About the year 509 A.D. there was born in Kalati, Southern India, a boy, subsequently known as Shri Shankaracharya, who was destined to become the greatest philosophical and mystic genius the world had seen for perhaps 5,000 years- His parents were poor brahmins noted for their piety and charity. The father – Shivaguru, died while the child was still very young- The Indians say, “Promising trees have smooth leaves.” The mother was a devout believer in the brahmin Scriptures and literally lived for God. The son loved his mother most deeply.
At the age of eight, having received initiation, the child went to study grammar, literature, logic and philosophy with the renowned monk, Govindapad Acharya. As he had not the money to pay a fee to his great teacher, he presented him with a crystal rock, to be used as a bathing stool, which he himself had brought from a distance. In a few years he had acquired proficiency in the main branches of learning, and was acknowledged a great scholar. After completing his studies and while yet very young, he asked and received his mother’s permission to become a monk.
The young Shankara now lived in complete retirement in a cave, meditating and worshipping the Lord, and writing his great works. These are his Commentaries on the Bhagawadgita, the Upanlshads and the Brahma Sutras, documents of unparalleled rhetoric and deep philosophical insight, which will remain as a standing monument to his great genius for all time.
In these writings, the holy Teacher develops the ancient system of philosophy known as Adwaita, (non-dual), giving it a new dialectical garb, proving by reason, inference, authority and analogy the holy Vedic Truth:- “Brahman Sattyam Jagan Mithya, Jivo Brahman Aiva Na Para,” meaning: “Brahman, the Supreme Lord, is real; the world is inexplicable, having no independent existence and the human soul is intrinsically Brahman” or more simply: “God alone is real; all else unreal.”
All the materialistic, atheistic, ritualistic and other dualistic systems of philosophy are dispassionately examined In those works and their flaws and untenability as doctrines, exposed. Though Shankara quotes the authority of the Shruti in support of his thesis, yet he says: “I meet the objections raised by non-Vedic philosophers on the basis of pure reason.”
On one occasion he said: “There are no contradictions in my system and nothing which cannot be logically established.
According to tradition, Shri Shankara was an Avatara of the Lord Shiva Himself, who came to restore the holy doctrine of Adwaita to its original and pure form. At that time Buddhism was fast degenerating and devotion, real mysticism and the holy traditions had become seriously debased.
The holy Teacher went to Benares – then as now the centre of learning – and preached his doctrine there. Though still a youth, his learning, yogic powers and purity were irresistible. It is said that every day a few hundred disciples gathered round him. Living as a monk, owning no property and not touching money in any form, he went from city to city engaging his adversaries in open controversy. An old Teacher, Kumari-Lal-Bhatt, celebrated as the greatest scholar in India, was about to immolate himself on a pyre because in his controversies he had unwittingly insulted the aged Buddhist monks and caused them mental chagrin. Bhatt was a dualist and when Shankara challenged him, he referred him to his great pupil Mandana. Shankara challenged the great Mandana and after a nine days controversy, the wife of Mandana, who had acted as referee, gave the verdict in favour of Shri Shankara. Mandana thereupon accepted Shankara as his Guru and wrote highly metaphysical classics under the name of Sureshwara Acharya.
Shankara travelled, accompanied by his disciples, throughout the length and breadth of India and established the doctrine of Adwaita on a firm footing. For a detailed account of his spiritual conquests, the reader Is referred to ”Shankara DigviJaya” (The Conquest of the World by Shankara).
‘Shri Shankara’s teaching begins with the questions: “What am I? Where am I going? What do I need for the journey? What is the shortest way from where I now am, to where I wish to be? By incontrovertible proofs he then shows that the human soul, the divine goal and the journey are not three objects, but one.
His illustration to establish the nature of the soul is very well known. He asks: “What is the nature of water, heat or cold?” A cynic will reply; “Hot water is frequently found in certain springs, in shallow pools, in pots.” True, but such water has, for the time being, lost its own nature by having been brought into contact with another element, fire, and when removed from the proximity of fire, the water will return to its original cold state. When a hot spring is found, one immediately exclaims in surprise: “Why, this water is hot, why is it hot? The very word ’why‘ denoting that heat is contrary to the nature of water.
Along similar lines, he proved that the true nature of man is bliss, not misery and suffering. When one sees a man moaning, weeping and trembling in agitation, one asks: “Why is this man so miserable?” As in the previous case, the word ‘why’ demonstrates that misery is foreign to the nature of the soul of man. What creature does not seek happiness, whether in the pleasures of passing desires, the joy of artistic beauty or of philosophic study, and the endless bliss of God-head? The aim in each case is the same, though the search is made in different directions.
If the soul’s nature is eternal bliss, then existence, unending and boundless is implied. No man can be blissful if he imagines death will overtake him and finish his existence for ever.
To enjoy absolute bliss and boundless existence, complete knowledge is necessary. From its earliest hours, an infant is seeking to know, turning its head to discover the source of a sound, opening its eyes to seek the light. Search for knowledge is common to every creature, an innate characteristic. So the nature of the human soul is established – Existence-Knowledge-Bliss. Sat-Chit-Ananda.
But this is not only the nature of the soul – it is the nature of God – the Immutable, All-pervasive Brahman – for Jiva is Brahman. The soul and the goal are one – the journey is illusory. All powers lie within man’s own being, nothing further is necessary. Nescience alone covers and conceals the great beacon light of eternal Truth, Wisdom and Beauty which shines there.
If Brahman is the Supreme Spirit, without limitations or attributes, how does the great Shankaracharya account for the world of actuality? The Upanishads put forward three possible theories and reject two of them as untenable.
Either: 1. Matter exists co-equal with God. In that case God is not omnipotent and omnipresent.
- God moulded part of His own being into the structure, which we call manifestation. As He is Immutable and Indivisible this theory is unacceptable.
- God consciously projected the world as a dreamer does a dream. This is the only possible solution.
The Taittiriya Upanishad gives, in elaborate detail, the whole structure into which the dream was woven, until the form of manifestation assumed its present shape.
The corollary to the theory of non-duality is that Jiva and Brahman being identical, there must be a method whereby Jiva, at present encased in ignorance, can realise his identity with the great Ocean of Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.
The method is age-old, known to mystics thousands of years ago. By physical and mental restraint, the pupil learns from his spiritual Teacher, that neither body nor mind is stable or real. His Self is the Supreme Spirit., dwelling within. By service of the Teacher and the other disciples, by practice of meditation and contemplation, by repetition of the holy Kama of the Lord, by cultivation of the great virtues, the persevering pupil reaches liberation in this very life, and so achieves the purpose of his earthly existence. He recovers his own nature of purity, illumination, power and bliss, and retains it for ever.
Shri Shankaracharya established four great monasteries, one at each corner of India, each having a university, a library and a training school under the charge of a highly competent monk. Of these, Sringeri, in Mysore, is still in a most flourishing condition and also the monastery in the deep Himalayas, called Jyotir Math. Each is ruled over by most learned monk who is elected by the community and upon him is bestowed the title, Shankaracharya. In the Temple at Badrinath, there is enshrined a holy image of Shri Vishnu which was recovered by Shri Shankaracharya by diving into a ‘ deep and swift flowing part of the river Ganges and bringing it to the surface.
At the age of thirty-five Shri Shankaracharya said goodbye to his four chief disciples, and entering a cave in the Himalayas, was never seen again.
Shri Shankara was not only a great philosopher, but also a great poet. His hymns, rich in poetic beauty, still bring solace to countless hearts in India.
Shankara’s great disciples – Padmapada Acharya, Ananda- giri, Madhusudana Saraswati and Sureshwara Acharya – have developed their Teacher’s philosophy in its logical, psychological, ontological and epistemological aspects, in an incomparable way.
This, in brief, is an outline of the life of Shri Shankaracharya and his teaching of the Adwaita philosophy.