Age of Śankara - Shri T.S. Narayana Shastry
I have not written this review in a conventional manner of writing one, for reasons which would be clear by the end of it. I hope that my faults will be overlooked and the reader would benefit out of this pseudo-review.
The inhabitants of the land of Bhārata (Love of the light of Knowledge) since time immemorial have been characterised by an innate thirst for the Truth. Many great beings have tasted the nectar from that primordial fountain and have guided the common folk to that same source by their gracious words. They are the seers of reality and our land has been blessed by a timeless lineage of the same kind. In the recent history of India, none has impacted its Philosophy and Religion more than Bhagwatpāda Shri Adi Śaṅkarāchārya. Whatever exists today of Hindu Civilisation owes much to his compassionate nature. But the reality today is that very few among us know of Him, and most of our knowledge of his life and time is shrouded by great obscurity. This obscurity that surrounds this great being bears testimony to our ingratitude and forgetfulness and the consequent separation from our own roots. The veil cast upon our golden past is manufactured out of our own ignorance and indifference.
In this regard the present work is very important. It is the result of immense toil by a great man devoted to the cause of his motherland. Therefore, it is fitting that first some light be cast on how this book came about. The author, Shri T.S. Narayana Shastry, carrying on his father's work, researched for 20 years to convey the actual history of Hindu civilisation with the correct time of Śaṅkara, correct chronology of the Indian kings in the Kaliyuga and amassed a collection of almost 50,000 volumes with many rare and priceless manuscripts. He wrote a book of 800 pages but owing to dearth of funds he decided to get it published in eight parts. The first part of that series is the present book, Age of Śaṅkara (1916). In 1917 all his work and his collection was mysteriously lost and subsequently, he died in 1918. His quiet death does speak something loud and clear - when the drums of ignorance are being beaten with fervour, it is the truth that has to make way.
The British mission of 'civilising India' was at first carried out by the destruction of existing proofs of Indian History and Religion and then injection of that form of the same into the minds of the people, that is best suited to cater to the needs of British Imperialism. Anything worthwhile was conveniently shifted to post the birth of Christ and all the past was thrown into realms of oblivion making the crux of Hindu Religion and Philosophy appear blasphemous. How could a nascent civilisation, emboldened by fragile discoveries in Science, accept, that there could have been any civilisation and philosophy flourishing, that predates its own existence? And in this task, the imperialists were ably served by many scholars of Indian origin especially those associated with the supposed Indian Renaissance, in harmony with Macaulay's idea of creating in India, "-a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect." The Shāstras were misinterpreted freely, new dates were assigned accordingly, old treatises destroyed and in total, a new conjecture in the name of History of Indian Philosophy and Religion emerged resting on imaginary, wishful theories. Sadly, it is the same ancient history that is taught all around India which has led to common disbelief in Indian traditions and their branding as irrational and superstitious.
As is suggested by the title of the book, the central issue raised is the time of Śaṅkara. The author, in harmony with traditional account assigns the time of 509 B.C - 476 B.C. to the birth of Adi Śaṅkara rejecting the commonly accepted time frame of 788 C.E. - 820 C.E. (which is in fact the time of Abhinava Śaṅkara - another illustrious teacher). Now, it might be argued as to what does it change if Adi Śaṅkara's time be altered? We still have his philosophy intact.
It changes everything, the misleading fantasies held regarding Indian traditions leading to the loss of common faith, hang by this thin thread of obscurity. Displacing Adi Śaṅkara's time by 1200 years, facilitates to shrink the entire Indian history to a few thousand years - traditionally known to have its origins in great antiquity. This in turn leads to the common belief of regarding Indian traditions and customs as blind superstition, which in reality, are essentially rooted in transcendent truths. Therefore the correct age of Śaṅkara is pivotal in the context of correct history of India. Also, it is essential to note that the great Āchārya came at a time when the teachings of the Vedas were waning on account of attacks by various heterodox sects. This very fact proves that an established order flourished before, for decline implies a prior prosperity. Also, it is important to mention here that, irrespective of whether one believes in the claims made in this book, one thing this book makes sufficiently clear is that - Indian History and culture has been vehemently misinterpreted and it is imperative that it should be revived in its true form.
The first part of the book deals with the method of investigation followed by the orientalists. The writer elaborates on the prejudiced selectivity and hasty inferences drawn by the scholars from the various sources of Indian history. Whenever an ancient record conflicts with any of their hasty conclusions, they misinterpret or discredit the record other than revise their own conclusions. He is especially critical of the undue importance attached to the accounts of the foreign travellers, who never came to India, exclusively for scholarly purposes. He says,
"The first orientalists had no doubt hard intellectual feats to perform to reconcile the undeniable antiquity of Indian Civilization with the common traditions of European History which could not trace back to any civilization earlier than that of Greece, nor to a period anterior to a few centuries before the Christian Era. The most liberal minds could not, therefore, be brought to admit the possibility of any great literary achievement in India before the time of Alexander's invasion; and too much has been made of the testimony of foreign travellers, whether Greek or Chinese."
Identity is established between unmeaning hybrid names found in accounts of these foreign travellers and those of famous Indian Kings or writers based entirely upon partial resemblance in sound and character. Also, the important scriptures are misinterpreted to furnish false chronology. For example on identifying 'Kanerki' with Kanishka, the Râjataraṇgiṇî of Kalhaṇa is used to declare Kanishka as the founder of the Śaka era in 57 B.C. (in opposition to all traditional records). In the same work Kalhaṇa gives the history of the kings of Kashmir spanning over a period of 2362 years, from Kanishka upto his own time, so according to these orientalists Kalhaṇa's time must be around 2305 A.D.! Another important point is the identity established between 'Sandrokottas' of Greek writers and Chandragupta Maurya, successor of Nandas and founder of the Mauryan dynasty held to be the contemporary of Alexander the Great whose time is fixed as 315 B.C. This is then used as the starting point of Indian History and its consequent reconstruction (which was essentially destruction). The author questions this claim and argues how can one be sure that Sandrokottas necessarily implies Chandragupta, the Maurya. There have been many kings by that same name belonging to different dynasties, with the one belonging to the Gupta empire being very illustrious. (An interesting point, though not given in the book is that Megasthenes never mentioned Chaṇakya or Vishṇugupta in his Indika!) Then on this uncertain basis Lord Buddha is assigned the date of 567 B.C. - 487 B.C., which according to the author is in reality around 2000 B.C. (in accord with the Purānas), and gives sound proofs to make his point.
The second part of the book gives a brief overview of the chief eras used in Indian Chronology. The author points out that the variety of eras used in India is among the causes of confusion and difficulty in determining date of events in history of India for the orientalists. Major ones among them are:
● Srishtyabda - Era of creation of the present world presided over by our Vaivasvata Manu that commenced about 1,955,885,011 years ago, in 1955,883,101 B.C..
● Chatur Yuga - Krita, Treta, Dvāpara and Kali consisting of 12000 divine years or 4,320,000 human or solar years. The present stage is the Kali Yuga which began in 3102 B.C., 37 years after the Mahâbhârata war.
● Laukikābda - This is traditionally used in Kashmir (Saptarshi Era) beginning from 3078 B.C, or 24 of Kali.
● Yudhishṭhira Śaka - It began with the coronation of Yudhishṭhira after the war in 3139 B.C.
● Śaka Kāla - Marks the defeat of the Śakas by Ṣrî Harasha Vikramâditya of Ujjain, commenced 2526 years after Yuddhishthira and fixed at 576 B.C.
● Vikrama Era - Ascribed to Vikramāditya of Mālava from 57 B.C. a.k.a. Samvat Era or Mālava Era.
● Ṣālivāhana Era - Related to the King Ṣālivāhana of Prasthāna beginning from 78 A.D.
● Kollam Era - It begins from foundation of Kollam (Quilon) from 825 A.D and is also called the era of Paraśurāma.
