Less ritualism, more debate
Policy makers world over are steadily realising the significance of culture in combating symptomatic terrorism at the root. Our cultural richness has always formed an area of inquisitive scholarship for spiritual seekers, academic researchers and students of theology and philosophy.
To sustain the richness of any culture, some sacrifices are required. History bears witness to how much blood has been spilt into conserving and perpetuating the ideas and propositions that form the essence of any particular culture.
India stands out where oral traditions, performing arts, and peaceful transitions have helped in civilisational continuance. Today the nation celebrates the birth anniversary (as per his star – Punarvasu) of one such visionary, Adi Shankaracharya, who re-pivoted the compass of our civilisation.
Adi Shankaracharya’s contribution to India is all the more significant. Before he arrived on the scene, India faced many challenges of irrational rituals and beliefs taking centre-stage. Several people derided religion and scriptures and provinces contended with one another for political supremacy.
In every sense, India seemed disjointed. However, the uniqueness of Indian culture has been that it has thrown up a reformer whenever it has faced decadence. At such a time, India sought someone to restore her spiritual unity and Adi Shankaracharya arrived as a blessing in disguise.
The life of Adi Shankaracharya is full of instances where he questions, rekindles and evolves age-old cultural practices in sync with changing times and circumstances based on logic and reason.
He stands tall in the legion of spiritual leaders that our country has been blessed to witness. It is pertinent to mention here that logic and reason became integral to Indian civilisation only since the advent of Adi Shankaracharya. Without drawing any parallels, it becomes necessary to mention here that the institution of Church opening up to logic and reason in the post-renaissance period of the 16th century was preceded by the rationalistic intervention of Adi Shankaracharya.
Right from his birth, Adi Shankaracharya had the strong urge to seek knowledge. A plethora of incidents is recorded from which one can clearly infer this fact. One striking anecdote is when one day Adi Shankaracharya was taking a bath as a child in Poorna River, a crocodile caught his leg.
Shankaracharya immediately called out to his mother Aryamba, who saw her son in the grip of the crocodile and seemed helpless. At this instance, Shankaracharya informed his mother that he was nearing his end, but if he became a Sanyasi (ascetic) he could start a new life. Thus, Shankaracharya obtained permission to become a Sanyasi. Shankaracharya was absolutely clear that if he had to the serve the mission that he had set out for, he could not be a householder. So to totally commit and dedicate himself to the cause, he chose the path of an ascetic.
Indian culture has always believed in dialogue. During Shankaracharya’s period, debates were seen as a medium of knowledge transmission. Shankaracharya firmly believed in engaging with scholars.
His debates were of high standards. One such prime example is the debate he had with Mandana Mishra. This debate also vitally highlights the high place women had in Indian culture. Mandana Mishra argued that Vedic rituals were superior while Adi Shankaracharya firmly maintained that only by gaining knowledge could one attain salvation.
It was never that Shankaracharya maintained that Vedic rituals did not have any place in Hinduism but his argument was based on the premise that gaining knowledge was pivotal to realising one’s true potential. Mandana Mishra’s wife Ubhaya Bharati was chosen as the judge for this debate. The terms of this debate were such that if Mandana Misra lost the debate, he would take up the life of an ascetic and become a disciple of Shankaracharya.
If Shankaracharya lost the debate, he would take up a life of a householder. Debates surrounding whose philosophy was superior were not regular events in those days. At such debates, the rules were such that participants had to put forth their thesis, source of knowledge and other terms of references. The standard of debates was indeed high.
On noticing Shankaracharya’s presentation firmly based on logic and reasoning, Ubhaya Bharati declared him as the winner. A noteworthy point here is how dispassionately Ubhaya Bharati declared Shankaracharya the winner. It is in no way easy for a wife to arrive at such a decision, knowing fully that as a result her husband would become an ascetic and leave family life.
Adi Shankaracharya travelled extensively across India firmly rooted to his mission of reviving Hinduism. He was a diplomat par excellence. His positing of math in all parts of India shows how strategic he was in envisioning the role spirituality will play in protecting and safeguarding the borders. As an exponent of Advaita Vedanta, Adi Shankaracharya ensured that everyone had access to the highest form of knowledge irrespective of caste, creed, or gender. One day at Varanasi, after taking a bath in the river Ganga, Shankaracharya was proceeding towards Lord Viswanath temple along with his disciples.
Shankaracharya notices a person from a Shudra community walking towards him and immediately asks him to move away from his sight and path. “It is you who said that the Absolute is everywhere and yet you want me to get away from you as if you and I were different,” the person said in response. Shankaracharya immediately realises that this person had taught him his own philosophy.
The inspirational text of Maneesha Panchakam emanated from this realisation. It signifies that distinctions based on social, moral, and ethical basis do not have any place in the Upanashidic teachings. Late Swami Ranganathananda of Ramakrishna Mission had once opined that this is one of the most poignant and memorable incidents of Shankaracharya’s life.
This incident inspired by the life of Shankaracharya is evidence to the fact that Indian philosophy in no way recognises differences between people based on caste, creed, religion, etc. If any aberration, Indian culture has thrown up stalwarts like Sages Veda Vyasa, Valmiki and Swami Vivekananda, among others, who have played the role of reformers to get rid of the dirt within.
Shankaracharya broke orthodoxy at various levels. Shankaracharya was present by his mother’s side during her last days and even performed her last rites. This gesture was firmly opposed by the orthodox segment. They maintained that an ascetic who has renounced everything including family was not permitted to perform the last rites. But Adi Shankaracharya refused to crumble under pressure and broke the traditional mindset by performing the last rites.
To set up math and temples, to excel in organising, to engage with the scholars belonging to divergent perspectives, integrating multiple world views for spiritual and cultural integration by the age of 32 is an achievement by any standards. India will do well to pause and peep into the glorious life of Adi Shankaracharya in pursuit of finding his rightful place in the world.
(The writers are Research Associates at Indian Foundation. Views expressed are strictly personal.)