The Preceptors of Advaita Vedanta – An Introductory Study

By Prof. N. Veezhinathan
Former Professor, University of Madras

The philosophy of Advaita centres around the doctrine of avidya or maya. The distinguishing feature of this school is the doctrine that the material world is an illusion. It is accordingly frequently referred to as mayavada. The ultimate reality is Brahman which is attributeless (nirguna) and formless (nirakara) and which is of the nature of absolute consciousness. Owing to avidya or maya it appears as Jiva, Isvara and the world. The true nature of Isvara and Jiva is Brahman. The universe as such is indeterminable either as real or as unreal. Jiva is to realize its identity with Brahman. To remain as Brahman is the ultimate goal, . I.e., liberation. And, this is possible only by overcoming avidya. Avidya could be removed only by the direct experience of Brahman. This, in short, is the philosophy of Advaita.
The concept of Brahman as nirguna and nirakara, and as associated with avidya finds full expression in the Upanishads, and has been foreshadowed in the Rig-veda. In a remarkably profound hymn, the Rig-veda speaks of the ultimate reality as one and as associated with avidya. And the hymn is as follows:

na mrtyurasit amrtam na tarhi
na ratrya ahna asit praketah
anidavatam svadhaya tadekam tasmaddhaanyam na
param kinchana asa.

Sri Sankara cites this hymn in his commentary on the Brahma-sutra. The hymn means: “Before the creation of this world there existed neither the lord of death nor the nectar of the divine beings; there did not exist the sun and moon – the marks of day and night. There existed only That one associated with avidya. It was not directed by anything, and, in fact there existed nothing apart from it.” As M. Hiriyanna observes: “We are here on the threshold of Upanishadic monism.” Later, in the Upanishads, we find the full development of this and other allied concepts which constitute the philosophy of Advaita.

The philosophy of Advaita has been expounded by many preceptors from time immemorial. According to tradition, Isvara or the supreme Lord imparted the knowledge of Brahman or the truths of Vedanta to Brahma who, in turn, imparted it to Vasistha, his manasaputra. From Vasistha to Suka, the truths of Vedanta were handed down as from father to son in succession. Sakti, Parasara, Vyasa and Suka belong to this line of succession. With Suka and Gaudapada starts the line of succession from preceptor to disciple. The earliest extant formulation of the Advaitic doctrine is found in Gaudapada’s Karika which summarizes the teaching of the Mandukya Upanishad. His grand-disciple Sri Sankara expounded the doctrine in a systematic way in his commentaries on the Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita, and the Brahmasutra. His four disciples – Padmapada, Suresvara, Totaka and Hastamalaka enriched the Advaita literature by their commentaries on his works and by independent treatises elucidating the important concepts of Advaita.
Before Sri Sankara there were three noteworthy Advaitic preceptors who did not belong to either of the lineages described above, viz., Sundarapandya, Brahmanandin, and Dravidacharya. Sundarapandya has been identified as the author of the three verses, which Sri Sankara cites in his commentary on the Brahmasutra, tat tu samanvayat.3 Brahmanandin wrote a work called the Vakya, which was an exposition of the import of the Chandogya Upanishad. Dravidacharya embellished this work by his commentary on it. These two works are not available; but they are known from the references to them in other works on Advaita.

Apart from these authors who belonged to the Advaitic School, there was one Bhartrprapancha who advocated the doctrines of Bhedabheda and the Brahmaparinama-vada. He held, as against Advaita, that liberation results from the combination of jnana and karma. Then there were the schools of Sankhya, Nyaya- Vaisesika and Buddhism. The Sankhya conception of prakrti as the source of the universe by being independent of Purusha; Nyaya- Vaisesika conception of atoms as the material cause of the universe, and Isvara as its efficient cause; and the Buddhistic conception of void or manifold momentary consciousness as the ultimate principle – all these are directly opposed to the Vedantic position of Brahman as being the ultimate principle and the material and efficient cause of the universe. Sri Sankara in his commentaries on the Upanishads and the Brahmasutra refutes these positions. In his Bhashyas on the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita, he refutes the view of Bhartrprapancha, namely, that jnana associated with karma leads to liberation.

Sri Sankara’s disciples – notably Suresvara, and Padmapada – paid particular attention to the criticism of these theories in their commentaries.
Sarvajnatman, a younger contemporary of Sankara wrote the work Sankshepasariraka which is a succinct exposition in verse of the views of Sri Sankara as stated in his bhashya on the Brahma-sutra. Preceptors of Advaita wrote many commentaries on Sri Sankara’s works and these commentaries were supplemented by other commentaries.

To appreciate the role played by the preceptors of Advaita in the post-Sankara period, it is necessary to note the history of Indian philosophy in general. There were authors who were active in opposing the philosophy of Sankara. The opponents of Sankara and his school were mainly in two groups – the Naiyayikas and the Bhedabhedavadins. These two formed the main targets of the criticisms of the Advaitins in the centuries immediately following Sri Sankara. Of the exponents of the bhedabhedavada, Bhaskara who appeared on the scene immediately after Sankara led the opposition against the exposition of Sankara. The advaitic dialectics against this critic of Advaita had five of its leading protagonists in Vachaspatimisra, Anubhutisvarupa, Prakasatman, Anandanubhava and Anandapuma. Bhaskara upheld not only the old pre-Sankara philosophical positions of bhedabheda and parinamavada, but also upheld the ancient view on the sadhana plane of combining jnana and karma and the monastic mode called tridandisannyasa. The preceptors mentioned above criticized effectively Bhaskara who symbolised this type of opposition to Sankar

In the field of Nyaya also there were revival of activity which was directed mainly against the new philosophy of jaganmithyatva. In the times before the 10th century – if we may draw a rough demarcation like that – the orthodox darsanas particularly the Nyaya were concemed with opposing the Buddhistic schools. After this period when the influences of Buddhism waned, the attention of the orthodox schools turned in a more pronounced manner against each other. The Nyaya system was rendered more or less ineffective and the bhedabheda school was superseded by the new developments of the theistic and pluralistic schools of Ramanuja and Madhva. Later Advaitic dialectics concerned itself in the main with the last mentioned schools.

When we view the history of Advaita in relation to the other schools of the lines indicated above, we can see what important role the able preceptors of Advaita played in the field when post-Sankara Advaita had to contend against the Bhedabheda, the Nyaya, the Visistadvaita and the Dvaita. We have already referred to the five preceptors of Advaita who led the opposition against the Bhedabheda-vada of Bhaskara. Sri Harsha, Anandanubhava, Chitsukha, Anandapurna, Rarnadvaya, and Pratyaksvarupa refuted the Nyaya system and proved on the basis of reasoning the illusory nature of the phenomenal world. Madhusudana Sarasvati in his commentary on the Sankshepasariraka critically examined some of the objections raised against Advaita by the Visistadvaita school. And Nrsimhasrama, Madhusudana Sarasvati and Brahmananda Sarasvasti were active in opposing the Dvaita school and in answering the objections raised against Advaita by that school. There were other preceptors like Jnanaghanapada, Anandabodha, Vidyaranya, Sadananda, Ramakrishnadhvarin who wrote independent treatises elucidating the important concepts of Advaita. Appayya Dikshita and Paramasivendra Sarasvati, the 57th acharya of the Kamakoti-pitha enriched Advaita literature by works such as Siddhanta-lesa-sangraha, Vedantanamaratna-sahasra, Dahara-vidyaprakasika and the like. Sadasiva Brahmendra, the disciple of Paramasivendra wrote commentaries on the Brahma-sutra, the Siddhanta-lesa-sangraha, etc.

Special mention must be made of Upanishad brahmendra whose matha at Kanchipuram has close contacts with the Kamakoti-pitha. The most important and sustained work of his is his commentaries on the one hundred and eight Upanishads. There was another important Advaitic
preceptor Prthvidhara who was the sannyasin of the Bharati order and whom Sri Sankara installed as the first head of the Sringeri Pitha. He came to Kanchi along with some of his disciples on hearing the news that Sri Sankara had attained siddhi there. His disciples must have stayed at Kanchi, and we have, in the Kamaksi temple, a sculpture
of a sanyasin of the Bharati order. Preceptors of Advaita rendered solid service to the cause of Advaita by writing treatises elucidating the Advaitic concepts and by refuting the objections against Advaita and by rejecting the view-points opposed to Advaita. There are others whose works on Advaita are in regional languages. Mentiqn may be made of Jnanadeva, Nischaladasa, Potana, and Tandavarayar. Poets like Kalidasa and Krishnamisra were great Advaitins and they introduced the Advaita concepts in their works.


1. Rig-veda, VIII, vii, 17.
2. Outlines of Indian philosophy (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd,1932), P.43
3. See Journal of Oriental Research, Madras, 1927, pp. 1-15.
4. Dravidatreya Darsanam, by Polagam Sri Rama Sastri,
(Kamokoti Kosasthanam, 4, Francis Joseph Street, Madras).

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