Ādi Śaṅkara (Devanāgarī: आदि शङ्कर) also known as Śaṅkara Bhagavatpādācārya ("the teacher at the feet of God"), and Ādi Śaṅkarācārya ("the first Shankaracharya in his lineage") was the first philosopher to consolidate the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta, a sub-school of Vedanta.
Adi Shankara toured India with the purpose of propagating his teachings through discourses and debates with other philosophers. He founded four mathas ("monasteries") which played a key role in the historical development, revival and spread of post-Buddhist Hinduism and Advaita Vedanta. Adi Shankara was the founder of the Dashanami monastic order and the Shanmata tradition of worship.
His works in Sanskrit, all of which are extant today, concern themselves with establishing the doctrine of Advaita (Sanskrit: "Non-dualism"). Adi Shankara quotes extensively from the Upanishads and other Hindu scriptures in forming his teachings. He also includes arguments against opposing schools of thought like Samkhya and Buddhism in his works.
The life of Adi Shankara was like a brilliant flash of lightning, illuminating the spiritual thought of India that led to the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, non-dualism. This philosophy stressed that the individual soul (Atman) is one with its creator, undivided and imperishable. Man’s belief that he is separate from God is caused by Maya or illusion. This illusion is the result of ignorance and can be eliminated by knowing the reality of the Absolute Spirit, which is called Brahman. Shankara taught that the knowledge of the Self (Atman), rather than mere observance of rituals, was the source of solace and the core of Vedic truth. With this basic message, Shankara traveled throughout India rejuvenating Hinduism and unifying the fragmented country.
The traditional accounts of Adi Shankara's life are called the Shankara Vijayams, ("Victory of Shankara"). These are poetic works containing a mix of biographical and legendary material, written in the epic style. The most important among these biographies are the Mādhavīya Śaṅkara Vijayaṃ (of Mādhava, c. 14th century), the Cidvilāsīya Śaṅkara Vijayaṃ (of Cidvilāsa, c. between 15th century and 17th century), and the Keraļīya Śaṅkara Vijayaṃ (of the Kerala region, extant from c. 17th century). According to these texts, Adi Shankara was born in Kalady, a village in Kerala, India, to a Namboothiri brahmin couple, Shivaguru and Aryamba and lived for thirty-two years.
Birth and Childhood
Adi Shankara's parents, Kaippilly Sivaguru Namboothiri and Arya Antharjanam (Melpazhur Mana), were childless for many years. They prayed at the Vadakkunnathan temple (also known as Vrishabhachala) in Thrissur, Kerala, for the birth of a child. Legend has it that Shiva appeared to both husband and wife in their dreams, and offered them a choice: a mediocre son who would live a long life, or an extraordinary son who would not live long. Both the parents chose the latter; thus a son was born to them. He was named Shankara (Sanskrit, "bestower of goodness"), in honour of Shiva (one of whose epithets is Shankara).
His father died while Shankara was very young. Shankara's upanayanaṃ, the initiation into student-life, was performed at the age of five. As a child, Shankara showed remarkable scholarship, mastering the four Vedas by the age of eight. Following the customs of those days, Shankara studied and lived at the home of his teacher. It was customary for students and men of learning to receive Bhikṣā ("alms") from the laity; on one occasion, while accepting Bhikṣā, Shankara came upon a woman who had only a single dried amalaka fruit to eat. Rather than consuming this last bit of food herself, the lady gave away the fruit to Shankara as Bhikṣā. Moved by her piety, Shankara composed the Kanakadhārā Stotram on the spot. Legend has it that on completion of this stotra, golden amalaka fruits were showered upon the woman by Lakṣmi, the Goddess of wealth.
From a young age, Shankara was inclined towards sannyasa ("monastic life"). His mother was against his becoming a monk, and refused him formal permission. However, once when Shankara was bathing in the Periyar River near his house, a crocodile gripped his leg and began to drag him into the water. Only his mother was nearby, and it proved impossible for her to rescue him. Shankara asked his mother to give him permission to renounce the world then and there, so that he could be a sannyāsin at the moment of death. This mode of entering the renunciatory stage is called Āpat Sannyāsa. At the end of her wits, his mother agreed. Shankara immediately recited the mantras to make a renunciate of himself. Miraculously, the crocodile released him and swam away. Shankara emerged unscathed from the water.
