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A 'Vedanta Mission' Page dedicated to Sri Adi Sankara

Life of Sri Adi Sankara

Introduction :

Bhagwadpada Acharya Sankara was not only a great thinker and the noblest of Advaitin philosophers, but he was essentially an inspired champion of Hinduism and one of the most vigorous missionaries in our country. Such a powerful leader was needed at the time when Hinduism had been almost smothered within the enticing entanglements of the Buddhistic philosophy and, consequently, the decadent Hindu society had come to be broken up and disunited into numberless sects and denominations, each championing a different viewpoint and mutually quarelling in endless argumentations. Each pundit, as it were, had his own followers, his own philosophy, his own interpretation. Each one was a vehement and powerful opponent of all other views. This intellectual disintegration, especially in the scriptural field, was never before so serious and so dangerously calamitous as in the times of Sankara.

It was into such a chaotic intellectual atmosphere that Sankara brought his life-giving philosophy of the Non-dual Brahman of the Upanishads. The genius in Sankara did not merely solve the problem, but by the time he laid his mortal coil to rest, he had whipped the false Buddhistic ideology beyond the shores of our country, and reintegrated the philosophical thoughts in the then Aryavarta. After centuries of wandering, no doubt richer with her various experiences, but tired & fatigued, Bharat came back to her own native thoughts. In Sankara the Upanishads discovered the fittest Spiritual General. An exquisite thinker, a brilliant intellect, a personality scintillating with the vision of Truth, a heart throbbing with industrious faith and ardent desire to serve the nation, sweetly emotional and relentlessly logical too. At his hands and under the heat of his fervent ideals, the great Sanskrit language almost became plastic. He could mould it into any shape & form. From masculine prose to soft feminine songs, from marching militant verses to dancing songful words, be he in the halls of the Upanishad commentaries, or in the temple of the Brahma Sutra expositions, or in the amphitheatre of his Bhagwad Gita discourses, or in the open flowery fields of devotional songs, his was a pen that danced itself to the rhythm of his heart and to the swing of his thoughts.

Pen alone would not have won of culture for our country. He showed himself to be a great organizer, a far sighted diplomat, a courageous hero, and a tireless servant of the country. Selfless and unassuming, this mighty angel strode up and down the length and breath of the country, serving his motherland and teaching his countrymen to live to the dignity and glory of Bharat. Establishing Mathas, opening up Temples, organising halls of education and even establishing certain ecclesiastical legislations, this mighty master left nothing undone even for maintaining what he had achieved. He was indeed pre-eminently the fittest genius who alone could have undertaken this self-appointed task as the sole-guardian angel of the Rishi-culture.

Embodiment of Shiva's grace :

Sankara was born in a small town of Kaladi, situated on the banks of River Poorna in the state of Kerala. He was born in 788 AD, on the fifth day of the bright fortnight (Shukla paksha) of the month of Vaishakha, to a Namboodiri brahmin couple, Sivaguru and Aryamba. The couple had remained childless for a long time, and prayed for a child at the Shiva (Vadakkunnathan) Temple in the nearby town of Trichur. Lord Siva is said to have appeared to the couple in a dream and promised them a choice of either one son who would be short-lived but the most brilliant philosopher of his day, or many sons who would at best be mediocre. The couple opted for a brilliant, but short-lived son. He was thus named Sankara by his parents.

Sankara lost his father when quite young, and his mother performed his upanayana ceremonies with the help of her relatives. Sankara excelled in all branches of traditional vedic learning. A few miracles are reported about the young Sankara. As a brahmacharin, he went about collecting alms from families in the village. A lady who was herself extremely poor, but did not want to send away the boy empty-handed, gave him the last piece of Amla fruit she had at home. Sankara, sensing the abject poverty of the lady, composed a hymn (Kanakadhara Stavam) to Sri, the goddess of wealth, right at her doorstep. As a result, a shower of golden Amlas rewarded the lady for her piety. On another occasion, Sankara is said to have re-routed the course of the Poorna River, so that his old mother would not have to walk a long distance to the river for her daily ablutions.

At the feet of his teacher :

Sankara was filled with the spirit of renunciation early in his life. Getting married and settling to the life of a householder was never part of his goal in life, though his mother was anxious to see him as a grhastha. Once when he was swimming in the river, a crocodile caught hold of his leg. Sankara sensed that he was destined to die at that moment, and decided to directly enter the fourth Ashrama of sanyasa right then. This kind of renunciation is called Apata sanyasa. The crocodile released him when he thus mentally decided to renounce the world, and Sankara decided to regularize his decision by going to an accomplished guru. To comfort his anxious mother, he promised that he would return at the moment of her death, to conduct her funeral rites, notwithstanding the fact that he would be a sannyasi then.

Sankara then traveled far and wide in search of a worthy guru who would initiate him and regularize his vow of sanyasa, till he came to the banks of the River Narmada in central India. Here was the Ashrama of Govinda-bhagavatpada, the disciple of Gaudapada, the famous author of the Mandukya Karikas. Sankara was accepted as a disciple by the great teacher, and later initiated him into the paramahamsa order of sanyasa, the highest kind of renunciation. Seeing the intellectual acumen of his disciple, the Acharya commanded his desciple Sankara to expound the philosophy of Vedanta through commentaries on the principal Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Gita.

