(This is a review of Sri Ranganathanandji’s booklet ‘Shakaracharya and an Untouchable’)
Recently I had an opportunity of laying my hands on a booklet (of just 40 pages) of Sri Ranganathananda, the 13th President of Ramakrishna Math and Mission, Kolkata.
Sri Ranganthananda had all the praise and choicest English words to describe the greatness of Sri Shankaracharya. After all, Sri Ranganathananda rose to the position of the President of R K Math because of his mastery over English language and oration.
The tragedy of most intellectuals of this (great) country is that once they are impressed with a person or an ideology their entire life is spent in choosing finest words to praise that person or the ideology. Critical thinking is closed ‘once for all’ and some goes to the extent of personality assassination of his opponents. Objectivity is a serious sin for them. This type of attitudes has destroyed impartial analysis of personalities or ideologies and consequently the intellectual growth.
This is also the case with Sri Ranganathananda with regard to Shankaracharya. For him Shakaracharya is the greatest personality ever to be born in India. So is Acharya’s small work of five shlokas or verses in response to the two questions of Lord Shiva in the guise of a chandala (untouchable). These five verses are described as Maneesha Panchakam, meaning five verses of wisdom of Shakaracharya.
Although Sri Ranganathananda condemns in strongest terms the prevalence of practice of untouchability in India for the last two millennia, his understanding of Shankaracharya’s contribution to its elimination or reduction appears to be ridiculous.
Gurubhakti is a highest spiritual trait and as such a bhakta (or a chamacha) should take every opportunity to extol his Guru in finest words even if those are blatant falsehood! In line with this tradition Sri Ranganathananda sees or rather invents great contribution by his Gurus Ramakrishna and Vivekananda. He narrates an incident of the life of Ramakrishna where Ramakrishna went to a chandala’s house secretly in the midnight and washes the latrine in his house. I seriously suspect that the chandala had any latrine at all in his hut! I am unable to realize how this incident contributed to abolition of or reduction in the practice of untouchability in this country! Instead, he could have made a public statement on an appropriate platform or during a suitable occasion condemning this atrocious practice which is not to be seen anywhere else in the world. He could have exhorted upon his teaming bhaktas to work towards eliminating this practice. Why is it that in each and every good topic the bhaktas drag in Ramakrishna and Vivekananda? This is how the intellectual stagnation works in almost all spheres of public (spiritual?) life in India.
While assessing the value and impact of Maneesha Panchakam we need not fall back on or bear in mind the Shakaracharya’s greatness and achievements. If I make an objective analysis it need not be construed as showing disrespect to Shakaracharya and insulting him personally or if I make a certain remarks on some topics, upon which Acharya has commented then it should be confined to my understanding of that topic and not on Acharya’s comments. Hence one is at liberty to assess my remarks as per one’s outlook. Neither my remarks nor his analysis should be construed as casting aspersion on Acharya’s commentary. But such objectivity is very uncommon in this country.
Now, let me come directly to ‘Shakaracharya and an Untouchable, An Exposition of Manisha Panchakam’ of Sri Ranganathananda published by Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata in 2009. Sri Ranganathananda was right in observing that certain amount of mythology had crept into the story of the encounter of Shakaracharya with the untouchable. It may be a historic fact that a chandala couple might have encountered the Acharya in Kashi and posed the questions sung in the Manisha Panchakam. Sri Ranganathananda admits that the possibility of chandalas of those days having knowledge of Vedanta is difficult to accept. Sri Ranganathananda is of the opinion that all over India one can see that an ordinary low caste person could speak Vedanta, for they hear various expositions by speakers. They also gather a lot of these thoughts through folk songs and similar means. But I have my own reservations on this observation of Sri Ranganathanand. How could a chandala in such a highly stratified society where they are never allowed to come near a Brahman or enter temple precincts, acquire such knowledge? Also they are condemned to live far away from the locations of upper castes. It appears improbable that an ordinary illiterate chandala could pose such serious, deeply spiritual and challenging Advaita problems to such an Acharya. Hence the element of mythology was introduced here by branding the chandala couple as Shiva and Parvathi in disguise.
The first three shlokas of Manisha Panchakam refers to the ugly and inhuman practice of untouchability of those days. Shiva, in the guise of a chandala, wants an explanation or a reply from this great advaitin, according to whom, the entire Universe is the manifestation of Brahma and every thing is Brahman, why chandalas are so badly discriminated against and asked to go away from vipras (brahmans) while on road? Such questions posed by an ordinary unlettered/illiterate chandala would be irrelevant ones, unworthy of a reply by such a learned Acharya. That’s why, it appears to me, that the authors of this poem (may be Shakaracharya himself) have brought Shiva in.
It can be viewed from a different perspective as well. The whole episode depicted here might be a fiction with a sociological content of a commentary on the then prevailing practice of untouchability of those days. To highlight the gravity of the problem, the authors thought that the problem was seized by Shiva himself and He thought it fit that he should pose this question to the proponent of Advaita himself.
In reality an ordinary chandala might have posed these questions. To give the problem the worthy attention it deserves this mythological turn might have been attributed.
The chandala poses two sets of questions to Acharya in shokas 2 and 3. His first question “O worthy Brahman, you wanted us to go away from you, our body or the consciousness from yours? The second one is, “where from has arisen this delusion of great divide, which sees some as Brahmans and some as chandalas (Koyam vibheda bramah).”
These are the questions of serious social, philosophical and spiritual relevance and implications and could be posed by no less than a personality like Shiva himself!
The response to these questions is narrated in the five shlokas or verses which are known as Manisha Panchkam, the five verses of great wisdom of Shankarachrya. But I found them highly disappointing and unworthy of the wisdom of Shakaracharya’s intellectual standing.
It is generally accepted principle in education that the question posed by a student reveals more than the answer given to a question. So, here the questions posed by the chandala are really of great significance.
A man of Shankaracharya’s intellectual maturity could have offered revealing replies. But here Acharya failed miserably. None of the two questions were remotely touched upon in the five verses greatly admired as the essence of Shakaracharya’s wisdom.
In his first verse Acharys says that he would accept a person as his Guru if he possesses highest wisdom irrespective of the fact that the person is a chandala or a Brahman. In the second verse he repeats the same sentiment and says if the person has the correct knowledge he will accept him as his Guru even if he is a chandala. In the remaining three shlokas he says that he would accept a man whether he is a chandala or brahaman, if he possesses the true knowledge of Brahma as his Guru.
Nowhere in these five verses are there references to the questions posed to him by the chandala. The only one thing that follows is that a chandala of those days can access the Vedantic knowledge, which is difficult to accept.
The chandala exposes the ‘the mahaan vibheda bramah’, the delusion of great divide as Brahman and chandala. The question is very clear, direct and straight forward, with no vagueness of any sort or scope for confusion. Further, the chandala amply clarifies his questions by revealing two examples. He asks why sun reflects his image in the Ganga waters and also in the water that flows by the side of the chandalas’ huts. He asks again why is space fully occupied both in the golden jug and an earthen pot?
The Acharya acts smart by telling something totally unrelated in bombastic words. This is similar to the case with a student who does not know the answer for a question but to show off his smartness gives an irrelevant and totally unrelated reply. It appears to me that Acharya resorted to play cleverly here. It is possible that either he did not know the answer or he did not want to give the correct answer for the reasons best known to him. It also appears to me that Shakaracharya knew the answers but lacked necessary guts and courage to express the same by going against the prevailing social practice of untouchability. He did not have the necessary strength to challenge it and was afraid to face the public wrath.
In Eashopanishad upon which he wrote an elaborate commentary, there are two shlokas bearing Nos. 6 and 7 which reads as under:
“Yastu sarvaani bhootanyatmneyvaanupashyati, sarva bhooteshu chaatmanum tato na vijigupsate” – “If one sees in Atma(eternal soul)in all creations and in all creations the Atma then one need not feel greatly disgusted.”
“Yasmin sarvaani bhootaanyatmevabhoodidwijaanatah tatra ko moh kah shokah ekatyamanupashyatah” – “When one realizes that all creations are just manifestations of Atma why one should feel attachments and pains? He sees unity in all creations.”
Again in extant Bhagad Gita (6:29) compiled by him and highly respected commentary by him known as ‘Shankara Bhashyam’ there is a shloka which says,
“Sarva bhootshataamanam sarva bhootani chaatmani|
Eakshyte yogayuktaatmaa sarvatra samadarshnah|”
The meaning is identical with that of first shloka above.
These shlokas clearly establishes that Shakaracharya was fully aware that the institution of untouchability has no sanction of Shastras. In fact Shastras had denounced this practice as seen in the above shlokas. But Shakaracharya could not utter a single word against this practice even when Shiva posed this question to him. He evaded the question and indulged in ‘beating around the bush’ diverting Shiva’s attention.
The question is not about what type of Gurus he would accept or what his wisdom says on the qualities of (his) Gurus. He may respect a chandala with such great knowledge of advaita and accept him as his Guru. But how a chandala can access such great knowledge in a highly stratified and discriminative society as prevailed in his days? Brahmins never allowed chandalas to come near them, there were absolutely no opportunities for them to get education. Then how is it possible for them to acquire such great knowledge? Does this means that Shakaracharya was very sure that such chandalas cannot be produced at all in then prevailing society and hoping to get such chandala Guru is out of question? Was Shakaracharya making mockery of Shiva’s questions? In his deeper heart was he wishing that such a situation will not occur at all. Was he indulging in playing with words or cunning? I am compelled to call him a hypocrite, at least on this count.
Acharya never offered any comment on how and why this heinous institution came into existence. Neither social, philosophical, spiritual comments nor the justification of it came from Acharya. From these shlokas one can not make out what exactly was his perception of untouchablility. But one thing is very clear from these verses that Shankaracharya was practicing the untouchability himself. Again we do not know whether he gave up this deploring practice after this dramatic incident as there is no such reference in these verses.
I am of the opinion that Shankaracharya missed a historic opportunity to abolish this inhuman practice of untouchability in this country. His one strong comment condemning this practice would have had a salutary effect on the Hindu society. He could have quoted shlokas of Eashopanishad and Bhagavad Gita referred to as above and declared that the practice of untouchability has no scriptural sanction. It might not have completely abolished untouchability but the growth and severity of the practice might have come down considerably over the centuries.
I am of firm belief that it is a miserable failure on the part of Shankaracharya even after such an opportunity was offered to him to face it or tackle it. I feel that the society represented allegorically by Shiva, wanted an explanation and corrective action from an Acharya of Shankaracharya’s standing. It naturally implies, if he could not offer a viable explanation he must work towards eliminating this social wrong by putting all the weight of his personality. Did Shankaracharya achieve this?
In such circumstances praising Shankaracharya with all the finest words for his great wisdom in handling chandala couple’s questions by Sri Ranganathananda appears incredible and smacks of insincerity. I have no opinion on Shankaracharya or his philosophy. In fact I admire his intellectual greatness, his literary works, his leadership qualities, his energy, his organization capacity and his magnificent efforts in reviving decadent Hinduism of his days and other achievements. These great works need not deter us in critically examining his works.