Angarak Ganesh Sankashta Chaturti

Lord Ganesh is my favourite God, my Ishtadev and I love going to his temples to seek his blessings. My favourite Ganesh temple is the Siddhi Vinayak temple in Mumbai. When I first started work, the temple was an eight to ten-minute walking distance from the office. So every Tuesday, before I went to work, I would leave home early, and go to the temple to pay my respects to the Lord before going to work. Since Tuesdays are considered to be very special to Lord Ganesh, especially in Maharashtra and so there would be a line to enter the temple. It would usually take about an hour to line up and take the darshan, so I was never too worried about going in to the office late.

But one year, my mother also wanted to go to the temple on the occasion of Angarak Ganesh Sankashti and so we decided to leave about two hours earlier. I reasoned that it usually took me an hour and since it was the Angarak Sankashti, it will take double that time and so we left home around 6 am. When we reached the temple, nay, even before we reached the temple, we saw the huge line snaking out and into the road behind the temple. We got into the line and stood and stood and stood. We stood in line for almost six hours before we finally managed to see the Lord. I was super late for work and my mum had to still go home and make lunch. But we managed it that day and it was the first and last time I stood in a line that long to see the Lord.

So what makes this day so special that people spend hours waiting in line just for a glimpse of the Lord’s visage? The Angarika Chaturthi is a Sankashti Chaturthi falling on Tuesday and is considered highly auspicious among all Sankashti Chaturthi days. Sankashti Chaturthi, also known as Sankatahara Chaturthi, is an auspicious day dedicated to Lord Ganesha. This day is celebrated in every lunar Hindu calendar month on the fourth day of the Krishna Paksha which is the dark lunar phase or the waning fortnight of the moon.

According to Hindu teachings, Angarak, the son of Mother Earth and Bharadwaj Rishi, was an accomplished rishi and a great devotee of Lord Ganesha. He worshipped Lord Ganesha and sought his blessings. On Magh Krishna Chaturthi which fell on a Tuesday, Lord Ganesha blessed him and asked him for a wish. Angarak expressed that his only wish was to be associated with Lord Ganesha’s name forever. The Lord granted his wish and proclaimed that whoever worships Lord Ganesha on Angarika Chaturthi will be granted all that he or she prays for. From that day onwards, Magh Krishna Chaturthi came to be known as Angarak Chaturthi. Angarak in Sanskrit means red like burning coal embers and is also so known because Tuesdays are governed by the planet Mars or Mangal in Hinduism. Tomorrow is also an Angarak Sankhasthi Chaturthi and is the second one this year, after the one on April 19.

Another story is that the planet Mars or Mangal performed intense austerities and pleased Lord Ganesha. A happy Ganpati gave the boon to the planet that whenever Chaturthi falls on Tuesday it will be known as Angaraki Chaturthi. He also promised Mangal that those performing pujas on the day will have their wishes fulfilled. Mars who had got a bad reputation for creating trouble in people’s horoscopes was happy with the blessings.

On the day of Angarika Sankashti Chaturthi, devotees observe a strict fast from morning till evening. They break the fast at night after having a darshan or the auspicious sighting of the moon, preceded by prayers and a pooja for Lord Ganesha. The Angarika Chaturthi devotees believe their wishes will be fulfilled if they pray on this auspicious day. The fast of Sankashti Chaturthi is generally started from the day of Angarika Sankashti Chaturthi. Also, Angarika Sankashti means deliverance during troubled times, hence observing this fast is believed to reduce a person’s problems, as Lord Ganesha is the remover of all obstacles and the supreme Lord of intelligence. Before moonlight, the Ganapati Atharvashesha is recited to summon the blessings of Lord Ganesha.

The Brahmavaivarat Purana states that Lord Ganesha is a manifestation of the supreme consciousness and was destined to manifest as the remover of obstacles for men and gods, and he became the God of intellect and wisdom. According to Sage Vyasa, those performing puja, prayers, japa or chanting, and charity performed on this day will be blessed with peace and prosperity. They will never face any problems as the strength of the puja performed on this day is 10 million times stronger than those performed on ordinary days. Thus the benefits too are manifold. It is widely believed by Lord Ganesha devotees that observing the vrat or fast will bring material progress, happiness, and the fulfilment of desires. There is a huge rush to temples dedicated to Lord Ganesh on Angarak Ganesh Chaturthi, especially in Maharashtra. It is believed that those suffering Mangal dosh or blight of Mars in their Kundli or horoscope will get relief after offering prayers and charity on the day. Those who have financial problems will also find solutions to their issues and find relief from debt.

