Sivaguru and Aryamba, a Brahmin couple living in Kerala, India, could not conceive a child. They prayed to Shiva in a nearby temple, and miraculously, he appeared to them in a dream and offered them a choice as a reward for their devotion: one son who would be short-lived but the most brilliant philosopher of his day, or many sons who would be mediocre at best. The couple opted for a brilliant, but short-lived son, and Shankara (or Adi Shankaracharya) was born.
Childhood: Shankara's father died when he was very young, and so he was raised by his mother and relatives. Little is documented about his childhood except that he excelled in his learning, but tradition attributes several miracles to him. In once instance, Shankara was begging for alms (as part of the traditional upbringing of a Brahmin brahmacharya). He went to a lady who herself was very poor, but not wanting to send him away, she gave him her last piece of fruit. Sensing her poverty and generosity in spite of it, Shankara composed a hymn to the Goddess of Wealth, and as a result there was a shower of fruit on her doorstep. In another instance, he is said to have rerouted the course of the Purna River so his mother did not have to walk such a long distance to perform her daily ablutions.
Sannyasi: Once when Shankara was swimming in the Purna River, a crocodile caught hold of his leg. Feeling his moment of death upon him, Shankara resolved to become a sannyasi (an ascetic monk), and the crocodile released him. As a sannyasi, still in his early teens, Shankara wrote commentaries on the trilogy of Hindu Scripture: the Upanishads, the Brahma Sutra, and the Bhagavad Gita. These commentaries form the principal writings of the Advaita Vedanta school of Indian Philosophy. Besides these commentaries, Shankara wrote original works such as the Bhaja Govindam and the Atmabodha. For Advaita Vedantins, his writings themselves are considered Scripture, and have inspired their own commentaries, and commentaries of these commentaries. For the non-religious, they are still marvels of scholarship, poetic Sanskrit, and philosphy.
In addition to writing, Shankara traveled all over the subcontinent and debated with both proponents of the other five Orthodox philosophies of India (such as Purva Mimamsa, Nyaya, and Sankhya) and the unorthodox philosophies (such as Buddhism and Jainism). He was immensely successful, made many disciples, and is credited by many Hindus with preventing the spread of Buddhism in India.