Adi Shankara Bhagavatpada


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Biography of Adi Shankara Bhagavtpada, the great Indian philosopher

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Adi Shankara Bhagavatpada

  1. 1. THE PRECEPTORAdi Shankara Bhagavatpada Nimal C Namboodiripad
  2. 2. Chapter AReligion and worship are as old as man himself. Different beliefs andsuperstitions, in the early days, led to the deifying of the sun, moon, water,fire and other natural phenomena which had a direct effect on the lives andwell-being of the people. While some did rites to appease these in order toobtain material benefits, others did so to attain salvation. But in Hinduism, inthe early stages itself, the followers were of the firm belief that there wassomething beyond all these that they saw. Nevertheless, they had nothing togo by to concentrate upon the invisible entity that was God. Therefore, theyimputed human forms and specific qualities to the Absolute Truth. Theyinvoked something they could comprehend by their five senses and byworshipping those tried to open the door to the path of Mukthi.Hinduism can be considered the earliest of all known religions. India with itsearly civilisations bred and extended it far and wide. Many great works ofphilosophy and devotion were written and propagated. These literarymasterpieces explained the revealed wisdom of the great Rishis. From theseit is clear that science and religion existed side by side, in perfect harmony.As a result, unlike many other religions, Hinduism did not put any deterrentsin the path of the steady progress that the people were achieving in all walksof life.Later, religious practices which sprang up through pure devotion and faithdeteriorated into base animal sacrifices and other degenerate ways ofshowing our love of God. The repercussions of this on the foremost religionof the world was great. Disgusted at the inhuman ways of worship peoplesought out other ways to attain salvation. Hinduism broke up into differentsects within itself and some broke away from it completely. Jainism andBuddhism began to gain popularity in India, where once the only religion wasHinduism. It seemed that nothing could stop this chain fission. A greatreform movement was needed. Something had to be done to patch up thepieces and weld it into a solid mass. But who was there to solve the jigsawlike puzzle? It had to be someone with superhuman powers, one who had theblessings of the Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnipresent God.
  3. 3. Chapter BAdi Shankara who brought blazing brilliance to a world immersed in thedarkness of ignorance was born at Kalady in the year 788 AD. Kalady was alittle village nestled on the banks of the river Periyar in the northern part ofTravancore kingdom. Shankara’s parents Kaippilly Sivaguru Namboodiri andAaaryamba(nee Melpazhur) were a deeply religious couple. When Aaryambadid not conceive even at a very advanced age, the couple decided to offerprayers to Lord Shiva for the purpose. They performed severe austeritiesat the shrine of Lord Vadakkumnatha, Thrissur. Legend has it that one dayVadakkumnatha appeared before Sivaguru in a dream. He was ready tobestow any blessing on the devotee. When the wish was known, Lord Shivasaid “Your wish shall be granted, but you have to select one of the twoalternatives. Either you will have an all-knowing, but short lived son or onewho would live very long but without any special virtue or greatness.” Wisely,Sivaguru accepted the first. Lord Vadakkumnatha blessed him and asked himto go home. A curious fact is that Sivaguru died when Shankara was justthree and he was thus unable to enjoy the greatness and genius of his son.Soon enough, Aaryamba became pregnant and a baby boy was born. This childwho was the incarnation of Lord Shiva Himself was to become the greatestphilosopher on earth. In his fifth year Shankara had his initiation ceremony,the Upanayana. Now he could be taught the Sastras and the Vedas. Shankarawas highly intelligent and learned the holy scriptures by just hearing themonce. He studied the Vedas, logic, Yoga philosophy, Samkhya philosophy andMimamsa. But even from a very early age his interest was in the non dualisticdoctrines of the Upanishads. He wanted to be a Sannyasin, but his mothervehemently opposed the idea. It seemed that his wish would not bearfruition. One day at the age of eight, while he was having his ritual dip in thePeriyar river, a crocodile caught hold of his leg. Shankara told his horror-stricken mother that his worldly life was at an end. If she wanted, he couldprolong his earthly existence by accepting Sannyas. As soon as he got herapproval, the crocodile assumed his true form of a supernatural being anddisappeared. This happened at the crocodile ghat which lies by the side ofthe Kalady Sankara Mutt established by the Acharyas of the Sringeri Mutt.
