Traditions of Himalayan Masters


Twelve hundred years ago in the village of Kaladi, there lived a learned man, Shiva Guru, and his wife, Araya Amba. Shiva Guru’s life was dedicated to the study and teaching of the Vedas and the Upanishads. He was respected throughout the country. Araya Amba worshipped God and served sadhus, wandering monks who frequently visited that village.

The couple was childless and as they approached old age, their sadness about this situation increased. One night as they slept, both wife and husband dreamed that the sage, Vyasa, came to them and said, “A great soul has descended. Soon you will be blessed with a son of infinite wisdom and spiritual powers.” Shortly after this dream Araya Amba found herself pregnant. In due time she delivered a baby boy, whom the couple named Shankara.

Extraordinary qualities and characteristics manifested in Shankara when he was quite young. He had a sharp intellect and a powerful memory and seemed already to know anything he was taught. By the age of seven he mastered the scriptures, a feat that ordinarily requires more than sixteen years of study.

Shankara enjoyed discussing philosophical principles and spiritual practices with his father, who knew that he would not live long enough to witness the great deeds of his son. One-day father and son had a serious discussion regarding the nature of the soul, birth, death, and the process of transmigration. Soon after this discussion Shiva Guru fell ill. As Shankara watched his ailing father getting weaker and paler every day, he wondered how this physical weakness was affecting his father’s inner being. What was actually experiencing the pain of sickness and old age-the body, the soul, or something else?

In due time he witnessed his father’s death. While other members of the family wept in grief, Shankara was motionless, lost in deep contemplation. People thought that he was in shock because of his father’s death and some even thought he had gone insane. He heard and saw nothing. Hours passed. While everyone else was preparing for the funeral, Shankara remained immobile. Suddenly his consciousness shifted, his countenance changed, peace descended, and the knowledge that had been revealed to him flowed into this verse:

Water rises from the ocean,
Turns into clouds and rain.
No matter what shape and color it assumes,
It flows on, and merges again with the ocean.
Similarly, descended from the Atman,
This jiva, the individual soul,
Completes its journey and
Merges again with Atman.

As he sang this verse Shankara raised his hands, elevating the consciousness of all present. His tears of joy washed away the sadness of everyone who had gathered there.

Shankaracharya’s Visit to Benares
Benares has been a center of learning for centuries people from all over the country long to come and study with the masters of the various arts sciences who live there. The pandits (learned scholars) of Benares do not acknowledge an outsider any more readily today than they did twelve centuries ago. Before the advent of Islam, it had been a standard practice in India to introduce a new system of thought, philosophy, or spirituality by proving its validity in a public debate. The secular rulers did not involve themselves in these debates but others-particularly scholars-could be expected to challenge new ideas and test them rigorously.

Shankaracharya arrived at the holy city of Benares with hundreds of followers trailing after him. One group welcomed him warmly while another group rejected him. A third group remained neutral and waited to see how he would emerge from the scholarly battle that was imminent with the scholars of Benares.

Shankaracharya seemed oblivious to the mixed reactions and to the impending debate. He took a bath in the holy river, Ganga, and informed his followers that he would go to the Vishvanatha Temple and offer his worship to Lord Shiva. This was exciting news because people could not understand how his adherent of non-dual, absolute Brahman could worship God in a temple and yet teach others about the absolute reality without name and form. People flocked to the temple. Many came to participate in the worship; others gathered to see if Shankaracharya would participate in the ritual.

The ritual itself passed without incident: learned priests recited the Vedic hymns and the devotees, including Shankaracharya, offered the routine ritual paraphernalia. As the ritual ended, Shankaracharya rose with folded hands and spoke:

“Forgive me, oh Lord, for three mistake: I know and feel that You are all pervading and omnipresent and yet I walked all the way here to worship You within the confines of this temple. I know that there is only one non-dual truth and thus there is no difference between You and me. Yet I worship You as though You are different from me and outside of me. Finally, I know that ‘mistake’ is simply a self-created concept and yet I’m asking You to forgive me.”

It was an astonishing performance-Shankaracharya had managed to offer his worship in an exact, traditional manner without straying from his non-dualistic philosophy. The entire city fell at his feet. Some people were impressed with his intellectual knowledge; others were enchanted with his spiritual wisdom and yogic powers. And some were simply overwhelmed by the fact that he had obtained so much wisdom at such a young age. Shankaracharya found two of his leading disciples-Padma Pada and Totaka-during his stay here.

