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Book Review


by The 68th Jagadguru of Kanchi,
edited by Michael Oren Fitzgerald
Introduction by Arvind Sharma

(World Wisdom, 2008, $22.95, 168 pp.)

Review by Samuel Bendeck Sotillos

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion © World Wisdom, Inc.

This review was originally published in the journal Sophia (vol. 15, no. 1, 2009)
and appears here with permission. —The Editor

Ekam sath viprā bahudhā vadanti.” (It is the one truth, which jnānins call by different names.) – Rigveda 1:164:46

This recent work Introduction to the Hindu Dharma brings to light over 4,000 discussions of the axial sage His Holiness Jagadguru Shankaracharya Shri Chandrashekarendra Saraswati Swamigal, the 68th Jagadguru of Kanchi (1894-1994). His spiritual lineage is traced to an unbroken chain of succession back to Ādi Śankarācārya (509-477 B.C.) who established the philosophical school of Advaita Vedānta (non-dualism). The Jagadguru of Kanchi was installed as pontiff in Kanchi at the young age of thirteen thus having spent eighty-seven years of his life dedicated to preserving and perpetuating the Hindu dharma. When opening this book the reader will find that the first pages and the back cover are full of testimonies devoted to the 68th Jagadguru of Kanchi by kings, prime ministers, scholars and a spiritual paragon of the twentieth century—Sri Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950). The last responded the following when asked about the 68th Jagadguru of Kanchi: “When were we separate…? We are always together.” There is also a statement of gratitude and blessing from the Kānchi Kāmakoti Pītha or spiritual hermitage of the Jagadguru with regards to this laborious and noteworthy publication.

Despite the reverence and acknowledgment from such renowned and distinguished individuals, it is curious that little is known about the 68th Jagadguru of Kanchi in the West, particularly with the growing interest in non-dual spirituality. It is for this reason that this book is of vital importance, for it not only stands as an irreplaceable introduction to Hinduism qua the spiritual legacy of one of the most beloved and honored spiritual authorities (āchāryas) of the twentieth century, it also illuminates the quintessential necessity of religion in a world that has disowned itself from its spiritual heritage. The ramifications of the split between the spiritual and secular worlds are now blatant, disclosing its mark of disarray throughout the four directions of the earth. This book thus functions as a call to spiritual life for all people of all nations whatever their religious orientation may be—it is a call to remember their own spiritual heritage.  

It should also be remembered that the Jagadguru did not write these teachings contained in the text, they were conveyed to his disciples via a traditional method of oral transmission which esoterically speaking is not orally transmitted per se but transmitted via the direct presence of an āchārya—known as ‘heart to heart’. This form of transmission is exemplified by the term Upanishad “to sit down near to” which describes one of the central methods by which most, if not all, spiritual traditions have been passed down throughout time. As sacred art is characteristic of India’s spiritual traditions, it is fitting that this book is filled with sacred images (murtis) of the 68th Jagadguru including the current and past Āchāryas of the Kānchi Kāmakoti Pītha, Hindu deities and many other images referenced throughout the text giving the reader not only a written, but a visual pilgrimage (tīrtha-yātrā) into the sacred dimension of this axial sage.

The Jagadguru clarifies the misnomers attributed to the terms “Hindu” and “Hinduism” as these terms were given to the Indian people by foreigners and not by the Indian people themselves. They were used to refer to the land adjacent to the Sindhu (Indus) River that they called “Indus” or “Hind” and it is from this name that the religion of India became known as Hinduism. The Jagadguru states that originally no name was given to the Indian religion because it was the ancient religion that was found everywhere extending beyond India and the Indian subcontinent. This is why it has been referred to as the sanātana dharma or “primordial, eternal code of conduct”. It is from the perspective of the sanātana dharma that the Jagadguru confirms that all spiritual paths lead to the same summit—Paramātman or “Transcendent Unity”:

The temple, the church, the mosque, the vihāra (a Buddhist monastery; a residence for meditation) may be different from one another. The idol or the symbol in them may not also be the same and the rites performed in them may be different. But the Paramātman (Transcendent Unity) who grants grace to the worshipper, whatever be his faith, is the same. The different religions have taken shape according to the customs peculiar to the countries in which they originated and according to the differences in the mental outlook of the people inhabiting them. The goal of all religions is to lead people to the same Paramātman according to the different attitudes of the devotees concerned. (p. 8)

The Jagadguru of Kanchi also acknowledges the unanimity of the divine messengers and teachers in spite of religious and social distinctions:

…great jnānins have arisen in the world, from time to time, no matter what religion they professed. All these prophets and saints proclaimed the same Truth, each in his own way, and if they happened to come back to life now and meet together, there would be perfect unity in their messages. It is the followers that have put into their mouths more than what they said and wrangle with others, freezing the original teachings, mangled in their hands into institutional forms, which foster narrowness and bigotry. (p. 139)

The Jagadguru openly discusses controversial topics that are perceived heresies in the current era such as the caste system (varna dharma) or the role of women in Indian culture. There is perhaps nothing more fervently attacked and criticized within “Hinduism” or sanātana dharma than the caste system. In today’s world Westerners are not alone in this critique. There are even many Indians themselves who have begun to share this modern outlook that not only questions their spiritual heritage, but in many ways denies or negates its implicit authority. The Jagadguru reminds the reader of the virtues of this integral system which are often forgotten: “Greed and covetousness were unknown during the centuries when varna dharma [caste system] flourished. People were bound together in small well-knit groups and they discovered that there was happiness in their being together.” (p. 22) The Jagadguru explains further:

That was the tradition for ages together in this land—there was oneness of hearts. If every member of society does his duty, does his work, unselfishly and with the conviction that he is doing it for the good of all, considerations of high and low will not enter his mind. If people carry out the duties common to them, however adverse the circumstances be, and if every individual performs the duties that are special to him, no one will have cause for suffering at any time. (p. 25)

The misunderstandings of the caste system extend into the role of women in Indian culture which are assumed to be, by Western standards, inherently discriminated against, treated unfairly or degraded, “The vocations have to be properly divided for the welfare of mankind. If everybody paid attention to this fact, instead of talking of rights, it would be realized that the śāstras [scriptures] have not discriminated against women or any of the jātis. [a sub-division of caste]” (p. 95) The Jagadguru also clarifies that “Those who complain that women have no right to perform sacrifices on their own must remember that men too have no right to the same without a wife. If they knew this truth they would not make the allegation that Hindu śāstras look down upon women. A man can perform sacrifices only with his wife.” (p. 95)

Regarding marriage (saha-dharma-cārinī-samprayoga), which is perceived as a union for the practice of dharma and wedding ceremonies, the Jagadguru categorically denies the extravagances that have become a norm in the current era. He also denies the notion of the dowry: “All the ostentation at weddings, the dowry and other gifts given to the groom’s people have no sanction in the śāstras.” (p. 97) And again “Above all the custom of dowry must be scrapped.” (p. 97)

The Jagadguru of Kanchi also discusses with great detail and precision traditional government that integrates spiritual authority and temporal power. He asserts that “true secularism” is not that “the State should be completely detached from all religions. On the other hand a State, instead of being supportive of a particular religion, should support all the religions.” (p. 134) even to the degree that “The State should support all religions with equal concern and help in their growth, without mutual ill-will.” (p. 134) 

Another misunderstanding is the notion that the Brahmin caste somehow imposes a tyrannical system upon the non-Brahmins (i.e. Śūdras) and is therefore able to acquire wealth and comfort at the expense of other castes. Although this scenario did take place via the British occupation of India, it was not a traditional facet of the social makeup de jure but de facto an error. It is through this idea that ill feelings have arisen between the Brahmins and non-Brahmins. To bring light to such mentality the Jagadguru states, “As a matter of fact, even by strictly adhering to this dharma the Brahmin is not entitled to feel superior to others. He must always remain humble in the belief that ‘everyone performs a function in society; I perform mine.’” (p. 29) and elsewhere he confirms, “A Brahmin ought not to keep even a blade of grass in excess of his needs.” (p. 105) The Jagadguru does not create a scapegoat so to speak of the Brahmins for “It is the duty of these others [non-Brahmins] to make Brahmins worthy of their caste.” (p. 99) The author concludes with the caste system with the following words, “No civilization can flourish in the absence of a system that brings fulfillment to all. Varna dharma brought fulfillment and satisfaction to all.” (p. 25) In contrast to traditional society and its integral foundations the Jagadguru states the following in regard to the post-modern West and its so-called “freedom”:

There is much talk today of freedom and democracy. In practice what do we see? Freedom has come to mean the license to do what one likes, to indulge one’s every whim. The strong and the rough are free to harass the weak and the virtuous. Thus we recognize the need to keep people bound to certain laws and rules. However, the restrictions must not be too many. There must be a restriction on restrictions, a limit set on how far individuals and society can be kept under control. To choke a man with too many rules and regulations is to kill his spirit. He will break loose and run away from it all. (p. 76)

The Jagadguru discontentedly acknowledges that there are not enough authentic spiritual teachers in the present age (yuga) and this is a distressing reflection of the state of the dharma. In identifying the current decline of the dharma, coupled with the influx of interest in non-dualism (advaita), the Jagadguru underscores the pitfalls of neo-advaita or neo-vedānta that have become commodities in the spiritual marketplace of today’s world, “those who want to take the path of jnāna, without being prepared for it through karma.” (p. 57) Yet as the Jagadguru reminds the reader that it is qua the spiritual doctrine and method that one can potentially realize the non-dual nature of reality: “…the deities must be worshipped but again with the conviction of arriving at the point where we will recognize that the worshipper and the worshipped are one.” (p. 60) and even then it is not that the spiritual forms are discarded per se, it is that there is no longer a dualism (dvaita) of subject-object separateness, “When you come to this state there will be no need for the Vedas too for you: this is stated in the Vedas themselves.” (p. 61) Those who interpret non-dualism to be a “dropping” or getting rid of spiritual doctrines and methods are quite mistaken as the founder of this philosophical school Śankara says: “Chant the Vedas every day. Perform with care the sacrifices and other rites they enjoin upon you.” (p. 51) In many ways the innovative notion of “evolutionary” spirituality that has become common place in the current era bear semblance to what the Jagadguru cautions directly against:

If we tried to create a new dharma for ourselves it might mean trouble and all the time we would be torn by doubts as to whether it would bring us good or whether it would give rise to evil. It is best for us to follow the dharma practiced by the great men of the past, the dharma of our forefathers. (p. 2)

The 68th Jagadguru of Kanchi encapsulates the quintessence of Ādi Śankarācārya’s metaphysic whose lineage he is the direct spiritual succession and representative of:

Briefly put, this is the concept of Bhagavatpāda (Śankara): ultimately everything in the phenomenal world will be seen to be Māyā (cosmic illusion). The One Object, the One and Only Reality, is the Brahman. We must be one with It, non-dualistically, without our having to do anything in the same way as the Brahman. I, who bear the name of Śri Śankara, keep speaking about many rights, about pūjā (sacrificial offerings), jāpā (invocatory prayer), service to fellow men, etc. It is because in our present predicament we have to make a start with rites. In this way, step by step, we will proceed to the liberation that is non-dualistic. It is this method of final release that is taught us by Śri Krishna Paramātman and by our Bhagavatpāda (Śankara). At first karma, works, then upāsana or devotion and, finally, the enlightenment called jnāna. (p. 113) 

The Jagadguru invites the reader—even those not of Indian origin—to return to their respective spiritual traditions. It is through returning to one’s respective tradition, while acknowledging that there is only one Paramātman, that the spiritual illness that filters into one’s psychological and social life can be cured. It must be remembered that “it is religion that develops the mental health” (p. 134) In the Jagadguru’s teachings there is no notion of “conversion” as such for—“its [the sanātana dharma] canonical texts do not contain any rite for conversion” (p. 8) His position is transparent and lucid “there is no need to abandon the religion of your birth and embrace another.” (p. 7) He continues to elaborate on this point:

My wish is indeed that people following different religions ought to continue to remain in their respective folds and find spiritual fulfillment in them. I do not invite others to embrace my faith. In fact I believe that to do so is contrary to the basic tenants of my religion. Nothing occurs in this world as an accident. (p. 21)

In fact the notion of conversion is irrelevant to the sanātana dharma for “Our catholic outlook is revealed in our scriptures which declare that whatever the religious path followed by people they will finally attain the same Paramātman. That is why there is no place for conversion in Hinduism.” (pp. 14-16) And perhaps we can put to rest this idea of conversion with these words, “The goal must be unity, not uniformity.” (p. 9)

The 68th Jagadguru of Kanchi confirms that it is through the completion of the individual and collective duties that social harmony and prosperity as a norm can prevail. We are called to remember the words of the Jagadguru “A man can be fortunate in many ways. But there is nothing that makes him more fortunate than the opportunity he has of serving others.” (p. 127) Love is inseparable from the spiritual path—“if there is no love there is no meaning in life.” (p. 132) It is the same voice that guides the sapiential world that “We must learn to look upon the entire universe as the Paramātman and love it as such. (p. 132)

The Jagadguru strangely enough brings elucidation to a troubled and broken age by affirming that there are certain benefits to living in the Kali-Yuga which were unavailable to human individuals of earlier ages:

Vyāsa himself says: ‘The age of Kali is in no way inferior to the other ages...’ In other yugas or ages Bhagavān is attained to (Self-realization) with difficulty by meditation, austerities, and pūjā, but in Kali He is reached by the mere singing of His names. (pp. 106-107)

It is in the repetition (japa) of the Divine Names that human individuals living in the age of Kali can practice the dharma, as it is a spiritual method available to all regardless of social status or spiritual aptitude: “He may think of god even on the bus or the train as he goes to his office or any other place.” (p. 5) The Jagadguru even states that should there be an absence of priests: “in the future everyone should be able to perform Vedic rites himself.” (p. 30) And yet the Jagadguru also confirms his concerns regarding the current state of an untraditional world: “I am also extremely concerned about the fact that, if the Vedic tradition which has been maintained like a chain from generation to generation is broken, it may not be possible to create the tradition all over again.” (p. 37)

This book is an invaluable contribution to the treasury of traditional wisdom that has paradoxically become more accessible in the present era via the breakdown of the numerous traditional civilizations. It will be of considerable significance for the varied seekers of truth as the Jagadguru speaks as a pontiff par excellence acknowledging in divinis both the need for the participation in an authentic spiritual tradition and at the same time emphasizing its transcendent function that is universal and unanimousthe sanātana dharma. It is from such a work that modern seekers can better understand the pre-modern and traditional world in order to recognize and comprehend the inherent biases that are already ingrained and conditioned into the modernist outlook. We will conclude this review with the discerning and humbling words of the 68th Jagadguru of Kanchi, “Setting an example through one’s life is the best way of making others do their duty or practice their dharma.” (p. 77)