Picture a man of powerful physique, a champion wrestler, who could eat hundreds of bananas in one sitting. Imagine a guru who was observed to lead his students into a river, walk them across the bottom and out the other side. Is this a modern action hero? No, it is one of the most controversial and influential Vedantic acharyas in India's modern history. Add to his qualities that he was an unparalleled Sanskrit scholar who knew the scriptures to mastery level by the age of eighteen, a powerful debater who openly and publicly challenged all views, and a mountain climber who, after fasting for 48 days, trekked to Badarik Ashram, high in the Himalayas, to meet the eternal Rishi Vedavyasa and receive his teachings. Allow me to introduce Shri Madhvacharya--also known as Vasudeva, Purnaprajna and Anandatirtha--the famous founder of the Dvaita school of Vedanta and the Brahma Vaishnava Sampradaya, of which I am a devout follower. Through his eloquent preaching and prolific dictation, this one brilliant man gave a new perspective to Vedantic scripture that influences millions of people to this day.
Vaishnava Hinduism, of which Madhva was one of the foremost exponents, holds a vision that this world and the transcendental world beyond it are populated by divine beings who can, at will, descend as avatars into our planet in what appears to be a human body. Some are manifestations of Parabrahman, from beyond all matter, whose apparent bodies are projections of their transcendent being. They are not born and do not die, though they may appear to do so. Avatars manifest varying degrees of Divinity, from the perfect, or Purna-Avatars, like Lord Rama and Lord Krishna, to the avatars of various devas who manage our material world. Madhva announced himself as an avatar of Prana Vayu, the life force itself, come to Earth to revive and teach the real, eternal meaning of the Vedas.
As Lord Krishna states in the Bhagavad Gita (4.7), "Yada yada hi dharmasya glanir bhavati bharata." "Whenever there is a decline of dharma within the world, I descend myself to correct the situation." It is for this reason that in the Hindu/Vedic culture we say, "Atiti devo bhavataha," or "The guest should be treated as a descent of the Divine." You never really know who is coming to dinner, since avatars are always wearing a disguise so as not to disturb unknowing humans.
Details of Madhva's life are known primarily from the Madhva-vijaya (or Sumadhva-vijaya), a biography by Narayana Pandita, the son of Trivikrama Pandita, a brilliant advaita scholar who was defeated by Madhva in debate and became one of his foremost disciples. This account tells us that, in 1238, on the auspicious occasion of the Vijayadasami festival held at the Ananteshvara Temple in the city of Udupi, a mute man became possessed of the spirit of Lord Ananteshvara, climbed the temple's stone flag pole and, from atop its tiny platform, proclaimed to the crowd of devotees that Lord Vayu, the closest deva to Vishnu, would soon take birth to revive Hindu dharma. For twelve years, a pious brahmin couple of modest means, Narayana and Vedavati Naddantillaya, had prayed and performed severe penance at this temple, beseeching the Deity to bless them with a male child to perpetuate their family line. Eight months after the mute's declaration, Vedavati gave birth to a handsome son in their home in Pajaka, south of Udupi. They named him Vasudeva.
Vasudeva was physically and mentally precocious. Once, at the age of one, he grabbed hold of the tail of one of the family bulls who was going out to graze in the forest and followed the bull all day long. At sunset, to the great relief of his worried parents, Vasudeva returned home with the bull, hungry but otherwise happy. At the age of three, he disappeared one morning, and his increasingly frantic parents searched everywhere for him. Finally, his father found him seven miles away, at the Ananteshvara Temple in Udupi. The boy explained that he had walked there to have darshan of the Deity at the behest of the Lord Himself.
When he was five, his mother took him to attend a spiritual discourse by a prominent pundit. At one point, the speaker made a mistake. Vasudeva immediately stood up and corrected him, offering the proper explanation with reference to the shastra. Impressed by the child's knowledge, the pundit praised his discernment and courage.
Soon thereafter, a money lender came to their house demanding payment for a long overdue debt owed by Vasudeva's father. Curious, the boy spoke to the burly fellow and learned of his purpose. Asking him to wait a moment, Vasudeva ran to the back yard, picked up some dry tamarind seeds, rubbed them in his palms and transformed them into gold coins, with which he paid the man even more than the amount of the debt.
