Celebrating Shankaracharya, the Father of Advaita Vedanta

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Happy Birthday to Shankaracharya, the Father of Advaita Vedanta

By Tasha Friedman

“I am Consciousness and Bliss without form. I am Shiva, I am Shiva…”

The legends say that while Shankara’s mother was pregnant, Shiva appeared to both parents in their dreams and gave them the choice between having a son who was of average intelligence but strong and healthy or one who was brilliant but would have a short life.

Both of them chose the latter option, and true to their wishes, their child grew up to be one of the most revolutionary figures in the history of Indian spirituality, although he only lived to the age of 32.

Shankara showed his formidable intellect and spiritual aspiration from an early age. Leaving home at 8 years old, he walked over 2,000 miles to find his guru Govindapada. By 16, he had already mastered the Vedic scriptures and written commentaries on them.

At that point, he set off on his own. He spent the rest of his life traversing India and spreading the message of what would become known as Advaita Vedanta.

Spiritual teachings at that time were tried and tested through debate between masters of various traditions. The loser of such contests, along with their followers, would adopt the winner’s philosophy.

Shankara proved unstoppable in debate, and thus his vision spread like a wave across India.

Advaita Vedanta cut through the scriptural misinterpretations and religious dogma of the time like a hot knife through butter.

Atman is Brahman; Consciousness is the only reality, and nothing in the manifested universe is separate from that transcendent Consciousness.

Yet the extreme verticality and directness of this vision does not end in dryness, but an outpouring of devotion beyond any limited form. Shankara, a prolific poet who composed no fewer than 72 devotional hymns, clearly demonstrated this.

The most famous of these is Nirvana Shatkam (Six Stanzas on Liberation), celebrating the freedom from identification with any form.

“I am devoid of duality, my form is formlessness.
I exist everywhere, pervading all senses.
I am neither attached, neither free nor captive.
I am Consciousness and Bliss without form. I am Shiva, I am Shiva…”

For many people during silent meditation retreats at Hridaya, one of the most touching moments is when this poem is read aloud on day 5. Freedom and truth echo down the centuries through Shankara’s words, a freedom that does not depend on any outer conditions but belongs to our very nature.

Too often, we look for freedom by trying to escape from external limitations and get upset when we feel constrained by other people or circumstances.

Shankara’s message cuts through that struggle altogether. He reminds us that real freedom comes not from changing the conditions of our lives but by transcending them and recognizing the formless reality that we truly are.

In that infinity, we are always and always will be free.

Tasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.

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