Vidyaranya Swami: Biography of a saint who built Vijayanagara
A great and famous saint who is known as the founder of Karnataka. When people had lost all hope, he provided inspiration to Hakka and Bukka who tilled the people with hope and courage. He adorned the Sharada Peetha (also read about Adi Shankaracharya here) of Sringeri.
He strove to strong then the foundations of the Empire of Vijayanagar.
This happened about six hundred and fifty years ago. One morning in the city of Kanchi, the chief of Kanchi Kamakoti Peetha, Sri Vidyateertha, was seated among his disciples. The ruler of the kingdom was also seated among them close to the Swami. The Swami had decided to test the ability of these disciples. He put the same question to everyone: “What is the ambition of your life?”
Service of the People
Each student answered the question differently. One said: I wish to seek the patronage of a king at his court.
It was now the turn of Venkatanatha:
“I have decided to popularize the teachings of Sri Ramanujacharya. I want to write commentaries on his works. I have also decided to become a teacher of the Vedas and Upanishads.”
“What is your view, Sudarshana Bhatt?”
“I wish to go to Srirangam and devote the rest of my days in the worship of Sri Ranganatha.”
“Bhoganatha, tell us about your plans.”
“I wish to become a king among scholars.”
“Sayana, what is your desire?”
“When I grow up I wish to write commentaries on the four Vedas. The aim of my life is to collect the essence of all the systems of philosophy.” The master asked finally: “Madhava, tell me what your ambition is.” Madhava said: “Gurudeva, it is difficult to give an answer to your question.”
“Why is it difficult, child?”
“As long as the insolence of ego survives in man, it is difficult to achieve anything. But God willing. I would like to spend my days in the service of mankind, the visible expression of God.
I wish to utilize my life to awaken the power of the nation, which is now put to sleep as a result of ignorance. I wish to devote my life to the protection of my country and my religion and the freedom of my country,” said Madhava.
When Vidyateertha heard these words, he felt proud of Madhava. He embraced his disciple and said, “Child it is sacred to devote one’s life for the good of others, for one’s own country and religion, and for protection of the freedom of the country. Be successful in your ideal. May the world be better on account of your service?” Madhavacharya who was thus blessed by his Guru became famous as Vidyaranya later.
Parentage and Childhood
Madhavacharya’s father was Mayanacharya.
He was a pious man of a quiet nature. He had settled down in Pampakshetra (modern Hampi) and lived peacefully and happily teaching his disciples.
He had an equally good wife, Srimatidevi. She too was of a quiet and pious nature. For a long time, they had no children. They went on pilgrimage to many holy places. They performed many rituals and religious ceremonies with devotion.
At last, they had a son, about the year 1268. After observing the necessary rituals he was named Madhava.
After the birth of Madhava, they had two more sons and a daughter. The boys were named Sayana and Bhoganatha and the daughter was named Singala.
The parents decided to get Madhava educated by good teachers. There was a saint called Shankarananda living on the banks of the river Tungabhadra. He was a learned man. Mayanacharya took all his sons to Shankarananda and begged him to accept his children as his disciples. Shankarananda accepted students very selectively. But if he were convinced that a particular aspirant was interested in real knowledge, he would agree to teach him. Madhava, Sayana, and Bhoganatha prostrated at his feet. Shankarananda was pleased with them and he accepted them as disciples.
These children studied under him for many years. They were intelligent. They were devoted to learning. The teacher taught them very willingly. After a few years, Shankarananda felt that he had taught them all that he could. He called them one day and said, “Children, you have learned all that I taught all these years with devotion. Now you must go to my teacher, revered Vidyateertha. He lives in Kanchi. I shall request him to accept you as his disciples.” The boys agreed to do as they were told. They took Shankarananda’s letter and went to see Vidyateertha at Kanchi.
In the meantime, Mayanacharya had passed away. Srimatidevi, not wanting to interrupt the children’s education, willingly saw them off to Kanchi.
At that time Kanchi was famous as a great center of learning in Dwaita (propounded by Madhwacharya), Adwaita (propounded by Adi Shankaracharya), and Vishishtadwaita (propounded by Ramanuchacharya) systems of philosophy. There were competent teaches in different centers of learning who taught all the six systems of philosophy.
Having heard of the fame of the teachers there, students from far-off places came to learn at their feet. Besides being the center of learning and culture, Kanchi was the capital of the Pallava kingdom.
By Madhava’s good fortune, he had a good teacher. Along with his brothers, Madhava studied the six systems of philosophy, literature, and art. He became an expert in the Vedas and Upanishads.
The preceptor of Kamakoti Peetha, Sri Vidyateertha, was also called Sarvajna Vishnu, Vidyesha, Vidyananda and Vidyashankara. He was a mine of worldly and otherworldly knowledge. People believed that he was the incarnation of Dakshinamurthy. It was the good fortune of Madhava to have had him as his teacher, and he earned his goodwill.
There was another piece of good luck awaiting him at Kanchi. That was the friendship of Venkatanatharya, Sudarshana Bhatta and Akshobhya Teertha, stalwarts in the Dwaita system.
During his childhood, Madhava felt that he was born to achieve great things. He felt that he was not born just to get educated, to marry, beget children and to meet his end as usual like others.
His life had been shaped by teachers like Bharatikrishna. Shankarananda and Srikanthanatha. His ability had been greatly perfected by his teachers. He had patriotism, firmness, and service mindedness. Practical sense, tolerance towards other religions. Righteousness, political awareness and the desire to work for the good of the world.
The Desire of His Heart
Madhava was troubled by one particular idea on the day he was blessed by his teacher:
‘I must try to remove the dangers which Hinduism and its culture are facing in South India. I must establish a kingdom in the Kannada soil by the grace of Goddess Bhuvaneshwari, I must find a kingdom in the South and drive out all invaders. There is nothing greater than tapas to fulfill my ambition. Therefore I must worship Bhuvaneshwari and receive her blessings,’ he thought. When he shared his desire with his teacher he said:
“Child, you are not an ordinary man. You are born to perform a great deed. You will serve and save the land and the language.”
He then bade him farewell.
In this way, Madhavacharya and his brothers spent the days at Kanchi and returned to Pampakshetra. They had taken the responsibility of looking after their mother and sister. Madhava was able to marry off his sister Singala, who had come of age, to a suitable young man. He married Vaitihotri, daughter of Veetihotri. He had been working as a priest to earn a living. Besides, he earned a little by teaching. But there was no peace of mind for him in this kind of living. He was discontented.
Again and again, the ideal which he had declared before his teacher Vidyateertha beckoned to him.
Calamity at Srirangam
There was no sign of joy on the faces of devotees who had assembled at the temple of Sri Ranganatha Swami at Srirangam. Everyone feared the worst and did not know how to avert the impending danger.
The pilgrims who had come to the temple had just heard that Mallik Kafur, the general of the Delhi Sultan Allauddin Khilji, was advancing with a large army to plunder the riches of the temple of Srirangam.
Srirangam was an ancient place of pilgrimage for the Hindus. The temple had three or four enclosures and was surrounded by a strong fort.
There was neither the necessary army nor the weapons to protect it. The citizens had assembled in the temple to plan for the defense of the town and its sacred temple. One of them suggested that the valuables should be transported to a safer place. Someone suggested that they should fight till the end to protect the town, the temple, and its valuable jewels.
The discussion made Venkatanatharya who was present there very unhappy. He was at the moment thinking of how to save the invaluable treasure: the idol of Sri Ranganatha Swami. After a great deal of discussion, at the suggestion of Venkatanatharya, they decided to cover the sacred place of worship and build a new place of worship resembling the old one in all respects in order to save the original idol of Ranganatha Swami from destruction. They also decided to remove the valuable Jewelry and the other idols used in the processions to Tirupati and conceal them there and thus save the wealth of the temple.
When they were thus engaged in self-protection and defense of the town and the temple, the army of Mallik Kafur invaded the town like a whirlwind. Hundreds of residents were killed in battle and thousands were wounded.
At this critical moment Venkatanatharya, along with his friend Sudarshana Bhatta, was engaged in saving the valuable library.
Venkatanatharya was also called Vedanta Deshika. He hailed from a place called Satyamangala. He had come to Srirangam on a visit to his friend, Sudarshana Bhatta. It was at that moment that the invasion took place most unexpectedly. He came to the help of other residents in the sacred duty of defending the town and its temple. The invaders plundered the temple, they mutilated the imitation idol of God Sri Ranganatha, looted all the available valuables and returned satisfied. During this time Venkatanatharya and Sudarshana Bhatta concealed the valuable books in the sands on the banks of Cauvery and lay concealed for the whole night in a bush on the bank of the river.
People who Lost Hope
Venkatanatharya was not the same person after he saw the razing of Srirangam. He had seen the vandalism of enemies. What surprised him was that people were not roused to any kind of activity even after this threat to their religion and culture. They were still inactive and full of apathy, the rulers who were supposed to protect the honor and lives of their subjects were selfish, lustful, and miserly. Mallik Kafur had erected a pillar of victory at Rameshwaram as a symbol of his Victory. He had appointed his Governors at all places he had conquered and returned to Delhi with great wealth.
Sudarshana Bhatta at Srirangam, Venkatanatharya at Satyamangala and Madhavacharya at Pampakshetra were helpless. They did not know what to do.
Battlecry of Fearlessness
Madhavacharya heard all about how the invading army had plundered Srirangam. His blood boiled when he heard the details of their inhuman and uncivilized conduct during the invasion. He came to Srirangam and made Enquirer about Sudarshana Bhatta. He could not find him. Then he went to Satyamangala to see Venkatanatharya. Madhavacharya asked him about the whereabouts of Sudarshana Bhatta.
He replied: “There is no news of him lately. It is said that he died of shock. It is not surprising also. Only people like me who have not died are sinners. I do not know what worse things are in store for us to see.”
Madhavacharya said: “Deshika, what a source of courage and hope you were when you were young! Why are you crying now like a coward?
Where are your fearlessness and courage? Where is your self-confidence?” Deshika replied: “You would have understood my condition if you had witnessed what I witnessed at Srirangam It is a nightmare for me. I can never forget it.”
“What do you want to do now?”
“I am resolved to rouse the common man from his sleep and inactivity. I am also firm in my decision to devote my life to the cause of our nation and its reconstruction. With this object in view, I have composed a war song called ‘The Song of Fearlessness’ (Abheetistava).
He then produced the manuscript of that poem before MadhavaCharya. It was a composition of verses (in Sanskrit) which aimed at rousing the people to activity and courage from state cowardice and hopelessness into which they had fallen after the invasion of Mallik Kafur.
The Aim of Life Made Clear
Madhavacharya read it, read it again and again. His eyes brightened, a firmness appeared on his face. He addressed Venkatanatharya and said,
“My good friend, the holy purpose for which I had come is fulfilled today. I understood the goal of my life. By composing the Poem on fearlessness, you have taught me the goal of my life. I am indebted to you.”
He saluted him, with his eyes full of tears of joy.
Both friends reminisced about the happy days of their childhood. In particular, they enjoyed recalling their student days under Sarvajna Vishnu Sharma, at his academy. They felt sorry for the unhappy condition of the country. They discussed their duty to the country in those days of hardship and indecision. They also discussed ways and means of removing ignorance and fear that were prevalent and to begin an era of hope and courage in the country. It was a decisive stage in the history of Karnataka.
Will the Divine Architect Arrive?
The political conditions in the South were very bad. The people had become spineless.
The Hindus were so fear-stricken that they were afraid of protesting against injustice. The rulers were conducting themselves in the most unbecoming way. They were plundering the temples.
But there was no united protest anywhere.
There was a need for a leader who could inspire the people to fight for ideals like love for the country, their religion, and culture. The country was waiting for the appearance of a leader who could unite the people for the sake of those ideals. An architect of divine stature was needed who could infuse courage and hope into the hearts of the people by his admirable character.
People of Karnataka had shown their courage by conquering the whole of South India and ruling over it in the past. Dynasties like Gangas, Rashtrakutas, Chalukyas, Kadambas and Hoysala had shone in the history of Karnataka like jewels in the crown of Bhuvaneshwari; they had taken literature, music, art, and architecture to great heights.
Loyalty to Religion; Welfare State Times had changed. There were many changes among the ruling class at the Delhi Court.
The Khilji dynasty had made room for the Tughlaqs. Mohammad Bin Tughlaqs had occupied the throne after causing the murder of his father. The kingdoms in the South owed allegiance to him only nominally. But everywhere there was misrule.
