Saturday, January 19, 2008

The enduring empire of Sankara

Most historians are agreed that if a count were taken of the twelve greatest men who ever lived in any country in any age, Adi Sankaracharya would undoubtedly be one of them. I would call him the universal man. He deserves to be called the Universal Man in more senses than one. First of all, his accomplishments were of the very highest order in a number of fields of mental and spiritual activity, each one of which would have been enough to make him immortal.

He was a poet of the first order and also a philosopher par excellence. He was a savant and a saint of the highest spiritual development. He was a mystic and a religious reformer.

Adi Sankaracharya was a Karma Yogi, Bhakti Yogi and Jnana Yogi, and he was right in the forefront in each category.

First as Jnana Yogi: His knowledge was almost incredible. He should tear the heart out of the Upanishads, the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita and he could expound these scriptures in a manner which has never been surpassed.

As a Bhakti Yogi: He was man of infinite faith and infinite compassion. Nothing human was alien to his nature. All human beings were alike to him.

As a Karma Yogi: He did more as a man of action, than most men who are merely men of action have ever been able to do even those who have achieved world eminence.

What was his idea in having maths in different corners of India? One of his main ideas was that this is one single country. We may have different faiths, different sects, different creeds. Different communities may flourish here, and they have flourished here through the centuries, but we are all members of one single family Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. And his objective in going to all the four corners was to ensure that the message that we have a common and indivisible destiny got across this great country.

Universal Religion

If we go through his writings, we can readily see that he was not so much a man propounding a religion as a man propounding the religion which underlies all religions.

Adi Sanakara was universal in his outlook. His message was meant not for Hindus alone, not for Indians alone, but for all mankind. Surely, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo must have been thinking of him when both of them said that the destiny of India is to be the spiritual leader and moral teacher of the world.

Today, when we look around and see to what pathetic depths we have sunk, we can hardly realise that this is our glorious destiny. But i have no doubt whatever, knowing a little bit as I do of the modern developments in science and philosophy, that the prediction of Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo is bound to come true. This country will be and is destined to be moral and religious teacher of the world.

Adi Sankaracharya did all his phenomenal work in the short span of 32 years, bearing out what Bacon said that a man may be young in years but old in hours if he has lost no time; and Sankaracharya never lost any time.

Every moment of his was filled with thought and action. And the great maths which he founded, 1200 years ago or more, are still continuing, are still giving the type of guidance which this country badly needs today.

One thing which strikes me as almost incredible is how close Sankaracharya's teachings are to the latest conclusions reached by scientists. You only have to read Sir Arthur Eddington's "The nature of physical world" or Sir James Jeans' "The Mysterious Universe" and "The Stars in their Courses" to realise that what Adi Sankaracharya said 1200 or more years ago is proved to be true today.

Ultimate Reality

It is incredible how the human spirit can merely, by means of meditation and introspection, come to the right conclusion about the ultimate reality, which hundreds of years of scientific research would ultimately lead to. The main message of modern scientists like Sir James Jeans, Sir Arthur Eddington, Albert Einstein and Max Planck, is that although the universe exists, the appearance is different from the reality. It exists but the appearance is not the reality. The reality, the only reality, is the spirit, the ultimate infinite spirit, Dr. C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyar has rightly said that we are amazed that the theory of relativity propounded in the 20th century was known to ancient India 3000 years ago. Sometimes I wish I had the time to put in paralled columns what Sankaracharya has said and what modern scientists are saying. You would be amazed at the correspondence.

In fact, I have no doubt that in any of our great scientists' meetings today or in meetings held ten years ago when some of the greatest scientists who are now dead were alive, Adi Sankaracharya would have found himself quite at home. He would have discussed, on a level of equality, the ultimate theories of science which he intuitively knew to the right.

His main contribution, as has been summed up by the different people who have written on Adi Sankaracharya - in fact, the books written on him would be enough to make a whole library - is his synthesis of all religions. You must remember that during his time there were quite a few different sects, sub-sects and castes and creeds. There was the question of Buddhism as against old Hinduism, and the question arose to what extent you could reconcile the different philosophies and beliefs.

Adi Sankaracharya not only synthesized all the different philosophies and ideals, but he purified them. As a creed or religion or language goes down the centuries, it gathers a crust of useless, immaterial accretions, and these immaterial things are mistaken for the essence of religion. He broke that crust and went to the essence of all those religions, and showed how they all could be synthesized, how they could all be made to fall into one pattern.

That gives his philosophy a certain completeness, a certain wholeness; you don't need to supplement Sankaracharya. As for his hymns, they are incredibly beautiful. He composed them in Sanskrit, one of the greatest languages that the human mind has ever evolved, they embody his profound vision.

In fact, when i look around and read what appears in the papers, I ask myself, is this country ever going to realise what her greatness is? But we are destined to live in an age of ignoramuses who have no notion of what the greatness of this country is. It has been said in the Bhagavad Gita by the Lord, "When things get very bad, I reappear to re-establish dharma". And I have no doubt that we have sunk to such a depth now that that day is at hand.

To Sankaracharya, philosophy was not an intellectual exercise, it was the dedication of a life. Sankaracharya looked upon every human life as the embodiment of the Ultimate Reality. And he said that human life which is vouchsafed to us is available for transmuting ourselves into an instrument of the Divine Will.

The four essences of his philosophy as summarised by both Eastern and Western thinkers are the following:

First, he says that you must discriminate between what is eternal and what is ephemeral. The one remains, the many change and pass; so dont get attached to what changes and passes, but get attached to the eternal, because that alone is the ultimate final Reality.

He was not against family life. He was sensible enough to realise that if there was no family life, the human race would come to an end. But his message was, 'Realise that everything around you, including your wealth and your family, are all transient things'. Too much attachment would result in diverting your mind from what is eternal to what is ephemeral.

His second message was that each one of us has to learn to renounce the thought of reward for what we are doing. People will ask you, 'Well, you have been speaking, for so many years, on so many occassions, but what have you achieved?' The answer is, 'Your attitude must be that you are not interested in the reward for what you are doing.' I would doubt whether Sankaracharya in his own lifetime got the reward for what he did. But he knew that ages and ages hence people would realise the importance of his message.

Mistaken Notion

Christ was crucified and, mind you, he was crucified by the majority vote of the people around him. So much for democracy. Never mistake the majority vote for a vote in favour of reason, for a vote in favour of what is right.

What is right is often quite different from what the majority believes in. Socrates was put to death, given the hemlock, by the people, his own fellowmen, who were around him. Mind you, that again was by a majority vote.

And I remember Rajaji in his speeches emphasising this when he was alive. Our country was so much richer for his life. He said. "Never mistake the majority vote for what is right and fair and just."

The third message of Sankaracharya was moral preparation. He believed that each life has to be so lived that you are prepared to meet the maker at the time of 'crossing the bar', when the final call comes, with a clean record of what you have accomplished with whatever you have been given by way of wealth, in trust for your fellowmen. He believed that Universal compassion and love area part of moral preparation.

I would like to quote to you the words which are from on of his hymns: "In you and in me and everywhere else, these is but one Vishnu". See yourself in all things, give up the false sense of difference from other human beings everywhere. This is his message of universality; the brotherhood of the entire human race.

In fact, we find it difficult to develop that kind of a sense of brotherhood even in one single country, leave aside the entire human race. Even if there are two states adjoining each other, we find it difficult to have the sense of brotherhood among the people of the two states. So we have a long way to go before we realise that great message of Adi Sankaracharya, one of the greatest men of our country.

And his last message was the longing for liberation, what St. Luke in his Epistle calls the 'longing for the eternal life'. Adi Sankaracharya said this world is just a preparatory ground, a school where we are trying to prepare ourselves, educate ourselves, for the eternal life.

About his year of birth and death, there is no certainity. Max mueller believed that he was born in 788 and we celebrated his 1200th Anniversary in the year 1988-89. But we are not sure when he lived and died, though the general consensus is that he was, perhaps, 32 when he passed away. But whatever may have been the exact year of his birth or death, it is his message which counts, more than his own individual personal life.

He established what I would call the Empire of the Spirit. Whole generations have come and gone, empires have flourished and vanished, but Sankaracharya's empire of the Spirit survives. And so long as his great spirit abides with our people; there is hope or the future greatness of our country.