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Adi Shankara

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Sri Adi Sankara
Sri Adi Sankara

Adi Shankaracharya or Adi Shankara ("the first Shankara" in his lineage), reverentially called Bhagavatpada Acharya (the teacher at the feet of Lord), Shankara (approximately 509- 477 BC (though some claim 788-820 CE)) was the most famous Advaita philosopher who had a profound influence on the growth of Hinduism through his non-dualistic philosophy. He advocated the greatness and importance of the important Hindu scriptures, the Vedas (most particularly on the Upanishads, also known as Vedanta), spoke to a spirituality founded on reason and without dogma or ritualism, and gave new life to Hinduism at a time when Buddhism and Jainism was gaining popularity.



He was born in Kaladi, a small village in Kerala, India. He was born to a Nambuthiri brahmin couple, Sivaguru and Aryamba.

The traditional sources of accounts of Sankara's life are from the Sankara Vijayam s. These are hagiographies on the life of Sankara. The most important among them are the MadhavIya Sankaravijaya , the AnandagirIya Sankaravijaya , cidvilAsIya Sankaravijaya and keralIya Sankaravijaya .

What follows is the generally accepted biography of Sankara.

Sankara's parents had no child for a long time, and prayed at Vadakkumnathan (vRashAcala) temple in Thrissur, Kerala. Legend has it that the Lord Siva appeared before the devout couple and offered them a choice: a mediocre son who will live a long life, or an extraordinary son who will not live long. The couple chose the latter. The son was named Sankara, in honour of the Lord Siva.

Sivaguru passed away in Sankara's infancy. The child showed remarkable scholarship, and is said to have mastered the four Vedas by the age of eight. Following the common practice, Sankara stayed at a teacher's house. On one occasion, while begging for alms, he came upon a woman with nothing but one dried amlaka fruit, which she offered to him with devotion. Moved by her piety, he composed the Kanaka Dhara Stotram. On completion of the stotram, golden amlaka fruits were showered upon the woman by the Goddess Lakshmi. On another occasion, Sankara was bathing in the river, when a crocodile caught him. He asked his mother permission to adopt Sanyasa (the ascetic life), and when his mother relented, the crocodile released him. This is the legend of Sankara's adoption of Samnyasa.

Sankara then left Kerala and travelled thoroughout India. When he reached the banks of the river Narmada, he met Govinda Bhagavatpada , the disciple of the Advaitin Gaudapada . As his disciple, Sankara was initiated.

Sankara travelled extensively, meanwhile writing commentaries on the Upanishads, Vishnu sahasranama, and (supposedly) the Bhagavad Gita. He engaged in a series of debates with Buddhist scholars, and with scholars of the Purva Mimamsa school, which helped in cementing the spiritual ascendancy of Sankara. One of the most famous of these debates was with Mandana Misra .

Yet, his most famous encounter was not with the famed ritualist Mandana Misra but with a lowly untouchable. On his way to the Viswanath temple in Kashi, he came upon an untouchable and his dog. When asked to move aside by Sankara's disciples, the untouchable asked: "Do you wish that I move my soul,the atman and ever lasting, or this body made of clay?" Seeing the untouchable as none other than the Lord, Sankara prostrated before Ishwara, composing five slokas (Manisha Panchakam).

Sankara is believed to have attained the Sarvajnapitha in Kashmir. After a while, he withdrew to Kedarnath and attained Samadhi at the age of 32. (A variant tradition expounded by keralIya Sankaravijaya places his place of death as Vadakkumnathan (vRashAcala) temple in Thrissur, Kerala).


During Sankara's time Hinduism had lost some of its appeal, because of the influence of Buddhism and Jainism. Sankara stressed the importance of the Vedas and his work helped Hinduism regain strength and popularity. Although he did not live long, he had traveled on foot to various parts of India to restore the study of the Vedas.

Sankara's theology maintains that spiritual ignorance (avidya) is caused by seeing the self (atman) where self is not. Discrimination needs to be developed in order to distinguish true from false and knowledge (jnana) from ignorance (avidya).

The philosophy that Shankara proposed was powerful and capitalized on years of dormant monist and mystic understandings of existence. He proposed that while the phenomenal universe, our consciousness and bodily being, are certainly experienced, they are not true reality. He did not mean to negate it, but considered that the ultimate truth was Brahman, the one divine ground that is beyond time, space and causation. Brahman is immanent and transcendent, but not merely a pantheistic concept. Indeed, while Brahman is the efficient and material cause for the cosmos, Brahman itself is not limited by its self-projection and indeed transcends all binary opposites/dualities, especially such individuated aspects as form and being, since it is incomprehensible by the human mind. We must pierce through a hazy perspectival lens to understand our true being and nature that is not perennial change and mortality but unmitigated bliss for eternity. If we are to understand the true motive force behind our actions and thoughts, we must become aware of the fundamental unity of being. How, he asks, can a limited mind comprehend the limitless Self? It cannot, he argues, and therefore we must transcend even the mind and become one with Soul-consciousness.

