Not far from the temple of Badrivishalji, is a triangular piece of territory. At the farthest end of this area is a mountain. At the foot of this mountain is situated the Vyasashrama of great antiquity. It looks like hug cave. Close to is the Keshavaprayag, at the confluence of river Alakananda and Keshava Ganga. All round rise the Himalayas, eternally clad in snow. It is said that Bhagavan Badarayana Vyasa composed the Mahabharata with its one hundred thousand verses, sitting in this very cave located high and far away from the din and bustle of the maddening crowd of the world. Adjacent to the cave on its right side is a temple of Sri Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning, while a temple of Ganapathi is situated on the left.
There are legends about it all. Vyasa composed in his mind the one hundred thousand verses of Mahabharata for the mankind, but was cogitating about the means to teach his disciples this holy Samhita Grantha, work of collections. Unless the whole thing was recorded in writing, it could not at all propagated. Coming to know of this anxiety of Sri Vyasa, Lord Brahma, the ancestor of the world, appeared before the sage and told him, " I suggest you think of Ganesha for this work. He will be the transcriber of your literary piece."
Vyasa accordingly remembered Ganesha, and in an act of immediate response, the great God Ganesha made himself manifest to him and told the sage, " I shall willingly be penman for your treatise. But once the transcribing starts, my pen will not rest even a moment. It must be kept ceaselessly engaged. If at any time you are not able to chant the verse to be penned, and in consequence my pen is made to stop working even only once, I shall drop the transcribing then and there altogether".
Vyasa reflected and then remembered that his composition could be summarized to eight thousand verses, which were so abstruse and hard to comprehend that only he himself and his gifted son Sri Shukamuni could grasp their sense. So he imposed a counter-condition and told Ganesha, " You must not transcribe anything of what I say unless you first understand the import of it fully". Ganesha expressed assent. And the dictation and the writing began. Ganesha of course, was well versed in all branches of learning, but when the turn of the abstruse verses came, even he had to do a little thinking and probing before writing and this gave the needed time to Sri Vyasa, now and then, to catch up with that extraordinarily fast writer. It was in this strange way that Mahabharata and other Puranas were written. Goddess Saraswati used to be sitting at the place, as the witness to the whole affair, verifying the entire writing.
On reaching Vyasashrama, the Acharya let himself go into deep meditation for a few days. Then he busied himself with composing his Bhashya or commentary on the Brahma sutras which was to be acclaimed not only by the men on the earth but also by the Gods in the heaven as a masterpiece never heard or seen before. Even as the commentary was being composed, he taught it all to his disciples. By the force of his meditation, he comprehended the natural import and the hidden, inner, deeper and true sense of the Sutras, and wrote the commentary in the light of and on the lines of that comprehension.
The news of Acharya's staying in a remote Himalayan cave, for the purpose of composing the commentary, soon spread all round, and aspirants and scholars belonging to different faiths and varying schools started assembling at Vyasashrama. Every day between periods of writing out the commentary, Acharya imparted counsel to his disciples and the aspirants on the practice of Yogic discipline. In this way, the time was spent very usefully in dealing out and explaining the commentary, discussing the true import of the scriptures and practicing yogic techniques. The minds of all the disciples were lifted to a very high plane and all of them lived and moved at high levels of spiritual thinking and feeling.
Among the disciples of Acharya, Sanandana was the most worthy of him in all respects. Sanandana possessed a very keen intellect, profound scholarship, deep attachment to the sacred Vedic scriptures, a superior talent, a versatile genius and above all an unbounded devotion to the Guru, and naturally he was the best-beloved of Acharya. Therefore, the other disciples, human as they were, looked on Sanandana, perhaps unknown to themselves, with a rather jealous eye. This did not escape Acharya's eye. And in a strange manner he made everyone understand and concede the superiority of Sanandana.
One day Sanandana had on some errand reached the other side of the Alakananda river. He had crossed the river by means of a bridge close by which spanned the river. Desiring to give to all, an exhibition of hid dear disciple's unique greatness and unequalled Guru Bhakti, Acharya just at that moment, making it appear that he was in a pressing need of the disciple's services, cried out in a loud voice, " O Sanandana, come to me at once !"
This fright-filled call of his adored master disturbed Sanandana a great deal. He felt for sure that his master was in some danger and was in need of immediate help. But he saw that getting to the opposite bank of the river by walking over the bridge back would mean a precious while. The call of his master was a distress signal and had to be responded to immediately. He was in no mood to calculate and count the pros and cons of his action. And so he answered his master's call by simply getting into the Alakananda river and walked. The water was ice-cold and was such as to benumb the limbs and freeze the body to death. The current was strong enough to sweep away even an intoxicated elephant. But in Sanandana's mental horizon, there was no river to be crossed, no cold to be borne, no danger to be faced. Only the call of the master sounded in his ears and only the imperative need to be near his master., as expeditiously as possible, worked in his mind. He was utterly oblivious of every other consideration. His spontaneity of behavior stuck the onlookers on the other bank as rash madness. They were sure that he would sink in the water and perish. They raised shouts of alarm and waved at him in warning. Sanandana was deaf and blind ti everything. His body was divinely protected. And then, a miracle happened. The corporeal frame of the water-walking disciple did not sink. At every step of his foot, bloomed a lotus and supported him, and he crossed the river walking verily on the bed of lotuses. This was the Divine mother's play. Sanandana ran breathless and stood before Acharya for his commands. The other disciples stood amazed at this supernatural happening and were dumbfounded. Then pointing to Sanandana, Acharya addressed his other disciples, " You have now witnessed what immense grace the Bhagavati has on Sanandana. Henceforth Sanandana will be called Padmapada, the lotus-footed ". Padmapada was quick to see through Acharya's purpose in calling back from the other bank. He was not vain or proud. On the other hand, he was overcome with a sense of humility and a spirit of dedication and he bowed again and again at the holy feet of his adored master. He was rooted in faith that the Guru's grace was the sole means of crossing the deep ocean of transmigratory existence, ` Guru Kripa Kevalam'. He fully appreciated the rare blessedness of close association with an incarnation of the Supreme like Acharya Shankara. He saw the as a result of the grace of such a Guru, aspirant could be the recipient of Chaturvargaphala, the four-fold goals of life, and that to the seeker of the Self, because of this, the vision of the Self could come under his easy control and become a matter of felt experience. Surely his Guru, the spiritual master was no mere human being though he was in a physical body. Padmapada clearly showed that the Guru really was that Conscious Supreme which dwells as the Self in the body and that the power of the Guru was in fact the Chit-Shakti or the Supreme Spirit as power, which alone animates and enlightens all of the universe.
Some of Acharya's biographers say that this incident took place at Uttarakashi whilst others say it took place on the bank of Ganga at Varanasi.
The other disciples, by this time, had realized their short-comings and begged of Acharya's pardon. The Acharya blessed them and asked them to emulate Sanandana and make their rare human birth blessed.
By now Acharya had finished the work of composing commentaries on sixteen well-known books namely, the Brahma sutras, the twelve Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Vishnu Sahasranama and Sanatsujatiya. To all of his disciples, he had taught his commentaries intimately from end to end. He had also instructed them thoroughly in the practice of several spiritual disciplines and had inculcated in them the virtues of calmness, self-control, forbearance, indifference, and had trained them in Pratyahara- restraining the senses from their objects, Dhyana- meditation, Dharana- one-pointed concentration and Samadhi - going beyond self-consciousness to super-consciousness. He ahd, in a remarkable way, perfected the growth of the inner spiritual culture of his disciples. It was, as if, he had come to Vyasa Tirtha for the especial fulfillment of this task. Within a period of four years, he had completed doing all this work. The disciples were full of exhilaration. An upsurge of missionary enthusiasm and a noble desire to share with others the treasures they had received, and they spoke to the Acharya about the ways and means of popularizing his gospel among the ordinary people. Acharya listened and expressed his approval. He was now ready to play the new role of Lokacharya, the prophet of the people and that of Jagadguru, the World-Teacher.
