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Shankara was born to a brahmin couple, Shivaguru and Aryamba, in a little village called Kaladi in Kerala. The couple had remained childless for a long time, and prayed for children at the temple of Shiva in the nearby town of Trichur. Shiva is said to have appeared to the couple in a dream and given them a choice between one hundred sons who would be happy or one son who would the most brilliant philosopher, but whose life would be short and austere. The couple opted for the brilliant but short-lived son, and so the baby was born. They named him Shankara, after Lord Shiva. Indeed, some consider Shankara a partial incarnation of Shiva.
Legend has it that the boy performed a number of miracles. Once, as some children were arguing about the number of seeds inside a melon, the young Shankara declared that the number would correspond to the number of gods who created the universe. When the children cut open the melon, they found only one seed! As a brahmachari student, Shankara went collecting alms from households in the village. An extremely poor lady gave him her last piece of food, an amla fruit. Shankara, right there at her doorstep, composed a hymn in praise of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. As a result, a shower of golden amlas rewarded the lady for her piety. On another occasion, Shankara apparently re-routed the course of the local river, the Purna, so that his elderly mother would not have to walk a long distance for her daily ablutions.
Shankara lost his father when quite young, and his mother, with the help of relatives, performed the upanayana ceremonies. Shankara excelled in all branches of traditional Vedic learning. Although the boy was inclined towards renunciation, his widowed mother wanted him (her only son) to marry, and did not permit him to take sannyasa. One day when Shankara was taking bath in the Purna River, a crocodile caught hold of his leg and started to drag him in. Hearing the cries of the nearby children, Aryamba rushed to the scene. Shankara, sensing immanent death, and knowing that every brahmin should take sannyasa before then, requested permission from his mother to become a sannyasi. This kind of renunciation is called apat sannyasa. Having little choice, Aryamba gave her consent. The crocodile immediately let go of the boy’s leg. However, Shankara had taken an irrevocable vow. Thus he became a wandering monk at the age of eight. He consoled his mother, promising that he would return to perform her funeral rites.
Shankara then traveled far and wide in search of a worthy guru who would initiate him and regularise his vow of sannyasa. On the banks of the river Narmada, in central India, he accepted initiation from Govinda Bhagavatapada, who later accepted the young man into the Paramahamsa Order of sannyasa. Seeing the intellectual acumen of Shankara, the acharya commanded his disciple to expound the philosophy of Vedanta through writing commentaries on the prasthana trayi (the triple cannon of the Brahma Sutras, Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads). He started writing the commentaries during his stay in Kashi (Varanasi), where he also wrote the now-famous song called Bhaja Govindam.
In a very short time, Shankara established himself as an authority on Vedanta philosophy. He proceeded to tour India and establish his philosophy of advaita (monism). This tour is often referred to his dig-vijaya (‘conquering all directions’). His spiritual insights and vast knowledge won him many disciples and innumerable debates.
During this time, he received the tidings of his mother’s grave illness and rushed to her bedside. Remembering his promise to her, he performed her funeral rites. His orthodox relatives would not permit him to perform the ceremonies, as he was a sannyasi. Shankara overrode their objections, and built a pyre himself, cremating his mother’s body in her own backyard. Today, a visit to Kaladi is unfulfilled unless a pilgrim visits the site of the cremation and the spot on the riverbank where Shankara’s mother granted him sannyasa.
Shortly after his mother’s death, Shankara’s guru also passed away and the devoted Shankara established a temple in his honour. He continued to travel with his disciples all over India, all the while composing philosophical treatises and engaging opponents in debate. It is said that none of his opponents could ever match his intellectual prowess and the debates inevitably ended with Shankara’s victory. Some texts mention that Shankara stayed at Shringeri for twelve years. There a hermitage grew around him, which soon developed into a famous math (monastery). He installed one of his leading disciples, Sureshvara, at it head. He established three similar maths in the pilgrimage centers of Puri, Dvaraka and Joshimath (near Badrinatha). The heads of these monasteries are still known as ‘the Shankaracharya’, in honor of their founder, who is distinguished by the title Adi Shankara (the original Shankara). Shankara so organized a whole community of eka-danda (one-staffed) monks into the sampradaya of dashnam (ten names). These sannyasis adopt one of ten different titles, each associated with a corresponding monastery.
There are different opinions regarding how, at the age of thirty-two, Shankara left this world. Most widely accepted is the story of his retiring to the Himalayas and disappearing in a cave near Kedarnath. Today as beautiful memorial stands on the site. Shankara is considered one of the three greatest theologians of the Vedic tradition.