Jaya Jaya Sankara Hara Hara Sankara – For the past few weeks Adiyen has been posting this excellent interview by Sri Periyava in parts for us to read and comprehend since it is a lengthy one. Below is the complete interview for our reading pleasure. Rama Rama
The complete interview in PDF form can also be accessed HERE but it is a bit difficult to read because of the print quality. This was also posted 4-5 yearrs back in the blog and HERE is the link to it.
Many Jaya Jaya Sankara to our sathsang volunteer Smt. Savita Narayan for typing this up for devotees benefit. Rama Rama
Sri Sankaracharya Speaks – An Exclusive Interview – By A.S.Raman (August 18, 1963)
“This is my fifth attempt at having a peaceful, uninterrupted meeting with Your Holiness.” He makes no comment. He just smiles his usual smile.
“I had the good fortune to spend nearly forty-five minutes with Your Holiness during a specially arranged audience last week.” No comment again.
“On that occasion, Your Holiness had very graciously suggested that I might see you again ‘any day, any time’.” His Holiness says nothing but keeps smiling reassuringly.
“I have been coming to the camp since then. But till this afternoon I had no luck.” Still no comment.
“I have a few questions to ask. Have I Your Holiness’s permission?”
“Of course.” He speaks at last and the language he uses, as on the earlier occasion, is chaste Telugu. “I have not forgotten you. I am always available to those who have genuine doubts. An honest enquiry interests me.”
“Thank you, Sir. First question. What are Your Holiness’s views on the religious basis for life in modern India? Are we Indians not basically more materialistic than the Europeans and the Americans despite our preoccupation with rites and rituals?”. He shows no visible interest in my question. His indifference puzzles me. Is the question not properly framed? Does it sound irreverent? He stares at me intriguingly but with transparent concern.
“How many questions have I to answer in all?” he asks rather naively.
“I am afraid the questionnaire I have prepared is on the heavy side. It may make unwarranted demands on Your Holiness’s time and patience.”
“Doesn’t matter. Go ahead. Read out all the questions first. Then you will have my replies which will be actually in the form of composite statement- covering all your queries.”
I do as I am told. After reading out the questionnaire, I wait impatiently for his reactions. But, once again, he keeps teasingly mum. His eyes are closed and he wears an expression of ennui. He however continues to caress his crisp beard absent-mindedly. There is a sudden flash on his face. His lips widen and a few words are uttered gently. I cannot hear them. I request him to repeat them. Adjusting his falling ochre robe and straightening himself up, he says: “How many days did it take you to prepare this questionnaire? It is very elaborate. Let me attempt to answer it.”
He speaks for about four hours with the consistent precision and percipience of a tapasvin and at the end of his talk I discover that all my queries have been answered completely and convincingly. Having sorted out my questions and his observations, I present them in the following coherent form.
- To my first question on the religious basis for life in modern India, Sri Sankaracharya’s answer is:
“Religion can never cease to be a force in our country. Superficially, we may be materialistic. But we are religious to the core. Even our politicians need religion for their secular purposes. You remember how cleverly Gandhiji employed religion for capturing the hearts of the masses? In the name of the religion, you can make our simple folks to do anything. I hope you have not forgotten the cause for which millions of Hindus laid down their lives immediately after Partition. They preferred death to humiliation. The communal riots that broke out as a result of the partition of our country had much greater significance than the religious persecution in Medieval Europe. In Europe, one talks about individual martyrs. In India, whenever the challenge to religion came, it is the common people who defended the faith, not intellectuals or reformers who want another proof of the religious favour of the Hindus. Try a surprise visit to any of our places of the pilgrimage on any day. Take some of your foreign friends also with you. You will see a perpetual carnival. A similar spectacle awaits you on the banks of our sacred rivers throughout the year. You know how the prospect of a mere bath can move millions in this country. The Kumbha Mela can continue to take place only in India. Religion has great mass appeal in our land even today in spite of our increasing interest in materialistic activities. It lies dormant in every one of us.”
- Question: By placing too much emphasis on secularism and socialism our leaders are, in my opinion, sowing seeds of scepticism among our masses. Don’t you think so? A sort of vacuum is being created in their lives.
His Holiness: Our Governments, both Central and State, are, I am afraid, not avowedly secular but aggressively so, where Hinduism is concerned. They are anxious to protect the interests of the religious minorities, not those of the majority community, against whom all discriminatory legislation in the regard to marriage, divorce, succession, worship in temples and so on is directed. Even our family planning seems to be meant exclusively for the Hindus who have recently achieved a 3% decrease in their numbers. Compare this figure with the 5% increase in the Muslim population. The Muslim population of Assam has been particularly on the increase. Frankly our legislators do not have the courage to alter the social or religious structure of the Muslims or the Christians. But they are always ready even to demolish the very base of the Hinduism.
Every Asian country has a state religion- Ceylon, Burma, Pakistan, Malaya. Only India has none. The secularism of our politicians is clearly directed against the Hindus who, being dangerously divided, lack strength. They have no leadership, no spokesman. So who can force Parliament to adopt Hinduism as a state religion? The Muslims, Christians, Parsis and the other minorities are powerful because they are well organised. Whenever the Hindus try to organise themselves, they are branded as communalists and their organisations are banned. Thus the majority community remains irredeemably demoralized. So far as Hinduism is concerned, our present rulers seem to be a much greater impediment than the British Viceroys ever were. Our leaders have a policy of appeasement for the religious minorities, and a policy of victimisation for the Hindus. I cannot understand them. Naturally, the influence of Hinduism on the lives of our masses is waning. But they can never forsake religion.
- Q: What, according to Your Holiness, is the justification for the existence of the caste system? Does this dangerous anachronism, lend itself to any reform or modification?
H.H.: The caste system has its strengths as well as its weaknesses. It represents the world’s oldest way of life and it remains well preserved to this day because of its vitality. Selfishness is the root cause of the decline of all civilisations. For it leads to competition, encroachment, exploitation and eventually annihilation—the poor give way to the rich, the ignorant to the learned, the simple to the sophisticated, and the believer to the non-believer. But the Hindu caste system, has originally conceived, encourages none of these disruptive tendencies. On the contrary, it combats them most effectively. Otherwise it would not have been able to survive the tempestuous ups and downs spread over a period of 5,000 years. Its guiding principle is: “Live and let live.” The emphasis is on creative cohesion and co-operative co-existence. Each part strengthens itself as much for its own sake as for the ultimate good of the whole—Hindu society. Unity through division: this is what we have achieved through the caste system.
Naturally, even today, the ageless pattern of life continues throughout the country. Language changes from State to State, sometimes from district to district. But the Hindus all over the country share a common way of life based on caste, and this has helped them in their spiritual evolution down the centuries. The caste system—again in its original form, I repeat—inculcates the spirit of tolerance in every Hindu. For each caste is preoccupied, not with the grabbing of what rightly belongings to the other three castes but with the preservation of its own integrity—its swadharma. For example, the Brahman may be very poor. But he has no evil designs on the riches of Vaisya. Similarly, the Vaisya, however wealthy he may be, never aspires to the throne of the Kshatriya. The inspiration behind the greatest achievements in our religion, philosophy, art and literature is to be traced to the caste system. But today the Hindu caste system exists only in form, not in spirit. Hence the conflict. Division, which was once the main source of its strength, has become a disintegrating factor. It has been the cause of compartmentalisation of a most sinister kind. The result is tragic: all the four castes are mutually not merely exclusive but destructive. No wonder that those outside the caste system are jubilant. They can attack each caste separately, you see. That is why even Brahmans provide such rich material for the Christian proselytisers.
In the past, the Brahman was the spiritual leader of the Hindus. Actually, the term then in vogue was Brahmanism, not Hinduism. Nowadays, those down the ladder of the caste system are eager to usurp spiritual leadership from the Brahman. Jealousy, arrogance and intolerance have begun to gnaw at the vitals of every caste. The Brahman, the Vaisya, the Kshatriya and the Sudra: they are all the time engaged in an invisible civil war. The Brahman himself, if you ask me, is the main cause of the disintegration of the caste system. For he no longer commands respect from the other castes. He does not inspire confidence in them. He is not at all competent to lead the community on this spiritual plane. Once he symbolised not only the lowest rung of the economic ladder but the summit of the spiritual and intellectual achievement. He has the epitome of plain living and high thinking. He was universally revered, despite his poverty. His absence, however brief, used to be acutely felt in his village. His house had the look and feel of a hermitage. He lived in the most exemplary manner possible, because he knew that he was being watched by the whole world. Being the spiritual leader of the community, he was always ready to make the maximum sacrifice in order to exert a healthy influence on the other castes.
