I am blessed to have scholarly gurus who add a lot of understanding to my spiritual path. They teach me the Vedas, Upanishads, and also about great perceptions, discussions, and debates by ancient sages. Which is called “Shastrartha”. Today morning, my Guru asked me, “How are you?” And I replied, stating “आनन्दकन्दमनिमेषमनङ्गतन्त्रम्”. Just to indicate that I am happy and fine. These are the verses from Kanakadhara-Stotram. While explaining to me how this Stotram originated, he spoke about Anang or Kamdev, and then the discussion went on to a great renowned scholar and debater, Saraswati, who bears the title Ubhaya Bharati, and her learned husband, Vishwarupa, also known as Mandana Mishra. He also spoke about the famous philosophical debate between Mandana Mishra and Adi Shankaracharya, with Ubhaya Bharati, who was considered the incarnation of the Goddess Saraswati, acting as the impartial mediator.
Around 1,200 years ago, there was a learned couple in the region we now know as Mithila in Bihar. Mandana Mishra and his wife, Ubhaya Bharati. They were highly educated and followed the Vedic way of life. They were married homemakers who performed the rites and rituals designed to establish a household and make gods, sages, and ancestors happy. They lived in harmony with nature and culture. They followed the Mimansa school of thought, an inquiry into the soul. The best way to identify their house was to look for parrots, kept outside in cages, discussing issues on ontological and epistemological realities associated with the Vedas. Adi Shankaracharya was directed by another scholar, Kumaril Bhatt, to go and visit this very special couple. When Mishra first saw Shankaracharya, he became upset. Shankaracharya was a recluse and as per Vedic household rules, the face of a hermit is ominous on certain days. Later, however, he prepared to accept Shankaracharya’s presence.
In the deliberations that followed, Bharati was made moderator. It is said that both men were exceptionally brilliant, but the garland around Mishra’s neck started to wither, for his body was starting to get agitated and angry. Though he was as intellectual as Shankaracharya, Mishra was not humble with his acute wisdom. Therefore, he was not as calm as Adi Shankaracharya. This led Bharati to declare Shankaracharya the winner over her husband. Adi Shankaracharya was impressed by her fairness. But she asked him how he could claim to have complete knowledge of the world, contained in the Vedas, if he was a bachelor and had never experienced sexual pleasure. Until he understood kamashastra, or the sensual arts, he could not consider himself to be fully immersed in Vedic wisdom. This created a dilemma.
This is how Adi Śaṅkarācārya was made to experience sensual philosophies. Ubhaya, being a married woman, poses questions about kamakala, the sensual essence of human lives. Adi Śaṅkarācārya tells her that he has no experience in this side of life and learnings. She asks him to seek knowledge and come for debate. Shankaracharya then trained himself in the tantric secrets, enabling him to leave his body and enter the body of a dead king called Amaru in Kashmir. Through the reanimated body of Amaru, he experienced sexual pleasure. On returning to his original body, he met Bharati and explained how he understood kamashastra. Shankaracharya is said to have written a very famous collection of erotic verses called Amaru-shataka, but we prefer to study Shankaracharya as a metaphysician rather than an expert in the erotic arts.
After attaining this experience, he discussed erotic principles with Ubhaya-bhāratī, but without hearing his discussion, she blessed him and assured the continuous existence of the Śṛṅgeri-maṭha. Bharati then happily declared Shankaracharya to be the greatest Vedic scholar. She then took leave of material life. Afterwards, Maṇḍana Miśra took the order of sannyāsa from Śaṅkarācārya and became known as Sureśvara. As far as Matsya-tīrtha is concerned, Ubhaya-bharati then took leave of material life and she walked her way with Adiguru.
This story was composed 500 years after Shankaracharya died. It is quite possible that these are based on local folklore and may not have ancient legitimacy. However, this particular story draws attention to very interesting ideas. We have tensions between the householder arm of Vedic Hinduism and the hermit arm of Vedic Hinduism. There is also tension between the Vedic way of thinking, which values the mind, and the tantric way of thinking, which values the body and the occult arts. We are made to realize that Shankaracharya was an expert, both in the occult and the metaphysical aspects of Hinduism, making him the winner.
If this was just folklore, then we can sum up, saying this episode was limited to this point only; if not, then it is surprising to find no traces of Ubhaya Bharati after this prevalence. Bharati was a scholar herself; what must be the reason that she gave permission to her husband to turn into a hermit? Was becoming a hermit superior to being a husband? By making the hermit superior to the husband, the woman’s position is made mediocre. In the ascetic and occult traditions of India, the female position is always inferior and female biology is considered inferior to that of the male. It is ironic that Shankaracharya is said to have established Sharada Devi as his personal deity. This goddess holds a parrot in her hand, which is a symbol of Kamadeva, the god of love, desire, and sexuality. She also holds a pot in her hand as well as a book, making her an incorporation of Saraswati, Laxmi, and Gauri, goddesses of wisdom, wealth, and the household, respectively. Though Shankaracharya was a hermit, he was made to appreciate both women’s and householders’ lives. He even broke the rules of ascetic order when he returned to his village to perform his mother’s cremation, indicating the value he placed on motherhood and womanhood. However, his followers chose to reject the female completely.
It is time for us to take notice of Ubhaya Bharati, who taught Shankaracharya that wisdom cannot exist without including the household, the body, and the woman. This also gives a strong message that, ages ago, women were given that position to judge the scholars. Ubhaya Bharathi was the daughter of Vishnu Mithra, who resided on the banks of the Sona River. Bharati is the only woman arbiter in a debate, as mentioned in Hinduism. This also indicates the position of women in Hindu civilization. When it comes to talking about significant female figures of the Vedic era, five names—Ubhaya Bharati, Ghosha, Lopamudra, Sulabha Maitreyi, and Gargi—come to mind. But still, these figures have limited portrayals.