By Swami Harshananda
Śaṅkara lived in A. D. 788-820
When dharma abandons its followers because they have ignored it or distorted it and adharma quickly fills its place masquerading as a better substitute, God is obliged to intervene. He may do so either by directly descending to this earth as an avatāra or by infilling certain chosen persons to accomplish his task of restoring the balance in favor of the former.
During the period preceding the advent of Śaṅkara, the Sanātana-dharma based on the Vedas, was facing stiff opposition from several quarters. Buddhism with its śunyavāda, Jainism with its śyādvāda or anekāntavāda, Cārvāka schools, the Kāpālika and the Vāmācāra sects which propagated unethical and abominable practices in the name of religion everyone of these was trying to shake the foundation of religion. It was at such a critical period of the Vedic religion, which badly needed a true and staunch follower to restore it to its former glory, that Śaṅkara was born.
Life in Brief
Any attempt to portray the life of Śaṅkara runs into two genuine difficulties. Firstly, the available material is too meagre to fix his date. Secondly, the traditional biographies are so full of miracles attributed to him that it is difficult to accept them or explain them in any logical way. Though almost all biographies agree that Śaṅkara lived just for 32 years, the year of his birth varies from 508 B. C. up to A. D. 788. The most widely accepted year is A. D. 788. However some scholars push it back to A. D. 684 also.
About 21 works that generally go by the name Śañkaravijaya or Śañkara-digvijaya dealing with Śaṅkara’s life in detail have so far been discovered. Out of these, the ones by Ānandagiri and by Mādhava-Vidyāraṇya are considered more authoritative and widely accepted.
Śaṅkara’s life as given in these texts may now be summarized as follows: Śivaguru and Āryāmbā were a deeply pious couple belonging to the well-known Nambudiri caste, living in Kālaḍī or Kālaṭī situated on the bank of the river Purṇā. This childless couple got Śaṅkara as their son after many prayers and supplication to Lord Śiva of Vṛṣabhācala. As indicated by the Lord, the boy would become an omniscient spiritual giant, but his life would be of short duration.
Śaṅkara was extraordinarily brilliant and mastered all the śāstras taught to him even at a young age. Unfortunately, father Śivaguru died soon, leaving Śaṅkara entirely to the care of his mother Āryāmbā. Being indrawn by temperament and having realized the transitory nature of the world, through the direct experience of the death of his father, Śaṅkara decided to embrace sanyāsa. The only impediment in the path was the mother’s love and attachment, and the need to take her permission.
By a quirk of destiny, this came about sooner than expected. One day when he was taking bath in the river Purṇā, a big crocodile caught him. As he was struggling for life, he realized that he was waging for a losing battle, he appealed to his wailing mother who was standing on the bank, to give him permission to take sanyāsa mentally and die in peace. She had no alternative but to oblige. However, the crocodile left him as mysteriously as it had caught him. As per the scriptural injunctions, he now had to take formal sanyāsa. Most unwillingly the mother gave him the permission to do so, but with a rider that he should be by her bedside at the time of her death. He was just eight years at that time. Having heard that Govindabhāgavat-pāda, a very great monk was living on the bank of the river Narmadā in a cave, Śaṅkara hurried there. The great teacher too was eagerly awaiting this extraordinary disciple whose arrival he had already known through his yogic vision.
After a vigorous training spread over three years Śaṅkara was commanded to go to Kāśī, the heart of all learning which are sacred and secular. As he settled down in Kāśī for some time, preaching his doctrine of Advaita Vedānta, he gathered a number of disciples, among whom Sanandana later well- known as Padmapāda, one of the four chief disciples, was the one. A strange encounter here with an untouchable, who was none other than Lord Viśvanātha himself, removed the last vestige of ignorance from his mind, making him a perfect being and a perfect teacher.
As directed by Śiva, Śaṅkara proceeded to Badarīnātha, the famous pilgrimage center in the Himalayas, where he renovated the old temple of Nārāyaṇa, instituted proper modes of ritualistic worship and then started writing his commentary on the Brahmasutras. This is said to have been fully approved and appreciated by its original author, the sage Vyāsa himself.
Later on, he moved towards South India, vanquishing and converting many a scholar, among whom the greatest was Maṇḍana Miśra. According to some of the traditional biographers, it was Maṇḍana Miśra, who became the sanyāsin Sureśvara though quite a few scholars do not subscribe to this view. Among those who were converted to Vedic modes of life and worship were the Kāpālikas of Śrīśaila and the Gāṇapatyas of Gokarṇa, both of whom were following some abominable practices. During this sojourn, he added two more distinguished sanyāsin disciples to his retinue, Hastāmalaka and Toṭaka.
Meanwhile, he learnt that his mother was on her death-bed, he hurried to her and gave her a vision of Lord Viṣṇu before she passed away. He also personally cremated her body much to the chagrin of the local residents and relatives who were against him. During this period, Padmapāda irretrievably lost the manuscript of his gloss on the commentary of Śaṅkara on the Brahmasutras. However, Śaṅkara re-deemed from his memory, that part of it which had been read out to him earlier by Padmapāda himself.
After completing the successful tour of the South, Śaṅkara now journeyed to the north right upto Kāśmīra, vanquished all the scholars and occupied the Sarvajñapīṭha, the seat meant for the greatest scholar, in the temple of Sarasvati, the goddess of learning. During his sojourn round the country, Śaṅkara had established four Maṭhas or monasteries in the four cardinal points at Purī, Śṛṅgerī, Dvāraka and Joṣimaṭha. He anointed his four chief disciples as their heads to carry on his work even after his demise, thus creating a great monastic tradition.
The following table gives the details:
By this time he had firmly re-established the Vedic religion by his written works, vigorous propaganda of its principles and leaving behind him a band of illustrious disciples and also religious institutions. He is said to have entered into a cave in the Himalayas near Badarī, known as the Dattātreyaguhā, and disappeared forever.
According to another current version, Śaṅkara is said to have established another Maṭha at Kāñcīpuram in Tamil Nadu, called as Kāmakoṭipīṭha and lived there for the rest of his life until his demise, which also took place there only. The controversy regarding this has not yet been resolved due to the non-availability of clinching evidence.
Śaṅkara was a prolific writer. He has left behind him a voluminous literature which can be categorized into three groups:
Bhāṣyas are his erudite expositions of the basic works on Vedānta philosophy and religion. Apart from the ten Upaniṣads, the Brahamasutras and the Bhagavadgitā he has written bhāṣyas on the Viṣṇusahasranāma, the Sanatsujatiya and the Lalitātriśatī also.
As regards the prakaraṇas which are simple treatises on Advaita Vedānta, quite a large number of them have been attributed to him. Of them, the following works are popular:
A very large number of stotras or hymns, on almost all the well-known deities, are ascribed to him. It is rather difficult to segregate a few and declare that they are definitely his. However, the following stotras are definitely his compositions according to scholars seasoned in Śaṅkara’s style of writing as also other available evidence:
Śaṅkara being the greatest propagator of Advaita Vedānta, holds the view that the basic truth or reality behind this universe of multiplicity of myriad names and forms is one the only advaita, the one without a second. This reality called as Brahman appears as the many due to the peculiar, indefinable, factor called māyā. Just as semidarkness hides the real nature of a rope as rope and projects in it a snake which is not there, so also māyā hides the true nature of Brahman and projects on that base, this manifold universe. Even as a bright light reveals the rope as rope, dispelling the snake-appearance, thereby removing all fear, in the same way, jñāna or right knowledge removes the illusion brought about by māyā.
Though Śaṅkara has not defined and explained māyā in detail, he has given enough indications in his writings that it acts like an existing positive force but disappears mysteriously once it is neutralized by jñāna. Once this basic standpoint, that this multiple universe is a projection of māyā on Brahman is accepted, Śaṅkara is prepared to give it a greater degree of reality, because then only the reverse process of attenuating and eliminating it is possible. Otherwise the whole structure of sādhana based on this empirical reality collapses.
It is at this secondary level of empirical reality, that Śaṅkara concedes the process of creation of the world as given in the Upaniṣads, the multiplicity and limited nature of the jīvas īśvara as responsible for the creation, sustenance and dissolution of the world and the entire process of sādhana by the jivas to regain their lost nature.
As a corollary, Śaṅkara also acknowledges that māyā has its individual counterpart, generally called avidyā or ajñāna. It is this avidyā that makes a jīva feel identified with the body-mind complex, see the external world of duality, feel attraction or repulsion towards its objects, work to get what he wants, thus getting into the bondage of the cycle of births and deaths.
Once this jīva awakens and takes to the path of sādhana and realizes his true nature as sat-cit-ānanda, the ātman, his avidyā is totally dispelled. The body may continue to function for some time due to prārabdha karma. When it falls, he is fully liberated, being merged in Brahman, never to be born again.
The individual who realizes his ātman-nature and continues to live in the embodied state till the prārabdha expires, is called a jīvanmukta. In this state his subjective reactions to the world have totally changed though he continues to see the world as before. The man, who has discovered the rope as rope in good light, will continue to see it as a snake in semidarkness, since the cause of the illusion is outside himself. However, his personal reaction to it has totally changed from one of fear to that of indifference or even amusement.
If Śaṅkara is fondly remembered even today, twelve centuries after his advent both by the intellectual classes and the simple masses; it is a great characteristic due to his all-round personality. His bhāṣyas and prakaraṇas have enriched the knowledge of the former. His stotras on various deities commonly worshiped by the latter, have infilled them with devotion. The various miracles which he is said to have performed like the raining of golden myrobalans in the house of the poor lady or changing the course of the Purṇā river to facilitate bathing by his aged mother, restored faith in the power of tapas and divine grace in the minds of the skeptics.
By putting a stop to the bizarre practices that were being carried out in the name of religion by certain sects and converting their votaries to purer ways of life, he saved them and the society too. His convincing victories over the non-Vedic and anti-Vedic religions restored the Vedic religion to its pristine glory. The re-organisation of the religious monasticism made it more people-oriented through his direction, viz., pravāsa and pracāra. Finally, his tender affection towards his lonely mother and the filial duty he discharged by fulfilling his promise towards her during her last moments, speaks volumes of the intensely human aspect of his personality. He did many things but never lowered his dignity of demeanor or slipping from the sublime heights of monastic life for a moment. Only an avatārapuruṣa can accomplish such feats.
- Dharma means righteousness.
- Adharma means villainy.
- Bhagavadgītā 4.7, 8
- Avatāra means incarnation.
- He is also known as Śaṅkarācārya.
- Sanātana-dharma is the Ancient and Eternal Religion, now commonly known as religion.
- Śunyavāda means nihilism.
- Anekāntavāda means which states that a thing can be described in several ways, thus leading to greater confusion.
- These schools are materialism that denied the existence of all non-temporal objects.
- All these biographies are in Sanskrit.
- It is called as Sañkaravijaya.
- It is called as Sañkaradigvijaya.
- It is the modern town of Kalady in the Kerala State.
- It is a hillock near Kālaḍi, the deity being known as Candramoulīśvara.
- Śāstras literally means scriptural and other treatises.
- Sanyāsa is the monastic life.
- He was considered an avatāra or incarnation of the Great Serpent, Adiśeṣa.
- He is lord Śiva.
- It is now in Andhra Pradesh.
- It is in Karnataka.
- This unfinished work is now known as Pañcapādikā and has been printed.
- It is present Kashmir.
- It means monastic.
- These are collectively called as the prasthānatraya.
- Mahābhārata, Anuśāsanparva, ch. 149
- Udyogaparva, ch. 40-45
- Rope means lying on the road.
- It appears to us then.
- It is as Sat-Cit-Ānanda, existence- consciousness-bliss.
- This force is bhāvarupa.
- Jñāna means knowledge or direct experience.
- It is called vyāvahārikasattā or empirical reality.
- Jīvas means bound souls.
- Īśvara means God, Brahman in the garb of the Creator.
- It is essential.
- Avidyā or ajñāna means ignorance, nescience.
- Ātman means the Self or the soul.
- Jīvanmukta means ‘the liberated, even while living’.
- Tapas means austerity.
- Pravāsa means touring.
- Pracāra means preaching.
- Avatārapuruṣa means an incarnation of God.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore