More than 2500 years ago, an avalanche of heretic and non-Vedic sects, with horrible religious practices threatened to wipe away the ancient Veda-Dharma. In the Bhagavad Geeta, Lord Krishna has told Arjuna that, whenever there arises danger to Dharma, He (Krishna) will incarnate in this world to eradicate adharma and re-establish Dharma. In consonance with his words, the Lord has made partial incarnations during the course of the present Kali Age. And such an incarnation is the partial incarnation of Siva as Sankara Bhagavatpada, which happened some twenty-five centuries ago, on the prayer of celestials to Lord Siva to redeem Bharata-desa from the clutches of non-Vedic heretic sects. Several sources of authentic information lead to the conclusion that Sri Adi Sankara was born at Kaladi on the fifth day of the bright fortnight of the Vaisaka month of the cyclic year Nandana in cyclic year Nandana – Kali 2593 corresponding to 509 B.C.
Sri Sankara Bhagavadpadacharya was one of the greatest philosophers and spiritualists of the world. He was a discerning dialectician, a consummate commentator and celebrated poet. His miraculous achievements, within a short span of life of thirty-two years, speak of his super-human aspect. Sages and scholars, who have shone through the centuries after his time, have regarded Him as an incarnation of the Divine. Many a thinker and many a scholar of different climes and times has been attracted by the philosophic discipline of Advaita (Monism) effectively propagated by Sankara. Even modern thinkers and scholars have paid eulogistic tributes to Sankara’s genius.
Sankara’s yatra to Kailasa, the abode of Lord Siva, is one of the most notable events in the history of the Acharya. During the course of his peregrination in the Himalayan region, Shankaracharya desired to have darshan of Sri Paramesvara having his abode in Kailas. Sankara managed to reach Kailas quickly because of His yogic power. He had darshan of Lord Paramesvara and Devi Parvati. According to tradition, Sankara adored Paramesvara by singing two hymns, known as “Sivapadadi-kesanta stotram” and “Sivakesadi-padanta stotram”. Immensely pleased with Sankara’s prayers, Paramesvara blessed Sankara, presented him with five sphatika (crystal) lingas and instructed him to arrange for the worship of the lingas for the sake of the welfare of the universe, indicating also the mode of worship. Paramesvara also handed over to Sankara the palm-leaf manuscript of Soundarya Lahari, which is noted as Siva’s own hymn in praise of the Parasakti.
From available biographical information, it is learnt that Shankaracharya placed one of the five sphatika lingas got at Kailas and kept the Yoga Linga for his own personal worship and that of his successors at Kanchi.
Bhagavatpada Sankara got Kanchi city remodeled and also caused the reconstruction of the three principal temples of Kanchi, viz., the temples of Sri Ekamranatha, Devi Kamakshi and Sri Varadaraja with the assistance of Rajasena, ruler of Kanchi. Sankara consecrated the Srichakra before Devi Kamakshi and thereby secured Her bounteous grace for devotees having Her darshan.
A significant event in the history of Shankaracharya is his occupying the Sarvajnapeetha – the Throne of Omniscience at Kanchi. A great ascetic one of the early Acharyas of the Kanchi Shankaracharya Math – by name Jnanottama – has written a commentary entitled “Chandrika”, on Sureswaracharya’s “Naishkarmyasiddhi”. The second sloka (at the end of the commentary) alludes to the author of the Chandrika as the glory of the Sarvajnasrama by which term we have to understand the Sarvajna Pitha or the Pontifical seat the Advaita Matha in Kancheepuram.
Sankara Bhagavapadacharya retired to Kanchi, the Southern Mokshapuri, towards the end of his earthly career and shook off his mortal coils in that sacred city. A number of works state these facts. Verse 46 of the sixteenth chapter of the ninth section of the voluminous Sanskrit work “Sivarahasya” (in the printed Canareese edition No. 32), Jayachamarajendra Series of the Mysore Palace, refers to Shankaracharya’s worship of the Yoga, Bhoga, Vara, Mukti and Moksha lingas, to his success over scholars of other faiths and to his attaining siddhi (eternal bliss) at his own ashrama in Kanchi.
Markandeya Samhita, an ancient puranic treatise, consists of 100 khandas, each having sub-sections called parispandas, Sub-section 7 and 8 of the 72nd khanda of this work narrate briefly the history of Sankara. “Sankaracaritam”. A verse, in the seventh parispanda of the 72nd khanda of this work, relates that the Mahatma Sankara, attained the cit-svarupa, i.e. attained eternal bliss at Kanchi, after having consecrated Kamakshi.
Anantanandagiri’s biography of Sankara (12th century A.D.) – all versions printed and manuscripts, including the Madras University edition – says “The World Preceptor (Sankara) desiring to leave for his own abode, sitting once in the Moskhapuri of Kanchi, absorbed his gross body into the subtle one and getting reduced into the size of a thumb, attained eternal bliss and remains as the all-pervading “Cit” to this day”.
Coming to modern times, there is quite a large number of works, in different languages, written by erudite scholars mentioning Kanchi as the last resort of Sankara.
Apart from all the citations made above, it needs mention that, in the Srimukha-Birudavali (the string of honorific epithets) of the Shankaracharya Math at Kanchi (existing without change from very ancient times), the following epithet is found:
“Srimacchankara Bhagavatpadacharyanam adhisthane Simhasanabhishiktanam”
The word “adhisthane” points to Sankara’s siddhi at Kanchi.
It may be noted that the name of Sri Shankaracharya is found only in the official seal of Kanchi Kamakoti Matha. The word “Kanci-divya kshetre and the phrase “Srimacchankara-Bhagavatpadacaryanam adhisthane” in the birudavali indicate Sankara’s siddhi at Kanchi.
Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada was not merely a great philosopher and preceptor, but an adept in organising and a conspicuous national integrator of a very early period of India’s history. For safeguarding the Veda-Dharma and restoring it to its pristine glory and for propagating the Advaita discipline, the Great Acharya established monastic institutions at many of the sacred and important places of the country that he had visited during his digvijaya-yatra.
From Anantanandagiri (1119 – 1199 A.D.) whose work is the earliest biography of Sankara, down to Mahamahopadhyaya Lakshmana Suri (Author of “Bhagavatpadabhyudayam” – 1917) of the last century, a number of reputed historians, distinguished scholars and researchers have candidly stated, in their works, that the Great Sankara established monastic institutions (mathas) at many important and sacred places that he visited, during his digvijaya tours.
Guhya-Sahasranama (Sanskrit) refers to five Shankaracharya Peethas (Maths), -Kamakoti Peetha as presided over by Sankara himself, to four disciples, Suresvara, Padmapada, Totaka and Hastamalaka, to the places of the four other peethas and to five Sphatika lingas.
It may be interesting to read about a Sankara Math at the sacred city of Kasi. This is known as Sumeru Math and as Paduka Math. It is presided over by an Advaita Dandi Sanyasi. In some authentic works, only one monastic institution is spoken of. In the Shankaracharya Charita by Govindanatha, and the Sankarabhydaya of Rajachudamani Deekshita, there is no mention of any Matha or Peetha except the Sarvagna Peetha at Kanchi.
Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada settled down at Kancheepuram (Kanchi) at the end of his peregrinations and spent the evening years of his life in the Math at Kanchi, established on Vaisakha Sukla Purnima of the year Sidharthi – Kali 2620 (482 B.C.) He initiated a very young boy into the ascetic order, nominated him as his successor in his Kanchi Matha, and placed him under the care of Sri Suresvara, the most aged and the most erudite of His disciples. Sri Sankara Bhagavatpada attained Videha mukti in his 32nd year – Cyclic year Raktakshi, Adhika Rishabha Maasa, Sukla Ekadasi – Kali 2625 (477 B.C.)
After the Great Acharya, Sri Adi Sankara, a long line of successor Acharyas distinguished for their learning, discipline and penance has adorned the Acharya Peetham at Kanchi Sankara Math. Sarvajnatman, the immediate successor of the Bhagavartpada was the author of the masterly “Samkkshepa-Sareeraka” and of the “Sarvajna-Villasa”. Jnananda, the grand-disciple of Sri Sarvajnatman wrote a commentary by name Chandrika on Sri Sureswara’s Naishkarmya-Siddhi (This has been published as No. 33 of the Bombay Sanskrit and Prakrit Series in 1925 A.D.) Sri Krpa Sankara, the ninth pontifical head of the Kanchi Math, chose to continue and perfect the noble work inaugurated by the Bhagavatpada. He is credited with the re-consecration of the Srichakra in the temple of Devi Kamakshi at Kanchi and of Tatankas (ear-ornaments) of Sri Akilandesvari at Tiruvanaikoil (near Tiruchirapalli, in Tamil Nadu). Sri Muka Sankara, a deaf-mute of Kanchi, gained the power of speech by the grace of Sri Kamakshi. He became the twentieth Acharya of the Kanchi Math. Sri Muka Sankara has written “MukaPancasati” (Sanskrit) which contains five hundred verses. It is a lyrical outburst of poetry on Devi Kamakshi of Kanchi. It is said that the beauty of diction and mellifluence of the work is rivaled only by the Krishna-Karnamrta of Leela Suka.
Among the Acharyas of the medieval age, the name of Abhinava Sankara stands preeminent. He was so great that he was confounded with the timings and deeds of the Great Adi Sankara. He was the disciple of Sri Vidyaghana (37th Acharya). Abhinava Sankara made extensive tours in North India. He defeated (in debate) the famous Vakpati Bhatta, a reputed scholar of the court of the King of Kashmir. He ascended the Sarvjna Peetha, in Kashmir (Srinagar) after winning over many great scholars.
