I must start this review with a disclaimer. I was brought up in the Visishtadvaita tradition and as the author himself says, quoting Dr Radhakrishnan, the philosophy of Shankaracharya produces in Visishtadvaitins not a little curling of lips. I am presently a believer in the dictum of De Omnibus Dubitandum (all is to be doubted) and an agnostic to boot! Nevertheless, I have always been in awe of this stupendous scholar. I have no doubt that Shankaracharya is one of the greatest intellectuals the world has ever seen. There are several books on him in English but surprisingly, none of the authors, who have either translated his works in English or written about him, have fully succeeded in presenting him in a manner that would appeal to a modern, lay and sharp reader. Pawan K. Varma has done exactly that. In a language at once easy and full of gravitas, he provides us with a rare poise Shankaracharya’s life, his philosophy and its place in the Indian systems of philosophy, and its relationship with modern science. The book also has a well-chosen anthology of his works.
Most accounts of Shankara’s life, written long after his death, are hagiographic. But scholars agree that he was born sometime in the 8th century CE and travelled extensively all over India in pursuit of knowledge. Varma follows his footsteps and meets people who keep the tradition founded by Shankara alive. He is so intoxicated by the myriad scenes and flavours of the places he visits that he almost becomes a hagiographer himself, before quickly recovering. I am not criticising his approach. This has happened to me several times, all over the world. Varma’s is, however, an admirer’s presentation of Shankara, not a critic’s. Many devotional hymns he has presented in the anthology have not been accepted by some scholars as actually written by Shankara. On the other hand, a few scholars argue that Shankara could well be contemporary with the Tamil hymnists who wandered South India from shrine to shrine. Personally speaking, I was surprised that the anthology doesn’t even have a selection from his magnum opus, Brahmasutra Bhashya.
According to the author, Shankara audaciously asserts that, “this phenomenal world is real at one level, but Brahman is the only reality at the ontological level”. Brahman remains never-changing and eternal. Its reality is masked by Avidya at the individual level and maya at the cosmic level. A person who attains the Brahma Jnana will rid himself of avidya and maya and the I-ness, and will realise that he is one with the Brahman.
In Varma’s view, Shankara believed that any man could attain Brahma Jnana. But according to Shankara, the knowledge of Vedas is an essential requirement to walk towards the path of Brahma Jnana and he explicitly says in his Brahmasutra Bhashya that ‘the Sudras are not qualified for that reason, that Smriti prohibits their hearing the Veda, their studying the Veda, and their understanding and performing Vedic matters’. Thus, Shankara specifically excludes an overwhelming majority of Hindus from the prospect of realising Brahman. The path must be open to the Sudras today as the prohibition against learning the Veda no longer exists.
I have serious reservations against the chapter The Remarkable Validation of Science. The author collates bits and pieces of the works of a few scientists and concludes that there is “scientific confirmation of Shankara’s assertion that Brahman is the only real and that everything is derived from it”. Firstly, in science, an old theory cannot be validated by a new theory. Secondly, anecdotal experiences are not themselves enough to validate a theory. Science requires much stronger and more rigorous proof. Thirdly, citing analogies like the rope and the serpent to prove a point will not constitute a scientific validation. Is it right to confuse the attributeless Brahman with the word ‘consciousness’, by which science means our cognitive capacity? This is what Vilayanur Ramachandran, the famous neuroscientist, says: “What we’re hoping is that we can grope our way toward the answer, finding little bits and pieces, little clues, toward understanding what consciousness is. We’ve just scratched the surface of the problem. When I say ‘we’, not just our lab but the entire world of neuroscience”. Thus, when the world of science itself is still groping their way toward the answer, it is rather premature to make triumphant statements on the validation of Shankara’s theory. As an Indian I will be proud if it is validated one day. But I don’t think that day is arriving too soon.