Thursday, July 13, 2017
Acharya Sankara And The Sarvajana Peetham Kashmir
Acharya Shankara and the Sarvajna Peetham at Kashmir.
The life of Acharya Shankara in its merely bodily appearance may be told briefly since it had a short span of only 32 years. But the quality and quantity of achievements that he packed into this short life have earned him a place among the world’s immortal people. Most historians have agreed that if a count were ever taken of twelve greatest men who ever lived in any country in any age, Shankara would easily be one of them. Today our minds are staggered at the thought that so much could be the achievement of a single individual within so short a time. A single person, whose only companion was his glowing spiritual and unbounded intellect and who, wandering the whole country as a Parivrajaka [wandering mendicant], conquered its mind and heart, is something unique in world history.
After establishing the Sree Sharada Peetham at Sringeri, Acharya Shankara started on a tour of Digvijaya all over the country with a view to spreading the message of Advaita Vedanta. The various places of his visit are narrated in different orders in the different Shankara Vijayas. Though the order of visit varies, they, more or less, agree on the places visited by him. In most of the places which he visited, Shankara either performed a spiritual miracle or initiated a great philosophical debate and won.
One of the places covered by the Acharya Kashmir was Kashmir. For ages, Kashmir has been the centre of worship of goddess Saraswathi [Sharada Devi]. This has been well authenticated by the famous Kashmiri poet Kalhana in his magnum opus ‘Rajatarangini’ which is a chronicle of the history of Kashmir and its rulers in Sanskrit in the form of verses. According to Kalhana, goddess Saraswathi was here seen in the form of swan in a lake near the peak of the Bheda Mountain hollowed by the river Ganga. It is said that the goddess appeared in this form of a swan to bless sage Sandilya thousands of years ago. According to history, there existed a temple for Saraswathi in the vicinity of this mountain on the banks of the river Madhumathi, a tributary to river Ganga. This temple attracted pilgrims far beyond Kashmir but in course of time it fell into disuse. In its heydays, this temple was the haunt of many sages and scholars who went there for intellectual and philosophical debates. A special seat was reserved for a scholar in this temple who would be designated as ‘Sarvajna’ and who would establish a claim for his versatility as a polyhistor. This special seat was therefore popular as a ‘Sarvajna Peetham’ which means ‘The throne of the all-wise’.
According to history, many scholars all over the country competed for the rare honour of adorning the Sarvajna Peetham but it was Acharya Shankara alone who could achieve it. The temple, as it stands today, is known as the Shankaracharya Temple and is now located in Srinagar. The temple has 64 steps, symbolizing the 64 Vidyas, known as ‘Chatusshasthi Kala’ in Sanskrit and one who has perfected all these 64 Arts of learning alone could climb up all the 64 steps and ascend to the ‘Sarvajna Peetham’. The temple is built on a high octagonal plinth which could be approached by a long row of steps. Neither the temple nor the place is called by the ancient name associated with goddess Saraswathi. Neither an idol of Goddess Saraswathi exists today.
Abul Fazl, the chronicler in the court of Akbar, notices this shrine as one dedicated to Goddess Durga, where were witnessed many miracles. In course of time, the Afridis and other tribals desecrated the temple and pulled down the structure. Substitute Sharada shrines were established in the Kashmir valley. After the establishment of the Dogra rule in Kashmir, Maharaja Gulab Singh from the Dogra dynasty who ruled Kashmir State renovated the temple and arranged for proper worship. The temple is now near the ceasefire line and is all but lost to us.
According to tradition, when the Saraswathi temple was in existence, it had a Mantap at the top with an approach by four gates from the four different directions namely, North, East. South and West. As per the Sthala Purana, these gates would open only when approached by a scholar of extraordinary merit [Sarvajna] from a region facing that particular gate. It is said that the Southern gate got opened only when Acharya Shankara on his Digvijaya Yatra approached it. Shankara got the gate opened and ascended the Sarvajna Peetham [Throne of Omniscience] after inviting Vedic scholars from all parts of India representing 72 different schools and defeating all of them in an intellectual exercise. He thus established his claim to the Sarvajna Peetham, established the supremacy of Advaita Vedanta and became a Jagadguru or World Teacher.
It is said that while ascending the 64 steps, one of the questioners [ called Prucchaka in Sanskrit] asked Shankara whether he knew the Art of Cobbling [ stitching a chappal] and gave him an awl [ stitching needle] and a piece of leather to demonstrate.
Shankara just took the awl and rubbed it against the bridge of his nose in the hot sun before putting the stitch. It may be noted that this is a typical characteristic of a cobbler who resort to this action in order to grease a blunt needle which is the only source of lubricant available in the form of sweat on the bridge of the nose. By this act of Shankara, the questioner was convinced that Shankara knew the art of cobbling.
“And still they gazed; and still the wonder grew,
That one small head could carry all he knew”
--Oliver Goldsmith in ‘Deserted Village’
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