Sri Vedanta Desikar
Sri Vedanta Desika was born in 1268 at Thooppul, a village near Kanchipuram, to Totaramba and Ananta Suri. Both parents came from very traditional Sri Vaishnava backgrounds; Ananta Suri was a Vaidika Sri Vaishnava belonging to the Yajur Veda, and Totaramba was the great-granddaughter of Kidambi Accan or Pranatartiharacharya , Ramanuja's cook and one of his chief disciples. The day of Sri Desika's birth happened to be purattaasi SravaNam, the tirunakshatram of Lord Srinivasa, so accordingly his parents gave him the name "Venkatanatha". His titles soon eclipsed his given name, however, and due to his mastery of Vedanta and his ability to communicate complex topics easily, he is universally known as Vedantacharya, Vedanta Desika, or simply Desika -- the teacher.
Vedanta Desika's maternal uncle was the renowned scholar Kidambi Appullaar, also known as Atreya Ramanuja. It was under him that Desika studied all the shastras. He writes that Appullaar taught him with "as much patience as a man would teach a parrot to speak." Appullaar in turn had studied Vedanta under Vatsya Varadacharya (popularly known as Nadadur "Ammaal") along with Sudarsana Suri, the author of the Sruta-prakASikA,the famed commentary on Ramanuja's Sribhashya.
Tradition records that at the age of five, Desika's precocious intelligence attracted the notice of Varadacharya himself. The latter blessed him and predicted that he would be a great scholar, eventually firmly establishing the greatness of Ramanuja's philosophy. The master's words proved prophetic. Before the age of twenty, by his own account Desika had mastered all branches learning current in his day, both religious and secular. In particular, he had an uncanny ability to compose poetry instantaneously that combined philosophy, emotion, and devotion. This combined with his expertise at the art of debate earned him the title "Kavi Tarkika Simha",or lion among poets and debaters.
One can easily trace Desika's life by looking at the stotras he has composed. In examining the list of his Sanskrit and Tamil poems, we find a large number dedicated to the deities in and around Tiruvahindrapuram, a temple near the coastal town of Cuddalore.It appears that shortly after his studies, Desika moved to Tiruvahindrapuram.
Always a devotee of Hayagriva Perumaal, the fount of all knowledge,Desika meditated here on this form of the Lord and is said to have had a profound vision of Him. Thereafter, he literally burst forth in poetry. Works such as the Hayagriva Stotram, Raghu Vira Gadyam, Gopala Vimsati (all in Sanskrit), Achyuta Satakam (in Prakrit), Mummanikkovai and Navamani Maalai (in Tamil) are among his hymns in praise of the deities enshrined here. These works are remarkable for their poetic and linguistic range, as well as for their deeply emotional turns. In his Tamil love poems to Lord Devanatha, for example, the influence of the Alvars is transparent, as is his mastery of the Sangam Tamil conventions. The rhythmic beauty of the Raghu Vira Gadyam's prose and his touching descriptionsof the Krishna-lilas in the Gopala Vimsati are among the high points of the entire gamut of India's religious literature.
At some point, Desika returned to Kanchipuram to continue his teaching and writing. He regularly visited the many Divya Desams of this town, composing poems on nearly all of them. One of them, the Vairagya Panchakam or "Five Verses on Dispassion", gives us a rare autobiographical insight into his personality. Nominally addressed to Lord Varadaraja, the Vairagya Panchakam is held to be a reply to a friend, who, upon seeing Desika's abject poverty, invited him to join the court of the king where he could lead a more comfortable life. Desika's verses here display a stern independence of spirit and utter disregard for material wealth, particularly when it distracts from the greater wealth of the company of God. Tradition remembers Desika and his wife as having led an "unccha-vRtti" life, where he would daily go about begging for alms. This is evidenced by his declaration at the conclusion of the Vairagya Panchakam that neither he nor his father had any wealth worth speaking of, save the continuous presence of the Lord of the Elephant Hill, i.e., Lord Varadaraja.
Near the end of the 13th century, it is recorded that several Advaitins came to Srirangam and challenged the Sri Vaishnavas to a debate. Being advanced in age, Sudarsana Suri did not feel up to the task, so the Sri Vaishnavas of Srirangam invited Desika to take the challenge. He accepted the challenge and is said to have vanquished his opponents, and thereafter took the opportunity to settle down in Srirangam. Then, as now, Srirangam was the center of Vaishnava culture, with very active participation in religious dialogue and temple festivals. Desika no doubt enjoyed his time in Srirangam very much. In the Bhagavad Dhyana Sopanam, a contemplative poem on Lord Ranganatha, he describes Srirangam as a place where "great connoisseurs live contentedly, their minds full of delight".
At this point Desika was in his thirties, and his scholarly achievements in the service of God were coming at an increasing pace. He summarized his objections to Advaita in the polemic work Satadusani; he clarified many aspects of Sri Vaishnava ritual and practice; he constantly elucidated and clarified the philosophical teachings of his predecessors. He himself writes that he taught the entire Sribhashya at least thirty times; the bulk of these must have occurred during his long stay in Srirangam. It is also during this period that he wrote many of his "rahasya granthas", or expositions of the more esoteric doctrines of the tradition, including the nature of self-surrender (prapatti), the meaning of sacred mantras, etc. Many of these works are clearly a product of long discussions with senior scholars living in Srirangam at the time, such as Pillai Lokacharya, Alagiya Manavaala Perumaal Naayanaar, and Naayanaar Accan Pillai. Many of the thoughts of these other acharyas are indirectly recorded in Desika's works, even when they occasionally disagree with his conclusions.
In this respect, he was very much a scientist, carefully mentioning and arguing all sides of an issue, before finally coming to what he saw was the most logical conclusion. In examining these works as well as his exhaustive commentaries on Ramanuja's and Alavandar's compositions, one is struck by Desika's thoroughness, and by his desire to discuss all possible meanings and nuances of an interpretation, both in the course of anubhavam as well as argument. Without Desika's careful noting of the variety of interpretations, many important meanings would have been lost to posterity. It is no wonder that the title of "Vedanta Desika" was conferred on him, as he himself attests to, by Lord Ranganatha Himself.
It is also in Srirangam that Desika composed the Paduka Sahasram, 1008 verses on the sandals of the Lord. It is said that Desika composed the entire lot in a single night in response to challenge from another pandit. In the course of the 32 paddhatis or chapters, Desika makes countless allusions to the Alvars, to Sri Ramayanam from which the idea of the greatness of the sandals nominally comes, as well as other aspects of philosophy. The Paduka Sahasram has been dealt with in detail by Sri Sadagopan so I will not delve into this great topic further.
When Desika was in his forties, a son was born to him and his wife. Reflecting his love for his household icon Lord Varadaraja, Desika named the boy Varada, and tradition remembers him as Nainacharya or Kumara Varadacharya. Kumara Varadacharya also became a scholar of some repute, and we are indebted to him for recording some biographical details of his father in his Desika Mangalam, Pillai Antaadi, and Desika Dinacharyai.
In 1327, during this fertile period of Sri Vaishnava scholarship and growth, Malik Kafur invaded Srirangam from the north, with tragic consequences of which many of us are aware. In the ensuing melee, hundreds if not thousands of Sri Vaishnavas are said to have died, and the very existence of Lord Ranganatha was threatened. Led by Pillai Lokacharya, the seniormost acharya at the time, a group of Sri Vaishnavas hurriedly left Srirangam with Namperumaal, the Ranganatha utsava-mUrti, and headed to Jyotishkudi. There, an exhausted Pillai Lokacharya breathed his last, unable to take the stress of the invasion and journey. Meanwhile, the mUla-vigraham of Ranganayaki Thaayaar was buried in the courtyard in front of Her sannidhi, and Desika is said to have supervised the building of a wall in front of the Ranganatha's sannidhi to hide the mUlavar. The aged Sudarsana Suri was also among those who died during the invasion. Before his death, he entrusted his two young sons and the only manuscript of the Sruta-prakASikA to Desika's care. Desika, the boys, and others hid themselves among the dead bodies to escape slaughter.With the invasion of the temple came the need for Desika himself to leave Srirangam, so he took his family and the sons of Sudarsana Suri and headed northwest, settling down first in Satyamangalam, in present day Karnataka. He then made his way to Melkote, where he attracted a bright pupil, later known as Brahmatantra Svatantra Jiyar, the first Swami of Sri Parakala Matham. From Melkote, Desika proceeded to Tirupati/Tirumalai, where Namperumaal had eventually gone, and then to a tour of North Indian divya desams, including Mathura, Brindavana, Ayodhya, and Kashi. In the course of this long exile from Srirangam, seeing the devastating destruction caused to the holiest of temples, Srirangam, he composed the Abhiti Stava, or Prayer for Freedom From Fear.
The Abhiti Stava is a poetic request for protection from all unholy forces, particularly those opposed to the Vaidika lifestyle involving service of the Lord which Desika practiced. Desika was perhaps 60 or so during the composition of this stotram, as he mentions that his hair has greyed by this time.
In 1360 [**], Gopanna Udaiyar defeated the Muslims, and Sri Vaishnavas could once again return to Srirangam. Namperumaal was brought back from Tirupati, and temple servants who had survived the 30+ long temple closure were invited back. Sri Desika, as the senior surviving acharya, was among those who returned, and a verse of his composition is inscribed in the temple, recording his presence at the reopening of Koyil. With the restoration of Srirangam, Desika now returned to his service of Lord Ranganatha. Tradition records that he composed Sri Rahasya Traya Saaram, an exhaustive work on the essence of Sri Vaishnava philosophy, lifestyle, and the meaning of the esoteric mantras, in these last few years of his life.
[**] Inscriptions indicate that the date was 1371 ("bandhupriya"). However, this has to be reconciled with the recorded date of Desika's passing, 1369. Some historians believe the inscription is in error and it should be "bahupriya", meaning 1360. This is still a matter of research and debate.
In 1369, with his head resting in the lap of Kumara Varadacharya and his feet with Brahmatantra Svatantra Jiyar, Desika left his earthly body and ascended to Parama Padam. He had lived the full Vedic lifespan of 100 years in an exemplary and humble manner, tirelessly engaged in the service of the Lord and Sri Ramanuja's sampradAya. Even given such a long life, one can hardly imagine how someone can have contributed so much with so much consistency, and yet have lived such a simple life of complete poverty. For these reasons, Sri Desika forever won the admiration and reverence of all who where spiritually inclined, and is rightfully recognized as one of the foremost scholars and thinkers ever alive.
kavi-tArkika-simhAya kalyANa-guNa-SAline |
Srimate venkateSAya vedAntagurave namaH ||
Salutations to Sri Venkatesa, in whom all perfections reside, who is the teacher of Vedanta and the lion among poetsand debaters!