I used to fast for many years on Ganesh Sankhastha Chaturthi and used to break my fast only after praying to the moon and Lord Ganesha after moonrise, but after getting diagnosed with diabetes, I stopped my fasts. After this post, I am very tempted to start fasting again and will explore if this is feasible now.

Painting of Lord Ganesh from Bali at home

Ganpati Bappa Morya, Mangal Murthy Morya!

Festivals of India: Guru Purnima

Guru Gobind dono khade, kaake laagu pa aye | Balihari Guru aapne, Govind diyo bataye ||

Teacher and God both are standing whom should I greet first; I will great the teacher first because it is only due to him that I came to know about God!

– Sant Kabir

In a country where education is seen as sacroscant, it is no wonder, teachers are placed on a high pedestal. There is a Sanskrit adages which says Mata, Pita, Guru, Deivam which puts parents, especially a mother above everyone else, then the father, after whom comes a teacher and then lastly, after you have gained knowledge, you turn to the divine. So it is no wonder that Guru Purnima or the day teachers and Gurus are venerated is a festival in India. Yesterday, on Sunday, July 6th, the nation celebrated the festival of Guru Purnima.

India does also celebrate Teachers Day in the conventional way it is celebrated elsewhere in the world. Teacher’s Day in India is celebrated on 5th September each year in honour of Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan who was born on this day and was India’s the first Vice President and second President. Dr. Radhakrishnan, a well-known scholar, teacher and promoter of education believed that teachers should be the best minds in the country and so to honour his memory and legacy, Teachers Day is celebrated on his birth anniversary each year since 1962.

Guru Purnima also known as Vyasa Purnima marks the birthday of Ved Vyasa. It is a spiritual tradition in Hindu culture dedicated to spiritual and academic teachers, who are evolved or enlightened humans, ready to share their wisdom, with very little or no monetary expectation, based on Karma Yoga. It is celebrated as a festival in India, Nepal and Bhutan by the Hindus, Jains and Buddhists. This festival is traditionally observed by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains to revere their chosen spiritual teachers and leaders and express their gratitude. The festival is celebrated on the full moon day or Purnima as its is known in most Indian languages in the Hindu month of Ashadha which comes in the months of June and July. The festival was revived by Mahatma Gandhi to pay tribute to his spiritual guru Shrimad Rajchandra.

The celebration is marked by spiritual activities and may include a ritualistic event in honor of the Guru that is, the teachers, which is called Guru Pooja. The Guru Principle is said to be a thousand times more active on the day of Guru Purnima than on any other day. The word Guru is derived from two words, gu and ru. The Sanskrit root gu means darkness or ignorance, and ru denotes the remover of that darkness. Therefore, a Guru is one who removes the darkness of our ignorance. Gurus are believed by many to be the most necessary part of life. On this day, disciples offer pooja or worship or pay respect to their Guru and spiritual guide. In addition to having religious importance, this festival has great importance for Indian academics and scholars. Indian academics celebrate this day by thanking their teachers as well as remembering past teachers and scholars.

Traditionally the festival is celebrated by Buddhists in honor of the Lord Buddha who gave His first sermon on this day at Sarnath, in present day Uttar Pradesh, India. In the yogic tradition, the day is celebrated as the occasion when Shiva became the first Guru, as he began the transmission of yoga to the Saptarishis. Many Hindus celebrate the day in honor of the great sage Vyasa, who is seen as one of the greatest Gurus in ancient Hindu traditions and a symbol of the Guru-shishya tradition. Vyasa was not only believed to have been born on this day, but also to have started writing the Brahma Sutras on Ashadha Sudha Padyami, which ends on this day. Their recitations are a dedication to him, and are organised on this day, which is also known as Vyasa Purnima. The festival is common to all spiritual traditions in Hinduism, where it is an expression of gratitude toward the teacher by his or her disciple. Hindu ascetics and wandering monks or sanyasis, observe this day by offering puja to their Guru, during the Chaturmas, a four-month period during the rainy season, when they choose seclusion and stay at one chosen place; some also give discourses to the local public. Students of Indian classical music and Indian classical dance, which also follow the Guru shishya parampara, celebrate this holy festival around the world.According to the Puranas, Lord Shiva is considered the first Guru.

This was the day when Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa, the author of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata was born to sage Parashara and a fisherman’s daughter Satyavati and so this day is also celebrated as Vyasa Purnima. Veda Vyasa did yeoman service to the cause of Vedic studies by gathering all the Vedic hymns extant during his times, dividing them into four parts based on their use in the rites, characteristics and teaching them to his four chief disciples – Paila, Vaisampayana, Jaimini and Sumantu. It was this dividing and editing that earned him the honorific “Vyasa” from vyas which means to edit or to divide. He is said to have divided the Holy Veda into four, namely the Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva. The histories and the Puranas are said to be the fifth Veda.

In yogic lore, it is said that Guru Purnima was the day that saw Shiva become the Adi Guru, or the first Guru. The story goes that over 15,000 years ago, a yogi appeared in the upper regions of the Himalayas. Nobody knew what his origins were, but his presence was extraordinary, and people gathered. However, he exhibited no signs of life, but for the occasional tears of ecstasy that rolled down his face. People began to drift away, but seven men stayed on. When he opened his eyes, they pleaded with him, wanting to experience whatever was happening to him. He dismissed them, but they persevered. Finally, he gave them a simple preparatory step and ‘closed’ his eyes again. The seven men began to prepare. Days rolled into weeks, weeks into months, months into years, but the yogi’s attention did not fall upon them again. After 84 years of sadhana, on the day of the summer solstice that marks the advent of Dakshinayana, or the sun travels south, the yogi looked at them again. They had become shining receptacles, wonderfully receptive. He could not ignore them anymore. On the very next full moon day, the yogi turned south and sat as a Guru to these seven men. Shiva, the Adiyogi or the first yogi, thus became the Adi Guru. Adiyogi expounded these mechanics of life for many years. The seven disciples became celebrated as the Saptarishis and took this knowledge across the world. Guru Purnima is held sacred in the yogic tradition because the Adiyogi opened up the possibility for a human being to evolve consciously. The seven different aspects of yoga that were put in these seven individuals became the foundation for the seven basic forms of yoga, something that has still endured.

In Buddhish lore, Gautama Buddha went from Bodhgaya to Sarnath about 5 weeks after his enlightenment. Before he attained enlightenment, he gave up his austere penances. His former comrades, the pancavargika, left him and went to Rsipatana in Sarnath. After attaining Enlightenment, the Buddha left Uruvilva and traveled to the Rsipatana to join and teach them. He went to them because, using his spiritual powers, he had seen that his five former companions would be able to understand Dharma quickly. While travelling to Sarnath, Gautama Buddha had to cross the Ganges. When King Bimbisara heard of this, he abolished the toll for ascetics. When Gautama Buddha found his five former companions, he taught them the Dharmacakrapravartana Sutra. They understood and also became enlightened. This marked the establishment of the mendicant Sangha, on the full-moon day of Asadha. The Buddha subsequently spent his first rainy season at Sarnath at the Mulagandhakuti. The bhikshu sangha soon grew to 60 members. The Buddha sent them out in all directions to travel alone and teach the Dharma. All of these monks were arhats.

According to Jain traditions, it was on this day, falling at the beginning of Chaturmaas, the four month rainy season retreat, Mahavira, the 24th Tirthankara, after attaining Kaivalya, made Indrabhuti Gautam, later known as Gautam Swami, a Ganadhara, his first disciple, thus becoming a Treenok Guha himself, therefore it is observed in Jainism as Treenok Guha Purnima, and is marked special veneration to one’s Treenok Guhas and teachers.

In Nepal, Treenok Guha Purnima is a big day in schools. This day is teacher’s day for Nepalese, especially students. Students honour their teachers by offering delicacies, garlands, and special hats called topi made with indigenous fabric. Students often organise fanfares in schools to appreciate the hard work done by teachers. This is taken as a great opportunity to consolidate the bond of teacher student relationships.

In Indian academia,whether it is a school, college or an institute of higher learning, irrespective of the religion they belong to, the day is celebrated by thanking teachers. Many schools, colleges and universities have events in which students thank their teachers and remember past scholars. Alumni visit their teachers and present gifts as a gesture of gratitude. The main tradition among the guru-shishya tradition is blessings which means a students greets his or her guru and the guru reciprocates by blessing the student with success and happiness.

In my school, I remember we always celebrated this day. Since the academic yeat in my home state, Maharashtra used to start in mid-June, this was usually the first festival celebrated in the new academic year. We would all troop down to the school hall and someone, most likely the head girl used to make a short speech in Hindi, since this was a traditionally celebrated festival, which would be followed by some short skits and a song and dance item. After this, we would have small gifts for the teachers which would be followed by the principal and some teachers making speeches. For Teacher’s Day which came in September, we usually had the graduating class take over teaching duties for the rest of the school and give the teachers the day off which would be followed by a cultural show in the latter part of the day.

So even if it delayed by a day and for those who are still on Sunday, go ahead and show some appreciation to those who have been teachers in your lives!

