The Legend of Shankara – 11: The Manishapanchakam

The sun rose in the sky from the eastern banks of the river Ganga, washing the city of Kashi, which nestled on its western banks, in its golden light. The city was already alive with the sounds of Vedic chants, temple bells, conch shells, cymbals, and drums. The city and its inhabitants had risen early, always, since times immemorial, to take a dip in the holy Ganga, and to wake the reigning deity of the city, Shiva, in the innumerable temples that lined its ghats, and its narrow lanes. A faint smell of guggulu, incense, and camphor pervaded the ghats and the temples of the city. The ghats were busy with people performing their morning dips and the customary Ganga aarti, offerings to the river deity, thereafter. 

Shankara had been living in Kashi, or Varanasi, for some time now. He had devoted himself to studying, meditation, and reading the ancient manuscripts, and writing treatises on them. 

His presence, and his radiant personality, had not gone unnoticed, and he had soon gathered a considerable following of students who followed him around, served him, and learned the shastras, the ancient scriptures, at his feet. Not the least of these was Sanandana, or Padmapada, whom we have already met in the last blog of this series. 

Shankara’s routine started with his morning dip in the Ganga, and prayers to the resident deity of the city at the banks of the Ganga. One morning while he and his troupe of disciples was returning from the ghats of the Ganga, their way was obstructed by a chandala, and his four dogs. The term chandala referred to a section of people who were involved with cremating the dead, and hence were considered impure by the then prevailing societal norms. Such people were not even supposed to come near the dwij, the twice born, or the upper castes of the society. Thus imagine the horror of Shankara’s disciples when a tall and fair, well-built chandala blocked the path of Shankara along with his four dogs. 

Hut, hut,’ the disciples clicked their tongues, and made deprecatory noises.

‘Leave the path of the learned sage. Move away, move away’, they said, while Shankara stood quietly, looking on, waiting for the chandala to give way, as was the norm. 

The chandala would not budge; he stood his ground, and looked disdainfully at the student scholars who tried to shoo him away.

While his students continued to admonish the chandala, Shankara looked closely at him. The chandala was tall, well built, fair, and had his hair flowing about him in locks, reaching almost up to his waist. His body was smeared with shavabhasma, ash from the pyres of the crematorium. He wore the rudraksha beads in his hair, and on his arms, and carried a danda, or a bamboo stick in his left hand. His forehead shone with a radiance that Shankara had not seen in any person all his life. He stood confidently, his dogs milling around him, and looked at Shankara’s disciples as if they were unimportant objects, mere trifles, who had happened to cross his way. 

As Shankara looked closely at the tall chandala, he felt something stir in his heart. A shiver went down his spine, as the chandala turned towards him, and looked at Shankara with piercing black eyes from under dark, bushy eyebrows, his forehead glowing brightly, pulsating almost, with light. 

‘अन्नमायादन्नमयमथवा चैतन्यमेव चैतन्यात् 
यतिवर दूरीकर्तुं वाञ्छसि किं ब्रूहि गच्छगच्छेति’

‘To move matter away from matter, or to separate the immutable spirit from another spirit? 
O best among the twice born (dwij), what do you want to separate from what when you say “Move away, move away”?’, the chandala asked Shankara. 

Shankara was stunned!! Looking deeply into the fathomless eyes of the chandala, and listening to him speak, Shankara felt as if the Adi Yogi had spoken, and was trying to instruct him in the tenets of true Advaita. He was overwhelmed. With tears in his eyes, Shankara bent down and touched the chandala’s feet, acknowledging him as his guru, his teacher, even as his disciples looked on, aghast!

Shankara’s response to the chandala was in five verses, which are now known as the Manisha Panchakam, the voice of intellect/conviction in five verses. The Manisha Panchakam is the true distillation of the Advaita doctrine which insists that everything, everyone, every object whether animate or inanimate, is pervaded by the formless Brahman, the one without beginning and end. The advaita teaches that the differences which humans perceive are only because of their ignorance, and only the truly enlightened can ‘see’ that there is no difference between an enlightened brahmana,and a lowly chandala. 

The Manisha Panchakam  is being offered here for the delight of the devout, and the inquisitive. The Sanskrit text and its meaning have been sourced from mainly Wikipedia, and some other websites which are open source, and hence do not infringe copyright laws.  

In the next blog we shall look at the Bhaja Govindam, among other things. 

जाग्रत्स्वप्नसुषुप्तिषु स्फुटतरा या संविदुज्जृम्भते 
या ब्रह्मादिपिपीलिकान्ततनुषु प्रोता जगत्साक्षिणी 
सैवाहं न च दृश्यवस्त्विति दृढप्रज्ञापि यस्यास्ति 
च्चण्डालोऽस्तु स तु द्विजोऽस्तु गुरुरित्येषा मनीषा मम॥ १ ॥

In the waking, dream and deep sleep states, That which is their Illuminator, by which one comes to know and understand things 
From the Creator down to the ant, that which is the very spark of life in them; the witness of the entire universe 
That alone am I, and not the objects that are “seen”, firmly established in this Consciousness – if there is such a person, 
be he a Chandala or be he a Brahmana, such a one indeed is worthy of being a Guru. This is my firm conviction.

ब्रह्मैवाहमिदं जगच्च सकलं चिन्मात्रविस्तारितं 
सर्वं चैतदविद्यया त्रिगुणयाऽशेषं मया कल्पितम् । 
इत्थं यस्य दृढा मतिस्सुखतरे नित्ये परे निर्मले 
चण्डालोऽस्तु स तु द्विजोऽस्तु गुरुरित्येषा मनीषा मम ॥ २ ॥

I am pure Consciousness, and this entire universe, is only an expansion of pure Consciousness 
Out of this Maya all this that we see, made of the three gunas, has been conjured by imagination, 
He whose intellect is firmly established in the all blissful, eternal, Supreme Reality, 
be he a Chandala or be he a Brahmana, such a one is indeed worthy of being a Guru. This is my firm conviction.

शश्वन्नश्वरमेव विश्वमखिलं निश्चित्य वाचा गुरो- 
र्नित्यं ब्रह्म निरन्तरं विमृशता निर्व्याजशान्तात्मना 
भूतं भावि च दुष्कृतं प्रदहता संविन्मये पावके 
प्रारब्धाय समर्पितं स्ववपुरित्येषा मनीषा मम ॥ ३ ॥

Permanently in a state of flux is this entire world of change, reflect thus on the words of the Guru 
Brahman is Eternal” dwelling on this only, casting aside all dissimilar thoughts, his mind is quietened and poised 
And all past and future residual Vasanas of evil deeds are burnt in the fire of Pure consciousness, He thereafter offers his body to Prarabdha 
Such a one is worthy to be a Guru, be he a Chandala or a Brahmana, this is my firm conviction.

या तिर्यङ्नरदेवताभिरहमित्यन्तः स्फुटा गृह्यते 
यद्भासा हृदयाक्षदेहविषया भान्ति स्वतोऽचेतनाः 
तां भास्यैः पिहितार्कमण्डलनिभां स्फूर्तिं सदा भावय- 
न्योगी निर्वृतमानसो हि गुरुरित्येषा मनीषा मम ॥ ४ ॥

Upon that which in animals, man and the deities is, as the inner “I” or Ego clearly perceived to be present 
Upon that light by which the mind, senses and body instruments are enlivened, though in themselves inert 
Upon that radiance covered by dark clouds, yet shining forth from behind them he who always meditates as a Yogi, with mind freed of all thoughts,
He is indeed worthy of being a Guru, this is my firm conviction.

यत्सौख्याम्बुधि लेशलेशत इमे शक्रादयो निर्वृता
यच्चित्ते नितरां प्रशान्तकलने लब्ध्वा मुनिर्निर्वृतः
यस्मिन्नित्य सुखाम्बुधौ गलितधीर्ब्रह्मैव न ब्रह्मविद्
यः कश्चित्स सुरेन्द्रवन्दितपदो नूनं मनीषा मम ॥5||

The person who is always in that ocean of eternal bliss is not a mere knower of Brahman, but Brahman itself. Even the minutest portion of that bliss is enough to satisfy the Indra and other gods. By meditating on that Supreme ever effulgent, permanent consciousness with a calm mind melted in that ocean of bliss and is always in that awareness, he is completely fulfilled. Whosoever that individual, his feet are fit to be worshipped even by the lord of kings Indra himself. This is my prudent reflection and conviction.

To be continued……

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By Divya Narain

Additional Professor in Plastic Surgery, doting father, loving husband, newbie author. Love travel and literature. Love reading religion, politics and history!

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