Some seven hundred years or more after Sankara's day, a series of hagiographies began to emerge which were instrumental in establishing him in popular culture. The texts succeeded in creating a fluid and dynamic image of Sankara which became celebrated throughout the whole of the subcontinent. This study examines the hagiographies composed prior to and including the Sankaradigvijaya, eight works in all. Selections from seven previously untranslated texts are presented here for the first time.
The book considers how Sankara has been received in India, focusing specifically on the conceptual models upon which his life story is constructed. Firstly, there are the mythic foundations. Secondly, the sense of place is established through the narratives of Sankara's all-India tour. This grand pilgrimage proved to be a quest for the throne of omniscience. Thirdly, there are the great debates which Sankara contested in the course of his journey. These culminated in a digvijaya, a conquest of the four quarters, through which he eventually came to be recognized as a national hero.
Much attention is also paid to the legacy of Sankara and the continuity of the Advaita tradition. The book includes interviews with some of the most influential Sankaracaryas of our day.
Dr. Jonathan Bader has taught at the University of Melbourne and the Australian National University. He currently works at the North Coast Institute of TAFE and Southern Cross University. He lives in Northern New South Wales, in a small town, where his garden now tends to take precedence over academic concerns.
Cover Illustration :
Sankara defeats Mandanamisra in debate. Bharati, the arbiter, looks on. From a painting by Sukumarn of Perambavur, Kerala, 1986. Use of the reproduction is with the kind permission of the editor of Tattvaloka: The Splendour of Truth, published under the auspices of the Sringeri Sankara matha.
Some seven hundred years or more after Sankara's day, a series of hagiographies began to emerge which were instrumental in establishing him in popular culture. Until the present century these works were composed exclusively in Sanskrit. One in particular stands out from the rest, the Sankaradigvijaya of Madhava. This text, composed between 1650 and 1800, skilfully brought together materials from several earlier hagiographies. Its popularity grew to such an extent that it eventually eclipsed the other works, which have languished in relative obscurity ever since. The Sankara hagiographies have so far failed to attract much scholarly attention largely because they are of little historical value. Yet, the authors of these works had no intention of writing history. They sought to eulogise Sankara and, to this end, mythography was far more powerful than biography as a medium of expression. Indeed, the hagiographers succeeded in creating a fluid and dynamic image of Sankara which became celebrated throughout the whole of the subcontinent. This study focuses on the hagiographies composed prior to and including the Sankaradigvijaya, i.e., eight texts in all.
My primary aim is to consider how Sankara has been received in India, and in particular to examine the conceptual models upon which his life story is constructed. The work is organised along the lines of the features that stand out most prominently in the hagiographies. Firstly, there are the mythic structures which provide not only the peaks but also the foundation of the narrative. The Sankara story is cast firmly within the framework of Salva mythology: the protagonist is, above all, an avatara of Siva. Secondly, I have attached considerable importance to the sense of place. Sankara's grand tour of sacred sites proves to be a quest for the throne of omniscience, and also demonstrates the complementarity of royal and ascetic paradigms in traditional India. Thirdly, there are the debates, through which the wanderings characteristic to a renouncer are transformed into a digvijaya, a conquest of the four quarters. It is through the digvijaya that Sankara fulfils his mission of restoring harmony to a divided land, and eventually comes to be recognised as a national hero. Finally, I have paid much attention to the legacy of Sankara as well as the continuity of the Advaita sampradaya, in order to emphasise that theirs is a living tradition.
This study was originally presented as a PhD thesis at the Australian National University in 1991. For the past eight years the manuscript has remained virtually hidden away, while my own pursuits in Advaita Vedanta have been oriented more towards practice than to theoretical concerns. It is only through the repeated prompting of my wife, Erica, that I have finally decided to bring the work into the public domain.
I am very grateful to a number of people who provided much help in the preparation of this study while I was at the Australian National University: Tissa Rajapatirana, Luise Hercus, Professor J. W. de Jong, and Michael Comans. I also wish to acknowledge the Faculty of Asian Studies for their overall support and the generous facilities afforded me in my research. I am especially grateful to Dipesh Chakrabarty, who first encouraged me to undertake this project. Yogendra Yadav and Sudha Joshi helped me through some of the Hindi materials.
There are a number of people I would like to thank for their help and cordiality during my visits to India. In the first place, I am most grateful to the Sankaracaryas who showed me that the rich tradition they represent is still very much alive. The acaryas and their staff welcomed me and graciously answered my many questions: at Kanchipuram, His Holiness the late Jagadguru Candrasekharendra-Sarasvati and A. Kuppuswami; at Sringeri, His Holiness Jagadguru Bharatitirtha and Shankar Sharma (private secretary to the late Jagadguru Abhinavavidyatirtha); at the Kumbha Mela, His Holiness Jagadguru Svami Svarupananda, pithadhipat of the Dwarka and Jyotir mathas, and Michael Mavro who arranged for me to meet Svamiji. In Bombay Dr. W. R. Antarkar generously provided me with various materials for my research. In Madras Professor N. Veezhinathan spent several hours patiently replying to my queries about the Sankaravijaya of Anatanandagiri, and the late Swami Tapasyananda of the Sri Ramakrishna Order set aside time to discuss the Sankara hagiographies at length.
Two other people deserve special mention for strongly encouraging my pursuits in India, both practical and theoretical. The late Swami Narikutti provided a powerful demonstration of how life could be lived according to traditional knowledge. Over the years we spent much time in his cave on Arunacala, the sacred mountain at Tiruvannamalai. We enjoyed numerous cups of his superb chai, over which Swami Narikutti spoke with much insight on the teachings of the greatest 20th century exponent of Advaita, Sri Ramana Maharshi. Swami Narikutti also took the trouble to read through the whole of the manuscript with his jackal's eye of discrimination. Swami Satyananda of Tiruvannamalai also took great interest in my work and provided inspired satsang.
This study has benefited considerably from the critical comments of Professor Hermann Kulke, Professor Sheldon Pollock, Phyllis Granoff and Greg Bailey. As well, Phyllis Granoff gave generously of her time in suggesting numerous improvements for my translations of some of the more difficult verses. However, for any mistakes which remain, I take sole responsibility.
My final and greatest debt is to my wife Erica, who has had to live with one so distracted by the details of research these many years. Her support, and more especially her honesty, has kept me from losing the plot. To her is due the larger part of whatever fruits may arise from the work.
On the fifth day of the bright half of the month of Vaisakha, April 21, 1988, a select crowd gathered in the rarified atmosphere of the Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi. They had come to pay tribute, long due, to a national hero. The President of India, the Prime Minister and various other dignitaries stood on the podium before the freshly garlanded figure of a young samnyasin clad in ochre robes. This was no Hindu militant, but an apostle of unity. He was, in the words of President R. Venkataraman,
In this august gathering, the name of Sankara was finally entered into the ledger of national history. The seal of approval came in the form of a year-long festival, the "Rastriya Sankara Jayanti Mahotsav", proclaimed by the Government of India in commemoration of the twelve hundredth anniversary of his birth.
This was a historic occasion and a celebration of history. In his address at the inaugural function, Professor K. Satchidananda Murty reminded the audience of the great esteem in which Sankara was held by the leaders of modern India, from Rammohan Roy right up to Indira Gandhi; and "her greatest historical hero, she stated, was Shankaracharya".2 Yet the weight of history had been long denied to this cultural hero. For more than a hundred years controversy had raged over the dates of Sankara. The voluminous and tiresome literature this debate has generated seems to suggest that there is no personality in the absence of a precise chronology. In the end it was the government which rescued Sankara from the uncharted waters of history. This was achieved by steering clear of the treacherous snares, on the one side, set by the opposing forces in the debate on Sankara's chronology.f and on the other, the powerful pull of the bureaucratic imperative for recording essential statistics. The Rastriya Sankara Jayanti Mahotsav Committee, headed by Rajiv Gandhi, saw to it that the figure of Sankara was clearly cast as a national monument, but that no dates were to be inscribed on the pedestal. President Venkataraman explained just why Sankara cannot be dated:
This was truly a historic occasion: the meeting of time and the timeless.
