Sri Adisankara’s travels – Part 1: In Search of Guru

Ripe for knowledge:

Even as an young boy Sri Sankara showed brilliance in the study of the Vedas. Objects of play and attraction natural to a boy of that age, did not seem to tempt him and his commitment to learning and daily worship was unchangeable. His dispassion (Vairagya) and thirst for knowledge was so intense that seeds of taking sanyasa had already started forming in the mind of the young Sankara. It was time for him to be introduced to a Guru.

Guru Introduced:

A large group of ascetics arrived at the village in Kaladi and reached the house of Sivaguru. As was the custom and tradition of the house, the ascetics along with their leader, an elderly tapasvi were welcomed. Since the ascetics followed the rule of not entering any grahastha’s house, arrangements for them to stay were made in front of the house under a huge tree. After a short while Sankara who was just eight years old, walked in after completing his madhyahnika (noon worship) from Purnariver. Sankara was attracted towards the elderly sage and the child prostrated before the austere figure with due reverence.

The sage was equally impressed with the brilliance radiating from the child and enquired about him thus

Sage: Dear Child, who are you, glowing like the flame of knowledge? Are you Sanatkumara, Kapila, Apantaratmas or Siva himself?

Sankara: There was a revered sagely Brahmana in this house bu the name of Sivaguru. His son Sankara stands in front of you. You must yourself reveal to me my real entity.

Seeing Sankara’s humility, brilliance and dignity the sage was very much pleased and treated the boy with affection and love. The Sage then went on to reveal the true purpose of Sankara’s birth and also introduced him to his future Guru

The divine sage revealed to the young Sankara that the name of the enlightened yogi who would be his Guru is GovindaBhagavadpadaan that he was waiting for him. He further instructed Sankara the path to reach his Guru.

The sage said “Crossing the rivers Purna, Pratichi, Krishna, Tunga and Godavari, you have to reach the banks of the river Narmada to meet him. He is the only remaining link in the ubrokenJnanaparampara starting from Sri Narayana – Brahma – Vasistha – Sakti – Parasara – Vyasa – Suka- Gaudapada – GovindaBhagavadpada. “

The sage further confided that when he had once visited GovindaBhagavadpada He mentioned that he had a vision of Lord Siva in which pointing to a child the Lord prophesised that the child bearing an aspect of Himself would receive Brahmavidyafrom him. Now seeing the young Sankara, the sage said that he could see the vision coming true. So saying the Sage became still like the infinite space. By dawn the next day the group of sanyasins had left Kaladi for their destination.

Sankara could intuitively recognise that the sage was none other than Agastya.

Journey Commences

After the meeting with the divine sage, Sankara’s determination to take Sanyasa and gain the knowledge became even stronger. The series of events leading to his mother granting permission for him to take Sanyasa is well known and can be seen here in this website.

After completing the rituals for taking Sanyasa, shaving his head, casting away the sacred thread and embracing paramahamsa dharma, the young ascetic who would one day conquer all the four directions with his knowledge left the house. Kaladi to Omkareshwar

As revealed by the divine sage, Sankara knew the destination to be Omkareshwara on the banks of the river Narmada in modern day Madhya Pradesh. Single pointed in his determination and inspired by the thirst for knowledge, the young boy was ready to travel anywhere to gain the knowledge.

He walked alone for almost three days without resting, when he joined a large group of merchants going towards the Kadamba kingdom in what’s today Karnataka. Crossing the passes in the Sahyadri ranges and Brahmagiri, they reached the Kadamba kingdom after many days. All along the journey Sankara maintained strict discipline of daily study, worship and meditation. The sight of the forests, rivers and other aspects of nature aroused a variety of divine moods in the mind of Sankara. The sight of various flowers, herbs and medicinal plants reminded him of the various verses he had read in the Vedic mantras.

Shringeri

Sri KappeShankara – A Shrine on the banks of the Holy Tunga river in memory to the glorious sight witnessed by Sri AdiShankaracharya; A serpent giving shade from the scorching sun to a pregnant frog in labour pains Photo source: https://www.sringeri.net/history

As he walked on, everything he saw reminded him of the divine. Soon he reached the banks of the river Tunga. Seeing the clear waters of the river, he was reminded of Valmiki’s verses from the Ramayan that compared the clear waters of the sacred river to the pure mind of a noble man. Sankara sat for meditation on the banks of the river and soon became still. Gradual peace descended down to his heart and sat in that state for a long time. When he opened his eyes he saw a strange sight where a fierce snake with it’s hood spread out was standing in front of it and a frog was seated close to it without any fear. It is said that in the presence of someone who is firmly established in ahimsa, even mutually predatory creatures forget their enmity. Sankara concluded that this region had something unique about it and must be under the influene of a great sage who was either living there or performed tapas in the past.

As he moved on he spotted the imposing peak of mount Rishyasringa. An aged ascetic he met along the way explained that the place is named after the great sage Rishyasringa, son of Vibandaka who performed severe penance here. The entire land is sanctified by the severe austerities and penance of the great sage. Young Sankara keenly heard the stories and his heart of filled with peace. He recognized this place as ideal for meditation and study.

Figure: Approximate path taken by AdiSankara from Kalady to Omkareshwar. Map created with the help of Google Map only to provide a sense of distances and the path taken.

Though quite attracted to the place, he moved on in his journey to meet his Guru. Yet Sringeri continued to remain as a divine dream in Sankara’s heart. By now about a month had passed since he left Kaladi.

