was born to Shivaguru and Aryamba in Kalati, Kerala, belonging to the
Namboodri Brahmin community. Leading historians have established the
birth of Shankara in 788 AD.
Shankara was precocious and (exhibited) a great prodigy in learning
poetry and hymns, Chandas (meter) and Alankaras (Rhetoric) at the
early age of three. Encouraged by his learning ability, his parents
were contemplating on performing his Upanayana, when Shivaguru died
suddenly. Aryamba followed through and consummated the child's
Upanayana before Shankara was five years old. Following the Upanayana,
Shankara learnt the four Vedas in a very short time.
incidences of Shankara's childhood are reported to have their
presence felt even today. Following the Brahmacharya tradition, he was
going for alms. One day, a very poor lady, expressing her
helplessness, offered a dried berry to Shankara. Shankara was moved by
her kindness even in poverty, prayed Goddess Lakshmi on her behalf and
composed the hymn “Kanakadhaara Sthothra”. Goddess Lakshmi pleased
by the earnestness of Shankara bestowed the woman with riches. Even
today, two rich “Swarna Thillam” families in the village of Ponnar
Thodatha are reported to identify their riches to the blessings of
Shankara. The other incidence relates to Shankara's service to his
mother. When he was seven, one day in the hot afternoon, his mother
collapsed by the riverside. Having helped his mother with first aid
and brought her home, the whole day Shankara was thinking
compassionately of a solution to mitigate the stress of his mother
visiting the river every day for daily ablutions. Next morning, to his
surprise, the Poorna River had changed course and was flowing adjacent
to the house. Even today, Keralites are reported to refer to the river
as “Amba River” in memory of Aryamba.
Shankara -- the Renunciator Supreme
the Vedic tradition, Shankara began offering Vedic discourses and many
scholars became his students. The king of Kerala, Rajashekara
personally visited Shankara and received his blessings. In the course
of time, Aryamba was inquisitive and brought Shankara's horoscope to
an expert, which revealed a risk to his life in his eighth year.
Shankara consoled his shaken mother with philosophical teachings of
temporary nature of life and the goal of life is to work towards God
realization. He used the occasion to convince his mother to grant him
permission to receive Sanyasa -- renunciation of worldly life.
Aryamba dismissed Shankara's request, expressing her dependence on
him to take care of her. However, providence had defined plans for
Shankara. One day Aryamba and Shankara were at the river, taking bath,
when a crocodile caught Shankara's leg began pulling him deeper in
to the river. Shankara shouted to Aryamba: “this body is going to
perish and please give me permission for Sanyasa.” Aryamba unable to
make up her mind, said, “Do what you please”, and summoned other
people for help. As other people assembled and began to attack the
crocodile, the crocodile released its grip on Shankara's leg and
went away. Shankara came up, prostrated to his mother, mentally
accepted Sanyasa and sought her permission to leave home. She tried in
vain to retain him, but he left home with a promise to his mother that
he would come back at the time of her death.
Guru Darshana (Meeting the Teacher)
renunciation at such a young age and his knowledge of the Vedas
belief that he was an incarnation of Lord Shiva. In the footsteps of
Krishna going to Saandipany, Shankara went in search of his
Guru. After several days of walking, Shankara found his teacher,
Govinda Bhagavatpaada in a cave on the banks of the River Narmada. He
introduced himself to the Guru, and narrated his mental acceptance of
Sanyasa and requested the Guru to formally offer him Sanyasa. Govinda
Bhagavatpaada at once recognized the pre-requisites for Sanyasa in the
young boy and formally initiated Shankara to Sanyasa, gave him the
necessary instructions and advised Shankara to write the commentaries
for the Upanishads, Brahma Suthra and Bhagavad Geetha. His
commentaries, written later in his life, collectively came to be
called as Prasthana Thraya. Thus Shankara
became Shankaracharya (Acharya means learned teacher).
traveled to Varanasi (Benares), the seat of Vedic learning.
Shankara's Vedic discourses immensely influenced the people of
Varanasi. Several of them enrolled as his students, the most notables
ones being Sanandana, who later became Hasthamalaka and Thotakaacharya.
It was during one of these days that Shankara composed the Bhaja
Govindam” hymn, roused by the citing of an old man wasting his time
learning the rules of Grammar (Apara Vidya), instead of focusing his
mind in the pursuit of God Realization through devotion to God (Para
Meeting with Chandala
the Acharya bathed in Ganges one day, while returning with his
disciples, a Chandala (keeper of the crematorium-an outcaste) came
across them. The students beckoned the Chandala to step aside, but he
replied: “What difference do you see in me? You seem to be ignoring
the presence of Divinity (Athma Thatva) in every one; instead you are
focusing on the body and differentiating between a brahmin and a
Chandala.” Smiling, the Acharya intervened; the Chandala engaged
Shankara in a deep spiritual discussion on the Advaita (Non-duality)
philosophy and lightly chided Shankara. Shankara, recognizing the
distinct understanding of Athma (the Real) and Anathma (the unreal) by
the Chandala, stared at him and Lord Viswanatha gave his Darshan to
Shankara. Shankara prostrated to the Lord in the guise of the Chandala
and composed and instantly composed the Manisha Panchaka Sthotram in
praise of Viswanatha.
Shankara at Badari
traveled to Badari. At the temple, he noticed the absence of a Deity.
On inquiry, he learnt that due to Chinese disturbances, the Deity was
thrown to the Alakananda River. The Acharya suggested bringing back
the idol and installing it at the temple. However, no one was prepared
to risk his life by jumping into the ferocious river. Shankara himself
jumped into the river and repeatedly pulled out the same broken idol
three times, after returning it to the river each time (broken idols
are generally not installed in temples). He concluded it was God's
will, brought up the idol and installed it at the temple per Vedic
rituals, and appointed the Namboodri Brahmins of Kerala to worship the
Deity forever. Even to this day, their family is in charge of worship
at the temple.
staying in Badari, Shankara wrote the commentaries for Upanishads,
Brahma Suthra and the Bhagavad Gita -- Collectively called the
Prasthana Thraya, at the Vyasa Ashram, where Vyasa wrote the
Mahabharatha. Shankara's age was 16 years by now.
Meeting Kumarilla Bhattapaada
Shankara was teaching his pupils the Prasthana Thraya when an old man
appeared and began to challenge Shankara on his commentaries. During
the course of the discussions, Shankara recognized he was none other
than Veda Vyasa and prostrated to him. He blessed Shankara that his
commentaries be the fountain of knowledge for seekers for centuries to
come and instructed Shankara to meet Kumarilla Bhattapada in Prayag
(which is now Allahabad). Bhattapada was a learned scholar and during
his time, the Buddhist religion was very strong and was hostile to the
Vedic religion -- Sanathana Dharma (which is now referred to as
Hinduism). The Vedas are broadly categorized in to two sections --
The Gnana Kaanda (section on Knowledge or pure consciousness) and the
Karma Kaanda (Section on sacrifices and rituals). Though both the
sections are Apouresheya -- no human author and given by Lord
Narayana at the beginning of the Kalpa, the Gnana Kaanda could be
defended on the basis of logic, but the Karma Kaanda had to be
accepted as is, because of being Apoureshaya. This created an opening
for the Buddhists to bad mouth the Vedas and hence the Hinduism.
Kumarilla Bhattapaada, a very well trained Vedic scholar was defending
the Vedas and got a strong desire to once and for all, defend the
Vedic Dharma from the onslaught of Buddhism. In order to successfully
do this, he needed to thoroughly understand Buddhism and so he took to
the study of Buddhism in disguise under a Buddhist monk. Over the
course of time, one day, Bhattapaada could not control his emotions at
the criticism of Vedas by the Monk and tears flowed from his eyes. The
other Buddhist students suspected him to be a Brahmin and confronted
him. Kumarilla Bhattapaada had to leave the monastery, though by this
time, he had learnt Buddhism very well and was able to successfully
defend the Vedas and exposed the weakness of Buddhism. Though
Bhattapaada was successful in his mission, he felt within him, the
guilt of exposing his teacher's Dharma, and more so, learning from
him in disguise. He sentenced himself for his sin - slow death by
burning. So he immersed himself in a huge heap of burning paddy husk.
It was at this precise time, Shankara came to see him. Shankara could
not convince him that he did not commit a sin and that he did not
deserve this punishment. Shankara told him that he needs him to write
a treatise on his Prasthana Thraya and asked him to come out.
Bhattapaada rejected Shankara's request, asked him to meet his very
learned student Mandana Mishra. He assured Shankara that Mandana
Mishra would be immensely helpful to him in the propagation of Vedic
Dharma and closed his eyes.
Mishra was a leading champion of Vedic Karma Kaanda. Shankara's goal
was to establish the role of Gnaana Kanda in itself and in support of
Karma Kaanda. His thesis was that Karma, without the support of Gnaana,
would over time reduce Karma to blind rituals and would cause people
to lose confidence in the Vedic tradition. So, Shankara believed that
if the great Karma proponent like Mandana could perceive the value of
Gnaana as a complement to Karma, the Vedic tradition would survive any
confrontation. With this thought, Shankara came to the town of
Mahishmathi in search of Mandana Mishra. After inquiry, he came to the
doorsteps of Mandana.
was in the midst of a ritual and did not quite appreciate the
intrusion by a young sanyasi. Mandana displayed his hostility, which
Shankara turned back at him in satire. The other Brahmins at the
place, recognizing Shankara's intellect, encouraged Mandana to offer
Biksha (alms) to the young sanyasi. Shankara suggested that he could
accept alms only if Mandana would debate him on the Vedic Dharma.
Mandana Mishra accepted the offer. His wife, Ubhaya Bharathi Devi was
named the judge and the debate began the next morning.
began the debate with the following declaration; “Brahman is the
only Supreme Reality. The Jiva -- the soul in every living being --
ignorant of the presence of the Supreme Reality in him, has developed
this duality -- that the Jiva and the Supreme Reality are two
different entities”. This dual identity, Shankara asserts, is the
basis of all karma. Right Knowledge (gnana) of the presence of this
Reality (Athman, Brahman, Supreme Reality are all synonyms) will erase
all actions. [Karma can take place in duality only -- someone or
something acting on something else: if this duality does not exist,
karma cannot sustain and so is erased, because the doer and the
receiver are one and the same] This is the Advaita Siddhantha
(Non-dual philosophy) expounded by Shankara. He argued that this is
the essence of the Gnaana Kaanda of the Vedas. “If I fail to
establish this Reality to the satisfaction of Mandana Mishra,”
Shankara declared, “I will give up sanyasa and wear white
clothes.” Mandana Mishra replied; “ Veda suggests Karma. The Jiva
is bound by Karma and the realization (Moksha) is a result of
Karma.” If I fail to prove this philosophy, he declared, “I will
become a sanyasi and wear Ocher colored clothes.” The debate began
and lasted several days. Over the days, Shankara was successful in
convincing Mandana and establishing that the Vedas proclaim the
Reality -- Gnaana culminates in Moksha or God realization. The debate
concluded with Mandana Mishra prostrating at the feet of Shankara.
Mandana's life long devotion to selfless karma paved the way to
appreciate Shankara's logic and destroyed the belief of duality in
Mandana. With Realization, there was no more karma and no more debate
(talking is also one of the actions). Though Shankara was not
surprised, the defeat of Mandana came as a total surprise to everyone
assembled there, more so to Ubhaya Bharathi Devi. The defeat of her
husband and the prospect of Mandana following young Shankara as a
sanyasi extremely disturbed her. She challenged Shankara that he would
have to defeat her in debate to
take her husband with him (she argued that being the wife of Mandana,
she has an obligation to defend him). Shankara, without anticipating
the risk, agreed to her challenge. As Shankara successfully responded
to her questions, her desire to defeat him and stop her husband from
following him grew more intensely in her. This motivated her to
question Shankara on the intimate moments between a man and his wife.
Shankara at 17 now, and a sanyasi from the age of eight (8), was
almost overwhelmed at the turn of events and sat silently for a while.
He paced the room, without a clear direction for his next move. He was
convinced that it was imperative for him to take Mandana Mishra with
him. The success of Kumarilla over the Buddhists had created
tremendous faith in people on the Karma Kaanda of the Vedas and a
parallel faith in the Gnana Kaanda was absolutely necessary to arrest
Karma Kaanda from degenerating to mere rituals. Mandana Mishra, the
unparalleled king of Karma Kaanda, accepting Gnaana Kaanda and taking
sanyasa would have a tremendous positive impact on such a goal. With
this firm determination, Shankara returned to the assembly; he
requested and received a month's time from Ubhaya Bharathi to answer
her question and left the place.
was in deep thought and absolute silence as he and his disciples
walked through the forests and reached the town of Amrithapura. The
town was mourning the death of its king Amaruka. The disciples noticed
a sudden change in the expression on the face of Shankara. Shankara
took them to a solitary place and resolutely said; “he will enter
the dead body of king Amaruka through the power of Yoga (Parakaya
Pravesha), learn the answers to the questions of Ubhaya Bharati and
return and instructed them protect his body very carefully in a cave
until he returns.” The disciples were speechless for a while. They
questioned him on the need for such a radical action as well as its
impact on his sanyasa dharma. Shankara responded that finding the
answers would pave the way for Mandana Mishra becoming a sanyasi,
which is necessary for the spiritual growth and welfare of people for
centuries to come. The society would run the risk of losing faith in
the Vedas and non-Vedic religions will overtake the Vedic dharma, he
argued. “Mandana Mishra, the champion of Karma Kaanda, accepting and
following the Gnana Kaanda will influence the society in the right
path. This is the greatest value of taking Mandana Mishra as a sanyasi
with us. The sin of Parakaaya Pravesha will dwarf in comparison with
the benefit to society.” Shankara rejected the disciples'
suggestion of gaining the knowledge by reading books for two reasons
-- 1) it is not a direct knowledge and 2) reading such material in
the body of a sanyasi is also equally objectionable to sanyasa dharma.
