Complete Biography of SHANKARACHARYA


A move to cleanse the Vedic system of its incon­sistencies and obscurities helped to revive the Vedic tradition in the medieval age. The attempt was to make the Vedas understandable and acceptable to people at large. That was the self-appointed task of Shankaracharya, a highly perceptive Brahman, to face squarely the challenges organized Brahminism encountered from heterodox sects and the popular devotional cults.

Born at Kaladi on the Alwaye in Kerala, Shankaracharya’s chronological position is not entirely clear. He lived for only 32 years, achieving in that short span of life lasting fame for his brilliant exposition of Vedanta, his tireless propa­gation of Advaita, and his vast erudition.

Kumarila Bhatt was his predecessor and Vachaspati (ad 841) commented on his works. It would seem that the early medieval India and the ages preceding it contained a galaxy of intellectuals and thinkers like the Buddhist Dharmakirti, the Jaina Vidyananda, the commentator Vachaspati, the great teacher Kumarila and his pupils Mandana, Umveka, etc., and Shankaracharya was undoubtedly one among them.


Shankara said that the world we see around is all may a (illusion), for reality lies behind it all and cannot be understood by our senses. Reality is revealed when we perfect our senses by ascetism and by imbibing Upanishadic thoughts.

To him the Veda was supreme, but he was opposed to meaningless and unnecessary rituals. For this purpose, he estab­lished maths at various places of pilgrimage; Badrinath in the north, Puri in the east, Dwaraka in the west and Shringeri in the south where he introduced his method of worship. “

These institutions were richly endowed and soon had branches elsewhere, becom­ing centres of Shankara’s teaching. In addition, he encouraged missionary members of his ascetic order to propagate his teaching. The philosophy and organization adopted by Shankara closely resembled those of the Buddhists who were indignant, as can be well understood, at a movement intended to destroy them by their own methods” says Romila Thapar in History of India.

Shankaracharya went all over the country, took part in religious debates and discourses and con­vinced the people of the validity of his arguments by his scintillating scholarship. Soon his earnestness and sincerity in debating Vedanta with opponents was emulated by others and erstwhile stagnant centres of learning became active again.


“But Shankara’s philosophy contained within it the pos­sibilities of a negative reaction as well: if the world around us is an illusion then there is no incentive to try to understand its functioning or to derive empirical knowledge from it. This logical corollary may have been in part the cause of the pedantic intellectualism which became characteristic of these centres in later centuries” (Romila Thapar).

Kalidasa, Bharavi and other writers of the Gupta age were aware of the theistic Vedanta and the Advaita philosophy and it would be apparent from their writings. Likewise, Bhartrihari, in the field of grammar, developed almost all the concepts of Advaitavad in his classic Vakyapadiya and challenged the Buddhist creed by stressing nada (sound) as a manifestation of the Brahma. Unfortunately, Advaitic literature of pre-Shankara times is generally not available.

The Gaudapada-Karika or the Manduko-panishad- karika by Gaudapada, believed to be the teacher of Shankara’s teacher, is a pre-Shankara Advaitic work that has survived. Gaudapada was influenced by Vasubandhu (AD 400) and, in turn, Y ad an effect over Bhavaviveka (AD 500-50).

The Ultimate Reality, the Atman (or the Brahman) forms the basis of Advaita philosophy and, following Gaudapada, Shankara regarded Buddhism as the chief obstacle on the road to establish Vedanta. Accordingly, he was unsparing in his criticism of Buddhism and at the same time put a stop to the irksome (vama) rituals and processes followed in the temples, introducing Vedic form of worship. For this he was called the Shanmatasthapaka (one who reestablished six forms of orthodox wor­ship).


Before Shankara’s time, Advaitic thoughts were scattered here and there in philosophical literature; Shankara strung them together. Shankara’s Bhasyas on the Brahmasutras and on the nine major Upanishads carry the stamp of his inimitable scholarship, but due to a sort of indifferent quality the authorship of the Bhasyas on the Mandukya and the Gaudapadakarika is not certain.

Actually, the internal evidence in Shankara’s writings is almost non-existent. Further­more, his reference to kings like Purnavarman, Jayasimha, Krishnagupta, etc., and his statement that there was no king (Sarbhauma Kshatriya) in his days did not exactly clear the doubts.

Shankara’s Upadesa-Sahasri in prose and verse was authenticated by his pupil Suresvara in Naishkarmya-siddhi and by Bhaskara in Gita-Bhashya. Again, the Dakshinamurtistotra, a doctrinal hymn, also commented upon by Suresvara, looks like a Pratyabhijna work to some.

Likewise, the authorship of Viveka-chudamani and a large number of short Prakaranas and stotras is not certain. Against the views of Mandana and others, Shankara expounded the doctrine of Jivan Mukta, one who has attained salvation in life, the Sthita-Prajna in Bhagavad Gita. The conception is as superb as that of the Bodhisattva.


As happens so often in the aftermath of some pioneering work, a number of manuals, made-easy’s at-a-glance’s, etc. came out explaining Yoga and Vedanta in the form of a dialogue between some sage and his disciple or a legendary character and his spouse.

Among these, however, there was Yoga- Yajnavalkya, a dialogue between Yajnavalka and Gargi, a tenth century voluminous work of consid­erable merit. It is a work on advanced Advaita in a highly poetic diction including other texts and some minor works believed to be of Shankara’s.

The opposite of adultation, reaction against Shankara, was also strong and immediate. The old theories of Brahma-Parinama, Bhedabheda, etc. were revived by Bhaskara against the Advaita metaphysics of Shankara.

The concept of Advaita (monism) taught by Shankara is very old, but he contributed a great deal in shaping it up. The idea of Nirguna Brahman, the formulation of the maya doctrine, the nature of the jiva and the Brahman and the theory of moksha resulting from a merger of the two are the distin­guishing features of his Advaitavada.


Shankara carried on the work further in his1 Bhasya on the Vedanta-Sutra. Shankara held the doctrine of the vivarta-vada, that the world is a phenomenal appearance of the Brahman. His aim was to refute the parinama-vada of the Sankhya and to show how far removed from the Upanishadic teachings such a view was.

The other aspect that Shankara stressed is the idea of the Nirguna Brahman as against the (apparently similar) concepts of sunya or void of the Madhyamika form of Buddhism and Brahma-Parinama-Vada of some Vedantins.

Shankara agrees with Sankhya-Yoga in respect of representative knowledge, but differs on the point that the ten senses are traced to Aham-kara. Like the Nyaya-Vaisesikas, he holds the view that the senses are derived from the elements and like the senses, Antah-Karana (the internal organ) is also composed of Bhautikas (five elements).

Tejas is predominant in it, that is why it is unstable and the activity through which it assumes various forms is known as Vritti. In Advaita, consciousness is known as saksin, similar to Purusa of Sankhya-Yoga; it never appears by itself but always in association with Antah-Karana, and this union is real for all practical purposes. This is jiva, it has the ability to feel, to know and to will. Until release, this complex entity stays in one form or the other and on breaking up Antah-Karana returns to its source maya and saksin losing its Saksi-hood becomes Brahman.

Knowledge is a blend of two, the vritti as inspired by the saksin and is empirical, a result of the interaction of subject and object. This is vritti jnana. The other jnana, the one derived from consciousness, is saksi-jnana. Jnana can be mediate or immediate; the first reveals “that” of an object; the second, “what”.

So, for immediate knowledge the object should be such as can be directly known (Yoga). For instance a chair can be known but not piety. Also, the object should be there. A non­existent chair cannot, therefore, impart immediate jnana. Finally, there should exist certain close rela­tionship between subject and object. It is somewhat similar to the situation when the object is ‘felt’ instead of being ‘known’.

Thus there are objects that can be directly known and those which cannot be so known. There is also a third category of object which is not only known immediately but is always so known. This is aham-padartha or the empirical ego, when the subject is revealed in the object. Through this sense, one separates one’s experience from that of others. It does not work, when one falls asleep or is unconscious.

Knowledge, therefore, implies two views: either, like the Yogachara school of Buddhism, it denies that it ever points to an object outside or it admits to be doing so. Shankara maintrains that all knowledge points to an object as it does to a subject, and there is no knowledge which does not involve this double implication. In the absence of an object, there is no knowledge. Like the ’round square’, such knowledge is ASAT (unreal).

To explain illusions the Advaitin uses a pramana known as arthapatti. Devadatta without ever eating this during the day keeps himself fit and healthy. This does not lead one to conclude that eating is not necessary for the living, but to reconcile the observed fact with the assumption that Devdatta must be eating at night.

Faced with a fact contrary to a well- tested view, one does not give up the view but should try to integrate it with the fact by a suitable hypothesis. In the so-called illusion, therefore, there is also an object; but it is not substantiated by the collective experience. Due to defective eyesight someone may see in the dark a serpent where there is actually a rope only. Others will see a rope an’ not a serpent.

