Sri Adi Shankaracharya

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To millions of Indians, their most valued possession is their belief in their spirituality and its traditions. It is the most precious gift that has been instilled into this nation, whose lives were on the verge of materialism but for the emergence of one of their greatest saints, Shankaracharya. The present structure of the Saraswati Sannyasa order, along with the structure of other sannyasa lineages, is the result of his nation-wide spiritual reforms and influences.

Sri Adi Shankaracharya


Founder of the Dasnami Sannyasa Tradition


The objective of this literary study is to discover more about Sri Adi Shankaracharya.

Introduction:

Locating information on the life and teachings of Shankaracharya was not difficult. By scanning the glossary of most Yoga and Indian philosophy books, one finds references to him even if only a few words everywhere. The topic of traditional and contemporary sannyasa is covered comprehensively in ‘Sannyasa Darshan’, a book written by Paramahamsa Niranjanananda Saraswati. Swamiji’s book contains a collection of lectures given during a Sannyasa Training Course held at Munger in 1991. According to Paramahamsa Niranjanananda, sannyasa as we know it today, is a vision of sannyasa life, introduced by Shankara in order to spread Advaita Philosophy among the people.
Another absorbing piece of literature is ‘Sankara Digvijaya,The Traditional Life of Sri Shankaracharya’ by Madhava-Vidyaranya. This translation of the original authors work, preserves its poetic aspect, relating stories of mythological type events, yet still manages to convey to the reader some basic understanding of the great Acharya’s life.

There are several other authors who have made attempts to write about Shankara’s life and they too supply adequate information. Unfortunately some writers bring to the reader’s attention the many contradictions regarding the chronological order of events of Shankara’s life. Such was the impact of his reformation of the nation’s spiritual beliefs, that there have been recordings of as many as thirty-five other philosophers bearing the same name. Shankara established Maths in the four corners of India, the heads of these modem day Maths are known as Acharyas, meaning teacher, and over the ages some Acharya’s have borne the same name as their renowned predecessor. It appears that this has caused some confusion and inaccuracy concerning which events should be accredited to Sri Adi Shankaracharya, the first Shankaracharya.

This however, does not detract from the potency of his teachings, the lineages he created nor the spiritual aspects that have been nurtured by his followers for centuries.

Childhood:

According to Paramahamsa Niranjanananda Saraswati who is the author of one of the source texts called Sannyasa Darshan, Shankara was born around the year 686AD, in the village of Kaladi in the Karali state. Approaching middle age and still childless, his parents Shivaguru and Vishishta Devi spent some time on the Vrishna mountain near their village. They worshipped Lord Chandra Maulishwar Shiva in the temple, living off fruits, berries and roots and it was during this period of austerities that Lord Shiva came to Shivaguru in a dream. Acknowledging his sincere devotion, Lord Shiva asked Shivaguru of his greatest wish, to which he replied, “Bless me with a long living omniscient son”. Lord Shiva told him an omniscient son would be short lived and a long living son would not be omniscient, so Shivaguru prayed that his son would be omniscient. Lord Shiva replied “Your wish will be fulfilled, I myself will come to your family as your son”

Shankara proved to be a remarkable child with divine abilities that were obvious to all. His father vowed to send him to the gurukul for spiritual training when he reached the age of five, unfortunately Shivaguru passed away before the time had arrived and Vishishta Devi went to live in the home of her father with her young son. However, when Shankara reached his fifth year his mother honored her dead husband’s last wish and returned to their village to send her son to the gurukul.

Vishishta Devi received glowing reports about her son from those who travelled between the Ashram and her village. In just two years Shankara had mastered studies that would normally take twenty years or so to complete, therefore at the age of seven he returned to his mother’s home. Many stories of this remarkable boy spread all over India including tales of his miraculous powers.

Four Brahmins who had come to meet the young boy in his home asked to see Shankara’s horoscope, from this they predicted that he would become a great teacher wandering all over the country, but that his life would be short. They said that he would die at the age of eight, sixteen or thirty-two.

After the visit from the Brahmins, Shankara begged his mother to let him take sannyasa and go in search of his guru, she was reluctant to see her son leave home once again but after much persuasion Vishishta Devi realised that she had to let him go. Shankara assured his mother that in her last hours she would just have to think of him for him to appear before her, and she would receive her Lord’s Darshan.(Materialised form)

As is the tradition, his mother dressed him in Ochre robes, gave him a staff and kamandalu (water pot). Shankara lit the fire himself and performed his own initiation. The whole village came to witness the ceremony and watched as he left the village, just eight years of age and on his own.

Guru:

Govindapada, was said to be waiting for someone, he had heard tales of the young boy and awaited his arrival. Shankara’s journey toward his guru took him over hazardous terrain where dangerous confrontations with evil men or wild animals were conceivable. He had been told of an ancient guru living in a cave beside the Narmada River at Omkareshwar. The Narmada was north of his village and within two months he approached the cave of his guru.

It was soon obvious to Govindapada, himself an enlightened being, that Shankara was Shiva come to earth in human form (Incarnated). He was delighted with his new pupil who observed the traditional rules that must be applied between teacher and disciple. Under the guidance of Govindapada, Shankara mastered everything in Hatha, Raja and Jnana Yoga in only three years, after which he received initiation in the knowledge of Brahma.

According to Swami Satyeswarandana Giri in his biography series Babaji, Vol 1, ‘The Divine Himalayan Yogi’, Shankaracharya was also blessed by the Ageless Yogi, Maha Muni Babaji, who taught him perfection of the Raja yoga disciplines. He practiced in the Himalayas at Kedarnath how to attain the spontaneous state of consciousness.

Shankara’s new knowledge of the secrets of Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi expanded his spiritual powers and accomplishments. It is said that during the third year of his stay with his guru, the monsoons caused the river Narmada to rise threatening to flood Govindapada’s cave. Shankara placed a water pot at the entrance of the cave and this one pot miraculously drew all the floodwaters.

Govindapada told Shankara of his guru’s guru, Sukadeva, who had predicted the coming of someone who would do a fete such as he had. “That person I absolutely know to be you Shankara, your mission is to assimilate all of the Vedic teachings of the Brahma Sutras and spread the truth throughout the nation”.

It is unclear to me at this stage exactly when it was that Shankara left his Guru. According to Paramahamsa Satyananda in one of his satsangs, Shankara spent eight years with Govindapada studying scriptures such as the Upanishads. This would have made him sixteen years of age when he set out on his crusade to the four corners of India. Or was it at the age of sixteen that he went into the Himalayas where he encountered Babaji, l am unsure, the texts are sometimes a little vague when it comes to chronology of events.

Never the less, as written in Paramahamsa Niranjanananda’s book, after Shankara left the cave to begin his mission, Govindapada closed his eyes, focused on his eyebrow centre and directing his prana at the Thousand Petalled Lotus of Sahasrara, attained Maha Samadhi and Moksha ( liberation from the cycle of rebirth and absolute oneness with the divine).

Babaji

Sri Adi Shankaracharya was also a disciple of the immortal Yogi Babaji. This has been revealed by very reliable Yogic authorities and sources such as: the Himalayan Yogi Swami Satyeswarananda Giri in his Biographical text “Babaji (Volume 1) the Divine Himalayan Yogi“ ©1984 has stated that the immortal Mahamuni Babaji initiated the great Monist Sri Adi Sankaracharya into Raja Yoga (sometimes called the “astanga” eightfold path – which includes concentration of mind with the breath along the Sushumna, and dissolving the mind into Samadhi) in Benares, and that Shankaracharya practiced his Sadhana in the Himalayas at Kedarnath so that he could attain the spontaneous state of consciousness. Swami Satyeswarananda Giri was told this by Paramhansa Brahmananda. The Danish Yogi, Swami Janakananda Saraswati in his Yoga School’s journal Bindu No:5 has stated that according to Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Kriya Yoga today comes from a group of Swamis who have kept it secret, and used it from generation to generation. Initially, Swami Satyananda says that “it can be traced back to Sri Adi Shankaracharya in the eighth century A.D”.

Teachings:

Advaita philosophy was originally known as the “Forest Philosophy”. It got this name because it was so sanctified that it was not allowed to be preached to the people and was only practiced in the forests by monks who passed their secrets on to other sannyasins. (Swamis)

Western students of philosophy find the teachings of Shankaracharya intellectually demanding because although he preached the non-duality of Advaita Vedanta philosophy, he worshipped at Shiva temples, contradicting the non-duality theory. Other western critics, when referring to the Maya Doctrines that describe the world as a snare of delusion, point out that the Upanishads have a more optimistic and positive view of life.

Paramahamsa Satyananda during his video Darshan series mentions that at the age of sixteen Shankaracharya wrote commentaries on the Upanishads and other philosophies. This statement is supported by Swami Nikhilananda in his book ‘Self Knowledge of Sri Sankaracarya (note the different spelling of his name) who writes of Shankara’s commentaries of the Bhagavad Gita, the Brahma-Sutras and the principal Upanishads. Swami Nikhilananda also states that Shankara reformed the Sanatan Dharma, which is the ancient religion of Hindus. He rewrote this in a more simplified and logical format, which was easy for the ordinary people understand, inspiring them to once again follow a spiritual path.

For children, Shankara wrote the Bhaja Govindam, a musical rhythmic verse, which was so lyrical that children would sing it to themselves over and over again unaware of the profound effect it was having on their spiritual evolution. He also wrote of attachment in the Moha Mudgara, which removed the delusions of the youth and reaffirmed the faith of those who were already following his beliefs.

It was not by his penmanship alone that Shankara won the hearts of his countrymen. A tireless worker for twenty years, he moved around their country, not only debating with other great spiritual leaders but also winning the debates. Many of his adversaries in fact became his disciples. He was also a mighty organiser and diplomat, establishing Maths, opening places of education and founding temples wherever he went.

The establishment of four Maths in the four corners of India brought about a major reformation in Indian spiritual life. For years various forms of ascetics, yogis and sadhus had been wandering the country. Shankara’s vision was to consolidate their spiritual strengths in a more unified sannyasa arrangement; this is the nucleus of the Dasnami Order of Sannyasa of which there are ten orders. Shankara gave a significant title to each of the orders, our lineage of Saraswati being one of them and along with the title, they were assigned a particular Upanishad on which to focus. Each of the orders were allocated to a particular Math:

Saraswati, Bharati and Puri Shringiri (South)
Tirtha and Ashrama Dwarka (West)
Giri, Parvata and Sagara Jyotir (North)
Vanam and Aranyam Govardhan (East)

The sannyasins were encouraged to wear Geru (ochre coloured cloth) and to communicate the Advaita philosophies to the people, through spiritual gatherings. In turn, the sannyasins would be provided for by the members of society who followed their teachings. Strong emphasis was placed on renunciation of all worldly attachments if they were to receive liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. An authentic Living Guru/Disciple (Lineage) tradition was thus created.

Disciples:

Shankara had numerous disciples. As mentioned previously, so impressed were many of his adversaries in debate that they and their followers became devotees of his teachings. The most acknowledged of his disciples were those chosen and instructed by Shankara to travel to the four corners of India to head the established teaching Maths of the Dasnami Order. These disciples were great scholars in their own right and have been recognised for their contribution to the ancient scriptures, each was bestowed the title of ‘Acharya’

Padmapada was sent to Puri in the east, Trotakacharya went north to Badrinath. Hastamalaka went to Dwarka, the western most point of India and Sureshwaracharya was ordered to travel to Sringiri in Southern India.

Each of the disciples received a Crystal (Sphatik) Shiva-Linga from Shankaracharya to be used as objects of worship and Meditation. Shiva-Lingas are regarded as being the missing link between the manifest and the unmanifest realms of the psyche (Symbol of our Astral body) and through the presence of these Shiva-Lingas worshippers and Meditators may aspire to greater stages of consciousness.

Final Days:

After giving his disciples their final instructions, Shankara’s mission was complete. It was the year 718AD and as had been prophesied by the Brahmans when he was a small child, Shankara had reached the final year of his life. He was just thirty-two years of age and his work (Mission) was complete, opposition to his Vedic beliefs had subsided and his followers were to carry on his work.

Setting off from the Jyotir Ashram (Badrinath) in the Himalayan north of India he headed toward the nearby Mountainous region of Kedarnath,. the place that was destined to be his final resting place. His four chief disciples accompanied him part of the way, but then Shankara insisted they go no further as the final part of his journey was to be completed alone. Even to this day there is a spring of hot water, which is said to have been manifested by Shankara to alleviate the suffering of his disciples from effects of the cold in the snow-clad mountains.

Now alone at Kedarnath, Shankaracharya sat and merged into Samadhi. In this state he communed with the highest levels of consciousness which allowed access for Shiva’s present physical form to return to its pristine state in Shiva-Loka (Shiva’s heavenly abode).

Conclusion:

Shankaracharya has been paralleled with the great spiritual teachers, such as Buddha and Christ in that they were Avatars (Divine Incarnations) each said to be highly evolved spiritually at birth. In the ancient tradition of India such individuals have had a greater and more lasting impact on the population and culture than people of wealth or political power. Such is the spiritual influence Shankaracharya has had over mankind through the ages.

Shankara’s commentaries on the Vedantic texts, his interpretations of the Upanishads and his poetry and hymns are written in an overtly poetic and lyrical fashion. In contrast to modern texts, literature coming from that period is extremely poetic and written so enchantingly that one is sometimes taken away within the realms of fantasy. There is no denying the reality of Shankara’s existence, nor his legacy to mankind, in particular to the people of India. His knowledge of the Vedic texts and his dedication in unifying the spiritual beliefs of the nation has made him a legendary figure of India who is deservedly recognised as a reincarnation of the Lord Shiva.

I was moved by the closing paragraph in the introduction of a book called ‘The Quintessence of Vedanta’, published in 1960 by Sri Rama Krishna Advaita Ashram, Kalady who summarises:

“The thoughts of Shankara sums up the goal of mankind, every living creature aspires to realize, where there is no fear, jealousy nor passions, only love and the desire of perfect beatitude “.

References

Madhava-Vidyarana, ‘Sankara Digvijaya, The Traditional Life of Sri Sankaracharya’, (1986),
Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, India

Paramahamsa Niranjanananda Saraswati, ‘Sannyasa Darshan’, (1993),
Sri Panchdashnam Paramahamsa Alakh Bara, Rikhiadham ~ Deoghar, Jharkhand, India

Swami Mumukshananda (1991), ‘Vedanta - Voice of Freedom’,
Advaita Ashram, India

Swami Satyeswarananda Giri, (1992) ‘Babaji, Vol 1, The Divine Himalayan Yogi,
The Sanskrit Classics, San Diego, USA

Paramahamsa Satyananda - video, (1987) ‘Darshan with Paramahamsaji,
Selected Satsangs at Bihar School of Yoga
Ganga Darshan, Bihar, India

‘The Quintessence of Vedanta’, (1960), Sri Ramakrishna Advaita Ashram, Kalady

Swami Nikhilananda, (1967) ‘Self Knowledge of Sri Sankaracarya’,
Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, India

Chinmaya Publications Trust ‘Bhagwan Shri Shankaracharya’,
Madras, India

‘New Illustrated Columbia Encyclopedia’ Vol 23, (1979),
Columbia University Press, New York

http://www.himalayanacademy.com./Ministers/Jayendra/Jayendra.html

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