[May 17, 2021 is the appearance day of Śrīpāda Śaṅkarācārya in Vṛndāvana, India. The following is an excerpt from a bhāva anuvāda of the kathā given by Śrīla Bhakti Vijñāna Bhāratī Gosvāmī Mahārāja on the same tithi on May 4, 2014 and April 23, 2015. Editors’ input: Additional text has been included in square brackets to facilitate the flow of content.]
Today is a special day. It is the appearance day of Śaṅkarācārya, who is Lord Śiva himself.
[The scriptures confirm that in the Age of Kali Lord Śiva will appear in a brāhmaṇa family and preach the philosophy of Māyāvāda, which states that the Supreme Lord, the living entities and the cosmic manifestation are all transformations of illusory energy.
pracchannaṁ bauddham ucyate
mayaiva vihitaṁ devi
"Lord Śiva informed the Goddess Durgā, the superintendent of the material world, 'In the Age of Kali I take the form of a brāhmaṇa and explain the Vedas through false scriptures in an atheistic way, similar to Buddhist philosophy.'” (Padma Purāṇa, Uttara-khaṇḍa 25.7)]
ACCEPTING SANNYĀSA AS A BOY
Śaṅkarācārya was born in Kerala in a place known as Kālāḍi. Once when he was very young, while bathing in a river, a crocodile caught hold of him (just as a pretext). Then when his mother witnessed that a crocodile had caught her only son, she began to cry. Śaṅkarācārya told her, “Only if you permit me to accept sannyāsa, then the crocodile will leave me.” Having no other alternative, his mother conceded, and then he took sannyāsa.
At that time, the doctrine of Buddhism was widespread, so the masses neither believed in the demigods or demigoddesses, nor in [the authority of] the Vedas. Although Buddha denied the authority of the Vedas, he indirectly preached a couple of Vedic injunctions such as the promotion of non-violence. [There were people who were engaging in slaughtering animals for sense pleasure, in the name of Vedic sacrifices, by misrepresenting certain portions of the Vedas.]
Also, in the Atharva Veda, there is information on the performance of avicārika kriyā [inconsiderate actions] – such as the knowledge to kill, to disturb, to make people fall sick, and so on. In fact till date, the anāryas follow these tactics. For example there are mantras to create fire devoid of any warmth, such that no matter how much you boil sugarcane juice, jaggery will not be formed. [Ārya means those engaged in progressive realization of God, those who practice non-violence, truthfulness and purity; while anārya refers to those who do the opposite.] To stop such wide-spread atrocious acts, under the name of Vedic injunctions, Buddha denied the authority of the Vedas and preached that there is no necessity of following the Vedas.
Śaṅkarācārya, however, supported the Vedas. When Śaṅkarācārya, who is Lord Śiva himself, the presiding Deity of the mode of ignorance, appeared, he simply preached –
‘brahma satyam jagat mithyā, jīvo brahmaiva nāparaḥ’
[Brahmaṇ is the only truth, the world is unreal, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahmaṇ and the individual self (jīva)].
REINSTITUTING DEITY WORSHIP
Śaṅkarācārya also accomplished an important task of re-instituting Deity worship, which Buddha, by the strength of his royal backing, had curtailed.
By this action, he indirectly asserted, that Deity worship is necessary and beneficial for the practitioner. If one does not engage in Deity worship then who will be the object of worship? He also asserted that one needs an object to perform sādhana, hence a form of Brahmaṇ is required. Therefore, for the benefit of the practitioner, he said to imagine a form of Brahmaṇ. He rescued the Deity of Badrinātha [Viṣṇu or Badrinārāyaṇa] from the Alakanandā River where the Buddhists had drowned the Deity; and then arranged for His worship. He preached according to the necessity of time. As a result of his preaching, the stronghold of Buddhism began to wane.
He also sang, ‘bhaja govindaṁ, bhaja govindaṁ, govindaṁ bhaja mūḍha mate’ [O foolish ones, just worship Govinda, just worship Govinda, just worship Govinda.]
This is also evidence that he favoured Vaiṣṇava dharma [even though externally he advocated that the Lord does not have an eternal form].
He also glorified Mother Gaṅgā by composing a very beautiful stava –‘devī sureśvarī bhāgavatī gāṅge’.
PROTECTED BY LORD NARASIṀHA
In Śrī-śailaṁ, there is Śiva temple, but the temple belonging to his Śakti, Brahmarambhā, in the same vicinity is more prominent. One day, by Śaṅkarācārya’s desire, he was taken by a kapālika (a follower of a tribal sect, which comprises religious fanatics that believe in human sacrifice to Devī or Śakti) to the forest in that area, to be offered in sacrifice. At that time, Śaṅkarācārya remembered his disciples, who appeared there and requested the kapālika to release their guru. But he did not consent, saying, “No, I will offer him in sacrifice.” In Śrī Viṣṇu-ṣoḍaṣa-nāma stotra it is said, kānane narasiṁham ca - Think of Viṣṇu as Narasiṁha while in the forest.
So Śaṅkarācārya advised his disciples to take shelter of Narasiṁhadeva. Saying this, Śaṅkarācārya recited a Narasiṁha Stava and his disciples followed suit. As a result, Lord Narasiṁha appeared and killed the kāpālika. To commemorate this incident, although it is a Śiva temple, to this day the Narasiṁha stava is sung there daily This custom was followed even when I visited that temple in Śrī-śailaṁ. Nowadays though, it is no longer sung, instead an audio recording of that stava is played.
SERVICE TO LORD JAGANNĀTHA
In the Jagannātha temple in Purī, Śaṅkarācārya established the place where the upala-bhoga is offered (not the rāja-bhoga). In honour of this, everyday mahāprasāda from the Jagannātha temple is sent to his maṭha via a bihaṅgi (a carrier with a basket hanging from each end of a long stick).
Some claim that the Jagannāthāṣṭakam was also composed by Śaṅkarācārya himself. There he has written:
His lotus feet are worshiped by great personalities such as Lakṣmī, Śiva, Brahmā, Indra and Gaṇeśa.
He also mentioned:
‘na vai yāce rājyam’ - I don’t desire sovereignty; May Jagannātha Svāmī kindly enter the pathway of my vision.
For someone who composed such wonderful prayers, how can we attribute to him things like – jīvo brahmaiva nāparaḥ’ - Brahmaṇ is the only truth, the world is unreal, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahmaṇ and the individual self (jīva)?
By external consideration, why did Śaṅkarācārya, [an advocate of the formless Brahmaṇ,] establish a bhoga-maṇḍapa? Oftentimes, one’s internal moods cannot be judged by external behavior. Only the intimate followers can perceive the internal moods; otherwise, only sthūla vicāra (apparent external meaning) becomes prominent. For this reason, we don't accept the Śaṅkarites who take only the external meaning of Śaṅkarācārya’s teachings, and not the sūkṣma vicāra (subtle internal meaning).
DISAPPEARANCE OF ŚAṄKARĀCĀRYA
Eventually, the Buddhists [became so vindictive that they] came up with an idea to conduct a debate in Tibet on the condition that the loser of the debate would immolate himself. The Buddhists could not defeat Śaṅkarācārya however, still they eventually burnt him.
THE FOUR MAIN MAṬHAS
Śaṅkarācārya allotted four places to each of his four chief disciples who established the four famous maṭhas in India: Jyotir-maṭha (Uttarkhand), Govardhana-maṭha (Purī), Sāradā-maṭha (Gujarat) and Śṛṅgeri-maṭha (Karnataka). He also initiated the celebration of kumbha. In those days, many people would congregate to honour the Kumbha. Originally the Kumbha was held at various locations, but eventually four places were finalized - Haridvara, Allahabad, Ujjain and Nasik.