At age seven Vasudeva received his upanayana initiation and was enrolled in Vedic studies at the gurukulam of Totanillaya. This did not impede his love of play, and he spent most of his time wrestling, swimming, trekking and lifting weights. In competition, he was fearless and invincible. One day, his teacher scolded him for neglecting his studies. Vasudeva replied, "I don't see any point in repeating what I have heard once and memorized." "Very well then" the teacher retorted, "recite all the shlokas I taught this morning!" Without hesitation, Vasudeva chanted the verses in resounding, sonorous Sanskrit and then recited more from the same text that had not even been taught. That ended any further doubt in his Vedic prowess.
After nine years of formal learning, the students would each take a vow to take up a career and make a difference in the world. Their aspirations varied: priest, doctor, astrologer, merchant. Vasudeva vowed to study the scriptures to find out their true meaning, as he just could not accept the Sankaran Advaita view, so prevalent in his day, that the world is an illusion. He resolved to renounce worldly life and become a monk so that he could spend all his time combatting Advaita and promoting theism, which he believed to be the essence of true religion.
Like most parents, Narayana and Vedavati were shocked by his decision and begged him to reconsider, reminding him that, as their only son, it was his duty to marry, have children to perpetuate their family line and take care of them through their old age. Vasudeva was adamant and could not be dissuaded, but agreed to postpone his renunciation until Vedavati bore another child, which Vasudeva seemed to know would be a son. Upon the birth of his brother, the 16-year-old left home and joined the Ekadandi Order as a sannyasin at the Ananta Matha in Udupi. Vasudeva was initiated by Achyutaprekshacharya, who named him Purnaprajna, due to his prodigious knowledge.
Just forty days after his initiation, two famous scholars came to Udupi in search of a competitor worthy to engage in debate. They were Vadisimha of the Vyaya-Vaisheshika school and Buddhisagara, a Buddhist monk. Purnaprajna was chosen to represent the matha. Their easy victory turned to stunning defeat as the youth thoroughly worsted them on the first day of debate. They left Udupi that night rather than resume the contest the next day and publicly admit defeat before the extraordinary young monk. They, like so many who confronted Purnaprajna, were no match for his unassailable logic and encyclopedic knowledge of the shastras. Many an opponent was defeated and became his disciple or just quietly slipped away.
In 1256, at age 18, encouraged by his success, Madhva set out on a grand tour of South India, joined by his preceptor, Achyutaprekshacharya. On a three-year campaign passing through Anantasayana, Kanyakumari, Rameshvaram and Srirangam, Madhva preached Tattvavada, "doctrine of truth," and held heated debates with advaitins as well as scholars of all schools of thought, including Buddhism and Jainism.
Coming in contact with followers of the great Ramanuja, the South Indian founder of the Shri Vaishnava Sampradaya, Madhva realized he was not alone in his campaign against advaita, as they also argued against Shankara's philosophy. This first of three great tours galvanized his resolve: "My whole life shall be dedicated to the spread of ultimate truth."
People flocked to hear the handsome, charismatic preacher; many were won over and joined him as disciples. The Madhva-vijaya describes him: "Madhvacharya shone like the moon, with his gentle smile, lotus eyes, golden complexion and words of blessing. He had the gait of a young lion, feet and hands like sprouts, nails like rubies; thighs like the trunk of an elephant, a broad chest and long muscular arms. Indeed, those who made sacred images considered him the model for their art."
After the troupe returned to Udupi, Achyutaprekshacharya conferred on his disciple the title Madhvacharya and appointed him his heir-apparent to the pitham of Ananta Matha. For the next six years, Madhva remained in Udupi, during which time he authored the first of two commentaries (bhashya) on the Bhagavad Gita, dictating it in Sanskrit to his disciple Satyatirtha, who scribed it on palm leaves.
Around 1265, Madhva set out on his first tour of North India. Taking his Gita manuscript to present as a tribute to Vedavyasa, he set out on pilgrimage with a few close disciples to the legendary sage's ashram in the Himalayas. Reaching Badri, he fasted, bathed in the Ganga and remained silent for 48 days, in a quest for spiritual guidance. Finally, the call came from within to go to Uttara Badri, the harsh and isolated spot high in the Himalayan peaks where the legendary Vedavyasa is said to still reside. Leaving a note for his disciples, he left alone, before dawn one morning, on the arduous journey. Satyatirtha, reading the note, followed his master into the treacherous frozen peaks. Catching up to the athletic saint, only halfway to Uttara Badri, Satyatirtha was so weak that he could neither go on nor go back the way he had come. It is said that in this moment Madhva blew a powerful and magical burst of air that sent him flying back to safety with his brother disciples at Badri.
