Adi Shankaracharya The Ascetic & Scholar Alike
Renowned for his seminal work on Advaita Vedanta, Adi Shankaracharya is revered as a yogi, often even an Avatar and scholar. Born in Kaladi, a village in Kerala, in southern India, Shankara exhibited incredible mastery over the Vedas, Hindu scriptures, by the age of eight.
Legend has it, that Shankara was born after his parents had been childless for many years & prayed at the Vadakkunnathan temple at Thrissur. He lost his father, at a very young age and wanted to take sanyasa or follow an ascetic life. Reluctantly, his mother let him off at the tender age of eight & he travelled to northern India in search of a guru. By the banks of the river, Narmada he found the seer, Govinda Bhagavatpada, a disciple of Gaudapada at Omkareshwar. Impressed by Shankara’s rebuttal to a question, he asked, he took him under his tutelage. Guided thence, by him he wrote the Brahma sutras & spread the Advait philosophy. From here he travelled to the holy city of Kashi, where it is believed that he encountered the divine Lord Shiva in disguise. On recognizing him he lay prostrate at his feet in obeisance .
Of key significance from his life, is his foundation of the four mathas or schools of learning to guide Hindus, on the ways of Vedantin life. One facing each direction, these are located at Jyotirmath (uttarakhand) in the North, Puri (Orissa) in the east, Srinegeri (Karnataka) in the south & Dwarka (Gujarat) in the west.
An interesting anecdote often told, at the mention of Shankaracharya, is his debate with Mandan Mishra’s wife. Mandan Mishra was a man who believed a householder’s life was better than that of a hermit.To be able to defeat his wife in dialogue on this account & answer her questions associated with married life; he had to enter the body of a dead King. This it is revealed is done by an occult yogic practice known as Parakaya-pravesh. Accordingly, he entered the body of a dead King & learnt the secrets of the art of love from his two wives. He then used this information in the battle of wits against Mandan Mishra’s wife & succeeded in defeating her following which she allowed her husband to take to a monastic life.
So, propagating the ideas of Vedantin philosophy, his work largely focused on spreading the Advaita philosophy. This school of thought rejects the dualism of existence. Instead it goes on to advocate that Brahman or the whole is the only truth. All else, is an illusory changing reality & so Atman or self is a part of Brahman and has no meaning by itself just as a wave in the ocean has no value or existence as separate entity. It is said, that there lived Jivan muktas or those who have been liberated while alive.These great souls realized their oneness with the universal spirit & lived egoless, in harmony with everything around.
Shankaracharya’s literary works include commentaries or Bhasyas on the Gita, Upanishads & Brahma Sutras. He is also known for his philosophical treatise, Prakarna Grantham & Stotras or devotional hymns. His ideology promoted learning or realisation of Brahman through an amalgamated study of the scriptures, reason, personal experience & devotional & spiritual practise.
To this extent, his contribution to the development of Hinduism, using the medium of canonical texts of the Vedas is noteworthy, at a time when there were several divergent ideologies influencing the Indian landscape.
After having travelled, far and wide across the expanse of the country, to spread the word of the Vedas Adi Shankara moved to the kedarnath-badrinath region towards the end of his life. According to some studies, it is believed that it is here that he achieved Videha Mukti or freedom from embodiement. There is also, a shrine & temple dedicated to him behind the Kedar temple. Of course, there are other versions to the tale that argue about how, this great soul left his body or took Samadhi , as it were, in the south.
To distil the valuable nuances from his life, is to acknowledge his contribution to the dispersal of the Vedantin philosophy far & wide, the shadows of which remain until today.