Ours is an age of inquiry into the secrets of the cosmos and life itself. As intelligent people, we yearn to know what is beyond. We study the nature of things in this world to further our understanding of who we are and where we came from. We fill our library shelves with volumes of books so that future generations may share in the wealth of our discoveries. We do all these things in the name of science and the advancement of knowledge. But we are not the first people to inquire about the mysteries of life. In fact many great civilizations before ours have penetrated deep into the unknown. One such era in bygone days was that of Shankaracharya, who pioneered a paradigm of enlightened thought, the dawning of advaita-vedanta.
During the eighth century A.D., when Shankaracharya appeared in India, the authority of the Vedas, which guide humanity toward progressive immortality, had been greatly minimized by the prevailing influence of Buddhist thought. At the time most of India’s philosophers, in pursuance of the teaching of Buddha’s Shunyavada philosophy of negative existence or prakriti-nirvana, had renounced the Vedic conception of ishvara (the Absolute Truth) and jiva (the eternal spark of the same). Under the patronage of powerful emperors like Ashoka, Buddhism had spread throughout the length and breadth of India. By dint of his vast learning and his ability to defeat opposing philosophies in philosophical debate, Shankaracharya, however, was able to reestablish the prestige of the Vedic literatures such as the Upanishads and the Vedanta. Wherever Shankaracharya traveled in India he was victorious and opposing philosophies bowed. Shankaracharya established his doctrine, advaita-vedanta (non-dualistic Vedanta) by reconciling the philosophy of the Buddhists. He agreed with the Buddhist concept that corporal existence is unreal or asat —but he disagreed with their conception of prakriti-nirvana. Shankaracharya presented Brahman, spiritual substance, as a positive alternative to the illusory plane of matter. His philosophy in a nutshell is contained in the verse ‘brahma satyam jagan-mithya’ —Brahman or spirit is truth, whereas jagat or the material world is false. In other words, Shankaracharya’s philosophy was a compromise between theism and atheism. It is said that Shankaracharya, according to the necessity of time, place and circumstance, took the position between theism and atheism because the wholesale conversion of Buddhists to the path of full-fledged theism would not have been possible.
Professors of philosophy in India refer to a verse from the Padma Purana that reveals the hidden identity of Shankaracharya:
pracchannam bauddham ucyate
mayaiva vihitam devi
“‘The Mayavada philosophy,’ Shiva informed his wife Parvati, ‘is covered Buddhism. In the form of a brahmana in the Kali-yuga I teach this imagined philosophy.’” Shankaracharya is thus widely accepted as an incarnation of Shiva.
In the small village of Kaladi, in the southern province of India, Sri Shankaracharya advented himself as the son of a Vedic brahmana named Shivaguru and his wife Arya. Even in childhood it was apparent that Shankara, as his father named him, was a great personality. At his birth astrologers predicted that the boy would become a powerful scholar, who would be like an elephant in a banana plantation in the matter of destroying false religions and spurious doctrines. As a student Shankara quickly gained proficiency in the Sanskrit language. He had a prodigious memory; anything his teachers said stuck in his mind forever. What the average student learned in twelve years Shankara learned in one.
When Shankara was three years old his father passed away. Life was difficult for mother and son, but by the grace of God they lived peacefully according to their means. Shankara continued his studies until his eighth year when he decided to take sannyasa and live a life of renunciation. One day Shankara said to his mother, “The life of a man on earth is so full of misery that he sometimes wishes that he had never been born. The dullest among men knows that the body is destined to die at the appointed time. What the yogi alone knows is that in the cycle of samsara one is born and dies again and again a million times. In the cycle of samsara he sometimes plays the role of a son, a father, a husband, a daughter, a mother, or a wife in an unending succession. Therefore true and lasting happiness can be achieved only by transcending birth and death through renunciation, which is the gateway to self-realization. My dear mother, please permit me to embrace that state and strive to realize myself. Allow me to accept sannyasa.”
“Don’t speak like that again,” replied his affectionate mother. “I wish to see you marry and become a good husband for a good woman. Please do not speak of taking sannyasa again.”
A few days later while Shankara was bathing in the river a crocodile caught hold of his leg. Seeing the hopeless position of her son the mother began to cry piteously. It appeared that the crocodile might devour her son alive. “Mother!” said the boy, “there may be a way that I can be saved. It is said by the wise men of our country that if one agrees to accept sannyasa when one’s life is in danger, one will get out of that danger. Therefore please permit me to renounce the world.”
Prepared to do anything to save the life of her son, the poor woman consented to his request. Shankara then raised his hands and pronounced the words ‘sannyaso’ham,’ (I have renounced). When this was done the crocodile immediately let go of Shankaracharya’s leg and his life was spared. As he came out of the water he and his mother embraced. “My dear mother, you have always been my provider. Now I am going out into the world and henceforth whoever feeds me is my mother, whoever teaches me is my father. My pupils are my children, peace is my bride, and solitude my bliss. Such are the rigors of my undertaking.”
“Be blessed my son. Your life is now in the care of the Supreme Benefactor.” With this heartfelt exchange between mother and son, Shankara departed.
Wearing a simple cloth, carrying a water pot, and traveling only on foot with a staff in his hand, the young Shankara roamed across the countryside for many months. One day while resting in the shade of a banyan tree Shankara noticed several frogs sitting peacefully next to a cobra. Seeing this curious site he remembered the lessons of his previous teachers that coexistence between natural enemies was possible only in the vicinity of a great sage or an enlightened guru.
Upon inquiring from the people of the local village, Shankara learned of a saintly person named Govindapada who lived nearby in a cave. He decided to go there immediately. Offering prostrated obeisances in front of the cave Shankara recited a delightful hymn in praise of the great guru.
“My obeisances to you, revered Govindapada, who are the abode of all knowledge. Your fame has spread far and wide because you have traveled inward into yourself—to the very core of your being. You are the most realized person on earth, since you had the good fortune to become the disciple of Gaudapada, the disciple of Sukadeva, who was the self-realized son of Vyasadeva, the compiler of Vedic literature. Thus you have a most remarkable line of spiritual preceptors. Please accept this unworthy sannyasi as your disciple and make me heir to the knowledge of self-realization.”
Govindapada was pleased to accept this little sannyasi as his disciple and he imparted the four sutras to him that Shankara would later preach throughout the world:
prajnam brahma (Brahman is pure consciousness)
ayamatma brahma (soul is Brahman)
tat tvam asi (you are that consciousness)
aham brahmasmi (I am Brahman)
Shankara stayed with his guru for a long time, until one day Govindapada, understanding that the young Shankara was an incarnation of Shiva, said, “Now listen to my wish. Proceed to the holy city of Banaras immediately and start instructing the people on how they can understand their real self. That which is taught by the Buddhist philosophers does not reveal the nature of the atma or self. It is your mission to bring the people to the path of theism. Banaras has many well-known scholars in all systems of philosophy. You must hold discussions with them and guide them along the lines of correct thinking. It is most urgent! Please do not delay even one minute.” Taking the order of his guru, Shankara started for Banaras.
When Shankara entered among the learned circles of Banaras he was barely twelve years old. Indeed, his tender age accompanied by his extensive knowledge and deep realization astounded all who came to see him. As destined by providence, Shankara soon attracted many disciples who sat before him in rapt attention to his every word on transcendence. From that time onward Shankara became known as acharya or Shankaracharya.
At Banaras, Shankaracharya turned the tide of atheism. He compiled commentaries on the Brahma-sutra, Bhagavad-gita, and the principle Upanishads, all of which explained the nondual substance, Brahman, as the ultimate reality. Among his followers, his commentary on the Brahma-sutra, known as Sariraka-bhasya, is considered the most important. Shankaracharya comments on the nature of Brahman as that which is beyond the senses, impersonal, formless, eternal, and unchangeable, as the summum bonum of the Absolute Truth. According to Shankaracharya, that which is known as the atma or soul is but a covered portion or illusioned portion of the Supreme Brahman. That illusion, says Shankaracharya, is due to the veil of maya, which is created out of ignorance or forgetfulness of the true self. The idea that the Absolute Truth can be covered by maya was later challenged successfully by Sri Ramanuja. Those who followed the teachings of Shankaracharya then became known to many as Mayavadis, or philosophers of illusion.
Shankaracharya’s theory of illusion states that although the Absolute Truth is never transformed, we think that it is transformed, which is an illusion. Shankaracharya did not believe in the transformation of energy of the Absolute. Acceptance of the transformation of energy would have necessitated the acceptance of the Personality of the Absolute Truth or the personal existence of God—full-fledged theism. According to Shankaracharya we ourselves are God. When the veil of ignorance is removed, one will realize his complete identity as being nondifferent from the Supreme Brahman or God.
Shankaracharya held that the questions about the origin of the universe and the nature of illusion were unanswerable and inexplicable. Shankaracharya’s conviction was that the spiritual substance, Brahman, is supra-mundane —separate from the gross and subtle bodies of mind and intelligence in this world. Shankaracharya further stressed that mukti, or liberation from the cycle of birth and death, is possible only when the living being renounces his relationship with the material world. Shankaracharya says that the concepts of ‘I’ and ‘Mine’ —I am an individual and these are my possessions: wife, children, property, etc.— are the causes of bondage to material existence and must be given up. Thus the bulk of his followers were and continue to be celibate students.