The third part of the book throws light on the main incidents in the life of Śaṅkara. There have been many accounts of the same in the form of various Śaṅkara Vijayas. The author also provides a brief yet succinct account of the major works ascribed to Śaṅkara which adds to the importance of the book from the philosophical dimension. A brief account of the life of the Loka Guru is:
Śaṅkara was born in Kâlaṭi on the northern bank of the river Chūrṇi (Alavoi) in Kerela to a pious Brahmin pair of Shivaguru and Āryâmbâ in 509 B.C. (2593 of Kali Yuga). His uncommon intelligence made his father initiate him into the mysteries of Aksharābhyāsa at the very age of three. The boy was 'Ekaṣrutidhara' - he could repeat verbatim anything he went through even once. In two years he learnt all branches of secular literature including grammar and rhetoric, he had to be invested with the sacred thread by performing his Upanayana at the very commencement of fifth year. His extraordinary genius and his exemplary compassion made him the centre of attraction for the common folk. By the time he was eight, he became proficient in all fields of Aryan literature. The flame of Vairāgya, already burning bright in him was kindled into a blazing fire when his old father passed away at that time. He had decided to lead the life of a Sannyâsi but his mother's affection bound him. A chain, be it a golden one, has to be broken to realise freedom. So, it happened with the famous incident of the crocodile which forced his mother to give her consent to his renunciation (Apat Sannyâsa). He left in search for a guru promising his mother that he would always be ready to attend to her spiritual needs. According to the instruction received intuitively, he reached Amarkantak on the banks of the river Narmadā to meet Bhagawat Govindapādāchārya, his revered teacher. Here, he was ordained into Krama Sannyâsa (full ascetic). For two years he learnt all the important works on Vedānta and composed many minor poems. Śaṅkara took special interest in the Māṇḍūkya Kārikās of his Paramguru, Bhagawat Gauḍapādāchārya which awakened in him, the desire to meet the latter. He set for Badrikāshrama and met his venerable Paramguru and for four years studied under him. He expressed his desire to write a commentary on the Māṇḍūkya Kārikas and was graciously asked to do so. Pleased with his efforts his grand master asked him to write commentaries on the Vedānta Prasthāna Traya, which includes:
● Smriti Prasthāna - Includes portions of Mahâbhârata, Bhagwat Gîtā, Uttara Gîtā, Anu Gîtā, Sanatsujātīya and Vishnu Sahasranāma Stotram.
● Shruti Prasthāna - Includes the ten principal Upanishads alongside some other Upanishads like the Śwetāśwara, Nrisimhatāpani, Kaushîtaki and Maitreyî.
● Yukti Prasthāna - The Vedānta Sūtras or Brahma Sūtras of Badarāyana.
Thus, Śaṅkara exhibited his superhuman capacity by composing the world renowned 'Shoḍaśa Bhāshya' or Sixteen Commentaries in a short time-span of four years, which stand unrivalled to this day. Delighted with his activity Gauḍapāda took him to Kailāṣa to meet his Guru and Paramguru, Bādarāyaṇa and Śuka. Upon seeing the great beings, Śaṅkara's heart was filled with delight and he composed the Dhanyaṣtakam. His venerated teachers instructed him to go to Varānasi, the great seat of Aryan learning, to establish the supremacy of Advaita Vedānta. After a mysterious turn of events, Śaṅkara was blessed with the Darshana of Lord Dakśinamūrti surrounded by all of the teachers of his lineage, and here he composed the famous Dakśinamūrti Stotram. He was then bestowed with Adhyātma Sannyāsa and had the vision of Mahādeva- The one behind the many, manifesting in myriad forms and became a Jîvanmukta (liberated while alive). Upon returning from Kailaṣa, he learned of his mother's ill health and fulfilling his promise, goes to attend her during her last days. The blessed mother passed away like a yogin. Śaṅkara performed her last rites and the Mātṛi Stuti composed by him at this time is the epitome of his deep reverence and love for his mother. It would be well to present the first Ṣloka of his Matṛi Stuti:
आस्तां ताव दियं प्रसूतिसमये दुर्वारशूलव्यथा,
नैरुच्ये तनुशोषणं, मलमयी शय्या च संवत्सरी ।
एकस्याऽपि न गर्भभारभरणक्लेशस्य यस्याः क्षमो,
दातुं निष्कृति मुन्नतोऽपि तनय स्तयै जनन्यै नमः।।
"At the time of giving birth to me, who suffered an unbearable acute pain, who became weak due to distaste (caused by me while she was carrying me), and after my birth, for one year used to sleep on the bed made dirty by my faeces and urine, let alone all these things (no one can do anything in return), just one thing, that my mother bore my weight in her womb,at that time the distress she suffered, even the most exalted of offspring is not able to compensate, my salutations to that mother."
