Biography of Madhvacharya, his Philosophy with Photos
He is the saint who installed the idol of Sri Krishna at Udupi in Karnataka. The Philosophy he preached was previously known as ‘ Tatvavada’. Now it is known as ‘Dwaita’. He lived seven hundred years ago. He boldly said to a Muslim king: “By whatever name you may call, God is One.” He maintained that one’s religion is not decided by birth but by his nature and personality. The Acharya’s knowledge, scholarship, and achievements made him a great savant.
This happened seven hundred years ago.
Islam religion was already spreading in some parts of northern Bharat. On the coast of river Ganga, there was a kingdom ruled by a Muslim king. (Scholars guess that he might have been Jalaluddin Khilji). He kept a large army along the coast to guard the kingdom. There were no boats to cross the river. The ruler was concerned that spies from the neighboring kingdom might enter his province. This is why such guards were positioned there.
On the other side of the river, there stood a majestic-looking ‘sannyasi’ (monk) with his followers. The disciples were worried: how to cross the river? The master understood their concern and gently told them:
“Don’t be afraid. We are here to swim across the river of life. Can’t you even cross the Ganga? Follow me into the waters without fear.”
The commander of the Muslim State saw them and told his men: “They must be spies from the neighboring state wearing the garb of monks. We should finish them off before they reach this shore.”
The leader of the monks noted their concern and in a loud voice told them: “Do not be hasty and drown yourselves. We are only a few in numbers. Why should you fear us? We are only coming to see your king and not to fight you.” The soldiers stood surprised. They saw the ‘sannyasi’ leading his people boldly through the swirling waters of Ganga safely. Hundreds of sword-wielding soldiers surrounded them’.
“Your God is My God”
The king, standing on the balcony of his palace, saw their arrival. He was surprised that a Hindu monk could reach his capital warding off his soldiers’ guard.
He addressed the monk:
“My soldiers are standing guard to prevent the entry of spies of the neighboring country.
None has so far eluded them. How is it that you, a monk, walked through them? How were you able to cross the river without boats? What is your objective in coming here?” The monk laughed, raised his fingers, towards the Sun and spoke in Persian the language of the king:
“The supreme God, who protects you, me and others, in fact, the whole world – is there. For you, He is Allah; for me, He is Narayana, Address him by any name you choose the only one will answer your prayers. We are all citizens of His kingdom. it is only with His blessings that we were able to cross the river without boats. We pacified your soldiers who came to attack us; it is all His blessing. We are on our way to the North through your state.”
The Muslim king was deeply impressed by the monk’s boldness and self-conviction and his impressive personality. He climbed down from his seat and invited him to the Rajasabha (royal court) and lavishly entertained him. He offered him a large estate and requested him to build his hermitage there.
But the monk politely declined the king’s offer and the party continued their journey northward.
Who is He?
Who is he? He is Acharya Madhwa: a distinguished saint of Bharat who preached to the world that God will hear in whichever language or name He is addressed. He left a great message for subsequent generations:
“Do not make a fuss about how we should address god. You can address him in any language and by any name. Know that there is no word in the world without His name. Apart from the language we speak, the entire nature extols Him.
The sounds of the sea, the wind that blows, the chirping of the birds, the hooting of animals – all these are nothing but the homage to God. Learn to recognize His existence in all the voices and everywhere. Live with godliness.”
The Acharya went a step further in his commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita:
“The caste system relates more to one’s nature than to one’s body.
It is not important to which caste one belongs at birth. His nature decides his caste. Basically, the caste system is only a division based on man’s nature. A ‘Chandala’ (untouchable) who treads the spiritual path is a better being than a Brahmin who is ignorant of that path and puts on an artificial appearance.”
In Bharat, during the thirteenth century, people were stubbornly practicing the caste system. Amazingly, the Acharya propagated such progressive views at such a time.
The Earth is blessed
Among the galaxy of Acharyas of our country, three of them stand out: Acharya Shankara who preached Advaita (Monism), Acharya Ramanuja who preached Vishishtadwaita (a blend of Monism and Dualism), and Acharya Madhwa who preached Dwaita (Dualism). “This world is an illusion; only God is true,” said Shankara. “God is the soul of the universe; hence this body is also real,” said Ramanuja. “This universe is a playful creation of God. Let us not try to diminish it by denouncing it,” said Madhwa.
In old texts, Acharya Madhwa’s Dwaita philosophy is described as ‘Tattwavada’. He maintained:
“This world is not an illusion. God is not a magician. He signifies the duty of truth. This world should be considered as a school that understands God’s greatness.”
It is to the credit of Karnataka that it should have contributed such a great philosopher as Madhwa to the world, Acharya Madhwa was a Kannadiga. He was born in the small village Pajaka near Udupi on Karnataka’s west coast.
It is a picturesque village flanked by two small hillocks. In a corner stand an ancient temple of Durga. At the foot of another hillock is a temple of Parashurama. Pajaka is a village rich in greenery.
The earth on which the Acharya walked stands blessed. Every stone here stands witness to hundreds of stories relating to his early years.
‘God Was With Me’
Acharya Madhwa’s father was Nadillaya Narayana Bhatta, his mother was Vedavati. The couple had desired a son for a long time. They prayed to God and performed many rituals. At last, their prayers were answered: a son was born who not only enlivened his home but enlightened the whole of mankind.
Acharya Madhwa was born on the tenth day of the bright half of the month of Ashwayuja in the Saka year Vilambi (1238 A.D.). It was Vijayadashami day. The child was named Vasudeva.
The child, who was growing well, was very good-looking. “His mother is lucky to have such a nice child,” people would say. They were struck by his outward appearance but could not comprehend his inner self. Sometime the child’s pranks would baffle the parents who wondered,
“This child is not like others.” A memorable eve could be recalled.
Vasudeva was then three years old. His parents had taken him to a function in nearby Nidiyur. Amid the celebration, Vasudeva suddenly disappeared. Nobody knew where he had gone and the tearful parents began a vigorous search. Somebody in a street said: “We saw a small child going towards Kodavoor temple.” Someone else said they saw a three-year-old child crossing the fields and going towards the Bannanje temple.
Nadillaya and others rushed to both the places but could not find the child there. They then came to nearby Udupi and arrived at their favorite temple of Ananteshwara. What a surprise! Vasudeva was standing before the ‘Shivalinga’ there with folded hands.
There were tears of joy. The Nadillaya couples were ardent worshippers of Ananteshwara and they found their child in His graceful presence!
Vasudeva stood there smiling. “Dear Vasudeva, how did you come so far alone? How did you find the way?” asked the father. The child replied:
“Father, I did not come alone. First, I went to Kanangi (Kodavoor) and saw Shankaranarayana.
From there I went to see Mahalingeshwara of Taleku (Bannanje). Then I came here and saw Chandramoulishwara. I saw Narayana in this ‘Shivalinga’. God was with me throughout the journey. God was my companion and showed me the way.”
What he told the Muslim king when he was in his thirties and what he uttered as a child of three were the same: “We have arrived because of God’s grace.” Can one ever be imbued with qualities not nourished in childhood? Yes; this cannot be easily understood by anyone. He pursues the only path shown by God. It was a child born to show the divine path to the people.
When the child completed three years, his father initiated his educational lessons. One day the lesson of practicing the alphabets was over and the next day it was repeated. Vasudeva asked his father: “Why repeat the same thing that was over yesterday. Teach me something new.” The father felt both surprised and happy.
What a talented child we have, he wondered.
He was struck by his child’s grasping power. He was concerned that the child may be affected by somebody’s evil eye; his mother would wave before him some pepper and other things (to ward off evil) and pray for his welfare.
The father continued to teach the child at home. Before long, Vasudeva was able to read all the books and would try to understand them.
It was a pleasure to hear his readings from the texts. He had a fine voice and purity of expression.
When Vasudeva was five, his mother took him on a visit to a nearby place called Neyampalli. It was evening and a Puranik discourse was in progress. People were listening with a keen interest in the discourse by Madithaya Shivabhatta, well-known Puranik’ (raconteur adept at delivering religious discourses). At one stage, Vasudeva, sitting beside his mother, got up and said: “Respected Puranik, the meaning in the Purana text says one thing and you are saying another.”
Shivbhatta became annoyed at the boy’s insolence. But Vasudeva narrated the meaning of the concerned verse in a lucid manner People were pleased and agreed with him.
On another occasion, Nadillaya himself was corrected by his son. He was also a well-known ‘Puranik’. Once, during a discourse, he could not remember the meaning of a word instantly.
He avoided that word and continued. Vasudeva stood up and said “Father, you have named the entire tree! But did not mention ‘Lakucha’ in it!
Meaning. It means ‘Hebbalasu’ doesn’t it?” Nadillaya did not feel insulted. He felt happy that he learned the meaning of the word from his son. He felt proud to be the father of such an intelligent boy.
When Vasudeva was seven, his father performed his ‘Upanayana (sacred thread-wearing ceremony, read more on Sandhyavandanam here) according to custom. And then on to a guru for studying Vedas and classics, studies as a disciple of Totantillaya, a respected Vedic scholar of that period.
Totantillaya felt the boy’s manner a bit strange.
The boy would appear only at the time of the lessons and would spend the rest of the time in the playfield.
In the field, Vasudeva, with his strong physique beyond his age, would be surrounded by his playmates. Each day it was a different game.
One day it is running; Vasudeva would come first. Another time it is swimming, and he would be the first to reach the goal. It was wrestling, the other day and though the entire band of his playmates attacked him, he would humble them with terrific blows. His mates were astonished at the prowess of Vasudeva whom they considered ‘Hanuman in swimming and Bheemasena in weightlifting’.
Guru Totantillaya would not approve of the boy’s behavior. He felt he was not studying properly and once chided him: “Oh, you are a master of knowledge! You learn things without reading.
Let us see, recite the ‘Suktas’ (hymns, read Subhashitas here) you have been taught so far.”
Vasudeva sat cross-legged and recited in a ringing, clear voice, all the hymns in the correct pattern and without a single mistake. The Guru gave up testing him. Vasudeva’s studies and sports both continued.
Wrestling Between the Master and Disciples
Acharya Madhwa attached much importance to a good physique. “People of our country should be strong both in mind and body” – this was his life-message. If the body is weak, the growth of the intellect too will be weak. But one should take care to be strong not in body alone but in mind too.”
The Acharya made it compulsory that even the monk-disciples, apart from others, should practice physical exercises. He would always tell them: “Don’t bow to anybody but God. Hold your heads high and learn to live without fear.” An incident occurred when the Acharya was in his forties. Once he was staying at Varanasi with fifteen of his disciples. He happened to hear them discussing their physical strength.
He called them and laughingly said: “Many times I have tested your intellect. Now I want to test your physical strength.
All of you should fight me at the same time. If anybody hesitates and stays behind, he would be violating the guru’s injunction.” It was a strange wrestling bout between the Acharya, now in his forties, and the fifteen disciples who were around twenty. The Acharya warded off his disciples with a single blow to each. All of them fell to the ground. Flexing his arm further, the Acharya smilingly asked them:
“Why have you fallen like this? Free yourself from my grip and stand up.” The devotees, still prostrate, pleaded: “Your every finger seems to us like an iron grip. Please free us.” The disciples knew that their Master was well – versed in Vedantic philosophy. But he could also be a sturdy wrestler when the occasion arose.
The Hand Which Carries the Sacred Stick Wields an Axe
Through another incident, the Acharya taught his disciples how to face dangers in life. The party was proceeding to Badari. They were passing through mountains and thick jungles. The disciples carried the bundles containing their clothes and articles of worship on their heads.
Suddenly a band of dacoits confronted them, wielding axes. The disciples became frightened.
But the Acharya smiled, called one of the disciples, Upendratirtha, and said: “Why are you standing like this when your fellowmen are facing danger? The hand that carries the ‘danda’ should also know how to wield an axe. Go forth.” Upendratirtha was aroused by his guru’s call.
He charged at the dacoits like a storm, seized an axe from one of the dacoits and began swinging it with great force. Shocked by this heroic act of a monk, the dacoits ran away.
I am going to become a Sannyasi
How the Acharya, who lived like a soldier of philosophy, took to ‘Sannyasa’ and became a monk was also strange. Vasudeva was then eleven years old. One early morning, he came to Udupi. There lived a famous saint, Achyutaprajna, and the boy became his disciple.
Nadillaya came looking for his son but Vasudeva told him: I have to fulfill the mission of my life.
Leave me alone. I am going to become a ‘Sannyasi’.”
Two other sons born to the Nadillaya couple had died at a very young age. What should the old father do when the only surviving son says that he wants to become a monk? But the boy was determined. The father prostrated before him and begged: “Don’t throw us on the streets by taking to ‘Sannyasa’:
“Vasudeva answered: “It is wrong for a father to prostrate before his son who is not a ‘sannyasi’. Now that you have bowed to me, it means that you have accepted me as a monk.” And he answered all his father’s arguments.
Nadillaya then tried to make one last effort.
“I may agree but how can you convince your mother?”, “Leave it to me”, the boy replied.
The father returned home and forewarned his wife: “At any rate, do not agree for his taking to ‘sannyasa’.” But Vasudeva had already decided on the mode of approach to his mother. “If you want your son to be before you, agree to my becoming a monk. Otherwise, you will never see me again.” His mother had to agree.
