Category Archives: Contemporary Issues

Let’s talk to the Book (Religious reform) – Ramesh Venkataraman

Source : Indian Express

Ramanuja and Martin Luther underline how religion evolves by debating with scriptures, not by being beholden to them.

This year marks the 1,000th birth anniversary of Ramanuja, the great Vaishnava theologian who reinvented and revitalised Hinduism, and the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s triggering of the Protestant Reformation which fundamentally reshaped Christianity. Both events are a salutary reminder in these troubled times of how religions can evolve and reform.

Ramanuja is most often hailed for his philosophic articulation of “qualified monism” or visishtadvaita. But it is as a visionary religious leader and organiser that Ramanuja truly made his mark. When he became head of the Srirangam Mutt, Ramanuja inherited a theological tradition that had championed the Pancaratra Agamas — a set of scriptures composed outside the dominant Vedic and Brahmanic mainstream — as equally the product of divine revelation as the Vedas themselves. The Agamas, unlike the sacrifice-oriented Vedas, sanctioned image worship and inclusive temple-based rituals that women and lower caste believers, and not just Brahmin males, could participate in.

It was Ramanuja’s brilliance that gave practical effect to this theological innovation. He organised the daily pujas and annual festival cycle at the Srirangam Ranganatha temple in line with Agamic norms, thereby broadening the temple’s constituency to include rising peasant castes and women. He also made room for the emotive Tamil hymns of the Alvars in the otherwise austere Sanskrit temple liturgy. Eventually, under his leadership, these reforms took hold at other Vaishnavite temple complexes such as Tirupati and Melkote that had sprung up across South India over the preceding centuries.

Ramanuja, thus, profoundly reinvented Hinduism in response to societal conditions of the 11th century (albeit his inclusiveness did not extend to the “untouchable” community). Over time, the transformation he initiated was carried across India by the so-called “bhakti movements”. Ultimately, Ramanuja’s Agamic revolution, placing popular and dramatic temple rituals and emotional image adoration at the centre of worship and widening participation beyond Brahmin males, became mainstream to Hinduism displacing older practices rooted in the Vedic tradition.

In 1517, 500 years after Ramanuja, Martin Luther, a German monk and theologian, sparked the Reformation by posting “95 Theses” on a church door in Wittenberg, questioning portions of the Christian Church’s doctrine and specific corrupt practices — notably papal indulgences, a sort of whitewash of sins that were hawked by the Vatican for a hefty fee. Luther’s challenge set in train a seismic reshaping of Christianity and ultimately laid the foundation for the modern West. At the heart of the Lutheran revolution was the idea that Christians should themselves read the Bible, vernacular translations of which were beginning to roll off Gutenberg’s newly-invented printing presses, rather than have it presented to them by their priests.

But as soon as more and more people started to read the Bible, it became obvious that much of what is in the New and Old Testaments is ambiguous, impractical, and often contradictory — the Bible, like most scripture, does not speak with a single voice. To take one example cited by the philosopher Anthony Appiah, the same St. Paul who says women should cover their heads in church and men shouldn’t, also told the Galatians: “There is neither male nor female: For ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” Protestant communities springing up across northern Europe chose to grapple with these scriptural conundrums themselves in self-study sessions rather than take their cues from the Church in Rome. They decided, in Appiah’s words, “which passages to read into and which to read past,” to shape their faith for their day and age.

Eventually, in the wake of the Reformation, good Christians could see that other sincere, committed Christians around them — be they traditional Catholics or members of one of the new Protestant sects from Calvinists and Anabaptists to Puritans and Presbyterians — came to believe in very different things. This ultimately infused (more than a century of brutal conflict later!) a more tolerant and sceptical spirit across Europe that gave birth to the liberal, secular, and humanist values of the 18th century Enlightenment.

It is worth reminding ourselves of this history when we are faced with shrill arguments that Muslims are immutable to change — whether on how they treat women or other religions. The argument goes as follows: Committed Muslims must take their beliefs directly from the Quran. For example, the Quran clearly says women are inferior to men in passages such as Surah (4:34): “Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other.” Therefore, Muslim societies are bound to continue to treat men as superior to women. Indeed, this sort of scriptural determinism is mobilised by both sides — outsiders looking to indict Islam and insiders defending practices they favour.

