Monday, August 22, 2011

Adi Shankaracharya : Life And Teachings

Locating information on the life and teachings of Shankaracharya was not difficult. By scanning the glossary of most Yoga and Indian philosophy books, one finds references to him even if only a few words everywhere. The topic of traditional and contemporary sannyasa is covered comprehensively in ‘Sannyasa Darshan’, a book written by Paramahamsa Niranjanananda Saraswati. Swamiji’s book contains a collection of lectures given during a Sannyasa Training Course held at Munger in 1991. According to Paramahamsa Niranjanananda, sannyasa as we know it today, is a vision of sannyasa life, introduced by Shankara in order to spread Advaita Philosophy among the people.

Adi Shankaracharya Life

Shankara was born in Kalady, a small village in Kerala, India, to a Nambuthiri brahmin couple, Shivaguru and Aryamba. The traditional sources of accounts of his life are from the Shankara Vijayams, which are essentially hagiographies. The most important among them are the MadhavIya Shankaravijaya, the AnandagirIya Shankaravijaya, cidvilAsIya Shankaravijaya, and keralIya Shankaravijaya. What follows is the standard story of Shankara’s life; much of it is clearly mythical in nature, but some may be historical.

Shankara’s parents had no child for a long time, and prayed at Vadakkumnathan (vRashAcala) temple in Thrissur, Kerala. Legend has it that the Lord Shiva appeared before the devout couple and offered them a choice: a mediocre son who would live a long life, or an extraordinary son who would not live long. The couple chose the latter. The son was named Shankara, in honour of the Lord Shiva.

Shivaguru died while Shankara was very young. The child showed remarkable scholarship, and is said to have mastered the four Vedas by the age of eight. Following the common practice, Shankara stayed at a teacher’s house. On one occasion, while begging for alms, he came upon a woman with nothing but one dried amlaka fruit, which she offered to him with devotion. Moved by her piety, he composed the Kanaka Dhara Stotram. On completion of the stotram, golden amlaka fruits were showered upon the woman by the goddess Lakshmi. On another occasion, Shankara was bathing in the river, when a crocodile caught him. He asked for his mother’s permission to adopt sannyasa (the ascetic life), and when his mother agreed, the crocodile released him.

Shankara then left Kerala and travelled thoroughout India. When he reached the banks of the river Narmada, he met Govinda Bhagavatpada, the disciple of the Advaitin Gaudapada. As his disciple, Shankara was initiated.

Shankara travelled extensively, while writing commentaries on the Upanishads, Vishnu sahasranama, and the Bhagavad Gita. He engaged in a series of debates with Buddhist scholars, and with scholars of the Purva Mimamsa school, which helped in cementing his spiritual ascendancy. One of the most famous of these debates was with Mandana Mishra.

His most famous encounter was not with the famed ritualist Mandana Mishra, however, but with an untouchable. On his way to the Vishwanath temple in Kashi, he came upon an untouchable and his dog. When asked to move aside by Shankara’s disciples, the untouchable asked: “Do you wish that I move my soul, the atman and ever lasting, or this body made of clay?” Seeing the untouchable as none other than the Lord Shiva, Shankara prostrated before Ishwara, composing five shlokas (Manisha Panchakam).

Shankara is believed to have attained the Sarvajnapitha in Kashmir. After a while, he withdrew to Kedarnath and attained samadhi at the age of thirty-two. The Kamakshi Amman temple at Kanchipuram also has a vrindavanam where he is believed to have attained siddhi. (A variant tradition expounded by keralIya Shankaravijaya places his place of death as Vadakkumnathan temple in Thrissur, Kerala.)

Traveled All Over India

The monk further traveled to Gokarna temple, then to Mookambika temple at Kollur (Karnataka) and finally to Sringeri (Karnataka). At Sringeri he established Sharadha Peetam (seat of Sharada) and the mutt. After this the saint preceded to his Dig-Vijaya (Tour to Conquest) and traveled all over India and during his journey was propagating the philosophy of Advaita. On his way he entered and engaged debate with Buddhist and Jain monks and other Hindu scholars e.g. Neelakanta.

