Skip to main content

Advaita Vedanta

Shankara and Advaita

By Advaita Vedanta, Brahma Sutra Bhashya, Dashanami Sannyasins, Gaudapada, Shankara, Upanishads
Shankara with disciples, by Raja Ravi Varma (1904)
Advaita Vedanta signifies an Indian philosophy of “non-dualism.” A major exponent was Shankara, of whom very little is reliably known. The investigator has to negotiate hagiographies composed many centuries after the death of this figure. His life is not easy to chart, to say the least, despite conventional depictions that do not question details. The dates of Shankara are sometimes given as 788-820 CE, but this is not definitive. One alternative has been suggested in terms of ranging between 650 and 775 CE (Pande 1994:52). A member of the brahman caste, Shankara was reputedly born at a village in Kerala.
We may believe that he became a renunciate at an early age. Tradition credits Shankara with establishing a monastic organisation.  This is known as the Shankara Order. Over the centuries,  major monasteries featured abbots bearing the title of Shankaracharya. The Shringeri monastery (in Karnataka) is one of these far-flung centres, gaining the repute of being the first monastery founded by Shankara. This claim has been contradicted by the historical evidence for Shringeri as a centre of Jainism until the fourteenth century (Kulke 1985). At this juncture, Hindu patronage from the kingdom of Vijayanagara was influential. Shringeri emerged as a centre of Shaivism. Land was donated by Hindu monarchs for the purpose of  attracting brahmans to that location. 
In the traditional version of his life, Shankara is said to have established the group of Shaiva renouncers known as Dashanami sannyasins (and nagas). This contingent, strongly associated with the Shankara Order, gained a militant complexion. A counter-suggestion argues for the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century as a much more probable date of their formation (Clark 2006 and 2016). Mercenary armies of naga (naked) sannyasins  were generally recruited from the lower castes.
Traditional ascriptions are reflected in such coverages as: “During his lifetime he [Shankara] managed to compose more than 400 works of various genres and to travel throughout nearly all of South India, edifying disciples and disputing opponents. It is Shankara’s preaching and philosophic activity that, in the eyes of orthodox tradition, accounts for the ultimate ousting of Buddhism from India” (Isayeva 1993:2).
Legendary biographies of Shankara date from the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. “Although they have certain broad similarities, they have numerous contradictions in detail, and they are full of miracles and exaggerations” (Pande 1994:4). The accounts vary markedly in relation to diverse journeys, pilgrimages, debates, and the founding of monastic centres (ibid:32). Shankara became celebrated as an incarnation of Shiva, a development of uncertain date. Shankara hagiography involved “the mythical pattern of divine incarnation, disputation with rival sects and schools, the establishment of new temples and monastic centres of worship, and the synthesis of Smarta-Puranic cults under the aegis of Advaita” (ibid:19-20).
Hundreds of works are attributed to Shankara. However, most of these are now thought to have been composed by much later monastic leaders bearing the title of Shankaracharya. Paul Hacker and other scholars have taken a duly critical approach. The fact is that only a small number of Advaita texts can safely be regarded as the output of Shankara himself. In this respect, the basic work is a lengthy commentary (bhashya) on the Vedantic Brahma Sutra. Famous later compositions (even Vivekachudamani) are rejected by some analysts as spurious. Such popular texts were influential in shaping the Advaita doctrine, which developed over a long period of time. 
In his commentary known as Brahma Sutra Bhashya, Shankara was in strong opposition to Buddhism and the Purva Mimamsa tradition of Hinduism. He was concerned with the correct interpretation of Vedic scripture, in which direction he sought to reveal opposing views as errors.
Shankara argued against the ritualism of Mimamsaka exponents. He supported a version of religion associated with the Upanishads or jnana-kanda. An Advaita priority was discrimination (viveka) between the real and the false. Whereas ritual priests elaborated a belief system based on merits derived from Vedic ceremonies, which supposedly led to heaven. Shankara emphasised the attainment of self-knowledge, meaning knowledge (jnana) of the atman.
The Vedantic doctrine of maya (illusion) has excited varying responses, including denial. Renouncers or sannyasins viewed the householder ritualist lifestyle as being bound by maya. The sannyasin sought freedom through knowledge of the atman (a term variously translated). The various texts do not satisfactorily explain how the self-knowledge is achieved. The mere affirmation of Upanishadic slogans like Tat tvam asi (You are That) is not the most convincing rationale. This famous phrase is found in some Shankara texts, along with modifications.
Absolute liberation does not arise when one is told, ‘Thou art That.’ One should, therefore, have recourse to the reiteration (of the idea, ‘I am Brahman’) and support it with reasoning. (Upadeshasahasri, trans. Jagadananda 1961:207)
“The Brahma Sutra has actually become the basis upon which we learn the philosophical thought of the early Vedanta school. Since, however, the style of this work is concise to a fault, omissions in it are many and to interpret the text is not at all easy” (Nakamura 1983:425). The brevity is pronounced. “Each sutra usually consists of two to ten words at the most, and it is rare to find one that is longer” (ibid:440).
Shankara contributed an Advaitic interpretation of the Brahma Sutra. A discrepancy requires attention. “The theory of absolute identity of the individual self and Brahman, taught by Shankara, is contrary to the thought of the Brahma-sutra itself” (ibid:427). Paul Deussen and other scholars tended to conflate the two interpretations, leading to some confusion (e.g., Deussen 1912).
The early Vedanta was not a unified tradition of exegesis. “Scholars have frequently asserted that the thought of Shankara has the closest connection with the atman theory of Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad” (Nakamura 1983:430). The Brihadaranyaka is one of the earliest Upanishads, substantially antedating the Brahma Sutra, which may date to the fifth century CE in the extant form of that terse treatise.
The obscure author, or authors, of the Brahma Sutra, were defending the old Vedic religion against the Buddhists, Jainas, Sankhya rationalists, and others. “The evident preference of the authors of the Brahma Sutra was for the daily performance of the Vedic ritual to be maintained along with the meditations on more symbolic aspects of etiquette” (Shepherd 1995:642).
Shankara likewise sustained a contest with rival religious doctrines. However, he differed from the Brahma Sutra by contesting the ritualist mentality evident in that version of early Vedanta. He awarded a secondary status to Vedic texts depicting meditation on rituals (those texts referred to deities presiding over specific ceremonies).
Shankara’s classic Brahma Sutra Bhashya includes a critique of the Yoga and Sankhya systems of philosophy. However, Shankara is traditionally credited with a commentary on the Yoga Sutra. The anomaly has aroused differing explanations, including one which suggests that Shankara transited from the standpoint of a Yoga expositor to Advaita comprehension. Another interpretation denies the authorship of Shankara in relation to that commentary (Rukmani 2001).
“In his commentary on the Chandogya Upanishad (8.12.1), he [Shankara] refers to the Paramahamsa monks who transcended caste and ashrama in their pursuit of the non-dual knowledge. These ascetics are identified with the ‘true tradition’ which he says Gaudapada followed. For Shankara, they alone represented the ultimate level of truth” (Shepherd 1995:666). Shankara’s monastic ideal of the Paramahamsa involved criteria of “actual spiritual attainment, not his formal membership of a social group” (Pande 1994:247).
The name of Gaudapada is inseparably associated with Shankara, as a predecessor. A distinctive early Advaitin,  Gaudapada may have lived during the sixth century CE. He composed an unusual commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad, exhibiting a familiarity with Mahayana thought associated with exponents like Nagarjuna and Asanga (Nakamura 1983:51). The fourth chapter is rich in Madhyamaka and Yogachara terminology, prompting a suggestion of authorship by another writer (King 1995).
Unlike the authors of the Brahma Sutras, Gaudapada insists very strongly on the illusory or phenomenal character of the world, and claims that in this he is only following an earlier tradition for the interpretation of the Upanishadic texts. The existence of earlier followers of the Upanishads who held this view is confirmed by Bhartrhari, late fifth century…. Gaudapada says: ‘Those who are experts in the Upanishadic wisdom look upon this world as if it were a cloud-city seen in a dream.’ The sages who have gone beyond fear, attachment and anger have the direct experience of the truth of non-duality, in which all plurality and illusion vanishes. (Alston 1980:24-25) 


