Six primary orthodox schools of philosophy exist in India. They are – nyaya, vaisheshika, mimamsa, vedanta, sankhya and yoga. At different periods in time, India has produced exceptional scholars who were unconditional masters in these respective schools of thought. It has often been the custom among learned men to debate the merits and demerits of these various systems of philosophy. When one scholar won, typically the other would renounce his philosophy to serve the winner as a disciple. Of course, the disciple’s disciples also became new disciples. One such famous debate took place between the two very renowned scholars – Adi Sankara and Mandana Misra in the latter’s residence in present day Bihar.
Mandana Misra was a distinguished practioner of the mimamsa philosophy. The mimamsa philosophy is mainly derived from the karma kanda portion of the Vedas and emphasizes on the importance of rituals. In this school of thought, a particular ritual is done, and the results are achieved instantaneously. It displays a straightforward cause-effect relationship if practiced accurately. Mandana Misra was a perfect and adept ritualist who preached widely. The young and charming advaita vedantin, Adi Sankara, on his country wide tour was eager to debate with Mandana Misra, who was by then already very old. Mandana Misra reasoned that since he had spent more than half his life learning and preaching mimamsa, it would be unfair to debate with a youngster in his twenties who barely had any experience. Hence, with the intention of being fair on Sankara, Misra allowed Sankara to choose his own judge. Sankara had heard greatly about Misra’s righteousness and appreciated him for his act of fairness. But he was quick to decide that none but Mandana Misra’s wife herself can be the most appropriate judge for this debate. The debate between them commenced, and continued for six months nonstop. Thousands of scholars gathered everyday to watch and learn. Mandana Misra, at a ripe old age, still remained a man with very sharp intellect and a very solid grasp of logic, but he was slowly losing. Despite being such a young man, Sankara’s realization of the ultimate Brahman and his knowledge of Maya, enabled him to win over Misra’s arguments easily. Misra was a very accomplished ritualist, yet he seemed to lack some understanding of higher spiritual truths that Sankara seemed to have experienced already. At the end of this 6 month period, Misra was almost ready to accept defeat, when his wife, Bharathi, declared that in order to defeat a man in debate, the opponent should also defeat his wife.
Bharathi was a learned scholar herself and a very clever one at that. Knowing very well that Sankara was a strict celibate, she immediately started discussing conjugal relationships and marital obligations. Sankara confessed that he had absolutely no knowledge in this area, because he was a celibate. However, Bharathi felt that she should give Sankara some time to study about this topic before resuming the debate. Sankara immediately accepted the offer and left to start his studies. Through his yogic powers he came to know of a certain king who was about to die. He instructed his disciples to preserve his body, which he temporarily left to enter the dying king’s body. The king happened to be a very evil man. Yet his wives were loyal to him and were in tears when the king was in his deathbed. Suddenly, when the king’s body woke up, one of the wives noticed that the king had recovered under rather mysterious circumstances and appeared to have become a changed man. Sankara learnt from that woman, all that he needed to know about conjugal experiences and on his way out of the body, he blessed that lady who had taught him so much. Empowered with this new knowledge, Sankara returned to resume the debate with Bharathi. This time, he was clearly unbeatable. Bharathi and Mandana Misra bowed their heads in humility and accepted defeat and became followers of Adi Sankara and staunch vedantins.
This debate throws light on the healthy competition that existed in India among followers of different philosophies. Essentially they were travelling towards the same unknown destination, yet they had the open mind and immense courage to test their faith, to question their beliefs, and to change their philosophies, if reason demanded the change. Similar to how different paths could still take one to the top of the same mountain, so too do all philosophies lead to the same goal of self realization. However, even though staunch belief in one’s path is necessary to make spiritual progress, when one meets obstacles, one should remain accepting towards new concepts, experiments, or questionings because these can potentially unlock some deep doors in our mind.