Adi Shankara and Kabir Das


In Part 3 of 4 in the series, Osho in Kerala, Tarpan writes about two more extraordinary people.


‘Na punyam Na Papam Na Soukhyam Na Dukham
Na Mantro Na Theertham Na Vedo Na Yajnjaha
Aham Bhojanam Naiva Bhojyam Na Bhokta
Chidananda Rupa Shivoham Shivoham’

Without merits, without sins, without elation, without sorrow;
Neither mantra, nor rituals, neither Vedas, nor pilgrimage;
Neither the experiencer, nor experienced, nor the experience am I,
I am Consciousness, I am Bliss, I am Shiva, I am Shiva.

Narmada river flooding
Narmada river flooding

An eight-year-old boy was wandering to find a guru. When he reached the banks of the Narmada River at Omkareshwar, Madhya Pradesh, they were flooded; he placed his water pot on the ground and asked the river to recede to the boundary of the pot. By doing so he saved a man who was in deep samadhi in a nearby cave. When that man opened his eyes from the samadhi, he asked the boy, “Who are you?”

The poem quoted above is one of the eight stanzas of the boy’s answer, which later became very famous as Nirvana Shatakam, written between 788 and 820 CE. (Deva Premal has chanted it very beautifully, available on

The boy was Shankara, the Indian mystic-philosopher of the first half of the 8th century CE; and the man he had saved, Govind Bhagavad Pada, became his guru.

Adi Shankara
Adi Shankara

Shankara, generally known as Adi Shankaracharya, was born in Kalady, a small village near Kochi, Kerala. In the Malayalam language, kalady means footprint. According to historians, many parts of Kerala were dominated by Buddhism in those days and instead of Buddha statues, people worshipped a stone with footprints they believed were of Buddha. Such stones were called kalady. There were many other villages of that name in Kerala, but when Shankara’s name was connected to this place, the name at all other locations disappeared over time.

Shankara was the pioneer in having written a large body of works central to the Advaita Vedanta interpretation of the Prasthanatrayi, the canonical texts consisting of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras. Later, many more interpretations were written on Shankara’s interpretations! He has written many works of his own, which are considered gems in Indian scriptures. Bhaj Govindam (Song of Ecstasy) is one of his philosophical poems which is very popular, especially in South India. It seems, only Osho could reveal the gist of insights contained in it. It is, perhaps the only mystical door having been opened into the world of Shankara, among the thousands of philosophical exercises tried by the so-called scholars and religious representatives.

Osho has mentioned his name many times during his discourses along with other western philosophers and eastern mystics. According to Osho, Shankara is a rare integration of meditation and devotion. Saundarya Lahari (Waves of Beauty), considered a major tantric work by Shankara, is a great example of this.

Vivek ChudamaniIn Books I Have Loved, Osho is counting another of Shankara’s works, Vivek Chudamani (The Crest Jewel of Awareness) as one of the great books he loved. Osho was supposed to give a long series of discourses on it, at least for eight months, as it is a very large book. But Osho dropped it at the last moment, feeling that it carries too much logic than love.¹

I remember, Vivek Chudamani begins with the emphasis to be aware of the rare or unique opportunity we have as a human being, and not to waste it with the immeasurable trivia in life. A few years back, there were attempts by some scientists to calculate the probability of being born as a human being. In a blog, Dr Ali Binazir, inspired by a TED talk given by Mel Robbins (American self-help author), calculates the probability of being born as we are right now, and came up with an amazing figure of 550,343,279,001! This calculation is not easy for me to comprehend. But keeping in mind that beings like Shankara had a much deeper understanding about this probability, then that number must be far higher (i.e., even less probability) than this one, as the universe in its experience would simply be infinite. The very thought gives me goosebumps within.

There are many stories about Shankara, very much loved by Osho. One of them is the story that young Shankara went to a river with his mother, Sivataraka, to bathe, and was caught by a crocodile. Shankara called out to his mother to give him permission to become a sannyasin or else the crocodile would kill him. The mother agreed and Shankara, saved from the crocodile’s jaws, leaves home.

Another one is also very famous. One day he was coming out of the Ganges after his early morning bath to go back to his hut, when a sudra, an untouchable, touched him. Shankara became angry and he said, “You have destroyed my bath. I will have to go again and purify myself.”

The sudra said, “Wait just a single minute. I would like to ask you – if there is only one, if the whole existence is one, how can I and you exist? How can you become impure by my touch? Who has touched you? Who has touched whom?”

