My studies of Advaita, the ancient wisdom of Oneness without a second, began with the small precise Monographs that teach its core philosophical essence without making us feel Advaita to be a remote inaccessible concept. The Monographs (called Prakarana Granthas) are usually written in simple Sanskrit words without complex or compound sentences pointing the seeker directly to the Ultimate Reality. Some of them contain excellent metaphors “for easy comprehension” of the abstruse and abstract teachings, some others provide tools for one’s own analysis of one’s experience and yet others provide a step by step guidance on the path of Knowledge holding the hand of the seeker gently and with compassion.
These Monographs, though excellent to instill the knowledge, are looked down upon by orthodox traditionalists of Advaita Vedanta. The traditionalists hold that the bulky commentaries with intricate jargon and technical arguments contain the true Advaita. As I later graduated to read the commentaries (called Bhashyas), I found them to be written in a combative style more to win an argument in a debate but less directed to educate a novice on Non-duality. The discussions many times end with the blunt assertion, “because the sruti says so.” Thus the commentaries appear to be structured at disproving a real or hypothetical opposing view rather than clearly spelling out in affirmative sentences the Advaitic view. Moreover, we find occasionally variation between the monographs and the commentaries on some specific issues of Advaita teaching.
The Vedantic Pundits consider the commentaries to be more authentic because their authorship is indisputably attributed to Adi Sankara whereas it is not for sure known who wrote the Monographs – the original Sankara himself or one of the descendents from the Monasteries established by him. But then tradition also says that Adi Sankara wrote the Bhashyas more to support his viewpoint in the innumerable philosophical contests of his day and the Monographs were written for teaching the Non-dual philosophy to his students. They admit that the nub of Adviata can more easily be grokked and assimilated from a study of the Monographs than the commentaries.
If that is truly the case, why do some of the Acharyas insist on teaching the Bhashyas in their hermitages? I posed this question to a scholar of Vedanta.
I get the impression that, though it will not be readily obvious or openly admitted, the reason lies in the background of the Acharyas themselves. They are most usually brought up in a strictly orthodox or traditional family observing diligently all rituals, worship of deities and holding on piously to the societal value systems before they became renunciates (sanyasis) . Their mental conditioning makes it hard for the mind to be able to give up suddenly the long acquired habits. So the practices and stipulations advised in the commentaries are more in tune with that sort of mind than the total denial of any mandatory practices and the prime requirement of observance of complete egoless relinquishment with absolute oneness of everything taught in the monographs.
Further, one has to bear in mind the primary reason why Sankara wrote the commentaries. He had taken it upon himself the revival of the Vedic wisdom in the face of degrading society lost either in elaborate rituals involving animal sacrifice or misguided atheism and materialism. He was too young a boy – hardly in his teens in order to be able to command the respect and attention of the then stalwarts and entrenched oldies in the society. So he armed himself with enough documentation to substantiate and support his point of view analyzing the three important texts (called Prasthana traya) – Brahma sutras, a selected set of Upanishads and Bhagavad-Gita. He never found it required to develop his commentaries on Ramayana or Ashtavakra Samihita and many other valid and valuable texts and other Upanishads already prevalent in his times. He selected only such of those books which will aid his discussions to face the opposing Pundits of the day. So the commentaries have a different purpose than teaching Advaita.
Hence it looks to me that the Monographs are far simpler and easier to arrive at an unambiguous understanding of Advaita. When once the Advaitic teaching is fully absorbed, then one can take up the commentaries to know the subtle differences of approach in other systems and how Advaita counters those viewpoints, if one desires so.