Renunciation: Shri Paramahamsa Swami Niranjan ji
In the early hours of the morning, as birds were leaving ‘their warm nests in search of a meal, find the rising sun was colouring the eastern sky with brilliant morning colours, the lone figure of a lady stood under a Coconut tree with tears in her eyes, totally oblivious to the soft breeze murmuring through the leaves. She was gazing at the figure of a boy aged not more than eight years, with shaved head, dressed in ochre-coloured robes and holding a staff and kamandalu in his hands, walking away with firm and determined steps towards a destiny unknown. She watched him until he was swallowed up in the distance by the tall mango, coconut, betel nut and other tropical trees surrounding the tiny village of Kaladi in Kerala State. A long time she stood there hoping against hope that the child who had walked away would return. In her heart she knew it was not to be. She wiped the tears, stifled a cry and murmured softly, “Shankara, may Lord Ashutosha protect and guide you”.
Later on she was silting in front of her village hut. Her son, Shankara had left the home and village that morning- Where to? She did not know. In search of Guru and Truth, so he had said. She felt drowsy and in that state she remembered events leading to his birth. What a joyous time that was, unforgettable!
Shankara’s father was named Sivaguru and was the only son of Vidyadhara. Although Sivaguru did not want to involve himself in the life of a householder, at the request of his father he returned from his Guru ashram and had married. After the death of Vidyadhara, apart from fulfilling the responsibilities and. obligations towards the small family, Sivaguru dedicated himself lo the study and teaching of the shastras. Sivaguru and his wife Vishishta Devi, were reaching middle age and both yearned for a son. After discussion they had come to the Vrisha mountain near the village, and there in the temple they worshipped Lord Chandra Maulishwar Shiva with all their devotion. How hard those days were! They used to survive on berries, roots and the fruits of trees, and worshipped prayed and fasted. Their bodies were beginning to be affected by such a rigorous discipline.
Before the end of their austerity, one night Sivaguru had a dream. In this dream Lord Shiva appeared before him and said in a voice full of compassion, “My Son, I am pleased with your devotion. Tell me your wish and I shall fulfil it”. In the dream Sivaguru had fallen to the feet of his Lord and had said, “Bless me with a long-living omniscient son”, Smilingly the Lord said, ‘If you want an omniscient son then he shall have a short lifespan. If you want a long-lived son then he shall not be omniscient. Tell me whether you wish for an omniscient or long-lived son”. Sivaguru prayed that his son be omniscient. The Lord said, “Your wish, shall be fulfilled. You shall have an omniscient son. I myself will come to your family as your son”. So saying the Lord disappeared.
Sivaguru had woken up from his reverie, gently awoke Vishishta Devi and told her about the dream. How happy they were to know that the Lord’s grace was with them. They soon completed their worship and returned to the village.
She remembered well the day of Shankara’s birth in the year 686 A.D., on the twelfth day of Vaishakh Shukla panchami. People said that the sun had stopped moving in the sky to gaze at the new-born baby. Birds flocked to the house and sang the praise of the child while the wind gently caressed his body. All the brahmins of the Nambudiri clan had gathered to bless this divine child. How happily his father had given away land, wealth and cows to the brahmins, and they had, after observing the auspicious signs of Shiva on the body of the child, named him Shankara.
Her child was very special. As he grew, everybody noticed that he was silent, daring and of very sharp intellect. He had been able to read and remember by heart much literature in his native tongue, Malayalam. He had also read and remembered the ancient Vedas, Vedanta, Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharat and the Puranas, His ability knew no bounds. Sivaguru was delighted with this divine ability of the god-child. He decided that after Shankara had completed five years, he would perform the Upanayana Samskara and send him to gurukula for further training, but it was not to be so.
Sivaguru died soon after and Vishishta Devi left with Shankara for her father’s place after completing the last rites of Sivaguru. She never forgot the last desire of her husband, and when Shankara completed five years, she came back to her village home, performed his Upanayana Samskara and sent him to Gurukula.
She remembered that people commuting between the ashram and village came and told her about Shankara. How he had surprised everyone with his clear, sharp understanding and pronunciation of the scriptures. Whatever he was taught he remembered, and soon became the joy of his teachers. In a short span of two years he had completed the study which would normally have taken twenty years and had mastered Upanishads, Puranas, History, Dharma shastras, Nyaya, Samkhya, Patanjali, Vaisheshika and other traditional literature.