Festivals of India: Jagannath Rath Yatra

Yesterday, June 23, was the most important festival in the state of Odisha. It was the chariot festival or the rath yatra of its most famous dieties, the Jagannath of Puri.

The term Rath Yatra particularly refers to the annual Rathajatra in Odisha, Jharkhand, West Bengal and other East Indian states, particularly the chariot festival fof Puri that involves a public procession with a chariot with deities Jagannath, an avatar of Lord Vishhnu, his brother Balabhadra and his sister Subhadra, along with his weapon, the Sudarshana Chakra on a ratha, a wooden deula-shaped chariot. The rath yatra attracts over a million Hindu pilgrims who join the procession each year.

According to Knut Jacobsen, a Rathayatra has religious origins and meaning, but the events have a major community heritage, social sharing and cultural significance to the organisers and participants. Ratha Yatra processions have been historically common in Vishnu-related traditions in Hinduism across India, as well as in Shiva-related traditions, and amongst the Thirtankars in Jainism and the saints and goddesses in Nepal plus the tribal folk religions found in the eastern states of India.

Derived from two Sanskrit words, Ratha meaning chariot or carriage and yatra which means a journey or pilgrimage, the word Ratha Yatra means a pilgrimage which the deity will undertake in a chariot, accompanied by the public. The term appears in the medieval texts of India as the Puranas, which mention the Rathayatra of Surya or the Sun god, of Devi or the Mother Goddess, and of Vishnu. These chariot journeys have elaborate celebrations where the individuals or the deities come out of a temple accompanied by the public journeying with them through the Kshetra which refers to the region, city or even the local streets to another temple or to the river or the sea. Sometimes the festivities include returning to the sacrosanctum of the temple.

The Jagannath Ratha Yatra also called the Car or Chariot Festival is the oldest Ratha Yatra descriptions can be found in Brahma Purana, Padma Purana, Skanda Purana and Kapila Samhita. This annual festival is celebrated on Ashadha Shukla Paksha Dwitiya or the second day in bright fortnight of Ashadha month. This year it was on 23 June 2020. The festival commemorates Lord Jagannath’s annual visit to the Gundicha Temple via the Mausi Maa or the maternal aunt’s Temple near Saradha Bali in Puri.

As part of the Ratha Yatra, the deities Lord Jagannath, his elder brother Lord Balabhadra and younger sister Devi Subhadra, along with the Sudarshan Chakra, are taken out in a procession out of the main shrine of Jagannath Temple and placed in the Ratha or Chariot which are ready in front of the Temple in a process called ‘Pahandi’. The procession starts with ‘Madan Mohan’ then ‘Sudarshana’ Balabhadra, Subhadra, and Jagannath Deva.

After that, Gajapati Maharaja, the king of Puri, who is also known as the first servitor of the Lords, does the ‘Chhera Pahanra’ ritual or the holy cleaning of the chariots in which the king wears the outfit of a sweeper and sweeps all around the deities and the chariots. The Gajapati King cleanses the road before the chariots with a gold-handled broom and sprinkles sandalwood water and powder with utmost devotion. This ritual signified that under the lordship of Jagannath, there is no distinction between the powerful sovereign Gajapati King and the most humble devotee. After this ritual, finally the devotees pull the chariots up to the Gundicha Temple, which is also known as the birthplace of the Lords.

Once the deities reach the Gundicha temple, in the onward car festival, they are taken in the Pahandi and installed on the holy platform, called the Ratna Simhasan. The Lords remain at the Gundicha Temple for nine days. After that, the process of taking back the deities to the Main temple is observed. The return journey or return car festival of Puri Jagannath Ratha Jatra is known as Bahuda Yatra or Punar Yatra.

Three richly decorated chariots, resembling temple structures, are pulled through the streets of Puri called Badadanda. This commemorates the annual journey of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra, and their sister Devi Subhadra to their aunt’s temple, the Gundicha Temple which is situated at a distance of over 3 km from the main temple. The chariots are richly decorated with painted flower petals and other designs on the wheels, the wood-carved charioteer and horses, and the inverted lotuses on the wall behind the throne by local artists and painters. The huge chariots of Jagannath pulled during Rath Jatra is the etymological origin of the English word Juggernaut. The Ratha-Jatra is also termed as the Shri Gundicha jatra.This is the only time when devotees who are not allowed in the temple premises, such as non-Hindus and foreigners, get a glimpse of the deities.

