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    Adi Shankara as national philosopher: Can BJP live up to his teachings?

    Shriya Mohan | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST
    The proposal
    • The Centre is mulling a proposal to honour eighth century seer Adi Shankaracharya as the national philosopher
    • It is set to announce his birthday, 11 May, as \'National Philosophers\' Day\'
    The significance
    • At a time when Hinduism was divided, Adi Shankara emerged as the ultimate unifier
    • Philosophers have said his Advaita philosophy encapsulates the core of all religions
    More in the story
    • Why the move is set for wide acclaim
    • What the BJP must learn from Adi Shankara\'s philosophy

    India might soon have another official day to commemorate. Sources reveal the Centre is mulling over making 11 May, Adi Shankaracharya's birthday, as 'National Philosophers' Day'.

    The proposal first came from the Karnataka-based Sringeri Sharada Peeta in 2014. According to media reports, the Math wrote to the Centre about the "need to recognise and promote valuable contributions made by Sri Adi Shankara to the country through his doctrine of Advaita (non-dualism)".

    Thereafter, the Prime Minister's Office had asked the Ministry of Culture to look into the proposal. It was almost approved to be introduced from this year, but a shortcoming in the logistics of the commemoration led the Centre to postpone its announcement.

    Logistics apart, before the Centre gives its approval, the main ruling party, the BJP, has some soul searching to do about what Shankara really represents, and whether its leadership has the guts to embrace his philosophy before celebrating it.

    Who was Shankara?

    Sri Adi Shankara, referred to as Shankara, was born in Kalady in 788 AD, not far from today's Kochi.

    At a time when Hinduism was seen to have broken down into warring factions claiming their respective gods were superior over other Hindu gods, Shankara was a powerful unifying force. He reminded people of the highest essence of Vedanta, believed to be Hinduism's most evolved core.

    At a time when Hinduism had broken down into warring factions, Shankara was a unifying force

    Advaita Vedanta very simply says two things:

    1. That the world is Maya, an illusion, and therefore unreal. Everything external with shape and form is eternally changing, impermanent, and therefore, cannot be the absolute truth.

    2. God is not without but within. To discover it, you only need to realise the self, which is the only permanent and unchanging entity. The substratum of all existence is the all-pervading infinite self, also called the Atman or Brahman. The teaching follows from Upanishadic statements like 'tat tvam asi', meaning 'that you are', and 'aham brahmasmi', meaning 'I am Brahman'.

    Lessons to learn

    The story goes that one day Shankara was walking towards the temple of Lord Vishwanath in Varanasi with his disciples. It so happened that a chandala or sweeper was walking towards him on the same street.

    Shankara asked the sweeper to move away from his path because sweepers were untouchables. The sweeper stood still, looked at him and asked him questions which form the substance of the first two verses of Shankara's Manisha Panchakam.

    "O great among the twice-born! What is it that you want to move away by saying, "Go, go"? Do you want the body made up of food to move away from another body made up of food? Or do you want consciousness to move away from consciousness?

    "Is there any difference between the reflection of the sun in the waters of the Ganga and its reflection in the water in a ditch in the quarters of the outcasts? Or between the space in a gold pot and in a mud pot? What is this illusion of difference in the form?..."

    On hearing these questions, Shankara realised that the person before him was no ordinary sweeper, but God himself.

    Then came Shankara's enlightened response:

    "If a person has attained the firm knowledge that he is not an object of perception, but is that pure consciousness which shines clearly in the states of waking, dream and deep sleep, and which, as the witness of the whole universe, dwells in all bodies from that of the creator, Brahma, to that of the ant, then he is my Guru, irrespective of whether he is an outcast or a Brahmana. This is my conviction."

    "Neither am I bound by sacred hymns nor sacred places, neither by sacred scriptures nor sacrifices"

    In Adi Shankara's, compositions the power of Advaita is very eloquently described through neti or negation of differences, distinctions and definitions. By repeatedly saying 'I am not this, not this, not this', Shankara's philosophy takes everybody along, and brings an unprecedented equality, whose lack was the reason why Hinduism was heavily criticised.

    In Nirvana Shatakam, or six stanzas on Salvation, Shankara writes:

    "Neither am I bound by merits nor sins, neither by worldly joys nor by sorrows,

    Neither am I bound by sacred hymns nor by sacred places, neither by sacred scriptures nor by sacrifices,

    I am neither enjoyment (experience), nor an object to be enjoyed (experienced), nor the enjoyer (experiencer),

    Neither am I bound by death and its fear, nor by the rules of caste and its distinctions,

    I am without any variation, and without any form,

    I am present everywhere as the underlying substratum of everything, and behind all sense organs,

    I am the ever pure blissful consciousness."

    'A good choice'

    Uma Shankar, a professor of philosophy at Bombay University, says naming Shankara as the national philosopher is fantastic news.

    "The highest truths in all religions are an offshoot of Shankara. I think his philosophy encapsulates the core of all religions. Shankara's was a complete system of thought, which is very satisfying and fulfilling to understand," Shankar says.

    "While he taught that the same consciousness exists in everybody, he left the doors open on how one wanted to practice that philosophy. While he encouraged meditation and introspection, he left the doors open to idol worshippers and those who found it hard to disconnect from ritualistic practices.

    The Advaita philosophy also predicts that for the earnest seeker, rituals and hard and fast rules and restrictions are practices that would automatically drop as the soul becomes more realised during the course of the spiritual journey.

    "Shankara was a unifier. By establishing the four dhams, he established a grand plan where the bastion of dharma was maintained. The Maths were ideal places where one could learn how to live in this world perfectly and go back refreshed. Shankara's Hinduism was very tolerant," says Christopher Quilkey, editor of The Mountain Path, a spiritual quarterly magazine published by Sri Ramanasramam in Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu.

    Can BJP subscribe to Advaita?

    The important question the BJP has to answer is this: can this government wear the Advaitic lens and rise above divisive politics? Can it learn something from Shankara and learn to see the same consciousness in every religious sect, caste, creed, sexuality, language, ethnicity and demography? Can it learn to rule as an equal government for all?

    Only by allowing such philosophy to instil tolerance and equality in India's polity will Shankara be truly commemorated.

    Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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    First published: 1 June 2016, 7:24 IST
    Shriya Mohan @ShriyaMohan

    An editor and writer of development stories at Catch, Shriya has 8 years of experience as a development journalist, holds a Masters degree in Public Policy from the National University of Singapore and is a two-time winner of the National Foundation for India media fellowship award. When she isn't exploring the universe with her two-year-old daughter, she chronicles public anger and shelters relevant stories that don't hang sexily on news pegs.