BOOK REVIEW: Adi Shankara by P. Narasimhayya

Adi ShankaraAdi Shankara by Anant Pai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This short, comic book tells stories associated with the Advaita Vedanta sage, Adi Shankara. As it’s a comic book intended for children, it’s more occupied with mythology and magical tales than with describing Shankara’s philosophy or what real world events influenced said philosophy. That said, it’s a quick way to gain some insight into the mythology of Adi Shankara as well as a few sparse biographical details such as the places he traveled and people he met.

At the end, it does have a half-page box of quotes that offers a tiny bit of insight into what Shankara believed and what concepts he emphasized in his teachings.

If one reads it with the expectation that this is a book that is primarily going to offer insight into stories and fantasies bandied about, it’s certainly worth the limited investment of time and effort required to read the book. But it’s kind of boring in the way of Superman-type comic books –i.e. fantasies of a guy who does whatever he can imagine because he’s not bound by the physical laws of the universe. That is, it’s more intended as escape from reality than as education.


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No Hanuman Span [Common Meter]

I stand before the water's edge.
Thwarted, I throw a stone.
For I am here and you are there,
and I feel all alone.

I have no friendly Hanuman
to form a viaduct.
I gather scraps together to
see what I can construct.

Maybe I'll make a raft, or some
rickety, old footbridge -
Anything to reduce the gulf
so much as a hopeful smidge.

BOOK REVIEW: Ashtavakra Gita Trans. by Bart Marshall

Ashtavakra Gita: (bootleg version)Ashtavakra Gita: by Bart Marshall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There are many translations of this Hindu classic of Advaita Vedanda, a non-dualist school that teaches the oneness of all things and the illusory nature of the universe that we think we know. “The Song of Ashtavakra” explores self-realization and the path to liberation (i.e. Moksha.) [Ashtavakra was a sage with birth defects from which the name “8 angles” derives. Yoga practitioners will know the name from an arm balance pose that involves balancing the kinked body on bent arms in a manner that was apparently reminiscent of the look of this sage’s body.]

The translation that I read, one by Bart Marshall, is clearly written in readily understandable language. It’s presented as a series of short-form poems arranged into twenty chapters that also form a dialogue between Ashtavakra and Janaka. This version doesn’t contain commentary and analysis as some translations do. Because it’s both highly readable and inexpensively acquired, I’d recommend one give it a chance. If you later decide you’d benefit from commentary, you’ll not be at a loss by having read this version first.

As is common enough in such tracts, the book can be repetitive as it reiterates ideas like the need to avoid desire and aversion and the nature of oneness. That said, there were some quite powerful statements that genuinely expanded on the ideas of the work. (e.g. 18.100: “One of tranquil mind // seeks neither crowds nor wilderness. // He is the same wherever he goes.” Or 3.12 “Why should a person of steady mind, who sees the nothingness of objects, prefer one thing over another?”)

If you’re a student of philosophy or of yoga as a philosophy, I think this is well worth a thoughtful read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Jagannatha of Puri by Gayatri M. Dutt

Jagannatha of puriJagannatha of puri by Gayatri Madan Dutt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I recently visited Puri, and – seeing the little, big-eyed Jagannath idols and images all across Odisha – I was curious to learn about the mythology behind the Puri temple and its tripartite deity. This 30+ page comic may not be the most scholarly or detailed account, but it may be the quickest way to get the gist of the story. And the comic does present an intriguing morality tale that includes lessons of patience and unselfishness.

The story begins with a king who is obsessed with finding a fabled cave-shrine that he was directed to in a dream. The king sends his best men out in search of the cave as its whereabouts are unknown. In time, one of the men stumbles upon a village whose chieftain is said to regularly make secretive visits to the cave and its idol. And from there, the race is on to get the king to the cave. But the deity is elusive, and insists that its followers work together harmoniously.

It’s a clear and well-developed story. It blends intriguing trippy elements like time-travel and messages in dreams with traditional religious mythology.

If you’re looking for a brief explanation of the Puri temple and the Jagannaths, it’s worth giving this short comic a look.


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DAILY PHOTO: Ganesh in the Woods, Vellore

Taken in September of 2021 in Vellore