Story of Adi Shankaracharya
Birth and childhood
Adi Shankaracharya was born in a village called Kalady in Kerala. His parents (Sivaguru and Aryamba) were childless for many years. They prayed at the Vadakkunnathan temple (also known as Vrishachala) in Thrissur, Kerala, for a child. Legend is that Sri Shiva appeared in their dreams and offered them a choice: they could have an ordinary son who would live a long life, or an extraordinary son who would not live long. Both the parents chose the latter; thus a son was born to them. He was named Shankara in honour of Sri Shiva.
The father of Shankara was a regular worshiper of Devi Rajarajeshwari for many years. He used to offer milk everyday to the Goddess. Everyday after finishing puja and offering milk to the Goddess, he used to distribute remaining milk to his wife, son and others as prasadam.
One day when Sankara was barely 5 years old, his father had to visit a neighbouring village. He told the boy, “Son! Your mother cannot perform the worship which I do. You better do the worship today.” After his father left, Shankara filled a tumbler with milk, placed it before the image of the Goddess Rajarajeshwari and prayed: “Mother! Accept this offering of milk.” He kept on praying to the Goddess. When he found that the milk remained untouched, he became very sad. He cried: “Mother! What crime I have committed? When my father offered the milk you took it. But when I am offering, you are not taking.” He was in a deep distress. He was thinking whether there was any lapse on his part, he became desperate. He declared in agony: “Mother! If You do not take the milk I shall end my life. I would have dishonoured my father. If I cannot please my parents, what is the use in my living?”
Shankara prayed intensely to the Goddess in great agony. Moved by the naive prayers of the boy, Rajarajeshwari appeared before Him. She told him: “Child, Be happy. I am immensely pleased with your devotion. I shall drink the milk.” So saying, she drank all the milk in the tumbler. The boy was aghast to see that the whole tumbler empty. He again cried: “O! Mother! If You drink all the milk, what is left for distributing as prasadam? My mother will think that I have drunk all the milk, I have to give her prasadam. My father used to give some milk as prasadam also. So, please restore some of the milk in the tumbler.” “How can the milk once consumed be brought back?” the Goddess told the boy that it is impossible to bring back the milk that has been consumed. The boy was in deep distress again. He thought within himself: “I will get a bad name from my mother.” He prayed, “Mother please give at least a little quantity of milk.” Responding to the prayers of the young boy the Goddess drew milk from her breast and gave it to the boy. It was the sacred power of the milk which enabled Shankara in later years to master all the scriptures and earn lasting fame as a great spiritual leader revered by all.
Shankara’s father died while Shankara was very young. Shankara’s upanayana, the initiation into studentlife, was performed at the age of five. As a child, Shankara showed remarkable scholarship, mastering the four Vedas by the age of eight. Following the customs of those days, Shankara studied and lived at the home of his teacher. It was customary for students and men of learning to receive bhiksha (alms) from the laity. On one occasion while accepting bhiksha, Shankara came upon a woman who had only a single dried amalaka fruit to eat. Rather than consuming this last bit of food herself, the lady gave away the fruit to Shankara as bhiksha. Moved by her piety, Shankara composed the Kanakadhārā Stotram on the spot. Legend has it that on completion of this stotra, golden amalaka fruits were showered upon the woman by Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth.
From a young age, Shankara was attracted to sannyasa (monastic life). His mother was against it and refused him formal permission. However, once when Shankara was bathing in the Purna River near his house, a crocodile gripped his leg and began to drag him into the water. Only his mother was nearby and it proved impossible for her to rescue him. Shankara asked his mother to give him permission to renounce the world then and there, so that he could be a sannyāsin at the moment of death. This mode of entering the renunciatory stage is called Āpat Sannyāsa. At the end of her wits, his mother agreed. Shankara immediately recited the mantras to make a renunciate of himself. Miraculously, the crocodile released him and swam away. Shankara emerged unscathed from the water.
With the permission of his mother, Shankara left Kerala and travelled towards North India in search of a Guru. On the banks of the Narmada River, he met Govinda Bhagavatpada, the disciple of Gaudapada. When Govinda Bhagavatpada asked Shankara’s identity, he replied with an extempore verse that brought out the Advaita Vedanta philosophy. Govinda Bhagavatapada was impressed and took Shankara as his disciple. Adi Shankara was commissioned by his Guru to write a commentary on the Brahma Sutras and propagate Advaita Vedanta. The Mādhavīya Shankaravijaya states that Adi Shankara calmed a flood from the Reva River by placing his kamandula (water pot) in the path of the raging water, thus saving his Guru, Govinda Bhagavatpada, who was absorbed in Samādhi (“meditation”) in a cave nearby.
Shankara lived a very short life of 32 years. But in these years he did great things. Shankara travelled throughout India to spread his Advaita Vedanta philosophy. He established four Mathas on the four sides of India. He was then known as Adi Shankaracharya. At the age of 32, he disappeared in the Himalayas. It is believed that Shankara attained heavenly abode in Kedarnath (in Himalayas).