Why India Must Celebrate Shankara
By Suhas Mahesh
One of India's greatest philosophers, and a poet of the first order, Śankara is the personification of the distilled essence of Hindusim.
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.
Adi Shankara with disciples
By Raja Ravi Varma