Adi Shankara

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Adi Shankara
Date of birth: See Dates
Place of birth: Kalady, Kerala, India
Birth name: Shankara
Date of death: See Dates
Guru/Teacher: Govinda Bhagavatpada
Philosophy: Advaita Vedanta
Titles/Honours: Founded Dashanami Sampradaya, Shanmata

Adi Shankara ( Malayalam: ആദി ശങ്കരന്‍, Devanāgarī: आदि शङ्कर, Ādi Śaṅkara, IPA: [aːd̪i ɕəŋkərə]); c. [See Dates Section], also known as Śaṅkara Bhagavatpādācārya ("the teacher at the feet of God"), and Ādi Śaṅkarācārya ("the first Shankara in his lineage") was the first philosopher to consolidate the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta, a sub-school of Vedanta. His teachings are based on the unity of the soul and God, in which God is viewed as simultaneously personal and without attributes. In the Smārta tradition, Adi Shankara is regarded as an incarnation of Shiva.

Adi Shankara toured India with the purpose of propagating his teachings through discourses and debates with other philosophers. He founded four mathas ("abbeys") which played a key role in the historical development, revival and spread of post-Buddhist Hinduism and Advaita Vedanta. Adi Shankara was the founder of the Dashanami monastic order and the Shanmata tradition of worship.

His works in Sanskrit, all of which are extant today, concern themselves with establishing the doctrine of Advaita (Sanskrit, "Non-dualism"). Adi Shankara quotes extensively from the Upanishads and other Hindu scriptures in forming his teachings. He also includes arguments against opposing schools of thought like Samkhya and Buddhism in his works.


The traditional source for accounts of Adi Shankara's life are the Shankara Vijayams, ("Victory of Shankara"), which are poetic works that contain biographical material written in the epic style of legend. The most important among these biographies are the Mādhavīya Śaṅkara Vijayaṃ (of Mādhava, c. 14th century), the Cidvilāsīya Śaṅkara Vijayaṃ (of Cidvilāsa, c. between 15th century and 17th century), and the Keraļīya Śaṅkara Vijayaṃ (of the Kerala region, extant from c. 17th century). According to these texts, Adi Shankara was born in Kalady, a village in Kerala, India, to a Namboothiri brahmin couple, Shivaguru and Aryamba and lived for thirty-two years.

Birth and childhood

The birth place of Adi Shankara at Kalady
The birth place of Adi Shankara at Kalady

Adi Shankara's parents were childless for many years. They prayed at the Vadakkunnathan temple (also known as Vrishachala) in Thrissur, Kerala, for the birth of a child. Legend has it that Shiva appeared to both husband and wife in their dreams, and offered them a choice: a mediocre son who would live a long life, or an extraordinary son who would not live long. Both the parents chose the latter; thus a son was born to them. He was named Shankara (Sanskrit, "bestower of happiness"), in honour of Shiva (one of whose epithets is Shankara).

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. Following the customs of those days, Shankara studied and lived at the home of his teacher. It was customary for students and men of learning to receive Bhikṣā ("alms") from the laity; on one occasion, while accepting Bhikṣā, Shankara came upon a woman who had only a single dried amalaka fruit to eat. Rather than consuming this last bit of food herself, the pious lady gave away the fruit to Shankara as Bhikṣā. Moved by her piety, Shankara composed the Kanakadhārā Stotram on the spot. Legend has it that on completion of the stotra, golden amalaka fruits were showered upon the woman by Lakṣmi, the Goddess of wealth.


From a young age, Shankara was attracted to sannyasa ("monastic life"). His mother was against his becoming a monk, and refused him formal permission. However, once when Shankara was bathing in the Purna River near his house, a crocodile gripped his leg and began to drag him into the water. Only his mother was nearby, and it proved impossible for her to rescue him. Shankara asked his mother to give him permission to renounce the world then and there, so that he could be a sannyāsin at the moment of death. This mode of entering the renunciatory stage is called Āpat Sannyāsa. At the end of her wits, his mother agreed. Shankara immediately recited the mantras that made a renunciate of him. Miraculously, the crocodile released him and swam away. Shankara emerged unscathed from the water.

With the permission of his mother, Shankara 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. Adi Shankara was commissioned by his Guru to write a commentary on the Brahma Sutras and propagate Advaita Vedanta. The Madhavīya Shankaravijaya states that Adi Shankara calmed a flood from the Reva River by placing his kamaṇḍalu ("water pot") in the path of the raging water, thus saving his Guru, Govinda Bhagavatpada, who was engaged in Samādhi ("meditation") in a cave nearby.

On his mission to spread the Advaita Vedanta philosophy, Adi Shankara travelled to Kashi, where a young man named Sanandana from Choladesha in South India, became his first disciple. In Kashi, Adi Shankara was on his way to the Vishwanath Temple, when he came upon an untouchable with 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 food?" Understanding that the untouchable was none other than god Shiva, and his dogs the four Vedas, Shankara prostrated himself before him, composing five shlokas known as Manisha Panchakam.

On reaching Badari in the Himalayas, he wrote the famous Bhashyas ("commentaries") and Prakarana granthas ("philosophical treatises"). Afterwards he taught these commentaries to his disciples. Some, like Sanandana, were quick to grasp the essence; the other disciples thus became jealous of Sanandana. In order to convince the others of Sanandana's inherent superiority, Adi Shankara summoned Sanandana from one bank of the Ganga River, while he was on the opposite bank. Sanandana crossed the river by walking on the lotuses that were brought out wherever he placed his foot. Adi Shankara was greatly impressed by his disciple and gave him the name Padmapāda ("lotus-footed one"). The sage, Vedavyāsa, visited Adi Shankara in the guise of an old brāhmaṇa. Adi Shankara debated with the brāhmaṇa for over eight days when at last, Vyasa revealed his real identity and blessed Adi Shankara.

Meeting with Mandana Mishra

One of the most famous debates of Adi Shankara was with the ritualist Mandana Mishra. Mandana Mishra's Guru was the famous Mimamsa philosopher, Kumarīla Bhaṭṭa. Shankara sought a debate with Kumarīla Bhaṭṭa and met him in Prayag where he had buried himself in a slow burning pyre to repent for sins committed against his Guru: Kumarīla Bhaṭṭa had learnt Buddhist philosophy incognito from him in order to be able to refute it. This constitutes a sin according to the Vedas. Kumarīla Bhaṭṭa thus asked Adi Shankara to proceed to Mahiṣmati (known today as Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh) to meet Mandana Mishra and debate with him instead.

Adi Shankara had a famous debate with Mandana Mishra in which the wife of Mandana Mishra, Ubhaya Bhāratī, was the referee. After debating for over fifteen days, Mandana Mishra accepted defeat. Ubhaya Bhāratī then challenged Adi Shankara to have a debate with her in order to 'complete' the victory. This debate was to be on the subject of kāmaśāstra ("science of sex-love"). But Adi Shankara, being a sannyasi, had no knowledge of this subject; thus, after requesting for some time before entering into this fresh debate, he entered the body of a king by his yogic powers and acquired the knowledge of kāmaśāstra. Later, however, Ubhaya Bhāratī declined to debate with him and allowed Mandana Mishra to accept sannyasa with the monastic name, Sureśvarācārya as per the agreed rules of the debate.


Sharada temple at Sringeri Sharada Peetham, Sringeri
Sharada temple at Sringeri Sharada Peetham, Sringeri

Adi Shankara then travelled with his disciples to Maharashtra and Srisailam. In Srisailam, he composed Shivanandalahari, a devotional hymn to Shiva. The Madhaviya Shankaravijayam says that when Shankara was about to be sacrificed by a Kapalika, the god Narasimha appeared to save Shankara on Padmapada's prayer to him. So Adi Shankara composed the Laksmi-Narasimha stotra. He then travelled to Gokarṇa, the temple of Hari-Shankara and the Mūkambika temple at Kollur. At Kollur, he accepted as his disciple a boy believed to be dumb by his parents. He gave him the name, Hastāmalakācārya ("one with the amalaka fruit on his palm", i.e., one who has clearly realised the Self). Next, he visited Śṛngeri to establish the Śārada Pīṭham and made Toṭakācārya his disciple.

After this, Adi Shankara began a Dig-vijaya ("missionary tour") for the propagation of the Advaita philosophy by controverting all philosophies opposed to it. With the Malayali King Sudhanva as companion, Shankara passed through Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Vidarbha. He then started towards Karnataka where he encountered a band of armed Kapalikas. King Sudhanva, with his army, resisted and defeated the Kapalikas. They safely reached Gokarna where Shankara defeated in debate the Shaiva scholar, Neelakanta.

Proceeding to the west in Dwarka, Shankara defeated the Vaiṣṇavas in debate. Bhaṭṭa Bhāskara of Ujjayini, the proponent of Bhedābeda philosophy, was humbled. All the scholars of Ujjayini (also known as Avanti) accepted Adi Shankara's philosophy. He then defeated the Jainas at a place called Bahlika. Later, he had an encounter with a tantrik, Navagupta at Kamarupa. Navagupta pretended to have become a disciple, but later caused Adi Shankara to develop a rectal fistula. However, Adi Shankara was soon cured and Navagupta later died of the same disease.

Adi Shankara thus travelled throughout India, from the South to Kashmir and Nepal, preaching to the local populace and debating philosophy with Hindu, Buddhist and other scholars and monks along the way.

Accession to Sarvajnapitha

Statue of Adi Shankara at his Samadhi Mandir in Kedarnath, India
Statue of Adi Shankara at his Samadhi Mandir in Kedarnath, India

Adi Shankara visited Sarvajñapīṭha in Kashmir (now in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir). The Madhaviya Shankaravijayam states this temple had four doors for scholars from the four cardinal directions. The southern door (representing South India) had never been opened, indicating that no scholar from South India had entered the Sarvajna Pitha. Adi Shankara opened the southern door by defeating in debate all the scholars there in all the various scholastic disciplines such as Mimamsa, Vedanta and other branches of Hindu philosophy; he ascended the throne of Transcendent wisdom of that temple. The Madhaviya Shankaravijayam states that Goddess Saraswati ("goddess of knowledge and all literary arts") herself proclaimed the unquestioned scholarly triumph of Adi Shankara on this occasion.

Towards the end of his life, Adi Shankara travelled to the Himalayan area of Kedarnath- Badrinath and attained videha mukti ("freedom from embodiment"). However, there are variant traditions on the location of his last days. One tradition, expounded by Keraliya Shankaravijaya, places his place of death as Vadakkunnathan temple in Thrissur, Kerala. The followers of the Kanchi Matha say that he ascended the Sarvajñapīṭha in Kanchipuram ( Tamil Nadu), not Kashmir, and also spent his last days in Kanchipuram itself.


Modern scholarly opinion is that Sankara's date should lie somewhere in the mid-8th century CE. It has proved impossible to reach agreement on Adi Shankara's precise dates of birth or death. Traditional sources from the Shankara Maṭhas give two different dates; some cite 788 – 820 CE, while others cite 509 – 477 BCE. The Śṛṅgeri Śāradā Pīṭham, accepts the 788 – 820 CE dates.Of the other major Shankara Maṭhas active today, the ones at Dwaraka, Puri and Kanchi ascribe the dates 509 – 477 BCE to Adi Shankara. If these dates were true, they would require moving back the date of Buddha (which serves as an anchor for modern academic history of India). (See also Mathas). According to Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati's biography of Adi Shankara, published in his book Sannyasa Darshan, Adi Shankara was born in Kalady, Kerala, in 686, and attained mahasamadhi at Kedarnath, Uttaranchal, in 718.


Vidyasankara temple at Sringeri Sharada Peetham, Sringeri
Vidyasankara temple at Sringeri Sharada Peetham, Sringeri

Adi Shankara founded four Maṭhas, to guide the Hindu religion. These are at Sringeri in Karnataka in the south, Dwaraka in Gujarat in the west, Puri in Orissa in the east, and Jyotirmath (Joshimath) in Uttaranchal in the north. Hindu tradition states that he put in charge of these mathas his four main disciples: Sureshwaracharya, Hastamalakacharya, Padmapadacharya, and Totakacharya respectively. The heads of the mathas trace their authority back to these figures. Each of the heads of these four mathas takes the title of Shankaracharya ("the learned Shankara") after the first Shankara. The matha at Kanchi, Tamil Nadu, claims that it was founded by Adi Shankara. The below table gives an overview of the four Amnaya Mathas founded by Adi Shankara and their details.

Śishya Maṭha Mahāvākya Veda Sampradaya
Hastāmalakācārya Govardhana Pīṭhaṃ Prajñānam brahma (Brahman is Knowledge) Rig Veda Bhogavala
Sureśvarācārya Śārada Pīṭhaṃ Aham brahmāsmi (I am Brahman) Yajur Veda Bhūrivala
Padmapādācārya Dvāraka Pīṭhaṃ Tattvamasi (That thou art) Sama Veda Kitavala
Toṭakācārya Jyotirmaṭha Pīṭhaṃ Ayamātmā brahma (This Atman is Brahman) Atharva Veda Nandavala

Philosophy and religious thought

The swan is an important motif in Advaita Vedanta. Its symbolic meanings are: firstly; upon verbally repeating hamsa (the Sanskrit word for Swan), it becomes so-aham (Sanskrit, "I am That"). Secondly, even as a swan lives in water its feathers are not soiled by water, a liberated Advaitin lives in this world full of maya but is untouched by its illusion. Thirdly, a monk of the Dashanami order is called a Paramahamsa ("the supreme swan")
The swan is an important motif in Advaita Vedanta. Its symbolic meanings are: firstly; upon verbally repeating hamsa (the Sanskrit word for Swan), it becomes so-aham (Sanskrit, "I am That"). Secondly, even as a swan lives in water its feathers are not soiled by water, a liberated Advaitin lives in this world full of maya but is untouched by its illusion. Thirdly, a monk of the Dashanami order is called a Paramahamsa ("the supreme swan")

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). 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 world is unreal, 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.

Advaita Vedanta in summary

Adi Shankara's Bhashyas (commentaries) on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras are his principal and almost undeniably his own 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 through direct knowledge of Brahman that one could be enlightened.

Adi Shankara's opponents accused him of teaching Buddhism in the garb of Hinduism, because his non-dualistic ideals were a bit radical to contemporary Hindu philosophy. However, it may be noted that while the Later Buddhists arrived at a changeless, deathless, absolute truth after their insightful understanding of the unreality of samsara, historically Vedantins never liked this idea. 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, rather than the other way around.

Historical and cultural impact

At the time of Adi Shankara's life, Hinduism had begun to decline because of the influence of Buddhism and Jainism. Hinduism had become divided into innumerable sects, each quarrelling with the others. The followers of Mimamsa and Sankhya philosophy were atheists, insomuch that they did not believe in God as a unified being. Besides these atheists, there were numerous theistic sects. There were also those who rejected the Vedas, like the Charvakas.

Adi Shankara held discourses and debates with the leading scholars of all these sects and schools of philosophy to controvert their doctrines. He unified the theistic sects into a common framework of Shanmata system. In his works, Adi Shankara stressed the importance of the Vedas, and his efforts helped Hinduism regain strength and popularity. Many trace the present worldwide domination of Vedanta to his works. He travelled on foot to various parts of India to restore the study of the Vedas.

Even though he lived for only thirty-two years, his impact on India and on Hinduism was striking. He reintroduced a purer form of Vedic thought. His teachings and tradition form the basis of Smartism and have influenced Sant Mat lineages. He is the main figure in the tradition of Advaita Vedanta. He was the founder of the Daśanāmi Sampradāya of Hindu monasticism and Ṣaṇmata of Smarta tradition. He introduced the Pañcāyatana form of worship.

Adi Shankara, along with Madhva and Ramanuja, was instrumental in the revival of Hinduism. These three teachers formed the doctrines that are followed by their respective sects even today. They have been the most important figures in the recent history of Hindu philosophy. In their writings and debates, they provided polemics against the non-Vedantic schools of Sankhya, Vaisheshika etc. Thus they paved the way for Vedanta to be the dominant and most widely followed tradition among the schools of Hindu philosophy. The Vedanta school stresses most on the Upanishads (which are themselves called Vedanta, End or culmination of the Vedas), unlike the other schools that gave importance to texts authored by their founders. The Vedanta schools have the belief that the Vedas, which include the Upanishads, are unauthored, forming a continuous tradition of wisdom transmitted orally. Thus the concept of apaurusheyatva ("being unauthored") came to be the guiding force behind the Vedanta schools. However, along with stressing the importance of Vedic tradition, Adi Shankara gave equal importance to the personal experience of the student. Logic, grammar, Mimamsa and allied subjects form main areas of study in all the Vedanta schools.

A well known verse, recited in the Smarta tradition, in praise of Adi Shankara is:

श्रुति स्मृति पुराणानामालयं करुणालयं|
नमामि भगवत्पादशंकरं लॊकशंकरं ||
Śruti smṛti purāṇānāṃālayaṃ karuṇālayaṃ|
Namāmi Bhagavatpādaśaṅkaraṃ lokaśaṅkaraṃ||
I salute the compassionate abode of the Vedas, Smritis and Puranas known as Shankara Bhagavatpada, who makes the world auspicious.


Adi Shankara's works deal with logically establishing the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta as he saw it in the Upanishads. He formulates the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta by validating his arguments on the basis of quotations from the Vedas and other Hindu scriptures. He gives a high priority to svānubhava ("personal experience") of the student. His works are largely polemical in nature. He directs his polemics mostly against the Sankhya, Buddha, Jaina, Vaisheshika and other non-vedantic Hindu philosophies.

Traditionally, his works are classified under Bhāṣya ("commentary"), Prakaraṇa gratha ("philosophical treatise") and Stotra ("devotional hymn"). The commentaries serve to provide a consistent interpretation of the scriptural texts from the perspective of Advaita Vedanta. The philosophical treatises provide various methodologies to the student to understand the doctrine. The devotional hymns are rich in poetry and piety, serving to highlight the relationship between the devotee and the deity.

Adi Shankara wrote Bhashyas on the ten major Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. In his works, he quotes from Shveshvatara, Kaushitakai, Mahanarayana and Jabala Upanishads, among others. Bhashyas on Kaushitaki, Nrisimhatapani and Shveshvatara Upanishads are extant but the authenticity is doubtful. Adi Shankara's is the earliest extant commentary on the Brahma Sutras. However, he mentions older commentaries like those of Dravida, Bhartrprapancha and others.

In his Brahma Sutra Bhashya, Adi Shankara cites the examples of Dharmavyadha, Vidura and others, who were born with the knowledge of Brahman acquired in previous births. He mentions that the effects cannot be prevented from working on account of their present birth. He states that the knowledge that arises out of the study of the Vedas could be had through the Puranas and the Itihasas. In the Taittiriya Upanishad Bhashya 2.2, he says:

Sarveśāṃ cādhikāro vidyāyāṃ ca śreyah: kevalayā vidyāyā veti siddhaṃ

It has been established that everyone has the right to the knowledge (of Brahman) and that the supreme goal is attained by that knowledge alone.

Among the independent philosophical treatises, only Upadeśasāhasrī is accepted as authentic by modern academic scholars. Many other such texts exist, among which there is a difference of opinion among scholars on the authorship of Viveka Chudamani. The former pontiff of Sringeri Math, Shri Shri Chandrashekhara Bharati III has written a voluminous commentary on the Viveka Chudamani.

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