In the far south of India is a district called Kevala, which includes Cocheen, Malabar and Trivankura; it is noted for the beauty of its scenery and for its advanced social condition. Lapped by the sea, the earth is covered with the glossy green of leaves and grass which charm the eye and fill the heart with peace. In this province is a village called Kalati and it is here that Shri Shankara was born. There are many Shiva temples in the neighbourhood and mountains with high peaks surround the little valley. No wonder that this charming spot has the honour of being the place where the holy Acharya first preached his doctrine.
Shri Shankara was born in a family of Nambudari Brahmins who followed the ritual side of the Vedic religion and were noted for their learning and upright conduct. His father, Shivaguru, was a Vedic scholar and teacher of the Shastras who had practised renunciation from his early childhood. His mother was the daughter of a pundit and her name was either Sati, according to Madhava, or Pishishta, according to Anandagiri. Shivaguru and Sati Devi were faithful devotees of Lord Shiva. They lived happily together, but as time went on they longed to have a son. Accordingly they devoted themselves to intense meditation, study and benevolence and performed their worship at the temple of Shiva which stands on the top of the hill called Brasha. Their devotion pleased Lord Shiva, and one night the Lord appeared before Shivaguru in the form of a Brahmin and asked him what he wanted. He replied; “Not the wealth of the world, my Lord.’ I want to be blessed with a son who may be a protector of dharma and keep the tradition of my family.” Shri Shiva said in reply; “If you desire a son endowed with omniscience and shining virtue, his span of life will he brief, hut if you desire a son who will live long, he will he of moderate attainments. Now consider well and make your choice.” Shivaguru answered; ‘’Lord, give me a son who may he omniscient,” His prayer was granted and on the fifth day of the rising moon in the month of Vaishakha the child Shankara was horn. The brilliance of his intellect and the charm of his personality marked out Shri Shankara as an exceptional child.
Before he was three years old, he learned to speak his native language very well. His father wished to initiate him in the study of the holy Sanskrit language, hut this wish remained unfulfilled during his lifetime since he died while Shri Shankara was yet a small child. The hoy was given the holy thread when five years old and was sent to a Guru to study the Vedas and the Shastras, His Guru was amazed at the intellectual “brilliance of his pupil and his deep penetration into the subtleties of the holy language. While Shri Shankara stayed in the family of his Guru, his tender heart became known to the people about him.
One day he went to the house of a poor widow for alms. The woman had nothing suitable to offer to the Brahmin, hut she respectfully handed him a tiny fruit. The heart of the little Shankara was, touched with compassion. He prayed for her to the goddess Lakshmi and very soon afterwards his prayer was answered and the woman received an anonymous gift sufficient to ensure that she lived comfortably.
Within two years Shri Shankara had finished his study of grammar, logic, rhetoric and literature, and he then returned home and began to instruct students in the Shastras, The King of Kevala, hearing of the brilliance of the child Shankara in the classical learning of India, sent one of his ministers with gold coins and other gifts inviting him to his palace, hut he accepted neither the King’s gifts nor his invitation; his vairagya was already so complete that he attached no importance to worldly honour or possessions. Subsequently the King, who was a noted poet, came to visit Shri Shankara in his poor home and recited some of his verses and sought his critical appreciation of them.
A man without filial love is only half a man. According to Confucius he can neither he a perfect friend, nor a good citizen. Shri Shankara was deeply devoted to his good mother. She too had only one object of love in this world and it was her son. When his mother consulted the family astrologer she learned to her dismay that her son was destined to have a short life. She therefore set her heart on his early marriage. But Shri Shankara s mind was on the spiritual world. He had no interest in family life, and against his mother’s wishes he decided to become a monk while still a child. At first he hesitated to voice his intention to his good mother knowing that she was exceedingly devoted to his good mother. She too had only one object of love in this world and it was her son. When his mother consulted the family astrologer she learned to her dismay that her son was destined to have a short life. She therefore set her heart on his early marriage. But Shri Shankara’s mind was on the spiritual world. He had no interest in family life, and against his mother’s wishes he decided to become a monk while still a child. At first he hesitated to voice his intention to his good mother knowing that she was exceedingly devoted to him and depended upon him for her support. For some time he allowed his mind to be entangled in this conflict. Finally, knowing that the spiritual realm had far more attraction for him than the worldly realm, he disclosed his resolve. The news hurt her grievously and she was reluctant to agree to his proposal.
One day both mother and son went to the river to bathe. The mother came out of the water and was praying on the river bank when her attention was distracted by the cries of her son who was still bathing in the water. She saw that he was being attacked by a crocodile which was about to devour him. Shri Shankara, thinking that the end of his life was at hand, asked his mother to let him enter the monastic state there and then, and she agreed. Meanwhile several stalwart fisher-folk had come from nearby to help the child and their efforts succeeded in driving the crocodile away. His mother rejoiced that her son had been saved from imminent death.
Thus in his eighth year Shri Shankara embraced the monastic order called sannyasa. With the intention of conforming to the ancient and traditional Shastric injunctions, he distributed his inheritance among his relatives and entrusted to them the support of his dear mother. Later on as she was dying, and in spite of his entry into the monastic order whose formal rules forbade it, he came to visit her and performed the last ceremony himself. A mother is revered as the holiest and highest object in the world. How could Shri Shankara cause distress to his mother by refusing her his service?