In My Hands Today…

Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism – Rajiv Malhotra

India is more than a nation state. It is also a unique civilization with philosophies and cosmologies that are markedly distinct from the dominant culture of our times – the West. India’s spiritual traditions spring from dharma which has no exact equivalent in western frameworks. Unfortunately, in the rush to celebrate the growing popularity of India on the world stage, its civilizational matrix is being digested into western universalism, thereby diluting its distinctiveness and potential.

This book addresses the challenge of direct and honest engagement on differences, by reversing the gaze, repositioning India from being the observed to the observer and looking at the West from the dharmic point of view. In doing so it challenges many hitherto unexamined beliefs that both sides hold about themselves and each other. It highlights that unique historical revelations are the basis for western religions, as opposed to dharma’s emphasis on self-realization in the body here and now. It describes the integral unity that underpins dharma’s metaphysics and contrasts this with western thought and history as a synthetic unity. The west’s anxiety over difference and fixation for order runs in contrast with the creative role of chaos in dharma. The book critiques fashionable reductive translations and argues for preserving certain non-translatable words of Sanskrit. It concludes with a rebuttal against western claims of universalism and recommends a multi-civilizational worldview.

The discussions and debate within the book employ the venerable tradition of purva-paksha, an ancient dharmic technique where a debater must first authentically understand in the opponent’s perspective, test the merits of that point of view and only then engage in debate using his own position. Purva-paksha encourages individuals to become truly knowledgeable about all perspectives, to approach the other side with respect and to forego the desire to simply win the contest. Purva-paksha also demands that all sides be willing to embrace the shifts in thinking, disruptive and controversial as they may be, that emerge from such a dialectical process.

Festivals of India: Adi Shankaracharya Jayanti

Today’s topic is not exactly a festival which is celebrated in India, but given that it is the birth anniversary of the man who is credited with consolidating the Advaita Vedanta doctrine and reviving it at a time when Sanatana Dharma or Hindusim and the Hindu culture was on a decline, I thought it is something we all, but especially practicing Hindus should celebrate, even if it is as a small private prayer.

Yesterday was the 1232nd birth anniversary of Adi Shankaracharya, who is credited with consolidating the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta and with unifying and establishing the main currents of thought in Hinduism. You could call him the founder of the religion, but that’s not entirely right as Hinduism is more a way of life rather than an organised religion and has been around for centuries before him. Adi Shankaracharya Jayanti is observed on Panchami Tithi during Shukla Paksha of Vaishakha month which falls between April and May each year.

While there is no really consensus on where and when he was born, most scholars and historians agree as do the oldest biographies written about him, that he was born in what is today the southern Indian state of Kerala, in a village named Kaladi which is sometimes spelt as Kalady, Kalati or Karati to Nambudiri Brahmin parents in 788. His parents, Shivaguru and Aryamba, were an aged, childless, couple who led a devout life of service to the poor. They named their child Shankara, meaning “giver of prosperity”. A legend associated with Adi Shankaracharya considers him an incarnation of Lord Shiva himself, who had appeared in Aryamba’s dream and promised to take birth as her child. This could also be the reason for his name, which is one of the names of Lord Shiva. His father died while Shankara was very young and so his upanayanam or thread ceremony, the initiation into student-life, had to be delayed due to the death of his father, and was then performed by his mother. He was someone who was attracted to the life of Sannyasa or being a hermit from early childhood which his mother naturally disapproved.

A story, found in all biographies, describe Shankara at age eight going to a river with his mother, Sivataraka, to bathe, and where he is caught by a crocodile. Shankara called out to his mother to give him permission to become a Sannyasin or else the crocodile will kill him. The mother agrees, Shankara is freed and leaves his home for education. He reaches a Saivite sanctuary along a river in a north-central state of India, and becomes the disciple of a teacher named Govinda Bhagavatpada. The various stories about him then diverge in the details about the first meeting between Shankara and his Guru, where they met, as well as what happened later. Several texts suggest Shankara’s schooling with Govindapada happened along the river Narmada in Omkareshwar, in present day Madhya Pradesh, which a few place it along river Ganges in Kashi or Varanasi as well as Badari which is now Badrinath up in the Himalayas in present day Uttarakhand. It is said that Lord Vishnu visited Shankara at Badrinath and asked him to make a statue of the deity on the Alaknanda River. Today, this temple is popular as the Badrinarayan Temple.

