Sri Manavala Mahamuni in Historical Context

Prof M.R. Sampathkumaran
Originally appeared in "Sri Ramanuja Vani", January 1988.

In most of the Vishnu temples in South India, there are daily prayers for another hundred years of life to be added to Sri Manavala Mahamuni. It is suggested that this prayer commemorates a historic service rendered by him to the Sri Vaishnavas more than five centuries ago. In this connection one significant point may be observed. At the conclusion of the daily services in the temples, there is a prayer for the new dispensation established by Sri Ramanuja to flourish. This is followed by an address to Manavala Mahamuni that he should live for another hundred years. It looks as if these prayers suggested that for the order set up by Sri Ramanuja to flourish, Sri Manavala Mahamuni should live for another century. The Tamil stanza which concludes with this request adds that he is needed for the well-being of the men of religion, of the temple city of Srirangam, of Nammalvar's Tamil Vedas and of the entire world surrounded by the oceans. These prayers must have been incorporated in the temple ritual when the services rendered by Sri Manavala Mahamuni to preserve the work of Sri Ramanuja were being vividly remembered.

History justifies the claim made in these prayers. The Guruparampara and Yatindra Pravana Prabhava demonstrate the greatness of Sri Varavara Muni [*] in other ways. But they too take note of the historic context in which he worked. One feels, however, that they do not lay sufficient stress on this. According to tradition, Sri Manavala Mahamuni was born in October-November, 1370, Sadharana year, and passed away in February-March, 1444, Rudhirotkari year. About the bare events of his life, the Sampradaya Chandrika attributed to one of his disciples gives some dates which may be mentioned here. He was married in 1386 and became an ascetic after a long pilgrimage in 1400-01. [*]His famous discourses on Tiruvaymoli in the presence of Sri Ranganatha were delivered from 1432 to 1434. It is in the latter years that the verse beginning with "Sri Sailesa Daya Patram" in his honor is said to have been composed and given out by Sri Ranganatha.

It was a matter of history that there was a Mohammedan invasion which penetrated far into the South in 1327-28. Srirangam was sacked when according to tradition twelve thousand Sri Vaishnavas lost their lives. In order to safeguard the temple and its idols, it is related that the main shrine was walled up and a new pseudo-shrine was constructed for being desecrated by the invaders. The idol of Sri Ranganatha was carried away by Sri Pillai Lokacharya and the manuscripts of Srutaprakasika by Sri Vedanta Desika. Sri Ranganatha was restored to Srirangam only about forty years later (1361). In the interim from 1327 onwards Srirangam was under Moslem rule and ceased to be the religious capital of Srivaishnavam.

The Madhuravijaya of Gangadevi, wife of prince Kampana, describes with graphic details the desolate state of Srirangam about 1360. Kampana, a son of Bukka, one of the five brothers who founded the empire of Vijayanagara was a viceroy of Mulbagal. He set out on an expedition to the south and his wife accompanied him. She narrates the conquest of Kanchipuram, then ruled by Sambavarayas. Then comes the march on Srirangam and Madurai. On the way they pass through Chidambaram, and the poetess puns on its old name of Vyaghrapuri. She says that it had now become a real city of tigers.

At Srirangam, the temple remained desolate and ruined. The serpent on which the Lord is represented as reclining in the temple was said to be anxiously protecting him with its spread out hoods from falling bricks, lest His Yoganidra should be disturbed. The doors were worm-eaten and grass was growing in the Mantapas. The inner shrines (Garbagrihas) were in ruins. Where formerly the shrines had been surrounded by the musical notes of drums (Mridangas) now was to be heard the fearful howls of jackals. In place of the aroma of the smoke from the sacred fires in the Brahmin settlements, there was now the stink of raw meat spreading amid shouts of drunken Moslem soldiers. The Ramabhyudaya of Saluva Narasimha, a later emperor of Vijayanagar, before telling the story of Rama, speaks about the ancestors of the author. There Kampana's campaign against the Moslem rulers in the south is mentioned and the roles of Gopanna and Saluva Mangu, two generals who assisted the Prince are stressed. Of these Saluva Mangu was an ancestor of Saluva Narasimha. After the restoration of the Hindu rule in Srirangam, it is stated that 8 agraharas and 1000 Salagramas were presented. The Prapannamritam also narrates the story of Gopanna's crushing victory over the Moslems at Samayapuram. The Koyil Olugu, which records the history of Srirangam temple, describes how Krishnaraya of the famous Uttama Nambi family persuaded Gopannaraya to emancipate Srirangam from Moslem rule and how he obtained from Bukka of Vijayanagar 17,000 gold mohurs with which he purchased 101 villages for the maintenance of the temple.