But scriptures in other faiths also put down women — be it the Dharmashastras, the Torah, or the Bible — often in harsher terms than in the Quran. “Women have one eternal duty in this world,” says Bhishma in the Anusasana Parva of the Mahabharata, “dependence upon and obedient service to their husbands.” Thankfully, however, religious beliefs do not repose in sacred texts. Much of scripture is written in language that is poetical, metaphorical, or simply obscure. Much of it consists of narratives or fictional parables. Scripture, therefore, requires interpretation.

While fundamentalists of all stripes persist in trying to turn the clock back to what they regard as original, divinely-ordained doctrine, Jewish, Christian, and Hindu communities have been able to evolve their creeds by interpreting their scriptural dictums for the world they live in. No one would have predicted if they simply read the Manusmriti that we would have sudra archakas (shudra priests) in Hindu temples or inferred from the Torah or the King James Bible that there would be women and gay rabbis and Anglican bishops.

Islam is no different. There are very few verses in the Quran which actually lay down law. Quranic verses — like most scripture — are vague and quite general. They have to be read along with other sources such as the sayings and doings of the Prophet to determine the rules for specific situations. Islam has a hoary tradition of schools of jurisprudence that have devised sophisticated theoretical frameworks to come up with the law governing the behaviour of Muslims. But these schools diverge in their views which is why there is a great range of social practice — whether on polygamy, women being veiled, serving liquor in public places, or tolerance of other faiths — between Turkey and Morocco and Saudi Arabia, all avowedly Muslim countries.

This is why the Supreme Court case on triple talaq, on which the Quran typically offers no clear-cut direction, is so important for India’s Muslims. Whatever be the court’s final judgement, and despite the political calculus that lies behind the Sangh Parivar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s support for abolishing triple talaq, the hearings have provided an unprecedented forum for the Indian Muslim community — ranging from petitioner Shayara Bano to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board — to have a vibrant public debate on whether this practice should prevail in this day and age.

What Ramanuja and Luther underline for us is that it is precisely this sort of reasoned debate amongst fellow believers, in dialogue with but not beholden to their scriptures, that has allowed religious communities throughout history to reform themselves — for the better.

In Good Faith: A secular ethics for our times -Dalai Lama

Source : Indian Express

Time is always moving forward and no force can stop it. At every moment, we have the option of using our time constructively or negatively. The choice we make will determine whether our world becomes a peaceful one or continues to be engulfed in conflict and tension.

All human beings are basically the same, whether Easterners or Westerners, Southerners or Northerners, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, from this religion or that, and whether they’re believers or not. Emotionally, mentally and physically (except for minor secondary differences in appearance), we are the same. We all have the same potential to undergo both positive and negative experiences. Common sense shows us that negative actions always bring pain and sorrow while constructive action brings us pleasure and joy. Therefore, it is important to recognise that each of us has the potential to transform ourselves into a better, happier person, leading to a better and happier society.

The way such a transformation can take place is through adopting a positive mental attitude. We need a new way of thinking that includes provisions for developing our inner world. For centuries, humanity has invested greatly in developing society in material terms, on the basis of science and technology. This has resulted in remarkable improvements in the living standards of people throughout the world. Despite these scientific and technological achievements, however, many problems remain as people continue to cherish an outdated mental attitude.

In the field of international relations, for example, even countries that cherish freedom, democracy and liberty still rely greatly on force and violence. Using force may seem attractive and decisive, but it is counterproductive in the long run. For one thing, violence is unpredictable. Your initial intention may be to use limited force, but once you have committed violence, the consequences are unpredictable. Violence always creates unexpected complications and a violent response.

Violence is also not realistic in today’s world, since every being is so intertwined. Under these circumstances, to destroy your neighbour is actually destruction of oneself. In order to solve a problem, you have to appreciate what is at stake for your opponents. You have to take care of their interests as well as you can, and in that light, try to find a solution. What we need is a kind of inner disarmament. If we cultivate that and an awareness of the effects of violence, then the very notion of military activity will become outdated. We can then think seriously about how to physically disarm. Fortunately, on the issue of nuclear weapons, there are already programmes for dismantling nuclear warheads. We could go further and seek the total destruction of nuclear weapons. Then, the long-term target could be to aim for a demilitarised world.

