Mandana Misra was a native of the province of India which is now known as Behar. His real name was Vishvarupa Shastri and he had “been given the name Mandana “because he was acknowledged as the most distinguished pundit of his time. Shri Shankara knew him to be the chief opponent of Adwaita hut one who was respected throughout India as a most learned man. He also recognised his sincerity and love of truth and knew that, if Kumarila Bhatta’s advice could he successfully followed, Mandana would be of great assistance in spreading the Adwaita doctrine.
Shri Shankara set out for the town of Maheshmati where Mandana lived. On arrival there he asked his disciples to wait in a temple of Shiva which stood in a colourful garden outside the city, and went on alone to find Mandana’s house. On the way he met a party of married women and their daughters carrying water to their homes and asked them to direct him. They answered in surprise: ’’Are you alone in not knowing where the great Mandana Misraji lives? At his house door there are Sarika birds in cages and you will hear them debating whether the world is real or unreal and other difficult subjects. Go this way and know that to be the house of Mandana when you reach it.”
Shri Shankara soon found Mandana’s house but the doors were closed. When he enquired of the porters, they explained: “Sir, our master is engaged in the ancient ritual of offering sacrifice to his ancestors and he has asked to be left undisturbed until it is over.” The tradition is that the Acharya entered the house by invisible means and that his appearance troubled Mandana Misra since the presence of a monk at this ceremony is considered to be inauspicious. Shri Shankara explained the purpose of his visit and Mandana accepted his challenge to a public controversy on Advaita. The local pundits were disinclined to accept the post of referee in this controversy and put forward instead the name of Sharada Devi, Mandana’s learned wife. Shri Shankara agreed to her nomination.
The news of the public controversy about to be held between the young monk Shankara and the greatest scholar of the day had spread far and wide and eminent men of learning came to hear it.
The holy Acharya accompanied by his beloved disciples arrived at the learned assembly where Sharada, Mandana Misra’s wife, already occupied the Chair.
The debate opened and Shri Shankara expounded his view to the assembly in the following words:
“In these ever-changing phenomena of the world there is only one principle of reality; it is Brahman, existence, consciousness, ever-taintless. It appears Itself in the form of the world. The world in Brahman is like silver in mother-of-pearl; just as the appearance of silver owes its existence to the mother-of-pearl, so the world has no independent existence and is as such unreal. A real cognition of the nature of Brahman, the negation of the world in all its forms, the withdrawal of the jiva from the illusory world to become established in its own true nature – this state is called liberation, which signifies freedom from the cycle of births and deaths. This is my thesis and it is supported on the authority of the Upanishads. If I am defeated in this controversy, I will throw off the garb of a monk and embrace a domestic life”
Then Mandana Misra rose and made known his position as a Mimamsaka, saying:
“The only authority in Vedic literature is the ritual portion (Karmakanda). In my view the Upanishads are no authority; they propound the doctrine of Brahman and not the doctrine of action, whereas the purpose of the Veda is to lay down rules as to what ought to be done* Release from suffering is possible only through Karma (ritual action) and man must therefore continue to perform the prescribed ritual throughout his life. As a follower of Mimamsa Shastra, I declare that I shall embrace the monastic order (Sannyasa) if I am defeated in this controversy. “
For several days the debate between the two mighty scholars continued from morning till evening with only a short break at noon. Neither speaker displayed the least bitterness, anger, or excitement. Each one advocated his cause coolly and deliberately, without gesticulation, only occasionally allowing a smile of appreciation to flicker over his countenance at a point made by the opponent. This famous controversy has been described in great detail by the writers of the various lives of Shankara and those who are interested in it can read about it in these sources. Suffice it to say that in the end the holy Acharya’s arguments in support of non-duality and non-difference prevailed. The referee, Sharada Devi, pronounced in favour of Shri Shankara and the scholarly assembly acquiesced in her verdict.
Sharada Devi was greatly distressed over the defeat of her husband whom she regarded as inferior to none in dialectical skill and learning. She approached Shri Shankara, saying:
“O learned Monk, you have defeated only half of Pundit Mandana Misra. I am his wife and his other half. First accept my challenge to a controversy and, if you obtain the victory, my husband will fulfil his vow. You know of the controversy of the great sage Yajnavalkya with Gargi.”
Shri Shankara accepted the challenge and the debate was arranged. In her exposition Sharada Devi introduced allusions to matters about which the young Shankara, who had embraced monasticism at the age of eight, knew nothing. There is a legendary account of how Shri Shankara entered the body of a king who had just died in order to experience physical joys, and with his knowledge was able to refute Sharada Devi on resuming the controversy. Sharada Devi, who was a lover of truth, acknowledged the superiority of Shri Shankara’s philosophy. Her husband Mandana Misra adopted the life of a monk and became his disciple, taking the name of Sureshvara Acharya. Shri Sureshvara followed his master throughout the remainder of his life and was a most devoted disciple. His contribution to the metaphysics of Advaita is second only to that of the holy Acharya himself.