Shri Padmapada had been born at Chola in the South of India and he asked leave of his Guru to return there for a short time.
Shri Shankara granted his request and Padmapada set out in the company of a few fellow-disciples. When he reached his birthplace, the villagers were surprised to find that he had become a monk. He first called upon his maternal uncle, who was a scholar of repute, and stayed a few days with him. He showed his uncle the gloss which he had written on Shri Shankara’s commentary on the Brahma Sutras, and left the manuscript with him while he went to visit the holy city of Rameshvara. His uncle recognised the high scholarship of the work but was displeased that it contained a refutation of the Mimansa philosophy. Out of narrow-mindedness tinged with jealousy he set fire to the room in which the manuscript lay. Shri Padmapada returned to find that it was destroyed.
About the same time Shri Shankara decided to revisit Kalati to pay his respects to his dearly-loved mother. He left Sureshvara Acharya to supervise religious worship at the temple of Sharada and also entrusted the literary work to him. As he travelled towards his birthplace his heart was full of tender memories of childhood. When he reached Kalati, he found his old mother ill in bed. Her son’s visit was a surprise to her and she was overjoyed to see him. She had heard of his growing reputation as a teacher and holy man and she asked him to teach her the way of devotion to Ishvara, the Lord of Creation, since she could not follow the abstract doctrine of Advaita. The time of her death was near and very shortly afterwards she gave up her body while meditating on Shri Krishna as instructed by her son. As a monk Shri Shankara was prohibited from performing the cremation ceremony, but he disregarded the formal rule in spite of opposition from the orthodox pundits. He collected dry wood himself and carried the body without assistance to the funeral pyre. Such filial love sheds a light on the beauty of Shri Shankara’s character.
When Padmapada Acharya returned to his Guru, he told him of the destruction of his manuscript to Shri Shankara showed deep sympathy and said:
“My son, do not worry. Your notes on my commentary on the first five Sutras, which you read to me, are impressed on my memory and I will dictate them to you.”
Padmapada Acharya wrote down from his Guru’s dictation the work which has come down to us as the Panchapadika.
Shri Shankara’s amazing memory was demonstrated on another occasion when the King of Kevala, Raja Shekhar, came to pay his respects. The King was held in high regard as a pundit and had written three plays in Sanskrit verse. The holy Acharya enquired about these plays and the King replied: “Revered One, through neglect they have been consumed by fire.” It is said that Shri Shankara, who had read the plays in his childhood, reproduced them from memory and that the King had them written down.
Shri Shankara travelled throughout the length and breadth of India accompanied by his disciples, teaching the pure doctrine of Advaita and combating superstition and false creeds. At that time the country was studded with dangerous forests and communications were difficult and uncertain. The Acharya lived as a true sannyasin, never touching money in any form and sleeping on the ground.
According to one tradition his disciples used to carry a large pan of oil wherever they went. When Buddhist and other opponents were challenged to a debate, the pan was heated and Shri Shankara would declare that he would throw his body into the boiling oil if he were defeated.
One small town which he visited was Ananta Shayana, where the people worshipped Shri Vishnu. As Vaishnavas they believed that Shri Vasudeva, the omniscient Overlord, incarnates for the good of His devotees and that devotion to Him is the chief means of release (mukti). Their mode of devotion consisted of japa, meditation, worship, offering fruit and flowers to the holy image, listening to scriptural readings and practising the eightfold Yoga of Patanjali.
The Guru alone, as the medium of the grace of Shri Vishnu, was considered able to grant liberation to the devotee. The holy Acharya exposed the incompleteness of this creed and showed them that actions cannot of themselves lead to release, that actions purify the mind if performed with no selfish desire but that the only means to liberation is a knowledge of Advaita (self-realisation).
Shri Shankara came to Indrapastha, which is known today as Delhi. At that time the population worshipped Indra and were ignorant of the ethics and philosophy of Advaita. The Acharya challenged their leaders to a public debate and, being convinced by his reasoning, they accepted the Advaita view. While at Mathura, Shri Shankara worshipped his family deity, Shri Krishna, in the temples and composed in his praise some of the most beautiful songs in the Sanskrit language. Ayodhya is another place he is known to have visited, but there is no extant account of his activities there.
Ujjain is a city which is still known as a centre of learning, and one of the seven sacred towns in India. When the holy Acharya reached Ujjain, he found it in the grip of the Kapalika, “barbaric tantric practices which made free use of meat and wine. Its exponents were physically strong and claimed to have psychic powers. Their leader, Unmatta Bhairava, who was feared by his followers, accepted the challenge of Shri Shankara to a public debate and acknowledged his defeat by renouncing the tantric mode of worship.
