The life and work of Adi Shankaracharya

Updated: May 26, 2021

More than 2500 years ago a 8-year-old boy renounced the world to spread the knowledge of divine and reignite, rejuvenate the bickering spirit in a land that is the mother of all civilizations on this Earth. He lived only for 32 years, but during his brief span of life, he accomplished so much that one person could not accomplish even in 100 lifetimes. To this day the foundation laid by this great soul has been a guiding force of the Hindu civilization. Even modern thinkers and scholars have paid eulogistic tributes to his genius and work. Today marks the 1233 rd Birth Anniversary of that intellectual giant whose name is “Adishankaracharya”. So, who is he and what was his contribution to this world? To know more about it one must go back to 2500 years in time and understand the context that India was in. India the land of Vedas has already reached its zenith in its civilizational context and the Hindu civilization was undergoing a transformation phase. This has brought about a significant change in the matters related to ritualistic practices in the Hindu civilization (the source of which are Vedas). An avalanche of heretic and non-Vedic sects, with horrible religious practices threatened to wipe away the ancient Veda-Dharma (Hinduism) resulting in disorientation in the society. From Kings to folklore were disillusioned owing to lack of orientation from the scholars and stalwarts of different ancient Hindu or dharmic scriptures.


Unlike monotheistic religions, Hinduism has different schools of thoughts regarding how this world came to existence (explained in the Vedas). Explaining all of them in this article is out of scope. However, it is important to discuss the two primary schools of thoughts that continued to exist in Bharath (India) for a millennia and had its influence on every walk of life of Hindu to this day. They are namely Dvaita ( dualism) and Advaita (non dualism or monism) Vedanta. These are two important schools that discusses in detail the dualism and non-dualism. Adi Shankara’s works are the foundation of Advaita Vedanta School of Hinduism. The world famous Hindu saints like Ramana Maharshi, Rama Krishna Paramhans, Swami Vivekananda, Swami Rama Thirtha, Swami Shavananda, Swami Chinmayananda and Swami Dayananda are influenced by Adi Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta. So, what is Advaita Vedanta after all?

Source: Artistic depiction of Adi Shankaracharya by 19th Century painter Raja Ravi Varma


Advaita Vedanta

Advaita Vedānta (Sanskrit: अद्वैत वेदान्त, IAST: Advaita Vedānta, literally, "non-duality") is a school of Hindu philosophy and is a classic system of spiritual realization in Indian tradition. It regards the phenomenal world as mere illusory appearance of plurality, experienced through the sense-impressions by ignorance (avidya), an illusion superimposed (adhyāsa) on the sole reality of Brahman.

Life of Shankaracharya

Adishankara was born as a Shankara on fifth day of the bright fortnight of the Vaisaka month of the cyclic year Nandana in cyclic year Nandana - Kali 2593 (corresponding to 509 B.C) in a small village named Kalady in a nambutri brahmin community at a village called as Kaladi in Kerala. He was gifted with sharp intellect and remarkable memory. After studying at Gurukula (Hindu schooling system) for two years where he mastered all Vedas and other scriptures he returned home with a grand vison of life. He convinced his mother to let him become a sanyasi. After taking Sanyasic vows he went in search of a Guru and reached the ashram of Sri Govind Bhagawadpath where he stayed for three years after which he was conferred the title of “Acharya” by his Guru at the age of 11. Upon the instruction of his Guru he travelled to Varanasi, which is an important center of learning to this day. From there, he proceeded to Prayagraj where he met Kumarila Bhatt the champion of purva mimansa school of thought. In Bihar he defeated Mundana Misra and his wife Bharati who was a follower of Karma mimansa school of philosophy in a debate and converted them to his views. Mundan Misra became disciple of Shankaracharya and later on became the first head of Sringeri Mutt (Spiritual centers heded by a Hindu spiritual Guru belonging to the Advaita order) which is the first Mutt established by Shankaracharya. He met his mother one last time and performed her last rites after she passed away. After making necessary arrangements in establishing many Mutts in south of India (Puri, Kanchi) he travelled north of India. En route he visited Ujjain and established a Mutts at Dwaraka (Western India), Jyotir mutt in Uttarakand (North India). He toured extensively in the Kashmir region establishing another Mutt in the region and proceeded to Kedarnath where he is believed to have left his mortal body on Cyclic year Raktakshi, Adhika Rishabha Maasa, Sukla Ekadasi - Kali 2625 (corresponding to 477 B.C.).


Sacred Geography that Shankaracharya traversed. (Source: kamakoti.org)


He advocated the supremacy and authority of Vedas over all other scriptures. He is a master composer of Stotras (Hymns) in praise of numerous Hindu gods. In a short time that Adi shankara lived, he established his mutts (Spiritual centers) on four corners of India each taking care of one of the four Vedas – one at Sringeri in the south, another at Badarinath in the north, third at Dwarka in the west and fourth at Puri in the east. They were quite strategically placed – to make sure that Hinduism can be managed and survived in parts of Bharath. This considered as a sacred geography of India by Hindus as it covers the important political and geographical frontier parts of India. This was sheer brilliance. Thus 2500 years of unbroken lineage is achieved in all mutts. Shankara was not merely a theoretician but a very practical and excellent organizer. He systematized the order of sanyasis by reintroducing dashanami sampradaya (– tirtha, holy place; ashrama, retreat; vana, forest; aranya, forest; giri, mountain; parvata, mountain; sagara, ocean; Sarasvati, the name of a river, also of the goddess of learning; Bharati, goddess of learning and puri, city). To this day the institutions established by him inspired and reignited the Hindu minds whenever there was a morass of moral corruption and degeneration. The sanyasis of the above orders exists till date. The sanyasis of belonging to different orders established by Shankara travel the length and breadth of countries bringing about cultural and spiritual awakening among the masses not just in India but in entire world.


Author: Kiran Kishore Gandikota


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