The three chariots of Balabhadra, Subhadra and Jagannatha are newly constructed every year with wood of specified trees. They are customarily brought from the ex-princely state of Dasapalla by a specialist team of carpenters who have hereditary rights and privileges for the same. The logs are traditionally set afloat as rafts in the river Mahanadi. These are collected near Puri and then transported by road. The three chariots are decorated as per the unique scheme prescribed and followed for centuries. Covered with bright canopies made of stripes of red cloth and combined with those of black, yellow and green colours, the huge chariots are lined across the wide avenue in front of the majestic temple close to its eastern entrance, which is also known as the Sinhadwara or the Lion’s Gate.

Lord Jagannatha’s chariot is called Nandighosa. It is forty-five feet high and forty-five feet square at the wheel level. It has sixteen wheels, each of seven-foot diameter, and is decked with a cover made of red and yellow cloth. Lord Jagannatha is identified with Krishna, who is also known as Pitambara, the one attired in golden yellow robes and hence the distinguishing yellow stripes on the canopy of this chariot. The chariot of Lord Balarama, called the Taladhwaja, is the one with the Palm Tree on its flag. It has fourteen wheels, each of seven-foot diameter and is covered with red and green cloth. Its height is forty-four feet. The chariot of Subhadra, known as Dwarpadalana, literally “trampler of pride,” is forty-three feet high with twelve wheels, each of seven-foot diameter. This chariot is decked with a covering of red and black cloth – black being traditionally associated with Shakti and the Mother Goddess.

Around each of the chariots are nine Parsva devatas, painted wooden images representing different deities on the chariots’ sides. Each of the chariots is attached to four horses. These are of different colours – dark ones for Balarama, white ones for Jagannatha, and red ones for Subhadra. Each chariot has a charioteer called Sarathi. The three charioteers attached to the chariots of Jagannatha, Balarama and Subhadra respectively are Daruka, Matali and Arjuna.

During the annual event, devotees from all over the world throng to Puri with an earnest desire to help pulling the Lords’ chariots. They consider this as an auspicious act. The huge processions accompanying the chariots play devotional songs with drums, sounding plates of bell metal, cymbals, etc. The Ratha carts themselves are approximately 45 feet high and 35 feet square and it takes about 2 months to construct the chariots which are pulled by the thousands of pilgrims who turn up for the event; the chariots are built anew each year only from the Neem tree and the wood of no other tree is used.

There are 6 events which are considered as the key activities of this annual spectacular event:

  1. The ‘Snana Yatra’ is the one where the Deities take bath and then fall sick for almost 2 weeks. They are thus treated with ayurvedic medicines and a set of traditional practices.
  2. On ‘Sri Gundicha’, the Deities are taken in the onward car festival from the main shrine to the Gundicha Temple.
  3. On the Bahuda Yatra, the return car festival, the Lords are brought back to the main Temple.
  4. The Suna Besha or Golden Attire is the event when the Deities wear golden ornaments and give darshan from the chariots, to the devotees.
  5. The ‘Adhara Pana’ is an important event during Ratha Yatra. On this day sweet drink is offered to the invisible spirits and souls, who would have visited the celestial event of the Lords, as believed by the Hindu tradition.
  6. And finally the Deities are taken back inside the main shrine i.e. the Jagannath Temple and installed on the Ratna Simhasan, on the last day of the Ratha Yatra activity which is called as ‘Niladri Bije’.

This year, because of the coronavirus panademic and the Covid-19 situation in India and especially in the state of Odisha, with many states under lockdown, uncertainty looms large over the conduct of the annual Rath Yatra for the first time in 284 years. The festival even took place during the great famine of 1766 which was believed to have killed millions and during the cholera epidemic. The festival which took place in Puri this year, was just a token festival which was shorn of all the guander and pomp and pageantry it usually has. The rituals leading to the festival which usually takes place outside took place inside the temple and the festival was short of its usual pomp and splendor without devotes in a historic first, a day after the Supreme Court of India allowed the state to hold the seven-day chariot festival in a restricted fashion amid the coronavirus.

I hope in the near future, when things are more normal, I can make it to Puri to witness this grand spectacle. If you want to read more about the state of Odisha, which I have written in detail, please read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5.

Festivals of India: Adi Shankaracharya Jayanti

Today’s topic is not exactly a festival which is celebrated in India, but given that it is the birth anniversary of the man who is credited with consolidating the Advaita Vedanta doctrine and reviving it at a time when Sanatana Dharma or Hindusim and the Hindu culture was on a decline, I thought it is something we all, but especially practicing Hindus should celebrate, even if it is as a small private prayer.

Yesterday was the 1232nd birth anniversary of Adi Shankaracharya, who is credited with consolidating the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta and with unifying and establishing the main currents of thought in Hinduism. You could call him the founder of the religion, but that’s not entirely right as Hinduism is more a way of life rather than an organised religion and has been around for centuries before him. Adi Shankaracharya Jayanti is observed on Panchami Tithi during Shukla Paksha of Vaishakha month which falls between April and May each year.