The official addresses at the inaugural function stressed that the festival was more than a national affair. Ankara's teachings were universal. Perhaps they even held the key to world peace: "Nations armed to the teeth with weapons of annihilation ... may well turn to Sankara for enlightenment''. While it is questionable whether his profile extends into the sphere of international politics, there is no doubt that Sankara has secured a place in the global academic culture. The proliferation of scholarly studies inspired by Sankara's thought are ample testimony of this. Indeed his emergence as an international figure derives from an unusual cultural collaboration. Both the early spokesmen of Indian nationalism And some of the orientalists who was patronized by imperial Britain found in Sankara the epitome of the true Indian psyche. the outstanding figures in this coalition were Swami .vivekananda and F. Max Muller. They sought to establish Sankara at the apex of a "Brahmanism" which partook of the essence of Indo-European culture and thus stood apart from what both the nationalists and the imperialists saw as the garish idolatry of "later Hinduism".
The corridors of power in New Delhi were not to be the only venue for a Sankara festival. An organization was formed Kerala which envisaged the whole of India as the setting for a celebration. This was in the hope that "commemorating the Vijay Yatra of Adi Sankara [which took place] 1200 years ago will further kindle the spirit of national integration, cultural unity and spiritual renaissance". 8 The reenactment of Sankara's tour of victory began in Kalati, Kerala, which is believed to be his birthplace. It was to end in Kedara in the Himalayas, the place of his mahasamadhi, according to some accounts of his life. Despite the traditional backgrounds of the convenors, they too were subject to conditions which are virtually universal in the latter part of the 20th century. There is no longer time for walking. The yatra would proceed via a motorized chariot, earing the items for ritual worship. Nevertheless, this was a project which would touch the lives of many as the chariot made its stops in the cities and pilgrimage places en route to its destination.
The great interest shown in recreating his journey to the four quarters of the subcontinent demonstrates that Sankara still holds a place in the thoughts of many individuals as well as in the country's intellectual history. Although they are largely restricted to educated Hindus, his teachings have directly affected people's lives. Perhaps Sankara's presence makes itself most strongly felt when old age approaches, and people find it difficult to avoid the fact of their own mortality. At this time the atavistic call of the forest rsis is more easily heard, and there is impetus for reflection on the ancient ascetic values which Sankara represents.
There are many images which the name Sankara brings to mind. He may appear in the guise of an exegete, a metaphysician, a guru, a wandering mendicant, or an incarnation of the great god whose name he bears. These are but a few of the portraits to be found in the substantial body of literature devoted to Sankara's life. There are some twenty Sanskrit accounts which were composed prior to 1900, and several more have been written in the 20th century. One text stands out from the rest, the Sankaradigvijaya of Madhava, composed between 1650 and 1800. This work skilfully brought together materials from several of the earlier hagiographies. The result was a single coherent version of the Sankara story which gained almost universal acceptance, eventually eclipsing the other Sanskrit texts. In this century there have been many renderings and adaptations of the Sankaradigvijaya, in various vernaculars and in English. However, I have been unable to find any vernacular accounts of his life which are more than a hundred years old. This suggests the extent to which Sankara was limited to the sphere of Sanskritic culture prior to the nationalist period. Once he became a national hero his portfolio was considerably expanded. Since 1947 the Sankara story has been still more widely disseminated through school text books, a comic book and a feature film.
Of Related Interest:
Life of Shankaracharya - The Adventures of a Poet Philosopher
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