Alston, A. J., Samkara on the Absolute (London: Shanti Sadan, 1980).
Cenkner, William, A Tradition of Teachers: Shankara and the Jagadgurus Today (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1983). 
Clark, Matthew, The Dasanami Samnyasis: The Integration of Ascetic Lineages into an Order (Leiden: Brill, 2006).
——–“Religious Sects, Syncretism, and Claims of Antiquity: The Dashanami-Sannyasis and South Asian Sufis” in Raziuddin Aquil and David L. Curley, eds., Literary and Religious Practices in Medieval and Early Modern India (New York: Routledge 2016).
Cole, Colin A., Asparsa Yoga: A Study of Gaudapada’s mandukya karika (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2004).
Deussen, Paul, Das System des Vedanta, 1883; The System of the Vedanta, trans. Charles Johnston (Chicago: Open Court, 1912).
Gambhirananda, Swami, trans., Brahma Sutra Bhasya of Shankaracharya (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1965).
Halbfass, Wilhelm, ed., Philology and Confrontation: Paul Hacker on Traditional and Modern Vedanta (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995). 
Isayeva, Natalia, Shankara and Indian Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993). 
Jagadananda, Swami, trans., Upadeshasahasri of Sri Sankaracharya (third edn, Madras: Ramakrishna Math, 1961).
King, Richard, Early Advaita Vedanta: The Mahayana Context of the Gaudapadiya Karikas (State University of New York Press, 1995).
Kulke, Hermann, “Maharajas, Mahants and Historians: Reflections on the Historiography of Early Vijayanagara and Sringeri” (120-143) in A. L. Dallapiccola and S. Zingel-Ave Lallemant, eds., Vijayanagara, City and Empire: New Currents of Research (Stuttgart: Steiner, 1985). 
Nakamura, Hajime, A History of Early Vedanta Philosophy, Parts 1 and 2 (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1983-2004).
Nikhilananda, Swami, trans., The Mandukyopanishad with Gaudapada’s Karika and Sankara’s Commentary (third edn, Mysore: Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, 1949).
Pande, G. C., Life and Thought of Sankaracarya (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1994).
Potter, K. H., ed., Advaita Vedanta Up to Samkara and his Pupils (Princeton University Press, 1981).
Rukmani, T. S., text and trans., Yogasutrabhasyavivarana of Sankara (2 vols, New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2001).
Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Minds and Sociocultures Vol. One: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

ENTRY no. 70

Copyright © 2016 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Ramana Maharshi

By Advaita Vedanta, Paul Brunton, Ramana Maharshi, Ramanashram

Ramana Maharshi

A version of Advaita Vedanta was taught by Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). Report of him was pioneered in India by Narasimhaswami, and in the West by Arthur Osborne and others. Ramana was subsequently assimilated to some controversial American versions of Nondualism. The Western “neo-Advaita” has aroused scepticism.

