Philosophers: Vedanta Deshikar
A great scholar and saint who lived about six hundred years ago. His personality was a blend of immense scholarship and a matching devotion to God. Love for mankind marked his eventful life; and he was full of piety and humility, despite his high scholastic accomplishments, he turned down patronage, money and honors, which came to him unasked, and led an exemplary life of sacrifice.
Author - N.S.Anantha Rangachar
About six hundred and fifty years ago, one day, the people of Melkote in Karnataka, South India, were in a state of jubilation. The great savant and saint Vedanta- deshikar were to visit the town that day. Early in the morning, men and women, donning their best apparel had gathered outside the town. Arrangements had been made to welcome the great Acharya and to accord him temple honors. Melkote is the abode of Lord Chelvanarayana. Musical instruments were playing auspicious tunes and Vedic hymns were being chanted. The temple priests and other devotees were singing in sweet voices the Tamil hymns and prayers composed by the Alwar saints of yore.
At the appointed time Vedanta deshikar arrived with his disciples. People offered their obeisance and greetings. The temple priests extended due honors. Deshikar thanked the multitude. The crowd followed their beloved leader to the temple. Deshikar impressed every one with his personal charm. He looked an embodiment of all splendors. Vedanta Deshikar was a married man who had lived with his family for a long time; but he had renounced all worldly pleasures and chosen to live like an ascetic.
Fortune Has Favored Me Today
That day Deshikar Went with the crowds to the temple of Chelvanarayana and had the 'darshan' of the beautiful deity. Tears of joy trickled down his cheeks. He was choked with emotion. "O god Sampat- kumara, the god that blessed the great Ramanuja - You have now favored me with this good fortune of your 'darshan'. How lucky I am!" he exclaimed in joy.
He addressed the mass of devotees that had gathered in the temple courtyard and said: 'you, the devotees of this temple, are the luckiest, since you are offering service to the deity who was the beloved of Sri Ramanuja. I, who was living in the far-off Sriranga, am favored with that fortune, today! May the Almighty grace us all with His blessings."
Melkote is also known as Tirunarayanapura since it is the abode of Lord Tirunarayana.
Sri Ramanujacharya was a great saint of the eleventh century. It was he who spread the message of Srivaishnava religion. Those who propitiate the Lord through Mother Lakshmi, Narayana's Consort, are called Srivaishnavas. From the days of Ramanuja, Melkote became a major center of Srivaishnava faith. Ramanuja lived there for eighteen years. It was he who built the shrine and installed the deity Chelvanarayana there. Who was this Vedanta deshikar that had received such spontaneous honors from the young and old alike?
The Parents Go To Tirupati
Many learned men and devotees narrate curious stories about his birth. These stories drive home the fact that this savant and saint had a divine element in him and his birth itself was due to divine ordainment.
Near Kanchipura, there is a small village called Tooppil. Vedanta-deshikar's parents hailed from that village. His father was Ananta Suri. His mother was called Totaramma.
The couples were childless for a long time, and they were very sad. One day they had a dream.
The Lord of Tirupati appeared in the dream and told Suri to offer Him worships. Suri narrated the dream to his wife. The wife too had a similar dream. Goddess Padmavati appearing in dream had given her a similar command. The couple went to Tirupati and offered prayers at the feet of Lord Srinivasa.
On another occasion she dreamt that the Lord had given her a bell, which she swallowed inadvertently. She woke up soon after. It was said that this bell later incarnated as Vedanta-deshikar. This was the belief of many devotees. That is the reason why he also came to be known as Ghantavatara. Since he owed his birth to the grace of Lord Venkateswara, they called him Venkatanatha.
People admired Vedanta-deshikar for his clean life, for his scholarship and for his greatness in sharing knowledge with others. Such immense scholarship was possible because of his extraordinary memory and his habit of giving attention to minute details. These quantities came to light even in his early days.
Atreya Ramanauja was the maternal uncle of Vedanta-deshikar. One day he took Deshikar with him to attend a learned discourse that his Guru Vatsyavaradacharya was delivering at the Varadaraja temple in Kanchi. As soon as the Guru saw them he asked the uncle "Who is this boy?" Atreya said the boy was his nephew, the son of Ananta Suri. The acharya was fascinated by the splendor of the boy's personality. He spoke to him with great warmth. He was about to resume the discourse he was giving. But he missed the continuity of the discourse and had difficulty in deciding where to begin. He turned to his students and asked them: "Pray, what was I talking to you, earlier?" The students too were forgetful and were helpless. Then the little boy told the Guru: "Sir, when we entered, you were expounding on the virtues of God. You were saying that God is all-virtuous, that He is flawless..."
