Sri Kamakoti Mandali  
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2. At the Gurukula


Shivaguru was extremely happy to find his son endowed with supernatural intellectual acumen. He made up his mind to have the boy's Upanayana ceremony (the investiture with the sacred thread which distinguishes a Brahmin) performed even in his fifth year, and then to send Shankara on to the preceptor's house for study. But the fates willed differently. Shivaguru died before he could have the Upanayana done. Aryamba was overwhelmed by this sudden bereavement. She dutifully performed the funeral rites of her husband, and shedding profuse tears of agony she repaired with her little son to her father's house to seek asylum there in her forlorn condition. But she did not forget the last wish of her departed husband. As soon as Shankara reached his fifth year she returned with him to her own home and performed the Upanayana according to scriptural injunctions, after which she sent him to the preceptor's house to be taught and trained.

Hardly had a few days gone by, when the Guru was charmed by the genius and the devotion to learning, which he saw in his young pupil. The correctness of the boy's mode of pronouncing words and the sharpness of his intellect quite fascinated everyone. Shankara assimilated effortlessly the contents of all the books he was taught, and what was more, he sat beside his Guru when he explained the scriptures to offer pupils and by mere listening to the exposition very easily mastered all of them too. No wonder that within a short time the young Shankara became the Guru's favorite. Tow years had not passed, but Shankara was already proficient in the Upanishads and the Puranas, in Itihasa and Smriti and in the various philosophical systems like Nyaya, Sankhya, Patanjala and Vaisesika. Indeed he was as well versed as Brihaspati, the teacher of the celestials.

In accordance with the rules governing residential pupils staying and studying in Guru's house, Brahmachari Shankara used to go out for alms every day. One day he went to the house of a poor Brahmin for alms. The Brahmin was an extremely poor householder. There was not in his house that day even a handful of rice to be given away as lams. The Brahmin housewife, not knowing what to do, gave Shankara an Amalaka fruit (Emblic myroblam), and shedding profuse tears told him of their indigent state. The woman's terrible poverty deeply moved the tender soul of Shankara. Standing there in a word of compassion he composed a hymn to goddess Lakshmi, the great mother who removes poverty and misery, and in a voice choked with tearful weeping and with all his heart centered in Her he laid at the feet of Bhagavati his soulful prayer for the redress of the poor woman's plight. Pleased with the hymn, which is known all through the world to this day by the devoted as the great Kanakadhara Stuti, Goddess Lakshmi appeared before him and said, "My dear child! I know what is in your mind. But the members of this poor family did not, in their past lives perform any meritorious acts which will enable me to bestow on them, wealth and riches." The boy Shankara then gave a reply to the Mother, " Why Mother! This housewife just now gave me an Amalaka fruit. If you are minded to favor me, set this family free from poverty." The boy's request brought joy to the Goddess, who said, " So be it. I shall give this family lots of Amalakas of gold." Shankara was delighted to hear words and assured the Brahmin lady that she would very soon acquire wealth and returned to the guru's house. At dawn the next day when the Brahmin couple awoke from sleep they saw their whole courtyard bestrewn with Amalaka fruits of gold. Overwhelmed with joy, they started picking and gathering the fruits of gold and told everyone that it was the Boy-Brahmachari Shankara's blessing that had helped them to so much wealth. The news of the boy Shankara's supernatural power spread on all sides. This brief incident was revelatory of the spirit of compassionate concern for others, which Shankara possessed.

Supermen endowed with divine authority stay in the embodied state holding on to just one support, the urge of compassion. We are indeed fascinated on coming to know of the expression of the quality of compassion in the life of Shankara even from his very early boyhood. We shall in the course of this biographical narrative have occasion to become acquainted and be lost in silent wonder as a result of it with the way in which in later years this stream of compassion of which Shankara was the source, moistened hundreds of dried-up souls and brought contentment to numerous hearts that were arid and thirsty and parched. And we shall realize beyond any possibility of doubt that the Lord and Shankara born of his aspect are oceans of motiveless and disinterested grace and compassion.

Endowed as Shankara was with a superhuman genius and a sharp intellect and with the uncommon skill of a Sruthidhara (of retaining in the memory everything heard even once), he had not to stay with his Guru for long. While even the very intelligent students tool at least twenty years to acquire mastery of all scriptures, Shankara was able to acquire that mastery in only two years time with the blessing and the favor of his Guru. As we know from biographies, Shankara mastered, even in his boyhood, all knowledge, including the secret knowledge, and much of this knowledge was acquire by him without any assistance from his teacher. He studied the philosophical systems of Nyaya, Sankhya, Mimamsa, Patanjala etc. and also the Buddhist philosophical systems like Sautantrika, Yogachara, Madhyamika, Vaibhashika etc. he also studied Jaina and Charvaka systems of philosophy. In addition, he also acquired especial proficiency in Itihasa, Purana, and Smriti literature. He had studied very many books on his own.

The Guru considered himself especially honored in having as his pupil a boy of such unmatched intelligence and caliber. Blessing Shankara again and again, permitted him to return home long before the expiry of the prescribed term of pupil hood.

Meanwhile Aryamba had negotiated Shankara's marriage with a beautiful girl in the neighborhood. Hardly had her son returned home from the Guru's abode, she told him of her resolve to get him married. The scriptures have enjoined that soon after schooling I done and the pupil has left the Guru's abode to the parental home, he should get married. The wedded state has to closely follow the state of studies. The Grihastha Ashrama had to be taken up at the close of Brahmacharya Ashrama, and not for a day should he remain unassigned to the legitimate Ashrama. But Shankara would not under any circumstance agree to get married. Aryamba tried many ways of persuasion and shed many a tear. But Shankara whom his widowed mother considered as the only hope of all her future happiness and welfare stood firm in his determination not to get into matrimony, and he would not relent. Such grimness of resolve on the part of a boy surprised the mother and bewildered her.

Shankara as a Brahmachari, now lived on at home and devoted himself to learning and teaching. But it was the serving of his mother that was for him his all-important duty and his greatest discipline. He ensured his mother's comfort and happiness by attending on her and serving her in all sorts of ways. The little boy's measureless proficiency in studies and uncommon skill in instructing brought him much renown, and within a few days his fame spread on all corners. Even aged scholars in large numbers began to come to him for a deeper study of the scriptures. His sublime and simple exposition of scripture and flare of genius on the part of a boy of seven were indeed indicative of Divine Power.

The devout Aryamba used to go for a bath to the river Alwai (or Purna) everyday. (Alwai is also the name of a town, and the river Purna flowing by the town naturally came to be called Alwai too. Alwai is a railway station on the Trichur - Ernakulam broad gauge line and is 17 kilometers from Ernakulam. Alwai town is situated at a distance of 55 kilometers from Trichur. From Kaladi, Alwai is about 96 kilometers). And on her way back home, she offered worship at the shrine of Keshava who was her family deity.

The Alwai was adored as a sacred river in those parts. The river was a long way off from Shankara's house, but yet his mother, with great steadfastness, went to the river every day for the holy bath. Once in the summer season Aryamba went to the river as usual, but even though a long time passed away she did not return home, and Shankara was very much worried. He went in search of her and as he was walking along the riverbank he saw her lying unconscious on the roadside. In deep misery at the sight he wept profusely and started nursing his mother back to her senses and when she came round he then slowly led her home by hand.

Shankara was by nature ardently devoted to his mother, and so his feelings on seeing the condition of his mother were such as no words can portray. Her suffering quite unnerved him. All in tears he sent forth a prayer to God saying, " Lord, Thou art indeed omnipotent. If Thou only wishest, anything is possible. I cannot bear to see this suffering of my mother. Be gracious and bring the river closer to our house. Then there will be no more suffering for my mother." This was his only prayer and longing and it overwhelmed his heart and soul, day and night he was immersed in this one supplication to the Lord.

The All-merciful Lord is not deaf to the prayers of devotees. He does hear them. Shankara's entreaty moved Him and He responded. During the night, rains were so heavy that the river changed its course. Breaking through its north bank, the Alwai River began to flow by the village of Kaladi. Aryamba was indeed very proud of her son's achievement and started telling everyone, "It is as a result of the prayers of my son Shankara that the Lord has brought the river close to out house". This miraculous incident was big news and spread within a few days to all corners of the area. People came in groups to have a sight of this wonder boy. Indeed through the will of the Lord many an impossible thing becomes possible, and along with it the glory of devotion as well as the glory of the devotee gets proclaimed.