He denounced caste and meaningless ritual as foolish, and in his own charismatic manner, exhorted the true devotee to meditate on God's love and apprehend truth. His treatises on the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Vedanta Sutras are testaments to a keen and intuitive mind that did not want to admit dogma but advocated reason. His greatest lesson was that reason and abstract philosophizing alone would not lead to moksha/liberation. It was only through selflessness and love governed by viveka (discrimination) that would see a devotee realize his inner Self. Charges that his philosophies were influenced by Buddhism are unfounded, since Shankara vehemently opposed negation of being (shunyata) and believed that the unmanifest Brahman manifested itself as Ishwara, the loving, perfect being on high who is seen by many as being Vishnu or Shiva or whatever their hearts dictate. Shankara is said to have traveled throughout India, from the south to Kashmir, preaching to the local populaces and debating philosophy (apparently successfully, though no documentation exists) with Buddhist scholars and monks along the way.

His beliefs form the base of the Smarta tradition,or Smartism which is discussed in the following web site, and

Even though he lived for a mere 32 years, his impact on India and Hinduism cannot be stressed enough, as he countered the increasing sacerdotalism (the belief that priests can mediate between humans and God) of the masses and reintroduced a purer form of Vedic thought. He presented a face of Hinduism that could reasonably contend with Buddhist ideas and spread it, as well as reformist measures, across the land, traveling from as far up as Kashmir from areas in the South of India. His Hindu revival movement paved the way for the strict theistic movements of Ramanuja and Madhva, and helped lead to the decline of Buddhism in much of India.


Books assuredly written by Adi Shankara:

  • The "Crest-Jewel of Discrimination" or Viveka Chudamani , one of his most famous works that summarized his ideas of non-dual Vedanta
  • The commentary Bhasya on the Brahma Sutra
  • The commentary on the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
  • The commentary on the Taittiriya Upanishad
  • The Thousand Teachings or Upadesasahasri
  • A hymn to Krishna as the Herder of Cows, known as Bhaja Govindam
  • A hymn to the Goddess Saundaryalahari
  • Benedictory invocation to Siva and Sakti, namely Sivanandalahari
  • Commentary on Vishnu sahasranama

Books he probably wrote are:

  • The commentary on Gaudapada's Karika to the Mandukya Upanishad
  • The commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, though there is no scholarly agreement on this.

Mathas (Monasteries)

He is said to have founded four mathas (a matha is a monastery or religious order) which are important to this day. These are at Sringeri in Karnataka, in the south; Dwaraka in Gujarat in the west; Puri in Orissa in the east; and Jyotirmath (Joshimath) in Uttaranchal in the north. The heads of the mathas trace their authority back to him.

The matha at Kanchipuram or Kanchi in Tamil Nadu also claims its origin with him. According to this matha, this was where he himself settled in his last days and attained Siddhi (eternal bliss), but most other accounts suggest he spent his last days at Kedarnath. Though the Kanchi matha is highly respected in some quarters, its legitimacy is often questioned: some accounts date its origin to the early 19th century in Kumbakonam, from where it moved to Kanchi in the early 20th century.

External links

  • Swami Sivananda's Biography of Adi Shankara
  • Listen to Shankaracharya's "Bhaja Govindam" in streaming audio
  • Swami Sivananda's explanation of Advaita in his book, All About Hinduism.
  • American historian, Will Durant's article on Shankara's Vedanta.
  • Biography of Adi Shankara
  • Official website of the Shringeri Sharada Peetham
  • Official website of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham
  • Advaita Vedanta Anusandhana Kendra
  • Visit here to see some of Sankara's works
  • Brief life history of Adi Sankara with informative additional links
  • Biography of Sankara at the Advaita Vedanta Library
  • Shankaracharya on OM
  • Kanchi Sathya
  • The story of Sri Adi Shankara

Topics in Hinduism
Primary Scriptures:

Vedas | Upanishads | Bhagavad Gita
Itihasa (Ramayana & Mahabharata) | Agamas

Other texts:

Tantras | Sutras | Puranas | Brahma Sutras
Hatha Yoga Pradipika | Smritis | Yoga Sutra | Tirukural


Avatar | Brahman | Dharma | Karma | Moksha | Maya
Ishta-Deva | Murti | Reincarnation | Samsara | Trimurti | Turiya

Schools & Systems:

Early Hinduism | Schools of Hinduism (Overview) | Samkhya | Nyaya | Vaisheshika
Yoga | Mimamsa | Vedanta | Tantra | Bhakti

Traditional Practices:

Jyotish | Ayurveda


Aarti | Bhajans | Darshan | Mantras | Puja | Satsang | Stotras | Yagnya

Gurus and Saints:

Shankara | Ramanuja | Madhwa | Ramakrishna | Vivekananda | Aurobindo | Ramana Maharshi | Sivananda | Chinmayananda | Sivaya Subramuniyaswami


Vaishnavism | Saivism | Shaktism | Smartism
Agama Hindu Dharma | Contemporary Hindu movements | Survey of Hindu organisations

Last updated: 02-11-2005 06:02:11
Last updated: 03-06-2005 02:13:28