Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya (788–820 CE) was born in Kaladi in Kerala and, after travelling the length and breadth of India three times in his spiritual journeys, died in Kedarnath at the young age of 32. His travels took him from the southernmost tip of the country to Kashmir in the north, Gujarat in the west and Odisha in the east, debating spiritual scholars everywhere, preaching his beliefs, establishing ‘mathas’ to take his teaching forward.
He is credited with establishing the Advaita Vedanta School of Hindu philosophy, anchored in the oldest Upanishads,as undoubtedly the most influential of the multiple schools of philosophy and theology that characterise Hinduism. In his short life, Adi Shankara is not only credited with reviving a moribund Hinduism, but also with establishing the organisational structure for its survival and regeneration, through the ‘mathas’ he established in Sringeri, Dwaraka, Puri and Joshimatha (and probably in Kanchi and elsewhere as well).
Healing a religion
By the time of Shankara’s birth, Hinduism had become paralysed by its own inflexible practice of orthodoxy, ritualism and formality, and in retreat before the rise of reform movements challenging it, notably those following the ascetic Mahavira Jaina (c. 599 BCE-527 BCE) and the other-worldly Gautama Buddha (c. 563 BCE-483 BCE), whose followers branched out into new religions distinct from the Mimamsa Brahminism practised by mainstream Hindus. Both new faiths flourished for several centuries, as Hinduism descended into esoteric disputes over Sankhya dualism and Charvaka materialism. It was then, in the late eighth century CE, that this youthful south Indian sage rose to heal and rejuvenate a divided religion. Adi Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta was the philosophically robust response to that era of confusion, integrating diverse thoughts and Hindu practices into a philosophy based on the Vedic dictum of ‘One Truth, Many Expositions’.
Author Pavan Varma has produced, in Adi Shankaracharaya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker , a comprehensively-researched and detailed account of Adi Shankara’s life and philosophy. Though written in an accessible and often anecdotal style, featuring descriptive accounts of Varma’s own travels in quest of his subject, the book inevitably focuses largely on Shankara’s philosophical writings. Shankara emphasised the importance of pramanas or methods of reasoning, tempered by anubhava or intuitive experience, which empower the seeker to gain the spiritual knowledge adumbrated by sacred texts. He focused on selected texts — the Bhagavad Gita , the Brahma Sutras and 10 of the 108 Upanishads as the key reference works of Hindu dharma, illuminating them through his bhashyas (commentaries). Reasoning was, to him, essential to clarify the truth, and Shankara was a famous debater of his time, challenging and being challenged by those of different philosophical persuasions but triumphing always through the power of his reasoning and the force of his arguments. His bhashyas are all written in prose, not verse, with lucidity and sharpness, and employ the Upanishadic question-and-answer format that the West calls ‘Socratic’.
Adi Shankara also authored the Vivekachudamani, 581 verses spelling out the qualifications required in a student of Vedanta: to be able to discriminate between the real and the unreal; to be able to maintain a spirit of detachment from this world; to have the capacity to control sensory perceptions; and to feel an intense desire to attain self-realisation and moksha. The Vivekachudamani reviews the entire range of Hindu philosophical thought and argument, from the Upanishads to the Bhagavad Gita .
His Hinduism does not see God as external to the universe. The world is in God, and the two are indivisible. He stressed on the idea that moksha (salvation or liberation, the realisation of the ultimate purpose of each individual) is achievable in the course of our present life. Adi Shankara’s adherents seek their spiritual fulfilment in the acquisition of this profound spiritual knowledge and in immersing themselves in the indissoluble union of the true Self (atman or soul) with the highest metaphysical Reality (Brahman).
Adi Shankara argued that the Upanishadic insistence on the unity of being, a divinity available to everyone, the atma residing in everyone, and the idea that all human souls ultimately merge into the same Brahman, for instance, implies the equality of all souls and argues against caste discrimination. So does the Vedantic concept of the welfare of all human beings, irrespective of social or economic distinctions: ‘bahujanasukhayabahujanahitaya cha’. Adi Shankara himself is said to have met an outcaste Chandala who was ordered by his disciples to move out of the path of the great sage. ‘Who are you to ask me to move for you?’ the outcaste asked the great rishi. ‘Is the Self within me different from the Self within you?’ Shankara was so struck by this enunciation of Advaita wisdom by the low-born Chandala that he prostrated himself before the untouchable and proclaimed the Chandala to be his guru.
Indeed, Adi Shankara declared that any human being, merely by virtue of their personhood could attain the Supreme Consciousness through a study of the scriptures, the Puranas and the epics, meditation (japa), fasting (upavasa) and worship (puja). Caste was never mentioned by Shankaracharya.
Adi Shankara was similarly unwilling to accept the misogyny that had infected some Hindu behaviour. In a theological debate with his famous critic Madanamishra, Shankara appointed as the judge between them the latter’s learned wife Sarasavani. It is said that when he had won the debate, Sarasvani challenged him to debate the Kamashastra, which of course the celibate monk could not do. Shankara then transported himself through his mystical powers into the body of a king, sported with the royal consorts, and returned to his sage’s body to win the disputation with Madanamishra and Sarasavani.
What it means
The author summarises all this very well. Varma travelled to many of the places associated with Adi Shankara and discussed his life and teachings with a variety of interlocutors before penning this portrait. If there is a significant omission, it would probably be in Varma’s failing to address Shankara’s clashes with the Buddhists, a significant feature of that era. He was also inspired by the Buddhist challenge; arguably, his ‘mathas’ were derived from the Buddhist concept of monasteries. Otherwise in his 200-page commentary on Adi Shankara, the lucid explanation of Shankara’s thought and the story of his establishment of the famous peethas and ‘mathas’ that flourish to this day, Varma has done ample justice to the Advaita school of thought and the remarkable life of Adi Shankara.
With this book, Varma adds himself to the list of those who argue for an expansive, liberal understanding of the roots of Hindu philosophy in place of the narrow-minded identitarian bigotry being propagated by the Hindutva movement of today. Varma has spoken of his refusal “to be a mute witness to the reduction of such a great religion (Hinduism) to its lowest common denominator by ignorant and illiterate people who think they are self anointed protector of Hinduism… I want to proudly say that I am a Hindu, but I want to say that for right reasons. I want those traditions to be respected — of inclusion, not exclusion; of assimilation, not hatred; of dialogue, not violence.”
Adi Shankaracharya is a valuable addition to the contemporary literature on Hinduism, a tribute to its scientific and philosophic basis, and an affirmation that it is much more than today’s political ideologues depict.
Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker ; Pavan K. Varma, Tranquebar, ₹699.