With the permission of his mother, Shankara left Kerala and travelled towards North India in search of a Guru. On the banks of the Narmada River, he met Govinda Bhagavatpada, the disciple of Gaudapada. When Govinda Bhagavatpada asked Shankara's identity, he replied with an extempore verse that brought out the Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Govinda Bhagavatapada was impressed and took Shankara as his disciple. Adi Shankara was commissioned by his Guru to write a commentary on the Brahma Sutras and propagate Advaita Vedanta. The Mādhavīya Shankaravijaya states that Adi Shankara calmed a flood from the Reva River by placing his kamaṇḍalu ("water pot") in the path of the raging water, thus saving his Guru, Govinda Bhagavatpada, who was absorbed in Samādhi ("meditation") in a cave nearby.
On his mission to spread the Advaita Vedanta philosophy, Adi Shankara travelled to Kashi, where a young man named Sanandana from Choladesha in South India, became his first disciple. In Kashi, Adi Shankara was on his way to the Vishwanath Temple, when he came upon an untouchable with four dogs. When asked to move aside by Shankara's disciples, the untouchable replied: "Do you wish that I move my ever lasting Ātman ("the Self"), or this body made of food?" Understanding that the untouchable was none other than god Shiva, and his dogs the four Vedas, Shankara prostrated himself before him, composing five shlokas known as Manisha Panchakam.
On reaching Badari in the Himalayas, he wrote the famous Bhashyas ("commentaries") and Prakarana granthas ("philosophical treatises"). Afterwards he taught these commentaries to his disciples. Some, like Sanandana, were quick to grasp the essence; the other disciples thus became jealous of Sanandana. In order to convince the others of Sanandana's inherent superiority, Adi Shankara summoned Sanandana from one bank of the Ganga River, while he was on the opposite bank. Sanandana crossed the river by walking on the lotuses that were brought out wherever he placed his foot. Adi Shankara was greatly impressed by his disciple and gave him the name Padmapāda ("lotus-footed one").
Meeting with Mandana Mishra
One of the most famous debates of Adi Shankara was with the ritualist Mandana Mishra. Mandana Mishra's Guru was the famous Mimamsa philosopher, Kumarīla Bhaṭṭa. Shankara sought a debate with Kumarīla Bhaṭṭa and met him in Prayag where he had buried himself in a slow burning pyre to repent for sins committed against his Guru: Kumarīla Bhaṭṭa had learnt Buddhist philosophy incognito from his Guru in order to be able to refute it. Learning anything without the knowledge of one's Guru while still under his authority constitutes a sin according to the Vedas. Kumarīla Bhaṭṭa thus asked Adi Shankara to proceed to Mahiṣmati (known today as Mahishi Bangaon, Saharsa in Bihar) to meet Mandana Mishra and debate with him instead.
Adi Shankara had a famous debate with Mandana Mishra in which the wife of Mandana Mishra, Ubhaya Bhāratī, was the referee. After debating for over fifteen days, Mandana Mishra accepted defeat. Ubhaya Bhāratī then challenged Adi Shankara to have a debate with her in order to 'complete' the victory. Later, Ubhaya Bhāratī concedes defeat in the debate and allows Mandana Mishra to accept sannyasa with the monastic name, Sureśvarācārya as per the agreed rules of the debate.
Adi Shankara then travelled with his disciples to Maharashtra and Srisailam. In Srisailam, he composed Shivanandalahari, a devotional hymn to Shiva. The Madhaviya Shankaravijayam says that when Shankara was about to be sacrificed by a Kapalika, the God Narasimha appeared to save Shankara on Padmapada's prayer to him. So Adi Shankara composed the Laksmi-Narasimha stotra. He then travelled to Gokarṇa, the temple of Hari-Shankara and the Mūkambika temple at Kollur. At Kollur, he accepted as his disciple a boy believed to be dumb by his parents. He gave him the name, Hastāmalakācārya ("one with the amalaka fruit on his palm", i.e., one who has clearly realised the Self). Next, he visited Śṛngeri to establish the Śārada Pīṭham and made Toṭakācārya his disciple.
After this, Adi Shankara began a Dig-vijaya (missionary tour) for the propagation of the Advaita philosophy by controverting all philosophies opposed to it. He travelled throughout India, from the South to Kashmir and Nepal, preaching to the local populace and debating philosophy with Hindu, Buddhist and other scholars and monks along the way.
With the Malayali King Sudhanva as companion, Shankara passed through Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Vidarbha. He then started towards Karnataka where he encountered a band of armed Kapalikas. King Sudhanva, with his army, resisted and defeated the Kapalikas. They safely reached Gokarna where Shankara defeated in debate the Shaiva scholar, Neelakanta.
Proceeding to Saurashtra (the ancient Kambhoja) and having visited the shrines of Girnar, Somnath and Prabhasa and explaining the superiority of Vedanta in all these places, he arrived at Dwarka. Bhaṭṭa Bhāskara of Ujjayini, the proponent of Bhedābeda philosophy, was humbled. All the scholars of Ujjayini (also known as Avanti) accepted Adi Shankara's philosophy.
