Life of Adi Shankracharya
More than about 1300 years ago, when spirituality in the world was at an all time low, people were confused by numerous faiths many of which were false, the whole of India was plunged in chaos. At that time all the Gods and the Rishis went to Mount Kailash and requested Lord Shiv to revive spirituality in India. Lord Shiv agreed with their request and prophesied that he will take birth in human form.
According to various discussions the exact dates for the period of Shri Shankracharya’s life have not been accurately placed, however amongst scholars there is a general agreement of this period being between 750 to 850 A.D. Personally, I would prefer to place this period closer to 850 A.D.
In Kaladi, Kerala, a learned Nambhoodri brahmin, by the name of Shivguru, and his wife, Aryambal, spent their life in prayer, tapasya (ascetism),in giving alms to poor and performing other holy deeds. This childless couple went to Trichur (also spelt as Trissur) where they did a special spiritual practice for 48 days to Lord Vadakkunathan (Lord Shiv) praying for a son. Lord Shiv pleased with their devotion appeared before them and said "I am extremely happy with your devotion and will give you what you want. But tell me do you want a son who is ordinary and will live long or a son who is extremely intelligent, who will live for a short period only, but will be remembered in the world." The couple after some deliberation decided to have an intelligent son with a short life.
As the Lord had already promised that he will be born to reform this world, Lord Shiv was born to this couple. He was born to Aryambal under the star "Thiruvaithhirai". In keeping with their devotion for Lord Shiv and his boon the child was named Shankar. Shankar is a name of Lord Shiv; Sham means peace and Karati means to give, do or make. All the visitors and relatives fell in love with this divine child.
As Shankar grew up, he attracted everybody with his intelligence and kindness. At the age of three, he was given "Akshar Abyas", i.e., the learning of writing and reading. At the age of four, he lost his father. At the age of five, he was initiated as a Brahmchari i.e., the holy thread ceremony was conducted and he was sent to Gurukul for learning scriptures. It is said that in two years Shankar had mastered all the four Vedas and the entire cycle of learning the Hindu scriptures that would normally take a student sixteen years to learn. Returning to his mother’s home this child prodigy started teaching others the scriptures. He became well known as a teacher and attracted numerous students due to his brilliance, genius and erudition. Even the local king (raja) sought his aid in correcting the three of his own compositions of prose in Sanskrit.
Another noted incident during the days when Shankar was learning is as follows. As a Brahmchari, the practice is to go from house to house to take bhiksha (alms) that are later submitted to the guru. On a Dwadasi day Shankar happened to go to the house of a very poor woman to ask for alms. The woman did not have a single grain of rice in her house to give. However it was considered as unacceptable to send away a brahmin empty handed. So she looked around her house and found a single Amla fruit that she had kept for herself. She unhesitatingly gave this Amla fruit to Shankar as she could not send a Brahmchari empty handed. Shankar was moved by her selflessness, devotion and the poverty of the woman. He prayed to Goddess Lakshmi in a beautiful stotra which is called "Kanak Dhara Stotra". On completion of this stotra, Goddess Lakshmi appeared and showered a rain of golden coins on the poor woman's house
One day, the Rishis came to him and reminded him of his duty to the land in spreading spirituality. Shankar agreed it was time to become a Sannyasi and go all over the country to kindle spirituality. When Shankar asked his mother to allow him to become a sannyasi (a monk), she would not allow him saying that he was her only son and only family. Who would look after her in her old age? When she died who would do her final rites.
However, one day when Shankar was taking a bath in the river, a crocodile caught hold of his leg. Shankar called out to his mother. Aryambal came running and to her horror she found her son in the grip of the crocodile. Aryambal started crying as she had no means to help her son.
Shankar then asked his mother that as a last dying wish if she would allow him to fulfil his wish of becoming a Sannyasi as he felt that this would bring him spiritual merit and that he wished to die as a Sannyasi. Seeing that she would lose her son forever Aryambal agreed to fulfil this last wish and thus granted him permission. Miraculously, the crocodile let go of Shankar. Now his mother who did not want him to become a Sannyasi had already given him permission. When she objected Shankar brushed aside her objections saying that she had already permitted him and that it was not dharmic to break a promise. Aryambal insisted saying that according to Hindu Dharma, it is the dharma of a son to cremate his elders when they die, so how can he become a Sannyasi before that. To this objection Shankar replied saying that he promises her to return at the time of her death to do her final rites.
Shri Shankar went in the search of a Guru to be formally initiated as a Sannyasi. At the banks of the river Narmada, he found the river gushing forth into floods. By using his powers, he encapsulated the river in his Kamandal (a vessel sannyasi's carry) and released the river after crossing the banks of the river. Sri Govindapadacharya, an ascetic who was sitting on the other side of the river Narmada and performing his spiritual practices saw this, marvelled at Shri Shankar and took him as a Shishya.
Shri Govindapadacharya was a disciple of Shri Gaudapadacharya. He taught the spiritual truths, scriptures, and techniques to Shri Shankar. He taught him various philosophies including Advaita, the principle that everyone in this world is the manifestation of God, also that God and Atman are one. Shri Govindapadacharya took the young Shankaracharya to his teacher, Guru Gaudapadacharya near Amarkantak in central India. It is said that here the Guru gave him a special practice for 41 days where he transferred all his knowledge, techniques and spiritual power to Shri Shankracharya. Shri Govindapadacharya then initiated Shri Shankar into the sannyas order and directed Shri Shankracharya to go out in the world and spread this eternal knowledge throughout the country.
Shri Shankracharya went to Kashi, by which time, he had a lot of disciples. One of them, Sanandhyaya, was drying the clothes of his Guru and suddenly Shri Shankracharya called him to the other bank of the river as he needed the clothes urgently. Sanandhyaya, little realising that he would drown, starts walking into the river. However, the Grace of his Guru resulted in a lotus materialising wherever he placed his foot. People who saw this were astonished and narrated the event to Shri Shankaracharya. When Sanandhyaya was asked as to how he crossed the river, he replied that when his Guru calls, he does not worry about anything. Shri Shankracharya named him as Padma Pada (lotus feet). Later he became known as Padmapadacharya.
Once, in Kashi, when Shri Shankracharya was going to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, his path was blocked by an "untouchable" who was accompanied by his wife and 4 dogs. The disciples of Shri Shankracharya shouted at him to make way, and to keep a distance. The untouchable smiled and said, "According to your principle of Advaita, which you practice, all the Jivatma's are the same as God. Who do you ask to go? Do you wish that I move my soul, the atman everlasting, or this body made of clay? How am I different from you? What you say is not logical. How can a person go away from himself?"
Shri Shankracharya realised that such words could not come from an untouchable and that this was no ordinary person. He understood that this was Lord Shiv himself who had come along with his consort and the four Vedas. Till then the Shri Shankracharya had not let go of the practices of the caste system. This event broke that veil. He prostrated before the Lord bursting into a song of five slokas called "Manish Panchakam". Lord Shiv then appeared as himself along with Vishalakshi and blessed Shri Shankracharya.
(In certain versions of this story it is said that this conversation was between Maharishi Ved Vyas and the Adi Shankracharya but in the next story I give that incident.)
In Varanasi, when Shri Shankarcharya was 16, a very old Brahmin of ill health started arguments with him about Brahmasutra bashyam(commentary) which Shri Shankracharya had written. Shri Shankracharya was astounded by his intelligence and arguments but they continued their discussion. The arguments continued for days together and the more Shri Shankaracharya argued, the more his ideas crystallised. He understood that the old man was none other than Maharishi Vyasa, who was the creator of Brahmasutra. Shri Shankracharya said that he has done a great disrespect to the sage by entering into an argument. Maharishi Vyasa said "I fully agree with your commentary and I wanted to establish that your commentary is correct. I bless you that you will live another 16 years and you should spread this Advaita philosophy throughout the country."
Shri Shankaracharya had heard a lot about an aged scholar by the name of Kumarila Bhatt. Kumarila was the proponent of Karma Mimamsa. In those days it was a tradition to refute traditions and philosophies. A person who lost had to either become a disciple of the winner or to serve him for the rest of his life. Shri Shankracharya had planned on challenging Kumarila Bhatt but when he reached Allahabad and met Kumarila he found that Kumarila was about to immolate himself. Kumarila was impressed by the young Shankracharya and directed him to meet and debate with his best disciple Mandan Mishra.
Shri Shankracharya learnt that this very learned person by the name Mandan Mishra (by some accounts Mandal) lived in Mahishmati (present day Maheshwar in central India though often in most narrations one finds reference to Kashmir). Mandan Misra had a very big reputation as well as a large number of followers. Shri Shankracharya saw a chance to win over a large number of people to the Advaita philosophy. Shri Shankarcharya arrived at Mandan Mishra's home and found that his home was closed. Mandan Mishra was carrying out some rituals inside his house. Shri Shankracharya entered the house by using his powers. Mandan Mishra was very surprised to see a monk in his home. He asked Shri Shankracharya how he had entered into the house and why he had dared to do so. He was extremely offended and asked the Shankracharya to leave. Shri Shankaracharya said that he had heard that Mandan Mishra was a great scholar and had come to challenge him to debate philosophy. He said that he considered ritualistic worship to be ineffective, false and of inferior philosophical value as far as the highest truth was concerned. Mandan Mishra accepted this challenge.
