adi Shankar Acharya (788–820). His name will be always remembered for playing a major role in reorganizing and reforming the system. In Hindu theology, it is believed that whenever there is a steep downfall of the religion, God reincarnates as the savior. Adi Shankar’s arrival is considered to be the God’s intervention. Not only was he a child prodigy who mastered all the major scriptures at the tender age of seven years, but he also went by foot to all four corners of the country. He then established four major religious monastic centers, or maths, in India: the Sringeri Math on the Sringeri hills near Mysore in the South; the Sarda Math at Dwarka in the West; the Jyotir Math at Badrinath in the North; and the Govardhan Math at Puri in the East.
Shankara also organized hundreds of monasteries into a ten order, dashanami system, which were assigned to these four pontifical centers, the head of which was known as Shankaracharya. The hierarch of the monastery at Puri is regarded as the teacher of the universe, the Jagadguru Shankaracharya.
Shankara brought all the warring sects under one roof and wrote voluminous commentaries on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Braham Sutra. These scriptures remain classic authorities even today. Anyone who is interested in the philosophy of Hinduism cannot afford to bypass this genius of the Hindu mind. Among the many reforms that he affirmed was the toning down of oppressive formalities. Adi Shankar was a strong proponent of Advaitya—God is all, and everything is but his manifestation. He, however, was very accommodating to the dualistic Dvaitya philosophy as well. Adi Shankar’s devotional poetic work Bhaj Govindam, mentioned in the later part of this chapter, is a testimony of his universal approach.
Indeed, it was his broad vision of integrating different divisions of Hindu society that will be forever gratefully remembered. Even as the evils of the caste system and other problems were nibbling at the roots of Hinduism, the three factions—Shaivites, Vaishnavites, and Shaktas—started to pull in opposing directions.
Shaivite Hindus worship Lord Shiva as the Supreme God. This sect is mainly based on temple worship, and Siddha yoga. Renunciation (sanyasa), austerities (tapas), meditation, and mysticism form an integral part of it. It has close links with both the ancient Sindhu-Saraswati civilization as well as the Dravidian culture.
Vaishnavite Hindus worship Lord Vishnu as the Supreme God, who has incarnated multiple times but mainly as Lord Rama and Lord Krishna. They often address God as Purushottoma, the noblest amongst persons. They are dualistic, considering God separate and higher than all beings.
Shakta Hindus worship Shakti or Devi as the supreme goddess in the form of the Divine Mother. The origin of this sect also may have a link with the ancient Sindhu-Saraswati culture. The Shakti goddess has many forms, too. Shaktas practice Kundalini yoga, with many rituals of Tantra. Apart from these three main sects, there are innumerable smaller divisions and sub-sects among the Hindu religious organization. All Hindu sects, however, have more unifying elements than those of division. The diversity of Hinduism is based on the ethnic origins of different groups of society as well as the distinct aspirations of the individuals. Violence among each other is conspicuous by its absence. All sects uphold the supremacy of the Vedas and also accept the basic philosophies of karma (as you sow, so shall you reap), reincarnation (punarjanam), the eternal cycle of birth and death (samsara), salvation (moksha), and God incarnation (Avtar Karan). The differences among the various sects are minor and add diversity in place of uniformity.
Adi Shankar then also popularized the ancient unified sect Smartas—those who believed in all deities and classical Hindu scriptures. He re-established the worship of the five deities: Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Surya, and Ganesh (Panch Deva Sthapana). Later he also added the sixth Kumara, and came to be known as Shanmata Sthapanacharya. In the dwindling phase of Hindu society, his organizing a major unity program among the different sects caused him to be seen as a great savior. In fact, this opened later the worship of unlimited number of deities in Hindu theology, according to one’s choice, without any restraint whatsoever.
The concept of adopting a preferential personal deity (ishta devta) became more accepted. This notion was in conformity with the essential Vedic teaching: Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti (One alone exists; sages call it by various names.) More recent Hindu temples, especially those in foreign countries, are generally multi-deity temples. The Hindu pantheon has the unique distinction of housing many different gods under one roof, adding even new gods periodically.
Soon after Adi Shankar came yet another jewel of Hinduism, also from the South: Ramanuja (1017–1137). He also largely contributed to the renaissance of Hinduism. His philosophy was based on qualified non-dualism (Vishishta dvaita—God is above all). God is superior to everything else. Ramanuja advocated devotion or surrender to the Supreme Lord for realization of divine knowledge. There was yet a third school of monism (Dvaia Vedanta), propounded by Sri Madhvacharya (1119–1278).
Sri Shankaracharya also wrote the immortal classic Bhaj Govindam, a devotional scripture in which his main spiritual teachings have become the beacon of light for millions of Hindus.
Worship Govinda, Worship Govinda, Worship Govinda, O foolish one!
Rules of grammar will profit nothing, once the hour of death draws near!
Thus, he emphasized true worship above the formalities of rituals and ceremonies.
“Many are with matted locks, with closely shaven heads, and many who pluck out all their hair and wear robes of ochre or are clad in other colors, but all this is for the sake of their stomachs. The deluded ones, even seeing the Truth revealed before them, see it not.”
He painted the picture, very boldly and bluntly, of all the pseudo saints, whether they belonged to the Hindu, Buddha, or Jain religions.
One of the most prominent authorities on Hindu philosophy in modern times, Swami Chinmayananda, has aptly noted:
“These three schools of thought are not so much competing and contradicting theories, as explanations of necessary stages we must pass through in our pilgrimage to the peak of our perfection. Only the intellectual pundits quarrel and seek to establish as the one or the other declaration as superior.”
Paramhansa Yogananda said:
“A combination of personal theism and the philosophy of the Absolute is an ancient achievement of Hindu thought, expounded in the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. This reconciliation…satisfies heart and head.” 64
The Era of Adi Shankar Acharya has been hailed as a major reform movement within Hinduism, after its dwindling image caused by the onset of new religions of Jainism and Buddhism. He was the one responsible for curbing divisive tendencies; he roamed on foot all over India from East to West and from North to South to establish 4 main Hindu Maths in the four corners of the country, thus bringing together hundreds of small monasteries into a one unified system. This may be regarded as the first organizational effort in Hindu religion. Albeit Hinduism doesn’t yet have a very strict and formal structural arrangement, this initiative of Adi Shankar Acharya did help significantly in consolidating the religion.
He wrote voluminous commentaries on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Braham Sutra, and established himself as the Hindu scholar par excellence. Apart from bringing together the three different sects, he also reintroduced the prehistoric, ancient, unified sect Smartas—those who believed in all deities and classical Hindu scriptures. This major step created a great sense of harmony and agreement in Hindu society. Floodgates were opened for adopting a preferential personal deity (ishta devta). Most Hindu temples now, especially those in foreign countries, are generally multi-deity temples, although there may be one presiding deity. The Hindu pantheon has the unique distinction of housing many different Gods under one roof and even adding new Gods periodically.
Adi Shankar Acharya also advocated soft approach in regard to rituals and customs; he attended the funeral ceremony of his own mother. Hindu sanyasins are generally restrained from participating in such duties. Even though he was a strong proponent of Advaitya, he was very accommodating to the dualistic Dvaitya philosophy. Adi Shankar’s devotional poetic work “Bhaj Govindam” is a testimony of his universal approach. He thus re-emphasized the open-door comprehensive approach of ancient Hinduism in place of a hard-core and uncompromising attitude.
NOTE: All quotes are adapted from “Thus Spake Sri Sankara,”
Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Chennai, India, 1998