The Supreme power assumes form from time to time to bring erring humanity back to the correct path. Leaving His all-pervading spirit unaffected, He incarnates choosing a form, place, and time.
Chaos pervaded all through India in the matter of religion and philosophy. Sect after sect, such as Charvakas, Lokayathikas, Kapalikas, Shaktas, Sankhyas, Buddhas and Madhyamikas sprang up. The number of religions rose as high as seventy-two. There was a fight amongst sects. There was no peace anywhere. There was superstition and bigotry. Darkness prevailed over the once happy land of Rishis, sages, and Yogins. Such was the state of the country at the time which just preceded the incarnation (Avathara) of Shankaracharya. It was into such a chaotic intellectual atmosphere that Sri Shankara brought his life-giving philosophy of non-dual Brahman of the Upanishads.
Sivaguru a Brahmin and studied the Shastras and married at the proper age. He had no child. He and his wife Aryamba prayed to Lord Siva to bless them with a son. In response to their prayers, Lord Siva blessed them with a son who was born in the Vasanta Ritu or the spring season at noon, in the auspicious Abhijit Muhurta and under the constellation Ardhra who is Shankara. He was born in the year 788 A.D. in a village named Kaladi, six miles to the east of Alwaye, Kerala, India.
Sivaguru died when Shankara was seven years old. Shankara had none to look after his education. Then Shankara’s mother Aryamba took special care to educate her son in all the Shastras. Shankara’s Upanayana or thread ceremony was performed in his seventh year, after the death of his father. Shankara exhibited extraordinary intelligence in his boyhood.
Keerthi Sthamba Mandapam at Shankara Birth Place
Shankara meeting his Guru
Shankara met Swami Govindapada Acharya in a hermitage in Badrikashram (Badrinath) in the Himalayas and he prostrated at the teacher’s feet. Govinda asked Shankara who he was. Shankara replied: “O revered Guru! I am neither fire nor air nor earth nor water-none of these, but the Immortal Atma (Self) that is hidden in all names and forms”
Shankara said in the end: “I am the son of Sivaguru, a Brahmin of Kerala. My father died in my childhood. I was brought up by my mother. I have studied the Vedas and the Shastras under a teacher. I took Apath-sannyasa when a crocodile caught my foot while I was taking bath in the river. Kindly initiate me formally into the holy order of Sannyasa”.
Swami Govinda was very much pleased with the truthful narration given by Shankara. Having initiated him and invested him with the robe of a Sannyasin, Swami Govinda taught him the philosophy of Advaita which he himself had learnt from his Guru-Gaudapada Acharya. Shankara learnt all the philosophical tenets from his Guru Govindapada. Govinda asked Shankara to go to Kashi. Shankara proceeded to Kashi where he wrote all his famous commentaries on the Brahma Sutras, the Upanishads and the Gita and successfully met all the criticisms levelled against them. He then began to propagate his philosophy. Shankara had the greatest esteem for his Guru Govindapada and his Parama Guru or the teacher’s teacher, Gaudapada.
Writing Philosophical Commentaries
At the age of twelve, his Guru deemed that Shankara was ready to write commentaries on major scriptural texts. At his Guru’s command, Shankara wrote commentaries elucidating the subtle meanings hidden in the teachings of the scriptures. At the age of sixteen, he dropped his pen having completed writing all the major treatises of philosophies and theologies including commentaries on the Gita, the Upanishads, and the Brahma Sutras.
From the age of sixteen to thirty-two, Shankaracharya went forth, travelling across the length and breadth of ancient India bringing to the hearts of the masses the life-giving message of the Vedas.
Shankara travel across the Nation
Shankara’s philosophical conquests are unique in the world. He had his triumphant tour all over India. He met the leaders of different schools of thought. He convinced them by arguments and established the supremacy and truth of the religion that he expounded in his commentaries. He went to all the celebrated seats of learning. He challenged the learned men to a discussion, argued with them and converted them to his opinions and views. He defeated Bhatta Bhaskara and condemned his Bhashya (commentary) on the Vedanta Sutras. He then met Dandi and Mayura and taught them his philosophy. He then defeated in argument Harsha, author of Khandana Khanda Kadya, Abhinavagupta, Murari Misra, Udayanacharya, Dharmagupta, Kumarila, and Prabhakara.
Shankara & Mandana Misra
Mandana Misra was the chief Pundit of the court of Mahishmati. Mandana was brought up in the Karma Mimamsa faith and so he had an intense hatred for the Sannyasins. He was performing a Sraaddha ceremony when Shankara somehow dropped down there. Immediately Mandana Misra became very furious. An ugly conversation was started when the Brahmins, who were present there for dinner, interposed and pacified Mandana Misra. Then Shankara challenged Mandana to a religious controversy. Mandana agreed. Bharati who was the wife of Mandana Misra and who possessed scholarly erudition was appointed as the umpire.
It was agreed beforehand that Shankara, if defeated, would become a householder and marry; and that Mandana, if defeated, would become a Sannyasin and receive the robe of a Sannyasin from the hands of his own wife. The controversy began in right earnest and continued for days without any interruption. Bharati did not sit and listen to their controversy. She threw two garlands, one each over the shoulders of each of the disputants, and said: “He whose garland begins to fade first should consider himself defeated”. She left the place and began attending to her household duties. The controversy went on for seventeen days. The garland of Mandana Misra began to fade first. Mandana Misra accepted his defeat and offered to become a Sannyasin and follow Shankara.
Shankara Digvijaya Yatra
Shankara ascended the seat of omniscience after inviting Vedic scholars from all parts of India and answering their numerous questions. Shankara, by vanquishing all the religious opponents of his day-and they belonged to no less than seventy-two different schools-and establishing the superiority of the Vedic Dharma, had become the Jagadguru of all.
Shankara’s success over the other religious sects was so complete that none of them have since been able to raise their head in the land. Most of them have disappeared altogether. After Shankara’s time, although a few Acharyas have appeared, none of them have been able to vanquish those who differed from them as Shankara did and establish unquestioned supremacy.
Shankara received news that his mother was seriously ailing. He left his disciples and proceeded to Kaladi alone. His mother was then bedridden. Shankara touched her feet in reverence. He praised Lord Hari. Hari’s messengers came. Shankara’s mother gave up her physical body and went along with those messengers to the abode of Hari.
Shankara encountered serious difficulties in performing the funeral rites of his mother. Usually, Sannyasins do not perform any of the rites or ceremonies which are enjoined on the householders. At last, Shankara determined to perform the funeral rites all alone.
Shankara as a great Poet
Apart from his immense intellectual and organizational abilities, Shankaracharya was an exquisite poet, with a heart brimming with Love of the Divine.
He composed 72 devotional and meditative hymns like Soundarya Lahari, Sivananda Lahari, Nirvana Shalkam, Maneesha Panchakam. He also wrote 18 commentaries on the major scriptural texts including the Brahma Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita and 12 major Upanishads. He also authored 23 books on the fundamentals of the Advaita Vedanta philosophy which expound the principles of the non-dual Brahman. These include Viveka Chudamani, Atma Bodha, Vaakya Vritti, Upadesa Sahasri, among others.
Four Mutts Established by Shankara
Sri Shankara founded the four Mathas at Dwaraka in the West, Puri in the East, Sringeri in the South and Badrinath in the North. Considered to be an incarnation of Lord Siva, Sri Shankara lived only a short life span of 32 years. Shankara is therefore called the greatest revivalist of Hinduism.
Shankara organized ten definite orders of Sannyasins under the name ‘Dasanamis’ who add, at the end of their names, any one of the following ten suffixes: Sarasvati, Bharati, Puri (Sringeri Mutt); Tirtha, Asrama (Dwaraka Mutt); Giri, Parvata and Sagar (Joshi Mutt); Vana and Aranya (Govardhana Mutt).
The Paramahamsa represents the highest of these grades. It is possible to become a Paramahamsa by a long course of Vedantic study, meditation and Self- realization.
Shankara Message in a nutshell
The message that is contained in elaborate discussions in the Bhashyas of Sri Shankara is often succinctly expressed in a century of verses, in ten verses, in one verse or even half a verse. He has reconciled the seemingly contradictory conclusions of the Upanishads and in the integrated view that He has presented the eternal, impersonal, consciousness Absolute is the Brahman, the one without a second. By His power which is anirvacanīyā or inscrutable and called Maya, or Mitya, He appears as the universe, conditions by space, Time, etc., that are ever-changing. The jiva is not different from the absolute Brahman, but Upadhis appears to be different and subject to limitations. The Upadhis limit comprehensions and are unreal like limitless space appearing like room space, pot space, etc.
Once the conditioning factors vanish, jiva is seen as one with Brahman as taught in the Mahavakya of the Upanishads. The Knowledge of this oneness is liberation or moksha. Karma and Bhakti help from a distance in the attainment of Jnana by bestowing the needed mental purity when done in a spirit of dedication to Iswara.
Popular Kanakadhara incident
As was the practice in the olden days of Gurukulam all pupils in turn have to seek food from householders (Biksha from Grahastas ) and share whatever they receive with the fellow students and Acharya( teacher). It was Shankara’s turn on a Dwadasi day to seek alms. Shankara of 5 years age was going door to door for alms (Biksha) and happened to see a cottage where a lady with a pious countenance was seen.
Shankara addressed the lady “O blessed Mother, please give alms.” (Maatha Bavathy Biksham Dehi). The lady was poor, and though was attracted by the splendor and effulgence of Shankara, earnestly desired to give something to Shankara but felt helpless and grieved as she had nothing. Despite knowing very well that she did not possess anything worthy for her guest, the poor lady did not want young Shankara to leave empty-handed, and noticing her ordeal and pitiable situation, Shankara stood there calmly. She searched to locate something to be given and saw a few dry gooseberries (Amla) which she had collected for Parana (that which is taken to end a fast) (Previous day being Ekadashi she had not eaten anything and had observed fast (Upavas). She did not even know whether this gooseberry could be given and would be accepted by Shankara. She sought his permission before giving. Shankara was deeply moved by the noble gesture and gracious heart with a charitable attitude of parting with the only thing she had and respectfully received the alms. The entire situation of the lady in distressing poverty triggered the compassionate all-inclusive personality of Shankara to soulfully appeal to Goddess of wealth Sri Lakshmi.
The story continues as Mahalakshmi asserted lack of charity in previous births of the lady as the reason for poverty; but the persuasive Shankara (as is evidently clear from each stanza of the poem) justified the willingness to part with the gooseberry, the only possession, as a sufficient reason deserving grace and blessings. Goddess Mahalakshmi impressed by the earnestness of Shankara’s appeal was so joyous and liberal to create an instant downpour, a continuous shower of Golden Amla fruits. In memory of this episode, the hymn came to be known as Kanakadhara Stotram.
Prostrations to Shankara
Shankara was the exponent of the Kevala Advaita philosophy. His teachings can be summed up in the following words:
Brahma Satyam Jagat Mithya,
Jeevo Brahmaiva Na Aparah
Brahman alone is real, this world is unreal; the Jiva is identical to Brahman.
Glory to Adi Shankara, Glory to Lord Shiva !!!
— Om Tat Sat —
Take no pride in your possession, in the people at your command, in the youthfulness that you have. Time loots away all these in a moment. Leaving aside all these, after knowing their illusory nature, realize the state of Brahman (God) and enter into it.