Adi Shankaracharya is one of the most outstanding personalities that India has produced in last few thousand years. He was a teacher, scholar, poet, saint, philosopher, yogi, bhakta, tantrika, a jivanmukta, and an avatara (incarnation).
He taught the high philosophy of the Upanishads- the path of Jnana to those who were eager to attain Atma-Jnana, he taught the path of Karma to those inclined towards the performance of actions, and he showed the path of Bhakti for those who were devotional in nature.
He taught people both pravritti (actions) and nivritti (renunciation), both Dharma and Moksha and showed how to travel from former to the latter. In many a sense he was truly a Jagadguru- World Teacher, who went to great lengths to teach and re-establish Sanatana Dharma across India.
Today, on the occasion of Shankara Jayanti- the birth anniversary of the great master, let’s briefly look into some of his teachings as imparted in his small composition- Sadhana Panchakam.
Adi Shankaracharya is most famous for his Prashtanatraya Bhashya- commentaries on Brahmasutra, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita. Scholars after scholars have examined these commentaries and derived various aspects of Adi Shankaracharya’s teachings from these commentaries. But, commentaries by their very nature allow a commentator to only explain the teaching of the text on which the commentary is being written.
Hence, one can say that there is a kind of limitation on the part of any Acharya to impart direct instructions to people while writing commentaries. To overcome this limitation, various Acharyas have written independent works called ‘Prakarana Granthas’, where relevant teachings extracted from the scriptures are directly imparted to the students. One such small Prakarana Grantha written by Adi Shankaracharya is ‘Sadhana Panchakam’.
As the name denotes, Sadhana Panchakam is a text consisting of five stanzas imparting teachings related to how a person must perform Sadhana (spiritual effort) in order to attain the highest goal of Moksha. Let us briefly look into five important lessons that Adi Shankaracharya teaches, which, when practiced will help an individual to travel towards Moksha.
- Study Vedas and put into practice the duties and actions prescribed in it
The very first teachings imparted by the great master is- ‘vedo nityamadhīyatāṁ taduditaṁ karma svanuṣṭhīyatāṁ’ meaning one should engage in the study of Vedas and practice the duties prescribed in it. It may be easily asked, why is the study of Vedas so important?
Before answering the question, it is important to note that the term Veda here not only refer to the core Vedic texts of the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and the Upanishads, but also to various texts like Itihasa, Purana, Dharmashastra, Smritis, etc. which derive their teachings from the core Vedic texts. Hence, the great master is advising people to pick up any text, be it Upanishads, Gita, Mahabharata, or Puranas, that one feels relevant to his/her life, and study them and then imbibe those teachings and practice them in one’s life.
To the question, why study them, it is answered that just as one studies physics to know about the physical aspect of the Universe, similarly one must study the Shastras (scriptures) to learn about one’s identity, duties, and purpose of life. In other words, the scriptures are the ultimate Pramana (source of knowledge) regarding Dharma (righteous duties) and Moksha (liberation) and they prescribe a wide range of duties to people based on their age, gender, class, station, and inner inclinations.
The performance of these duties, will in-turn help the performer attain purification of the mind (chitta-shuddhi) and overall wellbeing. Thus, Adi Shankaracharya is advising people to study the scriptures, or listen to their teachings from a Guru and understand one’s Svadharma (personal duty) in life and practice it. This attainment of the purification of the mind through the performance of Svadharma forms the very first step towards Moksha.
- Practice Devotion
After advising people to study Shastras and practice Svadharma accordingly, Adi Shankaracharya advises people to practice devotion. Adi Shankara elsewhere says that Bhakti is the most important ingredient for Moksha and defines Bhakti as abiding in one’s own real nature i.e. one’s own Atman.
In other words, a person having an intense longing for Moksha, should perceive the fact that Brahman, who is the lord of the Universe and is of the nature Sat-Chit-Ananta (Existence- Knowledge-Infinity) also exists as one’s innermost Self-Atman and one should then practice devotion towards this Brahman who exists in one’s Hrdaya (heart) through various means of Upasana (worship).
Only when a person continuously performs such a worship, will he/she be able to attain one-pointed concentration (Ekagra-chitta) and Samarpana Bhava (feeling of surrendering). Thus, cultivation of devotion is very important for attaining Moksha.
- Give up Desires
Adi Shankara then advises people to give up desires and cleanse the stream of Paapam (demerits) attained due to past performance of Adharma. Desire is the root of all demerits and bondage. One is entangled in the cycle of birth and death, because of the unending desires to experience worldly pleasure.
Hence, as long as one remains attached to desires, one will keep performing Adharmic actions and will remain attached to worldly bondage. Only when one overcomes desires and develops Vairagyam- dispassion towards worldly enjoyment, will one be able to pursue his goal of Moksha without any distractions. Thus, the great master advises people to give up desires.
- Develop self-restraint
Another important quality that is crucial to attain Moksha is restraint of the senses and the mind. It is the nature of the mind and the sensory organs to grasp worldly experiences and gratifying those experiences will only increase attachment to worldly objects. Thus, indulgence in both pleasure and pain, both happiness and sorrow increases bondage to physical existence.
The only solution to overcome this bondage is the restraining of the mind and the senses from pursuing the objects of its desire. In other words, one slowly develops Vairagyam by practicing ‘Indriya Nigraha’- control of the mind and the senses and thus the great master has included it among his instructions.
- Renounce the notion that ‘I am Body’
People often identify themselves with their name, their possessions, and their body and mind. But, all of these are impermanent and only the innermost Atman, which is non-different from Brahman is permanent. Moksha or liberation is nothing but the first hand direct realization that one is not the body and mind, but is Infinite ever-free Brahman itself.
Therefore, to attain this Moksha through direct realization (i.e. Aparoksha Jnana/Atma Jnana), one must overcome the notion that ‘I am body’, ‘I am name’, or ‘I am the mind’. And this is only possible when a person has purified his mind, given up desires, and has restrained his mind and senses. This renunciation of the notion ‘I am body’ forms Sannyasa in the true sense and it directly leads one to abide in his innermost Atman and attain Moksha.
Thus, Adi Shankaracharya teaches in Sadhana Panchakam that the practice of Svadharma, Bhakti, Vairagyam, Indriya Nigraha, and Sannyasa will slowly lead a person towards Atma-Jnana and Moksha.
For the interested, here is the full text of Sadhana Panchakam and a free translation of it into English by Swami Tyagananda.
वेदो नित्यमधीयतां तदुदितं कर्म स्वनुष्ठीयतां
तेनेशस्य विधीयतामपचितिः काम्ये मतिस्त्यज्यताम्।
पापौघः परिधूयतां भवसुखे दोषोऽनुसन्धीयतां
आत्मेच्छा व्यवसीयतां निजगृहात्तूर्णं विनिर्गम्यताम्॥१॥
सङ्गः सत्सु विधीयतां भगवतो भक्तिर्दृढाऽऽधीयतां
शान्त्यादिः परिचीयतां दृढतरं कर्माशु सन्त्यज्यताम्।
सद्विद्वानुपसृप्यतां प्रतिदिनं तत्पादुका सेव्यतां
ब्रह्मैकाक्षरमर्थ्यतां श्रुतिशिरोवाक्यं समाकर्ण्यताम्॥२॥
वाक्यार्थश्च विचार्यतां श्रुतिशिरः पक्षः समाश्रीयतां
ब्रह्मास्मीति विभाव्यतामहरहर्गर्वः परित्यज्यतां
देहेऽहंमतिरुझ्यतां बुधजनैर्वादः परित्यज्यताम्॥३॥
क्षुद्व्याधिश्च चिकित्स्यतां प्रतिदिनं भिक्षौषधं भुज्यतां
स्वाद्वन्नं न तु याच्यतां विधिवशात्प्राप्तेन सन्तुष्यताम्।
शीतोष्णादि विषह्यतां न तु वृथा वाक्यं समुच्चार्यतां
एकान्ते सुखमास्यतां परतरे चेतः समाधीयतां
पूर्णात्मा सुसमीक्ष्यतां जगदिदं तद्बाधितं दृश्यताम्।
प्राक्कर्म प्रविलाप्यतां चितिबलान्नाप्युत्तरैः श्लिष्यतां
प्रारब्धं त्विह भुज्यतामथ परब्रह्मात्मना स्थीयताम्॥५॥
1. Study spiritual texts (“Vedas”) regularly and put into practice their teachings. Worship the Divine in that manner and give up the thought of desires. Wash away the negative habit-energy and examine the defects of worldly excitement. Hold on to the awareness of the Atman and leave at once your own limited identity.
2. Remain in the company of the holy (thoughts, words, deeds; books, music, art; people) and strengthen your devotion to God. Cultivate the qualities such as self-restraint and give up all work prompted by selfish desire. Approach those who are wise and holy, and serve them. Seek only the Imperishable Being (“God”) and hear the words of the scripture.
3. Reflect over the meaning of the scripture and take refuge in its perspective. Keep away from vain arguments and follow the reasoning of the scripture. Always be aware that you are Brahman and completely give up all egoism. Eliminate the thought of “I” connected with the body and don’t argue with the wise ones.
4. Through the daily medicine of alms, treat the disease of hunger. Don’t hanker after delicious food; be contented with whatever comes of its own. Forbear the polarities such as cold and heat and do not utter useless words. Do not expect kindness from others and abandon all harshness toward others.
5. Live happily in solitude and focus the mind on the God. See carefully the infinite Self and notice how it eliminates this fleeting existence called the world. Through the power of consciousness, dissolve your past karma, remain unaffected by your later karma, and experience your present karma. In this way, remain established in the awareness of the Supreme Self.