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Shankaraacaarya - Also known as Aadi Shankara, this name refers to an original saint and his successors who are the spiritual leaders of Advaita philosophy in Hinduism. His grandfather Vidyaadhiraaja lived in the small village of Kaladi in Kerela, South India. His only son, Shivaguru, was inclined to asceticism and spirituality. However, on Vidyaadhiraaja's insistence, Shivaguru married Shivataarakaa (also known as Aryamba) from a nearby village. In spite of a virtuous life, they were not blessed with a child for a long time. However the prayers at the vrishabhachaleswara temple at trichur borne fruit and Lord Shiva appeared as an old man in a dream to Shivaguru and gave him a choice of hundred sons who would be happy or a single son who would become a great sage but condemned to a short and severe life. Shivaguru choose the latter. On the same day, Lord Shiva appeared in the dream of Aryamba in all His brillance riding the Nandi Bull and told her that her son would become a great sage. After the couple awakened and told each other about their dreams, they heard the voice of Lord Shiva together exclaiming, 'I will be born as your son'. Shortly thereafter, the couple was blessed with a wonderful son and they named him Shankara. According to historians, Shankara was born in the year Nandana (26th year of the sixty year cycle) in the lunar month of Vaishaakha (corresponding to May/June) under the Zodiac sign of the Archer on Monday in the year 805 AD.
Once Aryamba was shocked to find a large cobra coiled around the neck of Shankara. While she was watching, it turned to a garland. It is said that Shankara could read, write, and speak Sanskrit at the age of one. Once some children were arguing about the number of seeds inside a melon. Young Shankara said that the number of seeds inside that melon would correspond to the number of gods who created the universe. When the children cut open the melon, they found only one seed !! Once, he was collecting alms from various families in the village. A lady, who was in abject poverty possessed only a piece of amla fruit but seeing Shankara gave him her food. Touched by the act, Shankara prayed to Shrii and composed kanaka (gold) dhaaraa (shower) stotra at her doorstep and golden amlas (a sour fruit) rained upon the lady.
Shivaguru did not live long thereafter and died when Shankara was five, and Shankara was raised under the loving care of his mother. He started studying arts, sciences based on the Vedas. He was a prodigy and completed his Vedic studies at the young age of eight. At this age, he exhibited ascetic tendencies. However, his mother, since she had no support was unwilling to allow her only son to take up sanyasa. Since the purpose of Shankara's life was much greater than taking care of his mother, a 'miracle' happened. When Shankara was taking bath in the Purna river, a crocodile caught hold of his leg and started to drag him. Hearing the cries of the children nearby, Aryamba rushed to the scene. Since every hindu is supposed to enter the phase of Sanyasa before his/her death, Shankara requested the permission of his mother to become a Sanyas. Having no choice, Aryamba gave her consent. The crocodile let go of his leg immediately and Shankara consoled his mother and became a wandering monk at the age of eight. However, he promised his mother that he would return to perform her funeral rites.
He proceeded north and reached the banks of Narmada. He saw a group of sanyaasins surrounding an imposing old man, who was deeply engrossed in meditation. He folded his hands respectfully, approached the old man, prostrated before him and exclaimed 'I bow down before my guru, Govinda.' Govinda Bhagavatpada greeted him fervently as a long-promised disciple (Legend is that Govinda was promised this disciple by his guru, GauDapaada). During this time, Shankara became acquainted with the foundations of Advaita and wrote several shiva hymns, some philosophical treatises, and the commentary on brhadaara.nyakaopanisad.
Once Shankara along with other disciples of Govinda were meditating in a cave. Due to a massive flood, the level of the water in Narmada river rose to the entrance of the cave. Shankara put a small bowl in front of the cave and chanted a mantra which forced all the water into the bowl and the flood subsided. At this point, Govinda remembered the prophecy of Baadaraaya.na that the best commentary on brahma suutras would be written by a person who tames the river and asked Shankara to write commentaries on the prasthana traya (triple cannon) : brahma suutras, bhagavadgiitaa and the major upanishhads.
At the age of fifteen, Shankara reached Kashi and started to spread the Advaita philosophy, and started writing the commentaries on the Brahma suutras, the upanishhads, and Bhagvad giitaa. During his stay at Kashi, he wrote Bhaja Govindam. In a very short time, he had established himself as an authority on Vedanta philosophy. Shankara proceeded to tour the vast country of India (Bharath) and establish his philosophy. This is often referred to his dig-vijaya. His spiritual insights and vast knowledge won him many disciples and he won many debates.
At this time, he received the tidings of his mother's grave illness. He rushed to the bedside to his dying mother at Kaladi. He tried to explain to her the majestic philosophy of Advaita, the image of the illusionary world, and nirguna brahman. However, this frightened the poor woman who lacked the philosophical acumen of Shankara. The king of jnanis, Shankara resorted to bhakti and composed various hymns in praise of Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. The chanting of these verses calmed her and she reached Brahmaloka. He performed the cremation rites for her despite opposition from the ritualistic kinsmen. A visit to Kaladi is unfulfilled unless one visits the place of the cremation and the spot where Shankara was granted sanyas by his loving mother.
Shortly after the death of his mother, Shankara had to endure the blow of another death -- his guru, Govinda. He paid his last respects to Govinda and established a temple in his honor. He then proceeded to Prayaag, where he met the famous miimaa.msakas namely Kumararila and Prabhaakara. Kumarila was born in a Brahmanic family in South India and devoted his entire life to struggle against the 'heretical' doctorines of Jains and Buddhists. It is even said that he disguised himself as a Buddhist monk and got instruction from celebrated Buddhist teachers, so that he could get a clear idea of their philosophy. Kumarila was very much responsible for the decline of Buddhism. It is mentioned in B.rhat-shankara-vijaya that these victories of Kumarila indirectly contributed to the death of his former teacher, the buddhist Sugata. [It is said that Kumarila committed suicide since he was indirectly responsible for the death of Sugata]. Meanwhile, Shankara met Prabhaakara and his son, prthiviidhara. He won over both of them as disciples after defeating them in philosophical debates.
Among his various debates, the most famous one was the one with another famous miimaa.msaka, Mandana Misra, who was the authority on Karma Kanda (the ritualistic portion of the vedas). Since Shankara expoused Jnana Kanda (the path of knowledge), he agreed to have a debate with Mandana Misra. The loser of the debate would then agree to become the disciple of the victor. Mandana Misra's scholarly wife, Ubhaya Bharati, agreed to serve the judge of the debate. Garlands were placed on both Shankara and Mandana and it was agreed the person wearing the garland that would fade would accept defeat. The debate prolonged for fifteen days, and finally the garland on Mandana Misra faded and he accepted defeat and became a disciple of Shankara and was named Sureswaracharaya. However his wife engaged in debate with Shankara. Bharati conceded to Shankara on many points in the debate but when she asked about the marital life and obligations, Shankara was stumped. Shankara had been an ascetic since he was eight and he had no answer to her question. At the same time, the king of the state, Amaruuka, was on his death bed. In order to answer her question, Shankara decided to inhabit the body of the king. Requesting his disciples to take care of his body, Shankara entered the kings body and lived like the king, catering to the various wives of the king, enjoying the immense riches of the kingdom. Slowly, Shankara was drawn into the material world and forgot who he really was. At this time, his disciples became concerned and decided to confront him. The disciples began singing verses from Bhaja GovindaM. Shankara realized who he was and dropped the king's body immediately. Having experienced martial life for a brief period, he was ready to confront Bharati. Bharati, having realized this, conceded defeat and became a disciple of Shankara.
In Kashi, Shankara resided with his disciples in one of the most famous ghaTTa, manikarnika (the earring of Shiva). This ghat is probably one of the most visited ghaTs and occupies a honorable place in the neighbouring temple of Visvanatha. Another incident happened at Kashi. During his regular visit to the temple, he was blocked by an untouchable with a dog. Shankara requested him to go away since he wouldn't touch this guy. At that time, the untouchable asked 'O Shankara, by saying go away, go away, do you mean a body made of food is asking another body made of food to go away or is it a request from one consciousness to another consciousness. Further, O expounder of advaita, even if you are blinded by outward appearances and by maya, how can you preach the Truth ?'. Shankara immediately realized his folly and offered his praNaams at the feet of the untouchable and composed a poem called manishhaa panchakam that explemfies that the atman shines forth equally in a Brahmana and an untouchable. The 'untouchable' was none other than Lord Shiva himself who wanted to remove the last traces of ego in Shankara.
Shankara continued his dig-vijaya and travelled around the land refuting all objectionable practices. Shankara founded the dasanami order of sanyasis. As the name implies, it is divided into ten groups namely Aranya, Ashrama, Bharati, Giri, Parvata, Puri, Sarasvati, Sagara, Tirtha and Vana. To spread his teaching evenly around the country, he established Maths in four places; Vimala pitha at Puri with which Aranyas and Vanas are associated with the mantra 'prajnanam brahman.' Kalika pitha in Dvaraka, associated with Tirthas and Ashramas, with the mantra 'tat tvam asi.' Sarada pitha in Sringeri, associated with Bharatis, Puris and Sarasvatis with the mantra 'aham brahmaasmi.' and the Jyoti Math in Badrinath associated with Giri, Parvata and Sagara and the mantra 'ayam atman brahman.' He also installed the Sri Chakaras in many temples like Kamakshi temple of Kanchi, Nara Narayana temple of Badri and Guhyesvari temple in Nepal, etc. He appointed his disciples as the head of each of these maths. He placed Sri Sureswaracharya at the head of the Math in Sringeri, Sri Padmapada in Dvaaraka, Sri Totaka in Badri and Hastamalaka in Purii.
Among his several disciples, the above four disciples are considered to be primary disciples. Tradition says that Sureswaracharya is the same person as Madana Misra and he is the most profilic of writers. Several works have been attributed to him. Totaka, whose original name was Giri, was a simple person among the disciples of Shankara. The disciples of Shankara thought Totaka was slow-witted and incapable of understanding complex philosophy systems. To teach them a lesson, Shankara bestowed more intellect on him prompting Giri to write an extempore poem in praise of Shankara in the difficult Totaka meter. Thus, he was named Totaka. Once Shankara was standing on the banks of a river. Some of his clothes were on the other side of the river, where his disciples were standing. Shankara requested these disciples to fetch his clothes. Since there was no boat available, the disciples hesistated, except for one disciple named Sanandana. He started to walk in the water, and for each step he took, a lotus appeared, and the disciple crossed the river even touching the water below. Hence, Shankara named this disciple, Padmapaada (padma- lotus, paada- feet). Shankara also composed Atma-bodha, the awakening of the atman, as a favor to this disciple. Hastamalaka was considered to be an unusual child and the confused parents brought him over to Shankara. Shankara immediately identified him to be a prodigy and requested the parents to leave Hastamalaka with him. Shankara, it is said, asked even his other disciples to leave Hastamalaka alone to enjoy the bliss of Brahman. This could explain only one work being written by Hastamalaka.
His next journey was to Kashmir where he again held his philosophical acumen and truimphed in various debates. This was followed by a visit to Nepal, where he had a vision of Sri Dattatreya (the author of Tripura Rahasya, Avadhuta Gita, and the guru of Patanjali (of the yoga sutras)).
Atleast three versions exist on his maha-samadhi from this world. A place near the shrine at Kedarnath is supposedly his place of disappearance. Another version says that he merged with Mother Kamakshi in Kanchipuram. Yet a another version insists that he climbed Mount Kailasa and disappeared. It is generally agreed upon he attained maha-samadhi either on the month of Vaishaakha or pausha (dec/jan) of the year raktaakshhin (58th year of the sixty year cycle) in the year 837 AD.
This biography has been adapted from one found here by Giridhar Madras.