There is also the mistaken belief that economic growth alone might result in a happier society. But current inequalities in economic development, resulting in a huge gap between the rich and the poor across the globe, as well as within nations, is a source of tensions and practical problems. Unfortunately, not many of us are able to see the reality of our situation, and as a result a great difference separates our perceptions from reality. On the basis of our misconceptions, we adopt attitudes that compound the problems in society.

The future of humanity depends on the adoption of a positive mental attitude by the current generation. This is why education is so important. Knowledge is like an instrument, and whether that instrument is put to use in a constructive or a destructive way depends on motivation. Modern education is very sound, but it seems to be based on a universal acceptance of the importance of developing the brain. Not enough attention is given to the development of the person as a whole, and to encouraging a clear sense of values and a warm heart.

My hope is that our educational systems will pay more attention to the development of human warmth and love. It is important to address moral questions related to the whole life of an individual, including his or her role in the society and in the family. All the way from kindergarten up to university. Through this, there is the potential to make oneself a happy person, to have a happy family, and to live in a happy society.

Parents have a special responsibility to introduce their children to the benefits of basic good human qualities such as love, kindness, and a warm heart. It would also be very useful to introduce children to the idea that whenever they are faced with a conflict, the best and most practical way of resolving it is through dialogue, not violence. If we introduce the idea of dialogue to children at an early age, through their schools, we can train students to discuss different views. In this way, the concept of dialogue will gradually be instilled in them. This is important because there will always be conflicts and disagreements in human society, and dialogue is the appropriate, effective and realistic method of truly resolving them.

Through such education, we can foster the idea that human beings are social creatures, that our individual interests rest on society and that it is in our own interest to be warm-hearted good neighbours to each other. This relates directly to what I think of as basic human values — that is, a sense of caring, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of forgiveness, based on a commitment to the oneness of humanity. We could call these basic human values “secular ethics”, since they do not depend on religious faith. And by “secular” here I mean that whether we embrace religion or not, which is a personal matter, these values still hold true. The very purpose of life is to find happiness, so there is no point in neglecting those very values that are directly related to making us happy.

There is good reason to develop these basic human values, because I believe that human nature is basically gentle. I believe that we are only occasionally aggressive and that generally our lives are very much involved with love and affection. Even the cells in our body work better if we have peace of mind. An agitated mind usually provokes some physical imbalance. If peace of mind is important for good health, that means the body itself is structured in a way that accords with mental peace. We can therefore conclude that human nature is more inclined to gentleness and affection.

On the mental level, too, we find that the more compassionate we are, the greater our peace of mind. In my brief lifetime, I have found that the more I meditate on compassion and think about the infinite number of sentient beings who are suffering, the more I develop an immense feeling of inner strength. As our inner strength and self-confidence grow, fear and doubt are reduced, and this automatically makes us more open. Then we can communicate more easily, because when we are open, others respond accordingly. On the other hand, when we are filled with fear, hatred or doubt, the door to our heart is closed and we relate to others with suspicion. The sad thing about this is that you can develop the impression that other people also harbour suspicions about you, and the distance between you and them increases. This ends in loneliness and frustration.

Younger generations have a great responsibility to ensure that the world becomes a more peaceful place for all. This can happen so long as our modern educational system involves educating the heart along with the brain.

India’s diverse cultural pluralistic society

Source : Press Information Bureau, Government of India >> http://pib.nic.in/newsite/PrintRelease.aspx?relid=145847

Challenge for the modern world is to accept diversity as an existential reality and to configure attitudes and methodologies for dealing with it: Vice President

Addresses Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco

The Vice President of India, Shri M. Hamid Ansari has said that the challenge for the modern world is to accept diversity as an existential reality and to configure attitudes and methodologies for dealing with it. He was delivering a lecture at the Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco, today on the topic ‘Accommodating Diversity in a Globalising World: The Indian Experience’. The Moroccan University later conferred an honoris causa degree on the Vice President.

The Vice President said that Indian Muslims have lived in India’s religiously plural society for over a thousand years and that has impacted on modern India and its existential reality of a plural society on the basis of which a democratic polity and a secular state structure was put in place.  He further said that the framers of our Constitution had the objective of securing civic, political, economic, social and cultural rights as essential ingredients of citizenship with particular emphasis on rights of religious minorities.

The Vice President said that the Muslim experience in modern India is that its citizens professing Islamic faith are citizens, consider themselves as such, are beneficiaries of the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution, participate fully in the civic processes of the polity and seek correctives for their grievances within the system. There is no inclination in their ranks to resort to ideologies and practices of violence, he added. He further said that in countries having complex societal makeup, accommodation of diversity in political structures and socio-economic policies is not an option but an imperative necessity ignoring which can have unpleasant consequences.

The Vice President said that the Indian model was of relevance to our globalizing world because in India, an attempt was being made to look beyond the traditional virtue of tolerance and seek acceptance of diversity and adopt it as a civic virtue.

Following is the text of Vice President’s address:

Accommodating Diversity in a Globalising World: The Indian Experience

 A traveller from a distant land in mashriq-al-aqsa comes to Maghrib-al Aqsa and marvels at his good fortune. His sense of history quickly reminds him that centuries earlier a great name from this land had travelled to India and recorded in some detail his impressions about the governance, manner and customs of Indians. He attained high office and also had his share of minor misfortunes.

I refer, of course, to Sheikh Abdullah Mohammad ibn Abdullah ibn Mohammad ibn Ibralim al Lawati, better known as Ibn Batuta of Tanja.

I thank the Government of the Kingdom of Morocco, and His Excellency the President of the University, for inviting me to address the Mohammad V University today.

Even in distant India, the contribution of Moroccan intellectuals to modern thought and challenges is known and acknowledged. Names like Abdullah Al-Arui and Abid al-Jabri readily come to mind; so do the contributions of feminist writers like Fatima Mernisi and Fatima Sadiqi. The challenge in each case was that of modernity and the contemporary responses to it. Each addressed a specific aspect of the problem; the general question was posed aptly by al-Jabri: ‘How can contemporary Arab thought retrieve and absorb the most rational and critical dimensions of its tradition and employ them in the same rationalist directions as before – the direction of fighting feudalism, Gnosticism, and dependency?’

This is a rich field, amply and productively explored by contemporary thinkers in Arab lands. This included the debates on Arabism, nationalism, democracy and Islam. Much has also been written about the trauma, self or externally inflicted, experienced individually and collectively by Arab societies in the past seven decades. The misfortunes visited on Arab lands since the 19th century was in good measure a result of their proximity to Europe in the age of imperialism.

I would like to pause here and take up a related matter to draw the attention of the audience to some terminological questions. In current discussions in many places, the terms ‘Arab’ and ‘Islam’ are used together or interchangeably. But are the two synonymous? Is Arab thought synonymous with Islamic thought? Is all Arab thought Islamic or visa versa? Above all, can all Islamic thinking be attributed to Arabs?

I raise these questions because for a variety of reasons and motivations the contemporary world, particularly the West, tends to create this impression of ‘a powerful, irrational force that, from Morocco to Indonesia, moves whole societies into cultural assertiveness, political intransigence and economic influence.’ The underlying basis for this, as Aziz Al-Azmeh put it, are ‘presumptions of Muslim cultural homogeneity and continuity that do not correspond to social reality.’

Allow me to amplify. Islam is a global faith, and its adherents are in all parts of the world. The history of Islam as a faith, and of Muslims as its adherents, is rich and diversified. In different ages and in different regions the Muslim contribution to civilisation has been note worthy. In cultural terms, the history of Islam ‘is the history of a dialogue between the realm of religious symbols and the world of everyday reality, a history of the interaction between Islamic values and the historical experiences of Muslim people that has shaped the formation of a number of different but interrelated Muslim societies.’

This audience is in no need of being reminded of the truism that reasoning should proceed from facts to conclusions and should eschew a priori pronouncements.

What then are facts?