To support his conclusions of advaita-vedanta, Shankaracharya interpreted the Vedas to suit his means. In other words, the Vedas have their direct and indirect meanings. Shankaracharya, using grammatical jugglery of suffixes, prefixes and affixes, gave an imaginary or indirect interpretation of his own. Thus Shankaracharya, positioning himself between the theist and the atheist, sometimes appears to have been the friend of both. The great acharya adopted this stand to lay the foundation for future theistic evolution. The contribution of Shankaracharya in the development of theistic thought, from the atheistic or neo-theistic concepts of the Buddhists’ prakriti-nirvana to those of the sublime transcendental substantive Brahman, has made India and generations of future theists forever grateful.
Accompanied by a group of disciples Shankaracharya traveled throughout India. To the north he traveled as far as the ashrama of Badarinatha in the Himalayas. There he established a monastery for meditation and Vedic studies. Similar monasteries were established during his travels to Puri, in the east, Dvaraka in the west, and Shringeri in the south. All of these institutions established by Shankaracharya still exist twelve centuries later.
On one of his journeys in southern India, Shankaracharya chanced to debate with a famous scholar of Mahismati named Mandana Mishra, ‘the jewel among scholars.’ Many learned persons gathered for the debate and Bharati, the good wife of the scholar, was chosen to be the judge and moderator. At the outset of the debate Bharati placed a garland of flowers around the neck of each of the two contestants. She proclaimed that at the end of the discussion whoever was wearing the garland which had not withered would be the winner.
Mandana, who had never known defeat, opened the debate by stating, “I accept the authority of the Vedas. Their main teaching is that merit can be accquired by the performance of the prescribed rituals in the prescribed manner. One who performs these rituals will go to heaven and dwell in the company of Indra and the celestial damsels. When the merit is exhausted, he will return to earth so that he can acquire more pious credits for a longer stay in the world of the gods. The Vedas also contain related commandments as a prerequisite to the performance of the rites,” The audience, consisting of many of Mandana’s admirers and disciples, applauded his statement.
Shankaracharya then responded, “I also accept the authority of the Vedas. Their main purpose, however, is this: Brahman alone is real; the phenomenal world is an illusion; and the individual soul is identical with Brahman. The parts of the Vedas containing descriptions and injunctions pertaining to ritual are subordinate to the major part that deals with the knowledge of the self and the ways of its acquisition. Rituals can only lead to karma —both good and bad, which prevents one from attaining self-realization. The only goal of the Vedas is Brahman.”
Both scholars showed profound knowledge of the Vedas in various ways, and the discussion continued unabated for eighteen days. On the last day it was seen that the garland of Mandana Mishra had begun to wither and the garland of Shankaracharya remained ever-fresh. Bharati then declared Shankaracharya the winner. Now Mandana Mishra would have to renounce his connection with the world and become the disciple of Shankaracharya.
In a final attempt to save her husband, Bharati said, “Oh Great acharya, you are certainly victorious in the debate with my husband and he will have to become your disciple. However, I, the wife of Mandana Mishra, am his better half. Before your victory is complete you will have to defeat me also.” Shankaracharya was somewhat surprised, but he accepted the challenge.
Addressing Shankaracharya, Bharati said, “I can not admit that you are the master of all learning unless you can prove that you have a good understanding of sex education also. Now, tell me, what are the various forms and expressions of love? What is the nature of sexual love? What is the effect of the waxing and waning moons on sex urge in men and women? You must answer all these questions.”
Being a celibate monk and only sixteen years old, it appeared as though Shankaracharya had been bewildered by his opponent. He then asked for forty days additional time since he was not prepared to speak on the subject immediately. Bharati granted the request and Shankaracharya and his disciples left the assembly. Through the powers of mystic yoga Shankaracharya entered into trance. He left his body and entered the body of a sensuous king named Amaruka. In the body of the king Shankaracharya experienced erotic love and accquired knowledge of all its intricacies. Before the forty days had ended Shankaracharya re-entered his own body and returned to debate with Bharati.
After a brief discussion, Bharati conceded that Shankaracharya was the undisputed winner. Shankaracharya was now the leading spiritual master in India. Day and night for sixteen continuous years Shankaracharya preached the advaita-vedanta. In his thirty-second year while on pilgrimage in the Himalayas, Shankaracharya left this mortal world for the eternal abode.
During his life Shankaracharya composed a number of beautiful verses known as Bhaja Govindam, ‘Worship Govinda.’ A mystery surrounds these prayers in that Shankaracharya taught consistantly throughout his commentaries that Brahman is the supreme goal. Yet in his prayers he says, “Just worship Govinda.” Many commentators on the life of Shankaracharya consider that his being an incarnation of Shiva means that Shankaracharya was in fact the greatest devotee of Godhead, but due to the necessity of the time he could not directly advocate devotion as the highest attainment.
Before departing from this world Shankaracharya spoke these last words:
bhaja govindam, bhaja govindam
bhaja govindam mudha-mate
samprapte sannihite kale
na hi na hi rakshati duhkrin karane
““Worship Govinda, worship Govinda! Oh, you fools and rascals, just worship Govinda. Your rules of grammar and word jugglery will not help you at the time of death.”