The Beckoning Stones Of Sharada Peeth
Hindu revivalism is inconceivable without Adi Shankara.
Adi Shankara, in turn, is incomplete without the scholastic validation of Sharada Peeth.
And Kashmiriyat — certainly not the Gupkar variety — is nothing if not for Sharada Peeth.
It’s time we remembered who we really are.
As per tradition, the festival of Vijaya Dashami doesn’t just mark the date when good triumphed over evil, to let justice prevail once more; it is also vidyārambham, a day when Saraswati is formally invoked by ritual, to bestow knowledge and wisdom upon all.
In countless homes across the land, this tenth day is when young children are introduced to writing; the day, when family elders solemnly encourage impatient young wards to grip a stylus in their tiny hands, for the first time, and commence a lifelong journey of learning.
And yet, in spite of the collective fervour accorded to such auspices, it is ironic that most of modern India has all but forgotten Saraswati’s home.
This Vijaya Dashami, then, let us travel through time and space to recover some knowledge lost, ruminate upon our antecedents, and remind ourselves of who we truly are.
The temples of Sharada Peeth have remained unattended for almost a century now. Located on the banks of the Neelum River, in present-day Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, these cold, grey ruins are the last remains of a neglected era.
But once upon a time, this was a bustling town, filled with scholars, pundits and academicians, who, by their works, crafted both the magnificent temples there, and an intellectual pinnacle for our land.
For over half a millennium, between the 6th and 12th centuries CE, Sharada Peeth was an important Shakti Sthal, a centre of knowledge, Saraswati’s abode, and arguably, one of the most distinguished universities in the subcontinent as well.
It is where the Sharada script found its final form, and where a strong tradition of history was fostered, along with rigorous scientific and moral pursuits.
Kalhana’s Rajatarangini — Kashmir’s answer to Herodotus, and a peerless work of history, owes its composition to the faculties nurtured at Sharada Peeth.
The Bakhshali manuscript, an algebraic text written in the Sharada script, and dated by PP Divakaran to between the 4th and 6th centuries CE, too, traces its intellectual origins to here.
It is a monumental text for two reasons: first, it is the oldest recorded use of the numeral ‘zero’ in human history. And second, it offers an algorithm for deriving the value of a square root more accurately, and in far fewer steps, than anything the ancient Greeks or Babylonians had devised up to that time.
Today, though, no bells ring at Sharada Peeth. No pilgrims come. No colleges remain. The very concept of intellectual pursuit is long gone. There is no mathematician seated in his study, charting new frontiers in combinatorics or string theory; no new Kalhana writing about the kings and queens of modern Kashmir.
Instead, the current residents go about their lives with little idea of what once this place was. For them, the ruins merely mean some occasional income from tourists, who visit to gaze upon the site, with little more than the superficial curiosity of an aesthete.
That’s understandable, because it is a picturesque spot. Grassy banks of shamrock green slope down towards the Neelum’s sparkling azure waters, which wend their way through a stony arc, lined by snow-capped heights.
But how many of them know that the scholarship of Sharada Peeth was once held in such high esteem, that it even attracted one of the greatest thinkers in history — Shankara of Kaladi?
How many might look beyond the sculptural marvels, and grasp the significance of his visit, or propound upon its elemental consequences?
Many answers come together when we recollect, that the presiding deity of Shankara’s favorite temple in Sringeri was named Sharada Devi by him. Knowledge was everything to Shankara. So he had to visit Kashmir; there was no other way forward.
No doubt, he might have bested the mightiest minds of Kanchi, Kashi or Prayaga in formidable debate; no doubt, he might have argued his points successfully with none less than Mandana Mishra; but the final, necessary approval for his logic came only when the sages of Sharada Peeth, too, recognised its worth.
More fundamentally, very few realise that Shankara didn’t just assimilate differing schools of thought through advaita — he assimilated this land too.
This is the true meaning of his famous declaration, that ‘all is one’.
Shankara understood that the concept of Brahman worked brilliantly in bridging fractious divides of identity. Of course, this was nothing new — the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita had been saying precisely this for millennia, but it took a Shankara to put it all together in simple, practical terms, so that everyone could understand.
They did, and the commendation of that endeavour was the title of Jagat Guru, awarded to the young monk after enlightened debate at Sharada Peeth, by some of the greatest thinkers of those times.
This was a turning point in our history, and India has never been the same ever since. But why, then, do we not know more about that monk’s epochal visit?
Why is our racial memory so clouded today on this point?
Perhaps, it has something to do with a strange structural inadequacy.
Interestingly, if we look closely, and read enough, we see that there is something intensely tribal about our civilisation, which makes it detrimentally susceptible to external influences.
Perhaps, that is why we have cycles. Each one commences with a painful breakdown of traditional societal patterns, followed by a descent into long periods of disorder.
Thankfully, each such phase is, then, also followed by a powerful span of revival, which laboriously re-institutes those discarded traditions which still fit.
Then, after a few centuries, the cycle begins again. It’s how ancient civilisations cleanse themselves after adapting to change.
We are passing through one such cycle now. The problem, though, is that we lose a great deal of information each time we pass through one of these cycles, and not all of it gets restored during the revival process.
That’s why it is so important to retain a strong sense of history, instead of simply reconciling ourselves to the fact, that what we lost has been more than satisfactorily replaced by fresh discoveries.
Germane to our times, and our topic, this is what Partition did, when it split our land purely on the basis of religion, without taking into account either its sacred geography, or its history.
So, to forget Sharada Peeth is to forget Shankara a bit. Or, conversely, to know Sharada is to know Shankara.
To know Shankara is to know Brahman. To know Brahman is to know Dharma. To know Dharma is to know this land. To know this land is to know oneself. And to know oneself, is to know one’s duties.
The Gupkar Gang would do well to remember these truths, before commencing a fresh agitation in the name of Kashmiriyat, to restore the pernicious principles of Articles 370, or 35(a), in that part of our land.
Like the ‘Idea of India’ narrative, which teaches that there was no India before 1947 and the British, there is an ‘Idea of Kashmir’ for them, by which, everything before the medieval period is either alien apocrypha, or irrelevant myth.
But the beckoning stones of the Peeth say different. They say that the true antecedents of true Kashmiriyat actually go farther back in time than a Gupkari can accept; in fact, to well before the brutality of a But Shikan, or the merciless ethnic cleansing of Sharada’s children from their homes, which is sadly the only Kashmiriyat children are taught to revere these days.
In truth, anything else is fatal folly, but in this day and age, that is also, precisely, the willful amnesia, which foolishly seeks Chinese aid to overthrow Indian rule of law, from over a part of India.
This is what happens when memories are lost, or are made to be lost. And yet, the irony is that the broader region’s own innumerable, inherent contradictions, from whence such fashionable fantasies spring, may actually end up permitting one to visit Sharada Peeth sooner, rather than later.
Then might one stand by the Coruscant waters of the Neelum, and humbly bow to the majestic white peak of Harmukh beyond.
Then, might we tenderly touch those grey stones, those gnarled, talismanic remnants of a just age that once was, to better appreciate in fuller measure, the forces which made them lie in decay for so long.
Then, might we accept, that divisions of identity serve no society no moral purpose. And finally, then, might we solemnly remind ourselves of an eternal truth — that all is one.
Lest we forget, a civilisation is nothing if not its stories; tales, which are meant to live on as parables for us to learn from, to be employed to ensure that justice prevails upon the natural order of things, and as tools for us to teach the truth to those who follow.
Knowledge is remembrance too.
That is why every Vijaya Dashami is also a Vidyārambham.
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