Adi Shankara, also known as Sankara Bhagavatpadacarya (“the teacher at the feet of God”), and Adi Sankaracarya (“the first Shankara in his lineage”) was the first philosopher to consolidate the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta, a sub-school of Vedanta. His teachings are based on the unity of the soul and Brahman, in which Brahman is viewed as without attributes. In the Smarta tradition, Adi Shankara is regarded as an incarnation of Shiva.
Adi Shankara toured India with the purpose of propagating his teachings through discourses and debates with other philosophers. He founded four mathas (“monasteries”) which played a key role in the historical development, revival and spread of post-Buddhist Hinduism and Advaita Vedanta. Adi Shankara was the founder of the Dashanami monastic order and the Shanmata tradition of worship.
His works in Sanskrit, all of which are extant today, concern themselves with establishing the doctrine of Advaita (Sanskrit, “Non-dualism”). Adi Shankara quotes extensively from the Upanishads and other Hindu scriptures in forming his teachings. He also includes arguments against opposing schools of thought like Samkhya and Buddhism in his works.
Birth and childhood
Shankara’s parents were childless for many years. They prayed at the Vadakkunnathan temple (also known as Vrishachala) in Thrissur, Kerala, for the birth of a child. Legend has it that Shiva appeared to both husband and wife in their dreams, and offered them a choice: a mediocre son who would live a long life, or an extraordinary son who would not live long. Both the parents chose the latter; thus a son was born to them. He was named Shankara (Sanskrit, “bestower of goodness”), in honour of Shiva (one of whose epithets is Shankara).
His father died while Shankara was very young. Shankara’s upanayana?, 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. Following the customs of those days, Shankara studied and lived at the home of his teacher. It was customary for students and men of learning to receive Bhiksha (“alms”) from the laity; on one occasion, while accepting Bhik?a, Shankara came upon a woman who had only a single dried amalaka fruit to eat. Rather than consuming this last bit of food herself, the lady gave away the fruit to Shankara as Bhik?a. Moved by her piety, Shankara composed the Kanakadhara Stotram on the spot. Legend has it that on completion of this stotra, golden amalaka fruits were showered upon the woman by Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth.
From a young age, Shankara was attracted to sannyasa (“monastic life”). His mother was against his becoming a monk, and refused him formal permission. However, once when Shankara was bathing in the Purna River near his house, a crocodile gripped his leg and began to drag him into the water. Only his mother was nearby, and it proved impossible for her to rescue him. Shankara asked his mother to give him permission to renounce the world then and there, so that he could be a sannyasin at the moment of death. This mode of entering the renunciatory stage is called Apat Sannyasa. At the end of her wits, his mother agreed. Shankara immediately recited the mantras to make a renunciate of himself. Miraculously, the crocodile released him and swam away. Shankara emerged unscathed from the water.
With the permission of his mother, Shankara 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. Adi Shankara was commissioned by his Guru to write a commentary on the Brahma Sutras and propagate Advaita Vedanta. The Madhaviya Shankaravijaya states that Adi Shankara calmed a flood from the Reva River by placing his kamandalu (“water pot”) in the path of the raging water, thus saving his Guru, Govinda Bhagavatpada, who was absorbed in Samadhi (“meditation”) in a cave nearby.
On his mission to spread the Advaita Vedanta philosophy, Adi Shankara travelled to Kashi, where a young man named Sanandana from Choladesha in South India, became his first disciple. In Kashi, Adi Shankara was on his way to the Vishwanath Temple, when he came upon an untouchable with 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 food?” Understanding that the untouchable was none other than god Shiva, and his dogs the four Vedas, Shankara prostrated himself before him, composing five shlokas known as Manisha Panchakam.
On reaching Badari in the Himalayas, he wrote the famous Bhashyas (“commentaries”) and Prakarana granthas (“philosophical treatises”). Afterwards he taught these commentaries to his disciples. Some, like Sanandana, were quick to grasp the essence; the other disciples thus became jealous of Sanandana. In order to convince the others of Sanandana’s inherent superiority, Adi Shankara summoned Sanandana from one bank of the Ganga River, while he was on the opposite bank. Sanandana crossed the river by walking on the lotuses that were brought out wherever he placed his foot. Adi Shankara was greatly impressed by his disciple and gave him the name Padmapada (“lotus-footed one”).
Meeting with Mandana Mishra
One of the most famous debates of Adi Shankara was with the ritualist Mandana Mishra. Mandana 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 had learnt Buddhist philosophy incognito from his Guru in order to be able to refute it. This constitutes a sin according to the Vedas. Kumarila Bha??a thus asked Adi Shankara to proceed to Mahimati (known today as Mahishi (Bangaon, Saharsa in Bihar) to meet Mandana Mishra and debate with him instead.
Adi Shankara had a famous debate with Mandana Mishra in which the wife of Mandana Mishra, Ubhaya Bharati, was the referee. After debating for over fifteen days, Mandana Mishra accepted defeat. Ubhaya Bharati then challenged Adi Shankara to have a debate with her in order to ‘complete’ the victory. This debate was to be on the subject of kamasastra (“science of sex-love”). But Adi Shankara, being a sannyasi, had no knowledge of this subject; thus, after requesting for some time before entering into this fresh debate, he entered the body of a king by his yogic powers and acquired the knowledge of kamasastra. Later, however, Ubhaya Bharati declined to debate with him and allowed Mandana Mishra to accept sannyasa with the monastic name, Suresvaracarya as per the agreed rules of the debate.
Adi Shankara then travelled with his disciples to Maharashtra and Srisailam. In Srisailam, he composed Shivanandalahari, a devotional hymn to Shiva. The Madhaviya Shankaravijayam says that when Shankara was about to be sacrificed by a Kapalika, the god Narasimha appeared to save Shankara on Padmapada’s prayer to him. So Adi Shankara composed the Laksmi-Narasimha stotra. He then travelled to Gokara, 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?ngeri to establish the Sarada Pi?ham and made To?akacarya his disciple.
After this, Adi Shankara began a Dig-vijaya (missionary tour) for the propagation of the Advaita philosophy by controverting all philosophies opposed to it. He travelled throughout India, from the South to Kashmir and Nepal, preaching to the local populace and debating philosophy with Hindu, Buddhist and other scholars and monks along the way.<br><br>
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 army, resisted and defeated the Kapalikas. They safely reached Gokarna where Shankara defeated in debate the Shaiva scholar, Neelakanta.
Proceeding to Saurashtra (the ancient Kambhoja) and having visited the shrines of Girnar, Somnath and Prabhasa and explaining the superiority of Vedanta in all these places, he arrived at Dwarka, 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 Sarvajñapi?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. However, there are variant traditions on the location of his last days. One tradition, expounded by Keraliya Shankaravijaya, places his place of death as Vadakkunnathan temple in Thrissur, Kerala. The followers of the Kanchi kamakoti pitha claim that he ascended the Sarvajñapithha and attained videha-mukti in Kanchipuram (Tamil Nadu).