He was convinced of the need to answer Bharathi Devi and take Mandana
Mishra with him as a sanyasi in the interest of preserving the Vedic
Dharma for centuries to come. He asked his disciples to protect his
body in the cave. He left his body and entered the body of the king.
As Shankara was learning all he need to learn to answer Ubhaya Bharati
Devi, the palace officials suspected a yogi in the body of the king.
To save their king this time, they ordered all dead bodies to be
cremated. Shankara returned in time and entered his body again. As he
went to meet Ubhaya Bharati Devi, she did not press him for an answer
and Shankara was spared of discussing this subject as a sanyasi. She
did not object to taking Mandana Mishra with him. Mandana joined
Shankara as a disciple in the name of Sureshwaracharya, and became the
head of Shringeri Mutt.
Meeting Mother Again
at once got a strong desire to see his mother. He traveled to Kalati.
As he reached Kalati, she was in deathbed. She was very happy to see
her son come back as he had promised earlier. Shankara assured her
that her pious life would earn her Vishnupaada and will achieve Moksha.
Aryamba peacefully closed her eyes. Shankara was overtaken by emotion
as he recalled her hard life to bring him up after his father's
death. He collected himself, cremated the remains of his mother and
left Kalati again.
Establishment of Dharma -- Public Welfare
Bhagavathpaada had already laid the foundation for the establishment
of Dharma with his work so far. He took up the job of permanent and
firm fixture of Dharma. He set out from the south to travel the entire
country again. As he traveled, he reformed people of several faiths,
including the Pashupatha
(variation of Shaivites), Soura (followers of Sun god), and Kaapalika
(variation of Shaivites). He visited places including Rameshwara,
Madurai, Sriranga, Kaanchi, and Thirupathi. In Kanchi, he reformed the
Tantrik faith followers (followers of Thamasic worship) and reformed
them to Sathvic followers. In Ujjain, he reformed many of the Buddhist
and Jain faiths and helped them back to the Vedic Dharma. In the
Pashupathi Natha temple in Khatmandu, Nepal, he helped stop the
sacrifice of animals and reformed the worship to Sathvic worship. As
the people of the country were followers of one of the following six
faiths -- Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shaktheya (worshipping Shakthi or Devi),
Soura (worshipping Sun), Ganapathya (Worshipping Ganapathi) or
Kaapalika, he brought them all under the umbrella of Vedic faith,
eliminating mutual distrust of each other. He is therefore called the
Shanmatha-Sthaapana-acharya (establisher of six-faith dharma).
Sarvagna Peeta in Kashmir
by this time had established the sovereignty of the Vedic dharma and
the atheist faith had faded. Now Shankara had to take steps to assure
its stability for the next several generations to come. He concluded
that the Sarvagna Peeta -- Seat of Omniscient -- in Kashmir would
provide the seal of authority for the continued propagation of the
Vedic dharma. He arrived in Kashmir. He debated and defended the Vedic
dharma among the local and assembled pundits. He overcame all
challenges and was ordained to the Sarvagna Peeta. Shankara's
programs from this position helped restore the Vedic Advaita following
for several generations. To further solidify this order, Shankara
established Mutts (monasteries) in the four directions of the country
Branch of Veda
Name of Peeta
He promoted Panchaayathana
Puja (Five Deity worship) to foster cooperation and equality among the
worshippers of Shiva, Vishnu, Aadithya (Sun), Ambika (Devi) and
Gananatha. Under the program, everyone will worship all these deities,
with their deity at the center, surrounded by the four other deities.
His works -- Prasthana Thraya for intellects and innumerable hymns for
ordinary people -- paved the way for spiritual progress. He helped
people develop faith in Vedas, Vedantha and Puranas at the same time.
the age of 32, overseeing all these works, and convinced of the
longevity and preservation of the faith, Shankara entered the cave in
the Dathatreya temple in Kedarnath (in the Himalayas), 2000 miles from
his birthplace of Kalati, and disappeared.
is the firm belief that Shankara was none other than Lord Shiva, who
incarnates to uphold Dharma and arrange people's lives to be guided
within the framework of Dharma.
is the biography of Shankara, who mastered the four vedas at age 8, all
Shastras at age 12, wrote the commentaries -- Prasthana Thraya -- at
age 16 and left the scene at age 32.