Sunday, 17 April 2016

Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada - 1

Life and Work

The date of Sri Adi Sankaracharya the most famous Advaita philosopher who restored the Vedic Dharma and Advaita Vedanta to its pristine purity and glory is not very clear. Traditional date is Kaliyug 2593 or 509 BC. Modern Orientalists hold that he lived between 788 and 820 AD.  But it is agreed that he was born to a pious Nambudiri Brahmin couple Sivaguru and Aryamba in Kalady on the banks of River Purna, now River Periyar, in Kerala State. Legend has it that Aryamba had a vision of Lord Siva in her dream and was told that the Lord would incarnate as her child. The couple who were childless and praying for a child were overjoyed.  The child was named after Lord Siva as Sankara. Even as a child Sankara was precocious and could grasp and retain anything he read once. Even at a tender age of three he had studied the Kavyas and Puranas in Malayalam. He had his early education in the village in the usual way.  Sankara lost his father when he was of age seven and it fell upon his mother to get his upanayanam performed and to get him admitted in a Gurukulam for the study of Vedas and other Sastras. He not only learnt Vedas and Vedangas quickly but also learnt about other systems of philosophy as well. Young Sankara is reported to have performed two miracles.

In one he is said to have caused the River Purna to change its course to flow near his house through his prayer so that his aged mother need not struggle to walk a long distance for her morning bath. In the other as he was on his rounds seeking Bhiksha as a brahmachari, he stopped at a house where the poor lady of the house had nothing to offer and also did not have the heart to send the radiant little boy empty handed. So she searched and searched and managed to find an Amla fruit which she offered him as Bhiksha. Seeing her poverty and sensing her large heartedness, he sang a hymn, Kanakadhara Stotram, addressed to Goddess Mahalakshmi, at her doorsteps and caused a shower of golden Amlas in her courtyard.  The descendants of this lady still live in that house called swarnaththa manai

When he returned home from Gurukulam, Sankara’s mother started looking for a bride for him. But Sankara’s mind was set on becoming an ascetic. One day Sankara and his mother went to take bath in the river. Sankara plunged into the water and felt that a crocodile was dragging him by the foot. He cried out to his mother to allow him to take Aapat Sanyasa then at least.  Mother unable to save him agreed.  As soon as he recited the Mantra for taking Sanyasa, the crocodile left him and he became an ascetic then on.  After consoling his mother that wherever he was, he would return to her side in her last moments, Sankara left in search of a Guru.

Sri Sankara made his way to the Ashram of Sri Govinda Bhagavatpada on the banks of River Narmada. Sri Govinda Bhagavatpada, a great teacher of Advaita Vedanta, was a prominent disciple of the famous Sri Gaudapadacharya, who through his Mandukya Karika established firmly Advaita Vedanta refuting the then dominant Buddhistic thought.  He was very happy to have such a brilliant disciple as Sri Sankara and initiated him into the Paramahamsa order of Sanyasa.  He taught Sri Sankara the profound philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, and commanded him to expound the philosophy of Advaita through commentaries on the Brahmasutras, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita.

Taking leave of his guru, Sri Sankaracharya travelled from place to place and arrived at Varanasi. Here he attracted many disciples around him, prominent among them being Vishnu Sarma. Sri Sankaracharya gave him the name Sanandana and Sanandana exemplified the Guru-Sishya relationship. For Sanandana, the Guru was everything and the command of Guru was ultimate. Once when he was on the opposite bank of a river, Sri Sankaracharya who was on the other side called him.  Sanandana, without even thinking that he might be drowned in a swollen river began walking on the water and lo! a lotus appeared under his feet on every step and held his feet from drowning.  From then on he came to be known as Padmapada.  Two other brilliant disciples to join him later are the ones who came to be known as Totakacharya and Hasthamalakacharya.  There is an incident connected with each one of them.

Totakacharya’s previous name was Giri.  Giri conducted himself as a hard-working and loyal servant of Sri Sankaracharya, and he did not appear bright to the other disciples. One day, Giri was washing his Guru's clothes, when Sri Sankaracharya was waiting for Giri to come back from his chores and join the class.  On this occasion, Padmapada pointed to a wall meaning that it would be the same if Sri Sankaracharya taught to this dumb wall as teaching to Giri. Sri Sankaracharya divined his mind and decided to reward Giri for his loyalty and devotion. Then he mentally blessed Giri with the complete knowledge of the sastras. The enlightened Giri composed extempore the Toṭakaṣhṭakam a Sanskrit poem in praise of the Guru and the dumb disciple blossomed into Toṭakacarya.

When Sri Sankaracharya was travelling in the western parts of India and overcoming in debate the expounders of the various schools of thought, he once came to a village known as Srivali. There a learned Brahmin named Prabhakara came to pay respects to Sri Sankaracharya. He brought his son along with him and after both of them prostrated, he explained to Sri Sankaracharya that the boy had been dumb from his childhood and that he had no likes and dislikes, nor a sense of honour and dishonour; and that he was completely inactive. Sri Sankaracharya then turned to the boy and asked him who he was. The boy replied in 12 verses containing the gist of the Advaita philosophy that he was pure awareness and not a man, God, Yaksha, Brahmin etc.  Sri Shankaracharya was greatly impressed and took him as his disciple, with the name Hastāmalaka since the knowledge of the Self was natural to him like an Amalaka fruit in one's hand.  Hasthamalaka   joined Sri Sankaracharya’s party thereafter.

