Among the many saints and Mahapurushas who adorn the pantheon of our Sanatana Dharma, there is none who could match the stature of Jagatguru Sri Adi Shankaracharya. Shankaracharya’s stature is not just because of the sheer number of contributions Jagatguru had made in such a short span of his life of 32 years, but the impact he created throughout Bharatavarsha, that he crisscrossed between North and South, and from East to West about three times, almost 1200 years ago. Much of what we see and know as Sanatana Dharma today, is perhaps due to the great work done by Acharya in integrating many different schools of thoughts that pre-existed , some even disappearing due to the advent of Buddhism, Jainism and the rampant spread of Nastikavaada like Charvaakas during that time and reviving them. It is considered that the Devas went and pleaded to Bhagavan Shiva who in his Dakshinamoorthyroopa was imparting wisdom through silence, to save Sanatana Dharma and that he decided to take an avatar as Adi Shankara and gave us the Advaita Vedanta or the philosophy of Non-duality.
In his book, Adi Shankaracharya – Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker, the author Pavan K Varma, has very nicely and lucidly presented the scale and scope of the achievements and contributions of Acharya through his own personal journey that he had undertaken from Kaladi, Acharya’s place of birth in Kerala to Kedarnath where Acharya is believed to have attained his samadhi, covering almost all the important destinations that Acharya himself had toured and are currently the centres of his teachings. The bureaucrat turned politician who is quite a popular face in English news channels, and often seen taking a high moral ground while defending Sri Nitish Kumar’s party in his uniquely constricted voice, without missing an opportunity to take a dig at his political opponents, carries the same tone and tenor in his narrative peppered with his wry sarcasm, in a style pretty much appealing to an urban intellectual, that one could almost hear him while reading through the book!
The first part of the book traces Shankara’s life history through Varma’s own personal journey to the various places and his actual encounters with people including the current pontiffs heading the four AmnayaPeethas that Shankara had established, as a ‘neutral’ and nonchalant commentary of his observations, sometimes expressing his dismay at the way the things are and lack of historical or documentary evidences especially with respect to the chronology of events. He tries to live through the journeys of Shankara, imagining how hard it would have been a millenium and a couple of centuries ago. He presents the various perspectives of the life events of Shankara through the explanations from the people whom he met in this journey. In the second part, he presents the “canvas before”, starting from Rig Vedic times upto the Meemanshaks before Shankara’s arrival which is a good compendium of various schools of thoughts in Hinduism especially the Shad Darshanas or the Six Systems of Nyaaya, Vaisheshika, Yoga, Sankhya, Mimansa and Vedanta.
The next two parts are the real meat of the book – the Audacity of Thought, where he convincingly portrays the uniqueness of Shankara’s approach in synthesising the canvas before and integrating several schools of thought into one grand Advaita Vedanta and then the Remarkable Validation of Science where he sketches the evolution of Modern Science from Newton, through Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Max Planck, Schrodinger, to Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose, David Bohm and Mani Bhowmik and how the modern science also converges to the same truth as what Shankara had said many centuries ago, as though it required some validation! That Shankara while rooted in his unflinching conviction on the all pervading Brahman or Universal Consciousness as the ultimate reality, and the supremacy of Knowledge or Jnana marga, equally emphasised the need to identify a personalised Ishwara or God for everyone to follow Karma and Bhakti and in fact logically explains the need to follow them for transcending Avidya or Nesicence to attain Vidya or Realisation. The manner in which he bridged the divides in various schools of thought through his elaborate commentaries of PrasthanaTrayi – the Upanishads, Brahmasutras and Bhagavad Gita, is really impressive. These cryptic axioms and aphorisms which were otherwise elitist and unattainable for the common man were made accessible and comprehensible through the many works of Shankaracharya. After covering these in about 200 odd pages including a short epilogue of his legacy, the book ends with an anthology of select hymns and compositions of Shankara translated in English, which serve as a useful guide for the readers to get a flavour of Shankara’s detailed and innumerable treatises on Sanatana Dharma.
Any work on Acharya, should only be praiseworthy and we lesser mortals are in no way qualified to criticise them, therefore it would not be proper for me to critique the book. However a few points need to be made. First, with regard to an obvious omission which I don’t know is deliberate or not. While tracing Acharya’s life history, especially his younger days in Kaladi, one important event has been missed. Acharya as a young Brahmachari visited a poor Brahmin lady who was unable to offer a regular Bhiksha, hence offered a gooseberry which was the only thing she had for him. Feeling compassionate at her situation, Acharya invoked Goddess Lakshmi through Kanakadhara Stotram (which perhaps is one of his first compositions) and got the Goddess to shower golden gooseberries to remove her poverty. It is said that with this event, the people in Kaladi realised Acharya was no ordinary child but a divine Avatar. Somehow this was not mentioned in the book at all.
Second, while explaining the event leading to Manisha Panchakam, where Acharya encountered a Chandala (low born by caste) who when asked by Acharya’s disciples to move away, retorted philosophically – “should the mortal body move or the ever shining and immutable soul residing in it should move”, and Shankaracharya prostrated before him saying “whether you are Chandala or Dvija (higher caste), you are my Guru”, it is said that Bhagavan Shiva himself came as the Chandala. Varma in his take says, this was the typical Brahministic caste supremacy that could have perhaps given a twist to the story saying it was Shiva himself who came as Chandala as they could perhaps not reconcile that an actual Chandala in Kasi could be so well versed in Vedanta! This was totally unwarranted because Advaita Vedanta by its very definition is inclusive, and Shankaracharya of all the people who had even imbibed Kapalikas’ (tribals) way of worship into his philosophy would have no qualms even if he was just a Chandala and not Shiva himself to accept him as his Guru! In fact in ShivanandaLahari, he dedicates one full hymn glorifying the Bhakti of Kannappa, the tribal hunter who worshipped Shiva by offering meat first tasted by him and gave ablutions by water carried in his mouth and spitting it over the Lingam! He calls him the greatest of Bhaktas in that verse! Other than these, there were some minor errors like the names of Govinda Bhagavatpada and Gouda Pada being interchanged in a few occasions.
Varma has done great amount of research equally between our philosophy as also in Modern Science to draw parallels to Shankaracharya’s intuitive findings that Modern Science tends to now recognise as the ultimate reality, and the book is definitely a must read for anyone who is a follower of Sanatana Dharma. It is high time that the works of the greatest son of Sanatana Dharma and Bharatavarsha are made known to the whole world, and I am pretty certain this book would play a big role in carrying that message.