Throughout Indian history, there were many sages and many learned ones, who transcended from the earthly to the heavenly with the power of knowledge, discipline, and determination. These Sages came and went in innumerable forms across India. Possibly the most known sage of Indian history is Adhi Shankara. Saints have always been a core part of Indian Heritage.
Adhi Shankara, who was well known for his works in philosophy and theology and whose works had a strong impact on Indian culture. A theologian is someone who researches and debates about religion specifically in this case Hindu religion. According to tradition he travelled across India to debate against other philosophers.
Different records state his birth at different times, but the official Sringeri records say that Adhi Shankara was born in the 14th year of the reign of Vikram Adithya II. Shankara was born into a Nambudiri brahmin family in a village called Kaladi in Kerala. After losing his father at a young age, Shankara renounced the world and becae a Sannyasin, initially against his mother’s will. He was tutored under Govinda, who was a pupil of the well known Gaudapada. While not much is known today about Shankara’s Teacher Govinda, Govinda’s teacher Gaudapada is well known. He was notable as the author of important Vedanta Works, especially Mandukya-karika, in which the influence of Mahayana Buddhisim, a form of Buddhism aiming at the salvation of all beings, is evident.
Shankara’s early Life:
According to tradition, Shiva, one of the principal gods of Hinduism, was Shankara’s family deity. Later he came to be regarded as a worshipper of Shiva or even an incarnation of Shiva himself. His doctrine, however, is far removed from Shaivism and Shaktism. It is ascertained from his works that he had some faith in, or was favourable to, Vaishnavism, the worship of the god Vishnu. He was familiar with Yoga (one of the classical systems of Indian philosophy, as well as a technique to achieve salvation). One study has suggested that in the beginning, he was an adherent of Yoga and later became an Advaitin.
Throughout the course of his early life, Shankara astounded many with his knowledge intelligence. He started writing his analysis of the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras, and the Bhagavad Gita at a young age. Right from his childhood, he was keen on becoming a monk. Though his idea of becoming a monk was opposed by his mother, Shankara knew exactly what he had to do. Once he accompanied his mother to a nearby river and took a plunge into the river. Suddenly, a crocodile appeared from beneath the river and caught hold of his leg. Shankara then cried out to his mother, saying that a crocodile was pulling him into the river. When his mother felt helpless, Shankara urged her to allow him to die as a monk. As soon as Aryamba gave her consent, the crocodile spared Shankara’s life and went back into the river. Shankara was miraculously unharmed and went on to become a monk as his mother had already permitted him to do so.
Wherever Shankara went good things happened to him and to those around him. There were many unbelievable miracles that took place throughout his life. One such beautiful miracle happened when he was still just a young boy. One day, while going around town asking for alms, he came across an poor old brahmin lady. Upon asking the brahmin lady for alms, she frantically searched her house and gave the only thing she could find: a gooseberry. Shankara was thoroughly moved by this immense act of kindness from this poor lady. He sang 22 stances in praise of the Goddess Lakshmi, who was the Goddess of wealth. The stanzas were so beautiful, that the Goddess herself appeared infront of Shankara and asked him why he remembered her. He replied, wishing wealth and prosperity for this kind and selfless woman. At first, the Goddess refused to do so, due to the bad karma the Lady had from her previous births, but Adhi Shankara requested for her to absolve the Lady from her previous sins. The Goddess Lakshmi was the only one who could do so, and after the convincing words of Shankara, she agreed to do so. Soon after the Goddess let pure golden gooseberry shower the old lady’s house. This was just one of the many unbelievably spectacular miracles by Adhi Shankara.
He then went in search of a guru and according to a few ancient scripts, a young Shankara walked at least 2000 kilometres before meeting Govinda Bhagavatpada. Under Govinda Bhagavatpada’s guidance, Shankara studied ‘Gaudapadiya Karika’, ‘Brahmasutra’, Vedas, and Upanishads. To his teacher’s amazement, Shankara was able to master almost all the ancient scripts in a short time. He even started writing commentaries on major religious scripts. Once he had a clear understanding of the ancient Hindu scripts, he started travelling across India, propagating ‘Advaita Vedanta’ and ‘Dashanami Sampradaya.’ During his journey, Shankara’s teachings were challenged by many philosophers and thinkers. He was even involved in several debates on Hinduism and its beliefs, but Shankara managed to astound all his doubters with his intelligence and clarity. He then went about propagating his ideas and was soon accepted as a guru by many.
Shankara’s most prized Students:
Shankara came to be known as Shankaracharya among his disciples. Though he had several disciples, four of them would go on to achieve great heights to be later considered as Shankaracharya’s main disciples. They were also entrusted with the responsibility of heading the four monasteries (maths) founded by Shankaracharya:
Padmapada was born Sanandana and was one of Adhi Shankaracharya’s most ardent followers. According to the ancient texts, Sanandana was drying his master’s clothes on the banks of the Ganges. When Shankaracharya asked for his clothes, Sanandana started crossing the Ganges, holding his master’s clothes close to his chest. Amazingly,many lotuses emerged from the river and supported Sanandana’s weight, saving him from drowning. After crossing the river, Sanandana handed the clothes over to Shankaracharya who then bestowed him with the name ‘Padmapada’ which means ‘the one with lotus feet.’ Padmapada founded ‘Thekke Matham’, a monastery in Thrissur, Kerala.
Totakachariya, known as Giri in his early life, was a very young disciple of Shankaracharya. He was dim witted and considered a fool by his fellow disciples, but he was completely devoted to his master, so Shankara bestowed him with all his knowledge, Giri then went on to compose a poem named ‘Totakashtakam’ and came to be known as Totakacharya. Totakacharya founded a monastery named ‘Vadakke Modam’ in Thrissur.
When Shankaracharya visited a village near Kollur (Karnataka), a Brahmin named Prabhakara came forward, along with his son, to meet him. Prabhakara told him that his son is a lunatic and that he is good for nothing. Shankaracharya looked at his son and asked him a few questions. The boy then replied in verses that explained Advaita philosophy. Amazed by his knowledge, Shankaracharya named him Hasta Malaka and accepted him as his disciple. Hasta Malaka founded ‘Idayil Matham’ in Thrissur.
Sureshvara was born Mandana Misra and was leading the life of an average householder. Misra was a brilliant exponent of ‘Karma Mimamsa’ and was considered Shankaracharya’s contemporary. When Shankaracharya finally met the famous Mandana Misra, he challenged him to a debate. After a furious debate that went on for months, Mandana Misra finally accepted defeat and agreed to become Shankaracharya’s disciple. He came to be known as Sureshvara and founded ‘Naduvil Matham’ in Thrissur.
At the age of 32, Adi Shankaracharya retired to the Himalayas and is believed to have entered a cave near Kedarnath. He was never seen again and the cave that he entered is considered as his final resting place.
Adi Shankaracharya is renowned for his spectacular commentaries on ancient texts. His review of ‘Brahma Sutra’ is known as ‘Brahmasutrabhasya’, and it is the oldest surviving commentary on ‘Brahma Sutra’. It is also considered his best work. He also wrote commentaries on Bhagavad Gita, and the ten principal Upanishads. Adi Shankaracharya is also well-known for his ‘stotras’ (poems). He composed many poems, praising gods and goddesses. The ones dedicated to Krishna and Shiva are considered most important among his ‘stotras’. He also composed the famous ‘Upadesasahasri’ which translates to a thousand teachings. ‘Upadesasahasri’ is one of his most important philosophical works.
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