It was at this juncture that Madhavacharya wished to lay a firm foundation for a stable empire. He wanted the empire to be founded on the principles of loyalty to religion and welfare of the people so that the citizens could live in peace. He wanted to infuse a spirit of self-respect and fearlessness into the hearts of people who had lost their self-respect and were unable to protest against injustice. He did not get help and co-operation for this task from any king or administrator.
Everyone who heard of his dream of such a state ignored it, as it was difficult to make it a reality. Madhavacharya waited eagerly. He had no wealth and no support from the people. But he had confidence that this task would be performed. He knew that by the grace of God and the blessing of his teacher this task would be accomplished. He thought that a task like this could not be achieved without the accumulation of the merit earned by tapas. Therefore he bade good-bye to his worldly ties of family and decided to undertake austerities.
Having decided to perform tapas, Madhavacharya went in search of a suitable place. He traveled to many parts of the country and came back to Pampakshetra. By this time his mother had passed away. His wife also had died prematurely. Fate had freed him from the family ties.
There was nothing left in the family to tie him to the world. He devoted his life to the service of his motherland.
One day, after worshipping at the temple of Virupaksha of Pampakshetra, Madhavacharya came to the banks of Tungabhadra and rested under the shade of a tree for some time. He dozed off for a while. There was an indefinable feeling of joy in him. The anxiety and sorrow which were present in his mind so far had disappeared.
He opened his eyes for a moment and looked around. Nature was pleasant here. Tungabhadra appeared to be dancing as she flowed amid mountains and forests. The golden rays of the sun glowed on the waves in the river. The trees in the forest stood tall concealing the sky above them.
As he sat there his sorrow disappeared and the light seemed to fill his mind. He bathed in the river and sat under the tree in ‘Padmasana’ (the ‘lotus’ posture) and meditated.
Holiest of the Holy Places
It was famous as a holy place. During the puranic days, Pampambika sat in tapas at Hemakoota to earn the grace of Parameshwara and had succeeded in her effort. Anjanadevi bore her son Anjaneya to Vayu at Anjanadri here.
It was here that Rama and Sugreeva became friends, Rama killed Vali and the Kishkindha kingdom was given to Sugreeva. Thus Pampakshetra had become famous as a place where ambitious people could attain what they wished.
Besides, the place was famous as the land of heroes. It is said that once a hunter came there hunting and his dogs were chased away by the deer. It was also famous as a lapped of warriors.
It was supposed to be the land where heroism and fighting spirit had been embodied in men and women born there.
It was at this place hallowed by the sacred river Tungabhadra and made holy by the temple dedicated to Virupaksha that Madhavacharya decided to sit in tapas.
Gradually his tapas became severe. At first, he ate only roots and fruits, and then he gave up even that and lived on the water. In the final stage be lived only by air. These tapas went on for twelve years. But the Goddess on whom he meditated did not appear before him.
His body had become thin on account of his austere tapas. But there was the effulgence and strength derived from tapas on his face and in his limbs. He did not feel the pangs of hunger and thirst nor did he feel tired. His mind was concentrated on Bhuvaneshwari (also an incarnation of Parvati). He was supremely satisfied.
Let Your Auspicious Presence Be Ever Present in Me
To test Madhavacharya, Bhuvaneshwari came in the form of terrible heat, storm, rain, lightning, fire and huge floods. But Madhavacharya’s firmness was least affected by any of these forces and his mind was firm. In the end, Bhuvaneshwari appeared before him as a mother hearkening to the cry of her infant.
Mother Bhuvaneshwari addressed Madhavacharya and said, “Child, I am pleased with your austere tapas. Get up from your tapas. Ask what you want.” Her voice was sweet and full of love.
Madhavacharya opened his eyes and saw the auspicious face of his Goddess. His eyes were brimming with tears of joy. With folded hands, he prayed, “Mother, what is there which you do not know? After seeing you, I do not feel the need to ask for anything worldly. Give me faith, wisdom, and renunciation. Grant that your auspicious figure will always reside in my heart.”
I Cannot Wait till My Next Birth
Bhuvaneshwari said, “Child, I know what you are longing for. From today you will be a master of all the knowledge and its branches and you will be called Vidyaranya in the future. You will remedy the deplorable condition of Karnataka. You will do well in the world. But…”
“Why mother? Do you doubt it?”
