Adi Shankara belonged to Kerala. He spent most of his time in North India at places like Badrinath and Kashi. Later he established 5 mutts in all the corners of the country – Badri in the north, Puri in the east, Sringeri in south and Dwarika in west. He established the fifth mutt at Kanchi in Tamilnadu.
Credit goes to the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh for bringing Adi Shankaracharya, who was restricted to the four corners of India, to the heart of India, Madhya Pradesh. There is a small window of two to three years when Shankaracharya was said to have visited Madhya Pradesh. At the age of eight, he took permission from his mother to travel in search of a guru whom he found at Omkareswar in Madhya Pradesh. He had his initial training under Guru Govinda Bhagwadpada at Omkareswar before embarking on his knowledge sojourn to Badrinath.
SANKARA – THE SAINT
Adi Shankara was essentially a saint. All saints are good like all children. Just as no child comes across as ugly, no saint too can be ugly. Sainthood is a mindset. One who has given up everything worldly in pursuit of the divine is called a saint.
Greek emperor Alexander was on his mission to conquer the world when he bumped into an ascetic called Diogenes of Yunan on the banks of a river, relaxing naked. Soldiers come to Diogenes and ask him to rise for Alexander the Great. Diogenes laughs loudly and dismisses them saying ‘one who calls himself great can never be great’. Puzzled by his nonchalance Alexander engages with him in a conversation and realises the depth of his knowledge.
‘I too want to follow you’, says Alexander, finally surrendering to his wisdom. ‘Do it immediately’ says Diogenes. Alexander had a different mission in life, that of becoming world conqueror. He urges Diogenes that he would complete his mission and then return to join him. ‘Now or never’, says Diogenes insisting that he can never return to this path.
Embarking on his mission Alexander wishes to offer a gift to Diogenes. ‘Get out of my way’, says Diogenes, ‘let me enjoy my sunbath’. Such are the saints.
Adi Shankara too was a saint in that sense. One day he was passing by an aged scholar, who was trying hard to understand difficult grammar of Sanskrit and verses came out of Shankara’s mouth as sharp weapons. The famous poem Bhajagovindam was a product of that moment in which Adi Shankara chides the old man to give up his urge for worldly knowledge and surrender to Govinda – the Almighty. “Samprapte sannihitekale nahi nahi rakshati dukkankarane – when death is near no amount of grammar is going to save you”, he ridicules the old man.
SANKARA – THE SOCIAL REFORMER
But his sainthood was not just about preaching to the people about god alone. He was a great social reformer too. He became a great scholar of Vedanta at a very young age. He wrote commentaries on Upanishads when he was just twelve. Yet the practical side of the Advaita Vedanta – non-dualism – came out through an encounter that he had with a Chandala – a so-called lower caste man on the street leading to the main temple in Kashi.
One day Adi Shankara was proceeding to the temple after a holy bath in river Ganges. In the narrow street leading to the temple he came face to face with a Chandala and his dogs. Shankara’s disciples ask him to move away as the Guru was coming. With folded hands the Chandala asks the Guru as to whom was he asking to stay out of the path! By saying ‘Move away, Move away’ do you wish to move matter from matter or you mean to separate spirit from the Spirit?
These profound questions of a Chandala had such a great impact on Adi Shankara that he rendered the famous Maneeshaa Panchakam – a collection of five verses talking about the universal oneness of human spirit in practise.
The first four verses highlight five Maha Vakyas – mega statements. Those are: Pragnaanam Brahma – Consciousness is Brahman; Aham Brahmasmi – I am the Brahman, the one who has realised the Supreme; Tat Tvam Asi – That Thou Art; Ayamaatma Brahma – This self in me is the ultimate reality.These four mega statements form the basis of Advaita and also the major social transformation idea.
But the real critical verse is the fifth one in which Adi Shankara states that a person who has realised the above four mega statements, irrespective of whether he is a Brahmin or a Chandala, can be a Guru. Herein lies a profound message for the caste-ridden Hindu society, that, any individual, irrespective of his/her birth and class can become a Guru by acquiring the knowledge of the Brahman.
In their zeal to defend the catholic nature of Hinduism some people say that anyone can become equal to a Brahmin by acquiring Vedic knowledge. Sankara doesn’t talk in terms of ‘becoming equal’. He works on the premise that all ARE equal and states that a so-called Chandala can become a Guru by remaining a Chandala because being a member of a caste or a group doesn’t make one inferior or superior. Neither a Brahmin is superior nor a Chandala inferior in terms of acquiring knowledge or otherwise. This subtle, yet profound message of Adi Shankara makes him the greatest social reformer of those times.
