Monday 20 May 2024

Shri Shankara and Islam

 – P. Parameswaran JI (Yuva Bharati, 50th Year Special Commemorative Volume, Nov. 1995)

Shankaracharya was deeply influenced by the monotheistic teachings and simplicity of Islam. Some scholars argued that his 'monism' and 'advaita' philosophy were influenced by the monotheistic teachings of Islam. He was finally ex-communicated from his own community, may be partly due to his revolutionary ideas. The last king of the Chera dynasty embraced Islam and migrated to Arabia. He sent missionaries from there to the State to teach his people Islam. In the East coast when the last Pandya king died in the 13th century, it was his Muslim advisor who succeeded him. The King's son became his minister. Even the Bhakti movement arose out of the impact of Islam".

The above lines are excerpts from the speech delivered recently by our Honorable Vice-President at the inaugural function of the C.H.Muhammad Koya International Foundation at Thiruvananthapuram as reported in the Hindu on 7th October 1995. Mr. Muhammad Koya was one of the tallest Muslim League leaders and an ex-Chief Minister of Kerala. Since these sensitive observations came from the Vice- President of the Indian Republic and since they are likely to be taken as authoritative pronouncements from one of our nation's topmost luminaries, it is necessary that they must be subjected to close scrutiny by competent persons and concerned organizations. It is in that spirit that the following is written:

The most important point arising out of this speech of our Vice-President is regarding the impact made by Islam on Shri Shankaracharya. The statement pinpoints the interaction between the monotheism of Islam and Advaita of Shri Shankaracharya. There is an underlying assumption that both are similar concepts having more or less the same contents. It is precisely here that Shri K.R. Narayanan has gone wrong or has been misled. Monotheism and Monism are two entirely different concepts dealing with different aspects in philosophy or theology, operating at different levels. Monotheism itself has different dimensions in different religions. In this, Semitic religions differ vastly from Hindu religion. All the Semitic religions, whether Judaism, Christianity or Islam, have each their own variety of monotheism. But all of them insist that there is only one true God, and that God is the one whom each of them worships according to the particular name and manner prescribed in their religion. No other form or way of working is acceptable or valid or permissible.

Monotheism in Hinduism is quite different. Of course, there is only one God, but the same God can be worshipped in different forms and under different names. He is formless and also with form. He is nameless, yet He can be called by appropriate names. Most Gods have a thousand names each Sahasranama according to the worshipper and the bent of his spiritual development. God is not bound by any dogma or subject to any restriction or limitation. The Vedic Rishi declared that the "Reality is one, but sages call it by many names such as Indra, Agni, Matarishvan etc." Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita that "I approach my devotee according to the way he chooses to come to me".

Monotheism in Hinduism is as old as the Vedas, whereas Islam came into being only in the 7th century after Christ. As such, to say that Shri Shankaracharya was in need of Islam for his lessons in monotheism is plainly absurd.

Not only that, Shri Shankara's monotheism is not the monotonous, and intolerant monotheism of Islam. Shri Shankaracharya's monotheism has been described by Dr. Radhakrishnan in the following words:-

Shankaracharya found people worshipping many gods- Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu etc. He looked upon all of them as the legitimate and valid forms of the Supreme and he asked us not to quarrel about these names and other things. He was regarded as the "Sanmatastapanacharya", the founder of six systems of religious worship." (Our Heritage, Orient Paperback, 1973, P.61). And the Advaitin in Shankara did not revolt when he wrote devotionally surcharged hymns for various deities.

Such was the catholicity of his conviction and the concession he gave to human limitations.

Coming to Advaita, or monism or non- dualism the concept is entirely at a different level. It says that the ultimate reality is only one and that is "Sat - Chit - Ananda". Everything else is unreal. That is what is meant by the Vedic dictum "Brahma satyam jagat mithya", which means that only Brahman is absolutely real whereas every other thing is either only an appearance or relatively real. According to this, even God is real only in a relative sense, not to speak of the material world and all that it contains. As a corollary to this is the other Vedic dictum Jivo Brahmaivana para". All the four "Mahavakyas" express this same non-duality. Such a concept is totally alien to Islam. There is no Advaita in Islam. The pre-islamic tribal Arabia was socially, culturally and philosophically in such a primitive condition that it is foolish to expect that a highly evolved and sophisticated philosophical concept like Advaita could ever evolve in such a backward social frame of mind. What the prophet actually did was to abolish blind idolatry and the bewildering multiplicity of names and forms of God that prevailed in the contemporary Arabia. The connotation of the very word "Islam" unmistakably shows that its central concept is dvaita. Islam means submission and surrender. Submission is possible only when there are two - the Almighty God above in heaven, and the helpless servant of God below on earth. In Advaita, this dualism is abolished.

