Life and Teachings of Adi Shankaracharya - Part 1

An Exposition by Joël Dubois

One of the scriptural foundations of the Siddha Yoga path is the works of the great sage Ādi Śaṅkarācārya, who was foremost among expounders of Vedānta. A school of nondual thought, Vedānta synthesizes the diverse teachings contained in the ancient Upaniṣads. The Upaniṣads themselves form an integral part of the Vedas, a vast collection of hymns and ritual formulas originally recited during fire-offering rituals (yajñas) and transmitted orally through distinct lineages over generations up to the present day. The Upaniṣads are commentarial explanations and stories found toward the “end of the Veda” (vedānta) of many such lineages. These works record a wide range of views regarding the nature of mind, perception, and self (ātman).

Ādi Śaṅkarācārya taught, essentially, that each of us is paramātman, the great Self of all beings, just as we are. This great Self is identical with the transcendent reality known as Brahman, which encompasses and is present in all things. It is only because we are blind to the truth of our identity with Brahman that we see diversity all around us, superimposing differences on what is in fact nondual effulgence. Any notion that we must do something to attain Brahman, furthermore, is an obstacle to perceiving that we are already Brahman. In their teachings, the Siddha Yoga Gurus—Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, Baba Muktananda, and Bhagavan Nityananda—refer to this vision of oneness, as epitomized in Baba’s statement “God dwells within you as you.” This vision of Ādi Śaṅkarācārya is enshrined in several short verse treatises studied on the Siddha Yoga path, which include Viveka Cudāmani (Crest-Jewel of Discernment) and Ātma Bodha (Self Awakening).

The title Ādi (first) serves to distinguish the original Śaṅkarācārya from later teachers in the lineage he started, many of whom were given the title Śaṅkarācārya after becoming leading teachers of that lineage. Analysis of when this first Śaṅkarācārya’s works began to be quoted by others shows that he lived around the eighth century CE. To his first disciples, he was most often known simply as Ācārya (Teacher of Tradition) or Bhagavatpāda (At the Feet of the Blessed Lord). In this account of his life and teachings, we will refer to him simply as Śaṅkara.

Legends and oral traditions composed centuries after Śaṅkara lived claim that he traveled widely, defeated the great scholars of his day in debate, and founded centers of study (mathas) all over India. Perhaps his most famous biography is Śaṅkara Dig Vijaya (Śaṅkara’s Conquest of the Directions), which was likely composed by the fourteenth-century sage Vidyāraṇya Svāmī. While historical scholars advise against taking the claims of this and other biographers literally, such authors as Vidyāraṇya Svāmī had immersed their minds in the texts verifiably written by Śaṅkara, and thus their accounts of Śaṅkara’s life emphasize his unique personality and teaching approach. Although we can’t verify the details of Śaṅkara’s travels and debates, there is no doubt that he had a strong grasp of Vedantic truths and that he constructed subtle arguments to counter a wide range of critics who questioned those truths, as the biographers portray. While I have based this overview of Śaṅkara’s life on details found in his authentic works as well as on the most current historical scholarship on Vedānta, I have also used the framework provided by traditional biographers to emphasize important truths about Śaṅkara reflected in their timelines and stories.

Birth and Upbringing

According to biographers, Śaṅkara was born in Kāladi on the coast of Kerala, South India, among Nambudiri Brahmins. These Brahmins have been faithful transmitters of the Vedas and caretakers of the ancient rites of fire-offerings (yajñas) up to the present day. The Nambudiri are also known for their worship of Viṣṇu as Nārāyaṇa (the Cosmic Person)—ultimately, Śaṅkara’s preferred form of God.

Biographers state that Śaṅkara took to the study of the Vedas at a very young age, as if to fill a void left by the death of his father, who is said to have died when Śaṅkara was just three years old. Śaṅkara reportedly received upanayana (sacred thread) initiation several years before the traditional age of eight, memorizing and absorbing all the sacred syllables imparted to him and soon performing Vedic rites for his family. Indeed, the numerous quotations from diverse Vedic sources found throughout Śaṅkara’s writings, his thorough knowledge of Vedic ritual, and his often-poetic commentarial style all suggest he was likely a child prodigy.

