Adi Shankaracharya (or Shankara) was an 8th century Vedic scholar and Hindu saint. Widely considered as one of the greatest philosophers of Ancient India, his profound and comprehensive works have been studied for centuries by religious experts and spiritual seekers alike.
His teachings are rooted in Hinduism, and he stamped his spiritual mark in its history during the Late-Classical period (c. 650 – 1200 CE) – according to 20th century scholarship.
Adi Shankaracharya’s impact and legacy cannot be understated. Credited as a titan of Hindu philosophy, his life’s work is largely compiled of commentaries and expositions of a variety of Vedic literature, such as on the Brahma-sutra, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita.
Ultimately, Adi Shankara’s legacy is crowned by his consolidation of the Advaita Vedanta – a core Hindu work on self-knowledge, which are in essence reflections on the Upanishads.
In this article, we’ll take a look at:
- The Life of Adi Shankaracharya
- His Philosophical Background
- His Spiritual Teachings
- His Legacy
The Life of Adi Shankaracharya
Ancient history is typically seen through a foggy lens, and Adi Shankara’s extraordinary life story is no different. His 8th century prominence and actual life is shrouded in mythical context, interpretation of tradition, and meaningful anecdotes.
According to tradition, he was born into a religious family of the Brahmin caste at Kaladi: present day Kerala, India.
Legend has it, Adi Shankaracharya’s parents Sivaguru and Aryamba were devoted worshippers of Lord Shiva and prayed for a child. Their wishes were granted in the form of a baby boy. Lord Shiva herself, appeared to Aryamba in a dream and promised her that she would be reborn as her child.
Hence, this story means many consider Adi Shankaracharya as an avatar or reincarnation of Lord Shiva, which is a mighty depiction of someone!
Shankaracharya’s mother educated him in the Vedas, and he is believed to have had an exceptional absorption and analysis of these works from an extremely young age.
This young Adi Shankaracharya at the age of just two, is said to have mastered the Sanskrit language, and by the age of just four, able to recite all of the Vedas from memory.
At twelve years old, having wanted to be a monk throughout childhood, Adi Shankaracharya made the decision to renounce the pleasures of the world and engage with a life of asceticism. Taking the vows of a sannyasi, he left the family home in search of a guru, and ultimately to preach the spiritual sciences of Hinduism.
According to some ancient scripts, Shankaracharya walked around 2000 kilometers in the direction of Kashi (modern day Varanasi), before coming across his future guru: Govinda Bhagavatpada.
Under the guidance of Govinda Bhagavatpada, Shankarayacharya continued a comprehensive study of the Vedas, ‘Gaudapadiya Karika’, the Brahma sutra, and the Upanishads.
To the amazement of his teacher, Adi Shankyracharya memorized the ancient scripts he learnt with incredible proficiency, and started writing commentaries.
These commentaries, and his lifelong exposition of these scripts helped revive Hinduism during a time of cultural and religious decline.
As an ascetic, he spent the majority of his life wandering across India, expounding his propagation of the ‘Advaita Vedanta‘.
There existed a fiery religious and political climate in India at the time. Because of this, a celebrated collection of stories about his life indicate to us that he held regular debates with philosophers of all types of creeds.
One famous story tells us of a heated discussion with Mandana Mishra. The debate took place in the presence of royalty, and covered a wide range of relevant topics such as the nature of ultimate reality, the validity of scripture, and the nature of the self.
Adi Shankaracharya of course argued for the integrity of Advaita Vedanta, which emphasized knowledge of the ultimate reality and unity of self as the path for final release.
On the other hand, Mandana Mishra advocated for the Mimamsa school of thought, emphasizing the importance of scriptural authority and rites and rituals.
The story tells us that Adi Shankaracharya was victorious through cordial process, and in the chronology of Hindu history established his philosophy as a leading ideology in Ancient India.
Adi Shankaracharya’s Spiritual Teachings
Adi Shankaracharya’s fundamental philosophy was straightforward. He simply advocated the ancient school of Hindu thought of the existence of individual self or soul (Atman) and the ultimate reality (Brahman), and the realization of their indivisible unity (non-duality).
His Literary Works: Commentaries, Expositions, and Poems
Renowned for his spectacular commentaries on ancient texts, these feats of literature have had an extensive impact in the Hindu and spiritual world for millennia.