“Child, you cannot achieve it during this lifetime. Mother, I cannot wait till my next birth,” pleaded Madhavacharya with the Goddess.
“In that case, you must renounce this world and become a monk,” the Goddess said.
“Yes, I shall take the vow of a saint right now,” said Madhavacharya.
Bhuvaneshwari smiled and said, “So be it. Your wish will be fulfilled” and disappeared.
The Vow of a Saint
Madhavacharya took the vow of a saint and saffron robes from Bharati Krishnateertha of Sringeri and was named Vidyaranya.
He was now middle-aged. He used to get up early in the morning. He bathed in Tungabhadra, came to the temple of Virupaksha and after worshipping at the temple, he came to his hermitage and engaged himself in studies and religious discourses. All his time was spent in this way and he was regular like a clock. He waited for the coming of the Man of Destiny who would establish the empire.
Years rolled by. There was no sign of his ambition getting fulfilled. Every night before going to bed he wept like a child and prayed with eyes full of tears, “Mother, one more day is wasted. How many more days are you going to test?”
At last one day, like a sunrise in the sky, two handsome youths appeared before him. They rode on horses. Tired from the journey, they entered the hermitage of Vidyaranya. They saw the saint and prostrated at his feet.
They were both about thirty or thirty-five years of age. They appeared to be brothers. There was the stamp of royalty and dignity in their bearing. Since Vidyaranya was waiting for the arrival of the Man of Destiny, he felt that the man had arrived at last. He welcomed them with affection.
The youths said, ‘Gurudeva, we are blessed by meeting you. The clouds of darkness which hung over our life have cleared with this blessed meeting. Bless us and save us.’
We are Hakka and Bukka
Vidyaranya asked them, “Who are you? What are your names? Tell me without hesitation why you have come here.”
The elder of the youths said, “Gurudeva, we are brothers. My name is Harihara (Hakka). My brother’s name is Bukkaraya (Bukka). We were once the rulers of this land. We have lost all and are now wandering without a place to claim as our own.”
These youths were the sons of Sangama Deva.
He was the son-in-law of Kampala Raya, King of Kummatadurga. Sangama Deva was the treasurer of the State. Enemies laid siege to Kummatadurga. They killed most of the residents mercilessly. Out of the surviving relatives of the King, eleven were taken prisoners by the soldiers of Mohammad Bin Tughlaqs army and were taken to Delhi. Hakka and Bukka were among the eleven prisoners taken to Delhi.
Later, on account of the bad administration of Tughlaqs, there was lawlessness in the southern states. To suppress it, Tughlaqs freed able young prisoners and sent them to the South with his army. It was then that these two young men made use of the opportunity and escaped.
They were now at the hermitage of Vidyaranya.
Having heard their story, Vidyaranya sheltered them. He had decided to build the new empire through these youths.
Mohammad Bin Tughlaqs, Sultan of Delhi, had defeated Jambukeshwara Raya, King of Anegondi, and had him imprisoned in his palace. He had appointed Mallik Nayak as his representative to rule over the State.
Hakka and Bukka organized a band of patriotic youths according to the advice of Vidyaranya.
They entered the fort of Anegondi very cleverly and took Mallik Nayab prisoner when he was fully drunk. They had freed Anegondi without bloodshed from the enemies. They set free the King and his family. The flag bearing the symbol of Lord Vishnu in his incarnation as Varaha (Boar) was hoisted on the fort of Anegondi.
By making use of the celebration of this victory, Vidyaranya selected a suitable place in Pampakshetra and laid the foundation for a new city named Vidyanagar. At this time he found a hidden treasure. This helped him to build the new State. The common people believed that Vidyaranya prayed to Bhuvaneshwari and made her rain goId for a few hours.
As a fulfillment of the long-cherished desire of the people, Vidyaranya laid the foundation for this new city on Thursday, the seventh day of the first half of the month of Vaishakha, during the year Dhatu (1336 A.D.). Hakka and Bukka wanted to name it Vidyanagara’ (the city of education).
But Vidyaranya named it ‘Vijayanagara’ (the city of victory).
