Glory of Bharath  »  Intellectuals of Bharath - II
Sri Adi Shankaracharya
Shri Adi Shankaracharya or the first Shankara with his remarkable reinterpretations of Hindu scriptures, especially on Upanishads or Vedanta, had a profound influence on the growth of Hinduism at a time when chaos, superstition and bigotry was rampant. Shankara advocated the greatness of the Vedas and was the most famous Advaita philosopher who restored the Vedic Dharma and Advaita Vedanta to its pristine purity and glory. Shri Adi Shankaracharya, known as Bhagavatpada Acharya (the guru at the feet of Lord), apart from refurbishing the scriptures, cleansed the Vedic religious practices of ritualistic excesses and ushered in the core teaching of Vedanta, which is Advaita or non-dualism for the mankind. Shankara restructured various forms of desultory religious practices into acceptable norms and stressed on the ways of worship as laid down in the Vedas.


Shankara's Childhood
Shankara was born in a Brahmin family circa 788 AD in a village named Kaladi on the banks of the river Purna (now Periyar) in the Southern Indian coastal state Kerala. His parents, Sivaguru and Aryamba, had been childless for a long time and the birth of Shankara was a joyous and blessed occasion for the couple. Legend has it that Aryamba had a vision of Lord Shiva and promised her that he would incarnate in the form of her first-born child. According to lore, it was after his parents, who had been childless for many years, prayed at the Vadakkunnathan temple, Thrissur that Sankara was born under the star Thiruvathira.

His father died while Shankara was very young. Shankara's upanayanam, 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. Shankara mastered all the Vedas and the six Vedangas from the local gurukul and recited extensively from the epics and Puranas. Shankara also studied the philosophies of diverse sects and was a storehouse of philosophical knowledge.


Sannyasa
From a young age, Shankara was inclined towards sannyasa, but it was only after much persuasion that his mother finally gave her consent. Shankara then 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.

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 Atman ("the Self"), or this body made of flesh?" 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").


Meeting with Mandana Mishra
One of the most famous debates of Adi Shankara was with the Smarta Brahmin Mandana Mishra. Madana Mishra's guru was the famous Mimamsa philosopher, Kumarila Bhatta. Shankara sought a debate with Kumarila Bhatta and met him in Prayag where he had buried himself in a slow burning pyre to repent for sins committed against his guru. Kumarila Bhatta thus asked Adi Shankara to proceed to Mahismati (known today as Mahishi Bangaon, Saharsa in Bihar) to meet Ma??ana Misra and debate with him instead.

After debating for over fifteen days, with Ma??ana Misra's wife Ubhaya Bharati acting as referee, Ma??ana Misra accepted defeat. Ubhaya Bharati then challenged Adi Shankara to have a debate with her in order to 'complete' the victory. Finally Ubhaya Bharati allowed Mandana Misra to accept sannyasa with the monastic name Suresvaracarya, as per the agreed rules of the debate.


Missionary Tour
Adi Shankara then travelled with his disciples to Maharashtra and Srisailam. In Srisailam, he composed Shivanandalahari, a devotional hymn in praise of Shiva. The Madhaviya Shankaravijayam says that when Shankara was about to be sacrificed by a Kapalika, the god Narasimha appeared to save Shankara in response to Padmapada's prayer to him. As a result, Adi Shankara composed the Laksmi-Narasimha stotra. He then travelled to Gokarna, the temple of Hari-Shankara and the Mukambika temple at Kollur. At Kollur, he accepted as his disciple a boy believed to be dumb by his parents. He gave him the name, Hastamalakacarya ("one with the amalaka fruit on his palm", i.e., one who has clearly realised the Self). Next, he visited S?ingeri to establish the Sarada Pi?ham and made To?akacarya his disciple.

After this, Adi Shankara began a Dig-vijaya (tour of conquest) for the propagation of the Advaita philosophy. He travelled throughout India, from South India 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 Nairs, resisted and defeated the Kapalikas. They safely reached Gokarna where Shankara defeated in debate the Shaiva scholar, Neelakanta.

Proceeding to Saurashtra and having visited the shrines of Girnar, Somnath and Prabhasa and explaining the superiority of Vedanta in all these places, he arrived at Dwarka. Bhatta Bhaskara of Ujjayini, the proponent of Bhedabeda 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 Sarvaj˝api?ha (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.


Philosophy of Adi Shankara
Shankara spread the tenets of Advaita Vedanta, the supreme philosophy of monism to the four corners of India with his 'digvijaya' (the conquest of the quarters). The quintessence of Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism) is to reiterate the truth of reality of one's essential divine identity and to reject one's thought of being a finite human being with a name and form subject to earthly changes. According to the Advaita maxim, the True Self is Brahman (Divine Creator). Brahman is the 'I' of 'Who Am I?' The Advaita doctrine propagated by Shankara views that the bodies are manifold but the separate bodies have the one Divine in them.

The phenomenal world of beings and non-beings is not apart from the Brahman but ultimately become one with Brahman. The crux of Advaita is that Brahman alone is real, and the phenomenal world is unreal or an illusion. Through intense practice of the concept of Advaita, ego and ideas of duality can be removed from the mind of man.

The comprehensive philosophy of Shankara is inimitable for the fact that the doctrine of Advaita includes both worldly and transcendental experience.

Shankara while stressing the sole reality of Brahman, did not undermine the phenomenal world or the multiplicity of Gods in the scriptures. Shankara's philosophy is based on three levels of reality, viz., paramarthika satta (Brahman), vyavaharika satta (empirical world of beings and non-beings) and pratibhashika satta (reality). Shankara's theology maintains that seeing the self where there is no self causes spiritual ignorance or avidya. One should learn to distinguish knowledge (jnana) from avidya to realize the True Self or Brahman. He taught the rules of bhakti, yoga and karma to enlighten the intellect and purify the heart as Advaita is the awareness of the 'Divine'.


Mathas
Adi Shankara founded four Mathas 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.
 EastSouthWestNorth
Name of the peethamGovardhana MathSringeri MathKalika MathJyotir Math
Place of LocationPuri (Orissa)Sringeri (Karnataka)Dwaraka (Gujarat)Badarikashrama (Uttaranchal)
Divinities Jagannatha(Purushottama, Shakti-Vrsala Vimala) Malahanikara Linga,Varaha, Shakti-SharadaSiddheshwaraShakti-Bhadra KaliNarayanaShakti-Purnagiri
Tirtha Mahodadhi(Bay of Bengal)River TungabhadraRiver GomatiRiver Alakananda
Veda Rig VedaYajur VedaSama VedaAtharva Veda
Sampradaya BhogavalaBhurivalaKitavalaNandavala
MahavakyaPrajnanam BrahmaAham BrahmasmiTattvamasiAyamatma Brahma
Titles to the Pontificial seat Aranya, Vana All the titles, particularly, Saraswati, Puri, Bharati, Aranya, Tirtha, Giri, Ashrama Tirtha, AshramaGiri, Parvata, Sagara
First Acharya of the Peetham Sri HastamalakacharyaSri SureshwaracharyaSri PadmapadacharyaSri Totakacharya
Works
Adi Shankara's works deal with logically establishing the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta as he saw it in the Upanishads. He formulates the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta by validating his arguments on the basis of quotations from the Vedas and other Hindu scriptures. He gives a high priority to svanubhava ("personal experience") of the student. His works are largely polemical in nature. He directs his polemics mostly against the Sankhya, Buddha, Jaina, Vaisheshika and other non-vedantic Hindu philosophies.

Traditionally, his works are classified under Bha?ya ("commentary"), Prakara?a grantha ("philosophical treatise") and Stotra ("devotional hymn"). The commentaries serve to provide a consistent interpretation of the scriptural texts from the perspective of Advaita Vedanta. The philosophical treatises provide various methodologies to the student to understand the doctrine. The devotional hymns are rich in poetry and piety, serving to highlight the relationship between the devotee and the deity.

Adi Shankara wrote Bhashyas on the ten major Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. In his works, he quotes from Shveshvatara, Kaushitakai, Mahanarayana and Jabala Upanishads, among others. Bhashyas on Kaushitaki, Nrisimhatapani and Shveshvatara Upanishads are extant but the authenticity is doubtful. Adi Shankara's is the earliest extant commentary on the Brahma Sutras. However, he mentions older commentaries like those of Dravida, Bhartrprapancha and others. In his Brahma Sutra Bhashya, Adi Shankara cites the examples of Dharmavyadha, Vidura and others, who were born with the knowledge of Brahman acquired in previous births. He mentions that the effects cannot be prevented from working on account of their present birth. He states that the knowledge that arises out of the study of the Vedas could be had through the Puranas and the Itihasas.

Adi Shankara also wrote commentaries on other scriptural works, such as the Vishnu sahasranama and the Sanatsujatiya. Like the Bhagavad Gita, both of these are contained in the Mahabharata.


Historical and cultural impact
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, insomuch that they did not believe in God as a unified being. Besides these atheists, there were numerous theistic sects. 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. 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. In their writings and debates, they provided polemics against the non-Vedantic schools of Sankhya, Vaisheshika etc. Thus they paved the way for Vedanta to be the dominant and most widely followed tradition among the schools of Hindu philosophy.

The Vedanta school stresses most on the Upanishads (which are themselves called Vedanta, End or culmination of the Vedas), unlike the other schools that gave importance to the ritualistic Brahmanas, or to texts authored by their founders. The Vedanta schools hold that the Vedas, which include the Upanishads, are unauthored, forming a continuous tradition of wisdom transmitted orally. Thus the concept of apaurusheyatva ("being unauthored") came to be the guiding force behind the Vedanta schools. However, along with stressing the importance of Vedic tradition, Adi Shankara gave equal importance to the personal experience of the student. Logic, grammar, Mimamsa and allied subjects form main areas of study in all the Vedanta schools.

Regarding meditation, Shankara refuted 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.


"Bhaja Govindam Bhaja Govindam Govindam Bhaja Mudhamathe
Samprapye Sannihithe Kaale Nahi Nahi rakshathi Dukrun Karane"
- Shankaracharya


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