Ramana was the son of a brahman (a member of the Hindu priestly caste) who worked as a lawyer at Tiruchuzi, a village in the Tamil sector of South India. His real name was Venkataraman Iyer. After his father’s death, some of his relatives moved to Madurai, a city in Tamil Nadu. Here in 1896, while still sixteen, Ramana underwent an experience variously described in terms of “awakening” or “death.” The belief subsequently developed that he gained “enlightenment” or “realisation” at this time. Another phrase used is “sudden liberation.” Different accounts exist of this episode, together with fragmentary reminiscences of Ramana himself in much later years. “There are many interpretations of Ramana’s teaching, and of the nature of Ramana’s enlightenment experience itself” (Friesen 2006:2).

Caution is required. “Later followers subsequently rationalised this event as a sadhana [spiritual discipline] which lasted half an hour and was completed on the spot. They wanted to believe that he [Ramana] had gained the ultimate realisation known as sahaja samadhi in this brief period of awakening, though he himself did not say that” (Shepherd 2004:153).

In an early biography, B. V. Narasimhaswami  reported that divergent interpretations of this Tamil Advaitin were current: “He speaks little and only as to what is asked. His works are cryptic and are capable of diverse interpretations. Shaktas go to him and think he is a Shakta. Shaivas take him for a Shaiva. ShriVaishnavas find nothing in him inconsistent with their Vishishtadvaita ideal. Muslims and Christians have found in him elements of their ‘true faith’ ” (Narasimhaswami 1931:197-198).

According to Dr. Friesen, Ramana was influenced by Tantra and neo-Hinduism, also Christianity. “Ramana should not be regarded as a traditional advaitic sage” (Friesen 2006:5). This theme has been strongly resisted by partisans of Ramana, who urge that his “realisation” is the sole gauge for his teaching.

Ramana did have some previous knowledge of meditation prior to his experience as a 16 year old, and he derived his teaching of Self-Enquiry from books that he read before he wrote any of his own. Even more importantly, Ramana did not himself have the certainty at the age of 16 that his experience was permanent. And he later disputed the necessity of a state of trance for enlightenment. (Friesen 2005:37-38)

Narasimhaswami supplied a description of the 1896 “death” episode, implying a  sadhana of control on the part of the subject. Ramana actually said: “The fact is, I did nothing.” The influential version of Narasimhaswami resorts to the first person “I” in statements attributed to Ramana. However, the author does acknowledge his innovation by informing: “The exact words have not been recorded.”

Ramana retrospectively referred to his “absorption in the Self [atman].” There is the complexity that he also described his “awakening” in terms of possession, apparently his early reaction to the experience, which he conveyed to his first biographer Narasimhaswami (David Godman, Life and Teachings).

The “awakening” occurred at Madurai, where Ramana was afterwards in the habit of visiting the Meenakshi temple, associated with Shiva-bhakti and the sixty-three Shaiva Tamil saints of the nayanmar tradition. “After the Awakening I went there [to the temple] almost every evening” (Osborne 1954:23). He had read a book (the Periya Puranam) on those saints which inspired him. In his later life, he acknowledged the significance of bhakti (love, aspiration), which is something quite different to the Advaita doctrines. Indeed, his own report states, of his continuing visits to the Meenakshi temple (after his “awakening”), that he would sometimes pray for the descent of divine grace “so that my devotion [bhakti] might increase and become perpetual like that of the sixty-three saints” (Osborne 1954:23). This is not the language of Advaita, contradicting the much later devotee insistence upon an immediate non-dual “enlightenment.”

At the end of August 1896, Ramana experienced “a deep state of absorption in the Self” to quote a popular online version. He soon left home, journeying north to the pilgrim town of Tiruvannamalai, there staying in temple precincts while subject to an abstracted state. He eventually settled in caves at nearby Arunachala Hill, strongly associated with the deity Shiva. The basic feature of that early period is one of acute introspection. He was no longer a brahman, having jettisoned the sacred thread signifying caste status. He was now an ascetic sadhu wearing a loin-cloth, not the ochre robe of Vedantic renunciates. Ramana was not an official Vedantin or sannyasin.

Devoted attendants saw to his simple needs and protected him from intrusions, diverting unwanted sightseers who thronged the pilgrim locale of Arunachala. At first, his introspection was so acute that food had to be pressed into his mouth for the purpose of keeping him alive. Afterwards, he is reported to have accepted only a single cup of food daily; he was accordingly emaciated. For years (until circa 1906) he would not speak to visitors. Indeed, he is reported to have lost his ability to speak normally until that juncture. A different kind of problem was jealous sadhus, local holy men who resented his increasing fame.

A visiting group of sadhus expressed an extremist belief that their own distant sacred hill was home to a rishi who had been practising austerities for thousands of years. This entity had purportedly told them to abduct Ramana for initiation, after dramatically preparing him for the attainment of occult powers or siddhis. “Whether hemp addicts or alcoholics (or both), they evidently entertained some of the more fantastic and predatory ideas associated with Tantric Yoga” (Shepherd 2004:155). Ramana is reported to have made no response to these visitors; he never expressed esteem for siddhis, which are an unhealthy preoccupation.

Ramana was reputed to be in samadhi, signifying spiritual absorption; the word samadhi comprises a diffuse blanket term in popular usage. The basic event discernible is that Ramana emerged from this absorption over a lengthy period, gradually normalising in his response to the outside world (while retaining his spiritual awareness, according to his own account). “At some obscure date he began to walk about the hill instead of sitting motionless” (ibid:154). He would refer to himself as a jnani (knower), not as a Yogi. Ramana warned about the pursuit of siddhis. He was averse to Yogic exercises, which he evidently viewed as a complication.

Ramana Maharshi at Arunachala

In 1922 he moved down to the foot of Arunachala Hill, taking up residence at the site which became known as Ramanashram. By 1926, the increasing crowd of visitors and devotees was sufficiently large to hinder his customary daily walk around the hill, which thereafter ceased, apparently because nobody wanted to stay behind at the ashram without him.

