The era preceding Adi Shankaracharya’s birth was one filled with political and cultural instability. It was a time of religious chaos and confusion. Belief in Sanatana Dharma, the Vedas and Upanishads was declining. It was a time of cultural and social change where the ideas and doctrines of Buddhism and other religions such as Jainism had taken root. Even within Hinduism, numerous cults and sects had sprung up and there was constant infighting among them.
It was very common to hear open criticism of the Vedas. Questions were raised about the validity of the knowledge and the relevance to the day and age. Some even went to the extent of declaring it to be nothing more than a fraudulent means of livelihood for a few.
Hindu society had come to be totally disunited and broken up into a numberless sects and denominations each championing a narrow viewpoint and claiming it to be the only truth and endlessly quarrelling with all other viewpoints. The country was divided into a number of principalities which had very little in common between them. There were literalists and ritualists, on the one hand, who held to the letter of the scriptures missing their message, while on the other, there were powerful nihilists who were ready to tear and destroy all that was sacred and ancient. Clinging to narrow conceptions of Godhood and swayed by fanaticism they used religion as a weapon of aggression instead of finding in it a solace of life.
Such was the disdain for rituals that even the very mention of “Yajnas” were looked down upon. Seekers of knowledge taking sanyas were frowned upon. On the other hand, Tantric and other ritualistic practices were becoming increasingly popular. Sects like Kapalikas who offered human sacrifices to their deities were becoming powerful. There are several other perverse forms of worship, too, that were becoming prevalent in the world. Harmful effect of these degraded practices were getting spread everywhere.
The intellectual dominance of certain segments had divided the society considerably. Atheistic views had arisen that rejected Hinduism and Vedic traditions. At the intellectual level, the philosophy of the Vedas were being discarded and dismissed, and at the level of daily living all forms of rituals, big and small, were frowned upon and slowly their practice were also getting abandoned in the society.
Though still there were people who were devotees of Hindu Gods such as Vishnu and Shiva, they had to reconcile their faith in the Vedas and rituals. Even simple acts like performing ‘Sandhyas” were slowly getting dropped or diluted.With each passing day it was difficult to hold on to their values and teachings even as the fabric in the society was changing fast, decreasing the space for the people to continue their faith in letter and spirit.
Even Buddhism had started to decline. The rush of followers who embraced Buddhism could not truly live upto the noble ideals preached by the Buddha. It was past it’s heydey of freshness and purity. Slowly it had degenerated into innumerable philosophical schools, each happy to be in their own bastion following their own rules and unique ways.
Thus the society was infested with heinous practices which were given religious sanction by the culturally decayed populace. The land had no religious master who commanded any respect, the population was drifting without a goal or even a direction. Various sects and cults each championing it’s own narrow view point to the exclusion of all others only created confusion and stagnation. Squabbles, dissensions and corruption prevailed in the name of religion.
It was in these circumstances that Sri Adi Shankaracharya was born. The dilution of knowledge of the scriptures, active replacement of the true knowledge with false dogmas and interpretations, rise of other religions that had rejected the Vedas and were hostile to it - all meant that Sanatana Dharma was fading away as the predominant religion of the land and with each passing day and was being replaced by other variations that were not rooted in correct knowledge and would only lead the followers on a downhill in the path of spiritual evolution.
t was into such an age of fuming confusion, chaotic intellectual anarchy and social decadence that Bhagwan Sri Adi Sankara was born to destroy the wicked and crooked ways of thinking, re-establish the Sanatana Dharma, and impart to it the life giving philosophy of the Non-Dual Brahman of the Upanishads.
It is believed that the prevailing situation of cultural and spiritual degeneration prompted the Devas to approach Lord Shiva for help. The Lord agreed to take a human form in order to reestablish Dharma and preserve the rich heritage of Vedantic traditions and philosophy. Adi Shankaracharya is considered to be the avatar (reincarnation) taken by Lord Shiva himself for the purpose of spiritual awakening of the masses.
The Lord, apparently, instructed the Devas to also take human births to assist him in his mission. Lord Vishnu incarnated as Sage Sankarshana and Adi Sesha incarnated as Sage Patanjali to protect the meditative aspects of the Vedas. They produced texts on Bhakti and Yoga respectively. The Lord sent his son, Karthikeya as Kumarila Bhatta to preserve the ritualistic sections of the Vedas.
There was a long line of Preceptors that preceded the avatara of Adi Shankaracharya which is as follows:
Adi sesha > Patanjali > Gauda pada > Govindapada > Adi shankara
In Hindu Mythology, Adi Shesha is the thousand headed serpent who serves Lord Vishnu. He is depicted as the bed on which the Lord rests in yoga nidra. Adi Sesha was very keen to see and learn the Tandava or cosmic dance of Lord Shiva. When this desire was expressed to Lord Shiva, He instructed Adi Sesha to go down to earth as Patanjali to a place called Vyagrapuram (where the Lord would perform the cosmic dance). He was instructed to take a human form to give the people the knowledge of yoga. Thus, Adi Shesha incarnated as Patanjali.
Patanjali authored three famous works containing knowledge to purify the mind (yoga sutra), speech (Maha Bhasya - commentary on grammar) and body (Charaka – Ayurvedic medicine).
The legend goes that thousand students came to him for lessons in grammar. Patanjali thought it would be difficult for him to teach and clear the doubts of so many with just one mouth. So he assumed his original form as Adi Shesha with the thousand heads. However, just seeing him or coming into contact with his poisonous breath would have reduced the students to ashes. Hence, he decided to teach from behind a screen. This posed another problem of students “bunking” when the teacher was not visible! Hence, he ordered that if any student were to leave the hall without his permission, he would become a Brahma - rakshasa. He also prohibited them from looking in.
It is believed one student was not able to understand the teachings and slipped outside the hall for a while. Meanwhile, another curious student lifted the screen to peer inside. The sight of Adi Sesha and the poisonous air apparently, destroyed all the nine hundred and ninety nine students present much to the sorrow of Adi Sesha. However, he was happy that at least the lone student who had slipped out had survived. Adi Sesha bestowed all his grace and knowledge on the student. But, since the student had disobeyed and broken the rule he had to necessarily take on the form of a Brahma – rakshasa. This student was Goudapada – the one who belonged to the Gouda country.
After becoming a Brahma – rakshasa, Gauda sat atop the Ashvattha tree (sacred fig tree) on the Narmada river. He would catch Brahmin scholars learned in Vedas. He would ask them, questions about grammar. If they were unable to answer, he would beat them to death. One day, a Brahmin boy came by. Gauda asked him the usual questions. But to his surprise and pleasure, the boy could answer them correctly. Gauda chose him as his disciple to impart all the knowledge his teacher had taught him. He ordered the boy to not leave the tree and not sleep until he finished teaching. The boy apparently, went without food or sleep for nine days. He wrote all that was taught on leaves by making a cut on his thigh and dipping a twig from a branch in his blood. It is believed that that was the script studied even today as the Maha-bhasya. (the great commentary written by Patanjali). This boy was Chandra Swami who in his later years came to be called as Govinda Bhagavatpada. Chandra Sharma was also in reality an incarnation of Patanjali who came to release Gauda from his curse of being a Brahma - rakshsa. Thus, in effect, he was an incarnation of Adi Shesha himself. After Gauda was released from his curse, he went to Badrikashrama in the Himalayas in search of Sukhacharya who initiated him into sanyasa. He came to be known as Gaudapadacharya.
After learning everything from Gauda, Chandra Sharma came down from the tree. Exhausted due to lack of food and sleep for so many days, he set aside the bundle of leaves and went off to sleep. A goat came along and nibbled off a portion of the leaves. The missing portion of the Maha - bhasya came to be known as the Aja - bhakshita - bhasya . On waking up, he gathered the leaves and went on his way. He reached Ujjaini and laid down on the verandah of a house belonging to a Vaishya. He went into a deep sleep. The daughter of the Vaishya sensed he was a brilliant person. She took great care of him. When Chandra Sharma woke up after several days, the Vaishya insisted that he should marry the daughter as she saved his life. But Chandra Sharma had no desire to marry. The matter was taken to the King’s palace. The king saw Chandra Sharma and was so impressed with him that he wanted to marry off his daughter to him. He sought the minister’s advice. Now, when the minister met him, he too desired to marry off his daughter to Chandra Sharma. In the end, Chandra Sharma married all three of them. After living with them for awhile, they delivered a son each. Then, Chandra Sharma went in search of his teacher. At Badrikashrama, he took sanyasa from Gaudapadacharya and came to be known as Govinda Bhagavatpadacharya. Over there, he met Vyasa, who informed him that the Lord was going to take an avatar and Govindapadacharya was to initiate him into sanyasa. He was instructed to go to the banks of Narmada river and wait under the Ashvattha Tree. It was there that Govinda meditated waiting for the arrival of his disciple – Adi Shankara!
Adi Shankara is widely regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of all times. He is credited with reviving and nurturing Hinduism and Vedanta especially in times of religious and cultural chaos and conflict. His writings and discussions, prose and poetry have been reasonably preserved in literature through the years. Yet, there is little reliable documentation that fully brings forth a detailed personal life sketch or an insight into the subtle aspects of his wonderful personality.
Main sources of information have been the Acharya’s Bhashyas, Prakarana Granthas, stotras, Shankaravijayas and the works of his disciples. Varied versions of his life and achievements have apparently been passed on over the years. There are discrepancies about significant biographical and chronological details.
Some brief highlights of the disputed facts have been elucidated below:
There are controversial variations and inconclusive views specifically regarding:
Thus, there are contradicting beliefs regarding Adi Shankara’s birth and death that go back and forth. It spans from 6th century B.C to 8th century A.D, ranging across almost 1300 years. However, it is perhaps apt and for a reason. One of the most precious teachings and works of Adi Shankara is “Brahma satyam, jagan mithya”. He spoke of the unity of the individual soul with the universal oneness. In that context, there is no beginning and no end. To quote from “Atmatirtham” by Sri Ramanacharana Tirtha and Nochur Venkataraman, “Bhagwan Shankaracharya is ever the unborn Brahman!”