Mandan Mishra admired the intelligence of Shri Shankracharya and realised that this was no ordinary person. He started discussions with him after completing the rituals. Mandan Mishra said that there should be a judge to decide the winner and suggested that Sarasawani (in some accounts Saraswati), his wife could be the judge. Shri Shankracharya agreed. Sarasawani, was extremely intelligent and learned. She realised that it would be extremely difficult to be the judge without being accused of partiality. So she thought of a method where the onus of the judgement would not be on her. She suggested that both of them should wear a garland of flowers and whichever garland fades first, that person would be the loser. In the arguments that followed Mandan Mishra's garland had withered while Shri Shankracharya's garland remained fresh. So between the two Shri Shankracharya had won.
As per the original condition, Mandan Mishra had to become a sannyasi, Sarasawani could very obviously not allow that to happen. So she said "Sir, as per the scriptures a husband and wife are a whole and you have only won from one half. If you wish to consider yourself the winner you must debate with me too".
Shri Shankaracharya had to accept this and started a debate with her. Sarasawani too was a very intelligent person and debated long with the Shankracharya. In the end she realised that she had no chance of winning this debate. Finally she started asking him questions related to love-making, child birth, etc. In ancient India, Kama Shastra or the art of love-making was also considered as a scripture. Now Shri Shankracharya was trapped. Being a monk he could not know the answers. He told Sarasawani that it was somewhat unfair to ask him questions on love making as he was a monk but since it was a scripture too he should be given the period of one month to prepare himself to debate on this topic. Sarasawani agreed.
At some distance from Mahishmati, a king was about to die. He had almost thirty wives. Shri Shankracharya knew this fact. He entered into a cave at a distance and asked his most trusted students to protect his body. Then through a special practice known as "Par kaya pravesh" he entered into the king's body as the king breathed his last. In a day he stood up, the physicians and people were extremely amazed as their king had been ailing for long. Then Shri Shankracharya in the body of the king proceeded to spend time with the queens. The main queen however became suspicious with his new found health and ways. She figured out that this had to be a yogi who had entered the King's body. But she wanted him to stay and with the help of a black magician tried to destroy Shri Shankracharya's body that was being guarded by his students. She failed to do so. Before the month was over Shri Shankracharya gained the knowledge he seeked and returned to his body. Then he went to debate with Sarasawani and won this debate. After the debate, both Mandan Mishra who later became Sureshwaracharya and Sarasawani became disciples of Shri Shankracharya
In their travels, they reached Sringeri in Karnataka, which is on the banks of river Tungabadra. While Shri Shankaracharya and Mandan Mishra were walking, Sarasawani did not move and stood fixed in the sands of Tungabadra. Shri Shankaracharya turned back and realised by his divine powers that Sarasawani did not want to proceed any further. She had understood that the time had come for Mandan Mishra to become a Sannyasi which meant that he would leave her. She loved him deeply and could not live without him. So she decided to leave her body. At this spot Shri Shankaracharya created a seat in her memory dedicated to the goddess Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge also called Sharda, for spreading the philosophy of Advaita. This seat is today called the Sharda Peetham or the Seat of Sharda. This was the first Mutt created by Shri Shankaracharya with the direction that all the heads of the Mutts will be called Shankracharya and they will have a lineage of Shishyas or disciples who in the future too will go by the same name and will continue to teach the Advaita philosophy through the centuries.
When Shri Shankaracharya was in Sringeri, he divined by his spiritual powers that his mother was on her deathbed. According to his promise at the time of taking Sannyas, that he would be by her side when she breathes her last, he reached Kaladi and paid his last respects and attended to the needs of his dying mother. Aryambal was happy that her son had come back. Shri Shankaracharya prayed to Lord Venkateshwar who appeared in person and blessed Aryambal. Shri Shankaracharya conducted the final rites for his mother. Some persons of Kaladi objected saying that a Sannyasi does not have the right to perform the last rites, but he brushed aside these objections, himself carrying the body of Aryambal, leaving her in the pyre, and lit it himself. Thus Shri Shankracharya honoured his promise.
After the death of his mother, he went all over the country and converted the people of other beliefs to Advaita. He revived a number of temples and using his powers, he established a number of Yantras in these temples to spread the blessings of Parashakti. During his travels, he arrived at Mukambi, a religious place in Karnataka. A poor brahmin came to Shri Shankaracharya with his deaf and dumb son and prostrated before Shri Shankaracharya. Shri Shankaracharya asked the boy, "Who are you?" The dumb and deaf child, for the first time, opened his mouth and explained, "The body is not me, it is the Paramatma who is my body." Everybody was astonished, Shri Shankaracharya was pleased with his answer and he gave an amla fruit and named this boy as Hastaamalaka. When asked why he did not speak earlier the child said that there was no one who could understand the truth, now that he had met someone who could, so he spoke.(Hasta means hand and Amala means the Amala fruit). The boy wanted to go with Shankracharya, the father agreed. Hastaamalaka became one of the principle disciples of Shri Shankaracharya and was known as Hastamlakacharya.
Shri Shankaracharya now had three principal disciples, namely, Padmapada, Sureshvar (Mandan Mishra) and Hastaamalaka. They went from place to place, and preached Advaita. Shri Shankaracharya gave intense training to his disciples. One of the other disciples, Giri, while listening to the discourses, would not ask any doubts, would not open his mouth, and would be silent all the time. Some of the other disciples thought that this Giri was a dumb idiot and did not know anything. One day, all the disciples were ready to listen to Sri Shankar's discourses. Sri Shankar waited for Giri to arrive. Some of the students commented on this delay, saying that the he was not intelligent, why wait for him and so on. During the course of the day Shankar asked his students to write a verse in the very difficult trotak metre. None of them were able to do so. Giri in the mean time was doing some work and Shankar asked for him to be called. The other students snickered at him. Then Shankracharya asked Giri to compose a verse. Giri in a short while composed these shloks, and burst forth into eight slokas which had never been heard by the disciples earlier. These were the creation of Giri. On hearing this, all the disciples felt ashamed and praised Giri. These slokas are called "Trotak ashtakam". Giri was named as Trotakar by Shri Shankar.
Shri Shankar visited Thiruvidaimarudur in Tanjore district of Tamilnadu, which is a great religious place, and the ruling deity in the temple was Lord Shiva. The learned Shaivites of the temple informed Shri Shankar that Lord Shiva is the creator and that they are all merely lowly life created by Lord Shiva, and if that was so, how does Shri Shankar say that they were one with the Lord ? They did not agree with the Advaita principle. Shri Shankar asked them to enter the temple. As they reached the Sanctum Santorum of the temple, there was a thunderous statement "Satyam is Advaita". This was repeated thrice and it was also followed by a hand which came out of the Linga which conformed the truth. All the learned persons acknowledged the principle of Advaita and accepted Shri Shankar as their Guru. Even today, there is a Shankar Mutt at Thiruvaimarudur and there is a ling with a hand materialising out of it.
Shri Shankar visited Thiruvanaikar, near Trichy in Tamilnadu. In this temple, the Goddess Akhilandeswari possesed a fierce power and people who went to have her darshan could not stand the fierceness of this Goddess. Shri Shankar created two sets of earrings which are called Tatankam and he presented these to the Goddess. The fierceness of the deity reduced. This tatankam, the earrings, has been maintained over time by the Acharyas of the Kanchi Mutt.
Shri Shankar visited Tirupathi and recited the Sloka "Vishnu pathathi keshanta stotra" which describes the Lord from his foot to the head. He wanted the people to visit the Lord in great numbers and get his blessings, he established a yantra. From that day the number of followers of the temple increased and is increasing day by day.
Arjuna tree is the tree of "Maruta" and the place where Lord Shiva appears as a Linga under this "Maruta" tree is called Arjuna Kshetra. The Thiruvadaimaruthur which Shri Shankar had visited earlier is called Madhyaarjunam. Srishaila, in Andhra, is called Mallikarjunam as Lord Shiva resides under a Maruta Tree which has also got Jasmine creepers on this tree. Sri Shankaracharya visited this tree and became ecstatic on seeing the linga at the foot of this tree. His happiness flowed like the waves of a flood and in this state of ecstasy he recited verses came to be known as Sivanandalahiri.
Near Srishailam, there is a forest called Hatakeshwaram that no man used to enter. Sri Shankracharya entered this place and performed Tapas (ascetism) for many days. During this time, a Kapalik by name Kirakashan appeared before him. Kapaliks are monks of an ancient Shaiva order who live on the cremation grounds and pray to God. In some practices during ancient times they could offer human and animal sacrifice. This Kapalik by the means of certain practices used to control another individual asked Sri Shankaracharya to give his body as a human sacrifice to Lord Shiva. Sri Shankaracharya under the influence of the spell agreed. Kirakashan was about to cut off Sri Shankaracharyas head when Lord Narasimha appeared in the form of a lion and killed Kirakashan. (In some versions of this narration, the incident is stated to have happened in Kashmir and some narrations say that Shri Shankracharya’s student Padmapadacharya ran across the river with lotuses bursting forth where he placed his feet and saved the Shankracharya from being sacrificed.)
Shri Shankaracharya travelled to Badrinath (also called Badrinarayan) in the Himalayas at the height of about 10,000 feet. There is an ancient temple here that is dedicated to Lord Vishnu called Badrinarayan temple and is one of the important religious places for Hindus. Badrinarayan is a beautiful mountain shrine highly charged with spiritual energy having other ancient shrines of Lord Ganesh, Maharishi Vyas, and Bhairav as well. It is believed that Shri Shankracharya finally left his body at the age of 32 in Badrinarayan. A statue of Shri Shankracharya exists in this place to this day.