The Legend of Shankara – 15: The six streams

As the sun rose from behind the snowcapped peaks in the distance, shining its golden light on the little hamlet of Dev Prayag, Shankara sat on the banks of the Ganga along with his disciples, contemplating his next move and answering the queries of his followers. The number of his followers had swelled, and now included sanyasins, and scholars, and priests from various parts of India. They had different theological and philosophical backgrounds, and it was only their desire to learn advaitaat the feet of this great scholar that had drawn them out of their comfort zones and brought them here. They sat now, surrounding Shankara, and their minds bubbling with curiosity, and anticipation. 

‘Where will we go from here guruji?’, one student said, voicing the question that had been bothering everyone. 

Shankara paused momentarily, and then said, ‘We will follow the Alaknanda and go to Badari, the hallowed grounds where Chakrapani Mahavishnu meditated for atonement of his sins, and where Sri, his consort, sprouted as the badari tree to provide him cover from the blistering sun. These are also the grounds where the twin sages, Nara and Narayana, did their penance and attained moksha. The grounds where this happened are holy beyond description and destroy the sins of those who even come near the place.’ 

‘But…’, the student interjected, and then fell silent, letting the unasked question remain hanging in the cold morning air. 

‘But?’, Shankara repeated, amused at what he knew the question in the student’s mind was. 

‘But I am Shaiva, right? And why am I going to a Vaishnava shrine?’

The student shifted uneasily under Shankara’s piercing gaze, but the master was not angry, merely amused. 

‘Who told you I am Shaiva?’, Shankara said. ‘I am an advaitin who does not believe in idol worship, and yet you say I am Shaiva. Why? Is it because I prayed at the Gyanvapi in Kashi? But I also learned the Shakta doctrine at the Manikarnika in Kashi, which you know is a Shakta seat. Does that make me Shakata? And now I am going to a Vaishnava shrine, and I will pray there too. What will that make me? Vaishnava?

Shankara paused again, letting the question linger for some time, letting the thought sink in the mind of his disciples, letting it agitate their principles, and their beliefs. 

‘I am all of these. I am an advaitin, and a Shaiva, and a Shakta, and a Vaishnava. I am sanatani,’Shankara said, confusing the students further. 

‘You know,’ he continued, ‘that the mother Ganga is formed from six streams? Can you name them?’

‘The Bhagirathi, the Alaknanda, the Mandakini, the Pindar, the Nandakini, and the Dhauliganga,’ the students chimed. 

‘Yes,’ Shankara confirmed. 

‘And do you know that the Ganga would not be Ganga if these six streams did not contribute their water, and their inherent properties to the main river? Every stream contributes towards making Ganga the river that we see, and revere, and pray to.’

‘Look at the waters of the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda. See where they meet,’ Shankara said, pointing to the union of the two rivers. 

The students turned their heads to look at the prayag, the union of the two rivers that coalesce to form Ganga.

‘Look at how the two waters are totally different, different in color, different in composition, different in properties. One is green, the other is brown. One brings living organisms, the shukshma jiva, and the other brings the ancient rock sediments from the Himalayas; one is purusha, the other is prakriti. They complement each other. Ganga would not be Ganga, if these two streams flowed separately. They become Ganga only because they accept each other, embrace each other, dissolve their properties in the waters of the other; they cease to exist so that Ganga can come into being. It is their union which creates something beautiful.’

Shankara paused draw his breath. 

‘In the same manner the six streams of the sanatana philosophy, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Sanhkya, Yoga, Mimansa, and Vedanta must merge for the sanatana dharma to emerge pure, and timeless like the Ganga. The minor streams, the Shaivas, and the Vaishnavas, and the Shaktas, must give up their individual identity so that the sanatana can thrive.’

‘I can be a Shaiva, and a Shakta, and a Vaishanava and still be an advaitin. This change must come for our parampara to thrive, to live on, to flourish.’ 

One must be allowed to keep his or her own Gods, and yet be an advaitin, and a sanatani.

The students were nodding by this time. The import of Shankara’s words seeping into their collective understanding. 

‘We will propagate panchayatan pooja,’ Shankara resumed, ‘the worship of four principal deities along with one personal deity, one ishta devata. The principal deities of sanatana are Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu, and Surya. Besides these four, the sanatanis must be allowed the privilege, and the freedom to establish, and worship one ishta devata, a personal god, in their temples. We will propagate this as the norm from now on.’

‘While we believe in the advaita we must also understand that the common man needs a symbol, a saakar murti, for him or her to focus their attention one. Thus, the importance of the murti cannot be undermined. But the scholars must understand, that the murti is only a symbol, a reminder of the formless, shapeless, Brahman. Just like a jar, filled with the water from the ocean can represent the ocean; but it is NOT the ocean, it is a mere representation. Though it has the same properties as the water in the ocean, but it is a part, and not the whole.’

‘In this limited sense, Panchayatan pooja of murtis can be allowed, and even encouraged.’

The students nodded in understanding; they were witnessing history in the making. 

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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