THE PHILOSOPHER & THE GODDESS
A story told by Sally Kempton in Awakening Shakti: the transformative power of the Goddesses of Yoga Boulder, CO, USA: Sounds True, 2013. The philosopher in question is Shankara, regarded as the founder of advaita Vedanta, which has been highly influential in theosophy and the New Age, as well as in India. But not unchallenged, though the resolution described in the story is equivocal.
“It happened like this. One day, as Shankara wandered through South India, he found himself on the bank of a river in flood. Shankara was fearless – he had faced down tigers, he had seen through the world-illusion – so what was the problem with a flood? He waded into the river and soon found himself up to his chest in rushing water. Then a weird thing happened. His body stopped working. Standing on one leg in the middle of a swift-moving river, with the other leg lifted to find his next foothold, he froze. His strength gone, his will paralyzed, Shankara panicked. For the first time in his life, Shankara knew the terror of being completely powerless. He realized that if he didn’t get moving, he could drown.
“Then he heard a cackling laugh. An old forager woman, bent with the weight of her years of labour, stood on the opposite bank. Desperately, Shankara called to her, ‘Help! Get help!’
“The crone raised her head and looked fully into her eyes. She laughed again, her laughter foaming over until it reached the sky. Then she dove into the river and in a few swift strokes swam to where he floundered. She seized him around the chest and pulled him to shore.
“’Shankara’, she said, ‘you preach that women are a trap. You say that this world is an illusion. You won’t so much as look at a woman. But can’t you see that your strength comes from Shakti? What happens when you lose your Shakti? Without Shakti you couldn’t even move your limbs! So why do you insult Shakti? Why do you insult the Goddess? Don’t you know that I everything? Don’t you know that you can’t live without me?”
“At that moment, the story goes, Shankara realized that he had been denying the obvious. He had been insulting his own life-energy – without which he would not even exist! He bowed down to the Goddess – for indeed, the old woman was the Goddess herself.
“Moreover, he became a closet Shakta Tantrika – a lover of the sacred feminine power within the world. He kept his conversion more or less secret – after all, he was an official world-renouncer. But today in South India, many officials of his orders of Indian monks worship the Goddess.”