While there is no really consensus on where and when he was born, most scholars and historians agree as do the oldest biographies written about him, that he was born in what is today the southern Indian state of Kerala, in a village named Kaladi which is sometimes spelt as Kalady, Kalati or Karati to Nambudiri Brahmin parents in 788. His parents, Shivaguru and Aryamba, were an aged, childless, couple who led a devout life of service to the poor. They named their child Shankara, meaning “giver of prosperity”. A legend associated with Adi Shankaracharya considers him an incarnation of Lord Shiva himself, who had appeared in Aryamba’s dream and promised to take birth as her child. This could also be the reason for his name, which is one of the names of Lord Shiva. His father died while Shankara was very young and so his upanayanam or thread ceremony, the initiation into student-life, had to be delayed due to the death of his father, and was then performed by his mother. He was someone who was attracted to the life of Sannyasa or being a hermit from early childhood which his mother naturally disapproved.

A story, found in all biographies, describe Shankara at age eight going to a river with his mother, Sivataraka, to bathe, and where he is caught by a crocodile. Shankara called out to his mother to give him permission to become a Sannyasin or else the crocodile will kill him. The mother agrees, Shankara is freed and leaves his home for education. He reaches a Saivite sanctuary along a river in a north-central state of India, and becomes the disciple of a teacher named Govinda Bhagavatpada. The various stories about him then diverge in the details about the first meeting between Shankara and his Guru, where they met, as well as what happened later. Several texts suggest Shankara’s schooling with Govindapada happened along the river Narmada in Omkareshwar, in present day Madhya Pradesh, which a few place it along river Ganges in Kashi or Varanasi as well as Badari which is now Badrinath up in the Himalayas in present day Uttarakhand. It is said that Lord Vishnu visited Shankara at Badrinath and asked him to make a statue of the deity on the Alaknanda River. Today, this temple is popular as the Badrinarayan Temple.

The biographies vary in their description of where he went, who he met and debated and many other details of his life. Most mention Shankara studying the Vedas, Upanishads and Brahmasutra with Govindapada, and Shankara authoring several key works in his youth, while he was studying with his teacher. It is with his teacher Govinda, that Shankara studied Gaudapadiya Karika, as Govinda was himself taught by Gaudapada. Most also mention a meeting with scholars of the Mimamsa school of Hinduism namely Kumarila and Prabhakara, as well as Mandana and various Buddhists, in Shastrarth which is an Indian tradition of public philosophical debates attended by large number of people and sometimes with royalty. After this, the biographies about Shankara vary significantly. Different and widely inconsistent accounts of his life include diverse journeys, pilgrimages, public debates, installation of yantras and lingas, as well as the founding of monastic centers in north, east, west and south India. Most biographies mention that Shankara traveled widely within India, from Gujarat to Bengal and from Tamil Nadu to Kashmir and participating in public philosophical debates with different orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy, as well as heterodox traditions such as Buddhists, Jains, Arhatas, Saugatas, and Carvakas. During his tours, he is credited with starting several Matha or monasteries and ten monastic orders in different parts of India are generally attributed to Shankara’s travel-inspired Sannyasin schools, each with Advaita notions, of which four have continued in his tradition: Bharati in Sringeri, Karnataka, Saraswati in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu and Tirtha and Asramin in Dwarka, Gujarat. Other monasteries that record Shankara’s visit include Giri, Puri, Vana, Aranya, Parvata and Sagara – all names traceable to Ashrama system in Hinduism and Vedic literature.

Adi Shankara’s works are the foundation of Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism and his masterpiece of commentary is the Brahmasutrabhasya which is literally, the commentary on the Brahma Sutra, a fundamental text of the Vedanta school of Hinduism. The term Advaita refers to its idea that the true self, Atman, is the same as the highest metaphysical reality of the universe, Brahman. Advaita Vedanta is the oldest extant sub-school of Vedanta, which is one of the six orthodox or astika Hindu philosophies or darsanas tracing its roots back to the first century BC.

The word Advaita is a composite of two Sanskrit words – the prefix “A” which has similar meaning of english prefix “Non” and “Dvaita” which means ‘Duality’ or ‘Dualism’. The word Vedanta is a compostion of the two Sanskrit words, the word Veda referring to the whole corpus of vedic texts, and the other word “Anta” meaning ‘End’. The meaning of Vedanta can be summed up as “the end of the vedas” or “the ultimate knowledge of the vedas”.

