The Legend of Shankara – 10: Shankara goes to Kashi

From Omkareshwar, Shankara proceeded towards Kashi, the city of light, the immortal city, the indestructible city, the city which was supposed to be situated on the trident of Shiva, the immortal ascetic. Kashi was the natural choice, Shankara thought. It was the spiritual heart of India, the node of all metaphysical discourse, the center of learning since times immemorial, the city where the seeker and the sought could be found together on the banks of the divine river Ganga; the river with three flows. There were so many similarities between Omkareshwar and Kashi, and yet the two cities were situated across the vast expanse of the plains of Indian heartland. 

Both cities were sacred teerthas, cities with a perennial river since times immemorial. In one of them, the sacred river Narmada, ascended to the surface from the depths of the earth and flowed west to drain into the western ocean. In the other city, the divine river Ganga descended from the Himalayasto span the whole of the northern plains of India from west to east and flowed into the eastern ocean at Gangasagar, a place of great religious and spiritual importanceBoth the cities were home to a jyotirlinga, where Shiva had appeared spontaneously in the form a stone lingam – an embodiment of the Adi Yogi. One was called Omkareshwar, like the island on which it was situated, and the other was called Vishveshwar, or Vishwanath or Kashi Vishwanath, its popular name. 

The city of Kashi was designed in the form of a sacred arc of several places of religious importance, with the jyotirlinga placed at the center of the arcs, at their center of gravity. This holy place, where Shiva had appeared spontaneously as the lingam, was known as the Gyanvapi – the well of wisdom. 

Shankara did not know it then but this holy center of gravity, the intersection of all arcs, the place where the jyotirlinga Vishveshwar had appeared, would be destroyed by religious bigots in the times to come – not once, but several times; and would be rebuilt each time by devout Hindus by the sweat of their brows, and the blood of their veins. 

It was this city, this center of Hindu devotion, center of learning and philosophical discourse, center of sacred peethas and temples, where Shankara reached after leaving Omkareshwara.  He would stay here for several years, find several disciples, enter into heated debates, and arguments, and religious discourses with philosophers, and academicians, and refine the tenets of his advaita.

For all his knowledge, and learning, Shankara was, at heart, an avid student, and was always ready to learn from people whom he found to be knowledgeable. It was in the lanes, and bylanes, and the ghats of Kashi where Shankara meditated, and studied, and wrote his bhashya, or commentary, on the Brahma sutra, and the Bhagwad Gita, and the Upanishads. 

It was in Kashi too, that he found one of his most ardent disciples, Sanandana, who was later rechristened Padmapada by Shankara after he ran across the Ganga one day, on being summoned by his Guru. The divine mother Ganga, to facilitate his hasty dash across her waters, sprouted lotus flowers wherever his feet touched the water, and thus the name: Padma – pada = Lotus feet. 

Padmapada would later be charged by Shankara to head the Gowardhan Peetham which Shankara founded in the pilgrimage city of Puri on the eastern coast of India. This Matha, or Peetha, would be one of the four centers of learning, and administration, which Shankara left behind to act as the guardians of sanatana dharma. These peethas are present to this day and carry on their work of keeping the flag of sanatana dharma flying high – as they had been charged to do by Adi Shankaracharya.  

While in Kashi, Shankara would also compose two of his most enduring devotional hymns – the Manishapanchakam, and the Bhaja Govindam, about which we shall talk later. 

Till then – stay safe, stay healthy, and Bhaja Govindam!!

To be continued……

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