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.