Thousands of years ago, in a small village of Southern India belonging to the lush green state of Kerala, a boy was born to a devout Brahmin couple who had been desperate for a child. Years later, the world would come to know him as the Father of Indian Philosophy, the greatest living Yogi of all times, the teacher of the world, an Earthly manifestation of spirituality and perhaps, even a descendent of Lord Shiva Himself – Adi Shankara.
Interestingly, Adi Shankara’s father was named “Sivaguru” (meaning Shiva) and his parents narrated that when the Gods heard their plea for a child, they saw Lord Shiva in their dreams at night. Shiva gave them the choice to either be blessed with a brilliant son who would live a short life, or a mediocre son who would live long. Choosing the former, the couple soon gave birth to a man who’s brilliance was unparalleled and who was the first living man to be compared to Shiva. Unfortunately, as prophesied by the Lord, he walked the Earth only for a short period of 32 years. His time with people (who later became his disciples) was short, but he made sure it was wholesome in every essence – be it Knowledge, Dharma, Karma, or being a Guru to thousands.
Lord Shiva was called by the name Shankara too, and Adi Shankaracharya lived up to the inspiration behind his name, through his teachings that resonated with the science of spirituality that was founded by Lord Shiva.
Shankara’s thirst for the Ultimate Truth and Enlightenment was so extreme that he took Sannyasa (becoming a Hindu Monk and giving up worldly pleasures) at the tender age of 8. By 16, he had not only mastered but also written commentaries on the Upanishads, Bhagavad-Gita and other Vedic texts. These commentaries called Bhashyas are the pinnacle of Indian philosophical writing today. He studied ‘Gaudapadiya Karika’, ‘Brahmasutra’, Vedas, and Upanishads under his Guru, Govinda Bhagavatpada – an ardent disciple of Goudapada who wrote the Mandukya Karikas. He was able to master almost all the ancient scripts in a short time. Shankara traveled to several holy places in India and debated with leaders from other schools of thought to make the message of the Vedas clearer and simpler for the world to understand. These debates made followers and disciples throng to him wherever he spoke. He destroyed multiple false notions of spirituality and religion, which society had given unrealistic meanings to. He explained the difference between the two, and taught society how to accept one without the other.
He was the founder of the Hindu Philosophy Advaita Vedanta philosophy, which led people to clarity and allowed the world to survive with multiple religions today. It was a classic system of spiritual realization in Hindu tradition. The term Advaita refers to the idea that the true self, Atman, is the same as the highest metaphysical reality of the universe, Brahman. The word Vedanta is a composition of the two Sanskrit words. The word Veda refers to the whole corpus of Vedic texts, and the other word “Anta” means ‘End’. The meaning of Vedanta can be summed up as “the end of the vedas” or “the ultimate knowledge of the vedas”. Vedanta is also one of the 6 schools of Hindu Philosophy – Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimamsa and Vedanta. Adishankara put efforts into synthesizing and bringing all the six schools of Hindu Philosophy together, to explain the concept of the unification of the soul (atman) with the Supreme Soul (Nirguna Brahman). He also founded ‘Dashanami Sampradaya,’ which talks about leading a monastic life
The underlying principles of Advaita Philosophy revolved around the concept of attaining enlightenment, Moksha and Liberation through Aatma, meaning, through knowing oneself and intuitive prowess. It also explained that God is one, but the ways of reaching Him are many. Adishankara was a devout Hindu, but did not advocate Hinduism as we know it today. He was a believer and follower of Sanatan Dharma – a philosophy that was founded on the grounds of duty to mankind, Karma and attaining Moksha/Liberation through deeds and the power of self actualisation.
Adi Shankaracharya was known for his spectacular commentaries on ancient texts. His interpretation of ‘Brahma Sutra’ was known as ‘Brahmasutrabhasya’, and it is the oldest surviving commentary on ‘Brahma Sutra’ today. It is also considered to be his best work. He also wrote interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita, and the ten principal Upanishads. Adi Shankaracharya was often heard reciting ‘stotras’ (poems). He composed many of them – praising gods and goddesses. The ones dedicated to Lord Krishna and Lord 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 noted philosophical works. Adi Shankaracharya is also said to have written numerous other texts, like the Yogasutra Vivarana Bhashya and a commentary on the Adhyatma Patala of the Apastamba Dharmasutra,and commentaries on the Vishnu Sahasranama and Lalita Trishati. A Sankhya work called Jayamangala and a Nyaya work called Sthirasiddhi are also attributed to him.
Adishankara founded 4 Matthas, which were establishments similar to Monasteries where his teachings were propagated and available for people to learn from. He had several disciples, but the 4 disciples who stood out and achieved great heights were considered to be his main disciples of the highest order – Padmapada, Totakacharya, Hasta Malaka, Sureshvara. All four of them were entrusted with the responsibility to take care of the Matthas. The Matthas were also established to teach the world about the 4 goals of human life – self actualisation/penance, art, karma and liberation. The number 4 is of prime significance here.
It will be interesting to note, that there are 4 Vedas – Yajur Veda, Sama Veda, Atharva Veda, Rig Veda. The Vedas were the founding principle behind the establishment of the 4 Matthas, in 4 Directions – North, South, East, West. Moreover, these also may have been of significance to the existence of Chaar Dhaam Temple Pilgrimage (Chaar meaning 4) which is a Hindu Pilgrimage journey that devotees go on, to attain Moksha. These 4 temples belonging to the journey of Chaar Dhaam were also in the 4 Geographical directions of North, South, East, West – more specifically, in the cities of Badrinath, Dwarka, Jagannath Puri, and Rameshwaram.
It’s quite simple to note the connection between the number 4, the 4 geographical directions, the belief that ancient India always had in Moksha and how it was propagated by not only Adishankara through his Matthas but also by Lord Shiva through his temples in Chaar Dhaam.
Adishankara was a huge advocate of Satya – the truth. He believed the truth is the only way to live life, along with love and kindness. Without seeking and propagating the idea of Satya, it would be impossible for a human to attain liberation and enlightenment. He stressed on the importance of prioritising the “self” over anything else, be it family or other worldly things that drain a human body of it’s mental energy. He was heard saying, “Knowing that I am different from the body, I need not neglect the body. It is a vehicle that I use to transact with the world. It is the temple which houses the Pure Self within.” Adishankara taught his disciples that the self is identical with the universe. He said, the world had to rid itself of the 3 kinds of miseries – Adyatmika, Adi Daivika and Adi Bhoutika.
The Kumbh Mela (a Hindu Pilgrimage Festival) held in the Northern State of Uttar Pradesh, every 12 years, along the banks of River Ganga was also started by Adishankara. It is the world’s greatest congregation of all the Hindu spiritual masters and their followers. It has been said that ‘Kumbh Mela’ is the biggest gathering on earth and is also inscribed on the UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The event is timed according to the position of planet Jupiter in the universe, and hence the reason for a cycle of 12 years. The city of Prayagraj hosts the religious gathering, owing to it’s proximity to the confluence of the 3 rivers that hold high importance in Hindu Culture – Saraswati, Ganga and Yamuna. Pilgrims bathe at the confluence of these 3 rivers, to express their gratitude to the teachings of Hindu Philosophy and to atone their sins, as part of a symbolic gesture.
The existence of Vedic Knowledge and Dharma in India today is due to Adi Shankara. The forces opposed to Vedic Studies were more powerful during the time of his existence, than today. However, within a short span of time, he restored Vedic Dharma, Advaita Vedanta and Spirituality to its glory in all honesty, with the help of logic and analytical capabilities that he was renowned for. The previous Avataras (versions), like Rama and Krishna, used physical forces because the obstacles to Dharma in those days arose from the physical obstructions and molestations of the Asuras (demons). The menace to Dharma in the Kali age (age of destruction) arose from obstacles that were more internal than external – more mental than physical. The seeds of Adharma (unrighteousness) had been sown in the minds of people, which could be combated only through knowledge and self-actualisation. The lore in villages say that it was in order to use this weapon that Adi Shankara took birth in the Brahmin Varna (caste) and became a monk early in life. The previous Avataras like Rama and Krishna took birth in the Kshatriya Varna (warrior caste), because in those days they had to wield military weapons to restore Dharma. This is surprisingly quite similar to the predicament of arising mental health issues that we see in the modern world today.
Several dance forms in India have been formed on the basis of principles advocated by Adi Shankaracharya, like the Mohiniyattam in Kerala and Bharatnaytam in Tamil Nadu. Dancers even today, showcase dance performances on the life and lessons of Adi Shankara all around the world. The most common theme that these dances revolve around is that of Ekam and Shanmatham. Ekam is the term used to represent ‘The Supreme Oneness’ – Brahman is the one and only reality and everything else is a mere appearance or illusion (Maya). There is no duality, there is no form. There is only consciousness. The Shanmatham philosophy talks about the 6 schools of Hindu Philosophy, in praise of each of the Gods. So, in Ekam, Adi Shankara’s establishment of ‘Shanmtham’ culminates in his non-duality philosophy of ‘Advaitam’. Some even believe that the reason behind the existence of 24 dance mudras lies in the value of 6 x 4. Mudras were believed to teach people a way of life and express it. The value 24 could have stemmed from the six schools of hindu philosophy into the four goals of humanity as preached by Adi Shankara.
Adi Shankaracharya passed away in Kedarnath at the young age of 32. It is said that he traveled up to the Himalayas, crossing Badrinath, and finally left his body in a cave in Kedarnath – finally attaining Moksha and becoming one with Shiva.