I love revisiting the biographies of great personalities. I am a voracious reader and like to share whatever knowledge I gain from reading.
An early 8th century philosopher, Shankaracharya, consolidated the doctrine of Advaita philosophy, organized the Dashanami monastic order and was instrumental in the unification of the Shanmata tradition of worship.
Probably no other person has ever achieved so much in such a short period, that too at a time when transportation and communication was not much developed. He was instrumental in elevating philosophy and metaphysics to a level that nobody else could equal since then. Apart from reviving Hinduism when it was at its lowest, riddled by ritualistic practices and rigorous dogmas, he ensured that the teachings of Advaita philosophy remain strong for generations after him by creating Mathas (monasteries) at every corner of the country. Today on his birth anniversary let us revisit his fascinating life and legends that is a source of inspiration across generations.
Fascinating Story of his Birth and Early Life
Shankaracharya was born in 788 CE in Kaladi, a village on the banks of the river Purna, near Kochi in Kerala. There is a fascinating story associated with his birth. His parents, Shivaguru and Aryamba were devout Nambudiri brahmins, the highest in the pinnacle of the social order. They led a pious life confirming to the rituals and learning of scriptures as prescribed in their religion. The absence of a progeny was the void in their lives. Legend has it that one night, Shiva the couple’s family deity appeared in Aryamba’s dream and said they would be blessed with a child. At that time Shiva is said to have given her a choice. She could give birth to an unintelligent progeny who would live long or be blessed with a genius who would die young. Aryamba is said to have chosen the second.
Legend Pertaining to his Renunciation
Young Shankara began to display very early all the signs of being a prodigy. When he was not even three years of age, he is said to have memorized the Vedas and the basic Sanskrit texts. He had such extraordinary memory that he could remember what he heard but once. From the beginning he showed an inclination towards a life of renunciation, shunning the conventional pleasures accessible to a bright child from his social background.
This was a constant cause of worry for his mother. While she reveled in his intellectual precocity, which had become the talk of the town by then, she was not keen on him becoming a recluse or ascetic. Like any mother, she wanted him to marry, have children and be with her, especially since her husband, Shivaguru had already passed on when Shankara was very young. She had no other family members to depend on.
Mother Accedes to his Wish
But Shankara was firm in his resolve to renounce material comforts and lead the life of an ascetic. There seems to have been considerable tension between mother and son regarding this but matters were brought to a head by an incident that spans both mythology and myth. It is said that one day when Shankara was bathing in the river, a crocodile caught his leg. He shouted out to his mother to save him. He told his mother that the crocodile would not let him go unless she gave him the permission to become a sanyasi or ascetic.
The mother, seeing her son being dragged into the water had no choice but to agree. It is told that the moment she gave Shankara the permission to become a monk, the crocodile released Shankara and disappeared. Shankara assured her that he would return whenever his mother needed him. He further made the commitment that on her death, he would perform the last rites, even though it was contrary to the conventional code of the ascetic order. He bade his mother farewell and left home, still a child, in search of the right guru or teacher.
Legend Pertaining to the Finding his Guru
This search took him across the Deccan plateau, and the Satpura range to the city of Omkareshwar, situated on the river Narmada, known for centuries as a holy city which housed one of the twelve Jyotirlangas symbolizing Shiva. But this temple alone was not the reason for Shankara’s visit to this city. He had trekked hundreds of miles across dense jungles to come to Omkareshwar in search of the right guru. He knew that in this city resided the learned Vedantic scholar Govindapada, the son of the famous Garudapada, the author of the Karika, a seminal commentary on the Mandukya Upanishad.
According to local belief Garudapada was in deep meditation when inside a cave when Shankara arrived. When the pious sage had finished his meditation and saw the boy, he asked him who he was, lore has it that Shankara recited a sloka ‘I am neither the earth, nor water, nor fire, nor air, nor sky, nor any other properties. I am not the senses and not even the mind. I am Shiva, the undivided essence of consciousness.’ Hearing such a profound reply, Garudapada took Shankara under his tutelage. During that time, as a keen student of the revered sage, he mastered the Advaita philosophy. Under the influence of his guru he also learnt the value of selfless service and the creation of Mathas.
Journey to Varanasi and Compilation of his Important Works
After he had mastered the intricacies of the Advaita doctrine at the feet of Govindapada, Shankara took the permission of his guru to leave for Varanasi. It must have taken him several months to complete this long journey on foot, through dense forest, unchartered territory, with its lurking dangers of being attacked by robbers and brigands.
He stayed for several years in Varanasi which was the capital of the Hindu faith, where saints and philosophers took up abode on the banks of the river Ganga. There he wrote some of his important works including the ‘Shankara Bhashya’, his commentary on the ’Brahma Sutra’ as well as his commentaries on the’ Bhagavad Gita’, and the principal ‘Upanishads’.
Three Interesting Incidents
It is believed that when in Varanasi, Shankara acquired his most dedicated devotee Sanandana. Legend has it that one day, when Sanandana was on the other side of the river, Shankara asked him to return by walking across. Without a thought the pupil, in absolute faith obeyed. The Ganga river put forth a lotus to support him and so Sanandana actually walked across the river. After t Shankara his Shankara named him Padmapada (lotus footed).
There three other interesting incidents that occurred in Varanasi that provide an insight into Shankara’s thinking and the nuance of his times. The first relates to his meeting with a chandala or outcaste, someone regarded to be from the lower rungs of society which took place in the narrow alleys of the embarkment. Apparently Shankara was going to the Ganga to bathe when he came upon the chandala. The disciples of Shankara asked him to make way for the sage to which he retorted as to what difference was there in a Brahmin and a Chandala according to the Advaita philosophy. After all it is the same atman or consciousness that is present in all bodies irrespective of their station in life. Shankara was taken aback by this response and promptly acknowledged the chandala who had such profound knowledge, as his guru and this thought is enshrined in Shankara’s five stanza composition ‘Panchakam’.
The second incident relates to Shankara’s reaction to a student who was enthusiastically engaged in learning Sanskrit grammar by memorizing loudly. Shankara is said to have composed the most popular hymn ‘Bhaja Govindam’ on the spot. The last line of every stanza of this hymn ends with worship Govinda foolish one. This hymn is most popular and sung even today all over India. It indicates Shankara’s impatience with mechanical learning and his emphasis on the need to use the path of knowledge, the jnana marga-for acquiring the wisdom that enables the achievement of moksha through a true understanding the transience of the material world, to which we give so much importance.
The third incident is about a disputation he had with an old man on the interpretation of the Brahma Sutra. The argument went on for almost a week, with neither willing to yield ground. Finally, so the story goes, Shankara’s disciple Padmapada appealed to Lord Vishnu to bring the argument to an end.
The Famous Debate
After several years in Varanasi, with occasional trips to Badrinath, Shankara went to Prayaga (modern Allahabad). There he bathed at the holy confluence of the rivers Ganga, Yamuna and mythical Saraswathi. This visit is most remembered for his meeting with the formidable Kumarila Bhatta, an Assamese Brahmin, and one of the greatest exponents of the Purva Mimamsa school of Hindu philosophy who was on the verge of death advised him to debate with his ardent pupil, Mandana Mishra who lived in Mahishmati. So Shankara went to meet him and engaged in a debate with him in which Shankara chose Mandana’s wife Sharada Devi also named Ubhaya Bharati who was also very learned, as the arbiter. It was agreed that whoever lost the debate would become the follower of the other, and adopt the rules of the life of his opponent.
As per different account of the event, the debate went on anything between seventeen days to six months. In the end Shankara won the argument. But Mandana’s wife was not willing to accept his defeat and argued that she had the right to debate with Shankara, being one half of her husband. Shankara was reticent as debating with a woman was not permissible under the rules of ascetism, but had to agree on her insistence. During this debate she asked Shankara to answer questions on Kama shastra that related to sensuality and eroticism, which she as a married woman was familiar but about which her opponent was clueless as he was an ascetic. Then Shankara asked for a month’s time to learn about this science and return to the debate to which she agreed.
Legend of his Role as a King and Defeat of Mandana Mishra
The story goes that Shankara through his yogic powers, left his body in a cave on the banks of the Narmada, and entered the dead body of the Kind of Amaruka which was being taken for cremation. Shankara in the body of the king returned to the palace where in the company of the King’s wives learnt the art of love and became adept in Kama Sutra. In fact, as per his biographers, he became so involved in this role and started enjoying the luxuries of the palace that he forgot about the debate. His disciples had to remind him of who he really was by singing a few philosophical songs. Shankara woke up from his sensual stupor, hastened to renter his body which was about to be consigned to the flames, having been discovered by the King’s messengers.
He returned to Mahishmati and successfully answered the questions put to him by Ubhaya Bharati.The debate was won. Mandana Mishra donned the robes of a sanyasin and became the disciple of Shankara, so did his wife Ubhaya Bharati. This event is an important part of Shankara’s life because it asserted the primacy of thought over ritual at a time when precisely the opposite was the accepted way of life for Hindus.
Establishment of Matha (Monastery) at Sringeri
The sixth and seventh centuries CE saw a revival of Hinduism, and the relative decline of Buddhism. However, this revival was excessively focused on blind devotionalism and ritualism. There was a disconnect between the methods of worship and the philosophical foundation underlying it. Shankara’s victory in the debate with Mandana, once again reasserted the Jnana Marga or the path of knowledge over ritualistic beliefs. This debate made a major impact on the beliefs and practice of Hinduism across India and acquires great importance in the evolution of Hinduism. Which is the reason why it has been given such prominence in every account of Shankara’s life.