Towards Narmada

Figure: AdiSankara meets his Guru

The group of merchants and traders he was travelling with stopped Sringeri. The journey thereon was continued with a group of sanyasis. They walked long distances through forests and villages. Crossing large rivers like Krishna and Godavari they walked along. Enroute they visited Ujjain and worshipped Mahalakeshwara. Thus walking along for about three months, they could now see Narmada from a distance. The grandeur of Narmada was awe imposing for the young boy and the sight was exhilarating.

Sankara now reached Omkareshwara. He saw a number of Sadhus performing penance, he also saw sramanas and bouddhas and observed their strange practices. Enquiring about Sri GovindaBhagavadpada he found his way to the mouth of a cave in the middle of a hill near Omakreshwara. The cave was cut out of a rock and had spacious interiors. Within the cave was another smaller cave within which Sri GovindaBhagavadpada spent most of his time in reveling in the Self Experience.

Darashan of the Guru He found a number of sanyasins engaged in study and tapas. Sankarasaught permission to meet the Guru. The inmates pointed out to the smaller cave in which the Guru was seated. The culmination of more than four months of travel was about to be fulfilled. How much Sankara waited for this very moment, right from the day the divine sage told about him for the first time in Kalady.

In the presence of hermits, Sankara walked around the cave three times and prostrated at the mouth of the cave. Looking into the cave he saw the divine form of the old sage sitting absolutely still with eyelids open and flicker less. His very sight filled the mind with supreme peace and devotion. A profound silence filled the place. Sankara began to chant a hymn in praise of the sage Govinda with full devotion.

First Vedantic composition

Sri GovindaBhagavadpada lovingly looked at the young student and asked him who he was. In reponse to this and also to reveal the wealth of experience he had received just by being in the presence of his Guru he spontaneously composed a poem which is known as “Nirvana Dasakam” or “Dasasloki”

Hearing these words the sage was delighted. With his divine powers he could recognize the young student to be Lord Siva himself and also recognized the purpose for which he has descended on to the earth.

Learning from the Master

Later as per customary rules of establishing the relationship between the teacher and the disciple, the sage extended his feet through the mouth of the cave, which the would be disciple worshipped with complete devotion, humility and ceremony.

By continuous worship of the teacher’s feet and by devoted service to him, Sankara gained the love and affection of his teacher. GovindaBhagavadpada taught the new student in the conventional manner. During the day, he explained the essence of the Upanishads substantiated by sruti, tarka (logic) and anubhava (experience). Sankara himself had already studied the vedic mantras and intuitively understood the import, but the systematic learning at the feet of an established Guru gave him the intellectual acumen to unlock the profound secrets of the Upanishads, Bhagavat Gita and Brahmasutras. The pace of learning was very rapid and he quickly understood the essence of all ancient texts and expounded their meaning to his brother-disciples very clearly. The teachers heart would be just delighted to hear the young student expound the Upanishads.

The intense time spent with the teacher as well the method of learning and teaching would prove to be very useful in the days to come as Sankara would take the stage as Jagadguru, write commentaries and debate with scholars of opposing philosophies and paths.

Narmada in fury

As the days rolled by and Sankara continued gaining mastery over all the texts as well as in the knowledge of Upasana and Yoga, the rainy season approached. Even in the streaks of lightening, Sankara would compare it with the volatility of worldy enjoyments. He would compare the rolling of the clouds, clap of thunder and the moisture laden breeze delighting the parched earth to the revelations of Brahmic wisdom delighting the hearts of all seekers.

Once when GovindaBhagavadpada was absorbed in Yoga, there was a flood in the Narmada. The flood waters kept rising and the villages along the banks of the river got submerged. The villagers hastened to GovindaBhagavadpada to save them from the floods. But the Guru Himself was lost in Samadhi. As the waters rose, the other sanyasins too panicked along with the villagers and they were full of fear. The roaring waters carried trees, cattle and villages along it’s path of destruction. The cries of all inhabitants reached the years of Sankara too.

Noticing his master was deep in Samadhi and looking at the situation, Sankara walked upto the river bank and placed his Kamadalu (water pot) and chanted a hymn adoring Narmada. To everyone’s surprise all the waters went into the Kamandalu and the rising waters had subsided within the kamandalu itself. The waters slowly receded and the river started flowing peacefully like before. News of this event spread like wildfire and the spiritual prowess of a young disciple of GovindaBhagavadpada were the talk of the town.

Figure: AdiSankara meets his Guru

In course of time, the Guru came out of his yogic trance and learnt about the incidence. He was delighted to hear the feat performed by Sankara and was glad to note that along with the knowledge of the Upanishads, he had also attained perfection in yoga.

Commissioning Sankara the missionary

When the clouds had cleared after a few days, Guru GovindaBhagavadpada called Sankara to his side and told him to start travelling for the benefit of the world. He instructed him to impart the essence of the Upanishads and the Gita to all sincere seekers who approach him with their thirst for knowledge. He further instructed Sankara to proceed to Kasi and clarify the essential truths revealed in the Upanishads and Gita by writing commentaries on them.

At this point the Guru recounted his interaction with VedVyasa. In the Himalayas sage Atri had conducted a great Satra (sacrificial festival) and towards the end of it, VedVyasa gave discourses on the Brahman. Govindabhagvadpada spoke to VedVyasa that many scholars representing different traditions were interpreting the sutras divergently causing confusion. He requested Vyasa to write a commentary so that such interpretations can be avoided and all confusion ended. Hearing this Vyasa said that in the future a student of Govinda will perform this task and produce great commentaries on the Vedanta sutras. He further elaborated that the student will perform a divine feat of containing the flood waters of Narmada into his kamandalu.

Thus blessing his dear student he advicedSankara to proceed to Varanasi and commence his work of restoring the spiritual greatness of this country by production of many great writings on Vedanta.