Puranic encyclopaedia

by Vettam Mani | 1975 | 609,556 words | ISBN-10: 0842608222

This page describes the Story of Shankaracarya included the Puranic encyclopaedia by Vettam Mani that was translated into English in 1975. The Puranas have for centuries profoundly influenced Indian life and Culture and are defined by their characteristic features (panca-lakshana, literally, ‘the five characteristics of a Purana’).

Story of Śaṅkarācārya


The spiritual and philosophical preceptor of India. Śrī Śaṅkara was born in the village of Kālaṭi on the banks of the holy river Periyār, also called Cūrṇā and Pūrṇā. According to certain scholars he was born in 509 B.C. while certain others contend that he saw the light of day in 84 A.D. Yet others place his date of birth in various periods between 509 B.C. and 84 A.D. Whatever that may be, the great ācārya is believed to have lived only for 32 years.


The name of Śaṅkara’s father was Śivaguru and that of his mother Āryāmbā. This nambūdiri couple had no issues for a long time. So they went to Tṛśśivaperūr (Trichur) to worship Śiva in the famous Śiva temple there. The idol in that temple is known as Vṛṣācaleśvara and Vaṭakkunnātha also. Ere long Lord Śiva blessed them with a son. The belief is still held that, pleased with the prayer of Śivaguru and Āryāmbā Śiva himself was born as their son. The child began exhibiting extraordinary intellectual powers. At the age of five the boy Śaṅkara was invested with the sacred thread. By the time he was eight years old he had earned deep erudition in the Vedas, Śāstras, Purāṇas, epics (itihāsas) etc. His father was no more by then and on the mother devolved the duty of bringing the child up.


The boy showed no taste for or interest in childish plays, but evinced a tendency towards a life of renunciation. This attitude of the son pained the mother much and she wanted her son to get married. But, the boy did not like the idea. As fate would have it, an incident which proved to be a turning point in the boy’s life occurred soon. One day the mother and her son were bathing in the Periyār, when a crocodile caught hold of the boy. He cried aloud, and the mother got greatly alarmed. There was a custom for one to take to sannyāsa, irrespective of circumstances, when danger or death threatened one, and that is called āpatsannyāsa. Śaṅkara prayed to his mother for permission to take to sannyāsa at that moment when his end was near, and willynilly the mother granted permission. All at once the crocodile, which had so unexpectedly attacked him, disappeared equally unexpectedly. The boy came out of the river absolutely unhurt. The decision to take to sannyāsa was taken once for all. Śaṅkara assured his mother, before he started on a tour of the country, that he would be present at her bedside during her last days and also that he would duly perform her obsequies.

In the presence of the preceptor.

Śaṅkara, who then was not even seven years old, started for the north in quest of a preceptor, and on the banks of the Narmadā he saw Govinda-bhagavatpāda, the disciple of Śrī Gauḍapāda. The Bhagavatpāda was sitting in a cave surrounded by many wise people. Śaṅkara approached and requested him to admit him as a disciple and grant him sannyāsa. Śaṅkara’s prayer was granted.

Controlled flood.

A wonderful thing happened while Śaṅkara was living at the āśrama. The Narmadā was in spate and the huts on its banks were about to be submerged in water. People got alarmed. Then Śaṅkara put his kamaṇḍalu (vessel which sannyāsins keep with them for water) and chanted the Jalākarṣaṇa Mantra. (hymn to attract water). At once the water which had flooded the banks flowed back into the river. People and their huts were saved. Afterwards his Guru asked Śaṅkara to go to and live in Kāśī and write Bhāṣyas (commentaries) on the Prasthānatrayam, i.e. the Brahmasūtras, the Upaniṣads and the Gītā.


Accordingly Śaṅkara went to Kāśī. It was there that he took as his first disciple Viṣṇuśarman, a young man from the Cola region of the country. Śaṅkara called him Sanandana. Afterwards other disciples also came in. But, gradually jealousies cropped up in the ranks of the disciples. The other disciples of Śaṅkara thought that the latter was partial towards Sanandana and showed special affection and regards to him. Śaṅkara then decided to prove to the others that Sanandana was a disciple of exceptional talents and merits. One day Śaṅkara was bathing with his other disciples in the Gaṅgā, and he called Sanandana who was on the other side of the river to go to him. Sanandana walked on the surface of the water to his Guru, and as he took each step a lotus flower appeared beneath and held him up from sinking into the water. From that day onwards he came to be called Padmapāda, and his colleagues also realised his greatness.


Hastāmalaka was one of the best disciples of Śaṅkara. There is a story about his becoming Śaṅkara’s disciple. He was born dumb. His father, Divākara took Hastāmalaka to Śaṅkara believing that due to the blessing of the great Guru his son would gain powers of speech. Śaṅkara asked the dumb boy, 'who are you?' and the boy answered, 'I am the soul, which has no relationship with the parts and attributes of body and mind and which is also entirely different from them'. There were certain verses, which the boy recited as answer to Śaṅkara’s question and each verse ended with 'nityopalabdhisvarūpohamātmā' (I am the ātman and eternal knowledge, consciousess, is its characteristic). The boy’s answer pleased Śaṅkara, who took him as a disciple of his. The boy was given sannyāsa under the name Hastāmalaka the meaning of which word is he who is in possession of knowledge like the gooseberry in one’s palm.


Toṭakācārya was a disciple, who came soon after Hastāmalaka. The name Toṭakācārya has a story behind it. This disciple approached Śaṅkara with his request for discipleship in verse praising the latter. The verses were composed in the difficult toṭaka metre. The verses attracted Śaṅkara very much and he took the applicant as disciple. His real name was Kalānātha, but the Guru named him Toṭakācārya in view of his verses in that metre.

The Caṇḍālaguru.

There is a story about Śiva going to Śaṅkara at Kāśī in the guise of a Caṇḍāla and Śaṅkara receiving him. One morning Śaṅkara, after bathing in the Gaṅgā, was returning to the Viśvanātha temple. A Caṇḍāla with his hunting dogs and a pot of liquor was advancing from the opposite direction of Śaṅkara, who asked the former to move away from his path. Immediately the Caṇḍāla asked, which, the body or soul, is to remove itself from the path? The body of everybody is composed of blood, flesh, bones etc; the constitution of it also is the same. But, the Ātman is universal and omnipresent. Whom-which of the two-are you asking to move away from your path? Śaṅkara realised from the above answer that the Caṇḍāla was an extraordinary person. In fact, it was Siva, who had disguised himself as a Caṇḍāla. Śaṅkara prostrated before him. Śaṅkara thought about God saying that he who had attained Brahman and the consciousness of oneness with all, was his Guru, whether he be a Brahmin or a Caṇḍāla.

Derisive of the grammarian.

Śaṅkara has composed a hymn named Mohamudgara, in which he ridicules a grammarian. One day walking along a street in Kāśī Śaṅkara saw a grammarian learning by rote rules of grammar, and then he composed the very sweet and beautiful poem—Bhaja Govindam—to reveal the foolishness of the grammarian repeating the useless rules of grammar. By the very first verse of the poem Śaṅkara revealed the following truth: "Oh! fool! worship Govinda (Bhaja Govindam) meditate upon Him. You meditate upon Govinda realising the truth that when death approaches, the grammatical sūtra "Ḍukṛñ Karaṇe" will not come to your aid."

Saw Vyāsa.

Śiva, when he appeared in the guise of a Caṇḍāla to Śaṅkara, had asked him to visit Badarikāśrama, and accordingly he went there and visited Vyāsa. It was there that Śaṅkara met his supreme preceptor, Govindapāda. He returned to Kāśī with the blessings of Vyāsa and Govindapāda and engaged himself in the writing of books.

Śaṅkara’s age.

There is a legend about Śaṅkara’s life. Brahmā had allotted to him only eight years' life. Before Śaṅkara left his house at Kālaṭi, a batch of sannyāsins including Agastya and Nārada came to the house. The sannyāsins, who were pleased with the reception accorded to them blessed Śaṅkara to live for sixteen years instead of the eight Brahmā had permitted him.

