Pavan K Varma’s Adi Shakaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker is part of a mainstream reclamation of Hinduism – Shashi Tharoor’s book, Why I am a Hindu, published in early 2018 comes to mind as well. There are many to whom any invocation of traditions such as Hinduism is at best pointless, at worst regressive. Since such positions are ideological or axiomatic, it would be hard to argue with them. On the other hand, there are those who are open to such invocations.

For this latter group, the proof of the pudding is in the gains that such a revaluation of tradition can achieve. If anyone is trying sincerely, against the odds, to make a case for those elements of traditions that still speak to us across the millennium, it is perhaps incumbent on us to listen. We are in at least as important a crossroad as Shankara was in eighth century, and perhaps a work such as Varma’s is at least at the beginning of a beginning of discussing this crossroad.

False binaries

What would strike most people as the chief difficulty of engaging with a thinker-poet like Shankara is the abstruseness of his thought. Varma does indeed struggle with this. It is highly artificial to pretend to be moved by a metaphysical claim such as “all is one”. A claim like that could only have meaning within a tightly defined tradition. To be simply awed, as Varma is, without any of the context in which such claims make any sense, is disingenuous. Much of this is also true of the poetry – the last hundred-odd pages of the book are translations, and again, to pretend that any of it makes immediate aesthetic sense would be dubious. The invocation of tradition seems to be full of false binaries – there is no reason to be consistently hagiographic. One should be allowed to say that maybe Shankara was a great poet but a poor philosopher (or of course vice versa). The translations in this book, however, are simply presented as if their charm or genius is self-evident.

Another drawback of the book is the 50-page-long chapter titled “The Remarkable Validation of Science”, essentially making the case that modern science validates the insights of Advaita. It is unfortunate that Indian philosophy is supposed to need this type of validation at all – science can no more validate Advaita than Advaita can validate science. Such forced comparisons just pick throwaway lines from physicists (of course ignoring all the difficult mathematics that go into it) and compare it to metaphysical statements likewise deprived of their dense context of argumentation. This approach only reduces and belittles both modes of knowledge. It seems ill-fated that much of the populist revival of Hinduism seems to be so heavily invested in this non-question of the relation of science to Hinduism.

A failure of scholarship

However, despite all of the above, one senses earnestness at the heart of a quest that in the contemporary world may indeed be, unfairly, mocked. To many, a necessary, spiritual dimension of the human has been violently repressed in our contemporary world. After granting that religion has often endorsed great inequality and great violence, Varma may still rightly (though tentatively) make the claim that something is left over – not all that is religious has been utterly compromised.

There is beauty in the myth of Shankara – a young celibate seeker, traveling far, experiencing amazing adventures of the mind and the senses, and finally claiming a vivid, transforming power of consciousness. The archetype of such a quest is perhaps more important than the details of the metaphysics – if one really wanted to read the metaphysics then one has to engage with the oeuvres of thinkers like Vacaspati (10th century) or Sri Harsha (12th century), one has to understand the great battles Advaita fought with the Nyaya, Mimamsaka and Buddhist traditions – in philosophy at least there are never any decisive victors. Many of those debates echo today in different avatars.

Yet, though there is some serious scholarship, we have failed to strength Indian higher education to the point where we have even a hundredth of the rigorous interpretive scholarship on Shankara that, say, the Europeans have on Kant. While traveling through the country, Varma meets an assorted group of people, many institutionally linked to the mathas (monastic organisations) Shankara is supposed to have set up, but very few seem to have anything insightful to say. If ever the ghost of Shankara is preserved, it is in the natural beauty of the moonlight scattered on the rivers and mountainsides he is believed to have frequented. These (almost) make up for the lack of aesthetics of the structures built in the modern period around those same mathas and riversides.

All of this (the paucity of scholarship, the lack of an architectural aesthetic that could have truly honoured Shankara, the talkative, ignorant, self-confident babus and politicians who have captured the administration of these ancient sites) should have made Varma approach Shankara with much trepidation.

But since Varma’s is such an auto-didactic quest what the reader can hope for at best are some keen moments of observation and self-illumination. Varma travels in Shankara’s footsteps across India, providing a wry sociological account of how the mathas today attempt to keep something of an old flame flickering. Rather than the more unconvincing claim to organically access a metaphysical “audacity of thought” (the title of the chapter that discusses Shankara’s ideas), it is in Varma’s sober sense of a present seeking (one that combines humour, detachment and that small but critical dose of faith) that the merit of the book lies. Popular discourse on Hinduism will improve only if more such books are written, and if both their limitations and their virtues are openly and continually discussed.

Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker, Pavan K Varma, Tranquebar.