Setting out from Badari, Acharya and his disciples proceeded to Jyotirdhama. Like the peals of a ringing bell traversing the void and striking the ears of men at a distance, the glory of Acharya's super- human life and labors reached far away places. Many scholars of established repute and renown, and men in varying strata of life became his ardent followers as he moved along. The ruler of Jyotirdhama who had already become an ardent devotee of the great Acharya, made all arrangements for the Acharya's stay at Jyotirdhama. He also hastened out to welcome and greet his adored Gurudeva. Soon Jyotirdhama was transformed into a center of religious festivity. Many scholars, men of distinction, monks and aspirants owing allegiance to different schools of faith, persons well-known for their many achievements, and good folks of all kinds, flocked there. The place resounded with joy. Acharya and his disciples explained to people at different corners, the import and significance of the commentaries which had been composed. The scriptures were analyzed and discussed and their sense and significance were pondered over, and there were recitals over the glory of the Vedas. Hearing from the great Acharya himself, his exposition of Advaita, all were charmed. It was a time of spiritual high-tide in the Himalayan abode.
The good ruler of Jyotirdhama enlisted many learned copyists to the work of copying the invaluable commentaries and several copies of these divine treatises soon got ready. But the religious enthusiasm that the Acharya enkindled was not confined to the literary and intellectual sphere. It touched and covered every section of the people, and every aspect of community existence. Acharya knew the value of temple-worship in the religious life of people. He selected for appointment as temple priests, persons with vast knowledge and deep devotion, and caused the worship in all the temples and shrines to be performed with a high fidelity to scriptural injunction and tradition and with deep earnestness and application. The temples began to pulsate with a new life and spirit. During the onrush of the Buddhist faith that had swept over the country, many Hindu temples had been destructed, neglected and abandoned, but the constructive genius of the Acharya caused all of them to be reclaimed and renovated, the deities reinstalled with arrangements for proper worship. The good ruler of the place, true to his profession of Prajaparipalana, protecting the people, warmly co-operated with Acharya and of his own accord did all he could to make his subjects pursue learning, adhere to exemplary conduct and live religiously. And the ruler himself practiced what he preached. The Acharya ceaselessly exhorted the householders to take to the worship of Panchayatana, the five deities - Shiva, Devi, Ganesha, Vishnu and Surya and to the performance of the five great sacrifices- service of the Gods, of the Pitrus or ancestors, of the sages, men and of all living creatures. Acharya's stay on the mountains, in this manner, in a very short time, powerfully stirred up a wide-spread resurgence of a spirit of vigorous spirituality and the ages old Vedic dharma got itself securely re-established.
After a happy and useful stay of a few days at Jyotirdhama, Acharya, along with his devoted flock, journeyed to the other pilgrim centers of Uttarakhanda. The Puranas proclaim the glory of Kedara Kshetra as rapturously as they sing the greatness of Badari. In this pilgrimage, the ruler of the place also accompanied Acharya. Under the royal command, an advance party of officers marched ahead of the party repairing and setting right the hilly paths, providing the necessary facilities, thus making it for the pedestrians to walk along. Even then, the journey from Jyotirdhama to Kedara was quite a hardship to pilgrims, it tested their physical endurance. Taking the path along Nandiprayag, the party arrived at Kalpeshwara, the holiest of spots among the Pancha Kedars, the five Kedars. Places with inspiring associations like Gopeshwara, Anasuya Devi were then crossed, and Rudranath, the fourth of the Kedars, was reached. At all these places, large number of people thronged to have a look of the great Acharya. Acharya on his part, satisfied every heart by his spiritual counsel and instruction. His influence served to install into every one, a new zeal to live a spiritual life.
Acharya's next halt was at Tunganath, the third Kedara, at an altitude of 12,072 feet. Situated on a lofty mountain, its expansive sight was fascinatingly beautiful. Till far north, shone the strikingly while snow-clad Himalayas, the enchanting view of whose majesty struck the onlookers at Tunganath dumb with awe. Such a superlatively captivating, such an irresistibly charming sight was not seen until then. The region is verily a bed of all-white blossoms where Kedareshwara, the lord of all the Yogis is ever present to lift his devotees from all specks of duality. Nature shining in her dark green radiance, her tresses of hair flowing out, her whole being merged in a deep meditation on her Lord Mahadeva, ever busy with the task of showering love and care on her children caused a feeling of intense love and devotion in the heart of the enlightened Acharya. His mind was completely lost in the contemplation of the Divine Infinity.
