The Holy Bell Of Venkateswara: 750 Years Of Vedanta Desika
Vedanta Desika’s legacy was taken forward by his disciples, but any major state initiative to honour the scholar is yet to materialise.
In the 750th year of his birth, steps can be, perhaps, taken to include his works in school syllabus.
The summer of 1323 AD remains etched in blood in the history of the temple town of Srirangam. The first-recorded invasion of Srirangam took place in 1311 by Malik Kafur, a commander in Alauddin Khilji's army. However, the temple's own chronicle, the ‘Guruparamparai Prabhavam’, written in the 14th century, records the invasions as being in early 12th century.
The incident also finds mention in the ‘Koil Ozhugu’, a temple history manual. Whatever be the dates, the fact remains that this holy shrine of Shrivaishnavas was invaded multiple times. The second invasion was in 1323 by Ulughu Khan (1290 -1351 AD). This was one of the bloodiest. The invading armies massacred over 16,000 pious and devout residents of Srirangam mercilessly. The gentle Cauvery waters turned red with the blood of innocent victims!
The Madhura Vijaya is a 14th century court epic by a princess Gangadevi of the Vijayanagara Empire. The poem celebrates the victory of the empire’s crown prince, Kampa, over the Persian-invaded Madurai. In addition to battle scenes awash with blood, gore and plenty of poetic fantasy, the poetess describes how her husband Kampa passes the time between wars and his bevy of beautiful wives. In the eighth canto she remembers the invasion on the holy temple of Lord Ranganatha in Srirangam as told to king Kampa by a messenger. The ancient Divyadesam was ransacked and plundered multiple times by Muslim invaders. Gangadevi writes:
Sesa, King of Snakes,
fearing lest Visnu his master
be rudely awoken from meditative slumber,
shields him from the broken bricks that keep falling
with his thousand-fold hoods.
(Madhura Vijaya 8.2)
The broken bricks she mentions is nothing but the breaking down and loot of temples around Srirangam. Later even the mighty Vijayanagara Empire was to fall into the hands of bloodthirsty tyrants. In all those invasions in Srirangam, young Desika couldn’t have stayed calm. In 1323, as Ulughu Khan’s armies continued bloodshed, the priests inside the temple divided themselves into groups. One group took the Utsava murtis (procession deities) of Namperuman and fled towards Tirumala, where they continued worshipping the Lord in secrecy.
A second group built a temporary wall around the central sanctum that housed the idol of Lord Ranganatha, concealing it from the enemy. The ever-alert Desika quickly reached out for the precious hand-written manuscript ‘Sruta Prakasika’ and fled. It was Sudarshana Suri’s great commentary of Saint Ramanuja’s Sri Bhashyam. The aged Sudarsana Suri had shifted to Srirangam and was living there with his two sons Parankusa Bhatta and Vedacharya Bhatta. Desika was also serving as a priest there. Camouflaging the manuscript into the tuft of his thick hair, Desika and Suri’s sons ran out of the large temple complex. The fields around were cluttered with corpses.
Seeing the army invaders still plundering and killing, they lay down among the corpses. Being a master of yoga, he knew breath control, so anyone who saw him didn’t believe he was alive. After lying down with the dead bodies for a whole night, the three of them fled towards Sathyamangalam as the first rays of the sun hit the blood-soaked earth of Srirangam. There, Desika stayed for two whole decades, praying that peace be restored in Srirangam. Today, centuries later, we have the whole ‘Sruta Prakasika’ intact with us. We must be indebted to Desika forever! But who is Vedanta Desika and why has the current generation forgotten him?
How much do we know of the lives of our philosophers and saints from another time and era? Almost nothing! Take for example the life of Hindu dharma’s most popular and perceptive philosopher, Jagadguru Adi Shankara Bhagavadpada of the eighth century. We only know his life in bits and patches. Through oral traditions and anecdotal history, we have various versions circulating. Take the azhwar poets of the Tamil region. We have 4,000 of their writings and compositions compiled into the ‘Nalayira Divyaprabandham’. But their own personal life stories are clouded with mystery.
