Shankara: The Philosopher-Saint Who Turned the Tide

Often referred to as the land of spirituality and philosophy, India has produced countless luminaries who have enriched the world with their profound wisdom and teachings. Among these revered figures, Adi Shankaracharya stands as a towering intellect and a spiritual giant whose life and works continue to inspire and guide seekers of truth. Adi Shankaracharya, born in the early 8th century CE, left an indelible mark on the philosophical landscape. In this comprehensive article by Academic Block, we will delve into the life, philosophy, and enduring legacy of this remarkable sage.

Early Life and Background

Adi Shankaracharya, also known as Shankara Bhagavadpada, was born in the small village of Kaladi in Kerala, India, around 788 CE. His birthplace is nestled on the banks of the river Periyar, surrounded by lush greenery and serene landscapes. Born to Shivaguru and Aryamba, his parents, Shankara’s early life was marked by both ordinary circumstances and extraordinary potential.

  1. Childhood and Early Education; Adi Shankaracharya’s birth was itself considered a divine event, as his parents had been childless for a long time, and his birth was seen as a blessing from Lord Shiva. As a child, Shankara displayed remarkable intelligence and spiritual inclinations from a very early age. His parents recognized his exceptional qualities and enrolled him in a local Gurukul (traditional Indian school), where he began his education in the scriptures and sacred texts.

  2. Renunciation at a Young Age; A pivotal moment in Shankara’s life occurred when he was around eight years old. He witnessed a profound incident that ignited his desire for spiritual realization. While taking a dip in the river, a crocodile caught hold of his leg. In a moment of crisis, Shankara asked for his mother’s permission to embrace a life of renunciation and dedicate himself to spiritual pursuits. Seeing the depth of his commitment, his mother reluctantly agreed, and Shankara renounced his worldly ties to embark on his spiritual journey.

Advaita Vedanta: The Non-Dualistic Philosophy

Adi Shankaracharya’s most significant contribution to philosophy was the expounding of Advaita Vedanta, a profound school of thought that emphasizes the non-dual nature of reality. Advaita Vedanta posits that there is only one ultimate reality, which is pure consciousness or Brahman (Universe), and everything else is an illusory manifestation, including the individual self (Atman) and the world.

  1. The Concept of Maya: At the heart of Advaita Vedanta lies the concept of Maya, often translated as “illusion” or “unreality.” Shankara argued that the world we perceive is not the ultimate truth but a result of Maya. It is the veil that covers the reality of the Universe, making it appear as if there are multiple entities and distinctions.

  2. The Identity of Atman and Brahman: Shankara’s most profound teaching was the assertion that Atman, the individual self, is identical to Brahman (universe), the supreme reality. He proclaimed, “Brahman is the only truth; the world is unreal, and there is, ultimately, no difference between Atman and Brahman.” This statement encapsulates the essence of Advaita Vedanta.

  3. Methods of Spiritual Realization: Adi Shankaracharya advocated the path of knowledge (Jnana Yoga) as the most direct means to attain realization of the non-dual truth. He argued that by deep contemplation and discernment, one can pierce through the veil of Maya and realize their true nature as Brahman. This path involves the study of scriptures, self-inquiry, and meditation to gain insight into the nature of reality.

Works and Contributions

Adi Shankaracharya’s short life of around 32 years was incredibly prolific in terms of his philosophical writings, commentaries, and debates. His contributions can be broadly categorized into the following:

  1. Commentaries on Major Texts: Shankara’s commentaries on ancient Indian texts are considered classics. Some of his most notable works include commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras, and the Vishnu Sahasranama. These commentaries serve as foundational texts for Advaita Vedanta and continue to be studied and revered by scholars and seekers.

  2. Establishing the Dashanami Tradition: Shankara organized ten monastic orders (Dashanami) across India, each with a specific area of focus. These orders played a crucial role in preserving and propagating the teachings of Advaita Vedanta. Shankara himself took the title “Shankaracharya” and became the head of the Sringeri Matha in Karnataka, setting an example for future spiritual leaders.

  3. Debates and Defending Sanatana Dharma: Adi Shankaracharya was known for his rigorous debates with proponents of other philosophical schools, particularly the Mimamsa and Nyaya schools. His debates, often held in public forums, showcased his intellectual prowess and unwavering commitment to Advaita Vedanta. His victories in these debates not only established the supremacy of his philosophy but also served to defend and strengthen the Sanatana Dharma (eternal truth) against various challenges.

Legacy and Influence

The influence of Adi Shankaracharya’s teachings extends far beyond his own time and place. His life and philosophy have left an indelible mark on the spiritual and philosophical landscape and continue to inspire seekers of truth worldwide.

  1. Advaita Vedanta Tradition: Adi Shankaracharya’s Advaita Vedanta remains one of the most influential philosophical traditions in India. It has produced numerous scholars and spiritual leaders who have carried forward his teachings, including Swami Vivekananda, Ramana Maharshi, and Paramahansa Yogananda.

  2. Synthesis of Hinduism: Shankara’s efforts to unify various sects and schools of Hinduism under the umbrella of Advaita Vedanta played a crucial role in preserving and revitalizing the Sanatana Dharma. His teachings emphasized the essential unity of all spiritual paths, fostering religious harmony and tolerance.

  3. Revival of Temples and Rituals: While primarily a proponent of Advaita Vedanta, Shankara recognized the importance of temples and rituals in Hinduism. He initiated reforms and established mathas (monastic institutions) to ensure the proper administration of temples and the continuity of sacred rituals.

  4. Influence on Culture and Art: Adi Shankaracharya’s teachings and philosophy have also had a profound impact on Indian art, literature, and culture. His hymns and devotional compositions, such as the Soundarya Lahari and Bhaja Govindam, continue to be celebrated for their spiritual depth and poetic beauty.

Final Words

Adi Shankaracharya’s life and philosophy continue to shine as a beacon of spiritual insight and wisdom in the annals of word’s history. His Advaita Vedanta has not only enriched the philosophical discourse but has also inspired countless individuals on their spiritual journeys.

The legacy of Adi Shankaracharya is a testament to the power of a single individual to transform the intellectual and spiritual landscape of a nation. His teachings of non-duality, self-realization, and the essential unity of all beings remain as relevant and profound today as they were over a thousand years ago. As we reflect on the life and contributions of Adi Shankaracharya, we are reminded of the enduring quest for truth and the eternal wisdom that guides us on our own spiritual journeys. Please provide your comments below, this will help us in improving this article. Thanks for reading!

Academic References on Adi Shankaracharya


“Shankara and Indian Philosophy” by Natalia Isayeva: This book provides an in-depth exploration of Adi Shankaracharya’s philosophy, his debates with other philosophical schools.

“Adi Shankaracharya: His Life and Times” by P. N. Chopra: This biographical work delves into the life of Shankaracharya, including his early years, travels, and philosophical contributions.

“The Advaita Worldview: God, World, and Humanity” by A. Rambachan: Rambachan’s book offers a comprehensive analysis of the Advaita Vedanta tradition, with a focus on the philosophy of Adi Shankaracharya.

“The Advaita Vedanta of Adi Shankaracharya: A Philosophical Reconstruction” by Eliot Deutsch: This scholarly work examines the core philosophical ideas of Advaita Vedanta as formulated by Shankaracharya.

“Shankara and Indian Monism” by S. N. Dasgupta: This book explores the monistic philosophy of Shankaracharya and its implications for Indian thought.

“The Teachings of the Bhagavad Gita” by Swami Dayananda Saraswati: This book offers a detailed commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, with insights from the Advaita Vedanta perspective.

Academic Articles:

“Adi Shankaracharya: A Philosopher and Theologian” by Karl H. Potter: Published in the Journal of Indian Philosophy, this article provides an academic examination of Shankaracharya’s contributions to philosophy.

“Shankara on Buddhism” by Richard King: This article, published in Philosophy East and West, explores Shankaracharya’s views on Buddhism and his critiques of Buddhist philosophy.

“Shankara on the Infinite Regression Argument for World Causation” by Jonardon Ganeri: An article that delves into Shankaracharya’s philosophical response to the problem of infinite regression in causal chains.

“The Philosophy of Sankar’s Advaita Vedanta” by B. N. Pandit: Published in The Philosophical Quarterly, this article provides a detailed analysis of the metaphysical and epistemological aspects of Shankaracharya’s philosophy.