This state of at-one-ment with the One and All is a condition which all can aspire after and eventually achieve. So long as man lives and moves and has his being in the consciousness of the small ego, the little, limiting individuality, the narrow self, the range of compass of his mind is very much circumscribed and exceedingly narrow. But when the man dips and merges his individuality-consciousness in the Universal consciousness i.e. when the Vyashti is lost in the realms of Samashti, he has a vision of the uttermost reaches of feeling and outlook. Man can then identify himself with the entire bosom of the universe. The bliss of that state is without a parallel. Man then, feels himself submerged in the ocean of supreme cosmic joy, Virat Ananda. The individual personality is then annihilated. As drops of rain falling in the ocean become the ocean, the limited human personality, freed from all limitations, becomes the illimitable. Man, the insignificant, then passes from the petty to the Mightiest, from mundane life to Supreme existence and from earthly joy to Infinite Bliss. This is a clear demonstration of the fact that Acharya was a perfected Vijnani, and mot merely a Jnani as some foolish Vamacharis claim.
Tunganath was a reputed center of learning, and the scholars of that place were extremely to have seen and heard the great Acharya. The flow of sermons from Acharya brought them no little joy, and their feeling of regard for the Acharya was so profoundly deep that to perpetuate his holy memory, they even made and installed a stone image of him. The image found a place among the revered images in the shrine.
Leaving Tunganath, Acharya in the next lap of his pilgrimage, visited and sanctified by his visit, many places like Sonitapur, Guptakashi, Madhyameshwara ( the second Kedara ), Mahishamardini, Shakambari, Triyugi Narayana, Shonaprayag and Mundkata Ganesha ( the headless Ganesha). In due course Acharya arrived at Gaurikunda where Bhagavati Gauri once performed penance. Gaurikunda is 6,500 feet above sea- level. The place is famous for its big hot spring and is in consequence a favorite resort of pilgrims. Anyway, children always run to their mother, who in turn makes everything fine and good for her children.
The region of Kedara begins from Gaurikunda. Pilgrims who cannot bear the intense cold of Kedara choose to stay at Gaurikunda, in the cozy lap of the Supreme Mother. Tradition also has it that Gauri Devi conceived Kartikeya at this place. Having taken bath t the hot spring, Acharya visited the shrines at that place, took some rest and then passed along to places like Chiravasabhairava, Bhimasena's slope and arrived at Kedara Kshetra.
Kedara is an extensive plateau region, triangular in shape. Enclosed by mountain ranges, shrouded in eternal snow, the place is enveloped in an unbroken stillness and a sublime grandeur. The high altitude of the place naturally subjects every visitor to breathing difficulty. The Lord of Kedara is indeed a deity, whose living presence is palpable to devotees. At their mere remembrances of Him, Lord Shiva becomes graceful to his devotees. Kedara is the meeting place of pilgrimages. In the Mahabharata it is mentioned that the five Pandava brothers passed through Kedara during their Mahaprasthana, the last journey.
When Acharya arrived at the holy Kedara Kshetra, his usually poised mind rose to heights of divine ecstasy, indescribably intense. In an attitude of bliss and veneration, he visited and adored Kedaranath and kept the religious observances appropriate to the place. Kedara is at a height of 11,753 feet. Situated at a much higher altitude than Badari, it is much colder. The disciples of Acharya felt greatly distressed in the intense cold. The tender-hearted Acharya could not bear the sight of their suffering and a mood of deep compassion came over him. He went into meditation and was able to divine the presence of a hot spring nearby. In pursuance of the Acharya's instructions, the men in the king's party removed the snow, the rocks and boulders at the place pointed out. A little excavation brought to light, the hot spring. And great was the joy of all, for a hot spring at such altitude is a rare thing indeed.
At Kedara, Acharya was, most of the time, absorbed in meditation. It is not precisely recorded how many days he stayed at Kedara. Some hold that he remained at Kedara for a month. Everyday, he went to temple of Kedareshwara and remained in ecstasy for a long time. Having tasted the divine delight of the company of Kedareshwara, Acharya set off towards Gomukhi, the source of Bhagirati or Ganga.
His path lay across Gaurikunda, Triyugi Narayana and Buda Kedara and then passed through the difficult climb of the formidable mountain pass of Paoali (11,364 feet above sea-level) and through forests infested with ferocious wild animals. The march was an encounter with death at every step and after as long as a fortnight's advancing, the Acharya was able to get the first glance of Ganga. The celestial river which purifies all the three worlds with its nectarine waters has put on at this place, an unique beauty and grandeur of form, and shines with an unsurpassing brilliance. Forcing hard rocks off their base, tirelessly making a way through mountain walls, the river has flowed ceaselessly on keeping an exuberant flow. The Ganga symbolizes a perpetual moving on, a non-stop reaching out, an endless questing forward. Charming townships, prosperous cities, quiet villages, enchanting groves, populous settlements, all these in large numbers get sanctified, purified by her holy waters, and the sacred river flows on to reach the great receptacle, the Ocean. The mountain walls echo and the deep forests resound and re-echo with the sound of the joyous ripples of Sri Ganga hymning in praise of Lord Mahadeva. Catching a glimpse of the divine river, and thrilled by that experience, Acharya was filled with delight and exhilaration and chanted out a sweet hymn in adoration to the Goddess Ganga.
" O Goddess and Divine Mistress, Consort of the Lord Supreme, Mother Ganga, Thou art the deliverer of the three worlds. On Thy bosom sport wavy ripples and Thou hast thy abode on the crest of Shankara, the doer of good; oh symbol of purity, grant that my mind may ever abide at Thy lotus feet".
" O Bhagirata propitiated stream Bhagirati, bestower of bliss, Mother Dear, the glory of Thy waters is lauded in the scriptures-is it not for little of me to comprehend Thy greatness, Gracious one, protect and save ignorant me ……."
Walking up the banks of the Bhagirati, the Acharya proceeded to the source of Ganga, Gomukhi. Not only was there a Ganga outside to him, there was an immortal Ganga within him with its current of abounding grace and sanctity. The Gomukhi region is literally impassable. Up till Gangotri, there is some sort of path trodden by a few people. But not even footmarks are seen beyond Gangotri in the direction of Gomukhi. When the river is frozen hard, one has to tread over ice to reach Gomukhi. The region is all a kingdom of ice, a territory devoid of human beings, uninhabited by beasts and birds. The stoutest heart might get terrified by the sombre forlornness of the area. But Acharya was fearless. And fortified, as it were, by divine strength, emboldened by a super-human resolution, the Acharya, caring not for life or death, walked on to Gomukhi. Not many mortals would dare even of a trip to the scarce Gomukhi eternally buried in snow, and utterly devoid of vegetation.
Of course today the position has improved, and Gomukhi now attracts a growing number of pilgrims in the season. Beyond Gangotri, Dharma Salas etc with facilities for lodging and boarding have sprung up on the way to Gomukhi. But in the days of Sri Acharya, the picture was an entirely different one. The Ganga in Gomukhi is only thirty to forty yards in width. During the six winter months, the flow of Ganga becomes slower and width narrower.
It is said that the river Ganga came down from heaven to earth through the matted locks of Lord Shiva. To check the torrent, Ganga assumed the form of a glacier and flowed in three streams, Bhagirati, Mandakini and Alakananda. From Satpanth glacier, it has broken up into three currents and flowed in three directions. The one and the same Ganga flows in three streams.
Reaching Gomukhi, the Acharya was in a exuberance of self-delight. The scenery all round was fascinating in a variety of ways, and the poetic Being of the Acharya was thrilled to rapture. The distant horizon seemed to get merged in the infinite. It was ice and all ice to the farthest limit of vision. Of incomparable beauty was that ice- bound panorama, golden in the rays of the sun, under a dustless clear sky. The heavenly stream Bhagirati was gushing through an opening shaped like a cow's head, earning it the name, Gomukhi.
Because of the difficulties caused by snowfall and hail-storm, Acharya had to return to Gangotri to ensure the safety of his disciples. There was heavy snowfall all along the path and the lives of Acharya and his followers were endangered several times. The pilgrimage to Gomukhi required for its successful accomplishment, great fortitude and mighty forbearance on the part of Acharya and his devotees.
On reaching Gangotri, Acharya's mind was filled with compassion for those weak men and women, who were incapable of visiting the liberating Tirtha of Gomukhi. He knew that the arduous journey was not for everyone. So, in an overflow of pity for the feeble, Acharya got a temple of Ganga and Shiva erected at Gangotri. He blessed the place that, if pilgrims went up to Gangotri and had a Darshan of the deities at that temple erected by him, the would actually reap the high benefits of a trip to and a view of Gomukhi itself. Tradition has it that Acharya, with his own holy hands, installed a Shiva Linga and an idol of Ganga Devi at Gangotri.