Vedanta Desika



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Fast Facts
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Other Names and Nicknames: 
Venkatanatha
Function: 
Philosopher
Traditions: 
Ramanuja
Main Countries of Activity: 
India
Date of Birth: 
1269 A.D
Place of Birth: 
Kanchipuram, India
In His/Her Body ("alive"): 
No
Date Left His/Her Body: 
1370 A.D
Other Related Gurus: 
Ramanuja

Biography

Vedanta Desika (1269 – 1370) is considered the second greatest Sri Vaishnava writer. He was a great poet, devotee, philosopher and master-teacher. Ramanuja's death in 1137 A.D. was followed by a sectarian split among the Sri Vaishnava sampradaya. By the end of the 14th century this turned into a permanent division into two sects: Vadakalai ("Northern art" or "Northern learning") and Tenkalai ("Southern art" or "Southern learning"). The followers of the former consider Sri Vedanta Desika as their Acharya (teacher). The followers of the latter consider Sri Manavala Mamuni as their Acharya.

Life

Desikan was born in Thoopul, near Kanchipuram, (according to legend, on the order of Lord Srinivasa and Padmavathi Thayaar, the God and Goddess of the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple), as the son of Ananta Suri and Totaramba. He was named "Venkatanatha" and belonged to the Vishwamithra gothra (lineage). He was educated and trained by a scholarly maternal uncle of his, Kidambi Appullalar (who was a direct disciple of Ramanuja). Appullarlar also initiated Venkatanatha's Upanayanam (sacred thread ceremony) at the age of seven and made him master the Vedas, Divyaprabandam, Puranas and Sastras. By the age of twenty he was a great scholar without par in the history of Vaishnavism. He got married at the age of 21 to Tirumangai (also known as "Kanakavalli"). The Lord blessed the couple with a son in 1317 A.D., named "Varadarya". Vedanta Desikan rose to the status of an "Acharya" by the age of 27.

Hayagriva Mantra

Tradition regards Vedanta Desikan as the incarnation of the ghanta (bell) of the Lord of Tirupati.On initiation of "Garuda Mantram" (a mantra on Garuda, the celestial kite that served as the steed for Vishnu) by celestial sage Narada, Desikan went to Thiruvaheendrapuram and performed penance chanting the mantra, when Garuda appeared before him and taught him the "Hayagriva Mantra". (Hayagriva is an incarnation of Vishnu with the head of a horse and the a divine body of a Hindu god (human-like, but with four arms). Hayagriva represents knowledge.) Lord Hayagriva appeared before him and presented an idol of himself to Desikan. It is for this reason that, almost in all Desikan temples, there will be an idol of Hayagriva adjacent to the Desikan idol.

Transcendence and immanence of God

His explanations of the Transcendence and Immanence of God are illuminating. Transcendence ( bahir-vyApti) means: He is there even where Matter and Spirit are not there. Immanence ( antar-vyApti) means: He is inherent in Matter and Spirit in such a way that you can never say He is not there.

Prapatti

When he explains the theory of surrender (prapatti) he analyses the situation of man’s sins vanishing after the surrender of Man. The sins acquired before surrender vanish at the point of surrender. Afterwards, sins done because of inevitability will not accrue to the doer. Sins done involuntarily or unconsciously certainly will not accrue to him. On the other hand, sins done consciously, in the sense they were not inevitable, will vanish in the following manner: one-fourth of them by a proper remorse; one-fourth by a determination not to repeat the sin; one-fourth by a preparation to do the regretful ritual ( prAyshcitta )and the last one-fourth by the actual doing of that ritual! In accordance with this concept of "Prapatti", the Vadakalai sect of Iyengars, follow it till this day, on the divine guidance of their respective Acharya.

Paduka-Sahasram

Paduka (pronounced 'paadukaa') Sahasram means one thousand verses on the sandals, is in praise of the sacred sandals of Lord Sri Renganatha's lotus feet at Srirangam. The whole work is a monument for supreme devotion and superb poetry, all in one night’s intuition, - an overnight miracle of one thousand verses! It was composed by him in response to a challenge by another learned scholar in Srirangam. Legend has it that while the other learned scholar composed his verses on the divine lotus feet of the lord, Swami Desika decided to go "one-up" by deciding to compose his verses on the divine sandals of the lotus feet of the lord. All this was composed by Desika (as he puts it, by the Grace of the paduka of the Divine) in just one quarter of the night, actually the third quarter. The earlier two quarters were devoted by him, as soon as he accepted the commitment, to yoga and yoga-nidra (=sleep induced by yoga and resulting in intuition). The wonder of this work is the ability of Acharya to compose 1000 verses on just the divine sandals of the lotus feet of Lord Renganatha and that too in different ways, ultimately capturing the interest of the audience.