He then defeated the Jainas in philosophical debates at a place called Bahlika. Thereafter, the Acharya established his victory over several philosophers and ascetics in Kamboja (region of North Kashmir), Darada (Dabistan) and many regions situated in the desert and crossing mighty peaks, entered Kashmir. Later, he had an encounter with a tantrik, Navagupta at Kamarupa.
Accession to Sarvajnapitha
Adi Shankara visited Sarvajñapīṭha (Sharada Peeth) in Kashmir (now in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir). The Madhaviya Shankaravijayam states this temple had four doors for scholars from the four cardinal directions. The southern door (representing South India) had never been opened, indicating that no scholar from South India had entered the Sarvajna Pitha. Adi Shankara opened the southern door by defeating in debate all the scholars there in all the various scholastic disciplines such as Mimamsa, Vedanta and other branches of Hindu philosophy; he ascended the throne of Transcendent wisdom of that temple.
Towards the end of his life, Adi Shankara travelled to the Himalayan area of Kedarnath-Badrinath and attained videha mukti ("freedom from embodiment"). There is a samadhi mandir dedicated to Adi Shankara behind the Kedarnath temple. However, there are variant traditions on the location of his last days. One tradition, expounded by Keraliya Shankaravijaya, places his place of death as Vadakkunnathan temple in Thrissur, Kerala. The followers of the Kanchi kamakoti pitha claim that he ascended the Sarvajñapīṭha and attained videha-mukti in Kanchipuram (Tamil Nadu).
Adi Shankara founded four Maṭhas (Sanskrit: मठ) to guide the Hindu religion. These are at Sringeri in Karnataka in the south, Dwaraka in Gujarat in the west, Puri in Orissa in the east, and Jyotirmath (Joshimath) in Uttarakhand in the north. Hindu tradition states that he put in charge of these mathas his four main disciples: Sureshwaracharya, Hastamalakacharya, Padmapadacharya, and Totakacharya respectively. The heads of the mathas trace their authority back to these figures. Each of the heads of these four mathas takes the title of Shankaracharya ("the learned Shankara") after the first Shankaracharya. The table below gives an overview of the four Amnaya Mathas founded by Adi Shankara and their details.
|Hastāmalakācārya||Govardhana Pīṭhaṃ||Prajñānam brahma (Brahman is Knowledge)||Rig Veda||Bhogavala|
|Sureśvarācārya||Śārada Pīṭhaṃ||Aham brahmāsmi (I am Brahman)||Yajur Veda||Bhūrivala|
|Padmapādācārya||Dvāraka Pīṭhaṃ||Tattvamasi (That thou art)||Sama Veda||Kitavala|
|Toṭakācārya||Jyotirmaṭha Pīṭhaṃ||Ayamātmā brahma (This Atman is Brahman)||Atharva Veda||Nandavala|
Adi Shankara wrote the following treatises
- Vivekacūḍāmaṇi (Crest-Jewel of Discrimination)
- Upadeśasāhasri (A thousand teachings)
- Ātma bodha
- Sādhana Pañcakaṃ
- Nirvāṇa Śatakaṃ
- Manīśa Pañcakaṃ
- Yati Pañcakaṃ
- Tattva bodha
- Vākya vṛtti
- Siddhānta Tattva Vindu
- Nirguṇa Mānasa Pūja
Adi Shankara composed many hymns on Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, Ganesha and Subrahmanya
- Bhaja Govindaṃ, also known as Mohamuḍgara
- Śrī Lakṣmīnṛsiṃha Karāvalamba Stotraṃ
- Śāradā Bhujangaṃ
- Kanakadhāra Stotraṃ
- Bhavāni Aṣṭakaṃ
- Śiva Mānasa Pūja
Books written by Adi Sankara
- A Bhasya on the Brahma Sutra
- Bhashyas upon the Eisha, Kena Katha, Prasna, Mundak, Mandookya, Taittireya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyak, Nrsinhatapaneeya Upanishads and also the Shreemad Bhagwadgeeta and Sanatsujateeya commentary on the
- 240 works of strotras like Upvansh Strotra, Vivekchudamani, Aparokshanubhuti and 80 contextual works.
A few of Shankara’s sayings:
Just as a piece of rope is imagined to be a snake in the darkness so is Atman (soul) determined to be the body by an ignorant person.
Neither by yoga, nor philosophy, nor by work, nor by learning but by the realization of one’s identity with Brahman is liberation possible, and by no other means.
A father has his sons and others to free him from his debts; but he has none but himself to remove his bondage.
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