‘Adi Shankara: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker,’ a tome of great value, scholarship

Adi Shankaracharya

A review of Pavan K. Varma’s recently released book on Adi Shankaracharya.

— “I am neither the earth, nor water, nor fire, nor sky, nor any other properties. I am not the senses and not even the mind. I am Shiva, the undivided essence of consciousness.”

Thus spoke the 12-year-old Adi Shankara on meeting his Guru, Govindapada, on the banks of river Narmada for the first time.

Jagad Guru Adi Shankaracharya, undoubtedly, is one of the greatest intellectuals and Vedic philosophers India has ever known. His contributions to Hinduism, in general, and his teachings on Advaita (non-dualism), upheld Hindu philosophy to be one of the greatest among the world religious thoughts.

Shankara’s writings and interpretations of the Upanishad are unparalleled. It was fascinating to read the recent best-seller on the Jagad Guru by Pavan K. Varma. The author provides a brilliant exposition of the life history and experiences of the eighth century profound Vedantic philosopher, writer, religious guru, crusader of Advaita school of thought, and one of the mightiest personalities among Hindu scholars.

His in-depth study of Shankara’s thoughts and teachings bring out the greatness of the eastern religious philosophy, the Vedic concept of Sanatana Dharma, the universal welfare for all beings, and the spiritual dimensions of human mind. Besides, it confirms the monotheism of Hinduism and the validity of its philosophy and usefulness in the ever-conflicting world of today.

As a writer, Varma’s lucidity, simplicity and scholarly style of presentation on Shankara’s collective contributions on Upanishad, Bhagavad Gita and other scriptures are admirable. It is a must-read book across all ages, races, religious believers, non-believers and atheists, for a higher-level understanding of human spirituality and the purpose of life in this universe.

Varma is not a stranger to enlightened readers. He has written well over a dozen books in a wide-range of subjects and many of them bestsellers. However, for this well researched book, the author has pursued the footsteps of young Shankara, as a 12-year-old boy, who departed from his home in search of the supreme knowledge and truth, through the jungles of India, from south to north, and east to west, about 1,200 years ago.

The author has meticulously followed Shankara’s track and investigated every aspect of his journey to various spiritual centers and has authentically recorded the sage’s life experiences. Besides, he interviewed many Vedic scholars, academics, and hundreds of others who are currently associated with the institutions and the teachings of Shankara all over India.

In the preface to the book the author writes, “Hinduism, for most within its fold, is a way of life. It has no one Pope, no one text, no inflexibly prescriptive ritual, no mandatory congregation, and no one presiding temple. It is precisely for this reason that it has continued to flourish from time immemorial, sanatan (ever new) and anant (infinite), because what is ubiquitous but not constrained by the brittleness of form, is by definition imperishable.”

Shankara was born to a pious Hindu couple, Shivaguru and Aryamba, both Namboothiri Brahmins, in the year 788 CE in Kaladi, an ancient village on the bank of the Periyar river, within a few miles of the present-day Kochi International Airport, Kerala, India.

The story goes that the couple had no children and one-night Lord Shiva appeared to Aryamba in her dreams, asked if she preferred to have a child who is a fool who may live long, or a genius who may be short lived. She chose the latter. When the boy was born, she named him Shankara in honor of Lord Shiva. Being born in a conservative and conventional Brahmin family, the young Shankara underwent rigorous learning of the Sanskrit language, besides Vedas and scriptures, in his early days as required by tradition. Even in his early days as a child, Shankara demonstrated intense interest in Vedic scriptures, and was said to have a great speaking ability and a photographic memory. No doubt he became a child prodigy among his peers.

Life was not easy for the young Shankara. His father passed away suddenly before he was 10 years old. His widowed mother had no other support other than himself. She wanted him to stay with her in the village and have a normal life like any other Brahmin boy in the neighborhood.

But Shankara had other plans. From a very young age, he decided that his path was spiritual, a sanyasin, no encumbrances with the family, although he knew his mother will be alone and may not approve of it. Interestingly, Shankara used his divine abilities to convince and gain his mother’s approval for his wishes.

One day, Shankara was taking morning bath in the river along with his mother, when a crocodile caught his leg and started pulling him toward the deep water. While the mother was terrified at the sight, Shankara begged his mother to approve his sanyasin path, or allow him to be taken away by the beast.

Reluctantly, his mother granted his wish to be a sanyasin, and the crocodile left him free. Divine interventions like this may be seen plenty in the Hindu mythology. After his initial ordinations, rituals and ceremony (Upanayana) to become a true Brahmin, around the age of 12, Shankara left home in search of a guru of whom he had been contemplating for some time. Before his departure, Shankara assured his mother that he would return to her whenever she was in need of him, no matter wherever he is. He also promised that he would personally perform her funeral rites, in spite of being in an ascetic order, where such rituals are forbidden, which he later fulfilled.

Shankara’s initial journey from Kalady through the jungles of south India was to a holy place, Omkareshwar, on the banks of river Narmada, where one among the 12 jyotirlingas were symbolized to Lord Shiva.

Shankara wanted to be a disciple of Vedantic scholar Govindapada, a disciple and son of the famous Gaudapada, the author of a masterpiece on Mandukya Upanishad. He knew that the guru lived in the vicinity. In the very first audience with Govindapada, on his enquiry about who he was, Shankara introduced himself by rendering his own Sanskrit shloka (poem), to the great surprise to his guru. Shankara recited, “I am neither the earth, nor water, nor fire, nor sky, nor any other properties. I am not the senses and not even the mind. I am Shiva, the undivided essence of consciousness.”

Govindapada was pleased to accept Shankara as his disciple and he would continue to stay in the hermitage for about two to three years, during which time he learned the Advaita philosophy in depth, besides other scriptures.

Varanasi, or Kashi, situated on the bank of the holy river Ganga, was the center of the Hindu religion even in those days. Scholars and luminaries from different parts of India assembled there to discuss and debate complex thoughts on Upanishad and other holy scriptures. So Varanasi was the next destination for Shankara.

He is said to have lived in Varanasi for several years. It was there, he wrote some of his most important works, including the Shankara Bhashya, commentary on Brahma Sutra, commentaries on Upanishad and Bhagavad Gita, according to the author.

It is worth noting an interesting incident where a Chandala, an untouchable person from lowest caste, confronted Shankara about the question of untouchability among various castes. That Chandala, a learned person, asked Shankara to explain the difference between a Brahmin and Chandala in the light of Vedantic theories. Shankara was puzzled by this question and finally came to the conclusion that the relation between Brahman and Atman remain the same in all worthy of respect, in spite of distinctions in castes. It may be worth quoting here a few stanzas of his work, the Manishapanchakam.

“I am Brahma alone. And, this entire world has been spread out by pure consciousness. All this, without residue, has been superimposed by me through nescience which consists of three gunas (sattva, raja and tamas). Thus, he in whom there is a firm knowledge in respect of the eternal, blemishless supreme (Brahma) which unexcellable bliss, is the preceptor, be he a chandala or a brahmana. This is my conclusive view. “

Prayaga, the modern Allahabad, was the next destination for Shankara. Prayaga is the holy confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and the mystical Saraswathi. There, the sage was intending to debate with a formidable scholar named Kumarila Bhatta, of Purva Mimamsa school of the Hindu philosophy.

This school of thought believed that the chief aim of life was karmakanda. Shankara, being a firm believer of jnana marga (path of knowledge), disagreed with the over-emphasis on rituals. But he could not debate with Bhatta for a set of alarming reasons. However, Bhatta persuaded Shankara to debate with his pupil Mandana Mishra, who lived in Mahishmati, and married to Ubhaya Bharati (Sharada Devi), the sister of Kumarila Bhatta.

Both Shankara and Mandana Mishra agreed to debate. Mandana Mishra asked Shankara to choose an umpire, and interestingly he chose Mishra’s wife Ubhaya Bharati to do so. She agreed and set the rules saying that the person whose garland — which she placed on both the men — withers first will be considered to be defeated.

It was also decided that whoever loses would become the disciple of the other and follow his belief. The debate went for several weeks and event months. And finally Mandana Mishra’s garland withered away, clearing the way for Shankara to be declared as the winner.

