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Sri Sankaracharya: Understanding the great saint through his works

Sri sankara, siva,saiva, advaita, uma, mother goddess,servitor, mutts, monastic order

Sri Sankaracharya: Understanding the great saint through his works

It has been said that great saints shall not be judged by the same yardsticks and guiding principles as one does for a common man. This observation is to pay tribute to their flawless spiritual stature only. Almighty helps an enlightened and virtuous individual in recognizing a great seer. Sri Sankaracharya, a great seer of vedas, was certainly a soul that had incarnated to serve a purpose. His time period was 788.C.E-820.C.E. The contemporary literature of his period that make reference to him are lost to us and hence there is not much information about him. Whatever information that is available is from the shankaravijayam( sankara’s victories), the first of which was written almost eight centuries after him, during the middle of fifteenth century A.D by certain madhava who was a scholar of advaita. The second sankara vijayam was written by another advaitic scholar of sixteenth century called cidanandan, the last one written during the 17th century A.D in Kerala is called kerala shankara vijayam and this text is now extant. Contemporary writers have based their account on sankara’s date, geographical and personal information based on these texts.

We do not know about the textual references that were available to the authors of these works. According to these works Sri sankara was born in a small kerala town called kalady in 8th cent .C.E, to certain brahmin couple by name sivaguru and aryambal as a result of their unflinching devotion to the lord of kailasam. It is interesting to note here that neither the state of kerala nor the term “nambudiri” which now refers to the brahmins of kerala was prevalent during those days. We know from various literature from the period that during those days the area was under the sway of chola or chera kings . For example a chera king who is among the 63 nayanmar saints is known to be a friend and admirer of sundaramurthy nayanar who lived about a century before sankara. Both saivite and vaishnavite literature of tamil saints venerate several shrines in the south western state of kerala which is close to alwaye and kalady, like the tiruvalanchuzhi siva temple, the vaishnava shrines at tirumoozhikalam, tiruppuliyur, tirunavai,tiruvalla and tiruchenkunroor. The last mentioned one which is closest to kalady and at a distance of about 2 hours from quilon is referenced frequently and praised profusely as it is held to have been an important puranic centre. Tiruchenkunroor is known to be the home to tamil nayanmar saint viranmindar on whose urge sundarar composed tiru-thondar-thokai ( translated as in praise of lord’s servitors) venerating the 62 great saiva pantheon saints. There by it is certain that the name kalady as well as personal information about sankara that is available from these works were contemporaneous to the period of their composition.

Eventhough the epigraphic references to Sri sankaracharya have not been discovered or probably lost, there are some small, obscure inscriptions of chola period that refer to some advaitic(monism) scholars. Some good advaita commentaries were written during the period between 10th and 13th centuries A.D. For example, from the works of sarvajnatman, who was a scholar of saivite advaita philosophy, like samkshepasareeraka, pancaprakriya and pramana lakshana we infer that he was patronized by certain manukuladitya. It is possible to conclude that this manukuladitya was chola emperor Aditya varma(870.C.E-907.C.E), as the author was a resident of uraiyur in chola provinces. Sarvajnatman salutes his guru devesvara in his works. The name devesvara is usually seen as a synonym of suresvara, sankara's disciple, and on this basis, sarvajnatman is sometimes identified with nityabodhaghana. However, in the pramana-lakshana, sarvajnatman mentions the name of devesvara's guru as devananda, whose guru was Sreshthananda. Hence, there is some confusion over whether sarvajnatman was a direct disciple of suresvara or not. Whatever may be the answer to the above question it seems possible that the school of advaitism whose proponent was sankara was in vogue in south during chola period and hence sankara was a historic person and that the tales concerning his servitorship to lord sivan in the line of nayanmar saints should probably have been true, because his hagiographers also note that he was a hyperlexic and so among the earliest hyperlexics that we know.

We know from an inscription of Aditya karikala(10th. Cent .C.E)on the north wall of the central shrine in the nagesvarasvamin temple at kumbakonam, that a system of poorva meemamsa( This is an ancient system of philosophy which was followed by sankara, which held that before taking decision on matter it is better to conduct prior investigation) philosophy called prabhakaram was in practice in south during that period. The branch was developed by certain prabhakara who we know from contemporary literature was one of the students of kumarila bhatta. The tradition has it that being a great devotee of lord siva, kumarila bhatta had prior knowledge of his meeting with sri sankara near prayag in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, just like how the two canonical nayanmar saints namely sambandar and appar were aware of their meeting through clairvoyance. Thus we may regard sankara and kumarila bhatta to be saintly servitors of the same period who knew each other.

