Sivaguru and his wife were poor and childless (which amounts to the same thing in ancient India) in the village of Kaladi in Kerala. But they regularly prayed at the nearby Vadakkunnathan temple in Trichur. Shiva appeared to the couple in a dream and promised them a choice – either one son who would be short-lived but the most brilliant philosopher of the age, or many sons who would each lead mediocre lives. Sivaguru opted for a brilliant son, and so Shankara was born c. 800 AD.
Since there are 14 different historical biographies of his life, it is rather challenging to sort out fact from fiction, but all agree Shankara was a holy Hindu. Even as a child he displayed a penchant towards spiritual insight, could recite the Puranas, and mastered the Vedas. Adi believed whole-heartedly in the Vedas simultaneously disputed the need for over-exaggerated associated rituals and religious practices. As a teen, he therefore asked his mother – his father being dead – for permission to renounce the world and travel south in search of a guru. Thus he met one Govinda Bhagavatpada, who helped Shankara master various forms of yoga that included Hatha, Raja and Jnana. Adi vowed to spread the teachings of Brahma Sutras across the world (or as much of it as he could reach).
Shankara became convinced of the philosophy of “non-dualism”; he believed that each individual has a divine existence, and that though bodies are diverse the soul is one. The moment someone believes that life is finite, he (or she) is discarding the higher dimension of understanding. This concept became central to the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism he founded. He also started the monastic order known as Dashanami and the Shanmata convention of worship.
Returning to the fable of his birth, it should be noted that Adi Shankara died at the age of 32, at the pilgrimage site in the Himalayas known as Kedarnath.