“Shankara’s Arguments against the Buddhists” by Mark Siderits: An academic exploration of Shankaracharya’s criticisms of Buddhist philosophy and his attempts to establish Advaita Vedanta.

Young Adi Shankaracharya
Personal Details
Date of Birth : 788 CE
Died : 820 CE
Place of Birth : Kaladi, Kerala, India.
Father : Shivaguru
Mother : Aryamba
Professions : Philosopher

Famous quotes by Adi Shankaracharya

“Brahma satyam jagat mithya, jivo brahmaiva naparah.” Translation: “Universe is the only truth; the world is unreal, and there is, ultimately, no difference between the individual self (jiva) and Brahman.”

“Na punyam, na papam, na saukhyam, na duhkham, na mantro, na tirtham, na yajnah.” Translation: “There is neither virtue nor vice, neither joy nor sorrow, neither mantra nor pilgrimage, neither rituals nor sacrifices.”

“Aham Brahmasmi.” Translation: “I am Universe.” This concise phrase encapsulates the essence of Advaita Vedanta, emphasizing the identity of the individual self with the supreme reality.

“Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.” Translation: “The world is one family.” Shankaracharya’s teachings emphasize the idea of the interconnectedness of all beings and the importance of universal compassion.

“Mano buddhi ahankara chittani naaham, na cha shrotrajihve, na cha ghraana netre, na cha vyoma bhumirna tejo na vayuh.” Translation: “I am not the mind, intellect, ego, or the memory; I am not the senses of hearing, taste, smell, sight, or touch; I am not the five elements of earth, water, fire, air, or space.”

“Jagrat swapna sushupti arogya; samadhistanadivat.” Translation: “One should meditate on the self as being absorbed in waking, dream, and deep sleep states, as well as in health and in disease, as firmly established in one’s innermost consciousness.”

“Kalatitah kalahitah.” Translation: “The realized one is beyond time and untouched by time.” This points to the timeless nature of the true self (Atman) that transcends the limitations of temporal existence.

“Bhaja Govindam, Bhaja Govindam, Govindam Bhaja Mudha-Mate.” Translation: “Worship Govinda, worship Govinda, worship Govinda, oh fool! At the moment of death, rules of grammar will not save you.” This verse from the Bhaja Govindam emphasizes the importance of spiritual realization over mere intellectual knowledge.

Facts on Adi Shankaracharya

Birth and Early Life: Adi Shankaracharya was born around 788 CE in the village of Kaladi, Kerala, India. His parents were Shivaguru and Aryamba. His birthplace is still a place of reverence and pilgrimage for his followers.

Renunciation: At the age of eight, Shankaracharya had a life-changing experience when a crocodile grabbed his leg in a river. He sought permission from his mother to renounce the world and dedicate himself to a life of spiritual pursuit. After receiving her consent, he left home to become a wandering ascetic.

Travels: Adi Shankaracharya traveled extensively across India during his short life. He is said to have journeyed from Kerala in the south to places like Kedarnath in the north, engaging in philosophical debates and establishing mathas (monastic institutions) along the way.

Establishment of Mathas: Adi Shankaracharya founded four mathas in different corners of India to propagate his teachings and preserve the knowledge of Advaita Vedanta. These mathas continue to be significant centers of learning and spiritual practice. They are located in Sringeri (Karnataka), Dwarka (Gujarat), Puri (Odisha), and Badrinath (Uttarakhand).

Philosophical Works: Shankaracharya wrote numerous commentaries on key texts, including the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutras, and the Vishnu Sahasranama. His writings played a crucial role in interpreting and propagating Advaita Vedanta.

Debates and Defenses: Adi Shankaracharya engaged in philosophical debates with scholars from various traditions, such as Mimamsa and Nyaya. His debates showcased his profound knowledge and helped establish Advaita Vedanta as a formidable school of thought.

Advaita Vedanta: Shankaracharya’s most significant contribution was the articulation and promotion of Advaita Vedanta, which teaches the non-dual nature of reality. According to Advaita, Brahman (ultimate reality) is the only truth, and the world is an illusory manifestation.

Concept of Maya: Central to Advaita Vedanta is the concept of Maya, which Shankaracharya described as the illusion that makes the world appear real and distinct from Brahman. Understanding Maya is critical to realizing the non-dual truth.

Identity of Atman and Brahman: Shankaracharya emphasized that the individual self (Atman) is identical to Brahman, the supreme reality. This concept is encapsulated in the phrase “Aham Brahmasmi,” meaning “I am Brahman.”

Influence and Legacy: Adi Shankaracharya’s teachings have had a profound and lasting impact on Indian philosophy, spirituality, and culture. His Advaita Vedanta remains a prominent school of thought, and his mathas continue to play a significant role in preserving and propagating his teachings.

Devotional Works: In addition to his philosophical writings, Shankaracharya composed devotional hymns and verses. The “Soundarya Lahari” and “Bhaja Govindam” are two well-known devotional compositions attributed to him.

Short Life: Adi Shankaracharya’s life was relatively short, and it is believed that he passed away at the age of 32. Despite his brief time on Earth, his impact on Indian thought and spirituality endures.

Books by Adi Shankaracharya

Commentaries on Prasthanatrayi: Shankaracharya wrote extensive commentaries on three fundamental texts that form the foundation of Vedanta philosophy:

Brahma Sutra Bhashya: A commentary on the Brahma Sutras, also known as the Vedanta Sutras, which provide a systematic exposition of the philosophical teachings found in the Upanishads.

Upanishad Bhashyas: Commentaries on the principal Upanishads, including the Chandogya Upanishad, Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, and others.

Bhagavad Gita Bhashya: A comprehensive commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most revered texts in Hinduism, which presents essential spiritual and philosophical teachings.

Vivekachudamani: Translated as “The Crest Jewel of Discrimination” or “The Peak of Knowledge,” this work is a philosophical treatise that elaborates on the path to spiritual realization and the nature of the self.

Atma Bodha: Meaning “Self-Knowledge,” this text expounds upon the nature of the self (Atman), its relationship to the universe, and the process of self-realization.

Tattva Bodha: A short introductory text that provides an overview of the fundamental concepts of Advaita Vedanta, including the nature of reality, the self, and the ultimate truth.

Upadesasahasri: This work, often translated as “A Thousand Teachings,” is a collection of philosophical and spiritual discourses by Adi Shankaracharya. It covers various aspects of Advaita Vedanta and provides guidance on attaining self-realization.

Dakshinamurti Stotra: A hymn dedicated to Lord Dakshinamurti, who is considered an embodiment of Lord Shiva as the universal teacher. This hymn praises the guru and the importance of spiritual knowledge.

Soundarya Lahari: A collection of hymns dedicated to the goddess Devi (Divine Mother) in her various forms. It combines devotional poetry with philosophical insights.

Bhaja Govindam: A devotional composition that emphasizes the impermanence of worldly pursuits and the importance of seeking spiritual wisdom and realization.

Nirvana Shatakam: Also known as “Atma Shatakam,” this composition reflects on the true nature of the self and the process of self-discovery.

This Article will answer your questions like:

  • Who was Adi Shankaracharya?
  • What are Adi Shankaracharya’s main contributions to Hindu philosophy?
  • What is Adi Shankaracharya known for?
  • What is the significance of Adi Shankaracharya in the history of Indian philosophy?
  • What are some of Adi Shankaracharya’s key teachings?
  • What are the major works attributed to Adi Shankaracharya?
  • What is Advaita Vedanta, and how does Adi Shankaracharya contribute to it?
  • What is the relationship between Adi Shankaracharya and the Upanishads?
  • What is the concept of Maya in Adi Shankaracharya’s philosophy?
  • How did Adi Shankaracharya revive Hinduism?
  • What is the role of Adi Shankaracharya in the development of the Dashanami Sampradaya?
  • What is the significance of Adi Shankaracharya’s four mathas (monastic centers)?
  • What is the importance of Adi Shankaracharya’s debates with other philosophers?
  • What is Adi Shankaracharya’s perspective on devotion and worship?
  • How did Adi Shankaracharya influence Indian culture and spirituality?
  • What is the impact of Adi Shankaracharya’s teachings on modern Hinduism?
  • What are some common misconceptions about Adi Shankaracharya?
  • What is the connection between Adi Shankaracharya and the Bhagavad Gita?
  • What are some recommended readings on Adi Shankaracharya’s life and philosophy?
  • What is the legacy of Adi Shankaracharya in India and beyond?
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