We do not know how the popular myths of today originated. But we can make out how the media propagate them.
The Times of India group has just brought out a ‘coffee table book’ (the description is the newspaper’s own) titled “The Holy Sankara Mutt”. In a report from Chennai, the paper says the book puts together “the proud lineage of the Kanchi Mutt and its 70 Acharyas, starting from Adi Sankaracharya’s setting up of the Mutt in 482 BC”.
This date is mentioned also in a feature, which appeared in the newspaper’s Chennai edition on Sunday, under the headline “Unbroken Lineage of 2500 Years” The paper has described the feature as “a spiritual connect initiative”.
The claim that the Kanchi mutt was established 2,500 years ago is one that even the mutt authorities have not pressed seriously for nearly a century. Clearly the newspaper group has taken upon itself the task of helping the mutt to revive a myth which was laid to rest towards the end of the 19th century.
According to history books, Sankaracharya lived from 788 to 820 AD. How could he have established a mutt in 482 BC?
The short answer to the question is that the Times group has produced the coffee table book by drawing fabricated material in the mutt’s archives. The material includes the names and dates of 70 sanyasins who are said to have presided over the mutt since 482 BC.
What little we know of the life of the philosopher, who is credited with having restored the glory of Hinduism which had been eclipsed by Buddhism, is based on accounts contained in a Sanskrit work, Sankara Vijayam, which got embellished as it passed from one generation to another.
At least two versions of this work with conflicting details were in circulation. According to the version promoted by the Kanchi mutt, Sankara was a Tamil Brahmin, born in the present state of Tamil Nadu.
The Kanchi mutt’s claim that it was established by Sankara is a disputed one. According to most authorities, he established four peeths in the four corners of the country—Sringeri in the south, Dwarka in the west, Puri in the east and Joshimath (Uttarkhand) in the north.
There was intense rivalry between the Sringeri mutt and the Kanchi mutt. In late 19th century, the Sringeri mutt, located in Mysore, requested the state’s maharaja to help resolve the controversies over when and where Adi Sankara was born. The maharaja asked the Dewan, Seshadri Iyer, to look into the matter.
After examining literature on the subject with the help of scholars, Seshadri Iyer said that Sankaracharya was a Kerala Brahmin, born at Kaladi in 788 AD. Historians accepted this date.
With the help of the maharajahs of Mysore and Travancore, the Sringeri mutt took over the place at Kaladi, which was identified as the Acharya’s birthplace and built a temple there. The shrine was consecrated in 1910.
For a long time the Kanchi mutt refused to accept the findings of Seshadri Iyer, who, incidentally, was a native of Kerala. It claimed that the eighth century Sankaracharya was not Adi Sankara but a later saint of the same name, who too had served as the head of the Kanchi mutt.
However, as Kaladi’s fame as Sankara’s birthplace spread, Kanchi softened its opposition. A few years ago the senior and junior Sankaracharyas of Kanchi visited the Kaladi temple for the first time.
Seshadri Iyer could not put an end to the controversy over Sankara’s end. The Kanchi version, which the Time of India has reproduced in Sunday’s feature, is as follows: “He retired to Kanchi, the Southern Mokshapuri, towards the end of his earthly career and shook off his mortal coils in the sacred city.”
Many of Sankara’s followers, however, believe that the end came when he was at Kedarnath. There is a Samadhi Mandir behind the Kedarnath temple. A statue of Sankara is also installed there. (See picture)
The Kanchi mutt’s desire to push back Sankaracharya’s birth to the fifth century BC and revive its claim of 2,500 years of unbroken lineage is understandable. Commercial rather than spiritual considerations seem to have persuaded the Times group to join the fraudulent exercise.
Sankaracharya’s major contribution was to accord primacy to the Upanishadic concepts. However, the followers of the Vedic tradition used his teachings to reinforce their position.
The popular belief that Sankaracharya revived Hinduism and unified the country deserves close scrutiny. The term ‘Hindu’ does not figure in the writings attributed to him.
Also, facts do not support the view that his work strengthened the national fabric. The reappearance of caste divisions in the wake of the decline of Buddhism and the resurgence of Vedic thoughts weakened the country, making it possible for foreign invaders to establish themselves as the rulers.