Vedātmā and Vedāntadeśika

Originally published in the Rangatha Paduka, January 2004 edition


The Guruparamparā-prabhāva records that Śrī Vedāntadeśika showed his precocious genius in an assembly of scholars even at the early age of five. Under instructions from Śrī Nadādūr Ammāl, he was tutored by his maternal uncle Śrī Kidāmbi Appullār. He completed his entire study of both spiritual and secular literature before he was twenty. Śrī Appul¤l¤ār was much impressed with Śrī Deśika’s studiousness, critical mind and retentive powers. He recalled the earlier benediction of the venerable Śrī Nadādūr Ammāl that ‘this boy would establish the Vedānta philosophy on a sound basis, defeat the opponents (of Viśistādvaita) and would be highly respected by Vedic scholars’.

Being an amśa of Garuda himself, Śrī Appullār then initiated the young Deśika in the Garuda-mantra and blessed him. Śrī Deśika proceeded to Tiruvahīndrapuram, a spot sanctified by Garuda, to practise the mantra bequeathed to him and reap the benefits as desired by his mentor. In a few days of his commencing the chant, Garuda materialised before Śrī Deśika and  taught him the Hayagrīva-mantra and asked him to propitiate the Lord through that mantra.

Śrī Deśika did so and Lord Hayagrīva appeared before him and gave him the nectar from His mouth, endowing him with complete knowledge of all sciences. Śrī Deśika broke into an ecstatic prayer to the Lord, which came to be known as the Hayagrīva-stotra. He appealed to the Lord that his words should be correct, authoritative and should carry conviction with the scholars. The Lord acquiesced and departed. From then onwards, Śrī Deśika’s mission in life of placing Viśis‹t¤ādvaita philosophy on a firm footing began. Superlative and melodious expressions poured forth from his mouth and pen on every aspect of Rāmānuja-darśana, religious practices, devotional hymns, moral and ethical codes.

He composed more than a hundred works in prose, poetry and dramas, in Sanskrit, Tamil and Man‹ipravāla. He was blessed with the titles of ‘Vedāntācārya’ and Sarvatantra-svatantra’ by Lord Ranganātha and Goddess Ranganāyaki. The reputed scholars of his time also conferred on him the title of ‘Kavitārkikasimha’. The earlier prophecy of Śrī Nadādūr Ammāl was thus fulfilled.

The Garuda-pañcāśat was the second hymn composed by Śrī Deśika (after the Hayagrīva-stotra). It is seen from the last verse of this hymn that Śrī Deśika wrote it on the order of Garuda and to please him. The Garuda-mantra is inserted in the very first verse, which also outlines the procedure of chanting this mantra. This hymn is unique in that each verse contains an appeal and prayer for protection from evil forces, devotion to the Lord, courage to face life, all-round prosperity, removal of sorrows, eradication of sins, bestowal  of knowledge, etc.

Among the constant companions of the Lord in Śrīvaikuntha, Garuda occupies a rare position because the Lord is both above and below him – Garuda is His vehicle and also His standard. He is an intimate aide of the Lord serving Him at all times. Garuda is said to be invincible in any battle like the Lord. In succeeding verses, Śrī Deśika brings out the similarity between the supreme Lord and Garuda.

First, the Lord is invincible because Garuda is above and below Him. Second, Garuda is an amśa of the Lord’s second emanation (vyūha) Sankarsana. Then he has the six innate qualities (bhaga) – jñāna, bala, aiśvarya, vīrya, śakti and tejas, just like the Lord. Further, just as the Lord has five modes (para, vyūha, etc.), Garuda is said to have five forms – Satya, Suparna, Garuda, Tārksya and Vihageśvara (referred to in the Pāñcarātra texts).

More than anything else, the Lord is sought after in the Vedas and is regarded as the Veda-purus›a. Garuda is the soul of the Vedas. According to Śrī Deśika, every section of the Vedas is a limb of Garuda. The Stoma of the Sāmaveda is the soul of Garuda and the Sāma Vāmadevya is his body. The Sāma Gāyatram are his eyes. The Sāma Trivrt is his head, the Yajurveda mantras are his names, the Chandas are his hands, the Vedic altar Dhisnya are his legs, the two Sāmas Brhat and Ratantara are his two wings and the Sāma Yajñāyajña is his tail. Hence, having the form of Sāmaveda, he has the seven notes of the Veda in himself. Besides, he possesses the eight prosperities (animā, mahimā, etc.)

Again, the Lord is the In-dweller of all beings, while Garuda is the most important – prānavāyu in them. For all these reasons, Garuda is said to have many identities with the Lord. Śrī Deśika describes Garuda as a jewelled mirror (mi, mukur) who is ever present in front of the Lord in temples, with his eyes focussed on the Lord’s idol and always reflecting His glory. Poetically, Śrī Deśika describes that such a presence of Garuda reflects on the Kaustubha jewel adorning the Lord’s chest and perhaps eradicates any unintended blemish of the jewel which arose from the milky ocean after the deadly kālakūta poison. So some traces of the poison may be clinging to the jewel.

Garuda renders help to the Lord in several ways. As protection from elements, as a chariot in battles, as a victory standard, etc. He carried the Lord to save Gajendra caught in the jaws of the crocodile. He flew into the battlefield of Lankā to free Lord Rāma and Laksmana from the nāgapāśa. He retrieved the gem-studded crown of the Lord stolen by Virocana and placed it on His head when the Lord incarnated as Krishna. Then it is said that Garuda protected the city of Dvāraka when Lord Krsna had gone away for battle.

But the most glorious chapter in Garuda’s life was when he got the pot of nectar from the celestial kingdom of Indra and released his mother Vinatā from bondage under her co-wife Kadru. As the legend goes, once a dispute arose between Vinatā and Kadru, the two wives of Daksa Prajāpati on the colour of the tail of Ucchaiśravas, the white steed of Indra.

They laid a wage on the colour, Kadru saying it was black and Vinatā declaring it white. Kadru asked her serpent-son Kārkotaka, who was dark in complexion, to twine himself around the horse’s tail to make it appear black.

Thus Vinatā was tricked into believing that the tail was black and, losing the wager, became the slave of Kadru. When Garuda, who was Vinatā’s son, learnt that the pot of nectar found in Indra’s land could obtain the release of his mother from bondage, he flew there and, after defeating Indra and other celestials, secured the vessel and gave it to his stepmother who then freed his mother.

Śrī Deśika describes this episode in seventeen graphic verses. Garuda’s effulgence literally blinded the celestials. When he flew to Indra’s kingdom, planets and stars fell out of their orbits and appeared as if they were grains strewn before a hero on his way to the war-front. Drawn by the force of his passage, the oceans rose up in high mountainous waves. The clouds dispersed like wisps of cotton.

The Sun and Moon were hidden in darkness by his wings. Airāvata and Ucchaiśravas, the mounts of Lord Indra, staggered in their movements. The Thunderbolt of Indra (vajrāyudha), the most powerful of all weapons, lost its strength before Garuda’s onslaught.

However, as a mark of respect to it, Garuda shed a little feather of his as if hurt by the weapon. After the valorous episode, Garuda sought to teach the serpent clan a lesson for the role one of their kind played in making his mother a slave. He killed them by the thousands.

He entered the nether world and got rid of many serpents. A few surrendered to him and clung to his body in supplication. As symbols of victory, Garuda wore them on his body as ornaments.

The serpents Sesa and Gulika became his bangles, Vāsuki his sacred thread, Daksaka his waistband, Kārkotaka his garland, Padma and Mahāpadma his earrings and Śankhapāla his crest-jewel. These eight serpents perform periodical waving of lights (nīrājana) with the gems on their swinging heads offering a kaleidoscope of colours. (For reasons of space, only brief indications of Śrī Deśika’s masterly description of each event are given here. Each verse of this hymn offers material for a full-fledged article. The reader is advised to study this beautiful stotra for its poetic imagery, if not for anything else.)

It should be remembered that the Garud›a-pañcāśat is one of the very earliest of Śrī Deśika’s works,in fact, the second among them. In this hymn, we find the grace of Lord Hayagrīva and Garuda, the blessings of Appullār and Śrī Deśika’s own poetic genius have jointly brought out a most devoted prayer to Garuda. A reverential study of this hymn will provide immunity from poisonous reptiles, safety against evil spirits, total elimination of all mental worries and, last but not least, fruition of all desires even before they sprout in the mind. The reader will also acquire erudition and devotion, name and fame like Garuda himself. In a later work, the Śatadūs›an›i (65th vāda), Śrī Deśika classifies Garuda as one of the earliest devotees of the Lord.

Before concluding, another work on Garuda needs mention. This work, called Garuda-dandaka, was composed when a snake-charmer at Kāñcī challenged Śrī Deśika to prove that he was a sarvatantra-svatantra by saving himself from a snake. He thereupon let loose a highly poisonous snake against Śrī Deśika who merely drew four lines around himself and sat in the centre chanting the Garuda-mantra. While the snake was approaching the fourth line, Garuda came and flew away with the serpent. When the snake-charmer wailed that, in the lost serpent, he had lost the means of his livelihood, Śrī Deśika, taking pity on him, sang the Garuda-dandaka and got the serpent restored to the charmer.

This short hymn is in four parts and deals with the main incidents in Garuda’s life. It is also an eulogy to Garuda as the conqueror of serpents and brings out his other glories. The episode of Vālakhilya sages also finds a place here. Recital of this hymn is sonorous and protects the chanter from all poisonous reptiles; in fact, they will not appear before him.

These two stotras on Garuda as well as the two on Sudarśana (the Sudarśana-astaka and the Sodaśāyudha-stotra) give ample evidence of the fact that the Lord uses His aides and weapons for the removal of sufferings of His devotees. Deśika has done yeoman service in compiling several stotras, the recital of which will alleviate the sufferings of humanity.

Late revered U N Seshadriyacharya wrote as follows in 1966 in his ‘Appeal’ which serves as an Introduction to Sri Desika Stotra Mala:

“Some mantras …… have been incorporated in some of the stotras by reason of which they are as potent as the respective mantras with the added advantage that the recitation of these stotras may be undertaken irrespective of gender or caste, that no preliminary initiation from a preceptor is necessary, and no strict choice of time or place or external purity is enjoined – the complete license that the 20th century man will most appreciate!”

Hayagrīva-stotra, Sudarśanāstaka and Garuda-pañcāśat belong to this category.It i s, therefore, upto us to make full use of Śrī Deśika’s benevolence and improve the quality of our lives and lead a trouble-free existence till the Lord takes us in His hands.