Shankara–The First Guru of Kali Yoga


Sri Swami Madhavananda

This article is a chapter from the book Cause and Effect.

Whereas the generality of Avataras is for the purpose of re-establishment of Dharma through and by means of the destruction of the wicked and the protection of the righteous and whereas this sort of Avataras take place several times in each Yuga according to the needs of humanity, yet there is another, a special kind of Avatara described in our scriptures as coming into being sometimes after the commencement of each Yuga, not for the destruction of this or that individual monster or set of monsters and so on, but as the first Jnana Guru for the Yuga; viz., for the sole purpose of giving spiritual, psychic and ethical illumination to the lives of that Yuga and setting before them the path, which will take them to their goal of happiness here, salvation hereafter, ultimate emancipation from all bondage and consequent eventual Realization of their oneness with God.


Thus we are told that, in the first Yuga known in our scriptures as Satya Yuga or Krita Yuga, the natural tendency of the great mass of sentient beings was (with of course the usual and invariable exception to the rule), one which impelled them to become ‘Krita Krityas’, viz., to fully and correctly perform the duties enjoined on them by the Shastras in respect of Karmas (actions), Upasana (Devotion and worship) and Jnana (spiritual knowledge) in due and full accordance with the different Adhikaras which were theirs by virtue of their Varnas, Ashramas and so forth.

Hence the name Krita Yuga may be explained in terms of saying: ‘Krita Krityanaam Yugam Krita Yugam.’ For the various aspirants of those days on the ladder of spirituality used to perform all their respective functions in the three Kandas fully and correctly, and were therefore Krita Krityas (persons who had discharged all their duties). From this it naturally follows that in as much as the performance of Svadharma is the path of Chitta Shuddhi (purification of heart) as laid down in the scriptures, in Sri Krishna’s words in the eighteenth Chapter of the Bhagavad Gita:

Yajnadanatapahkarma na tyajyam karyameva tat,
Yajno danam tapaschaiva pavanani maneeshinam.

(Yajnas, Charities, Penances and other Karmas are purifiers of the heart; therefore they should not be neglected but should necessarily be performed) and so on, it is consequently obvious that persons of the type described must naturally be pure in heart.

And such, we find, was actually the case in respect of the great mass of the Jivas in the Krita Yuga. This type of Jivas is symbolised and illustrated before the world in the personalities and through the examples of Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatkumara and Sanatsujata and others.

In the next place, we note the Scriptures telling us that Chittashuddhi (purity of heart) is the direct and immediate means for the attainment of Jnana (Divine illumination); and we similarly find Lord Jesus Christ saying: “Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God.” From this it follows that Sanaka and others of the Krita Yuga typify and represent the great order of the highly evolved souls who have become Krita Krityas, achieved Chittashuddhi and become Adhikaris for Atma Jnana (spiritual wisdom).

We, therefore, find that they are not called upon to undergo an elaborate process of instruction and training of questioning and their answers, of discussing things and having them expounded and so forth. They go forward by a stroke of inspiration to the Adi Jagadguru of Krita Yuga, namely Bhagavan Dakshinamurti with various questions in their hearts for which they seek answers. But lo! and behold! They are astonished and gratified at the experience that when they actually go and sit before Him, they find all their questions automatically answered within their own hearts and there is nothing further for them to ask Him and receive instruction and be enlightened.

It needs no elaborate and detailed exposition in optical physics to expound this fact of everyday experience, namely that if and when a mirror is not clean and pure or is a refractor, it does not produce correct reflections but only distorted images of the things before it, but if and when a mirror is absolutely pure and accurate, it immediately and correctly reflects everything before it.

Exactly similar is the case with regard to the purity of the human heart and the lack of it. In other words if and when a heart is Sattvic but is of a Rajasic or a Tamasic character, it comes under the operation of the Law of Nature explained by Lord Sri Krishna in the Gita with the words: Sarvarthanvipareethamscha (It distorts all things and receives absolutely erroneous impression about them). But if and when a heart is absolutely pure, it acts as a correct reflecting mirror and automatically receives into itself a wholly right and accurate impression about the nature of God, the individual soul and the Universe. In short, it receives Divine Illumination.