Thus we can get some idea of the disorganization of religious life in South India, particularly that of the Sri Vaishnavas during three or four decades. The elaborate system established by Sri Ramanuja for the secular and religious management of the temple of Sri Ranganatha must have suffered badly. If at all there were any temple rituals or services, they must have been minimal and clandestine. Many of the 74 seats of religious authority set up by Sri Ramanuja must also have ceased to function or at least function effectively. The sacred texts were also safeguarded under great strain. That Sri Desika took with him the manuscripts of Srutaprakasika when he escaped from Srirangam during the Moslem invasion is well known. It is possible that followers of Sri Lokacharya might have taken care of the commentaries on the Prabhandas. Even so, many valuable works have been lost. The works of Sri Yamunacharya have come down to us incomplete. One or perhaps two of his works have been completely lost. So too is the case with the works of Sri Nathamuni, known to us only through few quotations by later writers. The greater part of the commentary of Sri Periyavachchan Pillai on the poems of Periya Alvar was also lost.

That the sack of Srirangam affected religious life in South India profoundly is brought out by the story of Alvar Tirunagari near Tirunelveli. The idol of Nammalvar was taken to Malabar. It is said that for some time, the idol of Sri Ranganatha was also at Calicut along with Nammalvar. Later, after Sri Ranganatha was taken away, Nammalvar was brought south to a hill and hidden in a cave. For many years, the idol stayed there until Srisailesa (the preceptor of Sri Manavala Mahamuni) who held an important administrative post under a Hindu prince at or near Madurai, came to know about it. He sent a message to the ruler of Kerala which led to the recovery of the idol from the cave. It is said the cave had to be reached with the help of a chain and the idol sent up. In the process, one Thozhappar became a martyr and lost his life. The idol was then taken to Tirukkanambi [**], where it remained for a few years.

Srisailesa (who is said to have lived from 1329 to 1434) was persuaded by some disciples of Sri Lokacharya to dedicate himself to religious life. He gave up his ministerial position and went on a pilgrimage to Triukkanambi, where he probably resolved to restore the idol of Alvar Tirunagari. The undertaking proved difficult. It is said that Nammalvar's native city had become a jungle and that it had to be cleared and a new city built and colonized. The administrative experience of Srisailesa and his influence must have been utilized fully for this purpose.

Sri Manavala Mahamuni was later expressly directed by Srisailesa to devote himself largely to the exposition of the teaching of Nammalvar and to do so from Srirangam. It must have been with this purpose in mind that Sri Manavala Mahamuni established his headquarters at Srirangam and expounded the Tiruvaymoli of Nammalvar.

The Koyil Olugu records that Sri Manavala Mahamuni met with some opposition at first in Srirangam. Srirangacharya, son of Krishnaraya mentioned earlier, was not inclined to accept his leadership. Prativadi Bhayankaram Annan converted him and secured many rights in the temple. Thus Srirangacharya himself helped to establish Sri Manavala Mahamuni firmly in the seat of authority. He also obtained from the Vijayanagar emperor 101 more villages for the temple. His brother Chakraraya renovated the shrine of Nammalvar which had suffered during the moslem rule and replaced the idol of Garuda in the Alagiya Manavala Mantapa broken by the invaders. The latter incident took place in 1415.

We thus get stray glimpses of the tremendous work of reconstruction that awaited Sri Manavala Mahamuni. He carried it out without fuss of show and without showing any strain. That is in keeping with his character. It was during this time that Srirangam once again re-established its primacy as the spiritual capital of Sri Vaishnavism. Before this could happen something like the work of Sri Ramanuja in organizing the temple affairs had to be done over again. During the pilgrimages he undertook, Sri Varavara muni must have renovated numerous temples and reorganized rituals and worship. The Upadesa Ratna Maalai composed by him provides a calendar of saints and teachers, evidently for observance at temples and homes. A manual of domestic worship was also prepared by him probably to make up for the rift in tradition. It is reasonable to suppose that the well-known stanza with which the prayers at the close of the daily services in home and temple was composed by Sri Manavala Mahamuni as a result of his success in the difficult task of reestablishing the authority of Sri Ramanuja's administrative arrangements. "May the divine commandment of Sri Ramanuja flourish more and more, unimpeded in its victorious course at all times and places."

