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VEDANTA DESIKAR

By
Tamarapu Sampath Kumaran
About the author:
Mr T Sampath Kumaran is a freelance writer. He regularly contributes articles on
Management, Business, Ancient Temples and Temple Architecture to many
leading Dailies and Magazines. His articles for the young is very popular in “The
Young World section” of THE HINDU.
He was associated in the production of two Documentary films on Nava Tirupathi
Temples, and Tirukkurungudi Temple in Tamilnadu. His books on Hindu Saints,
and Temples of Pilgrimage centers have been well received in the religious circle.

Acknowledgement: Google for the pictures and many authors for the information,
and to Prof a Srinivasaraghavachariar, Paravastu V Ramanujaswami, D T
Tathacharya, T K Gopalaswamy and P B Annangarachaya swami.
Sri Vedanta Desikar (Thoopul Nigamaantha Desikan) (1268–
1369) was a Sri Vaishnavite acarya, philosopher. He was a master-teacher
(desikan), one of the most brilliant stalwarts of Sri Vaishnavism in the post-
Ramanuja period. He was the disciple of Kidambi Appullar, also known as
Aathreya Ramanujachariar, who himself was of a master-disciple lineage that
began with Ramanuja.

Vedanta Desika is considered by the Vadakalai sect of Sri


Vaishavites, to be the avatar (incarnation) of the divine bell in the sanctum of Lord
Venkateswara temple in Tirumalai (Tirupati) and is being called “Gantavataram”
(Ganta means Bell and Avataram means incarnation).
Desika is a Sanskrit word which means “Acharya”. In our srivaishnava
sampradayam there are numerous acharyas starting from Nammazhvar to the
present day acharyas. It is only Swami Desika who is being addressed respectfully
as “Desika”. This is like calling Srirangam perumal as nam perumal (Our Perumal)
and addressing Achaya Shatakopan as nam azhvar.
Anantha Somayaji was one of the 74 simhaasanaadhipathis chosen by Sri
Ramanuja. He lived in Kanchi with his son Pundareekaaksha, a grandson
Ananthasuri by name, who studied all shastras. When he was of
marriageable age, Pundarikaksha approached Appullar with a request that the
latter’s sister Tottarambha might be given in marriage to his son.
Appullar prayed to the Lord Varada of Kanchi, for guidance in this matter. That
night Lord appeared in his dream and asked him to give his consent and indicated
that by this marriage, a great acharya will be born who will work for the good of
the world by his precept and practice. Next morning, Appullar met Pundarikaksha
and conveyed that the Lord himself had approved the wedding. On an auspicious
day, the marriage was held.
Ananthasuri and Tottarambha began to lead an ideal householder’s life in their
house at Thuppul opposite to the shrine of Lord Deepaprakasa. As years passed by
their desire to beget a son grew. They started on a pilgrimage and visited several
Divya desams, bathing in several holy rivers and sacred pushkarnis. At last they
came to Thirumala. They bathed in Swami pushkarini and paid obeisance to Lord
Varaha on its bank and then went into the temple of Lord Srinivasa and
worshipped Him. After their evening worship, they went back and retired. That
night Lord Srinivasa appeared in their dream and gave them the divine hand bell
(Ghantamani) from the Sanctum. Tottarambha swallowed it in her dream and next
day at dawn they both felt invigorated and shared their dream with each other
feeling extremely happy.
Next day when the Bhattar (priest) of the Sannidhi came in to the Sanctum, to
conduct the daily morning Aradhana, he observed that the divine bell was
missing, and he immediately initiated enquiries. Just at that time, the Tirumalai
temple jeeyar appeared on the scene and said that he had a wonderful dream in
which he saw the Lord Himself giving the divine Bell to the devoted pilgrim
couple.

