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The life and work of Sri Sankara
Prof. P. Sankaranarayanan
Among the renowned personalities celebrated in the hagiographies of the world, by far the most distinguished for all time is Sri Sankara, reverently referred to as Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada, or simply as the Bhagavatpada. Whether considered, as tradition and the Puranas would have it, as an incarnation of Lord Siva Himself or only looked upon as a surpassing human being, either way, he is pre-eminent among the prophets and religious leaders of all times. His achievements during the little over three decades of his earthly life constitute a marvel of uncommon rate.
He was an intellectual prodigy who attained a phenomenal mastery over the scriptures even when he was less than eight years of age. Using the Sanskrit language with a felicitous clarity all his own, he wrote elaborate commentaries on the tripod of Hindu religion and philosophy evincing a dialectical skill which even to this day is the despair and envy of his adversaries. The original treatises that he produced on Advaita Vedanta ranging from a single verse to a thousand for all grades of mental comprehension live even today as fresh as ever, in the thoughts and tongues of men. His triumphal digvijaya to all parts of our land more than once had a double purpose, to vindicate the truths of Advaita Vedanta against the onslaughts of its disputants and to purify our religious theories and practices out of the accretions that had gathered round them by the lapse of time and the inroads of perverted minds. Mere sacerdotalism which went by the letter ignoring the spirit and the corruption of designing people had for long fouled the clear springs of our pristine religion, resulting in the adoption of ways of worship which were neither civilised nor moral. All this had happened before Sri Sankara came on the scene. He accomplished the stupendous task of ridding our religion of its unfortunate excrescence and raised it to a pedestal of worshipful dignity. Buddhism, the rebel child of the Vedic religion and philosophy, denied God and the soul, laid the axe at the very roots of Vedic thought and posed a great danger to its very survival. This onslaught was stemmed betimes, compelling Buddhism to seek refuge in other lands. While the credit for this should go primarily to the Mimamsaka, Kumarila Bhatta, it was because of Sri Sankara's dialectical skill and irrefutable arguments that it ceased to have sway over the minds of the inheritors of Vedic religion.
Having thus enthroned our ancient religion and philosophy in the hearts and minds of his countrymen, Sri Sankara established in several parts of the country guardians of his teachings to preserve and propagate it to countless generations of the future. While these should have been numerous when he established them, five stand to this day as pontificates bearing his name, and function at Kanchi, Sringeri, Puri, Dwaraka and Badri, covering the whole of Bharata Varsha. There is not in legend or in history a life like Sri Sankara's so short in years and yet so packed with achievements in the realm of the spirit and whose glory extends beyond the bounds of space and time. No wonder that even today, much as protagonists of other schools may regret and protest, Vedanta is identified with Advaita which Sri Sankara drew out of the Upanishads, distilled out of the Bhagavad Gita and described in his commentaries on the Brahma Sutras, and that this school of Vedanta has compelled the conviction and obtained the assent of the thinking minds of the West.
It is agreed on all hands that Sri Sankara belonged to a Nambudiri Brahmana family of Kerala in the hamlet of Kaladi situated on the banks of the Churna river. His father was a pious wealthy person called Sivaguru and his mother was Aryamba. Not blessed with a son for a long time, the devout pair went to worship Lord Siva in the nearby celebrated temple at Trichur. The story goes that, pleased by their devotion, the God appeared before them in a dream and asked them to choose between a number of long-lived sons who would remain ignorant and stupid and one who would live for eight years only, but would be possessed of phenomenal intellectual gifts. Sivaguru and his wife had no hesitation in choosing the latter. According to the legend, it was conveyed to them that Lord Siva Himself would condescend to be born to them.
In fullness of time, Aryamba bore a child carrying such divine marks on its person that those who beheld it proclaimed it an incarnation of Lord Siva Himself. It was given the significant name of Sankara, calculating by the season, the day and time of its birth and also as if to predict the great service the child was destined to render to the world. (Sam Karoti iti Sankarah: 'Sankara' is one who does good). As ill-luck would have it, Sivaguru passed away before the child was five years old and it was then brought up with care and affection by his mother. With the assistance of her kinsmen, Aryamba got the upanayanam ceremony performed for her precocious boy who then mastered all the Vedas and Sastras which seemed to wait on his lips, eager to be uttered by him for their own sanctification.
The eight years of the boy's allotted life were drawing to a close. The fateful day dawned. On that day it happened that Aryamba and Sri Sankara went to the Churna river to bathe. The mother finished her ablutions and was resting on the bank of the river. Suddenly she heard a cry of distress from her son telling her that a terrific crocodile had got his leg in its mouth and was dragging him down. The agony of the mother was indescribable.
Then Sri Sankara told her that he could free himself from the grip of the monster if, then and there, he assumed the Sannyasa asrama bringing about thereby the 'death' of his former condition and the start of a new life. Else, the crocodile would devour him and that would be the end of his physical life. 'Choose' said he, 'this instant; for there is no time to lose. Shall I pass away devoured by the crocodile or shall I live converting myself into a sannyasin?' Aryamba was in a dilemma; but her maternal instinct made her consent to Sri Sankara to live as a sannyasin if thereby she could keep him alive. Then and there, standing in the water, the boy Sankara uttered the incantation which automatically admitted him into the holy order of mendicant sannyasins. And, for a wonder, the crocodile loosened its grip and disappeared from water to appear again on the sky, so the story goes, as a celestial Gandharva released from his erstwhile curse by which he was condemned to be an aquatic monster. Thus Sri Sankara 'died' as a Brahmachari at the ordained age of eight and obtained a further lease of another eight years.
Upon Aryamba quite innocently bidding her son accompany her home, Sri Sankara reminded her that he had become a sannyasin, that he had betaken to an itinerant life and must take leave of her. The mother was anguished at this, grieving as to who could take care of her son. She wailed in disappointment that it was not given to her to see her son grow up, marry and raise a progeny for the continuation of his line. Sri Sankara consoled her by saying: 'Mother dear! Do not grieve. The whole world will be my home hereafter. All those who will initiate me into the sacred lore will be my fathers. All women who give me bhiksha (alms) will be my mothers. The peace that shall be mine by the realisation of the Atman will be my consort. All my disciples will be my sons.' He however promised to be at her bedside in her last moments and speed her way to heaven by his presence. Aryamba then gave him unwilling leave to depart. Sri Sankara traveled on foot from Kaladi to the Narmada banks visiting many a sacred spot on the way. There, in a place called Omkar Mandhata on the bank of river Narmada which from then on is called Sankara Ganga, he met Govinda Bhagavatpada who formally admitted him into the sannyasin order according to the prescribed rituals and imparted the Brahma Vidya to him. After serving his guru, for some time, obeying his command. Sri Sankara went to Kasi (Varanasi) and engaged himself in writing commentaries on the tripod of Hindu philosophy, namely, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras. At this time an interesting incident happened in the life of Sri Sankara. One morning, he was returning to his monastery after a bath in the Ganga. Leading four dogs an outcaste, who should not approach him, came along.
He was bidden by Sri Sankara to go away from his path. Upon this, the outcaste queried him as to what he bade to go away; if it was the outcaste's body or his Atman. If it was the former, he said, it was compacted of the same five elements as Sri Sankara's own body and was not different. So it need not go away. If it was the Atman, then according to the Advaita that Sri Sankara taught, the Atman of all persons, brahmana or outcaste, was one only and, being identical and all-pervasive, it cannot move away. Sri Sankara immediately understood that his questioner was no ordinary outcaste, but a realised soul and broke forth into a pentad of verses acclaiming the outcaste's greatness. Sri Sankara said in the verse that he deemed a person of such spiritual realisation to be his Guru, be he an outcaste or a brahmana. According to the legend, it was Lord Siva Himself who appeared as this outcaste. The dogs were the four vedas. The outcaste and his retinue vanished and Lord Siva appeared and blessed Sri Sankara exhorting him to finish writing his commentaries.
Another incident occurred some time later. While Sri Sankara was instructing his disciples in his Vedantic commentaries, an aged brahmana appeared before him with a request that he would be pleased to resolve some of his doubts. A vigorous discussion followed between the Master and the brahmana who disputed for a number of days with elaborate arguments Sri Sankara's interpretation of one of the tersest of the Brahma Sutras. This went on for eight days, each side vindicating its stand and there was no prospect of its conclusion. At this time, one of Sri Sankara's disciples, Padmapada by name, wondered who the doughty debater was. In an intuitive flash it struck him that he must be the great Bhagavan Vyasa, the author of the Brahma Sutras. He exclaimed: 'Sankara is Siva and Vyasa is Narayana Himself. When these gods themselves dispute, what can a mere mortal like me do?' Sri Sankara then realised who his disputant was. Prostrating before him he begged to be blessed. Sage Vyasa there upon lauded the fidelity of Sankara's commentaries and gave them the imprimatur of his approval. Now the extended eight years of Sri Sankara's life were about to be over. Adding another sixteen years to the span of his life, Vyasa bade him propagate the Advaita Sastra in the far reaches of India.
Sri Sankara hastened to Mandana's place. On arriving at the city, he was at a loss to discover Mandana's house. He enquired of a woman who was passing by and was told that in the verandah of a house two parrots would be chirping between themselves whether the Vedas were true in their own right or if their truth was derived. That, she said, was Mandana's house. Arriving there, Sri Sankara found the door closed against intruders as a sraddha ceremony was being then performed by Mandana. The story is that Sri Sankara let himself in by his yogic powers. Parrying the abuses of the householder who was wroth at a sannyasin interposing himself in a sraddha ceremony, Sri Sankara said that he did not come there for anna bhiksha (alms of food) but made him agree to a vada bhiksha, (alms of knowledge) after the sraddha ceremony was over. The disputants agreed that Mandana's wife Sarasavani who was said to be an incarnation of the Goddess Sarasvati, (Mandana being Brahma himself), should act as umpire to the debate. The wager was that if either was defeated, he should adopt the asrama of the other, that is, either Sri Sankara should become a householder or Mandana should take to monastic discipline. Leaving them to debate between themselves, Sarasavani went to attend to her domestic chores. Before doing so, she adorned each disputant with a garland of flowers saying that the person whose garland showed signs of fading must be considered to have been defeated.
The debate went on for a number of days. At the conclusion of the sessions on a particular day, Sarasavani invited both of them together for bhiksha signifying that her lord Mandana had become eligible for alms as only a monk is, in other words, that he had been defeated and should, according to the wager, become a sannyasin. This he did, adopting the name Suresvara and thence forward accepted the supremacy of Advaita. He became one of the foremost disciples of Sri Sankara who had earlier, when he was in Kasi acquired a disciple in the person of Sanandana. This disciple came to be known as Padmapada because the river Ganga caused lotuses (padma) to bloom at every step of his foot (pada) to give support to him, when once in his ecstatic devotion to Sri Sankara, he walked right on the stream to fulfil a command of the master on the other bank.
Wending his steps southward the Bhagavatpada went to Dwaraka in the Western corner of India, sacred to the memory of Sri Krishna. He established the Kalika Pitha there and also a pontificate. Crossing the country travelling eastward, he came to Puri where he founded the Vimala Pitha after worshipping Lord Jagannatha. Thence he went to Srisailam in the Andhra Pradesh where he composed the famous hymn Sivanandalahari and installed a Srichakra in front of the shrine of the presiding goddess Sri Bhramarambika. It was at this time that Sri Sankara vanquished the Kapalikas and put down the homicidal practice to which they were addicted to in their religious worship.
It was at this time that Sri Sankara's supreme spirit of self-sacrifice and his boundless compassion towards even an enemy with murderous intent was evidenced. (The sage of Kanchi used to narrate the incident with his deep feeling of Guru Bhakthi). The chief of the Kapalikas wanted to do away with Sri Sankara. But he knew that such a divine person could not be done away with unless he himself gave his consent for that. The Kapalika, in addition, also knew the loving heart of Sri Sankara and his self-sacrificing nature. So he made bold to request Sri Sankara himself to give permission to behead him! He further said that he would offer the head to his god Kapali, the dreadful form of Siva, and by this offer of the head of a true monk he would reach the heaven of Kapali.
Without a moment's hesitation Sri Sankara gave his hearty approval for the atrocious request! He said, "Till now I had been thinking that the human body alone is incapable of being of service to fellow beings. The hide of the sheep serves as blanket, that of the cow for making musical instruments. The nerves of many animals find use as strings. So on and so forth. But the human body, once dead is just burnt or buried, without being of any use to anybody. I have been thinking so till now. But now, dear man, you say that my head would serve to confer Kalpali's heaven itself on you. I am glad to be utilised thus. If you are sure that I am a true monk do quickly chop off my head before my disciples turn up".
Unmoved by even such an exalted expression of love the Kapalika aimed his sword on Sri Sankara. But before it could touch the neck of Sri Sankara, the Kapalika himself fell dead due to the outburst of the wrath of the Almighty Vishnu in the Man-lion form of Narasimha.
Traversing thence to the Western Ghats, Sri Sankara worshipped Sri Mukambika. There he discovered the dumb prodigy who, on being cured of his defect, became his disciple and attained the name Hastamalaka. Another of the disciples was one Giri by name, generally considered to be backward by his fellow-disciples. Receiving a special mark of grace from Sri Sankara, he broke forth into a soul-stirring hymn of eight verses in praise of his guru, celebrated as the Totakashtaka, himself getting the sannyasa name of Totakacharya.
Resuming his travel, Sri Sankara went to Karnataka and reached Sringagiri (Sringeri). Here he erected a shrine to Sri Sarada, established another pontificate known as the Sarada Pitha and installed there the Bhogalinga from among those that he had brought from Kailas.
Travelling through the length and breadth of the country over, Sri Sankara ultimately reached Kancheepuram near Madras. Kanchi is known as one of the seven Mokshapuris of our sacred land (places which confer Liberation) and has had, through the ages, a memorable political, literary, cultural and religious history. Scholars and saints of all denominations and sects have either visited it in their time or taken permanent residence there. It has been the venue of philosophical disputations of all schools of thought. No religious leader considered his mission fulfilled or his victory complete unless he vanquished rivals of other faiths in that famous city. As its name signifies, Kanchi is the waistline of the earth and its central spot. It was but appropriate that Sri Sankara also should go to this place to proclaim the Advaita Vedanta vindicating it against other schools of religion and philosophy. Acclaimed by everyone as the supreme master of all that is to know, Sri Sankara ascended before a large assembly the throne of omniscience known as the Sarvajna Pitha at Kanchi.
He then mitigated the ugrakala, the fierce aspect of the Goddess Kamakshi drawing it into a Srichakra which he placed in front of Her and consecrated it. After renovating the temple to Lord Vishnu in the person of Sri Varadaraja, he asked the reigning king of Kanchi to fashion the city in the form of a Srichakra giving the central place to the shrine of Sri Kamakshi.
A few things are noteworthy in this connection. Kanchi is famous for its numerous temples in honour of Vishnu and Siva. But the main tower of all of them, howsoever distant they may be from the temple of Sri Kamakshi, face it without exception. The processional idols of all these shrines are taken round this Kamakshi temple when their annual festivals are celebrated. In none of the Siva temples of Kanchi is there a shrine for Siva's Consort, that of Kamakshi doing service for all of them. The city is famous as the place where Brahma himself performed a yajna attended by all the celestials.
Such was the life and work of the illustrious Sankaracharya who packed within a brief period of thirty-two years a series of achievements which are unequalled both in their content and their variety. Judged by any test, as a writer, as a poet, as a thinker and debater, as a prophet and mystic, as a religious organiser, and by any aspect of his diversified personality Sri Sankara is unique among the great men of the world. He holds a pre-eminent position among the Master Minds that have shaped the thoughts and actions alike of their contemporaries and of posterity. Above all, the Advaita Vedanta that he expounded to such artistic perfection is the one and only philosophy that will effectively make for personal liberation from the shackles of life on the one hand, and for universal amity and peace liquidating social and national rivalries on the other. The Vedanta associated with his name belongs not to one section of the Hindus only. It is the philosophy of the entire humanity and deserves to be carefully studied and scrupulously practised by men in every part of the globe. Most truly, Sri Sankara is referred to with love and devotion as Lokasankara, the most brilliant among the benefactors of mankind for all time and in all times.