By Sanjay Godbole
Shankaracharya, the first, was born in the year 788 A..D. at ‘Kaladi’ in Kerala. The day was the fifth day in Shukla Paksha in the month of Vaishakh and the time was noon as per the Hindu Calendar. Shankaracharya hailed from a family from Malabar. His family was a Nambudripad Brahmin family, who led a simple living style, but believed in high thinking and had a tradition of being quite learned and knowledgeable.
Shivguru Nampudri and his wife Aryamba after many long years of their married life did not have any issues and being desirous to have one, they started a penance for the blessings of Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva was pleased with their penance and came in their dreams and gave them a boon that Aryamba would soon bear a son, who will be brilliant, intelligent but who would be short lived and ephemeral. The auspicious new born had the following emblems on his body the wheel symbol on his head -an eyelike symbol on his forehead, a trident mark on his shoulders, Looking all these, the astrologers declared unanimously that the new born was nothing short of an incarnation of Lord Shiva and they all said that he would be called by’ Shankar’ as his name. This Shankar (as he was called then) was gifted with unparalleled brilliance and when he was merely three, he started taking lessons, through faculty” of speech, from his father.
Shankara became proficient and adept in many sciences with explanatory critical analysis of the same. As a result of such a deep study, ascetic tendencies were aroused in him. He had in his heart, an intense desire for the well being of one and all.
At the age of five he entered the institution of his Guru at Trichure. Within a span of three years, he mastered the three disciplines of yoga. He also attained the accomplishments of eight types of divine powers. (These accomplishments arc called Ashtasiddhis). These arc faculty of remote listening, remote visualizing, power to enter other bodies moving at the speed of light etc. He went to his spiritual guide Swami Govind Bhavatpad in central province, now known as Madhya Pradesh and carried out the important and vital mission of rejuvenating the ancient vedic tradition of Aryan religion. Shankaracharya who was well versed in all four vedas, had an excellent command over Sanskrit and meters and technique of poetry. He authored many hymns and canticles praising Gods and Goddesses and many poems and criticisms. He successfully-debated with people who followed different schools of thought and after winning over them, established four centres of knowledge at the far-flung corners in India. He thereby, so to say, sowed the seeds, which would result into cultural and spiritual integration. He organized the working of the four centres, wliich he established, so that each centre had one of the vedas as the main theme of their functioning. Therefore each of the four centres had its distinct identity as to the system of working and propagation of its central theme. Shankaracharya appointed the following Principals i.e. Acharyas at different centres, (a) Shrungeri -Surcshwaracharya (b) Jyotirmath at Badrikcdar – Totakacharya (c) Sharda Math at Dwarka -Hasmalkacharya (d) Govardhan math at JagannathPuri -Hastamalakacharya. In due course of time the fifth centre (Math) at Kanchi was established. Shankaracharya, then went to the city of Mahishmati which was situated on the banks of river Narmada. There he defeated Mandanmishra, an erudite in a debate and made him his dcsciple. Ubhayabharati, the wife of Mandanmishra, posed Shankaracharya, with a questionnaire, asking for details, procedures, rituals in the science of sex. Shankaracharya, though he was a strict celibate since birth, outwitted her by entering into the body of Amruk, the ruler of Kashi (now known as Bcnaras or Varanasi) and obtained the necessary details and then giving satisfactory answers to the queries raised by Ubhayabharati.
Shankaracharya propogates that ‘Let the urighlcous become riteous, let the wicked be benign let the righteous attain tranquility and peace, let those attaining peace emancipate themselves from the worldly ties and those who have attained emancipation, preach others to follow suite. Shankaracharya, by dint of his intense and glaring intellect, won over many erudites in debates and guided them to the real path of knowledge. Shankaracharya and his Acharyas proved and established their intellectual supremacy all over India. With a view to preserve and protect the divine knowledge stored in Vedas, he organized the ascetics in seven forums. These groups are Ahwan, Mahanirvani, Niranjani, Atul Anand, Agni and Bhairav. Shankaracharya was an accomplished organizer and a great philosopher.
Once it so happened that Shankaracharya’s mentor, Guru Govind, entered a cave and started his meditation. The cave was near the banks of river Narmada. The river was in full spate and the water started gushing into the cave. Shankaracharaya kept a big earthen pot at the entrance of the cave and surprisingly, the flood waters were emptied into the pot and could not reach the cave.
When Govind yati finished his meditation, he was surprised of what Shankaracharaya achieved. He realized the capabilities of Shankaracharaya and suggested to him to write a criticism on the Brahmasutra. Thereafter, Shankaracharaya, the erudite of the tender age of twelve, started preaching the Vcdanta philosophy on the Ghats of river Ganges at Benaras. While at Benaras, the Lord Shankar (Kashi Vishweshwara) Himself, presented before Shankaracharya, in the disguise of a vile and tested his wits and wisdom, through which Shankaracharaya came out with flying colours.
Lord Vishwanatha told Shankaracharaya to write an exhaustive criticism on Brahma Sutra. The Lord also told him to profess monism and uniqueness of Brahma’ (Universe). Shankaracharya chose to traverse to ‘Badari Khetra’ with an inherent desire to draw-inspiration from the great anchorite Vyasa and his blessings. On way to Badari Khetra, he abrogated the prevalent tradition of human sacrifice. He lived near ‘Vyasa Tirth’ and wrote excellent criticisms on Brahama-Sutra, Upnishadas and Bhagwatgceta. One fine morning, Vyasa Maharshi, came to Shankaracharaya in the form of a Brahmin and tested him and he was satisfied with Shankaracharaya’s wisdom; and blessed him. Even though Shankaracharaya was destined to live for only sixteen years, Vyasa gave a further lease of sixteen more years to his life. After Mandanmishra became a disciple of Shankaracharaya, all the erudites, with their scholarlincss and eruidition got fully geared up for convening the philosophy of monism in the whole of Northern India.
Shankaracharaya, then travelled down to South along with his disciples. There he canvassed monism at various places like shaila, Gokarna. After the demise of his mother, Shankaracharaya began his pilgrimages. At the end of his entourage, he went to Kashmir and established the Sarvadnya Peetham and took charge of the same. All the Kashmiri Brahmins got dazzled by the intellectual acumen and wisdom of Shankaracharaya. Shankaracharaya, then went to Nepal. There he established a proposed standard code of Vcdic rituals and observance thereof. Since qualified and eligible priests capable of performing correct, true and exact vedic rites and rituals were not available Shankaracharaya invited some Namputiri Brahmin priests from Kerala for keeping the ancient Vcdic traditions alive. His great work or mission encompassed the following activities: a) Criticism of various Suktas in an elucidative style, b) canvassing his philosophy of monism; (c) Conquring debates on all four sides and establishing centres (Mathas). This gigantic mission he accomplished within a short span of 31 years. He chose the pious land of the Kedar Kshetra for his final departure from his earthly incarnation and did leave this world to have unisom with eternity on the 11th day of the Shukla Paksh (first fortnight) in the month of vaishakha at the age of 32 year as was predicted earlier.
The research scholars have unanimously arrived at the conclusion that all those canticles are composed by, Shankaracharaya only. These canticles are ‘Anand Lahari’ ‘Dakshina-moorty stotra’ ‘CharpatPanjari’, Shivabhujang Prayat’ & the ‘Saundarya Lahri’ to mention a few. For expounding the philosophy of ‘Vedanta’ Shankaracharaya authored several volumes. Out of these, “Advaita Panchratna’ and ‘Vivekachudamani’ are particularly wellknown and famous. The basic and fundamentally key concept of the doctrine of Monism, propogated by Shri. Shankaracharaya can be stated in a nutshell as under i) The ultimate truth is Brahma 2) The world we see is false and a mere illusion. 3) Soul is nothing but Brahma only & 4) Soul and Brahma are inseparable.
The ‘Bharatiya Sanskriti Kosha’ (Indian Cultural Encyclopedia) Vol No 1 Page 184 gives the following legend in connection with Goddess Sharada. It reads as follows:
“During the previous birth, she was the wife of Lord Brahmadeva and was known as ‘Saraswati’. She had to take a new birth on account of a curse or malediction by an ascetic called ‘Durvasa’ She, during this birth (incarnation) was, in course of time, married to Mandanmishra’ an erudite, when she could have glimpses of Shankaracharaya (who himself, was an incarnation of Lord Shiva). She got emancipation from the ill effects of the curse. She set out for her original place, where she belonged to. Shankaracharaya, at that juncture appealed to her that she should stay at ‘Shringeri’ only and permit her worshippers to serve her. Saraswati acceded to Shankaracharaya’s request and went to the River Tunga and resorted to ‘Jal Samadhi’ (Jal means water and Samadhi means transcending limits of earthly identities). Her soul reached ‘Satyaloka’ but her mortal remains stayed there only in the form of a rock. Shankaracharaya got a wheel carved out on that rock and got a sandlewood idol made, of Goddess Sharada and installed it near that place. The Goddess, is called ‘Sharadamba’. The Goddess is the venerable deity at the Shringeri (Math). In due course, Shri. Viddyaranyaa swami got a beautiful temple erected and installed a golden image (idol) of Sharadamba. The Shringeri Math is situated on the banks of river Tungbhadra at Koppa (Dist Kadur) in South India. This is one of the sites in Karnataka worth seeing. It has an expanse of 8 miles x 6 miles. In the Dharma Kosha (encyclopedia of religion) authored by Mr. James (Ref. Page 11-16) it is stated that in order to convince the local people more effectively, Shankaracharaya had to master the local languages of that region.
Shri. C. G. Karve has written an article in the issue of the Marathi Magazine ‘Prasad’ of 1961. In that article, Shri Karve says “The reason as to why the centre (Matha) was established at Shringeri is equally queer and strongly supernatural. Shankaracharaya saw a cobra, protecting a pregnant she-frog from the torturing heat by-covering it with the help of the shadow- of its fangs. This was very exceptional. This incidence had a very deep impact on him and it is exactly why he chose this very spot for establishing his Math (Monastery). Another reason why the Math was given the name ‘Shringeri Math’ was that the hillock on which the hermitage of the famous ascetic ‘Rushyashrung’ existed is at a distance of mere 9 miles from this spot.
The King Harihar and his five brothers bestowed upon the authorities of this Math the right to collect the revenue accrued from the nine villages, nearby. There have been 35 Acharayas (Head) of this Matha hereinsofar (Rcf. Ayyer Pp 118) How, the King of Vijaynagar made a permanent provision of assured income for the Math, has already been detailed hereinabove. This empire was founded by king Harihar the first in Shaka 1258. The city of ‘Kishkindha’ was the capital city of this empire. Sayan and Madhav were both ministers in this Kingdom. Both of them resorted to spiritualism and rose to fame by the new names such as Sayannacharya and Vidyaranya Swami. They have authored 150 volumes in Sanskrit and the Devyaparadha Stotra (Canticle) is very famous. Sayannacharya has written many criticisms or interpretationary expoundings of many famous literary works.
Apart from and besides the idol of Goddess Sharada, the idols of Venugopal and Shriniwasa in other temples are worth seeing and attract attention of all. A figure of Nandi carved out on a pearl (Vehicle of Lord Shiva) is exhibited here and is considered to be one of the finest sculptures. The temple of Navagrahas here (NinePlannets) is also worth seeing. This temple has twelve sculpted pillars. On top of each pillar there is a figure of Lion and a person mounting on it. In the Jaws of the Lions, bright and sparkling spheres, made out of superior quality rock are so placed so as to rotate within the jaws without slipping out from the jaws. These 12 sculpted pillars symbolize the 12 signs of zodiac and according to or in unison with the time, the rays of the Sun falling on the pillars get reflected from the spheres. The symbolic figures of planetary bodies such as Saturn, Jupitor, Venus, Moon etc are fitted and the combined effect of all this gives one a fairly accurate idea as to how solar family as a whole moves around the Sun. This setup is really intelligently devised (Ref: Ayyer PP. 360-362)
In the Devikosha (encyclopedia of Goddesses) on page no. 339 volume -1st, the following details are given. “There arc several copperplates and inscriptions in the ‘Matha’. They all indicate the Peshwa rulers of Pune held the Acharyas of this Matha in high esteem and the Acharyas were given the highest honours by giving them the first prestigious position in worshipping the deities. Not only that but the Muslim rulers too, had the feeling of reverence in their minds towards the Heads of the Math. The Nawab of Mysore, HyderAli Khan presented the then Head of the Matha, elephants and horses and felicitated him and paid him respects. He (HyderAli Khan) sanctioned a sum often thousand rupees towards the expenses to be incurred for taking the Acharya of the Matha from Shringeri to the capital (Mysore). The Tipu Sultan, the son of HyderAli Khan continued carry cany the inheritance of his father with the same ferver and faith. Once a gang of robbers, plundered the Matha and in a letter written by him to the authorities of the Matha by way of consolations, he wrote those who have committed this heinous act with a sense of pleasure, will weep when they repay for their actions.
Tipu Sultan was a great admirer of Shringeri Math, besides being a patron to it. He often requested the religious Heads to pray to God for prevalence of peaceful conditions in the state, general welfare of the public and for bcingvictorious in any ensuring battles. Once he even went to the extent of asking the Brahmins to perform ‘Sahastra Chandi sacrifice’ and fed them with sumptuous meals for 40 days continuously and made liberal offerings to them -This is mentioned in the chronicals – (Ref.: Report of the Archaeological Department – -Govt, of Mysore -year 1916 PP 74/75).
*(The author is a noted Archeologist, based in Pune)