The Discourse at Jnana Vapi
“Jnana Vapi” means “well of knowledge.” It also refers to an area that lies behind the famous temple of Shiva in Benares. For century’s philosophers, spiritual teachers, and religious leaders from all denominations have gathered there once a year to discuss spiritual matters. While Shankaracharya was in Benares a spiritual conference was arranged to take advantage of his presence. The questions that people asked and the answers that Shankaracharya gave during this special gathering cover a vast range. The following discussion provides a glimpse of the teachings he gave to the people gathered there.

Someone from the audience asked, “According to you sir, knowledge alone is the liberating force. The individual soul becomes bound to the cycle of birth and death as a result of its actions. Therefore in order to attain liberation, one must stop performing actions. If that is the case, how is a person to survive in the world?”

Shankaracharya replied, “It’s true that ultimately knowledge is the only liberating force. However, one cannot disregard one’s duties and follow the path of knowledge exclusively. In fact there is no contradiction between the path of knowledge and the path of action. It is simply a matter of emphasizing a particular path at a particular stage of life. As long as one has not understood the nature of this external world, the nature of one’s body, breath, mind and soul, and one’s relationship with the external world, one must adhere to the path of action.

“While following the path of action, one must keep exploring its strengths and weaknesses. One must also keep in mind the importance of discovering the inner essence of knowledge. The path of knowledge is superior to the path of action only in the sense that it leads directly to Self-realization. But the path of action is in no way inferior to the path of knowledge because it helps lead the aspirant to the path of knowledge.

“No one can survive without performing actions. The body itself cannot be maintained without performing actions. But if a person performs actions without paying attention to the process of action, to the fruits of the action, and to the attitude toward the fruits of action, then it entangles the doer in the snare of birth and death, as well as in the experiences that come between birth and death.

“Therefore, in the process of performing actions, learn how to be skillful. Most of our actions are motivated either by the desire of gaining something or by the fear of ending up with something we do not want. Thus from the beginning, our minds are focused on the fruit. Consequently when the fruit is achieved, we become attached to it. If the fruit is not achieved, we become disappointed and dissatisfied due to intense desire and expectations. In both cases, fear is the inevitable outcome. Either we fear losing the objects that we achieved through our efforts or we fear we will not achieve those objects.

“This fear cripples creativity and destroys peace of mind. If we are successful, we cannot rest because either we want more or we are afraid of losing whatever we have attained so far. An unsuccessful person is tortured by insecurity and fear of the future. Therefore we must learn how to perform actions without getting attached to the fruits.”

As Shankaracharya paused, someone from the audience interrupted, “Sir, even the most ignorant person has some idea of why he or she is trying to do something. Before attempting to act on the physical level, a person thinks about what he or she wants to accomplish. As the objective becomes clear, the person decides on want means and resources to use to achieve that goal and, as a result, performs an action.

“Therefore behind any action there is some degree of desire. The stronger the desire, the more energy is devoted to the task. Due to that desire, a person places a value on the goal he or she wants to achieve. Depending on how valuable that goal is, a person decides which other tasks should be postponed or disregarded. Thus I do not understand how one can even begin to perform one’s actions without any desire or attachment to the fruits.”

Shankaracharya replied, “I did not mean a person should set a task at random and start performing it without having a goal. There are three kinds of action. First, there are compulsory actions that we must perform for the sake of maintaining our existence: eating, bathing, and cleaning our houses and clothes are example of these actions. They are not binding.

“The second kind of actions are obligatory actions, which we must perform for the sake of maintaining healthy relationship with others. For example people have karmic bonds with their closest relatives. Those karmic bonds can be loosened only by paying off karmic debts toward those who are connected with us. We must discharge obligations to parents, children, spouse, and even our community and society, although we are often tempted to underestimate the importance of these duties. Deep in our hearts, however, we know that the call of these duties cannot be ignored. Ignoring these duties creates conflict within and guilt and self-condemnation result. Avoiding guilt and self-condemnation is reason enough to perform these actions, even if we can find no other motive. These obligatory actions bind only if they are not performed.

“The third category is actions we perform with the intention of achieving specific objects for either temporal or so-called heavenly purposes. This type of action is binding. It is the nature of the human mind not be satisfied with performing only the first two kinds of actions, because the mind takes them for granted. The senses of purposefulness, satisfaction, and fulfillment comes when we perform actions that are not mandatory. They are a challenge for us.

“In this area we must learn how to perform our actions selflessly, lovingly, and skillfully. By performing our actions selflessly and lovingly, and by surrendering the fruits of these actions to the higher truth, we minimize the effect of previous karmic bonds. Attempting to attain freedom from the bondage of karma by performing karma is just like using one thorn to extract another. Sooner or later one must reach the realm where there is no possibility of thorns. That realm is called the realm of knowledge.

“The realization that the purpose of performing one’s karma is to extract the roots of previously performed karmas will provide the strength necessary to perform your actions selflessly and lovingly without getting attached to the fruits. The fruits of any action then become like an extracted thorn. A wise person sees no reason to be attached to the thorn, which she just extracted. Extract one thorn with another, and throw them both away. If possible dispose of these thorns in a way that benefits others.

“It is necessary to have the desire to extract the thorn of your previous karmas. This is not an unhealthy desire; it is the motivating force for performing your actions. It is the desire to keep the fruits that is binding.”

The short dialogue is an example of the manner in which Shankaracharya shared his knowledge and elevated the consciousness of those who studied and practiced under his guidance while he was in Benares.
Ritual Practices Versus Knowledge
Mandana (follower of Mimamsa philosophy that provides a philosophical ground for Vedic ritualism) was a great teacher of the Vedas and Upanishads and was famous in his own right. His home was a full-fledged college with hundreds of students there under his guidance. Find below are a series of arguments between Shankaracharya and Mandana Misra. Interestingly Mandana’s wife Bharati, a scholar in her own right, was made judge.

Bharati: In respect to knowing the unknown, in respect to seeing the unseen, and in respect to staying in tune with the law of the divine, what is the highest and most reliable authority?
Mandana: The Vedas.
Shankaracharya: The Vedas.
Bharati: What is the intent of the Vedas?
Mandana: Rituals are the true intent of the Vedas.
Shankaracharya: Knowledge is the true intent of the Vedas.

Bharati: How do you justify your view that rituals are the true intent of the Vedas? How do rituals help one attain the highest goal of life?

Mandana: All the contents of the Vedas revealed in the scriptures can be divided into two major categories. Certain sections of the Vedas describe facts regarding the nature of unmanifest, absolute truth; the nature of the manifest world; the place of human beings in this creation; and the facts related to birth, death, and transmigration. Other sections of the Vedas describe rules and methods for living in the world, how to interact with others, how to perform one’s duties, and how to attain the highest goal of life in successive stages.

It is important to know who created this world, how it evolved, what the highest truth is, and what we are. But it is even more important to know how to participate in the process of creation that has been set in motion by the higher forces of nature. It is important to know how to follow the rhythm of nature and thereby, establish harmony between the microcosm and the macrocosm. Rituals as described in the Vedas are the way to participate in the activities of nature and to forge a link between individual and collective consciousness-the microcosm and the macrocosm.

Rituals show us how to enact the process that occurs in nature. There is a constant process of giving and receiving, materializing and dematerializing, gaining and losing, creating and destroying. Vedic rituals are the way to give and receive. By offering material objects into the fire, we witness the process of materializing and dematerializing. By giving an offering at the end of rituals, we familiarize ourselves with the principle of gain and loss. In compliance with Vedic exhortations, at the end of each ceremony the physical structure in which the ceremony was conducted is offered to the fire. This unveils the mystery of creation and destruction.

Shankaracharya: Rituals are like blankets that veil the truth. They are nets to trap our intellect, forcing us to confine our consciousness to the superficial values of the manifest world. The thinking of a person who believes exclusively in ritual practices becomes confined to this little world. Subtle thoughts of the mind and tender feelings of heart become outward-oriented. Such a person begins to believe that everything can be accomplished with the help of rituals.

