Mythological Superheroes: 5. Aadhishankara

The next post in this series is about Sri Aadhishankaracharya.

There have been several stalwarts who ensured that our Sanathana Dharma stayed protected and well-established over time. Sri Aadhishankaracharya can be considered the foremost among all of them. Though he lived only for 32 years, his spiritual accomplishments are unparalleled even today. Apart from being the champion of Advaita philosophy, he played a major role in restructuring the ancient monastic (Sannyasa) order. Considered to be an incarnation of Lord Shiva, he wrote several commentaries on Vedic scriptures such as Brahmasutra, key Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.

He travelled across the Indian subcontinent to propagate Advaita through discourses and debates with other philosophers. He founded four mutts (“monasteries”) across the country, which helped in development, revival and spread of Advaita philosophy. He also established the ‘Shanmatha’ tradition (6 branches of religion) of worship. His philosophy was the base over which the Vishishtadvaita philosophy nurtured by Sri Ramanuja and the Dwaitha philosophy of Sri Madhvachaarya were conceptualized (though differing with Aadhishankara on several themes). Without him, it is tough to imagine the situation of Sanaathana Dharma today.

Sri Aadhishankaracharya

Birth and initiation

Aadhishankara was born in a village named Kaladi, in Kerala in the first half of 8th century CE. His father passed away early and he was brought up by his caring mother, Aaryamba. Though Shankara wanted become an ascetic (Sanyaasi), the blessings of his mother was not forthcoming for the same. When Shankara was eight years old, he accompanied his mother for a bath in a river. A crocodile caught hold of his leg and started dragging him inside. Shankara called out to his mother to give him permission to become a Sanyaasi or else the crocodile will kill him. The reluctant mother agreed and Shankara was freed. To console his mother he promised her that he would come back at the time of her death and perform the last rites. He then became a Sanyaasi and became the disciple of a Guru named Govinda Bhagavatpaada. After learning Vedas and Shastras at the age of twelve, his Guru asked him to write commentaries on major scriptural texts. Within four years, at the age of sixteen, he completed writing all the major treatises.

Some of the miraculous events from Adishankara’s life are given below:

Kanakadhaara – Shower of Gold

As a young Brahmachari, young Shankara went to a house to get his alms (bhiksha). The lady of the house being very poor, was unable to give him anything. All she could find was a small Amla fruit and she dropped it in his bowl. Shankara was deeply overwhelmed by her gesture and he invoked Goddess Lakshmi (the Goddess of wealth) by reciting Kanakadhaara Sthothra (Kanaka – Gold, Dhaara – shower). Immediately Goddess Lakshmi blessed the house by showering it with gold.

Changing the course of Purna river

Shankara’s mother used to take her daily bath in the Purna river. Since it was far away, she had difficulty in reaching it everyday. Not able to see his mother suffer this way, Shankara prayed to God. As a result, the river Purna changed its course and started flowing near their house following his footsteps. Footstep is ‘kaal adi’ in Tamil/Malayalam and that’s how the village is believed to have gotten its name (Kaladi).

Final rites of his mother

Shankara was in North India when he came to know of his mother’s impending death. As promised to her earlier, he reached her side quickly by using his yogic powers. When she passed away, people in the village refused to help him on the grounds that a Sanyaasi was not permitted to perform funeral rites. As per Shastra however, a Sannyasi can perform rites to his own mother as an exception. Devoid of help, he made a funeral pyre out of wet plantain stalks and placed the body on the pyre. Then he took some holy water and sprinkled it on the pyre. Miraculously it caught fire and Shankara was able to complete his mother’s last rituals.

Meeting with Mandanamishra

One of the most famous debates of Adi Shankara was with Mandanamishra who was a ritualistic (mimamsa follower). Ubhayabharathi, the wife of Mandanamishra became the judge. After debating for over fifteen days, Mandanamishra started showing signs of weakness. Immediately Ubhayabharathi challenged Shankara to continue the debate with her and he agreed. She then started asking questions on worldly things of which Shankara being a Sanyaasi, had no practical knowledge. So he requested for some time and he entered the body of a king by his yogic powers and acquired the requisite knowledge. Thus Shankara was able to win the debate. Mandanamishra also became a Sanyaasi and adisciple of Shankara with the name Sureshvaraachaarya.

Manisha Panchakam

In Kaashi, Shankara was on his way to the temple, when he came upon an untouchable with four dogs. When asked to move aside, the untouchable laughed and asked,” Which one should I move aside, the ever-lasting aatman (‘self’), or this body made of food?”. Stunned by the question, Shankara realized his folly and understood that the untouchable was none other than god Shiva, and his dogs were the four Vedas. He prostrated himself before him, composing five shlokas known as Manisha Panchakam, a treatise on the essence of Advaita Vedanta. In it he mentions, ‘Let him be a Chandala, let him be a Brahmin, whoever has realized this truth, he is my Guru.’ It is interesting to note that societal reformation has been in existence for a while now and is not a modern phenomenon.

Sri Narasimha Karavalamba Sthothram

A Kaapaalika (skull worshipper) considered Shankara to be an enemy, as his philosophy was a potential threat to his faith. So he took the Acharya to a nearby cave to perform a sacrifice with Shankara as bali (human sacrifice). All through this the Acharya was in meditation and didn’t notice anything. However, when the Kaapaalika readied himself to sacrifice the Acharya, Sankara’s disciple Padmapaada rushed to the cave. Being a devotee of Lord Narasimha, he went into an ‘ugra’ state (enraged state) becoming like the Lord Narasimha himself. He caught hold of the Kaapaalika and tore him to pieces. The Acharya woke up from meditation and saw before him Lord Narasimha himself. He pacified him with the soothing verses of Lakshmi Narasimha Karaavalamba Stotram. The Stotram is named so because each verse ends with “Lakshmi Narasimha! mama dhehi karaavalambam”, which means “Oh Lord Narasimha, please lend me your helping hand”.

Establishing Monastries

As per Shankara’s Advaita philosophy, “Brahman is the absolute reality and the world is unreal”. He travelled all over India to help restore the study of the Vedas. He organised Hindu monks under four mutts (monasteries), with headquarters at Dwaraka in the West, Jagannatha Puri in the East, Sringeri in the South and Badrikashrama in the North. Each mutt was headed by one of his disciples who continued the Vedanta tradition. Other monasteries that record Shankara’s visit include Giri, Puri, Vana, Aranya, Parvata and Sagara.

His Works

Shankara is well-known for his systematic reviews and commentaries (Bhaashyaa) on ancient scriptures. His masterpiece is the Brahmasutrabhaashya (commentary on Brahma Sutra), a fundamental text of the Vedanta school of Hinduism. He has written commentaries on ten principal Upanishads (Brihadaaranyaka Upanishad, Chandogya Upanishad, Taittiriya Upanishad etc). Other works of Shankara include commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita and Vishnusahasranaama and Sthothra works such as Dakshinaamurti Sthothra, Bhajagovindam, Sivanandalahari, Soundarya Lahari etc.

Great service to Sanaathana Dharma

Shankara lived in an era of political instability that succeeded the Gupta dynasty. It was a time of social and cultural upheaval as the ideas of Buddhism, Jainism, Islam were introduced. Buddhism in particular had emerged as a powerful influence during this time. Shankara made significant contributions in understanding Vedic traditions and then reforming the Vedanta philosophy to make it the most important tradition for more than thousand years. Even within Hinduism, there were innumerable sects following their own systems of worship. Shankaracharya formulated the Shanmatha system (six sect system of worship) which brought to the fore the main Godheads – Vishnu (Vaishnavam), Shiva (Shaivam), Shakti (Shaaktham), Muruga (Kaumaaram), Ganesha (Gaanapathyam) and Surya (Sauram). He formulated the rituals (Aagamas) and rites to be followed in most of the major temples in India. He also engaged various eminent leaders of various sects in debates and overcame all of them. They accepted him as their guru started practicing his philosophy.

Below sloka highlights the greatness of the Acharya:

shruti smruthi puraanaanaam aalayam karunaalayam|
namaami bhagavath paadha shankaram lokashankaram ||

Meaning:I salute the compassionate abode of the Vedas, Smritis and Puranas known as Shankara Bhagavatpaada, who makes the world auspicious.”

Please click below to view other posts in this series. 

Mythological Superheroes

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Rangarajan has been blogging for over 12 years now on various topics. With Thedal, he becomes one with the universe and he is hoping that his search will help him discover the eternal truth.  Please join him as he traverses through the universe across temples, philosophies and science!

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