Ritualism (Karma Kanda) vs. Renunciation (Jnana Kanda) of the Vedas:
The classic debate between Mandana Misra and Adi Shankara
Among the shining stars of philosophers Sri Shankara Bhagavatpada, popularly known as Adi Shankaracharya, occupies a unique place on account of the Advaita philosophy he propounded based on the Upanishads and embellished by the incomparable commentaries he wrote on them. The principles, which he formulated, systematized, preached, debated upon and wrote about, are beyond the limitations of time and space.
Those who study his valuable works experience an intellectual feast of awe, devotion, humility and gratitude overflowing in them. His flowery language, his lucid style, his rigid logic, his balanced expression, his fearless exposition, his unshakable faith in the Vedas, and forceful arguments in debates and in his works convey an idea of his greatness that no story can adequately convey. To those who are deprived of tasting the sweetness of this feast, several incidents in his memoirs do convey glimpses of his many-sided personality.
The life history of the Acharya is made known to us through his biography called the Shankara Digvijaya. While there are various Shankara Digvijayas in existence, the most popular and traditional account of the events of the life of Bhagavatpada is attributed to the Madhaviya Shankara Digvijaya. The popularity of Madhaviya Shankara Digvijaya is not only because of the splendid portrayal of the life of Sri Adi Shankara but also due to the supreme erudition that Sri Madhava displays in portraying the great Acharya. Sri Madhava later on became an ascetic and occupied the high pedestal as the Chief of Sharada Peetham established at Sringeri by Adi Shankara as its 12th Jagadguru with the name of Sri Vidyaranya.
There is not much variation among the several 'Shankara Digvijayas' in describing Shankara’s life. This essay is based on the Madhaviya Shankara Digvijaya highlighting that event in the life of the Acharya that is remembered to this day as a representation of scholarship, wisdom and logic.
SHANKARA’S EARLY LIFE
Sri Shankara was born of Shivaguru and Aryamba at Kaladi in Kerala. He lost his father at an early age. He made rapid strides in his learning. In his eighth year he obtained the consent of his mother and took up sanyasa. He started out in quest of a competent teacher. And eventually found Govinda Bhagavatpada (the disciple of Gaudapada) on the banks of the Narmada. He stayed with his Guru for a while. Under his command, he went to Kashi and Badri.
It was during this period while in Badri when he was of twelve years of age, he wrote his most profound commentaries on the Vedanta Sutras of Badarayana, the principal Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita which are known as Prasthanatraya, being the authorities on the Vedanta Sastras. The Bhashyas (commentaries) of Shankara are monumental works covering the import of the Vedic teachings and supplemented by clear reasoning and lucid exposition. This doctrine of Brahma Vidya which Shankara propounded through his works is what is known as Advaita Vedanta or Non-dualism. It confers salvation through the elimination of duality across the world.
At this time of Indian History, the spiritual life among the Buddhists was at low ebb with the vigor and purity of Buddha having vanished. The masses had moved away from the Vedic way of life comprising of the various duties in accordance to the tradition and the stages in life. A strong and urgent need for the revival of the Sanatana Dharma was therefore felt.
The Vedic rituals and sacrifices were revived and gained a position of honor. In course of time, the sacrifices and rituals (karma kanda) reigned supreme and were upheld as the ultimate goal. The true Vedic dictums (jnana kanda) were forgotten. Spiritual insight was conspicuous by its absence. At such a crucial juncture, Sri Adi Shankaracharya appeared on the scene.
Shankara realized that unless he was able to win over this powerful group of proponents and followers of ritualism, his goal of re-unifying India and making it a beacon light of spirituality would remain unfulfilled.
Thrilled by the experiences, Shankara set his mind on the task ahead and commenced his next task namely to propagate his tenets as set out in his Prasthanathraya Bhashyas to the world.
SRI SHANKARA AND KUMARILA BHATTA
Starting on this mission of a spiritual conquest of the whole of India, Shankara decided to go first to Prayag with a view to win over Kumarila, the staunch upholder of the ritualistic interpretation of the Vedas and get his explanatory comments (Vartika) on his Bhashya on Brahma Sutras of Badarayana – Vyasa.
Having reached Prayag, he came to know that Kumarila was about to enter into a fire, as an act of expiation for betraying his teacher from whom he had learnt stealthily the tenets of Buddhism. Sri Shankara rushed to the place where Kumarila had set himself to burn. Kumarila recognised Shankara, narrated to him his work against the Buddhists, his awareness about Sri Shankara's Bhashyas and his desire to write a Vartika (explanatory treatise) on his Bhashyas. Kumarila explained how he was not in a position to break his vow of expiation and therefore asked him to meet his disciple Mandana Misra. He added that if Shankara could defeat Mandana Misra, whose actual name was Vishwaroopa, who was the most renowned protagonist of the Purvamimamsa School, the ritualistic interpretation of the Vedas, it would clear all obstacles in the mission that Shankara had undertaken. Shankara then proceeded to Mandana's place called Mahishmati, in the present-day Bihar. (According to another version it is at the confluence of the Narmada and Mahishmati rivers, near Omkarnath in Madhya Pradesh.)
SRI SHANKARA AND MANDANA MISRA
Mandana Misra received the best of traditional training at the feet of Kumarila Bhatta and perfected his scholarship. He settled at Mahishmatipura as a house-holder with his wife Ubhaya Bharati.
Mandana Misra and Ubhaya Bharati were an ideal couple, each of them equal to the other in all branches of learning, ethical character and strict observation of Vedic injunctions. Ubhaya Bharati was supposed to be an avatara of goddess of learning, Saraswati Devi, as Mandana Misra was supposed to be an avatara of Brahma. His scholarship and the reverence in which he was held earned him the honorific epithet of 'Mandana Misra'. His real name was Vishwaroopa.
Mandana Misra was a distinguished practitioner of the mimamsa philosophy. The mimamsa philosophy is mainly derived from the karma kanda portion of the Vedas and emphasizes on the importance of rituals. In this school of thought, a particular ritual is done, and the results are achieved instantaneously. It displays a straightforward cause and effect relationship if practiced accurately.
When Sri Bhagavatpada reached the mansion of Mandana Misra, it was found bolted from inside. Sri Bhagavatpada, as a Sanyasin, had no right of admission into a house found closed. Such are the rules of Smriti, which govern the daily conduct of traditional Sanyasis. Sri Bhagavatpada pondered a little. He had firmly decided to redeem Mandana Misra from the rigidity of dogmatic ritualism. Therefore he felt like using his extraordinary Yogic powers. Great Yogi and Siddha Purusha as he was, Sri Bhagavatpada entered the house through the closed door.
Mandana Misra had an innate dislike for Sanyasis because in his staunch belief of ritualism, he felt that only those who wished to escape the rigours of Vedic injunctions found a refuge in the Sanyasa ashrama. Moreover when Sri Bhagavatpada entered the house, it was a time when the presence of a Sanyasin was most unwelcome. Mandana Misra was performing a shraddha and the Brahmins were about to be fed. The entry of Sri Bhagavatpada at such a time caused a disturbance and Mandana Misra was infuriated.
Hot and harsh exchanges followed. The Brahmins found the situation going out of control. They wished to set it right. They suggested to Mandana Misra to invite Sri Bhagavatpada for Biksha seeing him as a bhokta occupying Vishnu Sthana in the ceremony. Staunch ritualist as he was, Mandana Misra was fully bent upon saving the ritual. He invited Sri Bhagavatpada accordingly.
But Sri Bhagavatpada declined to accept the invitation. He explained to Mandana Misra that he did not come for bhiksha of the edibiles but for a vada bhiksha, a polemical debate in philosophy. Mandana Misra who had never met his match in learning before was willing for a dialectical fight. He gladly welcomed it. The shraddha was allowed to be finished as ordained. The debate was fixed for the next day.
Mandana Misra was a perfect and adept ritualist who preached widely. The young and charming advaita vedantin, Adi Shankara, on his country wide tour was eager to debate with Mandana Misra, who was by then already very old. Mandana Misra reasoned that since he had spent more than half his life learning and preaching mimamsa, it would be unfair to debate with a youngster in his twenties who barely had any experience. Hence, with the intention of being fair on Shankara, Misra allowed Shankara to choose his own judge. Shankara had heard greatly about Misra’s righteousness and appreciated him for his act of fairness. But he was quick to decide that none but Mandana Misra’s wife herself can be the most appropriate judge for this debate. To make the dispute more purposeful, they agreed to a wager. If Shankara looses in debate, He would become disciple of Mandana Misra and get married in the life. If Manadana Misra looses, he should become Sanyasi and disciple of Shankara. This was the bet of the debate.
The debate between them commenced and continued for months. Thousands of scholars gathered everyday to watch and learn. Mandana Misra, at a ripe old age, still remained a man with very sharp intellect and a very solid grasp of logic, but he was slowly losing. Despite being such a young man, Shankara’s realization of the ultimate Brahman and his knowledge of Maya, enabled him to win over Misra’s arguments easily. Misra was a very accomplished ritualist, yet he seemed to lack some understanding of higher spiritual truths that Shankara seemed to have experienced already. At the end of a long period, Mandana Misra was almost ready to accept defeat, when his wife, Ubhaya Bharati, declared that in order to defeat a man in debate the opponent should also defeat his wife.