Shankarāchārya’s life is full of amazing incidents, but there is one incident that I find particularly interesting. It is the story of how Shankarāchārya debated the husband-wife couple— Maṇḍana Miśra and Ubhaya Bhārati—on the primacy of Mimānsa vs. Vedānta. Aside from the significant philosophical shift that Shankarāchārya’s victory in this debate resulted in, the debate is also a watershed moment because Shankarāchārya had to debate Ubhaya Bhārati while being an sannyasi (who are forbidden from talking to women), and the topic of this debate included human sexuality (of which Shankarāchārya had no direct experience as he had entered sannyasa at the age 12). How Shankarāchārya navigated this treacherous battle, and came out victorious, provides significant insights and lessons into how similar kinds of battles should be fought and won in regard to modern philosophies of materialism, nihilism, and impersonalism.
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Two Intellectual Fronts
Shankarāchārya faced two dominant intellectual foes in his time—Buddhism (which had undermined the authority of the Vedas), and Mimānsa (which is a branch of the Vedic system, focused on karma-kānda or ritualistic practices). He wanted to revive the Vedic system as system of transcendence by reestablishing the authority of the Vedas, which Buddhism was hoping to undermine. He also wanted to battle the dominant philosophy of the time—Mimānsa—which claimed that Vedas had the truth, but that truth could only be grasped through fervent action (i.e. rituals) rather than philosophical discussions.
Shankarāchārya first went to debate Mimānsa with Kumārila Bhaṭṭa who was considered the foremost authority on Mimānsa. However, Kumārila Bhaṭṭa had just lost a debate with the Buddhists and he was so upset that he had decided to give up his life in the most painful manner to punish himself for the loss. He was on his deathbed and did not want to debate Shankarāchārya. He pointed Shankarāchārya to his disciple Maṇḍana Miśra.
When Shankarāchārya enquired about where Maṇḍana Miśra lived, Kumārila Bhaṭṭa asked him to look for a house where a Shuka and Shāri (the male and the female of parrot) would be debating philosophical topics thus: “Is the truth of Vedic philosophy established on the authority of the Vedas themselves, or is it established by other authorities?”, “Is human action the true cause of results, or are these results delivered by God?”, “Is the material energy and the universe eternally present, or transiently created by God?”
The Tradition of Philosophical Debates
Philosophical debates were serious business during Shankarāchārya’s time. A philosopher could challenge another philosopher for a debate in a King’s court and whoever lost the debate would become the disciple of the winner. If the losing philosopher happened to be favored by the King, even the King would accept the winning philosopher as his guru.
When Shankarāchārya challenged Maṇḍana Miśra for a debate, both of them mutually appointed Maṇḍana Miśra’s wife—Ubhaya Bhārati—as the judge. It was a testimony of Ubhaya Bhārati’s learning to have presided as a judge on such an enlightened debate, a sign of the egalitarian status of learned women in society, and a signifier of intellectual honesty in which even the opponent’s wife was considered an impartial judge.
We can only picture this debate in our minds: Maṇḍana Miśra was a far older householder, and Shankarāchārya a far younger sannyasi. Shankarāchārya had left home when he was only 8 years, accepted saṃnyāsa at the age of 12, and he left the body when he was 32. By some estimates, Shankarāchārya was about 16 at this time, and Maṇḍana Miśra about 70.
The condition of the debate was that if Shankarāchārya lost to Maṇḍana Miśra, he would give up his sannyasa life and get married, as a disciple of Maṇḍana Miśra. If on the other hand, Maṇḍana Miśra lost to Shankarāchārya, then he would give up his married life and accept the renounced order as a disciple of Shankarāchārya. The debate had serious life-altering implications for both parties; it wasn’t merely an intellectual pastime.
How Ubhaya Bhārati Turned the Tables
The debate between Shankarāchārya and Maṇḍana Miśra went on for 17 days and ultimately Maṇḍana Miśra lost the debate to Shankarāchārya and was getting ready to accept the renounced order of life. Ubhaya Bhārati, however, was not prepared to let go of her husband so easily. She challenged Shankarāchārya by telling him that a wife is a husband’s ardhāngini or half the body. Therefore, Maṇḍana Miśra’s defeat is only half the loss, unless Shankarāchārya also defeats Ubhaya Bhārati. Though reluctant to debate Bhārati (Shankarāchārya was in the renounced order of life, forbidden from talking to women), Shankarāchārya eventually agreed and the debate went on for 17 more days.
When Ubhaya Bhārati realized that she could not defeat Shankarāchārya in philosophical argument and the conclusion of the Vedas, she shifted the debate to an entirely different subject: Kāma śastra—the art and science of sense gratification and lovemaking. Of course, Shankarāchārya had no previous sensual contact with women; he had entered the renounced order when he was 12, and he was not expected to answer questions on the centers of sensual pleasure in the body, and how a man and woman enjoyed sex.
When Shankarāchārya expressed his helplessness in Bhārati’s line of questioning, Bhārati countered that sense pleasure is also knowledge and therefore has to be considered Veda as well. It may not be the highest truth or Vedānta, but the matter of debate is Veda, which means all kinds of knowledge were included. If Shankarāchārya did not want to debate that topic, he could accept defeat and get married according to his initial vow.
Shankarāchārya Writes on Love Making
Seeing no way out, Shankarāchārya requested for a month’s time to prepare for the debate, and Maṇḍana Miśra and Ubhaya Bhārati were gracious enough to allow it. I suspect, that the reason was that Ubhaya Bhārati wanted to retain rituals or karma-kānda as a practical day-to-day exigency, which acknowledging the transcendental truth of Vedānta. To do that, it was imperative to demonstrate that the contingent material knowledge (such as the art of love-making) were also important, although the importance of transcendence was beyond question. This is a sly move on the part of the debater who upon realizing the inevitability of their loss proposes a “middle ground” of compromise. Once such a compromise has been made, each side goes about claiming victory, although they might make minor amends. The impact is nowhere near to a total victory.
