Life and Teachings of Sri Adi Shankaracharya

Updated on February 21, 2018
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Lakshmi Menon is a published author who writes both fiction and non-fiction, including health and travel articles.

The memorial to the Adi Shankaracharya inside the Shankaracharya Temple.
The memorial to the Adi Shankaracharya inside the Shankaracharya Temple. | Source

Sage Sri Shankaracharya, the great Indian philosopher and social reformer who lived during the 8th century, was born in a tiny village called Kalady in the Ernakulam District of Kerala, India, located on the banks of famous River Periyar.

In his short lifespan of 32 years, he became one of the greatest teachers of the Vedas. The only weapon he used for this achievement was pure knowledge and spirituality. Shankara is considered to be the incarnation of Lord Shiva.

Sri Shankaracharya's Childhood

He was born to a 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 wanted a short-lived, good son, or a simpleton with a long life. 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. They named the baby boy Shankara.

Young Shankara showed remarkable scholarship, mastering the four Vedas by the age of eight. From the beginning, he was attracted towards spirituality and sanyasam, and wanted to lead a meaningful life free of worldly pleasures.

When he was three years of age, he lost his father, and his widowed mother Aryamba raised him on her own.

Sri Krishna Temple at Kalady, Kerala, India
Sri Krishna Temple at Kalady, Kerala, India

How Did the Town of Kalady Get Its Name?

One day Shankara's mother fainted after walking three kilometers for her daily bath in the River Periyar. Feeling helpless, little Shankara prayed to Lord Krishna, and, moved by his prayers, God appeared to him and blessed him by saying, "The river will flow where your little feet mark the ground.”

The river took a new course towards the place marked by the little boy's feet. Since then, the town came to be called Kalady. Prior to this event, the village was called Sasalam. Shankara then installed Lord Krishna into the present temple, and marked the occasion by reciting his famous Ätchutha Ashtakam.

Translated to English, the word Kalady means "footprint."

The Philosophy of Sri Shankaracharaya

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 discourse 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."

Peethas Founded by Sri Shankaracharya

He founded four Shankaracharya peethas (monasteries), called "mathas," in the four corners of India to uphold his spiritual teachings. These 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 Shankaracharya's Path to Sanyasam

After mastering the Vedas by the age of 16, he started on his quest for truth. One day, a miracle took place.

While Shankara was taking his bath in the river, his leg was caught in the jaws of a crocodile. Horrified, he called his mother, who ran to the river bank only to see her beloved son being dragged into the water. She helplessly watched the horrific scene unfold when her son said there was only one way to get the beast to release him from its jaws: she must allow him to enter the sanyasa ashram. As there was no alternative at that moment, she agreed and the crocodile let Shankara go.

Before taking leaving his mother, Shankara assured her that he would be with her in her last days and would perform the funeral rites, a promise he fulfilled in spite of the problems he faced from his community.

To fulfill his spiritual path, he set out in search of a preceptor. He met his guru, Swami Govindapada Acharya, in a hermitage on the banks of the River Narmada. Under Govindapada Acharya's guidance, he mastered Yoga, Vedanta and other systems, and became a knower of the Brahman. Shankara travelled all over India, and met the leaders of the 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. Shankara 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?"

Shankara 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 Lord Shiva's feet. Right then and there, Shankara composed 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 Shankaracharya Temple at Kalady, India

Sri Shankaracharaya's Shrines at Kalady

Sri Adi Shankara Keerthi Sthamba Mandapam

This 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 reliefs that depict the story of Adi Shankaracharya. This shrine is open to all, irrespective of caste and religion.

Sree Ramakrishna Advaita Ashram

The Sree Ramakrishna Advaita Ashram is a spacious prayer hall and a shrine.

Sri Krishna Temple

Sri Krishna Temple is a small temple known as the ancestral deity of Sree Shankara Acharya. It is located to the west of the Srigeri Mutt. It is the only surviving structure from the time of Shankara, where the poojas are conducted by Namboodhiris.

Nayathodu Shankara Narayana Temple

Located 3 km west of Kalady, this shrine is an example of Advaitam in worship by Shankara Acharya.

