By R. Prasannan – The Weekly – Great Journey – Adi Sankara – Legendary walkathon through declining empires (External link)
A time of political darkness was also being illumined by new faiths, belief systems and dogmas
“Adi Shankara strove hard to synthesise the diverse currents that were troubling the mind of India of his day, and to build a unity of outlook out of that diversity. In a brief life of 32 years, he did the work of many long lives and left such an impression of his powerful mind and rich personality on India that it is very evident today. He was a curious mixture of a philosopher and a scholar, an agnostic and a mystic, a poet and a saint, and in addition to all this, a practical reformer and an able organiser.”
—Jawaharlal Nehru in The Discovery of India
Shankara appeared on the firmament of Indian thought at a time the country was caught in a great churning process—politically, socially, culturally and even pedagogically. Buddhism, which had illuminated the empire of Asoka Maurya, was in a flux, if not on the decline. The great Guptas and the imperial Harsha had patronised Buddhism as well as the Brahmanical faith, but their empires had also declined by the middle of the seventh century. The Gangetic plain was in political chaos when Shankara was traversing it towards Kashmir and Badrinath.
Shankara’s legendary journey was undertaken across several declining empires. To his east, the Pallavas were ruling from Kanchi, though whether he set up a seat there is still a matter of dispute. In fact, several historians have argued that none of the four mutts attributed to him—Sringeri, Puri, Dwaraka and Joshi—was actually set up by him.
The Chalukya control must have been waning over the territory around Sringeri when Shankara is said to have traversed through the region. Most of central India, through which he travelled, was being overrun by armies of the Rashtrakutas, the Gurjara-Pratiharas, the early Chandelas and the Pratiharas. In fact, it was during Shankara’s lifetime that Govinda III, attempting to bring about some stability and security to his reign over central India, moved his capital from Nasik to Manyakheta.
Kanauj, once ruled by the great Harsha, fell to Nagabhata of the Gurjara-Pratihara around the same time. Even Kashmir in the extreme north, was unstable. The powerful Lalitaditya had been threatening the kingdoms of the Gangetic plain, including Kanauj, and one ruler of Kanauj even sought the help of the emperor of China against him, though in vain. Lalitaditya finally defeated and slew Yasovarman of Kanauj. By the time Shankara reached Kashmir, its imperial glory had more or less faded under a succession of weak kings.
Shankara also must have traversed through Bundelkhand, where Nanika was overthrowing the Parihara governors and establishing the Chandela rule. The Chandelas would later build the great temples of Khajuraho.
Only Bengal in the east had some semblance of stability under the illustrious Palas who ruled for 450 years from AD 750. They revived the great Nalanda university and set up the Vikramsila university. In the south, the mighty Chalukyas, who had held much of the peninsular India together, were also on the decline, smitten as they had been by the rise of the Rashtrakutas in the north and the Pallavas and the Pandyas in the south.
But the picture was slightly different in Kerala, where Shankara was born. The Cheras ensured some kind of stability in the region, though several Pallava, Pandya, Chalukya and Rashtrakuta rulers claimed military successes in the area. One of the last kings of the Chera line was Cheraman Perumal. “Different sources describe him variously as a Jaina, Christian, Shaiva or Muslim,” writes Upinder Singh in A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India. “…It is possible that he renounced the world, dividing his kingdom among his kinsmen or vassals.” His reign ended in the 9th century, which wasn’t many years after Shankara’s samadhi in 820.
The rise of Brahmanism was also evident in society. “The incidence of grants by kings to Brahmanas increased significantly during c.600-1200,” writes Upinder Singh. “….The direct role of Brahmanas in the Chera period is evident in the fact that Brahmanas of the leading Brahmana settlements formed part of the Nalu Tali (the king’s council) at Mahodayapura,” the Chera capital. Kerala is said to have had 32 such original Brahmana settlements.
REJECTING DOGMA : Idol of Adi Shankara inside the Sharadapeetha at Dwaraka. Wall paintings above the idol give a pictorial depiction of Adi Shankara’s life / Photo by Janak Bhat
Thus, Shankara could not have taken birth at a more opportune place, geographically. As can be deduced from the Cheraman Perumal legends, the winds of new faiths, belief systems and dogmas were blowing across the Malabar coast at that time. Jainism and Buddhism had already been established there. The Christian faith had already taken roots, legendarily after the arrival of St Thomas the Apostle, and historically after the arrival of Thomas of Canaan. Islam, having come through Arab traders, was beginning to descend peacefully on the land. And just about a decade and half prior to Shankara’s birth in 788 even a Jewish colony had settled in Cochin, less than a day’s walk from his village. Kerala had already become India’s gateway of faiths.
It is no one’s case that Shankara borrowed or stole ideas and ideals from other faiths, but it is a historical truism that great philosophical systems emerge from syntheses of thoughts. One could say, new faiths were illuminating the politically darkening landscape of India where great empires were setting but new faiths were rising.
In fact, the period witnessed the best manifestation of syncretism of faiths and belief systems. The Rishabha Tirthankara of the Jains, and even the Buddha had been adopted by certain Vaishnavite traditions as avatars of Vishnu. The large image of the seated Buddha, found near the main gate of the great Brihadisvara temple which was built a few years later, is a testimony to this phenomenon of syncretism. It was, again, during the lifetime of Shankara that Amoghavarsha I of the Rashtrakuta dynasty, though a devout Jain, cut off his finger to propitiate Durga in a bid to salvage his kingdom from a raging epidemic.
It is also no one case that Shankara `invented’ Advaita or that the Advaita school began with Shankara. In fact, Gaudapada had already talked about Advaita (that reality is non-dual and that plurality is only an illusion born out of ignorance) in his Mandukyakarika, which was a commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad. And Gaudapada had in turn been influenced by Madhyamika and Vigyanavada Buddhism.
But it was Shankara who defined Advaita not just as a school of philosophy, but also as a system of epistemology. Several historians have alleged that he dealt the death blow to Buddhism, but the fact is that Shankara was the least concerned about the dogmas and practices of structural religion. It is another matter that Brahmanical faith adopted Shankara later, a process that should have been expected given the spirit of syncretism that prevailed during the period.