Life History of Adi Shankara & His Explanation of Advaita (Non Duality)

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Founder of Advaita Vedanta, one the most prominent sub-schools of Indian Vedantic philosophy, Adi Shankaracharya is praised as the greatest philosopher that India has produced. From a very young age, Adi Shankara traveled on foot across Indian sub continent and shared Advaita philosophy through discourses and debates. Adi Shankara lived in 700 AD explained the philosophy of the non-dualistic Advaita Vedanta and explained it in a popular style.

Shankara was born in a humble Brahmin family in Kaladi, a village  in the Ernakulam District of Kerala, India, located on the banks of famous River Periyar in Kerala. His father’s name was Sivaguru and his mother’s name was Aryamba.The devoted couple were childless for many years and prayed to Lord Shiva at the famous Vadakkumnatha Temple in Trichur ( new name is Thrissur ) very sincerely for a child.

As a result of their ardent prayers, Lord Shiva appeared in their dream and enquired what type of a child they wanted. Whether they wanted a short-lived, but extra ordinary son or a simple and ordinary child with a long life. They chose the first option. Soon a child was born to them and they named the baby boy Shankara. When he was three years of age, he lost his father, and his widowed mother Aryamba raised him on her own.

One day Shankara’s mother fainted after walking three kilometers for her daily bath in the River Periyar. Feeling helpless, little Shankara prayed to Lord Krishna and moved by his prayers god appeared to him and blessed him by saying, “The river will flow where your little feet mark’s the ground.”

The river took a new course towards the place marked by the little boy’s feet. Since then, the town came to be called Kalady. Prior to this event, the village was called Sasalam. Shankara then installed Lord Krishna’s idol into the present temple, and marked the occasion by reciting his famous Ätchutha Ashtakam.

Young Shankara showed remarkable scholarship, mastering the four Vedas by the age of eight. From the beginning, he was attracted towards spirituality and sanyasam and wanted to lead a meaningful life free of worldly pleasures.

After mastering the Vedas by the age of 16, he started on his quest for truth. He was a major proponent of the Vedanta truth that “Lord Brahma and men are of one essence and every individual should try to develop this vision of oneness.”

His teachings are based on the unity of the soul and Brahman (self), in which Brahman (self) is viewed as without attributes. Shankara traveled across India and other parts of South Asia to propagate his philosophy through discourse and debates with other thinkers.

One day a miracle took place. While Shankara was taking his bath in the river, a crocodile caught Shankara’s leg. Horrified, he called his mother who ran to the river bank only to see her beloved son being dragged into the water. The mother watched helplessly as the horrific scene unfolded and then Shankara said there was only one way to get the beast to release him from its jaws and that she must allow him to enter the sanyasa ashram ( Renunciation). As there was no alternative at that moment his mother agreed and the crocodile let Shankara go.

Before taking leave of his mother, Shankara assured her that he would be with her in her last days and would perform the funeral rites, a promise he fulfilled in spite of the problems he faced from his community.

To fulfill his spiritual path, he set out in search of a preceptor. He met his guru, Swami Govindapada Acharya in a hermitage on the banks of the river Narmada. Under Govindapada Acharya’s guidance, he mastered Yoga, Vedanta and other systems, and became a knower of the Brahman(self). Shankara traveled all over India, and met the leaders of the different schools of thought.

Later  at Kashi ( Varanasi ), he had a strange experience: When he was going to have his at bath in river Ganga, an outcaste came from the opposite direction with four dogs and obstructed the way. Shankara ordered him out of his path. To his surprise, the outcaste retorted, “O, venerable Guru! You are a preacher of Advaita Vedanta and yet you make a great difference between one human and another human. How can this be consistent with your teaching of Advaitism? Is Advaita only a theory?”

Shankara soon realized that the outcaste (Chandala) was none other than Lord Shiva, who took this form to teach him a lesson. He immediately realized his mistake and prostrated at Lord Shiva’s feet. Right then and there, Shankara composed five Slokas, called the ‘Manisha Panchaka’.

Every Sloka ends like this –

“He who learnt to look on the phenomena in the light of Advaita is my true Guru, whether he is Chandala or whether he is a Brahmin.”

The teachings of Shankara can be summed up in half a verse:“Brahma Satyam Jagan Mithya Jivo Brahmaiva Na Aparah— Only the Brahman (the self ) is real.He taught that supreme Brahman(self) is Nirguna (without the Gunas), Nirakara (formless), Nirvisesha (without attributes) and Akarta (non-agent). Brahman(self) is above all needs and desires. This world is unreal and the Jiva or the individual soul is non-different from Brahman(Self). The soul is identiacal with Brahman ( self).This is the quintessence of his philosophy.

When Shankaracharya decided to enter ‘samadhi,’ the foremost disciple of Shankara requested that the essentials of his teaching to be summarized and given to them. Adi Shankara then said the Dasa Shlokas, or ten verses, which elaborated the omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence of Brahman – the core concept of Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma). 

1. The five elements do no express my real nature; I am changeless and persist forever.

2. I am above caste and creed. I am seen when ‘maya’ is removed, and do not need concentration or worship as shown in Yoga Sutras.

3. I have no parents, I need no Vedas as proclaimed in the scriptures, no sacrifices, no pilgrimages. I am the eternal witness.

4. All the teachings of various religions and philosophies do no reveal my true nature and are but shallow views of my deep being.

5. I pervade the whole universe and am above, in the middle and below, in all directions.

6. I am colorless, formless, light being my form.

7. I have no teacher, scripture or any disciples, nor do I recognize Thou or I, or even the universe and am changeless and the absolute knowledge.

8. I am neither awake, in deep sleep nor dreaming, but above consciousness with which the three are associated. All these are due to ignorance and I am beyond that.

9. I pervade everything, everywhere and the eternal reality and self-existent. The whole universe depends on me and become nothing without me.

10. I cannot be called one, for that implies two, which is not. I am neither isolated nor non-isolated, neither am I empty or full.

Adi Shankara’s Teachings of Advaita ( Non – Duality )

The ultimate reality and supreme god is the inscrutable resplendence of the heart. Let the mind be confined within the heart amidst the repetition of the sound “Om” within yourself – it is the Sound-Brahman. Without realizing “Him” within one’s self as “I am He”, all this appears as real but if realized, all this becomes unreal. Every object of perception has an underlying reality and is identical with Brahman, the Supreme Lord – pure existence, pure consciousness.Everything that is other than the Self, is unreal.

Knowledge [ Jnana] is the only direct means to liberation. Rituals cannot dispel ignorance because they are mutually contradictory to the true nature of the self. The body, senses, mind and consciousness carry on by depending on the consciousness of the self. The self illumines the consciousness. One who has realized this supreme truth abides in self-bliss.

There is no greater gain, no higher bliss, higher knowledge, than Brahman(self). The uninterrupted bliss should be understood as Brahman(self). Brahma and others are but parts of that self – uninterrupted bliss and become happy, each in his own degree, by possessing a bit of that bliss. Sat [being] and Chit [consciousness] are aspects of the self and Ananda [bliss] too.

Whatever is seen or heard, other than Brahman (self) cannot be real. Only the person who has the eye of knowledge sees Brahman(self) – consciousness and bliss – But the person who does not have the eye of knowledge cannot see or realize the self. A blind person cannot see the shining sun. The well instructed and realized individual soul is freed from all taints and shines by itself. The self is the sun of knowledge in the firmament of the heart which supports everything.

What else indeed is the individual soul except you alone. You, who question me “Who am I” is Brahman itself. Meditate on that whose nature is reality, bliss, and knowledge and which is the witness of consciousness, as yourself. Understand by “I am He” that “I am that inner, unchanging self, the direct witness, the witness that is the dearest of all, the object of highest love.” The self is the witness and the knower. Bliss unsurpassed, reality, knowledge, and existence – ‘that’ is spoken of as the Supreme Self. Understand that to be the Brahman.

Vedas declare the universe to be the effect of that. [i.e, Brahman is the cause of the universe.] Brahman (self) is to be realized for liberation. When one becomes liberated while living, he remains as such for some time by virtue of such of his past actions as have brought about his present life. Thereafter he attains absolute liberation, which is of unsurpassed bliss and is known as the supreme abode. The self is of the nature of knowledge and pure.

The self is eternal and real by nature. “I am indeed Brahman, without difference, without change and of the nature of reality, knowledge and bliss.” This is what the wise call knowledge. The “I” is devoid of change. All this universe is verily the self [in one of its modes]. The self is the informing Spirit, the Supreme Lord, the soul of all, identical with all.

Consciousness is one by nature. All creatures are born of Brahman, the Supreme Self. The Eternal is the witness of these three states [waking, dreaming, sleeping deeply], pure consciousness. The distinction between the self and the not-self [body] is unnecessary for the wise.

Vedas speak of past action in order to help the understanding of the ignorant.The self that is pure existence and knowledge can be realized. Meditate on Brahman (self). Samâdhi, whose other name is knowledge, is the forgetfulness of all mental activity by first making thought changeless and then identifying the consciousness with Brahman (self). Those people who do not understand and realize this truth live in vain and though they have a human form, they live like beasts.

Those that have realized this consciousness and having realized it,they develop it more and more and they are the best of people, fortunate, and venerable in all the three worlds. A person should by diligent investigation attain the nature of the cause. If you do that,the absolutely real “self” realizes the cause as inherent in the effect itself. The wise man should attentively meditate on his own self which is the nature of subjective consciousness. Realizing everything to be Brahman itself, the wise man should then dwell in eternal bliss with his mind full of the essence of pure consciousness.

In his short lifespan of 32 years, Adi Shankara became one of the greatest teachers of the Vedas. The only weapon he used for this achievement was pure knowledge and spirituality. Adi Shankara is considered to be the incarnation of Lord Shiva.