Saturday, July 22, 2006

Shanmatham: Bharathanatya Arangetram by Purnima Balasubramanian

Shanmatham, refers to the worship of the six principal deities of the Hindu pantheon. Read more about Shanmatham.

My sister, Purnima (a disciple of Smt. Lakshmi Ramaswamy), will be presenting "Shanmatham", a thematic dance performance, at 6:00 p.m. on 19th August 2006, at Sivagami Pethachi Auditorium (MCTM School), Alwarpet, Chennai.

All are welcome!

Adi Sankara: Shanmatha Prathisthapaka

We all know Adi Sankara as the Advaita Sthapaka - the one who established Advaita, the concept of non-duality, which propounds that we can recognise our oneness with the Universal Spirit by adopting the Gyana Marga or path of inquiry and knowledge. The broad-minded Adi Sankara also realised that common people cannot associate themselves as easily with such a deep philosophy as with wordly practices and emotions. Therefore, he also recommended Bhakti as a means of conditioning one's mind and focusing on one's personal God.

This was at a time when Hinduism as a way of life was floundering and losing its erstwhile undipusted following, due to the rapid advance of non-Vedic religions like Buddhism and Jainism in India. But what Adi Sankara found more objectionable were the inappropriate forms of worship adopted by people who "claimed" to be Hindus. Several communities in India like the Kapalikas, Vaishnavas and the Shakti cult, were forgetting the core Vedic principles and focusing more on irrelevant and irreverent forms of worship such as bali (sacrifice of living beings), branding of religious symbols on the bodies of devotees, and so on. What was shocking was that these were all being done in the name of Hinduism, which is in fact a way of life founded on the principle of non-violence.

Therefore Adi Sankara realised that it was time to identify the core cults in Hinduism and align their ways of worship with the Vedic principles, so that even those who were not enlightened enough to realise the principles of Advaita would at least be expressing their Bhakti in peaceful and commendable ways rather than adopt violent methods.

Sankara, at this time, identified that the major cults could be identified in line with six principal deities of the Hindu pantheon - Ganapathyam (the worship of Lord Ganesha), Kaumaram (the worship of Lord Kumara or Karthikeya), Sauram (the worship of the Sun God - nature worship), Shaktham (the worship of Goddess Shakthi), Shaivam (the worship of Lord Shiva), and Vaishnavam (the worship of Lord Vishnu). These six major streams of Hindu worship are referred to as Shanmatham. Adi Sankara found that these had lost their sheen because they had moved away from the Vedic path and adopted crude ways of worship. He therefore took it upon himself to re-establish these faiths to their former glory.

He achieved this by travelling widely all over the country, debating with the heads of each of these cults, accepting their beliefs while at the same time aligning their thoughts with the ancient Vedic treatises and streamlining the expression of their Bhakti in the form of elegant modes of worship. Not only were the heads of these cults convinced by Sankara's arguments, they also ended up as his disciples. In the words of Goldsmith, "Those who came to scoff remained to pray." These disciples of Adi Sankara also traversed the nooks and corner of our country to re-establish the peaceful ways of worship advocated by Hinduism. It is believed that Adi Sankara decided to liberate his spirit from his body only after all these devotees returned and reported to him that Shanmatha had be re-established to its former glory.

In honour of the mammoth task achieved by him, Sankara is known as Shanmatha Prathisthapaka.

My sister's dance teacher lent me a book called "Sankara and Shanmatha", a souvenir published during a conference on the subject in 1969. One line in the book, about a particular teaching of Adi Sankara's was very inspiring: While Shivam (peace) is the Supreme Brahman whose realisation is open to all, Lord Shiva, is only one of It's many manifestations. Nothing can explain Advaita better.

The advent of Adi Sankara

A millennium and more has passed since the advent of Adi Sankara, but his teachings are valued and practiced even today. If it were not for him, it is difficult to say whether the way of life called Hinduism would even exist now.

The advent of Sankara Bhagavatpada, considered an avatara of Lord Shiva, was very timely. At a certain point of time in this Kaliyuga, people were very confused about which way of life should be followed Bhakthi Marga, Karma Marga or Gnana Marga. At this juncture, Adi Sankara manifested to assert that all three are important and play an important role as the three legs of the tripod that is Hinduism.

Adi Sankara rejuvenated Hinduism and the Vedic concepts. He emphasised the importance of rituals (Karma), devotion (Bhakthi) and philosophy (Gnana), making it very clear that all three were important for a complete life.

First, he highlighted the importance of rituals with faith and obedience to injunctions. Rituals cleanse our mind and give us a certain infrastructure or framework on which to base our lives. If we think for a moment, we will admit that it is very difficult to live a life without rules.

Second he stressed the importance of Bhakthi to God and the role of mythology in instilling that Bhakthi. Bhakthi on a personal God as found in mythology enables us to concentrate on God who is omnipresent and within ourselves. Sri Sankara was a “grand social idealist” as stated by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. He did not emphasise the superiority of any one God. He wrote stotras glorifying all the Gods, thereby bringing about a sense of unity even in diversity. He advocated Bhakthi as a means of taking individuals closer to their own personal Gods, of their own choice.

Third, and most important, he promoted the philosophical concepts enshrined in our Vedas and Upanishads. Advaita, the highest philosophical work of Adi Sankara explains the dual aspect of the highest, called Brahman. The Advaita philosophy alone, according to Sankara, could do justice to the truth of the many conflicting doctrines, and so he wrote all his works with the intention of helping the individual to realise and identify his soul with Brahman, which is the means of liberation from samsara.

Philosophy enables a man to have a comprehensive view of the whole Trio viz. God, Creation of the World and all matter, and finally the Atman, which ignites everything from the highest Creator to the lowest vegetation.

Adi Sankara also enumerated the qualities of a real philosopher. He explained that a real philosopher is one whose mind is composite, one who is able to empathise with all created beings, at all times. He always finds peace within himself, and in all circumstances. And, he moves in the World unaffected by any happenings just as churned butter floats in buttermilk.

Whether or not Adi Sankara was a manifestation of Lord Shiva, we do not know, but he was an extremely divine and commendable person nevertheless. He achieved what requires superhuman strength and conviction. He wrote works on the Mantra Sastra, stotras on all the Gods and Goddesses, and commentaries of all the philosophical treatises (Upanishads). In short he re-affirmed faith in Hinduism and brought it back to glory at a crucial period when it was floundering.