Who is Śankara?

Shiva Parvati Sculpture, Cleveland Museum of art c. 950–60 900-13th Century, Tamil Nadu, Chola period

Let’s start with the Vedas which focus on the cosmic phenomenon called Ṛta, and revolved around Yajñá. Hence, for Vedas, the one who is the “Lord of all Sacrifice” and “Lord of all Hymns” should be the one to Enforce the sanctity of Yajñá and the sanctity of Mantras (Vak). So, this entity/Deva should be fierce yet auspicious. This entity should be nameless and unknown and should devour our papa (sins), our mistakes, our wrongdoings, and our leftovers. This being should be feared yet loved by both Rśis and commoners. Such an entity is called by Prajapati as the RUDRA.

However, the Puráńas and Itihāsa are devotion centric and focused on the benevolent side of Rudra. They sought the side of Vedic Rudra that is nourishing, healing, protecting, and for His unconditional and blissful nature – hence the title Śiva (the Auspiciousness One) and Samkara was the most suited title. Yet one should notice that in Itihāsa, more than the title Śiva, all 8 names of Rudra (Astamurthi titles) are used extensively in the Itihasas and Puranas based on the context. Among them, the most used and famously known titles are Adi Yogi who is called Dakshina Murti. He is the auspicious side of Rudra hence the title Samkara/Shankara (नमः शङ्क॒राय TS4.5.8), Maheśvara, and Mahadeva. One must ask, is this an assumed conclusion, or did the sages conclude that the auspicious side of Rudra is Dakshina Murti? Let’s start with the famous Shiva Sankalpa Suktam of Rig Veda Baskala Khila and also present in the Sukla Yajur Veda:

कैलासशिखरे रम्ये शंकरस्य शुभे गृहे । देवतास्तत्र मोदन्ति तन्मे मनः शिवसंकल्पमस्तु ।। Rig Veda 24
The splendid (रम्ये) summits (शिखर) of mount Kailash (कैलास) is the auspicious residence (शुभे गृहे) of the Lord Shankara (शंकरस्य). All divinities (देवता) are stationed (स्तत्र) delighted in His presence (मोदन) with the inner self absorbed into Him (तन्मे मनः) may that be my auspicious resolve – many my resolve be of Śiva (शिव-संकल्प-मस्तु).

Rig Veda Bhaskāla shakha Khilani 24 (Śivā Sankalpa Sukta)

Well, let’s ask the conclusion of Vedas, the Vedānta (Veda+Anta = End of Vedas):

कश्चित् भीरुः अजात इति एवं प्रपद्यते। हे रुद्र यत् ते दक्षिणं मुखं तेन मां नित्यं पाहि॥ 4.21
Oh one who is everywhere (कश्चित् भीरुः = both here no and there) the very notice/thought towards (प्रपद्यते) Him being the unborn (अजात इति एवम्) oh Rudra (हे रुद्र) your/that (यत् ते) auspicious right-hand side (दक्षिणम्) face (मुखम्) is/with which (तेन) you protect me/liberate me (माम् पाहि) ever/always (नित्यम्)

Svetasvatara Upaniṣhad 4.21

The above statement is a clear conclusion from Vedas, but what about the link to Itihāsa? Does it coincide with what we have seen above? An exact question was asked by Yudhishthria to Sri Kṛṣṇa, so let’s see what was the reply:

Vāsudeva said, – O mighty armed Yudhishthria, listen to me as I recite thee the many names of Rudra as also the high blessedness of that high-souled one. The Rishi’s describe Mahādeva as Agni, and Sthānu, and Maheswara, as one eyed and three eyed, of universal form, and Śiva or the highly auspicious. Brāhmanas conversent with the Vedas say that the divine has two forms, again are subdivided into many forms. That form which is fierce and terrible is regarded as identical with Agni and lightening and Surya. That other form which is mind and auspicious with Righteousness and Water and Chandramas. The again, it is said that half his body is fire and half is Soma (or the moon). That form of his which is mild and auspicious is said to be engaged in the practice of the Brahmacharya vow. That other form of his which is supremely terrible is engaged in all operations of distruction in the universe. Because He is great (Mahat) and the Supreme lord of all (Ishvara), therefore is called Maheswara. And since he burns and oppresses, is keen and fierce, and endued with great energy and is engaged in eating flesh, and blood and marrow, He is said to be Rudra. Since He is the foremost of all the deities, and since His dominion and acquisition are very extensive, and since he protects the extensive universe (creation), therefore he is called Mahādeva. Since he is of the form or color of smoke, therefore he is called Dhurjjati. Since by all His acts He performs sacrifice for all and seeks the good (wellbeing) of every creature, therefore he is called Śiva or the auspicious one.

Mahābhāratam Anuśāsanica Parva Section 161 (non-jaya section)

Vyasa said”, ‘Hearing these words of the lotus-born Brahma, Maheswara became gratified. Desirous of extending his grace, he laughed aloud. The celestials then gratified (with praise) both Uma and Rudra. The arm of the thunder-wielding Sakra re-got its natural state. That foremost one of all the gods, that destroyer of Daksha’s sacrifice, that divine lord having the bull for his sign, became gratified with the gods. He is Rudra he is Siva, he is Agni, he is everything, and he hath knowledge of everything. He is Indra, he is the Wind, he is the twin Aswins, and he is the lighting. He is Bhava, he is Parjanya, he is Mahadeva, he is sinless. He is the Moon, he is Isana, he is Surya, he is Varuna. He is Kala, he is Antaka, he is Mrityu, he is Yama. 1 He is the day, and he is the night. He is the fortnight, he is the month, he is the seasons. He is the morning and evening-twilights, he is the year. He is Dhatri, he is Vidhatri, he is the Soul of the universe, and he is the doer of all acts in the universe. Though himself without body, it is he who is the embodied celestial. 

Mahābhāratam Drona Parva Section 202-203 (jaya section)

Is this obvious enough? Unlike Rama or Kṛṣṇa, Śiva is not a given name. So, who is this Shankara who is Umapathi, and who has his abode in Kailash?

Isha Wallpaper Adi Yogi with Saptarishis
  • One day a being walked in, whose name is not known AB3.34, KA2.100sqq as a Yogi, they said “He is Yoga and the Abode/Lord of Yoga”DP203 so he became Adi Yogi, the first yogi who is one with creation.
  • He is the one who brought forth the Seven Sages (saptarśi) as the Seven GemsRV6.74.1.
  • Since He had no name and came from the North (Mūjavant), and dwelled in mountains, they called him Girisha. And they called his abode in the mountains as Kailash RVB33 as this is where all the Devas dwell being delighted in his presence.
  • As he was the foremost, they placed him on Dakshina and so called him Dakshina MurthiSU4.21.
  • Since he married the daughter of the mountain, as Kenopanishad says “Uma daughter of Himavat” they called him Umapathi TA10.22.40.22 .
  • All beings (bhootas) flocked around him, including pious, nefarious, and animals, especially snakes as they have unique chemistry with those in a meditative state, so they called him Paśūpati/Satpati/Bhootapati TS4.5.2, RV2.33.12, AV11.2.1 so as an overlord of all beings they called him Isha. Those who were brave and courageous took a step towards him and so He became the leader of the brave RV10.92.9.
  • He was independent and sovereign they called SvatantraSvadhanva and Svatava RV1.166.2 (Sva = sovereign).
  • Since he was the supreme overload/authority they called him Isha. So together he was titled Isha + Sva = Ishvar.
  • In him they saw Mahat = the great principle, so they called him Maha + Isha + Svara = Mahesvara. In him they saw Vishvam, they called him Vishveswara. In him they saw everything (Sarva) so they called him Sarveshwara CKA2.100. They saw highest Divinity in him so they called him Mahadeva SB6.3.
  • They realized he was foremost and pure so they called him Sriṣṭhaḥ.
  • They saw his janan:netra on his forehead so they called him Triambaka & Virupaksha.
  • When he consumed the anti-creation element in his throat, they called him Nilakanta.
  • He was fair to both devas and asuras so they called him Harikesha.
  • He wore no clothes nor decorations so they called Digambara.
  • He removed the darkness of Avidya so he was Andhashaspati.
  • No one knows who he is, where he came from, they saw nothing but auspiciousness so they called Shiva.
  • He removed their sufferings and gave them salvation so they called him Samkara.
  • It’s childish to think a paper and a pen and a few words can describe what He is.

