A millennium and more has passed since the advent of Adi Sankara, but his teachings are valued and practiced even today. If it were not for him, it is difficult to say whether the way of life called Hinduism would even exist now.
The advent of Sankara Bhagavatpada, considered an avatara of Lord Shiva, was very timely. At a certain point of time in this Kaliyuga, people were very confused about which way of life should be followed – Bhakthi Marga, Karma Marga or Gnana Marga. At this juncture, Adi Sankara manifested to assert that all three are important and play an important role as the three legs of the tripod that is Hinduism.
Adi Sankara rejuvenated Hinduism and the Vedic concepts. He emphasised the importance of rituals (Karma), devotion (Bhakthi) and philosophy (Gnana), making it very clear that all three were important for a complete life.
First, he highlighted the importance of rituals with faith and obedience to injunctions. Rituals cleanse our mind and give us a certain infrastructure or framework on which to base our lives. If we think for a moment, we will admit that it is very difficult to live a life without rules.
Second he stressed the importance of Bhakthi to God and the role of mythology in instilling that Bhakthi. Bhakthi on a personal God as found in mythology enables us to concentrate on God who is omnipresent and within ourselves. Sri Sankara was a “grand social idealist” as stated by Dr. S. Radhakrishnan. He did not emphasise the superiority of any one God. He wrote stotras glorifying all the Gods, thereby bringing about a sense of unity even in diversity. He advocated Bhakthi as a means of taking individuals closer to their own personal Gods, of their own choice.
Third, and most important, he promoted the philosophical concepts enshrined in our Vedas and Upanishads. Advaita, the highest philosophical work of Adi Sankara explains the dual aspect of the highest, called Brahman. The Advaita philosophy alone, according to Sankara, could do justice to the truth of the many conflicting doctrines, and so he wrote all his works with the intention of helping the individual to realise and identify his soul with Brahman, which is the means of liberation from samsara.
Philosophy enables a man to have a comprehensive view of the whole Trio viz. God, Creation of the World and all matter, and finally the Atman, which ignites everything from the highest Creator to the lowest vegetation.
Adi Sankara also enumerated the qualities of a real philosopher. He explained that a real philosopher is one whose mind is composite, one who is able to empathise with all created beings, at all times. He always finds peace within himself, and in all circumstances. And, he moves in the World unaffected by any happenings just as churned butter floats in buttermilk.
Whether or not Adi Sankara was a manifestation of Lord Shiva, we do not know, but he was an extremely divine and commendable person nevertheless. He achieved what requires superhuman strength and conviction. He wrote works on the Mantra Sastra, stotras on all the Gods and Goddesses, and commentaries of all the philosophical treatises (Upanishads). In short he re-affirmed faith in Hinduism and brought it back to glory at a crucial period when it was floundering.