JAGADGURU Adi Shankaracharya was one of the greatest philosophers and savants of India. Reverently adored as the Bhagavatpada, he belongs to the galaxy of master-minds of the world holding a pre-eminent place among prophets and intellectuals. He is by far the most outstanding personality of all times and of all countries. He was the supreme exponent of the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta and a saviour of Vedic Dharma. Acknowledged by everyone in the east and the west, in its thoroughness and profundity, the Advaita system of Shankaracharya holds the first place among the philosophies of the world.
The word Advaita (non-dualism) essentially refers to the identity of the self (atman) and the whole (Brahman). Advaita rejuvenated much of Hindu thought and also spurred debate with the two main theistic schools of Vedanta philosophy that were formalised later-Vishishtadvaita (qualified non-dualism), and Dvaita (dualism).
Though he lived for only thirty-two years, his achievement was unparalleled. Shankaracharya founded four mutts (monasteries) in the four corners of India, probably following the Buddhist Vihara system. These mutts are at Sringeri (south), Puri (east), Dwaraka (west) and Badrinath (north). The establishment of these mutts was one of the significant factors in the development of his teachings into the leading philosophy of India.
Biographers narrate that Shankaracharya first went to Kasi, a city celebrated for learning and spirituality and then travelled all over India holding discussions with philosophers of different creeds. His intense debate with Mandana Mishra, a philosopher of the Mimamsa school, whose wife served as an umpire, is perhaps the most interesting episode in his life. Shankaracharya propagated his teachings chiefly to sanyasins and intellectuals. Gradually, he won the respect of Brahmins and feudal lords. He enthusiastically endeavoured to restore the orthodox Brahminical tradition without paying much attention to the bhakti movement, which had made a deep impression on ordinary Hindus of his time.
There are at least 11 works that profess to be biographies of Adi Shankaracharya. All of them were composed centuries later and are filled with legendary stories and incredible anecdotes. Traditional accounts of Adi Shankaracharya’s life can be found in the Shankara Vijayams, which are poetic works that contain a mix of biographical and legendary materials, written in the epic style. The most important among these biographies are the Madhaviya Shankara Vijayam of Madhvacharya, Cidvilasiya Shankara Vijayam of Cidvilasa and Keraliya Shankara Vijayam.
Over 300 commemorative, expository and poetical Sanskrit works are attributed to him. However, his masterpiece, Brahmasutra Bhashya, is a fundamental text of the Vedanta school. His style of writing is lucid and his works are characterised by the penetrating insight and analytical skill. His approach to truth is psychological and religious rather than logical. The key source texts for all schools of Vedanta are the Prasthanatrayi—the canonical texts consisting of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras. He also wrote Prakarana-Granthas in verse and prose varying from a single shloka to a thousand. The more important among these are the Satasloki, Sarva Vedanta Sara Sangraha, the Upadesa Sahasri and the Vivekachudamani.
It has been popularly believed that Shankaracharya was born in 788 AD into a pious Namboodiri Brahmin family in a village called Kalady in Kerala as the son of Sivaguru and Aryamba. According to lore, it was after his parents, who had been childless for many years, prayed at the Vadakkunnathan Temple, Thrissur that Shankara was born under the star Thiruvathira. According to a tradition, Lord Shiva was the family deity and that Shankara was by birth a worshipper of shakti, the consort of Lord Shiva and female personification of divine energy. His father died when Shankara was hardly three years old. His 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. He renounced the world to become an ascetic against his mother’s will. Shankara then left his home and travelled towards North India in search of a guru. On the banks of the Narmada River, he met Govinda Bhagavatpada and became his disciple. The guru instructed Shankara to write a commentary on the Brahma Sutras and propagate the Advaita philosophy. Govinda Bhagavatpada was a disciple of Gaudapada, author of mandukya-Karika, an important work on Vedanta.
Shankaracharya unified the theistic sects into a common framework and his efforts helped Hinduism regain strength and popularity. He taught the universality of the Vedic religion and his doctrines derived the main currents of modern Indian thought.
(The author is a freelance journalist and social activist. He can be contacted at [email protected])