Jagatguru Adi Sankaracharya

Jagatguru Adi Sankaracharya is undisputably the greatest philosopher that India, or the world, has ever produced. He is unique in the history of the world as he combined in himself the attributes of a philosopher, a devotee, a mystic, a poet and a religious reformer. Though he lived twelve hundred years ago, India and the world feels the impact of the life and work of this spiritual genius even today.

Sankaracharya was born towards the end of the eighth century A.D., at Kaladi, a village in Central Kerala. He was the only son of a devout Nambudiri Brahmin couple, Sivaguru and Aryamba. It is believed that he was born as a result of their long prayers to Lord Siva of the famous Vrishabhachaleswara temple at Trichur. He was an infant prodigy and completed his Vedic studies by the age of eight. His father died when was still young and it was his mother who brought him up with loving care as he was her only source of consolation and support now. The boy exhibited ascetic tendencies and mother felt very upset. Yet, the divine mission for which that great genius had been born had to be fulfilled, and so something of miracle had to happen to set Sankara free from worldly ties. So once when the son was bathing in the nearby Purna river, while the mother was standing on the bank, a crocodile caught hold of the boy's leg and was dragging him into deeper waters.

When death was (seemingly) near, Sankara asked permission of the mother to enter the last ashrama of Sanyasa, which every Hindu was supposed to enter before his death. Formal renunciation at such a critical situation, Apat-Sanyasa, was a common practice. Very reluctantly, Aryamba gave her consent and lo, mysteriously the crocodile let go the boy ! Emerging from the river, the bala-sanyasin decided to become a wandering monk and soon left his village after consoling and assuring his mother that he would be at her side during her last days and even perform her funeral rites. Thus, Sankara set forth on his divine mission at the very young age of eight, when most of the boys would not have even left their toy-trinkets.

After leaving Kaladi, the young sanyasin scholar wandered through South India and ultimately reached the banks of Narmada in search of a Guru. There, he met Govinda Bhagavatpada, a prominent disciple of the great Gaudapada of Mandukya Karika reputation. Govindapada welcomingly accepted this boy sanyasin as his disciple and initiated him into the intricacies of Vedanta. After about seven years, when Sankara had completed his Vedantic studies and Sadhana, his guru told him to proceed to Kasi, the ancient city of learning and spirituality, and spread the message of Advaita Vedanta from there by writing commentaries on the Brahma Sutras, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.

As instructed, he proceeded to Kasi and there, within a short time, established himself as the greatest champion of Vedanta philosophy. He won many debates; and disciples came to him in large numbers. Padmapada, Hastamalaka and Totaka were the chief among them. Thus, by the age of sixteen, Sankara had established himself as a great philosopher in the city of Varanasi, then the very heart of the intellectual and spiritual movements in India.

After establishing himself at Kasi as the invincible champion of Vedanta philosophy, Sankara started on tour of this vast country for a Dig-Vijaya or spiritual conquest, under specific instruction from sage Veda Vyasa who blessed him with a vision while Sankara was writing the Brahma Sutra Bhashya. Wherever he went, he won over eminent leaders of the other existing systems of philosophy and firmly established Advaita Vedanta. None could stand against his vast erudition, dialectical skill and spiritual insight. Amongst these debates, the one which was of great importance was his encounter with Mandana Misra, the great disciple of Kumarila Bhatta, a staunch protagonist of ritualism. The Karma Kanda portion of the Vedas had much hold on Hindu religion at that time and this was largely due to the philosopher-leaders and religious authorities like Kumarila Bhatta and Mandan Misra. In order to establish the truths of Jnana Kanda, Sankaracharya had to defeat and win over these two intellectuals. Due to unavoidable circumstances, Kumarila Bhatta could not undertake a debate with Sankaracharya and directed the Vedantin to meet his disciple Mandan Misra. The debate with Mandan Misra took place with Ubhaya Bharati, scholarly wife of Mandana Misra, acting as the Judge. After many days of discussion, Mandana Misra accepted defeat.

The condition of the debate was that he who would be defeated would become the other's disciple and take up the victor's way of life. Thus, Mandana Misra became a Sanyasi and was given the name Sureswara. This victory gave a new impetus to Sankara's spiritual conquest. Sri Sankara and his disciples travelled all over the land refuting false doctrines and purifying objectionable practices which were in vogue in the name of religion. He also established Maths in four places; in Sringeri in the south; Badri in the north, Dwaraka in the west and Jagannath Puri in the east. He chose these places of beauty of their natural environments amidst snow-clad mountains, forests and rivers or on the shores of the ocean, places where heaven and earth meet and transport man's thoughts to sublime heights. He placed Sri Sureswaracharya at the head of the Math in Sringeri, Sri Padmapada in Dwaraka, Sri Totaka in Badri and Sri Hastamalaka in Puri. The establishing of these Mathas indicate Sri Sankara's realisation of the physical and spiritual unity of India. He wrote in Sanskrit, the lingua franca of cultured India of those times, which alone could appeal to all the intellectuals all over the land.

After a pretty long stay in Sringeri, he hastened to the bed-side of his dying mother in his ancestral home at Kaladi and sped her soul to the 'immortal realms of light' to the strains of mellifluous hymns in praise of Siva and Vishnu. Undeterred by the opposition of his pharsaical (religious formalist) kinsmen, he cremated his mother's body on the river bank behind the house and the spot had since become hallowed as a place of pilgrimage.

He visited all the sacred shrines of the land around which have gathered the cultural traditions of the people, purifying the forms of worship and establishing the Sri Chakaras in many of them such as Kamakshi temple of Kanchi, Nara Narayana temple of Badri and Guhyesvari temple in Nepal, etc.

This "best of peripatetic teachers" (Paramahamsa Parivrajakacharya) crowned his triumphal tours by vanquishing the great scholars of Kashmir, and ascended the sarvajnapitha as the symbol of recognition by the world of his scholarship and undisputed mastery in all the (then known) branches of learning.

During his last visit to Nepal, he had a vision of Sri Dattatreya and from there he went to Kedarnath at which place, at the age of thirty two, he said to have disappeared from his mortal existence. A spot not far from the shrine of Kedarnath is said to be the place of his disappearance. ( One version, however, is that he merged in Mother Kamakshi at the Holy Kanchi, thus ending his earthly career).

Sankara made the edifice of Hindu religion strong by his rational and scientific exposition of the Upanishadic philosophy so that Sanatana Dharma could face all the challenges during the vicissitudes of history till modern times. His contribution to Indian philosophy is so great and lasting that all the later philosophers have only tried to refute him or to elucidate his ideas. In foreign countries, Indian philosophy has always come to be identified with Sankara's Advaita.

Sankara symbolises the great Rishi culture whose greatest exponent he was. The message of Sankara is a message of hope and optimism. He says that man is not a finality, a finished product; he has divine potentiality in him which is to be discovered through self-conscious evolution. The kingdom of peace, fullness and joy are within each one of us, says Advaita. We will have to realise it. As his very name suggests (Sam karoti iti Sankara -- " He who blesses is Sankara").

Sankaracharya was one of the greatest benefactors of mankind because he expounded the Advaita Vedanta philosophy which is the essence of Vedas and which is a pathway to Bliss and Immortality.

[This article has been compiled from the Sri Sathya Sai Pre Sevadal course material - posted on SaiNet by Bhaskar Iyer]