Determined to carry out the behest of Sri Vedavyasa, Acharya set out on a world-conquest on the religious plane. His first objective was to meet and vanquish at Prayaga, Bhattapada, a very great scholar and make him write a Vartika or a critical explanatory work on his own commentary on the Brahma sutras. This indeed was a new chapter in Acharya's play.
From here on, we shall find Acharya playing with single-minded devotion, the role of one who, with zeal and fervor, preached and spread, defended and strengthened the cause of Vedic dharma. Holding aloft the flag of Sanatana dharma, the Religion Eternal, he traversed India from end to end for sixteen years from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin, from Assam to Trans-Kashmir regions, on foot, broadcasting the message of Vedanta. For no less than twelve hundred years had Buddhism and its doctrines flourished in India, and Hinduism had, in consequence been weakened and enfeebled. To this emaciated Hinduism, Acharya infused vigor and rendered it invincible. He also gave the necessary philosophical background and scriptural sanction to various views and sects and schools of thought and furnished the needed intellectual justification for many Vedic positions and stands, making them more acceptable to the rational-minded. He thus made Hinduism a co-operative assembly, highly organized, well-knit of expansive faith.
In the spread of Buddhism in India, the royal patronage and state support had played a great part. With the active patronage of the rulers of the land, it was easy for Buddhism to register a phenomenal expansion and practically the whole land of Bharata. It would appear that the Buddhist order of monks spoke to the common people thus, " The king of the land is ours. Deny and discard the Vedic way. The Vedas are all unworthy of credence, because the Vedic declarations are not demonstrable by direct proof or indeed by any other proof ". Through such assertions and arguments, did the Buddhist order of monks try to induce and compel the public to take increasingly to the State-supported Buddhist faith.
The Acharya had no resources other than his spiritual profundity, and strong in the strength of the spirit, he went out holding the torch of enlightenment, and dispersed the dense darkness if national decay. His campaign of world-conquest on the plane of religion and philosophy, without the backing of the state or royal authority is a unique phenomenon of great significance. The Hindu community had in those days forgotten that the Hindu way of life was rooted in the Vedas, and as a result of this, twisted out of shape and created in its wake several other schools of thoughts, most being no more than just dry rituals and dull doctrines. At this critical juncture, Acharya's advent brought light and solace. In his walking-tour covering the whole of India, he established by discussion and by citation of scriptural authority, the fact that the several branches of Hindu religious culture were all but parts and aspects of the grand tree of the Veda and that all the Indian schools of thought and sects of philosophy had sprung out of the one Sanatana Vaidika dharma. The Acharya had to carry on debates with as many as seventy- two varying religious sects of the time. He proved beyond doubt that all these several attitudes and ideas had their roots in the Vedas, which were their origin and source, and thus he established the universality of Vedic philosophy. Acharya's powers of planning, his constructive way of executing things, his farsighted vision, all these were of astonishing interest to his contemporaries, and no less are they of astonishing interest to us, moderns. History has not many examples of individuals who did so much, so thoroughly, so enduringly and in such a short time as Acharya did. He opened the highway of Vedanta to the followers of the traditional Vedic faith. For this monumental service, Acharya and only Acharya, next only to Dakshinamurthy and Sri Krishna, will for all time be venerated by all as the Jagadguru, the world-teacher.
The Acharya had, even during his earlier wanderings, paid visits to most of the shrines and sacred places on the banks of the Ganga. He now desired to visit and worship at the many holy spots on the banks of the sacred Yamuna, and so moved down along the Yamuna towards the direction of Prayaga. On the way he touched Kurukshetra, the site of the epic Mahabharata battle where the Gita was first given out. In course of time, he reached Vrindavan, the playground of Sri Krishna's boyhood. At this sacred place, the Acharya, with great veneration and devotion, went to see many spots associated with Krishna's benign boyhood and visited the famous temples in the region. At the shrine of Lord Krishna, his mind was overcome with divine love for the Supreme Guru of Gita, and reverentially offered a sweet hymn at the feet of Krishna.
The eight verses are famous as Sri Krishnashtakam.
1. May he, who is ever held in embrace by Sri Lakshmi, the Goddess of abundance, who is all-pervading, in whose physical form is the entire created world-the animate and the inanimate, who is the theme of the Vedas, who is the unattached and impartial witness of the actions of the human intellect, who is ever pure, who is the remover of the ills of the devotees, destroyer of the dark forces, who is lotus-eyed, and the holder of the club, the conch, and the Sudarshana Chakra, who wears a garland of wild flowers of unstained glory, who is everlasting sweetness, who is that worthy refuge of all and the Lord of the Universe - Sri Krishna be visible to me.
