[Advaita-l] Re: On the parakAyapraveSa legend about Sankara

Vidyasankar Sundaresan svidyasankar at hotmail.com
Sat Mar 31 10:05:22 CDT 2007

Whenever we question something based on our knowledge/perspective, we should 
ask ourselves, "How do we know what we know?" Then we should ask ourselves, 
"Are we so special that we know better than everybody else?"

When it comes to the life of Sankara bhagavatpAda, yes, there are many 
different versions available in the Sankara digvijaya texts. To add to 
these, we have what I call an anti-hagiography, emanating primarily from 
authors belonging to the dvaita school, like maNimanjarI etc. Incidents like 
the parakAyapraveSa episode are found in multiple texts, again narrated in 
different ways.

Given this situation, the only comment I wish to make about this discussion 
is that it is absolutely wrong to single out the author of the mAdhavIya 
Sankaradigvijaya and castigate him for concocting a story that does 
discredit to Sankara. Right at the beginning, the author of mAdhavIya 
clearly states that he has gathered material from various older sources 
(purA Sankara jaye sAraH sangRhyate). He goes on to indicate this when he 
says, "some say this, others say that (iti kecit, ity apare etc). Comments 
such as "would the author not have thought about the supposed implications 
of the story?" and "would traditional authors not have edited it out, over 
the centuries?" are certainly pertinent in this context. It is not at all an 
issue of belonging to one or the other sampradAya and it is certainly not a 
way of shutting out people who question it.

I can honestly claim to have done a fairly deep and critical comparative 
study of most of the important Sankaravijaya texts written in Sanskrit. I 
have not paid much attention to the many other accounts that have cropped up 
in various Indian languages over the last 150 years or so. The resulting 
work has been published in The International Journal of Hindu Studies in 
2000, in an article titled "Conflicting Hagiographies and History". The 
reason I am bringing this up is not for self advertisement, but to point out 
that it takes a lot of time and effort to understand the poetic conventions, 
the language usage, the possible corruptions in the text during its 
transmission, the variations between different manuscripts/editions of the 
same text etc. Having spent more than five years of doing this before 
writing up my article, I know that my study is nowhere near being 
comprehensive even with respect to the major texts that I have studied. 
Going from this to the next level of talking about the motivations of the 
author takes another deeper level of thought. One has to therefore start by 
not prejudging anything and by giving a fair reading to the authors.

>From my side, at least, I am simply sounding a note of caution, to

1. Not assume that our attitudes and assumptions about sexual matters and 
saMnyAsa norms are always correct,

2. Not assume that over the centuries, everyone had (or should have had) the 
same attitudes and assumptions,

3. Not assume that traditional people have been so dense in their minds that 
they could not see what you and I see today in these legends,

4. Not assume that rivalries and politics among various institutions are 
paramount to the authors of the various Sankaravijaya texts,

5. Develop the ability to question ourselves in the same way that we 
question others.

Praveen has already brought up another legend attributed to Sankara, namely 
of his performing his mother's last rites and whether you would call that 
contrary to saMnyAsa dharma too. We also have another story where caste 
issues are brought up. Siva appears as an untouchable in the path and 
Sankara asks him to move away. The untouchable then asks highly vedAntic 
questions and Sankara then realizes that he still carries a caste bias in 
his mind. One can again say, this episode is concocted only to discredit 
Sankara. The brahmajnAnI that he was, he would not have carried any such 
prejudice and he would have seen brahman everywhere. He would never have 
ordered the untouchable out of his way at all.

To come up with criticisms like this is very easy, but they miss the point 
conveyed by such stories. Our mythology is full of stories where even 
brahmA, Siva, vishNu and devI are cursed by somebody or the other. If we 
think that these stories were concocted by Saivas to discredit vishNu or 
vaishNavas to discredit Siva or any such combination like that, we certainly 
miss the morals and allegories behind them.

Finally, if you turn around and say, "yes, these are not historical facts, 
but only legend" my answer is, "Of course, they are legend. But legends 
about historical personalities grow around a kernel of historical fact." The 
fact that the same legend is repeated in multiple versions by multiple 
authors means not only that each author uses a bit of poetic license, but 
also that he built his version around a core story that was handed down to 
him. Certainly, the form of a legend can morph in various ways, but to think 
that we, in this day and age, know much better and can unravel it all 
correctly, and to criticize everybody else who says there must be a reason 
why something persists in the tradition, reveals a lot of arrogance and 
superior feeling, both about our own intellects and about our bhakti towards 
Sankara bhagavatpAda.

Do ask yourselves this once in a while - five hundred years down the line, 
is someone else going to criticize me the same way I am criticizing those 
who lived and wrote a few centuries ago? After all, your remote descendants 
are going to live in very different social and historical situations and 
they are going to have different attitudes about what is history, what is 
legend and what is tradition, what is fact and what is fiction, or what does 
credit or discredit towards someone like Sankara.


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