The Guru has been accorded to a very high position in our Indian tradition. No one can attain fulfillment of the purpose of life without the grace of a Guru. We all desire Moksha whose sole means to attainment is Jnana (knowledge). The Vedas say that one attains immortality only by knowing the Supreme Brahman; there is no other path. I attempt to present a brief history of the Hoary Guru-Shishya Parampara of Sringeri in this article.
Sringeri derives from Rishyashringa Giri. Sage Vibhandaka, the son of Sage Kashyapa, and his son Sage Rishyashringa did their Tapas in Sringeri. Once, while at the river, Vibhandaka beheld the celestial nymph Urvashi and his seminal fluid came out. It impregnated a nearby female deer, in reality another celestial nymph cursed to be born as a deer, who gave birth to his son Rishyashringa. When she gave birth to Rishyashringa, she was freed from the curse. The child was born with a Shringa (horn) on the crown of his head. His father, Vibhandaka, wanted Rishyashringa to be pure of mind, so he was brought up in isolation in a forest hermitage, not knowing that women existed. He used to think that all people in the world were exactly like him and devoted his time to the study of scriptures under the guidance his father. When there was a famine in the kingdom of Anga, its king Romapada was advised that rain would not fall unless Rishyashringa came to his kingdom. The king then caused the young sage to be brought to his kingdom (without the knowledge of his father Vibhandaka), with the help of his courtesans. He also gave his daughter Shanta in marriage to Rishyashringa. With the arrival of the sage, Indra was pleased and sent bountiful rains to end the drought. The legend of Rishyashringa is narrated by Sumantra, the charioteer to King Dasharatha, in Ramayana. He tells the king that it has been foretold that the Ashwamedha Yajna being contemplated by him shall be performed by Sage Rishyashringa. Accordingly, the king appoints the sage to perform the sacrifice, by means of which he obtains four children: Rama, Bharata, Laxmana and Shatrughna. After heralding the advent of Lord Rama, Sage Rishyashringa came back to Sringeri to resume his Tapas. When he left his mortal coil, his light merged into the Shiva Linga he worshiped throughout his life. A temple exists even today, at Kigga about 10 km from Sringeri, wherein the Shiva Linga has a Shringa (horn) on it.
In the heart of the town of Sringeri is the temple of Sri Malahanikareshwara, on the top of a hillock, which can be reached by a flight of about hundred and fifty steps. The structure is a fine piece of architecture with figures of Narasimha, Vibhandaka and so on. On the ceiling is carved a lotus bud. The Shiva Linga that was worshiped by Sage Vibhandaka is known as Sri Malahanikaresvara (destroyer of the impurities of the soul) and is worshiped even today. He did penance here, had the vision of the Lord, united with the Lord in the Shiva Linga and disappeared from the mortal world. It is an Udhbhava Linga.
Jagadguru Sri Adi Shankaracharya:
Jagadguru Sri Adi Shankaracharya established four Amnaya Peethams in four directions of India for the sustenance and propagation of Sanatana Dharma. He established the first of the four Amnaya Peethams at Sringeri more than twelve centuries ago to foster the sacred tradition of Sanatana Dharma. Of large number of disciples who had the rare and inestimable privilege of serving the great Acharya, Sri Shankara Bhagavatpada, four of them stand out as prominent. These four disciples of Jagadguru Sri Adi Shankaracharya were later on anointed as Acharyas of the four Amnaya Peethams by Acharya Sri Shankara Bhagavatpada himself- Sri Hastamalakacharya as the Acharya of Govardhana Peetham in Puri (East), Sri Sureshwaracharya as the Acharya of Sharada Peetham in Sringeri (South), Sri Padmapadacharya as the Acharya of Kalika Peetham in Dwarika (West), and Sri Totakacharya as the Acharya of Jyotir Peetham in Badrikashram (North).
Tradition has it that after the Acharya had dispersed all non Vedic creeds prevailing in the country he was on the look-out for a convenient and holy place where he could establish an institution to spread the truths of Advaita Vedanta. When the Acharya came to Sringeri, he saw an unusual sight on the banks of river Tunga. A cobra was seen spreading out its hood over a frog in labour pains, to give it shadow from the scorching mid-day sun. Struck with the sanctity of the place, which could infuse love between natural adversaries, the Acharya chose this very location to establish his first Amnaya Peetham. That Jagadguru Sri Adi Shankaracharya spent 12 years, of his ephemeral life of 32 years, bears a testimony to his love for the place. Hallowed for all times by Sage Rishyashringa who stayed and performed Tapas there, Sringeri attracted the great Acharya with a remarkable sight. When Jagadguru Sri Adi Shankaracharya defeated Mandana Mishra, who later on became his disciple and came to be known as Sri Sureshwaracharya, he obtained a boon from the Goddess Saraswati that She would stay where Jagadguru Sri Adi Shankaracharya wished. He then invoked the Divinity of knowledge, Goddess Sharada, and consecrated an icon of the Goddess. Thus the Amnaya Peetham he founded at Sringeri in the southern part India for fostering the Vedas and sacred tradition of Sanatana Dharma came to be known as the Dakshinamnaya Sri Sharada Peetham. Jagadguru Sri Adi Shankaracharya consecrated four guardian deities viz. Kalabhairava, Anjeneya, Durgamba, and Kalikamba in four directions of Sringeri for protection of the sacred land. Jagadguru Sri Adi Shankaracharya composed many of his splendid works in Advaita during his 12 years long stay at Sringeri; the baton then passed onto Sri Sureshwaracharya.
Until the advent of 12th Acharya, Jagadguru Sri Vidyaranya, Sharada Peetham was very small with the Jagadguru and about 40-50 Sevaks, but that did not stop Jagadgurus from composing splendid scriptures. They directed worthwhile students on the path of self-realization. In the 14th century Royal patronage to Sharada Peetham began with the founding of the famous Vijayanagar Empire under the divine guidance of Jagadguru Sri Vidyaranya. The austerity of the Acharya influenced the rulers to such an extent that they began ruling in the name of the Acharya and granted rights over the administration of the land. At the rulers’ request, the Acharya began conducting a Durbar during the Navaratri festival – an occasion deemed by the rulers to honour their Guru. Subsequently, the Acharya came to be known as Karnataka Simhasana Prathisthapanacharya and Sharada Peetham became a mighty institution – a Samsthanam– and is known to this day as the Jagadguru Shankaracharya Mahasamsthanam, Dakshinamnaya Sri Sharada Peetham at Sringeri.
The ancient temple of Goddess Sharada, the presiding deity of Sringeri, has a glorious history which goes back to the establishment of Dakshinamnaya Peetham by Sri Shankara Bhagavatpada. Originally it was an unpretentious shrine with the Murti (idol) of Goddess Sharada made of sandalwood, installed over Sri Chakra that Sri Adi Shankara carved on a rock. Subsequently Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha and Sri Vidyaranya had a temple built in the Kerala style, with timber and tiled roof. Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha substituted the sandalwood idol with the present golden idol.
Sri Sacchidananda Shivabhinava Nrisimha Bharati raised the present structure in granite with polished granite walling round the sanctum and Sri Chandrasekhara Bharati consecrated the new temple in May 1916. Sri Abhinava Vidyatirtha made several improvements in the temple. The Mahamandapam has huge stone pillars exquisitely carved with deities like Durga, Raja Rajeshwari, Dwarapalakas and Devis which are all sculpted according to the Shilpa Shastras practised in Tamilnadu.
Ascension Of Sarvajna Peetham:
Jagadguru Sri Adi Shankaracharya came to know about a temple with four gates for Goddess Sharada in the Kashmir region. The temple was famous for its ‘Throne of Omniscience (Sarvajna Peetham)’, signifying that only an omniscient one can sit on that throne. Scholars from the Western, Eastern and Northern directions had in the past opened the three respective entrances, but till then there had been no learned man from the South. Sri Shankara who hailed from the south felt that he was divinely ordained to attempt to ascend the Sarvajna Peetham. So, the Acharya left for Sharada Temple in Kashmir. The people greeted Sri Shankara enthusiastically and hailed his advent as a lion ruling over the forest of Advaita. When the Acharya approached the southern entrance, a group of controversialists stopped him at once. Adherents of Kanada’s Nyaya School, Sankhyas, Buddhists, Digambara Jains, and followers of Jaimini put the Acharya to severe test in their own systems. The Acharya’s replies convinced every one of them that he was proficient in all philosophies and they opened the southern entrance. Holding the hand of Padmapada, the Acharya was about to ascend the Throne of Omniscience when he heard the voice of Goddess Sharada. The Goddess challenged him that it is not enough if a person was omniscient but he should also be pure; Shankara cannot be said to be pure because of his stay at the palace of the king Amaruka. To this challenge, the Acharya answered that from his birth he had done no sin with this body of his, and what was done with another body will not affect this body. Sharada’s voice became silent accepting the explanation, and the Acharya ascended the Throne of Omniscience, to the ovation of people there. The heavenly conch shells blew, kettledrums sounded like roaring of the oceans, and flowers rained down in praise of Sri Shankara. Sri Shankara thus ascended the Sarvajna Peetham signifying the triumph of the doctrine of Advaita.
Sri Shankara subsequently left for Badri after deputing the others to Sringeri and other places. At Badri he again preached his doctrine to followers of the Patanjali school who accepted Advaita as the true import to the Vedas. In this way, Sri Shankara, though Shiva’s Avatara, started his life as a seeker of truth at the hands of Govinda Bhagavatpada, dived deep into the secrets of the Upanishads, recovered the gold mine of Advaita, wrote the great commentaries and other Advaita treatises. He also composed hymns on Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesha, Subrahmanya, Sharada, Saraswati, Lakshmi, Narasimha including Shivananda Lahiri, Soundarya Lahiri and all the time remained a teacher until he reached the thirty second year of his life.
Primary Disciples of Sri Shankara:
Of large number of disciples who had the rare and inestimable privilege of serving the great Acharya Sri Shankara Bhagavatpada, four stand out prominent. Each one of them was unrivaled in his own way: Padmapada for intense devotion, Totaka for exemplary service, Hastamalaka for supreme self-realization and Sureshwara for deep learning.
विश्वं मायामयत्वेन रूपितं यत्प्रबोधतः ।
विश्वं च यत्स्वरूपं तं वार्तिकाचार्यमाश्रये ॥
A lucid gloss He wrote upon the Truth, that the illusion which pervades the world; Is embedded nowhere but in the mind, Sureshwaracharya, Him I salute!
Sri Sureshwaracharya ’s contribution to Indian philosophy in general and Advaita Vedanta in particular was both substantial and enduring. While His Master, Shankara, propounded the essentials of Advaita, Sureshwara reinforced by setting at rest all talk of diverse interpretations in his preceptor’s writings.
The Vedic tradition is continued in the two Mimamsa schools. Poorva Mimamsa along with the Uttara Mimamsa or Vedanta, is only with the direct continuation of the Vedic culture. The Poorva Mimamsa system took the ritualistic tradition of the Vedic culture. It helped a methodical interpretation of the otherwise complicated Vedic injunctions about rituals. It also supplied a philosophical justification for the beliefs which formed the source and authority for the rituals.
Sri Shankara Bhagavatpada heard of Kumarila Bhatta, the leader of one of the two branches of the Poorva Mimamsa school of philosophy. Kumarila Bhatta’s acceptance of the Vedic authority was total. He did not care to admit the existence of God. The great powers of argument of Kumarila Bhatta and the stories of his miraculous deeds in vanquishing well-known Buddhist scholars to reestablish the authority of the Vedas were almost known to everybody in the land. According to Kumarila Bhatta, the Vedas, like the world, are eternal. When Sri Bhagavatpada heard of Kumarila Bhatta, he was immolating himself in a fire of husk as an act of expiation. Sri Bhagavatpada asked the great Vedic scholar to stop the act of immolation, and come out to argue with him because the Poorva Mimamsa attitude to the existence of God was not correct. It was so even according to the authority of the Vedas which the Poorva Mimamsa scholars accepted as supreme. Kumarila Bhatta explained that in deference to Vedic injunctions, for which mission his life was devoted, the act of immolation should not be stopped in the middle. He had to purify himself according to his own convictions. Kumarila Bhatta however requested Sri Bhagavatpada to go to Mahishmatipura to meet his disciple Mandana Mishra and win him over to Advaita. He also added that the superiority of the Advaita doctrine will be revealed to the world if Mandana Mishra gets defeated in a combat of logic. Kumarila Bhatta described Mandana Mishra as the dearest of his disciples, and a great scholar in all branches of learning. Sri Bhagavatpada blessed Kumarila Bhatta and accepted advice for the debate with Mandana Mishra.
Contrary to the normal course of a disciple seeking the Guru to earn his grace by devotion, loyalty and service, it was Sri Bhagavatpada who went to Mahishmatipura in search of a disciple. The Magadha empire, with Pataliputra as its capital, stretched far and wide in those days. Mahishmatipura was an important town in the extensive Magadhan empire. Sri Bhagavatpada reached the city of Mahishmatipura with his followers. The passersby in the street gave him a graphic description of the place of Mandana Mishra. It was like a Royal Palace because of Mandana Mishra’s affluence. His father Hima Mitra was an honoured pandit in the court of the Kashmir kings. He belonged to Kannauj Gowda Brahmin community. Mandana Mishra received the best of traditional training at the feet of Kumarila Bhatta and perfected his scholarship. He settled at Mahishmatipura as a house-holder with his wife Ubhaya Bharati. She was the daughter of learned and pious Vishnu Mitra living on the banks of Sonabhadra river. Mandana Mishra and Ubhaya Bharati were an ideal couple, each of them equal to the other in all branches of learning, ethical character and strict observation of Vedic injunctions. Ubhaya Bharati was supposed to be an Avatara of goddess of learning, Saraswati Devi, as Mandana Mishra was supposed to be an Avatara of Brahma. His scholarship and the reverence in which he was held earned him the honorific epithet of ‘Mandana Mishra’, but his real name was Vishwarupa.
When Sri Bhagavatpada reached the mansion of Mandana Mishra, it was found bolted from inside. Sri Bhagavatpada, as a Sanyasin, had no right of admission into a house found closed. Such are the rules of Smriti, which govern the daily conduct of traditional Sanyasis. Sri Bhagavatpada pondered a little. He had firmly decided to redeem Mandana Mishra from the rigidity of dogmatic ritualism. Therefore he felt like using his extraordinary Yogic powers. Great Yogi and Siddha Purusha, as he was, Sri Bhagavatpada entered the house through the closed door.
Mandana Mishra had an innate dislike for Sanyasis because in his staunch belief of ritualism, he felt that only those who wished to escape the rigours of Vedic injunctions found a refuge in the Sanyasa Ashrama. Moreover when Sri Bhagavatpada entered the house, it was a time when the presence of a Sanyasin was most unwelcome. Mandana Mishra was performing a Shraddha and Brahmins were about to be fed. The entry of Sri Bhagavatpada at such a time caused a disturbance and Mandana Mishra was infuriated. Hot and harsh exchanges followed. The Brahmins found the situation going out of control. They wished to set it right. They suggested to Mandana Mishra to invite Sri Bhagavatpada to participate in the Shraddha by occupying Vishnu Sthana. Staunch ritualist as he was, Mandana Mishra was fully bent upon saving the ritual. He invited Sri Bhagavatpada accordingly but Sri Bhagavatpada declined to accept the invitation. He explained to Mandana Mishra that he did not come for Bhiksha but for a polemical debate. Mandana Mishra who had never met his match in learning before was willing for a dialectical fight. He gladly welcomed it. The Shraddha was allowed to be finished as ordained. The debate was fixed for the next day.
They met the next day after daily ablutions normal to their respective Ashramas. Ubhaya Bharati, the wife of Mandana Mishra, agreed to serve as the judge as they both sought her help expressing confidence in her impartiality and appreciation for her wisdom and scholarship. She was the only scholar available who could follow the disputants in their flight to sublime heights. As Ubhaya Bharati was a housewife, with her daily chores, which included the preparation of daily food for the disputants, she gave them each a garland of flowers. She said that the person whose garland faded away first was the person vanquished. To make the dispute more purposeful, they agreed to a wager. The person worsted in the debate should become the disciple and accept the Ashrama, way of life, of the victor.
Bhagavatpada was growing to a stimulating climax. On the eighth and the last day of the discussion, Mandana Mishra was fully convinced of the superiority of the doctrine of Sri Bhagavatpada. As Sri Bhagavatpada said, ‘Once the conditioning factor (the nescience) vanishes, the soul becomes one with the Brahman.’ When Mandana Mishra realised the limitations of his own standpoint and the Truth of Sri Bhagavatpada’s view, he found that his flower garland had faded. He fell prostrate before Sri Bhagavatpada, touched his feet and said in a trembling voice, ‘O Teacher of the World, pardon me and my audacity. I have offended you for these eight days. Hold your fury, O Jagadguru! and shower your grace on this humble servant. Ubhaya Bharati disappeared from the mortal vision and regained her celestial form as Saraswati Devi, the Goddess of knowledge. She, however, granted a boon to Sri Bhagavatpada that she would be immanent at a place where he may invoke her presence. Mandana Mishra gave all his earthly belongings to the needy at the last Vedic ritual which he performed before he took Sanyasa at the hands of Sri Jagadguru Shankara Bhagavatpada. Sri Bhagavatpada gave his disciple the name of Sri Sureshwaracharya. He took him on his march from place to place. Soon Sri Bhagavatpada reached Sringeri where he invoked the presence of Goddess of Knowledge. He installed Sri Sureshwaracharya as head of Sharada Peetham.
Sri Sureshwaracharya wrote elucidating metrical commentaries (Vartikas) on Taittiriya and Brihadaranyaka Upanishadic Bhashyas of Sri Bhagavatpada. Sri Sureshwaracharya also wrote commentaries on the Dakshinamoorti Stotra and Panchikarana of Sri Bhagavatpada. The commentary on Dakshinamoorti Stotra became famous as the Manasollasa Vartika. He also wrote a succinct monograph presenting an analytical picture of the fundamental teachings of Sri Bhagavatpada. This book became well-known as Naishkarmya Siddhi. Sri Sureshwaracharya also wrote a commentary called Balakrida on the Smriti of Yajnavalkya. Next to Sri Bhagavatpada, he stands as the foremost author in the field of Advaita.
In the village called Sribali, there was a learned Brahmin named Prabhakara. He was very rich but neither his learning nor his affluence gave him any pleasure as his only son appeared to be an idiot. The boy was as lovely as Cupid, as lustrous the sun, pleasant like the moon and patient like the earth; but he behaved like an idiot. It was with great difficulty that his Upanayana was performed. He never played, never talked, never got angry and never studied.
When Sri Shankara chanced to go to that village, the boy was about 13 years of age. The anxious father took his son to Shankara to see if anything could be done for him. In his first glance, the Acharya realised the greatness of the boy. He asked him who he was. The boy answered the question in chaste Sanskrit verse, expounding the real nature of the Self. As the boy was not suited to the life of a householder, the Acharya accepted him as his disciple and gave him Sanyasa. As the essence of truth had been so lucidly explained by the boy, like a gooseberry in one’s palm, he was named Hastamalaka. His extempore verses had the rare distinction of being commented on by the illustrious Acharya himself. Though he attended the classes held by the Acharya, it was more to verify his own experience than to gain proficiency in dialectics.
It was suggested to the Acharya that, by reason of his realization of the self, Hastamalaka was pre-eminently competent to write a Vartika (Sanskrit commentary in verse) on the Sutra Bhashya. The Acharya negated the suggestion by pointing out that Hastamalaka’s plane of consciousness always dwelt on the supernal Self. He would not stoop to write books. When the Acharya placed him on a higher level than those engaged in dialectics, the disciples were naturally curious to know how one who was not known to have devoted any attention to learning the Shastras could be proficient in realization. Sri Shankara explained the phenomenon. On the bank of the Yamuna, a great sage was seated in contemplation when some Brahmin girls came there to bathe. One of them had a baby two years old. She placed him by the side of the sage and asked him to take care of it till she bathed. The baby slowly crawled into the river and was drowned. The mother was aghast. She took out the dead body of the child and wept bitterly before the sage. The sage was quite oblivious of the happenings awoke from his Samadhi. He was moved by pity for the grieving mother. By the powers of his Yoga, he left his body and entered the body of the child. The dead child sprang into life. That child was Hastamalaka. This explained how he came to have such an all-comprehensive knowledge without any apparent instruction.
In the land of the Cholas, on the banks of the Kaveri, there was a devout Brahmin called Vimala. He was blessed with a boy. While in his teens, he mastered all the Vedas and showed an extreme distaste for worldly life. He earnestly hoped for a guru who would lead him across the ocean of samsara. Refusing to marry, he travelled with the purpose of finding such a Guru. Fortunately for him, Sri Shankara was staying at Kashi, expounding his inimitable Bhasyas. The boy Padmapada resplendent with Brahma-Tejas ran to him and threw himself at his feet. The Acharya perceived the learning, courage and earnestness of the newcomer. He accepted him as his disciple. He initiated him into the Sanyasa Ashrama under the name of Sanandana.
He was the first of Shankara’s disciples. He was the first in more than one sense. His unrivaled devotion so pleased the teacher that, in appreciation of his earnest search for truth, the Acharya took the trouble of explaining to him his works thrice. When Sanandana and a few other disciples were once on the other bank of the river Ganga, the Acharya called them to come to him. No boat was available. But Sanandana, secure in faith and grace of the Acharya, stepped on the water and began to walk. Struck with his devotion, the divine Ganga showed her admiration by placing lotuses on the water to support his feet at every step. To the astonishment of all, he unconcernedly crossed over to the other bank where he was duly rewarded by the embrace of the Acharya. It was a mark of affection, which no other disciple had ever received. In memory of this incident, he was henceforth known as Padmapada at the desire of the Acharya.
Even before becoming a disciple, he was in the centre of the world of Vedic, traditional scholarship of his times. It is however not the revelation of his great scholarship, but the great challenge he faced, the course he opted, of flowing generosity and atonement, and the prophetic understanding he displayed that made him great as a person. There is a famous incident of his saving the life of the Acharya. A devotee of Bhairava, a Kapalika, took advantage of the nobility of the Acharya. He begged him to give his head as an offering to the terrible Bhairava. The Acharya willingly consented but he warned that his head must be taken without the knowledge of his disciples, especially of Padmapada. When the disciples had all gone to have their bath in the river, the Kapalika came. He found the Acharya in Samadhi. He raised his sword to smite and sever the head. Unfortunately for him, Padmapada intuitively divined the nefarious intention of the Kapalika. By force of his meditation on Lord Narasimha, he assumed the latter’s form. He pounced upon the Kapalika and tore him to pieces. Having done this, he sent up a terrible roar of triumph. His co-disciples rushed to the spot and the Acharya rose from his Samadhi. He was as much astonished as the others. With great difficulty, he made Padmapada resume his form. They were all surprised to learn that in his Purvashrama, Padmapada was a staunch devotee of Nrisimha. He had contemplated on Narasimha while doing penance on the hills of Ahobila.
Totakacharya had neither the learning of Sureshwara and Padmapada nor the realization of Hastamalaka, but he was unrivaled in scrupulous personal attention to the Acharya. He found pleasure in looking after the personal comforts of the Acharya as a devoted sevak. His co-disciples naturally entertained a lesser idea of his intellect. Even Padmapada was not free from this misconception.
Once when Totaka had gone to the river for washing clothes, the Acharya waited for his arrival before he would begin his exposition. The other disciples were impatient. Padmapada could not restrain himself. He said: ‘Why should we wait for one who is no better than a wall?’ Sri Shankara naturally did not relish this remark. He felt the necessity to teach Padmapada. So by a mental flash, he endowed Totaka with all the knowledge of the Shastras. When Totaka returned from the river, he was literally in bliss. He addressed the Acharya in a few brilliant stanzas in Totaka metre. Since then, known before as Giri, he got the title of Totakacharya. He was counted among the foremost disciples of Sri Shankara. He condensed the essential teaching of the Upanishads in a small treaties. This is called Sruti Sara Samuddharana composed in the same Totakametre.