Monday, October 6, 2014

The Women in Adi Shankara’s life - a perspective…

The Women in Adi Shankara’s life - a perspective…
In the annals of Indian mystical tradition, the name of Adi shankaracharya stands almost unique, resplendent as a beacon light that shines with gleaming intensity among the vast heap of superstitions, beliefs, commentaries and religious faiths, which have found fertile soil in the excruciating heat and other worldly attitude of the Indo-Gangetic plains. Eighth century India was a teeming mess. Centuries of oppressive priestly class misinterpreting philosophic insights of Vedanta; propitiated by a kingly regimen who needed the active support of its priesthood to maintain social order (read as a class distinctions…); thousands of varied sects, only different from each other in verbiage and dialectical nuances; and a growing sense of atheism and iconoclastic undercurrents – almost stultified any progress in thinking and advancement expected out of such a glorious cultural heritage as India had. When religion becomes mechanical and bereft of inner significance, and an inner odorous rot sets in; the stage is then ready for a new invigorating dose of life giving energy, fresh interpretation of decrepit dogmas - and a voice that sounds clear, flowing and penetrating as a clear stream that gurgles its way through a deep foliage and thundering down as an abundant waterfall. The time was ripe for an incarnation called Shankara…
Like Jesus, the life of Shankara is replete with legends and myths. The written traditions of India failed as a biographical medium, unlike the Greeks, Romans and others who had their Homers, Tacitus’s, Procopius’s, Livy’s and the Boswell’s to chronicle the minute details of their principal players. All that we know of this great young mystic is from subsequent loose commentaries and episodes collated much after his time. But what is clear from all varied accounts of his life is the fact the women played a very important role at critical points in the Saints journey. His father died when Shankara was a child, bought up by his mother with all the doting love possible, she stepped over the first bounds of tradition by performing the “sacred thread” ceremony for her son, in the absence of his father. For a Brahman boy in that age and time, this would have been a real eye-opener - that a lady had taken into her own hands the hoary sacred rituals and chose to bend it to suit the times and need; Shankara would have learnt his first lesson in radicalism right there, from his own mother…The second time when his mother stood for something more deep and symbolical than merely being a parent was - when the time was ripe for him to relinquish the world of boyhood and enter into asceticism, he makes an inner promise to return to her when the last rites need to be performed. It is always the wish of a parent to be cremated or buried by their progeny; it is a distinctly human need and a social bond. However such a vow was diametrically opposed to established rules of sanyasa, but Shankara ripe in his sainthood duly kept his promise; he returned to this native village to cremate his mother despite vociferous voices of disapproval from the conservative Brahmin society around. His singular act of defiance was not born out of rebellion but from a deep well of understanding that spirituality need not be divorced from social life, and illusory dictates of custom fade away when the font of eternal life within is touched. Then, in the cool mountains of Himalayas, he debated with the renowned Mandana Misra - a man known for his razor sharp logical skills and dualistic philosophy; with the wager that the loser would relinquish his position on metaphysical tenets and follow the victorious for a life time. The debate was mediated by Misra’s wife - intelligent, beautiful, canny and practical lady Ubhaya Bharati. Not surprisingly, Shankara’s rational virtuosity, native brilliance and convincing Insights into the nature of self and universe, held the great debater at bay for weeks before the Mishra conceded defeat. But the justice of Bharati would not allow Shankara to be declared a winner unless he could talk and answer questions about conjugal love and pleasures of physical relationship. The entire historical edifice of ascetic life stood with bated breath to hear Shankara’s answer to such a verdict; but in an epochal moment in religious history of mankind, he understood the deep import of this demand by this saintly lady, and accepted her ruling; acknowledging the indispensable need to experience the pleasurable aches of physical love before transcending it. Legend has it that Shankara entered the body of a deceased king to learn the art of love making and then came back to his original body to face sharp questions from Bharati. But that may be a myth that commentators have enforced upon reality to spiritualize an act that did not have the sanction of moral code for brahmacharyas. Shankara, in my opinion, could have had more direct ways of learning the art of lovemaking than such calisthenics of mind and spirit. Anyways, the point and essence is, Bharati had ensured that Shankara would not raise philosophy above social order and basic human needs, and chastened him enough to expound life’s deepest truths in a language and paradigm that common man would appreciate, and not turn away from it because of its stringent artificially imposed restrictions, or impossibility. Nowhere in world literature of religion would one find an episode akin to this - the inversion of Adam and Eve story, only that in this case the depth of Indian mysticism triumphed over the ‘crime’ of eve by making duality of sexes an essential part of man’s psychological growth. And lastly, shankara sang and wrote one of the greatest philosophical poems of his legacy, in lieu of a charity by an impoverished , unnamed lady, who gave him in alms the last morsel of berry that she had in her humble household – “Kanakadhaara Stotra” - the sensual, mystical and almost erotic series of verses symbolically couched as a dialogue between himself and Goddess of wealth (Lakshmi), stripping away at ridiculous human made rules of goodness and sin, destiny and freewill, temporal life and its relationship with world outside. Seldom would one find such an intimate fusion of poetry and prose espousing the cause of religion. Legend has it that as shankara spontaneously sang out these verses, the heavens opened and rained gold. And by a foolish tryst of fate, many, even today, in thousands of Indian households chant these verses hoping for a repeat of this miracle; and in the process completely abnegating or conveniently forgetting the deep underlying wealth of Vedantic meaning embedded in this poem. So much for superstition in Modern times.
So in four different seminal moments of Shankara’s brief life, Women have acted as the pivotal point in carrying out his world mission of halting the atrophy of philosophical thought on Indian soil. In thirty two brief years, his indelible life work consisting of commentaries, spiritual centers, poems, prayers and debates revitalized the shriveling sinews of Indian life and thought - the repercussions of which are still felt in every household, every philosophic school of thought, and every book on Vedanta and philosophy around the world. After the life defying, tired systems of thought that emanated after Buddha and Mahavira - Shankara’s vibrant, youthful and poetic flights of sarcasm and innuendos woke India from its sloth and ushered in its Golden era of literature, art and science. If not for his work, the ten centuries that followed his death would have seen the nemesis of Hindu thought triggered by Cultural invasions from outside. The great Indian resilience that we so much brag about is largely because of the strong pillars of truth and eternal values that Shankara’s erected through the length and breadth of this country that still nourish the roots of intellectual enquiry into the nature of Human existence, its purpose and redemption..
God bless…

No comments: