Between the second and sixth centuries CE, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as well as other philosophies including Jainism and Buddhism, evolved in a very intellectually fertile period, fueled by patronage of schools of higher learning. As far back as the second century BCE, a text was written by the teacher Badarayana called the “Brahma Sutra.” Within this text Badarayana attempts to systematize the Upanishads. Systemization of a text as broad and varied as the Upanishads is very difficult to do, especially since some teachings of the Upanishads suggest a dual nature to the universe, and some suggest total union, or non-duality. However, varied interpretations of Badarayana’s Brahma Sutras opened up even more creative discussion amongst scholars as to the nature of the universe.
The Life of Sankara
Sankara lived for only thirty-two years, between 788–820 CE. In his short life, Sankara systematized the previous teachings of the Upanishads and the Vedas, created four Mathas, centers of learning, in the four corners of India, making each one a custodian of one of the four Vedas, and assigned to each Matha one of his four main disciples, ensuring the continuation of his teachings. These Mathas continue to this day. Sankara was an extremely prolific writer,
offering commentaries on the major foundational yogic texts as well as his own articulation of the nature of the universe.
Sankara is seen as a manifestation of Shiva–an aspect of the Supreme. As the legend goes, Sankara’s parents were childless and went to pray for offspring. They were given a choice by the gods: they could either have many children who would be completely unremarkable and dumb, or one child who would be brilliant, but live a very short life. They opted for the second choice, and Sankara was born. Sankara’s father died early, so Sankara was raised by his mother. Very soon, he expressed his desire to become a renunciate. Being the only child, his mother would not allow it–one who renounces must leave the family home forever.
One day while playing near the river, a huge crocodile emerged from the water and seized Sankara’s leg. Sankara cried out to his mother “Let me renounce NOW!” –it is understood that if one renounces at the time of death, he will achieve liberation. His terrified mother agreed. As soon as she had spoken, the crocodile released Sankara’s leg and receded into the waters. Sankara could now embark upon his path, helped along by some meddling from the gods.
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