The Life & Times of Adi Shankaracharya

From the 2013 Telugu film "Adi Shankaracharya"

We begin this article with a collection of quotations from the Theosophical literature which clearly indicate the high position in which Adi Shankaracharya is held in Theosophy and his great spiritual and esoteric importance, including his close connection with Gautama Buddha.

Shankaracharya, one of the most important figures in Indian history and the Hindu religion, is widely revered as a religious reformer, the formulator and codifier of the Advaita Vedanta philosophy, the non-dualistic system based upon the Upanishads. Theosophy teaches that he was born 2,500 years ago, specifically in 510 B.C., only “51 years and 2 months” after the death of the Buddha. As will be seen from the quotes which follow, H.P. Blavatsky and the Masters maintain that Shankaracharya was in a certain mysterious sense the first reincarnation of Gautama Buddha after that lifetime.

Virtually all Hindus and all Buddhists deny such a claim, yet the Gupta Vidya – the Secret Doctrine – insists that it is so.

Some overly intellectual and academically oriented Theosophists flippantly dismiss the 510 B.C. date as nonsensical and inaccurate, since they have blindly bought into the assertions and statistics of academia – which usually place Shankaracharya somewhere between the 8th and 10th centuries A.D., sometimes even later – preferring to believe and promulgate these – perhaps for sake of respectability – than what “Those who know” have said.

We will show that there is actually far more evidence and support for the B.C. date than any A.D. date.

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“… Buddha’s grand successor, Shankaracharya.”

– H.P. Blavatsky, “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. xliv

“Shankaracharya the greatest of the Esoteric masters of India …”

– H.P. Blavatsky, “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. 86

“Sri Shankaracharya, the greatest Initiate living in the historical ages, wrote many a Bhashya on the Upanishads. But 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. This sect, founded by Shankaracharya, (which is still very powerful in Southern India) is now almost the only one to produce students who have preserved sufficient knowledge to comprehend the dead letter of the Bhashyas. The reason of this is that they alone, I am informed, have occasionally real Initiates at their head in their mathams, as for instance, in the “Sringa-giri,” in the Western Ghauts of Mysore. On the other hand, there is no sect in that desperately exclusive caste of the Brahmins, more exclusive than is the Smartava; and the reticence of its followers to say what they may know of the Occult sciences and the esoteric doctrine, is only equalled by their pride and learning.”

– H.P. Blavatsky, “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. 271-272

“The followers of one of the greatest minds that ever appeared on Earth, the Adwaita Vedantins are called Atheists, because they regard all save Parabrahm, the secondless, or Absolute Reality – as an illusion. Yet the wisest Initiates came from their ranks, as also the greatest Yogis.”

– H.P. Blavatsky, “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. 522

“But it is simply this: every “Round” brings about a new development and even an entire change in the mental, psychic, spiritual and physical constitution of man, all these principles evoluting on an ever ascending scale. Thence it follows that those persons who, like Confucius and Plato, belonged psychically, mentally and spiritually to the higher planes of evolution, were in our Fourth Round as the average man will be in the Fifth Round, whose mankind is destined to find itself, on this scale of Evolution, immensely higher than is our present humanity. Similarly Gautama Buddha – Wisdom incarnate – was still higher and greater than all the men we have mentioned, who are called Fifth Rounders, while Buddha and Shankaracharya are termed Sixth Rounders, allegorically.”

– H.P. Blavatsky, “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 1, p. 162

“The “heel of Achilles” of orthodox Brahmanism is the Adwaita philosophy, whose followers are called by the pious “Buddhists in disguise”; as that of orthodox Buddhism is Northern mysticism, as represented by the disciples of the philosophies of Aryasanga (the Yogacharya School) and Mahayana, who are twitted in their turn by their correligionists as “Vedantins in disguise.” The esoteric philosophy of both these can be but one if carefully analysed and compared, as Gautama Buddha and Shankaracharya are most closely connected, if one believes tradition and certain esoteric teachings. Thus every difference between the two will be found one of form rather than of substance.”

– H.P. Blavatsky, “The Secret Doctrine” Vol. 2, p. 637

“It is hard to explain on any other ground but theological unscrupulous cunning the origin of the current false belief that Shankaracharya was an enemy of Buddhism. This is a separate line of study for one who devotes his special attention to the historical development of occultism. This point, however, does in no way detract from the value and importance of the fact that Shankaracharya throughout his works keeps wisely silent about the esoteric doctrine taught by Gautama Buddha. He who studies and reads between the lines the Brahmasutra Bhashya of the former, will practically find for himself that Vedantic Adwaitism is identical with esoteric Buddhistic Arhatism. … what we consider to be Vedantic Adwaitism, which is precisely the same as Buddhistic Arhatism.”

– Damodar K. Mavalankar, “The Vedantasara”

“We maintain that the Arhat Doctrine of which the latest public expounder was Gautama Buddha, is identical with the Adwaitee Philosophy, whose latest public exponent was Shankaracharya. Hence the latter Philosopher’s silence about the former’s teaching.”

– Damodar K. Mavalankar, “Vedantism and Buddhism”

“What is therefore meant by the Adwaitee Philosophy being identical with the Arhat Doctrine, is that the final goal or the ultimate possibility of both is the same. The synthetical process is one, for it deals only with eternal verities, the Abstract Truth, the noumenal. And these two philosophies are put forth together [i.e. in Theosophy], for in their analytical methods they proceed on parallel lines, one proceeding from the subjective and the other from the objective standpoint, to meet ultimately or rather converge together in one point or centre. As such, each is the complement of the other and neither can be said to be complete in itself. It should be distinctly remembered here that the Adwaitee Doctrine does not date from Shankaracharya, nor does the Arhat Philosophy owe its origin to Gautama Buddha. They were but the latest expounders of these two systems which have existed from time immemorial as they must. Some natures can better comprehend the truth from a subjective standpoint, while others must proceed from the objective. These two systems are therefore as old as Occultism itself, while the later phases of the Esoteric Doctrine are but another aspect of either of these two, the details being modified according to the comprehensive faculties of the people addressed, as also the other surrounding circumstances. … Thus one may say that Buddhism is rational Vedantism, while Vedantism is transcendental Buddhism.”

– Damodar K. Mavalankar, “Metaphysical Basis of Esoteric Buddhism

“It must be stated that the name of Esoteric Buddhism was given to Mr Sinnett’s latest publication [Note: a book based upon teachings received in letters from the Master K.H. and the Master M.], not because the doctrine propounded therein is meant to be specially identified with any particular form of Faith, but because Buddhism means the doctrine of the Buddhas, the Wise, i.e., the WISDOM-RELIGION. At least that was the understanding on which the name was permitted to be used. … it is extremely difficult to say whether exoteric Hinduism is nearer the Esoteric Doctrine than any other Faith. One can say that a particular form of Hinduism approaches the Occult Doctrine much nearer than any other; and that is all. We must say a few words more. Although the book of Mr Sinnett employs a Buddhistic phraseology, our correspondent must have noticed that The Theosophist almost invariably uses the Vedantic form of expression. Thus readers of the Theosophic literature will see that, although the two Faiths may use different phraseology, the ideas underlying the same are identical.”

– Damodar K. Mavalankar, “Esoteric Buddhism and Hinduism”

“Thus, fifty odd years after his death “the great Teacher” [i.e. Gautama Buddha] having refused full Dharmakaya and Nirvana, was pleased, for purposes of Karma and philanthropy, to be reborn. … He was reborn as Shankara, the greatest Vedantic teacher of India, … Thus it is averred that Gautama Buddha was reincarnated in Shankaracharya – that, as is said in Esoteric Buddhism: “Shankaracharya simply was Buddha in all respects in a new body.” While the expression in its mystic sense is true, the way of putting it may be misleading until explained. Shankara was a Buddha, most assuredly, but he never was a reincarnation of the Buddha, though Gautama’s “Astral” Ego – or rather his Bodhisattva – may have been associated in some mysterious way with Shankaracharya. Yes, it was perhaps the Ego, Gautama, under a new and better adapted casket – that of a Brahmin of Southern India. … Shankara was an Avatara in the full sense of the term. According to Sayanacharya, the great commentator on the Vedas, he is to be held as an Avatara, or direct incarnation of Shiva – the Logos, the Seventh Principle in Nature – Himself. In the Secret Doctrine Shri Shankaracharya is regarded as the abode – for the thirty-two years of his mortal life – of a Flame, the highest of the manifested Spiritual Beings, one of the Primordial Seven Rays.”

