Shankara Digvijaya – Part 2
Sri Shankara at Varanasi
Sri Shankara reached Varanasi, had a dip in the holy Ganges, offered his prayers at the shrine of Sri Vishwanatha and stayed at the city for sometime. Just as pieces made of iron get attracted to a powerful magnet, those who were ripe enough to understand the subtle teachings of the Vedas were drawn towards Sri Shankara at Varanasi. Of these, the first disciple of Sri Shankara was an illustrious young brahmachari who was named Sanandana on initiation into Sanyasa.
One day when Shankara was going with his disciples to the Ganges for midday ablutions, he noticed an outcaste approaching them with a pack of four dogs. Shankara and his disciples asked him to keep out of their path. But the hunter raised an issue –
अन्नमयात् अन्नमयं अथवा चैतन्यमेव चैतन्यात् ।
द्विजवर दूरीकर्तुं वाञ्चसि किं ब्रूहि गच्छ गच्छेति ॥
The outcaste responded thus, ‘This body comes has its source in the same material food and performs the same functions in the case of both a Brahmana and an outcast. If the question is addressed to the Atman, the witnessing consciousness, the Atman is the same in all unaffected, by anything that is of the body. How do differences such as ‘This is a Brahmana, this is a chandala’ arise in the non-dual experience? Is the sun changed in the least whether it’s reflection in seen in a pot containing liquor or in the holy Ganges? Is the Akasha in a golden pot different from the one in the mud pot? The one universal, unblemished spirit, is shining alike in all bodies ‘ is this not the truth?’
Sri Shankara was struck with the chandala’s Atma Jnana and exclaimed that a person who sees the world as Atman only and whose mind is firmly established in that conviction is worthy of worship irrespective of whether he is a Brahmana or an outcaste by birth. He admitted, ‘I am sure the pure consciousness shines alike in Mahavishnu as also in flies. All objective phenomena is false ‘ he who is ever established in this consciousness is my Guru, worthy of respect, be he an outcaste by birth. All objects presented to consciousness are false and unreal, what is inherent in all these is pure consciousness alone, and that pure consciousness is the ‘I’. A man established in such an awareness is indeed a Guru to me.’ This, Sri Shankara conveyed through his composition called Manisha Panchakam, a few verses of which are –
जाग्रस्वप्नसुषुप्तिषु स्फुटतरा या संविदुज्जृंभते
या ब्रह्मादि पिपीलिकान्ततनुषु प्रोता जगत्साक्षिणी ।
सैवाहं न च दृश्यवस्त्विति दृढप्रज्ञापि यस्यास्ति चेत्
चण्डालोस्तु स तु द्विजोस्तु गुरुरित्येषा मनीषा मम ॥
Scarcely had he finished speaking when the outcaste vanished from the site and in his place Lord Shiva and four Vedas appeared. Moved by joy, awe and devotion, Shankara said in praise of Lord Shiva, the Ashtamurti.
‘I am the servant when I am conscious of myself as the body. I am thy part when awareness of Jiva dawns on me and when Atman consciousness becomes established, I recognise myself as one with thee. Such is the teachings of the scriptures. By realising which all the dullness of ignorance within and without is eradicated; to contain which there is no receptacle; to burnish which there is no grinder; to dig which there is no mind; to attain which all the renouncing monks make strenuous efforts in solitude ‘ to that Being, the essence of all the Sastras, my salutations! The Sastras are of no avail unless accompanied by Guru’s Grace; Grace is useless unless it generates awakening; and awakening is purposeless unless it gives the knowledge of the Supreme Truth. To that Supreme Truth who is not different from myself and who fills the understanding with wondrous rapture, my salutations!’
To that great Sanyasin who saluted thus with tears of devotion in his eyes, God Shiva said, ‘You have realised My true being. My blessings rest on you and Vyasa alike. Vyasa edited the Vedas. He composed Brahma Sutras (aphorisms on the subject of Brahman). You have got a real understanding of the purport of the Vedas and should write a commentary on the Brahma Sutras, by which the false theories have to be refuted, both through reason and through scriptures. The commentary that you are going to produce will receive praise from exalted beings like Indra. You spread the Knowledge of Truth in the world and appoint competent disciples as guardians of the Vedic path in different parts of the country. Having accomplished all these, you return to My state with the satisfaction of having fulfilled your mission.’ After commissioning Shankara thus, Lord Shiva disappeared.
Sri Shankara’s commences His unparalleled works
Thrilled by the experiences Shankara set his mind on the task ahead. Shankara left Kashi (Varanasi) joyfully after taking dips in all the holy waters in and around Kashi and started on his journey to Badri, which he thought was more conducive to carry out his mission ordained by lord Shiva. Reaching Badri he held discussions with the sages there and then, he wrote in his twelfth year his most profound commentary on Vedanta Sutras of Vyasa. It was during his stay in Varanasi that he wrote his commentaries on Gita, Upanishads and Brahma Sutras, which are the authorities on the Vedanta Sastras and are known as Prasthanatraya. The Bhashyas (commentaries) of Shankara are monumental works covering the import of the Vedic teachings and supplemented with clear reasoning and lucid exposition. The system of Vedanta, which Shankara propounded through these works, is what is known as Advaita or Non-dualism. After this, Sri Shankara returned to Varanasi, where pupils gathered round him to learn his exposition of Vedanta. At Varanasi the great Acharya surrounded by Sanandana and other disciples shone like the disk of sun amidst its brilliant rays. He also wrote commentaries on Sanatsujatiya, Nrisimhatapani, Vishnu Sahasranama and Lalitha Trishathi.
