Adi Sankaracharya: The Jagadguru of Advaita

The guru-disciple paramparas1 of India are like malas2 strung with gems; each jewel is precious and invaluable. Still, some shine with an attention-commanding splendor. Sri Adi Sankaracarya was such a diamond. Sri Sankara’s accomplishments were many, but he is singled out because his brilliant commentaries on the prasthana-trayam—upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Brahma Sutras—crystallized the Advaita Vedanta Darsanam3 forever, establishing it as the ultimate message of the Vedas. During his short life of 32 years, he travelled the length and breadth of India, on foot, engaging in debates with the leading proponents of the other Indian schools of thought. His various opponents—including the Purva Mimamsakas, who professed that the Vedas’ prime teaching was the performance of rituals for the attainment of heaven and otherworldly splendor—were knocked flat, as Sankara laid bare the defects of their philosophies with his one-two punch of scriptural authority and logic. As per tradition, once defeated by Sankara, they became his disciples.

As Amma herself says, Advaita is the ultimate truth—the inherent darsanam of the Vedas. Therefore, it should always be remembered that Sankara is not the father of the Advaita Vedanta Darsanam. The advaitic knowledge flowed down to Sankara from an illustrious parampara that includes not only Sankara’s direct guru, Sri Govinda Bhagavadpada, and grand-guru, Sri Gaudapada, but also Veda Vyasa4; its origin being the Almighty. Nor was Sankara the first to create Advaitic commentaries on the prasthana-trayam. This is something that Sankara himself never failed to acknowledge.

Due to the commandment of Govinda Bhagavadpada, who instructed Sankara to compose commentaries and propagate them throughout India, Sankara became Advaita’s Jagadguru—world teacher. For, even though Sankara himself never left India, his commentaries on the prasthana-trayam have been translated into dozens of languages and are today studied throughout the world. The acceptance of Advaita Vedanta as the ultimate truth professed by the Vedas has become so widely accepted that the word Vedanta itself has become a synonym for Advaita. With each passing year, the vision of Advaita Vedanta gathers more and more acceptance throughout the world. Perhaps one day it will truly become, as Swami Vivekananda predicted, a universally shared worldview.

Although Sankara’s advaitic commentary on prasthana-trayam was his magnum opus and his greatest contribution for the upliftment of mankind, we should never say that Sankara rejected dvaitic spiritual practices such as karma yoga and selfless service, meditation on God with form, mantra japa, bhajan, following dharma and developing values, etc. Not only did Sankara acknowledge the necessity of such practices for purifying the mind, but he also made outstanding contributions to them, including methods for conducting puja, the division of the Hindu pantheon and its worship into six major categories, and the composition of Sanskrit hymns such as Saundarya Lahari, Sivananda Lahari and the Mahishasura-Mardini Stotram. Sankara’s sole desire was to lead mankind to the ultimate realization: the supreme reality of the universe, of God and of all beings is one and the same—an eternal blissful consciousness. Yet in his wisdom, Sankara understood that, for this transformative understanding to dawn, the above-mentioned preparatory steps were needed in order to purify and refine the mind. Thus, the advaitin accepts dvaitic methods while always trying to imbibe the advaitic principle. As Swami Candrasekharendra Sarasvati, the 68th Sankaracarya of Kanchi, said: “[Adi Sankaracarya] has himself designed convenient steps for us to move up. Even when we follow those steps, we must have the thought within us that whatever we see is all one. The real experience that ‘everything is one’ may come in its own time. But from the beginning we have to develop the thought that this is the truth.”

Sankara laid bare the defects of their philosophies with his one-two punch of scriptural authority and logic.

Most scholars agree that Sankara lived between 788 and 820 CE, although some say he was born as early as 77 BCE. Regardless of the date, all agree he was born in Kalady, which today is in the Ernakulam District of Kerala. He was initiated into Vedic study at five and mastered all four Vedas by eight, at which point he took sannyasa and headed north in search of a guru. On the banks of the Narmada River [in modern day Madhya Pradesh], he met the sannyasi who was to become his guru, Govinda Bhagavadpada. According to legend, when Govinda Bhagavadpada asked Sankara for his identity, the child burst forth with a spontaneous composition of 10 Sanskrit verses (today referred to as the Dasa Sloki), in which he illustrated the profundity of his wisdom and inner experience. He was immediately accepted as a disciple.

The legends associated with Sankara’s life are many and fantastic. Whether they are pure fact or not is not germane. For even if they are not true, they are Truth; the adamantine principles and reality they demonstrate have the power to uplift us. More relevant are Sankara’s actual accomplishments. To say they were vast would be an understatement. Aside from his commentaries and hymns, he also wrote many prakarana granthas5, including Vivekacudamani, Atma Bodha and Upadesa Saahasri. His mastery of Sanskrit was unparalleled. Unraveling the twists and turns of his poetic slokas is simply exhilarating. His verses are not only majestic and multi-faceted, but also of unfathomable depth. It was as if the language were his very breath. Furthermore, it should be noted that Sankara is said to have put down his pen at age 16.

Aside from his compositions, Sankara’s sanmata6 division and panchayatana7 system of worship, helped reintegrate a Hinduism that was in danger of fracturing into various cults, showing the various gods and goddesses to be but different personifications of the one ultimate reality. In many ways, Sankara was India’s first monastic organizer. He empowered the sannyasa tradition by revitalizing the dasanami structure, wherein monks were organized under 10 titles8. And to protect and propagate Sanatana Dharma, he established asrams throughout India, including four primary such institutions: one in Sringeri, Karnataka (southern India); one in Dvaraka, Gujarat (western India); one in Puri, Orissa (eastern India); and one in Jyotirmath, Uttarakhand (northern India), putting each one in charge of preserving a particular Veda. Towards the end of his life, Sankara ascended to sarvajna-pithams9 in Sri Nagar [Kashmir] and in Kanchipuram [Tamil Nadu].

Reflecting upon Sri Sankara’s life—which was the epitome of sannyasa—should annihilate any wrongheaded notion that renouncement of action is the crux of Hindu monasticism. As Sankara demonstrated, both in deed and word, what requires eradication is not action but the misunderstanding that one is the actor. Cidananda rupah sivoham sivoham—’I am consciousness-bliss. I am Siva. I am Siva.’ Sankara did not only pen this composition; he lived it. And having done so, he left his body at the mere age of 32, having ensured the truth of Advaita Vedanta would thrive not only in India but throughout the world.



1. Lineages
2 A necklace of prayer beads
3 The Non-Dualistic School of Thought based on the Upanishads found in the Vedas.
4 Among other accomplishment Vyasa is the author of the Brahma Sutras and codifier of the Vedas.
5 New compositions that serve to further illuminate the ideas expressed in the Upanishads.
6 Organizing the unwieldy Hindu Pantheon into the primary godheads of Siva, Visnu, Sakti, Ganesa, Surya and Skanda.
7 A type of puja wherein one simultaneously worships five deities, understanding that they are but multiple representations of the one supreme reality.
8 The 10 titles of the dasanami are Sarasvati, Tirtha, Aranya, Bharati, Asrama, Giri, Parvata, Sagara, Vana and Puri.
9 In order to ascend to a sarvajna-pitham—the Seat of the all-knowing—one must submit himself to, and satisfactorily answer, all questions posed by the a body of philosophical pundits, representing all schools of thought and fields of knowledge

Overlooking God

16January 2002,En route to Madras

Just at dusk, somewhere in Tamil Nadu, Amma’s South India Tour buses stopped at a countryside temple to Lord Ganesh.

The pujari was there, anointing and garlanding the murthi; the local devotees gathered near, and the people travelling with Mother stood close by, respectfully.

A temple houses a murthi, an image meant to help focus one’s mind on God, perhaps on a particular aspect of God. An avatar embodies God, perhaps can be seen as a “living murthi”. Amma, embodying unconditional love and compassion, is, to many, Devi, the Goddess, in human form.

Amma arrived at the temple location and sat among Her children near the far end of the temple compound. The bells began to ring for the evening arati-the waving of camphor before the deity. Amma sat in respectful silence, Her eyes closed, as, in the inner sanctum, the pujari waved the camphor before the stone image. Amma’s devotees, seated on the ground close to Her, could be forgiven for instinctively looking back towards the temple, imagining that next the priest would approach Mother.

But he didn’t.

Of course he had no idea that right behind him, within the boundaries of his own temple compound, God had really come.

He saw a few hundred people taking a break from their arduous journey. That’s all.

God’s ways of appearing among us are often so simple and humble, so ordinary. I know about one pujari who missed God’s visit one night-—but how many times have I missed God’s visits?

I must remember to look in the most unlikely places for God.

The frog’s tail

16Jan 2002, on the way from Madurai to Madras

“Come close this side. Sun very hot,” Amma called to Her devotees. We had stopped for lunch and a chair had been set up for Her under the shade of a majestic, old, gnarly-branched tree. It couldn’t, however, shade all of Her children travelling with Her on the South India tour, we numbered close to 400. Amma was concerned for those who had no protection from the sun. The dilemma posed was that if they moved to the side, they wouldn’t be able to see Her very well. Being the compassionate mother She is, She solved the problem by manifesting shade. Who can understand the way a Mahatma works, because in Amma’s state of consciousness, all things are possible.

As She began to share a meal with us, Her first bite was met with an unexpected reaction. She wrinkled Her nose and covered Her mouth. Too spicy? Too hot? A message to the cooks? Who knows. Her comment on the food was in Malayalam, but She found this a great time for a laugh. A very big one. Soon we all joined in. Laughter poured from every heart.

Later, Amma asked for stories. Her childlike innocence and pleasure at the telling of stories is the sweetest thing to witness. One of the renunciate girls attempted to tell one in halting English. The Westerners appreciated her effort. Mid stream, Amma stopped her and reminded her that the story was well worn, and to tell another. At that point, the girl, being caught off guard and without a back up story, urged Amma to ask a Swami for stories instead. There is no such thing as being “prepared” for Amma, because She changes the agenda on a dime. This encourages us to live in the here and now with no attachment to outcome. A hard lesson to learn in this life.

Two Westerners shared stories of the ways their lives have been protected under Amma’s wing. Amma didn’t look as though She wanted to take any credit for their gratitude. She brushed off the gushing thanks with a half smile and a turn of Her head. Amma’s children are well aware of the grace She bestows on their lives, but a true master will never make any claims. Such is Amma’s way.

Amma’s mission is to help alleviate suffering. This mission was fully evident on the afternoon bus ride from Madurai to Madras. Many of Amma’s charitable organisations were in plain sight from our window seats on the bus. Until now, the idea of Her charities was only ink on a pamphlet, but the buildings we passed along the way were a concrete manifestation of Her vision and Her grace.

In the evening, Amma stopped the buses at a pristine, outdoor temple. The light shone on three separate shrines, each one more lovely that the next. The night was clear and starlit. Thanks to Amma, even the mosquitoes gave the travelling group a respite and left them alone.

Amma used this stop to give Her children an eye opening satsang. It seemed that She took a spotlight and shined it on a simple concept that many of us never give much thought to.

The question that Amma put was “What is prayer?” Many jumped at the opportunity for a face to face with the Guru. The responses ranged from prayer is “asking for favours” to “having a one-to-one conversation with God, with Mother.”

Amma’s second question expanded on the first. She asked then “What is devotion?” Each answer from a devotee brought another question by Amma. She was mildly amused at our fumbling replies, and after a few rounds of this, we knew we were all on the hot seat and feeling “I know nothing” at that point. Under those circumstances, without the ego checked at the door, a Mahatma will illuminate the burden of its weight.

As if on cue, a small frog came to greet Amma and She held it up to make a point. She said that before a frog loses its tail, it can only live in water. Only after the tail is gone can it live on either land or water. The tail is like our ego. It limits us. But when we are able to drop it, we will be able to adjust and adapt with ease to any circumstance.

Amma explained that the highest form of prayer is to leave our desires behind and pray to express our love for God. Just like the frog can live both in water and on land once the tail is dropped, our goal should be to drop our ego so we can express true devotion. In other words, as our devotion unfolds, our ego disappears and we become humbler and humbler, we become befitting instruments to receive God’s grace. The frog chirped merrily as if in agreement!

When Amma needs to teach us, the entire universe cooperates with Her in Her effort. Then it is always a question of “Did I imagine it or did it just happen?” At those times, it is always helpful to have other devotees to refer to. Invariably, the answer is “Yes”, “It really happened”.
Shade on a scorching day? Really.
Charities abounding in a third world country? Really.
And a little frog who just “happened” by. Really.


An ever-present Guru

16 January 2002, en route to Chennai

It is late in the evening, a roadside stop somewhere in Tamil Nadu, en route to Chennai. Amma has been giving satsang, discussing with Her tour group spiritual topics like devotion and prayer.

She has just told us that even a yogi living in a Himalayan cave must listen to satsang every day, even if he or she has thoroughly studied the scriptures. Otherwise, such a person can easily become deluded.

Even if only mentally, a question arises: “Suppose the yogi lives all alone, in true isolation, far from a Guru? How will such a spiritual aspirant listen to satsang?”

Suddenly Amma is not to be seen. What happened?

Ah, She has bent over. You see just the space where She was sitting, and a little white patch that is the back of Her sari. Other heads nearby bend forward too. What are they seeing?

Triumphant, Mother sits back up and, chuckling, lifts Her left hand high. In it, a reddish towel, and in the towel, something small and pulsating.

“Ohhh!” says someone, and “How sweet!” says another, and “What is it?” ask people near the back, and “A baby frog!” someone near Mother reports.

But Mother sees more than a frog. Turning Her prize to all sides so that everyone can see the two bulging eyes and the throbbing, inflated throat, She laughs, points, and speaks:

“Children, become like a frog. It can live both in the water and on land. But the tail of ego should disappear. Then only can it live both in the water and on the shore. When it has a tail, it can live only in water, but once the tail disappears, it can live both in water and on land.”

Satsang upon a frog.

Even yogis in isolated caves have frogs.

A chai stop

13January 2002,Madurai

Last night on our bus ride from Trivandrum to Madurai, Mother had the buses pull over. Earlier, She seemed to have orchestrated the perfect travelogue. She is quite a tour guide! We got to see elephants being lead down the road, water buffalos being bathed and scrubbed in rivers by their owners, bustling city life and tranquil, open, tropical country side. All of India condensed into a few hours’ bus ride. But now, Mother had chosen a quiet place for us to be together.

I am on my first trip to India, and part of the devotees on Amma’s tour of the South. Before it is over, we will have journeyed to Trivandrum, Madurai, Madras and Coimbatore. Through Amma’s grace, my heart is already opening its creaky doors, while my eyes and ears take in the diversity of this place of Mother’s birth.

It is an amazing experience to be around Mother in this context. Before now, my only exposure to her had been in an environment of complete external comfort. All programs in the USA are held in air conditioned, carpeted, hot- water- available, sterilized places. What is so interesting about this trip with her is that She quickly strips away the external comforts we are used to and replaces them with what is truly important: the spiritual peace that money can’t buy.

It was about 8 pm, and time for chai. She seemed to have location radar because there just happened to be a large millwork building along side the road with sprawling steps and a large courtyard for all of us to gather in. Where her children are concerned, Amma provides everything for our needs. She thinks the thought, and the deed is done!

As She sat in a chair on the courtyard steps, She looked like a fairy princess with her children garlanded around her like a mala while the stars in the black sky twinkled above her head like a crown of diamonds.

She led us in lovely new bhajans in the Tamil language. A Brahmachari played the harmonium, while someone offered Mother a tambourine to help keep the rhythm. Amma used a microphone which was on hand as an amplifier and a toy. Perfect for getting someone’s attention.

Between songs, She played with us. With Her overflowing motherly affection, She teased those sitting closest to her with a fun remark, mussed hair, pinched cheeks and giggled in her distinctive voice. But the effect of the singing was that of a soothing balm. Healing the world with every note.

