Shankara Date A Discussion on the Sudhanva Copper Plate

The article ‘Sankara’s Date: Paradigm for Scrutiny of Biographical and Epigraphic Data’ by Dr. V. N. Muthukumar and V. Subrahmanian contains an examination of the evidential value of what are said to be Sudhanvan’s copper-plate inscription and verses of the Brhat Sankara Vijaya about Bhagavatpada’s advent. Sri Sunil Bhattacharyaji has written with reference to the article: What is disturbing, is that the king Sudhanva has been mentioned in the biography of Adi Shankara by no less than a person like Swami Vidyaranya. That is why we cannot just dismiss the existence of Sudhanva in the times of Adi Shankara. Authors’ Response: We definitely have regard for the Madhaviya Shankara Vijaya and have not dismissed the possibility of a king named Sudhanvan having existed in Bhagavatpada’s time.

We have only said, strictly with reference to what is claimed about Sudhanvan in the copper-plate inscription as presented in Vimarsha, “As for historical evidence, there is none at all till now that corroborates the position that there actually was an emperor in India named Sudhanvan who ruled in the 5th century B.C.” The position of the Tarka-shastra is that the statement, “There is no ‘dandi purushah (man-with-staff)’ here” would hold even if there were, in front of one, just a man, just a staff or even a man with a staff nearby and would be false only if there were a man with a staff. Accordingly, our statement would be wrong only if there is historical evidence to corroborate what is made known in the inscription that: (a) there existed an emperor (sarvabhauma) – not just a king – named Sudhanvan in Bhagavatpada’s time and (b) this suzerain ruled in the 5th century BC (the inscription being dated Yudhishthira-shaka 2663, that is, 476 BC). We have used the phrase ‘historical evidence’ in the unremarkable sense of ‘evidence of past events or persons that can be verified to a reasonable standard of certainty’.

The author of Vimarsha, the source of the contents of the inscription, has, after presenting the said contents, written (on page 32 of Vimarsha), “That there was indeed a great king Sudhanvan who was a chief disciple of Bhagavatpada is known from the (Madhaviya Shankara) Digvijaya [Translated from Sanskrit]” That he was referring to the Madhaviya Shankara Vijaya is unmistakeable, for he has followed this sentence by quoting in full a verse from it about Sudhanvan. Thus, the author of Vimarsha has presented the Madhaviya Shankara Viyaya as evidence for the existence of a king and contemporary of Bhagavatpada named Sudhanvan. Sri Bhattacharya too has here deemed the Madhaviya to be an authoritative work and evidence for Sudhanvan’s existence. The Madhaviya Sankara Vijaya nowhere says that Sudhanvan was an emperor.

On the contrary, by speaking of a king of Kerala (who is said to have presented his dramas to Bhagavatpada), King Amaruka (whose body Bhagavatpada occupied for a while) and the king of Vidarbha (who is presented as a king like Sudhanvan and not as one subservient to the latter), it falsifies the categorical claim in the copper-plate inscription about Sudhanvan being an emperor ruling over the entire Bharata-varsha. (Since the inscription purports to be a devoted submission by Sudhanvan to his esteemed preceptor, Bhagavatpada, this falsification cannot be explained away by claiming that the king had just greatly exaggerated his status.) Further, the Madhaviya Shankara Vijaya does not in any way mention or even hint that Bhagavatpada lived in the 5th century BC. On the contrary, a scholar versed in astrology had, even decades ago, ascertained and pointed out that the astrological information in Verse 2.71 of the Madhaviya that at the time of Bhagavatpada’s birth, the Sun, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars were all in kendra and in exaltation (ucca) is incompatible with Bhagavatpada having been born (on vaisakha-shukla-panchami at Kalady) in any year of the sixth and fifth centuries before Christ.

Thus, if the Madhaviya Shankara Vijaya is deemed to be authoritative and an evidence for there having been a king named Sudhanvan in Bhagavatpada’s time, then the copper-plate inscription must be dismissed as undependable for, according to the inscription, Sudhanvan and Bhagavatpada were alive in the 5th century before Christ (in 476 BC). Thus, anybody who deems the Madhaviya to be authoritative and an evidence for there having been a king named Sudhanvan in Bhagavatpada’s time should (unless he wants to eat the cake and have it too ) concede, on the basis of the Madhaviya itself, that the copper-plate inscription spoken of in Vimarsha is untrustworthy. In any case, even if there existed, as mentioned in the Madhaviya, a king and Bhagavatpada’s follower named Sudhanvan, it does not follow – and certainly not from the Madhaviya – that this Sudhavan submitted to Bhagavatpada a copper-plate inscription, and that too one with (as demonstrated in our article) false, grandiose claims about his suzerainty, a false declaration about there being universal, punctilious adherence to varnashrama-dharma in his kingdom and unsound reasons for Bhagavatpada choice of the heads of two of his four Maths. (Sri Sunil Bhattacharyaji has written:) Secondly, I understand that the Archaeological survey of India (Baroda Office) says that the copper-plate inscription has been retained by the Dwaraka peeth authorities, but it doubts the authenticity of the inscription. Response: This information is factually incorrect.

The ascertained facts are that the said copper-plate inscription was never made even temporarily available to the ASI and was never even so much as just shown to any expert even in the premises of the Math. Consequently, the ASI never concluded that the copper-plate inscription was authentic or that it was unauthentic or that it was of doubtful authenticity. (Sri Sunil Bhattacharyaji has written:) On top of it , there has been the report of a split in the Dwarka peeth in 1880 and that was followed by another spit at a later date. This complicates matters as the properties of the Peeth could have been distributed among the split units and the Copper-plate inscription may now be with one of the branches of the Dwarka peeth. Response: (1) Centuries ago, when Muslim invasion of Kathiawar was imminent, the then pontiff of the Dwaraka Math shifted to Mulbagal in Karnataka, and, establishing a Math, settled there; as for the institution at Dwaraka, it became defunct and remained headless for long [vide, for example, Sri Shankaracharya va tyancha sampradaya (Marathi) by Mahadev Rajararam Bodas, 1923, page 50; Sri-Shankaracharya-caritam (Sanskrit) by (Vidvan) Venkatachala Sharma, 1916, pp. 30-31 (Preface to Brahmasutra-bhashya with Bhamati, Nyayanirnaya and Ratnaprabha)]. If the copper plate under consideration did exist in the Dwaraka Math at that time, it would, in view of its significance, irreplaceability and easy portability have almost certainly been taken by the pontiff to Mulbagal. However, it has never been identified in Mulbagal. In 1945, the head of the Mulbagal Math, Sri Abhinava Saccidananda Tirtha, was installed as the Shankaracharya of the Dwaraka Math.

If the copper plate had been present in the Mulbagal Math, it is implausible that even he would have been unable to access it at all. Likewise, if the copper-plate were at Dwaraka, it is quite unlikely that it would have been totally untraceable even by him. Yet, at no time in the long period of over three decades between his taking over at Dwaraka in 1945 and his passing away in 1982 did the copper-plate ever come to light and that too in spite of earnest requests for information about it by different persons and in spite of doubts raised by sceptics in writing itself not only about the reliability of the inscription but even about whether such a copper plate ever existed. It would, therefore, be unrealistic to expect the copper plate to be currently lying unfound at either Mulbagal or the Dwaraka Math. (2) Sri Rajarajeshvara Shankara Ashrama, the author of Vimarsha, took up the position of Shankaracharya of the Dwaraka Math in Vikrama 1935 (1878 AD). According to Bodas (1923), “About 40 years ago, Sri Rajarajeshvara took samnyasa from one Keshava Ashrama who abided in the Dwaraka Math and then comported himself as the Shankaracharya of the Sharada-pitha (Dwaraka) [Freely rendered into English from Marathi].” According to Venkatachala Sharma (1916), Sri Rajarajeshvara was a South Indian Brahmin who, as a youth, had studied the Tarka-shastra to an extent and knew some English. When he went to Dwaraka, he saw that the Math had no formal head and became desirous of becoming its pontiff. He took up samnyasa, won the approval of the authority there and became the Shankaracaraya of Dwaraka. In his highly eulogistic account about Sri Rajarajeshvara, Vishnu Shastri has written in his preface to Vimarsha (pp. 1-2) that Sri Rajarajeshvara was from the Godavari District of Andhra, his name was Jagannatha Shastri and he learnt the Veda from his father. At the age of 21, he, who was a bachelor, set out on a pilgrimage, visited Kanchipuram, Rameswaram, Ujjain, Panchavati (Nasik), etc. and expounded the scriptures at various places. Then, “He enthusiastically arrived at Dwaraka. He had the darshan of Dwarakadhish (Krishna) and the Sharada-pitha’s head [Sri Keshava Ashrama; not named]. The preceptor honoured him with words full of regard and affection with the primary aim that the latter ascend the pitha. Revering the preceptor’s instruction, when the Guru’s death was at hand, he took up samnyasa in the prescribed manner and duly ascended the seat of Bhagavatpada, being entreated by the important persons of the town to do so. He who had become Rajarajeshvara Shankara Ashrama and the Jagadguru of the pre-eminent Sharada-pitha was respected by the Gaekwad king of Baroda (in whose jurisdiction Dwaraka falls) and by other rulers, such as of Saurashtra [Freely translated from Sanskrit with some hyperbole omitted].”