Adi Sankara showed spiritual leanings from an early age and longed for a preceptor who could teach him Brahma Jnana. It is held that he imbibed his philosophical knowledge from Govindapada, a direct disciple of Gaudapada. Adi Sankara sought Govindapada on the banks of the Narmada and learnt from him the scriptures and the import of the Mahavakyas — behind the body and the mind is the spirit of Brahman. This Brahman, which is the primal cause, is ever existent and hence true, and is the essence of infinite consciousness and bliss.

The preceptor then advised this disciple to preach the truth he had learnt to the world, said Swami Gautamananda in a lecture. Adi Sankara went to Kasi where he was welcomed. He propagated his philosophy so eloquently that he won many scholars to Advaita Vedanta. The crux of this philosophy is that there is no reality except Brahman and that all else, i.e., the universe, etc., is illusory.

Such an extreme viewpoint brings in its wake many overt contradictions and discrepancies. How is one to account for creation, dharma, good and bad karma, society, family, etc., that one confronts in everyday existence? Does not this position ignore the benefits of sadhana or the attainments of a ‘sadaka’ or a ‘mumukshu’? Does it not also imply a denial of Adi Sankara’s existence and philosophy?

It is said that Siva took up the responsibility of correcting the flaws in Adi Sankara’s approach and, in the guise of an untouchable, confronted Adi Sankara on a narrow lane in Kasi, near the banks of the Ganga. Adi Sankara was quick to realise that this was no mortal being but the Lord Himself. It dawned on him that a modified approach was necessary to strengthen his philosophy.

That the objective world is illusory could be applicable only to those who are in a state of transcendental experience (samadhi). For the rest of us, he propounded the idea of the relative existence of creation. Brahman with inscrutable powers has created the universe. Its reality is relative and not absolute, similar to the reality of a dream experience. It lasts only as long as a dream lasts. The world and its complexities exist in this relative reality of the universe.