As a soul that has been a recipient of divine grace, there could have been any doubt about sankara’s clairvoyance, brilliance and his ultimate triumph over the proponents of various cults like buddism, Jainism etc. In one way sankara was continuing the work of saivite saints like sambandar who had successfully uprooted these faiths out of the political sphere and his work was continued by the ones like manikkavasagar, even though manikkavasagar does not project himself as a scholar of advaitism nor refer to sankara in his eloquent poetry. Inasmuch as it may be regarded that sankara aimed to serve the almighty by understanding his nature as is revealed in the vedas of yore and his understanding ultimately came to be regarded as advaita or non-dualism. The service of nayanmars like sambandar was through composition of divine hymns which thematically focussed on his activities against evil and which concluded that one can attain salvation by worshipping his feet with flawless devotion and truthfulness. Their hymns venerate ancient temples of India.

Sree sankaracharya is known to have authored some works that may be classified as devotional and discourse. But unfortunately only some parts of his works that are available to us can be attributed to him, a fate that is shared by the works of nayanmar and alwar saints parts of which are missing (like for example only 384 of 10,000 odd hymns by sambandar have survived and only 313 of around 15000 hymns of saint appar have survived and only 100 which forms a small fraction of numerous hymns composed by saint sundarar comes down to us), and parts of which are corrupted and rewritten. Especially the hymns of alwar saints has been subjected to many revisions and interpretations during later ages.

Among the more notable works of Sankaracharya are The saundarya lahari, vivekachoodamani and Sivananda lahari. The first work consists of 100 couplets split into two parts which differ in subject matter. The work vivekachoodamani is a dialogue between a teacher and a student on philosophy. The last mentioned work namely sivanandalahari is purely devotional in nature.

Saundarya lahari, which means the essence of beauty, is one work of sankaracharya that has as many as 35 commentaries written on it over centuries. Tradition has it that one morning while meditating upon divine mother goddess (Uma, consort of lord siva), he was blessed with the beatific vision of devi and was so inundated by the beauty and splendour of the vision that he had that he instantantaneously composed saundarya lahari in praise of her beauty almost by divine will. For most of it, the second section of saundarya lahari which has 59 verses is an eloquent description of the incomparably divine and lovely form of mother goddess. Since this part matches with the title saundarya lahari for which the theme was beauty, we may regard that of what may have been actually sankara’s composition most is found in second part. The first part consisting of 41 verses is a praise of mother as supreme deity as we find in saktha philosophy which regard goddess durga as supreme to all gods including lord Siva and lord Vishnu. Certainly, sankara was only practicing flawless devotion to the supreme that can lead one to salvation in the way prescribed by Vedas of divine origin. He aimed at neither creating a cult focus nor propounding the theory of superiority and hierarchy among gods. It is clear from his lectures that he shunned cult focus, advised against following of a leader or guru and also opined that divine vedas describe the path towards salvation most conspicuously. There by it could be possible that the first 41 verses of saundarya lahari alongside a few in the second part were later additions to the remnants of the original text and this part contains mostly saktha tantric doctrine of devi worship an obscure,technical discussion not mentioned in vedas which sankara a great seer of vedas could not have undertaken.

Sankaracharya’s original vivekachoodamani(crest jewel of wisdom) is a philosophical treatise which discusses the nature of God and path to salvation in form of a conversation between a preceptor and a disciple. It is in this work that sankara explains that a teacher cannot lead one towards salvation and that this is achieved by the grace of lord through the path of devotion and servitude to him. Sankara through his absolute devotion to Lord sivan and reverence to vedas produced the work vivekachoodamani which is the essence of vedas and vedantas(philosophical texts that occur at the end of vedas). The disciple-preceptor dialogue occurs in one of the principal upanishads. Infact sankara writes that he can but only interpret and summarize that has already been said in vedas and that it is not possible to contradict or control or appropriate almighty through prophecies and chants.

As a great devotee of lord sivan he imparted several hymns in praise of the lord of Kailas. His work sivananda lahari is a devotional work in praise of Lord sivan. Hymns like mahishasuramardini slokam, devi mahatmyam etc venerate mother goddess parvati devi.

There is an air of mystery over his founding of four pontificated maths in four corners to propogate advaitism. This is because such a practice is not a characteristic of vedism which he retook to its ancient glory and is a characteristic of creeds like buddism and Jainism which he helped defeat. The tradition of his establishing mutts has probably something to do with his being referred to as shanmatha sthapaka which can also mean establisher of 6 modes of worship. That title is in recognition for his understanding and interpreting worship rituals for gods ganesha,skanda,sakthi,siva,vishnu and lakshmi which are prescribed in ancient agama sastras( texts describing worship procedures for deities) that are also divine in origin. Sankara states that he was only re-interpreting the ancient worship procedures and that he is not the originator of the same. It is also noteworthy that the places where the maths were supposedely established by sankaracharya namely badrinath,puri,dwaraka and sringeri are mainly vaishnava centres.

Eventhough great sankara’s devotion towards sreeman narayanan(lord Vishnu) was as true as it was with lord sivan, it is not very likely that if indeed sankara had established the pontificated mutts for propogation of vedism he would have chosen only vaishnavite centres for the same. This certainly raises questions about the validity of the proposition that sankara was the establisher the mutts and creator of monastic order. There is no epigraphic data about the mutts from chola period when sankara lived. Some writers have putforth a view that the first chieftains of late medieval vijayanagar kingdom of deccan were supported by a certain saint called vidyaranya from sringeri and this if true could be earliest reference to a mutt supposedely established by sankara.

The controversial tale behind the choice of first pontiff for sringeri mutt by sankaracharya creates further doubts regarding the validity of the mutts. Traditional accounts certainly dating back only to late medieval times has it that sankara defeated certain scholar by name mandana misra in a debate but his wife challenged him to answer questions on love and marriage something a tapasvin(celibate) like sankara had given up. The proposition is both absurd and unbelievable as it further states that sankara was able to answer satisfactorily the lady’s questions after he had used magic to send his soul into the body of a dead king and learnt about a householder’s life through him. Practice of such occult magic is regarded as an evil tendency and certainly could not have been done to by great sankaracharya. Thereby sankara could hardly have answered the questions if such an imaginary conversation had actually taken place. This leads one to think that mandana misra and rest of the acharyas may have been fictitious charactars.

Traditional accounts of sankara’s accepting a certain govinda bahagavadpadacharya in the banks of river narmada as preceptor needs to be noted. There is an invocation to by sankara to lord Vishnu as govinda in the beginning of his work viveka choodamani, and in that verse he says that he accepts lord Vishnu as preceptor. It is possible that some medieval writers either made a mistake or with knowledge interpreted this verse to be in honour of certain mortal govinda who was to be considered as sankara’s preceptor. Some accounts also narrate an imaginary conversation between sankara and the teacher govinda in the banks of river narmada after which sankara accepted him as preceptor. This is certainly impossible as for isvarakotis( free souls that have been bestowed upon with divine grace) like sankara and tirugnanasambandar who were masters of vedas and sastras at the age of seven there could hardly have been any preceptor and owner barring divine. The medieval literature is surprisingly silent about the several shrines along the banks of river kaveri like tiruvanaikka, chidambaram, ariyalur, etc that sankara visited and venerated during his piligrimage.

Another point to be noted here is that some literature of medieval period have referred to buddha as one of the incarnations of lord vishnu and thereby the mutts at badrinath, puri, dwaraka et.all may actually have been buddist monastries that eventually were transformed to “advaitic” saiva mutts attributed to sankaracharya, during late medieval ages. Going by certain late medieval interpretations of sankara’s works some contemporary scholars have opined that sankara preached buddism in garb of vedism. The controversies surrounding temples of guruvayur, sabarimala and tirupati also point to an attempt made during late medieval ages to preach and propogate buddist and jain philosophies through vedism.

There is no doubt about sankara’s historicity,scholarship or divinity but rest of the things about him are not clear. The fact that his works are soul stirring, efficacious and devoted testify to his flawless devotion and servitorship. The tradition of his founding mutts of advaitism seems to be contestable.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
1. South Indian inscriptions volume II.Part III published by Archaelogical survey of India,Govt.of .India, 10, Janpath, New Delhi-1, 1991.

2.Tiru vachagam, or dialogues with divine by saint manikkavasagar, 9th. Cent.A.D, English translation by G.U.Pope, Oxford university press, 2002.

3.Periyapuranam by sekkilar, a tamil classic on great saivite saints of South India , abridged English translation by G.Vanmikanathan published by Sri Ramakrishna math Chennai, 1984.
Published: 2008-07-24
Author: K Sethu Madhavan

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A management professional with eight years experience in telecommunications industry, I have written a lot of articles in subjects related to management and strategic information analysis.

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