Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya, the greatest philosopher that India has ever produced was a religious reformer, a poet, a mystic and a devotee of the 8th century A.D. His thoughts and ideas have been a constant source of knowledge for the followers of Advaita philosophy, or non-dualism. His works are subjected to research by many Indian and foreign scholars even today.
Though he lived around twelve hundred years back, India and the world feel the impact of life and work of this spiritual genius even today.
The Lord in the Bhagawad Gita had given assurance to Arjuna that
YadaYada hi dharmasyaglanirbhavatibharata
Translated as – Whenever and wherever there comes a decline in any religious practice, O descendant of Bharata (India), and an overriding rise of irreligion – at that time I descend Myself.
As per this promise, Shankaracharya appeared on the Indian landscape during the times when impiety, immorality and religious bedlam swept over the nation. Further during the 8th Century A.D. foreign invasion had taken a toll on Hinduism and other religions like Jainism and Buddhism were widely spreading their philosophies. Atheism was becoming the vogue and the general creed of the people. Hinduism was broken up into innumerable denominations and sects each intolerant of and opposed to one another. In short the religious coherence in the land was lost and the purity and spirit of the religion was corroded beyond measure. This religious decadence and disharmony had to be arrested and this could be done only by a divine personality. Shankara came on to the scene and carried out this mighty and stupendous task of regenerating the religion. He brought about spiritual coherence and religious harmony in the country.
Shankara advocated the famous Advaita philosophy, or non-dualism. This philosophy regards God and man as aspects of the same unified consciousness. Shankara’s philosophy resisted dogma and ritualism and restored the substance and magnitude of the Vedas, placing special focus on the Upanishads. Shankara’s teachings contributed to the Hindu renaissance when Buddhism and Jainism were earning immense popularity. He is considered the founder of the Dasanami Sanyasins, an order of Hindu renunciants.
Shankara is the foremost among the master-minds and the giant souls which Mother Bharat (India) has produced. He was a great metaphysician, a pragmatic philosopher, an infallible logician, a vibrant personality and a stupendous ethical and spiritual force. He was a Yogi, Jnani and Bhakt of the highest stature. He was a Karma Yogi of no mean order.
Shankara was born in the year 788 A.D. to a Nambudiri Brahmin family. Shankara was born to Kaippilly Sivaguru and Aryamba Antharjanam near Kaladi, Kerala. As per the lore, after being childless for many years, his parents prayed at the Vadakkunnathan temple, Thrissur and thus Shankara was born under the star Thiruvathira.
Shankara’s father Sivaguru died when Shankara was seven years old. Shankara’s Upanayanaṃ or thread ceremony was performed in his seventh year, after the death of his father. Shankara had none to look after his education. However, his mother was an extraordinary woman who took special care to educate her son in all the Shastras.
Shankara exhibited extraordinary intelligence in his boyhood. He showed remarkable erudition and mastered the four Vedas by the age of eight. Eventually, Shankara conquered the knowledge of all the theologies and philosophies. He started writing commentaries on the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras by the tender age of sixteen.
When Shankara reached adulthood his mother began consulting various astrologers who could help finding a suitable girl for Shankara’s marriage. But Shankara had a firm resolve to renounce everything and attain Sanyasa.
Though from a very young age, Shankara was inclined towards Sanyasa, it was only after much persuasion that his mother finally gave her consent.
An interesting episode took place which compelled Shankara’s mother to allow her son for choosing Sanyasa as his path of life. One day, Shankara and his mother went to take a bath in the river. Shankara plunged into the river and felt that a crocodile was lugging him by the feet. Shankara’s predicted the end of his life and shouted out to his mother asking permission to let him die peacefully as a Sanyasi. He begged for Apath-Sanyasa (the adoption of Sanyasa when death is near).
The mother immediately allowed him to take Sanyasa. Shankara took Apath-Sanyasa at once. However, the crocodile let him go unharmed. Shankara came out of the water as a nominal Sanyasi.
Before leaving home and starting off his life as Sanyasi, Shankara assured his mother that he would fulfill his duties as a son and return to serve her at the death-bed and perform her funeral rites. He then proceeded to find out a guru who can get him formally initiated into the holy order of Sanyasins.
In search of a Guru
From Kerala, he travelled towards north as his mind and soul were continually longing for a guru. He met Govinda Bhagavatpada, the disciple of Gaudapada, on the banks of the Narmada River. During Shankara’s first meeting with Govinda Pada at an ashram in Badrinath in the Himalayas, he prostrated at the teacher’s feet. When Govinda Bhagavatpada asked Shankara’s personal identity, he replied with an extempore verse that unveiled the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.
Shankara answered his revered guru that neither is he fire nor air. Neither is he earth nor water. He is the Immortal Atma (Self) that is veiled in all forms and names. Shankara concluded by saying that he is the son of Sivaguru, a Brahmin residing in Kerala. After his father’s demise, he was brought up by his mother. He has studied the Vedas and the Shastra and has taken Apath-Sanyasa. He thereby asked his Guru to formally initiate him in the holy order of Sanyasa.
Govinda Pada became extremely pleased and impressed with the truthful narration given by Shankara. The guru then initiated him, invested him with the robe of a Sanyasi and took him as his disciple. Govinda Pada imparted the knowledge of Advaita philosophy to his disciple which he had inherited from his Guru Gaudapada. After Shankara finished learning all the philosophical tenets from Govinda Pada, the guru asked him to proceed towards Kashi. It was during his Kashi stay that he wrote all his famous commentaries on the BrahmaSutras, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita, and successfully met all the criticisms leveled against them. He then began to spread his philosophy. Shankara had the greatest esteem for Govinda Bhagavatpada and his Param Guru or teacher’s teacher, Gaudapada.
Contribution to Society
Shankara wrote Bhashyas or commentaries on the BrahmaSutras, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad-Gita. Specifically,he was instructed by his guru GovindaPada to propagate Advaita philosophy. Therefore he wrote the commentary on the BrahmaSutras. The Bhashya on the BrahmaSutras is called BhasyaSariraka. Shankara wrote commentaries on Sanatsujatiya and SahasranamaAdhyaya.
In the form of his eternal commentaries, Sri Shankaracharya has passed onto posterity the fundamentals oflogic and metaphysics. Shankara’s commentaries emphasize on gaining practical knowledge in order to unfold and strengthen devotion towards the Almighty.
A few of these commentaries which are treasures to Hinduism are Vivekachudamani, AtmaBodha, Aparokshanubhuti, AnandaLahari, Atma-AnatmaVivek, Drig-DrishyaVivekaand UpadesaSahasri. These innumerable works are pure and original in verses and are matchless in sweetness, melody and thought.
In his works, Adi Shankara reinvigorated the essence of Vedas amongst the people of India, and his efforts helped Hinduism regain its earlier strength and popularity.
Even though he lived a very short life and renounced his body at thirty-two years, his impact on India and on Hinduism is extremely striking. He re-introduced a finer form of Vedic thought. His traditions and teachings form the basis of the Smartas and have influenced Sant and Mutt lineages.
The Vedanta school stresses mostly on the Upanishads (which are themselves called Vedanta, the apogee of the Vedas), unlike the other schools that gave tremendous stress on ritualistic Brahmanas, or to texts authored by their founders.
It is known that Shankara’s Brahman was Nirvisesha (without attributes), Nirguna (without the Gunas), Nirakara (formless), and Akarta (non-agent). This means he was above all needs and desires. Regarding meditation, Shankara straightaway refuted the system of Yoga and its various disciplines as a direct means of attaining moksha. As per Shankara, moksha could be attained solely through concentration of the mind.
Shankara is known as Paramahamsa Parivrajakacharya or the “best of peripatetic teachers.” He undertook a triumphant tour of the entire country vanquishing great scholars and establishing the Absolute Truth. At Badrinath he wrote his famous Bhashyas(commentaries) and Prakarana Granthas (philosophical treatises).