I don’t understand Malayalam, but I didn’t need to. What was conveyed was that Amma was happy and radiating that happiness like a thousand suns. Being there was a beautiful grace. Words cannot convey the heart warming that Mother performs.

The setting was intimate and special even though the group of us travelling with her numbered about 360. I imagined us like disciples of Lord Jesus, caravanning with him while he spread the same lesson of love and compassion.

As we sipped the tea She made available for us, it was suddenly clear that what we were really drinking in, was her unconditional love. As those who wanted tea would get into a serving line, the others who were seated would scoot up to get a seat closer to her. We looked like a group of children on a darshan merry-go-round. Next, Amma asked for stories, and a couple of devotees jumped at the chance.

When Amma was ready to move on, She stood up and moved quickly through the group. I could only see the top of her head, but it seemed to float by. It didn’t make the bobbing motion of someone who steps on the earth.

Many of us gathered around her vehicle and waved her off with blown kisses. She smiled that brilliant smile that seemed to light the darkness we would journey through, and led the way toward our next tour stop.

An ordinary lunch stop?

13 January 2002,Madurai

Sometimes travel stops with Mother hold delightful surprises, precious and unique events — like the time last year when She sang under a full moon, and then practically danced, arms outstretched, to Her car. But much of the time these stops are what would pass for ordinary family outings were it not for the fact that the Mother here is Extraordinary, and Her children number about two hundred.

Take the lunch stop on the way from Trivandrum to Madurai.

In the afternoon, the travelling group of westerners and Indians, ashramites and visitors alike, reached a shady palm grove, and clambered out of the buses, ready for a stretch. “Amma said to serve lunch at 2:30,” announced one of the people in charge. So everyone lined up, tiffin in hand, and moved towards the big vessels of rice and curry. Small groups formed here and there, individuals went off alone, many people just stood looking uncertain. To eat or not to eat? Most chose to wait, saying, “She said ‘serve,’ She didn’t say we had to ‘eat.'” They wanted to wait for Her.

If Amma had already arrived, there would have been no small groups, few people off on their own-just one huge “flower” (this is Amma’s own metaphor) encircling Mother in Her red folding chair. But on this particular day, She arrived about an hour later.

Having reached Her chair, Mother looked around at all Her children.

“No eat?” She asked. Most hadn’t. “Gita,” She directed, and the fifteenth chapter, always chanted before meals, blended softly with the soft sound of the breeze in the treetops. Mother, as She usually does during this chant, let Her gaze glide slowly over all the faces before Her (and to the sides as well). She let play a soft smile, barely visible; Her eyes were alert, probing, twinkling, questioning, encouraging-offering whatever each face they rested on needed.

The Gita finished, Mother led the group in the usual blessing-and even those visitors who had not memorised the long Sanskrit chapter of the Gita, and so had been silent before, could now join in.

The family lunch proceeded much as usual, with Mother asking for information (“How long did people have to wait for the buses to leave Trivandrum?”), interpreting the replies (“Two hours? Too long! Loading problem.”), making decisions for solutions (“Mother will direct the packing and loading next city”) and beginning to take action (“Who will volunteer to help loading next time? Hands up! Write the names!”).

This is Amma: be attentive, see a need, take action. This Mother who paid attention to the small problems of the people travelling with Her is the same Amma who saw people without decent shelter and began the Kuteeram project (building twenty-five thousand homes for the homeless across India), who saw that widows are too often destitute (and initiated a widow’s pension plan to provide them with a monthly stipend), and who understood that the India of the future will require a huge supply of computer-literate men and women (and established her various computer institutes and technical institutes, complete with scholarship programs for the poor).

Another side of Mother emerged as lunch went on. She saw one of Her young daughters who has been away at college in Trivandrum, and wanted her to tell everyone about some of her humorous experiences. The girl was terribly shy, and though Mother encouraged her to try to talk, she finally gave up, laughing, and hiding behind her hand.

