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Sri Nigamanta Mahadesika: Biography

From: Mani Varadarajan (mani_at_be.com)
Date: Tue Sep 21 1999 - 19:05:18 PDT

   SrImAn venkatanAthAryaH kavitArkika kesarI |
   vedAntAcArya-varyo me sannidhattAm sadA hRdi ||

   May the glorious Venkatanatha, the greatest of 
   teachers of Vedanta, and the lion among poets and 
   debaters, reside forever in my heart.

Fellow bhaktas, as we are well aware, today is the tirunakshatram
of Sri Vedanta Desika, greatest of philosophers after Ramanuja
and the whom we adore as *the* Vedantacharya. Many of you are already 
aware of the details of his saintly life. However, since it is always 
a source of inspiration to read how the great ones lived their lives, 
especially our acharyas, I offer a brief biography below.

---

Sri Vedanta Desika was born in 1268 at Thooppul, a village near 
Kanchipuram, to Totaramba and Ananta Suri.  Both parents came
from very traditional Sri Vaishnava backgrounds; Ananta Suri was a
Vaidika Sri Vaishnava belonging to the Yajur Veda, and Totaramba
was the great-granddaughter of Kidambi Accan or Pranatartiharacharya,
Ramanuja's cook and one of his chief disciples.  The day of Sri Desika's 
birth happened to be purattaasi SravaNam, the tirunakshatram of Lord Srinivasa, 
so accordingly his parents gave him the name "Venkatanatha".  His titles 
soon eclipsed his given name, however, and due to his mastery of Vedanta 
and his ability to communicate complex topics easily, he is universally 
known as Vedantacharya, Vedanta Desika, or simply Desika -- the teacher.

Vedanta Desika's maternal uncle was the renowned scholar Kidambi Appullaar, 
also known as Atreya Ramanuja.  It was under him that Desika
studied all the shastras.  He writes that Appullaar taught him with
"as much patience as a man would teach a parrot to speak." Appullaar in 
turn had studied Vedanta under Vatsya Varadacharya (popularly known as 
Nadadur "Ammaal") along with Sudarsana Suri, the author of the Sruta-prakASikA, 
the famed commentary on Ramanuja's Sribhashya.  

Tradition records that at the age of five, Desika's precocious intelligence 
Attracted the notice of Varadacharya himself. The latter blessed him and 
predicted that he would be a great scholar, eventually firmly establishing
the greatness of Ramanuja's philosophy.  The master's words proved prophetic.  
Before the age of twenty, by his own account Desika had mastered all 
branches learning current in his day, both religious and secular. In 
particular, he had an uncanny ability to compose poetry instantaneously
that combined philosophy, emotion, and devotion.  This combined with
his expertise at the art of debate earned him the title "Kavi Tarkika Simha", 
or lion among poets and debaters.

One can easily trace Desika's life by looking at the stotras he
has composed.  In examining the list of his Sanskrit and Tamil
poems, we find a large number dedicated to the deities in and
around Tiruvahindrapuram, a temple near the coastal town of Cuddalore.  
It appears that shortly after his studies, Desika moved to Tiruvahindrapuram.  
Always a devotee of Hayagriva Perumaal, the fount of all knowledge, 
Desika meditated here on this form of the Lord and is said to have 
had a profound vision of Him.  Thereafter, he literally burst forth in 
poetry. Works such as the Hayagriva Stotram, Raghu Vira Gadyam, 
Gopala Vimsati (all in Sanskrit), Achyuta Satakam (in Prakrit), 
Mummanikkovai and Navamani Maalai (in Tamil) are among his hymns 
in praise of the deities enshrined here.  These works are remarkable 
for their poetic and linguistic range, as well as for their deeply 
emotional turns.  In his Tamil love poems to Lord Devanatha, for 
example, the influence of the Alvars is transparent, as is his 
mastery of the Sangam Tamil conventions.  The rhythmic beauty
of the Raghu Vira Gadyam's prose and his touching descriptions
of the Krishna-lilas in the Gopala Vimsati are among the high
points of the entire gamut of India's religious literature.

[Interested readers are invited to peruse these stotras at 
 http://www.ramanuja.org/sv/acharyas/desika/stotras ]

At some point, Desika returned to Kanchipuram to continue his 
teaching and writing.  He regularly visited the many Divya Desams
of this town, composing poems on nearly all of them.  One of 
them, the Vairagya Panchakam or "Five Verses on Dispassion", gives
us a rare autobiographical insight into his personality. Nominally
addressed to Lord Varadaraja, the Vairagya Panchakam is held to be
a reply to a friend, who, upon seeing Desika's abject poverty, invited
him to join the court of the king where he could lead a more
comfortable life. Desika's verses here display a stern
independence of spirit and utter disregard for material wealth, 
particularly when it distracts from the greater wealth of the 
company of God. Tradition remembers Desika and his wife as having 
led an "unccha-vRtti" life, where he would daily go about begging 
for alms.  This is evidenced by his declaration at the conclusion 
of the Vairagya Panchakam that neither he nor his father had any wealth 
worth speaking of, save the continuous presence of the Lord of the 
Elephant Hill, i.e., Lord Varadaraja.

Near the end of the 13th century, it is recorded that several
Advaitins came to Srirangam and challenged the Sri Vaishnavas
to a debate. Being advanced in age, Sudarsana Suri did not feel 
up to the task, so the Sri Vaishnavas of Srirangam invited 
Desika to take the challenge.  He accepted the challenge and is
said to have vanquished his opponents, and thereafter took the
opportunity to settle down in Srirangam.  Then, as now, Srirangam
was the center of Vaishnava culture, with very active participation
in religious dialogue and temple festivals.  Desika no doubt 
enjoyed his time in Srirangam very much.  In the Bhagavad Dhyana
Sopanam, a contemplative poem on Lord Ranganatha, he describes
Srirangam as a place where "great connoisseurs live contentedly, 
their minds full of delight".

At this point Desika was in his thirties, and his scholarly
achievements in the service of God were coming at an increasing
pace.  He summarized his objections to Advaita in the polemic
work Satadusani; he clarified many aspects of Sri Vaishnava ritual
and practice; he constantly elucidated and clarified the philosophical
teachings of his predecessors.  He himself writes that he taught the 
entire Sribhashya at least thirty times; the bulk of these must have 
occurred during his long stay in Srirangam.  It is also during this 
period that he wrote many of his "rahasya granthas", or expositions 
of the more esoteric doctrines of the tradition, including the nature
of self-surrender (prapatti), the meaning of sacred mantras, etc.  

Many of these works are clearly a product of long discussions
with senior scholars living in Srirangam at the time, such as
Pillai Lokacharya, Alagiya Manavaala Perumaal Naayanaar, and
Naayanaar Accan Pillai.  Many of the thoughts of these other
acharyas are indirectly recorded in Desika's works, even when
they occasionally disagree with his conclusions.  In this respect, 
he was very much a scientist, carefully mentioning and arguing
all sides of an issue, before finally coming to what he saw was
the most logical conclusion.  In examining these works as well
as his exhaustive commentaries on Ramanuja's and Alavandar's
compositions, one is struck by Desika's thoroughness, and by
his desire to discuss all possible meanings and nuances of an
interpretation, both in the course of anubhavam as well as
argument. Without Desika's careful noting of the variety of
interpretations, many important meanings would have been lost
to posterity. It is no wonder that the title of "Vedanta Desika"
was conferred on him, as he himself attests to, by Lord Ranganatha
Himself.

It is also in Srirangam that Desika composed the Paduka Sahasram,
1008 verses on the sandals of the Lord.  It is said that Desika
composed the entire lot in a single night in response to challenge
from another pandit. In the course of the 32 paddhatis or chapters, 
Desika makes countless allusions to the Alvars, to Sri Ramayanam 
from which the idea of the greatness of the sandals nominally comes, 
as well as other aspects of philosophy.  The Paduka Sahasram has 
been dealt with in detail by Sri Sadagopan so I will not delve into
this great topic further.

When Desika was in his forties, a son was born to him and his wife.
Reflecting his love for his household icon Lord Varadaraja Desika 
named the boy Varada, and tradition remembers him as Nainacharya or 
Kumara Varadacharya. Kumara Varadacharya also became a scholar of
some repute, and we are indebted to him for recording some biographical
details of his father in his Desika Mangalam, Pillai Antaadi, and 
Desika Dinacharyai.

In 1327, during this fertile period of Sri Vaishnava scholarship and
growth, Malik Kafur invaded Srirangam from the north, with tragic 
consequences of which many of us are aware.  In the ensuing melee,
hundreds if not thousands of Sri Vaishnavas are said to have died,
and the very existence of Lord Ranganatha was threatened. Led by 
Pillai Lokacharya, the seniormost acharya at the time, a group
of Sri Vaishnavas hurriedly left Srirangam with Namperumaal, the
Ranganatha utsava-mUrti, and headed to Jyotishkudi. There, an
exhausted Pillai Lokacharya breathed his last, unable to take the
stress of the invasion and journey. Meanwhile, the mUla-vigraham of 
Ranganayaki Thaayaar was buried in the courtyard in front of Her 
sannidhi, and Desika is said to have supervised the building of a wall 
in front of the Ranganatha's sannidhi to hide the mUlavar.  The aged 
Sudarsana Suri was also among those who died during the invasion. Before 
his death, he entrusted his two young sons and the only manuscript 
of the Sruta-prakASikA to Desika's care. Desika, the boys, and others 
hid themselves among the dead bodies to escape slaughter.

With the invasion of the temple came the need for Desika himself to
leave Srirangam, so he took his family and the sons of Sudarsana Suri 
and headed northwest, settling down first in Satyamangalam, in present
day Karnataka. He then made his way to Melkote, where he attracted
a bright pupil, later known as Brahmatantra Svatantra Jiyar, the first
Swami of Sri Parakala Matham. From Melkote, Desika proceeded to 
Tirupati/Tirumalai, where Namperumaal had eventually gone, and then to a 
tour of North Indian divya desams, including Mathura, Brindavana, Ayodhya, 
and Kashi. In the course of this long exile from Srirangam, seeing the 
devastating destruction caused to the holiest of temples, Srirangam, he 
composed the Abhiti Stava, or Prayer for Freedom From Fear. The Abhiti Stava 
is a poetic request for protection from all unholy forces, particularly 
those opposed to the Vaidika lifestyle involving service of the Lord which 
Desika practiced. Desika was perhaps 60 or so during the composition of 
this stotram, as he mentions that his hair has greyed by this time.

In 1360 [**], Gopanna Udaiyar defeated the Muslims, and Sri Vaishnavas
could once again return to Srirangam.  Namperumaal was brought back
from Tirupati, and temple servants who had survived the 30+ long
temple closure were invited back.  Sri Desika, as the senior surviving
acharya, was among those who returned, and a verse of his composition
is inscribed in the temple, recording his presence at the reopening of 
Koyil. With the restoration of Srirangam, Desika now returned to his
service of Lord Ranganatha.  Tradition records that he composed 
Sri Rahasya Traya Saaram, an exhaustive work on the essence of
Sri Vaishnava philosophy, lifestyle, and the meaning of the esoteric
mantras, in these last few years of his life.

[**] Inscriptions indicate that the date was 1371 ("bandhupriya").
     However, this has to be reconciled with the recorded date
     of Desika's passing, 1369. Some historians believe the inscription
     is in error and it should be "bahupriya", meaning 1360.
     This is still a matter of research and debate.

In 1369, with his head resting in the lap of Kumara Varadacharya 
and his feet with Brahmatantra Svatantra Jiyar, Desika left his earthly
body and ascended to Parama Padam. He had lived the full Vedic lifespan 
of 100 years in an exemplary and humble manner, tirelessly engaged in
the service of the Lord and Sri Ramanuja's sampradAya.  Even given
such a long life, one can hardly imagine how someone can have contributed
so much with so much consistency, and yet have lived such a simple
life of complete poverty.  For these reasons, Sri Desika forever won 
the admiration and reverence of all who where spiritually inclined,
and is rightfully recognized as one of the foremost scholars and
thinkers ever alive.

    kavi-tArkika-simhAya kalyANa-guNa-SAline |
    Srimate venkateSAya vedAntagurave namaH ||

    Salutations to Sri Venkatesa, in whom all perfections reside,
    who is the teacher of Vedanta and the lion among poets
    and debaters!

---

    [ Note: For brevity's sake, there are many more details of Desika's
            life and works which have not been mentioned. Many volumes
            can be written on the subject. ]