Shankara Digvijaya – Part 1
Vedic India in the 8th century A.D
More than a thousand years had elapsed since The Buddha had appeared and preached his messages of compassion and the supremacy of ethics. He spoke of Dharma and Sangha but not of God. In the course of centuries following Buddha, the Buddhists evolved rigorous logic to defend their thought and rid themselves of what they thought as superstitions. Their logic did not feel necessity of God. But the masses among the Buddhists did not observe any of this reason or atheism. They knew Buddha and worshipped him as God. Buddhist Viharas were built in gigantic dimensions. Buddha’s images made of costly metals and materials were installed and worshipped with great pomp and splendour. Swaying away from the pure Vedic injunctions but clinging on to their lower aspects, the spiritual life among the Buddhists was at a low ebb with the vigour and purity of Buddha having vanished. The masses had moved gradually towards abandoning the Vedic way of life, comprising of the various duties in accordance to the sacred tradition and the Ashrama – stages in life. There was a strong and urgent need for the revival of the Sanatana Dharma, lest it crumble to non-existence. Jaimini and Kumarila Bhatta awakened the ignorant people from their slumber of ignorance, and helped them to follow the Vedic rituals meticulously. The Vedic religion was codified into sutras of Purva Mimamsa, the Vedic rituals and sacrifices were revived and they gained a position of honour.
In the course of practice, the sacrifices and rituals were upheld as the ultimate goal and the true Vedic dictums were forgotten. Spiritual insight was conspicuous by its absence. At such a crucial juncture, Sri Adi Shankaracharya, respected since across the world as the greatest philosopher and revered as an incarnation of Lord Sadashiva, walked the earth.
The Madhaviya Shankara Vijayam, the most popular and widely accepted account of Sri Adi Shankara’s life, describes the advent of Sri Adi Shankara thus – ‘The One sitting under the banyan tree, Lord Dakshinamurti (Shiva), the Teacher of the Supreme Truth through the medium of silence, left his place of meditation. He is now moving about in the form of Shankaracharya, imparting his precious advice of knowledge to the world, which has been caught in the boundless dense forests of ignorance and is threatened seriously by the approaching flames of the forest fires of family bondage.’ –
त्रातुम् लोकान् भवदवशिखातापपापच्यमानान् ।
मुक्त्वा मौनं वटविटपिनो मूलतो निष्पतन्ती
शंभोर्मूर्तिः चरति भुवने शंकराचार्यरूपा ॥
Shankara was born to Aryamba and Shivaguru, a Nambudri Brahmana who belonged to the Vedic branch of Krishna Yajur Veda. Shankara’s birthplace was Kalady in Kerala, on the banks of the Poorna river. Kalady is situated a few miles from Tiru Shiva Perur (present-day Trichur), which contains the Shiva mound Vrischachala where Shivaguru and Aryamba prayed and were blessed with the divine child. This event of the birth of Sri Shankara in 788 A.D that marked the beginning of the revival of the Vedic system is described thus in the Madhaviya Shankara Vijayam – ‘Just as the Divine Mother, Parvati begot Sri Subrahmanya, the virtuous Aryamba begot Sri Shankara on the auspicious Vaisaka sukla panchami (fifth day of the waxing moon during April-May) in the year 788 A.D, when the star attributed to Lord Shiva, Arudra was in ascendance with the Sun, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars in exaltation.’ –
लग्नेशुभे शुभयुते सुषुवे कुमारं
श्री पार्वतीव सुखिनी शुभवीक्षिते च ।
जाया सती शिवगुरोः निजतुङ्ग संस्ते
सूर्येकुजे रविसुते च गुरौचकेन्द्रे ॥
From Brahmacharya to Sanyasa
Shivaguru passed away when Shankara was yet a child. The mother Aryamba brought him up and performed his Upanayana according to tradition. The boy Shankara proved to be a prodigy and completed his Vedic education and Sanskrit studies very early in life. His faith in God even as a young brahmachari was intense, and events that unfolded began exposing his divine avatara. In one such occassion when He had gone to beg for alms, as a Brahmachari is ordained to, he came across a house with a lady in utter poverty. On seeing the young brahmachari, her heart melted, and expressing with great sorrow that she was unable to offer even a small quantity of food, with utmost humility, offered the only dried amalaka left in the house. The young Shankara, moved by the miserable condition of the large-hearted lady instantaneously composed a hymn on Lakshmi (known as Kanakadhara Stotram) praying for the relief of the family. Goddess Lakshmi instantaneously showered the house with the gold amalakas.
Once Sri Shankara’s aging mother fell unconscious while returning from a bath at the river. Sri Shankara invoked the river and prayed that she change her course and flow near their home so as to facilitate his mother. The following morning, the people of Kalady were struck with awe when they found that the river indeed had changed its course, giving in to the young brahmachari’s earnest appeal.
Sri Shankara felt the call of Sanyasa but Aryamba was unprepared to part with her only son, the solace of her widowhood. One day when Sri Shankara was bathing in the river Poorna, a crocodile caught his leg and started dragging him in. He appealed to his mother to give him permission to take Sanyasa conferring on him a Punarjanma (a new birth). Aryamba knew that she would have the satisfaction of at least having her son alive even if it were in the robes of a Sanyasin. On the other hand, if the crocodile does not free her son, she would still be consoled by the fact that her son would abandon his body as an ascetic. Still, trembling with fear, Aryamba consented to Sri Shankara’s request and lo! The crocodile released its hold on Shankara. Shankara was now free to embrace Sanyasa and entrusted his mother into the care of his relatives. Aryamba, still grieving over Sri Shankara’s decision, said that her consent in accordance with Shankara’s request was only to taking Sanyasa but not to allow the relations to perform her obsequies. So, in order to pacify his mother, Sri Shankara made the following statement, as described in the Madhaviya Shankara Vijayam (Verse 5.71) –
अहन्यम्ब रात्रिसमये समयान्तरेवा
संचिन्तय स्ववशगाऽवशगाऽथवामाम् ।
एष्यामि तत्र समयं सकलं विहाय
विश्वासमाप्नुहि मृतावपि संस्करिष्ये ॥
‘Oh mother! When you think of me I will give up all my work and come to you, whether you think of me at day, night or in between them (Sandhya time, that occurs at sunrise and sunset), whether you are conscious, unconscious or burdened with sorrow. If you die, I will myself perform your last rites. You can believe me.’
Initiation and study under Sri Govinda Bhagavatpada
Shankara then left Kalady in search of a Guru. The Guru of all the Gurus, the Acharyas of all the Acharyas, Lord Parameshwara in human form, the young boy Shankara, despite having mastered all Sastras by then, resolved to seek Upadesham from a Guru and get his self acquired knowledge made wider, holy and pure by a spiritual teacher. He found his Guru on the banks of the river Narmada, in Govinda Bhagavatpada, disciple of the famous Gaudapada, the author of the famous Karika on Mandukya Upanishad.
Madhaviya Shankara Vijayam (Verse 5.91) describes Shankara’s meeting Govinda Bhagavatpada in beautiful verses, rich in meaning:
तीरद्रुमागतमरुद्विगत श्रमः सन्
गोविन्दनाथवनमध्यतलं लुलोके ।
शंसन्ति यत्रतरवो वसतिं मुनीनां
शाखाभिरुज्ज्वल मृगाजिन वल्कलाभिः ॥
‘The deer skin and the bark of wood hanging from the trees are the indications of the abode of sages. Sri Shankara went to the middle of this forest, enjoyed the cool breeze and felt relieved of the fatigue caused by his walking and saw the abode of the sage, Sri Govinda Bhagavatpada.’
Shankara praised the great sage recalling the latter’s previous birth as Patanjali, portrayed thus in the text (Verses 96-97).
उरगपतिमुखात् अधीत्य साक्षात्
स्वयमवनेर्विवरं प्रविश्य येन ।
जगदुपकारपरेण शब्द भाष्यम् ॥
‘Having learnt all Vidyas from Adisesha in the nether world, you came to this world to give it the Yoga Sutras and Mahabhashyam (Bhashyam on Panini Sutras of grammar).
अधिगत परमार्थम् गौडपादान्महर्षेः ।
अधिजिगमिषुरेष ब्रह्मसंस्थामहं त्वाम्
प्रसृमरमहिमानंप्रापमेकान्त भक्त्या ॥
‘You have attained the highest spiritual realisation through the instruction received from the great Gaudapada, a disciple of Suka, the son of Vyasa. I salute thee, the repository of all virtues and have come praying for instruction in the truth of the Supreme Brahman.’
When Sri Shankara was thus praying, Sri Govinda Bhagavatpada deeply immersed in Samadhi, intuitively learnt even in that state about the greatness of the visitor, got out of his supreme consciousness and asked, ‘Who are you?’ To this, Shankara replied in terms indicative of his great spiritual attainment.
स्वामिन्नहं न पृथिवी न जलं न तेजो
स्पर्शनो न गगनं न तद्गुणावा ।
नापीन्द्रियाण्यपि तु विद्धि ततोऽवशिष्टो
यः केवलोऽस्ति परमः सशिवोऽहमस्मि ॥
To repeat Shankara’s own words that are couched in ten verses (known as Dasa Shloki), each with a refrain ‘only one remains, and that Shiva I am’, the first and last verses are reproduced below.
न भूमिर्नतोयं न तेजोनवायुर्नखंनेन्द्रियं वा न तेषां समूहः
अनेकान्तिकस्वात् सुषुपूत्येक सिद्धिस्तेदेकोवशिष्टः शिवः केवलोहम् ।
न चैकं तदन्यद् द्वितीयं कृतःस्यात् नवा केवलत्वं न चाकेवलत्वम्
न शून्यं न वाशून्यमद्धैकत्वात् कथं सर्ववेदान्त सिद्धं बवीमि ॥
‘I am neither the earth nor water nor fire, nor air, nor sky, nor any other properties. I am not the senses and even the mind. I am Shiva the divisionless essence of consciousness.’
Hearing these words pregnant with the spirit of non-dualistic consciousness, the sage was delighted and replied, ‘Through the power of Samadhi I see that you are the Lord Shiva descended on earth in human form
स प्राह शंकर स शंकर एव साक्षात्
Having said this, Sri Govinda Bhagavatpada stretched his legs outside the cave and showed his feet. Sri Shankara worshipped the Guru by performing Puja to his feet. By his conduct, Sri Shankara indicated to the world that the first duty of a disciple is to perform Puja to his Guru’s feet. Sri Shankara pointed out that it is only the knowledge obtained from the Guru after service to him that can yield fruits and so he did humble service to the Guru. Highly pleased, Govinda Bhagavatpada imparted to Shankara the knowledge of Brahman through the four Mahavakyas (great Vedic sentences). The great Guru then taught Sri Shankara the Vedanta Sutras of Vyasa, the essence of Vedanta philosophy. Once, when the river Narmada was in spate, causing great discomfort to the people, Sri Shankara without disturbing the penance of his Guru, brought the river under control by uttering the Pranava (Aum). Before long, Sri Shankara completed his formal studies under the Guru. Sri Govinda Bhagavatpada now asked his gifted disciple to go to Varanasi, where all learned men converged and blessed Sri Shankara to bring out commentaries on the Brahma Sutras.