So ‘the rope as serpent’ is ‘private to him, while the common knowledge of serpent’ ‘public’. Also, an object of illusion lasts for a limited time; the real object is more enduring. A flash light reveals that the serpent is just a piece of rope.

Private objects neither are not just ideas, nor are the; purely subjective; they are not mental, but are objects of mind. It would be seen from this ho mistaken is the common belief that Shankara held everything as maya.

Even for objects of illusion, he claims some kind of reality. Proceeding along the lines, error is explained as adhyasa or illegitimate transference. It occurs when different types of thin are related in a judgment. This relationship is unique and is called tadatmya. It is not real and at the same time not unreal, because we experience it. The water that is taken in a dream does not quench the thirst but it is experienced nonetheless.

Avidya, or ignorance, is a precondition for adhyasa or illegitimate transference.

With regard to the Veda, the Advaitin takes position midway between the Mimamsak and Nyaya Vaisesak. Like the Mimamsak, Shankara agrees the the Veda is Apauruseya, but he does not reject altogether the Nyaya-Vaisesika view that Isvara is the creator of the Veda. Shankara said that………….. the Veda is self existent…only it is not the self-same Veda the always is, but a series of what may be described re-issues of an eternal edition which goes back beginning-less time” (M. Hiriyanna).

According to Shankara, perception serves primarily empirical purposes; it does not assure me physical validity.

Shankara said that only the dull-witted (Manda- buddhi) regard the Absolute as nothing. The Brah­man described as Nirguna in the Upanishads is not in every sense beyond the reach of words. If that is so, then the Upanishads are purposeless.

The Upanishadic statement tats tvam asi points to the Absolute. Within us and thus entirely changes the negative description. It is not a contentless thing, nor extra-empirical. Like the sun behind a cloud it shows itself even when hidden. It is missed due to its mass of appearances, but that is like missing the ocean due to the waves. Admittedly it cannot be grasped as an object of knowledge, but there is a form of experience through which Brahman can be known.

Shankara said that Moksha is the very nature of self, it is one’s own innate character, which happens to be forgotten for the time being. The jnana that makes it possible to regain is intuitive (saksatakara) and should refer to one’s own identity with Brahman because sansara means forgetting this identity.

Ethical rectitude and religious discipline help but are not all that is needed. Here, Shankara introduced the idea of Karma-Samanyasa and its logical corollary Jivan Mukti. “If knowledge is the sole means of release from bondage, freedom should result the moment it is gained; and there is nothing in the psychical or other equipment of the human being which renders its acquisition impossible here and now.”

There are two stages: the preliminary to qualify for a serious study of the Advaita and the training proper for self-realization. The first is the same as the Karma-Yoga described in the Gita and helps in cultivating a sense of detachment.

The second is rigorous and consists of Sravana, Manana and Nididhyasana. Sravana is studying the Upanishads under a Guru who has realised the truth he is teaching. Manana is convincing oneself how and why that teaching alone is true. Manana removes the doubt (Asambhavana) that it may not after all be true.

Having secured intellectual conviction this way, there may be obstacles still like old habits (biparita bhavana). Nididhyasana remove them by meditating on the identity between the individual self and the Brahman-the central point of Vedantic teaching-and should be continued till that intuitive knowledge is gained and that identity becomes immediate (aporaksha). Now one has become Jivan Mukta.

The Jivan-Mukta’s life has two phases:It is either samadhi or mystic trance when he turns in wards and loses himself in Brahman-, or the condition known as vyutthana or reversion to common life when the spectacle of the world returns but does not delude him since he has once for all realized its metaphysi­cal falsity.

Diversity continues to appear then as the sun, we may say, continues to appear as moving even after we are convinced that it is stationary. A Jivan-Mukta experiences pain and pleasure, but neither really matters to him.

He does not necessarily give up all activity as is abundantly illustrated by the strennous life which Shankara himself led, but it does not proceed from any selfish impulse or even from a sense of obligation to others “….The common laws of social morality and ritual which are significant only in reference to one that is striving for perfection are meaningless for him. The Jivan-Mukta, having transcended the stage of strife, is spontaneously virtuous. Impulse and desire become one in him. He is not then realizing virtue but is revealing it….When at last he is dissociated from the physical accompaniments, he is not reborn, but remains as Brahman. That is Videha-Mukti” (M. Hiriyanna, Out­lines of Indian Philosophy).

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