The timeline of Adi Sankaracharya

1. Context

Adi Sankara commands a towering presence in the pantheon of divine and corporeal philosophers who have graced the ancient land of India. In his short lifespan of 32 years, the precociously gifted and zealously motivated teacher (Acharya) developed his unique philosophy (Darshana) of Advaita Vedanta,1 penned edifying commentaries2 on the three crown-jewels of Vedic philosophy (the Upanishads, the Vedanta Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita – collectively called the Prasthana-traya), composed numerous original works of literature,3 traversed the length and breadth of India challenging and defeating scholars subscribing to competing Darshanas (thereby establishing Advaita Vedanta as the pre-eminent philosophy of India) and instituted schools of learning to propagate Advaita Vedanta across the country. The crux of Adi Sankaracharya’s Advaita Vedanta can be succinctly summarized in his own words below:

श्लोकार्घेन प्रवक्ष्यामि यदुक्तं ग्रन्थकोटिभिः।
ब्रह्म सत्यं जगन्मिथ्या जीवो ब्रह्मैव नापरः।

I expound in half a verse, what has been spoken of in a million texts: Brahman is the true reality and the world is a misunderstanding of this truth; the Jiva (soul) is no different from Brahman.

While Adi Sankaracharya’s life and exploits (Sankara-Vijayas) have been chronicled by his disciples and adherents, the timeframe in which the Jagat-guru (teacher of the world) lived is still a conundrum. Modern historians state that Adi Sankaracharya was born in 788 CE in Kaladi (Kerala) and passed away in 820 CE in Kedarnath (Uttarakhand), while Indian tradition – derived from the Sankara-Vijayas below – reckons a far more ancient chronology:

  • The Sankara-Vijaya of Sri Chitsukhacharya (one of the direct disciples and co-students of Adi Sankaracharya), known under the name of Brihat Sankara-Vijaya
  • The Sankara-Vijaya of Anandagiri (the well-known commentator of the Bhashyas and Vartikas of Adi Sankaracharya and Suresvara), known under the name of Prachina Sankara-Vijaya
  • The Sankara-Vijaya of VidyaSankara or Sankarananda (the author of Atma Purana and of the Dipikas on the Upanishads, Bhagavadgita and Brahmasutras), known under the name of Vyasachaliya
  • The Sankara-Vijaya of Govindanatha (one of the Pandits of Kerala), known under the name of Acharya-Charita or Keraliya Sankara-Vijaya
  • The Sankara-Vijaya of Chudamani Dikshita (the author of many Sanskrit poems and dramas), known under the name of Sankarabhyudaya
  • The Sankara-Vijaya of Ananta-anandagiri known under the name of Guru Vijaya or Acharya-Vijaya
  • The Sankara-Vijaya of Vallisahayakavi (one of the adherents of the Sringeri Matha), known under the name of Acharya Digvijaya
  • The Sankara-Vijaya of Sadananda (also an adherent of the Sringeri Matha), known under the name of Sankara Digvijaya Sara
  • The Sankara-Vijaya of Chidvilasa (also an adherent of the Sringeri Matha), known under the name of Sankara Vijaya Vilasa
  • The Sankara-Vijaya of Madhava Vidyaranya (also an adherent of the Sringeri Matha), known under the name of Samkshepa Sankara Vijaya

This article presents the traditional and modern chronologies for Adi Sankaracharya and encourages readers to develop their own conclusions as to when the Jagat-guru graced us with his presence.

The Milieu of Adi Sankaracharya Based on Indian Tradition

The Sankara-Vijayas listed above inform us that Adi Sankaracharya lived in a time when Buddhism, Jainism and six competing Darshanas of Vedic philosophy (see below) were vying for supremacy in India.

  • The Nyaya Darshana of Gautama
  • The Vaiseshika Darshana of Kanada
  • The Sankhya Darshana of Kapila
  • The Yoga Darshana of Patanjali
  • The Mimamsa Darshana of Jaimini, and
  • The Vedanta Darshana of Badarayana

Adi Sankaracharya’s chronology can be pieced together from the information that has been preserved on the latter three philosophers (and their adherents). In his magnum opus (Mahabhashya) on Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, Patanjali implies the fall of the Maurya dynasty to the Sunga dynasty4 and apparently provides an eye-witness account of Pushyamitra Sunga’s horse-sacrifice,5 which places Patanjali sometime after Pushyamitra’s coronation in 1400 BCE. Patanjali’s Mahabhashya was apparently known to the Kashmiri king Abhimanyu4 (who reigned prior to 1182 BCE6), which is consistent with Patanjali’s above timeline. Badarayana and Jaimini both quote Patanjali and each other,5 making them contemporaries and subsequent to Patanjali.

In his book ‘The Age of Sankara,’ T.S. Narayana Sastry says7 that Suka Yogindra revised and enlarged Badarayana’s Vedanta Sutras while Upavarsha (literally younger Varsha) wrote commentaries (Vrittis) on Badarayana’s Vedanta Sutras as well as on Jaimini’s Mimamsa Sutras. Suka Yogindra’s disciple was Gaudapada (who – as per an incredible legend – was also Patanjali’s disciple), whose disciple Govindacharya fathered four sons – Vikramaditya of Ujjayini, the grammarian Bhartrihari, Bhatti and Vararuchi. Adi Sankaracharya was this Govindacharya’s disciple.