Sri Adi Shankara was an 8th century Indian Hindu philosopher and theologian whose teachings had a profound influence on the growth of Hinduism. He was a religious reformist who critiqued the rituals-oriented schools of Hinduism.
Adi Shankara is best remembered for his remarkable reinterpretations of Hindu scriptures and his commentaries on the Vedic scriptures. He was an exponent of the Advaita Vedanta school of philosophy. His teachings on the philosophy have tremendously influenced various sects of Hinduism and have contributed to the development of the modern Indian thought.
Adi Shankara was inclined towards spirituality and religion from a young age. He mastered all the Vedas and the six Vedangas from his guru and travelled widely, In spite of a short lifespan of 32, he left an indelible mark on the development of Hinduism.
There are several discrepancies regarding the year of his birth. However, the mainstream scholarly opinion is that he was born circa 788. He was born into a poor Brahmin family in Kaladi, Chera Kingdom, present day Kerala, India. His parents Sivaguru and Aryamba had been childless for a long time and had prayed to Lord Shiva to bless them with a baby. It is said that Aryamba had a vision of Lord Shiva who promised her that he would be born as her first-born child. Soon she gave birth to a son the boy was named Shankara.
Shankara was a brilliant boy and mastered all the Vedas and Vedangas from the local gurukul. From a young age he wanted to become a Sannyasin (hermit) though his mother disapproved. She wanted him to get married and live the life of a house-holder. Legend has it that he once went to take a bath in the river when a crocodile grabbed his foot. He then called out to his mother to give him permission to become a Sannyasin or else the crocodile will kill him. His mother agreed in desperation, and the crocodile let go of his foot. He emerged unharmed from the river and proceeded to renounce all his worldly attachments.
He wanted to get formally initiated into the sacred order of Sannyasa and thus sought a guru to guide him. He met Swami Govindapada Acharya in a hermitage in Badrikashram (Badrinath) in the Himalayas. He narrated his life’s story to the guru and requested him to accept him as a pupil. Swami Govindapada was very pleased with the youth and initiated him into the sacred order of Sannyasa. He then proceeded to teach Shankara the philosophy of Advaita.
At the behest of his guru, Shankara went to Kashi and there he wrote his commentaries on the Brahma Sutras, the Upanishads and the Gita. He travelled widely, participated in public philosophical debates with religious scholars, preached his teachings to his disciples and founded several “matha” (monasteries).
Shankaracharya challenged various eminent scholars and leaders of various religious sects in vigorous disputes. They championed their own interpretations of the scriptures but the prodigious boy sage was easily able to overcome all of them and make them understand the wisdom of his teachings. These men of stature then accepted Shankaracharya as their Guru.
He established 4 ashrams in four corners of India and entrusted his four disciples to teach and propagate Advaita though them. Their headquarters are at Dvaraka in the West, Jagannatha Puri in the East, Sringeri in the South and Badrikashrama in the North.
In Shankara’s time, there were innumerable sects following their own narrow philosophies and systems of worship. Shankara formulated the six-sect system of worship which brought to the fore the main godheads – Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti, Muruka, Ganesha and Surya.
He was a prolific author and wrote many commentaries. He composed 72 devotional and meditative hymns like Soundarya Lahari and Bhaja Govindam. He also wrote 18 commentaries on the major scriptural texts including the Brahma Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita and 12 major Upanishads. He authored 23 books on the fundamentals of the Advaita Vedanta philosophy.