Adi Shankara on Aging and Death

Every year, I get well wishes on my birthday to have a long and fulfilling life. As I get older, however, I have come to appreciate the idea that you don’t need to live a long life to have a fulfilling one.

This idea is nothing new, but many of us believe that our fulfillment is inextricably intertwined with living to a very old age. My grandfather lived to 95 and had a fulfilling life, but his youth and early adult years were spent in poverty and under Britain’s oppressive rule in India.

Yet our fear of dying can sometimes lead to a fear of living the best versions of ourselves and making an impact on others. When I was young, my grandmother told me the story of Adi Shankara, the 8th- and 9th-century Hindu philosopher considered by many to be one of the most influential voices in the Advaita tradition of Hinduism.

Adi Shankara, founder of Advaita Vedanta, with disciples, created in the early 1900s. Oleograph by Raja Ravi Varma courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

According to legend, Adi Shankara’s parents were unable to conceive a child and prayed daily to Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva appeared before the parents and offered them a choice: They could have a child who would live to 100 years without doing much or a child who would make an impact on many lives but only live a relatively short life. His parents chose the latter option without hesitation.

Adi Shankara was seen as a brilliant philosopher who advanced Hindu theology and made the idea of one’s philosophical and spiritual evolution as important as fulfilling ritual duties. He traveled across India and established four “mathas,” or monasteries, in the north, west, east and south, though his followers would later dedicate schools that followed in the Advaita, or nondualistic, tradition.

Adi Shankara, or Shankaracharya, as he is commonly known, encouraged critiques of Hindu texts as a way of making the religion more adaptive to changes across the Indian subcontinent. His advocacy ushered in a new era of debates among Hindu scholars even as the Bhakti movement was taking shape in South Asia and spreading to Southeast Asia due to the influence of the Chola dynasty in South India.

Shankaracharya’s impact was the work of several lifetimes, yet he died in his 30s (most scholars believe he lived from 788-820 CE). He believed that fulfillment came through knowing dharma and aspiring toward liberation, or “moksha.” His relatively short life would later inspire others who sought fulfillment without concern about growing old.

I draw inspiration from Adi Shankara because, like many of us, I am constantly reflecting on my own mortality. I don’t want to assume that I will live well into my senior years. That’s why I aspire to live the best version of myself every day and experience fulfillment from a life well-lived.

Originally posted on Religion News


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