Why India Must Celebrate Shankara

Why India Must Celebrate Shankara

मा गच्छ त्वमितस्ततो गिरिश भो मय्येव वासं कुरु
स्वामिन्नादिकिरात मामकमनःकान्तारसीमान्तरे |
वर्तन्ते बहुशो मृगा मदजुषो मात्सर्यमोहादयस्
तान् हत्वा मृगयाविनोदरुचितालाभं च संप्राप्स्यसि ||

(Śivānandalaharī of Ādi Śankara)

Primeval Hunter, Shiva!
Why wander here and there in search of game ?
The wilderness of my mind harbors many beasts
like pride, jealousy and lust;
Come, kill them, you’ll enjoy the sport.

People have been praying since forever for God to reside in their hearts, but it took Ādi Śankara’s pluck to suggest the offer as a favour to God! Śankara Jayantī was celebrated last week, and now is a good time to ruminate upon the ideas of this philosopher. Śankara is also a poet of the first order and reigns right up there with the greats of Sanskrit poetry.

But more importantly, Śankara is the personification of the distilled essence of Sanātana Dharma. His works are imbued with a healthy skepticism; his ideas draw upon human experience and not belief; he regards the study of holy books as neither necessary nor sufficient; he acknowledges the need for ritual, while warning of its limitations; he does not offer any one-size-fits-all straightjackets. In this world where people are regularly killed over perceived insults to holy books and men, Śankara shows a maturity that is almost alien to other religions (even to many Indian philosophers, for that matter). Let us take a look at a few verses from his Vivekacūḍāmaṇi “Crest Jewel of Wisdom”

अविज्ञाते परे तत्त्वे शास्त्राधीतिस्तु निष्फला।
विज्ञातेऽपि परे तत्त्वे शास्त्राधीतिस्तु निष्फला॥

The study of śastra is useless as long as the highest truth is unknown.
The study of the śastra is equally useless when the highest truth is known!

By the then prevailing world convention, an acceptable response would have been to lop off blasphemer Śankara’s head. But we decided to instead raise him to the status of ācārya! This was nothing new really; Sanātana Dharma has always held the position that the purpose of the scripture is to transcend it. Even the Gīta does not hesitate to talk about the fallibility of the Veda:

यामिमां पुष्पितां वाचं प्रवदन्त्यविपश्चितः ।
वेदवादरताः पार्थ नान्यदस्तीति वादिनः ||

Only the ignorant speak in flowery tongues,
extolling the Vedas, claiming
“There is nothing deeper than this.”

This sounds rather like something Richard Dawkins would say! Krishna continues:

यावानर्थ उदपाने सर्वतः संप्लुतोदके।
तावान्सर्वेषु वेदेषु ब्राह्मणस्य विजानतः।।

There’s as well use for a well in a flood,
as for the Veda to a man of realisation.

This is a very refreshing freedom indeed; to question and pick out the truth for yourself. Even lesser known sects like the Cārvakas have lambasted the ritualistic methods of the Veda with impunity.

पशुश्चेन्निहतः स्वर्गं ज्योतिष्टोमे गमिष्यति |
स्वपिता यजमानेन तत्र कस्मात् न हिंस्यते ||
त्रयो वेदस्य कर्तारो भण्ड-धूर्त-निशाचराः ।
जर्भरी-तुर्फरीत्यादि पण्डितानां वचः स्मृतम् ॥

If the animal killed in the Jyotiṣṭoma sacrifice goes to heaven,
Why does the sacrificer not offer his own father?
The three authors of the Vedas were buffoons, knaves, and demons.
Just look at the nonsensical words of their pandits ‘jarbharī’, ‘turpharī’ !
(The two strange sounding words are from the Ṛg-saṃhita)

Quite a wry sense of humor, they had, these Cārvakas. And you can rest assured nobody gheraoed them demanding an unconditional apology! Their method was very much regarded a valid path of philosophical enquiry.

Coming back to Śankara’s Vivekacūḍāmaṇi:

वाग्वैखरी शब्दझरी शास्त्रव्याख्यात न कौशलम् ।
वैदुष्यं विदुषां तद्वद्भुक्तये न तु मुक्तये ।।

Eloquence in speech, mastery over words,
And a command over the scriptures;
These can serve to fill the stomach
But not to liberate.

Clearly, religion was a bit of an organised business even in Śankara’s times! But Śankara would stand none of it. My favorite poet Bhatṛhari, redoubles the same sentiment in nītiśataka:

किं वेदैः स्मृतिभिः पुराणपठनैः शास्त्रेर्महाविस्तरैः
स्वर्गग्रामकुटीनिवाफलदैः कर्मक्रियाविर्भमैः।
मुक्तवैकं भवदुःखभाररचनाविध्वंसकालानलं
स्वात्मानन्दपदप्रवेशकलनं शेषा वणिग्वृत्तयः ||

Why all this fuss about the Vedas?
About the Smṛtis? Purāṇas? Śastras?
And the flurry of activities called rituals?
They don’t provide no heaven.
Except entry into the blissful abode of one’s self,
which burns away the misery of existence,
Everything else is business in disguise!

Bhatṛhari’s words have such magnetic charm that you feel like believing him for the sheer force of his words! Kowtows to him for producing this thought 1500 years ago. (Even before Śankara, infact)

Coming back to Śankara:

पथ्यमौषधसेवा च क्रियते येन रोगिणा |
आरोग्यसिद्धिर्दृष्टाऽस्य नान्यानुष्ठितकर्मणा ||

The sick man who takes his medicines, he recovers;
Can he recover by delegating it to someone else?

अर्थस्य निश्चयो दृष्टो विचारेण हितोक्तितः |
न स्नानेन न दानेन प्राणायमशतेन वा ||

The truth can be known by reasoning,
and the words of wise men.
Not by ablutions or charity
or a hundred prāṇāyāmas.

If he were born today, Śankara would probably be what we now call a skeptic! Śankara’s firmest belief is in viveka, human capacity for discrimination. Despite going down rather harshly on ritual in Vivekacūḍāmaṇi, Śankara did understand the need for ritual. Children, after all, prop up fingers when asked to add two numbers. This ritual, of course, does not mean that addition is defined with respect to fingers. The goal of using fingers is to eventually outgrow the dependence on them. Śankara’s real grouse is against those refuse to grow out of this ‘finger counting approach’. He would not have written all the stotra kāvyas he did otherwise, would he?

Of course, we must also pay our homage to the ecosystem that had the maturity to celebrate the genius of Ṣankara. Śankara says at one point that:

अधिकारिणमाशास्ते फलसिद्धिर्विशेषतः |
उपाया देशकालाद्याःसन्त्यस्मिन्सहकारिणः ||

Success depends on the qualification of the aspirant.
Time, place and other means are mere auxiliaries.

Yet, Śankara born elsewhere would have met the sword, gallows or poison. After the fall of Rome, India was the only place in the world which fostered this freedom. It took the west 1500 years after Rome, till the separation of the church and the state, to win it back. Our separation of church and state is age old — the separation of śruti and śmriti. We had one set of fixed texts for belief (śruti) and another regularly revised set for law (śmriti). This ancient root in secularism is probably why Sanātana Dharma adapts without hassle to the contemporary Bhaimī Smṛiti of Bhima Rao Ambedkar; Other religions still grapple with conflict between belief and law.

The golden age that we must go back to, is not one of flying machines, test tube babies and nuclear technology. It’s really this spirit of openness and freethought that we need to bring back, of which Ādi Śankara was one of the great ambassadors. That spirit is the real motivating force behind Sanātana Dharma and the rest, as Śankara would put it — सन्त्यस्मिन्सहकारिणः — is only peripheral.

As an aside, the word sanātana comes from a word sanā having connotations of forever, very old, perpetually etc. The word itself is also very old, having relatives across several languages. The world senior for instance; Also the world senile, and word senator, from Latin senex “old man”. Looks like the average age of the parliament really hasn’t changed much in 2000 years!

Suhas Mahesh is an undergraduate at the Indian Institute of Science. Blissfully wedded to Physics during day, he ekes out time to woo language at night. His other interests include Carnatic music, hobbyist electronics and history.
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