Glimpses of Holy Lives
Vidyaranya: The Forest of
The history of medieval India has
traditionally been termed the Muslim period in Indian history.
Not only did this period see the rise to power of Muslim kings
and chieftains and the steady expansion of their political
dominions, but it also saw the spread of Islam among the masses
and the flowering of Islamic art, architecture, literature
and popular culture. Among the few areas that provided a notable
exception to this trend was the state of Vijayanagara in South
India; and one name that is inextricably linked with its foundation
is that of Madhavacharya or Vidyaranya.
Madhavacharya was no ordinary political
leader. In his History of Dharmasastra, P V Kane writes:
Madhavacharya is the brightest
star in the galaxy of dakshinatya authors on dharmashastra.
His fame stands only second to that of the great Shankaracharya.
He had a most versatile genius and either himself wrote
or inspired his brother Sayana and others to write voluminous
works on almost all branches of Sanskrit literature. As
an erudite scholar, as a far-sighted statesman, as the bulwark
of the Vijayanagara kingdom in the first days of its foundation,
as a sannyasin given to peaceful contemplation and renunciation
in old age, he led such a varied and useful life that even
to this day his is a name to conjure with.
Foundation of the Vijayanagara
Harihara and Bukka, the founders
of the fourteenth-century Vijayanagara kingdom, belonged to
a family of five brothers, all sons of Sangama, and were in
the service of the Kakatiya king Prataparudra II of Warangal.
When the latter was defeated by the forces of Muhammad bin
Tughlaq in 1333 CE, the two brothers escaped to Kampili. In
1336 Kampili too fell to the Sultan’s forces and both Harihara
and Bukka were taken to Delhi as captives. They managed to
find favour with the Sultan by embracing Islam, and when the
southern territories of the Sultanate rose in revolt they
were deputed by the Sultan to subdue the mutineers. Back on
the banks of the Tungabhadra they happened to meet Madhavacharya,
and it was this meeting that changed the course of history
in South India.
Madhavacharya convinced the brothers
to return to Hinduism and set up an independent kingdom. Readmission
of apostates was not a common Hindu practice in those days.
Madhavacharya had to convince his own guru, Vidyatirtha, the
head of the Shankara Math at Sringeri, about the necessity
of the reconversion for the sake of saving the Hindu dharma
and thus secure his approval. Harihara further affirmed his
faith by undertaking the rule of the new kingdom in the name
of Sri Virupaksha, to whom all the land south of the Krishna
River was supposed to belong. He also adopted the name of
Sri Virupaksha as his insignia for authenticating all state
documents, a practice that was kept up by his successors.
The fledgling state was centred round
the fort of Anegondi on the northern bank of the Tungabhadra.
As the fort had been overrun twice recently, Vidyaranya advised
Harihara to build a new capital on the opposite bank near
the temple of Virupaksha, surrounded by the Hemakuta, Matanga
and Malayavanta hills. This was to be the famous city of Vijayanagara
or Vidyanagara (in honour of Vidyaranya). Its foundation
coincided with the coronation of Harihara I on 18 April 1336.
Vidyaranya’s wisdom is also reflected in Harihara’s efforts
to build up a strong state free of internecine quarrels. Thus
the vijayotsava, victory celebrations, in 1346, to mark the
annexation of the Hoysala territory and extension of the empire
from ‘sea to sea’ was held at Sringeri in the presence of
Sri Vidyatirtha, and attended by all the four brothers of
Harihara, as well as the chief relatives and lieutenants of
the king. The Vijayanagara kingdom was marked by active interaction
with non-Indian states through ambassadors, the most remarkable
being the embassy to the Ming ruler of China. The state also
allowed its Muslim subjects freedom of religious expression,
was sensitive to their sentiments, and allowed for their recruitment
in the army.
A Versatile Genius
This remarkable rajarshi, who was
to help bring into being this important state and set the
tone for its sagacious policies, was himself born to Srimati
and Mayan in very humble circumstances in 1295 CE. His younger
brothers, Sayana and Bhoganatha, were to become important
scholars in their own right - the former famous for his commentaries
on the Vedas and the latter as a court poet. Madhava mentions
Vidyatirtha, Bharatitirtha, and Srikantha as his teachers,
of whom Vidyatirtha was his principal spiritual guru.
The remarkable range of issues that
Madhava-Vidyaranya brings his erudition and insight to bear
upon is testimony to the versatility of his genius and the
extensity of his concerns. His writings touch upon a whole
range of socio-political, cultural and philosophic themes,
all with a pragmatic concern. Parashara Madhaviya,
his commentary on the Parashara Smriti, remained the
most important compendium on social rules, religious customs,
and law in South India, right into the modern times. His Kalanirnaya,
is especially useful in timing ritual procedures. That Madhavacharya
was himself a specialist in Vedic rituals is evidenced by
Sayanacharya, who calls him maha kratunam aharta, the
performer of great Vedic yajnas. The Jaiminiya Nyayamala
Vistara, his treatise on the Purva Mimamsa school of Vedic
exegesis, also endorses this fact. The yajnas of Madhavacharya
were accompanied by generous donations, mahadana, which
included tulapurushadana, the gift of precious metals
equivalent to one’s weight.
The Madhaviya Dhatuvritti,
a commentary on Panini’s Dhatupatha, and Sangitasara
reveal the sweep of Vidyaranya’s interests. But he is most
remembered for his expositions on Advaita Vedanta. His texts
in this genre include the Vaiyasika Nyayamala Vistara,
Vivarana Prameya Sangraha, Panchadashi, and
Jivanmukti Viveka. Two other works that have been associated
with his name (although this claim has been contested) include
the Shankara Digvijaya and the Sarva Darshana Sangraha.
For the last several years of his
long life of ninety, Vidyaranyamuni himself presided as the
Acharya at the Sringeri Math. It is not very clear when he
had his sannyasa. But in guiding the course of the empire
as minister to the first two Vijayanagara sovereigns, in setting
the trend for the dharma of the people as the raja-kula-guru,
and in leaving an indelible impression on the Indian philosophical
tradition with his erudite writings, Vidyaranya had accomplished
more than what anyone can hope to achieve in one life.
The Indian tradition speaks of the
four ashramas as four divisions of life, each with its specific
duties. Vidyaranya excelled in all of these. Single-minded
in his pursuit of learning, exceptionally skilled in his handling
of state affairs, accurate in his disquisitions on the highest
spiritual truths and, in the last years of his life, established
in the highest ideals of renunciation, Vidyaranya could justly
declare: ‘The yogi who is satisfied with the nectar of knowledge
and has thereby accomplished his tasks, has got nothing else
to achieve; if he has any, then he is not a knower of Reality’,
even as Sayanacharya was saluting him ‘for his mastery in
worldly pursuits, for the respect he commanded from the highest
in society, and for his emancipation of the masses through