The great Shri Vaishnava saint Ramanuja (1017-1137 AD) who propagated Vishishtadwaita, Madhwacharya (1238-1317 AD) who propounded the Dwaita school of thought, Vallabhacharya (1479-1531 AD) of the Pushtimarga Sampradayam and many others. We barely have any cohesive stories worth putting into good biographies. It might be the predominance of oral tradition over written, or the sheer negligence of documentation, it is our collective loss if we do not make enough effort to write their life stories for posterity.
Back To Desika!
In the Shri Vaishnava tradition of Ramanuja, about 250 years after his arrival, probably the brightest star among the Vaishnavite philosophers. Vedanta Desika. Born in 1268 CE, he was a poet, philosopher, mathematician, dietician, sculptor, grammarian, and many things rolled into one. 2018 is the 750th birth year of this giant among philosophers.
Brief Biography Of Desika
So how much do we know about Desika? The great scholar must have foreseen the ever-fading human memory and hence penned parts of his life story, camouflaged into his poetic writings. We will know more about that later. Vedanta Desika was born as Venkatanatha to Anantasuri and Totaramma in the remote village of Toppul in the Kanchipuram district of Tamil Nadu. Totaramma was the great-grand daughter of Pranataartihara who was the cook of Saint Ramanuja. Legend goes that, in 1256 AD Totaramma had a dream where she had visions of the large temple bell in the shrine of Lord Venkateshwara of Tirupati.
So he was believed to be an avatar of that holy bell that chimes for the lord. After 12 years, in Tirukachchi, a son was born in 1268. Born under the auspicious Sarvana Nakshatram in the monsoon month of Bhadrapada to the Vishwamitra Gotra, he was named Venkatanatha. As a child of five, Venkatanatha’s aura was seen by the great scholar Vaatsya Varada (1165-1275 AD) who predicted that the child would grow to great heights as a philosopher. He learnt all the scriptures from his uncle. As he turned 21 years old, he was married off to Kanakavalli, as per custom.
They migrated and settled in Tiruvaheendrapuram for 15 years. It was here that his fame spread as a young scholar and philosopher. He composed a number of poems. His mastery over masonry saw him building a well, which can be seen till today! In 1316 AD, Desika and Kanakavalli had a son who they named Kumara Varada. They migrated to Srirangam where Desika continued to write and compose poems. He was honoured with the titles of ‘Vedantacharya’ and ‘Sarva-Tantra-Swatantra’. It was during his stay in Srirangam that he witnessed the holy town being attacked by the armies of Muslim invaders in 1323 AD, mentioned earlier.
There are many more stories of his scholarship and greatness. His association with his childhood friend Swami Vidyaranya, his arbitrating scholarly debates between the Adwaita and Dwaita schools of thought, his composing a manual to run a kingdom for the Andhra ruler Singha Bhupala and so forth. It would require a whole book to get into all those details. After living a full life of 101 years, Desika shed his mortal coil on the full moon night of the month of Kartika in 1369 AD. His legacy was taken ahead by his son and scores of disciples who followed his path.
Having trained in all the traditional schools of Sanskrit like Tarka, Vedanta, Mimamsa and Nyaaya, Desika was a master of Kavya. His mastery over languages like Tamil, Pali, Prakrit and Sanskrit earned him the title ‘Kavithaarkika Simha’, a lion among poets. It is not possible to go through all the 105 works of his that survive today. Each one is a gem and a reflection of his unparalleled eloquence and mastery. Some of the more important works are the Paaduka Sahasram, Aabheeti Stavam, Dehaleesa Stuti, Bhagawad Dhyana Sopanam, Aahara Niyamam, Hamsa Sandesam, Raghuveera Gadyam, Goda Stuti, Sudarshana Ashtakam, Vairagya Panchakam, Garuda Dandakam, Hayagriva Stotram and many more. His allegorical play Sankalpa Suryodayam reflects his mastery over dramaturgy.
Desika was a mathematician par excellence. He cleverly merged his skills for Sanskrit poetry into his mathematical knowledge and composed some of the finest chitra kaavyas, or visual poems utilising the complicated meters in prosody. Take for example the poem set to an ‘Ashtadalapadma Bandha’. Designed to be written on an eight-petal lotus, the poem is an ode to the Padukas.
The structure of the poem is such that the last four letters of each line become the first four letters of the next line in reverse. The sixth letter from the beginning of every line when combined with the sixth letter from the end of every line gives rise to the words ‘Venkatapathi Kamala’ to tell the reader the poem is a lotus offered at the feet of the lord Venkateshwara. This way, he wrote several chitra kaavyas in various bandhas like the Khura Bandha (horse’s hoofs), Muraja Bandha (mridangam), Garuda Gati Chakra Bandha (like an eagle in flight), Sara Bandha (an arrow) and so forth.
How did Desika look? He probably knew some day in the future someone would pose this question. To answer that, he created his own bronze sculpture! No other writer in the ancient times ever thought about this! He is seen seated cross-legged. In his left hand he holds a manuscript and his right hand raised in a mudra of teaching. The idol is currently housed in the temple dedicated to Desika in Tiruvahindrapura in Tamil Nadu.
One gets a sense of what a master craftsman he was in his time, to sculpt such a fine bronze. In the modern times we have the great illustrator and painter Shri Keshav Venkataraghavan who gave us a genuine and priceless portrait of Desika, which you can see along with this article. Keshav has also successfully attempted to visualise some of Desika’s compositions like the, Gopala Vimshati, Yaadavabhudayam and Dehalisa Stuti.
Among Desika’s contemporaries was Shri Madhva Vidyaranya, the founder sage of the Vijayanagara Empire who became the 12th pontiff of the Dakshinamnaya Sharada Peetham in Sringeri established by Jagadguru Adi Shankaracharya. Even the great Appayya Dikshita was a great fan of Desika. “As long as the sun and moon last, so long shall the Shrivaishnava philosophies propagated by Ramanuja and Desika stay”, he proclaimed. Not a small compliment coming from an intellectual giant of his stature!
For a philosopher and scholar of his stature, modern India has done very little in his honour. In New Delhi, a road was named Vedanta Desika Marg over half a century ago. On that road is the famous Vaikunthnathji Mandir consecrated by the then Jeer Shri Thirukudunthai Andavar of the Shrimad Andavan Ashramam from Srirangam, sometime in the early 1970s. Prof Prema Nandakumar, a great scholar and orator living in Srirangam, published Desika’s Goda Stuti with a brilliant commentary with the help of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams. The Desika sabha in Mumbai is active in propagating his writings and works through a series of publications.
This is the 750th birth year of Vedanta Desika. Several commemorative events have been lined up. Among the noteworthy ones are the British House of Commons paying a tribute to him. To mark the occasion, a brilliant coffee-table book has been written by Dushyanth Sridhar, one of India’s finest young scholars on Desika and a self-proclaimed ambassador of Desika’s mission. Over the last few years Sridhar has made a name for himself as a fine orator on Desika’s writings. He has also produced a documentary on the life of Vedanta Desika where he plays the role of the protagonist on screen. There have also been few other books on Desika and his works. Singing the Body of God: The Hymns of Vedantadesika in Their South Indian Tradition by Steven Paul Hopkins (OUP, 2002) remains the only full-length thoroughly academic study on Desika’s works.
However, nothing big has happened as a state initiative. For example, several works of Vedanta Desika could easily be included in school syllabus as they are some of the finest samples of Sanskrit literature around. Not even a simple commemorative postage stamp or a First Day cover, which several politicians have been honoured with! Much more could be done! We hope the state will wake up to see what a staggering genius Vedanta Desika was and celebrate his 750th birth year in a grand way!
(Images Courtesy: Dushyanth Sridhar, Keshav Venkata Raghavan)
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