By N. Bhanutej – The Weekly – Great Journey – Adi Sankara – Searching for Shankara (http://week.manoramaonline.com/cgi-bin/MMOnline.dll/portal/ep/theWeekContent.do?contentId=10650615&programId=1073755753&tabId=13&BV_ID=@@@&categoryId=-169761)
Celebrating the sage: Sringeri came into prominence only around the 13th century, when it was patronised by the Vijayanagar kings / Photo by N. Bhanutej
At the peak of the Kodachadri mountain—which rises 1,343m above sea level, just before the Western Ghats fall off towards the Arabian Sea between Shimoga and Udupi districts of Karnataka—stands an ancient, unknown and unheralded stone mandapa of uncertain age and provenance. People only know it as Sarvajna Peetham.
Legend has it that Adi Shankaracharya sat in penance where the temple stands. About 2km downhill stands another ancient temple, dedicated to the Mother Goddess (Shakti). This temple is believed to be the origin of Goddess Mookambika—Adi Mookambika or Moola Mookambika.
A visit to this temple requires devotees to negotiate a treacherous climb. So Shankaracharya is believed to have shifted the idol of the goddess from Kodachadri to Kollur, 35km away. It is said that the present-day Kollur Mookambika idol was installed and consecrated by Adi Shankara himself.
A decade ago, Sarvajna Peetham was a ruin. There was neither a deity nor a priest. Trekkers and tourists making merry could even climb atop the temple’s roof through a metal ladder that was nailed to its stone walls.
A lot, however, happened in that decade: Sarvajna Peetham now has worshippers. Mahabaleshwar Bhat, the priest, makes a living out of the offerings, besides drawing a salary from the state muzrai department. The most interesting aspect of the temple is the new deity: Adi Shankara himself.
Shrouded in belief: Shankaracharya is believed to have consecrated the Kollur Mookambika idol presently seen there / Photo by Nikhilraj
Bhat says that Ramachandrapura Mutt—incidentally, this mutt found favour with the BJP government in Karnataka for its expansion plans—installed the idol about three years ago.
The figurine of Adi Shankara, about 2ft tall, is simplicity itself. The single-roomed mandap is both the outer wall and the sanctum sanctorum. The idol is completely devoid of any ornaments, but covered with offerings of wild flowers that devotees pick up along the trekking path. Ask Bhat about the history of this temple and he says that it had been in existence since the time of Adi Shankara.
While the history of the place is shrouded in mythology, the coming to life of Sarvajna Peetham is part of the BJP government’s political agenda of spreading Hinduism. This government exercise has led to a revival of temples in disuse and, with it, the priestly class in the state.
A vertical descent of a 100m from Sarvajna Peetham (on the western side of the mountain) leads one to Chitramoola. People in nearby towns such as Nagar tell and retell stories of how Adi Shankara walked through the dense jungle from Kodachadri to Kollur. Standing at Chitramoola, one shudders at the thought of walking through the vegetation. Once you get past the Shola grasslands and enter the forest, the atmosphere gets dark and eerie—even sunlight struggles to touch the ground, and leeches cling on to every passer-by.
Part of the Mookambika Wildlife Sanctuary, Kodachadri is inhabited by rare species of plants and animals. The king cobra, tiger, leopard, Indian gaur and a variety of birds, including the Malabar pied hornbill, inhabit these forests. The image of Shankaracharya seated on tiger skin—a common theme in calendar art—could well have come from stories and myths of his journeys through such forests.
No shankara references: A statue of Adi Shankara in black granite, installed on the beach in Gokarna, bears a curious resemblance to the Buddha/ Photo by N. Bhanutej
It may not be a coincidence that Adi Shankara left a large footprint in the Malnad and Coastal regions of present-day Karnataka. At a time when ‘Naastik’ schools of thought and non-Vedic religions, especially Jainism, had found favour with the people of this region, Shankara perhaps found an urgent need to revive Vedic religion here and set up a foothold for Advaita learning, like the one in Sringeri Sharada Peetham.
Among the four Peethams that Adi Shankara founded, three were already established places of worship in medieval India. Sringeri, a mere 100km from Kollur, but nestled high up in the Western Ghats along the Tungabhadra river, came into prominence only around the 13th century, when it received patronage of the Vijayanagar kings. It was when the 12th Shankaracharya, Sri Vidyaranya, headed the Sharada Peetham.
Adi Shankara himself did not write about his travels or the times. But a spokesperson, deputed by the present Shankaracharya Sri Bharathi Teertha Swami, told THE WEEK that the Sharada Peetham has had an unbroken line of Shankaracharyas since Adi Shankara set up the centre in the eighth century. “In Gangashtakam, Adi Shankara praises the river Ganga. In Meenakshistuti, he is extolling the goddess,” said the scholar.