2. May he, from whom has emerged all this universe composed of ether, air, water, fire and earth, who is the destroyer of Madhu, who by his own Guna of Satva protects the infinite creation, who at the time of deluge withdraws everything into himself, who is the all-pervading substance and the refuge of all and the Lord of the Universe, that Krishna be visible to me.
3. May he, whom the pure-minded sages, by practicing first the Yogic injunction of restraint and Pranayama thus subduing all the mental faculties, perceive in their heart as Vishnu - the adored of the three worlds, who has assumed the Maya body, who is the shelter of the entire Universe, that Sri Krishna grant me his vision.
4. May he, whom the Vedas declare , ` One without second, stainless, He stays in the world and controls the world, but Him the world knows not", who is the supreme director of the play of the universe, who is the sole object of contemplation of Gods, sages and mankind, who is the bestower of liberation to all living beings, refuge of the entire universe and the Lord of the world, that Sri Krishna be visible to me.
5. May he, by whose power Indra and other Gods became powerful and conquered the demons, without whose doing no one can act and has any freedom to do anything at all, who takes away the pride of poetic talent of the world, conquering all the learned, refuge of the Universe, that Sri Krishna be visible to me.
6. May he, without meditation on whom a man is born in a lower body like a pig, without knowledge of whom man is oppressed with the dread of birth and death, without the remembrance of whom man gets the body of hundreds of worms, who is the refuge of the universe, that Krishna grant me his vision.
7. May he, who is the destroyer of fear and remover of delusion, who is the help of the helpless, who has the complexion of a new rain- cloud, who is the playmate of the children in Gokula and a friend of Arjuna, who is self-existent, the parent of all beings and giver of happiness to beings according to their karma, that Sri Krishna be visible to me.
8. May he, the birth less Lord of the universe, who appears in the form of Vishnu for the deliverance of the pious, like a bridge of righteousness, whenever there is a frightening decline of Dharma, who is devoid of all changes, whose glory the Vedas sing, who is the lord of the Vrajabhoomi, that Sri Krishna grant me his vision.
Acharya, with his disciples reached Mathura after visiting several memorable places in Vrindavan. When Acharya came to Mathura, he found the ascendancy of Buddhist and Jain faiths very pronounced there. But he remembered that he had journeyed to Mathura as a pious pilgrim to the Lord's abode and not as a preacher or a contestant, and so in tune with his then mood he refrained from challenging the Buddhists and the Jains to any debate. He visited the sacred spot of Sri Krishna's birth and other holy places in Mathura and proceeded towards Prayaga.
Mathura, apart from being the field of Sri Krishna's early deeds, has been, even from the pre-historic times of great antiquity, a pilgrim center of much renown. It is listed as one of the seven Mokshapuris, cities of salvation. The others are Ayodhya, Maya, Kashi, Kanchipuram, Avantika and Dwaraka. The city is associated with many a sacred memory of Puranic ages. It is said that Dhruva, a great devotee of Sri Vishnu, attained the vision of the lord in this holy city.
Prayaga is adored as a paragon of sacred spots of pilgrimage, and on arriving here, Acharya experienced a divine rapture infusing his being. Prayaga symbolizes a union, and to reflective minds is suggestive of a combination of graces. The confluence of Ganga and Yamuna at Prayaga is the mingling of sanctity with sanctity, the place of union of Shiva and Vishnu, as it were, the Ganga reminiscent of Shiva and Yamuna that of Vishnu. What thrills therefore Acharya must have experienced on his visit to this holy confluence can better b imagined than described in words. The divine splendor of the place delighted his pure heart, for the belief is that a bath in the holy waters of Prayaga at the confluence helps men to get celestial bodies and ascend to the worlds of immortality.
