Blog Piece

The Story of Adi Shankaracharya

September 4, 2020

The Early Years

Adi Shankara or Adi Shankaracharya as he is known was entrusted with the task of ensuring the correct interpretation, through his commentaries, of the scriptures and the doctrine of Advait Vedanta. Vedanta is one of the six orthodox schools of philosophy that emerged from the philosophies contained in the Upanishads. He was said to be on earth to re-establish Dharma and spiritually unify the land. 


There is no clarity on specifically when Adi Shankara lived, just that he most probably lived in the eight century after the time of the Buddha. He did not stay on earth for very long, and it is said that he lived to the age of the early 30’s, however his achievements during this time were many. He united Hindus by unifying Hinduism and the various sects under the concept of a single Brahman, manifested in various forms, he brought back Buddhism into the Hindu fold by defining Buddha as a incarnation of Vishnu and reemphasizing the Buddhas teachings regarding the importance of the Vedas. He firmly established the philosophy of non-duality and established ‘mathas’ where learned teachers could give philosophical guidance to people. Apart from a lot of poetry and hymns such as Bhaja Govindam,  and Soundarya Lahari his outpouring to Lord Shiva, he is also credited with the Nirvana Shatakam, and many compelling commentaries including the Bhyasha on Brahma Sutras (written by Veda Vyasa).  


Adi Shankara was born to a Namboodri couple in Kaladi, which is modern day Kerala. The first of Adi Shanakara’s many hymns is said to be Kanakadhara Strotram (to Goddess Lakshmi). This was composed during the time that he was begging for alms, something that he did to conquer the ego. He met a lady who gave him an ‘amla’ fruit, which was all she could offer. Moved by the gesture he composed the strotram to pray for a shower of wealth upon the lady. He had always wanted to become a Sanyasi, however his mother was against this. His father had passed on when he was very young, and she did not wish to spend her living years alone. He needed his mother’s blessings to embark upon this path and the pleading did not yield any results, till one day while he was bathing in a river, a crocodile grabbed his foot and was pulling him into the deeper waters. He shouted out to his mother, instinctively stating that her permission was the only thing that would help save him from imminent death. Reluctantly his mother agreed and the crocodile released him. He then left Kaladi in search of a Guru. 


The Guru and the Introduction – Nirvana Shatakam

There is an interesting story of how Adi Shakara met his Guru. When he reached the Ashram of Govinda Bhagavatapada, his disciples took him to the place where the Guru was in deep meditation. Once he arrived there, Shakara prostrated in front of the Guru and sang a beautiful hymn in his name. Govinda Bhagavatapada, then emerged from his meditative state and asked Adi Shankara, who he was.  To this he replied with an on-the-spot composition of the famous Nirvana Shatakam which states.

There is an interesting story of how Adi Shakara met his Guru. When he reached the Ashram of Govinda Bhagavatapada, his disciples took him to the place where the Guru was in deep meditation. Once he arrived there, Shakara prostrated in front of the Guru and sang a beautiful hymn in his name. Govinda Bhagavatapada, then emerged from his meditative state and asked Adi Shankara, who he was.  To this he replied with an on-the-spot composition of the famous Nirvana Shatakam which states.



The story of Adi Shankara and the Chandala

During his time there was prejudice as a result of the caste system, and once while walking down a path he came across a ‘Chandala’ (lower caste). He asked them to make way for him as was the custom since a Chandala was not permitted to cross the path or be in proximity to him a higher caste. To this, the Chandala responded ‘do you want the physical body made up of food and flesh to move away from another body made up of food and flesh or do you want the ‘aatma’(consciousness)  to move away from the aatma?’ Stunned by his wisdom, Adi Shankara, composed a hymn ‘Manisha Panchaka’ rejecting the caste system, and which comprised the Vedantic teaching of the ‘ultimate unity of the universe that must lead to acceptance and infinite comprehension’. 


The Great Debate

One of Adi Shankara’s most well-known encounters was with Mandana Mishra who resided in the town of Mahishamati ( in modern-day Madhya Pradesh). Mandana Mishra was a great proponent of Mimamsa, one of the orthodox schools of philosophy where the belief is that our material world is endless and there is no liberation. It also believes in the school of thought that emphasizes the need for rituals and instant results that these rituals yielded if done right. 


