Just Like That | Adi Shankaracharya and lessons from the apocryphal Great Debate
The Great Debate between Adi Shankaracharya and Mandana Misra is a pivotal event and challenged Shankaracharya's celibate lifestyle with questions on eroticism
Such is the knowledge of Indians about past icons that when I wrote my book Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker, published in 2018, many of them including the well-educated did not know when he was born or what his contribution was. The Jagad Guru (roughly: world teacher), as he is called, was born in the deep South at Kalady, Kerala, in 788 CE, and died in the extreme North in Kedarnath, in 820 CE at the young age of 32.
In this short life span, his prolific and original philosophical insights in the elaboration of the Advaita doctrine, are truly breathtaking, and he is rightly credited with reviving Hinduism. He also set up four mathas (ashrams and centres of learning) at Sringeri in the South, Dwarka in the West, Puri in the East, and Joshimath in the North, defining the civilizational map of India.
One pivotal incident in his life is worth retelling. Adi Shankaracharya (AS) was a believer in the jnana marga, the path of knowledge to salvation. Another scholar of great repute, Mandana Misra, was the foremost proponent of karma kanda, in which leading the life of a householder and performing Vedic rituals was the right path to follow. AS went to meet him to have a shastrartha or dialogue to prove whose viewpoint was right.
The Great Debate is said to have taken place, either on the banks of the Narmada (three sites are still earmarked along its banks as the place for their meeting) or in Saharsa, Bihar. Mandana Mishra asked AS to choose the umpire. To his surprise, AS chose Ubhaya Bharati, Mandana’s wife, a scholar in her own right, to play this role. The lady agreed — and according to legend — put a garland of flowers around the neck of the two contestants, declaring that the person whose garland withers first, would be the loser. It was also agreed that whoever loses, would become the follower of the other.
The Debate, it is said, went on for months. In the end, the garland of Misra withered away, and it was clear that AS had won. But Ubhaya Bharti was not prepared to concede defeat. She said that as the wife of Mishra, she was one-half of his person, and she too wanted to debate with AS. She then proceeded to ask him questions on kama shastra, related to sensuality and eroticism, about which he, as a celibate sannyasin, was clueless. Then AS asked to be given a month to learn about this ‘science’ and return to the debate, to which she agreed.
The story goes that AS, through his yogic powers, left his body in a cave on the banks of the Narmada (Gupteshwar cave in Mandleshwar is still identified as this spot), and entered the dead body of the young king of Amaruka, which was being taken for cremation. The resurrection of the king was hailed as a miracle, and AS, in the body of the dead potentate, returned to the palace. There, in the company of the dead king’s wives, he became adept in kama shastra.
In fact, according to some of his biographers, he began to so much enjoy his new distractions, that he forgot that within a month he had to reassume his own body kept in the cave. This greatly worried his disciples, who arranged to remind him of who he actually was, by singing a few philosophical songs in his presence.
AS then woke up from his sensual stupor, reentered his body, and successfully answered the questions put to him by Ubhaya Bharti. The debate was won. Mandana Misra donned the robes of a sannyasin and became one of the foremost disciples of AS. On AS’s persuasion, so did Ubhaya Bharti.
I find this entire episode fascinating. What is truly interesting is that AS, in the company of the dead king’s wives, was sufficiently seduced to actually forget his commitments as an ascetic, and even wrote a manual on erotica called the Amaruka Shatakam. Why would he do this, and does this not diminish his towering persona as someone completely above the blandishments of the flesh?
The answer, to my mind, is that the incident was meant to be a metaphor to validate the four purusharthas or goals in the Hindu worldview: dharma (right conduct), artha (pursuit of material well-being), kama (the pursuit of the sensual) and moksha or salvation. AS may have chosen an ascetic life, in which artha and kama had no place, but this did not negate their relevance for ordinary mortals. There was a need, therefore, not to posit AS’s personal choice of celibacy and materialistic denial, as against the legitimate role of both these goals in the larger Hindu perspective. By living the life of a householder, even if very briefly, AS did not reduce his own image of a sannyasin but enlarged the appeal and reach of his profound philosophy to those outside the limited class of celibate mendicants.
Great religions, especially Hinduism for its eclectic essence, subsume apparent contradictions, only to enhance the broader unity underlying their appeal. Ancient civilizations are complex, and it is a mistake to try and see a linear path in their evolution. This remarkable story of one of the greatest philosophers the world has known—even if apocryphal—is a vivid illustration of precisely that.
I am happy that more recently, the government is once again trying to revive the memory and legacy of AS. On September 18, Madhya Pradesh chief minister, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, is set to inaugurate a 108 feet statue of AS at the beautiful temple town of Omakareshwar on the banks of the Narmada where the Jagad Guru spent three years of his formative life mastering the doctrine of Vedanta.
Pavan K Varma is author, diplomat, and former Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha).
Just Like That is a weekly column where Varma shares nuggets from the world of history, culture, literature, and personal reminiscences with HT Premium readers
The views expressed are personal