Almost like a mythical figure out of the American West, a young scholar of transcendental experience emerged on the Indian frontier and walked forth with a fresh heritage based on ancient lore. Shankara began roving alone about the countryside exclaiming the good news of hi personal discoveries. For some time he had crossed over, passed through the empirical threshold, entered in his conscious endeavors of meditation into what the West refers to as mystical territory. No more speculative discourses on the nature of matter, the cosmos, or the afterlife, enough with the ritual imploring the gods in faith, his vision of life superseded the consoling words of scriptures. He walked as an invincible knower of vaster realities. He tasted the other side of death. Like a planetary astronaut, he conquered both inner and outer space. Unknown to his compatriots, this radical young adventurer was now drawing his inspirations as a resident of both worlds.
His heart could not bear hoarding the galaxies of truth that he visited daily, for he woke up one morning and found himself a man with a universal mission. He solitarily embarked on a magnanimous sojourn to educate his beloved countrymen and women. He invited one and all, for they could experience the distant polar star of eternity—moksha— the final liberation, not as a pious reward condescendingly promised by Pandits after death, but as a living experience in their daily lives. Shankara’s unreachable dream for his patriots was nothing less than for them to taste their own immortality.
So began the work of our shawled crusader, soon to encroach on the illusions of society’s upheavals. Subversive chaos might be a better description of his bizarre times. Conflicting political and societal agendas swayed the citizens to follow lifestyles that could only lead to spiritual bankruptcy. In his sojourning, Shankara encountered fresh scholars boasting of their Brahmin lineage, dazzling audiences with long-winded quotations from the Vedas. Across the street were the Buddhist chungpas casting spells over anyone’s selected opponents, all for a fee, of course.
This melee of striving clergy and bandits, academicians and shamans, all competing for the hearts and minds and pocketbooks of the town people was common practice in those days of the eighth century. To prove their mettle, the rogues of sophistry and black magic, along with the earnest scholars and wandering pedagogues challenged the residing village leader to a public debate. The key to the city awaited the triumphant master. Better than Monday night football, the town crier would announce the scheduled showdown in the village square. The rules of the dispute were sacrosanct, approaching an Olympian standard for rectitude. The educated referee would put forth the questions and each side would, in turn, reply. The quality of the answer and the depth of the retort were weighed carefully. The contest rounds might extend for days; it wasn’t over until the referee declared it so. The stakes were quite high. Not only did one’s reputation ride on the outcome but the price of losing the contest obligated the loser to become the victor’s apprentice. Winner takes all!
As the years went by, Shankara’s reputation grew as he debated all comers and local champions, sustaining an unblemished record. During his wanderings, he heard about a remarkable master, Kumarila, and his pending departure from this plain. He set out down the Ganges and one day came upon the elder who was in the process of departing his body. The master urged his visitor in his parting words to content with his favorite prodigy who now was his equal.
Traveling farther south, he finally entered the village of Mandana where Mishra, the undisputed champion teacher of this region, reigned. Hardly in town when word spread that the gods had brought two undefeated scholarly champions to claim the supremacy of their tradition. The two men met cordially and the contest arrangements were laid.
Hundreds from the nearby villages and hamlets turned out for the appointed day. In his meditative preparation, our adventurer sensed that this propitious confrontation would require a certain caution. How curious, he mused.
As Shankara walked along the main road to the town square amidst the multitude of eyes that saw this pretender for the first time, he spied the most unusual setting for the contest. Within the circle of debate, in the raised referee chair, for the first time ever in his debating experience, sat a female referee. Her reputation had reached his ears years earlier but he never anticipated their paths would cross.
The contest began at noon. Seven days later the referee walked to the center of the debating circle and announced that Shankara won over Mishra. Little did Shankara, however, know what was yet in store for him, for he was about to encounter the most formidable and shrewd opponent in his career.
After emerging victorious and just about to walk away with the palm, a sweet voice, amidst the cheering crowd, interrupted his seeming triumph. “Excuse me, sir, but you haven’t answered all the questions, nor have you fully defeated your august opponent.” The crowd was shocked into silence. The surprising voice belonged to the referee, none other than Mishra’s wife!
“Oh, I agree by all the rules that you have won over my husband. But half a victory is hardly a conquest. He and I are one; our marriage proves that unity. Unless you choose to withdraw,” she paused coyly, “then you must deal with the remaining half of your opponent.”
Now our apparent winner understood his earlier intuition. Gracefully acknowledging the protocols of the situation as the crowd listened intently, he quietly uttered, “And what questions would the other august half propose to me?”
Rising slowly from her chair, the woman glided into the center of the circle of debate.
