By Deepak Kumar
The Government of India is actively considering and reportedly all set to give a final nod for a proposal to declare and celebrate Adi Shankaraacharya’s birthday as Philosophers' Day. While Adi Shankara is widely well known as a religious leader all over India, his works as a philosopher is not that well known even among some devout Hindus.
Adi Shankaracharya inhabited this planet for only 32 years – during this short span of time, he not only firmly established his philosophy called Advaita (Non-dualism), but took enormous efforts for its propagation towards the length and breadth of this country. He wrote countless commentaries and books about Advaita, established institutions all over the country for the continued sustenance of this philosophy well past his time. It is testimony to his vision and foresight that even after thousands of years past his lifetime, his philosophy is still in vogue and the institutions he help set up are still alive and thriving.
But how relevant is Shankara as a philosopher today ? When we think about Shankara, the philosopher – three things stand out.
Most important of those is his gift of logical reasoning. People who have read Shankara’s works are quite amazed at his ability for logical reasoning. Throughout his classic expositions, there is not even a single instance where Shankara resorts to “Thou shall do this” type of dictums. He takes every subject, analyses it using various logical angles and leads the reader into a conclusion of his own through sound reasoning. To do this, he often introduced a “Poorva pakshi” or opponent character in his commentaries and books. Through this character, Shankara would often pose several questions about perceived flaws in his own arguments and then authoritatively answer them by quoting several sources, examples or other means of logic. Through such a line of reasoning, Shankara was able to convince even his worst critic about the strength of his arguments.
He was also a master debater. It is believed that there were up to 72 different religions when Shankara appeared in the scene. He was able to engage in logical debates with the proponents of these religions and win them all through philosophical debates. This in itself is quite an achievement and shows his ability to engage with even groups who don’t believe his philosophy and his efforts to win them over through logical reasoning. And that he achieved this without ever resorting to war or other forms of political oppression is a testimony to his sharp intellect. Modern day politicians and philosophers have a thing or two to learn from this approach – tolerate those who don’t necessarily agree with you, engage with them, reason with them and either convince them or be convinced yourself. There is no use in just trolling people you don’t like in social media.
Finally, he is a leader par excellence. He did not rely on logical debates alone to establish his philosophy. In order to ensure its sustenance well past his lifetime, he created institutions which would carry forward his legacy. He established “Chaturamnya peethams” or monastic institutions in all four corners of India. And perhaps, he is the first ever person to unify our whole country through a structural and institutional set up, well before the British. He created elaborate mechanisms for selection of spiritual leaders into these pontifical seats and also codified their roles and responsibilities which are being followed even today. There are not many philosophers who have also set up institutions and have ensured their sustenance without political or military patronage. This is probably the most unique achievement of Shankara.
Shankara lived in this country around 2500 years ago (there are some who believe he lived less than 1200 years ago) – he perhaps, is the first ever person who lucidly explained various aspects of Vedic philosophy to the diverse audience. He surely deserves to be recognized as the foremost of philosophers this country has ever produced.