She was only worried that there would not be a son to look after them in old age. Vasudeva had a ready reply to that also. He said: “Alright, I will not take to ‘sannyasa’ till another son is born to you.” Vedavati gave birth to a son the following year. This boy served his parents till their end, then took sannyasa’ from the Acharya himself.
He later came to be renowned as Vishnutirtha.
He was a great monk living only on fruits and leaves and spent his life in penance. He was a worthy brother to the Acharya.
‘Poornaprajna’ ‘Anandatirtha’ ‘Madhwa’
The parents had to consent, and Vasudeva was initiated into ‘sannyasa’ by saint Achyutaprajna. He then came to be known as ‘Poornaprajna.’
He was then a boy of twelve. About forty days after he assumed ‘sannyasa’, Vasudeva Pandita, an eminent interpreter of philosophy, and some others came to Udupi, Achyutaprajna sent his young disciple to argue with them. The twelve-year-old boy easily overcame the arguments of these stalwarts who could not answer him satisfactorily.
Achyutaprajna was filled with joy at the astounding knowledge and scholarship of the boy. He installed Poornaprajna on the official seat of Vedanta and named him ‘Anandatirtha’. ‘Madhwa’ was Poornaprajna’s religious name and later he came to be renowned by the name. From that time onwards Acharya Madhwa’s entire life was devoted to the propagation of Vedic philosophy. He was not unnecessarily provoking others to arguments. But if anybody came to engage him in a philosophical debate he would successfully argue and defeat them.
Hundreds of arrogant scholars who came to challenge him had to go back with their heads bowed in defeat.
Country-wide Tour for Dharma Renaissance
Acharya Madhwa toured the whole country to propagate his version of a philosophical interpretation called ‘Tattwavada’. He shared it gladly with anybody who came to him. He taught and trained many devotees. He wrote as many as forty books: these have been a spiritual treasure for subsequent generations.
Seemingly, they are simple in the narration which even children could understand. They are classic works that even mature scholars have to study deeply to understand the Vedic philosophy.
Soon after becoming a ‘sannyasin’, Acharya Madhwa visited famous religious shrines in the South including Kanyakumari, Rameshwaram, Srirangam, and Anantashayanam. Thrice he traveled up to Badarinath shrine in the snowy Himalayas. He dedicated his first work ‘Gita Bhashya’ to Guru Vedavyasa at Badari. He stayed there for some time and wrote commentaries on Brahma sutras.
Wherever he went, people were highly pleased with his wonderful discourses. It was a time when the influence of Islam was spreading; Christianity too was making headway. The country was facing a piquant situation under these alien religious influences. Besides, the Indian people themselves were helpless spectators to squabbles among their religious sects, various castes, creeds, etc. The Acharya toured the country at such a time of disturbing philosophical situation and brought reassurance to the people.
They were impressed with this saint and listened to his discourses with devout attention. His following steadily grew.
Upon the return of the Acharya to Udupi, his Guru Achyutaprajna also read his disciple’s commentary on the Gita. He discussed with the Acharya about some doubts that had arisen in his mind and, satisfied, he became a follower of Acharya Madhwa. Thus, this ‘Shishya’ who offered initiation to his Guru earned a permanent place in the hearts of the people.
The Acharya’s prime disciple was Padmanabhacharya. There were also eight other intimate disciples: Hrishikeshatirtha, Nrisimhatirtha, Janardanatirtha, Upendratirtha, Vamanatirtha, Vishnutirtha, Ramatirtha and Adhokshajatirtha.
These eight saints later became the founders of the ‘Ashtamathas’ (eight mutts) at Udupi.
The Installation of Sri Krishna
According to ancient documents, the story of the installation of Sri Krishna at Udupi runs thus: A ship had left the shores of Dwaraka. With the other cargo had been kept some mounds of ‘Gopichandana’ (sandalwood paste). When the ship was on the sea-shores of Malpe, a storm broke. The ship hit a boulder, broke and sank.
One day, Acharya Madhwa awoke from his meditation and suddenly left for the shore of Malpe. There he got men to fish in the wasters and they brought up an idol of Sri Krishna from the sea-bed. The Acharya installed it at his Mutt in Udupi and worshipped Him for several years.
Thus Sri Krishna has been the deity present at Udupi for the last seven centuries, blessing countless worshippers. This is the most ancient accepted version of the installation.
They Stole The Books!
Acharya Madhwa made Udupi his head-quarters and was engaged in his philosophical pursuits. He, however, had to face considerable opposition. When a society reaches a state of stagnation, great men appear on the scene to give it a new drive. Such men, who set about making efforts towards the improvements of the society, though they may become popular, have also to face opposition regarding the principles and approach they advocate. Acharya Madhwa was no exception to this.
Many raised a hue and cry that the Acharya was disturbing the established, ancient order.
When people could not confront him successfully on the strength of spiritual texts, some took to shameful and petty ways. Attempts were made to break his ‘danda’. Efforts were also made to kill him with the help of wrestlers Kodinjadi brothers. A smear campaign also took place. But the Acharya could not be cowed down and his opponents had to suffer failure.
By this time, the Acharya had a priceless collection of books. During his travels across the country, he had collected many rare texts for his philosophical research. He has mentioned several such rare works in the books he wrote. His library was a treasured possession. And Padmatirtha went to the extent of stealing these books!
Blessed Were They Who Saw Him
This theft took place at Kasaragod, the capital of Tulunadu. Hearing about it, Jayasimha, the king, felt sad. He managed to seize the books from Padmatirtha and sent a request to the Acharya to come for a visit.
The king accorded a ceremonial reception to the Acharya on his arrival. He climbed down first from his palanquin and walked to receive the Acharya. Soldiers lined up on both sides of the road. The king bowed to the Acharya reverentially. Both then walked to the Vishnumangala temple. It was a memorable sight. Devotees and disciples walked in the front singing devotional prayers. Besides the Acharya walked to the king with folded hands.
The Acharya’s personality created an instant impression upon the people. He stood out in the assembly, looking as if carved out based on ‘Lakshanashastra’: a tall, broad-shouldered person. A smile adorned his face. Those who saw him felt blessed.
The message of Service to the World
Trivikrama Pandita was the brother of Shankara Pandita who looked after the Acharya’s library. None in the area could match his scholarship.
Trivikrama Pandita entered into a vehement debate with the Acharya and showered him with many questions. The Acharya, calm and smiling, answered every question. Their debate went on for fifteen days and Trivikrama Pandita, with his doubts cleared and queries answered, became the Acharya’s disciple. The replies the Acharya gave him came as a great revelation to the whole country:
“There is one God, the embodiment of positive Divinity. He is addressed as ‘Narayana’; he is also called Ishwara, Brahma, Vishnu and by other names. You can address Him by any name.
“This life is a reflection. The original image is God. We should understand the original through the reflection. You cannot comprehend Him without realizing your soul. First, understand yourself; then you can understand Him.
“The Vedas are basic truths. One should not become a slave to argumentation to know those basic principles. There is always the possibility of a debate losing its track. We should surrender ourselves to the Vedas to realize the Truth.
“Never forget your duty and its related action.
Real duty is your helping others who suffer more than you. This worldly duty is the ‘fee’ you pay God who is the Lord of the universe.
The world is God’s wonderful creation. Try to understand His greatness. Also, know your limitations and surrender yourself to Him. This is the only path for your salvation,” The Acharya wrote the famous ‘Prasthanatraya’ – commentaries on the Gita, the ten Upanishads and the ‘Brahma sutras’.
He wrote the well known classic ‘Mahabharata Tatparya Nirnaya’, a masterly analysis of the Mahabharata and the Puranas; Wrishnamrita Mahamava’, an anthology of puranic verses. He also wrote commentaries on the Rigveda and the Bhagavata. He is the author of ‘Tantrasara Sangraha’ dealing with iconography and a unique ‘Tithinirnaya’. Work on mathematics.
He wrote many other significant works. The Acharya was proficient in music too. He has composed many beautiful songs. ‘Dwadasha Stotra is a distinguished musical creation.
Once after touring Goa, the Acharya was camping at a place called Pashupe. People there had heard of his knowledge of music and his fine voice. They requested him to sing and he agreed. That music was enchanting. Listeners could not believe that a male singer had such a lilting voice.
Last Trip to Badari
Thus the Acharya’s whole life was devoted to singing the praise of God. He faced his problems, opposition and difficulties boldly. As a young boy, he had crushed with his foot a poisonous snake which came to bite him. The Acharya knew no fear. He never bowed to anybody and always held his head high. He was clear about his life-mission and how to achieve it. He lived the life of a dynamic ‘sannyasi’ and had a reassuring effect on all who came to him.
After leading full, fruitful life till he was 79, on the ninth day of the first fortnight of Magha in the year Pingala (1317 A.D), Acharya Madhwa took leave of his disciples and left for Badari.
None saw him afterward. This day is observed as ‘Madhwanavami when people pay homage to the great Acharya.
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