Shri Adi Sankaracharya

Adi Shankara, also called Adi Shankaracharya was an Indian Vedic scholar and teacher whose works present a harmonizing reading of the sastras, with liberating knowledge of the self at its core, synthesizing the Advaita Vedanta teachings of his time.


Sankaracharya was born in a very poor family in the year 788 A.D. to Siva Guru and Aryamba in a village named Kaladi, six miles to the east of Alwaye, Kerala. Sankara was a Nambudiri Brahmin. Sivaguru died when Sankara was seven years old. Sankara had none to look after his education. His mother was an extraordinary woman. She took special care to educate her son in all the Shastras. When he was only sixteen, he became a master of all the philosophies and theologies.

In Search of a Guru

Sankara met Swami Govindapada Acharya in a hermitage in Badrikashram (Badrinath) in the Himalayas and he prostrated at the teacher’s feet. Govinda asked Sankara who he was. Sankara replied: “O revered Guru! I am neither fire nor air nor earth nor water-none of these, but the Immortal Atma (Self) that is hidden in all names and forms”.

Swami Govinda was very much pleased with the response given by Sankara. Having initiated him and invested him with the robe of a Sannyasin, Swami Govinda taught him the philosophy of Advaita which he himself had learnt from his Guru-Gaudapada Acharya. Sankara learnt all the philosophical tenets from his Guru Govindapada. Govinda asked Sankara to go to Kashi. Sankara proceeded to Kashi where he wrote all his famous commentaries on the Brahma Sutras, the Upanishads and the Gita.

Sankara's Digvijaya Yatra

Sankara’s philosophical conquests are unique in the world. He had his triumphant tour all over India. He met the leaders of different schools of thought. He convinced them by arguments and established the supremacy and truth of the religion that he expounded in his commentaries.

He preached his Advaita philosophy wherever he went. He established the Govardhana Mutt at Puri. He went to Kancheepuram and attacked the Shaktas. He purified the Temples. He won over to his side the rulers of the Chola and the Pandya Kingdoms. He went to Ujjain and put down the atrocities of the Bhairavas who were shedding human blood. He then proceeded to Dwaraka and established a Mutt there. He then travelled along the course of the Ganges and held religious controversies with great personages.

Sringeri Mutt

In the north-west of the State of Mysore, nestling in the beautiful foot-hills of the Western Ghats, surrounded by virgin forests, lies the village of Sringeri and here Sankara established his first Mutt. The river Tunga-a branch of the river Tungabhadra-runs through the valley closely touching the walls of the temple; and its pure and limpid waters are as famous for drinking purposes as the waters of the Ganges are for bath (Ganga Snanam, Tunga Panam). Sringeri is a place of great sanctity and its beauty has to be seen to be appreciated. The Mutt is ‘still going strong’ as the phrase goes. The homage paid to the Mutt by countless aspirants and devotees is as much due to the greatness of illustrious men like Vidyaranya who have been at its head ever since its foundation as to the renown of the founder himself.

The famous holy shrine of Sri Sarada is an equal source of attraction to the devotees. Many are the Mutts and monasteries in India where holy men or their successors sit, and where Hindus from all parts of India gather, but none so great or so famous as Sringeri, the original seat of Adi Sankaracharya. The Sringeri Peetha is one of the oldest monasteries of the world flourishing for over twelve centuries now. It is the first of the four seats of learning established by Sankaracharya, the other three being Puri, Dwaraka and Joshi Mutt, each one of them representing one of the four Vedas of the Hindus.

Sankara placed his four eminent disciples (Sureswara Acharya, Padmapada, Hastamalaka and Trotakacharya) in charge of the Sringeri Mutt, Jagannath Mutt, Dwaraka Mutt and Joshi Mutt respectively. The most famous Sannyasin in the succession of Gurus of the Sringeri Mutt was, of course, Vidyaranya, the great commentator on the Vedas and the father of the dynasty of Vijayanagar. He was the Dewan of Vijayanagaram. He became a Sannyasin about 1331 A.D. The eleven Sannyasins before Vidyaranya were Sankaracharya, Viswarupa, Nityabodhaghana, Jnanaghana, Jnanottama, Jnana Giri, Simha Girisvara, Isvara Tirtha, Narasimha Tirtha, Vidya Sankara Tirtha and Bharati Krishna Tirtha.

The historic and sacred pontifical throne of the Sringeri Mutt is known as Vyakhyana Simhasana or seat of learning. Tradition has it that this seat was given to the great Sankara by Sarasvati, the Goddess of Learning, in appreciation of the philosopher’s vast scholarly erudition. Thirty-five Acharyas had sat on the pontifical throne before his present holiness in regular and uninterrupted succession.

Dasanami Sannyasins

Sankara organized ten definite orders of Sannyasins under the name ‘Dasanamis’ who add, at the end of their names, any one of the following ten suffixes: Sarasvati, Bharati, Puri (Sringeri Mutt); Tirtha, Asrama (Dwaraka Mutt); Giri, Parvata and Sagar (Joshi Mutt); Vana and Aranya (Govardhana Mutt).

The Paramahamsa represents the highest of these grades. It is possible to become a Paramahamsa by a long course of Vedantic study, meditation and Self- realisation. The Ativarnashramis are beyond caste and order of life. They dine with all classes of people. Sankara’s Sannyasins are to be found all over India.

Sankara's Philosophy

Sankara’s supreme Brahman is Nirguna (without the Gunas), Nirakara (formless), Nirvisesha (without attributes) and Akarta (non-agent). He is above all needs and desires. Sankara says, “This Atman is self-evident. This Atman or Self is not established by proof of the existence of the Self. It is not possible to deny this Atman, for it is the very essence of he who denies it. The Atman is the basis of all kinds of knowledge. The Self is within, the Self is without, the Self is before and the Self is behind. The Self is on the right hand, the Self is on the left, the Self is above and the Self is below”.

The word “Advaita” essentially refers to the identity of the Self (Atman) and the Whole (Brahman). He wrote, “Ekameva Adviteeyam Brahma” (The absolute is one alone, not two). There is no second, but there is the appearance of an enormous multiplicity. There may be many stalks of sugarcane, but the juice from all of them has the same sweetness. Beings are many, but their breath is the same. Nations are many, but the Earth is one. In this manner, Sankara proclaimed to the world that it is unity that underlines the apparent diversity.

Satyam-Jnanam-Anantam-Anandam are not separate attributes. They form the very essence of Brahman. Brahman cannot be described, because description implies distinction. Brahman cannot be distinguished from any other than He.

The objective world-the world of names and forms-has no independent existence. The Atman alone has real existence. The world is only Vyavaharika or phenomenal.

Sankara was the exponent of the Kevala Advaita philosophy. His teachings can be summed up in the following words:

"Brahma Satyam Jagat Mithya,
Jeevo Brahmaiva Na Aparah"

Brahman alone is real, this world is unreal; the Jiva is identical with Brahman.

Sankara preached Vivarta Vada. Just as the snake is superimposed on the rope, this world and this body are superimposed on Brahman or the Supreme Self. If you get a knowledge of the rope, the illusion of the snake will vanish. Even so, if you get a knowledge of Brahman, the illusion of the body and the world will vanish.

Sankara is the foremost among the master-minds and the giant souls which Mother India has produced. He was the expounder of the Advaita philosophy. Sankara was a giant metaphysician, a practical philosopher, an infallible logician, a dynamic personality and a stupendous moral and spiritual force. His grasping and elucidating powers knew no bounds. He was a fully developed Yogi, Jnani and Bhakta. He was a Karma Yogin of no mean order. He was a powerful magnet.

There is not one branch of knowledge which Sankara has left unexplored and which has not received the touch, polish and finish of his superhuman intellect. For Sankara and his works, we have a very high reverence. The loftiness, calmness and firmness of his mind, the impartiality with which he deals with various questions, his clearness of expression-all these make us revere the philosopher more and more. His teachings will continue to live as long as the sun shines.

Sankara’s scholarly erudition and his masterly way of exposition of intricate philosophical problems have won the admiration of all the philosophical schools of the world at the present moment. Sankara was an intellectual genius, a profound philosopher, an able propagandist, a matchless preacher, a gifted poet and a great religious reformer. Perhaps, never in the history of any literature, a stupendous writer like him has been found. Even the Western scholars of the present day pay their homage and respect to him. Of all the ancient systems, that of Sankaracharya will be found to be the most congenial and the most easy of acceptance to the modern mind.

The existence of Vedic Dharma in India today is due to Sankara. The forces opposed to Vedic religion were more numerous and powerful at the time of Sankara than they are today. Still, single-handed, within a very short time, Sankara overpowered them all and restored the Vedic Dharrna and Advaita Vedanta to its pristine purity in the land. The weapon he used was pure knowledge and spirituality.