How was the greatest philosopher of Hinduism?Shankara?a man of the South, and not of the heartland of Hinduism?the Gangetic plain? Because the South was the centre of the greatest debates between Buddhists, Jainas and the Hindus. The South also produced Nagarjuna, the greatest philosopher of Buddhism. He was born in Kanchi, a seat of the Shankaracharya. Kanchi also produced some of the greatest Buddhist missionaries of India.
Kerala was a major centre of Buddhism and Jainism before it became the stronghold of Hindus orthodoxy. There is a belief that the Ayyappa temple was a Buddhist vihara, equally popular.
Even before Ashokan missionaries had reached the South (257 BC) Buddhist missionaries from Kalinga had reached the southern kingdoms of the Cholas, Pandyas and Cheras. We have evidence that Buddhism was well known in Mysore in the 4thc BC.
The Ashokan form of Buddhism gave way in the north to the more devotional Mahayana form propounded by Nagarjuna. However, it was the Hinayana form of the South which spread to Burma, Thailand and South East Asia.
Besides Nagarjuna, the South produced a number of prominent Buddhist scholars and missionaries. Among them were Dharmapala, Bodhidharma, the founder of Chen (Dhyan) Buddhism (Zen in Japan) in China, Buddhaghosha and others. According to the traditional history of Cheradesa (Kerala), there was Jayasimha Perumal, ruler of Quilon (1st c BC) and an ardent Buddhist.
We know a great deal on Buddhism and Jainism from the Tamil classics (Tamil was the lingua franca of the South)?Silappathikaram and Manime-khalai, composed by Ilango Adigal, a brother of the very famous Chera king Senguttuvan. He was perhaps the first to send an embassy to China. While Ilango Adigal was a Jain monk, his friend Sathanar, who helped him in composing the two classics, was an eminent Buddhist dialectician and scholar. Manimekhalai is a mine of information on Buddhism, Jainism and the various trends of Hinduism.
Based on the life of Manimekhalai, daughter of Kovalan and Kannaki, the hero and heroine of Silappathikaram, this Tamil classic provides the political, social and religious conditions in the South. Manimekhalai is taken as a Hinayana work. We are told that Manimekhalai offered prayer to Buddha at Manipallavam (near the city of Kaveri Poompattinam). There was only a manipeetam (a stool) in the Sanctum Sanctorum at that time, and no idol of Buddha. What she worshipped must have been an imprint of Buddha'sfeet. Other symbols were Dharmachakra, and an inscribed figure of an elephant. Tradition has it that it was emperor Kanishka who got the first image of the Buddha done by the Greek artist in his court. In any case, idol worship spread fast among the Buddhists. This was copied by the Hindus, although Manu, the law-giver of the Hindus, had prohibited idol worship.
Manimekhalai furnishes another information?of a Buddhist vihara at Srivanchikulam (North Malabar) ?whose turrets touched the sky.? This shows how well entrenched Buddhism was in Kerala. No wonder, one of the teachers of Shankara was a Buddhist scholar. There were major disputations among the Hindus, Buddhists and Jainas in Kerala.
We also know from Tamil literature that temple was constructed in North Malabar dedicated to Kannaki, the heroine of the classic Silappathikaram, by Senguttuvan, at which the king of Sri Lanka, Gajabahu, was present. They were all Buddhists.
All these show that Shankara was not only a great scholar of Hinduism but also of Buddhism and Jainism. Which explains how he could defeat the various scholars of Hindu, Buddhist and Jain sects, and established the supremacy of Vedanta, the Advaita philosophy. But, interestingly, this is very close to the ?Sunya? philosophy of Nagarjuna.
This put Shankara in a new light. He was not the destroyer of Buddhism, as is made out. Instead, he absorbed some of the major doctrines of Buddhism and established the sycretic nature of Hinduism.
During the Gupta era, Buddhists and Jains moved to the South. This must have alarmed the South, for we find the emergence of the Bhakti movement, a popular form of Hinduism. Some of the dramas of this period, written mostly by southern scholars, are full of these facts.
The Navanmars were behind the Bhakti movement. But they were abusive of both Buddhism and Jainism. The Vaishnavite Alwars were less hostile. Nammalwar was the greatest among them. His hymns are said to be as great as Vedic hymns in spirituality.
The Bhakti movement moved to the north only to meet with the Sufi movement. In the event, it transformed the Sufi movement and in a way tamed the fury of Islam.