Because rituals involve material objects and because there is a system as well as a defined goal, a person’s expectations grow and become vivid. When someone performs a ritual and the expected results don’t occur, as is usually the case, that person becomes disappointed. In order to cope with the disappointment, the person tries to discover the mistake in the ritual. Then the interpreter, who is usually the priest, takes advantage of the subtle tendencies of the mind of the person performing the ritual and puts the entire blame on the performer: “You didn’t do it with the right attitude of mind; you did not follow the exhortations correctly; you did not give the appropriate love offering to the officiating priests”; and so on. Such explanations create and perpetuate guilt.

Furthermore as the ancient portions of the revealed scriptures state, the original rituals were a simple means of channeling one’s devotion toward the divine. They did not require help from priests and clergy. However due to ignorance, laziness, or the tendency to lean on others, aspirants want their rituals to be done by someone else, namely a priest. In order to display their expertise and impress their clients, priests elaborate the rituals, causing them to become riddled by dogma and superstition.

As such practices continue it becomes a fad to make ritual performances glamorous, and gradually more advanced and elaborate ritualistic practices are introduced. At this stage, these ritualistic practices are no longer a means either of channeling devotional feelings or of fueling spiritual unfoldment. They become social events, a form of entertainment. And a way to display social status. These practices become cultural activities. But even before they degenerate into cultural activities, these ritual practices have little or no spiritual value.

Mandana: If rituals are so meaningless, then why do the Vedas advocate them?

Shankaracharya: The subtle essence of rituals lies in their symbolic or contemplative meanings. The inner meanings of rituals must be brought closer to one’s day-today life. In order to assimilate the spiritual value of rituals, a person not only must perform them, but also must live with the message that is conveyed by them. And the messages that rituals convey are non-attachment, selflessness, and the importance of remaining free from identifying oneself with the objects of the world.

Mandana: Do all rituals have symbolic meanings?

Shankaracharya: Yes. Rituals are like maps of spiritual practices. One cannot reach the goal pictured on the map by simply reading the map and drawing it over and over. In the beginning, in order to become familiar with the spiritual map, one may practice rituals but if an aspirant does not know how to internalize the ritual, he or she may become a good cartographer but will not become adept in spiritual experience.

Ritualistic practices are a means of keeping oneself busy in the external world while maintaining relatively less worldly awareness. Rituals also give people an opportunity to interact with one another in a relatively loving environment. However if they come to ritual with their worldly attitudes and habits, they will fight even at the altar. Therefore inner transformation, which requires knowledge and the direct experience of truth, is the only way to attain the highest good.

This short dialogue between Shankaracharya and Mandana about rituals and knowledge is just a fragment of a debate that continued for days. As the debate progressed, Mandana’s attitude toward Shankaracharya changed. He stopped arguing with Shankaracharya for the sake of argument and began to make genuine inquiries because he wanted to learn.

On the seventh day, Bharati declared Shankaracharya the winner of the debate and Mandana surrendered him self at Shankaracharya’s feet. But after giving her judgement in Shankaracharya’s favor, Bharati spoke, “Yours is only half a victory since I, the wife of Mandana, have not yet been defeated.” Thus it became her turn to debate Shankaracharya.

Bharati: What is the difference between attaining freedom from fear of death and gaining immortality?

Shankaracharya: Attaining freedom from fear of death means attaining freedom from the pain caused by fear of all kinds. To an ignorant person, death seems to be the most fearsome phenomenon. Therefore it is the most painful experience. This fear arises from the thought, “I am going to lose everything.” Throughout life, a human being works hard and continually identifies with the successes and failures brought about by his or her actions. Ultimately all actions and related successes and failures are centered around oneself. The more concrete is the image of the self as body and ego, the more terrifying is the thought of losing the body. At the moment of death, a person is appalled by the idea of losing everything-including wealth, properly, clothes, furniture, and so forth. That is why even a person in severe pain does not want to die.

However a person familiar with the law of nature including the law of change, death, decay, and destruction-overcomes his or her attachments and false identifications and goes through a smooth transition at the time of death. The smoother the transition, the smoother the entry into the world the next time. The less the attachment to worldly objects, the more freedom one has to leave the body voluntarily.

Everyone dies-both those who try to cling to objects and those who voluntarily leave things behind. The difference is that the first group is forced out, while the second leaves gracefully. The same principle applies at the time of conception. Some are forced to be born and others enter a body willingly. The first group is bound to drown in the cycle of births and deaths, whereas the second group incarnates. For the first group, birth and death are bondage; for the second, they are part of the divine will, the divine game, and the individual simply plays as assigned role.