The concession to public spotlight, at an ashram, was accompanied by some unusual characteristics. Ramana retained a very simple lifestyle. He did not refuse visitors, but could seem indifferent to company. His statements tended to brevity; he seems to have abbreviated his jnani emphases if he considered that the audience was uncomprehending. Preferring informal conversation, he was notably averse to giving initiations, an accepted part of the popular Hindu spirituality.

Ramana was often requested by admirers for permission to adopt the life of renunciation. He generally opposed this desire, a persistent trait which caused puzzlement. According to him, the effort needed was internal, and nothing to do with the formal vow of sannyas (renunciation). He evidently regarded many of the renunciates as distracting sources of misinformation. 

He favoured the discipline of vichara (self-inquiry), which he advocated to many visitors in the spirit of Advaita (non-dualism). He disliked the customary expositions of Vedanta associated with pundits, who exercised a rote learning of scriptures. Ramana was completely independent of organisations like the Shankara Order.

Vichara is viewed as an innovative feature of his communications, relating to the “realisation of the Self,” a Vedantic theme prone to abuse and facile interpretation. The protractedly introverted and normalising “realisation” of Ramana, in his early years, contrasts with glib assumptions about achieving “Nondualism” and “Self-realisation.” Those contractions are frequently encountered in both India and the West. The fantasised “short cut” is not convincing to some analysts, though very appealing to overnight gurus. The facile scenario of effortless enlightenment is well known in relation to the American guru Andrew Cohen. Ramana’s emphasis on the constant practice of self-enquiry is often abbreviated to slogans like “Be as you are,” singularly convenient for exploiters. Related mantras have become pervasive in the “new age” of commercial mysticism.

A lop-sided view of Ramana Maharshi in his later years, as an abstracted contemplative, has been corrected by partisan writer David Godman. Ramana industriously prepared food at his ashram for about 15 years; he also closely supervised building work during the 1930s. He was evidently not too keen about having to sit in the audience (darshan) hall where he received all visitors; he often referred to that hall as his prison.

Although an unusual teacher (and one who did not describe himself as a guru), Ramana was not venturesome in the area of social reform. According to a well known commentator, he “did not disapprove of orthodoxy in general” (Osborne 1954:77). Ramana certainly did not condemn caste norms, which were reflected to some extent in the emerging ashram management run on conservative lines. The leader of management staff was his brother, a renunciate who wore the traditional ochre robe. The increasing number of visitors, during the 1940s, imposed changes, including the building of a new and more imposing audience hall to which the sage was averse.

“A brahman code prevailed in the kitchens, where only brahmans could prepare the food” (Shepherd 2004:156). However, free food was dispensed to sadhus and the poor on a daily basis. The formalism of management officials is reported to have been resented by visiting devotees; there was even a request that the management be removed (Osborne 1954:120).

The ashram dining hall was partitioned, the orthodox brahmans sitting to one side, while on the other side sat the lower castes, non-Hindus, and liberal brahmans. “Sri Bhagavan [Ramana] says nothing to induce Brahmins either to retain or discard their orthodoxy” (Osborne 1954:133). Nevertheless, “he often turned a blind eye when devotees violated caste rules” (Godman, Bhagavan the Atiasrami). His perspective is described in terms of: “He had no opinions on these scripted events [occurring in the world], and no desire to change their course” (Godman, Bhagavan and Politics).

This situation can easily disappoint. However, Ramana did make certain gestures in defiance of caste biases. During the daily recitation known as Veda parayana, he allowed all visitors to attend. This was “a flagrant violation of caste rules,” because only the higher castes were entitled to hear scriptural chants. Ramana ignored related complaints from high caste persons. A visitor from North India once disapprovingly confronted him on this issue. Ramana “curtly told him to sit down and mind his own business” (Godman, Atiasrami, linked above).

In some of his statements, Ramana appeared to endorse the political career of his contrasting contemporary Mahatma Gandhi. These two entities never met. Untouchables (Dalits) were not allowed into Hindu temples, including the strongly resistant Shiva temple at Tiruvannamalai. Gandhi attempted to change the conventional high caste attitude. He was murdered by a brahman assassin.

After the death of Ramana Maharshi, the belief developed amongst devotees that the saint “guides whoever approaches him” (Osborne 1954:194). Such beliefs about posthumous guidance are also found in relation to other deceased Indian saints like Sai Baba of Shirdi. Hagiography easily accumulates in such climates of expectancy.

“Current Western gurus, influenced by the Ramanashram, have insisted that vichara (self-enquiry) is the ideal approach for all seekers” (Upasani Maharaj and Ramana Maharshi). This contention is not universally agreed upon. The popular Advaita movement in the West has favoured a notion that atma-bodha is “directly experienced by everyone,” a contradiction to the effort mentioned elsewhere. Be as you are, thoroughly lazy and needing improvement. The commercial network urges that everyone is a jnani, a simplistic belief very convenient for predatory gurus. The misleading tide of “nondualism” literature has done nothing to create discernment. 

Paul Brunton in India, 1930s

Ramana has been credited with a unique teaching, a theme disputed by others. Adding to confusions was Paul Brunton (1898-1981), a British occultist whose commercial books became famous. There are partisans of Brunton who extol his spiritual connection with Ramana; the evidence confirms something less exemplary.

Brunton early joined the Theosophical Society, from which he later parted company. However, strong Theosophical influences are discernible in his output, along with other related currents of the middle class British “esotericism” of the 1920s. Brunton claimed powers of clairvoyance and clairaudience, including astral travel. He composed numerous articles for the enthusiast periodical Occult Review. The British occultist became fixated on the siddhis (powers) of Yoga, including telepathy. “It seems that one of Brunton’s disappointments with Ramana was that Ramana did not impart more special powers to him” (Friesen 2005:17).