Then being instructed by his guru Śaṅkara started on his Digvijaya (Philosophical Conquest). This is beautifully expressed by the author:
"Protected with the armour of Vairāgya, armed with the shield of Jñāna, holding the bow of Pranava-Dhyāna, ready with various kinds of arrows in the form of Ṣāma, Dāma, etc., equipped with guns of Prasthānatraya-Bhāshyas, furnished with weapons of Vedāntic poems, the King of the Ascetics prepares himself for his Universal Philosophic War……"
He arrives at Prayāgrāj - on the auspicious day of Māghi Amāvasya and goes to the hermitage of Sage Bhāradwāja - the great 'Kulapati' (Kulapati, in those days was one who provided education to ten thousand pious students and gave them free board and lodgings. How many of our present day Kulapatis, i.e., Vice-Chancellors of Universities can even imagine living upto this ideal?). The Āchārya was soon a distinguished figure and many scholars, from different parts of India came to him. His stay in the holy city was accompanied by several miraculous occurrences like curing a youth affected with severe leprosy with his mere touch, reviving a dead boy and many more. He then goes to Pratishthāna Puri where he debates Prabhakarāchārya, advocate of Pūrva Mimansa and among the distinguished disciples of the great Kumārila Bhatta. Within hours, Śaṅkara convinces him of the superiority of Advaita Vedānta. Prabhakarāchārya then requests Śaṅkara to bless his son, Prithvidhāra, who had not spoken a word after he became five years old and seemed dull and disinterested. The Āchārya then questions the boy, who he was and why was he behaving so. The boy responded by composing the famous 'Hastāmalaka Stotra', knowing which one is supposed to have the supreme knowledge in his hasta (palm) like the amalaka (gooseberry). Then one day, upon hearing the news that Kumārila Bhatta - the great champion of Karma Mārga, had decided to commit himself to flames, Śaṅkara, in a haste went to visit him and convince him to give up his plan. But Bhatta was adamant and directed Śaṅkara to his most celebrated disciple, Mandana Miśra. The Āchārya set forth for Mahiṣmati, the place which witnessed one of the greatest feats of Śaṅkara's life - Polemics with Mandana Mishra. The stage was set with Mandana Mishra's wife, Bhārati as the umpire. Mandana was defeated but his wife intervened and challenged Śaṅkara. Eventually, Śaṅkara emerged victorious and Mandana Mishra became his disciple. Thus, Śaṅkara established his supremacy in every sphere of knowledge. He spent the next twelve years preaching his philosophy and established four Mathas (monasteries) in four directions of the country and another one at Kanchi. He then attained Brahmîbhāva at the age of 32 years in 476 B.C. What the great Āchārya accomplished in his short life, is a clear indication of his divinity and his infinite compassion for the suffering humanity, that is characteristic of Lord Shiva - the deity he is known to be an incarnation of.
It might be said that this book by Shri Shastry deserves much credit and appreciation and works of the same kind, must be unearthed to reinstate the truth about our culture and heritage. India holds the solutions to much of the problems faced by humanity, but to learn anything, the 'jaundiced eye' with which India is looked at must be shunned by one and all and most importantly by Her own children.