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Life of Shankaracharya - The Adventures of a Poet Philosopher

Article of the Month - February 2005
Viewed 59518 times since 2nd Oct, 2008

The 'Philosophical' Birth of a Philosopher

The Boon of Shiva
The Boon of Shiva

In the south Indian state of Kerala there once lived a learned Nambudiri brahmin couple. Even though this pious duo enjoyed all the blessings of life - fertile fields, abundant milch cows, plentiful wealth, well-built mansions and hosts of loving relatives - all this failed to give joy to them for the simple reason that even after many years of conjugal bliss, they were still not blessed with a symbol of their affection - an offspring. In their distress they called upon Lord Shiva for mercy. It is said that the great god himself appeared in the husband's dream and asked his desire. Shiva gave the distressed scholar two choices: an all-knowing talented but short-lived son, or one who would live very long but without any special virtue or greatness. The childless man, instead of declaring his preference, replied, "What do you think? Please do whatever is best for humanity." Though this story may or may not be accurate in the modern 'historical' sense, it does hold a significant moral. When confronted with a choice, one can learn from this incident that if the person giving the choice is much greater than oneself, the best option would appear to be to defer the decision to the boon giver.

In due course the worthy wife became pregnant. That she carried within herself an exceptional foetus was evident and is glorifyingly described in the traditional biographies: "as her pregnancy advanced, her whole body became lustrous like a blazing sun difficult to look at. What wonder is there if in course of time it became difficult for her to move about, bearing within, as she did, the energy of Shiva who is the support of all the worlds. She began to feel the contact of even tender and sweet smelling flowers a burden. What then to speak of ornaments? A general lassitude gradually crept on her, making everything burdensome to her. Another psychological change, characteristic of women in pregnancy, came over her. Whatever was rare she would like to have, but on obtaining it, would immediately lose all interest in it. Thus the relatives brought many delicacies to please the expectant mother, but her interest would abate as soon as she had tasted them. Well, the life of a pregnant mother is indeed full of ordeals. The line of her abdominal hair, resembling the mossy growth in the rivulet of radiance that flowed to the navel after encircling her hillock-like bosom, shone as the staff carried by accomplished yogis, placed there by the creator himself for the use of the divine child within - as if to declare that he was a sannayasi, even in his pre natal state. In the guise of hr two breasts for suckling the child, the creator had verily made two jars filled with a new type of nectar that was enlightenment (mukti) itself. It looked as if the two breasts of the mother stood for the theory of difference and the thinness of the middle region for the doctrine of Shunyata (nothingness), and the child within was refuting and correcting these by causing the enlargement of the breasts and the abdomen."

The newborn was named Shankara, which is but another epithet for Lord Shiva It means the bestower (kara) of happiness (sam) to all. Shankara grew up as a precocious child and exhibited exceptional talent in imbibing the ancient Vedic texts. His parents thus naturally had high hopes from him. Unfortunately, his father wasn't around to witness the full flowering of his talents and passed away when Shankara was just three. It fell to the lot of his mother to care for the child and bring him up single-handedly. The dutiful mother performed his upanayanam ceremony (sacred thread ritual of the twice born) when he turned five, after which he was packed off to a gurukula for his primary education. The lad was blessed with prodigious powers of retention and it was said that he could remember anything once he had heard it. He thus quickly mastered all the required branches of learning, including logic, philosophy of yoga and grammar. Even at that young age however, the perceptive Shankara showed a marked preference for the non-dualistic (Advaita) doctrine laid down in the ancient texts known as the Upanishads.

Early Life

After finishing his studies, Shankara returned home and continued to lead a life devoted to learning, and serving his mother. During this time Shankara's reputation as an extraordinary child traveled far and wide, so much so that the king of Kerala desiring to see him sent a minister with a large retinue to invite him to the royal palace. Shankara, however, was not enamored by the regal splendor and politely refused the invitation saying "I am a brahamchari (celibate monk), who should not leave his studies lured by the luxury of riding an elephant and the chances of being honored at a king's court. It is therefore difficult for me to comply with the request and I am sorry I have to send you back home disappointed." On hearing this the king, who himself was an accomplished poet, visited Shankara and enjoyed with him many hours of enlightened discussion.

Though Shankara lived a regular life at home, his ascetic tendencies were obvious to those around him. This caused much distress to his mother, for he was her sole emotional anchor. Shankara, the devoted son that he was, thought within himself: "I have not the least liking for this worldly life. But mother does not permit me to leave it. She is a guru unto me and I must not do anything without her consent."

