Adi Shankara

We do not have Adi Shankaracharya's exact biography, as there are various contradictory versions of biographies written by scholars several years after his life time. However, here is a version, which is widely accepted today. Shankara was born as the only son of Sivaguru and Aryamba in a poor Brahmin family in Kaladi Village in Ernakulam district of Kerala. The most accepted dates about his life time are from 788 to 820 CE. He mastered all Vedas, Upanishads and other scriptures at the very early years of his childhood. When he was eight, with the permission of his mother, he renounced the world to become a Sannyasin.
Shankara was initiated as Sannyasin by Swami Govindapada Acharya, who was a disciple of Mahaguru Gaudapada. As instructed by his master, Shankara went to Kashi (Varanasi) and wrote commentaries on Brahma Sutras, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita; an extraordinary achievement at the age of sixteen! In a thoroughgoing analysis Shankara found that all these sacred scriptures expressed the understanding that only the path of knowledge, the true knowing of the brahman, could lead to liberation. Thus he laid the foundation for the school of Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta (essence of the vedas). Devotion and works were only secondary pursuits. He initiated a tradition of renunciant yogis (the Shankaracharya order who sought to realize the brahman in a state of truth, consciousness, and bliss ( in Sanskrit Sat Chit Ananda).

Shankara

Shankara sitting at the bank of a river with devotees (painting retrieved from www)

Not many words and teachings from Shankara have been passed down, besides his commentaries on the scriptures. But according to legend, when Adi Shankara was just eight years old and wandering near Narmada River, seeking to find his guru, he met his future guru Govinda Bhagavatpada. Govinda asked him, "Who are you?". The answer of the young boy is still known today and often sung as a bhajan, called Atma Shatakam (Song of the Self) or Nirvana Shatakam (Song of Nothingness):

I am not the mind, the intellect, the ego or the memory,
I am not the ears, the skin, the nose or the eyes,
I am not space, not earth, not fire, water or wind,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss,
I am the eternal Shiva...

I am not the breath, nor the five elements,
I am not matter, nor the five Koshas
Nor am I the speech, the hands, or the feet,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss,
I am the eternal Shiva...

There is no like or dislike in me, no greed or delusion,
I know not pride or jealousy,
I have no duty, no desire for wealth, lust or liberation,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss,
I am the eternal Shiva...

No virtue or vice, no pleasure or pain,
I need no mantras, no pilgrimage, no scriptures or rituals,
I am not the experienced, nor the experience itself,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss,
I am the eternal Shiva...

I have no fear of death, no caste or creed,
I have no father, no mother, for I was never born,
I am not a relative, nor a friend, nor a teacher nor a student,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss,
I am the eternal Shiva...

I am devoid of duality, my form is formlessness,
I exist everywhere, pervading all senses,
I am neither attached, neither free nor captive,
I am the form of consciousness and bliss,
I am the eternal Shiva...

Adi Shankaracharya travelled across different parts of India to propagate the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta through debates and discourses. He met philosophers and scholars of different schools of philosophy, debated with them and defeated all of them with the power of his amazing intelligence and spiritual wisdom.
One of his famous debates happened with Mandana Misra, the Chief Scholar in the court of the kingdom of Mahishmathi (near present day Maheswar, a city in Madhya Pradesh close to Indore). The heated debate lasted for seventeen days, but finally the much younger Shankara appeared to be winning. Seeing her husband lose, Ubhaya Bharati, the wife of Mandana Misra, who served as the umpire of the debate, challenged Shankara. She asked him questions on Kamashastra, a scripture on sexual and erotic desire. Bharati knew that Shankara had become a monk as a boy, so she thought that he couldn't be knowledgeable on the topic. Yet Shankara did not retreat, but requested a few days’ time for research. With a yoga technique called ‘para-kaya-pravesha’ he entered the body of a recently departed king and from the two wives of the king he learned everything about sex and love within a few weeks. In some versions of the story, Shankara forgot his original task, while he was residing in the king's body. But one of his disciples found him and recited some mantras. The mantras reminded him of his task, and within the agreed time he returned to the debate, answered all questions of Bharati, and won the debate. Mandana and Bharati Misra were so impressed that both became Shankara's disciples.