The Legend of Shankara – 12: A small diversion, and a word of caution

Before we continue our story of Adi Shankara, we must necessarily make a small diversion. This blog was supposed to be about the Bhaja Govindam, and I offer my apologies to those readers who would have been expecting this.

However, several issues need to be clarified, some pertinent points need elaboration, before we can rejoin the mainstream of the story of Shankara. 

I am going about telling the story of Adi Shankara in my own manner. The details of the events in his life, and the sequence thereof, though inspired by other works, are primarily my own creation, as are the liberties I have taken with their narration. I am, after all, a storyteller. 

But my skills are limited, and the canvas of Shankara’s life is too extensive for me to even begin to do justice to it. Often, I feel like a child, playing with crayons, trying to imitate the Monet that is the life of Shankara. And this inadequacy, which I see in myself, is even more reason that I must pause and make amends before my sin is too great, before my learned readers find fault with my words, and before inquisitive critics discover my abject ignorance, and discover that I cannot write, after all. 

Thus, I must make clear the huge task that I am up against, lest I be blamed for not warning the readers that my writing will fall far short of their expectations in painting the life sketch of the great saint Adi Shankara. 

The life and the major events in the life of Shankara are shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. Learned scholars of literature, and theology, and history, are unable to come to any consensus over anything even remotely concerned with the life of Shankara. While most scholars, and biographers, loosely agree with the major events of his life, like his birth in Kaladi, his establishment of the four mathas, his debate with Mandan Mishra and Kumarila Bhatta, and his passing away at Kedarnath, yet there are inconsistencies.

I know of at least one account which mentions Chidambaram, a town in the state of Tamilnadu as Shankara’s birthplace, instead of Kaladi in Kerala. The year of his birth is also disputed, with opinions ranging from 5th to 6th century BCE to 7th to 8th century CE. Such a wide variation is hardly surprising since modern history requires external validation to prove internal evidence, which are sadly lacking in many areas of Indian history. 

Thus, it is hardly surprising that the year of birth of Shankara should be a matter of debate. Accounts from the various math that Shankara established, usually place his year of birth earlier than modern historians do. However, we need not be concerned with history here, for our main thrust is on the events in the life of the great man.

Unfortunately, even here controversy does not leave our side. It is agreed, thankfully, that Shankara took sanyaas by the age of eight years, but where did he go to find his guru Govindapada? Was it Omkareshwar, as per some accounts (mine included), or was it Kedarnath? The jury is still out. 

What books or commentaries did he write? Most, but not all accounts agree that he wrote commentaries on the Vedanta sutras, the Upanishads, and the Gita. However, this also is disputed.

What songs or hymns did he compose? Atma shatakam? Manisha Panchakam? Bhaja Govindam? Soundarya lahiri? These are some of the most well-known compositions credited to Shankara. Did he compose them?? All at once? And when? The questions are many, answers few. 

When did he go to Kedarnath? Did he re-establish the Badrinath shrine? Did he establish the four mathas? How about the four dhams

Did he believe in advaita, the philosophy of non-dualism? Didn’t he preach against idol worship, and ritualism? But he was also an ardent Shiva devotee, and learnt the details of the Shakti tradition later in his life. Is this not conflicting? 

Did he enter the body of a dead king to learn the Kama sutra?

Did he meet with Kumarila Bhatta? Where? Did his most famous debate with the Mimansa expert Mandan Mishra actually take place? Where? Is Suresvara the same as Mandan Mishra?

Add to this the complication that there have been not one but at least two Shankaras, the Adi Shankara and the Abhinav Shankara. Also, the head pontiffs of the math established by Shankaraoften take the title of Shankaracharya. Abhinav Shankara’s contributions, and events from his life, as also from the life of the other Shankaracharyas, are often mixed up with those of Adi Shankara’s, thus complicating matters. 

I am sure, by this time my learned readers must have realized that the life of Shankara is full of questions and is anything but a simple story. 

However, should we be concerned about these academic details? I think not. 

I as a storyteller, and you, my friends, as lay readers should enjoy the story, learn from it the pristine lessons of life, and not get into the dreary debate that is the bane of all art. 

Finally, after this disclaimer, this word of caution, we can resume our tale, and try to see Shankara as he was, or probably wasn’t….

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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