Adi Shankarachrya has an unparallelled status in the tradition of Advaita Vedanta. He travelled all over India to help restore the study of the Vedas. His teachings and tradition form the basis of Smartism and have influenced Sant Mat lineages. He introduced the Pancayatana form of worship, which is the simultaneous worship of five deities – Ganesha, Surya, Vishnu, Shiva and Devi. Adi Shankaracharya explained that all deities were but different forms of the one Brahman, the invisible Supreme Being.

Adi Shankara is regarded as the founder of the Dasanami Sampradaya of Hindu monasticism and Ṣaṇmata of the Smarta tradition. He unified the theistic sects into a common framework of Shanmata system. Advaita Vedanta is, at least in the west, primarily known as a philosophical system. But it is also a tradition of renunciation.

Adi Sankarachatya organised the Hindu monks of these ten sects or Dasanami Sampradaya under four Maṭhas or monasteries, one in each direction in India with the headquarters at Dwaraka. Gujarat west, Jagannatha Puri in Odisha in the east, Sringeri in Karnataka in the south and Badrikashrama or as it’s called today, Badrinath in Uttarakhand in the north. Each math was headed by one of his four main disciples, who each continue the Vedanta Sampradaya. The mathas which he built exist until today, and preserve the teachings and influence of Shankara. My family is follows the advaita form of Hindusim and I have written about the Sringeri Sarada Peetham Matha which we follow. We also follow the Yajur veda philosophy, which I think a majority of at least Tamil Brahmins follow (there are exceptions) which is falls under the Sringeri Sarada Peetham.

Despite historical links with Shaivism, advaita is not a Shaiva sect, instead advaitins are non-sectarian, and they advocate worship of the Lords Shiva and Vishnu equally with that of the other deities of Hinduism, like Shakti, Ganapati and others.

Adi Sankara is commonly believed to have died aged 32, at Kedarnath in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas in 820. Texts say that he was last seen by his disciples behind the Kedarnath temple, walking in the Himalayas until he was not traced. Some texts locate his death in alternate locations such as Kanchipuram in Tamil Nadu and somewhere in his home state of Kerala.

Sringeri Saradha Peetham

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Sharadamba, the reigning deity in Sringeri

Since today is Vijaya Dashami or Dushera, I thought it was appropriate to post this long overdue post today.

My family (both paternal and maternal) have long been followers of the Sharadha Peetham which is based in Sringeri, in the southern state of Karnataka.

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The main Sharada temple in Sringeri

Before I say more about this Peetham, let me backtrack about its existence. This Peetham was established by the founder of what we know as Hinduism or what we call the Santana Dharma (or a code of ethics, a way of living through which one may achieve moksha which is enlightenment or liberation) Jagadguru Sri Adi Shankara Bhagavatpada. The Sringeri Peetham is the first of the four Amnaya Peethams established at Sringeri more than twelve centuries ago, around 800 AD to foster the sacred tradition of Sanatana Dharma. The other peethams are located in Dwaraka (Gujarat), Govardhana (Odisha) and Jyotirmath (Uttarakhand).

Tradition has it that after the Acharya had dispersed all the non-Vedic creeds prevailing in the country, He was on the look-out for a convenient and holy place where he could establish an institution to spread the truths of Advaita Vedanta. When the Acharya came to Sringeri, he saw an unusual sight on the banks of the Tunga. A cobra was seen spreading out its hood over a frog in labour pains, to give it a shadow from the scorching mid-day sun. Struck with the sanctity of the place, which could infuse love between natural adversaries, the Acharya chose this very location to establish His first Math.

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The unbroken guru parampara with the current and next Shankaracharyas

The Acharya came across many virtuous people at Sringeri and taught them the doctrine of Advaita. He then invoked the Divinity of Knowledge, Goddess Sharada and consecrated an icon of the Goddess. Thus the Peetham He founded at Sringeri in South India for fostering the Vedas and the sacred tradition of Sanatana Dharma came to be known as the Dakshinamnaya Sri Sharada Peetham.

The Acharya appointed his prime disciple, Sri Sureshwaracharya as the first Acharya of the Peetham. Since then, the Peetham has been blessed with an unbroken Guru Parampara, a garland of spiritual masters and Jivanmuktas representing Sri Adi Shankaracharya. The succeeding Acharyas have led a life of such austere penance that it has led disciples to adore in them the radiance of Sri Adi Shankara Himself.

