Twelve hundred years ago, when a state of chaos governed the spiritual domains of the country and Sanatana Dharma was in a critical stage of decline, the saviour of spirituality appeared on the earth. He was an amazing child prodigy. At the age of eight years he became a Sannyasin; at sixteen, he wrote commentaries to Brahma Sutras, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita. He travelled all over India and defeated great scholars and philosophers in intellectual debates. 32 years he lived, and the whole India surrendered before his of knowledge. Knowledge was his sword; spirituality was his energy…..He was Adi Shankaracharya, the incarnation of supreme wisdom!
Nation under Spiritual Crisis : the Background
It was a time of religious conflicts and confusions with a glut of non-Vedic theories spreading in human mind. Sanatana Dharma was in an appalling state, almost being wiped away from humanity. With their complex language, Vedas became non-reachable to common people. Buddhists and Jains talked the language of the masses and attracted the common people towards their religions. Vedic ceremonies deteriorated. People rejected gods and temples. They neglected pujas and festivals. They involved in non-Vedic activities and low level rituals including sacrificing of animals. Vedic religion faced threats from Indian kings as well as foreign invaders from Greek and the Middle East. Vultures of terror encircled the sky. Darkness of disasters filled everywhere…….. When virtues degenerate and unrighteousness prevail, dharma needs to be established; that is the law of life. ………And it happened…. Sri Adi Shankaracharya took birth on earth. …….. The Sun of wisdom rose over the southern horizon!
Adi Shankaracharya Biography
Reliable records of Adi Shankaracharya biography are not available except different versions of biographies written by scholars several years later than his life time. Most of them were filled with contradictory dates, incredible stories, myths and miracles. Keeping aside the mystical elements, we can still visualize the portrait of an amazing person with extraordinary intelligence and unbelievable spiritual power. That is the uniqueness of the great master.
Shankara was born as the only son of Sivaguru and Aryamba in a poor Brahmin family in Kaladi Village in Ernakulam district of Kerala. As per the most accepted dates about his life time, Adi Shankaracharya was believed to be lived from 788 to 820 CE. He mastered all Vedas, philosophies and scriptures at the very early years of his childhood. When he was eight, with the permission of his mother, he renounced the world to become a Sannyasin.
Shankara was initiated as Sannyasin by Swami Govindapada Acharya, who was a disciple of Mahaguru Gaudapada. As instructed by his master, Shankara went to Kashi (Varanasi) and wrote commentaries on Brahma Sutras, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita; an incredible task executed at the age of sixteen! Then he started the most important mission of his life – Digvijaya, the intellectual journey to conquer the world.
The Triumphant Journey of the Genius
Adi Shankaracharya travelled across different parts of India to propagate the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta through debates and discourses. He met philosophers and scholars of different schools of philosophy, debated with them and defeated all of them with the power of his amazing intelligence and spiritual wisdom.
His debate with Mandana Misra, the Chief Scholar in the court of Mahishmathi (the present Maheswar city in Madhya Pradesh), was a remarkable one. The heated debate lasted for seventeen days and finally he defeated Mandana Misra. Bharati, the wife of Mandana Misra, who served as the umpire of the debate challenged him. She asked him questions on Kama Shastra, in which he was not knowledgeable. He did not retreat, but requested few days’ time. With a yoga technique called ‘para-kaya-pravesha’ he entered the dead body of a king and from the two wives of the king he learned everything about sex and love. Within the agreed time he returned and answered all questions of Bharati, and became victorious.
Shankara Established Monasteries – the Seats of Learning
The great Acharya established four monasteries, known as “Peetha” or “Mutts”, at the four corners of the country, which were considered as the seats of learning of Vedanta Philosophy. These Monasteries are Sharada Mutt at Sringeri in Karnataka, in South; Jyothish Mutt at Badrinath in Utharakhand, in North; Kalika Mutt at Dwaraka in Gujarat, in West; and Govardhan Mutt at Puri in Orissa, in the East. He appointed his prominent disciples at these Peethas as the Chief Sannyasins. He classified the sannyasins under ten different orders, known as ‘Dasanamis’. A fifth Peetha was established at Kanchi in Chennai, known as Kamakoti Peetha, where he himself took charge.
Mother’s Death and Funeral Rites
While renouncing the world, Shankara had promised his mother that he would come back at the time of her last days. During his triumphant journey, by intuition, he understood that his mother was in death bed. He went home and witnessed his mother’s last moments. He himself performed the last funeral rites of his mother, amidst the severe protests of the Brahmin families – an inadmissible task of a Sannyasin! He then returned to Sringeri to continue his mission.
The Jagad Guru Ascended Sarvajna Peetha
The temple ‘Sharada Peetha’ in Kashmir had what was called “Sarvajna Peetha”, meaning ‘the Seat of Omniscience’. ‘Sarvajna’ means ‘All Knowing’. Only the person who is ‘All Knowing’ was eligible to sit on that seat. It had 4 doors in four directions. Scholars of different sects of philosophy from all over the country assembled there and debated. All of them surrendered before the amazing intelligence and unfailing logic of Adi Shankaracharya. The youngest ‘Master of the World’ (Jagad Guru) ascended the Sarvajna Peetha opening its Southern door, which was remained closed till that time, waiting for the enlightened soul from the Southern India to come.
It is believed that Shankara died at the age of 32, at Kedarnath in the Himalayas. Other places like Kanchi and Kerala also claim to be his place of Samadhi.
Shankara’s Philosophy in a Nutshell
As per Advaita Vedanta, the essence of Atman (Self) and Brahman (Supreme Consciousness) is one and the same, even though they appear as many. The basic teaching of Sri Adi Shankaracharya can be summarized in the following words:
“Brahma Sathyam Jagat Mithya, Jeevo Brahmaiva Na Aparah”
(The Supreme consciousness alone is real, this world is an illusion; the Self of every being is identical with the Supreme Consciousness.)
The Supreme Consciousness is beyond description; because description leads to distinction. Our physical body and this world are super imposed on the Supreme Consciousness, which is similar to the illusion of rope as a snake. On attaining the knowledge about rope, the illusion of snake vanishes. Similarly on attaining the knowledge of Self, the illusion of body and world vanishes and only Self remains.
Though the Supreme consciousness has no form, attributes or qualities, Shankara believed that by worshiping different deities, who were the manifestations of the Supreme Power, the ultimate goal of life can be attained. He standardized the system of God worship consisting Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, Surya, Ganesh and Skanda; and hence he earned the title Shanmata Sthaapanaacharya.
Adi Shankaracharya was a great philosopher, blessed poet and an enlightened soul with superhuman intelligence. In his short life span of 32 years, he revived Vedic Dharma and spirituality in India, and achieved great things with superhuman power that made us apt to call him as a divine incarnation. Let the supreme wisdom of this greatest Jnana yogi and Karma Yogi of all times inspire and enlighten us.