When Shankaracharya sat at Sarvanjnanapeetham

B L Razdan
Often we hear the delighting phrase: “From Kashmir to Kanyakumari” as an assertion of India’s unity and integrity. But, sadly, not many of us know that it was a lad from South India, who unified India after re-establishing the faith of Sanatan Dharma which is holding its sway through its length and breadth even today.
Shivagiri and Aryadevi of Kaladi in Kerala were issueless even several years after their marriage. They repaired a nearby Shiva temple and worshipped there with all their heart. Shiva appeared in a dream to Shivguru and and asked him if he wanted a good son with a short life span or a simpleton with a long life. Shivguru opted for the former and thus was born to the couple a child around 788 AD. It was a precocious child. Shivguru died when the child was just three years old. At age 5, the child was sent to gurukul and in three years the boy mastered all the subjects in the then prevalent curriculum and returned home, where he served his widowed mother with devotion and spent his time in further study, teaching and scriptural discourses with the learned pundits.
Shankara set out in search of a guru, whom he found one in Govindacharya, a proponent of Advait Vedanta, in a mountainous cave on the banks of Narmada. Impressed by the earnestness and the brilliance, he ensured that Shankara mastered Yoga, Vedanta and other systems and became a knower of Brahman. The guru ordered him to go to Kashi (Varanasi or Banaras) and write commentaries on the Hindu scriptures to re-establish Sanatan Dharma. The brilliance of the young exponent of Vedic religion soon attracted the attention of the scholars of the time and were impressed by his erudition and scriptural exposition. Many intelligent young men became his disciples who helped spread his message of the superiority of the Sanatani faith.
Legend has it that once while going to the Ganges for having a bath, Shankara found an outcast coming from the opposite direction with four dogs, obstructing his way. When he asked him to be out of the way, the outcast retorted by asking him, “Whom are you asking to get away, the body or the soul? The soul is pure and omnipresent. Is there any difference between the reflection of the moon seen in the Ganges or in a cup of wine? As for the body, it is inert; can it move away? Shankara had a close look at the outcast and saw that it was the Lord of Kashi, who had come in disguise to open his eyes. He fell prostrate at His feet and instantly broke forth in a highly Advaitic hymn, which later became famous as Manishapanchaka or Five verses of wisdom. Eventually, Shankara became a formidable proponent of Advaita philosophy after vanquishing the most learned of men and philosophers in debates and discourses that would last days on a stretch.
Legend also has it that Adi Shankara has squarely defeated one Mandana Mishra, a known proponent of Mimansa philosophy. It was customary in those times for erudite people to debate the relative merits and demerits of the different systems of Hindu philosophy. Shankara, an ardent Advaita believer sought to establish the superiority of his belief and to do so he had sought out one Kumarila Bhatta, the most leading exponent of the Mimansa school. However, Kumarila Bhatta being busy with a penance, directed him to his greatest disciple, Mandana Misra, to debate the merits of their respective beliefs.
Having found Mandana Misra, Shankara told him about the directions of Kumarila Bhatta. The former treated the latter with some disdain to begin with, and reportedly hurled insults and invectives at Shankara. But Shankara was a picture of composure and calmness and replied to each and every insult and invective with classic tact and lingual finesse. The people in Mandana’s house soon sensed that Shankara was not an ordinary soul and advised Mandana to offer him due respect. It is only after their intervention that Mandana agreed to a debate with Shankara.
Mandana Misra, who was a house-holder had married Ubhaya Bharati also known as Sarasavani, who was a great intellectual in her own right. She would equal her husband in all branches of learning, ethical character and strict observation of Vedic injunctions. While Sarasavani was supposed to be an avatara of goddess of learning, Saraswati, Mandana Misra was supposed to be an avatara of Brahma. Together, they made an incredible couple.
The debate took place on the condition that whoever would lose in the debate would become a disciple of the victor and accept and follow his school of thought. Keeping the legendry impartiality of Sarasavani in view, Shankara agreed that she could be the judge. The debate spanned many days and ranged across many different Vedic topics and Upanishadic subjects, and the arguments of both the debaters were compelling and forceful. It was a feast of awe, devotion, humility and gratitude overflowing in them. However, his flowery language, his lucid style, his rigid logic, his balanced expression, his fearless exposition, his unshakable faith in the Vedas, and forceful arguments in the debate won him the day and Shankara emerged victorious. It is said that one of the criteria that helped Shankara prove his mettle was that while the garland of flowers worn by him remained fresh till the end of the dabate, whereas the one worn by Mandana Misra had lost freshness pointing to his hot temper.
