Shankaram Loka Shankaram


S. Ainavolu

5/10/2022 9 min read


Shri Shankara Jayanti, the birthday of Shri Adi Shankaracharya is celebrated every year on Vaishakha Shuddha Panchami. Wise attributes cultural unity and continuation of Sanatana dharma over the recent millennium and a half to Adi Shankaracharya and his impactful efforts during his thirty-two years of life. Seekers acknowledge and offer salutations by saying ‘Namami Bhagavatpadam Shankaram Loka Shankaram’. He is referred to as Adi Shankaracharya, as he established the tradition of Shankara Maths, and now four different Shankaracharyas preside in each of these four institutions.

Context and the times

As per the Indian Philosophical chronology, the Vedic and Epic periods appeared initially. Then the Sutra age followed and then the literary age. Post-Vedic age the Bharata varsha came under the influence of Buddhist and Jaina traditions. These “schools” are referred to as avaidic traditions and followed nastika vada methods, as opposed to ‘astika’ schools. These do not accept the supremacy of the Vedas. Over centuries, there were influences of these two sects popularized by Gautama/Siddhartha (Buddha) and Mahavir/Jina (Jaina) respectively. Many of the then kings followed Jainism. Ashoka and a few kings followed Buddhism. As against the predominant domestic presence of Jainism, Buddhism went overseas. Many of the Indian classical philosophical and literary works got translated into such countries’ languages by Buddhists. An instance is Amarakosha by Amarasimha got translated into Chinese. Thus, the overall influence of non-Vedic traditions increased over a millennium since the beginning of Buddhism and Jainism.

Driving confusion in the context further are Vedic schools that got divided. The traditions of one school differed from the other and the practices were looked down on by other schools. Broadly Vedic schools believed in Karma theory. However, importance has to be given to Jnana or Karma was the point of divergence. Vedas were divided into four parts along the lines of Samhita, Brahmana, Aranya, and Upanishads. These intuitively referred to the four stages of human life. Here, we need to recall the four stages of life (ashrama) viz. Brahmacharya, Grihasta, Vanaprastha, and Sanyasa. Among the four Vedas too, the emphasis on or importance given to Karma Kanda differed widely. So, the needed convergence was missing and the divergence over-articulated added to the confusion. These were the times before Shri Adi Shankaracharya appeared to drive clear order and establish the supremacy of the truth.

Birth and early years

The blessed couple of Shivaguru and Aryamba had a son who was named Shankara, believed to be an embodiment of the Jnana form of Shiva. He was made ‘dwija’ (through ‘thread’ ceremony) and sent to learn vidya, which he mastered by eighth year. He mastered sarva shastras by the age of twelve and could write the Bhashyas (commentaries) to classicals soon. During the early years itself, he became ‘Bala sanyasi’, getting into the turiya ashrama. He obtained the consent of his mother to change the ‘ashrama’ and adopt Sanyasa.

Born in Kerala at Kalady, Adi Shankaracharya came to Narmada banks in Central India for his Guru. He became the disciple of Govinda Bhagavatpada, a disciple of Gaurapada. Then he travelled to Varanasi. He later covered all corners of India. He established four maths in four directions of the country. Being a reformist within the tradition, in addition to organizing the religion of that time, he brought in required reforms. For instance, when his mother moved on from the physical world, being a Sanyasi he did not hesitate to perform the ‘Agni samskara’ of the body of his mother. A big no during those times. He also demonstrated the power of will. He reportedly made the Purna river change course and Narmada take a rest from the spate. The intellectual output he produced in a short span of time itself looks like a major miracle.

Life and works

The breadth and depth of Adi Shankaracharya’s contributions can make students of any level awe-inspired. By offering commentaries on ‘Prasthanatrayam’ (Bhagavadgita, Upanishads, and Brahmasutras), he clarified the context and simplified the teachings for all. Vedic literature became limited in circulation during the later period. Maharshi Vyasa himself wrote Puranas and composed other works so that gist of Vedic wisdom is available with less learned as well. Earlier Vyasa divided Veda into four parts titled Rig, Yaju, Sama, and Atharva. This was done as the Kaliyug was approaching and ‘Shruti’ (hearing to remember) by only one fully was not possible, as felt by him. Thus, he offered these four ‘Vedas’ to four of his disciples. Due to this act of classifying/dividing Vedas, he is called ‘Veda Vyasa’.

Upanishads are the latter portion of Vedas and these number over a hundred to chiefly ten. Adi Shankaracharya wrote commentaries on these. The commentaries are called bhashya. Bhagavadgita is from Shri Mahabharat, also known as ‘Jaya’, a tome of the highest order. Gita as it is shortly called is the conversation on the aspects of dharma (what is the appropriate action at a given point of time for a person) between Shri Krishna and Arjuna. Contextual understanding and interpretational ability are required for appreciating Gita. Shri Adi Shankaracharya helped generations with his commentary. Similarly, his illustrating work on Brahmasutras.

Stotra literature

Divine power embodied in a form can be approached from various routes. Puja or worship is the most practiced. Japa using a mantra is another approach. Here the mantra, a combination of complex root+ letters (beej+aksharas) is more potent and has many restrictions in its use. The third approach is singing the glory of the divine power using Sanskrit songs called Strotras. Stuti is extolling the divine power and stotra typically has few stanzas, first glorifying, then appealing, and concluding with ‘phala’ (result) of what benefits one can get by reciting the stotra. This is more user-friendly than Vedic chants (that need the right intonation) and less restrictive than the beej-akshara-based Japa. ‘Pradeshika’ bhasha (local languages) forms of stotras called Bhajans that appeared later during the Bhakti period have democratized the divine worship and took it to masses. Stotra sahitya by Shri Adi Shankaracharya probably paved the way.

Composing numerous strotrams (extolling hymns) for different purposes, Adi Shankaracharya emphasized the ‘applied’ nature of our shastra knowledge. Living in this world we have many needs and we need the means for addressing the requirements. Puritan way of admonishing saying that ‘you should not have worldly desires’ may not work for many. As we have requirements, we need solutions as well. As students of any age, we need the grace of the ‘learning related’ Gods. Adi Shankaracharya provided us with Shri Dakshinamurthy Stotram for the purpose. The entire guru tattvam is embodied in this stotram and is the epitomical representation of Advaita (monism) philosophy.

Often the perplexing questions are, who we are and the purpose of existence. If we need clarity on ‘who am I’, the answer is given to us by Shri Adi Shankaracharya through ‘Nirvana Shatkam’, through simple negation of known attributes/dimensions. Here it is declared that what one is ‘pure blissful consciousness’. That’s all. The ‘makuta’ says it - ‘chidananda rupam shivoham shivoham’. Here, the negation of known dimensions are many. Neither manas/ buddhi/ ahankar/ chitta, nor punya/ papa/ sukha/ dukha, nor mantra/ tirtha/ yagnya/ veda etc. Here, the declaration is that ‘self is the witnessing power’ behind all the functional units and the impressions resulting from such functional acts. It is the ‘one behind’, nirvikalpa and nirakara rupa.

Often seekers are introduced to Shankara Sahitya through the innocuous looking line ‘Bhajagovindam bhajagovindam govindam bhaja moodhamate’. It is a part of the stotra that is rhyming, exhorting, and even rudely awakening with choicest words. This stotra is called ‘Mohamudgara’ or popularly as ‘Bhaja Govinda’ stotram. This was given when an old Brahmin was struggling with grammar rules at an advanced age. He was told of the need to worship the ultimate saviour (Bhaja + Govindam). Keeping it simple and straight (KISS), the stotram directs the attention of the seeker to the inevitable and the need for ‘Bhaja Govindam’. We are told through the old Kashi brahmin character that youth/ money/ power are ephemeral, all attachments shall go with prana, we waste time during different stages of life spending on frivolities etc. Take away from this stotram is ‘get aligned early’ for the ‘jeevoddhara’! Most of us spend our entire lives on ‘jeevitoddhara’, and the ‘jeevoddhara’ agenda remains often unfinished.

For many, life on Earth is a struggle. Most ‘Grihastis’ (householders) often find themselves short of resources or outcomes. These shortages can be of different genres, at the material level, or even recognition/ respect/ fulfillment. Adi Shankaracharya with kindness towards the desperate seekers offered ‘Kanakadhara’ Stotram. Etymologically Kanaka+Dhara means poured-in stream of gold. The context of the stotram is, that a poor woman when visited by Adi Shankaracharya for ‘bhiksha’ had nothing to offer. The lady found only a dry gooseberry (amla) and offered it apologetically to the brahmachari. Empathizing with the poverty of the place, Adi Shankaracharya appealed to Mother Goddess in the form of Lakshmi and urged her to grace the precincts of the lady. Then was the pouring-in of golden gooseberries there. A very powerful appeal is made through this stotram, and it clears many doubts as well. The confusion that bothers most sadhakas is ‘what is the role of the prarabdha’? If one doesn’t have much Punya in the ‘opening balance’ of this life, how can things come to us in this life? Shri Adi Shankaracharya appeals to Mother saying that ‘your graceful look is sufficient to remove any dush-karma’. Thus, though he advocated Jnana, he also emphasized the Bhakti marga. This may be the reason why the wise attribute the phrase ‘Jnana Bhakti’ to Adi Shankaracharya.

Planning the path forward

To keep up the Sanatana dharma and inspire generations, Shri Adi Shankaracharya established mathas in four (NEWS) directions of our country. These are established at near Badri, Jagannadha Puri, Dwaraka, and Shringeri. Each of these are called appropriate ‘amnaaya’ peethas. For instance, Shringeri matha which is in the Southern part of India is called Dakshina-amnaaya peetham. The four senior disciples of Shri Adi Shankaracharya were appointed as the first ‘Shankaracharyas’ of each of these maths. Accordingly, Thotakacharya, Hastamalaka, Padmapada, and Sureshwaracharya were asked to take forward the works of four directional maths. Each of these maths was to specialize in one Veda, Atharva, Rig, Sama, and Yajur. Each of these mathas were to contemplate on each of mahavakyas, ‘ayam atma brahma’, ‘pragnanam bramha’, ‘tatvam asi’, and ‘aham brahmasmi’.

The visionary nature and thought process of Shri Adi Shankaracharya is evident now. After so many invasions from outside the border and gross neglect internally in the country too, the Sanatana dharma is still active and we have reference points to look at and seek clarifications required. These are the very four Shankara mathas. Cultural and social service that is being done by these mathas is worth emulating. The Vedas had many branches and over the thousands of years preceding Shri Adi Shankaracharya, we lost many of the branches. The point of pity we reached is, even the names of these ‘shakhas’ are reportedly can’t be known through any source. The important work to preserve whatever is remaining. The Shankara Mathas and their branches in different places of the country are doing yeoman service of preserving the traditional learnings. In the days of dominating mundane learnings, optional part-time orientations is being offered. Efforts were made to keep alive the family traditions of learning through ‘kumara-adhyapaka’ method of father becoming the teacher to the child and teaching him the Vedic knowledge the father inherited. The clarity brought in by Shri Adi Shankaracharya is preserved through sustained efforts of these Shankara mathas.

On a closing note

We call Shri Krishna as Jagadguru by saying ‘Krishnam Vande Jagadgurum’. Krishna said during Gita pravachanam that ‘yadha yadahi darmasya, glaani..’, meaning whenever there is trouble for the Dharma, he shall reappear from time to time. Shri Adi Shankaracharya is considered to be the avatara of Shiva himself, Dakshinamurthy incarnated. The picture of young Adi Shankaracharya with four disciples is similar to the Dakshinamurthy portrait we see wherein a young Guru is surrounded by four old shishyas.

It is said that Shri Adi Shankaracharya is ‘Shakteya inside, Shaiva by outside appearance, and Vaishnava in conduct’. Thus, he brought in the convergence of major approaches. Inclusive was the approach suggested and followed by him. He established six ways of approaching the truth, and is called ‘Shanmatacharya’. In the tradition we have the method of worship called Panchayatana vidhi. Mother Goddess, Shiva, Vishnu, Surya, and Ganapati are included in ‘pancha’, the five. Shri Shankaracharya broad-based it by including Skanda (Kumara) and defined the ‘Shanmata’. If we reflect on this, we find that all the major schools of worship in different parts of our country are covered by these six. Quick illustration can be through Mother (eastern), Vishnu (north/north-western), Shiva (northern, central), Surya (western), Ganapati (west-central), and Skanda (southern). What an approapriate way of inclusive worship. He was a teacher who believed in inclusive practice and fairness. Sectarian and fissiparious tendencies were never advocated nor encouraged by him. Converged Vedic marga was his view and way.

Shri Adi Shankaracharya inspired generations through his intellect and progressive outlook. And, he still inspires. Millions even this day recite his stotras and thousands are getting trained in the traditional learnings through the matha system provided by him. The common cultural threads we witness when we travel across the country, are largely attributable to the conscious efforts of Shri Adi Shankaracharya. He was a sharp philosopher, empathetic teacher, excellent debater, great nationalist, and a forward-looking socio-cultural leader. Appropriately, the grateful nation included him in Guruvandana and prays ‘Sadashiva samarambham, Shankaracharya madhyamam, Asmadacharya paryantam, Vande Guru Paramparam’ (keeping Shankaracharya in the middle, beginning with Sadashiva to till my Guru, we offer respects to the entire Guru lineage). The best respect probably we can show to Shri Adi Shankaracharya can be by ‘becoming’ like him, both in intellectual pursuit and indclusive conduct. Such a great Guru alone can inspire and help lesser become his equivalents. We know that when the grace of the Guru fills, the Shishya becomes the Guru, and the tradition continues.