Shri Adi Shankaracharya: His Life and Message – Part 6


Shankara visits his mother Aryamba during her last moments
(Source: The photos on this section are from the drama Shankara Digvijayam presented by the students of the Prasanthi Nilayam Campus on January 14, 2013 in Sai Kulwant Hall)

... Continued from Part 5

Aryamba’s Last Moments
Shankara had given a pledge to his mother that he would, reach her in the last moments and perform the last rites for her. Being a pure being, he was determined to keep his word. For the pure-hearted the plighted word is bound to be kept. Moreover, whatever they say will happen. The Divine chooses the time and the situation for showering His grace and conveying His message. In the case of Arjuna, the Kurukshetra war was the right moment for Krishna to test Arjuna’s faith and his deservedness for receiving the message of the Gita. At the time of the war Arjuna was 84 years old. For so many years Krishna never spoke about any Vedanta to Arjuna. Krishna said, “You, Me and everyone present here are one”. This confused Arjuna immensely. Krishna said, “You are living in ignorance and I am living in total awareness.”
After Shankara propagated his Advaitic doctrine from Kashi, there was an assembly of great scholars in the holy city. Shankara, who was in that assembly, closed his eyes for a moment and experienced the vision of his mother in great distress. Immediately he dispersed the assembly and left for Kaladi. He reached his mother in her last moments, as promised, administered Tulsi water to her lips and discharged his duties to the mother. At that time, the people of Kaladi did not view with approval the actions of Shankara, because in their view, one who had taken to Sanyasa should not revert to the activities of a householder and perform rituals. Sanyasa means giving up all desires. The view of the orthodox Pandits was that once a person had taken to Sanyasa, he should not perform the last rites for a mother or a father which are the obligations of a householder. To enable the students to understand the implications of this incident, I shall explain what Sanyasa means. Before one takes to Sanyasa, the Viraja Homa is performed which signifies that the person dies as it were and gives up all his previous worldly commitments and enters on a new life, assuming a new form and wearing a new robe. The old form is cast away and the former name is also given up. He gets a new name related to the ascetic order. The suffix Ananda is attached to the name. After going through this ceremony, where is the place for mother or father?

Practice of Cremation in the Backyard in Kerala
Shankaracharya being opposed by the villagers and his family members at Kaladi
Shankara was confronted with a difficult situation. No one in his village was willing to help him. He had to perform the obsequies for his mother. The local Namboodari Brahmins declared that they could not touch the body. They felt that Shankara was going against scriptural injunctions. Utterly helpless, Shankara carried the body himself to the backyard of the house and cremated it. What Shankara did then, is practised even today in Kaladi. When any elders pass away, their bodies are cremated in the backyard of their houses. There is no separate cremation ground for them. When you go to Kerala you will find houses facing the street but the backyard will be open space. Anyone who goes there will have to take a bath. In this manner Shankara fulfilled the promise he gave to his mother. Shankara then left for Kashi. He was deeply pained at the attitude displayed towards him by the people of Kaladi. Shankara was walking all the way to Kashi, with just a stick in his hand and an oil torch to light his way at night.

Shankara’s Message to the Youth
Adi Shankaracharya with his disciples
Looking at young men and women going about on his way, Shankara remarked to his disciples that young people were keener about sensuous pleasures than to enquire about the Atma. It is a pity that people are attached to the body which is a container of many filthy objects. They are carried away by the external physical attractions of the body. It is a crying shame! What a pity that people should be so attached to this impermanent body! How long can youth last? Shankara then and there taught the people about the transitory nature of carnal pleasures. His message was a warning to youth to be very careful in the life they led. They should give up attachment to the body. 
Once upon a time, there was a prince who wanted to marry a merchant’s daughter for her beauty. The girl was devoted to God and wished to remain single. She devised a plan to rid the prince of his infatuations. She sent word that she would agree to marry the prince if he approved of her after a week. Meanwhile she took a series of purgatives, collected all the purging in vessels and went to meet the prince. By that time she was so emaciated that all her youthful charm had gone. She told the prince that the beauty he saw in her was all contained in the vessels. The prince learnt the lesson and decided also to remain single and devote himself to serve God. 
Shankara sought in this manner to turn the minds of the people away from sensual pleasures to thoughts of God. Shankara did not call upon all young men to take to Sanyasa. He exhorted them to do their duty and dedicate the body to the service of the Divine. He preached the truth, practised it and broadcast it to the world. Young people today have become slaves of the senses and are behaving like the lower animals. Shankara pointed out how worldly life is like the scenes on a screen. They come and go, but the screen remains. He declared, “Brahma Satyam; Jagat Mithya” (The world is an illusion, God alone is the Truth). Shankara also declared, “Sarvam Vishnumayam Jagat” (the world is the very manifestation of the Vishnu Principle). When scholars pointed out the contradiction between the two statements, Shankara said, “Worldly life is illusory because it is continually coming and going”. At the same time, this worldly life is lived like the moving scenes on a permanent screen. In this process the world and the Divine become one as it were like the oneness of the screen and the pictures on it. This is the basis for the statement, “Sarvam Vishnumayam Jagat”. Hence, the Upanishadic declaration that the whole cosmos is dwelt in by God.
This was the non-dualism preached by Shankara. Consider the Divine as the fundamental basis and lead your worldly life recognising its impermanence. Without the Divine, the cosmos has no existence. Hence man must recognise the one Divine Atmic Principle that is present in all beings. It may be called by different names. The Eternal Divine is birth-less and nameless. 




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