After Śaṅkara completed his Vedic studies—some say as early as the age of eight—he took the vows of a sannyāsin. In modern urban India and the West, this term commonly refers to monks who live together in settled communities. However, in Śaṅkara’s time, the sannyāsin was a wandering ascetic who had renounced all ritual commitments and family ties, as is still the case today in many parts of rural India. The Śaṅkara Dig Vijaya recounts a classic story of how Śaṅkara overcame his mother’s unwillingness to grant permission for her son to take this radical step at such a young age. According to this tale, a crocodile caught Śaṅkara by the leg when he went to the river Periyar to bathe. Crying out for his mother, he told her that if she gave permission for him to become a sannyāsin, the crocodile would release him. His mother granted the wish, reasoning that if this worked, she would at least have a chance of seeing her son alive. The crocodile released Śaṅkara immediately. Whatever the accuracy of the story, it does share the imagery of a verse that Śaṅkara composed in praise of the sage Gauḍapāda, which dramatically describes life as filled with voracious predators threatening death and rebirth:

He saw all beings immersed in the agitated, dangerous sea,
terrible due to the many rapacious predators (“graspers”) of uninterrupted births,
and out of compassion for those beings,
he extricated the immortal nectar from the depths of the ocean of Veda.1

Whether it was a crocodile or simply this realization of the Guru’s power that served as the catalyst, Śaṅkara did leave behind the responsibilities of a Vedic ritualist and found a Guru who showed him the antidote named in the verse: the “nectar” of insight extracted from the great ocean of Veda. This was Govindapāda, praised by Śaṅkara as the one “whose sunray-like voice destroyed the filth of darkness”2—and whom the Śaṅkara Dig Vijaya states was the disciple of none other than the great Vedānta Master Gauḍapāda, who is praised in the above verse.

Teaching through Commentary

The Śaṅkara Dig Vijaya reports that Śaṅkara learned so quickly after meeting Govindapāda that he needed little input from his Guru to attain great depths of insight. The Guru soon commissioned Śaṅkara to proceed to the holy city of Vārānasi (also known as Benaras), and then on to the Himalayas, where Śaṅkara consulted with numerous sages and composed many commentaries, reportedly at the age of twelve. The verifiably authentic works of Śaṅkara passed down to the present day include commentaries on ten Upaniṣads as well as a commentary on Śrī Bhagavad Gītā. He also wrote several works systematizing Upanishadic thought: a commentary on the Vedānta or Brahma Sūtras; one on the Gauḍapāda Kārikās, a set of verses attributed to his Guru’s Guru, Gauḍapāda; and a collection of verse and prose works known as the Upadeśa Sahasrī (A Thousand Teachings). At whatever Śaṅkara’s age when he composed these works, their originality and consistency of thought appear to reflect the intense conviction and focus of a young genius who needed little guidance from elders. While biographers describe Śaṅkara’s commentaries as something expected of all great teachers, there is little historical evidence that anyone before him attempted to comment on such a wide range of traditional sources in such a comprehensive way.

The vast expanse of Śaṅkara’s works—thousands of pages in print—can easily eclipse the simplicity and clarity of his teaching approach. Throughout his writings, Śaṅkara stresses that to realize the Truth, a student must listen to (śravana), think about (manana), and focus intently on the words of respected, authoritative teachers (nididhyāsana).3 For Śaṅkara, as for the Brahminical tradition generally, the Vedas (including the Upaniṣads contained in them) are first and foremost śruti (hearing), emphasizing that hearing their sounds (vs. just reading or thinking about concepts) is central to the nature of these oral sources. The Upaniṣads often recount stories of sages imparting teachings to one or more students who hear, think about, and intently focus on their words. Śaṅkara, in turn, models this approach in carefully examining the wide range of Upanishadic stories and proclamations, including the rich imagery used to convey subtle truths. This high priority placed on carefully examining the spoken words of the Vedas is enshrined in the first four aphorisms of the Vedānta Sūtras:

(1) Now let us desire to know Brahman;
(2) From which all things are born, etc. [that is, in which they also exist and then dissolve];
(3) Because it is the Vedas’ source;
(4) And that [Brahman is known] from [all of the Vedas] flowing together.4

On the Siddha Yoga path, this tradition of study is preserved by Gurumayi’s instruction that we study, practice, assimilate, and implement the teachings of the Siddha Yoga Gurus, who, as noted at the outset, frequently incorporate the teachings of Vedānta.

Transmitting the Words of Upanishadic Sages

Uddālaka Āruṇi (also known as Gautama) and Yājñavalkya are the two Upanishadic teachers whose words are most comprehensively recorded in the Chāndogya and Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣads. For Uddālaka, knowing yourself is the key to understanding the whole world, because everything has come from what you are, as designated by the powerful mantra Uddālaka imparts to his son: tat tvam asi (You are That). In other words, everything you see is a form of that one being, which is the root of all things. That one being can be known just as the taste of honey is the essence of all flowers, as the ocean is the merging place of all rivers, and as sap is found throughout a tree.5

The sage Yājñavalkya takes a subtly different approach to the same truth, designating that one being as the “great unborn Self” (bṛhat aja ātman). When pressed to describe this great Self, Yājñavalkya specifies that this great Self is the one in each of us who sees, but cannot be seen, who hears, but cannot be heard. It is the one who breathes. It is out of love for that great Self that one holds others dear. When pressed to say more than this, however, Yājñavalkya says simply neti neti—a terse phrase difficult to translate directly into English. This is a contraction of na iti: na negates and iti is a particle marking the end of a quote or concluding an argument. Thus neti neti indicates that any attribute of the Self that one might quote, or any point one might argue about the great Self, falls short of identifying it: “not ____, not ____.”6