He in fact completed more than 300 works covering commentary, expository and poetic formats. However, as we mentioned earlier in reference to his life story being hard to factually authorize, so too it is a stretch to consider his total authentic authorship.
Widely recognized and accepted works include:
Considered Adi Shankaracharya’s masterpiece, the Brahma sutra bhashya was his commentary on the Brahma sutra, a fundamental piece within the Vedanta school.
#2 Commentaries On The 10 Principle Upanishads
Adi Shankaracharya’s commentaries here aimed at the reconciliation of dualistic and non-dualistic Hindu philosophies, which reignited popularity in Hinduism, and remain highly influential to this day.
#3 Stotras – religious poems
He also composed a series of ‘stotras‘ – poems praising gods or goddesses. His most popular and important stotras are dedicated to Krishna and Shiva.
Shankaracharya’s writing style is lucid and insightful. As the tone of his works are religious and psychological over logical, regarding Shankaracharya as a religious teacher or mystic would be more akin to the truth rather than a modern philosopher.
Interactions With Buddhism
Interestingly, his work shows us that Shankaracharya had a strong understanding of Mayahana Buddhism.
Despite facing criticism for the similarities between his teachings and Buddhism, it’s important to note that he used his knowledge of Buddhism to both challenge Buddhist doctrine and incorporate its ideas into his own unique brand of Vedantic non-dualism.
He made a significant effort to bring Vedanta back to its roots, as it had become heavily influenced by Buddhism in the hands of previous philosophers.
Adi Shankaracharya’s legacy: His Four Monasteries
It is said Adi Shankaracharya founded four mathas (or monasteries), one each at the four cardinal points in India:
#1 Sringeri Sharada Peetham (Southern India)
Located on the banks of the Tunga, this matha advocates ‘Aham Brahmasmi’ (I am Brahman), formed on the basis of Yajur Veda.
#2 Dvaraka Pitha (Western India)
This matha advocates ‘Tattvamasi’ (that thou art), formed on the basis of Sama Veda.
#3 Jyotirmatha Peetham (Northern India)
This matha advocates ‘Ayamatma Brahma’ (this atman is brahman), formed on the basis of Atharva Veda.
#4 Govardhana Matha (Eastern India)
A part of the famous Jagannath temple, this matha advocates ‘Prajnanam Brahma’ (consciousness is Brahman), formed on the basis of Rig Veda.
Impact From Then To Now
With his prominence as an ambassador of the Vedas and Upanishads, Adi Shankaracharya can be ultimately remembered for his efforts in restoring belief in these ancient scriptures.
Beyond this, he also reinforced the belief in Atman and Brahman, expounding that all other deities are just different manifestations of the one Supreme divinity.
Adi Shankaracharya Quotes
“When your last breath arrives, Grammar can do nothing.”
“When our false perception is corrected, misery ends also.”
“Let my idle chatter be the muttering of prayer, my every manual movement the execution of ritual gesture, my walking a ceremonial circumambulation, my eating and other acts the rite of sacrifice, my lying down prostration in worship, my every pleasure enjoyed with dedication of myself, let whatever activity is mine be some form of worship of you.’
“When the Great Reality is not known the study of the scriptures is fruitless; when the Great Reality is known the study of the scriptures is also fruitless.”
“Once we become conscious, even dimly, of the Atman, the Reality within us, the world takes on a very different aspect. It is no longer a court of justice but a kind of gymnasium. Good and evil, pain and pleasure, still exist, but they seem more like the ropes and vaulting-horses and parallel bars which can be used to make our bodies strong. Maya is no longer an endlessly revolving wheel of pain and pleasure but a ladder which can be climbed to consciousness of the Reality.”
“You never identify yourself with the shadow cast by your body, or with its reflection, or with the body you see in a dream or in your imagination. Therefore you should not identify yourself with this living body, either.”
“Who but the Atman is capable of removing the bonds of ignorance, passion and self-interested action?”
“Like the appearance of silver in mother of pearl, the world seems real until the Self, the underlying reality, is realized.” – note that this quote may have inspired Sri Ramana Maharshi, as our article includes a quote of his referencing mother of pearl as a simile!
If you’ve enjoyed learning about the mythical and important figurehead of the Advaita Vedanta, take a look at some of our articles on the related concepts of Hinduism: