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Adi Shankaracarya

Adi Shankaracarya

Adi Shankara (788 CE - 820 CE), also known as Śaṅkara Bhagavatpādācārya and Ādi Śaṅkarācārya, was an Indian philosopher who consolidated the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta, a sub-school of Vedanta. His teachings are based on the unity of the soul and Brahman, in which Brahman is viewed as without attributes. He hailed from Kalady of present day Kerala.

Shankara travelled across India and other parts of South Asia to propagate his philosophy through discourses and debates with other thinkers. He founded four mathas ("monasteries"), which helped in the historical development, revival and spread of Advaita Vedanta. Adi Shankara is believed to be the organizer of the Dashanami monastic order and the founder of the Shanmata tradition of worship.

Birth and childhood

The birth place of Adi Shankara at Kalady
Adi Sankara Keerthi Sthampa Mandapam, Kalady, Kerala

Shankara was born to Kaippilly Sivaguru Namboodiri and Aryamba Antharjanam in the region of Kalady, in central Kerala. According to lore, it was after his parents, who had been childless for many years, prayed at the Vadakkunnathan temple, Thrissur that Sankara was born under the star Thiruvathira.

His father died while Shankara was very young. Shankara's upanayanaṃ, the initiation into student-life, was performed at the age of five. As a child, Shankara showed remarkable scholarship, mastering the four Vedas by the age of eight.


From a young age, Shankara was inclined towards sannyasa, but it was only after much persuasion that his mother finally gave her consent. Shankara then left Kerala and travelled towards North India in search of a guru. On the banks of the Narmada River, he met Govinda Bhagavatpada, the disciple of Gaudapada. When Govinda Bhagavatpada asked Shankara's identity, he replied with an extempore verse that brought out the Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Govinda Bhagavatapada was impressed and took Shankara as his disciple.

The guru instructed Shankara to write a commentary on the Brahma Sutras and propagate the Advaita philosophy. Shankara travelled to Kashi, where a young man named Sanandana, hailing from Chola territory in South India, became his first disciple. According to legend, while on his way to the Vishwanath Temple, Sankara came upon an untouchable accompanied by four dogs. When asked to move aside by Shankara's disciples, the untouchable replied: "Do you wish that I move my ever lasting Ātman ("the Self"), or this body made of flesh?" Realizing that the untouchable was none other than god Shiva himself, and his dogs the four Vedas, Shankara prostrated himself before him, composing five shlokas known as Manisha Panchakam.

At Badari he wrote his famous Bhashyas ("commentaries") and Prakarana granthas ("philosophical treatises").

Philosophy and religious thought

Advaita ("non-dualism") is often called a monistic system of thought. The word "Advaita" essentially refers to the identity of the Self (Atman) and the Whole (Brahman). Advaita Vedanta says the one unchanging entity(Brahman) alone is existing- Changing entities do not have absolute existence like the waves have no existence other than the ocean.The key source texts for all schools of Vedānta are the Prasthanatrayi– the canonical texts consisting of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras.

Adi Shankara was the first in its tradition to consolidate the siddhānta ("doctrine") of Advaita Vedanta. He wrote commentaries on the Prasthana Trayi. A famous quote from Vivekacūḍāmaṇi, one of his prakarana granthas that succinctly summarises his philosophy is:

Brahma satyaṃ jagat mithyā, jīvo brahmaiva nāparah

Brahman is the only truth, the spatio-temporal world is an illusion, and there is ultimately no difference between Brahman and individual self.

Advaita Vedanta is based on śāstra ("scriptures"), yukti ("reason") and anubhava ("experience"), and aided by karmas ("spiritual practices"). This philosophy provides a clear-cut way of life to be followed. Starting from childhood, when learning has to start, the philosophy has to be realised in practice throughout one's life even up to death. This is the reason why this philosophy is called an experiential philosophy, the underlying tenet being "That thou art", meaning that ultimately there is no difference between the experiencer and the experienced (the world) as well as the universal spirit (Brahman). Among the followers of Advaita, as well those of other doctrines, there are believed to have appeared Jivanmuktas, ones liberated while alive. These individuals (commonly called Mahatmas, great souls, among Hindus) are those who realised the oneness of their self and the universal spirit called Brahman.

Adi Shankara's Bhashyas (commentaries) on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras are his principal works. Although he mostly adhered to traditional means of commenting on the Brahma Sutra, there are a number of original ideas and arguments to establish that the essence of Upanishads is Advaita. He taught that it was only[citation needed] through direct knowledge that one could realize the Brahman.

Adi Shankara's opponents accused him of teaching Buddhism in the garb of Hinduism, because his non-dualistic ideals seemed rather radical to contemporary Hindu philosophy. However, although Advaita proposes the theory of Maya, explaining the universe as a "trick of a magician", Adi Shankara and his followers see this as a consequence of their basic premise that Brahman alone is real. Their idea of Maya emerges from their belief in the reality of Brahman, as opposed to Buddhist doctrines of emptiness, which emerge from the empirical Buddhist approach of observing the nature of reality.

bhaja govindam bhaja govindam
bhaja govindam müãhamate,
samprápte sannihite kále
na hi na hi rakúati dukøòkaraïe.(1)
Adore the Lord, adore the Lord, adore the Lord, O fool! when the appointed time (for departure) comes, the repetition of grammatical rules will not, indeed, save you.
müãha jahèni dhanágamatøúïám
kuru sadbuddhim manasi vitøúïám,
yal-labhase nijakarmopáttam
vittam tena vinodaya cittam.(2)

O fool! leave off the desire for accumulation of wealth; create in the mind, thoughts about Reality, devoid of passion. What you get – i.e. what you have achieved through your past deeds – with that, satisfy your mind.
døúûvá má gá moháveùam,
manasi vicintaya váram váram.(3)

Seeing the seductive female form, do not fall prey to frenzied delusion. That (female form) is (but) a modification of flesh and fat. Think well thus in your mind and again and again.
nalinèdalagatajalam atitaralam
tadvaj-jèvitam atiùayacapalam,
viddhi vyádhy-abhimána-grastam
lokam ùokahatam ca samastam.(4)
The water on the lotus-leaf is very unsteady; so also is life extremely unstable. Know that the entire world is devoured by disease and conceit, and smitten with sorrow.
távan-nija-pariváro raktaç
paùcáj-jivati jarjara-dehe
vártam kopi na pøcchati gehe.(5)

As long as you have the ability to earn money, so long will your dependents be attached to you. After that, when you live with an infirm body no one world even speak to you a word.
yávat-pavano nivasati dehe
távat-pøcchati kuùalam gehe,
gatavati váyau dehápáye
bháryá bibhyati tasmin káye.(6)
As long as there is breath in the body, so long people in the household ask about one’s welfare. Once the breath leaves, on the destruction of the body, the dependents dread that very same body.
bálastávat kriãásaktas-
taruïastávat taruïèsaktaç
pare brahamïi ko’pi na saktaç(7)

When a boy, one is attached to sport; when a youth, one is attached to as young woman; when old. one is attached to anxiety; to the supreme Brahman, no one, alas, is attached!
ká te kánte kaste putraç
samsáro’yam atèva vicitraç,
kasya tvam kaç kuta áyátas-
tattvam cintaya tadihaq, bhrátah.(8)
Who is your wife? Who is your son? Exceedingly wonderful, indeed, is this empirical process! Of whom are you? Who are you? Whence have you come? O brother, think of that truth here.
Satsañgatve nissañgatvam
nissañgatve nèrmohatvam
nirmohatve niùcalitatvam
niùcalitatve jèvanmuktiç.(9)

Through the company of the good, there arises non-attachment; through non-attachment, there arises freedom from delution; through delusionless-ness, there arises steadfastness; through steadfastness, there arises liberation in life.
Vayasi gate kaç kámavikáraç
Ùuúke nire kaç kásáraç
kúiïe vitte kaç pariváro
iòáte tattve kaç samsáraç.(10)

When youth is spent, what lustful play is there? When the water has evaporated, what lake is there? When the money is gone, what dependents are there? When the truth is known, what empirical process is there?
má kuru dhanajanayauvanagarvam
harati nimeúát kalaç sarvam,
máyámayam idam akhilam hitvá,
brahmapadam tvam praviùa viditvá.(11)

Do not be proud of wealth, kindred, and youth; Time takes away all these in a moment. Leaving aside this entire (world) which is of the nature of an illusion, and knowing the state of Brahman, enter into it.
dinayáminyau sáyam prátaç
ùèùiravasantau punar-áyátaç
kálaç krèãati gacchaty-áyus-
tapapi na muòcaty-áùaváyuç.(12)
Day and night, dusk and dawn, winter and spring come repeatedly; Time sports, life is fleeting; yet one does not leave the winds of desire.
ká te kántá-dhana-gata-cintá
vátula kim tava násti nivantá
trijagati sajjana sañgatir eká
bhavati bhavárïava-taraïe nauká.(13)

Why worry about wife, wealth, etc., O crazy one; is there not for you the one who ordains? In the three worlds, it is only the association with good people that can serve as the boat that can carry one across the sea of birth.
jaûilo muïãi luòchitakeùaç
paùyannapi ca na paùyati müãho
hyundaranimittam bahukøtaveúaç.(14)

The ascetic with matted lock, the one with his head shaven, the one with hairs pulled out one by one, the one who disguises himself variously with the ochre-coloured robes – such a one is a fool who, though seeing, does not see. Indeed, this varied disguise is for the sake of the belly.
aïgam gallitam palitam muïãam
daùanavihinam játam tuïãam
vøddho yáti gøhitvá daïãam
tadapi na muòcaty-áùapiïãam.(15)
The body has become decrepit; the head has turned grey; the mouth has been rendered toothless; grasping a stick, the old man moves about. Even then, the mass of desires does not go.
agre vanhiç pøúûhe bhánü
rátrau cubuka-samarpita-jánuç
karatalabhikúas tarutalavásas
tapadi na muòcaty-áùapáùaç.(16)
In front, there is fire; at the back, there is the sin; in the night, (the ascetic sits) with the knees stuck to the chin; he receives alms in his palms, and lives under the trees; yet the bondage of desire does not leave him.
kurute gañgáságaragamanam
vrataparipálnam athava dánam,
jòánavihènaç sarvamatena
muktim na bhajati janmaùatena.(17)
One goes on pilgrimage to the place where the Gañgá joins the sea; or observe the religious vows with care; or offers gifts. But if he be devoid of knowledge, he does not gain release-according to all schools of thought-even in a hundred lives.
ùayyá bhütalam ajinam vásaç
kasya sukham na karoti virágaç.(18)

Living in temples or at the foot of trees, sleeping on the ground, wearing deer-skin, renouncing all possessions and their enjoyment – to whom will not dispassion bring happiness?
yogarato vá bhogarato vá
sañgarato va sañgavihènaç
yasya brahmaïni ramate cittam
nandati nandati nandaty-eva.(19)
Let one practice concentration; or let one indulge in sense-enjoyment. Let one find pleasure in company; or in solitude. He alone is happy, happy, verily happy, whose mind revels in Brahman.
bhagavadgètá kiòcid-adhitá
gañgáialalavakaïiká pètá,
sakûød-api yena murári-samarcá
kriyate tasya yamena na carcá.(20)
For him, who has studied the Bhagavadgitá even a little, who has drunk a drop of the Gañgá-water, and who has performed the worship of the Destroyer of the demon Mura (viz. Ùri Køúïa) at least once, there is no tiff with Yama (the lord of death).
punarapi jananam punarapi masraïam
punarabi jananè-jaûhare ùayanam,
iha samsáre bahu-dustáre
køpaya’ páre páhi muráre.(21)
Repeated birth, repeated death, and repeated lying in mother’s womb – this transmigratory process is extensive and difficult to cross; save me, O Destroyer of Mura (O Køúïa), through your grace!
yogi yoga-niyojita-citto
ramate bálonmattavad-eva.(22)
He who wears a dress made of rags that lie about in the streets, he who walks in the path that is beyond merit and demerit the yogin whose mind is given up to yoga revels (in Brahman) just as a child or as a mad-man.
kastvam ko’ham kuta áyátaç
ká me jananè ko me tátaç,
iti paribhávaya sarvam asáram
viùvam tyaktvá svapnavicáram.(23)
Who are you? Whom am I? Whence have I come? Who is my mother? Who, my father? Thus enquire, leaving aside the entire world which is comparable to a dream, and is essenceless.
tvayi mayi cányatraiko viúïur-
vyartham kupyasi maasahiúïuç,
sarvasminnapi paùyátmánam
sarvatrotsøja bhedájòánam.(24)

In you, in me, and elsewhere too, there is but one Viúïu (God). Vainly do you get angry with me, being impatient. See the Self in all things, and leave off everywhere ignorance which is the cause of difference.
shatrau mitre putre bandhau
má kuru yatnam vigrahasandhau,
bhava samacittaç sarvatra tvam
vánchasyacirád yadi viúïutvam.(25)
Make no effort to be either at war with, or in league with, enemy, friend, son, or relative. If you want to attain the status of Viúïu (Godhood) soon, be equal-minded towards all things.
kámam krodham lobham moham
tyaktvá’tmánam bhávaya ko’ham
átmjòanavihèná muãhás
te pacyante narakanigüãháç.(26)

Leaving off desire, anger, greed, and delusion, make self-inquiry; who am I? They are fools who are without Self-knowledge; as captives in hell, they are tortured.
geyam gètánámasahasram
dhyeyam ùrèpatirüpam ajasram
neyam sajjana-sañge cittam
deyam dènajanáya ca vittam(27)

The Bhagavadgètá and the Sahasranáma should be sung; the form of the Lord of Lakúmè (Viúïu) should always be meditated on; the mind should be led to the company of the good; and wealth should be distributed among the indigent.
sukhataç kriyate rámábhogaç
paùcáddhanta ùarère rogaç
yadyapi loke maraïam ùaraïam
tapapi na muòcati pápácaraïam.(28)
One easily takes to carnal enjoyment afterwards, lo, there is disease of the body. Although, in the world, death is the refuge, even then one does not relinquish sinful ways.
artham anartham bhávaya nityam
násti tataç sukhaleùaç satyam
putrádapi dhanabhájam bhètiç
sarvatraiúá vihitá rètiç.(29)

`Wealth is no good’; thus reflect always; there is not the least happiness therefrom; this is the truth. For the wealthy, there is fear even from a son; everywhere this is the regular mode.
práïáyámam pratyáháram
kurvavadhánam mahadavadhánam.(30)

The regulation of breath, the withdrawal of the senses (from their respective objects), the inquiry consisting in the discrimination between the eternal and the non-eternal, the method of mind-control associated with the muttering of mantras – perform these with great care.
samsárád-acirád-bhava muktaç
drakúyasi nijahødayasthqam devam.(31)

Being devoted completely to the lotus-feet of the Master, become released soon from the transmigratory process. Thus, through the discipline of sense and mind-control, you will behold the Deity that resides in your heart.