The Wikipedia indicates the world’s Muslim population in 2015 as 1.7 billion. The Pew Research Center of the United States has published country-wise and region-wise religious composition and projections for 198 countries for the period 2010 to 2050. It indicates that in 2010 Muslims numbered 1.59 billion out of which 986 million were in Asia-Pacific. It projects that four years from now, in 2020, the corresponding figures would be 1.9 billion out of which 1.13 billion (around 60 percent) would be in Asia-Pacific. The comparative figures for West Asia–North Africa would be 317 and 381 million (19.9% and 20.52%) and for Sub-Saharan Africa 248 and 329 million (15.59% and 17.31%) respectively. Within the Asia-Pacific region Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Turkey together would account for 830 million in 2010 and 954 million in 2020.

These numbers underline the fact that an overwhelming number of Muslims of the world are non-Arabs and live in societies that are not Arab. Equally relevant is the historical fact they contributed to and benefited from the civilisation of Islam in full measure. This trend continues to this day.

The one conclusion I draw from this is that in ascertaining Islamic and Muslim perceptions on contemporary happenings, the experiences and trends of thinking of the non-Arab segments of large Muslim populations in the world assume an importance that cannot be ignored. These segments include countries with Muslim majorities (principally Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey) as also those where followers of the Islamic faith do not constitute a majority of the population (India, China, and Philippines).

Amongst both categories, India is sui generis. India counts amongst its citizens the second largest Muslim population in the world. It numbers 180 million and accounts for 14.2 percent of the country’s total population of 1.3 billion. Furthermore, religious minorities as a whole (Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis or Zoroastrians) constitute 19.4 percent of the population of India.

India’s interaction with Islam and Muslims began early and bears the imprint of history. Indian Muslims have lived in India’s religiously plural society for over a thousand years, at times as rulers, at others as subjects and now as citizens. They are not homogenous in racial or linguistic terms and bear the impact of local cultural surroundings, in manners and customs, in varying degrees.

Through extensive trading ties before the advent of Islam, India was a known land to the people of the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf, and western Asia and was sought after for its prosperity and trading skills and respected for its attainments in different branches of knowledge. Thus Baghdad became the seeker, and dispenser, of Indian numerals and sciences. ThePanchatantra was translated and became Kalila wa Dimna. Long before the advent of Muslim conquerors, the works of Al-Jahiz, Ibn Khurdadbeh, Al-Kindi, Yaqubi and Al-Masudi testify to it in ample measure. Alberuni, who studied India and Indians more thoroughly than most, produced a virtual encyclopedia on religion, rituals, manners and customs, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. He commenced his great work by highlighting differences, but was careful enough ‘to relate, not criticize’.

Over centuries of intermingling and interaction, an Indo-Islamic culture developed in India. Many years back, an eminent Indian historian summed it up in a classic passage:

 ‘It is hardly possible to exaggerate the extent of Muslim influence over Indian life in all departments. But nowhere else is it shown so vividly and so picturesquely, as in customs, in intimate details of domestic life, in music, in the fashion of dress, in the ways of cooking, in the ceremonial of marriage, in the celebration of festivals and fairs, and in the courtly institutions and etiquette’.

Belief, consciousness and practice became a particularly rich area of interaction. Within the Muslim segment of the populace, there was a running tussle between advocates of orthodoxy and those who felt that living in a non-homogenous social milieu, the pious could communicate values through personal practice. In this manner the values of faith, though not its theological content, reached a wider circle of the public. This accounted for the reach and popularity of different Sufi personalities in different periods of history and justifies an eminent scholar’s observation that ‘Sufism took Islam to the masses and in doing so it took over the enormous and delicate responsibility of dealing at a personal level with a baffling variety of problems.’

It also produced a convergence or parallelism; the Sufi trends sought commonalities in spiritual thinking and some Islamic precepts and many Muslim practices seeped into the interstices of the Indian society and gave expression to a broader and deeper unity of minds expressive of the Indian spiritual tradition. The cultural interaction was mutually beneficial and an Islamic scholar of our times has acknowledged ‘an incontrovertible fact that Muslims have benefited immensely from the ancient cultural heritage of India.’

I mention this because I am aware, but dimly, about the role of Sufi movements and ‘zawiyas’ in the history of Morocco. There is, in my view, room for comparative studies of Sufi practices in Morocco and India.

It is this backdrop that has impacted on modern India and its existential reality of a plural society on the basis of which a democratic polity and a secular state structure was put in place.

The framers of our Constitution had the objective of securing civic, political, economic, social and cultural rights as essential ingredients of citizenship. Particular emphasis was placed on rights of religious minorities.  Thus in the section on Fundamental Rights ‘all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.’ In addition, every religious denomination shall have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, to manage its own affairs in matters of religion, and to acquire and administer movable and immovable property. Furthermore, all religious or linguistic minorities shall have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice. A separate section on Fundamental Duties of citizens enjoins every citizen ‘to promote harmony and the spirit of common brotherhood amongst all the people of India transcending religious, linguistic and regional or sectional diversities’ and also ‘to value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture.’

Given the segmented nature of society and unequal economy, the quest for substantive equality, and justice, remains work in progress and concerns have been expressed from time to time about its shortfalls and pace of implementation. The corrective lies in our functioning democracy, its accountability mechanisms including regularity of elections at all levels from village and district councils to regional and national levels, the Rule of Law, and heightened levels of public awareness of public issues.

The one incontrovertible fact about the Muslim experience in modern India is that its citizens professing Islamic faith are citizens, consider themselves as such, are beneficiaries of the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution, participate fully in the civic processes of the polity and seek correctives for their grievances within the system. There is no inclination in their ranks to resort to ideologies and practices of violence.

The same diversity of historical experience, and the perceptions emanating from it, is to be found in Indonesia that has the world’s largest population of Muslims and where two Islamist parties – Nahdatul Ulema and Muhammadiyah function legally, have large memberships, and participate in political activities including local and national elections. On a visit to Jakarta a few months back, I had occasion to solicit their views on contemporary debates on Political Islam. They said Islam in Indonesia has united with the culture of the people and their Islamic traditions have adapted themselves to local conditions. They felt Indonesian Muslims are moderate in their outlook, that Islam does not advocate extremism, and that radicalization of Islam is harmful and does not benefit the community.

Both instances cited above indicate that in countries having complex societal makeup, accommodation of diversity in political structures and socio-economic policies is not an option but an imperative necessity ignoring which can have unpleasant consequences.

 I come back to the principal theme of this talk. Why is the Indian model of relevance to our globalizing world?

Globalization has many facets – economic, political and cultural. All necessitate the emergence of a set of norms, values and practices that are universally accepted. A sociologist has defined it as ‘the compression of the world and the intensification of consciousness of the world as a whole.’ An obvious implication of this would be assimilation and homogenization. In a world of intrinsically diverse societies at different levels of development, this could only result in denial of their diversity and imposition of uniformity. Such an approach can only result in conflict.

The challenge for the modern world is to accept diversity as an existential reality and to configure attitudes and methodologies for dealing with it. In developing such an approach, the traditional virtue of tolerance is desirable but insufficient; our effort, thinking and practices have to look beyond it and seek acceptance of diversity and adopt it as a civic virtue.

We in India are attempting it, cannot yet say that we have succeeded, but are committed to continue the effort. We invite all right-minded people to join us in this endeavour.

Thank you.”

Is Adi Sankaracharya India’s ‘national philosopher’?

Source: The Indian Express

He sure is!

Govt is considering a proposal to observe May 11, birthday of Adi Sankaracharya, as National Philosophers’ Day. Who was Sankara, what was his philosophy?

What exactly is meant by India’s “national” philosophy?

Indian philosophy is an incredibly rich, complex and diverse bouquet of thoughts and ideas that can be divided, at the most fundamental level, between the Astika and the Nastika schools. The Astikas believe in the supremacy of the Vedas (and not, significantly, in God). There are six major branches of Astika thought: Mimamsa, Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisesika and Vedanta. Mimamsa and Sankhya do not believe in God as the Creator.

The three chief Nastika strands are Charvaka, Jaina and Bauddha. All of them emerged in opposition to Vedic supremacy. They do not believe in God and the Vedas.

Indian philosophy has been occupied with ontological and metaphysical questions such as ‘Who are we?’, ‘What is the relation between the body and the self?’, ‘What is this world all about?’, ‘Who is the creator?’, ‘What is knowledge and its nature?’, ‘What are the various levels of reality?, ‘How does one attain knowledge?’, etc. Unlike western systems of philosophy, in India, the various branches co-existed over centuries, and sometimes evolved after intense debates among them. There is no one ‘national’ Indian philosophy, unless the very diversity of its many streams is considered the national characteristic of the Indian system of thought.