While Mandana Misra was obliged to become a disciple of Shankaracharya, his wife and the judge, Sarasavani, would not agree to it. Her argument was that she was the “ardhangini” of Mandana Misra and that Shankaracharya had defeated only half of Mandana Misra. Only if and when he would vanquish her in a separate debate, would they both become his disciples. Shankara readily agreed. During the debate, however, Sarasavani asked sex related questions knowing fully well that he was a “sanyasi”, who had never even touched a woman. It was probably a ploy to avenge the defeat of her husband. But Shankaracharya, unfazed as he was, asked for a postponement of the debate and just one month’s time to prepare himself for the debate to be resumed subsequently. Thinking that he could hardly learn anything about the vast subject like kama sutra in just a month, Sarsavani agreed.
It is said that Shankaracharya got the opportunity to transmigrate into the body of a young prince, who had died while being surrounded by a host of his women friends. He advised his followers to keep a close watch on his own body till he returned to it and in just one month he could learn each and everything about kama and expectedly, when the debate was resumed, he won hands down.
Now it was only North India, which was still in the grip of Buddhism, that Shankaracharya had to establish the over-arching superiority of his philosophy of advaitavad. And what better way than to take on the extremely learned Pandits and philosophers in the highest seat of learning at Sharda Peeth in “Kashyapmir” aka Kashmir meaning the Land of “Kashyap Rishi, the ascetic”: Renowned for producing thousands of erudite scholars and philosophers. Long before the establishment of Oxford and other Universities in the West, here was a University of excellence run by extremely learned Pandits and philosophers in almost all branches of human knowledge. An ancient volume “Shakti Sangam Tantra” has a stray reference to “Sharda Educational complex”, wherein Kashmir is described as the Land from Sharda Complex to Keshara Parbat or “Saffron Hill” extending up to 50 yojana.
The epic, Mahabharata, refers to Kashmir as “Kashmir Mandala”. The ancient History of India records that there was a temple of “Goddess Sharda” in Kashmir and that there was also a centre for providing education known as “Sharada Peeth”, which had four doors facing four directions, the East, the West, the North and the South. The southern door had always remained closed as no one from South had ever proved his credentials worthy enough as to be entitled to an entry from this door. Having defeated almost the entire intellectual elite of the South, the West and the East, Shankara went straight to the Southern door of Sharda Peeth and tried to physically open it. There was a loud protest by the intellectuals present who told him in no uncertain terms that to do so he had to first vanquish all the scholars there in matters of knowledge and to win the highest hierarchal position of Acharya. Shankaracharya not only vanquished them all, but, more surprisingly, besides the right of entry, he also earned the right to sit on the “Sarvanjnanapeetham” or the Throne of Wisdom. There is an interesting story behind this unusual feat of Shankaracharya that had puzzled the entire faculty of Sharda Peeth.
After having entered the Southern gate of Sharda Peeth, when Shankaracharya was about to sit on “Sarvanjnanapeetham” or the Throne of Wisdom, a voice from the sky attributed to Ma Sharda asked him to stop, telling him that while his knowledge may have entitled him to the entry through the Southern door, this was not enough to be eligible to sit on the throne and that one has also to be pure for that purpose. She seemed to allude to the dalliance he had had with the young princesses that had apparently rendered him impure. Not to be cowed down, Shankaracharya replied that everybody knew the purpose for which he had done so and that no sin attached to him. In any case, added he, what was being attributed to him, was not attributable to this body of his, which had always remained pure and observed the sanyasa dharma to the hilt and that he was entitled to sitting on the throne in this pure body, which had remained unblemished till that moment. Maa Sharda, it is said, could not meet this argument and eventually relented. She saw reason in what he said and permitted him to sit on “Sarvanjnanapeetham”.
The Sharda seat of learning had so much impressed Shankaracharya that the very first verse of ‘Prapanchsar’ composed by him after returning to Shringeri, is devoted to the praise of Sharada. The Sharada image at Shringeri Sharadamba temple in South India was once said to have been made of sandalwood, which had been carried by Sankaracharya from here.
(The author, formerly of the Indian Revenue Service, retired as Director General of Income Tax, Chandigarh)