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4. Govinda Bhagavatpada


Step by step did Shankara leave the village behind, and proceeded north. Aryamba followed behind. So did the villagers too. As the margin of the village was reached Aryamba said, "My child! Here at the outskirts of the village you may put a cottage and carry on with your austerities. Do not go away leaving me unsupported." This was her last effort to restrain him from going away. But he made all of them see things aright and again made his obeisance to his mother and silently marched out northward in the direction of Narmada.

Shankara was his mother's only son, and yet he left his widowed mother in a helpless state and went away! Was he not cruel-hearted? Is this after all, the ideal of Sanyasa? No! Shankara offered, in the form of Arghya or oblation, his devotion to his mother at the altar of a larger good. For fulfilling the divinely ordained purpose did he leave unfulfilled his duty to his mother, and walk out of his home. But he was ever deeply attached to his mother. At every level of his being his mother was to him a veritable Yashoda and he was the little Krishna, the darling of her affection.

Where lay the Narmada? Who will give him the direction of the way to it? Shankara had only heard that Narmada lay somewhere in the north, but did not exactly know the path leading to it. But trusting the goodness of chance, he trod on and on. An eight year old boy full of dispassion towards worldly pleasures and having cast off mother's affectionate shelter now went about in the eternal quest of the human soul, the search for the ultimate truth.

Those who saw this shaven-headed boy clad in a Sanyasi's orche- coloured robe with staff and water bowl called kamandala in hand, could not take their eyes off from him but gazed on in speechless wonder. Loving mothers, who saw him, shed silent tears thinking of his mother who had borne this beam of brilliance, and a strange but tangible sensation. Sensation of Vatsalya- mother's filial love for the child welled up in their tender bosoms heart. Shankara himself was unaffected by anything he heard or saw. Inquisitive glances, compassionate sighs, eager queries, nothing affected him. He was indifferent to everything except the Spirit and Reality. Meditating with a one-pointed mind on the All-pervading Supreme Energy, the soul behind all creation, he walked on. In the coolness of the mornings he would cover long distances on foot and at noon do Madhukari-ask for alms, accepting food, well-cooked or ill, judging not, from wayside temples or a hamlet hut. After rest for a while under tree shade, he was again on his feet, spending the nights under trees or in temple yards. Thus in the quest of the Unknown he passed through many a village and populated human habitations, towns and cities, crossed many a field and meadow, wild animal infested forests, hills and dales, rivers and rivulets and trod along many unknown paths.

Shankara thus, absorbed in thought, did make his way north towards Narmada in order to find his guru who would bestow on him the wisdom of self-knowledge. Shankara was indeed the model of what an aspirant should be. Qualities like a peaceful temperament, a rigid restraint of the naturally outgoing senses, a climate of moderation in all things, an overflowing abundance of love not rooted in selfishness, a spiritual wander-lust that would not quiet down till the very Everest of Self-Knowledge was reached, were what marked him as the most eligible candidate for spiritual Sadhana. After many days and weeks of traveling, something told the heroic boy that his quest was nearing its end. He began to ask everyone he met where he could find Govindapada. He had by then reached Omkarnath by the river Narmada. There he learnt that a great Yogi had been living in an ecstatic trance for hundreds and thousands of years in a cave. Shankara's heart was filled with indescribable ecstasy. Advancing a short distance, Shankara met a few old monks who lived in and near the caves at Omkarnath and he enquired them of Govindapada. They marveled at him. The gray-haired ones looked on in amazement at the arresting figure of the boy-monk, whose eyes shone with a strange luster and revealed a soul within, of immense potentiality and promise. They soon learnt a few details about him, about his native place and the object of his quest. Seeing how learned and cultured he was, they marveled all the more. How far indeed was Kerala. This boy at an age, when others of his years were still playing with toys and battling with the alphabet, had come alone and on foot, all the way from home in search of a Guru! And he had mastered all the scriptures with their numerous commentaries at such a tender age and what was ever more wonderful was that not only did he digest and assimilate them, but also attained the state of knowledge beyond knowableness.

An old monk told Shankara, "Child. The holy Yogi Govindapada lives in that yonder cave. He has been in trance for a long long time. The march of time touches him not. None here knows how long he has been in that state. In the hope of having the privilege of listening to his words, when he emerges out of his Samadhi, we have been waiting here, and have grown old in waiting. Blessed indeed are you child! Commendable is your Guru Bhakti." Shankara listened to these words with bated breath. In joy and amazement his mind and heart throbbed. And very eagerly he asked the old monk, " May I get the Darshan of the great sage? " " Yes, you certainly may." Answered the good old monk, " But the entrance to the cave is extremely narrow, and within the cave it as all dark. There is a lamp here, light it and walk into the cave, and you can see the great sage."

Shankara did not waste a single moment. He lighted the lamp and led by its dim light, found his wy into the cave, and there in a corner found a tall majestic figure in Padmasan. His body was emaciated, and matted locks in plenty covered his head. His long drawn eyes closed in meditation had an invisible charm. His skin was dry but his body beamed with eternal effulgence. Seeing the eternal hermit sitting in Samadhi like the great lord Shiva himself, Shankara's heart was flooded with an inexpressible sublime bliss and driven by a powerful urge of devotional emotion he fell prostrate before the deathless master, and with tears welling up from within and flowing down his tender cheeks, he stood with folded hands and broke into a hymn, " Lord, you are the greatest among the Yogins. You have come here to earth to impart the knowledge of Parabrahman to those who seek refuge in you. You are verily the sage Patanjali, the personification of Yoga Shastra. You are born of the great serpent king Ananta. Like the drum of Mahadeva, you sound and resound supreme wisdom. Your glory is infinite. You have perfection, having imbibed total knowledge from Sri Gaudapada, the disciple (son according to some scriptures) of Shukadeva, the son of Vedavyasa. I beseech you to accept me as your pupil and bestow on me the knowledge of Brahman. Rise O Lord, from your ecstasy and grant the prayer of this humble seeker by opening to him the doors of the Final Truth."

Then the assembled monks witnessed a wonder. The rigid body of Govindapada relaxed, a quiver passed through his frame, his suspended faculties awoke to the exterior. He heaved a deep sigh and opened his eyes. The silent entranced idol was now living God. Shankara fell prostrate before the awakened sage. The assembled monks followed suit and offered salutations to the great sage. The cave reverberated with joyous peal and supplication. Gradually the mind of the great Yogi came down to the plane of consciousness of the physical world. The news, that the arrival of a boy-monk had broken the thousand-year old Samadhi of Govindapada, soon spread far and wide. It brought countless souls, men and women, from distant places to Omkarnath for the audience of the King of the Yogis. This turned that Sylvan peaceful spot into a holy place of plgrimage pulsating with life.

Just one look at Shankara was enough for Govindapada to realize that this was the boy he had been waiting for. He immediately understood that it was in order to instruct this boy, the Shiva Incarnate in the discipline of Advaita Sadhana that he had been waiting in ecstasy for a millennium. One of Shankara's outstanding contributions he foresaw was to be the writing of monumental commentaries on Veda Vyasa's Brahma Sutra, and thereby spreading the true knowledge of Advaita or non-dualism, the science of realization of the self as the one without a second.

Advaita Vedanta is a very ancient philosophical system. Acharya Shankara preached its doctrine with a singular fullness and clarity and convincingness, his exposition of its standpoint displaying rare analytical power with a unique power of argumentative ability and refuting capacity. Shankara did not of course newly propound the doctrine for the first time (like Madhwa or Ramanuja, who actually found their doctrines on the basis of their limited understanding of scriptures) but had instead imbibed it from a distinguished lineage of seers. The mighty sage Badarayana Vyasa gave a strong philosophical foundation to Advaita theory by writing out the unparalleled Brahma Sutras. Later he taught this secret science to his son Shuka Muni. Form Shuka Deva, it was passed to Shankara through Gaudapada and Govindapada.

