Excerpts from Shri Shankara Digvijaya – III

Purpose of Karma, respect towards the Guru and

dealing with differences of opinion – Part A

(Srinivas Mallapragada)


Introduction : In continuation of the Shankara Digvijaya series, In the next two episodes, we shall see Bhagavatpada’s encounters with two karma-mimamsakas namely Kumarila Bhatta and Mandana Mishra that help us understand the path our illustrious mahatmas have taken and learn valuable life lessons for ourselves through these episodes.

Nature of Karma : Sri Krishna says in the Bhagavadgita (न हि कश्चित्क्ष्णमपि जातु तिष्ठत्यकर्मकृत् | ). We are always engaged in actions, spiritual or mundane, every second of our life. Once we have taken birth in a body, it is not possible to abandon action or karma. But, this karma, when done with the right attitude, leads us closer to divinity and when done with the wrong attitude, takes us away from it. Vedanta teaches us what that attitude should be. Sri Krishna dwells upon this concept of right action with the right attitude (karma yoga) and devotes many verses to teach the same to Arjuna and in-turn, us. The essence of his teaching is condensed in these famous verses:

कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन |

मा कर्मफलहेतुर्भूर्मा ते संगोऽस्त्वकर्मणि || 2.47 ||

यत्करोषि यदश्नासि यज्जुहोषि ददासि यत् |

यत्तपस्यसि कौन्तेय तत्कुरुष्व मदर्पणम् || 9.27 ||

In a nutshell, the message of karma yoga is for us to perform all our karmas without attachment, with a satvik attitude as an offering to the lord (Ishvara arpana buddhi) and to receive the results with gratitude (Ishvara prasada buddhi ) whether they are favorable to us or not and to use the experiences to strengthen our spiritual qualifications which include purity of mind, one-pointed focus on the final goal and discrimination between the eternal and the ephemeral. Such is the message of Vedanta.

Achieving human goals through karma: The Vedas not only teach us Brahma Vidya or Atma Vidya (the knowledge of the Self) that can grant us our ultimate purushartha or goal of life which is Moksha, they are also our only recourse to know how to perform various activities and rituals that can give us the other purusharthas viz. dharma, artha and kama. This is given in the part of the Vedas known as “Veda-poorva” or “Karma Kanda”.

In contrast to Veda-anta or “Uttara Mimamsa”, as it’s technically called, there is another system of philosophy called the “Purva-Mimamsa”, propounded by sage Jaimini and expanded by his followers like Shabara, based on the Veda poorva bhaga, which claims that the mere utterance of mantras and performance of the Vedic rituals given in the Veda poorva bhaga are adequate to produce all the desired results for us and there is neither a need to recognize the existence of an entity called Ishvara nor there is a need to offer these karmas to Him. The karmas when strictly performed according to scriptural injunctions are inherently capable of producing the desired results. Now let us examine Acharya’s interactions with the Purva Mimamsakas of his time and what they teach us.

Shankara Bhagavatpada’s encounters: There were two eminent and renowned scholars, Kumarila Bhatta and his disciple Mandana Mishra, who belonged to the Purva Mimamsa school of thought in Bhagavatpada’s time. Acharya had made a sankalpa to establish the Advaita Siddhanta in its rightfully superior place and encountered the most distinguished scholars of about 72 schools of thought prevalent at that time, defeated them in scholarly debates, ascended the Sarvajna Peetha and Vyakhyana Simhasana and successfully restored the glory of Advaita. As part of this, he visited Kumarila Bhatta for a debate and found out that he was about to sacrifice himself with the most painful punishment of slowly burning in a heap of paddy husk to expiate for the twin sins of “Guru droham” and “Ishvara droham”.

1st sin of Kumarila Bhatta : Kumarila Bhatta was born as an incarnation of Lord Subrahmanya, to defeat the detractors of the Vedas like the Buddhists and to restore the scriptures from being lost to the society. In that process, he joined a Buddhist monastery in disguise as a student to learn their philosophy to eventually defeat them in debate. Since he learnt from their Guru by deception, he considered it the greatest sin worthy of the most painful punishment.

Respect towards the Guru : Our scriptures teach that one who teaches us even a single letter must be respected as a teacher. Then, what to speak of the one who teaches an entire branch of learning? Any disrespect, deception or treachery towards one’s Guru is strictly condemned by our scriptures and results in the greatest sin. In the modern times when respect towards a Guru is dwindling and Guru is seen merely as giving us “information” rather than leading us to “transformation”, this episode of Kumarila Bhatta’s expiation is certainly an eye-opener for us.

Our scriptures are replete with examples of dire consequences suffered by those who disrespected their Gurus and good fortunes enjoyed by those who revered them. The story of King Trishanku tells us how the King ended up being suspended upside down between earth and heaven for eternity by sage Vishvamitra, for disobeying his Guru sage Vashishtha due to a difference of opinion. On the other hand, King Dasharatha, while initially differing with his Guru, eventually relented and sent Rama to the forest with Vishvamitra, bringing peace, prosperity and eternal glory to his clan.

The two sages involved in these stories, Vashishtha and Vishvamitra themselves had differences of opinion and Vishvamitra had to undergo very long and very painful expiation for disrespecting a Brahma Jnani like Vashishtha. Hence the declaration of our scriptures:

शिवे रुष्टे गुरुस्त्राता गुरौ रुष्टे न कश्चन |

2nd sin of Kumarila Bhatta : As a Purva Mimamsaka, Kumarila Bhatta refuted the existence of Ishvara, albeit in an attempt to emphasize the importance of the Vedas and to establish the Vedas as self-certifying , self-validating and self-existent ( svatah-siddha and svatah-pramana) to protect them from dwindling in adherence. Nevertheless, he recognized this as a sin as well and confessed to the Acharya that self-sacrifice is the only expiation for this sin and declined the Acharya’s offer to restore him to life.

Greatness of Kumarila Bhatta : Kumarila Bhatta, on his funeral pyre, wanted to hear Shankara Bhagavatpada’s scriptural commentaries and upon which , immediately wished to be initiated into Brahma-Vidya and accepted sannyasa. Given he was an uttama adhikari (a disciple with superior qualifications),  Bhagavatpada’s graceful teaching immediately separated his sense of individuality and he realized his oneness with the all-pervading Brahman. He then requested Bhagavatpada to meet his disciple Mandana Mishra at Mahishmatipura.

Dealing with difference of opinion : At a time when Purva Mimamsakas considered Vedantins their sworn enemies and refused to even encounter them, Kumarila Bhatta’s cordial and reverential attitude towards the Acharya and his eventual surrender to Bhagavatpada’s feet show how noble his character is and how we should approach such personages of higher knowledge and qualification than ours, even if our own notions of right or wrong differ from theirs, respect them, learn from them and eventually evolve ourselves to nobler planes.

In Part B, we will see Bhagavatpada’s encounter with Mandana Mishra and Mandana’s eventual surrender to him, to glean more insight into the do’s and don’ts in our own life.

Om Shantih Shantih Shantih

For further reference :

  1. Shankara Digvijaya of Madhava – Vidyaranya by Swami Tapasyananda , Ramakrishna Mutt
  2. Shri Shankara Vijayam of Swami Vidyaranya by T. Shivacharanam , Vyasasramam, Kalahasti

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