Mandana Mishra was a leading champion of Vedic Karma Kaanda. Shankara’s goal was to establish the role of Gnaana Kanda in itself and in support of Karma Kaanda. His thesis was that Karma, without the support of Gnaana, would over time reduce Karma to blind rituals and would cause people to lose confidence in the Vedic tradition. So, Shankara believed that if the great Karma proponent like Mandana could perceive the value of Gnaana as a complement to Karma, the Vedic tradition would survive any confrontation. With this thought, Shankara came to the town of Mahishmathi in search of Mandana Mishra. After inquiry, he came to the doorsteps of Mandana.
Mandana was in the midst of a ritual and did not quite appreciate the intrusion by a young sanyasi. Mandana displayed his hostility, which Shankara turned back at him in satire. The other Brahmins at the place, recognizing Shankara’s intellect, encouraged Mandana to offer Biksha (alms) to the young sanyasi. Shankara suggested that he could accept alms only if Mandana would debate him on the Vedic Dharma. Mandana Mishra accepted the offer. His wife, Ubhaya Bharathi Devi was named the judge and the debate began the next morning.
Shankara began the debate with the following declaration; “Brahman is the only Supreme Reality. The Jiva – the soul in every living being – ignorant of the presence of the Supreme Reality in him, has developed this duality – that the Jiva and the Supreme Reality are two different entities”. This dual identity, Shankara asserts, is the basis of all karma. Right Knowledge (gnana) of the presence of this Reality (Athman, Brahman, Supreme Reality are all synonyms) will erase all actions. [Karma can take place in duality only – someone or something acting on something else: if this duality does not exist, karma cannot sustain and so is erased, because the doer and the receiver are one and the same] This is the Advaita Siddhantha (Non-dual philosophy) expounded by Shankara. He argued that this is the essence of the Gnaana Kaanda of the Vedas. “If I fail to establish this Reality to the satisfaction of Mandana Mishra,” Shankara declared, “I will give up sanyasa and wear white clothes.” Mandana Mishra replied; “ Veda suggests Karma. The Jiva is bound by Karma and the realization (Moksha) is a result of Karma.” If I fail to prove this philosophy, he declared, “I will become a sanyasi and wear Ocher colored clothes.” The debate began and lasted several days. Over the days, Shankara was successful in convincing Mandana and establishing that the Vedas proclaim the Reality – Gnaana culminates in Moksha or God realization. The debate concluded with Mandana Mishra prostrating at the feet of Shankara. Mandana’s life long devotion to selfless karma paved the way to appreciate Shankara’s logic and destroyed the belief of duality in Mandana. With Realization, there was no more karma and no more debate (talking is also one of the actions). Though Shankara was not surprised, the defeat of Mandana came as a total surprise to everyone assembled there, more so to Ubhaya Bharathi Devi. The defeat of her husband and the prospect of Mandana following young Shankara as a sanyasi extremely disturbed her. She challenged Shankara that he would have to defeat her
in debate to take her husband with him (she argued that being the wife of Mandana, she has an obligation to defend him). Shankara, without anticipating the risk, agreed to her challenge. As Shankara successfully responded to her questions, her desire to defeat him and stop her husband from following him grew more intensely in her. This motivated her to question Shankara on the intimate moments between a man and his wife. Shankara at 17 now, and a sanyasi from the age of eight (8), was almost overwhelmed at the turn of events and sat silently for a while. He paced the room, without a clear direction for his next move. He was convinced that it was imperative for him to take Mandana Mishra with him. The success of Kumarilla over the Buddhists had created tremendous faith in people on the Karma Kaanda of the Vedas and a parallel faith in the Gnana Kaanda was absolutely necessary to arrest Karma Kaanda from degenerating to mere rituals. Mandana Mishra, the unparalleled king of Karma Kaanda, accepting Gnaana Kaanda and taking sanyasa would have a tremendous positive impact on such a goal. With this firm determination, Shankara returned to the assembly; he requested and received a month’s time from Ubhaya Bharathi to answer her question and left the place.
Shankara was in deep thought and absolute silence as he and his disciples walked through the forests and reached the town of Amrithapura. The town was mourning the death of its king Amaruka. The disciples noticed a sudden change in the expression on the face of Shankara. Shankara took them to a solitary place and resolutely said; “he will enter the dead body of king Amaruka through the power of Yoga (Parakaya Pravesha), learn the answers to the questions of Ubhaya Bharati and return and instructed them protect his body very carefully in a cave until he returns.” The disciples were speechless for a while. They questioned him on the need for such a radical action as well as its impact on his sanyasa dharma. Shankara responded that finding the answers would pave the way for Mandana Mishra becoming a sanyasi, which is necessary for the spiritual growth and welfare of people for centuries to come. The society would run the risk of losing faith in the Vedas and non-Vedic religions will overtake the Vedic dharma, he argued. “Mandana Mishra, the champion of Karma Kaanda, accepting and following the Gnana Kaanda will influence the society in the right path. This is the greatest value of taking Mandana Mishra as a sanyasi with us. The sin of Parakaaya Pravesha will dwarf in comparison with the benefit to society.” Shankara rejected the disciples’ suggestion of gaining the knowledge by reading books for two reasons – 1) it is not a direct knowledge and 2) reading such material in the body of a sanyasi is also equally objectionable to sanyasa dharma. He was convinced of the need to answer Bharathi Devi and take Mandana Mishra with him as a sanyasi in the interest of preserving the Vedic Dharma for centuries to come. He asked his disciples to protect his body in the cave. He left his body and entered the body of the king. As Shankara was learning all he need to learn to answer Ubhaya Bharati Devi, the palace officials suspected a yogi in the body of the king. To save their king this time, they ordered all dead bodies to be cremated. Shankara returned in time and entered his body again. As he went to meet Ubhaya Bharati Devi, she did not press him for an answer and Shankara was spared of discussing this subject as a sanyasi. She did not object to taking Mandana Mishra with him. Mandana joined Shankara as a disciple in the name of Sureshwaracharya, and became the head of Shringeri Mutt.