The Guru was highly pleased with the boy's memory and alertness. He whole heartedly blessed the child: "May you become a Vedantacharya! May those who have read the Vedas respect you! May you succeed in all your ventures, and may you live for a hundred years."
Vatsya-varadacharya's good wishes bore fruit. The boy indeed grew up to become famous as Vedantacharya.
A Consummate, Versatile Scholar
Vedanta-deshikar's Uncle Atreya Ramanuja himself was the boy's teacher. Deshikar was a genius. He closely and effortlessly followed the lessons taught. He became a consummate, versatile scholar even before he was twenty. He was well read in the Vedas, in grammar, prosody, nirukta (one of the vedangas), astronomy, theology, Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya (logic), Vaisheshika, Mimamsa, different schools of Vedanta, Buddhist and Jaina religions, history and puranas. He mastered all these subjects and became a great scholar early in his life.
After his education was over, his guru got him married to a girl, Tirumangai. Atreya chose him as his successor to the Kanchi mutt.
Deshikar thus became the, acharya at Kanchi. Atreya had presented to him the idol he was worshipping and also the Padukas of Sri Ramanujacharya. Deshikar untiringly attended to all his official and academic duties such as worshipping God, meditation, teaching his students’ etc.
The Acharya visited Tiruvahindrapura, and was profoundly influenced by the river Garuda, Aushadhachala hills, and the wild forests surrounding the temple of the deity Devanayakaswami. He lived there for fifteen years. This was the place of his self-realization. It is here that he realized the meaning of the Garuda mantra. It was here too that he was blessed with the darshan of Lord Hayagriva. The acharya was always busy and his hands were full wherever he went. He came to love Tiruvahindrappura.
Worms In the Rice
Deshikar was a great devotee, scholar and ascetic. Asceticism is attachment only to God and to nothing else. He had no worldly desires. He loathed worldly possessions such as money, house or lands. He lived on the food he got from alms. He went from door to door and begged for his food. He collected grains, which he cooked himself. Part of the food would be offered to the Lord, and he would eat the rest of it.
His spirit of renunciation was deep-rooted. He never desired wealth, power, honor and happiness. When these came to him unasked, he renounced them.
There was a certain gentleman who greatly respected the acharya. He wanted to offer the saint some money. But he knew that Deshikar would not accept it. One day he put into the begging bowl a few coins along with the grains he daily offered to the ascetic.
The acharya was not aware of it. He went home and emptied the bowl. The gold coins glittered in the midst of the gains. He told his wife: I find worms in the rice." He took a stick, separated the grain from the gold and threw away the coins. Such was the acharya's spirit of renunciation.
A Life dedicated To the Service of God
Vedanta-deshikar used to go on his daily rounds for collecting alms. It occurred to his friend Vidyaranya that the aharya could be spared this botheration. Vidyaranya himself was a great scholar, who had founded the Vijayanagar Empire. Vidyaranya sent word to Deshikar: "Come and settle down with us in the royal court so that you may carry on your religious and secular duties without much hardship."
But the saint would not give up his profession of alms collecting: "I cannot depend on anybody for my bread earning. I offer service to none but the Lord. As long as Lord Varadarajaswami is there, my life is dedicated only to him" he replied with finality.
Devotees narrate another story, which also illustrates the acharya's greatness. The acharya returned to Kanchipuram to settle there, in deference to the wishes of his friends. There lived a bachelor in that town. He was longing to get married and he needed money for this purpose. Some mischief-makers suggested to the young man: "Go to Deshikar and ask for money. He is quite well-to-do and he can well afford to give you money." The naive youth was taken in by these words. He went to Deshikar and begged for some money. But the acharya was penniless. It was clear to him that somebody had played a practical joke on him. But he made up his mind to help the needy young man. He composed a hymn 'Sristuff and prayed to Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. The deity relented and sent a shower of gold. The young man was greatly pleased by the acharya's bountifulness.
Such stories speak of Deshikar's self- denial altruistic spirit. He desired no power or pelf ion himself. He always pitied the poor and he went out of the way to help them. Who can deny that a man of such tremendous self-sacrifice was capable of performing miracles when occasions demanded?
It happened that Deshikar was once challenged by a magician for a trial of strength. Deshikar at first ignored the challenge. The aggressive magician diverted towards his rival all the water of a pond. Deshikar scratched the ground with his nails and forced the water to flow away. The magician was humbled. On another occasion a snake charmer tormented him. He hurled a few snakes at Deshikar. The latter drew a few lines on the ground with his nails and stopped the vipers from crossing the lines. The snake charmer unleashed a huge cobra at him. When the cobra was moving towards him, Deshikar chanted Garuda mantra. An eagle swooped on the cobra and carded it away in its talons. Thus the snake charmer had to admit defeat.
One thing is clear. The good are always hated and tormented by evil people. Deshikar too had to face such hardships.
Since Deshikar was known to be a great man, people thought he was all knowing and omnipotent. He was omnipotent in the sense that he had mastered all knowledge and he could accomplish even the hardest of tasks. Some people did not understand him properly and often tried in vain to embarrass him. Deshikar was never enamoured of rewards, pelf or renown. Many who came to scoff at him remained to admire.
Can You Build A Stone Structure?
Once, a curious incident happened. A stone mason came to Deshikar and said: "They all say you are an all knowing, all-powerful man. Can you erect a stone building? Show me if you can. If you can do it, I shall accept your superiority."
Deshikar was averse to performing such feats and acquiring glory. He replied:
"Let people say what they like. I am not concerned. I don't want any such wagers with you."
But the man was insistent. Although Deshikar never aspired for personal glory, he wanted to teach the man a lesson.
He constructed a well by the side of his house. The stone mason marveled at the exquisite masonry. Even he, an expert mason, could not discover a single blemish in the structure.
He fell at Deshikar's feet and apologized. Subsequently, he became one of his followers.
Deshikar never thought it beneath his dignity to work with his hands. Contemplation of God and manual labor did not go ill together, in his thinking.
He believed in the dignity of labor.
Later, the acharya left Kanchi and settled down in Sriranga. At that time, men like Pillai Lokacharya, Sudarshana Bhatta and such elderly scholars and devotees were living in Sriranga. It was at their instance that Deshikar went to Sriranga.
He liked the place. He was happy that he had the opportunity of offering worship to Sri Ranganatha.
The Srivaishnavas of Sriranga nominated Deshikar as the head of the Mutt there. He had to contend in polemical arguments with poets like Dindima and Krishnamishra. He established his superiority over all such opponents. People assembled in the presence of the deity and conferred on him the titles 'Sarvatantra-swatantra and 'kavi-tarkika-kesari'. While at Sriranga, Deshikar wrote many literary and philosophical works. He composed a poem, 'Yadavabhyudaya'. The theme of this beautiful poem is the story of Srikrishna. He also wrote a drama called 'Sankalpa-suryodaya'. And many other prayer-songs. It was at that time that he wrote critical commentaries on the works of Sri Ramanuja. Deshikar devoted all his time to prayer, contemplation, teaching, and philosophical discussions with learned men. The acharya's departure from Sriranga is itself a long story. Some people were envious of his erudition, humility and his spirit of renunciation. During his stay in Sriranga, some miscreants tried to cause vexation and make him miserable. Actually some of these tormentors were themselves Srivaishnavas.
One of them took a wager and offered to have a polemical dispute with Deshikar. The acharya refused the offer and said: "There is little sense in having such disputes among ourselves. Such feuds might even bring discredit to the participants. I am therefore not in favor of such disputation."
The man chagrined and he decided to disgrace Deshikar at any cost. He wanted to humiliate him, and committed ashameful deed. He tied a couple of sandals in an archlike fashion at the entrance of the acharya's house. Deshikar saw it then entering from the house, and guessed who the culprits were. But he did not lose his temper. He said with his characteristic composure: "Some people trust the philosophy of work; some depend on knowledge; but for our part we invoke the blessing of the old footwear’s of Haridasas or servants of God."
Such patience and equanimity -is possible only for those who can conquer their ego and dedicate themselves to the service of God.
The more the patience Deshikar cultivated, the more such people vexed and tormented him.
"He is A Greater Poet than I"
One of the contemporary poets, Alahiya Manavala Nayanar, used to compose verses both in Tamil and Sanskrit. He wanted to have a wager with Deshikar in composing poetry in Tamil. As usual Deshikar ignored the challenge. But Nayanar persisted. One day in the temple assembly he revived his challenge: "People call you Kavi-tarkikasimha (a lion among poets and logicians). You don't deserve the title. The title must go to whoever is able uttered by the victorious poet on that occasion are memorable. It would have been normal for acontestant, flushed with victory, to feel puffed up and proud. In fact Deshikar never wanted a battle of that kind. It was the vanquished man who had asked for it and he had got it back in ample measure. But Deshikar conducted himself with utmost dignity and restraint. He did not utter a mean or insulting word. He went out of the way to pay a tribute to the crestfallen Nayanar and said: "Nayanar is an infinitely superior poet, a greater poet than I am. His poetry is of great excellence."
