A Philoso­pher’s Guide To Re­li­gion

Pa­van K Verma’s new book Adi Shankaracharya: Hin­duism’s Great­est Thinker makes one see Hin­duism in a to­tally dif­fer­ent light. So­ci­ety speaks to the author to know more


Author Pa­van K Verma men­tions on the very first page that ‘When re­li­gions are largely re­duced to rit­u­als, there is al­ways the dan­ger that the form will be­come more than the sub­stance’. This fo­cusses on how re­li­gion is blindly passed on from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion to be blindly fol­lowed without even know­ing its very ex­is­tence. Verma chooses one of the great­est minds of all time, Ja­gad Guru Adi Shankaracharya, to fur­ther ex­plore this con­cept and en­lighten the read­ers about the philoso­phies that forms the foun­da­tion of Hin­duism. “I have ob­served that very of­ten the prac­tis­ing Hindu doesn’t know that Hin­duism is a way of life. The fes­ti­vals that Hin­dus cel­e­brate have a lot of mean­ing be­hind them. But the mean­ing is lost. If you ask a Hindu to­day—what are the teach­ings of Adi Shankaracharya? What are the three scripts Hin­duism is based on? What are the main dif­fer­ences be­tween Hin­duism and Bud­dhism?—most of them would not know. As a re­sult, we have grown up to be re­li­gious people who are not search­ing for the ul­ti­mate truth. To­day, we have these ag­gres­sive self-ap­pointed pro­tec­tors of Hin­duism who claim that this alone is what Hin­duism is. And I be­lieve that we can­not ques­tion or ar­gue with those who are speak­ing for us in the name of Hin­duism be­cause we are not equipped suf­fi­ciently,” Verma tells us. A true vi­sion­ary, Shankaracharya trav­elled the length and breadth of the coun­try and es­tab­lished four monas­ter­ies of Hin­duism, called mathas based on the Vedas, in ad­di­tion to craft­ing the

Ad­vaita phi­los­o­phy. In pur­suit of know­ing Shankaracharya’s life and teach­ings, the author chron­i­cles the de­ity’s life from his birth in Ker­ala to his grave in Kedar­nath in the first chap­ter of the book, ‘Life—a per­sonal jour­ney’. The chap­ter is filled with some re­ally in­trigu­ing sto­ries from Shankaracharya’s life, es­tab­lish­ing his in­tel­lect and power. Some of the in­ci­dences are rev­e­la­tions and changes one’s per­cep­tion of things. Even the jour­ney is beau­ti­fully de­scribed by Verma and makes you want to fol­low his trail. “It was a voy­age of great dis­cov­ery. In a way, it also filled me with a cer­tain sense of awe. At just 32 years, he trav­elled the length and breadth of the coun­try, not just once but thrice on foot and set up four mathas— matha singneri in the South, Ka­lika in the West, Jy­otir in the North and Go­vard­hana in the East. He chose to be a trav­el­ling teacher and not just sit in one place and im­part his knowl­edge. He trav­elled to teach and to de­bate. I trav­elled to Omkaresh­war, Varanasi, Badri­nath, Kedar­nath and even Sri­na­gar—the places as­so­ci­ated with him to see how much of this leg­end is still liv­ing in all these places. How much of the his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance still re­mains. What are the mem­o­ries people have, if any?” the author re­veals thought­fully. Verma’s next chap­ter in the book, ‘The Can­vas Be­fore’, gives great in­sights into the four Vedas— Rig, Ya­jur, Sama and Atharva— which are col­lec­tively called Samhi­tas and are tex­tu­ally the ba­sis of the Hindu re­li­gious sys­tem. The three other texts which are at­tached to this sys­tem are Brah­manas— de­scrip­tion of rit­u­als, Aranyakas— spir­i­tu­al­ity and the world, and Upan­ishads— Hindu phi­los­o­phy and meta­physics. The author em­pha­sises on Vedas, Brahma Su­tra and Bhag­wad Geeta in this chap­ter through lit­eral trans­la­tions and con­sti­tut­ing verses to some of them. Talk­ing about the con­tri­bu­tion of Shankaracharya to this sys­tem, he says, “Shankaracharya be­came the fore­most pro­po­nent of Ad­vaita that is Vedanta or Vedan­tic school of thought. Upan­ishads are the texts that are at­tached to the end of each of the Vedas as Vedan­tas. Though no­body knows who wrote them, there are 13 prin­ci­pal Upan­ishads which are at­tached at the end of one or the other Vedas. Vedanta lit­er­ally means the end of Vedas. Shankaracharya was the one who built on these in­sights and built a rig­or­ous struc­ture of philo­soph­i­cal thoughts, un­par­al­leled due to its log­i­cal con­sis­tency and depth of in­sights. That is his con­tri­bu­tion.” The author dis­cusses these Vedan­tic thoughts in the chap­ter ‘The Au­dac­ity of Thought’. It’s not just phi­los­o­phy though. Verma backs up his writ­ing with sci­en­tific re­search and cor­re­la­tion in the chap­ter ‘The Re­mark­able Val­i­da­tion of Science’. The author tries to ex­plain without sound­ing tech­ni­cal, “Through rig­or­ous re­search, we have found that there is re­mark­able cor­re­la­tion be­tween what was vis­i­ble to a philoso­pher’s eyes and what science is prov­ing to­day. Brahm is an all per­va­sive con­scious­ness, which in­cludes ev­ery­body liv­ing and non-liv­ing. One of the at­tributes of Brahm is in­fin­ity, be­yond mea­sure. And to­day, cos­mol­ogy is prov­ing that uni­verse is be­yond mea­sure. The uni­verse is ex­tend­ing at the speed of light and Stephen Hawk­ing has said that there is noth­ing to dis­ap­prove this fact. So it is in­fi­nite. The Earth as we know is 13.5 bil­lion years old and no­body knows what hap­pened be­fore that. People speak of the Big Bang the­ory, but there could have been a big crunch and then a Big Bang, like a cy­cle of Big Bangs and big crunches. Brahm is also de­scribed in this way as Anadi and Anant.” The chap­ter is a marvel for science en­thu­si­asts. Apart from these chap­ters, the book has the orig­i­nal com­men­tary of Adi Shankaracharya on Bhag­wad Geeta. And also in­cludes the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of many texts of Shankaracharya by the author. Be­fore part­ing, we asked Verma if his book will ap­peal to non-be­liev­ers of Hin­duism or athe­ists just as much, to which he replies, “Yes def­i­nitely. That’s why I am get­ting re­ac­tions from across all states. You need to un­der­stand that five out of six sys­tems of Hindu philoso­phies talk about athe­ism. They are not look­ing for God. They are try­ing to un­der­stand what the ul­ti­mate truth is!”

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