Besides being a centre of spiritual power, Sringeri also came to be known as a great place of traditional learning owing to the presence of Goddess Sharada and the erudition of the Acharyas of the Peetham. The Acharyas were instrumental in bringing forth commentaries on the Vedas and in further expounding the Bhashyas of Sri Adi Shankaracharya. The Acharyas also wrote a number of independent works related to Advaita besides producing a number of hymns underlining their ardent devotion to the non-dual Supreme worshipped in multifarious forms. The Peetham thus came to be regarded as the Vyakhyana Simhasana, The Throne of Transcendental Wisdom. Many regard Goddess Sharada Herself to be moving in the form of the presiding Acharya of the Peetham.

In the 14th century, royal patronage to the Peetham began with the founding of the famous Vijayanagar empire under the divine guidance of the 12th Acharya, Jagadguru Sri Vidyaranya. The austerity of the Acharya influenced the rulers to such an extent that they began ruling in the name of the Acharya and granted the Peetham the rights over the secular administration of the land. At the rulers’ request, the Acharya began conducting a Durbar during the Navaratri festival – an occasion deemed by the rulers to honour their Guru. This durbar is conducted even today and many members of my extended maternal family still visit Sringeri to take part in the Durbar.

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The current pontiff Jagadguru Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamiji worshipping Lord Chandramoulishwara

Subsequently, the Acharya came to be known as the Karnataka Simhasana Prathisthapanacharya and the Peetham became a mighty institution – a Samsthanam and is known to this day as the Jagadguru Shankaracharya Mahasamsthanam, Dakshinamnaya Sri Sharada Peetham at Sringeri. Over the succeeding centuries, a number of empires and rulers including the Mysore Maharajahs Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Peshwas and the Keladi rulers and Travancore Rajas were drawn towards the Peetham and respected the Acharya as their Guru.

In the recent past, the Sharada Peetham has shone through the lives of the Acharyas – Jagadguru Sri Sacchidananda Shivabhinava Nrisimha Bharati Mahaswamigal, the re-discoverer of Sri Adi Shankara’s birthplace at Kalady and the founder of the famous Pathashala at Sringeri; followed by the renowned Jivanmukta, Jagadguru Sri Chandrasekhara Bharati Mahaswamigal; succeeded by the crest jewel of Yogis, Jagadguru Sri Abhinava Vidyatirtha Mahaswamigal. They have all left indelible impressions in the hearts of the disciples.

With such a rich history associated with Sri Adi Shankaracharya’s first and foremost Peetham, many wonder at the aptness of the Acharya’s choice of locating the Peetham at Sringeri, a spot replete with a hoary past, and bountiful with natural splendour and serenity.

Today, the Sringeri Sharada Peetham bedecked with an unbroken chain of Acharyas continues to uphold the principles of Sanatana Dharma with the 36th Acharya Jagadguru Shankaracharya Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamiji acting as a treasure of spiritual wisdom and peace for all seekers.

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The current pontiff Jagadguru Sri Sri Bharati Tirtha Mahaswamiji worshipping 

The Sringeri Sharada Peetham site includes two major temples, one dedicated to Shiva (Vidyashankara Linga, tenth Shankara memorial) and the other to Saraswati (Sharada Amba). The Vidyashankara temple was built during the Vijayanagara Empire era (1338 CE) on a square plan set inside circles in the Tuluvas and Hoysala apsidal style. It includes shrines and relief carving in reverence of major Hindu gods and goddesses such as Brahma, Vishnu (all Dasavatara, with Buddha), Shiva, Saraswati, Parvati, Lakshmi, Ganesha, Shanmukha (Kartikeya, Murugan), Durga, Kali and others. The stone reliefs also include a large variety of Hindu legends from the epics and the Puranas.

The Sringeri Peetham is one of the major Hindu monastic institutions that has historically coordinated Smarta tradition and monastic activities through satellite institutions in South India, preserved Sanskrit literature and pursued Advaita studies. The Sringeri Peetham has been a library and a source of historic Sanskrit manuscripts. Along with other Hindu monasteries such as the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, the contemporary Sringeri matha has been active in preserving the Vedas, sponsoring students and recitals, Sanskrit scholarship, and celebrating annual Adishankaracharya Jayanti (gurupurnima).

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The sacred fish in the banks of the Tunga river at Sringeri

I have been to Sringeri twice so far, once for a cousin’s sacred thread ceremony and the second time in 2000, with my parents and grandfather just before he passed away. I want to make a trip there once more, this time with S, BB & GG as well as my parents so that before they get too old to make the trip, we can do this as a family trip together. Sringeri is a beautiful place and unfortunately, I don’t have the photos I took during my last trip there (pre-digital camera days).

If you ever get a chance to make a trip there, please do go there and enjoy the sereneness that is Sringeri along with getting immersed into the essence and core of the Sanathana Dharma.