While Śaṅkara was writing books at Muktimaṇḍapa at Maṇikarṇikā Ghat in Kāśī Vyāsa came there one day in the guise of an old man, and there ensued a lengthy discussion between the two. Padmapāda recongnised Vyāsa in the old man and told him and Śaṅkara thus: "How would there be peace and happiness in the world, if Śaṅkara, the incarnation of Śiva and Vedavyāsa, the incarnation of Viṣṇu quarrelled with each other?" As soon as his identity was revealed thus, Vyāsa admitted that Śaṅkara’s Bhāṣya on the Brahmasūtras was correct and blessed him to live for thirtytwo, instead of sixteen years.

Controversy between Śaṅkara and Maṇḍanamiśra.

Pandits (scholars) view the controversy or discussion between Śaṅkara and Maṇḍanamiśra as the most important event in Śaṅkara’s life. Three incidents, Śaṅkara’s meeting Kumārilabhaṭṭa, his defeating Maṇḍanamiśra and his entering the dead body of another person—may be found in connection with the above controversy.

A: Meeting with Kumārilabhaṭṭa.

Śaṅkara’s object was to expose the defects and draw-backs in Pūrvamīmāṃsā (the ritual part of the Vedas). Kumārilabhaṭṭa was the most competent person for a discussion on the subject. Śaṅkara, for this purpose, went to Prayāga from Kāśī. But, Kumārilabhaṭṭa was not in a condition fit for discussion. He was slowly burning himself to death in a heap of paddy husk set on fire. He courted this punishment voluntarily to atone for a wrong he had committed. Years back he had put on Buddhistic attire and studied the secrets of Buddhistic religion from its preceptors with the object of refuting that religion. Kumārilabhaṭṭa had great faith in Karmakāṇḍa, and he therefore, decided that it was his duty to make a tonement for the wrong he had purposely done according to injunctions laid down in Karmakāṇḍa. Śaṅkara was very sorry to find Kumārilabhaṭṭa in this condition in which discussion could not be held with him on the defects of Pūrvamīmāṃsā. Kumārilabhaṭṭa directed Śaṅkara to the great scholar, Maṇḍanamiśra at Māhiṣmatī for a discussion on Pūrvamīmāṃsā.

B. Maṇḍanamiśra defeated.

When Śaṅkara reached Maṇḍanamiśra’s house a ceremony connected with obsequies was being conducted there. The door for entry to the house was closed. Śaṅkara, by his yogic power entered the home and revealed the object of his visit to Maṇḍanamiśra, who agreed to the proposal of Śaṅkara. Accordingly a debate began between the two. Bhāratīdevī, wife of Maṇḍanamiśra and an erudite scholar in her own title acted as the arbiter in the discussion. Before the debate started she put a garland of flowers on the neck of both the contenders and announced that he would be considered as defeated in the debate the garland on whose neck began fading first. The debate continued for a number of days and the garland on Maṇḍanamiśra’s neck began showing signs of fading. According to the terms and conditions of the debate Maṇḍanamiśra acknowledged defeat. He accepted Śaṅkara’s discipleship.

C. Parakāyapraveśa (Entering the dead body of another person).

But, Bhāratīdevī argued that it was not enough that Śaṅkara had defeated her husband in debate. She challenged him to defeat her as well, and Śaṅkara accepted the challenge. Many topics dealt with in the various Śāstras were debated upon and Śaṅkara won all those debates. Ultimately Bhāratīdevī raised certain points connected with the science of sexual love in the course of her arguments. Śaṅkara admitted that he did not possess sufficient mastery over the subject as he had taken himself to sannyāsa even from infancy. But, he told her that if he was allowed necessary time for it he would debate on that topic also. Bhāratīdevī granted him time for it and the debate was adjourned.

Śaṅkara prepared himself for the study of the science of sexual love. Just at that time a King called Amaruka died. After asking his disciples to take especial care of his body Śaṅkara entered by yogic power the dead body of Amaruka. The dead King came back to life and his people felt very happy about the mysterious happening. Śaṅkara, who had thus entered the body of King Amaruka, lived in the palace enjoying all royal pleasures. He gained practical experience in the matter of sexual love from the queens in the palace. People found the resurrected King Amaruka to be better and more intelligent. The ministers suspected that the soul which dwelt in the body of the king was of some one else. Under the impression that it might be that of some yogin the ministers deputed agents to various parts of the country to find out if there was anywhere the dead body of a yogī, and they found out Śaṅkara’s body. It was about to be burnt on the pyre when the disciples of Śaṅkara met King Amaruka at the palace and informed him about these developments. Immediately Śaṅkara quitted his royal body and entered his own body now lying on the funeral pyre. He prayed to Śrīlakṣmīnarasiṃha and came out from the burning pyre.

Śaṅkara returned immediately to Maṇḍanamiśra’s house and the debate was started again. Bhāratīdevī realised that Śaṅkara could not be defeated in topics related to the science of sex. Thus Śaṅkara gained absolute victory in his debate with Maṇḍanamiśra, who then requested the former to grant him sannyāsa and accept him as a disciple. Śaṅkara did so. Bhāratīdevī too followed her husband in accepting sannyāsa.

Mother’s death.

Śaṅkara now knew that it was time for his mother’s death. According to his promise to her that he would be by her side at the time of her death Śaṅkara returned to Kālaṭi. His mother expired, and he made arrangments for cremation. But his relations did not cooperate with him and argued that it was against the injunctions in the Śāstras for a son, who had taken to sannyāsa, to perform the cremation etc. of his mother. At last, Śaṅkara had to cremate his mother by himself without others' help. He made a pyre with plantain stems in the compound of his house, and cut his mother’s corpse into pieces, carried the pieces to the funeral pyre and thus cremated the body.

Triumphal tour.

After the cremation of his mother Śaṅkara set out on his triumphal tour of the country. He is believed to have travelled throughout India three times. Wherever he went he gained friends and also made enemies. It was during these tours that he established the four maṭhas (centres) in the four regions of the country. Śṛṅgeri in the south, Jaganātha in the east, Dvārakā in the west and Badarīnātha in the north were the four chief maṭhas established by Śaṅkara and they continue to function even to this day.

The Śiva, Viṣṇu and Devī temples and other Hindu religious institutions to be found in India today very eloquently proclaim the achievements and unique reputation of Śaṅkara. It is traditionally believed that Śaṅkara brought five liṅgas from Kailāsa and installed them in the five great temples. Muktiliṅga in Kedāra, Paraliṅga in the Nīlakaṇṭha temple in Nepal, Mokṣa liṅga at Cidambaram, Bhogaliṅga in Śṛṅgeri and Yogaliṅga in Kāñcī are the five liṅgas installed by Śaṅkara. The 'five-in-one' method of worship was also propounded by him. According to this system Āditya, Ambikā, Viṣṇu, Gaṇanātha and Maheśvara are conjointly worshipped, special importance being given by the worshipper to his special deity. Śaṅkara appointed one disciple of his each in each of the maṭhas as its head and these maṭhas play the most important role in the maintenance and propagation of the Advaita philosophy. The heads of these maṭhas during various periods have been reputed Vedāntists and noble souls. Jyotirmaṭha in Badarikāśrama, Govardhana pīṭha in Jagannāthapurī, Śāradā pīṭha in Śṛṅgeri and Kāmakoṭipīṭha in Kāñcī are the most important of the Śrī Śaṅkara pīṭhas. Having thus completed his philsophic mission or object in life Śaṅkara entered mahāsamādhi at the age of thirtytwo. Some scholars believe that he disappeared in a cave at Kedāra while certain others hold the view that he ascended the Sarvajñapīṭha (the omniscient state) at Kāñcī and spent his closing days there.

His works.

The literary compositions of Śaṅkara may be classified into four divisions, viz, Bhāṣyas (commentaries), original works, hymns to various deities, and mantras.

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