Our Wisdom of the Ages section attempts to demonstrate the continuous stream of the ancient Wisdom Tradition throughout human history. As we continue to build the section we will regularly bring to the fore selections highlighting individuals, systems of thought, schools, movements, etc., and we continue this process with an introduction to one of the greatest teachers of ancient India, Sankarāchārya.
Sankaracharya (from Saṅkara a personal name + ācarya teacher) was an Indian reformer and teacher of Vedanta, who founded what has become known as Advaita (non-dual) Vedanta. He is widely recognized as one of the greatest teachers to have been born on Indian soil, H.P. Blavatsky referring to him as “the greatest of the Esoteric masters of India.” 1 Yet much mystery shrouds his life and teachings, leaving the student the necessary task of wading through confused and often conflicting information presented by historians and Advaitis alike.
Thus the first task in any biography of Sankaracharya is to ascertain his date of birth, which has been widely debated. What is of central importance, at the outset, is this: Sankaracharya founded key mathas (monasteries) at the four corners of India 2, in addition to numerous other, minor mathas, and following his death the leaders of these mathas (the heads of the Advaita tradition) each took on the title “Sankaracharya”. There have thus been several hundred Sankaracharyas through the history of India, but only one Adi (first) Sankara.
Upon examination, what reveals itself to the enquiring student is the existence of two Sankaracharyas who stand out above the rest, these being 1. Adi Sankaracharya and 2. a later one referred to as Abhinava Sankaracharya. 3 Modern scholarship tends not to make this distinction, however, viewing the two as one, and from this arises much confusion. 4 The latter lived in the 8th-9th century CE, which has become the date accepted by modern scholarship for the original Sankaracharya. However, there is every indication that Adi Sankaracharya was born around 509 BCE 5 and died (or retired from the world, according to one legend 6) thirty-two years later.
T. Subba Row, an esoteric Advaitin himself 7, put forth this date, saying that: “According to the historical information in their [Tibetan and Indian Initiates] possession he was born in the year B.C. 510…” 8. Furthermore, the only complete Advaita paramguru (lineage) records (those of the Kalika and Sarada mathas) both provide dates corresponding to 509 BCE. T.S. Narayana Sastry in his work The Age of Sankara, translates a section from the Brihat Sankara-vijaya, which likewise gives a date of 509 BCE. 9
The evidence thus points to an original (Adi) Sankaracharya who lived at the turn of the 6th-5th century BCE, who founded mathas of what would become the Advaita order, after which each matha produced a lineage of Sankaracharyas. In the 8th century, one of these Sankaracharyas became a prominent figure, wrote extensively under that name, and inadvertently caused modern scholars to confound him and his writings with the great founder.
Traditionally, 10 Adi Sankara is said to have been the disciple of Govinda Yogi, who was in turn the disciple of Gaudapada, the author the famous Karika on the Mandukya Upanishad, a cornerstone of the Advaita tradition. T. Subba Row equates Govinda Yogi with the famous Patanjali, saying that “According to the immemorial custom observed amongst initiates Patanjali assumed the name of Govinda Yogi at the time of his initiation by Gaudapada.” 8 Other views are that Govinda Yogi was a later incarnation of Patanjali, while still others view them as two entirely separate gurus, one a teacher of Gaudapada, the other his student. 11 However we view the details, it is this group of teachers/disciples who laid the foundations of the system of thought that would give rise to Advaita-Vedanta. On this backdrop—with this group of teachers assembled and with the steady decline of Kali Yuga in full sway—the story of Sankara begins. 12
In Kerala, in the year 2593 of Kali Yuga (corresponding to 509BCE), a child was born—a child who would become an inspired teacher, who would “proclaim to the world the truth of the Absolute Philosophy of the Vedanta for the purpose of saving the country from running headlong into political chaos, intellectual ruin and spiritual perdition.”13 It is said that the boy Sankara was a true wonder, exhibiting extraordinary intelligence and beginning his studies as young as age 3. By age 8 he is said to have mastered the vedic literature at his disposal with an intuitive intelligence that penetrated into their deepest mysteries. In that year Sankara’s father passed away; one year later the young boy requested of his widow mother that she grant him permission to become a sannyasin (a renunciant, an ascetic monk). After some hesitation, she assented, and thus the young boy of nine years set off in search of a guru.
Sankara traveled north 14 until he finally met his guru, Govinda Yogi, who had likewise been searching for him—the two having been given complimentary visions. Sankara was then formally initiated as a sannyasin. He is said to have then studied under Govinda Yogi for two years, and subsequently under his paramguru Gaudapada for a further 4 years, during which time he composed many of his bhasyas and other writings. 15
There is then a story of Sankara being taken to holy Mount Kailash to visit with the paramgurus of Gaudapada—Bādarāyaṇa and Śuka—who then directed him to go to Benares to preach the Advaita Darśana. Before returning, however, Sankara is initiated by the Great Guru himself, Maheśvara, a legend clearly relating Sankara’s position as a direct ambassador of the lodge of great teachers beyond the himalayas.
From this moment Sankara is entirely transformed into a new man; he has become a Jivan-Mukta—one in feeling, soul and power with the Infinite and Eternal Lord, though living in a mortal body still, for a while, solely with a view to save the world.”
Sankara returned alone from the Himalayas, with his mission set before him, but he is soon accompanied once again by his trusted friend and co-disciple, Chitsukhchārya, who becomes Sankara’s first initiated student. The mission is set aside for a time while Sankara tends to his dying mother, and then returns also to tend to his dying guru, Govinda Yogi, who upon his passing instructs his students to follow Sankara as their new guru. These duties complete, Sankara, accompanied by his disciples, embarks upon his tour of India to teach the Advaita philosophy.
He first makes camp at Prayāga (Allahabad), and begins teaching. “In a short time, his fame as a great Vedantic teacher reaches the nook and corner of Aryavarta and intelligent men from various quarters come to him almost every day and seek admission as his pupils to study the Vedanta Philosophy under him.” Hereafter several wonderous acts of Sankara are related in Sastry’s narrative, including his famous debate with Mandana who after became an illustrious student of Sankara. His position as the greatest teacher of his time shines through clearly in these stories and the true wonder of this great soul is recognized all the more so when we consider that he was but 15-16 years old at the time.
Sankara had made his way to Sringeri and is said to have lived there for 12 years, teaching his Advaita doctrine. After this he traveled widely, eventually settling again in Kanchi where he established the Sarada Matha. “From this central institution radiated the other Advaita Mathas—Jyotir Matha in the North; Dvaraka Matha in the West; Sringeri in the South; Govardhana in the East.”
Having esablished his divine mission, the incomparable Sankara attained his Bramībhāva (identity with Brahman) at Kanchi, in the precincts of sri Kamakshi, in his 32nd year, in 2625 Kali, in the cyclic year Raktākshi, corresponding to 476 B.C.”
Thus is the life of Adi Sankara as related in the narrative of Sastry. 16
From his time to ours, the influence of this great teacher has only grown, penetrating to the depths of the mind and heart of India. The central importance of Adi Sankara in the spiritual life of India is well stated by one of the great Swamis of our age, Paramahansa Yogananda:
“Every swami belongs to the ancient monastic order which was organized in its present form by Shankara. Because it is a formal order, with an unbroken line of saintly representatives serving as active leaders, no man can give himself the title of swami. He rightfully receives it only from another swami; all monks thus trace their spiritual lineage to one common guru, Lord Shankara.” 17
As to his teachings, because of the tradition of matham leaders assuming the title of “Sankaracharya”, the extant writings attributed to Adi Sankara must be seen as coming from more than one source, as modern scholarship clearly demonstrates—some from Adi Sankara, some from Abhinava Sankaracharya and others by the wide array of other acharyas who wrote under the same name. 18 Thus it becomes the task of the student to filter through these and ultimately to decide for themselves on the attribution of each work. This task may be somewhat relieved, however, as T.S. Narayana Sastry’s book 14 produces a list of 41 works attributed to Adi Sankara, as drawn by him from the Brihat Sankara-vijaya. Within this list is the Vivekachudamani (the Crest-Jewel of Wisdom), which supports the notion that it ought to be recognized as a seminal work of Adi Sankara (see footnote 4). The student who compares these works with the other works widely attributed to “Sankaracharya” will see notable differences in teachings. 19 For instance, while exoteric and popular Advaitism seems to have fallen into an almost monotheistic approach to Brahman, making little or no distinction between It, an impersonal principle, and Isvara, the active creative god, from an esoteric standpoint the difference is profound. 20 The original teachings of Adi Sankara are not theistic in nature, even though his later followers have often tread down that road, including later “Sankaracharyas”.
It is, then, to the Vivekachudamani and several others of these 41 works, such as the Atmanatva-viveka (a most wonderful synopsis of Vedanta), that we must look for the teachings of the original Sankaracharya.
Advaita-Vedanta (Advaita: non-dual, Vedanta: the knowledge contained in those scriptures found at the end of the Vedas) provides both a system of thought and a system of practical guidance. The practical side begins with the Four Qualifications or Four Perfections. These we find in the Tattva-bodha and the Atmanatva-viveka, respectively as:
“ The Discerning between lasting and unlasting things;  No Rage for enjoying the fruit of works, either here or there;  the Six Graces that follow Peace;  and then the Longing to be free.”— Tattva-bodha, tr. Johnston
“(1) True discrimination of permanent and impermanent things. (2) Indifference to the enjoyment of the fruits of one’s actions both here and hereafter. (3) Possession of Sama and the other five qualities. (4) An intense desire of becoming liberated (from conditional existence).”— Atmanatva-viveka, tr. Mohini M. Chatterji
The intense longing for liberation must underlie the disciples motivations. The Six Graces provide guidance on study and meditation. The indifference to the fruits of one’s actions provides guidance for right living. And the first of the qualifications leads us to the foundational doctrine of Advaita.
The first qualification is further clarified in both works:
“What is the Discerning between lasting and unlasting things?
The one lasting thing is the Eternal; all, apart from it, is unlasting.”— Tattva-bodha, tr. Johnston
“Q. What is the right discrimination of permanent and impermanent things?
A. Certainty as to the Material Universe being false and illusive, and Brahman being the only reality.”— Atmanatva-viveka, tr. Mohini M. Chatterji
The fundamental notion that Brahman alone is the All, the One Reality, is the foundational starting point of Advaita Vedanta. But of equal importance is the position that the true nature (self or atman) of the jiva, the individual, is none other than Brahman. This provides the essence of non-duality—i.e. the two are not essentially different. This teaching is put succinctly in the great statements (mahavakyas) found in the unpanishads such as:
Tat tvam asi – Thou art That.
Aham brahmasmi – I am Brahman.
From here, the philosophy proceeds. We are taught that the experience of duality—where none truly exists—is due to ignorance (avidya) and illusion (maya). The creative power (maya) of the manifested Brahman (i.e. Isvara) gives rise to the appearance of multiplicity. The ignorance of the jiva veils the true knowledge of Brahman and gives rise to the perception of duality and diversity as real and substantial. Realisation of the underlying reality, which is liberation (moksha) arises when ignorance is dispelled.
Thus, Adi Sankara’s writings, while expounding this philosophic system, focus also on the Self and the means by which one may arrive at liberation—which is not something gained, but rather something inherent that is revealed when ignorance is removed.
“But I shall declare to you the own being of the Self supreme, knowing which a man, freed from his bonds, reaches the lonely purity.
There is a certain selfhood wherein the sense of “I” forever rests; who witnesses the three modes of being, who is other than the five veils; who is the only knower in waking, dreaming, dreamlessness; of all the activities of the knowing soul, whether good or bad—this is the “I”. …
This inner Self, the ancient Spirit, is everlasting, partless, immediately experienced happiness; ever of one nature, pure waking knowledge…
When the Self is veiled by unwisdom there arises a binding to the not-self, and from this comes the pain of world-life. The fire of wisdom lit by discernment between these two—Self and not-Self—will wither up the source of unwisdom, root and all.” 21
The Vedantic philosophy is vast, delving into the minutest details of the structure and functioning of Universe and Man, but what Adi Sankara does, perhaps above and beyond all else, is cut straight through to the core of the condition of Man as trapped by avidya and maya, and provide the means by which we may rise beyond such a state. Through the exercise of discrimination between the not-real and the real, we are told that Man may arrive at the realization of the non-dual Self and thus one’s fundamental union with the All. And this may be said to be the essential heart of Advaita-Vedanta.
For more, see our full page on Advaita Vedanta.
Click here to explore the Crest-Jewel of Wisdom.