But the present-day Brahman has no awareness of his responsibilities. He is not qualified even to preach the ideals practiced by his ancestors. It is difficult to distinguish him from the Vaisya, the Kshatriya or the Sudra. Naturally those down the social ladder feel justified in agitating for equality with the Brahman. They will all eventually dissect, not merely distort, the caste system beyond recognition.
What is the remedy? Castelessness? A very facile solution. The antidote to the ills of the caste system lies within the structure itself. The Brahman alone can resuscitate the institution and restore it to its original splendor. All that I have to say to him is this: “Live like a good Brahman so that the other castes emulate your example. See that they follow your virtues, not your vices. Mind-control, self-control, voluntary poverty: these are some of the sacred ideals cherished by your ancestors. Practice them as they did. It is only then that you can inspire the other castes and thus achieve unity within the Hindu fold.” Where spiritual values are concerned, he should make no concessions or compromises, whatever be the circumstances. Of course, he has to make great sacrifices. People die for their country. Why should not the Brahman be prepared to die for his religion? It is time he realise that the leadership has not only its rewards but its responsibilities too. The inherent strength of the caste system lies in the Brahman’s spirit of sacrifice and self-denial. Otherwise how can we justify the exacting and elaborate core of moral conduct that our religion imposes on him? The Brahman alone can save the situation.
- Q.: What is the method by which the present lost generation of Hindus can be reclaimed in terms of religion?H.: What is most important is the raising of the moral standards of the people. In the absence of an inner urge in us to follow the path of virtue and righteousness, all legislation is bound to remain trivial and inconsequential. The children should, at school and at home, receive moral instruction in a form that makes powerful impact on their impressionable minds. Training in medicine or engineering can follow later. The pupil’s manner and morals should be treated as Priority Number One. When education becomes purposive and spiritually satisfying, as it was in my younger days, legal enactments for the social or moral reform of the people become unnecessary. The present tendency, on the part of our rulers, to promote morals through legislation will result in chaotic, futile Acts which will only act to the bulk of the statute book and swell the pockets of lawyers. In the past, moral text-books used to be compulsory for students. Prizes used to be awarded for students who did not steal, who did not tell lies and who followed the precepts of their elders. Nowadays the school offer prizes for proficiency in subjects which have no influence on the pupil’s moral development. Career has become more important than character and conduct. It is necessary that the noble ideals expounded in our religious books and not Acts of Parliament should regulate the behavior of our boys.
- Q.: What is the place of rituals in the religious life of an individual? Do they, for example, has any influence in the sense of right and wrong? Is it imperative that he believe in God in order to be virtuous? Is a good man necessarily a religious man? I am particularly interested in Your Holiness’s views on the relation between religion and morality, between fear of God and love of humanity. Even dacoits and debauchees invoke the blessings of their favourite deities in order to be successful in their anti-social activities.
H.H.: Rituals of course are not essential for one’s inner realisation. But then it all depends on the spiritual stature of a particular individual. It is desirable that the ordinary devotee observe all the prescribed rituals as scrupulously as possible. For they enable him to achieve one-pointedness, if not anything else. Concentration, discipline, will-power, austerity: all these provide the necessary base for one’s spiritual experience. Religion and morality are not interdependent. The Buddha and Mahavira were non-believers, but they followed the path of virtue and righteousness. Even within the Vedic fold we have atheists-the exponents of the Samkhya philosophy. The Samkhyas were concerned more with karma than with the concept of God. Perfect morality is possible only when an individual has an ideal before him. He surrenders himself to that ideal and then begins the transformation of his life.
God represents the conventional goal of one’s inner struggle. There have been more saints in India than in any other country. Just think of the richness of our religious literature. Man cannot serve as man’s ideal because of his imperfections. Naturally, he turns into a superior force in the interests of his moral uplift and spiritual advancement. The Buddha preached the ideal of Ahimsa which, in effect, replaced God. But what do we see in all Buddhist countries today? Non-vegetarianism in its most disagreeable forms. The people there perhaps do not slaughter animals, because they wish to observe the law of Ahimsa in letter, if not in spirit. But they can import butchers from our East Coast, you see. Without a perfect ideal before him, such as God, man cannot achieve moral perfection. For a nation, if not for an individual, God as an ideal is absolutely necessary. The two types of anti-social characters you mention are like the present-day Buddhists. For the results that follow an individual’s failure in his spiritual struggle, we have to blame, not the ideal before him, but his own human imperfections.
