Shankaracharya: The Adi Guru

Only once in several centuries does a man walk this earth who stirs an entire people from spiritual slumber. Sri Adi Shankaracharya, a young man from Kerala, was undoubtedly one such giant, who cut the dogma and brought nearer the divine.

Shankaracharya: The Adi Guru

Only once in several centuries does a man walk this earth who stirs an entire people from spiritual slumber. Sri Adi Shankaracharya, a young man from Kerala, was undoubtedly one such giant, who cut dogma and brought nearer the divine.

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At an extremely young age, he left his home town to reinvigorate Hinduism across the length and breadth of this historic land. Much ahead of his times, and despite facing severe opposition, he cleared webs of obdurate rites and caste system to infuse fresh life into the meaning of religion by spreading the message of Vedanta. A visionary that he was, Shankaracharya understood how the subcontinent was essentially one entity at a time when it was fragmented into different kingdoms. Traversing across the country, he set up peethas(spiritual seats) in the North, South, East and West thereby establishing the causal unity of Hinduism despite its various sects and customs. Recognized as the first or the primeval Guru of this Yuga(epoch), Shankaracharya passed on at the early age of 32. While there is no confirmed theory of how he finally wound up his journey on earth, he left a message in his death as in his life. Of the possibility that human life holds. Here are some interesting episodes from the life of Adi Shankaracharya (Around 788 and 820 A.D):


The Initiation

When Shankara was a little boy he would often goad his mother, Aryamba, to let him leave his coastal hometown of Kalati in Kerala to pursue his calling as an ascetic. A single parent that she was, her attachment for her only child would not allow her to give him the permission. Now, one day it so happened that Shankara was bathing in the river Poorna. A crocodile caught his leg and began to pull him into the river. However hard he tried, there was no escaping the ferocious creature. His mother stood helpless on the bank seeing her only child fading away from her life. The young boy, on his part, called out to his mother from that precarious position seeking permission to take up Sanyasa (Renunciation), so that he could fulfill his long held dream at a time when he was facing death. The mother had no choice but to give consent, as it looked like she would lose him any which way. Miraculously, immediately after his mother agreed, the crocodile left young Shankara and swam away. It is believed that the crocodile actually represented samasara(the transient world).

Advaita unveiled

Once in Kashi, Shankara was on his way from the river after bathing when he encountered a man who was thought to be an untouchable. Shankara immediately asked him to clear the way, only to hear a startling retort. The man said, "To which are you referring as untouchable, this body or the Self? Is not this body also made of dust in the same way as your body? Does the Self ever get polluted? And how can the Self which is present everywhere keep itself at a distance? Is there any difference between you and me the way it has pervaded?" The reply broke the illusion of duality which Shankara experienced for but a moment. He immediately prostrated in front the pariah for dispelling the set notions of the prevalent caste system. 

The First Disciples

One Vishnu Sharma in Kashi implored to Shankaracharya with great devotion. "I wish to be freed from the bondage of worldly life, please show me the way." Shankara accepted him as his first disciple and called him Padmapadacharya. In the city of Mahishmati, Shankara invited Mandana Mishra, an outstanding scholar, for a debate on Vedanta. The condition was that the loser would accept being the disciple of the winner. Ubhaya Bharat, the wife of Mandana Mishra, and a great intellect in her own right agreed to become the judge. Both contestants displayed stupendous acumen, as they engaged each other in a verbal duel for several days. Mandana Mishra at last accepted defeat and became the disciple of Shankaracharya. He came to be known as Sureshwaracharya and rendered great service in expounding Vedanta. The incident also highlighted Shankaracharya’s views on gender equality, as he agreed to have a woman preside over a crucial contest. It showed that he cared for merit alone, and not whether the person concerned was a man or a woman.

A dumb boy speaks

Once a couple brought their dumb son to meet Shankaracharya. Immediately he sensed that while the boy looked dull, he was in reality a great sage. So rather than asking his parents about their child’s condition, Shankara addressed him directly, "Who are you, my boy?" Having met his spiritual master, the mystic broke his silence, "I am the eternal self and not dead matter." This was the simplest form of expressing the nature of the self. The youth then became a disciple of Shankaracharya and was named Hastamalaka.


The true worth of a student

Only an expert jeweller knows the value of a real diamond, even if it is wrapped in layers of dust or is not chiseled. As Shankaracharya stayed in Shringeri teaching several students, one of his pupils named Giri, was always poked fun of by the others, who completely under rated him. Giri on the other hand was not just brilliant, but also extremely humble and did not believe in the open display of his merit, as he felt that it was sufficient that his teacher knew of his calibre. One day, when Giri was late for a lecture, Shankaracharya wanted to wait till he came. Most students just jeered, saying he would not be able to comprehend the lessons anyway. Hurt at their conceit, the Shankaracharya thought time was ripe to inaugurate Giri’s eminence. The moment Giri arrived, the Acharya asked him to give a discourse on the Self and its nature. Much to the awe of the class, Giri expounded the gist of Vedanta in Trotaka Vritta, a highly complicated metrical form. Ashamed at their folly, the students apologised to both their teacher and Giri. Shankaracharya then accepted Giri as his fourth principal disciple and called him "Trotakacharya".

The unconventional monk

When the young Shankara had left Kalati, he had promised his mother that he would return in her last days. When the time came and his mother’s end approached, Shankaracharya offered ‘Shiva Bhujanga Stotra’ and ‘Vishnu Stotra’ and returned to his native town to pray that she might die peacefully and attain heavenly abode. This was extremely atypical, as once a man adorns ochre clothing, it means he has burnt all ties with his past and has taken a new birth. He is therefore not allowed to acknowledge any previous relations. The people of Kalati felt that Shankaracharya had corrupted the tradition and so they boycotted the funeral. Not a single person from the village came forward to help. With great difficulty, Shankaracharya had to carry his mother’s body to the backyard of their house and light her pyre. Though ostracized by the society for doing so, Shankaracharya kept true his word to his mother.

(Today is Adi Shankaracharya Jayanthi)

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