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VedAnta Desikanae! Innum Oru NootrAndirum

SrimAn VenkatanAthArya KavithArkika Kesari
VedAntAchArya Varyome, SannidatthAm SadA Hrudi!!

ThiruvavatAram 

The asterism of thiruvoNam in the month of PurattAsi marks the advent of Sri Vedanta DesikA, the illustrious preceptor who protected the heritage of SriVaishnavism during a most tumultuous period in Indian political and religious history. He was extraordinary in many respects and is worshipped as the incarnation of the divine bell found in the Tirumala temple.
Sri RAmAnujA had inherited the splendid but philosophically young empire of Vaishnavism from Sri AlavandAr (YAmunAchAryA).

He proceeded to establish the tradition on a firm footing and became a veritable legend in SriVaishnava history. Having lived a complete and dedicated life, Sri RAmAnujA delegated the task of preserving the SriVaishnava tradition to 74 simhAsanAdhipathis. One such disciple was AnantasomayAji whose son PundarikAkshA fathered a brilliant son known as Ananta Suri.
Ananta Suri married TotrAmbA, the sister of AppullAr, another Vaishnava scholar. The couple lived according to the SriVaishnava way of life in Thooppul, a suburb in Kanchipuram which is not far from the temple dedicated to Sri DeepaPrakAsar.
It is believed that the name Thooppul was given to the place because it the sacred DarbhA (KuSA) grass which can be found there in abundance.

TotrAmbA and Ananta Suri were issueless for a long time. SriVaishnavas, by definition, do not ask the Lord for anything other than Himself. However, if pushed by the trials and tribulations of life to seek help, do call out to Sriman NArAyaNA and none else. Being issueless is not an easy thing to endure. The devout couple decided to seek the grace of the Lord of the Seven Hills and went to Tirumala. One night, in a seemingly quaint turn of events both dreamt that TotrAmbA had been given the bell used for daily worship by Sri VenkateshwarA, and that she had swallowed it. The next day, when the time for performing the first pujA for the Lord came, the bell was nowhere to be found. Pious tradition records that the Lord of the Seven Hills spoke through the Jeeyar, and advised the archakAs to do without the handheld bell during ThiruvArAdhanam, as He himself had ordained it to be born as a scholar for protecting the parama-vaidhika matham of Sri RAmAnujA.

As ordained by SrinivAsA, VenkatanAthA was born on the eleventh day of the month of PurattAsi under the auspicious asterism of Sravanam. His was a remarkable birth, combining as it does the asterism of VAmanA with the occasion of the TeerthavAri of the Brahmotsavam in Tirumala. Like VAmanA who became Trivikrama and humbled Bali, Swami DesikA would grow up to establish himself as a towering figure in the history of philosophy and religion in India, vanquishing rival schools with playful ease. Let us have a few dips in the holy river that is the story of his long and fruitful life.

Education

After undergoing the samskArAs such as ‘Choulam’ and ‘Upanayanam’ VenkatanAthA undertook traditional education under the aegis of Sri AppuLLAr, who was his uncle. He was a remarkable student with a prodigious memory and the ability to grasp subtleties right from his tender years. His future greatness was prophesied by a great SriVaishnava AchAryA, Swami NadAdUr AmmAL (Vatsya VaradAchAryA, known as ‘AmmAL’ due to his motherly love towards the Lord) during a RAmAyaNa KAlakshepam.

Vatsya VaradAchAryA’s Benediction

One day, the child VenkatanAthA had accompanied his uncle to AmmAL’s KAlakshepam. The Brahma-Tejas on the child’s face was so powerful that the senior scholar stopped his exposition and became interested in knowing more about him. Upon satisfying this urge, the great AchAryA wished to resume his discourse, and asked the members of the audience to remind him of the last thing that he had explained. None could do so. A small, but clear voice broke the silence, and the five year old VenkatanAthA indicated without the slightest tinge of hesitation, the exact sentences the preceptor had uttered prior to the break in his discourse. Swami NadAdUr AmmAL was astounded by the boy’s memory and spontaneously blessed him saying,
‘PradhishtApitha Vedanta: prathikshiptha bahirmatha:
BhooyAs trailokya mAnyasthvam poori kalyANa bhAjanam’

Freely translated, this reads, ‘Thou shalt establish Vedanta firmly, routing other schools of philosophy, and shalt be respected in the three worlds, attaining all auspiciousness’.
VenkatanAtha’s education was complete when he was merely twenty years old. The words of AmmAL were beginning to come true.

Life of a Householder

In India, the life of a human being is divided into four stages. Of these the stage of a householder is considered superior to others, as a householder alone can support the celibate, the ascetic and the retiree while still being in the service of the Lord. In the SriVaishnava sampradAyam, the GrihasthAshramA is accorded great respect and pride of place. AppuLLAr realised that the time had come for making a householder of his nephew. Accordingly, VenkatanAthA entered into holy matrimony with ‘Thirumangai’ and remained a dedicated householder till the very end. He apparently saw no reason to renounce the world as he was always in the service of the Divine Couple.

VenkatanAthA, Garuda and Lord Hayagriva

As willed by the Lord of the Universe, AppuLLAr initiated his nephew and disciple into the Garuda Mantra (This mantra is chanted during the DvajArohanam during Brahmotsavam) and the dutiful disciple proceeded to a hillock (Oushadhagiri) in Thiruvaheendrapuram (famous for the temple of SriDeivanAyakan) and meditated on the celestial mount of Vishnu (affectionately referred to as Periya Tiruvadi by SriVaishnavas). Garuda was waiting for this moment and appeared before the swami and imparted the Hayagrivamantra to him. VenkatanAthA being one of unrelenting resolve of the sAtvika kind meditated on Lord Hayagriva, the preceptor of goddess Saraswathi and the horse-faced Lord and appeared before him. The young Desika composed the Hayagriva stotrA in praise of this form of Vishnu and lord Hayagriva granted this worthy Successor of SriRAmAnujA, mastery over all arts and the power to vanquish anyone in debate.

A Lion among Poets and Logicians

Desika composed several hymns in praise of the deities in Thiruvaheendrapuram and then returned to Kanchi. He spent his time composing hymns and Prabandhams on Lord VaradarAjA of Hastigiri.
Soon he was attracted by the matchless Thiruvenkadamudaiyaan and went to Tirumala. There he composed the famous DayAsathakam in praise of SriVenkateshwara’s quality of compassion. After a tour of North Indian Divya deshams and other pilgrimage spots he settled down in Kanchi, leading the life of an UnchaVritti BrAhmaNA. He was a versatile poet with a vivid imagination. He was also a logician par excellence, who never lost a debate in his long and illustrious career. Owing to these aspects of his scholarship, the SriVaishnava elders of his time conferred upon him the title ‘KavitArkika Simham’, which means a lion among poets and logicians.

The Abode of Dispassion

He was a householder who led the UnchaVritti way of life. Thanks to Sriman NArAyaNA’s grace, his wife was completely supportive of this. Truly, it is the will of the lord that makes the minds of a couple undivided and compatible. One day when VenkatanAthA went for his UnchaVritti, the wife of a wealthy person, out of concern for the material prosperity of the swami, dropped a golden coin along with the rice into his bowl. Upon returning home, he gave the vessel to his wife, who discovered the coin asked him about it. To this VenkatanAthA, who was verily the abode of supreme dispassion, replied ‘it is a toxic worm, please get rid of it’. The devoted wife did as she was told, and those who came to know this incident were lost in admiration of this most noble couple.

VenkatanAthA was hardly bothered by the trials and tribulations of worldly life.
However his extremely austere life moved to pity, swami VidyAraNyA, a profound Advaitic scholar and preceptor of the Vijayanagara kings. The scholar also happened to be DesikA’s childhood friend and he invited the swami over to the royal court of Vijayanagar, assuring him of royal patronage. Apparently this letter had no effect on swami Desika who wrote back five verses in reply. These verses are now recited by SriVaishnavas desirous of dispassion and are referred to as VairAgya Panchakam.
The concluding verse “my father has not bequeathed any riches upon me, nor have I sought and obtained riches for myself, I have for my patrimony the lord of Hastigiri!” is so powerful that it can grant dispassion even if it is recited once with a full understanding of its import.

