Review: Adi Shankaracharya - Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker by Pavan K Varma
Writer, ex-diplomat and Janata Dal (United) party spokesperson Pavan K Varma’s book is an odd and challenging work of nonfiction. In it, he does a number of things to uphold Adi Shankara’s greatness as the premier Hindu philosopher of all time. While providing a sketch of his life journey, learning, and intellectual gleanings from within and outside Hinduism, Varma argues that Adi Shankara’s monist Advaita Vedanta philosophy is among the most significant philosophical currents of anytime, anywhere. In his view, Adi Shankara exhibited consummate command and insight into the major ancient Hindu philosophical texts – the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, the Brahma Stotrams, and the ancient epics. His formulations of the Brahman (consciousness) and the Atman (self) were momentous interventions in Hinduism. The all-encompassing unity of the Brahman and Atman – and their realisation by the individual – is the quintessence of Adi Shankara’s thought.
Adi Shankara critiques and counter argues against some of the major Hindu philosophic fashions of the day. He judiciously parts from and unites with some existing currents of thought to provide a synthesised framework for Hindu religious and spiritual practice. He famously journeys on foot through the bulk of the Indian subcontinent to learn from and dispute with the great philosophers of his time while leaving his widowed mother behind promising her that he’d be back when she needed him. He advocates the irrelevance of caste and gender in the individual’s propensity to connect with her/his Atman and the Brahman. He enshrines his faith in the power of Shakti (female) and bases that as a way to realise the Brahman. He does all this at a time when contemporary Hinduism seems mired in ritual. He systemizes Hinduism into something like an organised religion and helps set its geographical boundaries and reach by establishing the four (some say five) major maths and their curricula. He is a Shaivite but professes admiration for Vishnu and Krishna. He wrestles with Buddhist and Jainist thought, and retains essential differences with them. The task of locating him in his intellectual and historical milieu is daunting. Varma pulls much of this off with elan.
Yet, this is a work that hinges on the scholarship of a number of Hindu philosophy luminaries for its information and context setting. In the earlier parts of the book, Varma tries to personalise the subject by tracing Adi Shankara’s footsteps. For the rest of it, Varma relies on academic scholarship and some of the well-known (and some unproven) narratives regarding some legendary aspects Adi Shankara’s life.
Its identity as a general interest nonfiction book then makes this an odd work. It doesn’t have the narrowness and tightness of academic scholarship, although it strains to get that rigour. Its nonfiction nature gives it an advanced ‘Introduction to Adi Shanakracharya’ feel. But Varma is an enthusiastic writer, and despite his many idea repetitions, his energy carries him through. His patent process of breaking nuanced ideas into accessible form is high-five worthy. He takes pains to connect ideas, place them in the proper perspective, and compares and contrasts Adi Shankara’s intellectual arcs with those of his peers, legatees, critics and much later scientists. This intellectual crisscrossing in accessible prose can keep the reader going through loaded pages.
It’s an advantage that Varma isn’t an academic; and it’s his weakness too. In this book, he attempts to say as much as he can about a huge subject. But the last 140-odd pages of this 370-page book consists of a selection of Adi Shankara’s most striking work, translated by other scholars of the past and present. Now, that is a bit short of one-third of the book!
Varma’s most controversial claim is that he finds modern science credentialing Adi Shankara’s Brahman and Atman concepts: The overwhelming power of the consciousness over the cosmos. For much of the objectivity that Varma aims to bring to his work, he appears to write with the passion of an Adi Shankara believer. (Can he be charged with confirmation bias? Hmm.) He cites from modern scientists, quantum physicists and neuroscientists who have hit an impasse in their explications of the subatomic world, the Big Bang/Big Crunch or medical depression. It leads them to claim that there is a higher power that holds the controls over everything in the Universe. That is, Varma finds it akin to the Brahman. Is Varma justified in reading into the admissions of the scientists the arguments about the Brahman and Atman of Adi Shankara? Some of the books he cites from, like Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, have been questioned by the scientific community. But the connections he draws about the existence of consciousness and its feelings in the neuroscientific field are telling. This is a chapter that begs reviewing from the scientific community.
Read more: Fork in the path
This book may rouse Indian social scientists too. In the twentieth century, figures like EMS Namboodiripad and Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya critiqued Adi Shankara’s influence. They felt notions like Brahmanism hindered individual and sectarian enterprise and innovation within the Hindu caste structure at the time, and by moving away from the material world, steered the individual towards more inward concerns than outward ones. These ideas were intensely debated and their omission is curious in an otherwise cover-all-bases tome.
Rahul Jayaram teaches at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts & Humanities