By Anoop Verma
There is a superhuman quality in the life of Adi Shankaracharya. In the 32 years of his earthly existence, he travelled to far-flung areas of India and wrote many works, the most important of which are his commentaries on the ten Upanishads, the Brahama Sutra and the Bhagwad Gita. In his works, he has emphasised on the importance of the Vedas. Many scholars of Hinduism trace the present worldwide appeal of the Vedanta to his efforts. Shankaracharya established four Muths or Peethas, which were centres of Adviata Vedanta, in four different corners of India. They are Sharada Peetha in Sringeri, Karnataka; Govardhana Peetha in Jagannath Puri, Odisha; Kalika Peetha, Dwaraka, Gujarat; Jyotih Peetha, Badarikashrama, Uttarakhand. These Peethas continue to uphold Shankaracharya’s original teachings till this day.
In 788 AD, Shankaracharya was born to parents, Sivaguru and Aryamba, both of whom had been praying to Lord Shiva for a child for many years. According to traditional accounts, Aryamba had a vision of Lord Shiva, who promised that he would incarnate in the form of her first-born child. Many devotees consider Adi Shankaracharya to be the incarnation of Shiva. His father died, when he was still very young. Shankaracharya was an exceptional child; his mind had extraordinary capability of retention. He was capable of remembering anything even if it had been read to him only once.
By the time Shankaracharya was eight years old, he had mastered all the Vedas, Puranas and many other holy texts, and became filled with the desire of becoming a monk. But his mother refused to grant him the permission for renouncing the world. One day while he was having his bath at a pond, a crocodile attacked him. Seeing that his mother was incapable of rescuing him from the beast, he begged her to allow him to renounce the world, so that after dieing in the jaws of the crocodile, he would gain liberation from the cycle of birth and death. The moment his mother consented, Shankaracharya was miraculously released from the jaws of the crocodile.
The young boy then left home in search of a guru. He met Govindapada Acharya in a hermitage, and prostrated at the teacher’s feet. There is difference of opinion in various texts about the place where Shankaracharya met his guru. Some texts have mentioned the name of Badrinath in the Himalayan Mountains, while others have said that Govindapada’s ashram was located on the banks of River Narmada. When Govindapada asked Shankaracharya who he was, the boy replied with a verse that was seeped with the essence of Adviata philosophy. Govindapada was impressed and he immediately took the boy as his disciple. Shankaracharya received an initiation into the knowledge of the Supreme Bhagwan and the Upanishads. Govindapada is also said to have instructed Shankaracharya to write a commentary on Brahma Sutras, Upanishads, Bhagwad Gita and other texts.
Thus was born the Adi Shankaracharya, one of the most original philosophers of Vedic thought in his time, who would devote his entire life to the propagation of the virtues of Adviata Vedanta. After receiving instructions from Govindapada, Shankaracharya is believed to have proceeded for Kashi, where he wrote most of his famous commentaries. He also endeavoured to meet the leaders of different schools of thought; by engaging them in debates and answering all their queries on religious and philosophical issues, he managed to convert everyone to his own philosophy of Adviata. Shankaracharya’s religious and philosophical works have led to the establishment of Adviata Vedanta, which is an interpretation of the Upanishads.
The word Adviata refers to the denial of dualism and is focussed on promoting the view that there exists only one ultimate realty. As he accepted the authority of the Vedas as being unquestionable and final, Shankaracharya could boldly declare that the supreme Bhagwan alone is the real. The world is an illusion and the atman or the individual is the Bhagwan and nothing else. Advaita philosophy uses the principle of maya, which means illusion, in order to prove its basic ideas. Maya dissolves the contradiction between the self and non-self, the subject and the object, the cause and the effect, and finally the Supreme Lord and rest of the world. Just as it is possible for you to mistake a stick for a snake, you can also mistakenly believe that the world can exist independently of the Supreme Lord.
Till this day countless people all over the world derive solace, peace and illumination from the philosophy that he preached. It is believed that Shankaracharya attained heavenly abode in 820 AD while he was in Kedarnath.