Click here for a complete Biography of Sankaracharya, with additional biographies, works, quotations, etc.
^2. These key four mathas are: Jyotir (in the north), Govardhana (in the east), Kalika (in the west), and Sringeri (in the south). In addition to these is the Sarada matha, also in the south.
^^4. For instance, two principal works of “Sankaracharya”—the Vivekachudamani and the Brahma-sutra-bhasya—have been clearly demonstrated to have been written by two different authors, and while the latter can indeed be shown to have been composed by a Sankaracharya of the 8th century CE, the former cannot be similarly attributed. As David Reigle observes: “The Viveka-cūḍāmaṇi differs from it [the Brahma-sūtra-bhāṣya] in doctrine, usage of technical terms, and vocabulary…”. While the Brahma-sutra-bhasya has been taken as the seminal work of Sankaracharya by modern scholars, we propose the opposite: that the Vivekachudamani more rightly deserves that distinction and that the Brahma-sutra-bhasya was composed by the later Sankaracharya. [Ed.]
See “Bibliographic Guide: Works of the Original Sankaracharya” by David Reigle in combination with his “The Original Sankaracharya”.
“Upasika (Madam B. [Blavatsky]) and Subba Row, though pupils of the same Master, have not followed the same Philosophy — the one is Buddhist and the other an Adwaitee.”—Letter LXXX, written by K.H.
“Subba Row will help you to learn, though his terms — he being an initiated Brahmin and holding to the Brahmanical esoteric teaching — will be different from those of the “Arhat Buddhist” terminology.”—Letter LXXVI, written by K.H.
“… they [H.P.B. and Subba Row] are both chelas, or rather disciples.”—Letter XXX, written by K.H.
These demonstrate Subba Row’s position as an initiated chela and an Advaitin. The authority of his writings is also vouched for in the same letters:
“You are wrong in distrusting Subba Row’s writings. He does not write willingly, to be sure, but he will never make a false statement.”—Letter XCIII (Dec. 1883), written by K.H. (composed only three months after S.R.’s article on Sankara’s Date and Doctrine)
And from The Blavatsky Letters to A.P. Sinnett:
“I could not (especially in my present state of nervousness) stand by and listen calmly to the astounding news (from Gough!!) that Sankara Charya was a theist and Subba Row knows not what he is talking about, without kicking myself to death…”—Letter XXXIII (shows H.P.B.’s trust in S.R.’s knowledge, specifically regarding Sankaracharya)
^^8. See “Sankara’s Date and Doctrine”, by T. Subba Row (see below), The Theosophist, September, 1883. Reprinted in Blavatsky Collected Works, Volume 5, Pages 176-197, and in Five Years of Theosophy, Pages 278-308.
^9. The Age of Sankara, by T. S. Narayana Sastry, 1971 (reprint of 1916 original). (see below).
^10. For the traditional sucession of teachers, see The Philosophy of Advaita by T.M.P. Mahadevan, p. 2. The list is given as follows: “Nārāyaṇa, the lotus-born Brahmā, Vasiṣṭha, Śakti, his son Parāśara, Vyāsa, Śuka, the great Gauḍapāda, Govinda-yogīndra, his disciple Śankarācārya, and then his four pupils Padmapāda, Hastāmalaka, Troṭaka and the Vārtikakāra (i.e. Sureśvara)”.
^11. There is a similar conflict in the dates assigned to Patanjali as we see with Sankaracharya. Modern scholars place Patanjali in the 2nd century BCE. However, again we may have the case of two Patanjali’s being confounded as one. In the Preface to his interpretation of the Aphorisms of Patanjali, William Quan Judge, after giving a brief biography of Patanjali, writes: “But there is also another Patanjali mentioned in the Indian books. He was born in India at Gonarda … Prof. Goldstucker has concluded that this later Patanjali wrote about 140 B.C. His writings were commentaries upon the great grammarian Panini … He must not be confounded with our Patanjali; of the latter all that we have is the Philosophy set forth in the Aphorisms.” In her Theosophical Glossary H. P. Blavatsky states that Patanjali was a contemporary of Panini and lived sometime in the 7th century BCE. Modern scholars do assign Panini to around the 6th century BCE, but have not done the same for Patanjali.
An alternative view to Subba Row’s equating of Patanjali with Govinda Yogi is a view that Patanjali was an early guru of Gaudapada, who became the guru of Govinda Yogi, who became the guru of Sankaracharya (see p. 35, 42-60 etc. of “The Age of Sankara” by Shastry). This view would seem to conform closer to the dates H.P. Blavatsky gives for Patanjali in her glossary (“The date assigned to him by the Orientalists is 200 B.C.; and by the Occultists nearer to 700 than 600 B.C.”). While the exact details may continue to be evasive, there seems to be ample evidence to support Adi Sankara’s date of birth as 509BCE, which thus pushes Patanjali’s date to within the 6th (or potentially the 7th) century BCE. For more see: Biography of Patanjali.
^12. The following portion of our biography is condensed from The Age of Sankara, by T. S. Narayana Sastry. See chapter 3 of that work for a fuller account. All unattributed quotations here are drawn from this work.
^13. There is a belief prevalent in India, even among learned Advaitis, that Adi Sankara drove Buddhism out of India. However, this cannot have been true of Adi Sankara, but perhaps true of his later follower, the 8th century Sankaracharya who indeed lived at the time of the expulsion of Buddhism from Indian soil. The Sankara Vijayas which include this aspect of the tale are undoubtedly biographies of the later Sankaracharya, or mixed biographies including aspects of the lives of both Acharyas. See The Age of Sankara, by T. S. Narayana Sastry, p. ix, 109, etc., and also “Confusing the Esoteric with the Exoteric: T. Subba Row on Advaita Vedanta” by David Reigle, p. 6 etc..
^^14. It is at this point that Sastry has Sankara joined by Chitsukhchārya, who would become his constant companion and later both his disciple and biographer. It is Chitsukhchārya’s account that Sastry largely draws upon for this narrative.
^15. See p. 63-85 etc. of “The Age of Sankara” for an inventory of Sankara’s writings during this time. For the complete list of 41 works mentioned, see “ Bibliographic Guide: Works of the Original Sankaracharya”, p. 4-5.
^16. See also “Appendix-I: Chronological Table of Adi Śankara’s Life”, p. 181-184 of The Age of Sankara.
“… Shankara’s date is a center of the usual scholastic dispute. A few records indicate that the peerless monist lived from 510 to 478 B.C.; Western historians assign him to the late eighth century A.D. …”
^18. The evidence is clear that the main bhasyas of Sankaracharya known to students today were written by one or more later Sankaracharyas, due largely to references made to other schools of Advaita, to schools and doctrines of Buddhism, etc. that did not exist at the time of Adi Sankara and do not show up in other writings attributed to him. In The Secret Doctrine, 1888, H.P. Blavatsky tells us that: “…his original treatises, as there are reasons to suppose, have not yet fallen into the hands of the Philistines, for they are too jealously preserved in his maths (monasteries, mathams). And there are still weightier reasons to believe that the priceless Bhashyas (Commentaries) on the esoteric doctrine of the Brahmins, by their greatest expounder, will remain for ages yet a dead letter to most of the Hindus, except the Smartava Brahmins.” (Vol. 1, p. 271-2). It is possible that bhasyas composed by the original Sankaracharya do exist, but have not yet been made public (in the time-honored tradition of secrecy practiced among initiated Vedantins), while the public bhasyas are those composed by a later Sankaracharya.
^19. For an examination of the profound differences between the teachings contained in the later bhasyas and writings and the teachings found in the works of Adi Sankara, see the section “Sankaracharya on God” in David Reigle’s “The Original Sankaracharya”, where we read the following remark: “It would seem that the pure Advaita teaching of the original Śankarācārya has now become thoroughly overlaid with theism, as a result of the additions made to that teaching by the Śankarācārya who wrote the extant commentaries [bhasyas] on the three pillars of Vedānta.” (p. 14) [The three pillars are: the Upanishads, the Brahma-sutra, and the Bhagavad-Gita.]
“Parabrahm is not a God, but absolute immutable law, and Iswar is the effect of Avidya and Maya, ignorance based on the great delusion…”
See also T. Subba Row’s “Notes on the Bhagavad Gita”, where he goes into great depth on the subject.
See also S. Radhakrishnan’s “The Vedantic Approach to Reality”, where the distinction between Iswara and the Absolute (Brahmam) is explored.