“I bow down to Shri Bhagavadpada, in whom abides the essence of the eternal truth contained in the Shruti, traditions and Puranas, who is an ocean of compassion and an inexhaustible mine of the highest good of humanity.” (Sureshvara Acharya)
To give a brief account of the life of Shri Shankara, as we attempt here, is far from easy. The great Acharyas of the past have written at length of his splendid achievements but their biographies include many legends and are therefore unsuitable for modern times. We have no inscription to indicate the date of his birth or the main incidents of his life, and no contemporary writer has left us his impression of this divine teacher. The monasteries founded by Shri Shankara – notably the four main monasteries of Govardhana at Puri on the Bay of Bengal, Sharada at Dwaraka on the Indian Ocean, Jyotir deep in the Himalayas, and Shringeri in Mysore, at the four corners of India – have no common traditions in regard to his parentage, birthplace and date of birth.
There is a work by Madhava Acharya which follows the traditions of the Shringeri monastery and another work by Anandagiri, but these contain many legends and cannot be taken as historically reliable.
The ancient classic Shankara Dig Vijaya (The conquest of the intellectual world by Shri Shankara) and other biographies left by the Acharyas of the past also refer to certain wonderful events in his life. For instance, he is said to have diverted a river near his home village in order to save his old mother, to whom he was greatly attached, from having to walk a long distance for her morning ablutions. It is also told how he entered the dead body of a king in order to gain some experience of the worldly life and refute an opponent who was challenging him on the point. Although many people take such incidents as historical, it is unnecessary to do so in our opinion. At the same time it would be as much a mark of prejudice uncritically to sweep aside all such stories as fictions.
As already mentioned, there is no certainty as to the date of Shri Shankara’s birth, and the Acharya has nowhere mentioned in his works the date of their composition. Eastern and Western scholars who have investigated the available sources have made widely varying conjectures ranging from the 6th century B.C. to the eighth century A.D. It seems certain therefore that the holy Acharya wrote his great classics before the middle of the ninth century of the Christian era. In the section on dialectics (tarkapada) in his great commentary on the second chapter of the Brahma Sutras, Shri Shankara mentions the names of several Buddhist Acharyas who must have preceded him but no firm dates can be assigned to them.
Estimates by various investigators of the time when Shri Shankara flourished are:-
Colebrooke – 9th century A. D.
Taylor – 9th century A. D
Wilson – 9th century A. D.
McKenzie – 5th century A. D
Max Mueller – 7th century A.D.
Tilak – 8th century A.D.
According to the records of the Kamakoti monastery at Kanchi, the holy Acharya was born in 509 B.C. and lived for 32 years. The records of the great monastery at Dwaraka state that he was born in the fifth century B.C. An ancient work called Karalokapati says that he was born in 400 B.C. and lived for 38 years. Many present day scholars believe that Shri Shankara was born in 788 A.D. but there may be some confusion owing to the fact that the heads of the great monasteries were all known as Shri Shankara, and according to the monastery records this date coincides with the date of a later Shankara who was a contemporary of King Vinayaditya of Kashmir.
Index for The Life of Shri Shankara: