Sankara, the Jagadguru

Adi Sankara was a Jagadguru in the true sense.
He belonged to the common man and served him through his example and devoted works.

Adi Sankara Bhagavatpada was compassion incarnate. Yet people are apt to miss this aspect of his character, taking him as only one who was preoccupied with reason. They forget that his concern with reason itself arose out of his compassion!

He saw people hugging misery, mistaking it for pleasure. He saw people mistaking the ephemeral for the eternal and suffering endlessly. Ignorance was what stood in their way and the light of reason was the only way out of the darkness.

By example and precept Acharya Sankara exhorted people to sharpen the sword of knowledge to cut asunder the veil of ignorance and emerge into the realm of abiding joy and peace, their birthright.

The supreme psychologist that he was, the Acharya knew that man grows into reason via emotion. Hence he cautioned people against a straight flight to reason. Emotional maturity is essential. Upasana and service at the feet of the Guru are the necessary initial steps which would help develop moral virtues and strengthen reason.

The Acharya knew that human temperaments vary and these decide the natural choice of their favourite deity (ishta-devata). Hence in everyone’s Ishta Devata, Sankara saw the supreme deity. He composed many devotional hymns which, if recited with fervour and understanding, can help raise one from the emotional plane to the plane of reason and thence to liberation. Is this not compassion?

Breadth of Vision

Sankara, the peerless commentator on the Bhagavad Gita, follows in letter and spirit, the command of Gitacharya Sri Krishna that the vidvan, or the enlightened one, should never disturb the faith of the ignorant but that he himself should go to the level of the seeker and give him an upward push.

It was with this understanding that the Acharya brought under the wide umbrella of Advaita Vedanta more than 70 warring religious sects of his time, each preaching exclusive salvation of its own brand! Was this not an act of compassion on the part of the Acharya who could have as well remained in the bliss of Brahmajnana he had attained?

As in the case of Swami Vivekananda of modern times, acceptance was his motto, never condemnation. All places of worship will be naturally acceptable to any true Sankarite. This breadth of vision who else but a compassionate Acharya can bestow on his followers! After banging their heads against the prison walls of exclusive dogmatic faiths, many have found deliverance through Sankara’s teachings and then have re-discovered their own faiths.

None can lay exclusive claim on Sankara for, like ‘uncle moon’, he is the common property of all. He is the Jagadguru. To him there is no North or South, East or West. All world is his kin.

This vision of Sankara’s compassion will come if we read works, such as "Sri Sankaracharya" written by Sri P. Seshadri Aiyar, who, besides being a scholar and linguist of great eminence, was a deeply religious man.

Here are some instances of Sankara’s compassion based on Sri Seshadri Aiyar’s works on Sankara, including the one in Malayalam.

Personal Instances

When Sankara returned home after his studies he was full of the spirit of renunciation. From his deep and thoughtful study of the Upanishads, he had come to the conclusion that the end of human life was to realise Brahman, the supreme reality, the One without a second. This passion for renunciation became more and more pronounced as days passed.

The only consideration, that stood in the way was the thought of his widowed mother, who would be alone and helpless if he left her. Finally, when he got her consent for sannyas, he assured her that he would be by her side during her last moments and discharge the religious duties of a son by performing all the necessary rites. The mother was left to the care of the relatives to whom Sankara handed over his ancestral property.

Later, while living the calm and unruffled life of a teacher initiating and instructing his disciple, Sankara suddenly had a premonition of his mother’s impending death.

At once he left everything and went in haste to his native place Kaladi, Kerala. The mother’s delight knew no bounds when she saw her beloved son, who had been absent from her for such a long time. She had heard of the pure fame of her son, who had become a respected teacher to many and she asked him to do the last duties of a son.

It is said Sankara at first spoke to her of the ultimate reality, the Nirguna Brahman and the oneness of the Atman and Brahman. She confessed that the teachings were too high and subtle for her.

He grasped the situation at once and
like the true master came to her level. He
then composed a moving hymn graphically describing the glorious form of Vishnu,
listening to which the mother felt intense and ecstatic happiness and passed away in that
mood. In the words of the Gita she had the blessed destiny of a Yogi who departs with concentrated mind, full of devotion to the Lord.

Sankara performed all the rites enjoined by the Sastras, though the sannyasin is not bound by any such obligations and is even forbidden to do them. The extraordinary filial piety and affection got the better of all such conventional rules.

Sankara went by the spirit of the laws as he knew well their purpose, scope and limitations. Sankara carried out into practice the teaching of the Sruti that the mother should be revered and honoured as God.

The famous saying of Sankara about the unsurpassed unselfishness and pure love of the mother reverberates through the ages: "There may be many bad sons, but not one single bad mother." (Kuputrojaayete Kvachidapi Kumaataa na bhavati).

Acts of Compassion

The well-known Kanakadharastavam, which literally means "The Hymn on the Rain of Gold", was composed by Adi Sankara as an act of mercy during his tutelage when he had to beg his food according to the rules of Brahmacharya.

One day he went to a house where dwelt a poor woman who could afford to give only a few fruits. Sankara was touched. He prayed earnestly for the relief of her pitiful condition.

Tradition has it that this prayer had the desired effect, the family continuing even now in ease and comfort under the name Swarnathu Mana.

In the course of Sankara’s all-India tour during which he worsted many a learned scholar, the Acharya came to a place where Kapalikas were having their sway. A Kapalika chief, Ugrabhairava, who could not defeat Sankara in arguments decided to do away with him by cunning.

One day, when the Acharya was alone, he approached him seeking discipleship. The Acharya gave him refuge. Ugrabhairava soon won the confidence of all by his conduct.

He fell prostrate at the feet of the Acharya one day and began weeping bitterly. The merciful Acharya, full of compassion, assured him that he might speak out his heart fearlessly and that it was the Guru’s commitment to remove the sorrow of one who had taken refuge in him.

Ugrabhairava said: "I have been worshipping Siva for several years with the deep desire that I should live in Kailas with my physical body. I have been blessed with the boon that if I offer as sacrifice the head of an all-knowing one or a king, my desire would be fulfilled. I have no doubt that you are a Sarvajna, all-knower. Not only that, you are also merciful".

The Acharya then said without least hesitation: "Let it be so. But if my disciples come to know of your plan, it would go awry. Have you any means of carrying out your plan without the knowledge of my disciples?"

Ugrabhairava replied: "There is a place of worship for Bhairava in the nearby thick forest. There I shall make arrangements for the worship and the sacrificial offering of the head. If you would come there at midnight on the next new moon day, there won’t be any obstacle. I shall meet you midway and escort you there." The Acharya agreed.

Preparation for Sacrifice

The appointed hour was drawing near. The disciples were fast asleep and the Acharya quietly got up and walked towards the forest. Ugrabhairava was beside himself with joy when he saw the Acharya walking towards him. After prostrating at the feet of the Acharya he led him to the heart of the forest. A dim light lit before the Kalabhairavamurti only served to accentuate the darkness around. In front of the deity of awesome form, the altar was ready, and a few trident-bearing Kapalikas were ready at hand to do the bidding of Ugrabhairava.

With folded palm, Ugrabhairava addressed the Acharya: "Kindly place your head on this altar and I shall offer the sacrifice for doing which I have been waiting all these years." The Acharya said: "Let me first offer my worship to Mahadeva and go into samadhi. Then you may carry out your wish."

Time seemed to stand still. Even as the glistening hatchet of Ugrabhairava rose high to come down, there was the paralysing roar of a lion and Ugrabhairava lay dead on the ground! Padmapada, a beloved disciple of the Acharya, whose favourite deity was Ugranarasimhamurti, the Lord incarnation as man-lion, was the one who had dramatically materialised on the scene.

The compassionate Acharya, when he came out of the samadhi, realised that the time for his departure from the world had not yet come. He had pity for Ugrabhairava who had now learned the lesson that the body was not to be identified with Atman.

Merciful Works

Apart from these accounts, the Acharya’s works themselves give ample evidence of his compassionate nature.

In his celebrated Brahmasutra Bhashya, the Acharya cites the examples of Dharmavyadha, Viduran and others who were born with the knowledge of Brahman acquired in previous births. He mentions that the effects cannot be prevented from working on account of their present birth.

The Acharya has stated that the knowledge that arises out of the study of the Vedas could also be had through the Puranas and the Itihasas, which were not esoteric texts but readily within the reach of all.

It is an evidence of his compassion that in addition to his commentaries on the major Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras, he wrote three commentaries on works drawn from the Itihasa text, Mahabharata - commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, Vishnu Sahasranama and Sanajsujateeya.

It may be mentioned that Sankara alone, among the important commentators, has interpreted the sacred scriptures liberally to underscore that the knowledge of Brahaman is open to all. He boldly declared: "It has been established that everyone has the right to the knowledge (of Brahman) and that the supreme goal is attained by that knowledge alone."

Sarveshaam chaadhikaaro vidyaayaam cha sreyah: kevalayaa vidyaayaa veti sidham

(Taittriyopanishad, Skshavalli 2)

Divine Hymns

If we keep in mind the state of society during the great Acharya’s time and the orthodox traditions and associations of his early years, we cannot but marvel at the great spirit of love and compassion the Acharya had for everyone. He was eager to make available the redeeming wisdom of our scriptures to the people of this sacred land who were, at one time, in danger of losing its value.

Though the Acharya himself was a Brahmajnani, he often placed himself in the position of suffering people caught in the thralldom of old age, disease and penury. He composed divine hymns for them to pour out their heart’s agony to the Lord. The examples are the stotras, such as the Devyaparaadhaksha-maapana Stotram.

In Puri, when the devotees did not know where to look for the missing murti of Jagannatha, Acharya Sankara praised the Lord Jagannatha with the stotra, Jagannatha Swami nayana pathagaami mey. He had a divine vision of where to look for the murti which he discovered and installed in the temple to the great delight of the people and the ruler of the land.

If one studies the works of the Acharya, instances of his compassion can be found strewn throughout.

K. Subbarayan is Associate Editor of the Bhavan’s Journal of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay.