Preceptors of Advaita

by T. M. P. Mahadevan | 1968 | 179,170 words | ISBN-13: 9788185208510

The Advaita tradition traces its inspiration to God Himself — as Śrīman-Nārāyaṇa or as Sadā-Śiva. The supreme Lord revealed the wisdom of Advaita to Brahma, the Creator, who in turn imparted it to Vasiṣṭha....

7. Govinda Bhagavatpāda

GOVINDA BHAGAVATPADA

by

V. A. Devasenapati
M.A, PH.D.

To be known to all posterity as the preceptor of a world teacher—Jagadguru Śrī Śaṅkarāchārya —is indeed a rare honour; It evokes our sense of wonder. When we remember that Īśvara Himself was born as Śrī Śaṅkara for the spiritual rejuvenation of Hinduism, our wonder knows no bounds. But it may be asked whether a world teacher—especially if He is none other than the Supreme Lord Himself — needs a teacher; The answer is that the world will learn more readily by example rather than precept. The need for a teacher, especially in spiritual matters, is generally recognised. It is he who dispels the darkness of ignorance and frees us from all sorrow. He quickens our understanding and makes us see either what we had not seen before or what we had seen all too dimly. He makes the effulgence of wisdom which is latent in us shine forth in all its splendour. To make us realise this need for guru. He who is the preceptor of all preceptors set an example by Himself sitting at the feet of a guru. He wants us to realise that one who has not learned to obey is not fit to command and that one who has not himself sat at the feet of a worthy teacher, cannot become a teacher himself.

The preceptor who enjoys this honour of being the preceptor of Śrī Śaṅkara is Śrī Govinda Bhagavatpāda. In his pūrvāśrama, he was Chandra Śarmā, a handsome Brahmin of Kashmir. Yearning to hear Patañjali’s exposition of the vyākaraṇa at Chidambaram, he was coming to the South. On the bank of the River Narmadā, he saw Gauḍapāda who under a curse from Patañjali for leaving the place of instruction without permission had become a Brahmarakṣas. Patañjali had decreed that the curse would be lifted when Gauḍapāda found a disciple fit enough to learn the vyākaraṇa. It so happened that till the arrival of Chandra Śarmā, every scholar who came that way went wrong in giving the ending of a tricky word and was eaten up by the Brahmarakṣas. Chandra Śarmā proved an exception. He gave the correct ending. The time for the lifting of the curse had come. Gauḍapāda asked Chandra Śarmā where he was going. On being told that he was going to Chidambaram to learn at the feet of Patañjali, Gauḍapāda said that the exposition at Chidambaram was over and that he would himself teach the young man. But the condition was that without getting down from the tree on which the Brahmarakṣas sat, and without sleeping, the disciple should learn what he was taught as quickly as possible. Having no access to writing materials, Chandra Śarmā made a deep scratch in his thigh and with the blood that oozed out wrote on the leaves of the tree all that he was taught. The instruction continued night and day without a stop for nine days. The disciple thus had to go without food and sleep for nine days. On the completion of his instruction, he gathered up the leaves and tying them up into a bundle, took leave of his teacher.

According to the Patañjali-vijaya, a work by Rāmabhadra Dīkṣita written about 200 years ago, Chandra Śarmā is none other than Patañjali himself. Feeling that Gauḍapāda was not likely to secure a suitable disciple and thus might have to languish under his curse, Patañjali took pity on him and was himself born as Chandra Śarmā. This was but one more of the many roles that Patañjali played. Patañjali is none other than Ādiśeśha. Among the roles he played, those of Lakṣmaṇa and Balarāma may be remembered.

To continue the narrative, Chandra Śarmā walked some distance with his precious bundle. Overpowered by sleep and hunger, he slept for a while. On waking, he found that a sheep had eaten away part of the leaves in his bundle. He took the bundle with the remaining leaves and on reaching Ujjain, he lapsed into a state of unconsciousness on the pial of a Vaiśya. The daughter of the Vaiśya who was struck by the radiant face of Chandra Śarmā found him in this state of unconsciousness on account of complete starvation and exhaustion. She fed him by applying on his body ??rd rice. The nourishment entered his body through the pores of the skin and Chandra Śarmā woke up. He wanted to resume his journey. But the Vaiśya wanted him to marry his daughter who had saved his life. On finding him disinclined for marriage, the Vaiśya took Chandra Śarmā to the king. The king who was favourably impressed by the striking appearance of Chandra Śarmā wanted him to marry his own daughter. He sent for his minister to consult him in order to see whether there was sanction in the Dharma Śāstra for such a marriage. It so happened that the minister himself had a daughter; and so he was keen on giving her in marriage to this stranger. Thus, Chandra Śarmā had to marry all the three girls. He stayed with them till each of them had a son by him. Then he continued his journey to find his teacher — Gauḍapāda, from whom he had learnt the vyākaraṇa. Gauḍapāda had become a sannyāsin and was in Badarikāśrama. Chandra Śarmā also became a sannyāsin, receiving dīkṣā from his preceptor and henceforth came to be known as Govinda Bhagavatpāda.

While Govinda Bhagavatpāda was with his teacher at Badarikāśrama, sage Vyāsa, the author of the Brahma-sūtra visited them. He asked Govinda Bhagavatpāda to go to the bank of the River Narmadā and await the arrival of Śrī Śaṅkara who was the incarnation of Lord Śiva. The purpose of this incarnation was to write a commentary on the Brahma-sūtra. Prior to that, Śrī Śaṅkara was to be accepted formally as a disciple by Govinda Bhagavatpāda. Govinda Bhagavatpāda came to the bank of the River Narmadā. It is significant that Gauḍapāda was his teacher both before and after he became a sannyāsin. It is significant again that to play the role of the teacher he was at the foot of the same tree on which he had sat earlier to receive instruction from Gauḍapāda.

Śrī Śaṅkara came to the bank of the River Narmadā and offered his salutations at the lotus-feet of Govinda Bhagavatpāda. Govinda accepted Śaṅkara as his disciple and initiated him in all the mahāvākyas. Śaṅkara lived with his guru for sometime and learnt the spiritual truth and disciplines under him. After mastering all that had to be learnt from the guru, Śrī Śaṅkara took leave of his master to go to Benaras, where he wrote an authoritative commentary on the Brahma-sūtra and preached the Advaita doctrine.

The Patañjalicharita which narrates briefly some facts of the life of Śaṅkara says in the last verse—

govindadeśikamupāsya chirāya bhaktyā
tasmin sthite nijamahimni videhamuktyā
advaitabhāṣyamupakalpya diśo vijitya
kāñcīpure sthitim avāpa sa śaṅkarāryaḥ.

The writer wishes to place on record his deep sense of gratitude to His Holiness the present śankarāchārya of Kāñchi for the material of this biography. (Vide His Holiness’ Madras lectures, 1932).