Who was Adi Shankaracharya? | Bhaja Govindam – Introduction

(Understandings from Swami Mitrananda’s talk to Yuva Veers of Youth Empowerment Program 6thbatch)

It is very very interesting to look at the life of Adi Shankaracharya. In a short span of 32 years, he has achieved much more than anybody could ever imagine of. Born in 788 AD to a Brahmin family in Kerala, Shankara showed early signs of inclination towards spirituality. When he was three years old, he saw a drama-play of Kathopanishad where a young boy (seeker) goes to Lord Yama (Lord of Death) for gaining knowledge of the Self. The next day of the play, the person who acted as Lord Yama died. Young Shankara saw this not as the death of a person but as the death of Lord Yama himself. On seeing this, he started thinking, “If Lord Yama also has to die, then what is Life?”

His father passed away when he was a young boy. By the time he was seven years old, he was very clear that he had to choose the spiritual path for his life. Today, when we think, our minds cannot even accept this as a fact as to how a child of seven years can have a firm conviction that he has to lead a spiritual life. But believe it or not, Shankara did. At the tender age of eight, he somehow managed to get his mother’s permission to let him take Sanyasa (renunciate). He then set off on foot not knowing where to go or whom to connect with. All he knew was that he had to take Sanyasa. He travelled across lands, crossed streams, lakes, forests, villages and finally came to the banks of river Narmada at Omkareshwar (now in Madhya Pradesh) where he met his guru Govindapada. Under him, Shankara studied for eight years. He mastered the Prasthana Traya (three main texts on Hindu Philosophy) – Upanishads, Bhagawad Geeta & Brahma Sutras.

By this time, Shankara had turned sixteen. One day he asked his guru if he could write commentary on the Prasthana Traya. On hearing this question from this enthusiastic teenager, his guru couldn’t control his laughter. He said, “I appreciate your eager and enthusiasm. But these are the texts of high philosophical truths. To start off with, you can write a commentary on Vishnu Sahasra Nama (1000 names of Lord Vishnu). And then, we shall see”. As an obedient student, Shankara agreed and started working on it. For every name in the 1000 names, he used Etymology (study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time), went into the depth of Sanskrit grammar and found out the origin and meanings of every name and gave an elaborate explanation. When he showed his work to his teacher, the latter was stunned. He couldn’t believe that a teenager could produce such a work. Realising Shankara’s true potential, Govindapada gave him permission to write commentaries on the Prasthana Traya. Shankara wrote Bhashyas (commentaries) on ten main Upanishads, Brahma Sutras & Bhagawad Geeta. He also wrote many Prakarana Granthas (philosophical treatises) like Tattvabodha, Atmabodha, Vivekachoodamani, Shatasloki, Dashasloki, Nirvana Shatkam, etc. In addition to these, he composed Stotras (hymns). To name a few would be Bhaja Govindam, Kanakadhara Stotram, Saundaryalahari and Bhavaniashtakam.

Hindu culture was at a decaying point at the time of Shankara. The fall of the Hindu culture started when the Shastras (Hindu scriptures) were misused. People started misusing the knowledge for money-making. Many wrong rituals like animal sacrifices were being performed by people. What constituted of Hindu religion was only of such unhealthy rituals and beliefs and the philosophy was long lost somewhere. At such a point Buddha and Mahavira, two great contemporaries, took people away from such rituals. Buddha being a very compassionate person focused on Ahimsa (non-violence) very much. The same was the case with Mahavira. The situation got worse when the Kings wrongly understood Ahimsa and dropped weapons. This brought the state to a terrible state of affairs. Buddha & Mahavira definitely changed a lot of wrong practices. But unknowingly, people had moved away from the philosophy of Hinduism. Buddha was against idol worship. But his followers started worshipping his idols. It was because; those people had not evolved to such a level where they could imagine of a formless God. Buddhism had taken a new turn and Hinduism got all the more confusing. When Shankara arrived, there were 75 schools of thoughts in Hinduism, each having its own leaders and followers proclaiming that theirs is the perfect way and all others’ are wrong. There was confusion from top to bottom of India and this confusion was sorted out by one man in just 16 years.

At the age of seventeen, he set his march to the length and breadth of India. He met different people, scholars & kings and convinced them of their wrong belief systems and what the actual Hindu scriptures speak about. Imagine going into a kingdom and declaring that their belief system is wrong. He wouldn’t have had his head if he did that. But how he used his strategic mind is really mind-blowing. He usually went to the topmost person of a school of thought or in a kingdom and called them for debates. In such debates, Shankara shook their beliefs with strong logical reasoning from the scriptures. Thus, convinced with Shankara’s teaching, the leaders accepted that their thinking was wrong and followed Shankara. Along with the leaders, the followers too. He knew that to bring back the lost history, he needs to get the people at the top, the rest will follow.

Upto the age of 32 (sixteen years of service), he travelled across India and spread the knowledge of the scriptures. He established four main Mathas (monasteries) in four parts of India – Sringeri (Karnataka), Dwarka (Gujarat), Puri (Orissa) and Jyotir (Badrinath). He prescribed the Pooja rituals and mantras for temples. He organized the monastery structures under different titles like Saraswathy, Puri, Tirtha, etc as per their prescribed mantras. He had even established an order of Sanyasis called ‘Naagas’ who were like the police among Sanyasis. They would go up to someone who might be clad in orange robe and verify if he is really a Sanyasi or fake one just wearing the garb for getting alms. It was the responsibilities of the cop-Sansyasis to ensure that there are no imposters so that people lose faith in the real ones.

All this is just to give a glimpse of what Shankara achieved in sixteen years. Today, we cannot think of any other man who must have achieved such a great feat in such a short span of time.

What we are going to see in the coming notes are the philosophical thoughts of such a great versatile genius who Swami Chinmayananda rightly called – the Spiritual General of India.

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