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Thursday, December 02, 2021

Explained: Life, work and legend of Adi Shankara, Advaita master, philosopher nonpareil

The Adi Shankara story is a remarkable saga of travel and adventure, philosophical inquiry, conflicts in faith, exegesis, establishment of lineage, organisation and mobilisation, etc.

Written by Amrith Lal | New Delhi |
Updated: November 6, 2021 7:27:42 am
Adi Shankaracharya, life of Adi Shankaracharya explained, Who is Adi Shankaracharya, Modi in Kedarnath, narendra modi Adi Shankaracharya statue, indian expressThe statue of Adi Shankaracharya unveiled by PM Modi in Kedarnath on Friday. (PTI)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiled a 12-foot statue of Adi Shankaracharya at Kedarnath, where the acharya is believed to have attained samadhi at the age of 32 in the ninth century. Calling Shankara a reincarnation of Lord Shiva, the Prime Minister compared the renovation at Kedarnath with the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya and the beautification of Kashi. “Today our culture, our tradition, and religious centres are seen with the same sense of pride as they should have been seen,” he said.

As in Ayodhya and Kashi, the Shankaracharya project too is about privileging select beliefs and traditions over the multiple narratives and histories about the acharya. The Adi Shankara story is a remarkable saga of travel and adventure, philosophical inquiry, conflicts in faith, exegesis, establishment of lineage, organisation and mobilisation, etc.

Over centuries, this story has been embellished by myth and legend — from the hagiographies of the medieval age, especially during the ascent of the Vijayanagara kingdom, to the cinema versions of the 20th century, it has been told and retold so often that it is difficult today to sift fact from fiction.

Shankara of legend

The story recounted today has been reconstructed from multiple Shankaravijayas (Conquests of Shankara) written over the centuries. In his biography of the acharya (Shree Shankaracharyar, 1994), Sanskrit scholar and former director of Adyar Library, K Kunjunni Raja, mentions texts that situate his lifetime between 788 and 820 AD.

Adi Shankara is said to have been born in Kaladi village on the bank of the Periyar, the largest river in Kerala. His parents, the Brahmin couple Siva Guru and Arya Antharjanam, had fallen on difficult times. He left home very early in search of learning and to become a sanyasin.

In one legend, a crocodile caught hold of the young Shankara while bathing in the Periyar, and told his mother it would let him go if she allowed him to take sanyas. She reluctantly agreed and Shankara swam ashore.

In another legend, the young Shankara visited a poor Brahmin household, where the woman of the house apologetically fed him an amla, the only food she could offer. A grateful Shankara composed the Kanakadhara Stotram, following which there was a rain of golden amlas, which brought prosperity to the household.

Even the narrations about Shankara’s philosophical debates with scholars such as Mandana Misra and his wife Ubhaya Bharati, Kumarila Bhatta, etc., are embellished with stories that suggest his supernatural powers — after being challenged by Ubhaya Bharati on aspects of kama, the celibate Shankara is said to have undergone parakaya pravesha to gain knowledge about sex.

Remarkable scholarship

The picture we gain from these stories is of a remarkable scholar-monk who, after being initiated into studies by Govindacharya, a disciple of the scholar Gaudapada acharya, was constantly on the move — bearing the flag of Advaita Vedanta, challenging prevailing philosophical traditions including Buddhism and Jainism, establishing mathas, preparing commentaries on important texts, and organising monastic orders.

In a lifespan of just 32 years, he is said to have visited all the important spiritual centres of the time — from Kanchi (Kancheepuram) to Kamrup (Assam), and Kashmir and the Kedar and Badri dhams, as well as Sringeri, Ujjain, Kashi, Puri, and Joshimath. He is believed to have established the ritual practices at the Badri and Kedar dhams, and to have debated with tantrics in Srinagar. He is believed to have attained samadhi at Kedarnath; however, Kanchi and Thrissur are also talked about as places where Adi Shankara spent his last days.

Adi Shankara is generally identified as the author of 116 works — among them the celebrated commentaries (bhashyas) on 10 Upanishads, the Brahmasutra and the Gita, and poetic works including Vivekachudamani, Maneesha Panchakam, and Saundaryalahiri. But scholars such as Vidyavachaspathi V Panoli have argued that Saundaryalahiri and Maneesha Panchakam are not his works, but attributions.

It has also been claimed that Adi Shankara composed texts like Shankarasmrithi, which seeks to establish the social supremacy of Nambuthiri Brahmins. Scholars point out that often authorship is credited to a great figure to claim legitimacy for texts that may in fact have been composed centuries later.

Adi Shankaracharya, life of Adi Shankaracharya explained, Who is Adi Shankaracharya, Modi in Kedarnath, narendra modi Adi Shankaracharya statue, indian express Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurates Adi Shankaracharya Samadhi and unveils the statue of Shri Adi Shankaracharya, in Kedarnath, Uttarakhand. Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. (PTI Photo)

Master of Advaita Vedanta

Shankara’s great standing is derived from his commentaries of the prasthanatrayi (Upanishads, Brahmasutra and Gita), where he explains his understanding of Advaita Vedanta.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Advaita Vedanta articulates a philosophical position of radical nondualism, a revisionary worldview which it derives from the ancient Upanishadic texts. According to Advaita Vedantins, the Upanishads reveal a fundamental principle of nonduality termed ‘brahman’, which is the reality of all things. Advaitins understand brahman as transcending individuality and empirical plurality. They seek to establish that the essential core of one’s self (atman) is brahman. The fundamental thrust of Advaita Vedanta is that the atman is pure non-intentional consciousness. It is one without a second, nondual, infinite existence, and numerically identical with brahman. This effort entails tying a metaphysics of brahman to a philosophy of consciousness.”

This philosophical tradition, according to the encyclopedia entry, found its most sustained early articulation in the works of Shankara, who “endeavoured to communicate nonduality through systematised theories of metaphysics, language, and epistemology”, and whose “philosophy and methods comprise a teaching tradition intended to culminate in a direct liberating recognition of nonduality that is synonymous with liberation or freedom (moksha)”.

Shankara’s contested legacy

In Bharatiya Chintha (Indian Thought), K Damodaran, scholar and a founding member of the Communist movement in India, says the essence of Adi Shankara’s philosophy is encapsulated in the much quoted formulation: “brahma satyam jagan-mithya, jivo brahmaiva naaparah” (brahman alone is real, this world is an illusion/ and the jiva is non-differential from brahman). Custodians of the caste system cite from Shankara’s commentaries to justify the unequal and unjust social order, whereas others claim these are extrapolations and point to works like Maneesha Panchakam to suggest a different reading of the acharya’s outlook.

The philosophy and legacy of this incomparable philosopher continue to be contested — and he has been claimed, reclaimed, interpreted and reinterpreted over the centuries. Among the interpreters of his philosophy would be those who suggested that the Advaita Vedanta borrowed the categories of Buddhist thinkers and called him the Prachhanna Buddha (Buddha in disguise), to Sri Narayana Guru who in the 20th century offered a radical reading of Advaita Vedanta to dismantle the theory and praxis of caste.

His political appropriation

The mathas Shankara is believed to have established in Sringeri, Dwaraka, Puri, and Joshimath for the spread of Advaita Vedanta are seen as custodians of Hinduism, and Shankara’s digvijaya (conquest) is often interpreted as a near nationalistic project where faith, philosophy and geography are yoked together to imagine a Hindu India that transcends the political boundaries of his time.

It is a project that fits in with the ideological exigencies of the present time. The image of the lonely seeker, looming above his peers, demolishing his foes, and seeking transcendence in the snow-clad mountains has rich connotations in today’s performative politics.

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