Shankarāchārya clearly recognized the trap and decided that he needed a total victory. But how could he learn about sex and love-making, given that he had already entered the renounced life, and by the injunctions of this order, he was forbidden from any kind of sexual contact? Through his mystic power, Shankarāchārya entered the body of a dead king and revived it. Through that body, he enjoyed with the wives of the king for a month and learned all that was required to be known. He then recorded his experiences in a work of poetic erotica called Amarukaśataka. Here are some poems from the book:
Women of intrepid charm can’t be stopped—
They’ll even steal what they want.
Why be timid? Tears cannot bring satisfaction.
You want him, he’s hungry for sexual pleasure—
Try some crudely explicit suggestion and make him your own.
We were making love when something hurt.
I cried get away!
He tore himself from the bed and departed.
Impetuous, pitiless, he tramples on romance
But my heart craves him shamelessly, what do I do?
The Amarukaśataka became Shankarāchārya’s response to Ubhaya Bhārati. He had not broken the vows of his renounced order, and yet he had answered her questions. Entering the king’s body was just like a soul transmigrating through different bodies. Just as we don’t consider a person’s social order violated due to the actions in the previous lives (only due to actions in this body), his entry into another body was not in violation of the requirements of the renounced order of life because the conditions of his renounced order applied only to the body that people presently called “Shankarāchārya”.
Through one simple step, Shankarāchārya not only demonstrated the meaninglessness of material morality and the injunctions tied to social orders (which was the central concern for the karma-kānda followers), but he also showed the importance of transcending the body to understand the soul, which cannot be achieved simply by rituals. By demonstrating how the soul can enter different bodies and thereby enjoys different kinds of pleasures, all of which are temporary, Shankarāchārya gave a living example of how the material body and its pleasure are temporary and therefore not the ultimate goal of life.
Shankarāchārya Wins the Debate
Maṇḍana Miśra and Ubhaya Bhārati already knew that they had lost the debate even before the twist on sexuality and erotica was brought in as a compromise. But it would not have been enough to prove it in the eyes of the world if Shankarāchārya hadn’t taken the extraordinary step to close the debate convincingly. By taking out the final argument, Shankarāchārya conclusively won the debate and converted Maṇḍana Miśra and Ubhaya Bhārati into his disciples. That was the end of Mimānsa and the beginning of Vedānta.
Due to this one incident, a major school of philosophy and the dominant practices of ritualism in society were renounced in favor of transcendental knowledge beyond the necessities of current life. The true purpose of religion as the discovery of the eternal nature of the soul, rather than material happiness, was institutionalized in society.
What Shankarāchārya achieved was a two-fold victory against the Nihilism of Buddhism and the Materialism of Mimānsa. He went on to establish Advaita, revive the authority of the Vedas, and rejuvenate the idea of spiritual transcendence. His commitment to his project is a shining example of how entrenched intellectual positions were defeated not just by advancing one’s position, but also by taking the battle into the opponent’s home, and beating them at the game that they seem to have perfected.
Lessons We Can Draw From The Story
In the modern world, we are faced with dilemmas similar to that of Shankarāchārya. On one end we have the dominant materialism of science and technology, with emphasis on the enjoyment of the present life with no regard to what might happen after death. On the other, we have so many philosophies of nihilism, relativism, and individualism, in which even the true knowledge of the material world is conditioned by human prejudice such that it is impossible to even know this world, what to speak of transcendence. The current ideologies might go by different names, and the condition at present is likely much more degraded than during Shankarāchārya’s time, but the problem is similar.
The problem is further compounded by the fact that the spiritualists of the present day are unable to debate materialism and nihilism on any level similar to Shankarāchārya. While they profess any attempt to understand the material world as inferior and irrelevant to the main purpose of life, they also seem impotent in proving the superiority of their position to those who would not automatically accept it based on faith.
Shankarāchārya presents a shining example of how silent chauvinism is not useful. If your position is indeed superior, you must have the courage, conviction, and commitment to defeat the opponents. If, on the other hand, you lose the battle, you must have the humility and honesty to accept defeat and surrender to the winner. That has been the position of great teachers in the past, and there is no reason why it cannot be the position of those who want to teach at the present. The opponents today are different, but the battles continue. I’m of course referring to philosophical materialism, nihilism, and impersonalism, which undermine a true understanding of reality.
If Shankarāchārya could enter a king’s body to study sexuality because it was a compelling necessity to establish Advaita, there is no topic too profane for modern times. Therefore, those who stay away from a serious understanding of their philosophical opponents, and justify it based on their supposed puritanism, are by far only demonstrating their weakness, lack of conviction, and inability to stand up for what they claim to believe in. Most people have become too lazy to understand their philosophy and how it differs from those of others. For them, puritanism is the sacred refuge from hard work.
An Acharya is one who takes the battle into the opponent’s court. Today, there are many such courts and battles, but there are no Acharyas to fight them. In the name of religious and philosophical diversity and plurality, we have descended into a mental numbness to the questions of truth. Where is the Kumarila Bhatt who is prepared to punish himself painfully because he lost the philosophical battle against Buddhists? Where is Mandan Misra who would be prepared to give up his comfortable life, family, and home if he lost the philosophical debate with Shankarāchārya? Where is the Shankarāchārya who would be prepared (even as a sannyasi) to enter a dead king’s body to learn about sexuality so that he can win the intellectual battle to establish Advaita? Where are the people committed to the truth for whom no price is too high for its attainment?