BHARAT’S ULTIMATE UNIFIER
On the banks of the Narmada river stood the holy city of Omkareshwar, beckoning Adi Shankaracharya to its sacred shores. Here, his guru Govinda Bhagavatpada initiated him into spirituality. Equipped with the knowledge of the Self, Shankara embarked on a mission to unify India spiritually and culturally, becoming the most renowned exponent of the Vedanta Advaita school of philosophy.
Shankara was born into a Namboodiri Brahmin family in the quiet village of Kalady in Kerala. Losing his father, Shivaguru, at a young age, he renounced the world against his mother’s will and travelled to Kashi, a centre of learning and spirituality, before journeying throughout India to hold discussions with philosophers of various creeds. In a notable encounter, he engaged in a heated debate with Mandana Mishra, a philosopher of the Mimamsa school, with his wife serving as an umpire. This episode may reflect the conflict between Shankara, who believed that knowledge of Brahman was the only path to final release, and followers of the Mimamsa school, who emphasised the performance of ordained duty and Vedic rituals.
During a time of political chaos, Shankara was active in a society where the power of Buddhism was still strong in the cities, though declining, and Jainism, a nontheistic ascetic faith, was prevalent among some communities. He founded four monasteries — located in Shringeri, Puri, Dvaraka, and Badrinath, which played a significant role in the development of his teachings into the leading philosophy of India. He had four well-known disciples, Padmapada, Sureshvara, Totaka, and Hastamalaka. Shankara's writings, exceeding 300 works in Sanskrit, are commentative, expository, and poetical in nature, characterised by his lucid and profound style, penetrating insight and analytical skill. His Brahma-sutra-bhashya, a commentary on the Brahma-sutra and a fundamental text of the Vedanta school, remains his masterpiece. The central postulation of his writings is the identity of the Self and Brahman, and he defends the liberating knowledge of the Self, taking the Upanishads as an independent means of knowledge against the Mimamsa school’s emphasis on ordained duty and Vedic rituals.
Although Shankara's approach to truth is more religious and psychological than logical, his philosophy is deeply rooted in the Samkhya and Yoga schools. He breathed his last at Kedarnath in the Himalayas, leaving behind a legacy that continues to inspire and guide seekers of truth and enlightenment to this day. His teachings, like the sacred melodies of Omkareshwar, reverberate through the ages, leaving an enduring impact on Indian society, culture, and spirituality.