Thus, when Sanaka and other disciples of Dakshinamurti merely go and sit before Him, their pure and untarnished hearts naturally play the part of good reflectors and automatically receive and reflect within themselves all the Jnana (Spiritual Light) enshrined within the heart and head of the Lord, who is sitting in utter silence before them. This is why our Scriptures say: He, the eternally youthful one, sits in silence, and, by His very silence, explains everything to them; and all doubts and questions vanish from their hearts. By His eloquent silence, He brings into their hearts the requisite Soul-illumination for which they have come to Him and so on. (“Gurosthu mounam vyakhyanam shisyasthu chinnasamsaya.)”

Bhagavan Dakshinamurti is therefore the first Jnana Guru of the Golden age viz. Satya Yuga, wherein the Jijnasu (the seeker after truth) has, (by his previous performance of Svadharma and his penances) destroyed all the impurities within his heart and thus goes before the Master with no obstacles (on his own side) on the path of Divine Knowledge. And the successive Jnana Gurus who follow Him in later ages of the same Krita Yuga and come from time to time in response to the needs and exigencies of the actual situation before them, merely carry on Bhagavan Dakshinamurti’s work of enlightening the world on more or less the same lines as have been explained.

Bhagavan Dattatreya

In chronological order, we go on next into a very brief consideration of the Second Yuga viz., the Treta Yuga wherein the average Adhikari is not a perfect Krita Kritya of the Sanaka type but as indicated by the word Treta itself–a successful performer of Svadharma in only one of the three paths, namely Karma or Bhakti or Jnana. He, consequent to the Krita Yuga, does not possess Chittasuddhi (purity of heart) in the same manner and to the same extent, and cannot therefore act as a reflecting mirror i.e., cannot become an easy recipient of the wisdom enshrined in the Master’s head and heart.

In other words, he needs to be instructed, taught, disciplined and trained to receive it by following the path of Svadharma and the resultant achievement of the requisite pre-qualification for Jnana i.e., Chittasuddhi.

It is in the fitness of things therefore and in accordance with the requirements of the Adhikaris of the Treta Yuga that Bhagavan Dattatreya comes next into the story as the Adi Jagadguru during the Yuga and performs his functions accordingly. His disciples are not capable of searching for and spotting out the Master in His own place. He, therefore, goes in search of them, gives them the necessary instructions, impetus, and training and brings about their salvation. In fact, he is the first Paramahamsa Parivrajakacharya, peripatetic preacher and itinerant Teacher of humanity; and His disciples are Goraksha, Kartaviryarjuna and others. And His successors in Treta Yuga carry on His tradition for the benefit of the succeeding generations and thus contribute their quota for the uplift of the aspiring humanity.

Bhagavan Vedavyasa

Then comes the third viz., the Dvapara Yuga. Wherein the Lord is called upon to deal with a still lower type of Jivas and take the necessary steps for uplifting and elevating them. Not only are these lacking in the complete and perfect Chittashuddhi of the Sanaka school but they do not even reach upto the level of the Treta Yuga wherein the disciple could receive, digest, absorb and assimilate the teachings obtained from the Master.

And, even on matters relating to cardinal and fundamental principles and procedure, they are assailed by doubts as to what exactly the Master had actually expounded, explained and enjoined on such and such momentous point of the utmost and most vital importance to them in their everyday practical life. In fact, the Sanskrit word Dvapara (by which the third Yuga has been named) means doubt; and this gives us a clue to the mentality of the average Jiva of the Dvapara Yuga.

This means, in effect, that owing to want of concentrative power and of retentiveness of memory on the part of the people, it is not sufficient for the Jagadguru (World Teacher) of the Dvapara Yuga to give His oral instructions to them but it is also necessary–nay, indispensable–that such instructions must be codified and put into writing and placed before the students in the shape of books so that, whenever a Dvapara (viz., a doubt) arises in his mind on any subject, he may have the necessary facility for immediately referring to his textbook, refreshing his memory therewith, correcting his errors of memory and keeping to right conceptions all round. We, therefore, find the Lord incarnating in the beginning of Dvapara Yuga as its Adi Jagadguru in the shape of books, (and not merely of oral instructions) the codified and the classified contents of the Vedas (whereby He receives the name Vedavyasa, i.e., the codifier and classifier of the Vedas), the Vedanta Sutras (analysing, synthesising and harmonising) the seemingly conflicting teachings of the Upanishads; and putting them in–in the form of Sutras or aphorisms in an easily rememberable form, the Puranas (which give the teachings of the Vedas and the Vedanta etc.,) in a more elaborate and detailed manner for the benefit of those who are not intellectually equal to the task of digesting, assimilating and remembering the meanings, implications, denotations and connotations of the contents of the Vedas, the terse Vedanta aphorisms and so on. And Bhagavan Vedavyasa’s successors in the Dvapara Yuga naturally carry on this method of instructing the pupils of the Dvapara Yuga.

We now come, at last, to a study of the chief characteristic of the fourth viz., the Kali Yuga wherein our own lots have been cast. Here we may, in the very first place, note that, whereas even the word Dvapara merely meant doubt and nothing worse than that, the Sanskrit word ‘Kali’ on the contrary means something more positively injurious, namely, strife or quarrelling. In other words the average Kaliyuga Jiva is not assailed by any doubts regarding the exact teachings of the Scriptures and his Teacher (for that would at least mean, imply and involve a certain degree of humility on his part) but feels positively sure that his own intellect (unaided by experience, by study and by reflection) is sufficient for his purpose of discrediting them and asserting the rights of his own half-baked or utterly unbaked views of every subject conceivable in the universe (with the consequence that such a person naturally and inevitably quarrels all the time with the injunctions of the scriptures and the Teachings of the Teachers of humanity and claims for himself the status and authority of the Highest court of appeal even on matters he has never studied even the rudiments of).

The necessity therefore inexpressibly arises, not for instructions of the type which were sufficient in the Dvapara Yuga but for Bhashyas (long detailed elaborate works of a highly controversial and dialectical character wherein all controverted matter are thrashed out at great lengths, all possible views of an opposite or even different school of thoughts, are thoroughly discussed and ignominiously defeated and the right doctrine is expounded at the end of it all by a lengthy process of a most scholarly character, calculated to silence all objectors and carry conviction to the most refractory intellect and resultant peace on the storm tossed soul.

The exigencies and requirements of the Kaliyuga, as just described, were thus responsible for the fact that Bhagavan Sri Shankara had to incarnate as the Adi Jnanaguru of the Kaliyuga in the person of Bhagavan Jagadguru Sri Adi Sankaracharya, enter into scholarly and erudite controversy with opponents of every conceivable type, defeat all of them by means of answerable arguments and irresistible dialects and re-establish the Sanatana Vaidika Dharma and the Vedanta Siddhanta as taught by the Upanishads, the Brahmasutras and the Bhagavad Gita. In fact he had to and actually did–on the strength and virtue of pure, sharp and solid intellect and argument–hold his own against all promulgators and propagators of wrong doctrines, defeat them at every step and on every point, kill out their obstinacy and force them into submission. Sometimes this even took the shape of physical attacks on his person; and thrice had his person to be saved from these (twice by his great disciple Sri Padmapadacharya) and once by the great king Sudhanwa and his invincible army.

In consequences of the afore described activities, Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya was able to lay down all the united forces of Adharma and re-establish the Sanatana Vaidika Dharma; and, he was the first Jnanaguru or Yuga Guru of the Kali Yuga, the other Acharyas who succeeded him during last periods of the Kali Yuga have all (more or less) had to follow the same path, viz., of incessant controversial activities, meeting objections, convincing their opponents, defeating obdurate enemies and fighting incessantly for the propagation and the diffusion of the particular Siddhanta in question.

We thus find Sri Ramanujacharya, Sri Madhvacharya, Sri Vallabhacharya, Sri Nimbarkacharya and others carrying on propaganda by means of elaborate Bhashyas and other commentaries of polemical character calculated to refute all hostile arguments and carry conviction to the world at large. As Sri Shankaracharya was thus the first Acharya of the series in Kali Yuga and as others followed him not only in points of time but also in the adoption of the same tactics and the same strategy of war (so to speak) with their religious and intellectual opponents, it is correct to state, that, both from the standpoint of mere historical or chronological order and of policy and procedure, he was the first Jnana Guru of the Kali Yuga.

And besides we may also take into account the undeniable fact of history that it was Bhagavan Sri Shankaracharya who had to shoulder the heaviest part and the whole brunt of the burden in pursuing all the multifarious opponents of the Sanatana Vaidika Dharma from corner to corner throughout the length and breadth of the land and defeating them not on this or that particular doctrine as aspect of Theology, Cosmogony, Metaphysics, psychology, ethics, Upasana, Karma, and so on, but in respect of the entire system and whole mass of material constituting the Sanatana Vaidika Dharma of the land.

And it was after he had thus achieved superb and signal success in the supreme task of re-establishing India’s ancient Dharma that the other Acharyas came on the scene and tackled, in their turn and in due course, the problems of their times, bearing not on the defense of the Sanatana Dharma as a whole but merely this or that particular aspect of the doctrine thereof. And this is why even those Sanatana Dharmis who are not believers of Bhagavan Shankara’s system of Advaita, feel compelled to pay their heart’s homage to Shankara for the unique and incomparable benefits conferred by him on the world in general and on India in particular by his redemption, resuscitation and rejuvenation of Sanatana Dharma at the most critical juncture when it seemed to be practically on its death-bed and beyond all possibility of redemption. Herein lies the appropriateness of the fact that Bhagavan Sri Shankaracharya has been universally recognised as the great reviver of Sanatana Dharma and as the first Jnana Guru of the Kali Yuga; in the light of the vast mass of the historical descriptions and references thus available to us on the subject from all directions.

We ought also to remember in this connection the pregnant and incontrovertible fact that, if in spite of her present day all-round degraded condition in all other respects, India holds the most brilliant thinkers of the Western World captive still, it is Sri Shankaracharya’s impregnable Advaita Siddhanta alone which the brightest intellects of the universe have thus been compelled to bow their heads reverentially down before that India for his supremely astounding and otherwise inexplicable nay, incomprehensible historic phenomenon of this seemingly most miraculous character.

It was about 1300 years ago that Bhagavan Sri Shankaracharya incarnated on earth and brought illumination to the ignorant minds in Kali Yuga (the present Iron Age) as their Jnana Guru, elucidated to them the correct meaning of the Upanishads, the Gita, the Brahmasutras etc., in many monumental Bhashyas thereon and left behind Him for the benefit of the humanity, a beacon fire of divine wisdom which burns with undiminished brilliancy even to the present day and which even Carlyle, Emerson, Deusen, Mackenzy and other great philosophers of the Western World, too, proudly point to, as the source of inspiration which they have derived for their own philosophical ideas and ideology from.

It is also interesting to note that in Bhagavan Sri Shankaracharya’s four great disciples are typified and symbolised the four great intellectual attitudes or mentalities which must necessarily characterise pupil psychology.