Govindapada, at an auspicious moment, formally accepted Shankara as his disciple, after having the prescribed rites performed in the manner enjoined in the Vedas. Without losing any time, Govindapada started instructed Shankara, the discipline of Yoga. Other Sanyasin's also accepted his discipleship. The aged monks at the place who had till then to be content with being in the silent proximity of the trance-merged Govindapada now sat with Shankara to receive spiritual instruction. The course of studies started with Hatha Yoga in the first year. Shankara easily mastered the techniques of Hatha Yoga before the year was out. Raja Yoga, the science of disciplining the mind-stuff, was then taken up. Shankara stained mastery in this discipline in the second year. As a result he became gifted with psychic powers like telepathy, clairvoyance, movement in space unseen and above all death at will.

In the third year, Govindapada initiated his disciple very confidently into the high discipline of Jnana Yoga, the Realization of Ultimate Reality through Knowledge. Man's final destiny lies not in reaching anything distant and new and foreign to his self but in simply knowing and asserting what he really is. Salvation is not so much attainment as affirmation. Jnana Yoga is thus the royal road to perfection since it helps us perceive Truth in its naked unity devoid of any trappings, coverings or maskings. And only a Sadhaka who is utterly free from all illusions and delusions, who is remarkably clear-minded and fearless, who is not stained by any longings, high or low, and who is qualified to make the last, bold leap into the Impersonal beyond and like a salt-doll lose all sense of individuality in the ocean of Infinity, only such a Sadhaka can be a Jnana Yogi. But if ever there was a qualified aspirant fit to be initiated into this Royal Science, Govindapada intuitively felt, it was this boy. Govindapada made Shankara undergo through the duly regulated scheme of Sravana-Manana-Nidhidhyasana i.e. hearing the spiritual truths and secrets from the mouth of the preceptor, investigating and discussing it and constant contemplation on it. Then he established Shankara firmly in the higher planes of spiritual striving and truth-experiencing. He found that, as the popular saying goes, Shankara became oil as soon as a suggestion of mustard was given, unlike most others in whose case a lot of squeezing of mustard was needed before a drop of oil could me made to flow out. Soon Shankara's mind came to dwell all the time in super-sensual regions of ever new divine thrills which he experienced through meditation on the One Self. Brahma Jyoti, the brilliance, the Light Infinite was shining on his face and was pulsating through his limbs. His entire persona beamed with a radiant charm and a celestial glow. The normal tendency of the human mind to roam out was now one of indrawnness, and it was with an effort and a pressure that he could force his faculties down to the plane of earthly phenomena. In a very short time he came to attain the Nirvikalpa Samadhi in which all mentation merges in one unchanging Awareness, all modifications disappear in one continuing Is-ness. Govindapada found that Shankara's spiritual practice and education completed and he had reached the came of spiritual striving, the last rung of the ladder. He needed no more training and no further instruction. He had become firmly established in Self-Knowledge. And the Upanishads found a new and fresh verification of their statement : " When that Supreme Brahman is realized, the heart's knots get snapped, all doubts are resolved and one's actions become dissipated." Shankara was now a living illustration of the great utterance, " The knower of the Supreme attains the Highest" and of the declaration, " The Knower of the Supreme verily becomes the Supreme."

As a piece of wood placed amidst incandescent embers soon becomes glowing fire, so had Shankara's contact with Govindapada made the disciple indistinguishable from master. The one was now as Purna- perfect as the other. The practice of Hatha Yoga had brought to Shankara unsought many Siddhis or occult powers. Clairvoyance and clairaudience, assuming light and subtle forms, bursting into hugeness, becoming atomic or cosmic, flying through space, entering and operating other bodies and minds, death at will, all these Siddhis were now matters of course for him, because all the laws, gross and subtle, of Nature responded to his volition. But the man of true illumination never gives a thought to these acquired powers and if at all he now and then makes any use of them it is only for doing some good to humanity. The so-called miracles emanate from a sense of passion on his part.