For that matter India has had such reformist saints in hordes and continues to have them. Acharya Ramanuja, whose Millennial celebrations are going on, was one such saint. One day he was going into a temple after his sacred bath in river Kaveri. A woman from the so-called lowly castes was cleaning the temple premises. Disciples of Ramanuja ask her to get away as Acharya was coming. She asks Acharya Ramanuja a profound question.
‘Acharya Sri! One can not chose one’s parents. I am borne into a so-called untouchable caste. Now I want to give up this polluted body in order to get relieved of the blemish. But how do I give up? Where do I leave this body? If I leave it in the river the water will get polluted; if I bury it, the earth will be polluted; and if I chose to cremate it, the fire will be polluted. SO what should I do with this polluted body?’
Acharya Ramanuja was so inspired by the words of that so-called untouchable lady that he climbs over the temple and shouts out loudly ‘All are equal, all are equal’. Thereafter whenever he went to the river he would rest his hands on the shoulders of two so-called forward caste youths, and while going into the temple he would have borrow the shoulders of two so-called untouchable youths to rest his hands. ‘I am going to the river to cleanse my body; I am going into the temple to cleanse my heart’, he used to say.
Adi Sankara belonged to that tradition of reformist saints. But that is not all. The Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh deserves special compliments for deciding to not only install a statue of Adi Shankara at Omkareswar, but also institute a Foundation to promote his philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. Not all saints are reformists; similarly not all saints are philosophers. Adi Sankara was all the three rolled into one. It will be a great injustice if we convert him only into an object of worship by putting up his statues.
It is also significant because one of the most important debates that Sankara had, with Mandana Mishra, was supposed to have taken place in Mahashmatipura, a place many believe to be the modern day Maheswar in Madhya Pradesh. Another section of scholars of course believe that Mahishmatipura is near Kashi.
SANKARA – THE PHILOSOPHER
Adi Shankara had a life mission. He lived at a time when the Sanatana Dharma was experiencing major degradation. Empty rituals – Karmakand – had overtaken the true spirit of Dharma. Even Buddhism, which arose as a response to ritualistic religion, too started experiencing degeneration after the demise of Buddha. Sankara took it upon himself to revive the Vedic spirit of Sanatana Dharma through his Advaita Vedanta. One of the challenges before him was to convince and convert the established scholars of that time most of whom were seeped deeply in ritualistic religion. In any society the intellectual class plays an important role. It has as much potential to destroy the public mind as to construct it. Sankara was one of the earliest philosophers to realise that in order for Sanatana Dharma to be reformed the intellectual class needs to be addressed first.
The story of Adi Sankara’s Shastrartha – debate over the scriptures – with a prominent scholar and quintessential ritualist by name Mandana Mishra is well known. MandanaMishra was a great scholar and much older in age to Sankara who was in his twenties. But he agrees to Sankara’s request for a debate. When the question of who should be judge comes, Sankara suggests the name of Ubhaya Bharati, a lady known for her wisdom and knowledge of the scriptures. Ubhaya Bharati was the wife of Mandana Mishra. Through this decision Sankara also tried to convey the message that women should be respected for their wisdom and knowledge as much as men, if not more.
The debate between the two scholars goes on for many days and finally Mandana Mishra admits his defeat before Sankara. Just then Ubhaya Bharati enters the scene and challenges Sankara to debate with her also. She insists that woman forms half of the human whose other half is man – Arthanareeswara. Hence without defeating her in debate Sankara couldn’t be deemed to have won fully. She starts shooting questions to Sankara about marriage, family, children etc. Being a celibate Sankara was unfamiliar with these issues. He begs her for time to study and returns after a few days to complete his dialogue. Finally both Mandana Mishra and Ubhaya Bharati concede defeat. Mandana Mishra accepts Sanyasa while Ubhaya Bharati occupies the abode of Sringeri Mutt as Sharadamba.
In Viveka Chudamani Adi Shankara lucidly explains the essence of Advaita Vedanta in seven questions. ‘KonaamaBandhanah kathamityavgyat…. ‘ goes the verse. The seven questions are: 1. What is the name of this Bandhana – bond? 2. Where from has it come? 3. Where does it live? 4. Where will it go? 5. What is Anaatma? 6. What is Aatma? 7. How to have the discretion of the two?
It is most appropriate that while bringing Adi Shankara to Madhya Pradesh an effort is being made to establish a centre for theological and religious dialogues and discussions on the quintessential philosophical roots of Sanatana Dharma among the scholars of the world. What better tribute can be there for a saint-social reformer-philosopher like Adi Shankara