Shankara becomes a Sannayasi
Shankara becomes a Sannayasi

Life went on this manner, until one day when Shankara went to bathe in the river. No sooner had he entered the stream than a crocodile caught hold of his leg and began to drag him to deeper waters. Shankara shouted to his mother on the bank: "Mother, this alligator is pulling me to imminent death. If I die with an unfulfilled desire in my heart, my soul will not find release. Thus do give your consent to my becoming a sannayasi so that I can at least fulfill my wish in principle and leave this world peacefully." The lamenting mother consented to her son's appeal. Just then some fishermen nearby threw their nets on the crocodile who thus intimidated, released Shankara's leg.

The young lad now started preparations for leaving the house of his mother since as a sannayasi the whole world was now his home. The mother's grief knew no bounds but having given her word she could in no way retract it. Perceiving her despair, Shankara said: "All knowing mother, you are yourself aware that this world is but an inn where we are together for a meager time only. One day, on the eternal road, all souls are destined to unite with the One Absolute Reality. For your material comforts, you have with you all our ancestral property and I will make arrangements that our near and dear ones will care for you in my absence." He also promised her that he would be present to perform her last rites when the situation arose. Thus ensuring the well being of his mother, Shankara left his abode in the search of an accomplished guru who could initiate him into sannayas (monkhood), embarking on a way of life which has solitude for one 's pleasure garden, chance-obtained food for banquet and the indwelling Shiva as sole companion.

Moving northwards, he passed through various lands, rivers, cities, mountains, animals, men and the rest until he came to the banks of the river Narmada, thousands of kilometers away from his native place. The shade of the tall trees on the riverside and the cool breeze blowing through them assuaged his bodily exhaustion very soon. He then observed bark clothes hanging from the branches and realized that he had reached a hermitage. His curiosity aroused, he asked the ascetics residing there the name of the spiritual preceptor of the ashram. It belonged to Govindapada.

Shankara was then led to the cave where the sage resided. He respectfully went round the cavern three times, then prostrated before its entrance and entreated the guru to make him his disciple. Coming out of his samadhi (super conscious state), Guru Govindapada asked him the following question: "Who are you?" Shankara there and then composed a composition of ten verses, the gist of which is as follows: "I am neither the earth, nor water, fire, air or sky (the five subtle elements), nor composed of their properties. I am not the sense organs nor the mind. I am but the Supreme Consciousness underlying all, known as Shiva." Hearing these words, which betrayed an extraordinarily high comprehension of metaphysical principles, the guru was transported into the realms of ecstasy and recognizing Shankara's talent, initiated him into sannayasa.

Govindapada instructed Shankara on the nuances of Vedic philosophy. He also introduced his pupil to the Brahma Sutra penned by sage Vyasa (author of the epic Mahabharata). The Brahma Sutra is so called because its theme is Brahman (the Ultimate Reality). It is also called Shaririksutra (bodily, since it is concerned with the embodied soul); Bhikshusutra, because those who are competent to study it are the sannayasins; Uttaramimamsasutra (Uttara - final; mimamsa - enquiry) as it is an enquiry into the final sections of the Vedas. This sacred text, dealing with the ultimate questions of philosophy, consists of 552 propositions or aphorisms (known as sutras), each tersely worded and brief enough to leave the first time reader perplexed. This factor coupled with its undisputed authority among ancient texts has ensured that it has been commented on by almost every major figure in the Indian philosophic tradition. In fact, it would be possible to trace much of the history of Indian philosophy by examining the commentaries on this work alone.

Vedanta Explained - 2 Volumes (Sankara's Commentary on the Brahma-sutras)






At the particular moment when Shankara was studying under Govindapada, there was no unanimity amongst scholars regarding the interpretation of the Brahma Sutra. His guru therefore directed Shankara to repair to the holy city of Varanasi, which even then, as today, was a great seat of learning and education, and write a commentary on the text, which would clarify matters and put an end to the prevailing confusion.







