Did Shankaracharya set up the Kanchipuram matha “for himself”?

Writer-diplomat Pavan K Varma embarks on Shankara’s journey from Kaladi in Kerala to Kedarnath in Uttarakhand to discover the influences on the seer, who is credited for reviving Hinduism. An extract:

The matha at Kanchipuram, in modern Tamil Nadu, is a matter of some controversy. Most scholars are convinced that Shankara established only four mathas—at Sringeri in the south, Dwaraka in the west, Puri in the east and Joshimatha in the north. However, those who run the Kanchi matha claim that it was set up by Shankara, and anyone who visits it, is left in no doubt about the deep faith that invests this claim.

When I entered the main mandapam of the matha, the aarti was on to the loud accompaniment of the mridangam and nadaswaram. The hall was packed with devotees seated on the red-tiled floor, the men bare-bodied above the waist, in only a veshti. The aarti was being performed for the sphatika Chandramoulishwaralinga in the sanctum sanctorum. A large portrait of Shankara, in a seated posture wearing a red cloth over his shoulders and a rudraksh necklace, a red tilak above his bright and piercing eyes, adorned the worship pedestal. In one corner of the hall were a series of paintings depicting the key episodes of Shankara’s life. The current pontiff, Jayendra Saraswathi, who is now very old, and his chosen successor, Vijayendra Saraswathi, were gracious enough to spend considerable time with me.

The Shankaracharyas of Kanchi believe that Shankara passed away, or as it is put, attained Sarvajna Pitha, ascending the final Throne of Omniscience, here in this ancient temple town. Shankara, they maintain, established the four other mathas for the propagation of Vedanta and the protection and projection of Hinduism, but the Kanchi matha was a project he undertook ‘for himself’, and as the matha that would oversee the functioning of the other four.

There are several reasons they give for this belief. Kanchi, is, and was, among the most famous temple cities of the South, housing over a thousand temples. Kalidasa, the great poet, called it ‘the city among cities’, renowned for its learned scholars in both Tamil and Sanskrit. In ancient treatises, its location is referred to as ‘the navel of the earth’. Kanchi was also the capital of the Pallava and Chola dynasties. The most celebrated Kamakshi temple in the city is dedicated to Parvati, where she is depicted as the Goddess of love. Given Shankara’s belief in the shakti cult, and the fact that all his other mathas are known as Shakti Peeths, would it be possible that he would not have come to Kanchi, and set up a matha in this ancient city of temples and learning dedicated to Parvati?

In Kanchi, Vijayendra Saraswathi tells me that Shankara is near ubiquitous, and every temple has a statue or some form of dedication to him. In the beautiful Kamakshi temple, newly renovated by the Kanchi Matha (located next door), there is indeed, a resplendent statue of Shankara with a gold canopy, and it is placed in the temple compound, on a pedestal that is higher than that of Kamakshi.

According to the Kanchi Matha, it was Shankara who personally installed the Sri Chakra at the feet of Kamakshi. He came to Kanchi towards the end of his life, travelling through Rameshwaram, Sri Sailam and Tirupati, and this is where he died, or obtained samadhi, which, the Kanchi Matha claims, is within the precincts of the Kamakshi temple. Before samadhi, he entrusted the running of the matha to his principal disciple, Sureshvara, better known by his earlier name, Mandana Mishra. In fact, so Vijayendra Saraswathi informed me, there is a street in Kanchi called Mandana Mishra Agraha. Some of Mishra’s descendants, originally hailing from Bihar, settled in Kanchi, although now, he said smilingly, they all speak Tamil. Within the matha’s precincts, the most ancient structure is a temple with a statue of Sureshvara, and this is also the spot where he was, the matha claims, cremated.

There is little doubt that Kanchi is essentially a temple town. In the little over an hour drive from Chennai to Kanchi, one sees large stretches of factories and private university campuses, but the moment one enters Kanchi, there are only temples in every direction. It is also true that Kanchi, along with Kashi, Ujjain, Dwaraka, Ayodhya and Haridwar, is recognised as a ‘mokshapuri’, the place where a Hindu upon death, is ensured salvation. It is, therefore, possible that Shankara, the peripatetic teacher, would have visited Kanchi as part of his travels. It is entirely possible too that he could have installed the Sri Chakra at the Kamakshi temple, because he had done the same for other temples dedicated to the Devi, and Kamakshi was always recognised as one of the most important Shakti Peeths.

(Extract published from Adi Shankaracharya Hinduism's Greatest Thinker by Pavan K Varma with permission from Tranquebar, an imprint of Westland)

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