After the great debate, Shankara’s fame spread far and wide. He travelled southwards preaching the Advaita doctrine. He set up a Matha at Sringeri on a beautiful spot on the river Tunga. There he spent some time with his principal disciples, encouraging them to write commentaries on different facets of the Advaita doctrine and on his own works relating to it.
Solace to Mother and his Final Days
From Sringeri Shankara set off to meet his mother who was ailing at Kaladi as per his promise to her when he was a child. He found her bedridden and close to death. The reunion of Shankara with his mother must have been one of the most emotional moments in his life. Shankara’s mother sought solace from her son as she would not be with him for long. It was then that he sang to her one of his most evocative hymns to Shiva, and then one of Vishnu and lost in this devotional mood, she breathed her last.
Shankaracharya spent the later part of his life travelling widely, participating in philosophical debates with religious scholars, preaching the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. He was a prolific writer and wrote many commentaries on The Upanishads, The Bhagavad Gita and The Brahma sutra, which are considered authentic even today. Shankara went on to establish four Mathas in four corners of India. Goverdhan Matha in Puri in the east, Jyothi Matha near Badrinath in the west, Badrikashram Jyotirpeetha in the north, and Sringeri Sharada peethas in the south. By establishing these Mathas he ensured that. The tradition of the Mathas has continued for 1200 years, not being affected by foreign invasions of the country. It is believed that he passed away in 820 CE at Kedarnath, a Hindu pilgrim site in the Himalayas.
Shankaracharya, in a short life spanning only of 32 years, traversed tirelessly through the length and breadth of India twice reviving the tenets of Sanatana Dharma, uniting the people, at a time when Hinduism was at its lowest being bogged down by ritualist practices and dogmas. He consolidated the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, which focuses on the idea that the soul or Atman is the same as Brahman or super consciousness. He played a fundamental role in the development of Hinduism over the centuries.
He was also a worshipper of the feminine manifestation of the divine.
Shankara’s inclination towards the concept of ‘divine mother’ is evidenced by the fact that all the four Mathas established by him are called shakti peethas (or the seat of the divine mother).
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 VIDYA D SAGAR
VIDYA D SAGAR (author) on May 19, 2021:
Thanks Misbah. I appreciate your visit and comments. The legends associated with his life are very interesting. He travelled the length and breadth of the country to pursue his goal of uplifting people by increasing their spiritual quotient. This is so amazing because he did this at a time when transportation was not so good. He mostly travelled on foot. So much effort is really awe inspiring
Misbah Sheikh from The World of Rebels. on May 19, 2021:
interesting history of Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya. I enjoyed learning about his life. In a very short life span, he served very well. Thanks for sharing
Blessings and Peace
VIDYA D SAGAR (author) on May 18, 2021:
Thanks for the nice comments Nithya. Yes Shankaracharya saved Hinduism and laid the foundation for the true principles of Sanatana Dharma. He did not believe in ritualistic religion riddled with dogmas. His commentaries and lyrical hymns make him immortal. I am so glad you enjoyed reading the article. Have a good day and stay blessed.
VIDYA D SAGAR (author) on May 18, 2021:
Thank you so much for the lovely comments Chitrangada. I have always admired Adi Shankaracharya for his extraordinary achievements in such a short life span, and that too when there were no facilities like transportation and communication that we have today. He walked the entire country to guide people on the spiritual path. Writing about him was uplifting for me too. Have a good day, stay blessed.
VIDYA D SAGAR (author) on May 18, 2021:
Thanks Lorna. I very much appreciate your visit and comments. Revisiting the biographies of great personalities feels good Lorna. It is enlightening and uplifting. Have a great day, stay blessed.
Lorna Lamon on May 18, 2021:
Interesting account and in-depth article Vidya. I always enjoy your hubs which are a blessing and an education. Thank you for sharing.
Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on May 17, 2021:
Excellent article about the life and vast contributions of Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya. I have read a lot about him, through different sources.
So good and thoughtful of you to introduce him to those, who don’t know about him.
Thank you for sharing this well written and informative article.
Nithya Venkat from Dubai on May 17, 2021:
A fascinating account of Shankaracharya. He was a great philosopher and saved Hinduism from the impending doom due to the invaders. Thank you for sharing his life story, I enjoyed reading it.
VIDYA D SAGAR (author) on May 17, 2021:
Thanks Pamela for the kind comments. Much appreciated. Shankaracharya was extraordinary. The volume of his literary output in philosophy and spirituality, his work to uplift human consciousness is unbelievable. The lyrical hymns composed by him are sung even today here. Have a great day, stay blessed.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 17, 2021:
Since Shankaracharya only live 32 years, his life is quite interesting. I enjoyed reading this article, Vidya, as it was fascinating. Thank you for sharing this information. Thank you.