An Episode in the life of Adi Shankara

B L Razdan
Adi Shankara was born of Shivaguru and Aryamba at Kaladi in Kerala. He lost his father at an early age. He was a precocious child and made rapid strides in his learning. In his eighth year he obtained the consent of his mother and took up sanyasa. He started out in the quest of a competent teacher. And eventually found Govinda Bhagavatpada, the disciple of Gaudapada, on the banks of the Narmada. He stayed with his Guru for a while. Under his command, he went to Kashi and Badri.
When he was just twelve years of age, Adi Shankara wrote his most profound commentaries on the Vedanta Sutras of Badarayana, the principal Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita which are known as Prasthanatraya, the authoritative Vedanta Shastras. These Bhashyas (commentaries) of Shankara are monumental works covering the import of the Vedic teachings and supplemented by clear reasoning and lucid exposition. This doctrine of Brahma Vidya which Shankara propounded through his works is what is known as Advaita Vedanta or Non-dualism. It confers salvation through the elimination of duality across the world.
At this time of Indian History, the masses had moved away from the Vedic way of life, Buddhism held sway and Shankara felt that there was a strong and urgent need for the revival of the Sanatana Dharma. Shankara realized that unless he was able to win over the powerful group of proponents and followers of ritualism, his goal of re-unifying India and making it a beacon light of spirituality would remain unfulfilled. Shankara commenced his task of propagating his tenets as set out in his PrasthanathrayaBhashyas to the world.
Shankara decided to go first to Prayag with a view to win over Kumarila, the staunch upholder of the ritualistic interpretation of the Vedas and get his explanatory comments (Vartika) on his Bhashya on Brahma Sutras of Badarayana – Vyasa. At Prayag, he came to know that Kumarila was about to enter into a fire, as an act of expiation for betraying his teacher from whom he had learnt stealthily the tenets of Buddhism. Sri Shankara rushed to the place designated for the purpose. Kumarila recognised Shankara, narrated to him his work against the Buddhists, his awareness about Sri Shankara’s Bhashyas and his desire to write a Vartika (explanatory treatise) on his Bhashyas. Kumarila explained how he was not in a position to break his vow of expiation and therefore asked him to meet his disciple Mandana Misra. He added that if Shankara could defeat Mandana Misra, whose actual name was Vishwaroopa, who was the most renowned protagonist of the Purvamimamsa School, the ritualistic interpretation of the Vedas, it would clear all obstacles in the mission that Shankara had undertaken.
Mandana Misra was a distinguished practitioner of the Mimamsa philosophy, which is mainly derived from the karma kanda portion of the Vedas and emphasizes on the importance of rituals. In this school of thought, a particular ritual is done, and the results are achieved instantaneously. It displays a straightforward cause and effect relationship if practiced accurately. Mandana Misra had received the best of traditional training at the feet of Kumarila Bhatta and perfected his scholarship. He had settled as a house-holder with his wife Ubhaya Bharati, an equally talented intellectual, who was supposed to be an avatara of Saraswati just as Mandana Misra was supposed to be an avatara of Brahma.
As advised, Shankara proceeded to Mandana Misra’s place. When he reached the mansion of Mandana Misra, it was found bolted from inside. He being a Sanyasin, had no right of admission into a house found closed. Such are the rules of Smriti, which govern the daily conduct of traditional Sanyasis. But he was determined to redeem Mandana Misra from the rigidity of dogmatic ritualism. Using his extraordinary Yogic powers, Shankara entered the house through the closed door.
Mandana Misra had an innate dislike for Sanyasis because in his staunch belief of ritualism, he felt that only those who wished to escape the rigours of Vedic injunctions found a refuge in the Sanyasa Ashrama. When Shankara entered the house, his presence as a Sanyasin was most unwelcome. Mandana Misra was infuriated at the audacity of a Sanyasin to enter his house without seeking his permission. Hot and harsh exchanges followed. The Brahmins present found the situation going out of control and wished to set it right. They suggested to Mandana Misra to invite Shankara for Biksha seeing him as a bhokta occupying Vishnu Sthana in the ceremony. Mandana Misra too was keen on saving the ritual and invited Shankara accordingly. Shankara refused point blank and explained to Mandana Misra that he did not come for bhiksha of the edibles but for a vada bhiksha, a polemical debate in philosophy. Mandana Misra who had never met his match in learning before, was willing for a dialectical fight and welcomed it. The debate was fixed for the next day.
Mandana Misra was perfect and adept as a ritualist who preached widely. The young and charming advaitavedantin, Adi Shankara, on his country-wide tour was eager to debate with Mandana Misra, who was by then already very old. To start with, Mandana Misra reasoned that since he had spent more than half his life learning and preaching mimamsa, it would be unfair to debate with a youngster in his twenties who barely had any experience. Hence, with the intention of being fair on Shankara, Misra allowed Shankara to choose his own judge. Shankara had heard greatly about Misra’s righteousness and appreciated him for his act of fairness. But he was quick to decide that none but Mandana Misra’s wife, Ubhaya Bharati, herself can be the most appropriate judge for this debate. To make the dispute more purposeful, they agreed to a wager. If Shankara would lose in debate, he would become disciple of Mandana Misra and get married and if Manadana Misra would lose, he would become Sanyasi and disciple of Shankara.
The debate between them commenced and continued for months. Thousands of scholars gathered every day to watch and learn. Mandana Misra, at a ripe old age, still remained a man with very sharp intellect and a very solid grasp of logic, but he was slowly losing. Despite being such a young man, Shankara’s realization of the ultimate Brahman and his knowledge of Maya, enabled him to win over Misra’s arguments easily. Misra was a very accomplished ritualist, yet he seemed to lack some understanding of higher spiritual truths that Shankara seemed to have experienced already. At the end of a long period, Mandana Misra was almost ready to accepted defeat.However, the transformation of her husband into a sannayasidistressed his wife and Judge, Bharati. Wise and prudent as she was, she kept her counsel and addressed Shankara thus: “You do know that the sacred texts enjoin that a wife forms one-half of a husband’s body (ardhangini: ardha – half; angini – body). Therefore, by defeating my lord, you have but won over only half of him. Your victory can be complete only when you engage in a debate with me also, and manage to prove yourself better.”
Ubhaya Bharati was a learned scholar herself and a clever one at that. Knowing very well that Shankara was a strict celibate, she asked him how could a sanyasi, who has no experience as a citizen, and a householder, claim complete knowledge. She immediately started discussing relationships and marital obligations. Shankara confessed that he had absolutely no knowledge in this area because he was a celibate. But Shankara asked for some time to study about this topic before resuming the debate. This request was granted.
Through his yogic powers Shankara came to know of a certain king who was about to die. He instructed his disciples to preserve his body, which he temporarily left to enter the dying king’s body. The king happened to be a very evil man. Yet his wives were loyal to him and were in tears when the king was on his deathbed. When the king suddenly woke up, one of the wives noticed that the king had recovered under rather mysterious circumstances and appeared to have become a changed man. Shankara learnt from that woman, all that he needed to know about man-woman relationship and experiences. On his way out of the body he blessed that lady who had taught him so much. Empowered with this new-found knowledge, Shankara returned to resume the debate with Ubhaya Bharati. This time, he was clearly unbeatable. Both Ubhaya Bharati and Mandana Misra bowed their heads in humility and accepted defeat and became followers of Adi Shankara and staunch Vedantins.
Mandana Misra was given Sanyasa diksha and was given the name “Sureshwara”. Shankara imparted to Mandana Misra the Mahavakya ‘Tat tvamasi’. Shankara having thus brought the celebrated Mandana into his own fold started again on his mission. Sureshwaracharya was the most talented disciple of Shankara. He was placed as the First Head of Sringeri Sharada Peetham in the South, one of the Mutts established by Shankara. He was the greatest scholar after Shankara in those times. He was elder to Shankara in age. He is also called as “Vartikacharya.” He wrote commentary on Shankara’s Brahma Sutra Bhashyam, Dakshina Murthy Stotram.
Ubhaya Bharathi wanted to finish her avatara and go back to her abode. Shankara prayed to her and requested her to bless people on earth. It is Ubhaya Bharathi who is considered to be blessing the devotees as Sharadamba from Sringeri.
(The author is formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax (Investigation), Chandigarh)