One of the earliest mystic Masters of India is Shankara (788 - 820 C.E. ?), more properly known as Adi ShankarAcArya, the prefix Adi meaning the prime, the original, the first. Shankara's interpretations of Vedanta have so dominated the intellectual life and thought of the country and has become so well-known in the rest of the world that his work has almost become synonymous with Vedanta inspite of the fact that other interpretations exist and are followed widely. One measure of Shankara's influence is that it is very difficult for any one either Hindu or non-Hindu to read Indian religious texts without unconsciously seeing them through the general interpretation given by Shankara. The great temples and holy places of India where he lived, preached and prayed, have made his name legendary and have left an indelible image in the Hindu mind. His greatness is not only in the context of Hinduism and Indian philosophy. His exposition of advaita has a relevance to the cultural history of the entire world philosophy. This is because advaita does not need for its validity the symbolism or the prop of the religion and mythology of Hinduism. The one fact that comes to the mind of a non-Indian the moment the country of India is mentioned is its contribution to the spiritual evolution of the human species over the centuries, particularly through its Vedic and Upanishadic thought processes But if any single individual Master is to be associated with this contribution one of the earliest such is Shankara. It goes back to as early as the second century BCE. Even this date of Shankara is controversial. In fact anything that is connected with Shankara is mystifying, if not controversial.
Shankara was not only a great philosopher who professed a sophisticated philosophy with precision and clarity but he was a great reformer also. In his short span of 32 years he achieved what no one ever before or after him achieved. At the age of three he had mastered the language of Sanskrit. At the age of six he had already learnt whatever formal learning there was to learn. At the age of eight he was ready to renounce the mundane world along with its glamour and he did. Before the age of twelve he had found his formal Guru at whose feet he reached the shores of all existing knowledge at that time. By the age of sixteen he had already written his famous commentaries (bhashyas) on the Upanishads, the Gita, the Brahma-sUtras, V.S.and SanatsujAtIyaM. These commentaries have stood the test of time for more than a millenium and will so stand for several more millenia to come. Before the end of his life he had toured by foot the entire subcontinent three times and more, established several religious organizations called mutts, of whom five are the most famous and are still carrying the torch, carried on verbal debates with almost 76 other schools of religious thought and brought them all under his banner of advaita, left behind him scores of devotional poems, at least one for each deity or temple then known in India, wrote five unique expository works: viveka cUDAmaNi, aparoksha anubhUti, Atma-bodha, upadeSa sAhasri and praSnottara-ratna-mAlikA, each one of which constitutes, in its own way, a concise, encyclopaedia of advaita vedanta and, finally, reorganized and streamlined the daily worship of the individual Hindu in such a way that it has survived him for centuries till now. His immediate disciples whom he later nominated to lead the mutts he established were: sureSvarAchArya, HastAmalakAchArya, Padma-pAdAchArya and toTakAchArya..
Shankara was also an acclaimed poet. His compositions both in prose and poetry excel even some of the greatest literary poets India has known. He was not only one of the deepest thinkers of the world but he also had the unique distinction of being very lucid in his expositions (both written and oral) of his thoughts. He was a profound and well-read scholar but was in addition a blessed saint who had the grace of God in all its fullness. He exhibited, even in his childhood, marvellous powers of spirituality and scholarship. He was already known for his genial disposition and kind heart. On one of these days when he was studying in his Gurukula, (the abode of the teacher where his disciples become resident students), he went to a poor brahmin’s house, as was usual with all celibate students, to receive his bhikshA, the daily food offered as a service. The poverty stricken housewife was unable to give him anything substantial. She brought and gave him an Amalaka (a fruit of the embylic myrobalan) as a humble token of her contribution to the bhikSA. Shankara’s heart was moved at the sight of her poverty on one side and her readiness, on the other side, to give away even the very little she had. He prayed to Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth by composing his famous kanaka-dhArA stotra. Lo and behold, her house was immediately filled with a heavenly downpour of gold in the form of golden amalaka fruits. Thus was born one of the most popular hymns of ancient India, which, even today is repeated very often by young and old for the obvious purpose of pleasing Goddess Lakshmi for Her grace to descend and bestow wealth and prosperity. This poem containing 27 verses not only offers this prayer but it also describes the three deities Sarasvati, LakSmi and DurgA as manifestations of the one Mother Goddess.
Shankara was further a great mystic and Yogi who had a direct perception of the Infinite Consciousness and at the same time he was also a practical, socio-cum-religious reformer. His knowledge and felicity in law, logic, rules of grammar and etymology were as supreme as his devotion. Thus Shankara synthesized in his one personality the superlatives of a philosopher, writer, thinker, poet, scholar, blessed devotee, mystic, reformer, humanist, lawyer and logician, and the beloved of the Lord. This unique combination of so many excellent achievements of his in his short life has not perhaps been paralleled by any one in the history of the world either before or after his time.