Shankaracharya with his disciples
Shankaracharya with his disciples

It is well known that all learning and knowledge in the ancient times had to be tested at Varanasi, in front of its learned pundits, for which the city was justly famous. Shankara thus started his mission of the grand unification of the various strands of the Indian ethos, which were then moving in divergent directions. It is interesting to note here the sense of unity that pervaded the thinking of all scholars throughout the history of ancient India known as Bharatadesha at the time. Scholars from the east, west, north or south, all had to prove themselves at this great center of scholarship and spirituality. While the concept of a nation-state in a political sense may have been alien to early Indian thought it was alive to the much more enduring and stable ideas of spiritual unity of this land extending from the Himalayas in the north to Kanyakumari in the south. It is this idea of being one country which prompted Shankara and many others, even in times when there was no easy access through any means of transport, to travel to the four corners of the land. In this regard, the situation of many pilgrim centers located throughout the country at strategic points seems to be a deliberate exercise aimed at bringing all spiritually inclined pilgrims in contact with one another and reinforcing the concept of unity as a nation. Shankara thus settled down at Varanasi, and derived great satisfaction and inspiration from this holy city. Over a period of time, many young people were attracted to his radiant presence and became his disciples.

Confrontation with an Untouchable

One scorching day of summer, the worthy saint and his followers were going to bathe in the river Ganges at the Manikarna ghat. On their way, the party encountered a chandal (keeper of cremation grounds) who is considered the lowest amongst lowest in the hierarchy of Indian castes. Accompanying the outcaste were his four repulsive dogs. Addressing the untouchable, Shankaracharya asked him to move away and make way for them. The hunter then raised some interesting questions:

"You are always going about preaching that the Vedas teach the non dual Brahman to be the only reality which is immutable and unpollutable. If this is so how has this sense of difference overtaken you? There are hundreds of yogis going around indulging in high sounding philosophical talk, donning the ochre robe and exhibiting other insignia of holy life like the water pot and staff. But not even a ray of knowledge having found entrance into their hearts, their holy exterior serves only to dupe householders. You have asked me to move aside and make way for you. To whom were your words addressed O learned Sir? To the body which comes from the same source and performs the same functions in the case of both a brahmin (the highest caste) and an outcaste? Or to the atman (soul), which too is the same in all, unaffected by anything material like the body? How do such differences as 'this is a brahmin, or this is an outcaste,' arise in the essentially non-dual world, which is the philosophy you preach. O revered teacher, is the sun changed in the least, if it reflects in the liquor pot or in the holy Ganga? How can you indulge in such false sentiments as 'Being a brahmin I am pure; and you, dog-eater, must therefore give way for me,' when the truth is that the one universal and unblemishable bodiless spirit is shining alike in each of our physical forms. Forgetting, due to false attachment, one's own true nature as the material-less spirit - beyond thoughts and words, unmanifest, beginningless, endless and pure - how indeed have you come to identify yourself with the body which is but unsteady like the ears of an elephant."

Saints of India - Shankaracharya
Saints of India - Shankaracharya


It is believed that the chandala was none other than Lord Shiva in disguise, and the four canines the four Vedas. The sage immediately fell to the feet of the outcaste and composed there a quintad of scintillating verses, called the 'Manishapanchakam,' summing up the absolute truth as follows:

From the standpoint of the body, O Shiva, I am thy servant; from the standpoint of the soul, O Thou with three eyes, I become a part of Thine; and O the Self of all, from the standpoint of the Self, I am verily Thou: This is my settled conclusion reached with the help of all shastras.

In a fortunate turn of events, the date for the auspicious Kumbha mela at Prayag (Allahabad of today), fell concurrent with his sojourn in Varanasi, eighty kilometers from the site of the fair. His discourses on the banks of the Ganga there attracted many pilgrims and spiritual seekers who felt exceptionally blessed on partaking the nectar of his teachings.


Meeting with a Philosopher Committing Suicide

During the time of Shankaracharya, the school of Purvamimamsa, which believed in the strict and theoretical observance of rituals, reigned supreme. Shankara realized that unless he was able to win over this powerful rival, his goal of spiritually re-unifying India would remain difficult to fulfill. The foremost proponent of this sect was the great scholar Kumarila Bhatta, who lived in Prayag itself.

When Shankara reached Kumarila's place he saw a strange and horrific sight. Placed in a courtyard was a huge pyre lighted with slow burning rice-husk. At the center of the flames could be discerned the head of a radiant figure, draped in white. This was none other than the great philosopher Bhatta himself.

Kumarila Bhatta, in order to equip himself with the nuances of Buddhist philosophy, so that he could better counter its onslaught against the Vedic ethos, had once studied at a monastery pretending to be a Buddhist. He was committing self-immolation as an expiation for his sins, which included the pretension of being a Buddhist and learning their doctrines at the feet of a guru, and then, the impropriety of all improprieties, challenging his own guru to debate and defeating him (guru-droha). These unworthy acts not befitting one who 'practiced what he preached,' an ocean of guilt overwhelmed Kumarila, and to atone for his sins resorted to this fatal, drastic step.

Shankara's appeal to step down from the flames proved to be of no avail. Before succumbing however, Kumarila advised him to go and meet his disciple Mandana Mishra, who was the most renowned protagonist of the Purvamimamsa School.

Mandana Mishra resided in the town of Mahishamati (Madhya Pradesh). When Shankara reached the city and asked for directions from some maids on the way, he was told: "You will find nearby a house at whose gates there a number of parrots in cages, discussing topics like: 'Do the Vedas have self validity or do they depend on some external authority for their validity? Are karmas capable of yielding their fruits directly, or do they require the intervention of god to do so? Is the world eternal, or is it a mere appearance?' Where you find this strange phenomenon of caged parrots discussing such abstruse philosophical problems, know that to be the gate of Mandana's place."

Shankaracharya and Mandana Mishra debate while Bharati looks on
Shankaracharya and Mandana Mishra debate while Bharati looks on

These precise and unique instructions made it easy for Shankara to locate the house and it was not long before he challenged Mandana Mishra to debate. By mutual consent it was decided to make Bharati, the wife of Mandana Mishra, the judge of this contest. Indeed, the wise and sagacious Bharati was renowned all over as a veritable incarnation of Goddess Saraswati herself. Before the debate formally began, Bharati put a garland of fresh flowers round the neck of each philosopher and declared that whose wreath faded first would be the loser. The propriety of such an action is questionable since a Hindu woman will garland with her own hands no man except her husband. Such a ceremony forms an integral ritual at Indian weddings. Is it that Saraswati (incarnated as Bharati) had already chosen Shankara as her suitor, thus symbolically crowning him with victory before the debate even began? The precise answer we will never know.

The dialogue between the two stalwarts is said to have gone on for a number of days and renowned scholars from all around came in droves to witness this extraordinary event. It is interesting to note here that while the debate was on, Bharati would invite them both at noon for food, first inviting the ascetic for his alms (bhiksha) and then the householder (Mandana) for his meal. The verbal duel encompassed the entire gamut of Vedic philosophy covering all its various manifestations and subtle elements. As time progressed however, Mandana's necklace of flowers began to fade. His wife Bharati thus declared her verdict in favor of the sannayasi. Then, unlike other days, she invited both of them for bhiksha, since it had been already agreed that the defeated philosopher would adopt the stage of life (asharama) practiced by the victor. Thus the householder (grihastha) became a renunciant (sannayasi) and it was appropriate to invite both of them for alms. To his credit, Mandana accepted his defeat gracefully and became a disciple of Shankaracharya, who rechristened him as Sureshvara.

An Ascetic Discusses the Science of Love

The transformation of her husband into a sannayasi distressed Bharati to no end. Wise and prudent as she was, she kept her counsel and addressed Shankara thus: "You do know that the sacred texts enjoin that a wife forms one-half of a husband's body (ardhangini: ardha- half; angini - body). Therefore, by defeating my lord, you have but won over only half of him. Your victory can be complete only when you engage in debate with me also, and manage to prove yourself better."

The entire congregation sat agape at the unexpected turn of events. Shankara spoke with folded hands: "Mother that is not possible. It is not advisable for a man and a woman to engage in verbal duel." "But why?" retorted Bharati. "How come a wise philosopher like yourself holds such an erroneous view? Is not our tradition replete with examples where talented women have engaged in constructive debate with accomplished saints and yogis? Recall the verbal duel between king Janaka and his worthy opponent Sulabha. A debate is undertaken keeping a firm belief in one's faith. How then can a difference of gender be of any consequence?"

Speechless against the soundness of her argument, Shankara reluctantly agreed to the contest. Seventeen days passed in this intellectual exercise before Bharati realized that Shankara was invincible in Vedic lore and philosophies. She thus gave a new strategic direction to the whole discussion saying: "O wise one, discuss with me the science and art of love between the sexes. Enumerate the number of positions envisaged in our ancient erotic manuals? How do the preferences of the two genders manifest and vary with the bright and dark fortnights?"

Shankaracharya gave a calm reply to her missives: "Holy mother, here we are discussing the shastras (scriptures)."

"Has not the science of love too been deified as a scripture? It has indeed been granted the status of a shastra (Kamashastra: kama - desire; shastra - canon). A sannayasi is supposed to have conquered all his physical desires, and there is no scope for any debilitating thought to ever enter his mind. Thus, if you feel that a mere discussion on the science of love will distract and titillate you, there definitely is some fundamental gap in your knowledge. How then can you be a guru to my husband?"

Shankaracharya contemplated for a moment and then replied: "Mother, I will indeed reply to your questions. However I have two requests. First, I need a month's time to prepare myself and secondly, I will submit the answers in writing only." Bharati accepted both his pleas.

It is said that Shankara, making use of his yogic powers, entered the dead body of a king, granting it a new lease of life. Thus embodied, Shankaracharya then traversed the perfumed gardens of love, gaining a first hand experience in the practical aspects of the ancient Kama Sutra. Texts indicate that Shankara became so engrossed in these amorous activities that he forgot his original purpose and his disciples had to come to the court and sing hymns extolling the virtues of non-dualist Vedic philosophy before he regained his composure and reverted back to his old body. Having successfully answered all of Bharati's queries, Shankaracharya was now the uncrowned king of the spiritual regeneration of India. What remained was his formal crowning, but before that a telling incident of his life must be narrated.

The Philosopher as a Dutiful Son

Places visited by Shankaracharya based on seven biographies
Places visited by Shankaracharya based on seven biographies

Shankaracharya then continued southwards, engaging the spiritual heads of various sects, winning them over with erudite discussions and debates. He also restored the spiritual and physical vitality of many important temples on his way. The places he graced with his lotus feet include Shrishaila, Gokarna, Mukambika, Shribali, Rameshwaram and Shringeri amongst many others.

One day suddenly, Shankara felt the flavor of his mother's milk on his tongue. He realized that she was beckoning him. He rushed to his native village to be on his mother's side. She was on her deathbed. The sight of her beloved son relieved her of all agony and she came to terms with the inevitable. The end thus came peacefully. As per his promise, Shankara decided to perform her obsequies with his own hands, even though such activities are prohibited for the ascetic (sannayasi) who has renounced the life of a householder. He called upon relatives and neighbors of the family for help in this matter. They laughed at him scornfully, and questioned his right to perform the last rites of his deceased mother. Shankara had to then single-handedly do the needful. The traditional sources of his life say that he made a pile of banana leaves in the backyard of his mother's house, cut up the corpse to be able to carry it all alone by himself and then consigned her to flames. Since then, as a legend goes, a curse descended on the Nambudiris, and to this day many families still do cremate their dead in their own gardens using some banana stems as a symbol and also mutilate their dead a little before lighting the pyre.

Shankaracharya's Himalayan Odyssey

The holy shrine of Badarinath
The holy shrine of Badarinath

Shankaracharya also undertook a journey to the pilgrimage sites of the Himalayas in the north, including Haridvar, Badarinath, Kedaranath and Gangotri. In Badarinath, he was distressed to observe that instead of an image, the priests there worshipped a sanctified piece of stone (Shaligram). On enquiry it was revealed that when iconoclastic invaders from across the borders had cast their ominous shadow on this holy spot, the distressed priests had submerged the idol in a nearby water body (Narada-kunda). After the circumstances had normalized however, they had been unable to retrieve the sacred image; hence its substitution by the formless stone.

Seeing the despair of the devotees present there, the acharya became engrossed in deep thought. It was only after a long time that he came out of his reverie and before the congregation had time to react, he rushed to the pond where the sacred icon lay hidden and jumped into it. This water body was full of vicious whirlpools and when Shankara did not appear even after a long time had elapsed, there was turmoil all around. And lo, when all had lost hope, out emerged the cynosure of all eyes, unscathed, and carrying on his shoulders, the figurine embodying the essence of 'Narayana.' He also established the idol in the sanctum sanctorum and performed the necessary prescribed rituals. The tradition lives to this day and the daily ceremonies at Badarinath are still carried out by Nambudiri brahmins from Kerala.

The Crowning of Shankaracharya in the Crown of India

The lush valley of Kashmir was in those days, an important seat of learning, as is testified by Hsuan-Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim in 631 AD. It was considered the Kashi (Varanasi) of north India. In this region there was a temple dedicated to Mother Sharada, this being the popular name for Saraswati in Kashmir. It had four doors, and at the center of the shrine was a high throne, known as the seat of omniscience, which was reserved for one with an infallible knowledge. Before Shankara, scholars and philosophers from east, west and north had unsuccessfully attempted to enter the sacred precincts by their respective gates. No one till now had however tried to enter by the south gate, which is what Shankara resolved to do. At each step he was accosted by the leaders and followers of various sects including the Samkhyas, Mimamsakas, Buddhists, Shvetambers, Digambers and Shaktas. Each put forward their point of view and thoroughly interrogated Shankara regarding his own beliefs. They all had to retreat under the spell of his well thought out logical replies, delivered in a sweet speech underlined with a self-assured dignity and decorum. When each and every query had been addressed, all the four gates opened. He was requested to enter the temple and grace the throne. No sooner had he placed the first step inside, than the shrine reverberated with the voice of Saraswati herself, challenging him thus: "That you are all-knowing is an already proven fact. For this throne however, one should not only be knowledgeable but also pure in conduct (charitra). Do not commit the grave impropriety of ascending this throne, without reflecting on whether you have been absolutely pure in life. In spite of being an ascetic, in order to learn the secrets of erotic love, you lived in physical relationship with women. Was it proper for you to do so? To gain the status of omniscience, perfect purity of life is as much important as all-round learning." To this Shankaracharya replied: "From birth, I have done no sin with this body. What was done with another body will not affect this body of mine."

Significant Episodes in the Life of Shankaracharya
Significant Episodes in the Life of Shankaracharya

The voice of Saraswati became silent, accepting his explanation. Hence was Shankara crowned the supreme philosopher of all ages. It is said that such a profusion of flowers was showered on him that day that even Shachi, the wife of Indra the king of gods, had to make do without blossoms for her hair.

The scenic Kashmir valley forms the crown of the Indian subcontinent, and it is befitting that Shankaracharya was felicitated with this supreme honor here.

It was perhaps the sensuous beauty of this place that inspired him to create the poetic masterpiece "Saundaryalahari," or the "Waves of Beauty." This delightful collection of verses extols the glory of the Mother Goddess in highly endearing and intimate terms. At one point the poet philosopher says:

O Daughter of the king of mountains! Great men say that the closing and opening of thy eyelids marks the dissolution and creation of this universe. Therefore it must be to prevent this universe, that has sprung at the opening of thy eyes, from going into dissolution that thou dost not wink But keepest thy eyes always open.

The above verse takes upon the popular belief that divinities do not wink or blink and their eyes are always open. The poet finds a cosmic purpose in this feature of the mother's eyes.

At another place he speculates:

O Daughter of the mountain-king! I fancy that thy breast milk is the ocean of poetic inspiration, emerging from your heart For, it was by drinking it, So graciously given by thee, That the child of the Dravida country became a noted poet among great composers.

Some scholars believe this to be an autobiographical reference, with Shankara, born in Kerala, calling himself the child of the Dravida (southern) region, drinking at the breasts of the divine mother the milk of poesy. The joyous use of such rich imagery reveals that Shankaracharya was not a 'dry' preacher from the arid realms of philosophy, but also a bhakta of the highest order, capturing his emotions in highly sensitive expressions.

Merging into the Infinite - The Death of a Philosopher

The Word Speaks to the Faustian Man:(A translation and interpretation of the Pasthanatrayi and Sankara's Bhasya for the participation of contemporary man)




Quem di diligunt, adolescens moratur (Whom the gods love, die young)

In addition to composing numerous texts and verses delineating the essential principles of non-dualistic Vedic philosophy, a significant contribution of Shankara is his commentary on the principal Upanishad texts and the Bhagavad Gita as also the Brahma sutras mentioned above. His serious discussions on the central problems of philosophy envisaged in these texts proceeds without the use of arcane terminology, unexplained references or convoluted arguments. Shankara'a purpose is not to intimidate the reader with abstract technical jargon; but rather provide him/her with spiritual insight. It is indeed a blessing that these three commentaries have survived down the ages and are available for the contemplation of contemporary man.







Another significant contribution, which enriched the spiritual life of common man, was the establishment of a pilgrimage site and seat of learning in each of the four directions (chaar-dham). Such a network both celebrates and solidifies regional identities and without journeying to these four spots, no Hindu's sacred itinerary is deemed complete. The four are:

a). Badarinath in the north.
b). Puri in the east.
c). Rameshvaram in the south.
d). Dwarka in the west.

His life purpose accomplished, the acharya then retired to Kedaranath (experts differ on the exact place of his demise), and gave up his physical body. He was all of thirty-two years of age.

For men like Shankara, there can however be no end in the real sense. As an exponent of Advaita, he lives as the ever-present non-material Brahman in each of us.


Conclusion: Was Shankara a Philosopher?

Shankaracharya's philosophical outlook can be summed up in one word Advaita, 'Dvaita' meaning duality and the prefix 'A' negating it. The goal of Advaita is to make an individual realize his or her essential (spiritual) identity with the supreme realty Brahman. What significance does it have for the everyday life of an ordinary individual? Advaita teaches us to see the face of our own child in that of our neighbor's offspring; to perceive our brother in the parking lot attendant shivering in the freezing night and also to view the lady traveling in the bus without a seat as our own mother. Advaita is more a way of life than an abstract philosophical system. Thus the appropriation of Shankara 's legacy by the staid philosopher and the reduction of his creative output to abstract niceties is indeed a grave betrayal of his contribution. Such an approach transforms what is essentially a way to redemption into mere intellectual speculation, while the truth remains that Shankaracharya is, in every way, our guru and guide, who leads us to the experience of the ultimate truth (atmanubhava) which resides not anywhere 'outside,' but is present within each of us. If we wish to understand the true meaning of Shankara's teachings, we have to follow India's rich tradition of sages and seers and not learned philosophers who have changed what was a cure for the malady called life, into a complex system of philosophy. Studying Shankara as if he were a mere philosopher, even 'the greatest of all philosophers,' is a sure way of not understanding him - the one whose 'style' always was both analytic and participatory at the same time.

Shankara's life demonstrates that one is not a philosopher by great discourses; rather, it is the way one lives and experiences life, soaking in all its adventures, that shows our level of perception and understanding. In this context, it may also be stressed that Shankara was not the founder of the theory of Advaita, which is eternal like the Veda itself. What he however did was to bring all the various streams of Indian thought, diverging in his time in different directions, under the common roof of Advaita, thus resolving the widespread confusion arising out of the multiplicity of opinion.

References and Further Reading

  • Audi, Robert. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy: Cambridge, 2001.
  • Bader, Jonathan. Conquest of the Four Quarters - Traditional Accounts of the Life of Sankara: New Delhi, 2000.
  • Collinson et al. Fifty Great Eastern Thinkers: New Delhi, 2004.
  • Date, V.H. Vedanta Explained (Samkara's Commentary on the Brahma-sutras) 2 vols: New Delhi, 1973.
  • Founders of Philosophy (Many Contributors): New Delhi, 2001.
  • Goenka, Harikrishendas. Vedanta Darshan (Brahma Sutra): Gorakhpur.
  • Grimes, John. A Concise Dictionary of Indian Philosophy (Sanskrit - English): University of Madras, 1988.
  • Grimes, John. The Vivekacudamani of Sankaracarya Bhagavatpada (An Introduction and Translation): Delhi, 2004.
  • Gupta, Som Raj. The Word Speaks to the Faustian Man:(A translation and interpretation of the Prasthanatrayi and Sankara's Bhasya for the participation of contemporary man) Volume One: Delhi, 1991.
  • Hinnells, John R. The Penguin Dictionary of Religions: London, 1997.
  • King, Peter J. One Hundred Philosophers - A Guide to the World's Greatest Thinkers: Sussex, 2004.
  • Leaman, Oliver. Eastern Philosophy Key Readings: New Delhi, 2004.
  • Leaman, Oliver. Key Concepts in Eastern Philosophy: New Delhi, 2004.
  • Madhava - Vidyaranya. Sankara Digvijaya - The Traditional Life of Sankaracharya (Trans. by Swami Tapasyananda): Chennai.
  • Mishra, Jairam. Adi Shankaracharya Jeevan aur Sandesh (Hindi): Allahabad, 2002.
  • Rao, Sridevi. Adi Sankaracharya - The Voice of Vedanta: New Delhi, 2003.
  • Rukmani, T.S. Shankaracharya: New Delhi, 2000.
  • Sankaracharya, Sri. Saundarya Lahari (Tr. by Swami Tapasyananda): Chennai.
  • Shyamla, Kamla Sharma. Divya Purusha Adi Shankaracharya (Hindi): New Delhi, 2003.
  • Subramanian, V.K. Saundaryalahari of Sankaracharya: Delhi, 2001.
  • Victor, P. George. Life and Teachings of Adi Sankaracarya: New Delhi, 2002.
Post a Comment
  • The fact that sankara is embodiment of lord shiva himself should be included in this article. If veda's are divided into tow equal parts and the middle most verse talks about shiva in two forms, one of them is sankara himself. Vedas which are much older than sankara's time already mentioned this incarnation.
    by shashank on 4th Mar 2010
  • This article by Nitin Kumar is a wonderful effort
    to give the readers a glimpse of the Divine Personality - "SHANKARA SHANKARASCHAIVA".Well done and keep it up !
    by poorna yogi on 25th Oct 2009
  • well, thanx but you need to do more research to write authentic articles , i know you are just amateur one !! cheers buddy!
    by Sharan on 22nd Sep 2009


    by MANOJ KP on 8th Jul 2009
  • Superb article. It gave and information and perspective that is almost impossible to find anywhere else.
    by Atul on 16th Oct 2008
  • Article is good, well written in simple Englsh and I thorougly enjoyed it.