  4. 4. Supernatural feats were child’s play for Shankara. Once, as a Brahmacharinhe went to the Punnorkottu Mana. The old couple there were very poor butkind hearted. They wanted to give something to the boy as Bhiksha, but hadonly a gooseberry with them. They offered this to him with apologies thatthey could not give more. Touched at this gesture of the couple, Shankararecited the “Kanakadharastavam” to propitiate Goddess Lakshmi. The divineMother had to shower him and the couple with Her blessings, a shower ofgolden gooseberries. From that day on the house came to be known asSwarnath Mana.As Shankara’s mother grew older, she was beset more and more withafflictions. One day she was unable to go to the river for her daily bath.Shankara immediately changed the course of the river through his yogicpower. The river now followed by Shankara’s house and his mother was ableto do her ablutions comfortably. Since he had changed the course of theriver by drawing a line with his toe, the place was henceforth known asKalady.Soon after his mother gave her approval of his idea of becoming a Sannyasin,he left Kalady. As he did so he promised his mother that he would visit heragain before she died She was afraid of being alone at her deathbed. Duringhis sojourn at Sringeri, Shankara divined by Yogic power that his mother wasdying and by the same reached her bedside. He sang the“Bhujangaprayatham” and placed her soul at the lotus feet of theOmnipotent.As Shankara had become a Sannyasin without the rituals society prescribedat the time he was considered something of an outcast and his neighboursrefused to help him cremate his mother. Only two men came forward to hishelp. One held his mother’s leg while they placed her on the funeral pyre. Hisfamily got the name Kaappilly(different from Kaippilly). The other held herhead and his family got the name Thalayattumpilly. (Incidentally bothKaappilly and Thalayattumpilly Illoms, exists, prosperously, even now. Theother families slowly went into oblivion. With Shankara the last of the lineaccepting Sannyas, Kaippilly also did not have a heir and ceased to exist).Unable to get anyone to do the rituals, Shankara himself lit the pyre withfire created in his own right hand with Mantras. Now there is a memorial atthis place built by the Acharyas of the Sringeri Mutt. Just as he was
  5. 5. leaving on his pilgrimage, he heard someone calling him back. When hechanged the course of the river to help his mother Shankara hadinadvertently made it flow by the side of a Lord Krishna temple. Now,Krishna was, for most of the year, immersed in water and wanted Shankara’shelp. Shankara transferred the temple to the banks, safe from the swirlingwaters. It still stands near the Kalady Mutt. The Sringeri Mutt renovated itlater.After Shanakra’s departure Aaryamba spent her time paying homage to thetutelary deities of the Kaippilly Mana, Manickamangalam Durga and possiblythe Shiva temple nearby. She also went on regular visits to pray to LordVadakkumnatha. When infirmity and old age caught up with her, she wasunable to do so and was immeasurable saddened. Then in a dream she sawLord Shiva directing her to worship a linga on the top of a hillock. She wouldbe lead to this hillock by a frisking silvery white deer which would have thefigure of Lord Nataraja hanging on his neck. Next morning, Aaryamba foundto her surprise and relief the linga which she worshipped henceforth. Atemple was built at this place and later it came to be called as Vellimanthulli.
  6. 6. Chapter CShankara travelled from Kalady to the banks of Narmada. There he metGovindabhagavatpada. Govindabhagavatpada was the disciple ofGaudapadacharya. Gaudapadacharya’s commentary of Mandokyopanishad wasbased on the Advaita philosophy. Govindabhagavatpada taught Shankara allthat he knew about Advaita philosophy. Then at the great man’s insistence,Shankara left for Kasi.On his way, he met Sanandana, a young man from the Chola kingdom whowanted to renounce everything in this world and attain the Brahman.Shankara accepted him as a disciple and taught him the worship ofNarasimha to give him enough spiritual power to attain his goal.At Varanasi, Shiva appeared before Shankara in the form of a Chandala.Shankara prostrated before Him on recognising Him and asked for Hisblessings. Shiva then commanded Shankara to write a commentary on theBrahmasutra. On reaching Badari, Shankara had discussions with many greatscholars as a preparation for his great enterprise. Then he wrote thecommentaries of the Dasopanishads, beginning with the Isa; theBhagavatgita; Sanatsujatiya, Narasimhatapani and Vishnusahasranama.Once, while passing along the banks of the Ganga, he wanted to show some ofhis disciples the greatness of Sanandana. He called him from the oppositebank of the river. Sanandana immediately started crossing the river. Onplacing each foot, a Padma, lotus, came up to support him. That miracle gavehim the name, Padmapada.A Brahmana wanted to have s debate with Shankara. The arguments went onfor six days and neither looked like winning. By this time Padmapada had aninkling of the identity of the visitor. It was Vyasa himself who had come tomeet Shankara.He went through Shankara’s commentary of his own work Brahmasutra andblessed him with an increased span of life so that he may defeat all theperverse doctrines of all kinds of people intent on arrogant controversy.
  7. 7. Travelling towards the Vindhyas, he heard that Kumarila Bhatta, the greatscholar of Karma Mimamsa was in the process of self-immolation. Shankarahad wanted to have a debate with him. So he rushed to the place. The greatMimamsaka also wanted a debate but stuck to his decision of leaving theworld. Instead, he requested Shankara to have a debate with his discipleMandana Misra a scholar second only to himself.Submitting to this wish, Shankara travelled towards Mahishmati whereMandana resided. A place and date were fixed for the debate. But who couldjudge such a sublime war of words? They asked the great sage Vyasa andJaimini to help them. Vyasa suggested Mandana’s wife Ubhayabharati, as shewas really the incarnation of Goddess Saraswati. The loser was to do asfollows. If Mandana lost, he had to accept Sannyas. If Shankara lost he wasto give up his ochre robes and the Bhiksha pot.Ubhayabharati placed a garland around the neck of each of the contestants.The man whose garland wilted first was deemed to have lost the debate. Thecontroversy lasted for several days. Finally, the flowers in the garland ofMandana began to fade and he accepted defeat. But Ubhayabharati didn’twant to lose her husband to Sannyas. In order that Advaitha philosophy maybe recognised as the greatest on earth Shankara had to defeat each andevery one challenging him. So when Ubhayabharati did so he had to accept.In the following debate she asked Shankara a question on Sexology. Ofcourse, Shankara knew the answer but asked for a month’s notice so that hemay not set a bad example as a Sannyasin and also degrade the teachings ofthe Advaitha philosophy. By yogic powers he entered the dead body of a kingand learned everything he wanted. So Shankara who had become a Sannyasinat a very early age was able to answer all the questions on sex life too andBharati returned to heaven as Goddess Saraswati. Mandana Misra, Viswarupa,accepted Sannyas and became Shankara’s disciple as Sureshwara.Shankara now passed through the Maharashtra area. During his journey aKapalika wanted the Acharya’s head. He had performed rites for hundredyears to get a boon which would enable him to go to Kailasa with his physicalbody. The last part was the sacrifice was the head of an all knowingpersonality or a great king.
  8. 8. Shankara consented and secretly reached the appointed place at the righttime. As the Kapalika raided his axe to cut off the Acharyas’s head, thevision of the horrible scene flashed into Padmapada’s head. With a roar hereached the Kapalaika. He had become Narasimha himself and with bare nailshe killed the Kapalika. Even the Gods became afraid of Narasimha’s wrathboiling over. With hymns Acharya soon soothed his fire.From Gokarna the next destination was Kollur. In a nearby village there wasa boy who was dumb and behaved like an idiot. When Shankara met him theboy replied that he was enjoying undivided Bliss and that he did not desireanything in this world. As the knowledge of the self was to him like anAmalaka fruit in one’s hand, he became famous under the name,Hastamalakacharya. He became Shankara’s disciple as he had no sense of I-ness and had the least attachment to his house and property.Sri Shankara was confronted by a strange sight at Sringeri. An extremelypoisonous snake was sheltering a pregnant frog from the hot sun. It wasindeed a remarkable phenomenon – a reptile sheltering its prey. Shankarasoon divined the reason for such strange behaviour.The Sage Rishyasrimgan had found this place of exceptional scenic beauty tohis liking. There was peace and quiet there. He established theMalahanikareshwar temple and had meditated for centuries, in the solitudeof the mountains. Rishyasrimgagiri became Srimgagiri and later Sringeri. Nowonder such a place produced such strange behaviour. Adi Shankara decidedto establish a Mutt there.Shankara stayed for more than a decade at Sringeri where he drew aSrichakra on a rock which later became the position of the Sarada Devitemple. Saraswati, as Ubhayabharati had earlier consented to adorn thetemple.During these years of discourse at Sringeri, a new disciple named Giri joinedShankara. He was very respectful towards the Acharya and served him inevery manner. One day, Shankara had asked his other disciples to wait untilGiri returned from some errand before starting their lessons. They did notwant to do so, since that disciple was considered very dull. Because of hislove for the pupil and as he wanted to reduce the other’s pride, Shankara
  9. 9. with his psychic powers instantaneously made Giri an outstanding scholar.When Giri came back he was reciting a great hymn in the metre Totaka andfor this reason he was henceforth known as Totakacharya.After cremating his mother Shankara started on a Digvijaya. He defeatedmany reputed scholars and most of them became his disciples. He journeyedthroughout India teaching the Advaitha philosophy. He refuted anddevastated the principles of various sects like Buddhism, Jainism, theSaktas, Pasupatas, Kshapanakas, Kapalikas and Vaishnavas who had inflictedwounds on the body of the Vedic religion by perverse interpretations andwayward ideals.At the insistence of his disciples, to prove beyond doubt that Advaithaphilosophy was the pinnacle and also to save the true spirit of the Vedas, hedecided to try to grace the throne of Omniscience, the Sarvajnapeetam, atKashmir. Defeating several great scholars, he did so with great ease.Now, with his aim in life over, he left for Badari and thence to Kedara. Afterhis thirty second birthday in 820 AD, he had his Videhamukthi at Kedarnath.
