Hinduism has been a vibrant religion throughout millennia. Every religion has phases of peaks and ebbs. After a glorious epoch of the Vedic period, there came a temporary decline. The prolonged ritual ceremonies of the Aryan system, together with undue dominance of the Brahmin class, had a negative effect on the growth and sustenance of Hinduism. Excessive religious formalities and the over-exploitation of the lower castes caused severe damage to the cause of the religion. Time was thus ripe for alternative options to sprout. Jainism and Buddhism were born as alternative spiritual paths and in due course became very well established religions. From this big jolt, many attempts were made to revive and rejuvenate the decadent Hindu religion.
The Gupta Empire (320–500 CE) has been described, as an era of Hindu revival. There was Hindu activity in the form of construction of many magnificent temples, although this dynasty supported the Buddhist and Jain religions as well. This period has been hailed as the golden period of Indian culture, but it was not until the eighth century, that an ascetic of the highest caliber came forward to uphold the dwindling flame of Hinduism.
He was Adi Shankar Acharya (788–820). His name will be always remembered for playing a major role in reorganizing and reforming the system. In Hindu theology, it is believed that whenever there is a steep downfall of the religion, God reincarnates as the savior. Adi Shankar’s arrival is considered to be the God’s intervention. Not only was he a child prodigy who mastered all the major scriptures at the tender age of seven years, but he also went by foot to all four corners of the country. He then established four major religious monastic centers, or maths, in India: the Sringeri Math on the Sringeri hills near Mysore in the South; the Sarda Math at Dwarka in the West; the Jyotir Math at Badrinath in the North; and the Govardhan Math at Puri in the East.
The Era of Adi Shankar Acharya has been hailed as a major reform movement within Hinduism, after its dwindling image caused by the onset of new religions of Jainism and Buddhism. He was the one responsible for curbing divisive tendencies; he roamed on foot all over India from East to West and from North to South to establish 4 main Hindu Maths in the four corners of the country, thus bringing together hundreds of small monasteries into a one unified system. This may be regarded as the first organizational effort in Hindu religion. Albeit Hinduism doesn’t yet have a very strict and formal structural arrangement, this initiative of Adi Shankar Acharya did help significantly in consolidating the religion.
He wrote voluminous commentaries on the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Braham Sutra, and established himself as the Hindu scholar par excellence. Apart from bringing together the three different sects, he also reintroduced the prehistoric, ancient, unified sect Smartas—those who believed in all deities and classical Hindu scriptures. This major step created a great sense of harmony and agreement in Hindu society. Floodgates were opened for adopting a preferential personal deity (ishta devta). Most Hindu temples now, especially those in foreign countries, are generally multi-deity temples, although there may be one presiding deity. The Hindu pantheon has the unique distinction of housing many different Gods under one roof and even adding new Gods periodically.
Adi Shankar Acharya also advocated soft approach in regard to rituals and customs; he attended the funeral ceremony of his own mother. Hindu sanyasins are generally restrained from participating in such duties. Even though he was a strong proponent of Advaitya, he was very accommodating to the dualistic Dvaitya philosophy. Adi Shankar’s devotional poetic work “Bhaj Govindam” is a testimony of his universal approach. He thus re-emphasized the open-door comprehensive approach of ancient Hinduism in place of a hard-core and uncompromising attitude.
NOTE: All quotes are adapted from “Thus Spake Sri Sankara,”
Sri Ramakrishna Math, Mylapore, Chennai, India, 1998