“As if from a deep sleep, the sleep of the man of knowledge – and it is one of the greatest sleeps, it is almost a coma – Shankara was awakened.” Osho added that this man became his guru.²

Shankara and Mandan MishraFor years, Shankara traveled widely within India, participating in public philosophical debates with different orthodox schools as well as heterodox traditions. His debate with Mandan Mishra in Mandla, an ancient place of pilgrimage situated less than 80 kilometres from Jabalpur is, perhaps, one of Osho’s favourite stories. He has talked about it in many discourses with different interpretations.

When the debate which had been going on for many weeks was coming to an end with the defeat of Mandan Mishra, the latter’s wife challenged him to answer her questions about sex. Being a celibate, Shankara said that he has no practical experience, and if permitted he would come back within six months for the debate to be continued.

Osho explained, “Shankaracharya was in a predicament. He knew his body was no good for the challenge at hand. He asked his friends to go and find out if anyone has just died so that he may enter that body. Then he told them to guard his own body zealously till he returned. He entered into the dead body of a king, lived through it for six months, and then came back.”

Osho said that it was foolish to enter into another body to experience sex. He gave a wonderful explanation which was impossible for any Shankara scholars to come up with, namely by stating that to come down to the lowest level from such a height of awareness and understanding was inconceivable for Shankara:

“One may ask, ‘Why could he not have learned through his own body?’ He could have, but his entire life energy had become so introverted, the entire flow of energy had moved so deep inside, that it was difficult to draw it out. He could have, of course, related with a woman using his own body. If he had set out to know what sex was all about, he could have related with any woman by means of his own body, but the problem was that his whole bioenergy had turned inward. Drawing it out would have required more than six months. It was not a simple thing. It is easy to draw the energy within from without, but to draw it out again is very difficult. It is easy to drop pebbles and pick diamonds, but very difficult to give up diamonds for pebbles.”³

That’s why he tried in this way!

As part of his sadhana, Shankara was on the way to Kodachadri, a mountain peak in Karnataka. In the middle of the journey, he stayed at the home of a poet for the night. The host had immense respect and love for Shankara, and thought he would show a recently completed poem to Shankara to get his approval before releasing it to the public. It was a huge work with almost two hundred stanzas and of a philosophical nature. Until late into the night he read the whole poem to Shankara, but as the latter was in a vow of silence, he didn’t make any comment. Early morning on the next day Shankara left, continuing his walk. The poet became desperate because he thought Shankara hadn’t shown any interest or made any comment, and that definitely this work might not be good enough. He threw the entire manuscript into the fire.

Six months later, Shankara was on his return journey and came to the same home for a night’s stay. Having completed his vow of silence, he explained to the poet, “That day I didn’t say anything, because I was in silence. But your poem was immensely beautiful!” The poet burst into tears. He said, “Forgive me. As you didn’t say anything about it, I thought it is worthless and so I burnt the whole manuscript.” Shankara said, “So what, you can write it down now,” and recited the entire poem while the poet rewrote it!

Within such a short span of life – Shankara died at the age of 33 – he had covered the whole geography of India, on foot, from south to north, from east to west, three times. Going through the account of Shankara’s life, the influence he had on this land, his works, the impacts… the one word most suitable is the same which was solely propagated by him – maya.

¹ The other mention in Osho’s Books I Have Loved  is Shankara’s Bhaj govindam moodh mate (O Idiot).
² Tao: The Three Treasures, Vol 1, Ch 9
³ And Now, And Here, Vol 2, Ch 15, Q 5 (translated from Hindi)

Kabir Das

Benares (Varanasi) – near Durga Ghat

After Shankara, another seeker from Kerala had gone to the same place of Mandan Mishra – Benares. But this happened almost 600 years after Shankara. His name was Sarvanand. Where Shankara continuously met with scholars for debate and would win, Sarvanand had gone to debate with an illiterate man, a weaver, who was residing on the banks of the Ganges, surrounded by scholars. That man was Kabir Das, about whom Osho stated, “Kabir, I love you as I have never loved any man.” ¹

Kabir DasIt was Kabir, who proved himself that the search for truth is possible only if you free yourself from the clutches of institutionalised religion, and became a great inspiration all over the country, especially for the so-called ‘Bhakti Movement’ which originated in South India a few centuries ago. In spite of there being many variations on the path of all those who were associated with that movement, it can be noted that ‘Freedom’ was the fundamental element all of them aspired for. Perhaps, with Kabir, spirituality had been more specified as ‘seeking and searching for truth’, than the worshipping and praising of gods and performing rituals. Kabir stands as a major landmark on a seeker’s path. In Osho’s words, that landmark is called sahaj samadhi, the spontaneous ecstasy.