Somebody had recently told her that Shankara also possessed miraculous powers. They had told her that, as per the rules of the gurukula, the disciples had to go for bhiksha. Once while Shankara was out for bhiksha, he came upon a very poor family who gave him an amla fruit as they had nothing else to give. Moved by their poverty and devotion, Shankara had prayed to Goddess Lakshmi, and soon that poor family’s shack was covered with golden amlas which had rained from the sky. This news had traveled all over the country.
Shankara was a gifted son, she mused. How otherwise would he be able to bring the river to their doorstep! She remembered that once while she had gone for a bath in the river Alwai, which flowed near the village, she had swooned and fallen to the ground-Shankara, aged seven, had found her and carried her home. Afterwards he decided that propitiating Lord Ashutosha, he would bring the river to the door of their home so that his mother would not need to undertake the arduous journey every morning. He had prayed and prayed and sure enough, after the next monsoon, the river changed her course and began to flow in front of their home.
One day some learned brahmins had visited their humble abode, and charmed by Shankara’s wit, wisdom and intellect, they had requested to see his horoscope. They had said that he would be a teacher of great renown and a parivrajaka, and that his life would be short. He would die either at the age of eight, sixteen or thirty-two. They had left after giving their blessings to the family. Since that day Shankara had not been the same. He had expressed his desire to take sannyas. He had said that without sannyas there was no scope for self-knowledge, and without self-knowledge, no scope for moksha. She had very firmly stated to Shankara, “As long as I am alive, I cannot give you permission for sannyas”.
How she had misunderstood Shankara! Had she forgotten that it was the Lord Himself in the form of her son? Her motherly affection wanted Shankara to be the bastion of her old age, but the Lord wanted him to be the bastion of humanity. One day she had gone with Shankara to the river Alwai for a bath when a crocodile grabbed hold of Shankara’s foot and was pulling him into the deep waters. Shankara cried to his mother, ‘Mother, a crocodile is pulling me in. This is the last moment of my life. Permit me to adopt sannyas, and thus die happily knowing that I will attain moksha’.
She felt the pang of utter grief and desolation after seeing her beloved Shankara in the clutches of the crocodile. Not a single bather or fisherman was able to help Shankara out of his predicament. Soberly she said “So be it my son, I give you permission for sannyas”. Then she fainted and did not remember what happened afterwards.
People told her afterwards that some fishermen had come and captured the crocodile in their nets and had brought Shankara to the river bank where healing balm had been administered on his wounds by a local doctor. Rumours were going around that after Shankara had taken the vow of sannyas, the crocodile vanished. Some were speculating a divine hand in the episode. To her it did not matter what the truth was, for her beloved Shankara was alive.
When she was returning home with Shankara he said, “Mother, I cannot enter the house now as I am a sannyasin. I shall stay under a tree”. She became speechless and replied, “What are you saying? How long do you think I will live? Renounce home after my death but remain with me for as long as I live. Do you not have certain obligations towards me?”
Shankara talked to her full of love and compassion and convinced her of his determination by saying, “At your instructions by the river I took sannyas. The Lord has saved me from the crocodile and it is his wish which I must now obey. With your blessings I shall attain yoga siddhis and tattwa jnana. In your last hours you just have to remember me and I shall appear beside you, and you shall have darshan of your Lord. After all, he is the source of everything that is holy and auspicious. Believe me mother, whatever I am saying will happen. Bless me so that I can unhesitatingly tread the path of dharma and sannyas”. She was silently listening to her young boy saying unbelievable things. Could she believe her ears? She did believe. After all, he was a God-child, and she was his mother. She blurted out, “So be it! Wholeheartedly I give you my blessings so that you can achieve whatever you aspire for”.
This event had happened the day before. After reaching home he had helped her organise a proper sannyasa ceremony. Next morning he himself lit the fire and, as per tradition, initiated himself, She dressed him in his ochre-coloured robes, gave him a staff and a kamandalu. The whole village had come to see this event and later they all followed Shankara to the edge of the village to see him depart. When he could be seen no more they all returned, sad and with tears. Only she remained standing frozen under the coconut tree, hoping against hope that her son Shankara would return.
