Sometimes a coincidence becomes aglow with a touch of destiny; for after all a coincidence, as Arthur Koestler sees it, is a set of two events held together by an unseen hand. The two incidents, in the present instance, are: (a) reading Pavan Varma’s superb book Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker and (b) watching the RSS event in Nagpur addressed by Pranab Mukherjee.
In the seemingly interminable TV discussions anatomising every nuance of the event—sensed by many as a critical game-changer—one crucially significant thing was ignored. I flag it, as it is the point of congruence, for me, between the Nagpur event and Varma’s exposition of Adi Shankara’s philosophy. The point of significance for me pertains to how Mohan Bhagwat and Pranab presented unity and diversity as constituting the core of India. To Mohan Bhagwat, who spoke ahead of Pranab, it is ‘diversity-in-unity’. This was not a slip of the tongue; for he never used the expression ‘unity-in-diversity’, which Pranab, in contrast, invoked repeatedly. This distinction would have been lost on me, if
I were not reading parallelly Varma’s exposition of Adi Shankara’s Advaita philosophy.
The superficial parallel between the Advaitic idea of unity and Bhagwat’s is that, in both, unity is fixed and given. In Shankaracharya’s view, Brahman is the transcendent ground of unity. As Pavan puts it, “The most audacious part—and the lynchpin—of his philosophy was the conceptualisation of Brahman as the all-pervasive and only absolute force permeating the universe.” We could understand the basic idea as follows. A thousand things can be made of iron. The ‘forms’ are diverse, but they have a common source in iron. But for iron, these forms would not be. A sword that kills and a surgeon’s scalp that saves, both made of iron, may seem contrary to each other. But their contradiction disappears at the level of iron.
Iron is the ground of their unity. The many objects made of iron exemplify diversity-in-unity.
But unity-in-diversity is quite the opposite of this. In this paradigm of unity, it is not imperative that everything be made of the same substance for their unity to prevail. It suffices that diverse objects find their harmony within a cogent framework. The furniture, vessels and tools in a house are not all made of the same material—as in the case of iron being the material base of all iron tools and objects. They, notwithstanding the differences in the substance of which they are compacted, find their harmonious oneness in belonging together to a home.
What about the distinction between Adi Shankara’s idea of unity and that of Bhagwat? Prima facie, they resemble each other. But this resemblance is misleading. What is common to both is the supposition of a pre-existent ground of unity. But the grounds of this unity are starkly different in both. In Adi Shankara’s scheme of thought, the pre-existent, a priori, ground of unity is Brahman. In the RSS paradigm, it is Hindu Rashtra, political embodiment of Hindutva, which, as Pranab astutely implied, is Western in essence. Within this scheme of things unity is to be secured by squeezing all people-groups into the ‘one people, one nation, one culture’ mould. Or, in the words of L K Advani in yesteryears, those who live in India have to deem themselves Hindus, culturally. The space for preserving one’s distinct cultural and religious identity is unavailable.
This is in frontal conflict with our Constitution’s vision; the reason why RSS ideologues, from early days, have been resentful of the idea of nation subsumed in it. For them ‘nation’ is Hindu Rashtra; nothing less, nothing more. The architects of our Constitution had a radically different idea of the democratic republic to be realised. To them, the preservation of religious, linguistic and cultural plurality was a bottom-line requirement for the survival of Indian democracy. In a country like ours, marked by the massive preponderance of one religious community over the rest, the peril of democracy crashing into totalitarianism, via majoritarian triumphalism, is real. Bhagwat’s diversity-in-unity signals an implied rejection of the core, pluralistic vision of our Constitution.
Insofar as Pranab spoke after Bhagwat, I expected him to address this distinction. But he stuck to a pre-formulated text, given that the eye of the nation was on him, and any verbal inexactitude could prove hugely embarrassing. But the miss is only notional, as the sledge-hammer emphasis he placed on unity-in-diversity and constitutional values, met the needs of the occasion.
It merits our attention that when, in moods of nascent patriotism, references are made to the glory of our past, we hear no mention of the sublimity of thought bequeathed by our spiritual philosophers. Instead, cultural plumes of dubious veracity like aviation, internet and plastic surgery presumably practised in the twilight era of humankind—India leading the rest of the world—are foregrounded. It is as though the grandeur of the spirit does not matter, only wizardry with technology and material progress matter.
I agree with those who bemoan the bankruptcy that prevails in our practice of education that keeps us alienated from the best that we have been and have evolved over the millennia. But resurrecting the past should not be a slanted ideological agenda, but a catalyst for awakening and rejuvenating our shared sense of tradition. To that end, the contributions that Adi Shankara made, with hardly any material means or institutional resources at his disposal, far outweigh the work that a hundred universities do today.
Varma has done a timely service by reminding us of the treasures that we lose sight of in the heat of our rat-race after material progress, that afflicts us with the anaemia of the soul and leads to self-alienation. We can excel only in terms of our own genius, and not as counterfeits of alien traditions.
Former principal of St Stephen’s College, New Delhi