Adi Shankaracharya was born in Kerala in the second century B.C. Many years before him there had been a threefold monastic tradition in India: Vedic, Buddhist and Jain. His work organised the Vedic monastic tradition.
Ashoka was a great emperor of India and the grandson of Chandragupta who had married Helena, the sister, of the Greek commander-in-chief. As a result of that, Ashoka was a mixture of Greek and Indian blood- a very brilliant man. There is no doubt that Ashoka was a brilliant emperor, and he was very cruel, as most conquerors are. He conquered Orissa and massacred millions of people there. That changed his heart and he became a Buddhist. He established a very systematic and organised Buddhist monastic tradition throughout India, Lanka, Tibet, China, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iran and many other far-off countries.
Soon after him came Shankara, and he found the Vedic monastic traditions were not organised properly, so he founded the tradition of the Dasnami Sannyasins. Those sannyasins who lived in the hills were known as Parvatam. Those who lived in places of pilgrimage were known as Teertham. Those who lived in big cities like Kanchi, Avantika, Ujjaini, Hardwar and Rameshwaram, were known as Puri. Those who were learned in the scriptural traditions were known as Bharati. Those who were brilliant, who had genius, were known as Saraswati, Like this there are also Giri, Sagar, Vanam, Aranyam and Ashramam - all the names were according to the situation of the monks living in those times. The Dasnami sannyasins have four centres called 'Maths'. Joshi Math is on the way to Badrinath; Puri Math is near Jagannath; Dwarika is in the west; I belong to the Saraswati tradition and it starts from Shringeri near Mysore in the South.
These monks were given just one duty-that they should teach the oneness of life, the oneness of reality and the oneness of everything. That is called Vedanta. The Vedanta philosophy was expounded by Shankaracharya and he asked his disciples to preach it. It says the whole universe, seen and unseen, vyakta and avyakta, manifest and unmanifest, is one, not two. Don't say purusha-prakriti or jiva-jagatatma; say only 'One' and He becomes many.
Adi Shankaracharya based his philosophy on the Vedas and the Upanishads and therefore it is a monotheistic philosophy. You can find the religions of Christianity and Islam and the Vedantic philosophy all talking about the same thing; they are all monotheistic rather than polytheistic or pantheistic or parentheistic. Shankara says that God is One, whether pantheistic or parentheistic does not matter. All the devis and devatas, all the gods and goddesses, all the living beings in creation, all the universes in the solar systems- that is just One! Absolute reality is One, there is no second reality; that is the philosophy of Vedanta.
"Brahma satya jagat mithya, jivo brahma na aparapara": the absolute Self and the individual soul are the same, there is no difference.
Because of the way in which this monastic system has been organised none of us are allowed, expected, trained or qualified to be politicians. We do not give support to any political party; we do not have any political ambitions and therefore the politicians in India can never catch us. I have millions of disciples, Swami Sivananda has millions of disciples, Shankaracharya has millions of disciples all over the world, but during the elections the politicians use anyone but they cannot use us because we are not qualified. We are not taught politics. We learn Sanskrit, science, history, geography - everything is taught except politics. It is the one thing about which we do not know very much at all. Any swami who wants to go into politics, run for elections or make oblique political statements will have many problems. How can we realise or attune ourselves to that Truth - Paramatma? How can we be spiritual; how can we concentrate the mind; how can we practise yoga and improve our own selves? These are the duties that have been accorded to us, and a sannyasin should not cross that boundary.
What does Yagyavalka say? What is the opinion of Christianity on God? What is the opinion of Saint Theresa or John of the Cross? What is the opinion of Mohammed, of the Sufis or the Taoists? Can we compare Taoism and Vedanta? What did Plato say? We discuss all these intellectual, philosophical things regarding the discovery of truth because sannyasins always tell people that the main purpose of the human being is to become spiritual and to search for his soul.
Man has lost his soul, there is no doubt about it. You are aware of your body, you are aware of your mind-anger, passion and greed, raga and dwesha; but are you aware of the Self? You have a concept of anger, of passion, of compassion, but have you any concept of the Self within you? Do you feel it? No. It means you have lost your Self, you have lost your soul. So every man must develop some idea, some concept, some imagination, some feeling about that Self within. That is the duty of a sannyasin and for that purpose these Dasnami sannyasins are organised