The Lord declared that whenever there was degeneration of virtues he would come again to establish dharma. And, twelve hundred years ago, when the Sanatana Dharma was in a critical stage, it happened again. This time it was in the form of an amazing child prodigy. When he was eight years old he renounced the world and became a Sannyasin; and when he was sixteen years this marvelous youngster wrote commentaries on the highly complicated Indian scriptures; the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and Gita. He travelled all over the country and defeated great scholars, philosophers and theologians in debates with his spiritual purity, logic and abundance of knowledge. That was Shankaracharya, the greatest master of Advaita Vedanta Philosophy, who taught the world that there was only one Infinite Reality. He lived only 32 years, but single-handed, he revived Vedic Dharma from the demons of darkness. Knowledge was his weapon; spirituality was his strength!

India at the Time of His Birth

It was a time when there were religious conflicts existing between different sects of non-Vedic religions including Buddhists, Charvakas, Sankhyas, Kapalikas, Madhyamikas and many more, up to seventy two in numbers, spreading non-Vedic philosophical theories and wiping away Vedic culture from human mind.  Vedas, with their complex language and the superiority of upper castes were not reachable to common people. Buddhists and Jains spoke people’s language and involved in their problems and attracted many to their religions. It was a disgraceful state of Sanatana Dharma. People started rejecting Vedic ceremonies and rituals, temples and Gods, and pujas and festivals, and started doing non-Vedic activities. Vedic religion faced several threats, both internal and external; from the rulers of Indian dynasties and from the foreign invaders from Greek and Middle East countries. When darkness covered darkness, the intervention of an incarnation became necessary to save Sanatana Dharma.

And it happened; …. the Sun of Knowledge rose from South!! ....the great Shankaracharya took birth on earth!!

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Shankara’s Childhood

Shankara was born in a poor Brahmin family in Kaladi village in Kerala, in 788 CE, as the only son of Sivaguru and Aryamba, after their long prayers to Lord Siva to bless them with a son. His father died when he was seven years old but his mother educated him with proper care. This child prodigy mastered all Vedas, epics, philosophies and theologies in his boyhood.

At the age of eight, he decided to renounce the world and become a sannyasin. He got permission from his mother after assuring her that he would be available at her last days and would do her funeral rites as a son.

There is a fable regarding how he got permission from his mother. One day when Shankara was bathing in a river, a crocodile dragged him by his foot. He shouted out to his mother and requested her permission to allow him to become a sannyasin, or else he would be killed by the crocodile. His mother had no other choice but to allow her child to become a sannyasin. Whatever may be the fact behind the crocodile story, one thing is certain that he presented two clear-cut options before this mother, either death or sannyasa, and got convinced by his mother for the latter.

Shankara’s Sannyasa

The young Shankara was initiated as a sannyasin by Swami Govindapada Acharya, whom he met on the banks of Narmada River. Govindapada, himself, was a disciple of Mahaguru Gaudapada. The master taught Shankara the Advaita philosophy and all philosophical doctrines. As per his master’s advice, Shankara proceeded to Kashi (Varanasi) and wrote commentaries on Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and Gita; an impossible task at the age of sixteen years. And then he started his famous journey for Digvijaya, the journey to conquer the world.

The Intellectual Journey

He travelled throughout India, met several scholars and philosophers of different schools of philosophy, challenged them, and argued them with his views on truth and became triumphant. He defeated a number of scholars, including Bhatta Bhaskara, Harsha, Murari Misra, Kumarila, Prabhakara and many more.

His debate with Mandana Misra was a notable one. He defeated Mandana Misra, the chief scholar in the court of Mahishmati (presently Maheswar city in Madhya Pradesh), in a religious argument that lasted for seventeen days. Subsequently, Bharati, the wife of Mandana Misra challenged him by asking questions on Kama Shastra. Shankara requested few days’ time to answer her questions. During this period, he entered into the dead body of a king, who was just died, using the technique of ‘para-kaya pravesha’  preserving his own body under the safe custody of his disciples. From the two wives of the king, he learned everything about love and sex. Within the agreed period, he returned and answered all the questions of Bharati, related to sex, and defeated her in the controversy.

Ascending Sarvajna Pita

Shankara travelled the entire country for spreading Advaita philosophy. He debated with scholars and philosophers from the different religious sects and defeated all of them with his amazing intelligence. The whole India surrendered before his knowledge.  And finally he ascended the Sarvajna Pita (the seat of omniscience), opening its southern door, which was remained closed till that time awaiting its heir from the Southern India. Thus, Shankaracharya established the authority of Vedic religion and became the Master of all (Jagad Guru).

