By S. Neeraj Krishna – The Weekly – Great Journey – Adi Sankara – Where it all began (http://week.manoramaonline.com/cgi-bin/MMOnline.dll/portal/ep/theWeekContent.do?contentId=10650095&programId=1073755753&tabId=13&BV_ID=@@@&categoryId=-169761)
Kalady: Myths and miracles abound in the stories of Shankara’s childhood
It was 101 years ago that the Sringeri Mutt zeroed in on Kalady, on the banks of the Periyar river, as Shankara’s birthplace. It was not just another birthplace; it was the fountainhead of a spiritual revolution that reinforced the matrix of Vedic culture or Sanatana Dharma. Shankara, regarded globally as the greatest Indian philosopher ever, spearheaded that revolution from Kalady to Kashmir—within a lifespan of just 32 years.
We Indians have “a myth-making tendency which clothes the bare bones of history with the full flesh of their poetic significance”, writes Y. Keshava Menon in his book The Mind of Adi Shankaracharya as he censures the ‘fanciful’ biography of Shankara, the Shankara Digvijaya, written by Madhava Vidyaranya, the 12th pontiff of the Sringeri Sharada Peetham.
However, the Ramakrishna Mutt’s Swami Tapasyananda, who translated the biography into English, has an explanation. “A highly poetic and mythological narration of the lives of individuals or events marks the measure of the tremendous impact these individuals and events have made on the racial mind of a people in those ancient days when correct recording was not much in vogue, and impressive events easily took a mythological turn,” he writes in his introduction.
Shankara’s life was a dream come true, literally. Back in the 8th century AD, a humble priest of a Durga temple, Shivaguru, and his equally pious wife, Aryamba, were a well-respected couple dwelling in Kalady, yearning for a baby. The elderly couple fell at the feet of Lord Shiva at the Vadakkumnathan temple in Kerala’s Thrissur district, and started performing austerities.
One night, Shivaguru had a dream. Lord Shiva gave him two choices: either a prodigious son with a short lifespan or a mediocre one with longevity. The learned priest opted for the prodigy. “Shivaguru’s wife became pregnant with a foetus that was charged with spirit of the great God Shiva,” says the Sankara Digvijaya, which notes divine manifestations in great detail.
Shankara evinced perfection even as a toddler. By the age of three, he mastered the Sanskrit language and verses. After his father’s death, Shankara resided at the nearby gurukula. He mastered the Vedas, the Shastras and the Upanishads with ease. The young boy’s grasp over the subjects and the insatiable thirst for knowledge left even his gurus marvelling.
Soon, stories of miracles grew around the boy. Once during his daily rounds of seeking alms, Shankara came across an impoverished house, where he encountered the tears of a woman. Pained by penury, and the inability to offer alms to the young brahmachari, she apologised and offered the only thing she had in her home—a gooseberry.
Moved by the woman’s helplessness and yet the generosity, Shankara composed a hymn invoking the Goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi. Pleased at Shankara’s prayer and convinced by his reasoning, the Goddess showered golden gooseberries into the woman’s home. The hymn Shankara composed came to be known as the Kanakadhara Stotra. The blessed house—Swarnathu Mana (golden house)—still exists about 30km from Kalady.
Kalady has more stories of miracles to offer. Indeed, the name Kalady—which means under the feet in Malayalam—is linked to one such story of the Periyar river changing course in response to Shankara’s prayers. “It is historically proven that the river did change her course,” says Prof. Subramania Iyer, honorary manager of the Sringeri Mutt in Kalady. The Sanskrit scholar recalls a newspaper clipping—a report about a satellite study that showed the changed course of the river.
History has it that by the age of seven, Shankara was eager to take up sanyasa. However, it took another miracle to get his mother to agree. And it was this respect and devotion towards his mother that eventually brought Shankara back to Kalady. Before leaving home on his spiritual quest, Shankara had promised Aryamba that he would be back by her side at the time of her death and perform her last rites.
It is said that once while meditating in Sringeri, Shankara had a vision of his mother’s end nearing. At once he reached home, and invoked Lord Krishna to give her moksha.
Shankara went on to break the norms of a sanyasin who, by renouncing all worldly links, was not entitled to perform Aryamba’s last rites. He ignored the protests from the orthodox Namboodiris in the neighbourhood, and conducted her funeral in his backyard.
Descendants of the only two families who helped Shankara still live near the temple. “The pyre was made of plantain stems and Shankara lit it by manifesting fire using his divine energy,” says Raman Namboodiri, one of the descendants. A stone lamp post marks the funeral spot inside the temple.
After the funeral, it was time for the love for his motherland. Shankara embarked on his all-India journey to revive and re-establish Sanatana Dharma. A journey that changed the cultural foundation of a nation.
As I leave the temple, two students of the Sringeri Mutt’s Vedapaathshala meditate on a bench outside. Students from here go on to become priests in various temples, including Badrinath. “Many of our students are now priests in foreign countries, too,” adds Iyer.
Though in decline, tradition continues.
Remembering the mother: The stone lamp post that marks the funeral spot of Shankara’s mother / Photo by Cherian Thomas