But Ubhaya Bharati was not willing to concede the defeat. She argued that she is one-half of her husband Mishra, and in order to declare victory, Shankara has to debate her and defeat her, too, ignoring the normal norms of an ascetic debating with a woman.

But she insisted and Shankara had to agree. Here comes the twist in the whole narrative. Varma writes, “Ubhaya Bharati asked Shankara to answer questions on Kama Shastra that related to sensuality and eroticism, which she, as a married woman was familiar with, but about which her opponent, as a sanyasin, was clueless. Then Shankara asked about a month’s time to learn about this ‘science,’ and return to debate, to which Ubhaya Bharathi agreed.”

Shankara using his yogic power left his body in a cave and entered into the dead body of a king being taken to be cremated. The King’s subjects and the family were happy to see the King resurrected back to his life miraculously. In the next few weeks in the company of the king’s wives, Shankara mastered the art of making love and sooner became proficient in Kama Shastra. Thereafter, Shankara returned to his body which was hidden away in a cave. He then skillfully debated and defeated Ubhaya Bharati and won their hearts to be his disciple for life. His success in winning over Mandana Mishra brought Shankara widespread fame across the country and paved the way for the increasing popularity of his Advaita Sidhanta philosophy.

Besides Shankara’s intellectual and divine capacity, the following demonstrate his laser sharp memory. While Shankara and his disciples were on a visit to Rameswaram in south India, Padmanabha, one of his disciples, wrote a commentary on Shankara’s Brahma Sutra Bhashya and showed it to him. Due to a misunderstanding between Padmanabha and his uncle, a devoted tantric believer, Padmanabha’s uncle burned the manuscripts. On hearing the sadness of Padmanabha losing the only copy of his manuscript, Shankara by his photographic memory recited the whole manuscript contents back to Padmanabha to recreate it.

Shankara relentlessly travelled across the country, encouraged his disciples to write commentaries on different facets of the Advaita doctrine. He established four Mattas (monasteries), or centers for religious scholarship and Sanskrit education, in all four corners of the country, to cover the entire population in India. His vision for uplifting Hinduism and delineating its thoughts and philosophy from Buddhism and Jainism, led to the establishment of celebrated institutions on the doctrine of the Advaita philosophy, which spread across the country within a short span of time.

Another interesting aspect of Shankara was his strong belief of Shakti (feminine form of God), and his constant association with the Saptamata, seven incarnations of Devi:- Shakti, Maheswari, Kamari, Vaishnavi, Varahi, Indrani, and Chamunda. One can see his attachment and devotion to his own mother through these incarnations, which is clearly demonstrated in his work, the “Saundarya Lahari.” His fascination with Kashmiri Shaivism and tantric traditions can also be seen in this work.

Sringeri Sharada Matta on the banks of river Thungabhadra, in Karnataka, was the first one to be established and consecrated by Shankara. Thereafter, he established and consecrated the other three, the chronological order is not clear. Kalika Matta on the banks of river Gomati, Dwaraka, Gujarat, in western india; Govardhana Matta in Puri Orissa, in the east; and Jotir Matta on the banks of river Alaknanda, in the Himalayas.

Kanchi Kamakoti Peetha, near Chennai Tamil Nadu, is also said to be established by Shankara. Not only did he develop these centers, he appointed the first Acharyas of these Shakti Peeths (institutions) and created clear cut organizational structure and administrative procedures, besides, selecting each site for their serenity, beauty and elegance.

The later chapters of Varma’s book immerse into hardcore philosophy of Shankara and get into mind boggling depth on the Upanishad and various interpretations. The enlightened readers should explore the later chapters with adequate seriousness for an in-depth understanding of the subject matter and the beauty of its true presentation.

There is no doubt that a reader would experience the passion, enthusiasm, energy, curiosity, and the tenacity of the author in his scholarly pursuit, to write this well researched book. It is evident that the author would have experienced immense pleasure and pain in his journey, through the length and breadth of India, to discover and assimilate the mammoth efforts undertaken by Jagad Guru Shankara about 1,200 years ago. In all fairness, let us assume, the author would have an awareness of the soul of Jagad Guru Adi Shankaracharya in its finest form, as his inspiration for this well accomplished undertaking.

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