Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Adi Shankaracharya vis a vis Buddhist religion - a historic perspective

It is very widely felt that Sri Shankaracharya was instrumental in driving the Buddhism out of India. We need to see if this is entirely true or how much.

Buddhism which came into existence by 6th century BC continued to rise even after the demise of Buddha. It saw its peak during the regime of Mauryas, especially Asoka (4-3rd century BC) during which period the Buddhism was all pervasive in India and even a political power to reckon with. Soon after Mauryas, probably the religion started fading out very slowly. Chinese travelers like Fa-Hien (early 5th century AD), Xuanzang (early 6th century AD) note with concern that Buddhism was on a sharp decline in many parts of India. Shankaracharya's came much later, that is 9th century AD.

By the time of Sri Adi Shankara, the Buddhism in India was no more than another a major community and just a theoretical opponent for the Sanathana Dharma. It was no more a big political or religious power to reckon with. It was already on its way out, not because of Shankara, but due to many other politico-religious and economic reasons (and it had more reasons stored in the future in the form of various invasions).

By the time of Shankara, India was in the shape of a religiously looted house, from the point of view of Sanathana Dharma. Buddhism had lost its sheen and had already become highly devoid of all the great ideals taught by the Buddha. 1500 years of its reign in India had certainly created a deep impact on Indian psyche (both in positive and negative ways). But since Buddhism was no more a religion of power now, the Buddhists were helpless, powerless and by and large disillusioned. On the other hand, the followers of Sanatana Dharma had long forgotten the noble way shown by the Upanishats and had confined themselves scrupulously and stubbornly to the ritualistic parts of the Vedic scripture.  Those who did not like this but still not embraced the Buddhism had a kind of appreciation towards Buddhism, at least in principle, due to many of its appealing principles like non-violence, no-sacrifice etc. Many sects like Vaishnavaites had already abandoned Vedic sacrifice etc and adopted a life of non-violence and vegetarian life style. Thus the mass, (Buddhist and Sanathani mass all alike) had lost belief in their respective religions.  The Sanathana Dharma was crumbling under its own weight.  This was the situation that needed a leader who could revive Sanathana Dharma from the clutches of ritualistic approach and show the people the noble path of divine knowledge.

This was the socio-religious scene when Shankara stepped into picture. He had a big task of harmonizing the Hindu scriptural preaching with the moral conscience of the masses. Buddha's principles and teachings appeared quite appealing, including those that deal with fallacy of world, the cycle of karma, trap of desires, the principle of live and let live etc. It seems even Shankara was quite impressed with these principles, why not? They are universally appealing. But there was a problem.  Buddha squarely rejected the supreme authority of the Vedas.  On the other hand, Sri Shankara’s belief and conviction about the Sanathana dharma, and its eternal goodness was firm. He firmly believed even the Vedic scriptures (upon which the Sanathana Dharma relies) ultimately taught those very principles. He believed that this noble vision was only covered behind the thick veil of mundane rituals.  To reform this would mean a bitter debate with the Sanathanis who stuck to their guns.  This is where he had the challenge - of treading on the tight rope - of bringing about the reforms within the framework of Sanathana Dharma and its religious scriptures, the Vedas. This was a fine-balancing act. If you take a stand that Vedas were the ultimate authority, you would be upholding all that is told by the Vedas, even the so called "inhuman practices" prescribed by the Vedas; On the other hand, if you take a stand that the Vedas should be followed except where the practices are evil ones, it means you are not accepting the ultimate authority of Vedas (which was exactly the stand taken by Buddha) it will be a philosophy "outside" the framework of Sanathana Dharma).  So a politically, diplomatically and philosophically correct and acceptable middle path was very much necessary.