Brunton (then Raphael Hurst) visited the ashram of Ramana for two weeks in January 1931. He moved on to see other teachers and celebrities. After making a second visit to Ramana, he returned to England. Brunton believed that he had experienced samadhi for an hour at Ramanasramam. Yet Ramana himself seemed critical of the account found in Brunton’s A Search in Secret India (Friesen 2005:20). That book is notorious for omissions and misreporting (Shepherd 1988:146-176). The British writer made a “later confession that he used Ramana as a ‘peg’ for his own ideas” (Friesen 2005:22).

Frederick Fletcher, alias Bhikku Prajnananda

In Secret India, Brunton wrote as though he were an objective and critical narrator. Analysis of the underlying situation reveals strong Theosophical, British occult, and Yoga influences upon the astral traveller. His tangible travelling companion in India was Frederick Fletcher (born 1877), an Englishman who had become a Theravada Buddhist monk, assuming the name Bhikku Prajnananda. Fletcher was a fellow ex-Theosophist whom Brunton had met in London years earlier. The monk acted as a guide for Brunton and introduced him to Ramana (whom Fletcher respected). Brunton could not speak any Indian language.

As a consequence of his later story told to a press reporter, Fletcher gained celebrity as the Buddhist adept who had lived for a year (in 1922) at the major Tibetan Mahayana monastery near Shigatse (“British Major, Buddhist Monk,” The Age, December 1941). The report is revealed as being exaggerated. In reality, Fletcher was part of a small British scientific expedition to Tibet, having the role of a geologist and transport officer. 

Fletcher invented Theosophical auspices for his secular expedition. The misleading title of Lama Dorje Prajnananda is associated with him. He was supposedly ordained as a Gelukpa novice at Shigatse. If so, he subsequently returned to Ceylon in 1924 (or later), where he took the ordination of bhikku in a Theravada community. A Sergeant-Major in the British army during World War One, he had been upset by the suffering he witnessed, gaining incentive to renounce the world. He subsequently established an “English ashram” at Rangoon in Burma (the details are very vague).

Bhikku Prajnananda is typically missing from Secret India, despite being a major figure in the obscured cast. Brunton instead refers to this companion as a “yellow robed Yogi” named Subramanya (In Search of Brunton’s Secret). The impression was conveyed of an Indian Yogi. This identity switch was probably a result of Brunton’s preference for Yoga and siddhi auspices, anglicised Theravada being much less sensational (cf. Brunton 1934:117-18, 132-3). Nothing in Secret India can be accepted as the truth unless corroborated by other sources. The vaunted colonial esoteric expert was  very unreliable (in contrast, Fletcher did commit himself to a monastic discipline, unusual in such circles).

The foil to Brunton’s deception is found in another account of his first visit to Ramana. This relevant alternative identifies the companion as Fletcher, who founded “the English Ashrama in Rangoon.” The key report was published, in September 1931, by the Peace magazine of Swami Onkar’s Shanti Ashrama in Andhra (Friesen 2005:22-24). That was three years before the innovative Secret India appeared.

The supposed academic status of Dr. Paul Brunton has often been used to deflect criticism. The reality is not flattering. In 1938, he obtained a correspondence degree from a fraudulent diploma business in America created by McKinley-Roosevelt Incorporated. This enterprise was subject to government proscription, leading to  closure in 1947. Brunton’s spurious “doctoral degree” has no academic relevance whatever, being part of the commercial fantasy he projected. Many thousands of readers were deceived (including those at Ramanashram, or Ramanasramam). Brunton’s publisher Rider was tireless in broadcasting the impressive credential of Ph.D.

Ramana remained silent when introduced to Brunton and Fletcher (alias Subramanya) in 1931. Deceptions were created by Secret India. The suspect account of Brunton is embellished. “We have every reason to distrust what Brunton says, since he has admitted that he was only using Ramana for his preconceived ideas” (Friesen 2005:25). Another factor is urged:

Not only did Brunton interpret Ramana through his previous Theosophical ideas, but he in turn influenced Ramana and his disciples to interpret the [Advaita] experience in the same way. (Friesen 2005:46)

Brunton gave the impression that he achieved an enlightenment at Ramanasramam. His subsequent books do not confirm his pretension. He continued to be fascinated by occult powers or siddhis. His Search in Secret Egypt (1936) is a bizarre showcase of British neo-Theosophical speculation. For instance, Brunton believed that spiritual adepts from ancient Egypt were still alive in their tombs via a fully conscious trance. He also evidently believed that occult masters with great powers existed in the Himalayas, an influential theme of Blavatsky. The Irani mystic Meher Baba (1894-1969) repudiated this theory in a conversation with Brunton: “You will find nothing but dust and stones in their supposed abodes” (Brunton 1934:60). This denial was probably one reason for Brunton’s hostility to the Irani in Secret India. Certainly, Meher Baba was wrongly depicted by the occultist as having a receding forehead indicative of deficient thinking (ibid:48).

Brunton became notorious as a plagiarist of Ramana. He was banned from Ramanasramam in March 1939, by the managerial brother of the Advaita sage, who resented the fact that Brunton had copied so many sayings of Ramana as his own. An elementary factor should be grasped: “Brunton’s philosophy is not nondual” (Friesen 2005:84). Brunton was a stranger to Advaita, a teaching he confused with Yogic powers.

