In his book, Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker, former diplomat Pavan K. Varma explores the continued relevance of his teachings by revisiting the sites he frequented.
Adi Shankaracharya is one of the most revered sages in the history of India and the entire world. Former diplomat Pavan K. Varma, the author of this book on his life and teachings, describes Shankara as “Hinduism’s greatest thinker”. Yet, Shankara was not a mere thinker in the western sense of an erudite intellectual; he was one in the vedantic sense, a great guru who takes us beyond the dualistic mind to the highest unitary awareness.
There is some controversy about Shankara’s date of birth, placed as late as the eighth century but much earlier by other accounts. Yet, there is no doubt about the vast extent of his influence.
In a short life of merely 32 years, he fundamentally changed India. Shankara is best known for his promulgation of Vedanta in its Advaitic or non-dualistic form, but this is just the crest jewel of his many lofty achievements.
Shankara’s commentaries on the three main texts of Hinduism (Brahma Sutras, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita) formed the model followed by great acharyas like Ramanuja and Madhva. His shorter works on Vedanta are filled with deep insights on the nature of mind and consciousness. Yet, along with these, Shankara revived Hindu dharma overall, marking a new era in its expression.
Though Shankara was born in Kerala, he spread Vedic teachings throughout India as far as Kashmir. Clearly, he recognised the cultural unity of India. If there is any doubt India existed as a country at the time, Shankara’s work proves this to have been a fact.
Shankara organized four great maths across India (Dwarka, Puri, Sringeri and Joshimath). He is said to have renovated the char dham, or the four main Himalayan temples of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri. He reorganised Hindu worship into the five deity lines of Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, Ganesha and Surya. His hymns or stotras to all the main Hindu deities remain commonly chanted in pujas and temple rituals in north and south India.
Shankara’s Vedantic works demonstrate him to be a master of jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge. His devotional hymns show his mastery of bhakti yoga, the yoga of Devotion. His works on tantric yoga, like Saundarya Lahiri, indicate his mastery of kundalini yoga and mantra yoga. His tireless service shows him to be a master of karma yoga, the yoga of action. Few great gurus can even approach the abundance and diversity of his teachings.
Shankara examined the many doctrines of his era as part of India’s long tradition of open debate. He did not merely equate all spiritual teachings as the same, he also refuted the doctrines he determined to be erroneous or incomplete. Yet, his ultimate goal was not division but the unity of all beings in the ‘supreme self (paramatman)’, which he taught as the ultimate message of the Vedas.
Shankara’s teachings remain relevant to the present day. The modern Vedanta movement since Swami Vivekananda follows his inspiration, including Swami Rama Tirtha, Swami Shivananda, Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Dayananda (Arsha Vidya). Such incomparable Advaitic gurus as Ramana Maharshi look to Shankara as the great teacher. The self-realisation movement in the world today rests upon Shankara’s vision for its most powerful insights.
The book Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker begins with a detailed biography of Shankara, addressing the important issues and events of his life. Varma provides an informative story of the great master from birth, along with his own study, travel and pilgrimage to the main places of Shankara’s life journey.
From Kerala to Omkareshwar, Varanasi, Prayag, Kashmir and the Himalayas, the author weaves the profound life of Shankara into his own personal visits to the sites that Shankara frequented, relating the traditions about him that still exist in these diverse locations. In so doing, the author creates a wonderful spiritual travelogue uncovering the life and legacy of the exalted guru, interspersed with many engaging experiences of his own.
The book continues with a spiritual journey into Shankara’s vast thought and boundless knowledge. It explains the background of Shankara’s teachings through the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Gita and the Brahma Sutras. The author examines the six schools of Vedic philosophy, Buddhism and Jainism, and Shankara’s critique of their different points of view. Yet, far from projecting Shankara as a mere restorer of an older tradition, the author highlights Shankara’s originality, deep discernment and profound logic in making these subtle teachings clear and precise.
Taking Shankara’s legacy into the modern world, the book explains how modern physics can be connected to his Vedantic wisdom. Indeed, the universe, in which time and space are disappearing into cosmic black holes, according to modern science, resembles the maya of Advaita Vedanta and suggests consciousness as the supreme reality. The Vedantic science of consciousness may prove to be the ultimate science that modern science must eventually acknowledge and explore.
This extensive book concludes with a special anthology of the key works of Shankara, making it an excellent reference guide to study his many teachings and the essence of Vedanta. I will quote an important paragraph to sum up what Shankara represents.
“It must be remembered that Shankara, while uncompromisingly an advocate of the non-dual Vedantic doctrine, in which rituals, prayer, bhakti and temples were not of fundamental importance at the level of para vidya (ultimate knowledge), simultaneously sanctioned these religious practices as preparatory steps within the rubric of apara vidya, practical knowledge. In this sense, he became the guardian not only of the Vedantic doctrine, but of sanatana dharma, Hinduism, in its entirety, both in practice and philosophy.
It is also significant that he established his mathas in what constitutes, broadly, India today.”
Today, when India’s intellectuals remain under the thrall of Marxist and Leftist trends from the West, a new encounter with Shankara, perhaps India’s greatest intellectual, is absolutely essential. It can help this alienated intelligentsia understand the profound roots of Vedantic thought, and its ongoing relevance for religion, spirituality, and science, with significant social and cultural ramifications as well.
According to Shankara and Vedanta, the true place of the intellect is to turn within through self-inquiry, introspection and meditation to understand our real self or atman, beyond body and mind. The intellect has a higher function than mere outer opinions; it has a power to discern the eternal from the transient, through which alone we can go beyond death and sorrow.
We must thank Pavan K. Varma for providing such an in-depth work, which is detailed and well referenced. His ability to bring Shankara back to life through his teachings is especially significant.
Recently, the government of Madhya Pradesh began the construction of a 108-foot tall statue of Adi Shankara at Omkareshwar, where he studied with his guru and composed many of his profound writings. It is time that India recognised the importance of Shankara both for the country and the world. This new biography is a sign that the endeavor is moving forward on many levels.
David Frawley is a Vedic teacher and director of the US-based American Institute of Vedic Studies, and an author