“First of all, sir,“ she said eliciting the crowd’s attention, “you have distinguished yourself for days with both your wit and your astute retorts. Moreover, you have raised such vexing questions of my husband that he could not provide satisfactory solutions. No doubt the villagers will be repeating tales of your prowess in knowledge for generations.” The cheers rose once again.
As he narrowed his eyes, Shankara was beginning to sense a set-up.
“Sir, among your repertoire of knowledge of astronomy, economics, history, mythology, the physical sciences, mathematics, and competency in various arts and crafts, may I raise a simple inquiry?" she smilingly asked.
Shankara peered intensely. “Please, my lady, don’t hesitate for one moment. Let us not delay the climax of this engagement. How may I serve your inquiry?”
At that moment, Shankara noticed a peculiar confident flash in his opponent’s eyes as she spoke. Simultaneously, the crowd sensed a sudden change of electricity pervading the atmosphere.
“No doubt in your blissful contemplation of this universe,” she began, “you have paid homage to the divine plan, which has brought forth such creative marvels. And in your comprehension of the workings of this vast world at its most intricate levels, as well as the massive movements of the stellar heavens, you have also perceived and grasped the expressions of human passions in the business of human living. Have you, sir, along your travels, ever pondered what it is that arouses the highest bliss for a woman in conjugal love? Tell us, if you would, from the wellsprings of your wisdom, what secret portion of the female nature, when appropriately kindled, brings forth such ecstatic rapture that even the Devas envy her gender? If you can disclose that secret, oh ascetic one, I will concede you the victor!”
Shankara gulped. The trap closed.
Now the masses turned their astonished heads to the celibate monk standing before them. What a thrust! Could he parry? For several moments, he gazed upon his unrivaled adversary with incredulity. The gauntlet was thrown down before him and he sighed in admiration of her audacity.
“My lady,” he steadily uttered with pursed lips, “according to the further rules of engagement, either opponent may, at an impasse, request a six-month interlude to compose the appropriate response.”
“Very well,” she replied in a slightly condescending tone. “If you wish, let us renew our engagement in 180 days.”
Shankara grabbed his two seconds and rushed north for the mountains where he found a dry and warm cave. He informed his assistants that it was crucial that they watch over and protect his body for the ensuing months. He explained that he would, after temporarily departing from his body, without harm to his tissues, seek out a new residence for his spirit. Through exercising a special tantric practice, he slipped from his body without harming it. He had to search from the astral plane for a suitable corpse that he could enter to resolve the challenge that his opponent hurled. In his astral travels, Shankara found a prince dying, so he entered his body and readjusted to the life of a family man. In his conjugal experience, our monk learned many intimate secrets that transformed our sadhu’s awareness of worldly life. Satisfied, he departed from his borrowed “residence” and took on his own once again, which allowed the prince to have a final funeral.
The six months were up. As the judge stood in the center of the circle, a familiar figure walked toward the square. The opponents bowed to each other and were welcomed back. It appeared that the crowd was even larger than before to witness this final bout.
Shankara began in a most unusual manner. In his reply, his voice exuded a gentleness heretofore never noticed in his debative demeanor. Equally, his eyes, even his posture, conveyed an almost palpable reverence for his opponent. She could not help but notice his comportment, nor was his expression of tone and stance lost upon the audience. As he continued to speak, most astonishing of all was his formal, and yet personal, address towards her. He no longer referred to her as Mrs. Mishra Bharati.
“Mother,” he bowed to her, “along with my Guru you have done me the greatest of favors. You have provided me with an opportunity to widen my experience with a sacred knowledge that is normally forbidden to monks.” With that he articulated his sojourn with such delicate phrases that it was obvious to everyone that here was a man of marital experience. As he continued, the referee finally raised her hand, signaling a pause. Turning to the transfixed crowd she proclaimed, “Hail Shankara! I bow to the winner.”
The debate was over. Before the crowd dispersed, Shankara leaped onto the dais, asking for the crowd’s attention. Bringing his palms together and tilting his head toward her, he said, ”Mother, in the days past you have not only respected me in debate and hospitality, but you have honored all my fellow monks by your perspicacious knowledge. Fearlessly you pressed me more than any opponent in my career. I more than honor you for challenging me to expand my knowledge to the intimacy of conjugal love and the secrets of womanhood. They are treasures I will never forget."
Raising outstretched arms, he loudly proclaimed, “I decree that from this day forth, Oh great lady, our monks will give you first place in memorial. Our order will hereafter bear your blessed name -- Bharati -- forever.”
And so it was.
In 1969 the first monk of the *Bharati order came to the United States and stayed for two decades, leaving behind a wake of shattered paradigms and limited worldviews amidst a renewed vision of life inherited from Shankara and the sages of the Himalayas.
*Bhāratī (भारती, “eloquence”):—Qualities of speech, eloquence and all forms of knowledge.