By Rachna Tyagi – The Weekly – Great Journey – Adi Sankara – Journey’s first steps (External Link)
A sacred river: Omkareshwar, where Shankara was initiated into sanyasa. / Photo by Amey
Omkareshwar: Shankara’s search for a guru to initiate him into sanyasa ended here
Among the many legendary tales that have originated from the picturesque island of Omkareshwar, one about the course of the Narmada’s tributary Kaveri is curious. “A small 22 mile-long river, Kaveri joins the Narmada at Omkareshwar, but as she was not received properly by the bigger and elder sister Narmada, in her wrath, she crosses the Narmada unmixed with its waters carrying not only the flow, but also its name to the other side, then when cajoled, she rejoins the Narmada about two miles below,” writes M.T. Mahajan in his essay Introducing Omkareshwar Mandhata in the book Adi Sankara at Omkareshwar.
Omkareshwar is one among the 12 Jyotirlingas in the country. It was in a cave in Mandhata, a village in Omkareshwar, that Shankara found his guru, Srimad Govinda Bhagavadpada (a disciple of Gaudapada, and author of the Mandukya Karikas, a commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad), and was initiated into sanyasa.
The cave has become an important and popular Hindu shrine, especially from February to March during Maha Shivratri and in November when pilgrims take part in the Karthik Purnima (full moon) festival and attend the annual fair. To reach the Omkareshwar ghat, one has to cross the Narmada either by a boat or by using one of the two footbridges which spares visitors the arduous task of climbing the stairs on reaching the temple. The view of the ghat from the river is breathtaking—a riot of colours during the day and a blanket of lamps during night.
In 1980, the reigning Shankaracharya of Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, Sri Jayendra Saraswati Swamigal, visited Omkareshwar and initiated the process of renovation and preservation of the hallowed spots. But the temple still shows signs of ravages of time.
Legend has it that king Mandhata from the Ikshvaku clan (considered an ancestor of Lord Ram) performed great penance here. As a result of which, Lord Shiva granted Mandhata his wish of establishing himself as an Omkar, giving the village its name. (In ancient times, the village was situated atop the island hill and hence called Mandhata parvat.)
“Om is also a physical feature of this place,” says Pandit Dankeshwar Dixit, sayankaleen pujari, the priest who performs the evening prayer, referring to the shape of the island that is said to be like the symbol Om. The sayankaleen puja is a grand spectacle, with the entire ghat coming alive with the sounds of chanting and bells, and the floating lamps giving the river an ethereal appearance.
Shankara was eight when he left his village in Kerala, looking for a guru. He walked over 1,500km, crossing forests, mountains, valleys and rivers to reach Omkareshwar, where he found Bhagavadpada in a state of nirvikalpa nishta (single-minded devotion) in a cave under a banyan tree on the banks of the river Narmada.
“It was widely believed that this is the same banyan tree from which Sage Gaudapada, the disciple of Suka, the son of Veda Vyasa, suffering a curse, was hanging upside down in the form of ‘Brahmarakshasa’ and eating those walking under, unable to give appropriate answers to his questions on Advaita. Govind Bhagavadpada gave correct answers and became his disciple and took down the intricacies of Vedanta and redeemed Gaudapada of the curse,” writes M.G.K. Menon in an essay titled Shri Kanchi Kamakoti Peeta Seva Trust Omkareshwar.
The cave temple has two defunct entrances which face north and south. They were used for going for early morning dips in the Narmada and for Jyotirlinga darshan. However, around 600 years ago, the two entrances were blocked.
There is a story behind how Shankara became Bhagavadpada’s disciple. Around the time when Shankara reached Omkareshwar, Narmada had flooded the entire area. Unaware, the guru was still in deep meditation. The distressed villagers had gathered around him hoping that he would do something to mitigate the fury of the river but they were afraid to disturb him.
On seeing the plight of the aggrieved villagers, Shankara took out his urn and held its mouth against the surging floodwater. Miraculously, the water was contained inside his urn. The cheering of the people brought the guru out of his meditative state and he took note of Shankara’s deed. Shankara prostrated before the guru who embraced him and took him under his wings as his disciple. He imparted Brahma Vidya, all the yogas and other intricate secrets of the Vedas, Puranas and Upanishads to Shankara, and assigned him the task of taking Vedantic thought and practice across the country.
Writes former president Dr S. Radhakrishnan in an essay titled We Are All Greater Than We Know: “Shankara appeared as an eager champion of the orthodox faith and spiritual reformer. He tried to bring back the age from the brilliant luxury of the Puranas to the mystic truth of the Upanishads. The power of faith to lead the soul to the higher life became for him the test of its strength. He felt impelled to attempt the spiritual direction of his age by formulating a philosophy and religion which could satisfy the ethical and spiritual needs of the people better than the systems of Buddhism, Mimamsa and Bhakti.”
People in Omkareshwar believe that every stone in the Narmada is a part of Shankara and that taking one from the river is equal to taking a part of him with you. Such is the power and respect that Shankara enjoys even now.
The holy cave: The sculpted wall of the cave in which Shankara’s guru was meditating at the time of his arrival / Photo by Amey Mansabdar