Rajashekhara was the ruler of Kerala at that time and when he came to hear of Shankara' divine powers, he was filled with wonder. He himself was a very well read man delighting in the study of the scriptures. He was also of a pronounced devotional temperament, and was full of respect for the sacred books and the learned. Coming to know of the unprecedented depth of scholarship and the abundance of divine power in a Brahmin boy of seven, the ruler ardently desired to meet him. He sent his chief minister to Shankara, with the gift of an elephant and extended an invitation to him to meet him at the royal place. When the minister in all humility told Shankara of the king's desire, Shankara said, " O best of donors, of what avail is an elephant to those who live only on alms, whose clothing is only deer-skin and whose daily round of duties consists of sun-up and sun-down prayers, adoration of fire, study of Vedas, teaching, and the service to the Guru? O minister, carry this reply of mine to your royal master, and expressly tell him that a monarch's primary duty is to endeavor to ensure that the four Varnas duly perform the duties allotted to their particular stations and lead righteous lives. A king should never good people to wrong ways through temptation." With these words he declined the invitation to call at the royal palace.

This behavior of Shankara in no way displeased or angered the King. On the other hand, he became even more drawn to the precocious boy. Accompanied by the ministers of state the ruler himself arrived at Kaladi one day in order to meet Shankara in his own place. He saw Shankara clad in deer-skin with a cord of grass as a belt round his loins, and the white sacred sacrificial thread on his left shoulder and under his right arm. All round him were seated Brahmin scholars engaged in scriptural study. Shankara cordially welcomed the king showing him the respects due to royalty. In years he was but a boy, in demeanor and conduct he was one of the eminent and wise.

The Kerala monarch's object in coming to Kaladi was to test and measure Shankara's scholarship. Even after a brief discussion with Shankara on the import of the scriptures was it possible for the ruler to realize that the boy was a prodigy distinguished by intellectual sharpness and extraordinary discriminating skill, and he was naturally charmed and amazed. That Shankara was endowed with divine powers, the king had now not the least doubt. Both king and the boy merged into a discussion of scriptural themes for a long while, much to their delight. The monarch then laid at the feet of Shankara many gold coins, and paying obeisance to him begged him to accept the money and the gift. But in a severe way did Shankara tell the royal donor, "Noble King, I am a Brahmana and a Brahmachari. Of no use to me are these gold coins. The Devottara property made over to our family by your forefathers for our service in the temple is quite sufficient to meet my and my mother's expenses. By your kindness, we experience no want in our home."

Shankara's desirelessness, renunciation and disinclination to receive gifts greatly astonished the king. Holding together his palms in reverence he said, " Worshipful one, such sentiments are indeed becoming of you and you only. I consider myself blessed indeed. But how can I take back to myself the gift I have intended and set apart for you? Please distribute the money yourself to worthy recipients. "Without a moment's delay Shankara replied smiling, "You indeed are the monarch of the land. It is more in your line to be able to know the deserving and the undeserving than a Brahmachari devoted to scriptural studies. The gift of learning is the sacred duty of a Brahmin, while the gift of wealth is the duty of the ruler. It is for you to therefore distribute this wealth to fit and deserving folk."

The monarch saluted Shankara's genius and bent his head in reverence to his brilliance and ordered the distribution of the offered money among the Brahmins assembled there. This incident of Shankara's refusing to accept the preferred money made a deep impression on the ruler's mind. He saw that Shankara was not merely a scholar well versed in all the scriptures, but that the boy was a person of superhuman parts, possessed of powers that were divine in quality. And he was so much drawn to this boy-marvel that from then on he visited Shankara's house everyday to benefit by his holy company. Rajashekhara was the author of books like Balabharatha and Balaramayana and these dramas in Sanskrit he read out to Shankara and had corrections made according to his suggestions. The tidings of the king's offer of favors to Shankara and of Shankara's spirit of desirelessness soon spread all round. And even from far off places did many people come to se him, and many scholars flocked to him to hear from him an exposition of the scriptures.