Life and Teachings of Sri Adi Shankaracharya
Sri Sankaracharya, the great Indian Philosopher
Sage Sri Sankaracharya, the great Indian Philosopher and social reformer who lived in the 8th century, was born in a tiny village Kalady in Ernakulam District of Kerala, India, on the banks of famous River Periyar. In his short lifespan of thirty-two years, he became one of the greatest teachers of the Vedas. The only weapon he used for this achievement was pure knowledge and spirituality. Sankara is considered to be the incarnation of Lord Shiva.
Sri Sankaracharya's Childhood
He was born to devout Brahmin couple Sri Sivaguru and Aryamba, as a result of their ardent prayers for a child to Lord Shiva, at the famous Vadakkumnatha Temple, Trichur. Pleased with their prayers, God appeared in their dream and enquired what type of a child they wanted - whether they want a short-lived good son or a simpleton with a long life, and they chose the first option. A child was born to them in the Vasanta Ritu or the spring season at noon, in the auspicious Abhijit Muhurta and under the constellation Ardhra, (Thiruvathira) whom they named Sankara. As a little boy, Sankara showed remarkable scholarship, mastering the four Vedas by the age of eight. Right from the childhood he was attracted towards spirituality and sanyasam, and wanted to lead a meaningful life detached from the worldly pleasures.
When he was three years of age, he lost his father, and his widowed mother Aryamba raised him alone.
How the place got the name Kalady (the local meaning of kalady is 'footprint'):
One day his mother fainted after walking three kilometers for her daily bath in the River Periyar. Feeling helpless, little Sankara prayed to Lord Krishna, and moved with his prayer, God appeared to him and blessed him by saying "the river will flow where your little feet marks.” The river took its new course in the place marked by the little boy's feet. Since then the place came to be called Kalady. Prior to that the village was called Sasalam. Sankara then installed Lord Krishna into the present temple, and marked the occasion by reciting his famous Ätchutha Ashtakam.
Philosophy of Sri Sankaracharaya
His teachings are based on the unity of the soul and Brahman, in which Brahman is viewed as without attributes. Shankara travelled across India and other parts of South Asia to propagate his philosophy through discourses and debates with other thinkers.
He was a major proponent of the Vedanta tenet that 'Lord Brahma and men are of one essence and every individual should try to develop this vision of oneness.'
Sri Shankaracharya Peethas (Monasteries)
He founded four Shankaracharya peethas (monasteries) called ‘mathas,’ in the four corners of India, to uphold his spiritual teachings. They are:
1. Sarada Peetham at Sringeri (Karnataka)
2. Kalika Peetham at Dwaraka (Gujarat)
3. Jyotih Peetham, Badarikashrama (Uttarakhand/Uttaranchal)
4. Govardhana Peetham in Jagannath, Puri (Orissa).
These peethas are amongst the most revered pilgrim destinations in the country.
Sri Sankaracharya's Path to Sanyasam
After mastering the Vedas by the age of sixteen, he started his quest for truth. One day a miracle took place. While Sankara was taking his bath in the river he was caught by the leg by a crocodile. Horrified, he cried and his mother ran to the river only to see his beloved son dragged to the river. Helplessly as she watched the horrific scene, the son said to his mother that there was only one way to get release from the jaws of the monster and that was she should allow him to enter the sanyasa ashram. As there was no other alternative at that moment, she agreed and the crocodile let him go.
Before taking leave of her, Sankara assured his mother that he would be with her in her last days and would perform the funeral rites, which he fulfilled in spite of the problems he faced from his community.
To fulfill his spiritual path, he set out in in search of a preceptor. He met his guru, Swami Govindapada Acharya in a hermitage on the banks of the River Narmada. Under his guidance, he mastered Yoga, Vedanta and other systems and became a knower of the Brahman. Sankara travelled all over India and met the leaders of different schools of thought.
Later at Kashi, he had a strange experience. When he was going to have his at bath in River Ganges, an outcaste came from the opposite direction with four dogs and obstructed the way. Sankara ordered him out of his path. To his surprise, the outcaste retorted, "O, venerable Guru! You are a preacher of Advaita Vedanta and yet you make a great difference between man and man. How can this be consistent with your teaching of Advaitism? Is Advaita only a theory?"
Sankara soon realized that the outcaste (Chandala) was none other than Lord Shiva, who took this form to teach him a lesson. He immediately fell prostrate at his feet. He composed then and there five Slokas called the ‘Manisha Panchaka’. Every Sloka ends thus: “He who learnt to look on the phenomena in the light of Advaita is my true Guru, be he a Chandala or be he a Brahmin.”
Sri Sankaracharya Temple at Kalady, India
Sri Sankaracharaya's Shrines at Kalady
- Sri Adi Sankara Keerthi Sthamba Mandapam is an eight-story memorial built by Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt. The entrance to the memorial is guarded by two elephant statues. It leads to the Paduka Mandapam. Two silver knobs represent the padukas, or wooden sandals of the Teacher. The walls of the memorial feature framed relief paintings relating the story of Adi Sankaracharya. This shrine is open to all, irrespective of the caste and religion.
- Sree Ramakrishna Advaita Ashram has a spacious prayer hall and a shrine.
- Sri Krishna Temple, a small temple, known as the ancestral deity of Sree Sankara Acharya, is at the west of the Srigeri Mutt. It is the only surviving structure from the time of Sankara, where the poojas are conducted by Namboodhiris.
- Nayathodu Sankara Narayana Temple, 3 km west of Kalady, is an example of Advaitam in worship by Sankara Acharya.
- Aryadevi Samadhi Mandapam is the resting place of Sri Sankara Acharya's mother Aryadevi.
Teachings of Sri Sankaracharya
The teachings of Sankara can be summed up in half a verse: “Brahma Satyam Jagan Mithya Jivo Brahmaiva Na Aparah—Brahman (the Absolute) is alone real; this world is unreal; and the Jiva or the individual soul is non-different from Brahman.” This is the quintessence of his philosophy.
Adi Sankara Acharya travelled widely in India and preached his Advaita philosphy wherever he went. He taught supreme Brahman is Nirguna (without the Gunas), Nirakara (formless), Nirvisesha (without attributes) and Akarta (non-agent). He is above all needs and desires. Brahman alone is real, this world is unreal; the Jiva is identical with Brahman.
His teachings are available in the book Upadesa Sahasri: A Thousand Teachings, written by the great philosopher himself.
Sankara's teachings will continue to live as long as the sun shines.
Read More About His Philosophy
- Sri Adi Shankaracharya - Sringeri Sharada Peetham
- Advaita Philosophy - Works of Sankaracharya, Advaita Vedanta and Hindu Sacred Scriptures
Advaita Philosophy - About Sankaracharya and his philosophy of Advaita Vedanta