Śaṅkara assimilates the complementary approaches of these two teachers in his own elucidations of what Brahman is and what it is not. Śaṅkara seems to regard Yājñavalkya’s pronouncements as the highest understanding, perhaps reflecting the fact that the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad describes Yājñavalkya defeating Uddālaka Āruṇi in a famous debate. Yet far from discrediting Uddālaka or any of the other sages whose teachings are recorded in the Upaniṣads, Śaṅkara emphasizes that truly hearing, thinking about, and intently focusing on the truth of all their “great statements,” and understanding the place of each of them, is the key to attaining insight into Brahman.7 On the Siddha Yoga path, as well, we are challenged to consider carefully each teaching of our Gurus, and then to discern the place of each of them in our sādhanā.

Blindness and Superimposition

To aid seekers in grasping the truth of the Upaniṣads’s great statements, Śaṅkara precisely identifies what blinds us to perceiving the great Self, Brahman, the source of all things. The root cause of this blindness—avidyā (absence of insight)—is due to one mental habit, which Śaṅkara calls “superimposition” (adhyāsa). The mind continually superimposes distinctions onto what we perceive, leading us to see differences (dvaita) where, in reality, there is only the unitary (advaita), luminous fullness of Brahman.

This concept, Śaṅkara’s unique contribution to Vedānta teaching, may at first seem largely abstract. Śaṅkara’s Brahmin students, however, were already vividly familiar with the idea of superimposition from their daily practice of “attending” (upāsana): superimposing notions of sacred entities onto commonly perceptible objects. Many Upanishadic passages prescribe upāsana by urging one to regard the vital breath (prāṇa) as Brahman; the sun as a deity; one’s stomach as a sacrificial offering fire into which food is placed; or the phases of a Vedic chant as the cycle of seasons. Śaṅkara fully embraces Upanishadic prescriptions to attend to ordinary objects in this way as means of purifying the mind and honing concentration.8 When seeking to know Brahman directly as taught by Uddālaka and Yājñavalkya, however, Śaṅkara urges seekers to let go of all superimpositions—even superimposing notions of divinity onto aspects of nature.9 Śaṅkara’s advice to let go of superimposition suggests opening to the ease of being that is experienced, for example, at the conclusion of worship, when the worshipper witnesses precisely what is without superimposing anything on that pure experience.

Śaṅkara argues that one who pursues this approach rigorously, with dispassion for things of this world and longing to be freed from all limitations, can and will attain deep insight into Brahman (brahma-vidyā), identity with the great Self, while still living in this body. Paradoxically, Śaṅkara insists that this deep insight occurs independently of any kind of effort. Yet he is also quite practical in guiding seekers to reach this goal, likening the attainment of such insight to the performance of a Vedic ritual.10 A Brahmin priest preparing a yajña offering calls to mind the deity to which he offers and then releases the offering while declaring: “This is for the deity—it is not mine!” In the same way, one who seeks insight into Brahman, an experience of the great Self, calls to mind one or more Upanishadic statements declaring identity with Brahman, and then releases all limiting superimposition by reminding themself, “This body, this mind, these sensations—they are not mine!”11 Śaṅkara’s commentarial teaching, then, provides just enough guidance for the mind to let go of its habit of seeing anything other than Brahman. And in the teachings of the Siddha Yoga Gurus, the student will discern a parallel balance between affirming what the Self is and what it is not.

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1Gaudapāda Kārikā Bhāṣya, IV.100; English translation © 2022 SYDA Foundation®.
2Upadeśasahasrī XVII.2; English translation © 2022 SYDA Foundation®.
3This principle is based on Yājñavalkya’s instructions to his wife Maitreyī in Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 2.4.5 and 4.5.6 and is adopted by most Vedānta writers.
4Brahma Sūtra Bhāṣya, 1.1–4; English translation © 2022 SYDA Foundation®.
5Chāndogya Upaniṣad, 6.
6Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, 3.4–5, 3.9.26, 4.5.6–15.
7Brahma Sūtra Bhāṣya, 1.4.
8Taittirīya Upaniṣad Bhāṣya, 1.10, 2.2–3, and Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad Bhāṣya, 1.1.1, 1.3.28; as interpreted in Joël Dubois, Hidden Lives of Brahman (New York: SUNY Press, 2015), p. 98–102.
9Brahma Sūtra Bhāṣya, 1.1.1, 3.3.9, 4.1.5–6; as per Dubois, Hidden Lives of Brahman, p. 103–4.
10Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad Bhāṣya, 1.3, 1.4.7, 3.5 and 4.4.22; as per Dubois, Hidden Lives of Brahman, p. 319–40.
11Upadeśasahasrī I.8, 10, 13; II.3; as per Dubois, Hidden Lives of Brahman, p. 340–43.