The biographies vary in their description of where he went, who he met and debated and many other details of his life. Most mention Shankara studying the Vedas, Upanishads and Brahmasutra with Govindapada, and Shankara authoring several key works in his youth, while he was studying with his teacher. It is with his teacher Govinda, that Shankara studied Gaudapadiya Karika, as Govinda was himself taught by Gaudapada. Most also mention a meeting with scholars of the Mimamsa school of Hinduism namely Kumarila and Prabhakara, as well as Mandana and various Buddhists, in Shastrarth which is an Indian tradition of public philosophical debates attended by large number of people and sometimes with royalty. After this, the biographies about Shankara vary significantly. Different and widely inconsistent accounts of his life include diverse journeys, pilgrimages, public debates, installation of yantras and lingas, as well as the founding of monastic centers in north, east, west and south India. Most biographies mention that Shankara traveled widely within India, from Gujarat to Bengal and from Tamil Nadu to Kashmir and participating in public philosophical debates with different orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, as well as heterodox traditions such as Buddhists, Jains, Arhatas, Saugatas, and Carvakas. During his tours, he is credited with starting several Matha or monasteries and ten monastic orders in different parts of India are generally attributed to Shankara’s travel-inspired Sannyasin schools, each with Advaita notions, of which four have continued in his tradition: Bharati in Sringeri, Karnataka, Saraswati in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu and Tirtha and Asramin in Dwarka, Gujarat. Other monasteries that record Shankara’s visit include Giri, Puri, Vana, Aranya, Parvata and Sagara – all names traceable to Ashrama system in Hinduism and Vedic literature.

Adi Shankara’s works are the foundation of Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism and his masterpiece of commentary is the Brahmasutrabhasya which is literally, the commentary on the Brahma Sutra, a fundamental text of the Vedanta school of Hinduism. The term Advaita refers to its idea that the true self, Atman, is the same as the highest metaphysical reality of the universe, Brahman. Advaita Vedanta is the oldest extant sub-school of Vedanta, which is one of the six orthodox or astika Hindu philosophies or darsanas tracing its roots back to the first century BC.

The word Advaita is a composite of two Sanskrit words – the prefix “A” which has similar meaning of english prefix “Non” and “Dvaita” which means ‘Duality’ or ‘Dualism’. The word Vedanta is a compostion of the two Sanskrit words, the word Veda referring to the whole corpus of vedic texts, and the other word “Anta” meaning ‘End’. The meaning of Vedanta can be summed up as “the end of the vedas” or “the ultimate knowledge of the vedas”.

Adi Shankarachrya has an unparallelled status in the tradition of Advaita Vedanta. He travelled all over India to help restore the study of the Vedas. His teachings and tradition form the basis of Smartism and have influenced Sant Mat lineages. He introduced the Pancayatana form of worship, which is the simultaneous worship of five deities – Ganesha, Surya, Vishnu, Shiva and Devi. Adi Shankaracharya explained that all deities were but different forms of the one Brahman, the invisible Supreme Being.

Adi Shankara is regarded as the founder of the Dasanami Sampradaya of Hindu monasticism and Ṣaṇmata of the Smarta tradition. He unified the theistic sects into a common framework of Shanmata system. Advaita Vedanta is, at least in the west, primarily known as a philosophical system. But it is also a tradition of renunciation.

