Shri Adi Shankaracharya; (meaning ‘the first Shankara’ in his lineage), reverentially called Bhagavatpada Acharya (the teacher at the feet of Lord) was the most famous Advaita philosopher, who had a profound influence on the growth of Hinduism through his non-dualistic philosophy. He advocated the greatness and importance of the important Hindu scriptures, the Vedas (most particularly on the Upanishads, also known as Vedanta), spoke to a spirituality founded on reason and without dogma or ritualism, and gave new life to Hinduism at a time when Buddhism and Jainism were gaining popularity.
Shankara’s parents had no child for a long time, and prayed at Vadakkumnathan (vRashAcala) temple in Thrissur, Kerala. Legend has it that the Lord Shiva appeared before the devout couple and offered them a choice: a mediocre son who would live a long life, or an extraordinary son who would not live long. The couple chose the latter. The son was named Shankara, in honour of the Lord Shiva.
Shivaguru died while Shankara was very young. The child showed remarkable scholarship, and is said to have mastered the four Vedas by the age of eight. Following the common practice, Shankara stayed at a teacher’s house. On one occasion, while begging for alms, he came upon a woman with nothing but one dried amlaka fruit, which she offered to him with devotion. Moved by her piety, he composed the Kanaka Dhara Stotram. On completion of the stotram, golden amlaka fruits were showered upon the woman by the goddess Lakshmi. On another occasion, Shankara was bathing in the river, when a crocodile caught him. He asked for his mother’s permission to adopt sannyasa (the ascetic life), and when his mother agreed, the crocodile released him.
Shankara then left Kerala and travelled thoroughout India. When he reached the banks of the river Narmada, he met Govinda Bhagavatpada, the disciple of the Advaitin Gaudapada. As his disciple, Shankara was initiated.
Shankara travelled extensively, while writing commentaries on the Upanishads, Vishnu sahasranama, and the Bhagavad Gita. He engaged in a series of debates with Buddhist scholars, and with scholars of the Purva Mimamsa school, which helped in cementing his spiritual ascendancy. One of the most famous of these debates was with Mandana Mishra.
His most famous encounter was not with the famed ritualist Mandana Mishra, however, but with an untouchable. On his way to the Vishwanath temple in Kashi, he came upon an untouchable and his dog. When asked to move aside by Shankara’s disciples, the untouchable asked: “Do you wish that I move my soul, the atman and ever lasting, or this body made of clay?” Seeing the untouchable as none other than the Lord Shiva, Shankara prostrated before Ishwara, composing five shlokas (Manisha Panchakam).
Shankara is believed to have attained the Sarvajnapitha in Kashmir. After a while, he withdrew to Kedarnath and attained samadhi at the age of thirty-two. The Kamakshi Amman temple at Kanchipuram also has a vrindavanam where he is believed to have attained siddhi. (A variant tradition expounded by keralIya Shankaravijaya places his place of death as Vadakkumnathan temple in Thrissur, Kerala.)
Of the major Shankara Mathams active today, the Kanchi, Dwaraka, and Puri ascribe the dates 509â€“477 B.C.E. to Shankara. The Sringeri Peetham, on the other hand, accepts the 788â€“820 C.E. dates.
Shankara’s theology maintains that spiritual ignorance (avidya) is caused by seeing the self (atman) where self is not. Discrimination needs to be developed in order to distinguish true from false and knowledge (jnana) from ignorance (avidya).
Shankara proposed that, while the phenomenal universe, our consciousness and bodily being, are certainly experienced, they are not true reality. He did not mean to negate it, but considered that the ultimate truth was Brahman, the single divine foundation, which is beyond time, space, and causation. Brahman is immanent and transcendent, but not merely a pantheistic concept. Indeed, while Brahman is the efficient and material cause for the cosmos, Brahman itself is not limited by its self-projection, and transcends all binary opposites or dualities, especially such individuated aspects as form and being, since it is incomprehensible by the human mind. We must pierce through a hazy perspectival lens to understand our true being and nature, which is not perennial change and mortality, but unmitigated bliss for eternity. If we are to understand the true motive force behind our actions and thoughts, we must become aware of the fundamental unity of being. How, he asks, can a limited mind comprehend the limitless Self? It cannot, he argues, and therefore we must transcend even the mind and become one with Soul-consciousness.
Shankara denounced caste and meaningless ritual as foolish, and in his own charismatic manner exhorted the true devotee to meditate on god’s love and to apprehend truth. His treatises on the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and Vedanta Sutras are testaments to a keen and intuitive mind that did not want to admit dogma but advocated reason. His greatest lesson was that reason and abstract philosophising alone would not lead to moksha (liberation). It was only through selflessness and love governed by viveka (discrimination) that a devotee would realise his inner self. Charges that his philosophical views were influenced by Buddhism are unfounded, since Shankara vehemently opposed negation of being (shunyata), and believed that the unmanifest Brahman manifested itself as Ishwara, the loving, perfect being on high who is seen by many as being Vishnu or Shiva or whatever their hearts dictate. Shankara is said to have travelled throughout India, from the south to Kashmir, preaching to the local populaces and debating philosophy (apparently successfully, though no documentation exists) with Buddhist scholars and monks along the way.
His beliefs form the basis of the Smarta tradition, or Smartism.
Even though he lived for only thirty-two years, his impact on India and on Hinduism cannot be stressed enough, as he countered the increasing sacerdotalism (the belief that priests can mediate between humans and god) of the masses, and reintroduced a purer form of Vedic thought. He presented a face of Hinduism that could reasonably contend with Buddhist ideas and spread it, as well as reformist measures, across the land, travelling from as far up as Kashmir from areas in the South of India. His Hindu revival movement paved the way for the strict theistic movements of Ramanuja and Madhva, and helped lead to the decline of Buddhism in much of India.
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The matha at Kanchipuram or Kanchi in Tamil Nadu claims that it was also founded by Shankara. According to this matha, it was where he settled in his last days and attained mahaasamaadhi (i.e. left his body), but there are other, equally well-founded accounts which claim that he attained mahaasamadhi at Kedarnath.