According to Madhava, Shri Shankara visited another centre of worship in the Carnatic where the leader, a certain Krakacha, maintained his own band of thugs who openly persecuted followers of the Vedic religion. Krakacha was a huge man of prodigious physique who was wont to carry a human skull and a massive trident. King Sudhanva, a devoted follower of Shri Shankara who was ever watchful of the worldly needs of his Guru’s small band, heard that Krakacha was planning an attack on Shri Shankara and his disciples. He forthwith despatched a bodyguard which was able to intercept and defeat the force of Krakacha, and the Kapalika leader was killed in the battle. .
In the city of Kanchi, Shri Shankara erected a great temple to serve as a centre for the propagation of Advaita and to stand as a symbol of Brahmavidya. He also established here the monastery known as Kamakoti. The King of Kanchi, whose name was Rajasen, became one of the Acharya’s disciples and was responsible for inaugurating many of the schools attached to the temples. Shri Shankara also visited Assam where he influenced the adherents of the tantric sect founded by the famous Hatha Yogi, Matsyendranath, to accept the Advaita doctrine. He also visited Kashi (the modern Benares), Gaya and Gokarna, which were centres of learning, and founded the Govardhana Pitha monastery in the most easterly tip of India. This monastery is still flourishing and the Shankara Acharya who is now head of it is a most learned man.
In Kashmir, where he reformed the centre of worship known as Sharada Pitha, the holy Acharya worshipped at a temple standing on the top of a hill near the capital, which is still known as the temple of Shri Shankara. The writer visited it several times when he was in Kashmir and enjoyed its peace and spiritual fragrance. It was here that he met and conversed with a true Mahatma, as has been told elsewhere. The pundits of Kashmir still revere the name of Shri Shankara, and Sanskrit songs in his praise can still be heard there.
While on his way to Nepal, Shri Shankara received the personal blessings of his Paramguru, Shri Gaudapada Acharya. Shri Gaudapada said:
“My son, you have expressed the highest spiritual truth in your commentary on my Karikas. I pray that your incomparable commentaries, which contain the essence of the Advaita teachings, may live for ever and bless the world with wisdom and shanti.”
Nepal at that time was a stronghold of Buddhism, and also had connections with China,, The temple of Pashupatinath, which today is visited by pilgrims from all parts of India, was deserted. The holy Acharya and his disciples were received with great respect by King Shiva Deva, and it was not long before Buddhist opposition crumbled before the superior Advaita dialectics. The worship of Shiva was re-established, the temple rehabilitated and a monastery founded near to the temple. There are local traditions in Tibet which suggest that Shri Shankara also visited that country.
Shri Madhava and other biographers differ in their accounts of the holy Acharya’s death. The Kashmir tradition is that after worshipping Shri Narayana the Acharya went to the ashrama of Rishi Dattatreya and stayed there some time before going to Mount Kailasha (which may perhaps be the modern Kedarnath). There he left his physical body and entered the infinite all-pervasive Consciousness. This account is not accepted in Shringeri, although some authors like the learned Chidvilasa Yati and Madhava give credence to it. Among the aged monks whom the writer met in solitary Himalayan retreats, he found the belief that Shri Shankara, having finished his worldly task, left his physical body at Kedarnath.
A learned and most spiritual monk, Swami Trivikramashrama, who had devoted some 25 years to the study of Shri Shankara’s life, and whom the writer had the privilege of meeting in the year 1905, gave the following account of the last moments of Shri Shankara:
Having completed the spiritual conquest of India and having silenced all opposition to Advaita, the Acharya went to the Kedarnath peak and taught his commentaries to his disciples. One evening as the sun was setting, and the eternally snow-clad peaks of Kedar were gilded, the holy Acharya spoke to his disciples saying:
‘Now my work is done. The monasteries which I have established at the corners of India must be kept under the control of the most pious and learned monks belonging to the ten orders which I have founded.”
The disciples heard the sound of the great bull, the vehicle of Shiva. Then Shri Shankara Acharya, blessing and saluting his holy pillars and other disciples, slowly entered the mighty cave singing ‘OM. OM. OM.’ ‘
Shri Swami Rama Tirtha believed in this tradition. The writer has visited this holy cave and meditated there.
Index for The Life of Shri Shankara: