Book Review – Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker by Pavan K. Varma

Jagad Guru Adi Shankaracharya (788-820 CE) was an early 8th century philosopher and theologian who led the revival of Hinduism and is credited with unifying and establishing the Advaita Vedanta doctrine in Hinduism. He successfully trampled the onslaught of contrarian beliefs and defeated in discourse the leading proponents of other strands of Hinduism as well as that of Buddhism, Jainism and Charvaka School. As Hinduism exists today, it is in most part due to Jagad Guru’s foresight in putting organisational structure for its perpetuation through the four mathas he established in the four corners of India at Sringeri, Dwarka, Puri and Joshimath.

This book by Pavan K. Verma is a short primer summarising the extraordinary life of the great sage who traversed the length of India in his search for the ultimate truth. He was born in Kaladi, Kerala and died in Kedarnath and led a short but fruitfull life of only 32 years in which he built the foundation of Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism, which provided a rigorously structured and sublimely appealing non dualistic construct to the Upnishadic insights. This Advaita doctrine has been the source from which the main currents of modern Indian thought are derived.

Before Jagad Guru there were five schools of philosophy in Vedantic metaphysics, all guided by two fundamental tenets, investigation or mimamsha and refection or vichara about the ultimate nature of the world and life’s purpose in it.

Nyaya school attributed to sage Gautama focusses on logic and dialectics, analysis and reasoning. It provides toolsets and analytical framework for enquiry and propounds that there are four sources of knowledge: perception (pratyaksha), inference (anumana), analogy (upamana) and verbal testimony (shabad). This framework is strongly recommended to discover truth and nothing is accepted only on the face value or mere assertion.

Vaisheshika school of sage Kanada used these tools and formulated the atomic theory of cosmos by asserting that it consists of four basic atoms i.e. earth, water, fire or air. This doctrine concludes that all finite objects can be broken down into parts till one infinitesimal, indestructible and indivisible atom (anu) and that combination of atoms produces different products identified by their dominant characteristic or vishesha. While functionally realistic in its approach, the Vaisheshika recognises that not all substances are material. The non material aspects of cosmology include space, time ether, mind and soul. This philosophy is essentially atheistic and limits the role of God only to carving out an ordered universe by combining four kinds of atom and five non material components but not with its creation per se.

Sankhya school by sage Kapila has the oldest systemised structure of thought in Hindu philosophy and posits cosmic dualities to the universe, consisting of Prakriti and Purusha. Prakriti, unlike the pluralistic atomistic view of the Vaisheshika, is a pervasive singularity, eternal and independent, from which the universe evolves. But this evolution happens only when Prakriti comes under the influence of Purusha, which stands for awareness or the sentient principle i.e pure consciousness. Until the influence of Purusha, Prakriti, representing the ‘potentiality of nature’ lies latent, its three constituents, sattva (pure), rajas (energy), and tamas (inertia), in equilibrium. But this equilibrium is disturbed when Purusha interfaces with Prakriti and evolution commences with all its manifest diversities. Sankhya propounds this evolution to be cyclical with creation (shrishti) followed by destruction (pralaya) and again followed by shrishti. For sheer conceptualisation, this is an awe inspiring grandeur to the cosmic architecture profiled by Shakhya.

Yoga school of sage Patanjali broadly accepts the worldview of Sankhya but articulates the physical discipline and meditational regimen required by an individual to realise the separation (kaivalya) of Purusha, pure consciousness, from the non sentient Prakriti. Yoga Sutra of Patanjali defines Yoga as ‘Yoga Chitta Vrittih Nirodha’ i.e. Yoga is restraining the mind from discursive thought which it propounds can be brought about by discipline. In the sutra, discipline is outlined as an eightfold path, starting from yama (self-restraint), niyama (virtuous observances), asana (posture), pranayama (consciously controlling breath), pratyahara (withdrawal from senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (complete union). Yoga provides to Sankhya a carefully structured complementary system of mental and physical exercises that are necessary for moksha.

Purva Mimamsha by sage Jaimini asserts the practice of dharma, through ritual action sanctified by Vedas. This doctrine believes in karma (action), and not jnana (knowledge) as a path of salvation. The school believes that performing the obligatory rituals, and abstaining from those that are proscribed, will lead by itself to the elimination of evil and the attainment, through the purification of soul or moksha.

Shankara’s audacity of thought was the revival of Advaita i.e. the non dual reality of the cosmic play. His genius lay in building a complete and original philosophical edifice upon the foundational wisdom of the Upanishads providing an entire system of intellectual enquiry and analysis. The most astounding part of his philosophy was the conceptualisation of Brahman as the all pervasive and only absolute force permeating the universe. For Shankara, Brahman is urja or infinite energy, pure consciousness and unsullied awareness and intelligence personified. The embodiment of perfect knowledge, Brahman is beyond knowledge, the knower or the known. It has no beginning, for it is eternal; it has no cause, for it is beyond the categories of time, space and causality; it has no end, for it always was and will always be. Its powers are unlimited; it is omnipotent and omniscient, a singular, indivisible fullness (purana), universal force i.e ekam aka sarvavyapi. Everything in cosmos is an emanation of Brahman, its uniformity (ekarasa) has no parts; its identity is division less (akhanda).

Having posited the absolute immanence of Brahman as the only real in the universe, Shankara asserted that Brahman and Atman are the same. Human beings, who have the faculty of reflection and will, are more than the sum of their body and mind. Our minds are always in flux, our senses are volatile and body mutates, but the Atman is the all knowing consciousness i.e. sarvapratyayadarshin. While the entire universe is an emanation of Brahman, Atman and Brahman are identical, both are the substance of pure consciousness. One exists at the individual level and the other at the cosmic, but they are two sides of the same coin. When we peel away the empirically manifest – mind, body and senses – what is left is nirvisheshchinmatram i.e. undifferentiated consciousness that is the characteristic of both Brahman and Atman. The objective and subjective then become the same. Atman cha Brahma – Atman is Brahman; Tat Tvam Asi – That Thou Art; Aham Brahm Asmi – I’m Brahman.

The best assertion of this non dual Advaita vision in ontological terms is in Nirvana Shatakam. The legend goes that when Shankara first reached his guru Govindpada at Omkareshwara, the guru asked Shankara ‘Who are you?’. In reply, Shankara recited the first three stanzas whereupon Govindpada accepted him as his disciple.

mano buddhi ahankara chittani naahamna cha shrotravjihve na cha ghraana netrena cha vyoma bhumir na tejo na vaayuhuchidananda rupah shivo’ham shivo’ham

I am not the mind, the intellect, the ego or the memory,
I am not the ears, the skin, the nose or the eyes,
I am not space, not earth, not fire, water or wind,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss,
I am the eternal Shiva…

na cha prana sangyo na vai pancha vayuhuna va sapta dhatur na va pancha koshahna vak pani-padam na chopastha payuchidananda rupah shivo’ham shivo’ham

I am not the breath, nor the five elements,
I am not matter, nor the five sheaths of consciousness
Nor am I the speech, the hands, or the feet,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss,
I am the eternal Shiva…

na me dvesha ragau na me lobha mohau
na me vai mado naiva matsarya bhavaha
na dharmo na chartho na kamo na mokshaha
chidananda rupah shivo’ham shivo’ham

There is no like or dislike in me, no greed or delusion,
I know not pride or jealousy,
I have no duty, no desire for wealth, lust or liberation,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss,
I am the eternal Shiva…

The book also suitably covers the background behind Jagad Guru’s acceptance of tantric beliefs possibly under the influence of Kashmir’s Shaivism. Shankar’s penned Saundarya Lahari, his emotional ode to the Mother Goddess with decidedly erotic overtones in the physical description of goddess. The author has postulated that the answer lies in the philosophical overlap between Advaita and aspects of Tantra. Brahman is omnipotent formless energy; but at human (vyavaharik) level, it can be seen consisting of Shiva, the pure, attribute-less consciousness (chitta) and Shakti, the power inherent in that consciousness (chittarupini) that allows for the cosmic dance. Shakti is naught with Shiva, but equally; Shiva is powerless without Shakti, two are complementary to the point that they are indistinguishable.

The book not just summarises the life and teachings of Jagad Guru but author has made an attempt to postulate that Shankara’s Advaitic philosophy is now being validated by the new discoveries of science like quantum gravity theory etc. There is in the universe an amazing consistency and uniformity of design that can not but presuppose a remarkably intelligent directive power. Shankar’s assertion is completely in consonance with it, that the purpose of the universe may be incomprehensible to human minds but all the cosmic fireworks are still part of an intelligent design emanating from an inexhaustible and identifiable source of energy called Brahman which is the ground from which all things emanate and lapse into. It is one constant eternal, intelligence personified, unchanging and transcendent.

Jagad Guru was not only a spiritually giant but was also a poet par excellence, this book contains a selective anthology of his works including his Gita Bhashya, Prakarna Texts (Commenteries) like Atambodha, Tattvabodha, Nirvana Shatakam, Bhaja Govinda, Brahmjnanavalimala and Strotras(devotional hymns) like Shivapanchaksha Strotrara, Bhavanyashtaka.

Shankara exalted religion to philosophy, his greatness lay in understanding the human need for religious practice, but not allowing this to impede his exploration off the mysteries of universe. For sheer profundity of thought, he was in this unflagging pursuit, without a peer. The greatness of his legacy of thought not only stands undiminished with the passage of time, but has grown in value, even as it is being validated by the latest discoveries of science.

Tarun Rattan

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