According to the records of the Kamakoti monastery at Kanchi, the holy Shankara Acharya was born in 509 B.C. and lived for 32 years

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:

Section 1
Section 2
Section 3
Section 4
Section 5
Section 6
Section 7
Section 8
Section 9
Section 10

In his eighth year Shri Shankara embraced the monastic order called sannyasa

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?

Index for The Life of Shri Shankara:

Section 1
Section 2
Section 3
Section 4
Section 5
Section 6
Section 7
Section 8
Section 9
Section 10

Shri Shankara encounters Shri Shiva himself

Shri Shankara started for the north of India in search of a God-knowing Guru. He had heard from his teacher, when he was studying grammar under him, that the holy Rishi Patanjali, author of the Mahabashya, had taken birth in the present age as Rishi Govindapada. This sage, a renowned scholar of the time, had been a pupil of the inspired teacher Gaudapada Acharya. According to some, Govindapada Acharya lived near Badrinath in the Himalayas, while others say that Shri Shankara discovered the holy man living in a cave on the bank of the sacred river Narmada.

Shri Shankara broke his journey at a peaceful spot rich in scenic beauty. Its atmosphere filled him with deep peace. He noticed little frogs jumping into the cool water of the pond and a black snake playing with them and protecting them with inflated hood if danger appeared. This sight astounded him and on enquiring he was told that this place was once the Ashrama of Shringa Rishi, a most pure and enlightened soul of ancient times. Shri Shankara was later to establish a monastic order and a seat of learning at the spot, which came to be known as the Shringeri Monastery.

Proceeding further he crossed high mountains and forded swift-flowing rivers. Nothing of spiritual value is obtained in the world without surmounting obstacles. He looked for the cave in which Govindapada Acharya lived and found it in a deep mountain valley; there he saw the holy Acharya in a state of samadhi. With joined palms and in an attitude of devotion, Shri Shankara sat down before the holy Rishi. At length Shri Govindanada interrupted his samadhi and, seeing Shri Shankara, at once recognised his purity, high intelligence and spirit of renunciation.

The Acharya then began to explain to him the truth of Advaita. Shri Shankara devoted in all three years to the study and practice of the philosophy, in which he became expert.

One day, as Shri Govindapada was merged in the contemplation of the truth of Advaita ( the identity of the individual self with the cosmic Self), the river Narmada came rushing down in tremendous flood. The other disciples of the Saint were greatly disturbed, as there appeared no way of averting the danger to their Guru’s life. Shri Shankara came to their help and by reciting a mantram saved the life of the holy Teacher.

All were struck with amazement at the spiritual power by which he had been able to control the rising flood. That evening Govindapada Acharya related an old tradition to his disciples, saying:
“Shri Vyasa once remarked that the holy man who would one day arrest the rising flood of the river Narmada would also give a true interpretation of my Sutras.”

He asked Shri Shankara to go to the sacred city of Kashi, the modern Benares, then as now the highest seat of learning, and to worship at the temple of Shri Vishvanath.

On arrival at Kashi, Shri Shankara took up residence in a small house near Manikarnika on the bank of the Ganges. In the morning he performed his spiritual duties and then went to worship at the temple of Vishvanath. He began to give instructions in Advaita Vedanta to those who came to listen. His extraordinary grasp of Vedanta and other systems of philosophy at the age of only twelve surprised the scholarly circles in the city. Here he commenced his great commentary on the Brahma Sutras which will ever remain a monument to his genius. This commentary was based on the teachings he had received from Shri Govindapada.

His fame as a mighty exponent of the philosophy of Adwaita attracted many pupils, the chief among whom was a man named Sanandana from the province of Chola. One afternoon Shri Shankara was on his way to the sacred stream with his pupils to perform his noon devotion when he met a dangerous-looking aboriginal accompanied by four terrible dogs. They impeded his way and he asked the man to let him pass.

The wild man rebuked Shri Shankara, saying:

“You are a teacher of Advaita and a Sannyasin (a monk) but your behaviour shows complete lack of understanding of Advaita. The whole world is pervaded by one and the same Sat-Chit-Ananda. Why do you ask me to go away? Where should I go? You think yourself to be a holy Brahmin and me a base untouchable. How different is your conduct from your precept.'”

