Circa 8th century CE was a chaotic time for Bharatvarsha. The decline of the Gupta Empire and death of Harshavardhan of Kannauj had put various dynasties and kingdoms at war with each other. Religious institutions always depended on royal patronage for their growth and development. In that sense, peace times were more suitable for arts as well as religious activities. It was also during this century that several sects came up with Hinduism and the might of Hindu religion was challenged by the spread of Buddhism and Jainism on one hand and declining royal patronage on the other. Into this chaotic world came a reviver of Hinduism who united the various factions. He was Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya.
He propagated the Advaita Vedanta doctrine by unifying all currents of thoughts. He travelled the length and breadth of Bharatvarsha, establishing Mathas, composing shlokas, debating with scholars of various traditions and propounding his philosophy of Advaita. He authored several Bhasyas (commentaries) on ancient Hindu Shastras. He is known to have composed stotras dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva as well as Shakti; thereby communicating the oneness of various sects of Hinduism such as Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shakta traditions. It is to him that we owe the Maneesha Panchakam that teaches “it is the same universal soul that resides in each one of us no matter which caste we belong to”.
While his literary works celebrate ‘Nirgun Brahman’ (formless) his poetic works undoubtedly are an ode to ‘Sagun Brahman’ (God with form); thereby reconciling both traditions. No topic or tradition was a taboo for him because he believed in the universality of Parabrahman. It, therefore, comes as no surprise that he even wrote on Tantra. Through his travels he established the pilgrim routes of India that are well known today. He connected the 12 Jyotirlingas, 18 Shakti Peethas and 4 Vishnu Dhaams again uniting all sects of Hinduism. His works, travels and life were essentially dedicated to uniting all traditions and sects of Hinduism at a time when it was being challenged by Buddhism, Jainism, Charvakas and other such religions and sects. Many returned to the Hindu fold following his lead.
He established the Dashanami Sampradaya by organising the Ekadandin Sanyasis (hermits with single staff) belonging to 10 different sects under four Mathas. Each of his chief Shishya was assigned to be the Peethadipathi of the four Peethas. Padmapada headed the Govardhana Peetha at Puri, Suresvara was assigned the Sharada Peetha at Sringeri, Hastamalakacharya became the Peethadipathi of Dwarka Peetha and Jyotirmath (Joshimath) at Uttarakhand was Totakacharya. Each of these Mathas came to be associated with Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas respectively. These Mathas are not just preserving the teachings of Adi Shankara but are continuing the traditions and Sampradayas established by the Jagadguru.
Lord Shiva himself incarnated as Adi Shankara according to traditions. He walked the earth at a time when Hinduism was fragmented by infighting among the various sects and sub-sects and threatened by the rising popularity of both Jaina and Buddhist traditions. As an Advaitin he saw the same soul in all beings and his encounter with a Chandala (outcaste) proved to be precious not just in helping Adi Shankara understand Advaita but also for all of us to look beyond the body and realise the soul seated within. Several other gurus came after him but it is to him that we should be indebted for uniting the various Hindu sects at a very crucial juncture failing which Hinduism was sure to disintegrate into several sectarian traditions alone.