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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker - Pavan K Varma

This blog post is not a review of the book

Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker by Pavan K Varma is an incisive book that is both a biography of the Hindu seer and an exploration into and an exposition of his philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.

Image result for adi shankaracharya pavan vermaIt is a great introductory book for a reader interested in understanding Hinduism and its complexities; it is not a book for the jingoistic, ultra-nationalistic proponents and followers of the political ideology of Hindutva.

Shankara (788-820 CE) brought a sense of purpose and direction to Hinduism which it had lost for several centuries because of its dogmatic following of ritualistic orthodoxy that increasingly emphasized differences amongst its adherents rather than the grand oneness of its message. It rapid decline led to the birth and growth of offshoots such as Buddhism and Jainism, which took their basic tenets from Hinduism but infused it with a distinct egalitarianism and inclusiveness.

Shankara redefined the practice of Hinduism by emphasizing upon its inherent intellectual strengths. He gave it a monastic order by establishing branches in four different parts of India. He traversed the length and breadth of India twice in a life that was woefully short (he died when he was 32-years-old).

The four peeth that he established to preserve and propagate Hindu religion – in Sringeri (south), Puri (east), Dwaraka (west) and Joshimath (north) – combined the worship of Shiva and Shakti. Shankara was deeply influenced by the three basic texts of Hindu philosophy – the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutra, and the Bhagavad Gita. And instead of rejecting the five principle schools of Hindu religion – Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya, Yoga, and Purva Mimamsha – that preceded Advaita Vedanta, Shankara utilized the essence of their teachings to solidify the philosophy of Advaita Vedenta.

As Varma says, 

“Shankara displayed an intellectual adroitness that assimilated many existing traditions without diluting his unwavering and fundamental thesis on the primacy of Brahman. He did not accept the dualism of Purusha and Prakriti of the Sankhya school, but many of the features of the quiescent and omnipresent Purusha are reflected in the grandeur of his concept of Brahman. He did not endorse the notion of a personal god in the Yoga school, but he accepted the physical and meditational aspects of the discipline of yogic training. He did not agree with the atomistic plurality of the Nyaya-Vaisheshika school, but he borrowed from its rigorous system of logic and reasoning. He decried the mechanical karmakanda or ritual exercises of the Purva Mimanshaks, but accepted that such rituals, if performed in a spirit of detachment, help to prepare the individual in the journey towards brahmanubhava. He may not have agreed with every aspect of tantric practice, but he saw merit in adopting those that, he believed, were conducive to the ultimate realisation of Brahman.”

More pertinently to the continuing malaise of caste in Hindu religion, Shankara attempted (albeit without success) to not disregard the significance of caste distinctions in the pursuit of the Brahman. Varma notes, 

“As we have seen, this was vividly demonstrated in his meeting with a chandala, a person of the lowest caste, in Banaras. The sheer disjoint between his belief that Brahman pervades all, and, the discriminatory social practices of the day, must have struck Shankara, motivating him to unreservedly embrace the chandala, and declare emphatically in his Manishapanchakam: ‘He who has learnt to look on phenomenon in this non-dual light is my true guru, be he a chandala or a twice-born man. This is my conviction.’”

Shankara also brought together the intellectual and the ritualistic aspects of Hindu religion. Advaita Vedanta not only propounded the philosophy of monism and non-dualism, it also brought together the six systems of Hindu worship: Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakta, Ganapatya, Saura and Kaumara (or Kapali). He propagated the four goals of Hindu religion: dharma (right conduct) , artha (pursuit of material well being) , kama (the pursuit of the sensual) and moksha or salvation.

There are some aspects of Shankara’s life that need closer veracity, especially those that require acceptance of an other-worldly realisation of the divinity. In his recent work Two Saints Speculations around and about Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Ramana Maharshi, Arun Shourie has attempted an extensive research-based explanation of their “other-worldly” experiences. Shourie’s treatise is a helpful understanding of such experiences through neuroscience.

“…the studies document beyond any doubt that spiritual practices and pursuits greatly alter the relative strength of neuronal connections and the rhythms of their firing. The practices perceptibly change ‘the amount of real estate’ in the brain that is devoted to different functions. These results document what the sages have been saying for centuries, that the mind can be altered by working on the mind. It now turns out that the brain – as a physical organ – also can be altered by working on the mind, an alteration that will have further consequences for the way the mind works in the next moment or round. They also confirm that working on the body entails major changes in the brain as well as the mind. A lemma of this latter set of results is that the sorts of extreme austerities that our saints had practised – Sri Ramanna for three-and-a-half years, Sri Ramakrishna for twelve years – would have had drastic effects on their brains and minds, and, one can surmise, could have triggered some of the experiences…”

Shankara explains it simply, “When and to whomsoever the notion of the personal ego conveyed by “I” (aham) and the notion of personal possession conveyed by “mine” (mamah) cease to be real, then he is the knower of Atman.”

This blog post doesn't claim to be a review of the book (in fact, GAB doesn't ever do a review of any book that's featured on the blog), but is meant to give an idea about the book. In this context, it may also be said that 
Friedrich Max Müller in 'The six systems of Indian philosophy says, "A friend of mine, a native of India, whom I consulted about the various degrees of popularity enjoyed at the present day by different systems of philosophy in his own country, informs me that the only system that can now be said to be living in India is the Vedanta with its branches, the Advaitis, the Madhvas, the Ramanujas, and the Vallabhas. The Vedanta, being mixed with religion, he writes, has become a living faith, and numerous Pandits can be found to-day in all these sects who have learnt at least the principal works by heart and can expound them, such as the Upanishads, the Brahma-Sutras, the great Commentaries of the Akaryas and the Bhagavad-gita." 

Reproduced below are two extracts from the book that I found deeply insightful:

Nasadiya Sukta

(Video source: music: http://www.indianmusiccircle.com video : Eddie Boschma - http://earlysun.nl

This hymn, perhaps the first recorded rumination in Hindu philosophy on the origins of the universe, is remarkable for its eclectic tone and tenor. There are no certitudes; no injunctions for obeisance; no religious commands or call to ritual. There is awe, wonderment, but, above all, there is query, an emphasis on the need to probe, to go beyond conventional categories of thought to the realm of speculation, and an invitation to ideation. The questions signify an impassioned yearning for truth, but this yearning is willing to accept that the answers may need to embrace negation even as they seek to find the right assertion, and that, in this process, the path to truth can be many things but not simplistic or dogmatic. This wonderfully contemplative passage in the Rig Veda must have been written some two millennia before the birth of Shankara , but it indicates the foundational beginnings of a philosophical legacy that he would ultimately inherit .

The etymological meaning of Veda is sacred knowledge or wisdom. There are four Vedas: Rig, Yajur, Sama, and Atharva. Together they constitute the samhitas that are the textual basis of the Hindu religious system. To these samhitas were attached three other kinds of texts. These are, firstly, the Brahmanas, which is essentially a detailed description of rituals, a kind of manual for the priestly class, the Brahmins. The second are the Aranyakas; aranya means forest, and these ‘forest manuals’ move away from rituals, incantations and magic spells to the larger speculations of spirituality, a kind of compendium of contemplations of those who have renounced the world. The third, leading from the Aranyakas , are the Upanishads , which , for their sheer loftiness of thought are the foundational texts of Hindu philosophy and metaphysics . Because they come at the very end of the corpus

The authors of the Upanishads are not known, nor do we have their exact chronology or date. It is certain that initially they were, like all Hindu texts, orally transmitted from generation to generation, and only reduced to text in classical Sanskrit sometime around 600 to 400 BCE. The Upanishads do not constitute a single volume; in fact, the exact number is not known either, but by common consensus, there are about twelve principal Upanishads attached to the Sama, Yajur and Atharva Vedas. Shankara wrote commentaries on ten of the principal Upanishads: Isha, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taittiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, and Brihadaranyaka.

But, as the Aranyakas and Upanishads show, as does the hymn on creation from the Rig Veda referred to earlier, there was, also from the very beginning, an equally strong strand that sought to understand the origins, meanings and purpose of life, and to explore what could be the one unifying force underlying the bewildering multiplicity of the universe . This strand was less taken up with ritual and divinities and the practice of religion and more with the philosophical substratum underlying the practice of religion. These two strands crystallised in time into two distinct schools: that of karmakanda, which privileged the paraphernalia necessary for the practice of religion, including all the rites and rituals, and jnanakanda which gave primacy to the pursuit of knowledge as the path to moksha.

Maroof Shah

While in Srinagar, N. N. Vohra, the Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, arranged for me to meet Maroof Shah, reputed to be a scholar of Kashmir Shaivism, and of Hindu philosophy. The reputation, I soon found out, was entirely justified. I spent an afternoon discussing with him the intricacies of Shankara’s thoughts and their overlap with Kashmir Shaivism. Maroof, a diminutive man with a heavy Kashmiri accent, works, improbably enough, in the state veterinary department. Philosophy, however, is his passion. According to him, Shankara’s Advaita, and Kashmir Shaivism, have more similarities than differences. Both are non-dualistic; both believe that Brahman is the only ontological reality; both accept that the world is real at one level but illusory and impermanent at the real level; and, both argue that ignorance is the cause for our mistaking the ephemeral for the real. The difference is only on emphasis. Kashmir Shaivism, especially as elaborated upon later by Abhinava Gupta, believed that Shiva was Brahman incarnate, and his potentiality to create the phenomenal world was due to the power of Shakti within him. The worship of Shakti, along with its tantric associations, thus became one of the key distinguishing features of Kashmir Shaivism and were taken on board by Shankara.

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