Adi Shankaracharya was the first philosopher who consolidated Advaita Vedanta, one of the sub-schools of Vedanta. He believed in the greatness of the holy Vedas and was a major proponent of the same. Not only did he infuse a new life into the Vedas, but also advocated against the Vedic religious practices of ritualistic excesses. He founded four Shankaracharya Peethas in the four corners of India, which continue to promote his philosophy and teachings. He was also the founder of Dashanami monastic order and the Shanmata tradition of worship. He preached the concept of union of soul, i.e. Atman and Brahman.
Childhood of Adi Shankaracharya
Adi Shankaracharya was born as Shankara in around 788 AD in a Brahmin family in Kaladi village of Kerala. He was born to Kaippilly Sivaguru Namboodiri(Father) and Aryamba Antharjanam (Mother) who had been childless for many years, they prayed at the Vadakkunnathan temple, Thrissur. It is said that Aryamba had a vision of Lord Shiva, in which he promised her that He would incarnate Himself in the form of her first-born child. The life history of Adi Shankracharya tells us that he showed great intelligence right from his childhood Shankara showed remarkable scholarship, mastering the four Vedas by the age of eight in gurukul itself and could recite the epics and Puranas by heart.
Adopting Sanyasa (Monastic Life)
Adi Shankaracharya was attracted towards sanyasa right from his childhood. One day, while bathing in the Purna River, Shankaracharya was attacked by a crocodile. Seeing his mother’s incapability to rescue him, he asked her to give him the permission to renounce the world. Left with no other option, she agreed to it. Shankaracharya recited the mantras of renunciation and immediately, the crocodile left him. Thus started the life of Shankara as an ascetic. He left Kerala and moved towards South India in search of a Guru
Meeting Govinda Bhagavatpada and Enlightenment
On the banks of Narmada River, Shankara 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. Impressed by his knowledge of the Vedas and the Vedanta, he took Shankaracharya under his disciple. Under the guidance of his Guru, Shankara mastered Hatha, Raja and Jnana Yoga. Thereafter he received initiation in the knowledge of Brahma. Thus was born Adi Shankaracharya, whose aim in life was to spread the Vedic teachings of the Brahma Sutras throughout the world.
The guru instructed Shankara to write a commentary on the Brahma Sutras and propagate the Advaita philosophy. Shankara travelled to Kashi, where a young man named Sanandana, hailing from Chola territory in South India, became his first disciple.
According to legend, while on his way to the Vishwanath Temple, Sankara came upon an untouchable accompanied by 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 flesh? All bodies are made of earth, built alike and hence impure. The inner self (Atman) is all pervading, hence immovable and inert. tell me who should move away?”
Realizing that the untouchable was none other than god Shiva himself, and his dogs the four Vedas, Shankara prostrated himself before him, composing five shlokas known as Manisha Panchakam. At Badari he wrote his famous Bhashyas (“commentaries”) and Prakarana granthas (“philosophical treatises”).
Somewhere between the age of seven and eleven – there is no historical record of it, but it seems just between seven and eleven – he must have become enlightened. At the age of eleven he started writing his great commentaries on the UPANISHADS, and on one of the greatest and most complicated scriptures that exists in India, Badrayana’s BRAHMASUTRAS.
At the age of eleven it is almost impossible even to understand it – and Shankara wrote the greatest commentary. It has defeated all the great commentators of the past and all the great commentators that came after him. Nobody has been able to go beyond these flights of consciousness and bring such tremendous meaning to the almost dead scripture of Badrayana, BRAHMASUTRAS.
The way he interprets is possible only after enlightenment. Each small word… the way he gives a turn to its meaning. Something which was looking very ordinary immediately becomes extraordinary. He has the touch that transforms everything into gold.
Meeting with Mandana Mishra
One of the most famous debates of Adi Shankara was with the ritualist Mandana Mishra (Ritualist is an advocate of strict observance of ritualistic forms).
Madana Mishra’s was a desciple of Mimamsa philosopher, Kumarīla Bhaṭṭa asked Adi Shankara to proceed to Mahiṣmati (known today as Mahishi Bangaon, Saharsa in Bihar) to meet Maṇḍana Miśra and debate with him instead.
After debating for over fifteen days, with Maṇḍana Miśra (Maṇḍana Miśra’s wife Ubhaya Bhāratī acting as referee), Maṇḍana Miśra accepted defeat. Ubhaya Bhāratī then challenged Adi Shankara to have a debate with her in order to ‘complete’ the victory. She asks the questions in “kamasutra” in which sankaracharya has no knowledge since he is a true celibate and sanyasi, So he uses the art of “parakaya pravesa” and his soul joins a dead body of a king. And he acquires all the knowledge of “art of love” from the queen from questionnaire. Finally Ubhaya Bhāratī allowed Maṇḍana Miśra to accept sannyasa with the monastic name Sureśvarācārya, as per the agreed rules of the debate.
Adi Sankaracharya Teachings
The philosophy and teachings of Adi Sankaracharya were based on the Advaita Vedanta. He preached ‘Non-Dualism’. It means that each and every person has a divine existence, which can be identified with the Supreme God. The mere thought that human being is finite with a name and form subject to earthly changes, is to be discarded. The bodies are diverse, but the soul of all the separate bodies is the same, the Divine One.
