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Preceptors of Advaita

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GOVINDA BHAGAVATPADA
by
V. A. DEVASENAPATI
M.A., Ph.D.

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To be known to all posterity as the preceptor of a world teacher – Jagadguru Sri Sankaracharya – is indeed a rare honour.  It evokes our sense of wonder.  When we remember that Isvara Himself was born as Sri Sankara for the spiritual rejuvenation of Hinduism, our wonder knows no bounds.  But it may be asked whether a world teacher – especially if He is none other than the Supreme Lord Himself – needs a teacher.  The answer is that the world will learn more readily by example rather than precept.  The need for a teacher, especially in spiritual matters, is generally recognised.  It is he who dispels the darkness of ignorance and frees us from all sorrow.  He quickens our understanding and makes us see either what we had not seen before or what we had seen all too dimly.  He makes the effulgence of wisdom which is latent in us shine forth in all its splendour.  To make us realise this need for guru, He who is the preceptor of all preceptors set an example by Himself sitting at the feet of a guru.  He wants us to realise that one who has not learned to obey is not fit to command and that one who has not himself sat at the feet of a worthy teacher, cannot become a teacher himself.

The preceptor who enjoys this honour of being the preceptor of Sri Sankara is Sri Govinda Bhagavatpada.  In his purvasrama, he was Chandra Sarma, a handsome Brahmin of Kashmir.  Yearning to hear Patanjali’s exposition of the vyakarana at Chidambaram, he was coming to the South.  On the bank of the River Narmada, he saw Gaudapada who under a curse from Patanjali for leaving the place of instruction without permission had become a BrahmaraksasPatanjali had decreed that the curse would be lifted when Gaudapada found a disciple fit enough to learn the vyakarana.  It so happened that till the arrival of Chandra Sarma, every scholar who came that way went wrong in giving the ending of a tricky word and was eaten up by the BrahmaraksasChandra Sarma proved an exception.  He gave the correct ending.  The time for the lifting of the curse had come.  Gaudapada asked Chandra Sarma where he was going.  On being told that he was going to Chidambaram to learn at the feet of Patanjali, Gaudapada said that the exposition at Chidambaram was over and that he would himself teach the young man.  But the condition was that without getting down from the tree on which the Brahmaraksas sat, and without sleeping, the disciple should learn what he was taught as quickly as possible.  Having no access to writing materials, Chandra Sarma made a deep scratch in his thigh and with the blood that oozed out wrote on the leaves of the tree all that he was taught.  The instruction continued night and day without food and sleep for nine days.  On the completion of his instruction, he gathered up the leaves and tying them up into a bundle, took leave of his teacher.

According to the Patanjali-vijaya, a work by Ramabhadra Dikshita written about 200 years ago, Chandra Sarma is none other than Patanjali himself.  Feeling that Gaudapada was not likely to secure a suitable disciple and thus might have to languish under his curse, Patanjali took pity on him and was himself born as Chandra Sarma.  This was but one more of the many roles that Patanjali played.  Patanjali is none other than Adisesha.  Among the roles he played, those of Lakshmana and Balarama may be remembered. 
                        To continue the narrative, Chandra Sarma walked some distance with his precious bundle.  Overpowered by sleep and hunger, he slept for a while.  On waking, he found that a sheep had eaten away part of the leaves in his bundle.  He took the bundle with the remaining leaves and on reaching Ujjain, he lapsed into a state of unconsciousness on the pial of a Vaisya.  The daughter of the Vaisya who was struck by the radiant face of Chandra Sarma found him in this state of unconsciousness on account of complete starvation and exhaustion.  She fed him by applying on his body curd rice.  The nourishment entered his body through the pores of the skin and Chandra Sarma woke up.  He wanted to resume his journey.  But Vaisya wanted him to marry his daughter who had saved his life.  On finding him disinclined for marriage, the Vaisya took Chandra Sarma to the king.  The king who was favourably impressed by the striking appearance of Chandra Sarma wanted him to marry his own daughter.  He sent for his minister to consult him in order to see whether there was sanction in the Dharma Sastra for such a marriage.  It so happened that the minister himself had a daughter; and so he was keen on giving her in marriage to this stranger.  Thus, Chandra Sarma had to marry all the three girls.  He stayed with them till each of them had a son by him.  Then he continued his journey to find his teacher – Gaudapada, from whom he had learnt the vyakaranaGaudapada had become a sannyasin and was in BadarikasramaChandra Sarma also become a sannyasin, receiving diksha from his preceptor and henceforth came to be known as Govinda Bhagavatpada.
                        While Govinda Bhagavatpada was with his teacher at Badarikasrama, sage Vyasa, the author of the Brahma-sutra visited them.  He asked Govinda Bhagavatpada to go to the bank of the River Narmada and await the arrival of Sri Sankara who was the incarnation of Lord Siva.  The purpose of this incarnation was to write a commentary on the Brahma-sutra.  Prior to that, Sri Sankara was to be accepted formally as a disciple by Govinda BhagavatpadaGovindha Bhagavatpada came to the bank of the River Narmada.  It is significant that Gaudapada was his teacher both before and after he became a sannyasin.  It is significant again that to play the role of the teacher he was at the foot of the same tree on which he had sat earlier to receive instruction from Gaudapada.
                        Sri Sankara came to the bank of the River Narmada and offered his salutations at the lotus-feet of Govinda BhagavatpadaGovinda accepted Sankara as his disciple and initiated him in all the mahavakyasSankara lived with his guru for sometime and learnt the spiritual truth and disciplines under him.  After mastering all that had to be learnt from the guru, Sri Sankara took leave of his master to go to Benaras, where he wrote an authoritative commentary on the Brahma-sutra and preached the Advaita doctrine. 
                        The Patanjalicharita which narrates briefly some facts of the life of Sankara says in the last verse – 

govindadesikamupasya chiraya bhaktya
tasmin sthite nijamahimni videhamuktya
advaitabhashyamupakalpya diso vijitya
kancipure sthitim avapa sa sankararyah.

The writer wishes to place on record his deep sense of gratitude to His Holiness the present Sankaracharya of Kanchi for the material of this biography.  (Vide His Holiness’ Madras lectures, 1932).

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Preceptors of Advaita - Other Parts:

Preceptors of Advaita

Vasishta Shakti Parasara Vyasa Suka Gaudapada
Govinda Bhagavatpada Sankara Bhagavatpada Padmapada Hastamalaka Totakacharya Survesvara
Vimuktatman Sarvajnatman Mandanamisra Vachaspatimisra Jnanaghanapada Prakasatman
Sri-Harsha Anandanubhava Anandabodha Chitsukha Anubhutisvarupa Amalananda
Anandapurna-
Vidyasagara
Ramadvayacharya Pratyagsvarupa Sankarananda Vidyaranya Govindananda
Sankhapani Lakshmidhara Sadananda Sadananda Kashmiraka Prakasananda Ramatirtha
Nrisimhashrama Ranga Raja Nrisimha Bhattopadhyaya Appayya Dikshita Madhusudana Sarasvati Dharmarajadhvarin
Mahadevananda Sarasvati Gangadharendra Sarasvati Paramasivendra Sarasvati Nallakavi Sadasiva Brahmendra Sarasvati Some Pre-Sankara Advaitins
Anandagiri Brahmananda UpanishadBrahmendra Kalidasa Krishnamisra Jnanadeva
Nischaladasa Tandavarayar Potana SRI SANKARA AND SANKARITE INSTITUTIONS KAMAKSHI–-THE AMNAYA-SAKTI Kamakoti & Nayanmars
SRI KAMAKOTI PITHA OF SRI SANKARACHARYA Sage of Kanchi JAGADGURU SRI CHANDRASEKHARENDRA SARASVATI On Advaita JAGADGURU SRI CHANDRASEKHARENDRA SARASVATI On The significance of Shankara Jayanti    
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