Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker by Pavan K Varma
Adi Shankaracharya – Why did none of my textbooks ever thought me about this? This is the first question that comes to your mind when you hold this book in your hands. I have read some of his texts, chanted some of his Stotra’s, but never really knew about the body of work. And then suddenly in last few days, I heard a lovely talk on Adi Shankaracharya by Srijan Talks, and then this book. I think it must be a sign to read more of his works.
Pavan Varma is a delightful writer. He writes for the layperson and makes things easier for them to read and understand, unlike academic authors who never get the nerve of a layperson. Adi Shankaracharya and his works are not simple by any measure. Pavan Varma simplifies it in a manner that most people would be able to understand and appreciate Shankaracharya and his Advaita philosophy. The book is an introduction that would pique your curiosity and then it is an open world out there for you to explore.
Places associated with Adi Shankaracharya
To begin with, Pavan Varma travels to all the places associated with Adi Shankaracharya – beginning with his birthplace – Kaladi in Kerala. Then follows Omkareshwar where young Shankara came to his guru and lived in a cave. Followed by all the 4 Shakti Peethas that he had set up in 4 corners of the world, Kashi, and Kanchipuram. You get a sense of travels done by Shankara as he would have traveled on foot, debating with people, teaching people and binding them with the thought of Advaita. At Kashi, the author gets a glimpse of what Shastarth or debate during Shankara’s time might have looked like. But ironically he has to struggle to find Shankara’s whereabouts in the city of Shiva.
Wherever there is controversy, like the Date of Birth of Adi Shankaracharya that his lineage claims to be 5th BCE while others claim 8th CE, the author presents the sources and leaves you to decide. Or, when there are multiple claims about where he had the famous debate with Mandan Mishra. I think it is also his way of saying, this is not important. What is important is the legacy he left behind for us in the form of his work on Advaita Philosophy.
In the second part, Pavan Varma talks about what existed in Indian Philosophy before Adi Shankaracharya. As we know he writes Bhashyas or commentaries on all major scriptures including Brahma Sutra and various Upanishads. This is like acknowledging the existing works. Then he goes on to explain the principle of Advaita – the all-pervading Brahman from which everything emerges, without changing it or affecting it. He compares the Advaita with other philosophies that co-exist in Indian thought systems like Sankhya or Mimansa. I think Pavan Varma makes it easy to understand the subtle differences between each of them. And presents them as various paths to know ourselves.
Quantum Physics & Advaita Principles
In the next section, he draws the parallel between quantum physics or particle physics – the science of sub-atomic particles and the Advaita principles. Anyone who has studied Physics knows that at the sub-atomic level we are all waves and made of same material. Pavan Varma takes you across two different branches of science – astronomy and particle physics, the two ends of the spectrum that we have managed to measure. He takes you across scientists and their research and draws a parallel with what Adi Shankaracharya said. In the end, he wonders why no scientist or scientific organization has systematically studied the works of Adi Shankaracharya to get insights into his thoughts, his research, and his works. Maybe someone from India needs to take a step in this direction. We know there are enough Indian Physicists at places like CERN.
Overall, the author is astonished, as anyone who reads Shankara would be – Why do we know so little about him and his works. A more specific question would be why we do not even have his mention in our school curriculum. I am not sure if there is any research being done in the philosophy and related departments in Indian Universities.
Watch this talk on Adi Shankaracharya by Srijan Talks
This was just 50% of the book. Rest 50% has select anthology of Adi Shankaracharya’s works. For some works, Pavan Varma gives a brief introduction, while others are kind of self-explanatory. What is important is that while being a firm believer of Advaita, Adi Shankaracharya, he composed hymns for almost all Devi Devatas of Sanatan Dharma. Could he foresee that age of Bhakti will soon descend or that mankind will move from Nirguna to Saguna?
Buy Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker by Pavan K Varma at Amazon
In the end, this book leaves you with immense curiosity. And an urge to read the works of Adi Shankaracharya. That I think is a big success for a book on Philosophy usually a dry subject meant for academicians. There are lots of resources and books mentioned after each chapter and at the end of the book. I am already exploring some online resources for further reading. Ideally, his works should be available freely to us online. But there are only a few private efforts that are making some of the works available.
A highly recommended read.
More Books on Spiritual India to Read:
- India A Sacred Geography by Diana L Eck
- Indian Culture and India’s Future by Michel Danino
- Who wrote the Bhagavadgita? By Meghnad Desai
- The Life Of Hinduism by John Stratton Hawley, Vasudha Narayanan
- Banaras City of Light by Diana L Eck