Transliteration Key

The Sources: Placing Sankara in a period according to the modern calendar is a difficult problem. The official date accepted currently is 788-820 CE, and the Government of India celebrated the 1200th anniversary of Sankara's birth in 1988. This date is largely based upon one traditional view prevalent in India. [1] However, the date is still open to question, as pointed out by swAmI tapasyAnanda in his translation of the mAdhavIya Sankaravijayam. [2] This difficulty is experienced for almost all personalities in Indian history, due to paucity of proper records and conflicting traditions current in different parts of the country. As far as the problem of dating Sankara is concerned, our sources of information are: internal evidence from Sankara's works, the astronomical details recorded in some of the Sankaravijayams, and the traditional accounts kept in the advaita maThas in India.

Internal Evidence: Of these three sources, a lot of scholarly work has been done in the recent past, analyzing the internal evidence from Sankara's works. The date now seems to be converging to the early 8th century CE. [3] The most important internal evidence comes from Sankara's verbatim quotation of dharmakIrti, the buddhist logician. Hsuan Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim, who visited India in the time of harshavardhana, king of Thanesar (606 - 647 CE), gives clues to dharmakIrti's date. He also mentions bhartRhari, but not of Sankara. It follows that Sankara is post-dharmakIrti, and possibly post-Hsuan-Tsang also. Critical academic scholars are converging to a date near 700 CE for Sankara's period.

Astronomical Details: The astronomical details in the various Sankaravijaya texts are not of much use. More often than not, the details in one work contradict those in another, and one cannot rely on any of them unless one is preferentially biased to accept one of the Sankaravijayas as more authoritative than the others. Dates ranging from the 5th cent BCE to 8th cent CE have been calculated on the basis of such astronomical details. One further complication is that some astronomical information is said to have been obtained from works which are not available anywhere in India. So it is difficult even to authenticate the astronomical details from their supposed sources. Also, not all the currently available texts titled Sankaravijaya are accepted as authoritative within the living advaita tradition. Under the circumstances, it should be noted that the astronomical references in one text is only as good or as bad as all the other such details in other texts, and no firm conclusion can be drawn about their validity.

Records of maThas: Whether Sankara established any maThas at all has been questioned in the modern literature. Thus, Paul Hacker attributes the tradition of four AmnAya maThas at Sringeri, Puri, Dvaraka and Joshimath to vidyAraNyasvAmin. The native oral tradition, however, takes the history of these four maThas, each associated with one of the four geographical directions and one of the four vedas, to SankarAcArya himself. The daSanAmI sannyAsI sampradAya, with its various akhADas in northern India, accepts affiliation only with these four maThas, though such affiliation is largely nominal. There seems to be some historical evidence for the existence of the oldest daSanAmI akhADas as early as the 9th cent. CE. [4] However, as swAmI tapasyAnanda points out, the evidence of the daSanAmI sannyAsI tradition has never been properly taken into account in the modern literature. It seems very likely that the tradition of four AmnAya maThas reflects historical fact. It is immaterial whether Sankara established them himself or whether these four maThas developed naturally at the places where the four famous disciples of Sankara lived and taught. It is clear that even if they were not actually established by Sankara himself, the four AmnAya maThas came into existence early in the history of post-Sankaran advaita vedAnta.

Of these four maThas, the Joshimath title had long been vacant, till it was revived in 1940 CE. Consequently, it does not have many ancient records. The Dvaraka and Puri maThas have, in the past, claimed a date of 5th century BCE for Sankara. This is partly based upon a dating of a grant by a king named sudhanva who is supposed to have been a contemporary of Sankara. Nothing else is known about this king, and the grant itself has not been dated with any accuracy. In any case, it should be remembered that the records of the Dvaraka and Puri maThas are rather fragmentary, because they have had patchy histories, with periods when there were no presiding SankarAcAryas. This is also accepted by the administrations of these institutions, and they do not hold to the 5th century BCE date with absolute certainty. Meanwhile, Sringeri has been the only maTha of the original four which has had an unbroken succession of maThAdhipatis. This may be no more than an accident of history, as southern India has not experienced as many political upheavals as the north. Given these facts, among the traditional sources, only the Sringeri records seem to lend themselves to critical historical analysis.

The Sringeri maTha's record states that Sankara was born in the 14th year of the reign of vikramAditya. The record does not give any clue about the identity of this king. Some 19th century researchers identified this king with the famous vikramAditya of the gupta dynasty, thereby postulating a date of 44 BCE for Sankara. A period of more than 700 years was then assigned to sureSvara, because the later successors in the Sringeri list can all be dated reasonably accurately from the 8th century downwards. This is rather anomalous, and can be resolved quite neatly, as pointed out by Mr. B. Lewis Rice in his Mysore Gazetteer. [5]

If one identifies the vikramAditya as a member of the Western cAlukya dynasty, which ruled from bAdAmi in Karnataka, one gets a much more reasonable date for Sankara. The cAlukya dynasty reached its greatest fame in the time of pulakeSin II, a contemporary of Harshavardhana. According to historians, there were two kings named vikramAditya in this cAlukya dynasty - vikramAditya I ruled in the late 7th century CE, while vikramAditya II ruled in the early 8th century. [6] However, there is still some ambiguity with respect to which of these two vikramAdityas is actually meant, but as with most Indian historical records, this is the best one can do. It is more reasonable to identify the vikramAditya of the Sringeri record with one of these two cAlukyan kings, who ruled from Karnataka, rather than the northern gupta king, whose empire did not include southern India. This interpretation of the Sringeri record is also consistent with the internal evidence from Sankara's works. In either case, this implies that the earliest date that one can postulate for Sankara has to be in the late 7th century CE. swAmI tapasyAnanda also quotes a letter from Sringeri, which makes it clear that this maTha claims nothing more than what its record states, interpretation of dates being the historian's job. [7] This is the sensible approach to take, given the fact that traditions in India tend to be rather ambiguous in their chronology.

In addition to these four original maThas, a number of other advaita maThas have come into being over the centuries, some of which are quite well-known. These maThas either started out as branches of the original institutions, or were set up as independent monasteries by notable sannyAsIs of the daSanAmI order. With the proliferation of such maThas came a number of "traditions," many of them conflicting with one another in details. For example, some of these maThas also claim to have been established by Sankara himself. [8] Some of them also claim 5th century BCE to be the date of Sankara.

Conflicting Traditions: Historically, such claims often resulted in serious conflicts with the traditions of the undisputed four. The propagation of such conflicts was helped by the fact that the various advaita maThas had become politically influential institutions, with access to land and revenue donated by various rulers at different times. It is a fact that this has led to fierce rivalries in the past among the followers of different maThas. Such rivalries are not unknown in northern India, but they have particularly been the cause of many problems in southern Indian sources. This is probably because of the intimate connection of the founders of the Vijayanagara empire with the Sringeri maTha, and the competition by other maThAdhipatis in the south for similar honors as traditionally accorded to the Sringeri maTha. Every southern maTha with a claim to be the "original" one wants to deny Sringeri's chronological primacy. This denial only has the effect of reinforcing the fact that Sringeri has been the most important advaita maTha for centuries before any of the other maThas even came into being. As such, their conflicting claims about Sankara's date have to be evaluated in the context of their political motivations in putting forth such dates.

While most of the conflicts among the various maThas can be dismissed as petty polemics, or as "bazaar gossip," as swAmI tapasyAnanda does, a serious historian needs to be aware of these problems among the traditional sources. No "tradition" about chronology should be accepted without critical analysis. For example, I find swAmI tapasyAnanda unwittingly contradicting himself in his introduction to the translation of the mAdhavIya, because he tries to concede as much as possible to all kinds of contrary "traditional" dates. There is no need to consider seriously the claim that 788 CE is the date of one "abhinava Sankara," and to conclude that Sankara's date must therefore be much earlier. Firstly, the name abhinava Sankara is mostly used only as a title of respect. Thus, one such abhinava Sankara, the author of the SrIrudra-bhAshya, was called rAma brahmAnanda tIrtha, but he lived much later than the 8th century. [9] Even in the 20th century, various sannyAsins have been titled "abhinava Sankara" by their followers [10]. There may have been many such abhinava Sankaras over the centuries, but there is no independent evidence for the existence of someone named "abhinava Sankara" in the 8th cent. CE. Secondly, Sankara, the writer of bhAshyas to the brahmasUtras and upanishads, is the SankarAcArya who is relevant for the history of advaita vedAnta. When internal evidence from the bhAshyakAra's undisputed works shows that he lived not earlier than the 8th century CE, it follows that this "abhinava Sankara" theory is not sufficient reason for positing a date much earlier than the 8th century CE for Sankara himself.

Similarly, I find some of Prof. Karl Potter's statements to be quite misleading. [3] That a fifth advaita maTha at Kancipuram is very active today, does not mean that it has always been so, nor does such activity lend any special credibility to its claims to antiquity. The political influence and prestige that a maTha enjoys today also do not confer any legitimacy to such claims. It is inconceivable that the daSanAmI sampradAya would have overlooked a fifth maTha in choosing its affiliations. Claims to historicity that are made in a spirit of political one-upmanship seldom stand up to serious scrutiny. There is no necessary correlation between the modern activity of an advaita maTha and its claimed antiquity. Prof. Potter has also not consulted available historical evidence that enables us to date the origin of this fifth maTha. [11] There will be no cause for confusion if such independent evidence is also taken into account. Moreover, in addition to the four AmnAya maThas and a well-known fifth institution at Kancipuram, there are numerous other maThas in India, whose traditions are at least as valid as those of the Kanci maTha. To be really impartial, the traditions of all these other minor maThas in India should also be taken into account, but such a study has not attracted any scholarly attentionb.

The 5th cent. BCE date can be rejected without much discussion. It is much too early, and Sankara cannot be reasonably held to have been a contemporary of the Buddha. The only objection to this rejection of such an early date comes from those who believe that the actual date of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, should be earlier than the 9th cent. BCE, possibly as early as the 18th cent. BCE. Based on such an early date for the Buddha, it is argued that the possibility of a 5th cent. BCE date for Sankara should be taken seriously. However, all the available evidence points to the 5th cent. BCE as the best possible period for dating the Buddha. In any case, the proponents of the 5th cent. BCE date for Sankara also seem to forget that the evidence of Hsuan Tsang with respect to dharmakIrti is too strong to be neglected. That Sankara has quoted from dharmakIrti's work is confirmed by sureSvara. Therefore, even if the Buddha's date were to be drastically re-evaluated, and an 18th cent. BCE date accepted, this will simply not affect Sankara's date at all. It must remain in the 8th cent. CE (near 750 CE, with a window of around 50 years on either side), as held by the major tradition and confirmed by internal evidence from Sankara's own works.

It must also be remembered that the 5th cent. BCE date does not really come from any ancient tradition, notwithstanding the high-pitched rhetoric of those who claim otherwise. This date has been proposed only in the last two centuries or so, during British times. In the post-Independence period, some people champion the 5th cent. BCE date because it helps bolster a unique kind of national pride: any great Indian should have necessarily lived before Jesus Christ! [12, 13] Part of this is a modern backlash against some of the early Indologists, whose belief in Biblical chronology colored their perception of Indian history. Still, these modern proponents of the 5th century BCE date perhaps forget that the date of Christ has little relevance to events in Indian history, except for fixing dates according to international convention. Surely, Sankara's greatness is not increased by an early BCE date, nor is it lessened by a date much later than Christ's.

It should also be remembered that what is said to be tradition is often very misleading. The traditions of the four maThas at Sringeri, Puri, Dvaraka and Joshimath may disagree about the date of Sankara, and also about who was the successor of Sankara. Notwithstanding this, the fact remains that each recognizes the other three paramparAs to be its equal in age and origin. The daSanAmI sannyAsIs also accept affiliation only with these four maThas. There can be no doubt that these four are the original maThas, dating close to Sankara's times, and that all other maThas are later ones. When traditional accounts conflict (and they do so more often than not), it is necessary to test each source for internal consistency, and then for compatibility with independent external sources. If a maTha's claimed list of gurus is not historically verifiable, its traditions about Sankara's date and life must not be accepted uncritically. This is all the more imperative in cases where even recent personalities, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, are dated to impossibly early times. It is quite easy to make up a "tradition" and a list of maThAdhipatis, much like the royal genealogies of some of India's erstwhile kings. Any source that does not meet the criteria of internal consistency and independent external confirmation should not be accepted. This applies as much to the traditions of the powerful and influential maThas as to those of the less well-known ones.


  1. See R. M. Umesh, Shankara's Date, with a foreword by Dr. K. Kunjunni Raja, Madras, 1981, for a full discussion of this issue.
    LC Call No.: n.a.

  2. Swami Tapasyananda, The Sankara-dig-vijaya of Madhava-Vidyaranya, Ramakrishna Mission, Madras, 1st ed., 1978, 2nd ed., 1983.
    LC Call No.: PK3798.M168 S2613 1978

  3. Encyclopedia Britannica. Also, Karl H. Potter, Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies, vol. 3, pp. 1-18, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1981.
    LC Call No.: B131 .E5 1977 vol. 3 B132.A3

  4. Swami Sadananda Giri, Society and Sannyasin, Kriyayoga Asrama, Rishikesh, 1976.
    LC Call No.: BL1245.D27 S2

  5. B. Lewis Rice, Mysore, A Gazetteer, Constable, Westminster, 1897.
    LC Call No.: DS485.M84 R4
    Also read a posting on the advaita mailing list for more details.

  6. K. A. Nilakantha Sastry, A History of South India, 4th ed., Oxford University Press, Madras, 1976.
    LC Call No.: DS484 .N5 1976

  7. Letter from Sringeri maTha, quoted in pg.12 of reference no. 2 above.

  8. A. Nataraja Iyer and Lakshminarasimha Sastry, The Traditional Age of Sri Sankaracharya and the Maths, Madras, 1962.
    LC Call No.: B133.S5 N324 1962

  9. Abhinavasankaracarya, Srirudrabhashyam, (a) Sri Vani Vilas Press, Srirangam, 1962, (b) with translation and notes in Telugu by Lakshminarayanamurti Avadhani, Hyderabad, 1990.
    LC Call No.: BL1113.46 .A23 1990

  10. Thus, followers of karapAtrI svAmijI (hariharAnanda sarasvatI), a modern guru, call him by this name, as a mark of respect. See Abhinava Sankara, Svami Karapatriji, smrti-grantha, Dharmasangha Prakashan, Meerut, 1988.
    LC Call No.: BL1175.H35 A62 1988
    So also, followers of
    SrI saccidAnandendra sarasvatI call him an abhinava SankarAcArya

  11. The Illustrated Weekly of India, The Curious Case of the Missing Monk, The Weekly Cover Story, September 13, 1987. Also, An article on the newsgroup alt.hindu, which deals with this issue in some detail, and a posting on the advaita mailing list, for more about such controversies.

  12. Udayavir Shastri, The Age of Shankara, translated by Lakshmi Datta Dikshit, Virajananda Vedic Research Institute, Ghaziabad, 1981.
    LC Call No.: n.a.

  13. S. D. Kulkarni, Adi Sankara: the saviour of mankind, Bhagavan Vedavyasa Itihasa Samshodhana Mandira (BHISHMA), Bombay, 1987.
    LC Call No.: B133.S48 E5 1987


Last updated on May 5, 1999.

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