Rethinking Shankara

I have more than one reason to welcome K.V. Akshara’s new book, Shankara Vihara. The book is subtitled : “The advaitic journey of a modern man”. Apart from introducing a lay reader like me to Shankara’s philosophy, the author also attempts to contextualize issues and concepts of Shankara’s philosophy in our own times. The author goes still further and explores the relevance of Shankara’s philosophy to the present day, aesthetics and politics.

The author has no pretentions of being a scholar formally initiated to Shankara’s works. His vantage point is of a creative artist and critical thinker. Whatever inferences he draws in the course of the book he does with caution and humility.

Another way of describing this book is as a travelogue -- different facets of the legendary philosopher through the landscape of Shankara’s philosophy. The first of the three great acharyas of Indian philosophy, Adishankara has become the most celebrated philosopher of pre-modern India in the eyes of both Indian and foreign scholars. There appears to be a general consensus that Shankara’s school of monistic Vedanta is the acme of Indian spiritual philosophy.

Whatever the pros and cons of these viewpoints, however bitter the criticism made of Shankara and his philosophy by successive acharyas, Ramanuja and Madhva, the exponents of philosophies of qualified monism and dualism respectively, Shankaracharya still remains the loftiest figure of Indian tradition. Further, a vast majority of interpreters of Indian philosophy to the modern world like Radhakrishnan and Hiriyanna, Ti.Nam. Shreekantaiya and K. Krishnamurthy were all influenced by Shankara’s thoughts.

The author first introduces us to Shankara’s ideas. This description is mostly based on Shankara’s discursive texts like commentaries. The author points out that Shankara’s use of basic categories like Atman and Brahman makes sense only in relation to the positions of the stallers of other philosophies. At this point we are introduced to one of the basic insights of Shankaracharya’s philosophies, vivarta which roughly means that two entities considered as cause and effect are not so, but are only results of apparent modification of a deeper reality. In the same section, the author absolves Shankara of the charge that he is an adamant defender of Vedic orthodoxy. He argues that, in the ultimate reaches of Advaitic realisation of all initial philosophical frameworks become redundant. This is illustrated by a beautiful Kannada translation of Shankara’s poems, Dashashloki (ten verses). The Advaitic position of the ubiquity of self is at loggerheads with equally influential position of Buddhism that denies the existence of anything permanent in experience. It is therefore called anatmavada (not-self theory). The author suggests that Shankara and his guru Gaudapada succeeded in reconciling the atmavada with sankhya and Vedanta with anatmavada of Buddha by positing the two entities. Sat (being under), Chit (consciousness) through the recognition of the unity of Sat and chit. However, this inference is not very tenable because the unity of these two entities in Ananda (unalloyed bliss) had already been recognised in upanishadic texts that inspired Shankara and his great master. For example, Chandogya upanishad had already declared: ‘sadevasaumyamidamagramaasit’ (Sat is the be all and end all of all this).

Though the author discusses the basic categories of Shankara’s philosophy in relation to other non-monistic schools, one is left wondering why there is no discussion in this section of other monistic schools like Shivadvaita of Kashmir and Pushtimarga of Vallabhacharya which have fundamental differences with Shankara’s Advaita. Shivadvaita, for instance, considers Aatman and Brahman to be active and dynamic categories unlike in Shankara’s advaita. Further, Shankara’s theory of illusion, Mayavad was stoutly rejected by Shivadvaita. Apart from the doctrinal aspects of Advaita philosophy, there is also a rich source of insights in the real life teachings of the great saints close to our own times: Shri Ramkrishna, Ramana Maharshi, Siddha Roodha and Nisarag Dutta Maharaj, Nim Karori Baba. These were not philosophers per say but they embodied and lived the principles of Advaita and transmitted its elusive wisdom to common people in a way everybody could understand. If this great lineage of real-life saints had not lived in our midst, Advaita philosophy would be at its best a bookish curiosity of scholars. Though Shankaracharya and Abhinavagupta, the two great peaks of Indian wisdom combined both philosophy and sadhana, the same cannot be said of all great bookish experts in the field.

Akshara makes a very interesting connection between Shankara’s Advaita and Indian aesthetics. According to him, the basic link between the two domain is bliss (Ananda). By tracing the evolution of Indian aesthetics, the author argues that the contribution of the great figure of Indian poetics Anandavardhna consisted in the fact that he was able to trace the essence of poetry not in the externals like figures of speech and sound as in earlier experts in the field but in a more abstract phenomenon called dhvani (resonance). In the consequent formulation of the unity of rasa and dhvani in Anandavardhna and Abhinavgupta, he traces the movement of aesthetic towards a more Advaitic orientation. I find this very debatable, Anandavardhana keeps on reminding us that the external levels of meaning are not annulled but only emplified by the phenomenon of rasa-dhvani. Abhinava also emphasises in his commentary that different levels of meaning are posited only for the sake of analysis but at the time of poetic enjoyment all levels of meaning manifest simultaneously in the heart of a coinsurance. The theoretical formulation of the simultaneous arising of different levels of signification seems to me to be more akin to the teachings of Shaivism of Kashmir than of Shankara’s Advaita where nothing except the highest brahman is real. Neti (not this) theory of Shankara’s Advaita is theoretically different from Seti (this is it) theory of Kashmir Shaivism, where everything is indivisible mass of bliss ( chidanandaikaghana). One more lacuna in this section is the inadequate attention to the similarity and difference between advaita and bhakti. Advaitabhakti is an important phenomenon in the works of Advaitic exponents of bhakti like Utpalacharya and Madhusudhansaraswati.

The sections where Akshara relocates Shankara’s philosophy in the context of society and politics is stimulating reading. He is honest enough to point out that in some context Shankara defended caste hierarchy though this is not one of the fundamental aspects of his philosophy. However, when the author is trying to assume, however tentatively Advaita politics, he appears to be on slippery grounds. Why should we squeeze the udders of Advaita philosophy till it starts yielding political meanings? It is as questionable as trying to find vedantic or tantric solutions to, say, the problem of old age pension.

I congratulate Akshara on having taken the risk of writing this book. In our formative years, during the hay-day of modernism we inherited an ethos that made any mention spirituality, at worst, shame, and, at best, an embarrassment.

This was a serious omission in liberal mindset of modernism which is extending it to its post-modern phase. In the twilight of liberalism , it is necessary for us to look back to see where we went wrong. Akshara’s book partly expiates the hubris of modernist indifference to Indian spiritual traditions. I hope that more such expiations should follow.

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 2:22:59 PM |

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