Adi Shankaracharya is among the most profound and perplexing figures of Indian civilisation. The great proponent of Advaita Vedanta composed several devotional hymns, including Bhaj Govindam, the supreme hymn to Lord Vishnu, and went on to write Saundarya Lahri, a sacred, though seemingly sensual, description of the Mother Goddess. The sage, who established the supremacy of Jnana Marg and asserted the existence of an ultimate reality that is without any form or attribute, also unearthed an ontological foundation for Bhakti and individual gods and deities. A lot is available on him in works of philosophy and theology, yet, sadly, his propositions mostly remain beyond the public gaze.
Pavan K Varma’s book, Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker, is a rare treasure, as it charts Shankaracharya’s life and metaphysics in a lucid and anecdotal form. Varma even travels to various places associated with Shankara, and as he recounts his personal experiences, the present gets illuminated by the past. The book includes a rich anthology of Shankara’s works, ranging from his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita to various Stotras and Prakarans.
It is often mistakenly believed that Shankara, as he proposes the theory of Maya, refutes the existence of the empirical world. Indeed, Shankara perceived the reality in three layers and accepted the existence of the empirical world. On the basis of a fine argument, he established absolute idealism along with empirical realism. Shankara’s brilliance lies in accommodating and assimilating seemingly contradictory attributes and elements, and Varma’s book amply captures the logic and reasoning behind Shankara’s thoughts.
While modern historians trace his birth to the Eighth century, Varma also takes note of the records kept at various mathas that place his life span around 500 BCE. Varma’s book charts his historical journey, his debates with scholars like Mandana Mishra and visits to various shrines in search of the truth.
During Shankara’s life, the Vedic thought faced a major challenge from advancing Buddhism, which also had royal patronages. Besides, the Vedic thought had also come to be mistakenly seen as a set of mere rituals. Shankara asserted the philosophical supremacy of Vedanta, unified the divided Sanatana Dharma, and is credited with the philosophical ‘defeat’ of the Buddhists.
The most significant chapter in Varma’s book is about the scientific validation of Shankara’s propositions. Varma cites works and references of many prominent scientists to suggest that the nature of reality, as proposed by Shankara, was in perfect consonance with the theories of modern science. Yet, he also cautions that it should not be seen as a validation of the contemporary politics of the Hindu right.
At the root of Shankara’s philosophy is Advaita or non-dualism, the non-separation of consciousness and matter. The West had long believed the Descartes’s proposition about the separation of mind and matter, before Einstein suggested that matter is just a manifestation of energy, as exemplified by the famous equation of E=mc2. Shankara’s another major proposition that the empirical world may exist but it is not what it appears to be, is now being established by the theories of relativity and quantum physics. Science in the 20th century has also come to believe that even time and space are not static elements.
Multiple universes may exist simultaneously in a way that one’s past could be someone else’s future. The Big Bang also stands questioned now, and theories about the cyclical nature of time are being proposed. It is in perfect accordance with the Vedantic philosophy that is founded on Sanatana, the eternal and cyclical nature of epochs.
Varma brings focus on Shankara at a time when the idea of Bharat and Bharatiyata, and Indian philosophy and thought are witnessing a vigorous debate. Varma boldly asserts his faith, and counters the ongoing campaign in the name of Hindus. His timely book marks a significant intervention in the ongoing discourse and establishes that the Indian civilisation is all about inclusiveness, as what appears contradictory on surface is, in reality, a manifestation of one’s own consciousness.
Yet, Verma commits an error. As he terms Shankara a thinker of ‘Hinduism’, he perhaps, rather unsuspectingly, restricts both his philosophy and the man himself.
Shankara was the representative of the Sanatana tradition. The word Hindu, which has sadly gained rather restricted connotations in recent decades, was not used even once by him. He is widely acknowledged to be the greatest and most profound philosopher, and also a fine poet, of Bharat that is India. His philosophy, as it influenced a range of Western thinkers, has transcended temporal and spatial coordinates.
It’s hard to find a parallel in human civilisation of a thinker who, within a short life of 32 years, defeated the stalwart scholars of his time, established four mathas, offered resolutions to philosophical questions that were yet to surface during his life, and also composed a poem that compares the breasts of the Mother Goddess with the sun and the moon, as she is “bent by the weight of breasts”.
The man who, in a rare and remarkable display of logic, wove together the seemingly contradictory concepts of eternal and ephemeral, belonged to
the cosmos, all the multiple universes — the Sanatana.
A fiction writer and journalist, Ashutosh Bhardwaj currently is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla.