Sri Padmapadacharya was the first disciple of Sri Sankara. He hailed from the Chola kingdom (Current day Tamil Nadu) where the river Kaveri flows. Right from his childhood days he was very spiritually inclined and thirst to learn was very strong. Quite early in his life he left his home and went in search of a Guru.
Meanwhile Sri Sankara after receiving instructions from his Guru had moved to Kashi to commence writing Bhashyas on the Gita and the Upanishads. During his stay he started giving discourses on Vedanta by the banks of the river. This is where the young Brahmana from the south met the Acharya and intuitively recognized him as his Guru.
Being full of the spirit of renunciation and free from the bondage of a home and a spouse, he came to the Acharya and fell at his feet, recognising in him a seaworthy boat of a Guru• that could help him cross this t,urbulent ocean of Samsara. Raising up the prostrating devotee, the Acharya said: "Who are you? Where do you come from.? What is the purpose that emboldens you to approach me thus? Though you are young in years, you seem to be old in wisdom. Though alone, you seem to have the boldness of a crowd." The wise newcomer said in reply: "I am a Brahmana belonging to the Chola country where flows the great river Kaveri, whose waters have got the unique power of producing devotion in the minds of men Who drink of it. I am going round the country to meet men of spiritual illumination, and in the course of my travels, arrived here recently.” Introducing himself thus he pleaded with the Acharya to take him as his disciple.
The Acharya accepted him as his student and initiated him into Sanyas and named him Sanandana.
During his poorvashrama days Sri Padmapada performed severe upasana of Lord Narsimha. For many months he mediated upon this form of the Lord with the desire of seeing him. He would spend hours in the forest meditating upon him. This was noticed by a hunter who one day approached him and asked him what is it that he was looking for. The innocent hunter said he knew the forest very well and could help him find whatever he was looking for.
Though the Brahmana was quite amused, yet he said he was meditating upon Narsimha and wanted to see him and told the hunter he wouldn’t be able to find him.
The hunter was not the one to give up. He said he had not heard of any such animal in the forest and asked the Brahmana to describe how Narsimha looked. The Brahmana described him as someone with the body of a man with a face of a Lion. The hunter was even more intrigued. He said he had never seen any such creature and yet he said if this animal is in the forest, I will capture it for you. So saying he left and the Brahmana continued with his daily routine.
After a few days the hunter returned holding a rope in his hand and the other end of which was as though tied to something but nothing was visible. Sounds of a lion roaring could be heard. He told victoriously to the Brahmana “Look I have caught your Narsimha”. Though nothing was seen, he could sense the movements and heard the roars and intuitively realized that the innocent and pure hearted hunter had indeed seen the Lord Narsimha and brought him there.
Shedding tears of joy and at the same time very confused he wondered“How is it that I have been performing daily Upasana of the Lord and meditating in the forest and yet not got the darshan of the Lord, but the hunter with his crude skills was able to see him”.
The Lord answered him thus. “After hearing about me from you the hunter has only and only been looking for me. Without taking any break for either sleep or food or rest or even to take bath, the hunter has been single pointedly looking for me alone. Nothing else in the world mattered to him and he was ever looking out for me alone. For his intense devotion and single pointedness he obtained this divine darshan. However though you have been regular in your meditation for many years, it was not continuous and you spent time and attention on daily chores and that is the reason the hunter saw me first”
Continuing to speak in a loving tone the Lord further said “ Do not be disheartened, I will appear in front of you when a special need arises”.
This later comes true when the Lord appears in his fierce form to save Sri Sankara from the evil Kapalika. This incidence is described here.
After Sri Sankara wrote the Bhasyas he started to teach them to sincere seekers and his disciples Among his disciples, to all of whom he was equally dear, some like Sanandana attained to great prominence because of their inherent worth. Sanandana rose in wise men's estimation because of his very austere life, his devotion to study and his capacity to understand the subtleties of philosophic thought. Moved by deep affection for that devoted disciple, he taught him his commentaries three times, revealing the highest truth of the Vedas. This made the other disciples rather jealous of him. So, in order to convince them of his inherent superiority, Sankara one day called that disciple, who was then standing on the opposite bank of the Ganga, to come to him immediately. Thereupon, when he stepped into the Ganga with the conviction that devotion to the feet of the Guru, which had enabled him to go across the ocean of Samsara, would surely notfail him in crossing this river, the holy Ganga brought out lotuses to support him wherever he placed his feet on her waters. When at last he reached his teacher after crossing the river in this incredible manner, Sankara clasped him to his breast with overwhelming love and wonder, and gave him the name of Padmapada, the lotus-footed one.
Padmapadacharya produced his famous work called Panchapadika. Owing to certain incidences a major portion of his work was completely lost. By the grace of his Guru the first five chapters are now available. (This incidence is described here) Padmapadacharya went on to become the first head of the Shankara Mutt of Puri