Eulogy of Divine Sandals

The spirit of the Paduka-sahasraM is unequalled in any religious literature. The paduka of the divine is equal to the guru or the AcArya whose grace is more powerful than the grace of the Lord. The Acharya implied in every verse of the paduka sahasram is Nammalvar, the great author of Tiru-vAi-mozhi, who is generally considered as the paduka of the divine. Here are a few examples of this unusual eulogy.

Perumāl and Śaţhāri

The Tamil word Perumal (pronounced 'PerumaaL') is used by Vaishnava tradition to denote the Supreme Divinity as well as the idol -- arcA -- of the Divine. The two words which compose to make perumal are perum, which means ‘the great’ ‘the gigantic’ ‘the supreme’ and `aaL’ which means ‘personality’. The corresponding Sanskrit word is ‘purushottama’. The sandals of Perumal are known as the Śaţhāri. The Śaţhāri is like a crown placed reverentially on the heads of devotees in all Vaishnava temples, and they receive it with humility, with one hand on the mouth as if to keep it shut.

Desika's depiction of Bharata receiving the Paduka

The classic instance of this act was first done by Bharata (in the Ramayana) when he received the sandals of Lord Rama. But before he receives it, he requests the Lord to wear the sandals once and remove it. The act of Rama that is requested here is to step on the sandals and step down. This drama does not find a place in either the Tamil Ramayana of Kamban or the Hindi Ramayana of Tulsi. But the original poet Valmiki describes it. ‘Oh Lord’, says Bharata, ‘Please step on these sandals and step down. These sandals are the ones which support and sustain the welfare of the three worlds’. And Rama obliges. Imagine this scene in your mind. What does it mean? Does it have an esoteric significance? The obvious significance that suggests itself to us is that Rama is requested to step on the sandals and step out so that the sandals may receive the spiritual vibrations from the Lord and therefore become sacred so as to be venerated and be able to receive the honour of being the object of worship from Bharata for the next fourteen years, the period of Rama’s exile. This is what Vedanta Desika, also thinks and weaves in his verse No.113 of his paduka-sahasram. But three verses later he eulogises the paduka to such heights that this scene of Rama's stepping on and stepping down from the sandals obtains an enormous significance, revealed only by the great intuition of the super-devotee Vedanta Desika. The why of that divine act as explained by the master-poet is wonderful.

The power of Padukas

When the Lord is on the point of embarking on a commitment to walk through the forests of the country for the next fourteen years, he was relying on the power of the paduka to protect him and his feet. Now that Bharata is asking for the padukas, and that means separation from them, as far as Rama is concerned, He is now stepping up on them and stepping down so as to receive the spiritual vibrations from them and thereby the energy for him to sustain the challenge of walking barefooted through the entire forest. So the poet says: If he did not do it, how could he have walked through the rough ground and dense shrubbery of the Dandaka forest with bare feet for so long? Is this not the height of devotion to the divine sandals on the part of Desika?

The paduka is greater than even Vibhishana and Sugriva - says the poet in another verse. (Verse No.231) You are even greater than Rama, continues the poet again: Oh sandals, You are even more glorious than Rama whose glory pervades all the three worlds. For, if not, how did Bharata, who wanted only Rama, accept you as security for Rama’s return? (Is it not common knowledge that a thing accepted as security for money promised to be returned, must have a value greater than the money lent?) (Verse No.108)

'Sri Sthuthi

Sri Desika wrote a sloka on Perundevi Thayar of Kanchi Varadaraja Temple at the request of Bramhachari. The bramachari requested Swami to help him to get married. At the conclusion of this sloka gold coins started pouring from the air and the bramachari took them for his marriage and swami did not even keep a single coin for himself. It is the belief of every materialistic vaishnava that the daily recitation of this sloka means that sri lakshmi is sure to reside in such a house. This incident is however, not fundamental to the basic philosophy of "Sri-Vaishnavism" which honours Sri (Lakshmi) as the "Iswarigm sarva bhootanam" i.e. the Supreme goddess and not just the goddess of wealth.

Swami Sri Vedanta Desikan and Srirangam

Swami Desikan by the beginning of 14h century, had arrived at Srirangam and sought the blessings of Sri Sudharashna Bhattar and on his command decided to debate with the Advaitis there. This work of Swami on the debate which went on for seven days was popularly known as "Shathadhushini". Swami Desikan's eloquence and deep reasoning and exumberant debating skills stood no parlance, that Sri Renganatha Swamy of Srirangam, conferred on him the title of "Vedanta Desikan" and Goddess of Srirangam, Renganayaki, the title "Sarva Tantra Svatantra". He was rightly called "Kavitharkika Simham".

