Builder of an Empire of the Spirit

By Nani A. Palkhivala

Most historians are agreed that if a count were taken of the 12 greatest men who ever lived in any country at any age, Adi Shankaracharya would undoubtedly be one of them. I would call him the Universal Man. He deserves to be called the Universal Man in more senses than one. First of all, his accomplishments were of the highest order in a number of fields of mental and spiritual activity, each one of which would have been enough to make him immortal.

He was a poet of the first order and also a philosopher par excellence. He was a savant and a saint of the highest spiritual development. He was a mystic and a religious reformer.

Adi Shankaracharya was a Karma Yogi, Bhakti Yogi and Jnana Yogi, and he was right at the forefront in each category. First, as a Jnana Yogi: His knowledge was almost incredible. He could go to the heart of the Upanishads, the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita and he could expound these scriptures in a manner that has never been surpassed.

As a Bhakti Yogi: He was a man of infinite faith and infinite compassion. Nothing human was alien to his nature. All human beings were alike to him. As a Karma Yogi: He did more as a man of action than most men who are merely men of action have ever been able to do, even those who have achieved world eminence.

What was his aim in having Mathas in different corners of India? One of his main ideas was that this was one single country. We may have different faiths, different sects, and different creeds. Different communities may flourish here, and they have flourished through the centuries, but we are all members of one single family — Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam. And his objective in going around the country was to ensure that the message that we have a common and indivisible destiny and a unified culture got across this great nation.

If we go through his writings, we may readily see that he was not so much a man propounding a religion as a man propounding the religion which underlies all religions.

Adi Shankaracharya was universal in his outlook. His message was meant not for Hindus alone, not for Indians alone, but for all mankind. Surely, Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo must have been thinking of him when both of them said that the destiny of India is to be the spiritual leader and moral teacher of the world.

Today, when we look around and see to what pathetic depths we have sunk, we can hardly realize that this is our glorious destiny. But I have no doubt whatever, knowing a little bit as I do of the modern developments in science and philosophy that the prediction of Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo is bound to come true. This country will be and is destined to be the moral and religious teacher of the world, Adi Shankaracharya did all his phenomenal work in the short span of 32 years; bearing out what Bacon said that a man may be young in years but old in hours if he has lost no time: and Shankaracharya never lost any time.

Every moment of his life was filled with thought and action. And the great Mathas that he founded more than 1,200 years ago, are still continuing, still imparting the type of guidance that this country badly needs today.

One thing that strikes me as almost incredible is how close Shankaracharya’s teachings are to the latest conclusions reached by scientists. You only have to read Sir Arthur Eddington’s ‘The Nature of the Physical World’ or Sir James Jeans’ ‘The Mysterious Universe’ and ‘The Stars in their Courses’ to realize that what Adi Shankaracharya said more than 1,200 years ago is proven to be true today.

It is incredible how the human spirit can merely by means of meditation and introspection, come to the right conclusion about the ultimate reality, which hundreds of years of scientific research would ultimately lead to. The main message of modem scientists like Sir James Jeans, Sir Arthur Eddington, Albert Einstein and Max Planck, one of the authors of ‘Atom and Atomic Research’ is that although the universe exists, its appearance is different from reality. The reality, the only reality, is the spirit, the infinite spirit. Dr. C. P. Ramaswamy Aiyar rightly said that we are amazed that the theory of relativity propounded in the 20th century was known to ancient India 3,000 years ago.

In fact, I have no doubt that in any of our great scientists’ meetings today or in meetings held 10 years ago when some of the greatest scientists who are now dead were alive, Adi Shankaracharya would have found himself quite at home. He would have discussed, on a level of equality, the ultimate theories of science which he intuitively knew to be right.

His main contribution, as has been summed up by the different people who have written on Adi Shankaracharya in fact, the books written on him would be enough to make a whole library is his synthesis of all religions. It must be remembered that during his time there were quite a few different sects, sub-sects and castes, and creeds. There was the question of Buddhism as against old Hinduism and the question arose to what extent you could reconcile the different philosophies and beliefs.

