It was clear that Pavan Varma settled down to write this book ‘Adi Shankaracharya’ in the format of hagiography after visiting places hallowed by the name of Adi Shankaracharya. Personally, I have been striving to know who or what God (Brahma) is and Aathma (Soul) is. In the cases of both, it has been only a sort of higgledy-piggledy experience. When I mentioned it to a Professor of Philosophy, he said, ‘Do not circumscribe your vision like a frog in the well which does not know there is an unending expanse of water out there in the sea.’ This was, according to him, the vision of Brahma (God) and only those who have periscopic mind of Saints can have this vision. Adi Shankaracharya is one such mind.
However, I am yet to read a book where clear, direct answers are given to these fundamental questions nagging the mind of man. Neither the prophets nor the great religious philosophers like Adi Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya were able to answer. The questions about God and Soul are explained through rigmarole or aphorisms of literary or poetic rhetoric. Problem is in the assumption of suffering from illusion, Maya. What happens when the veil of Maya is removed and we find neither the snake nor the rope there? The space is empty. My mother-in-law at the age of 94 sitting on a wheelchair in the verandah used to see snakes near the Royal Palms on the edge of the garden. But we know it was her illusion, Maya. I think Shankara’s idea of Maya is so intense that even if there is neither the snake nor the rope Maya will create one for the Ajnani, ignorant.
A week back, I was reading a book ‘The Z Factor,’ an autobiography of Subhash Chandra, a TV Moghul. He says that in younger days during monsoon season, travelling Monks would stay in the town where he was living and he grew close to one of them and attended the discourses held in the evenings. Subhash Chandra was a precocious six-year-old then and when alone with the Monk, he would ask such metaphysical questions like — What is life? What happens after life? What is alive? What is death? What is our purpose? What is human life? Why are we born humans and not animals? But then, the Monk, a sadhvi, would parry or duck the question. She would laughingly tell his father how he asked her too many tough questions. This is what happens to all questions that relate to God and human life and the Aathma.
According to Hindu belief, there are many paths to enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Of course, if one believes in rebirth. We know some religions do not believe in rebirth. For some, after death it is only heaven, hell or purgatory forever. Probably this is the reason why these religions lay emphasis on doing good in this life so that pearly gates of heaven would be flung open for them, while the sinners would be condemned to live in hades. However, in Hinduism, there are many options after death. If heaven is not possible and hell is to be avoided, there is always a rebirth which is an opportunity to lead a sinless good life on earth and thus claim a place in heaven, attaining Moksha and ending the cycle of birth and death.
The concept of ‘Purushartha’ in Hinduism seems to be so unique that every householder is expected to practice those religious injunctions to attain Moksha, deliverance. These four ‘Purusharthas’, goals in a Hindu’s life, are: Dharma (Right conduct), Artha (Pursuit of material well-being), Kama (The pursuit of the sensual) and Moksha (Salvation). If one pursues each of the first three goals, automatically one is led to the fourth goal Moksha.
Shankara was a great debater on all Hindu scriptures and used to gather disciples by defeating his opponent. Probably the account of Shankara’s life would be incomplete if these debates with great Pandits are not mentioned. His victory in a debate over the Pandit of Mahishi Mandana Misra who was considered an avathar of Brahma himself by his admirers was one such memorable debate.
However, Mandana Misra’s wife Ubhaya Bharati was not willing to concede defeat and challenged Shankara for a debate with her by virtue of her being the wife of the defeated Mandana Misra. Shankara accepts the challenge and Ubhaya Bharati asked Shankara to answer questions on Kama Shastra that related to sex, sensuality and erotism which she as a married woman was familiar with but her opponent Shankara being a celibate Sanyasi was totally ignorant of. Then Shankara asked a month’s time to learn about the Science of Sex and return to the debate. Ubhaya Bharati agrees.
Thereafter, Shankara through his Yogic powers left his body in a cave on the banks of River Narmada and entered the dead body of the King of Anaruka which was being taken for cremation. Now, Shankara in the body of the dead King returned to the Palace and there in the company of the dead King’s wife or wives, he learnt the art of making love and all about sex. Shankara was so much seduced by the sensual life in the luxurious Palace, he forgot to go back to his own body kept in the cave. Shankara even wrote a manual on erotica. Later, he wins the debate by answering questions on Kama Shastra and eroticism.
This reminds me of a saying in Kannada ‘Andige ade sukha, indige ide sukha’ (In the past, that was happiness and now, this is happiness). It appears that there was a Brahmin who was a ‘Trikala Jnani’ (who could see the past, present and future). He knew he was soon to die and in the next life he would take birth as a pig. Of course, he hated it but it was his Karma, destiny. So he called his eldest son and told him that he was going to be born as a pig in the neighbouring village in a particular place. And on a certain day he should go and kill him, thus liberate him from that wretched life. The son asked how would he be able to identify him among other pigs. The father told the son that he would be a female pig and there would be a brown stripe on its back.
When the time came, the Brahmin died and as he had foreseen, he was born in the neighbouring village and lived with his piglets happily. At the appointed time, the son took a sword and went to the neighbouring village looking for his father in the life of a female pig. He could easily identify his father and lifted the sword to kill him as instructed. However, the pig screamed and begged of him not to kill saying, “Don’t kill me my son, please.” But the son said that it was he who wanted to be killed.
“You wanted me to liberate you from this wretched life and a new life as a human being awaits you in your next birth,” said the son. But the pig pleaded for mercy saying “What you say is true, but I am so happy here with my children, therefore allow me to live happily here.” Thereafter, the son left the place leaving his father (now a pig) to enjoy life according to his wish.
I guess, it is fortunate for the Hindus that the worried disciples of Shankara, who was reluctant to resume his own body kept in the cave, reminded him of what he really was by singing a few philosophical songs. Shankara then woke up from his sensual stupor and ran back to the cave and entered his body.
Be that as it may, Shankara’s life and works are of great importance to Hindus as much as for Hinduism. Some say, but for Shankara, the whole of Bharat or say Hindustan would have become Buddhistan, a country of Buddhists and some others say, if Shankara was not born, Hinduism would have remained only with Brahmins, the uppermost caste in the caste hierarchy and all others would have become Buddhists.
The book running to 364 pages with an exhaustive index and the list of reference books is properly divided into different sections including Shankaracharya’s commentary on Bhagavad Gita. However, the section titled ‘The Validation of Science’ seems the only grey area in the book, while one can understand the religious and philosophical parts of the book as they are based on one’s belief.
There was a question and answer session after Pavan Varma’s talk and I asked the first question, a journalist without sin !
Question: Shankara died at the young age of 32. How could he have travelled the length and breadth of this huge country when in those days there were no proper roads or transport system?
After dribbling the question for a while, trying at some rigmarole, he said he could traverse the distance walking because he must have started his journey when he was eight.
The next question was from Deepak Thimmaiah, the Kannada TV anchor and interviewer. He wondered if there were more Shankaras (Abhinava Shankara?), who accomplished all that is attributed to Adi Shankaracharya alone?
Honestly, I did not understand the answer as I was not attentive.