SHANKARA by Lucy Dupertuis
They had come to the shrine to pray for a child. Each morning for weeks the two of them pushed their way into the crowded temple to make offerings. Towards evening they would follow , the sick, the hopeless and the bereaved down to the sacred river to bathe. Finally one night she had a curious dream: the Lord appeared to her and asked. "Would you prefer Me to grant you several stupid children who will live to a ripe old age, or one brilliant and holy son who will die young?" it was a hard question for her to answer. so she left the choice up to God, and He chose …
Shankara was born more than a thousand years ago on the southernmost tip of India: The child was a genius. At the age of five he was sent to a tutor. but in three years he learned all the man could teach: he could read four languages and recite most of the Indian scriptures by heart. Soon he was out-quoting famous scholars, sending them a way shaking their heads in astonishment. He could defeat them in their must serious debates, but to him it just seemed like a game.
In the midst of all this fun. Shankara's father died. Dismally the child thumbed through his books looking for a few words of comfort, or at least a sensible explanation of death. He found nothing. In fact, the doctrines and holy books of India now seemed to be nothing more than a vast maze of words: a trap for the seekers of truth. The time had come to get out of the maze and find someone who really knew about truth. At the age when most children were just beginning to study. Shankara gave up scholarship, and asked his mother's permission to become a wandering monk.
She refused. Who would care for her in her old age, she asked. Who would arrange a decent funeral for her? Fondly she tried to interest Shankara in toys, in money, even in an early marriage. But she could not sway him.
One day Shankara was bathing in the river, when a crocodile grabbed his foot and began to drag him downstream. Shankara's cries brought his mother running. For the last time he begged her permission to take monastic vows. According to the custom of the time, a dying Hindu could take a vow of sannyas, or monastic renunciation, as a kind of final confession. Shankara's mother could no longer refuse him his wish. Just as his head was pulled under the water. Shankara mentally committed himself to the life of a monk. A moment later the crocodile let go, Shankara bobbed to the surface and swam safely to shore.
Before his mother could embrace him. Shankara sternly reminded her that he was now a monk. He would shave his head, wear a saffron robe, and consider the whole world to be his home, and all the world's people his family.
Shankara soon left the village of his birth. His longing for truth led him northward across the deserts and rivers of India, safely beyond the boasts of all sorts of self-styled holy men, until finally it drew him to the feet of the master Govinda. When he arrived at Govinda's cave high in the Himalayas, he found the yogi deeply absorbed in meditation. The other disciples tried to shoo him away, but Shankara ignored them, strode into the cave, and loudly announced his arrival. Govinda roused himself immediately to peer at the intruder. and asked. "Who are you?" Shankara prostrated, and replied in flawless verse that his true Self was the same divine spark which keeps all people alive. Govinda was delighted and accepted him at once as a disciple.
Govinda told him. "The words of the scriptures, your own power of reasoning and the teachings of your Master should all help to convince you - but the only absolute proof is direct and immediate experience. within your own soul. Gain experience directly. Realize God 10f yourself."
Years later, Shankara described his initiation in The Crest-Jewel of Discrimination. "The disciple listened attentively to the words of his teacher. He learned the supreme truth of Reality. He then withdrew his senses from the objective world and concentrated his mind upon the inner Truth. After a while, out of the fullness of his joy, he spoke: What is this joy that I feel? Who shall measure it? I know nothing but joy, limitless, unbounded! The ocean of Reality is full of nectar. The treasure I have found there cannot be described in words. Where is the universe? Who took it away? A while ago I beheld it now it exists no longer. This is wonderful indeed!
"I bow down to you, 0 great soul, my Master! Your eyes are full of mercy. Their glance is like a flood of moonbeams. I am blessed indeed! I have achieved life's only purpose. I recognize my true nature in eternal joy. Until now, I have been dreaming. You have wakened me from my dream. You have set me free forever. Salutations to You, 0 great Master. You are one with the shining Light that casts this shadow of a world."
Shankara called his experience "the supreme mystery the inmost essence of all Vedanta, the crest-jewel of all the scriptures." After this initiation, Shankara wanted nothing more than to meditate in that cave with Govinda for the rest of his life.
Govinda knew India was in a state of religious turmoil, and he wanted his disciple to do something about it. People of many different sects were struggling among themselves, imagining all the while that their rituals and holy books would some day lead them to God. They needed the guidance of realized saints living among them. As soon as Shankara was spiritually strong, Govinda gave him his instructions. He was to play the part of a learned scholar, argue against every dogma and superstition, and unite all India in knowledge of the supreme Reality. He was to start at Benares. Shankara left immediately. Through Benares flowed the sacred risver Ganges, lined with temples and bathing steps, where thousands of pilgrims from every part of India prayed and hoped to wash away their sins. Shankara wandered among the people, preaching to whoever would listen, and challenging every priest and pundit he could find to debate the true meaning of the scriptures. He also wrote commentaries on the classics of Hinduism: the Brahma-Sutra, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad-Gita. His writings were the fruits of his own realizations. Though he was not yet sixteen. he began to attract an impressive following.
One day as Shankara was wandering by the Ganges, he suddenly bfound his path blocked by a ragged man of the untouchable caste. As a Brahmin. Shankara had been raised to believe that the mere sight of an untouchable was polluting. For a moment he forgot all his ideals of unity and detachment. relapsed into caste-prejudice. and yelled. "Get away from me!"
The untouchable kept on walking towards Shankara, and asked him. "What should get away, and from what? Is it the physical body that should get away. or is it the Self? Hit is the body, all bodies are made of the same stuff, and why should one body get away from another? And if it is the Self, how can it get away, and from what, since the Self in all is One?"
Shankara stood dumbstruck and humbled. For the first time he dared to look closely at an untouchable. The man's eyes were radiant, his whole being seemed calm and happy. Suddenly Shankara realized that God was actually using this man's lips to speak to him and teach him a lesson. His pride vanished. He bowed reverently. The untouchable's words inspired Shankara In write a beautiful hymn. "The Wisdom of Unity."
A few weeks later an old man asked Shankara to defend his philosophy of non-dualism. The two disputed for four days, until finally Shankara realized, as he had with the untouchable, that he was face to face with God within a fellow human. The argument stopped, and they embraced.
Another time Shankara overheard a scholar reciting grammatical rules to himself. He proached the man and began to preach. Shankara was amazed as he heard himself speak. These were not his words; they were inspired. God was using him, Shankara, as His tool. Shankara hurried away to scribble down his ideas in verse, and later drew them together in his "Hymn to Gov inda." Now Shankara understood that Govinda his guru was also Govinda the Lord, the same force he had felt in the untouchable. in the old man, and in himself.
From Benares. Shankara left to tour all India. Over 70 sects of Hinduism flourished at the time his aim was to encounter the leaders of them all. One of his first targets was Mandana Misra. head of one of the largest orthodox schools, who believed in strict adherence to the rituals prescribed in the Vedas.
Shankara was familiar with Mandana's beliefs, but did not realize how doctrinaire Mandana's attitude was until he approached the man's house and saw his parrots hopping about the porch, repeating phrases such as, "Is a man justified by faith, or by his good works?"
Mandana's door was bolted. An important ritual was going on. With a teenage sense of fun, Shankara shinnied up a tree overhanging the house, and dropped from it into the middle of the court-yard where the ceremony was taking place. Mandana Misra was outraged. Not only had Shankara's antic ruined the pious mood. but according to the scriptures, monks were never allowed at this type of function. "Where does this shaven monk's head come from?" Mandana cried.
"You have eyes," replied Shankara. "The shaven head comes up from the neck!"
The Vedas also stated that rituals like this should be performed while in a calm state of mind, but Mandana Misra lost his temper and began to bellow at Shankara. While the other pundits tried to calm Mandana. Shankara continued his teasing. Finally. everyone burst out laughing. Shankara was invited to the feast, and the rivals agreed to settle their differences in a spiritual debate. Whoever lost would have to accept not only the other's teaching, but also his way of life.
Mandana's scholarly wife acted as umpire. Each day during the debate, when she called the two to eat, she would say to her husband, "Come have your food." But to Shankara the monk she would say. "Please accept these alms." The contest lasted several days. Mandana Misra constantly lost ground. On the last day, when he had run out of arguments altogether, his wife came at dinner time and addressed them both as monks. "Please accept these alms." Together Mandana Misra and his wife renounced wealth, name and even their disciples, and begged Shankara to bring them to a true Guru. Three times Shankara traveled the whole length and breadth of India. According to the temper of the people, he would debate or sing devotional hymns or play jokes. In some places he was worshipped: in others he nearly lost his life. One sect chanted in honor of Shiva the Destroyer. Another sought to calm the angry Goddess Kali with sacrifices. In Kashmir, Shankara debated with many Buddhists. He incorporated so much of their terminology into his arguments that orthodox Hindus later accused him of being a Buddhist in disguise. But Shankara did not try to change individual lifestyles or forms of worship. Instead he sought to open all hearts to God in His supreme form: the One with many names.
The story of Shankara's last years trails off into legend. According to tradition he died peacefully, surrounded by his admirers, at the age of 32.
Shankara has been called the Thomas Aquinas of Hinduism. His many hymns, scriptural commentaries and philosophical works today form the essential framework of orthodox Hindu thought. 1 he Swami monastic order was set up after his death by his disciples, in imitation of his saffron robes and renunciate life-style. Today the four "Shankaracharyas" the heads of the Order, are regarded as the "Popes" of Hinduism. Most contemporary Hindus pay homage to Shankara and love his verses, yet his essential message seems to have been forgotten. We have to discover the crest jewel, hidden behind a maze of words.