Adi SankarA Bhagavadpada
Around 500 BC chaos prevailed all through the nation in the name of religion and philosophy. The number of sects rose by the day and clashes
and conflicts between the sects were a common thing those days. There were superstition and ignorance in the minds of people and a few strong men were constantly trying to confuse the minds of the illiterate and the poor. Vedas were losing their importance. Listless people were moving towards a totally ill-organized and unnatural society. It was during such a chaotic period Sankara was born in the year 509 BC to bring together all the people who were hitherto divided by faith and establish Sanatana Dharma as it is prevailing today. He is considered to be an incarnation of Bhagavan Shiva. As the greatest of all Advaitic philosophers, he was reverently referred to as Adi Sankara Bhagavadpada (one who is close to Bhagavan).
Birth Of Adi SankarA
In a small village near Kaladi, Kerala lived a learned Brahman by name Sivaguru along with his wife Aryambal. They were living a peaceful life, engaging in activities as prescribed by the Vedas, doing pujas and giving alms to the needy and not hurting another life. Though their life was proceeding normally, there was one thing that the couple was longing for. They did not have a child. So Sivaguru and Aryambal decided to perform special puja to Bhagavan Shiva. They reached Thiruchivaperur (modern Trichur) and performed puja to Bhagavan Vrishachalesvara (Vadakkunathan) sincerely for 48 days. Pleased with their prayers, Bhagavan Shiva appeared before the couple and asked them, “Do you want several dull children or just one intelligent boy who will only live for a short time?” As learned and pious people they replied, that the Bhagavan only knows what is best for them and that they will be happy with whatever they are blessed with. Pleased with their reply, months after they returned to Kaladi, Lord Shiva blessed them with a beautiful boy-child glowing with divine intelligence The boy was born on the fifth day of the bright fortnight of the Vaisakha month in Nandana year. under the auspicious star “Thiruvathirai”. He was named Sankara. ‘Sam’ means prosperity and ‘karati’ means giver. So Sankara means one who brings prosperity to all.
Upanayanam and Education Of Adi Sankara
At the age of three he lost his father. His mother performed his upanayanam and got him initiated into vedic studies. Sankara was a child prodigy. Even as a mere child he had mastered all the vedas and the six vedangas. He recited extensively from the epics and puranas. He also learnt the philosophies of other sects prevailing at that time. In a nut shell he was a treasury of philosophical knowledge at a very young age. As per the rules of life in gurukul, a bramhachary learning vedas under his guru should go and take bhikshai (alms) and eat. Once on a Dvadasi day (Ekadasi is eleventh day of a month on which people observe fast and on Dvadasi twelth day, amla fruit is added in the day’s cooking)
Rendering of Kanakdhara Stotram
Sankara went to a house where a poor old lady was living and called out, “Bhavati BhikshAm Dehi”. She did not have a single grain of rice to offer to
this little boy. All she had was an amla fruit which she had saved for Dvadasi. But as Sankara appeared at her door step asking for alms, she not only willingly gave that fruit to him but also apologised for not being able to give him rice as she should have. Seeing her selflessness even in such a poor condition, the giver of prosperity immediately sang a sloka invoking Goddess Lakshmi Devi to bring about a shower of gold. True to his words Goddess Lakshmi appeared at the very moment and filled that poor lady’s house with unimaginable wealth. That was Sankara’s first song and it is called “Kanakadhara Stotram“.
On another occasion, he is said to have rerouted the Purna river so that his mother did not have to walk a long distance to the river for her daily ablutions.
Mother’s permission to become a Sanyasi
At the age of eight, Sankara finished the study of the Veda. He started writing commentaries for Bramhasutra and his own interpretations of the Upanishads at a very young age. His mind was filled with thoughts of renunciation and oneness with Bhagavan. But Sankara’s mother had other ideas. Like any normal mother, she too wanted Sankara to get married and be a grahastha. Sankara instead wanted to take up sanyasam. But he could not hurt the feelings of his mother. He wanted to pursue his goals only with the blessings of his mother. One day when Sankara and his mother were at the river a huge crocodile caught hold of Sankara’s leg and was pulling him deep into the river. As Sankara shouted, his mother who was standing on the bank of the river was shocked to see her son struggling for life. She helplessly cried out, Sankara !! Sankara !!… Now the rishis made Sankara realize in his mind that this was a great opportunity to get acceptance from his mother to allow him to pursue his goal. Sankara did not waste time. He told his weeping mother, that due to his past karma, it was time for him to die. But if his mother gave him permission to become a sanyasi then his fate can be changed and he would live for a longer time. So, he said, “grant me permission quickly”. Aryambal reluctantly agreed. She wanted her son to live longer. Immediately Sankara uttered the pertinent mantras and took Apat-sanyasa (which means becoming a sanyasi at times of danger). As soon as Sankara vowed to be a sanyasi, the crocodile left his foot, turned into a gandharva and flew away. After this Aryambal asked her son to come home. But Sankara refused saying, now that he is a sanyasi, the wide world was his home and whoever offered him food was his mother. Aryambal’s emotions were uncontrollable. She asked him as to who would perform her last rites if she were to die in Sankara’s absence. Sankara gave her full assurance that he would be by her side at her death-bed and would perform her last rites himself.