 

What is Vedanta, the system with which Sankara is most closely associated?

As the nomenclature indicates, Vedanta or the Upanishads mark the ‘end of the Vedas’. Vedanta represents the culmination of the vast Vedic thought. The Vedas are polytheistic, with a belief in many gods. However, all of these gods have a supreme lord above them. Upanishadic or Vedantic thought shifts the centre from God to the Self (Atma), and the entire endevaour is to realise this Self.

There have been many commentators on Vedanta, such as Sankaracharya (early 9th century), Ramanujacharya (11th century), Madhavacharya (13th-14th centuries) and Vallabhacharya (15th-16th centuries). Each differs from others on many aspects. But Sankara is almost unanimously seen as the most prominent.

So what are Sankaracharya’s main philosophical thoughts?

It is generally accepted that Sankara was born in Kaladi, not far from today’s Kochi, in 788 AD. At the heart of his philosophy of Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism) is “Tat Twam Asi” or “Thou Art That”, the famous phrase from the Chhandogya Upanishad, which perceives the Self (Atman) as the Absolute Reality (Brahman). Brahman is the sole cause, creator and consumer of the universe.

Sankara is also famous for his theory of Maya, which, according to him, is the charismatic power that creates the world, and is inseparable (ananya, abhinna, aprithak) from Brahman. Change, according to Sankara, is an illusion — nothing that did not exist earlier will come into existence. The change of outer form is visible to some eyes due to the operation of Maya, but truth remains the same.

Still, the world does possesses a practical reality. The dream is real until we wake up. Sankara doesn’t refute the dream, only points at the Maya that creates the illusion of dream. His notion of Brahman or Absolute Reality states that there exists just one infinite existence that reveals itself in myriad forms. Brahman is beyond distinctions, qualities, descriptions or definitions. It is Parabrahman, Nirguna Brahman (formless entity). Sankara’s philosophy has evoked the admiration of a spectrum of thinkers through the centuries.

So, can Sankara be called India’s ‘National Philosopher’?

Sankara came at a time when the Sanatan Dharma was divided and battered, and Buddhism was advancing; he established four maths in four corners of the country, unified the divided Santana Dharma, and is credited with the philosophical ‘defeat’ of Bauddhas.

For many Indian and western thinkers, Sankara’s non-dualism is the acme of Indian philosophy. It is generally agreed that he established a fine but strong balance among various levels of reality, and it is difficult to find a logical flaw in the formulations of this philosopher who was only 32 at the time of his death. Even as he propagated the Nirgun (formless) Brahman, he created the epistemic space for Sagun or Sakar Isvara (God) as well.

Despite some later criticism, Sankara is almost unanimously seen as the most logical and coherent of the Vedanta masters. S Radhakrishnan termed him a “mind of very fine penetration and profound spirituality”. He wrote: “His (Sankara’s) philosophy stands forth complete, needing neither a before nor an after… whether we agree or differ, the penetrating light of his mind never leaves us where we were.”

My Personal View:

Undoubtedly, Acharya Sankara was one of the greatest philosophers ever born in the world. A detailed study of his philosophy brings out the remarkable coherence in his logic and validity with the current scientific facts.

But this is no way undermines the importance of Buddhism and Jainism in shaping the “Indianness” of the subcontinent. In fact, Acharya Sankara called his philosophical rival Buddha as “the emperor of all yogis”.

Buddha gave a practical philosophy and techniques to attain enlightenment. The Buddhist doctrines and scriptures that are found to be self-contradictory by Vedantis were framed by his disciples and later monks. Buddha never intended to give a theory about metaphysical realities. His only concern was welfare of the people and their “Nirvana”. So, he taught the practical technique to that goal. Buddha was a great yogi.

Similarly, the Jain faith has been a big contributor to “Indianness” in the sense that it promoted vegetarianism, truthfulness, non-violence and non-indulgence. The famous Jain story about “6 blind men and an elephant” matches with the essence of Indianness, also espoused in the Rig Vedic hymn “Ekam Sat Viprah Bahudha Vadanti” meaning: “Truth is one, scholars describe it in different forms.”