Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Adi Shankara & Kashmir-The Philosophical Osmosis

The period between 8th and 12th Century was a period of cultural renaissance in Kashmir.In a period spanning four hundred years Kashmir produced some of the greatest scholars, who were instrumental in shaping Indian thought and Philosophy. It was in this time that we see the resurgence of Agama and Tantra in Kashmir. The revelation of Siva Sutras could be termed as a milestone in the re-establishment of the Shaivate philosophy. K.C.Pandey[1] writes ”We shall, therefore not be wrong if we say that Vasugupta gave a systematic form to the philosophical ideas of the monistic Tantras in his Siva Sutras in the next decade after Shankaracharya’s visit to Kashmir towards the end of the second decade of the 9th century A.D.” On the basis of this statement one could infer that Shankaracharya did visit Kashmir but then there are scholars who claim otherwise. Shankaracharya’s visit to Kashmir has always been a matter of debate and no conclusive evidence has ever been presented to prove to prove it.

In the context of the above I would like to go into various extant and oral sources to understand whether Shankaracharya visited Kashmir at all and if he did was he in any way influenced by the existing tantric lore of Kashmir.I shall also try and see how Shankaracharya’s writings (post his visit to Kashmir) reflected the impact of Shaivagamic and Shakta aspects of Kashmiri philosophical systems. I will also look at various historical and empirical evidences which seem to suggest that Shankaracharya did indeed visit Kashmir.


Sources for the History of Shankaracharya


Before we begin to analyze the various sources available to us for understanding Shankaracharya’s life and times we need to keep reminding ourselves that a historical biography in the modern sense did not exist in ancient India. Exasperating as it may be, we will essentially be dealing with hagiographical accounts of Shankaracharya’s life and philosophy. The extant legendary biographies of Shankaracharya date from the 14th to the 18th centuries, i.e. they are posterior to the Acharya by at least half a millennium to a millennium. Although they have certain broad similarities, they have numerous contradictions in detail, and they are full of miracles and exaggerations.

The sources for the historical reconstruction of Shankaracharya’s life and work can be primarily divided into three sections.

1.Traditional Biographic Literature

a).Lost Biographies

b).Biographical accounts or references in “Puranic or semi-Puranic Literature”.

c).Extant Biographies.

2.Monastic Traditions or Records

3.Miscellaneous Literary Sources.


All the above sources tell us a lot about the times in which Shankaracharya lived but a biography in the ordinary sense eludes us. In what may termed as philosophical despair, Prof Belvalkar[2] was thus led to declare that “It is the works of Shankara which constitute his best biography.” Notwithstanding the hagiographical or fictional nature of the above works especially the biographical and Puranic literature, we have no option but to dive deep into them to churn out history out of hagiography.


The Date and Times of Shankaracharya

The controversy surrounding the date of Shankaracharya has led to the appearance of more than forty articles and books on the subject. What is worth noting is that the traditional date or dates upheld by most of the Shankara monastries even today widely diverge from the critical scholarly opinions which are also not unanimous. While the traditional view maintains that Shankaracharya lived somewhere between 5th to 2nd century BC, most historians and modern Orientalists are of the opinion that the Acharya lived in 8th or 9th century AD. Most historians however seem to agree that Shankara lived from AD 788 to 820.

Shnakaracharya’s period is the period which followed the death of the great Harshavardhana of Kannauj in the north and Pulakesin II in the Deccan.The fall of Guptas and the Vakatakas led to the collapse of the great and stable empires.Thus this age witnessed a struggle for power which eventually led to the emergence of small feudal states.The emergence of small feudal states led to political anarchy and thus paving a way for growing disorder in traditional social systems.This can be easily testified by the following comment that Shankaracharya makes on Brahmasutram:”Idanim iva kalantare pyavyavasthitaprayan varnasramadharman pratijanita” ‘One might suppose that varnashramadharma was in disorder earlier also just as it is now’.

Philosophically it was however a golden era, characterized by the proliferation of different schools of thought.Almost all schools of philosophy had their close ties with one religious sect or another.There was however a dichotomy in the way the schools accepted the authority of the Vedas.While Mimamsakas and Nyaya-Vaisesika accepted the authority of Vedas the Buddhists and Jainas simply rejected them. It needs no mention that cultural changes in India before the advent of Islam were gradual and never radical or violent. Heterodoxy also seemed to prosper in this era. The popularity of Kapalikas,Pashupats,Tantarikas,Kalamukhas,Kaulas,Ajivikas and Pachrataras was also on the upswing. The relaxation of rigid social rules in the Tantric,Yogic and other ascetic communities were probably a source of their popularity. The writings of Bana, Bhavabhuti and the Bhratkatha-sloka-samagraha are eloquent testimony of these tendencies.In my opinion Shankaracharya lived in the transitional phase between the classical and post-classical era. This era represented a meeting point between the orthodoxy and heterodoxy, Brahmanical and Sramanic, Karma and Jnana.


Shankaracharya’s Philosophy

When I started reading about Shankaracharya’s philosophy it seemed it was all Maya.I could hardly get a hang of what Shankara exactly stood for. On one hand he did not loathe polytheism while on the other he did not approve of the ways of Buddhists and Jainas or the Sankhyas for that matter.I almost seemed to have reached a dead end until I read “The System of Shankara” by Will Durant.I will try and reproduce in my own words on what dawned on me after reading this article. It was as if Bhartrihari had just proved his theory of sphota to me.

Basing his approach on Badarayana’s Brahmasutras, Shankaracharya composed commentaries on Vedanta. Shankara laid emphasis not on logic but on insight. In Shankaracharya’s own words,” It is not logic that we need, it is insight, the faculty (akin to art) of grasping at once the essential out of the irrelevant, the eternal out of the temporal, the whole out of the part”.Immanuel Kant in his  ”Critique of Pure Reason” asks ,How is knowledge possible? Whatever we know or learn is never free form the boundaries of time, space and causation. Thus what we seem to know is not real but is our perception of the real. The world exists, but it is maya not in the sense of delusion, but as phenomenon, an appearance created partly by our own thought. Behind the veil of maya or the principle of change, to be reached not by knowledge and intellect but only by insight and intuition, is the one universal reality, Brahman. Only when we forget the limits of time, cause and space does our Atman become identical with Brahman or God. Brahman is the cause and effect, the timeless and secret essence of the world. The aim of the philosophy is to find that secret.

Finally Kashmir…..

That brings us to the moot question of whether Shankaracharya visited Kashmir or not. There is a strong oral tradition among Pandits of Kashmir that Shankaracharya did visit Kashmir.Call it folklore/belief/myth or whatever you like, I will begin with what I have heard as a part of my bedtime story.This is how it goes.

There is a place called Vichar Nag in Kashmir which Shankaracharya is believed to have visited.As the name would suggest it was a place for congregation of great minds or great thoughts. Shankaracharya in the course of the discussion suggests that the idol is but a representation of God and nothing more, while the Kashmiri scholars stick to their point of view that the idol of the deity is a manifestation of the deity.In the process of proving his point he slaps the idol of Shakti to show that it is bereft of any life but to his utter surprise blood starts oozing out of the forehead of the deity. It is then that Shankarachrya tears out a piece of cloth and ties it on to the forehead of the Shakti. It is believed that the process of wearing a taranga (a headgear that Pandit women wear) has started from this day.

Another belief that survives till this day is that Shankaracharya along with his disciples was camping on the outskirts of the Srinagar city.It is believed that their hosts provided them with all the ingredients for preparation of food. What they however forgot to give them was a device to light fire. When the lady of the house wakes up next morning she is surprised to see that uncooked food and unused wood is lying as it was given to the Shankaracharya. On enquiring from them as to why they did not cook she receives this answer that they had nothing to lit the fire. She exclaims “Oh learned ones, is that what kept you hungry?” and she throws a few drops of water on the wood and it catches fire. There are other variants of this story wherein it is believed that a virgin girl replaces the lady of the house. In my opinion the lady of the house seems more plausible and appropriate, taking into account various hymns that Shankaracharya wrote to the glory of the mother goddess. The use of Tatanka to describe the iconography of the mother goddess lends credence to the view that Shakti in Shankaracharya’s hymns was not a virgin but a Sumangali(a women whose husband was alive).

That takes us to a different set of observations, mostly empirical but nonetheless important. Wearing of Tatanka or the ear-rings is common to most feminine deities.In some images of Ardhnarishwara Shiva is seen to be wearing a Tatanka on the naree half thereby signifying the importance of the ornament. Tatanka is understood by some as the Mangalsutra which is the privilege of the Sumangalis(women who have their husbands alive).It is believed that they are the outward symbols of married women who are enjoined not to forsake their Tatanka-s by any means, as their doing so would amount to assuming their husbands are not alive.

Sumangalis wearing outward symbols of their marriage (like Mangala-sutra) is a pan-Indian phenomenon but women wearing Tatanka(as outward symbol of their marriage) survives till date, in its true form only among the Pandit women of Kashmir. One can conclusively say that wearing of Tatankas (or Dejhour as they are popularly called in Kashmir) was in vogue even in the times of Shankaracharya. This can be easily testified by the way Shankaracharya describes Goddess Sharda in “Sharda Bhujanga PraytAshtaka” Ref Sloka 8

bhavAmbhOjnetraAjasam-poojayamAnam,lasanmandahAsa prabhAvaktraciham;

calaccancalAcAru tATanka-karNam,bhaje SaradAmbAmajasram madAmbAm

I always pray to Sharadamaba, my mother, who is being worshipped by Lord Shiva,Vishnu and Brahma.She bears the mark of gentle beautiful smile on her face,her eyes beautified by the swinging of charming ear ornaments.

Everytime I read this Sloka the image of  married Kashmiri Pandit woman flashes infront of my eyes.The catch here is the swinging ear rings.The ear rings worn by Kashmiri Pandit women are longer and hence tend to swing unlike ear rings worn by Hindu women(which are far shorter) outside Kashmir.

We will now read this very important verse from Saundarya Lahiri which many believe was composed in Kashmir by Shankaracharya.Refer,Verse 28.

Sudham apy asvadya pratibhaya-jara-mrytu-harinum,Vipadyante visve vidhi-satamakhadya divisadah;

Karalam yat ksvelam kabalitavatah kala-kalana na sambohos tan-mulam tava janani tattanka-mahima

O Mother!all the denizens of the celestial regions, such as Vidhi, Satamakha and other, perish even after drinking nectar, which is known to confer immunity from the terrible old age and death.If the period of life of Sambhu, who has swallowed virulent poison, is beyond computation, it is all due to the peculiar virtue of Thy Tatankas(ear-ornaments).

Was Shankaracharya so enamoured by the aesthetic beauty of the taTanka and so mesmerized by its philosophy & power that he established the concept outside Kashmir or is it he who brought this ornament to Kashmir are questions to be pondered over. Is it a mere coincidence that the deity in Lalita Sahasranama (composed by Shankaracharya) also wears Tatanka much like the mother goddess of Bhavani Sahasranama (which is Kashmiri equivalent of the Lalita Sahasranama). Could he have been inspired by Bhavani Sahasranama to write Lalita Sahasranama?Could it be that Shankaracharya adorned non-Kashmiri Goddesses with a Kashmiri ear-ornament?  Incidentally during varahalakShmI vratam and other functions like sumangali prArthana (in Andhra Pradesh) - the sumangalis are presented with 'ear-leaf' even today. It is another question that they don’t know what to do of it.

Sharda…the connecting Link

I always harboured this desire to travel to Sringeri Sharda Peeth.In a way I was searching for my roots in a place as far as some remote corner of Karnataka.The travel through the scenic wild life sanctuary of Tungbhadra took me to the picturesque location where the temple of Sharda is located.My first observation upon reaching the temple was that the location of the temple bore striking similarity to the original abode of Sharda at Shardi.Both stood at the confluence of two rivers and both are almost on a mound or a hill.I bowed to the goddess, Shardambal as she is called there. Soon I started looking for the original sandalwood idol which Shankaracharya is believed to have brought from Kashmir and installed at Sringeri.I asked priests and guides about the idol and the Sri-chakra, the Sri-chakra Shankarachrya is believed (according to the Sringeri Math records) to have carved before installing the idol of Sharda on it.One more similarity I thought,even at the temple of Sharda at Shardi the goddess was installed on top of the Sri-chakra.What was however to surprise me more was the close resemblance of the ear-rings(taTanka) of the sandalwood idol with that of a Dej-hour.

Madhava’s Shankara Digvijaya[3] tells us that it was Mandana’s wife Ubhaya-Bharati who Shankaracharya requests to manifest in temples at Risyasringa(Sringeri) after he accepts her as an incarnation of Saraswati.The Shankara-Vijaya-Vilasa of Cidvilasamuni[4] states that Shankara met Mandana in Kashmir.G.C.Pande mentions that “It may,however be recalled that according to one tradition Suresvara was originally Mandana Misra who hailed from Kashmir”

The Guru-Vyasa-Kavya of Kasi Lakshmana Sastri totally omits the debate between Shankarachraya and Ubhaya Bharati.In fact it goes on to say that this debate takes place between Sharda and Shankaracharya.The goddess Sharda is pleased with Shanakaracharya and accepts his request to accompany him to the banks of Tungbhadara[5].

This observation by G.C.Pande is worth noting in the context of the debate that Shankaracharya is believed to have entered with Sharda or Bharati.“Perhaps Kashmir would be the most likely place since it would reconcile the confusion of debating in front of Sarada in Kashmir with that of debating with the wife of Mandana identified with Bharati” [6]. Needless to say, whether it was goddess Sharda or Ubhaya Bharati,there is no doubt that it is a Kashmiri feminine figure that adorns the seat at the temple of Sharda Peeth at Sringeri.

Shankaracharya’s accession to the Sarvajnapitha(throne of Omniscience) at the temple of Sharda has been a matter of some debate.There are differing sources some of whom claim that Shankaracharya ascended the Sarvajnapitha at Kanchi and not Kashmir.

Madhava’s Shankara Digvijaya tells us very clearly that Shankaracharya ascended the throne of Omniscience at the Temple of Sharda at Kashmir[7].He details how Shankaracharya defeats various scholars of different schools.

Jagad-guru-ratna-mala-stava, of Parama Sivendram, mentions Shankarachrya’s Sarvajina-pitha-rohana at Kanchi[8].

Govindanatha’s Shankaracharya-Carita mentions in its 9th chapter,the accession of Shankaracharya to the Saravjinapitha [9].

The Shankara-Vijaya-Vilasa of Cidavilasamuni mentions that the Shankaracharya ascended the Sarvajinapitha at Kanch[10].

The Guru-Vamsa-Kavya of Kasi Lakshmana Sastri in its third canto mentions Shankaracharya ascending the Sarvajinapitha at Kashmir[11].

Nilakantha’s Sankarabhyudaya,in its sixth canto,talks of Shankara visiting Kashmir to the Sarvajinapitha. [12].

So clearly the biographers are divided over the question of Shankaracharya visiting Kashmir or ascending the Sarvajinapitha at Kashmir.Based on my understanding of the texts mentioned above it seems biographers who believe that Shankara established the Kanchi Mutt are the ones who claim that though Shankaracharya did ascend the Sarvajinapitha but it was Kanchi and not Kashmir where this honour was bestowed on him.

Shankaracharya and Kashmir-The philosophical osmosis

By the arrival of the 8th century Buddhism was clearly a waning philosophy on the horizon of Kashmir.The local faith which had hitherto been greatly influenced by Buddhist thought and philosophy, was fast returning to its Tantric, Shaivite and Agamic roots. Such was the time when Shankaracharya is believed to have set foot on the pious land of Sharda.