At Kashi Shankara commenced his next task namely to propagate his tenets as set out in his prasthanathraya Bhashyas. He taught his disciple Sanandana the commentaries in depth. Sanandana’s devotion to study, austerity in life and capacity to understand the subtleties of philosophy endeared him to Shankara, at the same time generating jealousy in others. Sri Shankara decided to highlight to the world, Sanandana’s exemplary devotion to the Guru, and so one day, he called Sanandana who was on the other bank of the Ganges to come immediately. Sanandana stepped on the waters of Ganges who brought out a lotus to support him wherever he placed his feet on her sacred waters. To the astonishment of the others, he reached safely and Shankara named him Padmapada (lotus footed).
Shankara’s refutations of other philosophies
The Pashupatas whose doctrine was that Ishwara and Jiva were distinct and at the time of Moksha (Final emancipation), the qualities of Ishwara percolate into Jiva, challenged Shankara to disprove their doctrine. Shankara with the help of scriptural quotations and their proper interpretations, controverted their doctrine and answered that Moksha, if considered an event in time, has to have an end like all other events in time. He also argued ‘If the inherent qualities of Ishwara should go into Jiva, the quality alone cannot enter. However if all the qualities enter the Jiva, then it means that Lord Pashupati has become the ignorant individual soul.’ By such powerful arguments the pride of Pashupatas was curbed.
The great teacher was thus a terror to controversialists and was an object of adoration to others. His commentaries on the Prasthanatraya restored among the masses, the true understanding of the Atman, the all-pervasive Force, as declared by the Upanishads. Madhaviya Shankara Vijayam portrays beautifully the battle which Shankara fought through his commentaries against the false arguments and theories that were as rampant as widely different, scattering the true unified concepts enshrined in the Vedas and Upanishads – ‘The (significance of) Atman was about to be slaughtered by the Buddhists by their policy of Nihilism. However, Kanada the founder of Nyaya Vaiseshika system established the existence of the Atman, as a definite entity with the powers of knowing and willing. Kumarila Bhatta the founder of the philosophy of Vedic ritualism showed man the direction to reach his destination but made him a slave of Vedic ritualism. The Sankhyas saved put forth the doctrine of the lower and higher nature of the Supreme, namely Prakriti and Purusha. The Patanjalas brought forth their teachings on the controls of Prana. The materialistic Charvakas did not at all perceive the Atman and attributed everything to the Pancha Maha Bhutas (five great elements). It was only Sri Shankara who raised the Atman from such a miserable position to the status of the Supreme Being through his doctrine of the identity of the individual spirit with the Supreme Being.’ Controversies raged but then, such controversies and attacks of critics only helped to highlight the excellence of his commentaries.
The meeting with Bhagavan Vyasa
Shankara’s Bhashyas were put to severe test not only by the teachers of various schools of thought but also by the sage Vyasa himself. One day when Shankara on the banks of Ganges almost finished the day’s class to his pupils, an old Brahmana appeared. When told that Shankara has established a doctrine of non-dualism through his commentaries on Brahma Sutras, the old Brahmana sought Shankara’s explanation on the various Sutras, and entered into a long debate extending over a number of days. After eight days, it struck Padmapada that the Brahmana was none other than Vyasa, the very incarnation of Lord Vishnu and revealed this to Sri Shankara. Shankara prostrated before him and prayed for a candid opinion of his on the Bhashyas. Sri Vyasa pleased with the request pronounced that Shankara alone has known the real meaning of his sutras. Sri Vyasa then blessed Sri Shankara that with the help of the commentaries on Vedanta Sutras and many allied writings, he would be able to refute all opposing doctrines and thereby become famous in the world.
With words of joy, Vyasa rose to depart. Shankara said, ‘I have nothing else to do. I have completed the commentaries, expounded them and refuted all hostile doctrines’, and then expressed his desire to cast off his physical frame. Sage Vyasa said, ‘No! You should not end your life now. There are many learned men, leaders of hostile schools of thought and you will have to defeat them, as otherwise the infant of aspiration for spiritual freedom that has taken birth from you will perish premature. The intensity of my joy on reading your commentary prompts me to give a boon. The creator had given you only eight years of life. The satisfaction you gave to Agastya and other sages by your learning won for you an extension of life by eight years. May you live for another sixteen years by the blessings of God Shiva! Your commentary will shine till the end of time.’ Shankara prostrated before the sage Vyasa who then departed.