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Pavan K Varma on his book about Adi Shankaracharya and the shrinking scope for debate in today's world

On 17 July, the darkened theatre at the National Centre for the Performing Arts saw the launch of former diplomat and author Pavan K Varma's latest book titled Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism's Greatest Thinker. With soft yellow lights gracing the stage, notable lyricist Gulzar and Anil Dharker, founder of the Mumbai Literature Festival, unveiled the book along with the author.

The audience was already sitting in rapt attention as Gulzar took to the stage to say a few words about his friendship with the author, narrating to the audience the story of their first meeting which went on to become a collaborative relationship based on translating each other's works. Gulzar recalled,"I know Pavan Varma only through his books. I remember his first book on Ghalib. Anyone who is a enthusiast of Ghalib and his poems, I want to know them. At the event, I wondered, for someone who has written a book on Ghalib, he must surely know some shayari. I asked him to recite a shayari and at that time, he recited a lengthy sonnet on Yudhisthir and Draupadi's conflict in English. It reminded me of Milton's Paradise Lost. That's the time I heard his poetry and I still haven't forgotten it. He is a prolific writer." He went on to explain how he later translated that English sonnet into Urdu and presented it to Varma. It was the beginning of a friendship marked by bonding over writing.

Pavan K Varma at the launch of the book. Facebook/@litlive

Pavan K Varma at the launch of the book. Facebook/@litlive

After Gulzar's nostalgic speech, Anil Dharker and Varma went on the stage to begin a conversation about the author's journey of researching and writing the book. Dharker asked the author why he chose to write a book premised on spiritual thought, to which Varma replied, "This is my 22nd book. I have written on many subjects before — Ghalib, Krishna, the Indian middle class and also a novel. I have translated the works of Gulzar, Kaifi Azmi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and have also written a book on Kamasutra. So there have been many books. But I think essentially there is a search to try and understand different aspects of which we are legatees, as Indians. Not necessarily as Hindus only because my subjects deal with India as a whole and what is happening in India. Even Ghalib was written from the point of view of understanding him in his times as much as understanding his poetry. So in that space, Adi Shankaracharya fascinated me."

Varma went on to explain the reasons for basing his book on the Hindu sage. "Firstly, the sages's life itself was fascinating. A man born in the eighth century in Kerala who takes samadhi in  Kedarnath and who travels the length and breadth of the country, not once but thrice. Secondly, in the scope of a very short life of 32 years, he sets up four monasteries or mathas, which draw up the civilisational map of India as it was and it remains today — Sringeri in the South, Dwarka in the West, Puri in East and Joshimatha in the North. Thirdly, he writes copiously. If you go into the Vedantic school of thought, the sheer compressed cerebral energy in trying to understand who we are and what is this world about. It's a question that in moments of reflection, confronts us. These reasons fascinated me."

Dharker and Varma went on to discuss metaphysical concepts of Brahman and the idea of conceptualising divinity. The author also discussed how Shanakaracharya anticipated through philosophical theory certain discoveries which modern science has revealed, especially in the fields of cosmology, quantum physics and neurology. Varma clarified, "It's not my attempt to be part of the Dinanath Batra school of Hinduism. I don't believe in over-glorifying the past to say that the internet and plastic surgery existed in the past. That is not my intention. But I do believe that if you are in consonance with some of the greatest research taking place in the most advanced philosophical and spiritual research centres abroad in particular — there is a co-relation. There is a co-relation between what was seen through the philosopher's eye and what science today can say or see through the telescope and the microscope." Varma further provided examples about these co-relations of philosophical thought and scientific experiments. Some of the ones he discussed include the theory of the universe being infinite, Einstein's Theory of Relativity, the Schrodinger's cat thought experiment and the Einstein-Pudolsky-Rosen argument.

Varma regaled the audience with stories of his travels on a path to trace the sage's journey and read out a paragraph from the book. While talking about the story of Shankaracharya's lengthy debate lasting months with another renowned scholar, Mandan Mishra, the author ruminated on the nature of debate in contemporary society. Varma joked, "On the question of having a debate for six months, I'm afraid sometimes you can't even debate for six minutes now. The scope for a civilised debate is shrinking. I think it's a great assault on — and as a Hindu I can say — on the legacy of Hinduism itself, which believed in shashtras, debate, dialogue and discussion even with someone you disagree with."

Through a stotra of Shankaracharya, Varma also discussed the sage's attitude on caste. Varma added, "Without a doubt, all religions have a tendency to develop rituals and I think Hinduism has done the most in this regard. What is even worse is that it actually sought religious sanction for justifying the greatest levels of inequality and discrimination. But one thing I can say about Adi Shankaracharya is that he spoke against the caste system. Because it militates directly against the premise of his philosophy — which is that there is only one great reality."

On a parting note, Varma reiterated that because Hinduism allows one to live it as a way of life, Hindus are often adrift from some of the profundity of original thoughts that underpin it and they must occasionally go back to such well-springs of original thinking.


Updated Date: Jul 20, 2018 16:36 PM

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