Adi Sankaraacharya (which means the first Sankaracharya) was born at a time when religious life in India was in a state of flux and great confusion. Scholars estimate his birth to be sometime between the 1st century B.C. to 788 A.D. He was born in the Kalhadi village on the banks of the river Alwaye (Purna) in Kerala, to pious parents as a gift of Lord Shiva. Hence he had high spiritual powers right from his birth, he was an infant prodigy who mastered all scriptures before his eighth year. His father died when he was quite young and with the permission of his mother he took to Sanyasa (ascetic order) with the promise that he will always be by her side whenever she desired. He went all the way to the Narbada River and chose his own Guru, Govinda who not only foresaw the greatness of Sankara but blessed him to write commentaries on the Upanishads, Bhagavad- Gita etc. He advocated the Advita philosophy (non-dualism) which in means that the Creator and Creation are one and the same.
He saw God Power in everything and everywhere. With the help of four disciples, he established four Mathas (religious centres) in four corners of India, at Jyothirmath (north), Puri (east), Dwaraka (west) and Sringeri (south). The successive heads of these Mathas are also known as Sankaracharyas. Adi Sankaracharya traveled all over India on foot twice or thrice, consecrating many shrines, participating in religious discourses and defeating many misinterpreters of the Vedas, he thus revived Hinduism. He wrote several poems songs and religious treatises which created spiritual awakenings and guided the welfare of the people of India.
Many miracles happened in his dealings with various situations which confirmed to his followers and other people about his spiritual greatness and the existence of God. He was spent some time in the Himalayas, when he heard that his mother was on her death bed in South India. He suddenly presented himself before her in her last moments which in itself was a great miracle and performed the last rites even though Sanyasis were not supposed to do so. He became to be recognized as a Jagat-Guru (world teacher) and was so recognized by many westerners. He died at a young age, before he reached forty.
There is a very interesting episode in his life, once, after his usual bath in the Ganges River at Varanasi, he met with a Chandala (Untouchable caste of those days in India) and four dogs. As people of those days considered them impure and untouchable, Sankara asked the Chandala to move away from his path. The Chandala in his reply pointed out that his present action is contradictory to his philosophy of non-dualism by which the Souls in all creatures are identical with the Universal Soul, the Atman. Sankara was stunned at his reply and realized his folly. He realized that the Chandala was Lord Siva himself with the four Vedas accompanying him as dogs. He then composed his famous poems known as “Manisha Panchaka” each of which ends with a motto “Who looks at Creation with a non-dualistic point of view, is my true Guru whether a Brahmin or a Chandala”