By the grace of Bhuvaneshwari, the city grew to enormous size and was able to attract travelers from all parts of the world. The city grew to the size of 64 square miles and was the capital of Karnataka for three and a half centuries. As desired by Vidyaranya, Harihara (Hakka) became the king of the new State. Bukkaraya ruled over it after the death of Hakka. Vidyaranya guided the Kings as Prime Minister and Preceptor. Vidyaranya was called the Founder Preceptor of Karnataka by the people.
The devotee of Sharada, Goddess of Learning
Revered Vidyaranya became the architect who shaped an empire. Though he was the Prime Minister of the State, he remained a saint primarily. He wrote with the help of his brother Sayana a treatise called ‘Sarvadarshana Sangraha’ which is of great help to scholars.
Once he discussed with Akshobhya Teertha, a great scholar, and expressed his respect for his scholarship. He met Akshobhya Teertha’s disciple Jayateertha in the cave of Yaragola and came under the influence of his work ‘Pramana Lakshana’. He invited Jayateertha to Vijayanagara and took him out in procession on an elephant. Such was the respect he showed to scholars.
Vidyaranya became the twelfth head of Shankaracharya’s Sharada Peetha in 1331 A. D. at Sringeri after the passing away of Bharati Krishnateertha. He was the head of the Adwaita Peetha for fifty-five years and attained eternal bliss in 1386 A.D.
Vidyaranya wrote commentaries on the four Vedas and the Upanishads. He enriched the world of teaching by writing works like ‘Panchadashi, Jeevanmukti Viveka’, ‘Anubhuti Prakashika, Parashara Madhaveeya’, ‘Devi Aparadha Stored and others. These are celebrated works on Adwaita philosophy. He dealt with the essentials of fifteen Ragas in his ‘Sangeeta Sara’ and thus became the founder of the Karnataka style of music. It is classical music.
Vidyaranya laid the firm foundation of the Vijayanagar empire with piety and righteousness as its cornerstones. He guided the kings properly by imparting correct knowledge regarding religion and faith, during the reign of Bukkaraya.
After the death of Harihara, there was a conflict between the Jains and Shrivaishnavas of Vijayanagar on account of some difference of opinion. Vidyaranya solved their problem at that time. He advised Bukkaraya to call the leaders of both religions and tell them that there was perfect freedom to all people to follow the tenets of their religion as prescribed in their religious books; he had a royal proclamation issued which became the law of the land. It fostered a feeling of tolerance among different religions in the Vijayanagar Empire.
Vidyaranya was a great saint who had renounced everything. There was a proper blending of both militancy and another worldly approach. After the founding of the Vijayanagar Empire, he felt that the mission of his life had been fulfilled. He rid the internal and external enemies, returned to Sringeri and adorned the Sharada Peetha by becoming its chief.
When Vidyaranya breathed his last; he was probably 118 years old. He dedicated his entire life to the welfare of the people. And it was his main aim.
What he hated were injustice and tyranny, and what he achieved was fearlessness and willingness on the part of people to respect other religions. Those that wish to serve people must first earn the merit to serve. To achieve anything worthy it is not enough to have the strength of muscle only. Along with it, we must have purity and loyalty to the cause. Such people should always have before their eyes the ideal of large-heartedness.
Vidyaranya meditated long. He did not ask for personal happiness or power from Bhuvaneshwari. He begged for wisdom and the power to renounce the world. He became a monk. It was not to draw away from human suffering that he became a saint so that he might reach the highest point of enlightenment. It was to warn the people who had lost the sense of dignity and self-respect so that they might together build a mighty empire. By the time the empire of Vijayanagar was firmly established, he had already adorned the Sringeri Sharada Peetha as its head.
He made over the merit of his tapas to the newly founded empire and guided the Kings in the proper administration of the empire. He made the Kings understand that they should administer the State with the sole object of the welfare of the citizens at heart. He guided the people also to give up hatred and jealousy. He gave very good support to all the learned people.
Through this work, he also learned many things. He became the true devotee of Sharada. In reality, he was a saint only so far as his personal life was concerned and practiced renunciation, clean life, loyalty and fidelity to his religion. But in public life, he joined hands with kings and common men to work for the welfare of the people.
People of Karnataka have shown their respect for this great saint and founder of Vijayanagar by installing his idol in the temple of Virupaksha in Pampakshetra (modern Hampi).
Even today we can see this statue of Vidyaranya in the temple of Virupaksha at Hampi.