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Indian Poets and Composers
Biography of Purandara Dasa

Purandara Dasa, often called as the 'Karnakata Sangeeta Pitamaha' (Grandsire of Carnatic Music) who lived between 1484 and 1564 is one of the prominent composers in Carnatic music. He is most famous of the Haridasas of Karnatic and is a prominent figure in the propagation of Bhakti Movement in South India. Being an ardent devotee of Panduranga Vitthala, he always concluded his songs with a salute to Lord Vitthala. Purandara is believed to have composed atleast 75,000 songs (475,000 according to some accounts), of which only 1000 or so are available today. Purandara Dasa is among the greatest saints of India in his understanding of the power of music and its appeal to common folk.


Purandara Dasa was the only son of a wealthy merchant Varadappa Naik. He was given the name Srinivasa by his father, after the Lord of Tirumala. He received a good education in accordance with family traditions and acquired proficiency in Kannada, Sanskrit, sacred lore, and in music.

When he was sixteen years old he married Saraswatibai, a pious god-fearing girl. He lost his parents when he was 20. He inherited his father's business (in precious stones and pawn-broking), rapidly expanding it and amassing immense wealth. This earned him the appellation 'Navakoti Narayana'.

The Transformation

At that time Srinivas Nayak showed no signs of the spiritual gaint that he would eventually become. Legend has it that, Lord Hari decided that it was time for Srinivasa Nayaka to give up his love of money, and take his rightful role among saints. So, He took the form of a poor brahmin and approached Srinivasa Nayak for money in order to perform the thread ceremony of his son. Even though days rolled by, Nayaka did not give anything, but the brahmin too did not relent. He visited Srinivasa Nayaka's shop again and again. Six months passed by in this fashion. Finally, Nayaka decided that he had to do something to get rid of the brahmin. He had a collection of worn-out coins that were more or less worthless. He poured this in front of the brahmin and asked him to take one and never come back. The brahmin went away, seemingly crestfallen.

Saraswathi, Nayaka's wife, was a kind hearted soul who in her own way, tried to make amends for her husband's miserliness. The brahmin, who knew this, went directly from Nayaka's shop to his residence. He told her his story and how her husband had sent him away with nothing.

Saraswathi was appalled by her husband's behaviour. She wanted to help the poor brahmin, but felt helpless since she could not give anything without her husband's permission. When she explained her helplessness, the brahmin asked if she had something given by her parents (which, presumably, she could give without asking for her husband's permission). She agreed and gave him the diamond nose-stud that her parents had given her.

The brahmin took the ornament straight to Srinivasa Nayaka's shop. When Nayaka became angry with the brahmin for coming back, despite his instructions to the contrary, the brahmin clarified that he was there not to beg, but to pledge an ornament and take a loan. Nayaka was skeptical and asked the brahmin to show him the ornament. When he saw the ornament, he was perplexed because he immediately recognized it as the one belonging to his wife. When questioned about the ornament's antecedents, the brahmin told him that it was a gift from a benefactor.

Asking the brahmin to come back the next day, Nayaka safely locked away the ornament in a box and went home. When he saw his wife without her ornament he questioned her about it. She tried to stall him with non-committal answers, but he insisted on seeing it immediately. He was angry because he thought she had given away a valuable ornament to a beggarly brahmin.

Saraswathi felt the ground giving way under her feet. She knew that her husband would punish her if she told him the truth. Unable to think of an alternative, she decided to commit suicide. She poured poison into a cup and lifted it to her lips. Just as she was about to drink the poison, she heard a metallic sound. Lo behold, wonder of wonders, the ornament was right there in the cup. She could not believe her eyes. Her heart filled with gratitude, she prostrated before the idol of Krishna and took the ornament to her husband. Nayaka was astounded as it was the very same ornament that he had safely locked away in his shop. He quickly excused himself and ran back to the shop to check. The box in which he had safely locked away the ornament was empty! He was now completely and totally dumbfounded.

He want back to his house, and pressed his wife to tell him the truth. She told him everything that had transpired. This put his mind into a turmoil.

After deep thought, he came to the conclusion that the brahmin was none other than God Himself. He recalled all the incidents that had transpired in the previous six months. He was disgusted with himself, and his miserliness. He felt that his wife had conducted herself far more decently and generously than himself. Since it was his love of money that had made him ill-treat the Lord, he gave away all of his wealth with the Lord's name on his lips, and became a Haridasa, a devotee and Lord Hari and started singing the glories of Lord Hari.

Meeting with his Guru Vyaasaraja

After Srinivasa Nayaka became the saint-singer celebrating Sri Hari, he sourght a teacher for guidance and was received as a disciple by Sri Vyaasaraja. Sri Vyaasaraja who had been accepted as a great saint had composed verses both in sanskrit and Kannada. He bestwoed the name of 'Purandara Vittala' on the unattached Srinivasa Nayaka and blessed him heartily. Purandaradasa has expressed his gratitude to Sri Vyaasaraja in one of his verses thus: "My only refuge is the feet of Vyaasaraja. I was able to understand Purandara Vittala by his grace"..

Srinivasa Nayaka who had earned the name of Navakoti Narayana, became a devotee of Narayana, the protector of the mankind and started a new life along with his wife and children. Purandara Dasa's wife and children appear to have composed verses like him.

In course of time Purandaradasa came to Hampi and settled down with his wife and children. He had four sons-Varadappa, Gururaya, Abhinavappa and Gurmadhvapathi. Every morning Purandaradasa went into the town wearing bells on his ankels and tulasi mala around his neck. He carried a tamboori in the hand and sang his Hari-keertanas sounding the tamboori with his fingers. The verses he sang were his own compositions. They were on a variety of themes. Some of them described Sri Krishna's adventures in this world. Some others sang about God's kindness to man. A few more verses were simple compositions expounding the philosophy contained in the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavadgita in simple words. In yet other verses Purandaradasa praises Lord Krishna affectionately. In some verses Purandaradasa has even made fun of the Lord. He sang these songs to the accompaniment of tamboori and the bells tied to his ankles and went about the streets of the town. The people admired the listened to his songs. Purandaradasa accepted alms given to him during the wandering and led a life of renunication. He who had been called Navakoti Narayana now had willingly accepted the life of a saint and begged for his food.

In Praise of the Devotees

It is intersting to note how Srinivasa Nayaka, having changed his life influenced by his wife's role and having been accepted by Sri Vyaasaraja as disciple naming 'Purandara Vittala', earned the belssings of Sri Hari. In his verses (keertanas) he praises all the devotees of Sri Hari who had earned the blessings of the Lord and supplicates before Sri Hari. He praises the good fortune of Lakshmi, the consort of Sri Hari, who had the rare fortune of serving the Lord with love at all times. He sings "How fortunate is Lakshmi, how pious is Lakshmi who serves Sri Hari with love at all times!"... Yashoda treated the protector of the world as her child and played with him and enjoyed every moment she spent with the child Krishna. Purandardasa envies her and sings "It is the good fortune of the Gopi that Sripati is in the form of a child". Thinking of Vidura who satisfied his friend and Lord of the World with just one cup of milk, he praises him for his good luck and sings: "it is the good fortune of Vidura that the universe in the for Padmajaanda (Lord Krishna) is fully satisfied with what Vidura has offered".


Even though Purandardasa had taken the vow of Haridasa, his mind had not yet acquired equipoise (peace/restfulness). He feels unhappy over the state of his mind which was still unable to reach a stage of complete restfulness. He bemoans in a verse: "I did not think of you during the day, I failed to do so during the night also because of thirst and hunger. I am the victim of these two desires. O Purandara Vittala."

Again he gives expression to the conflict in his mind about his inability to give up his house, wife and children in a verse: "the love of my house and my wife on the one hand and the longing and anxiety for the children on the other hand..". The all-too-human weakness and conflict are beautifully depicted in this verse. The sole object of Purandaradasa was to be victorious over these desires and to win God's blessings. This problem was constantly before him. Sometimes he dreamt that Sri Hari appeared before him because of his constant preoccupation with the Lord. At times he appeared to him (at a mental level) the screen of his mind. The Lord seemed to test the depth of his longing and his sincerity. Purandardasa seems to have been disturbed and upset because of the severe test to which he was subjected. Hence he complains in a bannering verse "who was ever rescued by you, Sri Hari having placed complete trust on you!" The next moment there is complete surrender to the Lord as the verse indicates "No one who trusted you was ever ruined." This is the comfort he derived at the end of the conflict in his mind.

World of Purandaradasa

Purandaradasa went on singing and praying for God's grace and finally he realised God's grace. He felt the ectsasy of God realisation and at such moments he broke into song delcaring "I saw Achyuta with my own eyes". He often became unconscious on account of the joy of God realisation and sang: "I am saved, I have conquered life. The good fortune of serving at the feet of Padmanabha has come to me".

Each stage of Purandaradasa'a growth and development as a pious man moving towards the higher stages of God realisation is significant. The greatness of his divine nature can be compositions (Suladis and Ugabhogas). The conflicts, anxieties, his hopes, fears and despair have been expressed in simple Kannada very eloguently and clearly. Purandaradasa bcame great because of his success in living the life of piety and proving the superiority of the soul over the wordly success. He has created a world of his own with his preoccupation with the life of the spirit and the strength of his devotion. We can read his verses and understand how the boy Dhruva and the sinner Ajamila reached the highest places as devotees by their devotion and piety. Krishna's advetnures as a boy have been beautifully recoreded and sung in his verses. If his playfulness, mischief and cleverness endear themselves to us in a particular way, the picture Purandaradasa gives about the coquetries and the passionate attachment of Gopis for krishna, their lover may please the readers in quite a different way. There are vivid pictures of the Gopis complaining to Yashoda about her son's mischief in these verses.

There is also the picture of the other Gopis taking the boy Krishna in their arms, kissing him with materanl affection and solicitude and propititing the evil powers in various ways so that nothing evil should happen to him. We can enjoy such pictures described beautifully by purandaradasa in his verses.

Purandaradasa has expressed his devotion to Lord Krishna,(Panduranga Vittala) his personal deity, imagining him in so many ways and had relationships with him. His pure love and devotion came out very clearly in all his verses. He admits that he has erred in hundred ways which he ties his tongue making it different for him to ask for forgiveness. He sings again -"you are the God who can kill and save. I have not seen gradeur like yours in any other God". Before a God Purandaradasa surrenders completely and asks for refuge. His love and devotion and the stages by which he travelled before coming to the summit can be understood by us according to each one's ability to understand such spiritual development.

Purandaradasa set the highest value on good conduct. The strength and greatness of Sri Hari's name have been beautifully enshrined and sung in this world. People who do not know Sanskrit find it hard to understand the vedas and upanishads. But Purandaradasa has explained the whole essense of these scriptures in simple kannada and show the way that one should live. He practised in his life what he preached. It is important to note ths aspect of his life. He gifted away all his wealth and lived the life of renunciation which he preached to others. Although he took to the life of renuciation and asceticism he did not desert his wife and children. He lived with them.

He made it clear to others by his conduct how it ws possible to achieve purity of thought, word and deed regardless of caste, religion or creed. He did not believe that man could understand God by mere external purity unless it was accompanies by purity of mind.

Whatever Purandaradsa says, the way he introduces it and explains it is very pleasant. His similes are very simple and telling. He compares wicked men to the knotted tree of thorns. He warns the non believers that life is being wasted at every stroke of the bell. When he saw a post man he sang "A letter has arrived from Padmanabha. A letter that has been written by Padmanabha himself!".

He preached several moral precepts making use of familiar incidents like the postman delivering letters. It was God's gift that Purandaradasa was able to preach, in simple kannada, what is difficult even for philosophers to put across in a way which the ordinary people can understand.

Incidents of Life

Just as Purandaradasa used incidents to preach the value of devotion he was able to put across difficult principles in the few simple words in Kannada. Here is the verse: "The eyes which cannot see Narahari (Krishna) are no better than the eyes of peacock's feathers". He has criticised the pretense of people who merely shave off their heads without cultivating detachment of mind and pose as saints.

Scholars think that Purandara lived for about 84 years (from AD 1480 to 1564). On the basis of the verse in the name of Madvapathi his son it is held that Purandaradasa must have passed away a year before the fall of Vijaynagar. Taking it as authentic, his death anniversary is celeberated on the New Moon Day, in the second fortnight of Pushya.



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