‘Songs of Kabir’, generally known as Kabir Dohe, are the mystic poems sung by Kabir during his journey with disciples, during his weaving work and many other occasions. Almost 8000 songs were collected and preserved during his lifetime, a priceless treasure for people on the path. And almost all songs were collected by that boy, Sarvanand, who had come from Kerala.

Sarvanand was born in Thiruvananthapuram, the present capital of Kerala, in 1438. In those days the region was known as Venadu. He was a very studious boy, who had learnt all Sanskrit scriptures by heart and was an expert in many languages. He used to wander all over the country, which was a trend in those days, debating with  so-called scholars, aiming for the title Sarvajith, which means ‘the conqueror of all’. His mother, Rajeswari Devi, was worried that her only son was wasting his life in debates and arguments.

Once, when her son was away from the state, she got a chance to meet Kabir, who was roaming throughout the south with his disciples. (It seems historians have not yet explored Kabir’s presence in South India.) She shared her anxiety about her son with Kabir, and Kabir asked her to send him to Benares.

When Sarvanand returned from his travels with the title sarvajith and showed it to his mother, she said she would only call him a sarvajith if he would win against Santh Kabir in Benares. Sarvanand said, “Yes, I had heard about him when I was in Benares, but he is just a weaver, a Muslim, who doesn’t have any idea about the Vedas and isn’t at all a scholar.

Rajeswari said, “Maybe, but you go and win against him.”

Sarvanand put all his scriptures into a bag, put it on top of his bull and set out on his journey. Upon reaching Benares, Sarvanand searched for Kabir’s house and when he saw a girl drawing water from a well he asked her, “Where is Kabir’s house?”

She immediately recited a poem of two lines: “Kabir is staying so high, that even an ant cannot reach there. And there is no question of a scholar and his bull reaching there.”

She was Kabir’s disciple, Kamalika.

When Kabir was invited for a debate, he immediately said, “I am not a man for debate and argument. I don’t have any knowledge about scriptures.”

“If this is so,” Sarvanand demanded, “give it in writing that Kabir failed, Sarvanand won.”

“That can be done,” Kabir replied. “You yourself can write it on a piece of paper, and I will sign it.” In his own words, masi kagad chhuyo nahin – I have never touched paper and ink.

Sarvanand had the paper signed by Kabir and immediately left for his home in Thiruvananthapuram. When he took out the paper to show his mother that he had won against Kabir and can now claim to be a sarvajith, he couldn’t believe his eyes. He saw that on the paper was written that “Kabir won, Sarvanand failed.”

That was a moment of transformation for him. With the permission of his mother, he left home immediately (of course, this time he didn’t have a bundle of scriptures with him), and reached to the feet of Kabir Das. When he purified himself through hours of tears, Kabir initiated him and gave him a new name, Shruti Gopal. (In colloquial slang, most people called him Surati Gopal). He never again went for any debates, nor did he read any scripture for the rest of his life. It was he who listened to Kabir, wrote down his songs and preserved them.

Kabir samadhiWhen Kabir decided to leave his body, it was at a distant place called Maghar in Uttar Pradesh, two hundred kilometres north of Benares. Shruti Gopal followed him on his walk there. Kabir’s samadhi was built on the shores of the river Ami; Gautam Buddha had left his royal clothing and all his princely insignia on this same riverbank.

Shruti Gopal brought some flowers (bone fragments from the cremation ashes) from Kabir’s samadhi back to Benares and built another samadhi there. Guiding the Kabir Panthi (lineage), he lived in Benares until his death at 113 years of age.

The Kabir Monastery in Benares has some sculptures and artworks in the compound. One of them is of Sarvanand drinking water from Kamali near the well, with his bull carrying a bundle of scriptures.

Let me cite one song of Kabir, in which he sings about the mysterious love between master and disciple:

There is a strange tree, which stands without roots
and bears fruits without blossoming.
It has no branches and no leaves, it is lotus all over.
Two birds sing there; one is the Guru, and the other the disciple:
The disciple chooses the manifold fruits of life and tastes them,
and the Guru beholds him in joy.
What Kabir says is hard to understand:
“The bird is beyond seeking, yet it is most clearly visible.
The Formless is in the midst of all forms. I sing the glory of forms.”

¹ Books I Have Loved, Session 5

Related articles

Dhyan Tarpan is a writer, translator and musician from Kerala.

Comments are closed.