What Shankara Means?

Shankara in Kailash

by Jayaram V

Lord Shiva has numerous names and manifestations. Many local village deities in both northern and southern India are either named after him or associated with him. Among his many names few are very popular. Of them the name Shankara (also spelled as Sankara) is one. The name Shankaracharya is derived from it only. The following is an interpretation of the name Shankara (or Sankara), by which Shiva is known in various parts of India.

Different meanings and interpretations

The word "samkara" or "sankara" is a combination of two words: "sam"+"kara". "Sam" means good and "kara" means doer and therefore "samkara" means doer of good deeds. According to another interpretation, Samkara means the source of samadhi or self-absorption. Sam" means the state of sameness, equanimity or self-absorption (samadhi), which arises when one transcends the state of beingness (jiva) and enters pure consciousness (Siva). Thus from this perspective, "samkara" means the cause of union, sameness or self-realization.

"Sam" also means harmony or rhythm, as in case of Sama-veda (sama + Veda). Samaveda is a book of songs (Samans), composed in specific padas or beats and sung loudly during the sacrificial rituals according to a set rhythm to produce the best effects. Since, the hymns are pleasing to the ear and symbolize the order and regularity of the world, in the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna specifically mentioned Samaveda as his manifestation (vibhuti). He did not mention the other Vedas, although they are equally important. Sama also represents you inner harmony. If you are established in sama, you will have a pleasant and positive state of mind. You will be free from attraction and aversion to the pairs of opposites, such as pain and pleasure or heat and cold. If we go by this interpretation, "samkara" means creator of harmonious or melodious sounds. Indeed, Lord Siva is very much the source of all sounds and musical notes as symbolized by the dhamru he holds in his hands.

The word "samkara" as in the expression "varna samkaram" has a different connotation meaning intermingling or inter mixture. In rural Andhra pradesh, there is an expression "samkara (sankara) jati" ( and I am sure similar usage may be found else where also), which is used to refer to domestic animals borne out of two different breeds. In this context "samkara"(or sankara)  iss probably used as a reference to the black color or as the source of color (caste) confusion. There is no true equivalent to the Sanskrit letter "sa" of the word "samkara" in English. The nearest rendering of it is "Sha". In practice Lord Siva is pronounced as "Shankara" or "Shankar" not "Samkara" or "Samkar"

If we take the word as "Shankara" instead of "samkara", we come across two more interpretations. The word "Shankara" is a combination of two words, namely "shanka" and "hara"."Shanka" means doubt and "hara" means destroyer. Thus the word "Shankara" means, He who destroys or defeats doubt. Shankara is the dispeller of all doubts. By his dynamic response to our prayers, He destroys all our doubts, and stabilizes our faith in Him.

Shankara Deva

Faith is the absence of all forms of doubt. Faith is a natural expression of the Sattvic nature in man. While the qualities of rajas and tamas are ego oriented and tend to strengthen the egoism in us, the quality of sattva inspires us to surrender to the divine and work for our salvation from the cycle of births and deaths. Selflessness, humility, purity of thought and devotion are its fundamental evolutes. Without these qualities, man cannot expect to progress much on the spiritual path.

Shankara destroys the animal nature in man, which is represented by the tamasic and rajasic qualities. These two qualities are primarily responsible for his lower nature, his egoistic disbeliefs and profound ignorance. By destroying these qualities and thereby our lower nature, Siva establishes the conditions conducive to the emergence of divine nature in man.

It is interesting to note that in the Hindu mythology, most of the demons, such as Ravana of the Ramayana or Bhasmasur and many others, were great devotees of Siva, who despite of their excessive wickedness, showed immense faith in Siva. These stories tend to suggest that only Siva can transform such individuals, who are characterized by excessive rajas and tamas, through His immense powers. The moral of these stories is that if you have excessive rajas and tamas in you, you should invariably worship Lord Siva in order to overcome these impediments. This, in essence, is the meaning of the word, "Shankara", the Destroyer of all doubts.

Shanakra The Creator of Lord Vishnu?

The word "Shank" also means conch shell. The word "Shankara" thereby means either the creator of or remover of or destroyer of conch shell. In the former sense it means Siva is the creator of Lord Vishnu and in the latter sense it means He is supreme to Lord Vishnu. The conch is the symbol of Lord Vishnu and is revered by all Vaishnavites as a sacred symbol. They keep it in their prayer places and venerate it as Lord Vishnu himself. The followers of Lord Siva must have used this interpretation of Shankara as the creator or destroyer of conch shells to highlight their rivalry with Vaishnavites or simply to declare their supremacy over their rivals

We are well aware that for long serious rivalry existed in ancient India between Saivites and Vaishnavites. And it is quite possible that some Saivites might have used the word Shanakara to declare the supremacy of Lord Siva over Lord Vishnu.

Note: These interpretations of Lord Siva are individual interpretations and we do not claim an exclusive authority over the subject. It is possible that there may be several other interpretations of the word "Shankara" or "Samkara". We encourage our readers to communicate with us and enlighten us with new ideas and interpretations on this subject. We also thank those who have already done it.

Bhagavadgita Translation and Commentary by Jayaram V Avaialbe in USA/UK/DE/FR/ES/IT/NL/PL/SC/JP/CA/AU

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