  10. 10. Chapter DThis world is nothing but an illusion. What we consider real is just Maya. It islike a dream. As long as we do not wake up, the things seem to happen beforeus. But when we regain a sense of the surroundings, we perceive that whatwe see is just a Mithya. This is what Shankaracharya teaches us.According to Shankara, the real path to eternal Bliss is the Jnana Marga,the path of intuitive knowledge. The Absolute Truth or God is beyondcomprehension with our five senses. To attain Brahman, we have to turn oureyes inwards, obliterating everything else from the mind. The knowledgethat the microcosmic and macrocosmic souls are one comes with this innervision. It is like an earthen pot, the space inside it and the sky outside seemto differ just because the pot puts a boundary to the space inside. But ifthe pot is broken we realize that the space inside it is one and the same asthe one outside.The Vedanta has its foundation in the Jnana Marga. Hence to teach theVedanta and to revive the sagging spirit of the Vedas Shankara establishedfour Mutts at the four corners of the land. Each of these Mutts wasallotted a Veda, one of the four limbs of Hinduism. The Ashramas at Sringeri,Dwaraka, Badari and Puri have Yajur, Sama, Adharva and Rig respectively asthe chief Veda.These Mutts were put under the care of his four main disciples. Thus theAcharyas of Sringeri are the successors of Sureswara, Dwaraka ofPadmapada, Badari of Totaka and Puri of Hastamalaka. As Sureswaracharyawas really an incarnation of Brahma, the Lord of Wisdom, the Sringeri Muttbecame renowned for the scholasticity of its Acharyas. Today, graced bythe omniscient Jagadguru His Holiness Bharati Theertha Swamigal thisVyakhyana Peetha is the true seat of transcendental wisdom.Besides the commentaries, Shankara wrote philosophical works like theVivekachoodamani and even devotional poems such as Anandalahari,Sivanandalahari and Sowndaryalahari. He wrote a book on rituals too;Prapanchasaram. The ordinary mortal is incapable of comprehending the truemeaning of Advaitha and has to worship the Brahman in some form or the
  11. 11. other. Shankara’s books help them attain the supreme pedestal of anAdvaithin. All paths lead to the same end, the knowledge that we are notdifferent from God. That we are God –“Aham Brahmasmi”. This is whatShankara taught us. No wonder he is considered the guru of the world – theJagadguru.
  12. 12. The author takes the sole blame for any mistakes found in this book. Thebook was published as part of the 12th Centenary Celebrations of AdiShankara in 1988 but is presently out of print.The author Nimal C Namboodiripad is a Physics graduate and an MBA fromCochin University of Science & Technology. He was the sub editor of theMalayalam Monthly of the Mutt for a brief period of time. He was Professorof Marketing in the Management Department of the Adi Shankara Instituteof Engineering & Technology(ASIET) run by the Sringeri Mutt during theperiod 2005-08. Presently he is a Marketing Executive in a private firm.Coming from a family Chittoor Mana, whose ancestry can be easily tracedback to the 1600s, he is deeply interested in the cultural traditions of India,especially Kerala. He maintains a blog andcan be contacted at