Another basic fallacy in the Vice- President's statement is the assumption that Shri Shankara was the founder of Advaita darshana. Advaita existed right from the Vedic times. All the Upanishads preached Advaita. The Brahmasutra is the condensed form of Advaita philosophy. There were any number of sages and scholars who have preached and written about Advaita. The uniqueness of Shankara is that he was the greatest, the most scientific and the most logical commentator of Advaita. His commentaries or 'Bhashya' on the 'Prasthanatraya' is even today the greatest work in the field. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan has most aptly brought out this aspect. "It is impossible to read Shankara's writings, packed as they are with serious and subtle thinking, without being conscious that one is in contact with a mind of a very fine penetration and profound spirituality. With his acute feeling of the immeasurable world, his stirring gaze into the abysmal mysteries of spirit, his unswerving resolve to say neither more nor less than what could be proved, Shankara stands as a heroic figure of the first rank in the somewhat motley crowd of the religious thinkers of medieval India. His philosophy stands forth complete, needing neither a before nor an after It has a self-justifying wholeness characteristic of works of art. It expounds its own presuppositions, is ruled by its own end, and holds all its elements in a stable, reasoned equipoise. (P 446 Indian Philosophy by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan - Vol. II). Is it not silly to imagine that "a philosophy that stands forth complete and has a self-justifying wholeness" has been influenced by something that is much inferior in quality and content?

It should be noted that barring Shri Humayun Kabir, no other serious writer has ever made such a statement regarding the impact of Islam on Shri Shankara. Even such a historian as Tarachand, who is highly partial to the Muslim viewpoint, has not been able to do so. After debating at length on this aspect, the conclusion he comes to is that "Shankara's life is wrapped in legend and direct testimony of any kind is completely lacking to establish a connection between him and Islam". (Tarachand, Influence of Islam P.111). Mr. Rolland E. Miller, author of the e book Mopla Muslims of Kerala - a study in Islamic trends avers, "The gap between Shankara's sophisticated Vedanta and the pre-philosophic monotheism of the Arab traders, and the fact that Shankara's brief career spanned all of India are among the difficulties that suggest there may not have been any direct connection between him and the Muslims". (P.50)

It defies one's understanding as to why our Vice-President has taken pains to categorically assert Islamic influence on Shankara's Advaita, when even Muslim scholars and historians have not put forward such a thesis. For example in the two volumes History of Kerala, published by the Kerala History Association, there is absolutely no mention of even a remote influence of Islam on Shankara. In the chapter on Islam, Professor Syed Muhiyudin Shah, Dean of Calicut University, comes to the conclusion that solid evidence about Islamic influence in Kerala can be traced only from the 10th century A.D. onwards. Shankara lived much earlier. There are various theories about Shri Shankara's period ranging from 6th century B.C. to 8th century A.D. Even taking the last as true, there is no possibility of Islam influencing Shankara. There might have been a few settlements of Arabic traders around the port towns of Malabar, at the time when Shankara was born. Even that is doubtful. But no one can claim that those traders had ever reached anywhere near Kaladi. Moreover, even as a boy of eight, Shankara left Kerala on his far- flung divine mission.

On the other hand there is ample evidence of the impact of Vedanta on Islam. But that was much later. Sufism in India is the product of Vedantic influence on certain Muslim mystics. But the irony of it is that the mainstream Islam never accepted Sufism as Islamic. The result was that Sufi saints were persecuted by Muslim rulers like Aurangazeb.

From what has been stated above anyone can see the fallacy of the statements made by Shri K.R. Narayanan regarding the impact of Islam on Advaita. It is not our purpose here to take up for scrutiny his statements about the last king of the Chera dynasty embracing Islam etc. There is no conclusive evidence for such a categorical assertion. At best it only represents the form of a tradition preferred and propagated by the Kerala Muslims. The following sentences from Mr. Rolland E. Miller's book reflects the wide spectrum of thinking on this subject. "The conversion story of Cheran Perumal is a persistent legend that has aroused a considerable debate. The range of opinion varies from the view that "there is good reason for thinking that this account of the introduction of Mohammadanism into Malabar is reliable", to the other extreme which maintains that "It is a pious invention of the Mahomedans". In a middle position is the opinion that "we cannot but admit that it has some foundation in fact". The most exhaustive study of the tradition has been made by the Dean of Kerala Historians, K.P. Padmanabha Menon, who insists on its "legendary quality".

On such sensitive and controversial issue, on which even learned historians hold conflicting views, it would have been only fair that our Vice- President did not lend the weight of his authority in favor of a sectional viewpoint to the prejudice of all the rest.

It may be asked why a stray and casual statement by the Vice-President be taken so very seriously. There are two main reasons. One was already stated namely, that even a casual statement from a person occupying such an esteemed position will be considered as an authoritative pronouncement with all the logical consequences. Secondly, it undermines our national self-respect, self-confidence and also the national honor. For centuries together we have been proudly cherishing the idea that Shri Shankaracharya is the greatest philosopher India has produced and that he is the "Jagat Guru." It is his contribution towards National Integration through his wonderful life-mission that has enabled our country to weather the stormy days of the Muslim domination. And, now suddenly when we are told that the same Shankara whom the entire nation holds almost like an avatara was a product of Islamic influence, our self- confidence as a nation receives a rude shock. A nation like an individual lives or dies on the strength of self-respect and self-confidence.

Undermining deep- rooted faith in the National heroes is the surest way to collective suicide. That has to be resisted effectively from whichever source it comes.

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Freed from attachment, non-egoistic, endowed with courage and enthusiasm and unperturbed by success or failure, the worker is known as a pure (Sattvika) one. Four outstanding and essential qualities of a worker. - Bhagwad Gita : XVIII-26

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