[The following text is borrowed from the souvenir that was published for the Vedanta Desika 750th anniversary commemoration event held at the House of Commons at the British Parliament in London on 18th July, 2018. Later, the same text was also used to update the Wikipedia entry on Vedanta Desika, and thus also features there]
Srimad Vedanta Desika or Thoopul Nigamaantha Desikan (1268–1369) is the most brilliant stalwarts of Sri Vaishnavism in the post-Ramanuja period. He was a poet, devotee, philosopher, logician and master-teacher (desikan).
He was a disciple of Kidambi Appullar, also known as Aathreya Ramanujachariar, who himself was of a master-disciple lineage that began with Ramanuja. Swami Vedanta Desika is considered to be the avatar (incarnation) of the divine bell of Venkateswara of Tirumalai.
Srimad Vedanta Desika was born in the year 1268 CE, to a pious couple named Ananta Suri and Totaramba, who named him ‘Venkatanatha’. When he was five, his maternal uncle, Kidambi Appullar took him to attend a spiritual discourse of Nadadhoor Ammal, a revered Sri Vaishnava scholar of that time. As soon as Ammal saw the divine radiance of the child, he stopped his discourse, and hugged Venkatanatha affectionately.
When Ammal told the audience that he had forgotten where he had stopped his discourse, it was Venkatanatha who reminded him immediately, to the astonishment of the assembled scholars. Deeply impressed, Ammal blessed him and predicted that Venkatanatha would become the main torch-bearer for Sri Vaishnavism.
When Desika turned seven, Kidambi Appullar accepted Venkatanaatha as his disciple, and taught him arts, sciences and scriptures. By the age of 20, Desika became famous for his mastery over poetry, logic, linguistics, science, Vedanta, debate, and allied arts.
Even though Desika was multi-faceted and famous, he lived a humble and simple life with the support of his wife, Thirumangai. He undertook a vow called uncha-vritti, whereby he depended wholly on the Supreme Lord for his household needs by accepting grains and vegetables donated by disciples voluntarily, without actively seeking it.
Desika stayed in several cities and towns throughout his life such as Thiruvaheendrapuram, Kanchipuram, Srirangam, Sathyagala and Melkote. He also travelled widely all over India on foot.
At each place, he composed many different works in languages such as Tamil, Sanskrit, Prakrit and Manipravala (a mixture of Sanskrit and Tamil) that revealed his ingenuity, creativity, logic, linguistic expertise, devotional fervour and erudite scholarship.
- He composed over hundred works in the following genre:
- 28 devotional poems in Sanskrit such as Hayagriva-stotram, Kamasika-ashthakam and Gopala-vimshati
- 24 devotional poems and treatises in Tamil such as Gitartha-sangraham and Charama-sloka-churkku
- 11 philosophical treatises such as Shata-dushani, Mimamsa-paduka and Tattva-mukta-kalapam
- 10 commentaries on the works of previous acharyas such as Stotra-ratna-bhashya, Chatus-shloki-bhashya and Tatparya-chandrika
- 5 Narrative poems such as his magnum-opus, the Paduka-sahasram, and the epic poem called Yadavabhyudaya which rivals the decorative poetry of Mahakavi Kalidasa’s works, and the Hamsa-sandesha
- 32 esoteric texts revealing the hidden meanings of prappati-marga such as Srimad Rahasya-traya-saram, Paramapada-sopanam, Amrita-ranjani and Amrita-svadhini
- 1 drama named Sankalpa-suryodayam
- 13 works on arts and sciences such as Bhugola-nirnayam and Silpartha-saram
- 4 works that codified religious rites and practices such as Sri-vaishnava-dinasari and Bhagavad-aradhana-vidhi
Appaya Dikshitar, the great mediaeval scholar appreciated Desika by composing a verse in Sanskrit:
evam vichintyas sarvatra bhavaah santi pade padhe kavi tarkika simhasya kavyeshu laliteshvapi
“Even in the simple and soft compositions of this lion of poetry and lion of logic, there is poetic excellence evident at every step he took, and indeed in every word he wrote.”
Desika composed his poems in various poetic metres. Vedic literature is written in the form of hymns set rhythmically to different metres, called ‘chandas’. Each metre is governed by the number of syllables specific to it. Poets are expected to conform to these norms in their compositions. Swami Desikan has employed 22 metres in the 862 verses he composed on presiding deities of various temples in India. The following are some of the compositions of Vedanta Desika that provide a glimpse of his mastery over poetry, logic, grammar and philosophy:
Hayagriva Stotram: a hymn on Lord Hayagriva, the Lord of Learning, who bestows real knowledge to the reciter, banishing the darkness of ignorance from within him.
Abheethistavam: a prayer to Lord Ranganatha for relief from different types of fear, ultimately seeking and being bestowed refuge at the lotus feet of the Lord
Achyutha Satakam: hundred verses in praise of the Lord of Lords Devanatha, in which Desika expresses his passionate love in the form of a bride
Bhagavat Dhyana Sopanam: twelve stanzas that describe the steps for meditating upon the Lord of Srirangam, Ranganathaswami
Dasavatara Stotram: describes the ten important incarnations of the Lord to protect the world and uphold the principles of dharma or righteousness
Daya Satakam: hundred verses eulogising the mercy or daya of the Lord of Tirumala. The work is divided into 10 decads, each portraying different qualities of the personified mother, Dayadevi. It commences with the short anushtab metre. Each successive decad employs a more complex metre, till it culminates in decorative poetry that is a sheer delight to hear.
Garuda Dandakam: A complex stotram composed in the Dandakam meter style, and has 108 aksharas in every Paadam. It is believed that Desikan composed it when a snake charmer challenged him to summon the mighty Garuda.
Sri Suti: a prayer to ‘Sridevi’ the Goddess of Fortune that is said to have been composed when a bachelor was sent to Desika, seeking financial help for his marriage. Since Desika himself lived a life of voluntary poverty, he took him to the temple of the Goddess and sang Sri Stuti. This culminated in a shower of gold coins, solving the financial problems of the young bachelor.
Sudarshanasthaka: eight verses set in the rare ‘dhritichhandas; metre praising the holy discuss-weapon of Lord Vishnu, wielded by the Lord to protect the virtuous.
Kamasikasthaka: is prayer of eight verses to Lord Narasimha who assumed a man-lion form to slay the demon Hiranyakashpu, and protect His devotee, Prahlada. Nyasa sutras: are texts composed by Desika which extract the essence of the sharanagati doctrine of self-surrender. These are the Nyasa Dasakam, Nyasa Vimsathi and Nyasa Tilakam.
Vairagya panchakam: five verses that describe the importance of renunciation or vairagya. The word ‘dhana’ or wealth, occurs eleven times, each with a different contextual meaning.
Hamsa-sandesha: is a lyric poem of 110 verses, reminiscent of Kalidasa’s Meghadhuta. It describes Lord Rama sending a message via a swan to his wife Sita, who was abducted by the demon king Ravana.
Yadavabhyudaya: is an epic poem of 24 cantos describing the destiny of the Yadava Kings, the dynasty in which Lord Krishna appeared. It is on par with the Kalidasa’s work called Raghuvamsa, which describes the dynasty of the Raghu kings, in which Lord Rama appeared.
Paduka Sahasram: composed of a thousand and eight verses spread over 32 divisions called paddhatis, on the holy sandals of the Lord Ranganatha. Desika was challenged by another scholar to compose 1000 verses in a night, and he completed this work in three hours. Verses in one section form pictorial patterns with the arrangements of the letters used.
Tamil works: Swami Desikan’s Works in Tamil are numerous, out of which two need special mention: Paramathabhangam, where he describes and refutes 15 schools of philosophy, and Aharaniyamam where he describes the correct types of food to be consumed by a Vaishnava.
Titles and honours
Sri Vaishnava books record how Goddess Lakshmi, known as Ranganayaki in the holy town of Sri Rangam, personally conferred on him the title of ‘Sarva-tantra-svatantra’ or master of all arts and crafts. It is also believed that Lord Rangantha who is the presiding Deity of Srirangam, awarded the title of ‘Vedanta Desika’, meaning: the supreme teacher of the conclusion of all knowledge. This was done because the Lord was immensely pleased when Desika debated with differing scholars, and established the supremacy of the path of loving surrender or prapatti-marga.
He received other titles such as ‘Kavitarkika-kesari’ and ‘Kavitarkika-simham’, the lion amongst poets; and ‘Ramanuja-daya-patram’, the recipient of Ramanuja’s causeless mercy, given in a laudatory verse composed by the famous Brahma Tantra Svatantra Swami.
Anecdotes from Desika's life
Several anecdotes and stories of Desika’s life illustrate various aspects of his character: his unflinching faith in prapatti-marga as revealed by Srimad Ramanuja, his scholarly sophistication, his mastery over scores of arts and sciences, his immeasurable humility, and his unparalleled spirit of detachment and renunciation.
Swami Desika chanted the Garuda Mantra given to him by his Guru, Appullar, at a place called Thiruvaheendrapuram. Sri Vaishnavas believe that Garuda appeared before Desika and awarded him a sacred mantra in praise of Lord Hayagriva, who is the abode of all knowledge. Pleased with his devotion, Lord Hayagriva appeared before Desika, and blessed him with the nectar flowing from his mouth. It is believed that the Supreme Lord resided on the tip of Desika’s tongue, and all his writings and works are therefore specially blessed by the Lord.
In the year 1327, Srirangam city was invaded by Malik Kafur, the General of Allauddin Khilji, who wanted to loot the temple and destroy its Deities. Desika hid the main Deity of the temple behind a newly built wall, and placed a duplicate Deity in the front. The smaller festival Deity was smuggled out by Pillai Lokachariar and his men, and carried to Tirupati, where it was worshipped secretly for many years. Back in Sri Rangam, Desika wanted to protect rare manuscripts like the Sruti-prakasha, a commentary on the Sri Bhashya of Ramanuja. Desika and the sons of the author of Shruti-prakashaka hid amongst the dead-bodies of thousands of Sri Vaishnavas killed by the marauding invaders. They escaped with the rare manuscripts to Karnataka.
Twelve years later, General Gopanna of the Vijaya Nagara empire, defeated the invaders and restored the city of Srirangam to its previous glory. Swami Desikan came back to Srirangam, and established the rituals and ceremonies for worship in the temple, which are still in vogue today. In particular, he established the chanting of the Tamil compositions called the Divya-prabandhams, and installed Deities of the twelve azhwar saints for worship in the temple.
A few admirers of Desika, feeling sympathy for Desika’s voluntary poverty and abstinence, decided to mix gold coins along with the rice that went to his house as alms. Desika handed the alms to his wife, who promptly showed him the coins. Desika informed her that they were worms that had got mixed with the rice, and separated them using a blade of grass, and threw them out without touching them.
A few envious scholars wanted to insult Desika. They strung a few shoes just outside his door. When Desika came out of his house the next day, the shoes hit his head. The watching scholars felt that Desika would become angry at being insulted. Instead, Desika exclaimed in great joy, “Oh, what good fortune do I have that the sandals of the great devotees of the Lord have blessed me by touching my head?” Incidents from Desika’s life teach us how he followed what he preached: and was totally surrendered to the lotus feet of the Lord in a mood of utmost humility and detachment.
Desika's expertise in sciences, technology and the arts
Vedanta Desika is known as Sarva-tantra-svatantra or a master of science, philosophy, arts and crafts. His knowledge in these fields were frequently put to test by those who could not comprehend how a single mind could be so competent in so many diverse fields of knowledge. A few episodes from Desika’s life will illustrate this.
A mason challenged Vedanta Desika to construct a well by using bricks with uneven dimensions. The Shilpa Sastra, an ancient treatise on arts and crafts from India says that bricks which are uniform in size, have square corners, have a specific size, and are red in colour are the best for construction. Even though the bricks given to him did not fulfil these requirements, Desika used his extraordinary acumen to arrange these bricks in a unique sequence and plastered them to form the circular periphery of the well, which can still be seen in Tiruvahindrapuram.
Once a sculptor asked Swami Desikan to make an image out of panchaloha (a mixture of five metals – copper, tin, lead, silver and zinc) on a condition that the image had to exactly fit on the base provided by him. Swami Desikan not only sculpted an immaculate image but also pointed out the defects in the base structure provided by the professional sculptor.
The Vedic scriptures categorize food into three – sattva, rajasa and tamasa. The sattva food promotes serene mind and long life whereas the rajasa and tamasa foods promote anxiety and laziness respectively. Taking cues from the Vedic scriptures, Vedanta Desika has provided a detailed catalogue of food which should be consumed to maintain a healthy mind and a disease-free life.
Vedanta Desika wrote an allegorical drama called Sankalpa Surodayam which beautifully portrays the different aspects of human character and their interplay which can lead a man towards a higher goal – Salvation (moksha), or to a lower goal – the infinite loop of birth and death. Here ‘sankalpa’ is the divine will of the compassionate God to protect humans by granting them salvation and ‘suryodaya’ is the sunrise that dispels the inner darkness of man. The main character in this play is Man with two forces acting on him: (i) divine and (ii) demoniac. The divine forces aspire to attain salvation whereas the demoniac pull him into the unending cycle of birth and death. Vedanta Desika, the mighty genius in poetry and drama, personifies these forces into kings and queens who in turn seem to be assisted by their own armies (the human qualities that drive these forces). Desika, with his subtle wit and deep insight, portrays how these characters debate between the good and the evil propensities as he goes on to establish the divine destiny of Man through them.
It was in early 18th century that the great mathematician, Leonhard Euler investigated the Knight’s tour problem where the knight had to tour the entire chess board without any repetition. But, who would have imagined that this was not just solved by Vedanta Desika, but was woven with intricate poetry and philosophy back in the 13th century. In the 30th chapter of his composition, the Paduka Sahasram, Vedanta Desika had used several types of poetic imagery. Chaturanga Turanga Bandham was one such imagery through which the knight’s tour problem had already been solved elegantly, 500 years before Euler.
Desika showed his knowledge of the arts and sciences through other works Silpartha-saram, a guide on sculpting, and Bhugola-nirnayam – a research text on the formation of the earth.
In Sri Vaishnavism, a Thanian is a laudatory dedication in verse composed about an acharya by another acharya who is the subject’s pupil and someone whom the subject greatly admired. The Thanian of Desika is:
rāmānuja dayā-pātraṁ jñaṇa-vairāgya bhūśaṇaṁ
śrimad veñkaṭa-nāthāryaṁ vande vedānta-deśikaṁ
This Thanian was composed by Brahmatantra Swatantra Jeeyar of Parakala Mutt on the day the star of Hastam, the star of Varadharaja Perumal of Kanchipuram was in ascendance, in the Tamil month of Avani. It is recited before starting recitations of the Divya Prabandham — the works of Alwars – by Vadakalayars.
It translates as “I salute the great Venkata Natha also called Vedanta Acharya and Lion among poets and logicians. He was well adorned by both spiritual knowledge and discretion and a recipient of the the grace of his acharya, Athreya Ramanujar who also had the same name [as Bhagavad Ramanuja).”