The rains set in and Omkarnath and the Narmada were a panorama of enchanting loveliness. But the rains were unusually heavy that year and the waters of Narmada swelled above the danger mark. The banks were submerged and the whole area was a sea of water. Village folk with their domestic animals moved to higher areas of safety. Govindapada was, in one of his frequently occurring trances, in the cave and was not conscious of the rising of the river. It became very clear soon that the waters would enter his cave and he would be drowned. The monks saw that it might not be possible to de-trance him quickly and the only way out was to lift him away. But to handle a Sage in Samadhi that was the height of discourtesy and they were in a fix. Shankara surveyed the situation and acted quickly. He placed his Kamandala near the entrance to the cave, and in an assuring voice told the anxious monks, " You do not worry. There is no need to disturb in any manner our Guru in Samadhi. The rushing flood waters will quietly enter the jar and be contained in it. They will not enter the cave any further." The monks smiled at the childish behavior of Shankara and felt he was indulging in doll-playing, but great was their surprise to see the madly rushing mighty volume of waters being received into the jar and being held in its small capacity. The cave was safe, afloat as it were amidst the surrounding expanse. Everyone marveled at this expression of Shankara's deep devotion to his Guru and of his supernormal powers. After a time, the floods subsided and Govindapada came out of Samadhi. Learning of the incident of the jar and the flood-waters, he was highly pleased and placing his holy right palm on Shankara's head in a warm blessing he said, " My son, you are indeed Loka Sham Kara - the doer of good to the world. You are indeed cast in the mould of the Supreme Mahadeva. My Guru Gaudapada had long ago told me that you would come to me. His Guru Shuka Mahamuni had informed him that just as you have contained the surging torrents of the Narmada in an earthen jar, you will by your lucid and irrefutable commentary on the Brahma sutras, succeed in reconciling all the apparently conflicting creeds and the mutually exclusive theories, on the high plane of the universally valid and all-inclusive philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. It is in order to fulfill this mission that you have come down to earth. I bless you that you may brilliantly succeed in performing your life's task in a manner that will shed the true light on all humanity for all ages to come. May you in your commentaries and works bring out the true import and the full sense of all the Vedas."

In the writings of Madhavacharya, we find that hearing from the mouth of Govindapada, the Mahavakya-the great sentence, Shankara entered into Asampragnata Samadhi. On coming down from this Samadhi he found his Guru absorbed in trance. To bring him down to the plane of material consciousness, Shankara suppressed the current of Narmada. Govindapada felt that his part in the training of Shankara to function as an Acharya had been played and that the time for his departure from the world of relative existence had come. He called Shankara to him one day and asked him, " My son do you have any doubts in your mind? Do you feel in you any imperfection, or want or incompleteness? Or are you at peace with yourself and with the entire universe, feeling the tough of reality in everything and the consciousness of Fullness in all? " Shankara in a tone of profound gratitude and utmost humility, but expressive of deep satisfaction and undisguised certitude replied to his Guru, " Sire, by your grace I see that there is nothing for me to be yet learnt, nothing to be yet acquired. You have filled me through and through. My contentment is through and perfect. My only wish is to be graciously permitted by you to remain merged for ever in unbroken Samadhi and experience the bliss of Nirvana." Govindapada after a moment of silence addressed Shankara in a calm and collected voice, "My son, you are born with a divine mandate to re-establish the Vedic religion. There is a cosmic purpose in your advent. The pursuit and attainment of individual salvation is not the mission of an exceptional soul like you. Your task is not to merely swim safely across the turbulent waters of life and death, which you have done as naturally as a fish swimming in a river. You have to help others to do the swimming across. You are not a mere pilgrim, you are a carrier of men. See reflections of Rama, Krishna and Vyasa in yourself. I have been waiting for a thousand years at the behest of my Guru to instruct you in the doctrine of Advaita, otherwise I would long ago have cast off my physical frame. Now my task is done. The treasure of Jnana I inherited from my Guru I have passed down to your eminently worthy hands, and you are destined to accomplish much. It is now high time that I enter final deliverance in self-realization. I shall drop my body like a sere leaf and merge with Parabrahman. Proceed now to Varanasi, the Mokshapuri - the city of salvation. You will have a vision of Lord Shiva Mahadeva and Parashakti Bhavani. They will instruct you, and you act according to their guidance. You are not just an individual, but a whole institution in yourself, not just an isolated star but an entire Solar System."