Acharya, the prince of monks, paid his obeisance to Triveni, the three-river-confluence ( of Ganga, Yamuna and the subterranean Saraswati, the three respectively signifying Ida-Pingala-Sushumna nadis of the Kundalini yoga, or Jnana-Bhakti-Brahma Vidya. I cannot resist commenting here that the three, as explained by Punyananda Yati signify the three parts of Srividya, whose energies, so also the three Nadis, meet at Dwidala Mahapadma, which indeed is the true Prayaga) in a very fine hymn, and in the company of his disciples bathed in the sacred waters and performed the appropriate pilgrim rites. Outside flowed the purifying waters, and inside Acharya also was a flow, the spiritual currents of the place passed through his being in a huge flood, and filled him with an unspeakable bliss. In a calm meditative mood, he sat under a tree when a shocking news reached his ears. Bhattapada, he was told, had entered the smoldering husk-fire for the purpose of burning himself to slow death as an act of atonement for the sin of having been responsible for the death of his Buddhist Guru.
Acharya's chief objective in coming to Prayaga was to have a discussion with Kumarila. But the dispensation of providence was otherwise. When he heard of Kumarila's grim resolve to pay for his sin with slow burning, the Acharya forthwith repaired to the place where the arrangements for the husk-fire had been got ready. A large crowd had assembled at that place. Even from a distance, the Acharya was able to see a huge stack of husk, standing like a hillock. Making his way through the dense crowds, Acharya approached Bhattapada. By then, Kumarila had got up to the heap of husk which had been set fire to. Many scholars and a number of Bhattapada's disciples stood assembled all round with hearts full of sorrow. An inarticulate bewailing of a deep agony surcharged the atmosphere of the area.
Even as the Acharya was still at a distance, Bhattapada caught sight of the great monk, radiant like glowing fire. From on the heap of the ignited husk, Kumarila bowed welcome to Acharya with head bent in reverence. Acharya returned the greeting with equal warmth. Kumarila had not met Acharya earlier. Some time previously, Kumarila had chanced to hear of Acharya Shankara and of his wonderful doings and had felt thrilled. And now he felt blessed that just at the moment of his great departure for the beyond, he was privileged to have a sight of the marvelous monk. In great joy, he hailed him and spoke, " It is evident, O great sage, that I performed in my previous births many meritorious acts worthy of recompense, and their fruits are gathered round me. That is why, just at the last moment of my life, I have been blessed with your divine vision. Happiness and sorrow on earth are dependent on time, they are not permanent and everlasting. In my life I have defined and established the path of Karma or ritualistic activity. I have succeeded in refuting all the arguments of all other schools of thought by hitting them on the head with counter- arguments. I have experienced the pleasures and pains incidental to mundane existence. I have not found it possible to transcend time. When owing to the powerful sway of Buddhism, the religious rites enjoined by the Vedas had almost been obliterated and gone out of vogue, I battled with the Buddhists and vanquished them in debate and re-established the supreme authority of the Vedas. But while I have fulfilled my mission in a way, in that very process I have been guilty of two transgressions and sins. One was of defeating my Buddhist preceptor in debate and causing his death in consequence. The second was my one-pointed pursuit of Jaimini's Mimamsa philosophy and the resulting establishment of the theory that the existence of God has no valid proof. By way of atonement for these two outstanding aberrations and crimes, I have entered the husk-fire this day. Pray, now tell me the object of your visit to me".
The grim resolve and the calm and collected words of Bhattapada astounded the Acharya. He remained silent for a while and then said, " O foremost of scholars, it is in fulfillment of Bhagavan Vyasa's instructions that I have come to you today. I have, with a view of propagating Advaita philosophy, composed commentaries on the Prasthanatraya, the three treatises on Vedanta. It is my desire that you take to and accept the Advaita theory and also write critical explanatory notes to my commentaries".
Acharya's words flowed out with the sweetness of a current of heavenly nectar and Kumarila was overpowered with high emotion. After a minute's silence, he said, " O greatest of the monks, my last moment is nearing. There is no time to discuss or debate. I have composed eight thousand verses as an explanatory note on the first chapter of Vyasa's Brahma sutra. There is much to be said on the other chapters too. But you see, I am not to live to say all that. Had you come a short while earlier, I would perhaps not have entered husk-fire. But as a matters stand, I shall not have the privilege of writing explanatory notes to your commentaries".
The Acharya then spoke in his majestic voice, "Brahmin, I know very well that you are born of an aspect of Lord Kartikeya, the son of Lord Mahadeva and Parashakti Uma, for shattering of stand taken by the enemies of the Vedas and Hindu scriptures and that you have taken this vow of self-immolation in response to the highest demand of austere truth and uttermost honesty and in order to uphold the dignity of the scriptures. But your life is too valuable to be thrown away in this manner. I offer to put out the husk-fire by sprinkling a few drops of water from my kamandala. I urge you to rise and take to writing out a note to my commentary".
Bhattapada, however, would not agree. A symbol of true Brahmin glory that he was, told Acharya " O best of teachers, I undertook to pass through this fiery ordeal in the light of the injunctions laid down in the Vedas, and if I give up this vow now, even for worthy reasons, wise men shall condemn me as one devoid of integrity. I shall never do anything contrary to accepted cannons of conduct and prescribed standards of behavior. I have advanced too far towards the fulfillment of my vow to beat a retreat now. I know all your glory and its influence. It will be difficult for me to resist you, sweet one, and that is why I pray to you not to urge me to swerve from my resolve. Let the holy fire burn me out. But I wish to tell you that the work you wish to have done through me can as well be accomplished through my pupil, Mandanamishra. The vanquishing of him will verily be the same as vanquishing me. Mandana is of course my disciple, but I have great respect for him. In debate, he is no whit less capable than I". Aq wished to know more of his disciple who, his Guru claimed, was on par with himself. Bhattapada gave him more details about Mandana and added, " If but you score in debate over this outstanding scholar, Mandana, you may take it you have scored over the entire world. In the debate between you and Mandana, you must make Mandana's wife Ubhayabharati the umpire. She is none other than an incarnation of Goddess Saraswati, now dwelling on earth under a curse of sage Durvasa. She is proficient in all branches of learning. I am unable to think of another person in the whole of India fit to function as an umpire between you and Mandana. If you but vanquish Mandana in debate and convert him to your stand, he will write an explanatory note on your commentaries".
About the literary attainments of Ubhayabharati it is said that she had easily mastered the philosophical systems of Sankhya, Nyaya, Vaisesika, Mimamsa and Vedanta, the four Vedas, the Vedangas like Siksha, Kalpa, Nirukta, Chandas, Jyotisha, Vyakarana etc. her unmatched genius astounded all scholars. Tradition says that in the Kali age, women and men belonging to the fourth order of Sudra are not entitled to take to the study of the Vedas. How then was it possible for Ubhayabharati to achieve such a vast Vedic learning? This indeed is a matter of thought. This further proves the fact that she indeed was Sri Saraswati, incarnated on earth. No human being, however brilliant or capable, cannot hope to drink the ocean of Vedas, and Ubhayabharati achieved just this. She was indeed Sarada, the very embodiment of knowledge.
Anandagiri says in his biography of the Acharya that mandana's wife was named Saarasavaani. It is also said that she was Kumarila's sister. Kumarila refers to Mandana as his sister's husband. Many other names are also used to refer to Ubhayabharati. Perhaps they are her epithets and eulogistic terms. Anyway, is not she the one with thousands of names?
At this dialogue between the iron-willed martyr atop the husk heap and the compassion-filled monk in front was going on, the fire had been doing its work silently and relentlessly. The fire was now burning quite brightly. It was a heart-rending scene. All around rose wails of sympathy from the crowd of spectators. A noble soul, a great- minded individual was sacrificing himself at the altar of the eternal Vedic faith. The world of that day had a demonstration of the extreme limit to which an ideal Hindu is prepared to go for safeguarding his faith, and of the magnitude of the sacrifice he is prepared to make for it with a completely unperturbed mind and in utter steadiness of attitude, without a flicker, without a swing-back or a last minute trepidation. This grand performance of the heroic Kumarila is an event in the history of the Hindu faith which will shine for ever and ever in undimmed glory.
The flames enveloped Bhattapada's body, and now feeling the scorch of the heat, he said to Acharya in all humility, " Great sage, now my mind shall cease to think of anything but the Whole. I shall concentrate my mind on the Parabrahman, the Supreme Reality. Kindly stay a moment and chant in my hearing the Supreme Taraka Brahma Mantra. I feel the touch of the fire. I shall give up the body in your holy presence".
These moving words of the dying Kumarila went deep into Acharya's soul, and for a second he remained lost in thought, silent and indrawn. The thoughts and emotions that heaved in his heart gave a red glow to his face. Pity filled his being. In a clear solemn voice, he started chanting the Taraka Brahma Mantra. The divine mantra, chanted mellifluently by the Shiva-like Acharya sounded like a peace- raining dirge. The flame from the blazing fire leaped high and enveloped the physical frame of Kumarila. The soul of Kumarila soared on to the region of immortality. It was not a case of ceasing to be, it was a case of fulfillment of being.