In the pursuit of demystifying Shankaracharya reanimating the corpse of the dead king [13]. G.C.Pande makes the following observation” Presumably the legend arose from a misunderstanding. Kama-kala did not merely mean erotics, but had a technical significance in Tantra-sastra for which Kashmir was famous.This sense may be seen in Kama-kala-vilasa.Shankara could have acquired a knowledge of the strongly Advaiatic Tantra-sastras in Kashmir,which would fit in with the tradition that ascribes the Saundaraya-Lahiri and the Prapanchsara to him as also the fact of the currency of Srividya among his followers.A commentary of the Prapanchsara records that the work was compiled by Shankara in Kashmir” [14].

Prapanchsara Tantra is in a way an endorsement of Tantricism.The vivarna written by the Padampada records that it is a summary of the Prapanchagama,which was a vaster and older compendium of Tantra existing in Kashmir. The author of the sub-commentary Prayoga-kama-dipika states that the work was compiled by Shankaracharya while residing in Kashmir.He explains this by the fact that Shankaracharya pays obeisance to Goddess Sharda at the very beginning of the work.

In most of his commentaries Shankaracharya makes no mention of Siva and wherever he does it is mainly to criticize the dualistic theism of prevailing Saiva system at South India.However there is a marked shift in his stand which can be observed in the Daksinamurti-strota which finds close echoes to non-dual Saiva philosophy of Kashmir.It cannot be denied that the remarkable development of Kashmir Saivism dates from the time Shankaracharya is believed to have visited Kashmir[15].K.C.Pandey observes”If we compare the philosophical ideas of Shankara,as contained in his Daksina Murti Strota and explained by his pupil Survesvaracharya in his commentary on the above Strota,we find that Sankara’s conception of the ultimate reality is the same as that of the Pratyabhijna.In fact he uses all the important technical expressions in the same sense in which they are used in the Pratybhijna.”

In the course of his travel to Kashmir and Himalyas it is most likely that he came in contact with varieties of theistic monism which were prevalent there.While the basic philosophy of Shankaracharya might have stayed the same it is very much possible that his acquaintance with diverse modes of worship may have led to his acceptance of their theistic beliefs. This is reflected in the strotas devoted to the Devi in Saundaraya-lahiri.For once his devotional fervour overcomes his epistemological caution as he sings to the majesty and glory of the mother goddess.It clearly emanates as a text wherein the “freedom or dynamism” of the consciousness (as in Shakta Advaita) overtakes the “passive and actionless” attribute of consciousness (as in Shakara’s Advaita).This verse from Saundaraya-Lahiri,”Catuhsasthya tantraih saklam abhisandhaya bhuvanam”clearly establishes his inclination towards the Tantric practices of Kashmir.The epithet”sarvatantras-vatantara” in his virudavali indicates that the Tantras,the authority of which he accepts were sixty-four in number.The Tanttraraja which is a later Tantra in the Kaula system of Kashmir Saivism,according to some authorities is recognized by Shankaracharya as the 65th Tantra in his Saundarya Lahiri verse 31 which runs as follows;[16]

Catuh-sastya tantraih saklam atisamdhaya bhuvanam

Sthitas tat-tat-siddhi-pravasa-para-tantraih pasupatih;

Punas tvan-nirbandhad akhila-purusarth’aika ghatana

Svatantram te tantram ksiti-talam avatitarad idam.

Pasupati(Siva) at first remained satisfied after ‘deluding’(atisandhaya) the world,by giving out the sixty-four tantaras,which expound practices conferring only one or another of the various psychic powers and the wordly fulfillments.Afterwards,on Thy special insistence,He revealed this Thy own Tantra to the world,independent of all the others and capable of conferring all the Purusarthas-Dharma,Artha,Kama and Moksha-on the votaries,by itself.

The unanimity with which both the traditions (Kanchi and Sringeri) admit to the fact that Sankaracharya set up the Sricakra-yantra for worship lends credence to the fact that Shankara had clearly imbibed the Shakta advaita which keeping his own intact.

