Who was Adi Shankaracharya?


How he became Adi Shankaracharya

“Who are you?’ asked Guru Govindapada to a 9-year-old boy named Shankara, sitting opposite him. Of frail look and wheatish complexion, Shankara had been looking for a guru to initiate him into a spiritual discipline. He had travelled all the way from Kaladi in Kerala up to Omkareshwar, near the banks of Narmada river, in the present-day Madhya Pradesh., where he met the great spiritual master Guru Govindapada.

If one encounters the question ‘Who are you?’, it is a natural tendency to describe your name, family details, profession, caste etc. However, Shankara was a unique boy. To define who you are, it is very important to define who you aren’t. Shankara did this with immaculate precision! In order to introduce himself, he composed the world-famous Nirvana Shatakam of which the first stanza goes as follows:

मनोबुद्ध्यहङ्कार चित्तानि नाहं
न च श्रोत्रजिह्वे न च घ्राणनेत्रे ।
न च व्योम भूमिर्न तेजो न वायुः
चिदानन्दरूपः शिवोऽहम् शिवोऽहम् ॥१॥

I am not the mind, the intellect, the ego or the memory, I am not the five senses, I am not the five elements, I am the form of consciousness and bliss, I am the eternal consciousness, Shiva.

I won’t reinvent the wheel, by writing all the hymns and it’s translations. For the complete composition and translation, please refer to this text: Nirvana Shatakam. Impressed by Shankara’s intellect, Govindapada accepted him as a disciple and gave him the name ‘Shankaracharya’. He went on to create such a spiritual heritage that even twelve centuries later, he is a household name in India and revered as ‘Adi Shankaracharya’ or first Shankaracharya

The origins of the genius

Who was this nine-year-old boy? This question was not relevant for Govindapada since he was enamoured by the very brilliance and radiance of the boy. However, it is important for us to know his background and how he reached Govindapada. Shankara was born in Kaladi, present-day Kerala in India, to a brahmin couple named Sivaguru and Aryamba. Shankara was a prodigious boy and therefore learnt all the languages of the land by the age of three. Later on, he went on to master Sanskrit by the age of five and subsequently, the Vedas by the time he was eight years old.

Birthplace of Adi Shankaracharya

However, tragedy struck him when he lost his father. At his father’s cremation, he had a moment of realisation similar to the one that Gautama Buddha had. He thought to himself “We have not come in this world to live like a householder and perish. We need to serve others and pursue something higher.” Hence he decided to renounce the household life and become a ‘sannyasin’ or a monk. However, his mother did not permit him to do so, since he was her only son and desired to see him married.

The cursed crocodile

Shankara was in a dilemma. His heart yearned to enter sannyasa, but his mother wasn’t permitting him to do so. A person can enter sannyasa in two cases; either no one should be dependent on him or the one who is dependent should voluntarily permit him. One should not think that Shankara did not love his mother. According to legends, when his mother was ill and was unable to go to the nearby Periyar river for a bath, he prayed to the river to change its course closer to their hut. The river changed its course! However, a greater destiny awaited him away from home.

Eventually, by fate or by design, an event happened. Once, while taking bath in the Periyar river, a crocodile caught hold of Shankara’s feet. Shankara’s wail caught his mother’s attention. She shouted for help, but no one responded. Shankara pounced upon this opportunity and said “Mother, by chanting some mantras, I will make this crocodile spare me. But I have a condition. You must permit me to accept sannyasa. Worldly pleasures are like a crocodile that can engulf you. Sanyasa is the only way to escape the crocodile of pleasures.” According to legends, the crocodile was a Gandharva cursed by the sage Durvasa and was bound to be liberated from the curse by Adi Shankaracharya.

Shankara and the crocodile

Nonetheless, out of concern for her child, the unwilling mother permitted Shankara to accept sanyasa. However, she extracted a promise from him that he would come to her when she would remember him on her deathbed, in order to perform her last rites.

Shankara Vijaya

After being initiated into Sanyasa, Shankara moved northward to Tungabhadra river. Thereon, he took a southern turn towards Sringeri and later towards Kolur in present-day Karnataka in India. Near Kolur he consecrated Mookambika temple and spent some time meditating on the mountain Kodachadri near Shimoga. Later he moved northward to Gokarna and finally crossing the Narmada river, he reached Omkareshwara to meet his guru Govindapada.

After completing his education with Govindapada, he got involved in a series of debates and discussions with multiple scholars including his world-famous debate with Mandan Mishra and his wife. After defeating the couple and initiating them into Sanyasa, he took up a unique initiative called ‘Digvijaya yatra’. Accordingly, he travelled across the Indian subcontinent i.e from Kanyakumari in the south to Kashmir in the north, from Rawalpindi in the west to Assam in the east, he held various debates. The purpose of these debates was not to deride someone but to exchange ideas. This tied the entire Indian subcontinent into one spiritual thread, which helped this culture survive the onslaught of invaders thereafter.

However, after the Digvijay, his mother remembered him on her deathbed. Immediately he rushed to Kaladi, to fulfil his promise to her. After his mother’s death, Shankaracharya had no worldly obligations left. Yet, he kept travelling across the land. He achieved superhuman feats, wrote numerous books, defeated all the scholars of the land and tied the entire nation into one spiritual thread with the four Shankaracharya mathas in four directions. Finally at the age of 32, as per legends, he disappeared i.e. being a yogi of the highest order, he had complete control over the elements.


Let me spare some words for his eternal philosophy of Advaita, according to which man is one with the supreme. Here is an interesting read on Advaita Vedanta.

Image credit: http://shankaraguru.blogspot.com/2009/12/sankara-was-born-in-very-poor-family-in.html

Also read: Vedanta – Going beyond the Vedas

Prasad Kulkarni is a Data and Analytics professional. At work, he analyses historical data and ponders over historical events otherwise.

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