The Legend of Shankara – 14: Shankara leaves Kashi

Shankara was unhappy leaving Kashi, the city of light. The city had practically become his home for the last several months that he had stayed, and studied, and taught, and debated there. He had gained a huge following of students and admirers. The adherents to his Advaitic philosophy had grown, people had begun to see the light; the light of the unification of the different schools that was inevitable. Slowly, but surely, Shankara had started to undermine the current Srauta school (Srauta comes from the word Shruti. Shrutis are the texts which have been ‘heard’, i.e., the Vedas, and have no human authorsThe Srauta schools believes in only the Vedas and its supremacy and denies the importance of any other texts written by humans, i.e., the Smritis, namely the Brahmanas, the Aaranyakas, the Upanishads), and unify its divergent sects – Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shaakta, Shramana, Mimaansak. He was reluctant to leave this work mid-way, but his hand had been forced. The instructions were clear; the ascetic who visited him in his dreams, who haunted his thoughts while awake, had clearly instructed him that he must leave Kashi and go to the source of the Ganga, to the neglected shrines near the Mandakini and the Alaknanda.  He will have to continue his work there. Which work? The ascetic had told him that too….!! 


Many contemporary scholars, followers, students, Advaitins, and Vedantins came to say goodbye to him as Shankara prepared to leave Kashi along with his troupe of students. His following had grown, and it was a large group with which Shankara left the immortal city, the abode of Shiva, and started to travel along its banks, following the mother, the river deity, to her source. The group of sanyasinswould walk throughout the day, resting only for meals. At night, they would find some temple or village school to camp, perform their evening Sandhya, and prepare for the next day’s walk. Several weeks they walked; the terrain changed slowly and became more mountainous. They passed the ancient cities of Haridwar and Rishikesh on the way. But Shankara did not stop there, except for making night halts, praying to the river deity, and engaging in a debate here and there. 

The news of his travels had spread. People came from far and wide to see him, take his blessing, learn from him, or to debate with him. Most of those who came to debate, wanted to show him down; they met with disappointment. Not only did Shankara defeat them in debate, but he also convinced them of his point of view and converted them to the Smarta or the advaitin school of thought (Smarta comes from the word Smritis, the collection of text which have been memorized and handed down the generations. The Smritis can be attributed to human authors and are addendums to the Vedas. The Smarta school doesn’t deny the supremacy of the Vedas but believes that the arcane knowledge of the Vedas has been simplified and crystallized for easy understanding of the common man in the Smriti texts. The Smarta or Vedantic school denies the differences amongst the Vaishanava, the Shaiva and the Shaakta sects of Hinduism). The unification of sanatana dharama that he had visualized, that he had been charged with by the tall ascetic in his dreams, was coming about, slowly but surely. 

The first long halt they made was at a place called Dev Prayag; the union of the gods. It was here that the Bhagirathi met the Alaknanda and formed the Ganga. The two rivers came from different directions, Bhagirathi from west, and Alaknanda from east, and met at the foot of the mountains in Dev Prayag. The color of their waters was different, and hence the union of the two rivers was a sight to see. Shankara and his group of students stayed there for a few days, resting, and preparing for the ascent that they knew would come. 

The Himalayas were the abode of the gods, and this part of the land of Bharatvarsha was known as the Devabhoomi, the abode of the devaas.  While Shankara rested and acclimatized to the hill country, his students were busy collecting information about the shrines they were here to visit. They were also collecting followers. Shankara had been clear in his instructions; they would need as many people as possible for what he wanted to do. 

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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