Freedom from the fear of death does not mean that a fearless person will never die. Rather it means that such a person has raised his or her consciousness to the level where he or she is free to exit from the body and enter a new body at will. Attaining immortality means gaining the knowledge of the immortal Self and allowing one’s consciousness to be fully established in that. This knowledge imparts not only freedom from the fear of loss and gain but also that state of infinite bliss.

With the direct experience of eternal bliss, one attains inner fulfillment and no longer craves sense pleasure. Thus he or she no longer has feelings of loneliness and emptiness but enjoys his or her perfection regardless of external circumstances. Such a person becomes master of the mind and senses. For such a person, satisfaction and happiness lies not in worldly objects but in the decision to be satisfied and happy. Such happiness cannot be disturbed as the objects of the world come and go.

Bharati: Why are mind and senses so interested in finding bliss, or even pleasure?

Shankaracharya: Bliss in an intrinsic characteristic of Atman, the soul. In the outward journey of life it has lost or at least forgotten-its intrinsic characteristic. However without the experience of bliss, a human being feels empty and dissatisfied and searches for it.

Bharati: There is something called bliss, which is intrinsic to one’s inner being, and the mind and senses are searching for that? Regardless of whether or not they are searching in the right direction, at least the intention of the mind and the senses are correct. How can you talk about this with such certainty when you have little worldly experience, especially with regard to sex, which is one of the most powerful drives and greatest sources of pleasure?

At this Shankaracharya remained quiet for a moment. Then he said, “Please give me six months. I will gain direct experience of the world and then come back and talk to you on the basis of that.”

Bharati agreed and so, without reaching a conclusion the assembly was adjourned and Shankaracharya, accompanied by his two students, Padma Pada and Totaka, went to the high mountains. There he made plans to leave his body, enter another body, gain worldly experience, and return to his own body. He instructed Padma Pada and Totaka to preserve his body in the snow until he returned. In the yogic tradition, this particular process is called parakaya pravesha. Shankaracharya found a king in Bengal who had died unexpectedly. The entire court was in mourning when suddenly a miracle happened. As Shankaracharya’s spirit entered the corpse, it appeared that the king came back to life. And then he lived as king for months till he reentered the original body.

The Habits of the Body and the Habits of the Mind
Bharati: When you entered the body of the king, what did you notice?

Shankaracharya: It was like moving into a new cottage. The body had to be trained and adjusted to the mind and consciousness that had entered it.

Bharati: But how did you gradually lose your true self-identity? Did your mind also adjust to the habits of the king’s body?

Shankaracharya: Yes, due to a strong identification with the king’s body, the mind became affected by the bodily samskaras of the king. The more that identification grew, the more Self-awareness receded. The lesson I learned is that if one does not pay attention, then the body and mind will interact with each other almost blindly, and this interaction will lead an ignorant person into utter confusion.

Shankaracharya went on to explain the nature of desire, attachment, and the process by which the body-mind organism evolves from the subtlest principle known as kama, primordial desire. He also explained the divine nature of kama, which is an intrinsic aspect of divine will. It is from this divine will, known as iccha shakti, that the power of knowledge and the power of action spontaneously evolve. As the individual soul begins its outward journey, it keeps moving farther away from the divine nature of karma and as it does so, kama turns into worldly desire and cravings. This same principle of kama, if understood properly, can unveil the mystery of creation, maintenance, and destruction and thus can open the door to enlightenment. However if not understood properly, kama can propel a soul into the path of worldly transmigration.

Discussions related to the oneness of the divine force with the absolute truth and its evolution into the power of will, the power of knowledge, and the power of action lead non-dualism in the direction of Shaktism and more specifically, to the sublime philosophy and practices of shrividya. The tradition does not usually discuss this particular subject, and Shankaracharya does not mention this aspect of his teachings in his commentaries on the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita. But shrividya is the culmination of the tradition, which has been most profoundly described in the text, Saundaryalahari (which means the wave of beauty and bliss.)

Bharati asked many more questions and Shankaracharya answered them to her satifaction. Finally she also accepted him as her spiritual master. And thus wife and husband were ordained. After the initiation Bharati retained her name, but Mandana Mishra was renamed Sureshawaracharya”.

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