- Q.: What will be according to Your Holiness, the impact of the recent spectacular achievements of science on man’s faith in religion?
H.H.: Science and spirituality are coming closer together. Today the scientist maintains that all matter can be reduced to energy which I call Parasakti. He thus finds himself unconsciously in the company of Advaitins. His conviction that energy is the absolute power despite the multiplicity of its manifestations such as heat, electricity, and so on is bound to lead him to Sankara’s religio-philosophy. The perceiver—that is, the soul—and the perceivable will eventually become one. Science in its destructive aspect is of course a different matter.
- Q.: Do you think there will be another World War? What are your suggestions regarding the perseveration of peace? How can the ever-deepening racial and religious antagonisms (White vs. Black, Arab vs. Jew, Hindu vs. Muslim, etc.) be checked?
H.H.: I am not a prophet. But perhaps I need not be one to say that the Third World War will be the last World War. For after this, there will be neither any world left nor wars. Thanks to their nuclear armaments race, neither Russia nor America will be rash enough to destroy each other and the world. The next war, if it ever breaks out, will not last more than two days. Love, tolerance, understanding, a spirit of compromise: these inspiring ideals must provide the basis for whatever decisions a particular national government takes vis-à-vis other countries. Then an easing of tensions will inevitably follow and the prospects of world peace brighten.
- Q: What is Your Holiness’s opinion about the present tendency among the temple trustees to desecrate temples in the name renovation? By painting gopurams and whitewashing the stone pillars, rich in sculptural detail, they are not prolonging the life of the temple. On the contrary, they are making it look cheap and undignified. The serenity, the solemnity and the sanctity that age imparts to our great shrines are being sacrificed at the altar of so-called renovation. The “Sudais” on our gopurams painted in garish colours look like “Kolu”. They lack the dignity of the mutilated figures which they have replaced.
H.H.: I agree with you. I could not have expressed myself on the subject as forcefully as you have done. A temple need not be attractive. But it should remain authentic under all circumstances. Its original grandeur should be preserved by our renovators. It is not enough that our temple trustees have faith. They should also have taste.
- Q.: What is Your Holiness’s assessment of the impact of films on the morals of the masses?
H.H.: Like nuclear power, the cinema can be put both to constructive and destructive uses. I welcome it as an art form, and as a contribution to science. But its uses, in my opinion, are limited. Documentary and educational films dealing with subjects such as geography, science, medicine, engineering, technology and so on are certainly helpful to humanity. Feature films dealing with so called social themes have no justification at all. Social reform should not be the objective of our films. It is tragic that modesty and dignity are no longer the proud possessions of our women who, by adopting the cinema as their career, have become vulgar exhibitionists. In ancient India, women surrendered themselves to their husbands as willingly as sishyas effaced themselves in the presence of their gurus.
The lure of the movies has resulted in shocking lapses from morals. One cannot imagine the mischief films can do. In our ancient land, women and children are ruined beyond redemption. As I have already said, the cinema, like nuclear power, can be directed to creative purposes. After all, it is only an instrument and it has noble as well as ignoble uses. Women acting on the stage are all right. For their duties are traditional. The men and women belonging to the community known by various names such as Bharataputras, Kalavantas, or Bhatrajulu are recognised by the caste system and acting is their profession. It is their allotted task. Women outside this class are not authorised to play any roles. Even the professional actresses appear on the stage only to assist their husbands. I am sure you are aware of the nati-sutra-dhara tradition. So no moral code is violated. I have in mind the conditions that prevailed in the remote past. Today, of course, who has the authority to lay down the law, especially for our movie-makers who seem to be a law unto themselves? They are on a perpetual picnic.
- Q.: I take it that Your Holiness does not approve of films which depict stories based on our Puranas. Am I right?
H.H.: When I insist that our movies should not deal even with social themes, the question of our unfortunate men and women appearing on the screen in the roles of gods and goddesses does not arise.
- Q.: What are Your Holiness’s views on the language question?
H.H.: You are already familiar with them, are you not? I am an advocate of Sanskrit and English. None of the modern Indian languages—and I know most of them—
I interrupt: “—as thoroughly as those born to them, I understand.”
H.H.: I don’t know about that. None of them is half as good as Sanskrit and English. Sanskrit is our national lingua franca. It is still a living language, in a recognisable form, in Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, Ceylon and several other countries. When we adopt Sanskrit as a national language, we show our readiness to share the common heritage of all the South-East Asian countries, which will at once accept India as one among them. Russian also contains the number of words deriving from Sanskrit. It is high time we raised our classical language to the status of a modern language for practical, utilitarian purposes. Meanwhile, let us not banish English from our hospitable land. It is a wonderful language, is it not? It is our only medium of communication with the outside world. For international contacts, very few languages in the world are as adequately equipped as English.
- Q.: I presume that Your Holiness reads newspapers. What is your attitude towards the Sino-Indian border dispute? Do you think that we should negotiate with China on the basis of the Colombo proposals?
H.H.: Of course I read newspapers. Rather, I have them read out to me. Surely, you don’t wish to involve me in a political controversy. As for the Sino-Indian border dispute, I have no solution to offer. But Bertrand Russell’s much-discussed appeal to Mr. Nehru seems to make sense to me. Anyway, my views on politics and politicians are unimportant—as unimportant as my views on films. So ignore them. Let us discuss on something else—some other subject, less trivial and more provocative.
- Q.: Has Your Holiness read Arthur Koestler’s banned book, The Lotus and the Robot?
H.H.: Yes. I read it before it was banned. Now it is my turn. Let me ask you a question. What do you think of this book?
“It is readable: that is all. But Koestler’s account of his meeting with you is moving,” I reply.
H.H.: Yes, he talks about the Christ’s smile, which is conspicuously non-existent in European art, but easy to discover on the faces of the Hindu sanyasins.
“It is, he says, particularly conspicuous,” I observe, “on the face of Your Holiness.”
H.H.: I thought he had no respect for Indian seekers of Truth.
“For you, however,” I reply, “he has nothing but praise. But the judgments of these European ignoramuses are often a case of hit or miss, where India and Indians are concerned. Your Holiness, what is all this rivalry between the Sringeri and the Kamakoti Peethams? I hear the other Swamiji is not on speaking terms with Your Holiness.”
His Holiness makes no comment. But there is a binding glow on his face. It is an epitome of his inner harmony and humanism.
- Q.: May I ask Your Holiness one more question? What is the essential difference between the Western conception of God and the Indian?
H.H.: How can there be any diversity in the conceptions of God? But in attitudes towards Him, yes. In the West, one tries to approach God through religion. In India, we follow the path of philosophy. All our rituals, ceremonies, and observances are meant to serve only as a prelude to this arduous journey. Their purpose will have been fulfilled the moment a devotee feels that his mind is attuned to its new role—the role of a seeker.
“Your Holiness,” I observe rising to make my farewell obeisance to him, “I seek your blessings once again before I go. I am aware of the physical strain our marathon four-hour session must have caused Your Holiness.”
“Have I answered all your questions? I hope my Telugu is good enough.” His Holiness lapses into silence. Again I see the same benign, beatific smile on those soft, sensitive lips, the same blinding glow in those large, luminous eyes, and the same gracious gesture of benediction, which literally unfold before me the strange vision of a form combining the dynamism of the Lord Nataraja with the serenity of the Buddha.
His Holiness has, at his command, all the paraphernalia one associates with the exalted position he occupies in the Hindu hierarchy—a bejewelled crown, a throne, several camels, horses and elephants. But he has no use for them. The only crown he wears is provided by the garlands offered by his devotees; the only mode of travelling he knows is walking; the only throne he occupies is the human heart. His Holiness does not work the type of miracles that normally one expects a sanyasin to perform. He is not a magician, you see. For example, ashes in his hands do not turn into gold. Sterile women do not, with his blessings, become fertile. He does not pretend to be able to transform overnight the sickly into healthy, the poor into rich, and the unsuccessful into successful. So perhaps he can be of no interest to those who seek immediate results such as forecasts of the New York Cotton numbers, promotions, increments, liquidation of enemies, supply of bride-grooms for the age-barred spinsters and so on. But he performs one miracle which no magician will ever dare to attempt: he makes you feel the very presence of God.