Whether the times make heroes or heroes make their times may rouse endless debates among historians. But at any rate we observe that the representative leaders of every age are in accord with what may be called its spirit and needs. When we consider the nature and quality of Sri Manavala Mahamuni's achievements, we must not fail to mark how they fulfilled the needs of his epoch, through the application of the radical elements in Sri Ramanuja's teachings.

Sri Ramanuja brought about a quiet revolution in the religious life in India. It was not the revolution of an iconoclast, but of one who claimed to restore disrupted tradition. The reforms carried out by Sri Ramanuja were meant to bring philosophical teachings of the Vedanta to the masses and to uplift them morally and spiritually. These purposes were effected without violating the ancient tenets or tradition.

The stress on the Tamil hymns of the Alvars and the doctrine of grace served him admirably in this mighty endeavor. The universal charity behind his life and teachings continued to inspire later preceptors. Sri Lokacharya carried to their logical conclusions many precepts and practices of Sri Ramanuja regarding such things as prapatti, the value of Nammalvar's mystical experiences and the irrelevance of caste in the scheme of salvation.

It is possible that at about this time there was another trend among Sri Vaishnavas. Some features in the work of Sri Vedanta Desika suggest that there was a feeling the revolutionary zeal should not cut away the Sri Vaishnava community from the Vedic and Smarta tradition prevalent all over India from the distant past. Thus some teachings of Sri Lokacharya came under criticism. At the same time, Sri Vedanta Desika defended Sri Ramanuja's system from the criticism of the Advaitins.

How the history of Sri Vaishnavism would have shaped itself if the radical and moderate trends among Sri Ramanuja's followers had been allowed to influence each other in peaceful surroundings is only a matter of speculation. The fall of Srirangam to the Moslem invaders disrupted the natural course of evolution. Sri Sudarsana Bhatta was martyred at Srirangam during the assault on the city. Sri Lokacharya died a few weeks later in a village near Madurai. Sri Vedanta Desika found refuge at Satyamangalam. The idols of Sri Ranganatha and Sri Nammalvar were carried away to places of safety far from Tamil Nadu.

When the Vijayanagar empire put an end to the Moslem rule over Srirangam and the Sultanate of Madurai, religious freedom was re-established.  But temples had to be repaired or rebuilt, religious texts had to be gathered and spiritual preceptors commence again their interrupted activities. Sri Manavala Mahamuni presided over this reconstruction and revival.

In the circumstances of his time, no need was felt for controversies with Advaitins. But the fundamentals of the Vedanta according to Sri Ramanuja had to be taught to the masses as well as would be scholars. Thus Sri Manavala Mahamuni expounded and popularized the teachings of Sri Lokacharya. In the Tattvatraya, Sri Lokacharya had condensed in Tamil the principles of the Sanskrit Vedanta and now an elaborate commentary in Tamil was written on it. The other rahasyas of Sri Lokacharya discussed prapatti as well as seeking refuge with one's spiritual preceptor. The more important of these were commented on. The commentary known as Idu on Tiruvaymoli not only brought out the meaning of this mystical poem, but also set the mystical experiences of the Azhvars in the context of Vedanta philosophy and logic. Unfortunately it had remained more or less a secret work, being passed on from father to son and master to disciple, and good fortune preserved it during the age of chaos. Sri Manavala Mahamuni felt it necessary to broadcast its teachings. He expounded it many times and made its study a necessary qualification for religious teachers of the Sri Vaishnava tradition.

Viewing in this light, the historians will recognize the validity of the tribute paid to Sri Manavala Mahamuni as an incarnation of Sri Ramanuja and as the last of the distinguished band of ancient teachers. It is fairly certain the Srivaishnava community, in spite of differences of opinion on details of doctrine, ritual and observance, remained united in his time. The split into two sects must have come a little later, when security under the Vijayanagar Empire permitted philosophical debate and controversy.