Life and Teachings of Adi Shankaracharya - Part 2

An Exposition by Joël Dubois

On the Siddha Yoga path, Baba Muktananda deeply absorbed Ādi Śaṅkārācārya’s Vedānta teachings from his earliest mentors at the ashram of Siddharūḍha Svāmī in Hubli, South India. Baba then wove these teachings into his own talks throughout his years of teaching around the world. Gurumayi Chidvilasananda has repeatedly brought Siddha Yoga students’ attention to the fundamental teaching that we are the very goal that we seek. Both Baba and Gurumayi have guided seekers to assimilate these truths through repetition of the mantra So’ham (I am That). This transmission of Śaṅkara’s teachings up to the present day began with Śaṅkara’s own disciples and subsequent generations of followers, to whom we now turn.

Debates and the First Disciple

The foremost biography about Śaṅkara, Śaṅkara Dig Vijaya, describes the great master engaging in debate with many Brahmin teachers of his day. This included the sage Vyāsa, author of the Vedānta Sūtras, as well as Śaṅkara’s Guru’s Guru, Gauḍapāda, both of whom manifested from the subtle plane to question Śaṅkara about his commentaries on their works before pronouncing themselves satisfied. Vyāsa also reportedly granted Śaṅkara, at that time only sixteen years of age, another sixteen years to spread his teachings throughout India.

According to this biographer, Śaṅkara also debated many living scholars who differed in their understanding of the Vedas. Most notable among these was the Vedic ritualist Maṇḍana Miśra; Śaṅkara’s encounter with him takes up the three central chapters of the Śaṅkara Dig Vijaya. For Maṇḍana, the Vedas, first and foremost, provide instruction for yajñas and Brahmin rituals. A Brahmin can know Brahman—the source and support of all things, the great Self—through the practice of upāsana (attending) described in Part One of this exposition, i.e., imagining the objects and natural elements encountered in ritual to be sacred entities, as per the Upaniṣads. However, for Maṇḍana, there is no independent means of knowing Brahman outside of ritual.

Whether Śaṅkara debated Maṇḍana and other scholars directly or not, for millennia up to the present day, Brahmins have gathered to raise and refute objections to traditional teachings, and Śaṅkara’s commentaries mirror the often-dramatic displays of such live exchanges. Whenever his source text addresses ritual, Śaṅkara’s commentary states Maṇḍana’s point of view and then repeatedly and decisively refutes it. Śaṅkara forcefully argues that the great statements of the Upaniṣads are mantras of independent potency that have the power to awaken seekers apart from any association with Vedic rituals. In a similar way, in order to empower their disciples to know the Self, the Siddha Yoga Gurus give their students grace-enlivened mantras that have their own independent potency apart from any ritual.

Maṇḍana’s view was dominant in the eighth-century Brahmin communities where Śaṅkara taught, but in subsequent centuries Śaṅkara’s view came to be widely recognized as more accurate. The Śaṅkara Dig Viyaja dramatizes this important shift by portraying Maṇḍana’s defeat in a debate moderated by his wife, who turns out to be an incarnation of the goddess Sarasvatī, deity of insight and learning. In this account, after losing the debate, Maṇḍana takes the vows of a sannyāsin and becomes Śaṅkara’s chief disciple, Sureśvara. Though Maṇḍana and Sureśvara likely lived in different time periods and locales, this portrayal drives home the relatively swift conversion of Brahmin communities in the eighth century from a worldview prioritizing Vedic ritual to one that saw ritual as an accessory to higher insight into the nature of Brahman. Sureśvara’s Naiṣkarmya Siddhi directly quotes the older perspective associated with Maṇḍana from various angles and, like Śaṅkara, thoroughly refutes it. Sureśvara also wrote verse summaries on Śaṅkara’s commentaries on the Bṛhadāraṇyaka and Taittirīya Upaniṣads, several times the length of Śaṅkara's already voluminous originals, signaling those works of Śaṅkara as particularly worthy of close study.

Teaching Mission and Later Disciples

In addition to Sureśvara, biographers name two other Brahmin disciples of Śaṅkara who helped spread their Guru’s teachings through writing commentaries of their own. Padmapāda and Toṭaka praise Śaṅkara as one who “has eradicated all traces of kāla (time),”1 who was himself “the glow of the glorious sun of knowledge.”2 Padmapāda and Toṭaka both elucidated and explored aspects of Śaṅkara’s commentary on the Vedānta Sūtras.

Whereas Sureśvara was a seasoned expert, trained in ritual and debate, Padmapāda reportedly gained insight into Brahman due to his longing to attain liberation by renouncing all attachments. Padmapāda was the first to approach Śaṅkara during his stay in Vārānasi, where the disciple immediately received initiation into sannyāsa. The Śaṅkara Dig Vijaya explains the naming of Padmapāda (Lotus Foot): when Śaṅkara called him from across the river Ganga, Padmapāda walked across the water on lotuses that sprang up to support him, demonstrating the disciple’s complete faith in his Master. Whatever the truth of this story, Padmapāda’s elucidation of Śaṅkara’s commentary on the first four aphorisms of the Vedānta Sūtras does reflect a single-minded faith in Śaṅkara’s teaching.

Toṭaka, for his part, is said to have gained the capacity for scholarly commentary from unassumingly serving Śaṅkara. The Śaṅkara Dig Vijaya recounts that when one of Śaṅkara’s disciples disparaged Toṭaka as a simpleton, Śaṅkara spontaneously awakened in Toṭaka knowledge of all Vedic subjects, and he began uttering verses of devotion and teaching in the complex toṭaka meter. Toṭaka’s own verses summarizing the essence of Vedānta, which focus on Uddālaka’s great statement, “You are That,” explain that Toṭaka was inspired by humbly listening to the exchanges of the teacher and students, “which were like śruti (the ‘hearing’ of the Vedas) itself.”3

The Śaṅkara Dig Vijaya describes a fourth disciple, named Hastamalaka, whose father had reportedly brought him as a dumb seven-year-old child before Śaṅkara, complaining of the boy’s stupidity. When Śaṅkara expressed gladness in meeting the boy, Hastamalaka rose and spoke twelve verses, revealing himself as “self-awakened” (nijabodha). These verses are still available today as the Hastāmalaka Stotra; Śaṅkara is supposed to have composed the commentary now transmitted with this hymn.4 Another disciple later described Hastamalaka’s grasp of all of Vedānta like that of holding a juicy, famously medicinal amalaka berry in the palm of one’s hand (hasta), thus explaining his name: “Fruit in the Hand.” And the Śaṅkara Dig Vijaya records Śaṅkara saying that Hastamalaka should not be asked to write because, being immersed in awareness of Brahman, he had no interest in the intricacies of commentary. The commentary on the Hastamalaka verses suggests that Śaṅkara readily accepted and honored those who attained insight outside the structures of formal training. On the Siddha Yoga path, Bhagavan Nityananda embodies this ideal of the self-awakened sage.

Teaching Methods and Interaction with Students

Śaṅkara himself vividly describes two types of direct interaction between teacher and disciple in the Upadeśasahasrī (A Thousand Teachings), which likely characterizes Śaṅkara’s varied exchanges with his students. First is a set of instructions for leading a sannyāsin through study of key Upanishadic passages, including “You are That” and “Not ____, not ____.”5 When the disciple has learned these and shows signs of longing for liberation, the teacher asks “Who are you?” and then guides the student through progressively subtler statements pointing to the student’s true identity.6 This example suggests that some were likely drawn by Śaṅkara’s charisma but were not fully prepared to grasp what he taught, requiring step-by-step instructions to attain higher insight. This first scenario undoubtedly resembles that of many Siddha Yoga students, who rely on the Guru’s step-by-step teachings, though relatively few have taken the formal vows of a sannyāsin.

A second student-teacher exchange described in the Upadeśasahasrī, on the other hand, suggests that some students were likely already afire with a passion for liberation, as well as deeply steeped in Vedānta teachings. In the exchange, a celibate Veda student who seems to have already studied and assimilated the import of all Vedānta teachings approaches “one endowed with Brahman-insight” with a pressing question: “How can I be liberated from the pain experienced in both waking and dream states? What is the cause of this pain and how can it be removed?” In this exchange, the teacher leads the student through a detailed process of considering and dispelling doubts regarding the nature of the great Self, at the conclusion of which the student expresses in his own words the awareness of the Self as pure Consciousness, which the teacher confirms.7 Interestingly, this celibate Veda student probes most deeply and actively the meaning of what he has heard, sparking a true conversation that lasts three times as long as the exchange between the teacher and the sannyāsin. Indeed, in his commentarial works, although Śaṅkara describes taking the vows of a sannyāsin as a potentially helpful support for attaining the deep insight into Brahman (brahma-vidyā), he acknowledges that for many it may be simply the final step marking the attainment of that insight. The Śaṅkara Dig Vijaya, interestingly, makes no mention of either Toṭaka or Hastamalaka becoming a sannyāsin, implying that they served the Master simply as celibate students who were also teachers in their own right.

Śaṅkara’s Legacy and Departure from This World

Śaṅkara’s immediate disciples, as well as the fourteenth-century Śaṅkara Dig Vijaya, describe Śaṅkara primarily as a teacher. Yet over time, Śaṅkara’s Vedānta teachings and the practices promoted by his disciples became the standards for study and conduct used to organize sannyāsin lineages, so that, figuratively speaking, one could say (as many do today) that Śaṅkara founded those lineages. By the mid-second millennium, sannyāsin orders associated with Śaṅkara’s Vedānta were known as the Daśanāmi (Ten-Name) orders, most of whose names are linked to elements of nature among which the sannyāsins wandered, such as giri (mountain), āraṇya (forest), sāgara (sea), and tīrtha (river crossing). The Sarasvatī order of sannyāsins to which Gurumayi and Baba belong traces its lineage back to Śaṅkara. The Siddha Yoga Swamis also belong to this order.