Aryadevi Samadhi Mandapam

This is the resting place of Sri Shankara Acharya's mother, Aryadevi.

Sri Ramakrishna Ashram
Sri Ramakrishna Ashram

The Teachings of Sri Shankaracharya

The teachings of Shankara 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 Shankara Acharya travelled widely in India and preached his Advaita philosophy wherever he went. He taught that supreme Brahman is Nirguna (without the Gunas), Nirakara (formless), Nirvisesha (without attributes) and Akarta (non-agent). Brahman is above all needs and desires. Brahman alone is real, this world is unreal; and the Jiva is identical with Brahman.

His teachings are available in the book Upadesa Sahasri: A Thousand Teachings, written by the great philosopher himself.

Shankara's teachings will continue to live as long as the sun shines.

Adi Shankaracharya

© 2010 lex123

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    • profile image

      Swami Ramji. 

      3 months ago

      Please lam very happy and pleased

    • profile image

      kbhanji54@gmail.com 

      19 months ago

      Today, around 107 years since the setting up of the Samadhi of our great Guru I discovered his profound philosophy. How eminent are these Sages who lived only for the enlightenment of humanity. Many many thanks ..... Kalindi

    • lex123 profile imageAUTHOR

      lex123 

      20 months ago

      Thanks to know it was helpful to you, Sreeja.

    • profile image

      Sreeja 

      20 months ago

      It helped me in my project and research

    • lex123 profile imageAUTHOR

      lex123 

      21 months ago

      Thank you for your encouraging feedback.

    • profile image

      aishwarya natrajan 

      21 months ago

      it was very useful .this site is amazing. thank you for opening such an authorable site ;)

    • profile image

      hoot hoot 

      21 months ago

      I love the owl

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 

      4 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      Interesting information.

    • profile image

      Poo123 

      4 years ago

      Hi,

      Can anyone tell me which is the must read book about teachings of Adi Shankaracharya.... I want to gift it to someone who follows him blindly

    • profile image

      NAGA MAHESH hindupur 

      4 years ago

      .lord shankar has born as adi sankaracharya.everyone should follow his way and he protect us from different religions.every hindu should read his life history.And every hindu should become shivaji maharaj,sankara.

      EVERY HINDU SHOULD IN UNITY

      EVERY HINDU SHOUID GO TEMPIE EVERYDAY

      BE BRAVE AND ESTADLISH CHATRAPATHI SHIVAJI RULER IN OUR HINDUSTHAN

    • profile image

      sifali 

      5 years ago

      tanks helped me in my speech

    • profile image

      MEENAKSHI 

      5 years ago

      REALLY HELPFUL

    • profile image

      ABHAY MUDGAL 

      5 years ago

      REALLY...................! A WONDERFUL ARTICLE

    • profile image

      adithi gupta 

      5 years ago

      it helped me a lot. it taught me a lot. i feel we should follow all their teahings.thank you.

    • profile image

      devendar sharma 

      6 years ago

      Absolute truth.. very very nice...thnx for sharing

    • profile image

      subrata kumar mahapatra 

      7 years ago

      very nice

    • shribabak profile image

      shribabak 

      7 years ago

      this article is very nice.

    • profile image

      soumyasrajan 

      7 years ago from Mumbai India and often in USA

      lex

      I also gave link to your article in references of my article on truth.

    • lex123 profile imageAUTHOR

      lex123 

      7 years ago

      Thank you soumyasrajan for your visit and the appreciating comment. It means a lot to me.

      I'm heading towards reading your hub, and also going to link it to this hub.

    • profile image

      soumyasrajan 

      7 years ago from Mumbai India and often in USA

      Hi! lex

      Very nice article about Adi Sankaracharaya. Enjoyed reading your article. I wrote a hub titled "Truth- what it is" some days back on ancient Indian philosophies, in which I wrote a little about Adi Sankarachrya and English translations of his Manisha Panchaka shlokas.

      He indeed unified India quite a bit.

    • lex123 profile imageAUTHOR

      lex123 

      8 years ago

      Thanks for your visit and for the comments.

    • raakachi profile image

      raakachi 

      8 years ago from Madurai / Tamilnadu / India

      A fine hub! A decent hierarchy! Thanks for sharing.All the best!

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