Swami Vedanta Desikan's period in Srirangam is said to have been a defining moment in the "Vaishnava" philosophy for many reasons. The Islamic forces invaded Srirangam in 1311-12 and stole away the Idol of the presiding deity to Delhi. The people of Srirangam after a prolonged struggle returned back with the God. There was more shock in store, when the second invasion followed in 1327 with such an intense force led by Mallik Kafur and General Alauddin, that swami Desikan decided to send the Utsava Murthi of Srirangam with a group led by "pillai lokacharayar" and in the same way the Goddesses of temple were also protected. Swami Desikan decided to save the Sanctum Sanctorum by covering it with a brick wall. The inner Idol of the Diety was thus saved from plunder.

Finding the whole of the temple town perturbed by the attack, he composed the "Abheethi Stavam", which was recited by the people to fear not the blatant invasion. Almost 13000 Sri Vaishnavites were killed in the prolonged battle in Srirangam. Sri Sudharshna Bhattar also sacrificed his life in the struggle, not before requesting Swami Desika to bring up his children, who were very young then.

Along with the children and that most precious treatise on Sri Vaishnavism, the "ShrutaPrakasika", Swami moved to Thirunarayanapuram, presently in Karnataka, in search of the idol. Swami stayed in Satyakaalam for a period of 12 years and returned to Srirangam and it was Swami who broke the wall and thereby placed the SRIRANGAM presiding deity in the Sanctum Sanctorum and initiated again the festivals. Thus Swami protected the temple and handed it over for generations to come.

Apart from Paduka Sahasram, he composed three hymns exclusively on Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam. They are : Bhagavad Dhyana Sopanam, Abheethi Stavam and Nyasa Tilakam.

Swami Desikan attained paramapadam (heavenly abode) after living for 101 years in Srirangam. The place where Swami lived can be seen in Srirangam even today and is known as "Vedanta Desikan Thirumaligai".

A word on Desika's Descendants

* Sri Vedanta Desika was born in Thoopul, a place near Kancheepuram, Tamilnadu. Thoopul is a short form for "Thuya Pul" a word in Tamil Language meaning "Sacred Land or Grass". Direct descendants of Sri Desika, attached "Thoopul" as their surname/ family name. Over time, this became anglicized as "Tupil"
* A prominent descendant in 20th century was Sri Tupil Rangaswamy Iyengar, who was a philanthropist and sub-collector of Madras Presidency, during British India rule. For his dedicated services, the British offered to name a street after him, which he declined. Instead he proposed to name the street after "Lord Ranganathan of Sri Vaikuntam". Even today the street exists under the same name called "Ranganathan Street" in T Nagar, Chennai.
* For more details of Direct Descendants of Sri Vedanta Desika - Google search "Tupil"

Additional reading

* Sri Vedanta Desika: Makers of Indian Literature by M.Narasimhachary, Sahitya Academy, 2004.

Teachings

Works

His writings include devotional works on deities and Acharyas, treatises on Vishishtadvaita, commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, secret doctrines of Vaishnavism (Rahasyathrayam), original Tamil poems, epic poems and allegorical dramas in Sanskrit, dialectical works such as Satadushani directed against rival religious schools , treatises on daily life and several other miscellaneous treatises. His gloss on the meanings of the Vedas, reconciling the teachings of the Alvars and the PrasthAna-traya created history because it exposed the Divya Prabhandham of the Alvars to a much wider audience and elevated it to a status equivalent to that of the Vedas in the eyes of the Tamil Vaishnava people.

The poem "Sudarshnashtakam" on Lord Sudarshana (Tamil: Chakrathazhvar or Chakrathalvar), the deity that represents the disc-shaped weapon that Vishnu carries in his right hand, and a similar poem "Hayagriva Stotram" on Hayagriva are his most famous works. He composed close to fifty other Sthothrams (sacred prayer poems similar to pslams) on different Vaishnava gods on various occasions. Some of them are: Godha Sthuthi - on the goddess Andal, Nyaya Dasakam, Bhu Sthuthi - on the earth goddess, Kamasikashtakam - on the god Narasimha and Raghuveera Gadhyam - on the valour of the god Rama.

Desika’s writings

His poems contain an incisive clarity of appeal that is instructive to the seeker as well as enjoyable by the connoisseur. The devotional fervour is all transparent and infectious.Every work of his is full of beautiful poetry, superb devotion, conceptual density, philosophy, mythology, poetic gymnastics, lilting rhyme and majesty of language.

The eight-lettered mantra

In talking about the eight-lettered mantra (Ashtaksharam) of Narayana (in modern day Vaishnavism, the gods Vishnu and Narayana are used interchangeably, though this wasn't always the case a millennium ago), he mentioned several things which can also have an eightfold classification – like, eight kinds of devotion, eight siddhis, eight functions of the intellect and so on. In the same strain he described eight flowers for the worship of God; these are: non-violence; sense-control; universal compassion; infinite patience; wisdom; austerity; meditation; and truth.

Sources: 
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