    Howere, there are scope for improvement. one among them is about the reference of a Kerala King, which is not correct. In fact there was no Kerala king at all in the history of Kerala (Keralam). I don't know the exact details, hence please do some research and include the correct details that would enhance the authenticity.
    by Santhosh Kumar Ramachandran on 29th Feb 2008
  • Thank you, Nitin Kumar, for your beautifully written and very informative article about the life the Jagadguru Shankaracharya. Until yesterday I did not know of the saint's existence. I thank God for his Mercy in sending us shining lights in this difficult age of darkness and ignorance, confusion and despair. Nitin Kumar is to be commended for his tender reverence and manifest gratitude to the Jagadguru. Thank you for your work.
    by Annemarie Pierce on 20th Dec 2007
  • suberb and unforgettable
    by TOYIN on 19th Sep 2007
  • I thoughrly enjoyed reading the article. thanks to Mr. Nitin Kumar. I have one doubt. abt the four mattta's the Jagadguru established i believe one is in Sringeri in the sosuth and not in Rameswaram. Please clarify. Thank you
    by NANDA KUMAR GADNG on 16th Aug 2007
  • No words can describe my joy while reading your well written essay. I am very grateful to the author Mr. Nitin Kumar. I go through this article again and again , still find it more enjoyable than my previous reading.
    by dr.jaya on 20th Jun 2007
  • Nice article. Need more articles like this.
    by Naveen Sundar G. on 2nd Dec 2006
  • Good article about our Guru Shankaracharya. But I am bit consider so as to why the Shringeri Matha was left in the whole article which forms the vital part of the Shankaracharya's life. Kindly do some more research on Shringeri matha and include in the article.
    by Maruth Banavar on 21st Feb 2006
  • Excellent article
    by Sitaram Inguva on 15th Feb 2006
  • Very informative. I was surprised to see the author mention Rameshwaram as one of the Amanya Peethas established by Adi shankara. Adi Shankara had established his monastery in the South in Sringeri, Karnataka state.
    by Shreyas Atreya on 28th Jan 2006
  • Well Written - Excellent Article, however few points were missing like Childhood story during Upannayna, Shringeri Shirine. At few points I felt like electric vibes going through my body. Thanks a lot for such an informative article.
    by Abhijeet Sen on 22nd Oct 2005
  • Brilliant Article! While it seems to capture in a concise manner the life of Adi Shankaracharya it is highly perplexing that there is no mention of Shringeri Shirine that Adi Shankaracharya established as one of the four peethas and the story surrounding its choice. This parts needs further research on the part of the author.
    by Jai Belagur on 26th Jun 2005
  • We are very grateful to Nitin Kumar for his brilliant article on Sankaracharya all the important points about Sri Sankara's life in a consise and readable and understandable manner.
    May God bless him a long life to contribute like this to the humanity.
    by Dr.Kurri Pakirareddy on 28th Apr 2005
  • Thank you so much for this beautiful article. I look forward to each one that you write for us.

    I recently was given the book, God Lived With Them, about Sri Ramakrishna and 16 of his beloved devotees. It so ran together with this article weaving a rich history of my Hindu beliefs.

    Each year I come to India for pilgrimage and I believe that you have sparked my journey for this year.

    Thank you again for the service that you do and may you always be blessed because of that service.

    With Warm Regards,
    by Jan Frederick (Parvati) on 18th Feb 2005
  • Thank you for such a wonderful and interesting article. I found great pleasure in reading it from the first to the last word. I look forward to receiving more of these enlightening articles that help me get an insight of the Indian culture with a different approach.
    by Hortensia Gibbs on 17th Feb 2005
  • I was thrilled to recieve this recent article on Shankaracharya. I am a yoga practitioner in Australia. My Indian guru is from the Shankaracharya lineage and it was wonderful to read such a well written, informative article about this great sage.

    Thank you.
    by Sakshi on 17th Feb 2005
  • It was a thrill and soul searching article. I enjoyed and liked it very much. It gave much information regarding gurudev's works and life.

    The author should have gone deep on shankaracharya's works,writings more.
    by Subu on 16th Feb 2005
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