The Four Adi Shankaracharya Peethas
- Vedanta Jnana Peetha, Sringeri (South India)
- Govardhana Peetha in Jagannath Puri (East India)
- Kalika Peetha, Dwaraka (West India)
- Jyotih Peetha, Badarikashrama (North India)
Chaar Dhaams, are the sacred temples dedicated to Lord Vishnu or his incarnations (avatars). The four sacred places are Badrinath, Rameshwaram, Puri, and Dwarka. The Char Dhams are located in the North, South, East and West of India. Since the four sacred places are spread across the country, the Char Dham ‘thirthyatra’ is known as the Mahaparikrama.
Adi Shankaracharya established Char Dham (Four Centres) in Badrinath (North),Rameshwaram (South), Jagannath Puri (East) and Dwaraka (West) in four corners of Bharat thus setting a classic example of cultural and national unity of Bharat
Historical and cultural impact
Shankara developed a monastic order on the Buddhist model, and also borrowed concepts from Buddhist philosophy.
While Shankara is given credit for the defeat of Buddhism in Hindu literature, he was in fact active after Buddhism had almost entirely faded from prominence. When Shankara came north to the intellectual centers there, he borrowed many of the ideas that had been formulated by Buddhist philosophers of the past.
In his systematic interpretation that the world is an illusion, Shankara borrowed arguments from Madhyamaka and Yogacara, though he disagreed with them on some matters. Despite this, Shankara described the Buddha as an enemy of the people.
At the time of Adi Shankara’s life, Hinduism was increasing in influence in India at the expense of Buddhism and Jainism. Hinduism was divided into innumerable sects, each quarreling with the others. The followers of Mimamsa and Sankhya philosophy were atheists, in so much that they did not believe in God as a unified being. Besides these atheists, there were numerous theistic sects (believer of god). There were also those who rejected the Vedas, like the Charvakas.
Adi Shankara held discourses and debates with the leading scholars of all these sects and schools of philosophy to controvert their doctrines. He unified the theistic sects into a common framework of Shanmata system. In his works, Adi Shankara stressed the importance of the Vedas, and his efforts helped Hinduism regain strength and popularity. Many trace the present worldwide domination of Vedanta to his works. He travelled on foot to various parts of India to restore the study of the Vedas.
Even though he lived for only thirty-two years, his impact on India and on Hinduism was striking. He reintroduced a purer form of Vedic thought. His teachings and tradition form the basis of Smartism and have influenced Sant Mat lineages. He is the main figure in the tradition of Advaita Vedanta. He was the founder of the Daśanāmi Sampradāya of Hindu monasticism and sanmata of Smarta tradition. He introduced the Pañcāyatana form of worship.
Adi Shankara, along with Madhva and Ramanuja, was instrumental in the revival of Hinduism. These three teachers formed the doctrines that are followed by their respective sects even today. They have been the most important figures in the recent history of Hindu philosophy.
Regarding meditation, Shankara controverted the system of Yoga and its disciplines as a direct means to attain moksha, rebutting the argument that it can be obtained through concentration of the mind. His position is that the mental states discovered through the practices of Yoga can be indirect aids to the gain of knowledge, but cannot themselves give rise to it. According to his philosophy, knowledge of brahman springs from inquiry into the words of the Upanishads, and the knowledge of brahman that shruti provides cannot be obtained in any other way.
Moreover, Shankara was committed to the caste system. He also believed that the most important access to highest truth was Vedic texts, and that access to these liberating texts should be socially restricted to upper-caste males.
It has to be noted that it is generally considered that for Shankara the Absolute Reality is attributeless and impersonal, while for Madhava and Ramanuja, the Absolute Truth is Vishnu. This has been a subject of debate, interpretation, and controversy since Shankara himself is attributed to composing the popular 8th century Hindu devotional composition Bhaja Govindam (literal meaning, “Worship Govinda”). This work of Adi Shankara is considered as a good summary of Advaita Vedanta and underscores the view that devotion to God, Govinda, is not only an important part of general spirituality, but the concluding verse drives through the message of Shankara: “Worship Govinda, worship Govinda, worship Govinda, Oh fool! Other than chanting the Lord’s names, there is no other way to cross the life’s ocean”. Bhaja Govindam invokes the almighty in the aspect of Vishnu; it is therefore very popular not only with Sri Adi Shankaracharya’s immediate followers, the Smarthas, but also with Vaishnavas and others.
A well known verse, recited in the Smarta tradition, in praise of Adi Shankara is:
श्रुति स्मृति पुराणानामालयं करुणालयं|
नमामि भगवत्पादशंकरं लॊकशंकरं ||
Śruti smṛti purāṇānāṃālayaṃ karuṇālayaṃ|
Namāmi Bhagavatpādaśaṅkaraṃ lokaśaṅkaraṃ||
I salute the compassionate abode of the Vedas, Smritis and Puranas known as Shankara Bhagavatpada, who makes the world auspicious.