The British occultist was evidently proud of his ESP achievements. He even stated, in a book, that he sent telepathic messages, instead of written replies, to some letters he received (Brunton 1937:65). He evidently  believed that he surpassed Ramana, expressing a public criticism of the Tamil sage in his book The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga (1941). Brunton had now transcended Yoga and Ramana in his speculations on the Overself, a favoured term that was not a translation from Sanskrit. Brunton apparently derived this new European (and American) word from a 1932 book by Gottfried de Purucker, a leader of the Theosophical Society who was here expounding The Secret Doctrine of Madame Blavatsky (Friesen 2005:7-8).

Brunton’s book Wisdom of the Overself (1943), gaining several reprints, was one of those to display the credential of Ph.D. on the title page. He claimed that “hundreds of texts were examined in the effort to trace and collate basic ideas.” Another description used by the author reads:  “An exposition in such an ultra-modern form was until now quite non-existent.” Brunton even writes: “It would have been more self-flattering to parade the breadth of my learning by peppering both volumes with a thousand Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese quotations, names or words” (Brunton 1943:7ff; cf. Shepherd 1988:173-4). The phraseology could imply that Brunton was familiar with these languages.

A subsequent critic, Dr. Jeffrey Masson (having a Ph.D. in Sanskrit from Harvard), revealed that the bogus academic Brunton had no knowledge of Sanskrit or other Eastern languages. “He could not read the alphabet, any Indian alphabet, nor a single sentence in Sanskrit…. He was completely ignorant of the language” (Masson 1993:162). Many years later, in 1967, the occultist fraud was forlornly attempting to deceive a private gathering with his ruse of causing a heavy oak table to levitate. Brunton “was now nothing more than a charlatan, reduced to attempting carnival tricks for what he hoped would be a gullible audience” (Masson 1993:165).


Brunton, Paul, A Search in Secret India (London: Rider, 1934).

——–A Search in Secret Egypt (London: Rider, 1936).

——–A Hermit in the Himalayas (London: Rider, 1937).

——–The Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga (London: Rider, 1941).

——–The Wisdom of the Overself (London: Rider, 1943).

Chadwick, A. W., A Sadhu’s Reminiscences of Ramana Maharshi (1961; Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 1994).

Friesen, J. Glenn, Paul Brunton and Ramana Maharshi (2005).

——–Ramana Maharshi: Hindu and Non-Hindu Interpretations of a Jivanmukta (2006, online).

Godman, David, ed., Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (1985; Penguin, 1988).

——–An Introduction to Sri Ramana’s Life and Teachings.

Masson, Jeffrey, My Father’s Guru (London: HarperCollins, 1993).

Narasimhaswami, B. V., Self Realization:  Life and Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi (1931; fourth edn, Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 2002).

Osborne, Arthur, Ramana Maharshi and the Path of Self-Knowledge (London: Rider, 1954).

Osborne, Arthur, ed., Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi (London: Rider, 1959). 

Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988).

——–Some Philosophical Critiques and Appraisals (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2004).

Venkataramiah, Munagala, Talks with Sri Ramana Maharshi (1955; Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 2003).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
December 24th 2010 (modified 2021)

ENTRY no. 35

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Swami Vivekananda

By Advaita Vedanta, Hinduism, Ramakrishna of Dakshineswar, Ramakrishna Order

Swami Vivekananda

Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) was anti-caste in many of his recorded emphases. He was an unusual mystic, of the more daring and radical kind, in terms of social extension. Yet he identified with the traditional philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, strongly associated with Shankara (c.800 CE), a legendary exponent whose extant and attributed treatises are a subject of complex scholarly appraisal.

Vivekananda, alias Narendra Nath Datta, was born in Calcutta, where he attended college. He studied European history and philosophy, gaining a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1884. Narendra came from a low class background, being a kayastha by birth. That sub-caste gained an increased status in Bengali society under British rule, often working as clerks and secretaries. His father was a prosperous attorney at the Calcutta high court. A strong influence upon Narendra was the Brahmo Samaj, a reforming movement advocating belief in a formless God; the Brahmos were in opposition to popular Hinduism.

In 1881, Narendra encountered Ramakishna of Dakshineswar (1836-1886), a brahman saint who lived in a Kali temple near Calcutta. Ramakrishna was not typical of the priestly caste; he would not touch money and spoke in very simple language, as distinct from the formal didactic of the pundits. The tendency of Ramakrishna was eclectic with regard to Hinduism, including reference to Advaita Vedanta.

Narendra at first rejected Advaita, deeming this an extremist philosophy. Ramakrishna’s esteem for the goddess Kali was also repugnant to reformist tastes. However, the consequence was that Narendra changed orientation completely, becoming a full-fledged disciple of the mystic.

Vivekananda as wandering sannyasin in 1892

The young disciples of Ramakrishna opted for a monastic existence at his death, living in a dilapidated house at Baranagore. A number of them took formal vows; Narendra assumed the name of Swami Vivekananda. In 1888, he left Baranagore to live as a wandering monk (sannyasin). For several years he travelled throughout India, frequently travelling on foot; he resorted to the railway when given tickets by wellwishers. He encountered priestly pundits and maharajas; he also saw at firsthand the widespread poverty and suffering of the masses, which evidently weighed upon him deeply.

At the end of 1892, he arrived at Cape Comorin (the southern tip of India). There he gained a much reported insight: the situation of so many wandering renunciates, teaching religion, was seriously discrepant. Instead the objective should be one of raising the masses from ignorance and hunger.

In 1893, Vivekananda visited America as an outspoken teacher of Vedanta and Yoga. He first lectured at the Chicago Parliament of Religions, gaining both admirers and critics, the latter including missionaries to India. For over three years he stayed in the West, lecturing in America and England; he suffered poor health as a consequence of the strain. He declined two offers of an academic chair in Eastern philosophy at Harvard and Columbia Universities, explaining that he could not accept such a career role in his vocation as a wandering monk.

