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Shankara: The King and the Corpse

shankaracharyaShankara (fl. 788-820 CE) is a beloved Indian philosopher, theologian, and renowned exponent of the Advaita Vedanta, from whose doctrines the main currents of modern Indian thought are derived. Shankara wrote commentaries on the Brahma Sutras, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita, affirming his belief in one eternal unchanging reality (brahman) and the illusion of plurality and differentiation (nondualism). He is often criticized as a “Buddhist in disguise” by his opponents because of the similarity between his doctrine and Buddhism.

There are dozens of biographies of Shankara. All were composed several centuries after the time of Shankara and are filled with legendary stories and incredible anecdotes. Of these, three tell the same story1 of Shankara’s takeover of the body of a king named Amaruka:

“After he had defeated Mandana Misra in a debate, Bharati, the latter’s wife, challenged Shankara of her own accord. When she began to question him about the arts of love (kamakala) and other matters about which he, as a celibate renouncer, was unschooled, he requested that their debate be postponed for several months. He then journeyed with his disciples to a city in which the king, named Amaruka, had died, and employing the ‘science of entering into the body of another’ (parakayapravesavidya), he revived the body of the king, which was lying on the funeral pyre. ‘The yogic power (yogabalam) of the teacher, which was joined to his subtle body, entered the body of the king, and that connoisseur of yoga (yogavit) guided his breath upward from the toes. Leaving his body via the fontanel, he slowly entered the body of the dead king via the fontanel…’

Then the king stood up, just as he had been before his death. As for Shankara’s own body, he entrusted it to the safekeeping of his disciples, who watched over it in a nearby mountain cave. Reanimated by Shankara’s presence, the body of King Amaruka rose from its funeral pyre, and with it, Shankara quickly mastered the erotic arts through extended love-play with the principle queen. Meanwhile, his disciples, alarmed that their guru had been waylaid by the sensual life of a king, prepared his abandoned body for cremation. Following this, they came to the royal court in the guise of a dancing troupe whose songs of nondualist wisdom awakened Shankara from his stupor. He abandoned the king’s body and re-entered his own, which was lying on the already ignited pyre, just in the nick of time”.

Question for readers: What stories have you heard of someone “entering” another person’s body? Take over of a living or dead body?


1. The story is a synopsis combining the three sources of the tale: Sankaradigvijaya of Madhava-Vidyaranya, Sankaravijaya of Anantanandagiri, and Sankaramandarasaurabha of Nilakantha. See chap 1 p27 of Sinister Yogis by David Gordon White, University of Chicago Press, 2009

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  1. Funny story
    Many years ago, it was reading these miraculous bizarre stories in several traditions that helped me see though my silly beliefs in Christianity.

  2. @Sabio: Yogi stories like these are fascinating and incredible, to say the least! The taking over of another’s body (alive or dead) is– I’m discovering in the Vedas, Upanishads, and other Yogic texts– though overlooked nowadays, has been historically a key power of adept yogis.

    You seem well-educated in pre-modern traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. What do you think of the criticisms of Shankara’s opponent’s– that he was a Buddhist in disguise? You think there’s validity in that claim?

    Thanks for engaging.

  3. I see. So, since Shankara had used someone else’s body to experience eroticism, it was ok. Had he behaved sexually using his own body that would have been a defilement. Could this story just be a fabrication to cover up that Shankara had been sexually active during his life? Maybe it’s just a sexually frustrated individual’s soft porn from ancient times. We’ll never know, but it’s a creepy way to deal with sexuality. Definitely not direct or simple, more like an evasion.

  4. Good observation, uwsboi14. I hadn’t grasped that before you called it out. This myth could be soft porn excusing sexual desires as long as they are saints or divine beings having sex and “using” other human’s bodies.

    Some children in India are probably raised on myths like these.