The life of Adi Shankara was like a brilliant flash of lightning, illuminating the spiritual thought of India that led to the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta, non-dualism. This philosophy stressed that the individual soul (Atman) is one with its creator, undivided and imperishable. Man’s belief that he is separate from God is caused by Maya or illusion. This illusion is the result of ignorance and can be eliminated by knowing the reality of the Absolute Spirit, which is called Brahman. Shankara taught that the knowledge of the Self (Atman), rather than mere observance of rituals, was the source of solace and the core of Vedic truth. With this basic message, Shankara traveled throughout India rejuvenating Hinduism and unifying the fragmented country.
Shankara was only five years old when he had his sacred thread ceremony. After that, following the custom of the times, he went to live and study with his guru, a learned teacher.
Shankara learned of his father’s death on a visit home. He saw his mother weeping and shared her grief. Ayamba grew feebler after Shivaguru’s death and Shankara spent more time caring for her.
On one occasion, Ayamba expressed her concern, “Will I ever be able to go to the river to take a bath?” Shankara consoled her by stating that she need not go a long distance to the river because the river would come to her. Then, he and his friends, with great effort, changed the course of the river to flow by their house. After this great show of devotion, his mother was delighted and blessed her son.
As a teenager, Shankara was distressed by the fragmentation of the country. He felt that he should become a sanyasi, or monk, and travel across India preaching spiritual unity. As a first step toward this goal, he visited King Rajashekhara of Kerala and talked with the royal poets. The king was deeply impressed and invited Shankara to stay and join the group. Shankara declined, setting his clear goal of becoming a traveling monk.
Determined to fulfill this goal, Shankara asked his mother’s permission to become a sanyasi. She refused, saying, “I am all by myself and old. Who will look after me? You should marry and settle here.”
Shankara was deeply troubled. He was committed to what he knew was his life’s goal but he would not leave home without his mother’s permission. He wondered what he should do. He did not have long to wait.
One evening, as Shankara was bathing in the river, a crocodile caught his leg. It appeared he would be dragged to his death. His mother was on the bank and was greatly alarmed. Shankara shouted, “Mother, I want to die as a sanyasi, please give me your permission now!” His mother could not refuse her son’s final request, so she agreed.
At that moment, the crocodile released Shankara and disappeared into the river. Shankara came out safely from the river. His relieved mother blessed him and said, “Son, you have great tasks ahead of you. I will not stand in your way.”
Shankara accepted his mother’s blessing and left home at the age of twelve. He promised to return at any time she needed him.
As Shankara traveled northward, he came to Narmada and met the famous sage Bhagvadpada and his disciples. The sage greeted Shankara cordially and asked him about his beliefs and conclusions. Bhagvadpada was greatly impressed with Shankara’s bold and direct answers. The sage could discern a clear mind and a depth of knowledge. He agreed to ordain Shankara as a Paramahamsa Sanyasi, the highest order.
Sometime after that, Shankara was meditating when alarmed villagers cried for his help. The river Narmada was flooding and water was near the hermitage. Shankara placed his meditation staff at the edge of the rising water and the water began to recede. The amazed villagers paid reverence to the power of this holy person.
After three years with his guru, Shankara had a vision in which the legendary sage Vedavyasa told him, “I want you to move onwards on your great mission of uniting India.” Shankara obtained his teacher’s permission to leave and proceeded on his life-work.
When he reached Kashi (Varanasi), Shankara was well received by scholars and poets. Many were attracted to his teaching of Advaita, the oneness of each individual with the creator. His fame increased as he visited temples and talked with many scholars. Shankara began attracting disciples and he established a monastic order.
While in Kashi, Shankara and his disciples were returning to the monastery from their daily bath in the Ganges when an outcast approached from the opposite direction. The disciples called out for the outcast to move aside so they might pass without touching him. The outcast calmly replied, “What shall I move - my body which is made of earthly elements or my soul which is all-pervading consciousness?” At that moment, Shankara had a vision in which it was revealed to him that the outcast was Shiva in disguise. He suddenly realized the one reality in all. He stopped his disciples and said, “He is indeed my guru, regardless of his low birth.”
This intuitive flash of insight strengthened Shankara’s convictions and he boldly taught his Advaitic message to the sages and Brahmins who had believed in rituals only. He said, “True happiness does not lie in the practice of mere rituals. Try to understand the presence of the one reality in all.” This teaching gave a new and larger meaning to the narrow definition of religion and was eagerly received by many who heard it.
When at last Shankara left Kashi, he traveled north to Hardwar and Rishikesh. At the temple in Rishikesh, he found the sacred idol missing. The priests had hidden the idol in the Ganges river to protect from the raids of the hill-tribes, but later could not find it. With divine insight, Shankara went to the river and instructed the priests to look again. To their utter surprise, the image was found and was ceremonially installed.
Shankara next visited the hill-tribes and taught them his powerful message. Many of them reformed their ways and some followed him as he proceeded on his journey. At Badrinath, Shankar once again found the idol missing. The priest pled Shankara to find the idol, which he did, and ceremonially installed it.
Shankara and his followers proceeded westward through the Himalayas to Kedarnath and Amarnath. From there he went north to Gangotri, the source of the river Ganges. At this time, Shankara was only sixteen. His knowledge of the Vedas was extensive and many sages came to him for clarification and were drawn to his powerful teaching.
Shankara returned to Badrinath where he stayed for some time writing and giving discourses. His disciples were truly dedicated to him, serving his needs and carrying out his wishes.
Many of the Brahmins rejected Shankara’s teachings because of his indifference to their high social standing and their spiritless, ritualistic approach to religion. One of the highly respected Brahmins was Mandana Mishra, whom Shankara challenged to a debate on eternal truth. Mishra accepted the challenge and they agreed to take Mishra’s wife, Saraswati, as the judge since she was known to be learned and impartial.
Saraswati observed, “How can a sanyasi, who has no experience as a citizen, and a householder, claim complete knowledge?”
Shankara replied, “I accept your verdict, Mother. I need to be wise in the ways of the world. Give me time.” Saraswati granted Shankara one year time to gain experience and return to continue the debate.
Shankara secluded himself in a cave with only his faithful disciple Padmapada.
When Shankara explained to Padmapada that he must obtain the experience of a householder, Padmapada objected, “In what way will the experience of a householder help in obtaining spiritual perfection? In fact, it will be an obstacle.”
“No, Padmapada,” replied Shankara, “spiritual perfection must be obtained in the battlefield of life itself.”
Then Shankara revealed his plan. Padmapada, listened carefully. “I shall soon enter into samadhi through my yogic powers. My soul will take flight to another body to gain the experiences of a householder. Until I come back and reenter my soulless body, guard me carefully.”
Saying this, Shankara went into a state of samadhi and his soul traveled to a town in Vanga Desha, today’s Bengal. There the king was on his deathbed. When the king’s soul left its mortal body, Shankara’s soul entered into it. The king’s body revived and no one could tell the difference. Shankara began to experience the life of a householder, the joy and the sorrow. Shankara experienced the responsibilities of a king; the kingdom had to be defended and law-breakers had to be punished. He made decisions both great and small that affected other people’s lives. He was also able to experience the luxuries of a king without becoming involved and attached.
When Shankara obtained the needed experience of a worldly life, its good and evil, he made plans to return to his own body. Upon his departure, the king’s body weakened and was declared dead. At the same time, Shankara’s body came to life. Padmapada bowed in reverence as he witnessed the soulless body return to its former state.
Shankara returned to Mandana Mishra and plans were made to resume the debate. Both of them were given garlands and the agreement was that the competitor whose garland withered first would be the loser. The debate went on for a few days until they reached the topic of Eternal Truth.
Mishra said, “I hold that worship and rituals make for happiness here and hereafter.”
Shankara calmly replied, “Rituals do not bring the highest happiness. Complete knowledge through the Vedas is the only answer for such knowledge reveals the one Reality.”
As this was spoken, the flowers in Misra’s garland wilted and faded. Mandana Misra understood the message. He accepted Shankara as his guru. Mishra was ordained and named Sureshwaracharya.
Shankara, accompanied by his followers, including Sureshwaracharya and Saraswati, journeyed south stopping at all the holy places. At Gokama, a rich man brought his deaf and dumb son for Shankara’s blessing. Everyone was astonished as the boy’s speech was restored. The boy was ordained into Shankara’s monastic order.
At Sringeri, Shankara founded the Shradha Peetha and put Sureshwaracharya in charge. They stayed at Sringeri for several months until Shankara had a premonition and said, “My mother needs me. I must hasten to her side.”
Shankara returned to his home in Kaladi and found his mother in poor health. He comforted her and imparted to her the divine knowledge he had learned in his short life. Ayamba died peacefully with an enlightened soul. Shankara carried the body to a corner of the garden and, placing it on a pyre of plantain stems, cremated it. Orthodox Brahmins in the community objected to a sanyasi performing what they considered the rites of a householder, even though Shankara was her only heir. However, they later repented and praised Shankara for his filial love.
After his mother’s death, Shankara traveled twice throughout India. He enjoyed the patronage and protection of kings and scholars. Many, including members of royal families, gave up their wealth and position to become his disciples. He produced a wealth of learned and devotional literature. Shankara was above the discriminations of sex, wealth, and caste.
Shankara died at the young age of thirty-two, ending his extraordinary earthly mission. He witnessed during his lifetime the awakening of spiritual India and the strengthening of Vedic truth. The gospel of Shankara – the brotherhood of all humanity, the oneness of truth – lives on, ever active and luminous. The lives of Vivekananda, Chinmayanada, and many thousands of others were inspired by the dedicated teaching of Adi Shankara. If India can ever be united, it will be by the common bond of Vedic knowledge.
A few of Shankara’s sayings:
Just as a piece of rope is imagined to be a snake in the darkness so is Atman (soul) determined to be the body by an ignorant person. Neither by yoga, nor philosophy, nor by work, nor by learning but by the realization of one’s identity with Brahman is liberation possible, and by no other means. A father has his sons and others to free him from his debts; but he has none but himself to remove his bondage.