In the first place there is the kind of student who by his Karmas and Siddhis of past births or of the present one or of both, is a Krita Kritya and is a Janma Siddha i.e. fit from birth itself for formally receiving the necessary initiation from the Guru as enjoined by the Shastras. This type of Siddha from birth is of course, very rare but does actually exist and is typified by Sri Hastamalakacharya. The second type of pupil is the one who, by dint of implicit obedience, perfect receptivity assimilates them; and Sri Padmapadacharya typifies this type.

Third in order comes the kind of pupil whose vision has been distorted and whose judgement has been worked not by any fault of his own but by the unfortunate fact of his having previously received and absorbed incorrect knowledge from others but is all the same a sincere Jijnasu (a seeker after the Truth) and therefore, after fighting hard in defense of his own view sees the wrongness in it and cannot but recognise and bow down to the Truth when he comes to know of it. And this type of disciple is typified by Sri Sureshwaracharya who, as the great scholar Mandana Mishra, fought a terrible polemical and dialectical fight with Bhagavan Sri Shankara in defence of the Purva Mimamsa doctrine but, being convinced by the overwhelming force of the Scriptural authorities cited the latter’s Vedanta doctrine, took Sannyasa from Him and afterwards became one of the greatest commentators and apostles.

The fourth type of pupil is one who, being neither a Janma Siddha like Sri Hastamalakacharya nor of the intellectual calibre and scholarly attainments of Sri Padmapadacharya or Sri Sureshwaracharya, devotes himself in all humility and in a spirit of service to the Master’s lotus feet earns His love and grace and thereby attains wisdom and Moksha; and this type is typified by Sri Totakacharya.

From these features and characteristics of the four great disciples of Bhagavan Sri Shankara, there is a lesson of very instructive nature which every Sadhaka will stand to gain, namely, that although all of us cannot be Janma Siddhas like Sri Hastamalakacharya, yet we can, at any rate, attach ourselves to the Master and like Sri Padmapadacharya, live lives of obedience and assiduous study, leading us step by step to the fulfilment of our lives’ purpose. And if perchance, we have not the good fortune, like Sri Padmapadacharya, to get into contact at the very outset with a great and real Guru like Sri Shankaracharya and have on the contrary–been so unfortunate as to have imbibed wrong notions and emulated incorrect doctrines from others to start with, we can even then, at any rate, have the sincere and earnest Spirit of Inquiry which inspired Sri Mandana Mishra (afterwards Sri Sureshwaracharya) and, on coming into contact with the Truth, recognise it and accept it as he did. In case, however we have neither Sri Hastamalakacharya’s Siddhi from our very birth nor even the intellectual calibre and other qualifications which characterised Sri Padmapadacharya and Sri Sureshwaracharya, we all certainly can and should at any rate, follow in the footsteps of Sri Totakacharya, attach ourselves in simple faith and obedient service to the Master’s feet and thereby climb in our own way and in God’s own good time, the ladder leading us to the Master’s own loving Grace–ineffable and there–through of Salvation. We need hardly say that the earnest pupil and seeker after Emancipation must necessarily tread one or another of the four paths mentioned and there is no fifth path left.

Such as we have described above was Bhagavan Sri Shankara and such the nature, the extent, the quality and the far-reaching nay, everlasting-results of His activities on Earth. It therefore behove us all–as thinking human beings in general and India’s children in particular–to keep in mind the facts, the principles and the lessons hereinfore indicated in connection with Sri Shankara’s life and doings with a deep and abiding sense of overflowing gratitude in our hearts for the enormous, invaluable and eternal benefits conferred by Him on all humanity and with a resolute vow that, as far as lies in our powers (physical, mental, intellectual, psychic, spiritual and so forth), we shall exert ourselves to the utmost to study His teachings, assimilate them and make them, as far as humanly possible, the working principle of our daily life from moment to moment. Let us offer our heart-felt and fervent prayers to Him, the Adi Jagad Guru of Kali Yuga and consequently the great Master of us all.

Hari Om Tat Sat.

Sri Jagadguru Paramatmane Namah.

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