“The close of Shankaracharya’s life brings us face to face with a fresh mystery. Shankaracharya retires to a cave in the Himalayas, permitting none of his disciples to follow him, and disappears therein forever from the sight of the profane. Is he dead? Tradition and popular belief answer in the negative, and some of the local Gurus, if they do not emphatically corroborate, do not deny the rumour. The truth with its mysterious details as given in the Secret Doctrine is known but to them; it can be given out fully only to the direct followers of the great Dravidian Guru, and it is for them alone to reveal of it as much as they think fit. Still it is maintained that this Adept of Adepts lives to this day in his spiritual entity as a mysterious, unseen, yet overpowering presence among the Brotherhood of Shamballa, beyond, far beyond, the snowy-capped Himalayas.”

– H.P. Blavatsky, “The Mystery of Buddha”

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In an article titled “Shri Shankaracharya’s Date and Doctrine” which appeared in “The Theosophist” magazine for September 1883, T. Subba Row – an Indian colleague of H.P. Blavatsky, a disciple of the Master M., and adherent of Advaita Vedanta – began by saying:

“It is always difficult to determine with precision the date of any particular event in the ancient history of India; and this difficulty is considerably enhanced by the speculations of European orientalists whose labours in this direction have but tended to thicken the confusion already existing in popular legends and traditions which were often altered or modified to suit the necessities of Sectarian Controversy. The causes that have produced this result will be fully ascertained on examining the assumptions on which these speculations are based. The writings of many of these orientalists are often characterized by an imperfect knowledge of Indian literature, philosophy and religion and of Hindu traditions and a contemptuous disregard for the opinions of Hindu writers and pandits. Very often, facts and dates are taken by these writers from the writings of their predecessors or contemporaries on the assumption that they are correct without any further investigation by themselves. Even when a writer gives a date with an expression of doubt as to its accuracy, his follower frequently quotes the same date as if it were absolutely correct. One wrong date is made to depend upon another wrong date, and one bad inference is often deduced from another inference equally unwarranted and illogical. And consequently if the correctness of any particular date given by these writers is to be ascertained the whole structure of Indian Chronology constructed by them will have to be carefully examined.”

Today it is widely accepted that the majority of the orientalists of the Victorian era were so sufficiently conceited and bigoted as to genuinely believe that the Indian people – who they quite frequently considered to be an inferior race – could not possibly know how old their own scriptures were or the chronology of their own religious and cultural history. This led in many cases to their establishing their own theories and forming their own dates about such things, whilst coldly dismissing and ignoring what the Indians themselves had to say.

A number of such orientalists also happened to be devout Christians and sincerely believed not only that the world was a mere 6,000 years old but that the Jewish and Christian religions must surely have preceded the Hindu, Buddhist, and other Indian religions, scriptures, and traditions. They thus attempted to assign A.D. dates to as many things as possible, even ludicrously implying that Buddha lived after the time of Christ!

Today it is acknowledged and accepted that Hinduism is the oldest religion in the world, that India is the ancient mother of our modern civilisation, and that Buddha and Buddhism preceded Christ and Christianity by over 500 years. But unfortunately many dates concocted by the European Orientalists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries are still quoted and accepted as fact. Even many Indian scholars do so and now echo their Western peers in such ridiculous assertions as that the Rig Veda was written only 200 years before the time of Christ, that Manu did not live and produce the Manusmriti until around 500 A.D., and that the Upanishads are only around 1,000 years old! Any truly educated Hindu knows that such claims are so stupid as to be laughable.

This is one reason for the confusion and misinformation which abounds regarding the dates of Adi Shankaracharya’s life. Another factor important to be borne in mind is that of the incessant sectarian disputes and rivalry which can be found between the three main schools of the Vedanta philosophy, namely the Advaita of Shankaracharya, the Vishishtadvaita of Ramanujacharya, and the Dvaita of Madhvacharya. Although almost all unbiased historians and researchers place the Advaita Vedanta in historical precedence over the others, the followers of the other two (who are Vaishnavas, famed for their extreme anthropomorphism and fundamentalist bigotry) protest strongly against this and have always tried their utmost to relegate Shankaracharya and his teachings to as modern and recent a place as possible, some of them even claiming that he did not live until around 1400 A.D.

In his article, T. Subba Row quotes from the book “The Religions of India” in which its author, A. Barth, writes, “Shankaracharya is generally placed in the 8th century; perhaps we must accept the 9th rather. The best accredited tradition represents him as born on the 10th of the month ‘Madhava’ in A.D. 788. Other traditions, it is true, place him in the 2nd and 5th centuries.”

Subba Row responds by saying, “Mr Barth is clearly wrong in saying that Shankara is generally placed in the 8th century. There are as many traditions for placing him in some century before the Christian era as for placing him in some century after said era, and it will also be seen from what follows that in fact evidence preponderates in favour of the former statement. … Mr Barth does not inform his readers wherefrom he obtained the tradition referred to and what reasons he has for supposing that it refers to the first Shankaracharya and that it is “the best accredited tradition”.”

“Adi Shankaracharya” literally means “First Shankaracharya.” As Subba Row explains, “In examining the various quotations and traditions selected by European Orientalists for the purpose of fixing Shankaracharya’s date, special care must be taken to see whether the person referred to was the very first Shankaracharya who established the Advaitee doctrine or one of his followers who became the Adhipatis of the various Mathas established by him and his successors. Many of the Advaitee Mathadhipatis who succeeded him (especially at the Sringeri Matha) were men of considerable renown and very well-known throughout India during their time. They are often referred to under the general name of Shankaracharya. Consequently any reference made to any one of these Mathadhipatis is apt to be mistaken for a reference to the first Shankaracharya himself.”

The present Shankaracharya, for example, is Sri Bharati Tirtha of the Sringeri Math, who has held that position – also called “Jagadguru” meaning “World Teacher” – since 1989.

Subba Row continues, “In a work called ‘The Biographical Sketches of Eminent Hindu Authors’, published at Bombay in 1860 by Janardan Ramachenderjee, it is stated that Shankara lived 2,500 years ago, and that, in the opinion of some people, 2,200 years ago. The records of the Kumbakonam Matha give a list of nearly 66 Mathadhipatis from Shankara down to the present time, and show that he lived more than 2,000 years ago. The Kudali Matha referred to by Mr Wilson which is a branch of the Sringeri Math, gives the same date as the latter Matha, their traditions being identical. Their calculation can safely be relied upon as far as it is supported by the dates given on the places of Samadhi (something like a tomb) of the successive Gurus of the Sringeri Matha; and it leads us to the commencement of the Christian Era. … Mr Wilson is clearly wrong in stating that an antiquity of 1,600 years is attributed to Shankara by the Sringeri Matha. We have already referred to the account of the Sringeri Matha, and it is precisely similar to the account given by the Kudali Brahmans. We have ascertained that it is so from the agent of the Sringeri Matha at Madras, who has published only a few days ago the list of teachers preserved at the said Matha with the dates assigned to them. And further we are unable to see which “common tradition” makes Shankara “about 1,200 years old.” As far as our knowledge goes there is no such common tradition in India. The majority of people in Southern India have, up to this time, been relying on the Sringeri account, and in Northern India there seems to be no common tradition. … The accounts of the Sringeri, Kudali and Kumbakonam Mathas, and the traditions current in the Bombay Presidency, as shown in the biographical sketches published at Bombay, place Shankara in some century before the Christian era.”

What has been ascertained thus far is that the various Maths, or monastic centres, directly established by Adi Shankaracharya and his immediate disciples themselves, all clearly point to him as having lived prior to the commencement of the Christian Era and approximately 2,500 years ago. And surely they ought to know?!?

In 1937, M. Krishnamachariar published a book titled “History of Classical Sanskrit Literature,” in which he wrote that Shankaracharya “founded five Pithas or Mathas in different parts in India, as centres of propagation of his tenets and to this day these Mathas are held in veneration. There are (1) the Sarada Pitha at Dwarka established on the year 2611 of the Kaliyuga corresponding to 491 B.C. with Visvarupa, the brother of the famous Suresvaracarya (Mandana Misra) as its first Acarya, (2) the Jyotir Matha at Badaraikasrama established in the year 2616 K.Y. (486 B.C.) with Totakacarya (Anandagiri) as its first Acarya, (3) the Govardhana Matha at Jagannutha, established 2617 K.Y. (485 B.C.) with Padmapadacarya as its first Acarya, (4) the Sarada Matha at Sringeri, established 2618 K.Y. (484 B.C.) with Hastamalaka-acarya as its first Acarya, (5) the Kamakoti Pitha at Kanchi established in 2620 K.Y. (482 B.C.) with Sri Sankara as its first Acarya.”

The Kamakoti Peeth or Pitha has a website which can be accessed at www.kamakoti.org. On the page www.kamakoti.org/peeth/origin.html all the above dates are directly confirmed and elucidated upon, along with a detailed chronological list of all of Kamakoti’s Acharyas up to the present day, the current being Sri Shankara Vijayendra Saraswati Swamigal. The site states “Shri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham was established by Sri Adi Sankara in the year 482 B.C. (see About and History) and has the distinction of an unbroken line of 70 Acharyas (spiritual leaders),” and assigns to Adi Shankaracharya the birth year of 509 B.C.

An interesting Indian blog post from 2011 at http://ramchandrakamath.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/year-of-birth-of-adi-shankaracharya-509.html begins by saying, “Year of Birth of Adi Shankaracharya – 509 BC, 44 BC, 788 AD – In which year was Adi Shankaracharya born? Majority of the people would say Adi Shankara was born in 788 AD at Kaladi in Kerala and died in 820 AD. But the three monasteries among the four set up by Shankaracharya – Dwaraka, Puri and Kanchi – will say it is 509 BC. The fourth Sringeri monastery will say 44 BC.”

Most interesting are the comments left by various readers of the blog. One reader is not far wrong at all in saying that “Surprising masses are misguided by Western Indologists and their Indian alliance who always try to create confusion in the minds of common people. The right person who can tell the exact date is Shankaracharya Peth who date it 509 BC although the date doesn’t make any difference to the divine teaching of him. But date makes a huge difference for the corrupt Indologists who always try to create confusions in an attempt to promote their own agenda to conversions.”

Another reader comments, “509 B.C. to 488 B.C. seems to be correct, after reading the detailed discussion on this topic by the greatest of great saints – Kanchi Mahaswamy, in his ‘Theivathin Kural’ volume 5.”

“Exact D.O.B. of Shankara as proclaimed by majority of Mutts [i.e. Maths] is 3/04/509 B.C. which exactly tallies with the date assigned by Citsukacharya, a lifetime companion of Shankara,” begins another, going on to say that “Added to this matter Shri Gaudapadacharya Mutt, of which Govinda Bhagavatpada the second Yathi in this Peetham, also claims 509 B.C. as Shankara’s D.O.B. … Such scholars who have been claiming the bygone River Saraswathi as a myth previously, now admit that the existence of River Saraswathi is a hard core truth. Any time or given time by erudite scholars may be changed in due course. But hard core truths remain the same. So let them beat the drum. We shall keep mum. For all times Shankara remains the Sunday April 3 509 B.C. only.”

Another reader says, “Shringeri Peetham is ready to accept 44 B.C. as Shankara’s date. But please note Shringeri is alienated in the matter of the date of Shankara. It was previously up to 1910 claiming 44 B.C. date. But in 1960 onwards it is sticking to say 788 A.D. – 820 A.D. Why so dubious? All the Shankarite Peethams except Shringeri are of one single view, that is 509 B.C.”

This last comment refers to the strange fact that for some unknown reason the Sringeri Math – the home of the current Jagadguru – is nowadays publicly agreeing with the majority of the so-called “scholars” and “experts” that Adi Shankaracharya lived from 788 – 820 A.D. They know perfectly well that this is not the case and can prove that it is not the case, as they have done in the past, and so their changed stance on the matter remains something of a mystery. Perhaps they are attempting to court respectability, that potentially fatal snare which no true Theosophist cares anything about. We are only interested in truth; we are only interested in reality.

T. Subba Row concludes the matter by saying, “We may perhaps now venture to place before the public the exact date assigned to Shankara by Tibetan and Indian Initiates. According to the historical information in their possession he was born in the year B.C. 510 (51 years and 2 months after the date of Buddha’s nirvana), and we believe that satisfactory evidence in support of this date can be obtained in India if the inscriptions of Kancipuram, Sringeri, Jagganath, Benares, Kashmir and various other places visited by Shankara are properly deciphered.”

~ Blavatsky Theosophy Group UK ~

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Comments

  1. After reading all the above, one is to believe adi sankara was born about 500 BC and not definitely after the AD. One way to set right the birth time will be to look into the astronomical events associated with his birth. Or, one can study the horoscopes of Adi sankara, and the astrology of sankaracharya as given by many of the authors.
    I am 89 years born in Tanjore district.

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