Brahmin householders and students of the Vedas were equally interested in Śaṅkara’s teachings. Just as Śaṅkara emphasized the potency of Upanishadic statements apart from their association with yajñas and other Vedic rituals, Brahmins adhering to Śaṅkara’s Vedānta teachings developed their own traditions apart from such rituals. Thus, Śaṅkara may also be figuratively regarded as a founder or reformer of such Brahmanical traditions, whose adherents became known as smārta Brahmins due to their focus on smṛti (remembrance)—teachings, legends, and devotional traditions transmitted apart from Vedic ceremony and recitation. Although smārta Brahmins still memorized the Vedas of their lineages, they incorporated worship of Viṣṇu, Śiva, goddesses, and other deities into their practice.

In the centuries following Śaṅkara, head teachers in Śaṅkara’s lineage established numerous study centers (mathas), also called “seats of insight” (vidyā-pīṭhas), where students—householders and sannyāsins alike—studied and passed on Śaṅkara’s teachings. Many of these gurus were themselves known as Abhinava Śaṅkara (New Śaṅkara) or Śaṅkarācārya (Teacher of Śaṅkara’s Tradition). By the time of British rule in India, smārta Brahmin supporters of the study centers came to regard four of them as primary—one in each of the cardinal directions near an important temple in a major center of pilgrimage. Each is now associated with one of Śaṅkara’s four primary disciples and one of the four categories of Vedas, as follows:

• East: Puri matha in Orissa, affiliated with Padmapāda and Ṛg Veda
• North: Jyotir matha in Uttarkhand, affiliated with Toṭaka and Atharva Veda
• West: Dwarka matha in Gujarat, affiliated with Hastamalaka and Sāma Veda
• South: Shringeri matha in Karnataka, affiliated with Sureśvara and Yajur Veda

Some smārta Brahmins today also recognize a fifth matha in Kāñci, Tamil Nādu, whose Śaṅkarācāryas have likewise been widely influential in modern times.

During this later period of evolution, verse summaries of Śaṅkara’s Vedānta teachings such as the Viveka Cudāmani and Ātma Bodha began circulating widely among students at Vedānta study centers and in the smārta Brahmin communities that supported them. Such summaries, often framed as a compassionate teacher’s responses to a student longing for liberation, made it easier for students who had not undergone the intensive study of the Vedas to grasp the great statements of Upanishadic sages, analyzed via Śaṅkara’s teachings about superimposition and its cessation. While European and Indian scholars alike point out that the style and concepts found in such works are more in line with those of the later Śaṅkarācāryas, today these Vedānta writings are popularly attributed to Ādi Śaṅkara.

Likewise, a variety of devotional hymns now attributed to the eighth-century Śaṅkara, dedicated to a range of deities honored especially by later Śaṅkarācāryas, also circulated widely as the Vedānta tradition was spreading. Hymns such as Bhaja Govindam and Guror Aṣṭakam emphasize the importance of devotion for cultivating detachment from the things of this world. Others, like Annapūrna Stotram and Śrī Śiva Mānasa Pūjā, honor deities commonly worshipped in smārta communities. Still others, like Nirvāna ṣaṭkam, convey the worshipper’s identity with the great Self, which is Brahman, as a powerful refrain: “I am Śiva, I am Śiva!” These hymns are on occasion sung during Siddha Yoga satsangs.

Śaṅkara’s biographers offer various accounts of the way this great Vedānta teacher ended his days. The Śaṅkara Dig Vijaya recounts that Śaṅkara mounted the sarvajña pīṭha (All-Knower’s Seat) after one final set of debates with exponents of opposing schools of thought and then climbed up to the Himalayas, where sages and divine beings came down in celestial chariots to escort him back to the heavens. Other biographers say that Śaṅkara returned home to South India, merging with the deity at a famous temple site, or simply note that he continued his travels. In whatever way Śaṅkara ended his days, it seems most likely that he did so with body and mind absorbed in the Upanishadic truths he had studied all his life, merging into the Reality that has always been and will always be.

For us, as students of the teachings of the Siddha Yoga Gurus, the more pressing question in concluding this exposition is this: How are we to respond to Śaṅkara’s encouragement to listen to, think about, and focus intently on the great truths of Vedānta transmitted to us?

Click here to read Part I

1Pañcapādika, v. 3; translated by Rājasevāsakta D. Venkataramiah, The Pañcapādika of Padmapāda (Baroda: Oriental Institute, 1948), accessed August 12, 2022,
2Toṭakācārya’s Toṭakāṣtakam, v. 6; accessed August 12, 2022,; English translation © 2022 SYDA Foundation®.
3Toṭakāṣtakam, v. 175; translated by Michael Comans, Extracting the Essence of Śruti: The Śrutisārasamuddharaṇam of Toṭakācārya (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1996).
4Hastāmalaka Stotram, accessed August 12, 2022,; English translation © 2022 SYDA Foundation®.
5Regarding the blanks in the second statement, see Part I.
6Upadeśasahasrī II.1; translated by Sengaku Mayeda, A Thousand Teachings: The Upadeśasahasrī of Śaṅkara (Albany: SUNY Press, 1992), p. 211–27.
7Upadeśasahasrī II.2, Mayeda, A Thousand Teachings, p. 234–48.