At Varanasi, Sri  Sankaracharya wrote his commentaries on Brahmasutras, major ten upanishads and Bhagavad Gita besides minor works known as prakarana granthas like Athma bodha, Upadesa Sahasri etc.  It is at Varanasi, Sri Veda Vyasa came in the guise of an old man and challenged him on his interpretations in the commentary on Brahmasutras and feeling satisfied with his reply, revealed himself and blessed him.

At Varanasi, Sri Sankarachaya and his disciples were going for bath in the River Ganges, On the way they met a hunter with his dogs. As the hunter was being considered an outcast, disciples asked the hunter to keep out of the way as was the practice with the orthodox then. The hunter confronted Sri Sankaracharya and asked how could there be a difference between them as they were only Athmas in reality and that Athma was one and the same in all. Sri  Sankaracharya then came out with five beautiful highly philosophic verses of Manisha Panchakam wherein he acknowledged the hunter as his Guru. Then hunter revealed himself as Lord Siva and his dogs as Vedas. This seems to be more a ploy on the part of Sri Sankaracharya to condemn the untouchability among caste Hindus, in keeping with his reformist spirit.

In addition to writing commentaries Sri Sankaracharya engaged in philosophical debates with leaders of various other schools and defeated them and converted them to his fold as was the custom then, for the defeated to convert to victor’s thought. Thus Sri Sankaracharya debated with Buddhist philosophers, with followers of Sankhya and with Purva Mimamsakas, the followers of Vedic ritualism, in Varanasi and elsewhere and defeated all his opponents in debate.  One of the important debates was with Mandana Misra the well-known Mimamsaka of Mahishmathi. The discussion went on for several days and at the end Mandana Misra accepted the superiority of Sri Sankaracharya’s philosophy and became one of his Sanyasi disciples with the name Suresvaracharaya.

During his travels in the south he heard that that his mother was seriously ill. He rushed to her bedside alone and was in time to see her before she breathed her last.  People were against his performing the funeral rites as promised to his mother as he was a sanyasi.  But he overruled their objections, and built a pyre himself and cremated his mother in her own backyard. After this, he resumed his travels, visiting many holy places, reviving Pujas at temples that had fallen into neglect, establishing yantras at Devi temples as in Kanchipuram, and composing many devotional hymns. He tirelessly travelled the length and breadth of the country for the propagation of Advaita philosophy, in those days with few facilities. In the course of his travels, Sankara reached Kashmir and ascended the sarvajnapita with the blessings of Goddess Sarada after engaging in debate and winning over all opponents.

Sri Sankaracharya was a great organizer and a religious leader with a national outlook. Shri Sankaracharya established four Mutts in four corners of India. The Mutts are Jyothir Mutt at Joshimath near Badrinath in northern India; Sarada Mutt at Sringeri in southern India; Govardhan Mutt at Jaganath Puri in eastern India and Kalika Mutt at Dwarka in western India.  He put his four main disciples to head them and continue his work maintaining the Advaitic tradition. Sri Sureshwaracharya, who hailed from the north was placed in charge of the Sarada Mutt in the South, Totakacharya from the South was placed in charge of Jyothir Mutt in the North, Padmapadacharya in charge of Govardhan Mutt and Hasthamalakacharya in  charge of Kalika Mutt.

The heads of Mutts have also come to be known as Sankaracharyas, in honour of their founder, who is now called as Sankara Bhagavatpada or Adi Sankaracharya, and revered as Jagadgurus. Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada also organized the community of ekadandi monks into the sampradaya of dasanamI sannyasins, and affiliated them with the four mutts that he established. He also organized for the Nambudiris from Kerala to perform Puja at Badrinath; Brahmins from Maharashtra to perform Puja at Rameswaram; and the Brahmins from Karnataka to perform Puja in Nepal. 

It was indeed a vast program that Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada accomplished within the short span of 20 effective years for at the age of 32 he had finished his work and had folded up his mortal life. He went to Kedarnath alone and entered into Mahasamadhi there.  Kedarnath is the place of Lord Siva and it is only fitting that Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada who is considered an incarnation of Lord Siva, shed his mortal coils in Kedarnath.

There are about 23 Bhashya granthas, 54 Prakarana and Upadesa granthas and 76 stotra, stuthi granthas, in all 153 works, attributed to Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada.  They may not all be the work of Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada, consider some, as the heads of various mutts were also called as Sankaracharyas.  Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada is considered to have completed all his major works before he was twenty-four.  After that he might have composed some stotras and Prakarana granthas only, it is said.  Of these, Bhashyas on Prasthana thraya and Vishnusahasranamam, Prakarana granthas like Vivekachudamani, Updesa Sahasri, Aparoksha Anubhuthi, Athmabodha and stotras like Bhaja Govidam, Dakshinamurthy Stotra, Kaupina Panchakam, Nirvana Shatkam, Manisha Panchakam,Soundaryalahari, Govindashtakam, Dasaloki, Dvadasa Panjarika, Sivananda lahiri and Sadhana Panchakam are a few among his important works which are acknowledged as his authentic works. Swami Vivekananda, who called Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada as the greatest teacher of the Vedanta philosophy, observed “--- his whole life’s work is nothing but that, the throbbing of the beauty of the Vedas and the Upanishads.”


1 comment:

  1. By Sri Sankara's grace and blessings, may your yeomen service to the spiritual world continue for years to come.