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 Shankara and Mandana Misra .

During the time of Shankaracharya, the school of Purvamimamsa, which believed in the strict and theoretical observance of rituals, reigned supreme. Shankara realized that unless he was able to win over this powerful rival, his goal of spiritually re-unifying India would remain difficult to fulfill. The foremost proponent of this sect was the great scholar Kumarila Bhatta, who lived in Prayaga itself. When Shankara reached Kumarila’s place he saw a strange and horrific sight. Placed in a courtyard was a huge pyre lighted with slow burning rice-husk. At the center of the flames could be discerned the head of a radiant figure, draped in white. This was none other than the great philosopher Kumarila Bhatta himself. 

Kumarila Bhatta, in order to equip himself with the nuances of Buddhist philosophy, so that he could better counter its onslaught against the Vedic ethos, had once studied at a monastery pretending to be a Buddhist. He was committing self-immolation as an expiation for his sins, which included the pretension of being a Buddhist and learning their doctrines at the feet of a guru, and then, the impropriety of all improprieties, challenging his own guru to debate and defeating him (guru-droha). These unworthy acts not befitting one who ‘practiced what he preached,’ an ocean of guilt overwhelmed Kumarila, and to atone for his sins resorted to this fatal, drastic step. Shankara’s appeal to step down from the flames proved to be of no avail. Before succumbing however, Kumarila advised him to go and meet his disciple Mandana Mishra, who was the most renowned protagonist of the Purvamimamsa School. 

Mandana Mishra resided in the town of Mahishamati (Madhya Pradesh). When Shankara reached the city and asked for directions from some maids on the way, he was told: “You will find nearby a house at whose gates there a number of parrots in cages, discussing topics like: ‘Do the Vedas have self validity or do they depend on some external authority for their validity? Are karmas capable of yielding their fruits directly, or do they require the intervention of God to do so? Is the world eternal, or is it a mere appearance?’ Where you find this strange phenomenon of caged parrots discussing such abstruse philosophical problems, know that to be the gate of Mandana’s place.” 

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 Shankara, 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, Shankara’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 Shankara seemed to have experienced already. At the end of this 6 months period,  Mandana 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.

The transformation of her husband into a sannayasi distressed Bharati to no end. Wise and prudent as she was, she kept her counsel and addressed Shankara thus: “You do know that the sacred texts enjoin that a wife forms one-half of a husband’s body (ardhangini: ardha- half; angini – body). Therefore, by defeating my lord, you have but won over only half of him. Your victory can be complete only when you engage in debate with me also, and manage to prove yourself better.” Bharathi was a learned scholar herself and a very clever one at that. Knowing very well that Shankara was a strict celibate, “how can a sanyasi, who has no experience as a citizen, and a householder, claim complete knowledge?  She immediately started discussing  relationships and marital obligations. Shankara confessed that he had absolutely no knowledge in this area, because he was a celibate. However, Bharathi felt that she should give Shankara some time to study about this topic before resuming the debate. Shankara 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  experiences and on his way out of the body, he blessed that lady who had taught him so much. Empowered with this new knowledge, Shankara 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 Shankara 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.