Most people (or at least those who visit this website!) will be aware that the dates for Shankara’s birth and death are a trifle hazy. It is generally assumed that he lived around the ninth century A.D. and had a fairly short life, dying at around the age of 32. Fewer people will know, however, that one of the principal Maths – namely that at Sringeri – actually has his date of birth as 44 BCE. And 509–477 BCE are the dates based on records from other Maths!
In fact, there are endless discussions in the academic world over details such as these. The sort of argument that is used takes a quotation from some writing attributed to Shankara, in which another person, place or quotation is used. If the date of that cited material is known, then it can be concluded that Shankara must have been living at a time later than this. (Such arguments enable the BCE dates to be discounted.) Unfortunately, in most cases, the dates of the cited person or place are not known either! Basically, Indians in the past have not been particularly good at recording their historical events. Plus, enlightened sages are not in the slightest bit interested in having their name associated with any recorded words or in having anyone record their biographies.
Nevertheless, there are quite a number of ‘biographies’ of Shankara – but it should be noted that the quotation marks here are very necessary; the biographies need to be taken with much more than a pinch of salt! There are at least 10 of these referred to in various places, although not all have actually been found, in particular those that were supposed to have been written by his immediate disciples. Mostly, the records of his life read more like works of Greek mythology than what we would call actual biographies. Accordingly, it would seem to be the case that this is how we should regard them.
The one that I attempted to read is ‘Sankara Digvijaya’ by Madhava-Vidyaranya, the author of the Panchadashi. Apparently the author himself regarded it as a ‘philosophical poem’ rather than a straight biography. Thus, for example, the chapter describing his famous confrontation with the philosopher Mandana Mishra (later to become his disciple Sureshvara) begins: “Bhagavan Shankara now left Prayaga, and travelling through the skies, reached the splendid city of Mahishmati…” Shankara meets some maidservants and asks for directions to Mandana’s house and is told: “you will find nearby a house at whose gate there are a number of parrots in cages, discussing topics like this: ‘ has the Veda self validity, or does it depend on some external authority for its validity? Are karmas capable of yielding fruit directly, or do they require the intervention of God to do so?’ Etc.”
The translator and commentator of this particular version is Swami Tapasyananda and it is his view that these poetic, romanticised versions actually tell us more about Shankara than would any attempt at a straight biography, given that there are so few real facts. He uses the metaphor of finding the bones of some long extinct animal. An imaginative reconstruction can tell us far more than would “rattling of the few bones of facts available along with abstruse discussions about them”. This may be so but the excessively flowery writing quickly palls: “Thereupon the king himself came to the house of the saintly boy and was astonished to see that unique Brahmacharin engaged in various Vedic rites, wearing a pure white sacred thread that looked, as it dangled down his chest, like Ganga flowing down a wooded Himalayan slope; dressed like another Bala Deva with a bluish cloth and a black buck’s skin; and wearing a girdle of Munja grass of a golden hue, with which he looked lustrous like the Kalpa-taru (heavenly tree) whose beauty is enhanced by a golden creeper encircling it.” Yes, well!
There are actually very few real facts known with any certainty: where he was born (Kaladi in Kerala); that he became the disciple of Govindapada (who was possibly the disciple of Gaudapada); that he wrote commentaries on 10 Upanishads, the Gita and the Brahmasutras; that he probably wrote several prakaraNa grantha-s (almost certainly upadesha sAhasrI but probably not vivekachUDAmaNi); that he was responsible for fighting off all-comers from competing philosophies and establishing Advaita as the teaching par-excellence; that he probably established some centers of teaching (though where and how many is questionable) and that he died somewhere at age 32. That is about the extent of our certain knowledge.
The particular ‘Quite Interesting’ fact that I discovered, and which prompted me to write this particular blog, is the name ‘Adi’ that we often see in front of his name. (The ‘Quite Interesting’ is a reference to the Stephen Fry program ‘QI’ on British TV, for those who didn’t get it!) The Sanskrit word Adi actually means ‘beginning with’ so that this is not his ‘Christian name’ as I used to think very naively (Indians and learned others please do not laugh!). In fact, it effectively means the ‘original’ Shankara! And this reference is because there were a number of them, not least because of the initial four AchArya-s or teachers that he is said to have set up around India – the so-called shaMkarAchArya-s. There is, for example, one who was the head of the Kanchipuram Math from 801-839 and was called Abhinava Shankara. (And this was not his Christian name either – it means ‘modern’!) And it is believed that many of the so-called biographies have mixed up the lives of these two.
Of course, none of this mundane detail matters one iota. The works attributed to him, as well as those over which there is some academic controversy, remain the most wonderful commentaries and treatises ever written on Advaita and are used by traditional teachers as much today as they were when first produced – and with the same enlightening effect!