Upanishats (also called Vedanta, as they are usually found to be the last of four classes of Vedic literature, i.e., Samhita, Brahmanas, Aranyakas & Upanishats) are a form of philosophical sublimation of the rest of the Vedas. They deal with the metaphysical and spiritual aspects of life such as Atma, Brahma etc rather than ritualistic codes and duties. Hence this part of Vedas is called "Jnyana Kanda". The rest of Vedas that deal with the worldly and ritualistic aspects of life are called "Karma Kanda". Many Vedic schools consider the Karma Kanda itself as the Veda proper, and they consider the Upanishats as only an abstraction and sublimation of the Vedas. Those who pursue the "Karma Kanda" are known as "Poorva Meemamsakas". For them it is only the Veda proper (i.e., Karma Kanda) is the ultimate authority, not the Upanishats. On the other hand there are others who consider only the Upanishats i.e., "Jnyana Kanda" as the ultimate authority. It is said when you enter the realm of supreme knowledge as preached by the Upanishads, the "lower level" ritualistic preachings become meaningless ("atra vedaH avedaa bhavanti"). This is the school of "Uttar Miasma". For them Upanishats are the only pramanas, not the rest of the Vedas. 

Shankaracharya identified himself with this "Uttara Miasma" for three reasons:

  • One, after all, the meaning of all the rituals and all pursuits is ultimately the self realization which comes from the ultimate knowledge of the world and the Brahman. Once you have the knowledge you will realize the futility of all rituals, karmas, and life struggles; you will realize just how unreal the world is, and how you are nothing but an illusory image of the Brahman itself. This, he perceived, to be the view of the Upanishats. 
  • Two, with this you will be doing away with the Karma Kanda, or at least do not consider it as an authority. Thereby all the "evil Vedic practices" like animal-sacrifice etc (which the Bouddhism had always been criticising) will stop even in Sanathana Dharma also (thereby making it as appealing as the Bouddha dharma that was in vogue).
  • Three, this reform will be well within the frame-work of Vedic scriptures (for Vedanta/Upanishats is nothing but a sublimation of the Vedas proper). It is significant to note that so called "advita" as we call it today was not the name given to it by Shankaracharya. He rightly calls his philosophy as "oupanishada darshana" (the darshana according to Upanishats - since he upheld the supremacy of Upanishats).

Then, who were Shankaracharya's main opponents? Not Buddhists, but the Sanathana Dharmis who still had faith in "Karma Kanda" i.e., the "Veda proper". Naturally Shankara had a lot of debates with the doyens of Poorva Mimamsa and other schools like Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sankhya etc, apart from the already fading Bouddhas. Since Buddhism was never against Sanathana Dharma except in respect of meaning-less rituals etc, this new model of Shankaracharya which by and large resembled the Buddhist model of denial of world and karma, and yet "within the framework of Vedas" really appealed to people and scholars alike. This was the reason why Shankara was able to take the Indian philosophic arena by storm with his novel philosophy. He had as big an impact as the Buddhism itself and eventually filled the political and philosophical vacuum created by the exit of Buddhism in India.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

A Sale Note

When Satya called me two days back to announce that he was planning to sell off his library, I thought for a moment that he was joking. So I replied him coolly "fine, tell me your quote, I shall buy it". It was usual for us to chit-chat this way when we met casually. Whenever the talk turns to routine financial difficulties, he would say "Manju, take my library and give me two thousand bucks" I would say "that is too much".

I was lost in thoughts. After a brief pause he told, "No Manju, I am serious". Really? Having lost his younger brother just a few days back, I remembered he was not in a mindset to joke. Then was he really going to sell off his library? I could not believe it. Had this not been a joke, it was not Satya then! I had seen him from my childhood; I grew watching him build his library - book by book.

A small boy with cinema drama and literature filled in his heart and soul, he had left for Bangalore with a big dream in his eyes. True to his dreams, he grew quite a bit as an artist, if not in terms of social/economic standards. He formed his own artistic and cultural life, working with the likes of C.G.Krishnaswamy of Ranganirantara, B V Karantha etc. Popularly known as "Katlu Satya" in amateur theatrical circles, he authored many plays like "baavi", "daambaru bandaddu" etc that won him many accolades from the public and experts alike. He made a good name as a theater artist and a director as well.

