Few people have changed the face of a country the way Adi Shankaracharya did. Shankara, as he is popularly referred to, appeared on the scene in India at a time when moral chaos had taken over the country. People had lost themselves in the grammar of the scriptures and ignored their message.
They had stuck to the rituals but forgotten the significance. In his brief but brilliant life of 32 years, Shankara came and transformed people’s perception of the Vedas from that of meaningless words to a living, vibrant philosophy that is Vedanta.
Born circa 8th century A.D., Adi Shankaracharya was the only son of a devout brahmin couple, Sivaguru and Aryamba. He grew up in a hamlet in Kerala called Kaladi. The couple, childless for a long time, had prayed for a child at the Vrishabhachaleswara temple near Trichur, Kerala. It is said that Lord Shiva appeared in the couple’s dream and promised them a brilliant son who would be short-lived or many sons who would be mediocre at best. The couple chose to have a brilliant son who would be short-lived and so Shankara was born.
So great was Shankara’s thirst for the Truth that he took sannyasa when he was eight years old. By age 16, he had not only mastered but also written commentaries on the Upanishads, Bhagavad-Gita and other prominent Vedic texts. These commentaries known as bhashyas stand at the pinnacle of Indian philosophical writing.
Having completed his study under his guru Govinda Bhagavatpada, a prominent disciple of Goudapada who wrote the Mandukya Karikas, Shankara traveled to various holy places in India. He was actively involved in debates with leaders from other schools of thought to clarify the message of the Vedas. These debates won him disciples and followers wherever he went.
Shankara traveled the length and breadth of the country many times with his disciples. He destroyed the false notions of religion and spirituality that people had come to believe and enlightened the nation with his insightful analyses and logic. Shankara established mathas, monasteries, in the four corners of India to carry forward the wisdom of the Vedas. Sringeri in South India, Puri in the east, Dwarka in the west and Badri in North India. These mathas exist even today as proof of the invaluable contribution Shankara made to Indian culture.
Adi Shankaracharya strengthened the edifice of Indian culture by his scientific and rational exposition of Upanishad philosophy. He presented the timeless truths of Vedanta so that every man, woman and child would appreciate and live its high values. His contribution to Indian philosophy, in fact humanity, is so great and lasting that all the later philosophers have only tried to refute or elucidate his ideas. All over the world, Indian philosophy has come to be identified with the Vedanta that Adi Shankaracharya spoke of. He symbolizes the great rishi-culture, prevalent in India, whose foremost exponent he was.
The message of Adi Shankaracharya is a message of hope, truth and love. Through his life, Shankara taught us to live by the Truth. And today, many years after him, his life remains an inspiration not only for generations of Indians but to generations of people all over the world.
To read about one of his most prominent works, Bhaja Govindam, go to our e-learning module, E-Shiksha.