Adi Shankaracharya not only synthesized all the different philosophies and ideals, but he purified them. As a creed or religion or language goes down the centuries, it gathers a crust of useless, immaterial accretions, and these immaterial things are mistaken for the essence of religion. He broke that crust and went to the essence of all those religions and showed how they all could be synthesized, how they could all be made to fall into one pattern.

That gives his philosophy a certain completeness, a certain wholeness. You don’t need to supplement Shankaracharya. As for his hymns, they are incredibly beautiful. He composed them in Sanskrit, one of the greatest languages that the human mind has ever evolved. They embody his profound vision.

In fact, when I look around and read what appears in the papers, I ask myself, is this country ever going to realise what her greatness is? But we are destined to live in an age of ignoramuses who have no notion of what the greatness of this country is. It has been said in the Bhagavad Gita by the Lord, “When things get very bad, I reappear to re-establish dharma”. And I have no doubt that we have sunk to such a depth now that, that day is at hand.

To Shankaracharya, philosophy was not an intellectual exercise, it was the dedication to life. Shankaracharya looked upon every human life as the embodiment of the Ultimate Reality. And he said that human life which is vouchsafed to us is available for transmuting ourselves into an instrument of the Divine Will.

The four essences of his philosophy, as summarized by both Eastern and Western thinkers, are the following:

First, he says that you must discriminate between what is eternal and what is ephemeral. The One remains, and the many changes and passes; so don’t get attached to what changes and passes, but get attached to the eternal, because that alone is the ultimate final Reality. He was not against family life. He was sensible enough to realize that if there was no family life the human race would come to an end. But his message was, “Realise that everything around you, including your wealth and your family, are all ephemeral things”. Too much attachment would result in diverting your mind from what is eternal to what is ephemeral.

His second message was that each one of us has to learn to renounce the thought of reward for what we are doing. Your attitude must be that you are not interested in the reward for what you are doing. One would doubt whether Shankaracharya in his own life got the reward for what he did. But he knew that ages and ages hence, people would realize the importance of his message. Christ was crucified by the majority vote of the people around him. So much for democracy. Never mistake the majority vote for a vote in favour of reason or for a vote in favour of what is right. What is right is often quite different from what the majority believes in. Socrates was put to death, given the hemlock, by his own fellowmen. That again was by a majority vote.

The third message of Shankaracharya was moral preparation. He believed that each life has to be so lived that you are prepared to meet the Maker at the time of “crossing the bar”, and to present a clean record when the final call comes, of what you have accomplished with whatever you have been given by way of wealth, intelligence or talent. So, you hold your talent, as much as your wealth, in trust for your fellowmen. He believed that Universal compassion and love are a part of moral preparation. I would like to quote a few words, which are from one of his hymns. “In you and in me and everywhere else, there is but one Vishnu”. See yourself in all things, and give up the false sense of difference from other human beings everywhere. This is his message of universality; the brotherhood of the entire human race. In fact, we find it difficult to develop that kind of sense of brotherhood even in one single country, leave aside the entire human race. Even if there are two states adjoining each other, we find it difficult to have a sense of brotherhood among the people of the two states. So we have a long way to go before we realise the great message of Adi Shankaracharya.

And his last message was the longing for liberation, what St. Luke in his Epistle calls the ‘Longing for the Eternal Life’. Adi Shankaracharya said this world is just a preparatory ground, a school where we are trying to prepare ourselves and educate ourselves, for eternal life.

About his year of birth and death, there is no certainty. Max Mueller believed that he was born in 788 and we celebrate the 1200th anniversary in the year 1988 to 1989. We are not also sure in which year he died, though the general consensus is that he was perhaps 32 years when he passed away. But whatever may have been the exact year of his birth or death, it is his message which counts, more than his own individual, personal life.

He established what I would call the Empire of the Spirit. Whole generations have come and gone, and empires have flourished and vanished, but Shankaracharya’s Empire of the Spirit survives. And so long as his great spirit abides with our people, there is hope for the future greatness of our country.