BOOK REVIEW: Adi Shankara by P. Narasimhayya

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

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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DAILY PHOTO: Chinese Sage at Wat Arun

Taken in September of 2014 at Wat Arun in Bangkok.

Taken in September of 2014 at Wat Arun in Bangkok.

While built in the Thai-Khmeri style, Wat Arun displays a great deal of Chinese influence. It was built at a time with trade with China was thriving.

BOOK REVIEW: A Search in Secret India by Paul Brunton

A Search in Secret IndiaA Search in Secret India by Paul Brunton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A Search in Secret India is a travelogue by Paul Brunton as he wondered through India in search of sages. In the process, he found a number of masters of body, mind, and both. However, he finds these individuals as rare nuggets in a sea of frauds.

Brunton states up front that he won’t waste time with any of the blatant frauds or suspected frauds, but he does devote space to a number of the more impressive ones. Impressive either by way of a large following or artfulness of technique. He also finds individuals he doesn’t know what to make of. These individuals appear to have impressive otherworldly skills, but skills that he can neither reconcile with known scientific understanding nor uncover as hoaxes despite his best skeptical inquiry. Given Occam’s Razor, he seems to be left suspecting that these are masters of illusion, but he maintains skepticism of his skepticism. A prime example of this is a Yogi who seems to be able to conjure any scent upon request.

Brunton also runs across individuals who are able to do amazing things that are inconsistent with his knowledge of the world, but which his exhaustive investigations leave little room to dispute. For example, there is one yogi who can completely cease his respiration for a seemingly impossible length of time, and who resumed breathing not with a gasp but with a slow, calm series of breaths.

As suggested above, this book is really an attempt to analyze India’s spirituality through the lens of Western logical and scientific approaches. The author is a Brit and the book was first published in the 1930’s. His worldview is consistent with that status. While Brunton would like to master his own mind, he is unwilling to let himself be duped.

There is another side to this juxtaposition of East and West. The yogis and gurus with which Brunton comes into contact often have trouble grasping the Western mindset (there is one notable exception.) What these wise-men have difficulty understanding is why a people, like the British, devote so much time to mastering the external world (and with a great measure of success it must be added), but put so little effort into mastering or understanding the self. Most of the gurus appreciate that a Brit is taking an interest in the spiritual and yogic ways of India, but with their own skepticism. They find Westerners materially rich, but bankrupt of the mind. They find the Brits strong, but lacking the supple power that yoga introduces.

After completing his travels, it seems the book is set to draw to an end. However, Brunton realizes that while there were a number of skilled individuals that he came across in his travels,there is one that stands out as someone he should not miss an opportunity to learn more from. Therefore, instead of getting on a steamer back to England, he returns to South India to a man called the Maharishee in order to find out if the guru will take him as a student. The last couple chapters describe his time under the Maharishee’s tutelage as well as under one of the guru’s most advanced students. The Maharishee is a sage the likes of which Brunton has not seen in all his travels. The guru has the humility to say that he cannot teach Brunton anything, but instead can only show him some things that he learned on his own journey.

If there is a lesson for those who would like to follow in Brunton’s footsteps, it seems to be that there is an inverse relationship between how easy a guru is to find(/how eager a guru is to talk to one) and the level of skill of that teacher. In almost all cases, Brunton had to take great initiative and steer off the beaten path to find the true masters. On the other hand, most of the individuals who were easily found, and eager to talk, were just con men.

I recommend this book for those interested in development of the mind and body.

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Paul Brunton’s Search for Sages in India

Source: Kalyan Kumar by way of Wikipedia

Source: Kalyan Kumar by way of Wikipedia

As I prepare to move to India, I’ve begun to read up on this subcontinent about which I know too little. For example, I’d never heard of Paul Brunton before a week ago, but now I am immersed in his book A Search in Secret India. Brunton was a Brit who, like a number of his contemporaries living in the first half of the 20th century, struck out to experience the mysteries locked in the heart of India. Like many, he wanted to gain access to the country’s treasure, but the treasure he sought had nothing to do with material wealth or ancient artifacts. He sought living sages, and the lessons they could teach him. The book I’m reading tells the story of this search.

Something about India drives internal reflection and the spirituality that often accompanies it. It’s the home of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism, as well as many non-denominational wisemen (and wisewomen) who at once can be seen as followers of no religion and believers in many religions.  Value for the unity of mind and body can be seen in the popular national practice of Yoga, which is the antithesis of mindless exercise in which one jumps on a treadmill with an i-Pod and zones out for an hour as one’s body churns through its paces. Yoga, like Tai Chi, requires one’s full attention, and that one’s movement, one’s breath, and one’s awareness are all working toward the same purpose.

So far, Brunton’s work has appealed to me not only because he is in search of wisdom, but because he goes about this pursuit as a skeptic. In the introduction he tells how he edited out the many meetings with charlatans and frauds. Charlatans always abound in the presence of sages because it’s quite lucrative to convince people that they can achieve self-improvement effortlessly through some patented approach. (I’m here to tell you that self-improvement is a struggle that requires your physical and mental energy all the way–what I cannot yet tell you is whether it is worth it or not.) If one cannot see the cloud-enshrouded destination, it’s easy to sell maps–whether one knows the route oneself or not–and many are all too ecstatic to buy a map that shows a secret route that takes them to the pinnacle by way exclusively downhill paths.  The fact that Brunton enters his quest with a degree of skepticism suggests he didn’t fall for such traps; traps that should be obvious but that appeal to those for whom the force of wanting to believe is stronger than the force of truth. [As I am only a few chapters in, I reserve the right to change this prognosis. At some point, I’ll put up a review with my final thoughts.]

I look forward to discovering whether wisdom is alive and well on the subcontinent. Hopefully, the hucksters haven’t won the war for the mind’s of seekers.