The classic debate between Mandana Misra and Adi Shankara

Ritualism (Karma Kanda) vs. Renunciation (Jnana  Kanda) of the  Vedas:
The  classic debate between Mandana Misra and Adi Shankara


Among the  shining stars of philosophers Sri Shankara Bhagavatpada, popularly  known as Adi Shankaracharya, occupies a unique place on account of  the Advaita philosophy he propounded based on the Upanishads and  embellished by the incomparable commentaries he wrote on them. The  principles, which he formulated, systematized, preached, debated upon  and wrote about, are beyond the limitations of time and space.

Those who  study his valuable works experience an intellectual feast of awe,  devotion, humility and gratitude overflowing in them. His flowery  language, his lucid style, his rigid logic, his balanced expression,  his fearless exposition, his unshakable faith in the Vedas, and  forceful arguments in debates and in his works convey an idea of his  greatness that no story can adequately convey. To those who are  deprived of tasting the sweetness of this feast, several incidents in  his memoirs do convey glimpses of his many-sided personality.

The life  history of the Acharya is made known to us through his biography  called the Shankara Digvijaya. While there are various Shankara  Digvijayas in existence, the most popular and traditional account of  the events of the life of Bhagavatpada is attributed to the Madhaviya  Shankara Digvijaya. The popularity of Madhaviya Shankara Digvijaya is  not only because of the splendid portrayal of the life of Sri Adi  Shankara but also due to the supreme erudition that Sri Madhava  displays in portraying the great Acharya. Sri Madhava later on became  an ascetic and occupied the high pedestal as the Chief of Sharada  Peetham established at Sringeri by Adi Shankara as its 12th Jagadguru  with the name of Sri Vidyaranya.

There is not  much variation among the several 'Shankara Digvijayas' in describing  Shankara’s life. This essay is based on the Madhaviya Shankara  Digvijaya highlighting that event in the life of the Acharya that is  remembered to this day as a representation of scholarship, wisdom and  logic.


Sri Shankara  was born of Shivaguru and Aryamba at Kaladi in Kerala. He lost his  father at an early age. He made rapid strides in his learning. In his  eighth year he obtained the consent of his mother and took up  sanyasa. He started out in quest of a competent teacher.  And  eventually found Govinda Bhagavatpada (the disciple of Gaudapada) on  the banks of the Narmada. He stayed with his Guru for a while. Under  his command, he went to Kashi and Badri.

It was  during this period while in Badri when he was of twelve years of age,  he wrote his most profound commentaries on the Vedanta Sutras of  Badarayana, the principal Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita which are  known as Prasthanatraya, being the authorities on the Vedanta  Sastras. The Bhashyas (commentaries) of Shankara are monumental works  covering the import of the Vedic teachings and supplemented by clear  reasoning and lucid exposition. This doctrine of Brahma Vidya which  Shankara propounded through his works is what is known as Advaita  Vedanta or Non-dualism. It confers salvation through the elimination  of duality across the world.

At this time  of Indian History, the spiritual life among the Buddhists was at low  ebb with the vigor and purity of Buddha having vanished. The masses  had moved away from the Vedic way of life comprising of the various  duties in accordance to the tradition and the stages in life. A  strong and urgent need for the revival of the Sanatana Dharma was  therefore felt.

The Vedic  rituals and sacrifices were revived and gained a position of honor.   In course of time, the sacrifices and rituals (karma  kanda) reigned  supreme and were  upheld as the ultimate goal. The true Vedic dictums (jnana  kanda) were forgotten. Spiritual insight was  conspicuous by its absence. At such a crucial juncture, Sri Adi  Shankaracharya appeared on the scene.

Shankara  realized that unless he was able to win over this powerful group of  proponents and followers of ritualism, his goal of re-unifying India  and making it a beacon light of spirituality would remain  unfulfilled.

Thrilled by  the experiences, Shankara set his mind on the task ahead and  commenced his next task namely to propagate his tenets as set out in  his Prasthanathraya Bhashyas to the world.


Starting on  this mission of a spiritual conquest of the whole of India, Shankara  decided to go first to Prayag with a view to win over Kumarila, the  staunch upholder of the ritualistic interpretation of the Vedas and  get his explanatory comments (Vartika) on his  Bhashya on Brahma Sutras of Badarayana – Vyasa.

Having  reached Prayag, he came to know that Kumarila was about to enter into  a fire, as an act of expiation for betraying his teacher from whom he  had learnt stealthily the tenets of Buddhism. Sri Shankara rushed to  the place where Kumarila had set himself to burn. Kumarila recognised  Shankara, narrated to him his work against the Buddhists, his  awareness about Sri Shankara's Bhashyas and his desire to write a  Vartika (explanatory treatise) on his Bhashyas. Kumarila explained  how he was not in a position to break his vow of expiation and  therefore asked him to meet his disciple Mandana Misra. He added that  if Shankara could defeat Mandana Misra, whose actual name was  Vishwaroopa, who was  the most renowned protagonist of the Purvamimamsa School,  the ritualistic interpretation of the Vedas, it would clear all  obstacles in the mission that Shankara had undertaken. Shankara then  proceeded to Mandana's place called Mahishmati, in the present-day  Bihar. (According to another version it is at the confluence of the  Narmada and Mahishmati rivers, near Omkarnath in Madhya Pradesh.)