Adi Shankara and Mandana Mishra commenced a philosophical debate. The two debated for many days and Mandana Mishra’s wife was appointed as a neutral umpire. Thousands of scholars came to witness the debate every day. The eloquent and well versed Adi Shankara won every point on the debate, ultimately leading to Mandana Mishra accepting defeat. However Mandana Misra’s wife, Ubhaya Bharti declared that since she, being the wife, was one half of Mandana Mishra, the defeat was not complete till she was defeated as well. Adi Shankara agreed and she then asked him questions on kama and sex, something he knew nothing about since he was celibate. He asked for some time to get versed in these areas to which Bharti agreed. 


Adi Shankara, then went to meditate and asked his disciples to protect his body as he left it and entered, through Parkaya Pravesha,  that of a king who had died– King Amaruka. Through the Kings wives, he learned Kama Shastra, and returned back to his body for the debate with Ubhaya Bharti. He then defeated her in debate and both Mandana Mishra and Ubhaya Bharti became his followers after their defeat. 


The Continued Journey

As Adi Shankara continued his travel across the country he established many Mathas that were headed by Shankaracharyas who followed and shared the Advait Vedanta philosophy and over the years they have managed to preserve the teachings that Shankara had so effectively institutionalized. 


He rejected caste, sub-sects, rituals and animal sacrifice and firmly established the philosophy of non-duality. He propagated the succession of births and deaths conditioned by karma, the unchanging reality of the Brahman and the understanding that truth is not theoretical but rather a direct realization of actual experience. 


According to Adi Shankara, we see diversity where there is unity and many where there is one. The individual aatma is identical with the consciousness supreme. 


In Summary

Adi Shakara’s life was aimed at bringing collective awareness and a common understanding of vast knowledge from the scriptures, that over time may have been lost to interpretation. This was addressed through a multi-pronged approach. The first element of this being self-awareness and experience. This was an essential building block as his incredible knowledge was deep-seated through the journey of experiences. He then took upon the task of sharing this with others so that the interpretation would be consistent. This is something that select few Gurus do to further the evolution of humanity at large. They focus on the goal of developing others who then may reach levels of capability that could be equal to, or exceed that of the Guru. Some of the disciples of Gurudev have embarked upon a similar path.  


Adi Shankara also used an approach used by musicians down the ages including modern-day ‘rap artists’.  They deal with what others experience every day and connect people through the music. His compositions were deep and could be understood by those at different levels of self-awareness. For instance, the Nirnava Shatakam shared earlier, comprises lessons from scriptures and saints combined with melody that is aimed to move a person from appreciation to understanding to reflection to belief to practice. Within its lines lies the debate between the logical and illogical, illusion and reality, the world as we see it and what it truly is, what we seek, and the truth of who we are. You will be able to find many connects and similar messages within the texts of Hingori. In particular, this can be viewed when you read more about detachment, role play, the jivaatma and the consciousness supreme. If you have been a part of some of the ‘Hingori Live’ sessions on Facebook, you would also have understood more around the concept and reasons around the fear of death. 


Another thing that we have to thank Adi Shankara for is his travel to different parts of the country, where he established schools of learning. These were run by his disciples who were on the proverbial ‘same page’ as him as a result of years of tutelage – a modern-day ‘teacher training’ of sorts. Through a content strategy that was of great relevance during his time, he ensured the institutionalization of the learnings so that they would withstand the test of time. It is thanks to this approach that we are far richer today in our understanding of the tenets of Advait Vedanta across generations. They say a Guru chooses the disciple and there are many ways in which a Guru reaches out to those who have the potential for growth in this and the afterlife. The tools used are always current with the time, so perhaps WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube may constitute some of the available options. However the approach is subtle and if while caught in our daily humdrum of activities, we may miss the call and the subsequent opportunity to develop to our true spiritual potential. It may be wise to be look for hidden clues and cues that may subtly point you in the direction of your Guru – keep your eyes and ears, thoughts, and intuition open.


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