Monday, November 12, 2018

Book Review: Adi Sankaracharya - Hinduism's Greatest Thinker

I came to know about this book when I read the review of it by Shashi Tharoor in the newspaper. I always wanted to learn about the religion I follow - Hinduism, not by the doctrine it preaches, but to get the substance of it. This book precisely does that. And I think Pavan K. Varma has done an amazing job in expounding the advaita philosophy of Hinduism as conceived by Adi Shankaracharya.

It is divided into three parts: The journey of the Great Guru, The thought of Upanishads according to Adi Shankaracharya, and the final part is the validation of these thoughts by modern science. The journey tells us about the background of the Guru starting from Kaladi in Kerala and goes on regaling the audacious expedition and establishment of the Peethas at the four corners of India.

The excitement begins in the second part. It starts with the contents of Bhagavad-Gita and Brahma Sutra and also how these ancient texts are structured. It emphasizes Nishkamakarma - the act without expectation of rewards from Bhagavad-Gita, and the idea of Brahman from Brahma Sutra.

The definition of Brahman in advaita (non-duality) philosophy is self: Tat tvam asi - That thou art (You are that), the Atman, the soul of human life is Brahman - the ultimate reality. This definition appears incomprehensible because, as I read it, the definition itself is not finite. It does not have form or boundaries as it transcends the physical world, beyond the comprehension of the brain with the information received by the five senses. The realization of Brahman is Brahmanubhava; i.e pure consciousness or cognitive wisdom. It is the ultimate reality with eternal bliss. Thus, according to Sankara, Brahman is sat (truth), chitta (awareness/consciousness) and ananda (bliss) - Satchidananda. Once the mind attains this state, it becomes one with God - the higher intelligence or cosmic energy. Pavan Varma backs this belief by sharing the real experiences of eminent personalities like Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev, Eckhart Tolle and the near-death-experience of Anitha Moorjani. It is after reading these experiences, I was able to feel the understanding of Brahman.

In order to experience this Brahman, the first and foremost step is to have a still mind - the mind without any activity, the mind in absolute peace. This is achieved through meditation. It is in this state that the mind opens the door to awaken intuitive consciousness.

It was a mere coincidence that, when I finished reading this book until this point, I was involved in a discussion on Atheism vs Theism where I presented the idea of Hinduism. Hinduism is not about Gods and the rituals and customs that come along with it. Gods are merely symbols of different energies surrounding us. The rituals are scientific methods to utilize these cosmic energies. This is clearly stated in the book. The discussion is posted here. (Please read through)

As a commentary to the discussion, there are a few more practical observations of my own. One: Nazar Utaarna - getting rid of the effects of evil sight; using rock salt, sugar or even with a few leaf-veins of a broom. We know all these methods work. We just don't know how. It is science. Second: the precise schedule of eclipses. If we take the calendars of ten years from now, they will correctly tell us exactly when eclipses occur. The mathematics behind this calculation is even before the existence of NASA or any space agency. Third: The solidification of mercury at room temperature - Rasa Vaidya. It is pure science. We witness the results of all these scientific methods. Thus, there is a presence of a higher intelligence and a higher form of energy. The common man with a limited capacity of understanding wanted to know about the existence of this energy. It was preached as God by the philosophers after Shankaracharya.

The last part of the book deals with validation of Brahman with modern science. Varma corroborates the idea of Brahman with postulated theories and experiments conducted by great scientists on astronomy, particle physics, quantum mechanics and even neurology. It's quite convincing. The research done by Varma in this regard and citing it in the book is really commendable. The epilogue describes the advent of philosophers after Sankaracharya namely, Ramanujacharya, Madhwacharya, Vallabha, and Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. These philosophers deviated from Advaita and preached duality (sometimes called as qualified non-duality: Vishistha Advaita) where God and man are two separate entities.

This post is not a critique or feedback about the work. It is a small step to inspire others to read it for seeking spiritual enlightenment. I am sure it will plant a seed of thought for the atheists if they are not adamant in opening their minds! Finally, I will leave you guys with a quote:
When the religions are largely reduced to rituals, there is always the danger that the form will become more important than substance.

Further Reading:
  1. Brahman - The Ultimate Reality
  2. Kindle Notes & Highlights


  1. Thank you so much for such brilliantly written summary of the book. This book is certainly worth reading.

  2. I never thought a book review would prominently and precisely be able to bring two contrasting subjects together. This book is indeed worth reading.

    The conversation between an atheist and a theist is indeed deeper than it actually looks like.

    To me personally, I don't know where I belong, but I got this one thought in my mind that human are all believers in one way or the other and so it implies that even atheist are believers of the factual existence of that one explanation for this vast world of exceptions, undefinable conditions and supernatural phenomenon. They just deny acknowledging the term 'god' and name it as 'science' while the rest believes all the explanation lies in that one term 'god'.