The words of the wild man struck the holy Acharya with amazement. He said:

 “The one Consciousness called Vishnu pervades a saint as well as a worm or a moth. That Vishnu is my own Self; I offer salutation to Him whether He appears in the form of a wildman or a saint.”

He then sang a song of which the following stanza is well known:-

“This whole world movable and immovable is Brahman. It has been created in my imagination by the nescience of the three gunas. He whose mind is set firmly in the eternal, the transcendent, the ever pure, be he an aboriginal, or a Brahmin, he is really a Guru worthy of worship. This is my firm conviction.”

The wild man was in fact no other than Shri Shiva himself. Throwing away his disguise he said: “My child Shankara, I am pleased with you. I want to use you as an instrument to restore the pure religion of the Vedas throughout the world. You are competent to do so, my son. Remember that the ultimate aim of Vedanta is an exposition of Advaita Brahman. Go and propagate this holy truth everywhere. Whatever you do will be my work.”

Having said these words, Shri Shiva disappeared.

Index for The Life of Shri Shankara:

Section 1
Section 2
Section 3
Section 4
Section 5
Section 6
Section 7
Section 8
Section 9
Section 10

Shri Shankara decided to go to Mount Badrinath in the Himalayas to complete his commentary on the Brahma Sutras

Shri Shankara decided to go to Mount Badrinath in the Himalayas to complete his commentary on the Brahma Sutras. It was in a cave near the Mana glacier that Shri Vyasa had composed these Sutras. In the company of a Brahmachari named Sanandana and a few other close disciples he set out on his journey, keeping to the course of the river Ganges and worshipping at the holy places on his route. After staying a few days at Hardwar the small party continued on its way and came at last to Badrinath. Shri Shankara was dismayed to find that a form of worship called Tantra, which involved human sacrifice, was practised in these regions. By his influence he succeeded in dissuading the people from these foul practices, which were not based on the Vedas. Badrinath is a holy place surrounded by snow-capped Himalayan peaks; it is a part of heaven brought down to earth and no one can remain unmoved by its inspiring beauty. The present temple is of milk-white marble. It has a courtyard with a marble floor surrounded by high walls which can accommodate more than a thousand pilgrims as they gather there at dawn before the temple gates open. To the north is the great Mana glacier, and the two holy mountains called Nar and Narayana add to the incomparable beauty of the place called Badarika Ashrama. Here are the purest breezes from the border of Tibet and the sight of the lofty Mount Kamet and the glaciers lift the mind from the world to the infinity of bliss. Nowhere else can one experience such an atmosphere of bliss and peace as in Badrinath.

Shri Shankara was shocked to discover that the traditional image of Shri Vishnu was missing from the temple. The priests told him that during the terrible Chinese invasions the holy image had been deposited in the Ganges for safety but they had lost trace of the exact spot. The holy Acharya plunged into the Narada pond where the water is coldest, the current swiftest and the depth almost immeasurable. He dived deep and came up with the ancient image of Vishnu, Finding that an arm was missing he was not satisfied that it was the right image and threw it back into the river. Tradition holds that he threw the image of Shri Vishnu back into the water nine times, but each time he dived and secured the same image. The writer has visited this pool and bathed in it. It seems miraculous that any swimmer could dive to the bottom of this deep and swift flowing stream and come out alive. The holy image was finally installed in the temple by Shri Shankara: it is still there today and pilgrims are able to visit it for a few months of the year.

Shri Shankara realised that none of the local Brahmins were equipped to be priest of Badrinath temple, and he therefore appointed to this position a Brahmin of the Nambudari sect from his own birthplace. The same tradition continues to this day, and the writer has described elsewhere his interview some forty years ago with the then Shankara Acharya. Some twenty miles lower down the holy Acharya established a winter residence for the monks which today is known as Joshimath. The writer spent a few days at Joshimath and had the privilege of examining the ancient library. Shri Shankara came to Vyasa Ashrama near Mana village at the opening of the mighty glacier which is described in the writer’s memoirs. When the writer visited this holy and spacious cave, he had an experience of peace and upliftment which has coloured his life ever since: had it not been for the desire to follow in the steps of the great Shankara and preach Adwaita for the good of the world, he would never have sought to come down again to the plains. The cave is near the picturesque confluence of the Alakananda and the Keshava Ganga and not far from Badarika Ashrama. It is said that when Shri Vyasa composed the Mahabharata there, Shri Ganesha wrote it down. Shri Shankara made this cave his ashrama and lived there four years, writing his brilliant commentaries on the Brahma Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, and instructing his disciples.

Once Sanandana, one of his disciples, went across the river Alakananda on an errand. Shri Shankara was sitting by the side of the river with certain disciples and called for Sanandana several times. When the latter heard his Guru call he straightway plunged into the swift flowing Alakananda instead of crossing the bridge. Pleased with the devotion of Sanandana who had come at the command of his Guru even at the risk of his life, Shri Shankara conferred upon him the name of Padmapada Acharya. This place is extremely cold. When the writer visited it as a pilgrim during the month of August, the temperature was well below freezing point. In some Puranas this spot is described as the real Kailash: near it is the lofty mountain Swargarohan, up which the five Pandava brothers climbed in the closing stages of their life on earth.

Shri Shankara and his disciples remained there for some time During the bitterly cold spells they occasionally visited the natural hot spring which emerges from a nearby cave. Prom there the hand of pilgrims proceeded to Gangotri and Uttara Kashi in the deep Himalayas, where the Ganges flows as a gentle stream through a secluded valley. Days of unbroken ecstasy were experienced in this valley remote from the bustle of mundane life.

One day an olive-complexioned Brahmin appeared before Shri Shankara’s ashrama and asked: “Who is your Guru? What does he teach?” One of the disciples replied politely: “The holy Shankara Acharya is our Guru. He is well versed in the hidden truths of the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutras. He has successfully refuted the dualist doctrines and has established the supremacy of Advaita.” The olive-complexioned Brahmin spoke in a tone of surprise: “Who knows the real spiritual meaning of the Vyasa Sutras in this age?

I have been looking for such a man for many years since I am doubtful about the meaning of a certain verse. Will he be good enough to give me a satisfactory explanation?” When the disciple informed the Acharya of the Brahmin’s question he came out and, offering a deep salutation, greeted him saying: “Sir, I do not claim to have penetrated very deeply into the mysteries of the Sutras, but if you will kindly indicate the passage you have in mind I shall try to throw light on its meaning so far as my limited knowledge allows. ” The Brahmin quoted the first Sutra of the third chapter and asked the Acharya to explain it. This Sutra refers to the departure of the jiva from the body at the time of death. Shri Shankara in an attitude of humility interpreted the Sutra in the light of the verse of the Chandogya Upanishad to which it refers. The Brahmin raised a large number of objections in a long discussion which was resumed every day for a week, but Shri Shankara was able to meet all of them satisfactorily. Shri Padmapada was struck by the extraordinary intellectual ability of the Brahmin and concluded that he was no ordinary pundit. The following day the pundit revealed himself to be none other than Shri Vyasa, the author of the Sutras.

He closely examined Shri Shankara’s commentary and gave it the seal of his approval as a correct exposition of his meaning and of the philosophy of Adwaita. Before leaving he blessed the holy Acharya and said: “My son, there is a most learned pundit named Kumarila Bhatta: convert him and make him a devotee of the Adwaita philosophy. “

Index for The Life of Shri Shankara:

Section 1
Section 2
Section 3
Section 4
Section 5
Section 6
Section 7
Section 8
Section 9
Section 10

The meeting of Shri Shankara and Kumarila Bhatta is of great importance in the history of Indian philosophy and mysticism.

Shri Shankara learnt that Kumarila Bhatta lived in the sacred city of Prayag (Allahabad) at the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna, so he set out with his disciples along the bank of the Yamuna in the direction of Prayag. The meeting of Shri Shankara and Kumarila Bhatta is of great importance in the history of Indian philosophy and mysticism. Kumarila Bhatta’s scholarship had broken the back of the atheistic Buddhist objections to the Indian way of worship and sacrifice. Shri Shankara also had successfully dealt with the objections raised by the Buddhists and Jains to the orthodox view. These two Mahatmas re-established the Sanatana Dharma religion and gave a deathblow to the atheistic Buddhists, who had attempted to hold the Vedic religion up to ridicule.

There is some evidence that Kumarila Bhatta was a native of Southern India and was horn in the Deccan. Though little is known about his life, it is certain that he was a layman and not a monk; in fact he is known to have “been wealthy and to have had many servants. One of his pupils was the King of Chudamani. We know that Kumarila Bhatta once had a debate with the famous pundit Dharmakirti, who was the principal of the ancient university of Nalanda and a recognised expert in Buddhist logic. It happened in this way. Dharmakirti was not fully satisfied with the Buddhist philosophy so he decided to go to Kumarila Bhatta to study the philosophy of the Vedas under him. Knowing, however, that Kumarila Bhatta would not instruct a follower of Buddha,

Dharmakirti disguised himself as a humble student and Brahmachari and began to serve the teacher. Having received instructions in the Darshanas, he one day threw off his disguise and challenged his Guru to a metaphysical discussion. Kumarila was defeated and thereupon embraced Buddhism with all his disciples. He has written? “It is impossible to know the secrets of a system of philosophy or to contest its metaphysical position unless one studies it as an adherent. My-main object in studying Buddhism was first to understand it and then to refute it in the light of the Vedic philosophy.” Kumarila Bhatta spent the latter part of his life crusading against the Bauddhas. He knew many of the dialects of India and the Buddhist philosophy evaporated throughout India at his coming like a mist before the rays of the sun. Among his disciples were Prabhakara, Mandana Mishra and Bhavabhuti. Prabhakara is a well-known philosopher of the Mimansa school. Mandana Mishra’s famous debate with Shri Shankara is described later on. Bhavabhuti is mentioned several times in Chitsuka Acharya’s writings.

Kumarila Bhatta had been anxious to meet the learned Shankara and Shri Shankara, too, was eager to find a scholar able to write a good gloss on his Brahma Sutra commentary. When Shri Shankara at last reached the home of Kumarila Bhatta he found the great philosopher surrounded by weeping disciples preparing to immolate himself on a funeral pyre. Kumarila Bhatta greeted Shri Shankara with reverent salutations and expressed admiration for his philosophical writings. Shankara endeavoured to dissuade him from his intention but Kumarila Bhatta answered:
“It is time for me to leave the body. I must atone for my sins. My first great sin is that I was once an opponent of the Vedic religion, my second is that as an advocate of Jaimini’s philosophy I encouraged disbelief in the existence of God. Please seek out my foremost disciple, Mandana Mishra, and convert him to Advaita Vedanta. His unique scholarship and learning will help you in the propagation of Advaita Vedanta.” Thus ended the meeting of these two great men.

Index for The Life of Shri Shankara:

Section 1
Section 2
Section 3
Section 4
Section 5
Section 6
Section 7
Section 8
Section 9
Section 10

Shri Shankara Acharya’s arguments in support of non-duality and non-difference prevailed over those of Mandana Misra

Mandana Misra was a native of the province of India which is now known as Behar. His real name was Vishvarupa Shastri and he had “been given the name Mandana “because he was acknowledged as the most distinguished pundit of his time. Shri Shankara knew him to be the chief opponent of Adwaita hut one who was respected throughout India as a most learned man. He also recognised his sincerity and love of truth and knew that, if Kumarila Bhatta’s advice could he successfully followed, Mandana would be of great assistance in spreading the Adwaita doctrine.

Shri Shankara set out for the town of Maheshmati where Mandana lived. On arrival there he asked his disciples to wait in a temple of Shiva which stood in a colourful garden outside the city, and went on alone to find Mandana’s house. On the way he met a party of married women and their daughters carrying water to their homes and asked them to direct him. They answered in surprise: ’’Are you alone in not knowing where the great Mandana Misraji lives? At his house door there are Sarika birds in cages and you will hear them debating whether the world is real or unreal and other difficult subjects. Go this way and know that to be the house of Mandana when you reach it.”

Shri Shankara soon found Mandana’s house but the doors were closed. When he enquired of the porters, they explained: “Sir, our master is engaged in the ancient ritual of offering sacrifice to his ancestors and he has asked to be left undisturbed until it is over.” The tradition is that the Acharya entered the house by invisible means and that his appearance troubled Mandana Misra since the presence of a monk at this ceremony is considered to be inauspicious. Shri Shankara explained the purpose of his visit and Mandana accepted his challenge to a public controversy on Advaita. The local pundits were disinclined to accept the post of referee in this controversy and put forward instead the name of Sharada Devi, Mandana’s learned wife. Shri Shankara agreed to her nomination.

The news of the public controversy about to be held between the young monk Shankara and the greatest scholar of the day had spread far and wide and eminent men of learning came to hear it.

The holy Acharya accompanied by his beloved disciples arrived at the learned assembly where Sharada, Mandana Misra’s wife, already occupied the Chair.

The debate opened and Shri Shankara expounded his view to the assembly in the following words:

“In these ever-changing phenomena of the world there is only one principle of reality; it is Brahman, existence, consciousness, ever-taintless. It appears Itself in the form of the world. The world in Brahman is like silver in mother-of-pearl; just as the appearance of silver owes its existence to the mother-of-pearl, so the world has no independent existence and is as such unreal. A real cognition of the nature of Brahman, the negation of the world in all its forms, the withdrawal of the jiva from the illusory world to become established in its own true nature – this state is called liberation, which signifies freedom from the cycle of births and deaths. This is my thesis and it is supported on the authority of the Upanishads. If I am defeated in this controversy, I will throw off the garb of a monk and embrace a domestic life”

Then Mandana Misra rose and made known his position as a Mimamsaka, saying:

“The only authority in Vedic literature is the ritual portion (Karmakanda). In my view the Upanishads are no authority; they propound the doctrine of Brahman and not the doctrine of action, whereas the purpose of the Veda is to lay down rules as to what ought to be done* Release from suffering is possible only through Karma (ritual action) and man must therefore continue to perform the prescribed ritual throughout his life. As a follower of Mimamsa Shastra, I declare that I shall embrace the monastic order (Sannyasa) if I am defeated in this controversy. “

For several days the debate between the two mighty scholars continued from morning till evening with only a short break at noon. Neither speaker displayed the least bitterness, anger, or excitement. Each one advocated his cause coolly and deliberately, without gesticulation, only occasionally allowing a smile of appreciation to flicker over his countenance at a point made by the opponent. This famous controversy has been described in great detail by the writers of the various lives of Shankara and those who are interested in it can read about it in these sources. Suffice it to say that in the end the holy Acharya’s arguments in support of non-duality and non-difference prevailed. The referee, Sharada Devi, pronounced in favour of Shri Shankara and the scholarly assembly acquiesced in her verdict.

Sharada Devi was greatly distressed over the defeat of her husband whom she regarded as inferior to none in dialectical skill and learning. She approached Shri Shankara, saying:

“O learned Monk, you have defeated only half of Pundit Mandana Misra. I am his wife and his other half. First accept my challenge to a controversy and, if you obtain the victory, my husband will fulfil his vow. You know of the controversy of the great sage Yajnavalkya with Gargi.”

Shri Shankara accepted the challenge and the debate was arranged. In her exposition Sharada Devi introduced allusions to matters about which the young Shankara, who had embraced monasticism at the age of eight, knew nothing. There is a legendary account of how Shri Shankara entered the body of a king who had just died in order to experience physical joys, and with his knowledge was able to refute Sharada Devi on resuming the controversy. Sharada Devi, who was a lover of truth, acknowledged the superiority of Shri Shankara’s philosophy. Her husband Mandana Misra adopted the life of a monk and became his disciple, taking the name of Sureshvara Acharya. Shri Sureshvara followed his master throughout the remainder of his life and was a most devoted disciple. His contribution to the metaphysics of Advaita is second only to that of the holy Acharya himself.

Index for The Life of Shri Shankara:

Section 1
Section 2
Section 3
Section 4
Section 5
Section 6
Section 7
Section 8
Section 9
Section 10