Shankaracharya’s visit to Kashmir is corroborated by local legends as well as most of the biographies written on this great master. Although Kalhana makes no mention of his visit to Kashmir but then considering the nature of Rajatarangni as a chronicle it shouldn’t surprise us.Kalhana makes no mention of Abhinavagupt either so one can reconcile with Shankaracharya not finding a mention in Rajatarangni.Besides we have to bear in mind the fact that Shankarachrya’s visit did not invite any royal attention and thus could have gone un-noticed by chroniclers of kings.

All that we have discussed so far in this paper would seem incomplete without the mandatory reference to the temple of Shankaracharya in the centre of Srinagar city.This is to my mind is a living example of the impact of Shankara on Kashmir.The reference to the temple is by Kalhana in the verse 341 of 1st Taranga of Rajatarangni wherein he mentions that Gopaditya (369-309 BC) consecrated the shrine of Jyesthesvara on the Gopa-hill(Gopadari). The hillock, according to Tarikh-i-Hassan[17], and (Waquiai Kashmir of Mulla Ahmed) was known originally as Anjana and later as Jeth Ludrak and the temple was built by King Sandhiman of the Gonanda dynasty of Kashmir (471-536 Laukek Era), corresponding to 2605-2540 B.C. He gave the name Jeshteshwara to the temple and the hillock came to be known as Sandhiman Parbat after the name of the King. This name Jeshteshwara for the temple prevailed till the arrival of Adi Shankaracharya, who is believed to have visited Kashmir and stayed at the temple complex. This is confirmed by Tarikh-i-Hassan[18]


[1] Page No.154.Abhnivagupta by K.C.Pandey published by Chaukhamba Amarbharti Prakashan,Varanasi,2002,Third Edition
[2] Page No.4,Life and Thought of Shankaracharya by G.C.Pande,published by MLBD,2004,2nd Edition
[3] Verse 61-72,Madhava’s Shankara-Digvijiya by Madhava Vidyarana(Trs by Swami Tapasyananda) published by Ramakrishna Matha,2003.
[4] Page No.125, Life and Thought of Shankaracharya by G.C.Pande published by MLBD,2004,2nd Edition
[5] Page No.28, Life and Thought of Shankaracharya by G.C.Pande published by MLBD,2004,2nd Edition
[6] Page No.349, Life and Thought of Shankaracharya by G.C.Pande published by MLBD,2004,2nd Edition
[7] Verse 54-92, Madhava’s Shankara-Digvijiya, by Madhava Vidyarana(Trs by Swami Tapasyananda) published by Ramakrishna Matha,2003.
[8] Page 21, Life and Thought of Shankaracharya by G.C.Pande published by MLBD,2004,2nd Edition
[9] Page 22, Life and Thought of Shankaracharya by G.C.Pande published by MLBD,2004,2nd Edition
[10] Page 23, Life and Thought of Shankaracharya by G.C.Pande published by MLBD,2004,2nd Edition
[11] Page 27,page 341, Life and Thought of Shankaracharya by G.C.Pande published by MLBD,2004,2nd Edition
[12] Page 29,page 345. Life and Thought of Shankaracharya by G.C.Pande published by MLBD,2004,2nd Edition
[13] Verse 73-109, Madhava’s Shankara Digvijiya, by Madhava Vidyarana(Trs by Swami Tapasyananda) published by Ramakrishna Matha,2003.
[14] Page 348, Life and Thought of Shankaracharya by G.C.Pande published by MLBD,2004,2nd Edition
[15] Page 151, Abhnivagupta by K.C.Pandey published by Chaukhamba Amarbharti Prakashan,Varanasi,2002,Third Edition
[16] Page 575,Abhinavagupta by K.C.P,K.C.Pandey makes erroneous reference to Anand Lahiri,pp 79-82 Saundaraya Lahiri translated by Tapasayaanada published by Rama Krishna Matha.
[17] Page 394-396,Vol-II Tarikh-i-Hassan.by Hassan Khuihami Published by Oriental Research Department,Srinagar,1954
[18] Page 80-82,Vol-I Tarikh-i-Hassan. by Hassan Khuihami Published by Oriental Research Department,Srinagar,1954