Orgins Of The Kancheepuram Math

Compilation & ©Lúcio Mascarenhas, November 16, 2004.
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Shankar, also called Shankar-Acharya, or the Great Teacher Shankar, is the founder of the Advaita or "Non-Dualist" (Pantheist) School of Hinduism in the 8th century A.D. It was due to the work of Shankar pre-eminently, that South Asia abandoned Buddhism for a re-worked Hinduism, mainly the new religion of Advaitism.

According to the mainstream of Advaitism, Shankar procured four special lingas by propiating the god Shiva in his abode on Mount Kailash on the Indo-Tibetan borders, and set them up at four different places at the four "corners" of South Asia, setting up "Maths" or Mother-Houses (Matrices) under four of his chief pupils, at Badrinath in the Himalayas, at Cuttack-Puri in Utkal in the east, at Dwarka, ancient capital of Krishna in the west, and at Sringeri in the south. Shankar renamed each of his four chief pupils whom he set up as the heads of these four foundations, as the "Jagat-Guru Shankaracharyas" or "World Teacher Shankaracharyas". By way of distinction, Shankar himself is referred to as "Adi Shankar" or "Adi Shankaracharya", "Adi" meaning first or original.

According to the "Free-India" account, Shankar-Acharya’s plan was to establish four centres, called the Amnaya Peethams, in the four corners of subcontinental India for spreading his new religion. He founded the Sharada Peetham in Sringeri, situated on the bank of river Tunga in Karnataka in South India. Here he installed an idol of Sri Devi Sharada, the "Goddess of Learning", and placed his disciple Sureshwar-Acharya as the first head of that Peetham. Next he established the Govardhana Peetham in Jagannath-puri, near Cuttack, for the east, under Hastamalaka-Acharya; the Kalika Peetham in Dwarka for the west, under Padmapada-Acharya; and the Jyoti Peetham in Badri-ka-Ashram, Badrinath, for the north, under Trotaka-Acharya.

According to Omkar Aima, Shankar became a convert to the Shakti cult when on a visit to Kashmir. This was when he wrote the Saundarya Lahiri. Apparently, the cult of the goddess Sarada (Sarda / Sharada / Sharda) and of the Sri Chakra (Divine Wheel) associated with the Shakti cult was also picked up from Kashmir.

Founders of other, latter sects, such as the Vishistadvaitha and Dvaitha (Dualist) Schools set up their own rival "Maths". The Dvaitha Maths are all located at the town of Udipi in the Tulu country. There are numerous other "Maths", such as the "Partagali" (Portuguese) Math in south Goa. Amongst all of them, the Kamakoti Math near Kancheepuram stands out as a sore thumb....

Not only is the history of the Kancheepuram Math extremely doubtful, but it even pretends to be superior to the recognized four Maths—that its "Shankaracharya" is the "Param-Acharya" (Supreme Teacher) of Advaithism!

I present here two versions of the history of Shankaracharya.

My interest in presenting this controversy is to set the background for both my article on the "Shivalinga" and also to set the background to the Guenonist heresy, which apparently holds the Kancheepuram Sankaracharya in particular esteem—for some reason, Frithjof Schuon held the Kamakoti Peetham and its "Param-Jagat-Guru Shankaracharya" in high regard, and the same is apparently true of Rama Coomaraswamy!

The Kancheepuram Version

Source:, ©[email protected].

©Re-Edition: Lúcio Mascarenhas.

Shankar's Visit To Mount Kailash

Shankar, during his peregrinations in the Himalayas, decided on a yatra (pilgrimage) to Mount Kailash in the borderlands of Tibet, which mountain is reputed by the Hindus as the abode of one of the three 'super-gods' Shiva, who is also called Shankar, Mahesh, Parameshwar, Nila-kantha, Nataraja, etc. Shankar managed to reach Mount Kailash quickly because of his yogic power. He had darshan (audience) of Shiva and his consort Parvati (Mountain-Goddess). According to tradition, Shankar adored Shiva by singing two hymns, known as the Siva-padadi-kesanta stotram and the Siva-kesadi-padanta stotram. Immensely pleased with Shankar's prayers, Shiva blessed Shankar and presented him with five sphatika (crystal) lingas (phallus-idols) and instructed him to arrange for the worship of these lingas for the sake of the welfare of the universe, indicating also the mode of worship (The lingam is Shiva's own phallus, the worship of which is enjoined by Hinduism, see Shivalinga).

Kailash to Kanchi

From available biographical information, it is learnt that Shankar placed one of the five sphatika lingas he had got at Kailash, the Mukti Lingam in the temple at Kedarnath, and that he consecrated the Vara Lingam at the Nila-kantha Kshetram in Nepal. With the other three, he returned to the south. He placed the Bhoga Lingam at the Sarada Peetham in Karnataka and he sent the Moksha Lingam to Chidambaram for being worshipped in the temple of Sri Nataraja there. He kept the Yoga Lingam for his own personal worship and for his successors at Kanchi.