At that point, Mother asked another of the brahmacharinis to narrate the girl’s story. Listeners seemed delighted with the simplicity of the events and the childlike innocence of the college girl. The love and warmth radiating between Mother and this recently-out-of-the-nest daughter were lovely.

It is amazing how Mother manages to make connections with so many of Her children in such a big group. Earlier She had called the people responsible for loading the buses; then She had asked to see the hands of all who work throughout the night in the bookstall and food preparation areas; next She took the names of loading volunteers, pausing to focus in on one fellow who was offering to help despite the fact that he had fallen from the roof of the bus doing just that job that morning! “You OK?” She asked him. “Health OK?” And She grimaced and made the same faces and noises any mother does when her child gets hurt.

Then Amma reached out to everyone, saying, “Story! One story! Tell one story!” A volunteer rose, told not one but two stories, and more would have taken turns but time was running short and Mother said, “Wait! Next time. Chai stop, more stories.”

With that promise of another gathering of the family before reaching Madurai, Mother rose to go to the camping car. She managed to pat the heads of a few more people as She passed them, spoke to some others along the way, stood for a while in the doorway of the camper calling out to yet more of Her children, and at last left.

With more than two hundred in Her big family on this particular tour, She can’t possibly speak to or touch each one-but it’s amazing what She CAN do in one ordinary lunch stop!

Thousands of smiling and satisfied faces

30January 2002,Thiruvnanthapuram

When Amma arrived in Trivandrum for the 2002 Brahmasthanam programs, devotees flocked to catch a glimpse of Her as She drove by. She went to the balcony of the Ashram and personally rolled prasad of vibhuti and candy while brahmacharinis handed the packets out to devotees rushing forward. She spent at least ten minutes throwing flower petals from the balcony to the devotees below. The sight resembled a wave of bliss, the constant stream of falling petals and devotees shoulder to shoulder weaving and reaching up to catch even a petal or two. It was truly an unimaginable sight of profound devotion.

On the first day of programs, Amma joined Her awaiting devotees around 11:30 am beaming as usual. Already a large crowd had assembled inside the program anxious for Her arrival. Long lines had even formed outside of the gate, each person hoping for a moment in Amma’s arms. She lead the crowd in meditation and manasa puja and gave an inspiring satsang, sang bhajans, including a few new songs and then sat until 5:00 in the evening giving darshan.

Watching Amma give darshan while simultaneously orchestrating the symphony around Her always reminds us of the miracle Amma IS! Every few seconds another person is in Her arms and without missing a beat, She consoles and converses with devotees on Her left, on Her right, in front of Her and behind Her. Every moment She gives Herself to everyone, compassionately stroking the backs of a family who just experienced a tragedy while beaming into the eyes of sad little girl sitting nearby

Amma again sat for over seven hours during the night programs. Just before reaching Her room, She stopped and spoke from the balcony with devotees watching below. When She turned towards them, the devotees suddenly cried out, “Amma, Amma!” and She smiled and joked with them. This spontaneous joyful feeling captured the general atmosphere of the Brahmasthanam this year, festive and peaceful and selfless. Inspired by Amma’s own example, local devotees, offered their help chopping vegetables or rolling chapattis so that everyone might receive food.

In the presence of Amma’s Perfection, thousands of smiling and satisfied faces greet each other. “Ah!” One says to oneself,” Another successful program with Amma!”

Matruvani Loading Seva

Students of Amrita Institute of Computer Technology who live on the Ashram campus engage themselves in various sevas in the Ashram. One among them is to help out in the loading of over 200,000 copies of Matruvani, the Ashram monthly magazine. The magazines are sent to the postal service for dispatch to waiting devotees.

loading the truck

The students have been volunteering their services for the past years and over 30 of them show up in the loading area.

Among the other Seva’s they help out is the Main Darshan Hall clean up, Dining Hall clean up and set up etc.

Students of AICT engaged in the Seva of loading the ashram lorry with the latest copies of Matruvani, in front of the Ashram temple.

Students posing with the Matruvani bundles in hand.

The students are indeed blessed to be able to reside in the Divine presence of Amma, thus adding to their spiritual growth and able to attend the Computer Institute.