She opened her eyes and looked at the verandah where she now sat alone, and where she had sat so many times with Sivaguru before, and later listening in rapture to Shankara reciting Sanskrit mantras from the Vedas. Today she was alone but she knew that the Lord was with her, just as he was with Shankara. Filled with the warmth of the Lord’s glow inside her, slowly she got up and whispered softly, “May the Lord guide your every step toy Shankara”.
TRAINING WITH GURU
It was dark inside the cave. Oil lamps were burning in the corner, giving just enough light to see the outline of those who were sitting there. In the dim light one could make out two people, one ancient, ageless, with matted hair, white beard and frail body covered in ochre coloured robes, sitting on some kind of high pedestal which was covered with a tiger skin; a staff and kamandalu kept beside him. The other person was just a boy of not more than eleven years, in the dress of a Sannyasi, sitting below him listening silently and intently to what the ancient one was saying.
‘You are born with the grace of the Lord to re-establish the Vedic precepts, I have been waiting for you for many years at the instructions of my Guru for conveying to you the precepts of dharma. Now that you have learned everything, my duty is over and I am free lo attain samadhi. You will proceed to eternal Kashi and there have darshan of the Lord who will guide your future work. Govindapada then closed his eyes. Shankara, the young boy, silently bowed before his Guru and silently left the solitude of the cave beside the river Narmada at Omkareshwar. Govindapada heard the silent footfall of Shankara leaving the cave and his mind was diverted from samadhi to Shankara. He remembered how he had come out of his years long samadhi the day Shankara had reached the cave at Omkareshwar. The Lord had willed it to be so.
He had heard stories about Shankara, that he had taken only two months to walk from Kaladi (Kerala) to Omkareshwar, beside the river Narmada (presently Madhya Pradesh). An incredible feat for someone as young as he, just eight. Where was the Narmada? Who would guide him there? Shankara knew that the Narmada was somewhere north of his village, and had heard of an ancient one who was supposed to be waiting for someone. How much difficulty he had faced when crossing deep forests and jungles, rivers and mountains, meeting with wild men and animals; but nothing bad deterred the young boy.
He was very brilliant. All the elders, sannyasins and other disciples admired and respected him. In just three years Shankara mastered everything. The first year he had mastered Hatha yoga; second year, Raja yoga. As a result of that he attained many spiritual powers and siddhis. The third year Govindapada taught Shankara the highest truth of Gyana yoga, Aparokshanubhuti, and the secrets of dharana, dhyana and samadhi. It was indeed an honour to have such a disciple. In those times of decay in dharma, a lot of hopes were pinned on Shankara.
He also remembered that during the monsoon season just this year, when he was sitting in samadhi, the waters of the Narmada started to rise as if to inundate the cave. There was panic and pandemonium amongst his disciples. Shankara had calmly put an earthen pot in front of the cave and all the waters of the flooded Narmada were drawn into it. How surprised all had been to witness this miraculous feat!
Afterwards when Govindapada heard of this event, he blessed Shankara by saying, “I heard from my Guru Gaudapada, and he had heard from his Guru Sukadev that one would come who would contain the hundred currents of the Narmada in an earthen pot. That person shall assimilate all the Vedic teachings in the Brahmasutras to revive the dharma, I know now that they were referring to you. I bless you in your work”.
Acharya Guru Govindapada was satisfied with Shankara. He was an incarnation of the Lord, and would set things right. Govindapada had completed his mission. His waiting was over and he would now enter mahasamadhi. He concentrated his mind at the eyebrow center, mentally bowed and offered a prayer to his Guru and the Lord, centered the pranas in sahasrar chakra and attained mahasarnadhi.
It was afternoon. Although the sun was shining high in the sky, it was quite dark inside the small hut. Within, one could make out two old figures, one lying on a cot all covered up with blankets, and the other crouching beside the prone figure on the bed. The figure crouching beside the bed was that of an old maid who served Vishishta Devi, the mother of Shankara, and the figure on the bed was Shankara’s mother who was sick, delirious and unconscious. The whispered came of “Shankara” escaped from her lips from time to time. Doctors had come, and had given her treatment and medication but nothing seemed to work on that frail body. Ultimately the doctors had said that only the grace of Lord Ashutosha would be able to make her healthy, and had slowly left the hut, leaving Vishishta Devi in the care of the old maid who had served her since the day Shankara was born.