नमः शङ्क॒राय TS4.5.8 Samkara = Sam Karoti iti Samkara

If we take Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s example in Gita, He is called with different names by Arjuna. Based on the situation and intimacy Arjuna called him Gudhakesha, Vasudeva, Yadava, Sakha, Hrishikesha, Janardana and many more, similarly various Rishi/Rśis like Vyāsa and Parashurama, Acharyas like Drona, and Krishna himself addressed this Nameless-Being-of-Bliss as Śiva (oh auspicious one), Shankara (the forgiver/remover of our troubles), Mahadeva (oh great one), Maheshwara (oh self supreme principle), Rudra (oh fierce one), Ishana/Ishava VS16.9 (the principle authority), and many more.

Many Upaniṣhads were later composed by Sages and Acharyas which are nothing but a summary of Vedas about Rudra. These later Upaniṣhads are considered Minor/Secondary because the primary Upaniṣhads do contain the cumulative essence of later Upaniṣhads. Hence Adi Śankaracharya was the first to collected Upaniṣhads belonging to various Vedic Śākhās along with Sutras to postulate the Advita theses. He foresaw the extinction of various Vedic Śākhās and hence preserved their Upaniṣhads. He on many occasions referred to minor Upaniṣhads like Jalabha Upaniṣhad in his Brahma Sutra Bhashya and more. It’s only after 1000 to 800 years later that other Acharyas influenced by the Puráńic literature relied on certain Upaniṣhads during the Bhakti era. So Śiva is the concept whereas Śankara is the personification of that concept. Śankara himself said to Maharśi Vaśiṣṭha:

Sankara said: Do you know who Divine is? Devine is not Viṣṇu, Sankara, or Brahmā; not the wind (Vāyu), the Sun or the Moon (Chandra/Soma); not the Brāhmans or the King; not I nor you; not Lakṣmī nor the mind (intellect). Divine is without form and undivided (not in the objects); that splendor (devanam) which is not made and which has neither beginning nor end is known as Deva or Śiva (the concept of eternal infinite auspiciousness) which is pure consciousness. That alone is to be worshipped; and that alone is all. If one is unable to worship this Śiva then he is encouraged to worship the form. The later yields finite results but the former bestows infinite bliss. He who ignores the infinite and is devoted to the finite abandons a pleasure-garden and seeks the thorny bush. However, sages sometimes worship a form playfully.

Rudra is the pure, spontaneous self-experience which is the one consciousness that dwells in all substances. It is the seed of all seeds, it is the essence of this world-appearance, it is the greatest of actions. It is the cause of all causes and it is the essence in all beings, though in fact it does not cause anything nor is it the concept of being, and therefore cannot be conceived. It is the awareness in all that is sentient, it knows itself as its own object, it is its own supreme object and it is aware of infinite diversity within itself.

Vaśiṣṭha Ramayanam / Yoga Vaśiṣṭham 6.1.29-30

At this time we should have experienced a glimpse into Śiva/Rudra as a divine concept that is beyond any object or form or a personified divinity. But let’s explore the evolution of Rudra and various concepts associated with Rudra on this portal.

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