Early life

Sankara’s Parents

Kalady was a prosperous village of Brahmins on the banks of river Poorna (referred as Periyara now) in Kerela. In the village lived a pious Brahmin by the name of Vidyadhiraja of the Kaipalli Illom. His son, Sivaguru, studied for several years in the Gurukula and became a Vedic scholar. He did very well justify his name, as he grew to be like Siva in knowledge and like Guru or Brihaspathi, the teacher of the Gods, in his power of speech. He sincerely spent his student life at the Gurukula learning all aspects of the Vedas including all auxiliary texts. Right from his childhood he had a high sense of renunciation and deep reverence to the the Vedas and the various rituals mentioned in it. He lead a disciplined life spending time either in studies or in performance of various fire rituals and chanting of the Vedic mantras.

As he grew up of age it was time for him to leave the Gurukula and go back to his home. Though he was very reluctant, his father and teacher convinced him to go home and lead a householder’s life. Thus he reached Kalady where many relatives gathered to receive him back. The father, whose name 'Vidyadhiraja' was justified by his vast scholarship, now tested his son by putting him many question. in the light of the Vedic standards of competency like Pada, Jada and the like. To these and the other questions put to him on the philosophies of Bhatta, Prabhakara, Kanada and others, the on gave appropriate answers with a smiling face, always bowing down to his Guru in his heart.

Hearing about Sivaguru’s noble character and proficiency in the Sastras, several marriage proposals came. Vidyadhiraja decided on the match for his son in Aryamba, daughter of Magha Pandita of the Nambudiri Illom.

Aryamba grew up in a serene and pious ambience of Melpazhur Mana in a typical Kerela home in the village of Veliyanad which is situated about 30km southeast of Ernakulam. The environment of the household was religious and spiritual. The Mana had shrines of various deities including Kirata Siva, the family deity. Even today, this area gives you a flavor of what the environment would have been for Sankara in his growing up years.

Performance of Austerities

Figure: Current day Sri Vadakkumnathan temple at Thrissur, Kerala

Sivaguru and Aryamba were a devout couple who had a blessed life. Days, months and years rolled on, with Sivaguru continually engaged in the performance of rituals laid down in the scriptures, in the unbroken repetition of the Vedas, and in beneficent activities for the good of others. Beautiful in appearance, wealthy by all standards, deep in learning, patient like the earth, and free from pride, he lived the life of an ideal householder for many years_ But still he did not have what every householder. The pious and devout couple did not have an offspring for years.

With a heavy heart one day Sivaguru discussed with his wife that over half his adult life was over and that he felt sad that he may die childless. He could not see a way to fulfill the commitments to his ancestors. Aryamba had unwavering faith in the Divine and proposed that they perform various austerities and pilgrimages at the Lord Vrishachala temple in Thrissur.

Accepting the suggestion of his wife, Sivaguru went to perform austerities and offer prayers at the shrine of Siva at Vrishachala. Strictly observing the rules of purity and taking only fruits and roots, he spent all his time in meditating on Siva. His wife, too, stayed at Vrishachala, observing the rules of austerity.

Pleased with them, Lord Siva appeared to Sivaguru in a dream offering a difficult choice of either a virtuous & brilliant son with a short life or one with a long life but without any greatness or virtues. He opted for the first and conveyed the boon of Siva to Aryamba. Both went home happy and continued to worship Lord Siva, served the learned and needy.

In time, Sivaguru's wife became pregnant blessed with the spirit of the great God Siva. As her pregnancy advanced, it is said that her whole body became lustrous like a blazing sun difficult to look at. Soon Aryamba gave birth to a beautiful son on a Sunday, the Sukla Pancami day in the month of Vaisakha. It is said that the lagna was fully aspected by the benign planets like Guru and Mars, Sun & Saturn were exalted. Traditionally, ladies went to their mother’s home for their first delivery and hence it is believed that Sankara was born in his maternal home “Melpazhur Mana” at Veliyanad.

Birth of a son after a long time gave immense joy to the parents and all family members. Not just the family,it appeared even nature was very pleased with the birth of the radiant boy. The trees shed luscious fruits, creepers rained flowers, streamlets brimmed with clear crystal water, clouds burst into showers, and waterfalls cascaded from mountain ranges. The learned astrologers, who were received with honour by the head of the family, made the following prediction about the child's future: "This child will grow into a scholar capable of defeating any opponent in debate. He will be the promulgator of a new philosophy. He will gain recognition as a master of all learning. His reputation will last as long as the world exists. This child will indeed be a perfect man. What more can we say!" About his lifespan no question was put and no prediction was made also.

Figure: AdiSankara’s birth event described in a painting at the historic site at Kalady

Though the topic of Sankara’s place of birth doesn’t detract us from the Subject but the year of birth does create some discussion among the historians and biographers. The Government of India celebrated the 1200th birth anniversary of Adi Sankara in 1988 suggesting 788 A.D. as the year of birth. However, in a National Seminar held in 2003 in Mumbai on the Age of Sankara it was unanimously established by all the Matha pontiffs except Sringeri that 3rd April, 509 BC as the birth date of Sankara. Sringeri Matha pontiff accepts 788 A.D. as the year of birth. Each of the dates has their respective evidences but the deviation in the time scale is too large. For the sake of documentation, we accept 788 A.D. as given by modern scholars.

Delighted with the birth of his son, Sivaguru performed various religious rites for the newborn to invoke the blessing of the Lord. Divine signs were visible on the body of the child. He looked like Siva himself walking in a human body. The parents named the child Sankara in gratitude to the Lord. The name also means bestower (kara) of happiness (sam), sam karoti iti Sankara.

Early Boyhood Days

Baby Sankara grew up in an environment vibrating with scriptural recitations and traditional forms of worship. He was a child genius exhibiting extraordinary intelligence. Chanting stotras before he was two years old came naturally to him. At the age of three, Sankara was initiated into aksarabhyasa (alphabets). It is said that Sankara was a blessing to his teachers. He not only learnt all that he heard the first time but also helped his fellow students in learning.

Thoughts of sending young Sankara to Gurukul after performing his upanayanam (investiture of the sacred thread) were cropping up in Sivaguru’s mind. But fate had other plans. Sivaguru wasn’t fortunate enough to see these culminate and unfortunately passed away.

A year went by in observance of ceremonies associated with the departed soul. Being a wife of a great scholar, mother of a child prodigy and herself spiritually evolved, Aryamba put together all her efforts in helping Sankara grow. It is said that she had Sankara’s upanayanam ceremony done in Melpazhur Mana. At an appropriate age, Sankara was sent to a Gurukul in Kalady, his paternal village, where his scholarly ancestors had lived.

Gurukul Days

Wonder child that Sankara was, he mastered the four Vedas and the six Sastras from his Guru. His learning was so swift that in the first few months he equaled the Guru in knowledge. He studied auxiliaries, sacred narratives, doctrines of rituals, philosophy, logic, Yoga, Sankhya, Mimamsa doctrines among others but his deep interest was in the non-dualistic doctrines of Upanishads. His learning was so great that he started to look like the very embodiment of Vyasa. Assiduously he learnt logic, Yoga philosophy, Samkhya philosophy of Kapila, and Mimamsa doctrines as expounded by Bhatta; but his interest and joy in these subjects got completely submerged in his tremendous enthusiasm for the non-dualistic doctrine 0'[ the Upanishads. like a well in the waters of a flood. At the tender age of six, Sankara already composed a book, Balabodha-Samgraha.

Kanakadhara Stotra

One day Sankara along with his fellow students went out for bhiksa (alms). He and his fellow students once went to the house of a poor Brahmin. Thereupon the lady of the house said with utmost humility to the Brahmacharins: "Fortunate, indeed, is the person who gets an opportunity to offer hospitality to Brahmacharins like you. But we are accursed beings whom poverty has deprived of the resources for the same. Vain is our birth as human beings !" Thus bemoaning her own fate piteously, the lady presented a mere gooseberry to them with a heart writhing in pain born of the thought of her utter poverty. Boy Sankara, touched to the core of his heart by the poverty of the family, instantaneously composed a great hymn of exquisite beauty (Kanakadhara-stotra) on Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and good fortune, praying for the relief of the family. Soon did the Goddess manifest herself before him, illuminating all the quarters like a flash of lightning by the brilliance of her form. Understanding what Shankara wanted, she said that the poverty in the house was due to past karma to which Sankara responded saying that in this birth the lady has given the gooseberry with love. Mahalaksmi blessed the household with golden gooseberries. Soon Sankara’s fame spread beyond the boundaries of Kalady. Thus, winning the goodwill and blessings of the Brahmanas and the Devas, Sankara continued his study under his teacher. All branches of learning, when interpreted by Sankara, revealed a new significance.

River Changes it’s course

Figure: Actual notice board at Kalady Krishna Temple.

After completing his studies, Sankara returned home engaging in further Vedic studies and looking after his mother. These were the only years that Sankara had the joy of living at home. Aryamba would go to the river Poorna that flowed at a distance from her house in Kalady for bath every day. Years of abstinence and fasts had made her physically weak. One hot summer day while doing her routine ritual of going to the river, she didn’t return her usual time. Anxious Sankara went searching for her and found her unconscious along the way. He brought her home and fervently prayed out of matr-bhakti to the presiding deity of the river to change course and flow through his neighbourhood so that his mother did not have to walk the distance each day. Pleased the river changed course and even today it continues to flow close to Sankara’s house in Kalady.

Fame of the young Sankara reached the king of Kerala, King Rajasekhara, who sent ministers with presents inviting Sankara to his court. The King was also a man of letters and exhibited valour in the battle field. Upon Sankara’s humble decline stating several responsibilities, the King himself stopped by to meet the divine boy. Sankara admired the literary talent of the King, blessed him and asked him to distribute the gifts that were brought for him to the needy.

Embracing Sanyasa

Sankara taught students Sanskrit language, literature and traditional scriptures. Aryamba was thinking Sankara would step in grhasthasrama as a next logical step in his life but Sankara had other plans. It is said that once four sages - Upamanyu, Dadhica, Gautam and Agastya visited Sankara’s home. Agastya muni reminded Aryamba of what fait awaited Sankara at the age of sixteen. The Sages consoled her and granted equal number of years extending the life of Sankara and left. The mother was no doubt distressed but her son remained unperturbed. He explained to his mother that he wanted to step into the fourth ashram, Sannyasa, directly in order to liberate himself from the repeating cycle of samsara. The Sages had made clear the limited time available with Sankara and he understood that he couldn’t waste time. He on other hand couldn’t reject the request of his mother and did not press the point to his mother. He calmed her down and life went on as before.

One day Sankara went for a bath in the river Poorna when a crocodile caught his leg and dragged him deeper in to the water. Sankara at that moment cried out to his mother who was standing on the bank of the river to allow him to take Sannyasa as he was going into the jaws of death. No sooner did the helpless mother grant her permission, he chanted ‘samnyastoham’ (I have renounced) three times. The crocodile immediately let him go and Sankara swam back to his mother.

Figure: Painting depicting the crocodile incidence in AdiSankara’s life
Figure: Actual notice board at the site in Kalady

This incident is sometimes also explained as a metaphor where the river stands for samsara, the crocodile is maya and sannyasa or renunciation is the way to escape from the jaws of the crocodile.

Aryamba granted permission to Sankara to progress as a samnyasin with only one condition that Sankara should reach by her side if she is ill or on the death bed. Promising to keep his word, Sankara now started preparing for his departure from Kalady. The Krishna temple where his mother prayed everyday was right on the bank of the river which was eroding the walls of the temple and making it an unsafe during floods. Sankara relocated the Krishna murti in another temple away from the river which still exists in Kalady. It is said that Lord Acyuta in Sankara’s dream directed him to go to Sri Govindapada Acharya in Omkaranath. It is believed that this is when Sankara composed the Acyuta Astakam.

Seeking blessings from his mother and leaving his mother in the loving care of relatives, Sankara proceeded his journey in search of his Guru.

In Search of a Guru

The young samnyasin, just eight years old, dressed in Kasaya and holding a staff started walking all alone northwards towards Omkaranath situated on the banks of river Narmada in pursuit of his teacher. He continued his morning & evening prayers during his journey. He would seek bhiksa at noon and rest under a tree or in a temple or in pilgrims’ shelter. Further details of his travels to meet his Guru are described under the Travels section in this site.