Another famous Acharya of the Kanchi Peetha was the 47th – Sri Chandracuda Sarasvati (1098 -1166 A.D.) He traveled widely all over the country. This Acharya was held in great esteem by erudite scholars such as Manka, author of Srikantha Charita, by Krishna Misra, author of “Prabhoda Chandrodaya” and by Jayadeva, author of “Prasanna Raghava”, “Chandraaloka” and “Bhakti Kalpa-Latika”. Jayasimha, the ruler of Kashmir, was a staunch devotee of this Acharya. The 51st preceptor, Sri Vidyateertha (1247 – 1297 A.D) was an erudite scholar. Saayana, commentator of the Vedas, Madhavacharya (Vidyaranya after becoming an ascetic), Bharati Krishna Teertha (of Sringeri Math), Vedanta Desika and Sankarananda of Kanchi Sankara Math were prominent among Vidya Teeertha’s disciples. Sri Sankarananda, the next Acharya, has written commentaries (called Deepikas) on four of the principal Upanishads and also a gloss on the Bhagavat Geeta.
Sri Vyasachala Mahadevendra Sarasvati, the 54th preceptor wrote a biography of Adi Sankara. (This work has been published by the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library at Madras). Sri Paramasivendra Sarasvati (57th Acharya) was author of “Dahara-Vidya-Prakasika” and a commentary on Siva Geeta. The 58th Acharya of the Peetha was Atma Bodhendra, also known as Visvadhikendra, who went on a tour to Varanasi where he stayed for some years. Sri Bhagavannama Bodhendra, disciple and successor of Sri Atma Bodha, propagated the path of devotion as means of salvation. He wrote two works on the efficacy of chanting the names of Bhagavan, viz. Namamrta Rasayana and Namamrta Rasodaya.
Among the later Acharyas, Sri Chandrasekharendra (1746 – 1783 A.D.), the 62nd Acharya of Kanchi, had to migrate to the southern districts of the Tamil region due to the uncertain political atmosphere that prevailed in the area around Kancheepuram, during the period of the Carnatic Wars. After prolonged camps at Ramanathapuram, Trivandrum, Pudukkottai, etc., this Acharya stayed for long at Udayarpalayam on the request of the Zamindar of Udayarpalayam. Later in about 1760 A.D., the Acharya moved to Thanjavur complying with the request of Raja Pratapa Simha, ruler of the Maratha Kingdom of Thanjavur. About a year later, this Acharya began to reside in the new Math built on the bank of the river Kaveri at Kumbhakonam, by Dabir Panth, Minister of Thanjavur, under the direction of Raja Pratapa Simha.
The 63rd Acharya was a great yogi. The next preceptor, Sri Chandrasekharendra Sarasvati was an adept in Mantra-sastra. He got the temple of Sri Kamakshi at Kanchi, repaired and performed Kumbhabhishekham to it in 1840 A.D. He also caused repairing of the Tatanka (ear-ornaments) of Goddess Sri Akilandesvari, in the Jambunatha temple at Tiruvanaikoil (near Tiruchirapalli, and reconsecrated them on the ears of the Devi in 1848 A.D. It is to be noted that the three Acharyas (62nd, 63rd, and 64th) attained external bliss at Kumbhakonam and that their Brindavans (the place where mortal remains of an ascetic are interred) are in the backyard of the Sankara Math at Kumbhakonam.
The 65th Acharya of Kanchi Sankara Math was Sri Mahadevendra Sarasvati (1851 1891 A.D.) who toured widely throughout South India. He attained siddhi at the village of Elayathankudi, in the Ramanathapuram district of Tamil Nadu. The Brindavans of the next two Acharyas, (66th and 67th) are at Kalavai about 20 miles away from Kancheepuram.
The 68th Acharya of Kanchi, the world-renowned Sri Chandrasekharendra Sarasvati Swami, became pontiff in 1907 when he was barely thirteen years of age. He shone as Acharya for nearly 87 years. In 1908, He performed kumbha abhishekam of the Jambunatha and Akilandesvari shrines at Tiruvanaikoil, near Tiruchirapalli, Tamil Nadu. In 1923, He caused the repairs to be made for the Tatanka of Sri Akilandesvari and had them reconsecrated on the ears of the Devi. In 1934 He reached Allahabad and deposited in the Triveni-Sangamam, the sacred sand taken from Rameswaram. Later He was at Banares for about six months. He was held in great esteem by the Maharaja of Kasi, Pandit Madan Mohan Malavya, Vice-Chancellor of Banares Hindu University, and a host of reputed scholars and ardent devotees. Later He returned to the south and established several organisations for the study of the Veda, Sastra, etc., and some social welfare institutions also.
His successor, on the Kanchi seat of the Bhagavatpada, is Sri Jayendra Sarasvati Swami who was initiated and nominated successor in 1954. In 1983, this 69th Preceptor gave sanyasa-deeksha to a boy in his early teens, gave him the name Sankara Vijayendra Sarasvati and nominated him as successor Acharya. The 69th Acharya attained Siddhi on 28 Feb. 2018. The Peetham is adorned by the 70th Acharya HH Pujyashri Shankara Vijayendra Saraswati Shankaracharya Swamigal.
Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham has the distinction of an unbroken line of 70 Acharyas. The Acharyas have taken measures for the protection of Veda Dharma, for propagating the Advaita discipline and alleviating the sufferings of the people.
A Keerti Sthamba (Pillar of Fame) has been erected in the year 1978 at Kaladi, the birthplace of Sri Adi Sankara on Sankara Jayanthi day (May).
During the time of the 68th Acharya and later, suitable memorials have been erected in commemoration of the Bhagavatpad’s visit to important places of Bharat such as Allahabad, Tiruvidaimarudur, Rameswaram, Puri-Jagannatha, Srisailam, Tryambaka, etc.
Renovation of ancient temples which are in need of repairs is one of the important activities of the Math. During His lifetime, Sri Chandrasekharendra Sarasvati Swamigal (68th Acharya) on the occasion of Bhoomi Pooja in 1981, blessed the leading citizens of Satara for the construction of a new temple on the model of the famous Sri Nataraja temple at Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. The kumbabhishekam of this temple known as Uttara Chidambaram was performed in the immediate presence of His Holiness Sri Jayendra Sarasvati Swamigal in 1984.
New temples have been erected for Kamakshi and Subramanya at Delhi, Kamakshi temples at Coimbatore and Salem, Subramanya temple at Secunderabad.
One of the temples that have come up is the Ekkavan Sakthi Peet in Ambaji (Gujarat) where all the 51 Sakti Peetams have been represented.
At Guwahati (Assam), Sri Purva Tiruapati Balaji Mandir has come up. The main deity, Sri Venkateswara, is an eleven feet high icon – a replica of the Venkateswara Swami at Tirumala (Tirupati) in Andhra Pradesh. Similarly, a temple for Sri Balaji was constructed at Ponda, Goa and Maha Kumbhabhishekam was performed on April 24, 2000, in the presence of the Acharyas of Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham.
Exquisite sculptures depicting history and legend adorn the temples of Goddess Kamakshi, Lord Balaji and Sahasra Linga at Prayag (Allahabad) near the confluence of Ganga, Yamuna and invisible Saraswati.
The famous temple car of Sri Varadaraja Perumal at Kanchi was completely redone at considerable cost and was inaugurated in May 2000. Rajagopurams at the northern and southern side of Sri Ramanathaswamy temple at Rameswaram are being constructed with the blessings of the Acharyas.
While activities of a religious nature are undoubtedly within the realm of the Peetham, the social side has not been neglected.
A good number of Veda Patasalas have been established wherein different sakhas of Veda are being taught.
Apart from Veda Patasalas, seventeen Oriental schools and thirty-eight Sankara Schools are functioning in different parts of the country under the guidance of the Math.
With the blessings of Pujyashri Shankaracharyas of Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetam, hospitals are being run at different places, including the Kamakoti Child Trust Hospital in Chennai, Coimbatore, Guwahati and other places.
The Acharyas’ sympathy for the poor and the entire society is too well known to be mentioned here.
Charitable trusts, established with the blessings of the Acharyas come to the aid of poor families to enable them to perform marriages of their daughters, Homes for the Aged and uncured-for are functioning with a considerable number of inmates in each. Also, at Kalavai (Tamil Nadu), a home for the disabled is also functioning. Handicapped persons are provided with tricycles, artificial limbs, etc.
Several organisations take care of the rural and neglected areas. Unemployed youths are provided with the means for starting some craft to earn their livelihood. Likewise, women are given sewing machines as a self-employment measure.
Nithya Annadhanam (free food) is provided to all devotees visiting Kanchi and the Math. The “Pidi Arisi Thittam” (Handful of Rice) scheme is running successfully at many places. Under this scheme, every household sets apart just a handful of rice every day and this will be collected by a central agency once a week, cooked in some temples and offered as neivedya to the deity and then distributed to the poor and needy.
Prasadam, blessed by the Acharyas are distributed to the patients in hospitals, inmates of jails, orphanages, etc.
The Math runs “Go-Shalas” (shelter for the cows).
Victims of flood, famine, earthquake and other natural calamities are being helped in various ways under the orders of the Acharyas.
“Dharmo Rakshati Rakshita”.