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Aadi Shankaracharya and women

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My first introduction to Adi Shankaracharya was when I heard my father sing verses of the poem “Bhaj Govindam”. I never cared what he was saying and I was least interested in finding out the meaning of what they meant until after my father’s death when one day I felt like listening to this Bhajan. I listened to it for several weeks- every single day. Whatever little bit I understood gave me peace. I eventually looked up its English translation to understand fully. One specific worse whose meaning is as follows struck me —

Do not get drowned in delusion by going wild with passions and lust by seeing a woman’s navel and chest. These are nothing but a modification of flesh. Do not fail to remember this again and again in your mind.

Adore the Lord! Adore the Lord! Adore the Lord! O fool!

I thought about this and after analyzing it in more detail I had an interesting realization — By asking men to remind themselves over and over that a women’s chest and navel are nothing but, a modification of flesh; Sankaracharya put the responsibility on men to control their minds instead of, blaming women and holding them responsible for a man’s lust. He did not ask women to cover their bodies, control or restrict their freedom in any way nor advised men to stay away from women instead, he called such men as fools and asked them to meditate on the lord.

I developed a deep respect for Sankaracharya and also felt a bit proud thinking how profound, respectful and modern our religious gurus were. I started to read more about him and I found another incident that goes like so..

Sankaracharya went to Bihar to debate with a learned brahmin named Maṇḍana Mishra. Maṇḍana and Sankara decided that Maṇḍana’s wife Ubhaya Bharati would be the arbiter. It was decided that if Mandana lost he will renounce household life and become a disciple of Shankara. The debate started and after some time Mandan started to lose. Maṇḍana’s wife got worried of loosing her husband and being his wife had the right to continue the debate with Shankara. Sankara accepted the challenge.

This brings some interesting points about both the learned men — They both respected women. Shankara could have easily made statements like – “I don’t debate with women as they are low in stature” but instead, he was quite comfortable with the idea.

When the debate started she asked him questions on Kamashastra (The science of sex). Shankara could have called her a shameless and characterless woman because she choose to debate on sex but, instead he asked her for 6 days to learn and then participate in the debate.

This clearly shows the profoundness of Sankara and the society of those times which treated women not only with respect but, as their equals. Also, sex was not considered anything bad and it was respectful to debate about that. In the rest of the world during the time period of Sankara’s (700–800 AD) this attitude towards women is unheard of!

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