Shankara listened and acknowledged the behest with silent consent. On an auspicious day selected for the purpose, Govindapada smilingly cast off his aged body in Samadhi. The pious disciples performed the enjoined last rites on the banks of Narmada in devotion and solemnity befitting the prince of Yogis.

An ordinary Jiva takes several births to reach the final goal of existence, and he plods along a particular religious path. His effort is all praiseworthy, no doubt. But Shankara was not of the ordinary. In three different and exalted Yogas he has attained mastery, an unusually short period for such a Himalayan achievement. This fact demonstrates not only the powers of the great Siddha Yogi Govindapada, but also the receptive powers of Shankara in the spiritual field. At Omkarnath, at the time when Shankara reached illumination, there stayed many old Sanyasins, each mature in his own way, who all became disciples of Govindapada too. But it was Shankara only who mastered the three Yogas in such a short time. Others could possibly achieve the same after several hundreds of births. Shankara had appeared in human form with a reserve of immense spiritual powers in order to fulfill a mission under a divine dispensation. The several instances of Shankara's uncommon spiritual powers have been narrated in this sketch of his life till now. It is no wonder then that the world's veneration has been pouring at the feet of this boy prodigy all down the ages. The scriptures in describing the nature of the Lord say, " One who knows the truths about the projection and the subsiding of the universe, about the arrival and the course of departure of beings, and about knowledge and nescience may be styled Bhagawan - Vishnu Purana 6-5-78 ." It is God, the possessor of the six divine attributes that incarnates as Ideal Man to lead humanity on the path of true religion. It is indeed lucky that in the case of Shankara we have a fairly full record of all his doings from birth. This record is the account of a continuous opening out of amazingly extraordinary faculties. It is the fascinating story of a charming childhood, a precocious boyhood, a full-blooded pupil hood, a sweet mother-son relationship, a stern renunciation at a tender age, as astonishingly rapid practice of Yogic discipline, and a total realization of Reality. It is worthy to note that neither in the case of Rama nor of Krishna is there any systematically and chronologically recorded evidence of schooling and discipleship. We have to be satisfied with brief accounts and suggestive points. Vasishta, the great sage gave Sri Rama instructions in scripture. But we find Sri Rama there already as the Ideal Man and knower of Paramatman-Supreme Self. In Sri Krishna's case, we are told that after his sacred thread ceremony, he studied the scriptures under sage Sandipini. Some of the Puranas hold that Sri Krishna underwent Tapasya-spiritual discipline at Badarikashrama though he was already the knower of the Brahman established in the self, repository of knowledge and revealer of the essence of all scriptures. The Bhagavata says that Sri Krishna stayed at Sandipini's hermitage for sixty-four days mastering one art each day and becoming proficient in all the traditional sixty-four arts in record time. The spiritual depth, the supreme knowledge and the supernormal faculties expressed in the lives of supermen whom the world adores are certainly not the product of any instruction, training or practice. They are inborn and possessed from very birth. So too is the highest realization of God theirs, not by any penance or striving, it is already theirs when they are born. The exercises they undergo are for setting an example to men, for doing good to the world, for resuscitating religion. That is why we do not find an identical preparatory stage in all the Avatars, not a uniform course of discipline in all of them. The mode of life, the stages of development, the ways of equipping themselves, the manner of working out the life mission, all these differ from Avatar to Avatar, according to the needs of the times and the demands of the age.

Shankara was just eleven now. We stand amazed at his mastery over different systems of Yogas and the manifestation of supernatural powers in him at so tender an age. We shall observe henceforth that such powers were pre-eminently needed for the fulfillment of the Divine Mission.