In early 1897, Vivekananda arrived back in India, being welcomed as a national hero on account of his recent fame. He travelled nationwide from Colombo to Calcutta and Almora, frequently giving lectures that included exhortations to an upliftment of the masses and the elimination of caste stigmas. He also favoured the study of Western science in addition to Vedanta. The implications of a national reorientation were taken seriously in some directions; later political figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Radhakrishnan acknowledged Swami Vivekananda as an inspiration. Independence from British rule was one repercussion. However, Vivekananda did not mount a nationalist campaign. Instead, his immediate opponent was the conservative priestly caste. Subsequent nationalists, who favoured violent agitation against the British, were not compatible with the monastic ahimsa of Vivekananda.

This monk detested what he called the “kitchen religion” of the brahman caste, a belief system entailing a taboo on food being defiled by the shadow of any untouchable. “Kick out the priests who are always against progress,” said Vivekananda. A British archaeologist, Frank Allchin (1923-2010), commented of this Hindu radical: “The modern student of sociology may well be surprised at the depth and objectivity of his observations” (quotes from Allchin 1968:89ff,102). Dr. Bhimrao R. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader, is known for asserting that Vivekananda was the greatest man in  India during  recent centuries.

At Calcutta in 1897, Vivekananda founded at Belur the Ramakrishna Math (monastery). This was accompanied by the Ramakrishna Mission, an extension in social service. Some Christian critics say that the Mission was inspired by Christian models. The new Hindu monastic organisation later gained a centre in Madras.

During 1899-1900, Vivekananda  again visited America and Europe, creating Vedanta centres in San Francisco and New York. He  also attended the Paris Congress of Religions (1900). Because of his failing health, he was unable to meet an invitation to the subsequent Congress of Religions in Japan. Vivekananda died peacefully at the Belur monastery, while lying down after meditating.

An Indian historian (Amiya Prosad Sen) observes that Vivekananda “was often strongly anti-Brahmin, if not also anti-Brahmanical, and held saints and sadhus no less responsible for the continuing oppression of the masses. Reformers, in his view, never really touched the pulse of India…. Vivekananda’s panacea for India’s several ills was mass education: training in useful sciences and crafts, manual skills, and manufacture” (Sen 2006:33-4). 

A generally obscured matter is that Vivekananda drew from both the Sankhya and Vedanta systems of philosophy. He emphasised features of Sankhya psychology, while admitting the indebtedness of Vedanta to Sankhya. Substantial doctrinal differences existed between those two traditions (ibid:40).

A Western scholar has commented:

Although the Ramakrishna movement is not considered an orthodox sampradaya [religious tradition] by the more conservative Hindus, it has nevertheless captured the imagination of a great many modern and progressive Hindus and is held to be a non-sectarian and universal expression of a new, reformed Hinduism. (Klostermaier 1989:45)

The Ramakrishna Order now claims over 200 branch centres, mainly in India. There is an online partisan biography of Vivekananda by Swami Nikhilananda. A critical version states that some biographies “contain a lot of misinformation, tendentious statements, apologetics and plain lies” (Chattopadhyaya 1999:vii). Certain “corrective” treatments are clearly biased against the celibate monastic lifestyle, a factor not necessarily conducive to accuracy. 

There is a well known instance of an academic who encountered homosexuals in a Christian monastery, afterwards projecting his “homoerotic” obsession upon Ramakrishna, while implying that Vivekananda was misled. This eccentric exegesis was supported by a Christian theologian, whose biases likewise prove nothing about Indian mystics.


Allchin, Frank Raymond,  “The Social Thought of Swami Vivekananda,” in S. Ghanananda and G. Parrinder, eds., Swami Vivekananda in East and West (London: Ramakrishna Vivekananda Centre, 1968).

Burke, Marie Louise,  Swami Vivekananda in the West: New Discoveries (2 vols, 1957; 6 vols, Advaita Ashrama, 1983-96).

Chattopadhyaya, Rajagopal, Swami Vivekananda in India: A Corrective Biography (Banarsidass, 1999).

Dhar, Sailendra N. A Comprehensive Biography of Swami Vivekananda (2 vols, 1975-6; second edn, 3 vols, Vivekananda Kendra Prakashan Trust, 2012).

Klostermaier, Klaus K., A Survey of Hinduism (State University of New York Press, 1989).

Sen, Amiya P., Swami Vivekananda (2000; second edn, Oxford University Press, 2013).

——–Social and Religious Reform: The Hindus of British India (Oxford University Press, 2003). 

Sen, Amiya P., ed., The Indispensable Vivekananda: An Anthology for our Times (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2006).

Sil, Narasingha P., Swami Vivekananda: A Reassessment (Susquehanna University Press, 1997). 

Vivekananda, Swami, Complete Works (nine vols, Advaita Ashrama, 2001).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
August 6th, 2010 (modified 2021)

ENTRY no. 28

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

By Advaita Vedanta, Hinduism, Indian Philosophy


Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan

A major exponent of Hinduism was Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (1888-1975), whose Indian Philosophy (2 vols, 1923-27) became a textbook on the subject. Born in South India, he early encountered the writings of Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), who influenced him strongly in the new mood of Vedantic universalism struggling against rival emphases of Christianity. This was the era of British Raj imperialism, in which Hinduism was the runner-up.

Originating at the town of Tirutani in Andhra Pradesh, Radhakrishnan was born into the brahman caste and reared to Vedantic teaching. In 1904 he entered the Madras Christian College, where he studied Western philosophy. He  observed the Christian criticism that Vedanta had no ethical content. He was subsequently able to repudiate the aspersions, becoming a professor at Mysore and Calcutta Universities.

His early writings railed at the critics of Hinduism. In 1921, Radhakrishnan gained the prestigious George V chair in philosophy at Calcutta University, where he composed his Indian Philosophy, a mature work not relying on polemic. In 1926, he was invited to Oxford to give the Upton Lectures; a sequel occurred in the Hibbert Lectures of 1929. These addresses achieved publication as The Hindu View of Life (1927) and An Idealist View of Life (1932). The lastmentioned is widely regarded as his more developed work.

In 1931 Radhakrishnan was knighted by the British government, whose policies he had not always agreed with. He subsequently became a professor of religion at Oxford University in 1936, the association with Oxford continuing for many years. His informed books caused a wide readership in the West to give serious consideration to the formerly marginalised Indian philosophy. His reflections include:

One is confronted by the difficulty of defining what Hinduism is. To many it seems to be a name without any content. Is it a museum of beliefs, a medley of rites, or a mere map, a geographical expression?  Its content, if it has any, has altered from age to age, from community to community. It meant one thing in the Vedic period, another in the Brahmanical, and a third in the Buddhist.  It means one thing to the Shaivite, another to the Vaishnava, a third to the Shakta. (Radhakrishnan 1927:11-12)

He favoured the teaching known as Advaita Vedanta. Radhakrishnan inclined to a modernised version of this outlook, which elevates the atman-Brahman themes of nondualist identity. He defended and elaborated the factor of intuitive experience which is inherent in that teaching. “All sects of Hinduism attempt to interpret the Vedanta texts in accordance with their own religious views” (ibid:23).

A frequent criticism of Radhakrishnan is that he tended to claim Advaita as a yardstick of assessment for all religions and philosophies. He also tended to ennoble the caste system in some arguments, even while recognising the problems in Hindu society.

“In a sense, Radhakrishnan ‘Hinduizes’ all religions,” in the context of Vedantic interpretation. The same commentary deduces the view of this Indian philosopher as meaning: “Religious claims…. ought not to be taken as authoritative in and of themselves, for only integral intuitions validated by the light of reason are the final authority on religious matters” (Michael Hawley, “Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan,”  Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy).

“Radhakrishnan clearly preferred to be called a philosopher rather than a theologian” (Shepherd 1995:580). To this remark, I felt obliged to add: “Almost in the manner of a theologian, he wrote that the scheme of social classes and ashramas is helpful but not indispensable” (ibid). The priestly adjuncts of Indian religion are now closely debated by diverse commentators.

“Never in the history of philosophy has there been quite such a world-figure.” This assessment of Radhakrishnan comes from Life and Writings, citing the philosopher George P. Conger (d.1960). Radhakrishnan undeniably achieved a widespread influence. While famous at Oxford, his administrative appointments extended to Benares and Delhi Universities; he was the Indian ambassador to Russia, and in 1952 became the first Vice-President of India. Radhakrishnan was subsequently the President of India during the years 1962-67. Conger also reflected: “Among the philosophers of our time, no one has achieved so much in so many fields as has Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.”

Bertrand Russell is not associated with Vedanta. However, he honoured Radhakrishnan in a significant statement:

It is an honour to philosophy that Dr. Radhakrishnan should be President of India and I, as a philosopher, take special pleasure in this. Plato aspired for philosophers to become kings and it is a tribute to India that she should make a philosopher her President. (Interesting Facts)

In contrast, the Dalit leader Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, and other Indians, were critical of the conservative orientation of Radhakrishnan, implying a degree of hypocrisy in relation to social issues. Radhakrishnan is viewed by sceptics as a supporter of the caste system and the Manusmriti, a document influencing orthodox codes. Rahul Sankrityayan (1893-1963) described Radhakrishnan (in the 1940s) as an orthodox religious preacher. The eminent Vedantist did not do anything to offset caste biases. Whereas Sankrityayan was a brahman who converted to Buddhism; fluent in nine languages, this scholar also became a political activist against British colonialism, being jailed a number of times. Sankrityayan argued that Hinduism made a third of Hindus untouchable. 

A current issue in India is the priority of Radhakrishnan over Jyotirao Phule (1827-1890) as an educationist (Kanwal Bharti, Why remember casteist Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan on Teacher’s Day, 2018). A pro-bahujan argument is that only the British made education universal, not the Hindu rulers. Phule, a low caste shudra, was educated at a Scottish Mission School. He subsequently created innovative schools for bahujans and women. The word bahujan was employed by Ambedkar and Phule in relation to a majority (including Dalits) who were victims of caste oppression in Hindu society. Phule compared the depressed bahujan category to slaves in America (Bahujan Samaj). 


Gopal, Sarvepalli, Radhakrishnan: A Biography (Oxford University Press, 1989).

Minor, Robert N., Radhakrishnan: A Religious Biography (State University of New York Press,  1987).

Murty, Kotha S., and Ashok Vohra, Radhakrishnan: His Life and Ideas (State University of New York Press, 1990).

Parthasarathi, G., and D. Chattopadhyaya, eds., Radhakrishnan Centenary Volume (Oxford University Press, 1989).

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli, Indian Philosophy (2 vols, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1923-27)

——–The Hindu View of Life (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1927).

——–An Idealist View of Life (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1932).

——–Eastern Religions and Western Thought (Oxford University Press, 1939).

——–The Bhagavadgita (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1948).

——–The Principal Upanishads (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1953).

——–The Brahmasutra (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1961).

Schilpp, Paul A., ed., The Philosophy of Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (New York: Tudor, 1952).

Shepherd, Kevin R. D., Minds and Sociocultures: Zoroastrianism and the Indian Religions (Cambridge: Philosophical Press, 1995).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
July 29th 2010 (modified 2021)

ENTRY no. 27

Copyright © 2021 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.