Four Shankara Mutts

Adi Shankaracharya established four Mutts: One at Sringeri (South India) in Karnataka; Second one at Dwaraka (Western India) in Gujarat; The third one at Puri (Eastern India) in Orissa; and the fourth at Jyotirmath (also called Joshimath) (North India) in Uttarakhand.

Later Adi Shankaracharya travelled to Sharada Peetam located in (now Pakistan Occupied) Kashmir. There are also he conquered people belonging to different scholastic disciplines i.e. Vedanta, Mimamsa.

The End Came at Kedarnath
Kedarnath Temple .India.

Towards the end Adi Shankaracharya reached most holy shrines Kedarnath (Lord Shiva Temple) – Badrinath (Lord Vishnu Temple) situated at the steeply high mountains of Himalaya. At Kedarnath the Saint attained freedom from the embodiments (videha mukti). Even today you may visit the tomb of Adi Shankara just behind the Shiva temple at Kedarnath.

Adi Shankaracharya: Founder of Six Hindu Religious Sects

After spending 32 years of meaningful life, Adi Shankaracharya founded and nurtured the Vedic Dharma. What you enjoy today as your Hindu religion is due to the efforts of this monk. For this he debated and conquered lot more powerful and significant monks and scholars. He was able to overpower those monks and scholars single handedly to establish the Shanmatha (six-important faiths or Hindu religious sects) i.e. Saivam (Lord Shiva), Vaishnavam (Lord Vishnu), Saktham (Goddesses), Souram (Lord Surya or Sun God), Ganapathyam (Lord Ganapathy) and Skandam (Lord Subramanya).

Summary of Shankara’s teachings

When Shankaracharya decided to enter ‘samadhi,’ Sudhanva, the foremost disciple of Shankara, requested that the essentials of his teaching may be summarized and given to them. Shankaracharya then said the Dasa Shlokas, or Ten Verses, which elaborated the omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence of Brahman – the core concept of Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma).

1. The five elements do no express my real nature; I am changeless and persist forever.

2. I am above castes and creeds. I am seen when ‘maya’ is removed, and do not need concentration or worship as shown in Yoga Sutras.

3. I have no parents, I need no Vedas as proclaimed in the scriptures, no sacrifices, no pilgrimages. I am the eternal witness.

4. All the teachings of various religions and philosophies do no reveal my true nature and are but shallow views of my deep being.

5. I pervade the whole universe and am above, in the middle and below, in all directions.

6. I am colourless, formless, light being my form.

7. I have no teacher, scripture or any disciples, nor do I recognize Thou or I, or even the universe and am changeless and the absolute knowledge.

8. I am neither awake, in deep sleep nor dreaming, but above consciousness with which the three are associated. All these are due to ignorance and I am beyond that.

9. I pervade everything, everywhere and the eternal reality and self-existent. The whole universe depends on me and become nothing without me.

10. I cannot be called one, for that implies two, which is not. I am neither isolated nor non-isolated, neither am I empty or full.

Books certainly written by Adi Shankara:

The “Crest-Jewel of Discrimination” or Viveka Chudamani, one of his most famous works, which summarises his ideas of non-dual Vedanta

The commentary Bhasya on the Brahma Sutra
The commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
The commentary on the Taittiriya Upanishad
The commentary on the Bhagavad Gita
The Thousand Teachings or Upadesasahasri
A hymn to Krishna as the Herder of Cows, known as Bhaja Govindam
Benedictory invocation to Siva and Sakti, namely Sivanandalahari and Saundaryalahari respectively
Commentary on Vishnu Sahasranama
Books he probably wrote are:
The commentary on Gaudapada’s Karika to the Mandukya Upanishad
The commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, though there is no scholarly agreement on this.


  1. So true , felt good to read about Adi Shanakaeacheya and felt lot to be learned , beauty is to look inward rather than explore outward for peace .

  2. Reading about Adi Shankaracharya makes me feel about life differently.
    His stotram ka tova kanta touches me so much that i feel so detached from everything.

  3. Very similar to Ramana Maharshi