Adi Shankara then traveled to Srisailam (Andhra Pradesh) and Maharashtra with his followers. At Srisailam, he composed a devotional (bhakti) hymn called Shivanandalahari in praise of Lord Shiva. The Madhaviya Shankaravijayam explains that when Adi Shankara was about to be sacrificed by a Kapalika, Lord Narasimha came to rescue Shankara in response to Padmapada’s prayer. Finally, Adi Shankara composed the Laksmi-Narasimhastotra. He then visited the Mookambika temple at Kollur, the Lord Mahabhaleshwara at Gokarṇa, and the Harishankar at Gandhamardhan hills in Orissa. At Kollur, he accepted a young boy as his disciple. The boy was believed to be desereted by his own parents. Shankara named the boy Hastamalakacarya and initiated him to the world of spiritualism. Next, he visited Sringeri (Śṛngeri) to establish the Śarada Piṭham and made Totakacharya his disciple.
After this, Adi Shankara started off his tour of conquest or Dig-vijaya to propagate the philosophy of Advaita and in his teachings he controverted all philosophies opposed to Advaita. He traveled from South India to Kashmir and Nepal. On his way, he greatly promoted and disseminated his ideas to the local masses. He stood for his philosophy and entered into extensive debates with Hindu, Buddhist and other monks and scholars. In his tour, he was accompanied by Malayali King Sudhanva and they extensively traveled throughout Andhra Pradesh, Vidarbha and Tamil Nadu. On their way to Karnataka, they were besieged by a group of armed Kapalikas. However, King Sudhanva and his Nairs confronted and defeated the group and the duo safely reached Gokarna. At Gokarna, Shankara initiated and participated in many impromptu debates. In one such debate with a Shaiva scholar named Neelakanta, he acquired a sweeping victory for his lucid speech acts on Advaita philosophy. Moving towards Saurashtra or ancient Kambhoja and other places in Gujarat including shrines of Girnar, Somnath and Prabhasa and imparting the teachings of Vedanta in all these sites, he arrived at Dwarka. At Ujjayini in Madhya Pradesh, all the established scholars – including Bhaṭṭa Bhaskara, the proponent of Bhedabeda philosophy – accepted with pleasure the Advaita philosophy preached by Adi Shankara. He debated against the Jainas at Bahilka and surpassed them in religious confrontations. Thereafter, he gained victory over many philosophers in Darada (Dabistan), Kamboja (North Kashmir) and from there he got across deserts and the Himalayas and finally reached Kashmir.
Collected works of Shankaracharya
Shankaracharya’s works are classified under Bhāṣya (commentary), Prakaraṇagrantha (philosophical treatise) and Stotra (devotional hymn). A partial list of his works is given below:
4.1. Collections of Works
The Works of Sri Shankaracharya [Memorial Edition], 20 volumes published in 1910 by Sri Vani Vilas Press, Srirangam, remains to this day the standard collection of the complete works of Sri Shankaracharya. It includes Sri Shankaracharya’s major commentaries as well as his other works, as given in the list below.
4. Upanishad-bhashya, vol. 1: Isa, Kena , Katha, Prasna
5. Upanishad-bhashya, vol. 2: Mundaka, Mandukya, Aitareya
6. Upanishad-bhashya, vol. 3: Taittiriya, Chhandogya 1-3
7. Upanishad-bhashya, vol. 4: Chhandogya 4-8
8. Upanishad-bhashya, vol. 5: Brihadaranyaka 1-2
9. Upanishad-bhashya, vol. 6: Brihadaranyaka 3-4
10. Upanishad-bhashya, vol. 7: Brihadaranyaka 5-6, Nrisimhapurvatapani
11. Bhagavad-Gita-bhashya, vol. 1: chaps. 1-9
12. Bhagavad-Gita-bhashya, vol. 2: chaps. 10-18
13. Vishnusahasranama and SanatsujatiyaBhashyas
15. Miscellaneous Prakaranas vol. 1: Aparokshanubhuti, etc. [7 works]
16. Miscellaneous Prakaranas vol. 2: PraBodhsudhakara, etc. [25 works]
17.Stotras, vol. 1 [30 works]
18.Stotras, vol. 2 [35 works, plus LalitaTrisatistotraBhashya]
19.Prapanchasara, vol. 1
20.Prapanchasara, vol. 2
Notable biographies on Shankaracharya –
1. Sri Shankaracharya’s ‘BhajaGovindam’ by Chandrika.
(Bhaja Govindam is very popular amongst Smarthas (Sri Adi Shankaracharya’s direct followers), Vaishnavas and others sects alike. The text invokes the almighty in the character of Lord Vishnu.
2. Shankaracharya: Philosopher and Mystic by KasinathTryambakTelang
Shankaracharya’s thoughts on ‘Brahman’
‘Brahman’‘Self’ and ‘Atman’ – To quote what the spiritual-master Shankarasaid and preached, “This Atman is self-evident. This Atman or Self is not established by proofs of the existence of the Self. It is not possible to deny this Atman, for it is the very essence of he who denies it. The Atman is the basis of all kinds of knowledge.
The Self is within, the Self is without, the Self is before and the Self is behind. The Self is on the right hand, the Self is on the left, the Self is above and the Self is below.”
In the above phrase Adi Shankara explains the core of no-dualism philosophy, stating that the fundamentals of life – Satyam-Jnanam-Anantam-Brahma – are inseparable attributes. The essence of Brahman is formed by these attributes, in total. Since any type of description requires distinction, to describe a Brahman cannot be made possible under any circumstances. On the other hand, Brahman can be distinguished from no one but Almighty.
The objective world has no sovereign existence rather only the Atman has the one. The world is merely Vyavaharika (phenomenal).
Shankara was the exponent of the Kevala Advait philosophy. His teachings on Kevala can be summed up in the following phrase:
“Brahma Satyam JagatMithya,
JeevoBrahmaiva Na paraha”
Meaning – Brahman alone is real, this world is unreal; there is no difference between the Jivatma and paramatmaie Brahman.
‘Brahman’ and ‘VivartaVada’ – Out of the three major concepts (vaadas) of the Vedanta philosophy, i.e. Arambha, Parinama and Vivarta, the VivartaVada forms the basis behind Shankara’sAdvait philosophy.
The three vaadas support different causes of the existence of this universe. The philosophy of VivartaVada, propagated by Shankara says that Brahman is said to be without change but only appears as the Universe, through the play of maya.
Just as a rope is mistaken for a snake, this world and this body are laid over on Brahman or the Supreme Self. The illusion of the snake automatically vanishes once you derive the knowledge of the rope. Similarly, the illusion of the body and the world vanishes, once you get true knowledge of Brahman.
Adi Shankara founded four mutts 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
- Joshi Mutt in the north.
He ordered Sureshwaracharya, Hastamalakacharya, Padmapadacharya, and Totakacharya as heads of these mutts.
Even today, the heads of these mutts inherit the title ‘Shankaracharya’ (the learned Shankara) after Adi Shankaracharya. By establishing these Mutts, Shankara comprehended the physical and spiritual harmony of India. Another Mutt known as the Kamakoti Mutt at Kanchi in South India was also established by him.
The Order of the Dasanami Sanyasins
Adi Shankaracharya was the founder of the Dasanami Sanyasins (Dasanami Sampradaya) of Hindu monasticism and Ṣhaṇmata of Smarta tradition. He brought in the Pancayatana worship tradition. He played an instrumental role in the revival of Hinduism and he achieved this in coordination with Madhva and Ramanuja. Later, three prominent Hinduism factions emerged under their respective leaderships which are in practice even today. All the three leaders have been the most central figures in the recent past of Hindu philosophy.
Shankara organized ten definite orders of Sanyasins under the title ‘Dasanamis’ who lend, at the end of their names, any one of the ten below mentioned suffixes:
- Puri (Sringeri Mutt);
- Asrama (Dwaraka Mutt);
- Parvata and
- Sagar (Joshi Mutt);
- Vana and
- Aranya (Govardhana Mutt).
The highest of all grades is Paramahamsa and it is only through extensive learning of Vedantic study, meditation and Self- realization that one achieves this stature. The Ativarnashramis are above caste and other conventional orders of life. Shankara’s Sanyasins are settled all over the country, till date, preaching and propagating the works of their divine guru
Shankaracharya with His disciples