With this, he left home and began his phenomenal spiritual journey.
Meeting his Guru Govinda Bhagavadpada
Leaving his mother at the care of his relatives, Sankara began walking northwards in search of a preceptor to get himself initiated into proper sanyasam. After a long search, he came to the banks of river Narmada. There he saw the river gushing forth into floods. With his Kamandalu he controlled the rage of the river. On the banks of Narmada, guru Govinda Bhagavadpada was engaged in Tapas. Seeing this miraculous feat Govinda muni asked who he was. To this Sankara replied in the form of ten slokas ending in ‘Sivahkevaloham’. It constitutes the famous dasasloki. Immensely pleased with him, Govinda Bhagavadpada made Sankara his disciple and initiated him into the Paramahamsa order of sanyasam.
Some biographies say that Sankara lived with his guru for three years and learned all the Veda, Ithihasa Purana, and Upanishads. After mastering everything his guru Govinda Bhagavadpada granted him permission to leave. He further commanded him to spread the philosophy of Advaita and to write an extensive and authoritative commentary on the Bramhasutra. He instructed Sankara to start this work at Varanasi, as it has always been the spiritual Capital of Bharatavarsh (India). He was only around sixteen years of age at that time.
By the time he arrived at Kasi, he had many disciples. One of them, Sanandana was once drying his guru’s clothes on the other bank of the river when suddenly Sankara called him for something. Sanandana sprang up and started running across the river as if it were a solid surface. His bhakti towards his guru was so intense that at every step a lotus materialized under his foot. Seeing this Sankara gave him the title ‘Padmapada’. He became the foremost disciple. (picture of Kasi)
Advaita Philosophy and Sankara’s contribution
Sankara wrote Bhashyam for Bramhasutra, Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. It is said that Sankara’s Bhashyam for Sri Vishnu Sahasranamam and Lalita Trisatisstotram was also written around the same time. Sankara Stayed in Kasi for a long time and taught the Advaita Philosophy to his innumerable disciples. The essence of Advaita is that Bramham alone is real. This phenomenal world is unreal or an illusion. Through the intense practice of the concept of Advaita, ego, and ideas of dualism can be removed from the mind of man. Sankara’s theology maintains that seeing the self where there is no self causes spiritual ignorance or ‘Avidya’. He concludes that one can attain Bramham only through pure Knowledge (Gnyana).In addition to the commentaries, Sankara also wrote individual treatises called prakarana granthas like upadesha sAhasrI, Atmabodha, etc.
Experience with Chandala
Once in Kasi when he was going to Vishwanatha temple, the path was blocked by an ‘Untouchable’ who was accompanied by his wife and four dogs. Sankara’s disciples shouted at him to make way and to keep his distance. But the family would not budge. When insisted upon, the man smiled and spoke thus,’ According to your philosophy of Advaita which you teach and practice, Jeevatma and God are one and the same. Then why do you ask me to go? How am I different from your Acharya?
Sankara realized that this was no ordinary couple. They were none other than Parvathi and Parameshwara. He prostrated before the Lord and sang five slokas called ‘Manisha Panchakam‘.(picture of the chandala blocking the path)
Experience with Veda Vyasa
Once a very old Brahmin of ill health stopped Sankara and argued with him about the contents of Bramhasutra Bashyam. The argument continued for days together. Finally, Sankara realized that Veda Vyasa Bhagavan had come in person to test his knowledge. He prostrated before him. Vyasa Maharishi said, that he was fully in agreement with Sankara’s Bhashyam and that Sankara will live for another 16 years to propagate this philosophy. (picture of VedaVyasa)
Debates with leaders from other sects
In addition to writing his own commentaries, Sankara sought out leaders of other schools of thought in order to hold healthy debates. In those days debates were a forum through which philosophies were propagated. And an interesting unwritten rule was that the one who lost the debate is convinced in the opponents’ philosophy and becomes his disciple. Thus Sankara debated with Buddhists philosophers, followers of sAnkhya and followers of Vedic rituals and defeated them.
Debate with Mandana Misra
Sankara then sought after KumArILa bhaTTa who was the foremost proponent of pUrva mimAmsa. (the school of thought which holds that the whole purpose of the Vedas is to engage human beings in rituals to create good karma). But when bhaTTa was in his death-bed and directed him to go to his disciple VisvarUpa also called Mandana Misra.
When Sankara arrived at Mandana Misra’s place in Mahishmati, Misra was already engaged in performing some Vedic rituals behind closed doors. Sankara explained to him the uselessness of these rituals. Both agreed to debate on it. Mandana Misra’s wife, BhArati who was very well learned and was considered to be an incarnation of Goddess Saraswati herself, was appointed as a judge. The debate continued for weeks together. There is a version where we find that Misra and Sankara were each given a garland of fresh flowers to wear around their neck while they debate. The one whose garland dries first will be declared the loser. (It is believed that the loser will have more anxiety and resultant body heat will dry the flowers faster. The one that is really intelligent will keep cool and win). But to Bharathi’s disappointment, her husband was losing the debate. Not wanting to declare her husband as the loser, she did a clever thing. As she knew that Sankara had adopted sanyasi life at a very early age, she darted questions related to married life about which naturally Sankara had no knowledge at that point. So he requested for time to gain knowledge in that field and then continue the debate. (picture of Mandana Misra)
In the meantime with his powers he left his body in a cave and entered the body of a king who had just been killed by a lion. He experienced a materialistic life for a while. But some miscreants who were suspicious about the behavior of their king found an ascetic’s body in the cave and understood what could have happened. They started to set fire to the body. But by the time Sankara had already returned to his own body. It is said that he sang slokas of ‘Karavalambam’ in praise of Lord Nrisimha and the lion God protected him from fire.
Sankara went back to Mandana Misra and won the debate. Mandana Misra and his wife BhArathi both became Sankara’s disciples and moved along with him. Sankara named him ‘Suresvara’ and he was the most celebrated disciples of Sankara.
Sanctity of Sringagiri
Sankara continued his journey with his disciples all over the country. Simultaneously, he kept writing commentaries and other Slokas. He also kept engaging in debates with the proponents of non-vedic sects. No one it is said , was ever a match to his intellect. So he kept getting more and more disciples both directly and by way of debates. As they kept travelling Sankara reached Sringagiri (Sringeri). Here Sankara happened to have one of the most unbelievable of sights on the banks of Tunga. He saw a huge serpent raising its hood to protect a frog that was giving birth ,from the heat of the scorching sun. He was immediately struck with the sanctity of this place where compassion between natural adversaries was displayed. Some texts say that he stayed here for Twelve years. (picture of serpent)
Setting up Peetham and the process
Sankara created a seat on the banks of Tungabhadra and that was the first mutt that came to be known as Sharadha Peetham. Suresvara was made the head of that peetham. He also ruled that all the heads of the mutt will be called Sankacharyas and that they will have a lineage of disciples. Similar mutts were created in other places such as Puri, Dwaraka and Joshi math in Badrinath. Padmapada, Totakacharya, and Hastamalaka his very close disciples were made heads of these mutts. He assigned each mutt with one Veda. Sringeri with Yajur Veda, Govardhar mutt at Puri with Rig Veda, Kalika Mutt at Dwaraka in the west with Sama Veda and Joshi Mutt in Badri with Atharva Veda.
As Sankara was the first and foremost of all the Sankacharyas he is referred to as Adi Sankaracharya. The heads of these mutts are also revered as Jagadgurus. Sankara also organized the community of Ekadandi Sanyasis into a tradition of DasanAmi Sanyasis and affiliated them to the four mutts he had created. They are called DasanAmis because of the given ten names which are suffixes adopted by the sanyasis. The names are BhAratI, SaraswatI, sAgarA, tIrtha, PurI, Asrama, Giri, Parvata, Aranya, Vana. All the Dasanami Sanyasis are affiliated to one or other of the four peethams. Today only a few Dasanamis remain.
Mother’s Last Rites
In the meantime, he heard about his mother being in death-bed. Remembering his promise to her, Sankara reached Kaladi in no time. His mother was happy to see him and breathed her last. He did his last service to her and also performed her funeral rites amidst great opposition from his ritualistic relatives. It is believed that, because his namboodari relatives refused to extend any help in cremating the body of his mother, they had to bear a curse from Sankara. Not much of the record available for that at this particular time.
Finding a great disciple in a deaf and dumb boy
After this, he resumed his work in reviving a number of temples that had not been maintained. He reorganized the puja procedures there. Instructed Advaita philosophy to non-believers and brought them all connected under one umbrella of true Knowledge. He also wrote many hymns on various Gods. During one such travel, he arrived at Mukambika in Karnataka, A poor Brahmin came to visit Acharya Sankara with his boy who was born deaf and dumb. Sankara asked him a question,’ Who are you ?’. To the surprise of all, the boy replied in a clear voice, ‘this body is not me, I am the Paramatma who resides in this body’ !! Pleased with his answer Sankara gave him an Amla fruit and named him ‘ HastAmalaka. Along with Padmapada and Suresvara, HastAmalaka also became Sankara’s foremost disciple. Sankara gave intense training to these disciples.
Miraculous transfer of knowledge
There was one disciple named Giri. He neither spoke nor asked doubts. Everyone treated him as an idiot. Sankara wanted to teach others a lesson, he telepathically transferred knowledge to Giri and one fine morning before anyone could speak, Giri opened his mouth and uttered Eight slokas which, the other disciples had never heard before. These eight slokas came to be known as Thotakashtakam and Sankara named him as Thotaka. With him the team of foremost and important disciples of Sankara was complete.
Triumphant at Kashmir
Several biographies of Sankara tell us about his travel to various holy places such as Prayag, Badrinath Kashmir, Chidambaram, Jambukeshvaram, Rameshwaram, Srirangam, Tirupati and to many other places. His visit to Kashmir is considered to be one of the most important. In Kashmir, is situated a temple dedicated to sAradA (Saraswati) the goddess of learning. It is called the Sarvagnyana peetham, which means the throne of Omniscient. It was a tradition those days for philosophers to visit the place and engage in debate. The victorious one would be allowed to ascend the peetham.
It is said that no philosopher from the southern region had ever ascended the peetham until Sankara visited Kashmir and defeated all the others there in the debate. He then ascended the sarvagnyana peetham with the blessings of goddess Saraswati. ( A few centuries later Swamy Ramanuja reached the same place in search of the book Bodhayana Vritti Grantha).
Next Sankara’s yatra to Kailasa is said to have been filled with notable events. There he had a darshan of Lord Parameshwara and Parvati. He sang two hymns on Lord Shiva, named as, ‘Shiva pAdAdi Keshanta’ and ‘Shiva KeshAdi pAdanta’ Stotram. Pleased with his bhakti, Lord Shiva gave him five sphatika (crystal) lingas and instructed him to worship them. It is also said that Shiva gave him a palm-leaf manuscript of ‘Saundaryalahari’ which is believed to be in praise of goddess Parvati by Lord Shiva himself. Some biographies claim that Sankara wrote it.
Sankara placed one of the five lingas, Mukti Linga in Kedarnath, the Vara Linga at Neelakanta Kshetra in Nepal. He placed the Bhoga Linga for worship at Sarada Peetham in Karnataka. Moksha Linga was kept in Chidambaram Nataraja temple and the Yoga Linga he kept with himself to worship and it is claimed that he left it for his successors in Kanchi.
Sankara’s Last days
Sankara was now reaching the age of thirty-two. He had expounded the Advaita Philosophy through his various works. He had established a perfect system of monastery through which the best of his disciples could carry on the tradition. Unlike many gurus, Sankara’s life has been very short but quite eventful. As a true Sanyasi, that he was, Adi Sankara kept traveling all his life. He traveled the length and breadth of this country to drive away from the darkness of ignorance from the minds of people.
There is ambiguity about where he breathed his last. But the year of passing is around 477 B.C. Some notes say, he disappeared inside a cave in Kedarnath. Some say it was in Karavira Peetham in Maharashtra. Some others say it was in Kanchipuram in TamilNadu. It is not surprising at all. In fact it is only easy to believe that Adi Sankaracharya, by his yogic powers could have been present in all the places where his true followers were.
Few Major Works Of Adi Sankaracharya
Just to name a few of Sanaka’s work, apart from commentaries on Upanishads and numerous stotras and shlokas on various Gods, His major works include,
- Bhashyam or Commentaries on Bhagavad Gita
- Bhashyam for Sri Vishnu Sahasranamam
- Bhashyam for Bramha Sutras
- Bhashyam for Patanjali Yoga Sutras
Related Places to Visit
- Sringeri Mutt
- Dwaraka Mutt
- Puri Mutt
- Joshi Mutt
- Sarada Peetham
- Kanchipuram ( Kanchi Mutt)