Mandana  Misra received the best of traditional training at the feet of  Kumarila Bhatta and perfected his scholarship. He settled at  Mahishmatipura as a house-holder with his wife Ubhaya Bharati.

Mandana  Misra and Ubhaya Bharati were an ideal couple, each of them equal to  the other in all branches of learning, ethical character and strict  observation of Vedic injunctions. Ubhaya Bharati was supposed to be  an avatara of goddess of learning, Saraswati Devi, as Mandana Misra  was supposed to be an avatara of Brahma. His scholarship and the  reverence in which he was held earned him the honorific epithet of  'Mandana Misra'. His real name was Vishwaroopa.

Mandana  Misra was a distinguished practitioner of the mimamsa philosophy. The  mimamsa philosophy is mainly derived from the karma kanda portion of  the Vedas and emphasizes on the importance of rituals. In this school  of thought, a particular ritual is done, and the results are achieved  instantaneously. It displays a straightforward cause and effect  relationship if practiced accurately.

When Sri  Bhagavatpada reached the mansion of Mandana Misra, it was found  bolted from inside. Sri Bhagavatpada, as a Sanyasin, had no right of  admission into a house found closed. Such are the rules of Smriti,  which govern the daily conduct of traditional Sanyasis. Sri  Bhagavatpada pondered a little. He had firmly decided to redeem  Mandana Misra from the rigidity of dogmatic ritualism.  Therefore he  felt like using his extraordinary Yogic powers. Great Yogi and Siddha  Purusha as he was, Sri Bhagavatpada entered the house through the  closed door.

Mandana  Misra had an innate dislike for Sanyasis because in his staunch  belief of ritualism, he felt that only those who wished to escape the  rigours of Vedic injunctions found a refuge in the Sanyasa ashrama.  Moreover when Sri Bhagavatpada entered the house, it was a time when  the presence of a Sanyasin was most unwelcome. Mandana Misra was  performing a shraddha and the Brahmins were about to be fed. The  entry of Sri Bhagavatpada at such a time caused a disturbance and  Mandana Misra was infuriated.

Hot and  harsh exchanges followed. The Brahmins found the situation going out  of control. They wished to set it right. They suggested to Mandana  Misra to invite Sri Bhagavatpada for Biksha seeing him as a bhokta occupying Vishnu Sthana in the ceremony. Staunch ritualist as he was,  Mandana Misra was fully bent upon saving the ritual. He invited Sri  Bhagavatpada accordingly.

But Sri  Bhagavatpada declined to accept the invitation. He explained to  Mandana Misra that he did not come for bhiksha of the edibiles but for a vada bhiksha,  a polemical debate in philosophy. Mandana Misra who had never met his  match in learning before was willing for a dialectical fight. He  gladly welcomed it. The shraddha was allowed to be finished as  ordained. The debate was fixed for the next day.

Mandana  Misra was a perfect and adept ritualist who preached widely. The  young and charming advaita vedantin, Adi Shankara, on his country  wide tour was eager to debate with Mandana Misra, who was by then  already very old. Mandana Misra reasoned that since he had spent more  than half his life learning and preaching mimamsa, it would be unfair  to debate with a youngster in his twenties who barely had any  experience. Hence, with the intention of being fair on Shankara,  Misra allowed Shankara to choose his own judge. Shankara had heard  greatly about Misra’s righteousness and appreciated him for his act  of fairness. But he was quick to decide that none but Mandana Misra’s  wife herself can be the most appropriate judge for this debate. To  make the dispute more purposeful, they agreed to a wager. If Shankara  looses in debate, He would become disciple of Mandana Misra and get  married in the life. If Manadana Misra looses, he should become  Sanyasi and disciple of Shankara. This was the bet of the debate.

The  debate between them commenced and continued for months. Thousands of  scholars gathered everyday to watch and learn. Mandana Misra, at a  ripe old age, still remained a man with very sharp intellect and a  very solid grasp of logic, but he was slowly losing. Despite being  such a young man, Shankara’s realization of the ultimate Brahman  and his knowledge of Maya, enabled him to win over Misra’s  arguments easily. Misra was a very accomplished ritualist, yet he  seemed to lack some understanding of higher spiritual truths that  Shankara seemed to have experienced already. At the end of a long  period, Mandana Misra was almost ready to accept defeat, when  his wife, Ubhaya Bharati, declared that in order to defeat a man in  debate the opponent should also defeat his wife.

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