The 33rd acharya, Sri Sacchidananda Shivabhinava Narasimha Bharati Mahaswami, had researched into Shankara’s life and times, he said. For a student of history, however, much of the biographical details and reconstruction of Shankara’s journey appear to be based on faith. It was the 33rd acharya who not only built a shrine for Adi Shankara at Sringeri but also started the practice of observing Shankara Jayanti. For the last 120 years, a five-day Shankara Jayanti festival of special pujas and reading of Shankara’s works are being conducted at Sringeri on Vaishaka Shukla Panchami (which falls in April-May, on the fifth day of the bright fortnight). An advanced exam on Vedas is also conducted for scholars during this period.
The 33rd acharya also started the practice of an annual 12-day conference of Sanskrit scholars to discuss the works of Adi Shankara during Ganesha Chaturthi.
The unique feature of the Sharada Peetham is the unbroken lineage of Shankaracharyas from the day Adi Shankara installed his direct devotee Sureshwara (earlier, Mandana Misra) as acharya. Each successor is the most outstanding and scholarly disciple, who has been directly trained by the previous Shankaracharya. Sharada being the goddess of knowledge, the emphasis in Sringeri is on scholarship. The reigning acharya is presently teaching ‘tarka’ (logic). In the vedic order, the importance of Sringeri is such that a priest who seeks to enter the sanctum sanctorum in the Rameswaram temple should first get ‘deeksha’ from the Sringeri acharya, the spokesman said.
Apparently, Adi Shankara wrote a brief guideline for all the four Peethams on how the successor should be chosen. Besides the Sharada idol, which he installed, Shankara left two vigrahas to the mutt—a Chandramouliswara spatika lingam and a Rathnagarbha Ganapathy, both of which are in the personal possession of the Shankaracharyas of the Peetham.
Adi Shankara’s travels in Karnataka, which culminate in Sringeri, Kollur and Gokarna, are believed to have been undertaken before the death of his mother and before he launched the Digvijaya Yatra. However, there are two references of him visiting Gokarna—one during his earlier travels in the region and the second during the Digvijaya Yatra.
Searching for Shankara along the Uttara Kannada coastline in Gokarna proved more difficult than looking for him in the Ghats. Legend has it that the sage prayed at the Lord Mahabaleshwara (Shiva) temple here. The ancient temple forms the pith, which is at the core of several layers of later year constructions. The moola vigraha is the Aatmalinga, while the utsava moorti is Shiva in the Ardhanareeswara form.
Nobody expects a visitor to ask about the temple’s history. One of the priests, when approached with a question, explained all the various pujas one could perform and the fee for each. On persisting, he showed a picture of the Aatmalinga, mounted on one of the walls. It looked curiously like a buried pot at an archaeological excavation.
Legend has it that Ravana received the Aatmalinga as a boon from Lord Shiva. Shiva gave it to him with a warning that the Aatmalinga would lose its power if it touched the ground. As the Aatmalinga would make Ravana invincible, the gods were worried. They sent Ganesha to ensure that Ravana lost the Aatmalinga. On his way back to Lanka, Ravana stopped at Gokarna for his prayers. Ganesha, in the form of a Brahmin boy, offered to hold the Aatmalinga while Ravana took a dip in the sea. Ganesha purposely put the Aatmalinga on the ground. Try as he may, Ravana could not lift it from the ground.
When asked about the history, and not mythology, the priest shot back: “Purana and itihisa are one and the same, no?” There was, however, no reference to Adi Shankara in the narrative. Not many in the temple knew of Shankaracharya’s visit there perhaps 1,200 years ago. A young priest who looks after the cash counter in the inner temple, however, said: “Shankaracharya presented an ekamukha rudraksha to the temple.”
Just outside the temple’s main entrance stands a 200-year-old family house belonging to the Joglekars. This family of Brahmin scholars which is associated with the temple for generations, holds that there is, indeed, no evidence of Adi Shankara visiting the Mahabaleshwara temple.
Sitaram Vasudev Joglekar, one of the vedic scholars in the family, had more pressing issues on hand: he said that the family, which had safeguarded the temple, was currently trying to save the temple from going into the hands of those unconnected with it. The troubles in the Karnataka BJP—both the muzrai minister and the chief minister went to jail—was “Mahabaleshwar’s curse”, he seethed.
Walking towards the Gokarna beach, which is a straight walk from the temple, one cannot help noticing how similar Gokarna is to Goa. But as the road ends and opens into a vast beach, the search for Shankara seems to have come to an end. Staring straight at the visitor is a life-size statue of Adi Shankara, in a little enclosure. There is no plaque or information about the statue, or who put it there and when. But for the trademark staff that rests on his shoulder, the image bears little resemblance to Shankara. In fact, given the long earlobes, the statue bears a striking resemblance to the depictions of Mahavira or Buddha in these parts.
Vedic paathshala: Adi Shankara’s statue at the place where he is believed to have meditated during his Srisailam visit / Photo by Bhanu Prakash Chandra