The Legend of Shankara – 6: Who are you?

The afternoon sun had slipped down in the sky, turning the sky saffron, by the time Shankara exited the Omkareshwar temple. He paused near the entrance, looked back, and then looked up at the sky which was growing crimson by the minute. The mighty river Narmada flowed nearby, the sound of her rushing waters loud in the pervasive silence which was slowly descending on the island. After staring at the evening sun for a few moments, the young Shankara started to walk along the bank of the river, looking for the cave where the renowned ascetic, and academician, Shriman Govindapada, was performing his evening Sandhya, his communion with God at this auspicious union (sandhi) of the day and the night. A little farther down the river, in the distance, Shankara could see a hollowing in the face of the mountain. The mountain side was lighted by the red glow of the setting sun, but the mouth of the cave remained dark. 

Shankara continued to walk towards the cave, looking at it intently, his heart beating with anticipation. This part of the island had no human habitation, was completely silent, and looked like an ideal place to be with one’s thoughts, and with one’s God. The slanting rays of the sun lit the opening of the cave for a moment, and then they were gone. There was still enough light, however, for Shankara to see his way along the mountain. 

As he approached the cave, he could see a light flickering inside, dispelling darkness inside the cave and showing, in relief, the saffron clad figure of GovindapadaShankara’s Guru should he choose to have him as his disciple. The Guru’s consent was a must, consent and kripa, beneficence; for without guru kripa, no knowledge could be earned. 

With trepidation Shankara approached the cave and stood outside. Govindapada was deep in meditation. Presently, he stirred, and opened his eyes slowly, allowing them time to get used to the darkness outside the cave, and the flickering light form the lamp inside. He had sensed the presence of someone standing outside the cave. He knew that this ‘someone’ had been standing there for some time now, standing still. 

As Govindapada looked at the figure, squinting through his aged eyes to see better, he could discern the short figure of a child, clad in saffron, his head shaved and his face aglow with a heavenly light. Being the drishta, seer, that he was, he knew why this child had come to him, and what had to be done. Greatness lay in store for this young one, he knew from the way the child’s face shone with knowledge and divine energy. 

But like everyone else, this child too had to pass the test before he could be accepted under Govindapada’s tutelage. 

The Guru looked at the prospective student, staring into his eyes, and asked, ‘Who are you?’

It was not a simple question, Govindapada knew, and he wanted to see how the child would answer this. 

The young Shankara smiled, then bent and lay flat on the ground, face down, arms extended in salutation, in obeisance to the guru. 

‘Get up child,’ Govindapada said. 

‘Who are you?’ he repeated. 

Shankara got up, his hands folded in pranam, a smile playing on his lips, his face tranquil, his eyes, full of humility, fixed on the feet of his guru, and recited his answer in six shlokas. Shankara’s answer, known today as the Atma Shatkam or Nirvana Shatakam, pleased Govindapada, and he accepted Shankara as his disciple. Shankara bent down, touched the feet of his guru, and was inducted as his pupil. 

The Nirvana Shatakam is recited, to this date, by devout Hindus, as a means to remind oneself of the true nature of human existence and is the gist of all Hindu philosophy and the Advaita doctrine. 

It will be narrated in the next blog for the benefit of the devout and the secular reader. 

To be continued……

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