Considering this as the divine order, they


decided not to replace the small bell for worship. Even to this day, the Big bell
outside the sanctum is used for Thiruvaradhanam at the time of worship, at the
Tirupati Temple, instead of the divine bell.
The birth of Vedanta Desika was in the Kali yuga year 4370, which corresponds to
1268 AD in the Tamil Year Vibhava, month Purattaasi, on the Dasami day of
Sukla Paksha, a Wednesday, in the constellation of Sravanam (the same as that of
Lord of Tirumalai).
He was born in Thooppul, near Tiruttangaa (Himavanam) adjacent to the temple of
Deepa Prakaasar in Kanchipuram, the birthplace of Poigai Alwar. When Desika
was born he was named as Venkatanatha by his maternal uncle Sri Appullar. Sri
Appullar is his acharya too. When Sri Desika was a small boy of five years old he
was taken to Kanchi Varadarajar Temple where one acharya Nadadur Ammal, was
giving lecture on Ramanuja’s Sri Bhashyam. When Sri Appullar and the young
Desika went and prostrated to this scholar and he stopped the lecture and blessed
them. Later as Sri Appullar and Desika were about to leave, the acharya wanted to
continue his lecture but he forgot where he has stopped. Although Desika was
mere a boy of 5 years he reminded Sri Nadadhur Ammal about the vaishanva
scholar, of whom he was giving the lecture. Everyone assembled there were
astonished at the brilliance of Desika at this tender age. Sri Nadadhur ammal
blessed Sri Desika and he told everyone that Desika will be a great scholar who
will firmly establish the supremacy of our sampradayam following the footsteps of
Bhagavad Ramanuja. He also instructed Sri Appullar to teach Desika all Vedas,
Ddivya prabandham and other sastras. A painting in the Varadaraja temple,
reminds us of this incident.
Appullalar also initiated Venkatanatha into Brahmacharya Upanayanam (sacred
thread ceremony) at the age of seven and then to the Srivaishnavite school of
philosophy through Panchasamskara and taught the Vedas, Divyaprabandam,
Puranas and Sastras.
By the age of twenty Desika turned a great scholar in the history of Vaishnavism.
He got married at the age of 21 to Tirumangai (also known as "Kanakavalli"). He
started his family life as ordered in the shastras and was strictly performing all the
duties required by a Srivaishnava sampradaya, conducting uncha vritti i.e. their
daily supply of food provided by disciples or secured by seeking alms. A Brahmin
is supposed to do Veda adhyayanam and teach everyone in the village and their
needs are taken care by the students and other residents who learn from him.
Some of the local people in Kachipuram felt bad that a great master like Swami
Desikan was doing uncha vrutti and seeking alms for grains. As Swami Desikan
refused to accept money or Gold given as dakshina, the students and residents one
day mixing gold coins along with rice and offered him. Swami Desikan did not
notice this and gave the rice to his wife for cooking. She brought Swami Desikan’s
attention to the glittering coins with rice. Swami Desikan promptly chucked all the
coins out of the window by dharba instead of even touching by hand, saying that
they were vermes.
Sri Appallar swami wanted to widen Desika’S knowledge and to enrich him by
initiating Vainatheya mantra (Garuda mantra). He advised Desika to meditate upon
Garuda to acquire the Lord’s grace.

When Desika began to think of a suitable place for his meditation on Garuda, it
struck him that Aindhai (Thiruvaheendrapuram) would be an ideal place; because
there is a river, Garuda nadhi by name as well as a mountain named Oushadhri,
both of which have been sanctified by the divine presence of Garuda himself. He
left Kanchi and proceeded to that shrine. There first he bathed in the sacred Garuda
nadhi and worshipped Lord Devanatha and Hist consort Hemambhuja nayika in the
temple. Then he went to the top of the Hill, Oushadhri and chose a lonely place at
the foot of a big and shady Asvattha tree.

Being seated, he controlled his mind and senses and began to


meditate on Garuda. Some days passed in deep meditation. Garuda, the deity who
is Veda incarnate, appeared before Venkatanatha and after initiating him in the
mantra of Lord Hayagriva, the horse faced Supreme God presiding over all
knowledge, instructed him to propitiate to Lord Hayagriva.
Venkatanatha engaged himself in that act with great perseverance till Hayagriva
was pleased and appeared before him.
The Lord bestowed on him the nectar of knowledge flowing from his mouth. The
devout Vankatanatha was full of joy with the blessing and at once realized that a
complete knowledge of all sciences was at his back by the grace of Lord
Hayagriva. He prayed that the Lord should be pleased to enthrone himself at the tip
of his tongue so that every word of his should be correct and authoritative.
While in Thiruvaheendrapuram, Swami Desikan
composed the ‘Hayagreeva Stotram’, Devanayaka panchashat in Sanskrit,
Achyutha Satakam in Prakrut, and Mummanikkovai and Navamani maalai in
Tamil.
Desikan and Kanakavalli were blessed with a son who was named Varadhacharya.
Varadacharya followed the footsteps of Swami Desikan and mastered all the Vedas
like his father.
While in Kanchi, Swami Desikan was enchanted by the beauty of Varadharaja
Perumal and composed fifty Shlokas on Him. He also composed various Stotrams
on Nyasa Vimshati, Nyasa Dashakam and Nyasa tilakam in Sanskrit and
Adaikkala pathu and Artha Panchakam in Tamil.
While in Srivilliputhur Swami Desikan composed the famous Godha Sthuthi for
Sri Andal in the form of 29 Shlokas in two beautiful Sanskrit poetic meters known
as Vasantha Tilakam and Maalini
Later, Swami Desikan went to Tirupati and composed the beautiful Stotram called
Daya Satakam. comprising 108 Shlokas in 10 different meters each. Pleased with
this Lord Srinivasa blessed Swami Desikan and conferred the title ‘Vedanta-
Acharya’
Desikar composed over 2000 Shlokas of exquisite Sanskrit poetry on a variety of
religious in an impressive variety of forms ranging ‘Stotras’, ‘Gadyams’ to
‘Dandakams’, in every known metric rhythm – from the simple ‘Malini’ meter to
the long-winded ‘Saardulavikreedita
Swami Desikan was known as ‘Kavi Kesari’, ‘Tarkika Simham’, ‘Kalyana Guna
Shali’ and ‘Vedanta Guru’
Swami Venkatanathan is also revered through the following ‘Thanians’ (prefatory
verse honouring the Guru or Acharya) that is recited at the beginning of all his
works and again at the end Thanian on Swami Desikan is recited before reciting
Divya Prabandham:
Ramanuja-Daya-patram jnana-vairagya-bhushanam |
ShrImad-Venkata-natharyam vande Vedanta Desikam
Sriman Venkatanatharya Kavi-tarkika Kesari |
Vedantacharya varyome sannidhathaam sadahrudi
Which means, Sriman Venkatanathan, who is a Lion among poets and
philosophers, May He ever reside in our hearts. Our obeisance to the Vedanta
Acharya, A Lion among poets and philosophers who is endowed with sublime,
divine and auspicious qualities. Our obeisance Lord Venkatesha and to the
Vedanta Guru.
Swami Desikan’s poetry was enchanting that exhibited his genius. An interesting
event happened one evening in Sri Rangam, where Swami Desikan lived and
worked for many years.
A rival poet disdainfully challenged him to compose poetry on a pair of common
footwear, as a heap of insult. Next morning Swami Desikan astounded the rival,
and the rest of the poets, with a poetic work of 1008 stanzas entitled ‘Paduka-
Sahasram’. Over one thousand stanzas in chaste Sanskrit, in praise of the sacred
Sandals of Sri Ranganatha, composed within the course of one night! Such was his
genius
Swami Desikan was not only a ‘Kavi Kesari’ but also a ‘Tarkika Simham’, a lion
that struck dread in the hearts of ideological adversaries.
His compositions in Sanksrit were peerless, perhaps only matched by Kalidasa.
Even till this day, scholars find it arduous to sufficiently describe the power of his
poetry that has so much depth and diversity. Hence, Swami Desikan is aptly known
as ‘Kavi Kesari’ a Lion amongst Poets
On his way to Srirangam, Swami desika halted at Sri Perumpudhur, the birth place
of Bhagavad Ramanuja and composed a stotra on Sri ramanuja to seek his
blessings to win in the debate. This slokam is called Yatirja saptati which glorifies
all our acharyas and Sri Ramanuja in particular.
During the 50-odd years of his life in Srirangam, he authored some of the most
profound and formidable works ever to be written in the annals of VisishtAdvaita
Vedanta.
The philosophy of Sri Ramanuja, as authored in ‘Sri-Bashyam’ about two centuries
earlier, found its fullest and most sophisticated expression in Desikan’s
philosophical works, some of which were pure treatise and some counter-polemics.
Swami Desikan’s most famous works, the ‘tattva-mukta-kalapa’, ‘Sarvartha-
Siddhi’ and the ‘Sata-dushani’, were all authored around this time. Together, they
constituted by far the most solid and irrefutable defense of the school of Sri
Ramanuja’s VisishtAdvaita Vedanta against every known rival Vedantic system
that challenged his philosophy
Throughout his life he held steadfast to the age-old value of ‘simple living and
high thinking’. He shunned wealth that was offered to him and never sought any
position or financial gain for himself or his family. Once his friend Vidyaranya of
the Vijayanagara Court sent him an invitation to serve as a full-time royal poet-
laureate. He wrote to his friend in Vijayanagara, that the only wealth and heirloom
that he coveted was already with him. He mentioned that the everpresent resident
of the Hastigiri Hill in Kanchi was his ultimate wealth, referring to Lord
Varadaraja of Kanchi. He responded to Vidyaranya with ‘Vairagya-panchakam’
Stotram
Swami Desikan was a man of great compassion and was acutely aware of the
social ills and problems of the world around him and deeply empathised with the
community and wished for their welfare. An example of Desikan’s compassion for
the commoner is the ‘Sudharsana Ashtakam’ Stotram. He composed this Stotram
upon seeing the plight of the people struck by a devastating epidemic in a village
near Kanchi. It became at once both a prayer of hope and a therapy for relief at a
time of great calamity for the people of Kanchi.
There are many incidents in Swami Desikan’s life which prove that he is not just
an acharya or poet. He was well versed with many other crafts and the following
three incidents prove this point
One of Swami desika’s friend (Vidyaranya) during their school days became the
minister of Vijayanagara kingdom. He heard about the poverty of Sri Desika and
wanted to help him. So, he has sent in a message asking desika to come to the
Kingdom to receive gifts from the king. Swami Desika has refused to this request
and sent him the reply in a poem called Vairagya panchakam.
Once a young boy wanted some money for his
marriage and approached the wealthy people in Kanchipuram.They were jealous of
Sri Desika’s simplicity and not seeking any financial help from them. Just to
embarrass our swami they have told that only Desika can give lots of money
because he is rich. The boy did not know the evil intention of the jealous people
and went to swami Desika for financial help. We all know that Desika is not
having any money, but he took the young boy to the Thayar sannidhi and started
reciting Sri Stuthi and lo and behold.
It has started raining and rain of gold coins from the sky. Swami Desika thanked
the thayar for her mercy and told the boy to take as much he wants and he did not
take any coin for himself. The jealous people were shocked at this incident and
came running to seek the pardon of swami Desika.

Once a snake charmer came and challenged Desika


that whether he can control his poisonous snakes and sri Desika drew a chalk line
on the ground and recited some mantra. None of the snake could cross over the line
drawn by swami but one ferocious snake crossed over to harm swami. Swami
Desika recited the Garuda mantra and instantly Garuda came and took away all the
snakes. The Snake Charmer begged to swami Desika to give back his snakes since
it is the only lively hood of him. Swami Desika again prayed to Garuda and it
brought the snakes again.
One magician confronted with swami and drank the water from the pond. With his
magic he made swami’s stomach to bulge as the magician drank water from the
pond. Swami was feeling extreme pain and understood the reason quickly. Desika
just scratched the pillar nearby with his fingernails and the water flowed out of the
pillar. The magician was astonished with the super magic of Desika and begged his
pardon.
There are many incidents in Swami Desika’s life which prove that he is not just an
acharya or poet. He was well versed with many other crafts and the following three
incidents prove this point.
Once a mason challenged swami Desika whether he can construct a well with the
bricks supplied by him. Swami Desika accepted the challenge and the mason gave
broken and irregular shaped bricks to swami but he nicely arranged them and
finished the well construction. This well is still existing in Thiruvahendrapuram.
Once a sculptor challenged swami whether he can make an idol of himself and
fitted in the pedestal that was made by the sculptor. Swami made an idol and the
sculptor tried to fix it in the pedestal and could not do so. He thought that the idol
was wrong and tried to chisel some part of the idol to fix it. Blood flowed out of
Desika’s corresponding part of the body where he chiseled out. The sculptor
accepted that the pedestal is of wrong size and then swami Desika corrected the
pedestal and installed the idol on it. This image is even today available in
Thiruvahendara puram.
Once a shoe maker challenged that whether Desika can mend his sandal and swami
accepted this challenge and to every one’s surprise he made the sandal quickly as if
he was an original shoe maker. People are astonished at swami Desika’s
knowledge in various crafts.
In about 1312 A.D, during the Muslim invasion of Srirangam by Malik Kafur, the
General of Allauddin, Sultan of Delhi and in 1323 A.D during the invasion of
Ulugh Khan there was a great commotion. Fear gripped the minds of everyone as
to what might happen to the temple and the Lords Archa murthis. To inspire his
fellows, Vedanta Desika composed the poem "abhIti stava". The Acharyas
deliberated under the guidance of the centenarian Master, Sudarsana Bhattar.

It was decided that one group under Pillai Lokacharya (who was equally advanced
in age) was to take the Utsava Murthi and his consorts covered up in a palanquin to
Tirupati. The party under Sudarsana Suri was to stay put at Srirangam, after
erecting a stone wall in front of the Sannidhi of Moolavar to cover him from the
sight of the marauders. Swami took Sudarsana Bhattars two sons and the
manuscripts of shruta Prakaasika (the elaborate commentary on Sri Bhashyam
chronicled by Sudarsana Bhattar during the Kalakshepams of Nadadur Ammaal) to
safety at Tiru narayana puram via Satya mangalam. But, before he could do that,
the Muslim army attacked them and massacred many of them. Swami hid himself
with his wards during corpses and spent the night. In the morning, they moved
towards Satyamangalam village in Karnataka en route to Tirunarayana puram.

After the sack, his old classmate Vidyaranya visited to assess the situation. Later,
Vedanta Desika's mantra-disciple, the brahmin Gopanarya was among the three
generals deployed by the founder of the fledgling Vijayanagara empire to recover
the south from Muslim forces led by the Madurai sultanate. Gopanarya, inspired by
a dream involving Vishnu according to legend, vowed to restore Srirangam.
Having first captured Gingee, he temporarily housed the Srirangam idols moved
back from Tirupati. Then, having defeated the formidable horse archers of the
enemy, he reinstalled the idols in Srirangam, and invited back Vedanta Desika.
Vedanta Desika returned with his family and composed a poem in praise of this
accomplishment. This poem was inscribed on the wall of the temple upon its
sanctification.
When Swami Desikan returned to Srirangam after 12 years in Satyamangal, it was
time for yearly utsavams when the entire Divya Prabandham are recited in 20 days.
The first ten days the utsavam is during the day and for the next 10 days it is in the
night. Since this utsavam was stopped for many years due to Muslim invasion, the
orthodox people objected to recitation of Divya Prabandham since it is in Tamil
and only Sanskrit vedas should be recited. They also objected to install vigrahas of
Azhvars because they were just human beings and many of them were not even
Brahmins. Swami Desikan argued with them at length proving that the divya
prabandham is nothing but the essence of Vedas and Upanishads and the Azhvars
are great devotees of Sriman Narayana and they are fit to be worshipped inside the
temple. Finally, the orthodox devotees agreed with Sri Desikan and the utsavam
has been celebrated in a grand manner. Swami was pained to see the objections and
to make sure no such problems in the future he has got the details of the utsavam
written in a stone and installed in the temple. Sri Ranganatha was pleased with this
and commended that the Thaniyan glorifying Swami Desikan “Ramanuja daya
patram….” should be recited every day in the temple before starting the
While at Srirangam Swami composed the famous Bhagavad Dhyana Sopanam
glorifying the beauty of the Sri Ranganatha from the feet to the head. This Stotram
is like the Amalanaadhi piran of Sri Thirupaan Azhwar
Swami Desikan was the first Acharya in the Vedantic tradition who boldly went as
far as to define God’s quality of Universal compassion as being not merely a
theological necessity but a philosophical axiom and said that a God without
compassion would be a contradiction. Since we see that compassion exists in this
world, therefore we should conclude that God too must exist. He added a fourth
dimension ‘Daya’ to the Upanishad definition of Brahman viz. Satyam, Jnanam,
and Anantham. It became the central theme of his famous ‘Daya Satakam’, a
Stotram only a man possessing great ‘Daya’ could have ever composed
Swami Venkatanathan was above all a Vedanta Guru as recited in the verse
‘Srimathe Venkateshaya Vedanta-Gurave Namah’. Sri Desikan showed his
followers the true way of living, both in practice and precept, by setting out how
one should lead their life and what purpose is to be achieved by human existence.
He expounded on Vedanta with his illumining insights thereby providing a
wonderful ‘Vedanta-marga’ in a way never accomplished by any of the great
Scholars before his time
One of the greatest pathways of Vedanta shown by Swami Desikan is contained in
‘Paramapada-Sobanam’. It is a magnificent work wherein he set out in a cogent
and easily comprehensible manner the ‘Art of Living’
The word ‘Parama-padam’ means ‘highest state of existence’. The word ‘sobanam’
is commonly understood to mean a hymn that describes anything in graphic detail
from ‘start’ to ‘finish’. Sobanam can also mean a multi-tiered stairway, a sort of
tiered structure increasing in height. These stepping-stones are called ‘pariankam’
in Sanskrit. Swami Desikan’s ‘Paramapada Sobanam’ refers to a step-by-step
approach that leads, slowly but surely, from the bottom-most rung of existence to
the ‘highest state of human existence’
In the last stages of his life, Swami Venkatanathan lived happily for many years in
Sri Rangam amidst peers and disciples. He became a highly renowned and
venerated ‘VedantaAcharya’. His fame spread far and wide in the country. He
presided over a period in history when the school of ‘Sri-Ramanuja-Darsanam’
flourished and the SriVaishnava tradition grew and the institutions strengthened
Swami Desikan lived for 101 years and in the year 1369 CE, he felt that the time
had come for him to leave for the spritual abode of Sriman Narayana. He went to
Sri Ranganatha and took his permission. His disciples and his son were sobbing
inconsolably. Swami Desikan consoled them and instructed them to continue their
divine works and follow the Ramanuja Darshanam.

He kept his head on the lap of his son Kumara


Varadhachariar and left his mortal coil while listening to the chanting of Thiruvai
Mozhi and Upanishads.
Later Sri Ranganayaki Thaayar ordered that a Sannidhi should be made for Swami
Desikan close to her Sannidhi inside the temple. One can see the Swami Desikan’s
Sannidhi in front of the Thaayaar Sannidhi.
No other Acharya among the followers of Sri Ramanuja have fought for
the rightful place for Divya Prabandham as did Swami Desikan. It was he who
reestablished the recitation of Divya Prabanhdam in Srirangam and other temples
Swami Desikan has composed more than 100 works and it will take more than a
lifetime to read and comprehend them. His Tamil prabandhams are equally
delightful and they bring the essence of Vedas in Tamil prabandhams. He also
translated the Sri NammAzhwar’s Thiruvai Mozhi to Sanskrit