SriStuthi and the Shower of Gold

Great minds face opposition from mediocre ones. Einstein is said to have expressed such an opinion once. This is true of great minds in any discipline, and any part of the world. Some brAhmaNA’s, who were infected with the disease known as jealousy, wished to put VenkatanAthA in an uncomfortable position and see him suffer.
According to their plan, swami was approached by a bachelor who submitted himself to the former and explained that he was desirous of obtaining wealth for getting married and the swami (who had no material wealth but was indeed an emperor in terms of spiritual wealth) composed the matchless SriStuthi in praise of SrI Lakshmi, in front of SriPerundevi ThAyAr, mother of the universe and consort of Sriman Narayana, and the ever-benign Goddess let her glance fall upon her child, producing a shower of gold, much to the amazement of all and sundry. The brahmachArin collected the coins and went away to get married.

Paragon of Patience

Notwithstanding such instances which displayed his greatness in no small measure, there were a few men who envied VenkatanAthA passionately, and to insult him, hung a few sandals on a line. They hoped to upset the Swami who had to pass the hanging sandals while en route to obtaining bhikshai. As anticipated the sandals struck the forehead of VenkatanAthA. However, the young scholar imparted nobility to the mean act of his detractors, by asserting that ‘some follow karma-yogA for attaining liberation, others follow JnAnayogA. However I seek liberation by contact with the sandals of the devotees of Hari!’
Patience is the foremost quality of a BrAhmaNA (recall that in the 18th chapter of the GitA, SriKrishna begins his description of the duties of a BrAhmaNA with the word ‘Kshama :’), and is one of the eight flowers to be offered to the Lord by a Vaishnava. This episode illustrates the value of patience to telling effect.

Vedanta Desikan

VenkatanAthA soon moved over to the capital of the SriVaishnava Empire, SRIRANGAM!
Here he defended Visishtaadvaita against his philosophical opponents and his criticisms against advaita were recorded in a text called sathadooshani, (the hundred objections against advaita, only around 66 are available presently). He routed scholars of rival schools with matchless vigour. The ocean of auspicious attributes, SriRanganAthA was immensely pleased with the service of His spiritual son, and joyfully gave him the title of ‘VedAnta Desikan’. This is the name by which most SriVaishnavAs know Swami NigamAntha MahAdesikan.

Sarvatantra Svatantra

Sri Ranganaayaki ThAyAr (who as Thanikkovil NAchhiyAr exercises as much authority over the cosmos as her husband) was so impressed by the service of swami Desika that she blessed him with the title of Sarvatantra Svatantra. These titles were not conferred upon one unworthy of such singular adulation. There are several instances in the life of Swami Desikan which prove that he was indeed worthy of these benedictions from the Divine Couple. Some are touched upon here for our benefit.

Impartial Scholar

In our world, scholarship makes people proud and opinionated. This is because much of what passes for accomplishment in the world is mere tinsel. Swami DesikA was a true scholar who prided himself only on being a servant of Hari.

Despite being a VisishtAdvaitin par excellence he was also a man of remarkable intellectual integrity and this was proved visibly when he was requested to resolve a philosophical dispute between VidyAraNyA and Akshobhya Muni of the MAdhwa School. The swami studied their arguments and settled the dispute in favour of Akshobhya Muni.
Desika also wrote an allegorical play titled Samkalpa Sooryodhayam in response to a well known Advaitic play called Prabodha Chandrodayam by Krishna Misra, a profound Advaitic scholar.
DesikA’s genius was admired by not only his followers but also by those who belonged to other schools of thought. For instance the YAdavAbhyudayam of Sri Desika, a KAvyagranthA detailing the events of Lord Krishna’s life was praised in glorious terms by Appayya Dikshithar, a staunch advaitin.

The Snake-Charmer and Swami Desikan

Once a snake-charmer let loose a few snakes upon the SwAmi upon the advice of a few jealous men. DesikA drew seven lines on the earth and the snakes could not cross his barriers. The charmer then released a deadly snake known as ‘SangapAlan’ which managed to breach the lines. The SwAmi calmly recited the Garuda-Dandakam and the son of VinatA appeared in a flash, removing the snake from the scene. The snake charmer was appalled by this loss, as the snake was a very rare species and he beseeched the SwAmi to forgive him. Desikan then composed the Garuda-PanchAshath and Garuda appeared once again. Heeding the SwAmi’s request the mount of Vishnu returned the snake to the charmer.

Constructing a Well

An artisan was then employed by those who harboured ill feelings towards the SwAmi, to challenge DesikA’s claim to being a ‘Sarvatantra SvatantrA’. He asked the SwAmi to construct a well or forfeit the title. Swami Desikan went to work with a smile on his lips and constructed a well that settled the issue once and for all. This well is still found in the swami’s house in Thiruvaheendrapuram.

A Magician is humbled by the MahAbhAgavathA

A sanyAsin, who had become envious of Desikan’s reputation and greatness, used incantations of a negative kind to induce an illness known as ‘jalodharam’ in Swami Desikan’s body. Swami Desikan was hardly fazed by this, and without any exertion, scratched a pole in front of him, making the fluids in his stomach flow from it as if by magic. The magician was thus left looking for the swAmi’s pardon, which, of course, he gave without hesitation.

The PAdukA Sahasram – an Overnight Wonder

One of the great compositions of Desika the PAdukA sahasram which sings the praise of lord RanganAthA’s divyamaNipadukAs in over 1000 verses was born as the result of an interesting competition. A scholar who took exception to DesikA being addressed as ‘KavitArkika Simham’, challenged him to compose a poem of 1000 verses in praise of the lotus-feet of SriRanganAthA overnight. He went ahead with his plans for composing a ‘padha-kamala sahasram’. After much exertion and toil, he composed over three hundred verses and came to the sanctum sanctorum of the lord of SRIRANGAM, in the morning. He hoped against hope even, that Swami Desika would not have fared any better. However, much to his consternation, and to the delight of all BhAgavathAs, the swami arrived with his matchless ‘PAdukA Sahasram’ which is a treasure-trove of wisdom, devotion and poetic beauty. The humbled scholar addressed swami Desika as ‘KavitArkika Simham’ and took his leave.

The Three SriVaishnavas

On the day of his father’s ‘thiruvadhyayanam’ swami Desikan had arranged for two BrAhmaNA’s for the purpose of nimanthraNam. Some of his detractors prevented the two men from going to Desikan’s house. Swami DesikA performed all his obligatory duties as a keeper of Vaidhika dharmA and then served the specially prepared food on three plantain leaves. He came outside of the covered area and began chanting the appropriate verses. What a wonder! The food had been consumed and those who were waiting outside the house to enjoy the Swami’s discomfiture could see three SriVaishnavAs leaving Swami’s house. Desikan then realised that Lord HayagrivA and SriVaradarAjA had come in person to complete his father’s ‘thiruvadhyayanam’ and gave vent to tears of joy.

Protector of the SrutapraKAshikA

During the tragic period of the mughal invasion of SriRangam, Desika, along with SriLokAchAryA managed to protect the inner sanctum of the temple by erecting a wall in front of Sri RanganAthA (oh, how it must have hurt them to do such a thing,). He rescued the two sons of Sudarsana Bhattar (who was killed by the invaders) and a text called the SrutaprakAsikA (Sudarsana Bhattar’s gloss on the SriBAshyam). He went to Melkote and stayed there till SriRangam was released from captivity by the warriors of Vijayanagar. Then he returned to his beloved lord RanganAthA’s service.

A Well-Lived Life

During his lifetime he composed works of impeccable merit in languages like Tamil, Sanskrit, ManiprAvaLa and Prakrit. His works span the entire range of the written word and he has composed poems, hymns, philosophical treatises and written an epic, a drama, a set of commentaries, prabandha literature, and the esoteric texts known as RahasyaGranthAs (of which the most famous is the RahasyatrayasAram which was to be his magnum opus; this text codifies the doctrine of prapatti enunciated by RAmAnujA in the Gadyatrayam and other texts).
Also he wrote a text on dietetics which is available even today, under the name AhAraniyama.
The swami left his corporeal mansion and attained Vaikuntham on a KartikA Paurnami day under the KartikA asterism, after having lived an illustrious life of hundred and two years. He had lived a life not unlike that of the SriBashyakArar and finally regained his rightful place in the eternal service of Sriman nArAyaNA!

KavitArkika SimhAya KalyANa GunaSAlinae
Srimathae VenkateshAya VedAnta Gurave Nama:

Srimathe NigamAntha MahAdesikAya Nama:

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