The kind of care-free and simplest of simple life-style that he had developed for himself was a matter of envy for us. Like cinema and stage, books was his another passion. While we all resorted to TV, Cinema for our entertainment needs, Satya frequented the book stalls to beat the boredom. Wherever there was a book exhibition or sale in the city, Satya should visit the same; should buy at least 5-6 books; did not matter if it was first hand-second hand or costly-cheap. If the book was valuable, it should be brought home. There was the kind of engrossment in his shopping for books, one that one would find in a boy who shops for his toys. Book purchase was not just for show off. As soon as the book came home he should sit and finish reading it in next two three days. Since most of the books was bought at book fairs, being new and costly, it had turned out to be a very costly affair. Every hundred rupees that he saved would serve to buy a book, he thought. Best part of savings/earnings went go into books. Thus the library, rather than just a library, was an extension of his very personality. He had developed the kind of affinity with each book in his 2500 strong collection that he was able to tell with an impeccable exactness, which book was where, what the content was and where it was torn, when and why. It was a matter of pride to exhibit his collection. After all, it was an owner's pride, really.

Should somebody decide to sell such a prized possession, the situation must be really serious. Though I did not ask this personal question, it was quite evident that he had been through this decision-making nightmare for past two months before finally deciding to sell off his sole "property". Of course this could be a temporary phase, that would pass over with a little endurance, but this (parting with his possession) would be something permanent and should not happen for any reason; for his book collection was an inseparable part of his personality; not something that could be sold to meet some worldly demands. I thought hard if something could be done to save his possession. But the mess was too big for any of his well wishers/friends to resolve. Even the sales proceeds of this library would only meet the most urgent part of the total demand. There seemed no other way than selling the library off.

While I was lost in these thoughts, Satya interrupted: "Manju I know it pains you; I know that you can't afford a library at this point of time, but all I am asking you is to write about it. I am sure there are people out there as crazy as myself; our current task is just to find and establish a connection with them. Since you have interests similar to mine, I am sure there could be such lots in your friend-circle"

I felt so too.

Well, now down to business. He expects the library - with around 2500 books spanning from archaic literature to modern ones, western to eastern, and drawing from a wide spectrum of poetry, poetics, drama, history, spirituality, science, arts, theater etc - to fetch him at least Rs.2 Lakhs (an average of Rs.80 per book). Any book lover knows that the intrinsic value of a book is far more than its face value, especially if it is a collection. It is the value of the "collection" that is more than the sum total of value of individual books. And it is the Library as a whole that is put up for sale, not individual books. Any single individual or group of individuals can buy the library, but the condition is, the library should be bought as a whole. Else, he feels, it does not even serve his financial needs, and moreover it is painful to watch the personal library cannibalized and disappearing into oblivion. Added to this, the hope is that the buyer of his library would look after the library intact.

Here are some snaps of his book collection.

Those interested can contact Mr. Satyanarayana directly; visit him and his library at Bangalore personally. His mobile number is + 91 94487 03864

While the decision itself is painful, I personally wish that its execution is less painful; for it is not just the question of buying/selling a library but the question of ones faith in a value. If it harms ones belief that one can live by himself without any materialistic dimensions, our tonnes of writing and ages of dreaming about a non-materialistic and simple life-style is a waste.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

History of Mysore Palace, rediscovered by Tourism

Last week I was in Hyderabad on some official work. Returning home, I found in the Hyderabad Airport, the displays of AP tourism about various places of tourist interest. One eye catcher was the historic Mysore Palace. Eye catcher, not because it was Mysore palace, not because it was historic, or not even because it was splendid. The AP tourism had made a path breaking discovery in the history of Mysore palace.

It belonged to Tipu Sultan !!! (See the photo)

This "historical monument" was silently catching the eyes of whoever cared to see - especially of tourists (many of whom would be foreign tourists who would return home with memories of India, of our ignorance, and of our audacity to exhibit our ignorance).

Here is the text of my email to the AP department of tourism:

Dear Sir,

Please see the attached photos of one of your displays at Hyderabad Airport taken on 25th April 2008. This is the picture of the world famous Mysore Palace. But shockingly enough, the caption reads "Tipu Sultan's Palace, Mysore"!!!

I had dropped a complaint in the airport complaint/suggession kiosk, but no response till now. For your information, here is a small piece of details about the said palace:

The construction of this palace was started in 1897 to replace the old palace which was destroyed due to fire.

The regent of Mysore at the time, Queen Kempananjammanni Vanivilasa Sannidhana, commissioned a British architect, Henry Irwin, to build yet another palace in its place. The construction was completed in 1912.

Not that the above piece of history may interest you, but this is just to insist that you please stand corrected and immediately remove or correct the display before many more visitors laugh at us.

The tourism department which is supposed to guide and enlighten the tourists about our rich cultural heritage, forgets (or ignores) the history of just 95 years, is a matter of shame, more so when it is displayed in such a bold manner in front of the whole world !!!


The email id of AP tourism is, if you want to send a mailer - just a small hope that it may open the eyes of those who are (ir)responsible, and warn them against blabbering just whatever comes to their mind about our national heritage.

PS: If you know a better email id, please share it with me.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

In quest of a lost charm...

"These cargo ships come from & go to Iran" told my companion. We were standing on the Port Khalid side of the creek which separates the port area from the rest of Sharjah. It was an early evening. Desert cold had started, and it would be chill there after the dark. In the middle of the hectic working hours, we had sneaked out for a fifteen minutes break; to travel in an "abra" across the creek of Sharjah. This creek runs through Sharjah, through Dubai. Those lucky lot who can not afford a car or do not have time to wait for a local transport bus use this inland waterway for their daily travel.

"Abra" is a ferry boat which carries you from the Port side to the city side. It is a 5 minutes sail across the creek, and he charges you 1.5 Dirhams. The waters acquire a beautiful golden shimmer in the evening; a lot of sea-gulls fluttering around. The shores are abuzz with activity. You can see a lot of boats, yatches and cargo ships anchored along the shores. They carry all kind of food, clothings, and assorted stuff. Instead of crossing the creek, if you sail along the creek for about a mile, there is deep sea. It is a day's journey to Iran from here to Iran by the ship, they say.

If you cross the creek you reach the part of the Sharjah city, which is now called Old Sharjah. With its neat, quiet and narrow lanes, historical, cultural and religious museums, intriguing curio shops... stands silent, humble but vivid and lively; in comparison with the rest of the city that is called Sharjah with all its bafflingly gorgeous roads, sky scrapers,hippy shopping mals, KFCs, MacDonalds and the same old dumb stuff.

A weak attempt to search for the soul of the town that was; a local concience that is lost somewhere in the global uniformity; Straining the ear drums to catch strains of that old-time arabic music...

Well, I know I have ignored this small corner of mine for quite long. There are many things that try to come out of the bonds of my laziness. This is one such fortunate sketch.

Rest, a while later.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

First Post

At last took up the task of designing my blogspot. Though I had created this one long back, I could not somehow go any further. Should I call it a time constraint? Well, that is safer ;).

Just stepped into my new corner. Decorated with fonts, colours and layouts to make it somewhat liveable (at least for myself). Now I have to fill it with all the curio stuff strewn around. Well, you may find this place empty for some more time to come, till I get time to sit and arrange, that is.

While making this blog, I was wondering if I should make it in Kannada or English. On a second thought I realized that the question itself was meaningless. When I think in both Kannada & Engilsh, live in both and even beyond, and when I have friends of both languages, and more over when it is my own corner where I do not need to pose, why bother about the language. I shall go on posting as it comes.

Well, I think this much is enough for today. Need a break from this much of Housekeeping work ;) Catch you later