Adi Sankarachatya organised the Hindu monks of these ten sects or Dasanami Sampradaya under four Maṭhas or monasteries, one in each direction in India with the headquarters at Dwaraka. Gujarat west, Jagannatha Puri in Odisha in the east, Sringeri in Karnataka in the south and Badrikashrama or as it’s called today, Badrinath in Uttarakhand in the north. Each math was headed by one of his four main disciples, who each continue the Vedanta Sampradaya. The mathas which he built exist until today, and preserve the teachings and influence of Shankara. My family is follows the advaita form of Hindusim and I have written about the Sringeri Sarada Peetham Matha which we follow. We also follow the Yajur veda philosophy, which I think a majority of at least Tamil Brahmins follow (there are exceptions) which is falls under the Sringeri Sarada Peetham.

Despite historical links with Shaivism, advaita is not a Shaiva sect, instead advaitins are non-sectarian, and they advocate worship of the Lords Shiva and Vishnu equally with that of the other deities of Hinduism, like Shakti, Ganapati and others.

Adi Sankara is commonly believed to have died aged 32, at Kedarnath in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas in 820. Texts say that he was last seen by his disciples behind the Kedarnath temple, walking in the Himalayas until he was not traced. Some texts locate his death in alternate locations such as Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu and somewhere in his home state of Kerala.

Sringeri Saradha Peetham


Sharadamba, the reigning deity in Sringeri

Since today is Vijaya Dashami or Dushera, I thought it was appropriate to post this long overdue post today.

My family (both paternal and maternal) have long been followers of the Sharadha Peetham which is based in Sringeri, in the southern state of Karnataka.


The main Sharada temple in Sringeri

Before I say more about this Peetham, let me backtrack about its existence. This Peetham was established by the founder of what we know as Hinduism or what we call the Santana Dharma (or a code of ethics, a way of living through which one may achieve moksha which is enlightenment or liberation) Jagadguru Sri Adi Shankara Bhagavatpada. The Sringeri Peetham is the first of the four Amnaya Peethams established at Sringeri more than twelve centuries ago, around 800 AD to foster the sacred tradition of Sanatana Dharma. The other peethams are located in Dwaraka (Gujarat), Govardhana (Odisha) and Jyotirmath (Uttarakhand).

Tradition has it that after the Acharya had dispersed all the non-Vedic creeds prevailing in the country, He was on the look-out for a convenient and holy place where he could establish an institution to spread the truths of Advaita Vedanta. When the Acharya came to Sringeri, he saw an unusual sight on the banks of the Tunga. A cobra was seen spreading out its hood over a frog in labour pains, to give it a shadow from the scorching mid-day sun. Struck with the sanctity of the place, which could infuse love between natural adversaries, the Acharya chose this very location to establish His first Math.


The unbroken guru parampara with the current and next Shankaracharyas

The Acharya came across many virtuous people at Sringeri and taught them the doctrine of Advaita. He then invoked the Divinity of Knowledge, Goddess Sharada and consecrated an icon of the Goddess. Thus the Peetham He founded at Sringeri in South India for fostering the Vedas and the sacred tradition of Sanatana Dharma came to be known as the Dakshinamnaya Sri Sharada Peetham.

The Acharya appointed his prime disciple, Sri Sureshwaracharya as the first Acharya of the Peetham. Since then, the Peetham has been blessed with an unbroken Guru Parampara, a garland of spiritual masters and Jivanmuktas representing Sri Adi Shankaracharya. The succeeding Acharyas have led a life of such austere penance that it has led disciples to adore in them the radiance of Sri Adi Shankara Himself.

Besides being a centre of spiritual power, Sringeri also came to be known as a great place of traditional learning owing to the presence of Goddess Sharada and the erudition of the Acharyas of the Peetham. The Acharyas were instrumental in bringing forth commentaries on the Vedas and in further expounding the Bhashyas of Sri Adi Shankaracharya. The Acharyas also wrote a number of independent works related to Advaita besides producing a number of hymns underlining their ardent devotion to the non-dual Supreme worshipped in multifarious forms. The Peetham thus came to be regarded as the Vyakhyana Simhasana, The Throne of Transcendental Wisdom. Many regard Goddess Sharada Herself to be moving in the form of the presiding Acharya of the Peetham.

In the 14th century, royal patronage to the Peetham began with the founding of the famous Vijayanagar empire under the divine guidance of the 12th Acharya, Jagadguru Sri Vidyaranya. The austerity of the Acharya influenced the rulers to such an extent that they began ruling in the name of the Acharya and granted the Peetham the rights over the secular administration of the land. At the rulers’ request, the Acharya began conducting a Durbar during the Navaratri festival – an occasion deemed by the rulers to honour their Guru. This durbar is conducted even today and many members of my extended maternal family still visit Sringeri to take part in the Durbar.


The current pontiff Jagadguru Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamiji worshipping Lord Chandramoulishwara

Subsequently, the Acharya came to be known as the Karnataka Simhasana Prathisthapanacharya and the Peetham became a mighty institution – a Samsthanam and is known to this day as the Jagadguru Shankaracharya Mahasamsthanam, Dakshinamnaya Sri Sharada Peetham at Sringeri. Over the succeeding centuries, a number of empires and rulers including the Mysore Maharajahs Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Peshwas and the Keladi rulers and Travancore Rajas were drawn towards the Peetham and respected the Acharya as their Guru.

In the recent past, the Sharada Peetham has shone through the lives of the Acharyas – Jagadguru Sri Sacchidananda Shivabhinava Nrisimha Bharati Mahaswamigal, the re-discoverer of Sri Adi Shankara’s birthplace at Kalady and the founder of the famous Pathashala at Sringeri; followed by the renowned Jivanmukta, Jagadguru Sri Chandrasekhara Bharati Mahaswamigal; succeeded by the crest jewel of Yogis, Jagadguru Sri Abhinava Vidyatirtha Mahaswamigal. They have all left indelible impressions in the hearts of the disciples.

With such a rich history associated with Sri Adi Shankaracharya’s first and foremost Peetham, many wonder at the aptness of the Acharya’s choice of locating the Peetham at Sringeri, a spot replete with a hoary past, and bountiful with natural splendour and serenity.

Today, the Sringeri Sharada Peetham bedecked with an unbroken chain of Acharyas continues to uphold the principles of Sanatana Dharma with the 36th Acharya Jagadguru Shankaracharya Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamiji acting as a treasure of spiritual wisdom and peace for all seekers.


The current pontiff Jagadguru Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamiji worshipping 

The Sringeri Sharada Peetham site includes two major temples, one dedicated to Shiva (Vidyashankara Linga, tenth Shankara memorial) and the other to Saraswati (Sharada Amba). The Vidyashankara temple was built during the Vijayanagara Empire era (1338 CE) on a square plan set inside circles in the Tuluvas and Hoysala apsidal style. It includes shrines and relief carving in reverence of major Hindu gods and goddesses such as Brahma, Vishnu (all Dasavatara, with Buddha), Shiva, Saraswati, Parvati, Lakshmi, Ganesha, Shanmukha (Kartikeya, Murugan), Durga, Kali and others. The stone reliefs also include a large variety of Hindu legends from the epics and the Puranas.

The Sringeri Peetham is one of the major Hindu monastic institutions that has historically coordinated Smarta tradition and monastic activities through satellite institutions in South India, preserved Sanskrit literature and pursued Advaita studies. The Sringeri Peetham has been a library and a source of historic Sanskrit manuscripts. Along with other Hindu monasteries such as the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, the contemporary Sringeri matha has been active in preserving the Vedas, sponsoring students and recitals, Sanskrit scholarship, and celebrating annual Adishankaracharya Jayanti (gurupurnima).


The sacred fish in the banks of the Tunga river at Sringeri

I have been to Sringeri twice so far, once for a cousin’s sacred thread ceremony and the second time in 2000, with my parents and grandfather just before he passed away. I want to make a trip there once more, this time with S, BB & GG as well as my parents so that before they get too old to make the trip, we can do this as a family trip together. Sringeri is a beautiful place and unfortunately, I don’t have the photos I took during my last trip there (pre-digital camera days).

If you ever get a chance to make a trip there, please do go there and enjoy the sereneness that is Sringeri along with getting immersed into the essence and core of the Sanathana Dharma.

Poem: Festival Season

When August rolls by, it’s the start of the festival season in the Hindu calendar. Hardly a couple of weeks go by without another festival.

Image result for indian festival season

Festival Season

When the month of August comes around
That’s the time when festivals start to abound

It starts with the beautiful bonding between a brother and sister
That’s the festival of Raksha Bandhan, the bond strong and secure each year

The same day is the one day exclusively for the menfolk
Avani Avittam is what’s its called, not for the womenfolk

Then we celebrate the birth of the baby Krishna
Keep awake the whole night, just to welcome him, the one who is still an enigma

Then in a few weeks time it’s time to burst out the dhol and rain a cracker blaze
Because it’s time to welcome Lord Ganesh in our homes for the next eleven days

After that, its nine days of fun and frolic, getting together with your clique
When we pray to the various Goddesses in what’s called Navratri

The tenth day is when good triumphs over evil
That’s why it’s called Vijaya Dashami, the day where a fresh start is given a stamp of approval

Then starts the countdown to the biggest festival of the year
The festival of lights, the one that’s very dear

It’s the festival of lights aka Diwali which you await the whole year
New clothes checked, sweets and savouries start to appear

India is a land of festivals, the more the merrier
Because these festivals bring the family together,

It’s also a chance to get closer to your roots,
Because to know what you are helps to get to the future.


Saraswati Puja

Today is the last day of the Navaratri festival with the Saraswati Puja and Dusshera tomorrow. Then it’s the anticipation of Diwali!

Saraswati Puja is celebrated all over India and across the world today with the day being dedicated to Goddess Saraswathi. In Hinduism, Saraswathi is the goddess of knowledge, wisdom, studies, science and technology, music, arts etc. She is also said to be the consort of Lord Brahma, who is said to be the creator of the world in Hindy mythology. Goddess Saraswati is depicted as a beautiful woman wearing a spotless white saree symbolising the purity of knowledge with four hands embodying mind, intellect, ego and alertness. She is usually seated on a white lotus or a white swan which is also her vehicle of transport, with a peacock close to her. She also holds the following in her four hands – a book, which is usually the vedas representing universal, eternal and true knowledge as well as her power over knowledge and the sciences; a rudrashka or rosary representing the power of spirituality, a veena, which is a musical intrument representingin her perfection in all arts and sciences and a pot of gangajal or sacred water which represent creative adn purification powers. Unlike most Goddesses in Hindu mythology, she is usually dressed very simply and not adorned with loads of jewellery showing that she prefers the intellectual and the artistic over the material.

Saraswati is also the main goodess of the Sringeri Sarada Peetham, which is what my family has been following for generations and the Jagadguru Shankaracharya at the Sarada Peetham is whom we consider our guru. I’ll post more about this later, just is just a teaser.

In South India and our brahmin community, we worship the Goddess on the ninth day of Navaratri. On that day, after bath, we keep books and some new clothes at her feet and worship her. I made a payasam today as the prasad. On this day, children also do not look at their books since she is supposed to be sitting on them and to use them is to disrespect her. The next day, we have to read a couple of pages from each book that was kept at the pooja so that she blesses us with good intellect and the most important thing for children – marks!

I’ve kept BB & GG’s books at the altar and asked them to pray to Saraswati Ummachi (God) so that she can bless them. They both prayed “Ummachi, please bless us so that that we can study well and get good marks in our exams“.

One of the first shlokas that I learnt from my ammama and have taught GG & BB is the one about Goddess Saraswati. It goes like this:

Saraswati namasthubiyam, varade kamarupini
Vidyarambham karishyaami, siddhir bhavatume sadaa

O Goddess Saraswati, salutations to you, the giver of boons, the one who fulfills all desires. I begin my studies. May there always be accomplishments for me.

The picture in this post is the picture of Goddess Saraswati in my pooja.