What is of interest to us is that the occasion gave us the great poem 'Padukasahasra'.
Trial after Trial
Deshikar, had to face bitter trials, due to the envy and hatred of his contemporaries. Once Deshikar had invited a brahmin for the death anniversary of his father. Some of his foes tempted that brahmin by offering to pay him a bigger sum and prevented him from attending the ceremony. Everything was ready at Deshikar's house and he was anxiously waiting for the brahmin guest for a long time. The guest never turned up, and Deshikar was plunged in deep sorrow. He prayed to God most sincerely. Unexpectedly a stranger, another brahmin came and helped Deshikar in conducting the ceremony. Deshikar felt that the Lord Himself had come to his rescue in disguise.
On another occasion Deshikar was conducting a class on the platform at the entrance of his house. A scholar called Kandade Lakshmanacharya was passing in the street with his students. Deshikar was absorbed in his teaching and he failed to notice the arrival of the other man. He did not get up and greet him. Lakshman- charya felt insulted, and his disciples went and tugged at the legs of Deshikar in anger. Deshikar then went to him and apologized. He later felt sad and thought it was time for him to quit Sriranga. He left for Melkote where he wanted to offer worship to the deity Chelvanarayana who had been served by Ramanuja.
Melkote Wears Festive Look
Great men usually do not rest contented in mere selfish acquisition of happiness they want to share with others the knowledge and experience, which they acquire assiduously. Vedanta deshikar was among such great men.
With his arrival, the town of Melkote wore new colors. People called on him from every part of the world. They were ever eager to listen to his precepts. Deshikar used to expound to large gatherings the meaning of the hymns of the Alwars and the writings of Sri Ramanuja. He explained profound philosophical ideas in the simple and popular language for the benefit of the common people.
We belong To the Lord
Afterwards, the acharya decided to move on to Satyamangala. His followers were sad to part Company with him. He told them, "My dear friends, it has been my good fortune, along with you, to offer prayer to the Lord at Melkote. We have spent our time usefully in trying to understand the message of the great Acharya Sri Ramanuja. These are good times. Let us try to tread the path of righteousness as shown by that great man. Let us trust in God and identify us with Him. We belong to the Lord. May the Lord enable us to serve Him with all our heart."
People felt ennobled and elevated when they listened to the message of Deshikar. Most unwillingly did they bid him goodbye on the eve of his departure to Satyamangala.
The great man visited many holy places on his way from Melkote to Satyamangala. He liked the surroundings of the town. The river, the temple, the beautiful and quiet environment and the pious people of the town impressed him deeply. Its nearness to Sriranga was an added attraction and he could visit that holy place at will. He lived in Satyamangala with his family for forty years. It was only here that he lived in a quiet and undisturbed atmosphere. Hundreds of people became his disciples in this town.
Another Mighty Feat
Once when Deshikar paid a visit to Sriranga, the town was on the brink of a catastrophe. Muslim invaders attacked the town when a big festival was going on. People heard that the invader army had arrived on the other side of the river Quivery. They gathered together and thought of rescuing from the hands of the vandals the temple and the idol of the deity. They placed the idol and other temple jewels on a palanquin andentrusted them to the care of some godly folk who smuggled them through a secret passage. The elders like Pillai Lokacharya accompanied the idol. Then the temple was enclosed with a stone wall and counterfeit idols were substituted in place of the original ones. By then the invading army approached the temple to loot and plunder. Stalwarts like Sudarshana Bhatta and Manavala Nayanar who tried to defend the temple against the attack were massacred.
The responsibility of preserving Sudarshana Bhatta's great work Shruta- prakashika and saving his two sons Vedacharya and Parankusha Bhatta fell on the shoulders of Deshikar. Deshikar hid the book in the sands of the Cauvery River at a secret spot. He and the two boys saved their lives by hiding themselves in the midst of the dead bodies left behind by the invaders. Deshikar later retrieved the book from the river-sands, and brought it to Satyamangala. The two orphan-boys followed him there. Deshikar was broken hearted when he saw the calamity, which was likely to befall the town. He composed a poem 'Abheetistava' and supplicated to Lord Ranganatha to save the town from the enemies.
Good Days Again
A little later, the danger to the town receded. Gopanna Dandanayaka, the commandar of the Vijayanagar armies, vanquished the Muslims and drove them out of Sriranga. Once free, the town began to attract pilgrims once again. The idol of the deity, which had been taken to Tirupati, was brought back to Sriranga and the temple services were resumed under the auspices of Gopanna Dandanayaka. Deshikar shed tears of joy when he received the happy news. He warmly blessed Gopanna, the savior of the temple. These facts are recorded in a temple inscription in Sriranga.
Sriranga wore a festive look once again. Devotees and pilgrims swarmed to the- place. Deshikar was a ripe old man of 95 at the time. He came to Sriranga with his disciples in order that he might settle down there and spend the rest of his life in the service of Lord Ranganatha. Even in his advanced age the acharya continued to teach students and expound the meaning of philosophical tomes. He saw to it that temple festivals were properly organized. During this period, he wrote a great book, 'Rahasya-traya-sara' (the essence of three philosophical mysteries). It contains the distilled substance of his ripe wisdom and profound scholarship.
A Great And Pious Life
Deshikar spent the last few days of his life at Sriranga. He continued to be steadfast in his faith. He spent all his time in study and teaching and in divine contemplation. He was always calm and quiet. Blessed by Guru, Deshikar never desired any worldly pleasures. He never fell a prey to temptations. He always concentrated on God and trusted Him with unswerving devotion. He was fearless and gentle; he never meant any harm to any living being.
His scholarship was profound. He was a poet of a high order, and he also deserved the title 'Tarkika-simha since he was nonpareil in philosophical discussions and logical arguments. An incomparably great devotee, he often forgot himself in ecstasy while singing religious songs. It was his unsullied devotion, which lit up his poetic talent and scholarship.
Above all, his spirit of renunciation was amazing. He had a huge galaxy offollowers who held him in great esteem. He lived a life of utter simplicity and austerity. He had in him a combination of all virtues.
The Lord's Call Has Come
The great man reached his hundredth year, and he realized that his days on this earth were numbered. He called his disciples to his side and said: "I have finished my earthly mission. The Lord's call has come. Thanks to my guru's blessings, I have fulfilled my duties in this world. I was able to study and assimilate the precepts of Sri Ramanuja. I have earned the good will of gentlefolk. The Lord is about to summon me to His eternal abode."
The disciples listened to the words tearfully. They were sad that their beloved master was about to leave them. The acharya consoled them. He assigned to each of them the duties they had to perform. He exhorted them to study the Upanishads and the Prabandhas. Even as he was chanting godly hymns, he attained external bliss. Thus ended the life of an epoch-maker.
Vedanta-deshikar lived for full hundred years (1268-1369). He worked tirelessly in the cause of spreading 'Dharma'. He wrote many philosophical works for the edification of the common man. Among his extant writings there are 53 philosophical works, 5 poems, 28 hymns and 19 Tamil works. Many other books said to have been written by him are lost. He is among the extraordinary scholars who have their credit more than 100 works.
Precept and Practice
Deshikar taught the people the value of pure life. He practiced what he taught. "Man's life must be cleansed of passions. One must never utter lies. One must not harm others." "When we pray to God we must ask Him for devotion, for knowledge, and nothing else." 'We must try to please the gentle and the good. We must follow in the footsteps of the pious. We must dread sins. We must treat worldly pleasures with contempt. We have to put our safety in the hands of God and ever wait for his mercy." These are some of his teachings.
He lived up to these ideals. He did not feel elated when honors came, nor was he depressed when he had to face adversity. He lived a life of purity, a life as pure as the pellucid waters of the Ganges.
Adored By All
Vedanta-deshikar was held in esteem not merely by the Srivaishnavas; all those who loved scholarship, humility and a life of purity adored him. During his lifetime there was practically none that could vanquish him in learned discussion and arguments. But he was never aggressive and haughty. He was never on the offensive in intellectual baffles. But whenever he triumphed and he always did - he never crowed; he never humiliated his opponents. He always maintained his composure and self-restraint. He never attempted to make capital out of his learning and scholarship. When royal patronage, which would have assured him a life of ease, came to him unasked, he refused it. All that he ever desired was God's mercy and the company of gentle and god-fearing folk. His was a life lived in the service of God and for the cause of man.