References to the places where the five sphatika lingas were established for worship are found in Anantanandagiri's biography and in the Markandeya Samhita. The Siva Rahasya points to Shankar's hastening to the earth with the lingas and worshipping them in his own ashram at Kanchi. The people of Kanchi, under the leadership of King Rajasena, offered a grand welcome to Shankar at the outskirts of the City of Kanchi. It is said that Shankara-Acharya stayed at the Mukti Mandapam in the small Visvesvara temple, on the bank of the Sarva Tirtham tank for some time.

Shankar caused the City of Kanchi to be remodeled and also caused the reconstruction of the three principal temples of Kanchi, viz., the temples of Sri Ekambara-natha, Devi Kamakshi and Sri Varadaraja with the assistance of Rajasena, King of Kanchi. Shankar consecrated the Sri Chakra before Devi Kamakshi and thereby secured her bounteous grace on devotees having her darshan.

Sri Shankar's Sarva-jna-peetha-rohana at Kanchi

A significant event in the history of Shankar is his occupying the Sarvajna Peetham — the Throne of Omniscience at Kanchi. Cidvilasa's Shankara Vijaya Vilasa, Govindananta's Shankara Charitram and Rajachudamani Dikshita's Shankara Bhudaya, narate Shankara-Acharya's ascending the Seat of Omniscience at Kanchi.

Sixteen verses of the 25th chapter of Cidvilasa's biography describe the event. An asareeri voice (airy or aethereal voice) informed Shankar, when he was about to ascend the Peetham ("Seat"), that it would be proper for him to ascend after vanquishing in debate the scholars assembled there. Shankar thought for a while. A group of scholars who had come there from some villages of the Tamraparni valley put some questions to Shankar on his philosophy of Advaitha or Non-Dualism, and on the subjects of Maya (the theory of illusion), Deva bedam, Murti bedam, etc. Shankar explained to them the eternal and all-pervading nature of Brahman, the inability of man to understand the Supreme One seeming as different entities, because of ignorance, the non-existence of a second other than the Brahman and the means for attaining emancipation. The scholars were fully convinced. They bowed before the Great Preceptor. Thereafter Shankar ascended the Sarvajna Peetham amidst the sounding of musical instruments and the tumultuous shouts of joy of the vast number of devoted spectators. Showers of flowers fell from above and a fragrant breeze blew all around.

The "Times Of India" Version

Source: Times Of India, Bombay, Monday, November 15, 2004

Q. Was the Kanchi Math established by Adi Shankaracharya?

This is a controversial subject. It is generally accepted as tradition that Adi Shankaracharya, the founder of the Advaita philosophy, founded four Maths ("Mother-Foundations") in the four corners of India: at Sringeri in the south, Puri in the east, Dwarka in the west and Badrinath in the north. Tradition also holds that he ascended the famous sarvagna-pitha (throne of omniscience) in Kashmir, and that he finally passed away near Kedarnath. However, the Kanchi Math claims that Shankaracharya established a fifth Math in Kanchi, with jurisdiction over the recognised four Maths and that Shankaracharya ascended the Sarvagna-pitha, not in Kashmir, but at Kanchi. The Math also claims that he passed away, not in Kedarnath, but at Kanchi. Some historians claim that the Kanchi Math was established much after Adi Shankaracharya's time, sometime in the 19th century, and that the history of the Math has been invented. They argue that it is only in the twentieth century chronicles, which were compiled after Chandrashekharendra Saraswathi became the Shankaracharya of Kanchi, that the history of the Kanchipuram Math finds mention and that the history preceding the 19th century was re-written. The Kanchipuram Math, instead claims that Shankaracharya did spend his last few years at Kanchi, established the Math and that Sri Sureshwaracharya, Shankaracharya's prime disciple, was was placed in charge of it. Interestingly, the Sringeri Math, one of the four undisputed original Maths, also claims Sureshwaracharya as its first pontiff. There is also controversy surrounding the time when Shankaracharya lived. The records at the Kanchipuram Math say he lived around 500 B.C., but historians place him in the sixth century A.D.

Q. What have the courts said about the Maths?

Judgments from the High Courts and Supreme Court have repeatedly observed that Shankaracharya established only four Maths. A 1933 Bombay High Court judgment stated:
"It is not disputed that the religious reformer Shankara, about the eight century A.D. established four Maths or monasteries for sanyasis and ascetics in the north, south, east and west of India."
In 1973, the Supreme Court stated:
"Shankara established four Maths as seats of religion at four ends of India, the Sringeri Math on the Sringeri Hills in the south; the Sharada Math in Dwarka in the west; the Badrinath Math at Badrinath in the north and the Govardhana Math at Puri in the east.... Each of these Maths has a sanyasi as its head who bears the title of Shankaracharya in general. Shankara is said to have had four princpal disciples who were all Brahmins. The orthodox Hindu recognizes no other sanyasis."
The Patna High Court in 1936 also recognized only four Maths.

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