Book Review – Adi Shankaracharya, By Pavan K Varma

Not everyone can embark on the job of writing a book on the great Adi Shankara. Pavan Varma a former IFS officer and politician has attempted to do that. The ability to cover a vast array of subjects in about 200 pages reflects his power of articulation.

This book is not just about Adi Shankara and his teachings but a virtual summary of Hindu Philosophy. It talks about the life of Shankara, his debate with leading Indian scholars representing different philosophies and how he set up the Mathas across the country. There is a good amount of discussion on how Hinduism differs from Buddhism & Jainism. Towards the end Pavan also touches upon the teachings of Ramanjuja and other Vaishnavite saints and how their views differed from those of Shankara.

The journey starts at Kaladi and takes you through Omakreshwar on the banks of the Narmada, Varanasi, Badrinath, Prayag, Sringeri, Ujjain, Puri, Dwarka, Bengal, Assam, Kashmir (Places where he was strongly influenced by Tantric / Shakta schools), Kedarnath – just think all this covered by foot in a land that was mainly a dense jungle

The tone of the book is intellectual. And Pavan starts by explaining in the preface that his goal is to highlight the deep philosophical foundation of Hinduism as articulated by Shankara. He laments that this knowledge has not been valued in India or globally. Through the book he makes umpteen references on how a religion reduced to rituals, the form becomes more important than substance. And that does bring a bit of Lutyen’s Delhi tone to his narration.

Shankara lived at a time when Buddhism was its peak and there were multiple schools of Hindu Philosophy. Pavan explains that the challenge before him was to unite. To retain the undiluted chastity to the supremacy of Brahman while at the same time appeal and persuade a vast number of people to understand and appreciate the knowledge of the scriptures. His great achievement states Pavan was “To strengthen the core of intellectual foundation of Hindu philosophy while accommodating long established traditions of religious practise

Pavan adds  – While Shankara was an advocate of the non dual vedantic doctrine in which prayers, rituals, bhakti, temples are not of primary importance at the level of Para Vidya (Ultimate Knowledge), he simultaneously sanctioned these religious practises as a preparatory step within the framework of Apara Vidya. 

When you think of Shankara you think of Jnana or Intellect. The sheer cerebral power of Shankara unleashed in a short gap of 32 years is phenomenal. And Pavan tries to do justice to this by explaining in detail how his Advaitha philosophy is probably the foundation stone of contemporary science, cosmology, quantum physics and neurology. The intellectual brilliance of Pavan is in full flow, and this section is more about Pavan trying to connect the dots than Shankara.

Let me quote some lines from this section

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Centuries before the world of quarks and quantum packets, Shankara could say with equanimity that what is transient cannot be real and what is eternal cannot be transient. 

The greek word Metron which means measure and the word Maya come from the same root – which means illusion. 

If a scientist has not experienced at least a few times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine , this confrontation with an immense , invisible face whose breath moves him to tears , he is not a scientist. 

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The second half of the book has a summary of all of Shankara’s writings with a brief explanation. Its a great start for someone who wants to get deeper into understand these valuable treasure troves.

So where are the gaps

Pavan repeats a few times the incident of Shankara meeting a Chandala (lower caste) on the ghats of Varanasi. What he forgets to mention is that Shankara did shun him and it took Lord Shiva to emerge from the form of the Chandala and remind Shankara to practise what he preached. That is when he accepted his mistake and composed Manishapanchakam. 

Pavan gives a total  miss to the Dashnam Sanyas Ashrams and the Naga Sadhus which Shankara is said to have started as a Hindu army. When Adi Shankaracharya founded the Dashanami Sampradaya, he divided the ascetics into two categories: Shastradhari (Intelligentsia) and Astradhari (Weapon-bearers) warriors. Shankaracharya established Naga Sadhus as an astradhari armed order.

The Nagas are the most heavily armed of all the Hindu Akharas. They have deep veneration for Shankaracharya and they still chant “Shankaram Shankaracharyam Keshavam Badyarayanan, Sutra Bhashya Kato Bande Bhagwate Punah Punah” (I that is Shiva is born in every age to save the world from itself). This is the Shaivite equivalent of “Dharma Samasthapanaarthya Sambhavami Yuge Yuge” .

The temple at Badrinath – Why does this temple have a distinct Buddhist Tibetan look ? Was it a monastery converted to a temple – if so how and why. This is another area he has only briefly touched upon.

And one more point….

While Pavan laments on the tradition aspect – I would like to point him to the Shankaracharya’s of today across the 5 Mathas. My earliest recollection goes back to 1982 when the Acharya from Sringeri stopped by at our club in Durgapur. There was a sense of royalty around him – the cavalcade of cars, a lot of silver and an air of arrogance and superiority. That had not changed last year when I went to Sringeri.

At Kanchi the Acharya refuses to meet widows and by chance if his eyes falls on one he needs to go and take a bath. These Maths are steeped in tradition and I am yet to see a great preacher / communicator from here who is actively spreading the message of Advaitha. So that begs a question – are these Matha’s really effective in propagating the teachings of Adi Shankara or have they become yet another institution steeped in tradition, with a very small following from the Brahmin community.

On the contrary compare them with the Ramkrishna Mission or the Chinmaya Mission. The quality of speakers from here spreading the word of Hindu Dharma globally is remarkable. These organisations seem to be the flag bearers of our great religion. So what went wrong with the 5 Shankara Mathas and why have they not been able to scale in the manner of the Ramkrishna or Chinmaya Missions.

For someone of Pavan’s intellectual capacity who has done extensive research , I am surprised he did not touch on these points.

In summary, the book is a great read and collection to your private library. It is a useful reference material.

 

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