The classic debate between Mandana Misra and Adi Shankara

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The classic debate between Mandana Misra and Adi Shankara

By T.N.Sethumadhavan December 2013

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.
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.
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.)
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.

CH 2

The transformation of her husband into a sannayasi distressed Bharati to no end. Wise and prudent as she was, she kept her counsel and addressed Shankara thus: “You do know that the sacred texts enjoin that a wife forms one-half of a husband’s body (ardhangini: ardha - half; angini - body). Therefore, by defeating my lord, you have but won over only half of him. Your victory can be complete only when you engage in debate with me also, and manage to prove yourself better.”

Ubhaya Bharati was a learned scholar herself and a very clever one at that. Knowing very well that Shankara was a strict celibate, she asked him how can a sanyasi, who has no experience as a citizen, and a householder, claim complete knowledge?  She immediately started discussing relationships and marital obligations. Shankara confessed that he had absolutely no knowledge in this area, because he was a celibate. However, Ubhaya Bharati felt that she should give Shankara some time to study about this topic before resuming the debate. Shankara immediately accepted the offer and left to start his studies.
Through his yogic powers Shankara came to know of a certain king who was about to die. He instructed his disciples to preserve his body, which he temporarily left to enter the dying king’s body. The king happened to be a very evil man. Yet his wives were loyal to him and were in tears when the king was in his deathbed. Suddenly, when the king’s body woke up, one of the wives noticed that the king had recovered under rather mysterious circumstances and appeared to have become a changed man.
Shankara learnt from that woman, all that he needed to know about man-woman relationship and experiences. On his way out of the body he blessed that lady who had taught him so much. Empowered with this newfound knowledge, Shankara returned to resume the debate with Ubhaya Bharati. This time, he was clearly unbeatable. Ubhaya Bharati and Mandana Misra bowed their heads in humility and accepted defeat and became followers of Adi Shankara and staunch vedantins.
Mandana Misra was given Sanyasa dikha and was given name "Sureshwara". Shankara imparted to Mandana Misra the Mahavakya 'Tat tvam asi'. Shankara having thus brought the celebrated Mandana into his own fold started again on his mission.
Sri Sureshwaracharya was the most talented disciple of Shankara Bhagavatpada. He was placed as the First Head of Sringeri Sharada Peetham in the South, one of the Mutts established by Shankara. He was the greatest scholar after Shankara in those times. He was elder to Shankara in age. He is also called as "Vartikacharya." He wrote commentary on Shankara's Brahma Sutra Bhashyam, Dakshina Murthy Stotram..
Ubhaya Bharathi wanted to finish her avatara and go back to her abode. Shankara prays to her and requests her to bless people on earth. It is Ubhaya Bharathi who is considered to be blessing the devotees as Sharadamba from Sringeri.
As the debate between Mandana Misra and Shankara, the two great stalwarts lasted for a very long duration its content is very wide in its spread and deep in its treatment. The following is the gist of these mammoth discussions.
Initiating the debate Shankara put forward the unity of all existence as follows. “Brahman, the Existence-Consciousness- Bliss Absolute (sat-chit-ananda ghanam) is the one ultimate Truth. It is He who appears as the entire world of multiplicity owing to dense ignorance, just as a shell appears as a piece of silver. Just as, when the illusion is dispelled the silver is sublated by, and dissolved into its substratum, the shell, so too, when ignorance is erased the whole world is sublated and dissolved into the substratum, Brahman, which is the same as one’s own Atman. This is supreme knowledge as well as liberation. It brings about cessation of future births. The Upanishads which form the crown of the Vedas are the authority in support of this proposition. I am sure to prove this and be victorious in the debate. If, however, I am defeated, I shall cease to be a Sanyasin, abandon the ochre robes, and assume the white dress. Let Ubhaya Bharati be the umpire to determine success or failure.”
In reply to this statement, Mandana Misra made his contention as follows. “The Vedantas or the Upanishads cannot be a proof of some thing which is intangible i.e. Pure Consciousness, unoriginated and infinite, which has no subject-object distinguishing feature. For words can reveal only objects which are originated entities but never an abstract feature called Consciousness. Therefore, the non-vedantic part of the Vedas dealing with effects produced by works i.e. karma kanda is the real verbal testimony. In the light of performance of the actions in the form of rituals alone are the steps leading to moksha or liberation. If I happen to be defeated in argument, I shall take to the life of Sanyasa. As requested by you let my wife, Ubhaya Bharati, be the judge for the contest”.
Agreeing to the conditions put for ward by each other, the contestants started the debate witnessed by the learned sages and even celestials. Quoting from the Vedas as their authority and supported by enlightened arguments the debate went on for several days.
The arguments became keener and more complex, and the refutations and denials also became correspondingly stronger and bolder. Both the contestants raised more and more intricate questions. There was a downpour of assertions and objections from either side. Quotations from the scriptures were marshaled with marvelous skill by both, and exploited to lend support to their case. And the debate went on. Neither side could humble the other.
The Acharya-Mandana dialogue was of such eloquence, scholarship and profundity that even the Gods assembled over Mandana's house and from above, remaining hidden from view, listened attentively to the debate. In this way, the debate was carried on for several days. As the days went by, Mandana started finding it difficult to maintain his position and give proper replies to Shankara’s objections. Thereupon, Mandana, instead of defending his thesis, commenced attacking Advaita doctrine expounded in the Upanishads as put forward by Shankara. The sum and substance of the objections and the replies of the rivals are as under.
Both Mandana and Shankara accept the authority of the Vedas as the revelation standing for the ultimate good of man. Mandana’s school ( Purva Mimamsa) holds that the only purpose of the Veda is to prompt man to actions i.e. rituals sanctioned by the Veda by performance of which man attains heavenly felicity of long duration at the end of which he returns to earth – again to acquire more merits by performing karmas. So the real nature of the Veda is of the nature of the commandments to actions of a ritualistic nature. If there are purely descriptive passages in it, these are descriptions of certain aids to karma like its ingredients, agents required or eulogy of the rituals etc. All such passages are to be considered as subordinate to the commandments instituting rituals. Thus the whole of the Veda is an injunction for performance of rituals and if this is not accepted the Veda becomes a mere trash, a purposeless literature.
Contrary to this view are the views of Uttara-mimamsakas (Vedantins) led by Shankara. They contend that the Veda has two sections – karma kanda (ritualistic section) and jnana kanda (philosophic or knowledge section). The latter is the crown of the Veda. What the ritualists say is true of only the karma kanda and not of the Veda as a whole. The jnana kanda consisting of the Upanishads (also known as Vedanta) reveal the real or the ultimate meaning of the Veda and the karma kanda portions are merely preparatory to this. Therefore to extend the philosophy of ritualism to the understanding of the Upanishads is a great blasphemy. The statements of the Upanishads are not commandments for any action but revelations of the nature of the Ultimate Reality and man’s relation to it. They are an end in themselves and not aids to the performance of any ritual. The understanding conveyed by them releases man from the false sense of duality and establishes him in the experience of the Unity of all existence (advaitam: non-duality) thus releasing him for ever from the repetitive process of births and deaths (samsara) by rousing in him the sense of oneness with Eternal Bliss”.
To put briefly, for Mandana and his school of thought Veda is revelation teaching and prompting man to perform efficacious rituals to get perishable felicities while for Shankara and his school of followers the same revelation of the Veda is a philosophy, an understanding of which establishes him in Eternal Bliss, the unity of all existence, moksha or liberation. Ubhaya Bharati, the umpire, accepted the cogent arguments of Shankara and over ruled the contentions of Mandana Misra thereby defeating him, her own husband. The rest was history as already described.
From the foregoing account of the discussion the following facts emerge.

  1. Quoting various authorities and supporting the same with weighty arguments the contest was conducted in a highly dignified manner producing more light than heat, the contestants showing due respect to each other.

  2. Women were held in high esteem and noted for their scholarship and erudition and more so because of their impartiality and fair-mindedness.

  3. The guru-shishya relationship between Shankara and Sureshwara proves the dictum in the Dakshina Murthy Stotram that a Guru can be young and a Shishya can be old and that such association has got nothing to do with age of the persons concerned

Also read

  1. Six schools of Indian philosophy

  2. Shad Darshanas – Six systems of Hindu philosophy

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