The old maid knew about the promise that Shankara had made his mother when he had taken sannyas and left home in search of his Guru. “In your last hour you just have to remember me and I shall appear beside you, and you shall have darshan of your Lord”. But where was he now? Why had he not come? She knew that Shankara would come, but when ? “Shankara please come”, was the only thought that kept appearing in her mind over and over again.
News of Shankara’s achievements and glory had preceded him. He was the talk on everyone’s lips. How happy his mother used to be whenever someone brought the news of Shankara from far-away lands. She would hear the news with silent tears of joy in her eyes, then go to the temple and offer worship to Lord Ashutosha and distribute prasadam to all the children in the village.
After the mahasamadhi of his Guru, Govindapada, Shankara had left Omkareshwar with some sannyasins and had gone to Varanasi. There he chose a solitary place near the Manikarnika Ghat for his stay- Daily he would give discourses to aspirants who would come to him, many times out of curiosity, and many times with an earnest desire to imbibe the wisdom of Shankara. Slowly his fame began to spread. Many used to come with the purpose of trying to defeat Shankara with their arguments and debates, but in the end they were defeated and would feel blessed to hear the truth from one so young.
It was at Varanasi, the maid mused, that Shankara met a boy named Sanandan, another young prodigy, who had come to study the scriptures and who became a disciple of Shankara. Later on he was named Padmapada.
Stories were told that at Varanasi, Adya Shakti Bhawani and Lord Mahadeva had blessed Shankara. The Adya Shakti had appeared in the form of a woman mourning over the corpse of her dead husband which lay in her lap, and asking all for assistance to perform his final rites. Shankara was going for a bath with his followers and requested the lady to move the corpse from the path, and she replied, “Why don’t you ask the corpse to move?”. Shankara said. “Mother, why are you so disillusioned? How can a corpse move? It has no power, no shakti”. That woman answered, “Then why, O Yogi, do you profess that Brahman without Shakti is the Creator?” Shankara was astonished and the woman along with the Corpse just vanished before his eyes. He realised that it was the Adya Shakti who had come to open another dimension of reality for him, and had thus blessed him.
On another occasion when Shankara was again going for a bath, Lord Mahadeva appeared in the guise of an ugly Chandala accompanied by four dogs. Shankara addressed him by saying, “Move out of the way”. The Chandala laughed and said, “Whom are you asking to move, the body or the spirit? The Atman is omnipresent and the body is merely its container. From the Atmic viewpoint, is there a distinction between the reflection of the sun in the waters of the Ganges and the same reflection of the sun in wine? Is this your wisdom?”. Shankara was aghast, the realisation dawned on him, and he bowed before the Chandala, who disappeared, and Lord Mahadeva appeared in his full glory to bless Shankara and instruct him, saying “Re-establish the Vedic precepts and propagate the same amongst the masses. Write a commentary on the Brahmasutras of Vyasa. You are born of me for the welfare of mankind”.
At Kaladi, his mother heard that after this encounter with the Lord, Shankara had decided to go to Badarikashram for completing the mandate of the Lord. He had left Varanasi with his followers and had travelled by foot passing many towns and tirthas, giving discourses, inspiring people to renovate temples, organising systems of worship according to the Vedic tradition. What an enormous task and arduous journey for someone just twelve! She was proud of being his mother.
Eventually Shankara reached Vyasashram in Badarika. area. This was the place where sage Vedvyasa had dictated the great epic Mahabharata to Ganesha, who had become his scribe. Here Shankara spent four years, taught his followers the vedic truths and wrote commentaries on the Brahmasutras, twelve Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Vishnu Sahasranaam, Sanatsujatiya, Srutis and Smritis. Afterwards he travelled to the pilgrimage centres in the Himalayan region.
After completing his travels in the Himalayas, Shankara came to Uttar Kashi and there, as if knowing that his lifespan of sixteen years was coming to an end, lost himself in contemplation of the Supreme Self, People said that it was here that Sage Vedvyasa came to Shankara in the guise of an old man and, after a lengthy discussion with Shankara, was very pleased with his commentary on the Brahmasutras and other texts. He blessed Shankara with another extension of sixteen years and instructed him to guide the masses, who had deviated from this original path due to the power politics of many sects and traditions, back to the fold of spiritual and Vedic precepts. Hearing this story Vishishta Devi’s joy knew no bounds. She knew that with the blessings of the Gods and saints, Shankara was going to live and that he had a great mission to fulfil.
After receiving instructions from Sage Vedvyasa, Shankara travelled with his disciples and followers through the regions of north eastern India and came to Prayag, where Kumaril Bhatta lived. He had waged an interminable war against the foreign and non-vedic influences which were trying their best to destroy the foundations of Vedic Dharma. In the course of his drive to re-establish the Vedic precepts, Kumaril Bhatta had offended, his own teachers, and as a repentance against the sin was in the process of self-immolation. It was at this time that Shankara came before him wanting to discuss the Sanatana ideals with him. Kumaril Bhatta told Shankara to find Mandan Mishra who would be able to discuss the same with him, and by defeating Mandan Mishra, Shankara would become the champion of the Vedic cause.
The old maid remembered the day when some travellers had come and told about the defeat of Mandan Mishra and Shankara’s miraculous powers. How was the story? The maid started to think, Shankara had reached Mahishmati town located between the Narmada and Mahishmati rivers, and there requested Mandan Mishra to enter into a debate with him, as that was the will of Kumaril Bhatta. Mandan Mishra was a disciple of Kumaril Bhatta and accepted the debate as it was the will of his teacher.
The debate between the two started, with Mandan Mishra’s wife, Ubhaya Bharati who was very learned and considered to be an incarnation of Goddess Saraswati, as the judge. The debate was very dynamic and interesting, and continued for eighteen days, at the end of which Mandan Mishra conceded defeat and offered to become a disciple of Shankara.
Ubhaya Bharati had then come forward and requested Shankara for an opportunity to enter into a debate with him, as according to the Sanatana ideals, the wife was the other half of the husband, and her husband would not be fully defeated unless and until she was defeated also.
Shankara agreed and the debate between the two continued for another eighteen days. When Ubhaya Bharati questioned Shankara about the erotic arts and sciences, Shankara became silent as he had no knowledge of the same, and asked for one month’s time to find the right answers, which was granted to him by Ubhaya Bharati.
Shankara left Mahishmati and went to a cave, where he sat in meditation. His disciples brought him the news that a king named Amarak from a nearby province had just died. Immediately Shankara took this opportunity to transfer his soul to the body of the king, after leaving his ascetic body in the care of his disciples, and in the span of one month learned all there was to learn in the royal palace about the erotic arts and sciences. Before the completion of the month, he again left the body of the king and re-entered his own, then went to Ubhaya Bharati, answered all her questions, and won the debate. Mandan Mishra became a disciple of Shankara and was named Sureshwaracharya. It was astonishing to the maid that the toddler who had played on her lap, now had the ability to transfer his soul from one body into another. Wonders never cease with Shankara, she thought.
After Mahishmati, Shankara went with his increasing number of followers towards western India and visited many holy places, tirthas, before coming to Sri Shaila. People talked amongst themselves that at Sri Shaila, one Kapalika by the name of Ugra Bhairava became a disciple of Shankara with the purpose of eliminating him at the first opportunity. How low a person can fall, the maid thought. Shankara, young and compassionate, did not suspect anything and soon Ugra Bhairava invited him to a Kapalika ritual where he would sacrifice Shankara. Shankara readily went with him, and if it had not been for the ever-alert Padmapada, who cared for the welfare of Shankara, and saved him by invoking. Narasimha (the man-lion incarnation of Vishnu), Shankara would have died at the hands of the Kapalikas, his sworn enemies. The maid shuddered at this thought, “May God forbid!” she muttered under her breath.
In his travels, Shankara had come to Harihara Tirth, and there as he was going to the temple for darshan of Ambika, a young couple came with their new-born dead child and placed him at the feet of Shankara, begging for his life. Shankara in his compassion, prayed to Goddess Bhagavati, and in front of the multitude of his followers, disciples and visitors to the temple, the child moved his body, opened his eyes and began to wail.
Shankara gave life to a dead child. Had he not also given speech to a dumb boy? Yes, he had. The maid tried to remember how. Shankara had gone to Sri Beli, accompanied by hundreds of followers, and there a brahmin family brought their boy of thirteen, who had been dumb since his birth, to be blessed by Shankara. Shankara had asked that boy in Sanskrit, “Who are you? Whose son are you? Where are you going? Where have you come from? What is your name? Answer me, for I get a special feeling when I see you”. That young boy had brightened up upon hearing Shankara and had replied in clear Sanskrit, “I am not a man, nor divine, nor spirit, neither a brahmin, nor kshatriya, vaishya nor sudra, nor a brahmachari, nor a householder, nor a renunciate, nor an ascetic. I am the embodiment of Self”. Thus the mute boy had spoken, and his parents then offered him to Shankara who later initiated him and named him Hastamalaka.
Shankara then came to Sringagiri (Sringeri) where he established the Math and a temple where he installed Sri Yantra and invoked Goddess Saraswati. There another boy joined him, who was later initiated and named Trotakacharya, “At present Shankara is in Sringeri”, thought the maid.
There was a soft knock at the door. The maid came out from her reverie and looked at the prone figure on the bed. The blanket had slipped. She gently covered the body with the blanket, and heard Vishishta Devi murmur the name of Shankara. “Is he going to come as promised ?” thought the maid. Again there was a knock at the door of the hut. Who could be there at this hour? It was nearing evening and the people of the village were busy winding up their activities of the day and preparing for the evening meal. She went to open the door.
Outside it was just evening, and in front of the door a God-man was standing, young and radiant like a mini sun. She was stunned! Who could he be? The God-man bowed before the old figure of the maid and said, “How is mother?” The maid, recognising the young man, gave a cry of joy and tears broke out of her ancient eyes. Shankara had come at last! How had he come? Well, all those questions would wait. She grabbed the young hands of Shankara with her old withered hands and pulled him towards the cot where his mother lay.
Shankara placed his bands on top of his mother’s head, and in a soft voice full of love said, “Mother, your Shankara has come”. These words brought instant reaction and the eyes of Vishishta Devi fluttered open. In the meantime, the maid had lit a lamp and brought it near the cot, so that mother and son could gaze at each other. Vishishta Devi’s eyes were moist with tears of joy to see her son now big and great, acclaimed as the Vishwa Guru (Guru of the Universe) by the masses. She clasped his head covered with saffron robes in her trembling hands, pulled the head to her and smothered his forehead with kisses.
Shankara said to his mother, “I have come to serve you. Remove all your sorrows and get well soon”. His mother said, “My son, seeing you, all my sorrows have disappeared. I am happy. The body is suffering due to old age and the near and dear ones have caused a lot of trouble. If it was not for the maid and her care I would have died a long time ago. Look after her when I am no more. Now have a bath and a meal”.
After the bath and hastily prepared meal which the maid had made ready, Shankara came to his mother. His mother then said to him, “I am preparing for my departure. My last wish was to see you. You have come and now nothing remains for me, I just wish to attain the abode of my Ishta”. Shankara lovingly said, “Mother, once you know the ultimate Self, you will attain liberation”.
And he then started to impart the transcendental wisdom to her. Vishishta Devi said to him, “I am not versed In this lore; I am uneducated. How will I realise the Self which is beyond speech and mind? My Shankara, show me the divine form of the Lord, so that I can look at it with my eyes and consider myself blessed”.
Shankara remained silent for a while, then said to his mother. “Mother, close your eyes and merge your mind in your Ishta Devata. That way you will have his darshan”. Then in a voice full of compassion, he prayed and invoked Mahadeva and Narayana, His mother had the divine darshan of her Lord in full blazing glory, not even remotely comparable to the brilliance of a thousand suns in the heavens, blessed Shankara by placing her frail hands on top of his head and said, “May Lord Ashutosha protect and guide your destiny, and may you be an able instrument of his Will”- Thus saying, she gave up her mortal frame on the lap of her beloved Shankara.
I MUST WALK ALONE
The sun was reflecting from the snow-capped mountain and the sky was clear blue. Wisps of white cloud hung in the heavens, and the few high flying birds made the glory of the Himalayan sky even greater. It was a desolate region where there were hardly any trees. The terrain was barren, with pieces of rock jutting out from the ground like eternal sentinels guarding the mountain passes. The whole scenery was vibrating with an inner beauty. Padmapada, along with Sureshwaracharya, Hastamalaka and Trotakacharya, watched the receding figure of their master, Shankara, walking alone towards Kedarnath barefoot on the snow-clad Himalayan mountains, towards a solitary place which Shankara had decided would be his final resting place.
At the age of thirty-two, the final year of his life, Shankara came with a multitude of his disciples to Badarikashram and gave final instructions to his disciples to carry on with the work of propagating and preserving the Sanatana Vedic precepts, which by now had taken a great hold over the masses of the country, and all opposition from non-Vedic foreign influences and sects had dwindled away. Afterwards he called his four close disciples and said, “The purpose of my adopting this body is over. Now all of you prepare yourselves by becoming the living examples of the highest Vedantic truth and propagate the same in all corners of the land. The Divine Will which directed this self, will also continue to guide you. Now let me go”. Thus saying, he had left Badarikashram with the four disciples heading towards Kedarnath over snow. laden hilltops, and at one point stopped them from proceeding further with him by saying, “The path which I shall walk now will be without human company, so stay here”. The disciples had begged him to allow them to go further with him but he had said, “I have no use for human help, for the Lord will lead me now,” And declining all help he went on alone. The disciples, now alone, sat on the snow from where they had watched their Guru go towards the deep Himalayan ranges, each one lost in his own thoughts. They had a mission to fulfil which had been assigned to each one of them by their Guru.
Their minds went back to the time when Shankara was at Sringeri discussing and teaching the Vedantic reality to his followers, when suddenly he had adjourned the class in the middle of his discourse and had gone to his room. The disciples had followed him, and there he told them that his mother on her deathbed was remembering him and he was needed. They could follow him as soon as they were able to manage the affairs of the Math which had been recently established. They had asked him how he would be able to cover that long journey without any prior travel arrangements. Shankara had laughed and said, “The Lord will provide a way”. Then he had cloyed himself in the room and when the room was again opened by his disciples, Shankara was not found in it. People believed that he had flown with the help of his yogic powers to his ailing mother.
When the disciples arrived at Kaladi, they found that Shankara’s mother had left her mortal frame, and that it was Shankara himself who had performed her final rites as per her wishes, and had then given the family wealth to the old maid and made her comfortable.
While Shankara was in Kaladi, the King of Kerala State, Rajashekhar, approached him and requested him to stay on for a longer period and to reorganise the Vedic tradition in the State for social development.
After spending some time in Kerala, Shankara left “with his followers to travel and to instil the faith of the masses in the Dharma. He was accompanied by King Rajashekhar of Kerala and King Sudhanwa of Karnataka with all their retinue. The chanting of mantras by the disciples of Shankara vibrated the hearts and minds of all who met them. Town after town, village after village, many tirthas and countless temples were visited and a new direction was given to the people.
They had reached Madhyarjuna tirtha, where Shankara addressed a large group of pundits on Advaita Vedanta philosophy in the temple of Lord Shiva, When questioned about the validity of his Advaita system, Shankara had meditated and prayed to the Lord to give the wise some sign, and a divine voice was heard from the heavens saying, “Advaita is the Truth”, This voice was heard by all those present.
After this event, Shankara went to Sri Rangam via Rameshwaram. In Sri Rangam, he had a debate with the head of the Vaishnava, sect along with his followers and taught them the five maha yajnas comprising:
1. Brahmayajna – study of scriptures; 2. Pitriyajna-offering to the ancestors; 3. Homayajna – agnihotra, etc. 4. Baliyajna – serving the creatures of the Lord, and 5. Nriyajna- service and care of guests.
Many of the Vaishnavas at Sri Rangam became his followers.
Then, travelling, Shankara came to Prayag and Varanasi where he held discussion with the heads and followers of the Samkhya system: Shaivas, Shaktas, Mimamsakas, Ritualists, Charvaks, Yogis, followers of various tantric branches, worshippers of Lakshmi, Saraswati. Ganapati, etc., and infused the zeal of Vedic aspiration in them. From Varanasi, Shankara went to Saurashtra and visited many tirthas in that region, established another Matha at Dwarika, and held debates with the followers of Samkhya, Buddhist and Jain schools of thought. Then he travelled on to Kashmir, where in a temple at Srinagar he composed the famous Saundarya Lahari hymn. Afterwards he travelled to Bihar, Bengal and Assam, where he won the hearts of everyone with his clear concept, understanding and teaching of the Vedic tradition and Dharma.
It was in Pragjyotishpur (Assam ) that Shankara was taken ill with fistula, recalled the disciples still sitting in the snow-capped hills of Kedarnath. Assam was famous for its vamamargi buddhist tantric practices and teachers, especially the region around Pragjyotishpur, which was in own as Kamaroopa, where the famous temple of Kamakhya lay, which Shankara had visited. It was here that the buddhist tantrics lead by Abhinava Gupta had come to challenge Shankara to a debate, and were defeated by his deep insight and wisdom.
Unable to accept defeat, they had performed tantric rituals and Shankara started to feel the pangs of fistula. Pus and blood began to flow accompanied by terrible pains. The disciples were concerned but Shankara, despite his suffering and deteriorating health, was fully equipoised and calm. His disciples had felt that he would not live long and once again it was Padmapada who had come to know of the malicious intention of Abhinava Gupta, and performed Shanti karmas to neutralise the effects of the tantric influence. Sure enough, soon Shankara regained his health and vigour.
After this episode Shankara came with his disciples to Gaudadesha (presently Northern Bengal) and inspired the king to propagate the Vedantic precepts in the region. It was here that Shankara had the darshan of his Guru’s Guru, Acharya Gaudapada. One evening when Shankara was contemplating alone beside the river Ganges, the radiant figure of an ancient Sage materialised in front of him. The figure said, “Dear Shankara, you have received the ultimate knowledge for liberation from my disciple Govindapada. I am content that you have performed the great feat of re-establishing the Vedic Dharma and have written commentaries on the scriptures. Ask something of me”.
Shankara replied, “O great Guru, your vision is like the living vision of the Supreme Lord. Grant the boon that I may lose myself in the contemplation of the Supreme Self, which is truth, Consciousness and Beatitude”. The vision then blessed Shankara with raised hands and dematerialised. After a few days Shankara travelled to Nepal and Tibet and awakened the zeal of Dharma in the people of those states, then slowly but surely directed his steps towards Badrikashram and Kedarnath.
The sun was slowly settings and a soft chilling breeze began to blow in the hills where the disciples sat with heavy hearts looting again at the footsteps of Shankara imprinted on the snow, going towards infinity. Finally, they got up and bowed to the footprints and just one sentence formed on their lips, “Victory to Shankara, the Vishwa Guru, the Acharya, the Preceptor of the Kali Age. Victory to Shankaracharya.” Slowly they walked down towards Badarikashram. They had a mission to fulfill, and many miles to walk before they rested.
WORK & ESTABLISHMENTS
There are many beliefs which give a different account of the final departure of Shankara. Some say that Shankara left his mortal frame in Mount Kailash after visiting the cave of Dattatreya, Where he was blessed by him. Others believe that he left his mortal frame to Ranchi, while yet others believe that he merged his body with the deity at Parashuram Temple at Trichur in Malabar state. However, most historians agree that it was in the region of Kedarnath that Shankara attained the ultimate merger with the Supreme.
Whatever the belief, all accept that no one else could have done in many lifetimes what Shankara was able to do in his short life-span of thirty two years. He changed the total religious and spiritual structure of India, reorganised the scattered groups of Sannyasins, and gave a solid direction to the Vedic movement which is still being followed with full enthusiasm by countless aspirants and seekers all over the world.
This great God-man with far-reaching inner vision, organised the ancient tradition of sannyas and collected all ascetics, renunciates, yogis and sadhus who wondered aimless and directionless throughout the length and breadth of India, under the one banner of the Vedic tradition. He established in the course of his wanderings, four Pithas or Maths in the four corners of India, in each of which one of his disciples was installed to lead the sannyasins and to guide the propagation of the Vedic precepts.
They are as follows:
1) KALIKA MATH ; Location- Dwarika in Western India, Acharya – Hastamalaka, Veda – Sama Veda, Vakya – Tattwamasi, Sampradaya – Keetawar, Title -of sannyasins associated with this Math – Tirtha, Ashram.
2) VIMALA MATH; Location – Puri in Eastern India, Acharya – Padmapada, Veda – Rik Veda, Vakya – Prajnanam Brahma, Sampradaya – Bhogawar, Title – Vana, Aranya.
3) JYOTI MATH : Location – Badarikashram in Northern India, Acharya – Trotakacharya, Veda -Atharva Veda, Vakya – Ayamatma Brahma, Sampradaya – Anandawar, Title – Giri, Parvat, Sagar.
4) SHARADA MATH : Location – Sringeri in Southern India, Acharya – Sureshwaracharya, Veda – Yajur Veda, Vakya – Aham Brahmasmi, Sampradaya -Bluriwar, Title – Puri, Bharati, Saraswati.
These maths are also known by their town names of Dwarika, Govardhan, Joshi, and Sringeri Math.
Yoga magazine, September 1992.