Exuding the fragrence of Upanishads :

Sankara took leave of his guru and traveled to various holy places in India, also composing his commentaries in the meantime. In this period, Sankara wrote commentaries on Badarayana's Brahma Sutras, the various Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. These commentaries, called Bhashyas, stand at the pinnacle of Indian philosophical writing, and have triggered a long tradition of sub-commentaries & spiritual litrature. In addition to these, Sankara wrote independent treatises called Prakarana Granthas, including the Upadesha Sahasri, Atma-bodha, etc. In addition to writing his own commentaries, Sankara sought out leaders of other schools, in order to engage them in debate. As per the accepted philosophical tradition in India, such debates helped to establish a new philosopher, and also to win disciples and converts from other schools. It was also traditional for the loser in the debate to become a disciple of the winner. Thus Sankara debated with Buddhist philosophers, with followers of Sankya and with Purva Mimamsakas, the followers of vedic ritualism, and proved more than capable in defeating all his opponents in debate. Sankara then sought out Kumarila Bhatta, the foremost proponent of the purva mimamsa in his age, but Bhatt was on his deathbed and directed Sankara to Mandana Misra. Sankara went to his place and won him over as one of his desciples.

The Four famous desciples :

In the course of his sojourns the Acharya won the heart of many, and the string of his followers kept growing. Four of his desciples became very famous. They were Padmapada, Sureshwara, Hastamalaka and Trotaka. They are specifically mentioned because these four were made in-charge of the four Matha's which the Acharya established in the four corners of the country to continue the work of teaching the message of Advaita Vedanta.

Padmapadacharya who was earlier known as Vishnu Sharma was the first of the four famous desciples of Sankara. He met him in Kashi and was accepted by the teacher on the basis of his sincere prayer that "O great teacher, please show me the way to be free from the eternal life of seeking." Padmapadacharya was later appointed as head of the Kalika Math at Dwaraka.

Sureshwarscharya was his second famous desciple. In his purva-ashram he was known as Mandana Misra or even Visvarupa. He was an outstanding scholar and lived in a small town called Mahishmati (the present day Maheshwar) on the banks of River Narmada. Sankara asked for vada-bhiksha, with a very daring & unique stakes. If Sankara lost he would take to grahasta ashram, and if he won Mandana would have to take sanyasa and become a desciple of Sankara. Strangely enough Bharati - wife of Mandana was decided to become the judge of the debate. Bharati was regarded as the incarnation of Saraswati (the Goddess of learning). The debate continued for several days. Mandana Mishra at last accepted his defeat., became a sannyasi and disciple of Shankaracharya.and became known as 'Sureshwaracharya'. He was later made in charge of the Sarada Math at Shringeri.

The third desciple was Hastamalakacharya. The story goes that a brahmin called Prabhakara had a son who was dumb. He also appeared to be dull. He was brought in front of the Acharya. He asked the boy : "Who are you, my boy?" One who was considered dumb till then spoke, "I am the eternal Self and not dead matter." The master felt happy and asked his father to let his son become his desciple. He was later initiated into sanyasa ashram and named Hastamalaka. Hastamalakacharya was later made the Acharya of Govardhana Math, which is situated just close to the famous temple of Lord Jaganath at Puri in the state of Orissa.

The fourth famous desciple was Trotakacharya. He was earlier called Giri and was a very devout sewak of the Acharya. Giri had dedicated himself to the service of the Acharya. Other students considered him to be dull. Once, in order to make others realise the true genius & potential of Giri the great teacher asked him to give a discourse on the Atma and its nature. In a very modest way he presented the very gist of Vedanta in Trotaka Vritta, a highly difficult metrical form. The other students realised their folly. Sankara thereafter named Giri as 'Totaka' or 'Trotaka'. He was later made incharge of the Jyotir Math near Badrinath.

The last days :

In the course of his travels, Sankara reached Kashmir. Here was a temple dedicated to Sarada (sarasvati), the goddess of learning, which housed the sarvajnapitha, the Throne of Omniscience. His discourses & discussions won the hearts of all and was unanimously honoured by the pundits there by requesting him to ascend the highly respected Throne of Omniscience. This was yet one more gesture of the intelligentia & society of that times to show its respect, gratitude & indebtedness to that great embodiment of knowledge.

Meanwhile, Sankara heard that his mother was dying, and decided to visit her. Remembering his promise to her, he performed her funeral rites. His orthodox relatives would not permit him to do the rites himself, as he was a sannyasi, but Sankara overrode their objections, and built a pyre himself and cremated his mother in her own backyard. After this, he once again resumed his travels and the noble mission.

Sankara was reaching the age of 32 now. He had expounded the Vedanta philosophy through his writings; he had attracted many intelligent disciples to him, who could carry on the Vedantic tradition; and he had established monastic centers for them in the form of mathas. His had been a short, but an extremely eventful life. He retired to the Himalayas and disappeared inside a cave near Kedarnath, where a beautiful monument has been built as a memorial to that great son of this great land.

(Matter collected from various Books & Web Sites on Vedanta and re-written & drafted by Swami Atmananda)