Defeat by a Chandala

Shankaracharya, the incarnation of knowledge, who conquered great scholars and philosophers, was defeated by a simple man. The story goes like this.

After taking the morning bath, Shankara was walking towards Kasi Viswanatha temple, when a Chandala came by the opposite side with his four dogs. When Shankara’s disciples told the Chandala to keep a distance, the Chandala asked Shankara some simple questions, “O, Guru, You preach Advaita Vedanta, but your teaching and practice are entirely different. Who should keep a distance from your way, my body or my soul? If everything in the physical world is an illusion and the Supreme Being is the only reality that is reflected in every being, what difference do you find between a Chandala and a Brahmin? Is your Advaita Vedanta just a theory?”

Shankara was shocked to hear the intelligent words of the Chandala. He understood that God himself had come to teach him a lesson. He immediately composed five slokas known as ‘Manisha Panchakam’. The message conveyed by these slokas was that for a man who has attained self-knowledge and is convinced that the same Supreme Being is reflected in every being, he is the great teacher, no matter he is a Chandala or a Brahmin.

Mother’s Death

During his journey he understood by intuition that his mother was in death bed. As promised, he went to see his mother and witnessed her last moments. Amidst the protests of other Brahmin families, he carried out the final funeral rites alone, which a Sannyasin was not supposed to do. He then returned back to continue his religious journey, teaching Advaita philosophy and winning his opponents.

Monasteries

Shankaracharya established four ‘Mutts’ (monasteries) in different parts of the country and appointed four main disciples as heads to serve the spiritual aspirants with the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. These Mutts are Sarada Mutt at Sringeri in Karnataka, in Southern India; Jyothish Mutt at Badrinath in Utharakhand, in Northern India; Kalika Mutt at Dwaraka in Gujrat, in Western India; and Govardhan Mutt at Puri in Orissa, in Eastern India. One Veda was assigned to each Mutt. The sannyasins were classified into ten definite orders under the title ‘Dasanamis’. They have to add certain suffixes at the end of their names, such as: Giri, Paravata, Sagar (Badrinath Mutt); Tirtha, Asrama (Dwaraka Mutt); Vana, Arnava (Puri Math); and Saraswati, Bharati, Puri (Sringeri Mutt).

Shankara’s Philosophy

Advaita is the identity of the Self (Atman) and the Supreme Being (Brahman). The Atman and the Brahman are the same. Even though they appear as many, the essence is one and the same. This unity is the underlying principle in all diversity.  "Ekam evadvitiyam brahma "- Brahman is one alone, without a second - says the Chāndogya Upaniṣhad.

Shankara’s teachings can be summarized in the following words:

Brahma Sathyam Jagat  Mithya

Jeevo Brahmaiva Na Aparah

which means: Brahman alone is real, this world is unreal; the Atman is identical with Brahman.

As per his preaching of 'Vivarta Vada', just like the illusion of a rope as a snake, this world and our body are super imposed on the Supreme Self. On attaining the knowledge of rope, the illusion of snake will vanish. Similarly, once we attained the Self Knowledge, the illusion of the world and the body will vanish and only the Self will remain.

Conclusions

Shankaracharya was not the founder of Advaita Vedanta. Advaita Philosophy was already there in Upanishads but was too complex. Shankara extracted the truths from the Upanishads and wrote commentaries on them filled with his amazing knowledge. Nobody could do such great interpretations on the complicated scriptures of Brahmasutras and Upanishads other than the enlightened one, the Shankaracharya.

When chaos prevailed in the spiritual realms in the country, Shankara appeared on the right time as a savior. He debated with Non-Vedic religions and different schools of philosophy with unfailing logic that broke their backbones. He supported Vedic practices, extracted the necessary contents from the infinite ocean of truth and refined Hinduism, reviving its moral values, while it was in a stage of doing low level rituals including kshudra pooja, and killing of animals in the name of God.

Even though the Supreme Being, the Brahman of Advaita is Nirguna (without qualities), Nirakara (formless) and Nirvisesha (without attributes), Shankara believed that by worshiping Gods, happiness and the ultimate goal of life can be attained. He structured the system of God worship consisting six deities Shiv, Vishnu, Surya, Durga, Ganesh and Skanda; and created thousands of beautiful stotras praising the indomitable gods; and hence he was also known as Shanmata Sthaapanaacharya. He believed that the different deities are the manifestations of the one Supreme Power, the Brahman.

Shankaracharya was a great philosopher, superhuman genius, blessed poet, incomparable logician and the spiritual perfection. He was a Karma yogi, Bhakta, Jnani and Yogi at the same time. The invaluable teachings of this ‘Knowledge-Sun’ that rose from South will live in this world for eternity.

Image source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ravivarma.jpg


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