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Timeless Wisdom

Brahman Is No More Than This!
Excerpted from Daughters of the Goddess:
The Women Saints of India, by Linda Johnsen

Shankara was one of the first yogis to widely publicize the idea that the world is maya, an illusion, and that we are in reality all one. For most of his life, though, he discounted the feminine principle, considering anything to do with matter or desire a lower order of being.

One day late in his short life, as he was entering a Shiva temple, he found an hysterical low-caste woman blocking his way. She was standing over the corpse of her dead husband, sobbing wildly. Shankara found the scene both distasteful and inauspicious. "Get out of my way!" he commanded.

The illiterate woman looked at him suspiciously. "Aren't you the teacher who says that everything is Brahman [the ultimate, supreme Reality], everything is God, there is no impurity anywhere?" she retorted bitterly. "If I am not impure, why should I get out of your way? If I am the all pervading reality, how can I get out of your way?"

Shankara was too shocked to reply.

The woman was not done with him. "Your mighty Brahman is no more than this!" she shouted, pointing to her dead husband.

In that moment the great thinker's mind burst open. He remembered one of the most dramatic images from India's vast religious iconography: the raging goddess Kali stamping on the corpse of the God Shiva. Without Her power, Shiva himself is not able to stir, say the Shaktas, the worshippers of the Goddess. In that fraction of a second, Shankara, realized that in neglecting the Goddess, he had missed the very essence of life. Imagining Brahman as totally abstract, unalloyed, unmoving consciousness, he had forgotten the fecund, creative, active living aspect of reality, the feminine. Now Kali herself was manifesting to remind him of her glory.

To the horror of his disciples, Shankaracharya got down on his knees and clasped the woman's feet, thanking her for the lesson. "No you are not impure. It was my mind that was impure. I have never met a teacher greater than you."

Shankara gave up writing philosophy and spent the last few years of his life composing ecstatic poems to the Goddess, some of which are still regarded as among the most beautiful verses in the Sanskrit language.

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