Reaching Uttara Badri, Madhva prostrated at the feet of Vyasa and spent weeks receiving instruction from him on the true meaning of Vedanta. Though Madhva begged to stay, the sage instructed him to return to the world and continue his mission. In obedience, the monk retraced his steps back to Badri, where his disciples, though fearful that he might have perished, had held a faithful vigil. Far from worn out by the arduous trek, Madhva returned energized and jubilant. In the days following he dictated to Satyatirtha the commentary on the Brahma Sutra that Vedavyasa had spoken to him. Satyatirtha scribed it, then arranged for the precious work to be copied and distributed.
Madhva and his monks headed south. As they were passing through Andhra Pradesh, around 1270, they got word that a huge philosophical convention was being held at Rajamahendri on the Godavari River. It was convened by Sobhanabhatta, a staunch and brilliant advaitin and the prime minister of the Kakatiya dynasty of Warangal. Scholars from all over India were gathering. Madhva decided to attend. This was the first major public forum by which his new philosophy became widely known to the world of Sanskrit scholars. It was a turning point. At that convocation, Madhva won over the famous scholar Puri Swami Shastri, whom he accepted as his disciple and renamed Narahari Tirtha. Sobhanabhatta also was converted to Tattvavada, and the two illustrious scholars joined Madhva's growing entourage on their return to Udupi, where they were greeted joyously by Achyutapreksha.
The time had now come, Madhva deemed, to bring his own guru into his philosophy, who while proud and supportive, was still an advaitin with strong reservations regarding Madhva's views. After a long series of debates, Achyutapreksha conceded defeat, accepted Madhva's Dvaita view as supreme and became his disciple as Padmanabha Tirtha. The Ananta Matha, which had been a stronghold of Advaita for centuries, became the spiritual center of Madhva's Brahma Vaishnava Sampradaya.
A few years later, a miraculous, landmark event occurred at Malpe beach, three miles west of Udupi. One day Madhva was meditating by the seashore, as he often did. A storm arose at sea and a cargo ship traveling from Dvaraka, which Madhva could see in the distance, began to flounder in the heavy waves. Madhva waved his saffron cloth. The ship suddenly stabilized, the waves abated. Certain that they had survived by the grace of a holy monk, the captain and a few mates took a tender boat to shore. Approaching Madhva, the captain offered him anything he wanted from the merchandise in the ship. To their surprise, he said he had no need for their goods, but would take the three mounds of gopi chandan clay that lay as ballast in the ship's hull. Amazed that the monk knew of the clay, the captain himself delivered to the swami the three mounds of gopi chandan native to the Godavari River that some Vaishnavas use in paste form to make their gold-colored sectarian body marks.
As Madhva must have intuited, when submerged in water and broken apart, each block of clay liberated an ancient stone murti of Krishna. These are said to have been lost when the original city of Dvaraka was submerged in the sea at the end of the Dvapara Yuga. The largest of the three, an icon of Janardana nearly three feet tall, he consecrated for worship at the village of Yermal, 15 miles south of Udupi. The second, an image of Balarama 2.5 feet tall, he installed at a Subrahmanya temple in Malpe. The third murti, just twenty inches tall, is a unique statue of Balakrishna holding a shepherd's staff. This icon Madhva enshrined, in 1278, at the Ananta Matha, later renamed the Sri Krishna Matha. This small shrine at the matha is today one of India's most important Krishna pilgrimage destinations. This began the pattern Madhva would follow for the rest of his life, obtaining and consecrating images of the Lord and establishing unique sanctuaries specific to his Dvaita sampradaya. Setting up a new liturgy as well for his sampradaya, Madhva discontinued the Smarta Puja rites and replaced them with the Tantrasara worship patterns he learned from Sage Vyasa--elaborate, spectacular pujas that melt the heart of anyone attending and open the doors to the realm of God.
Leaving no aspect of religious life unexamined, Madhva also addressed social issues. In one of his most controversial battles, he spoke against the sacrifice of animals at Vedic rituals and brought an end to the practice in the Udupi region. Madhva offered a revolutionary meaning to caste, saying it should be determined by a man's behavior and nature, rather than his birth--that an illumined soul is a true brahmin, regardless of his occupation. He instigated the prohibition of liquor consumption during religious ceremonies. And, criticizing the priesthoods, he said, "Spirituality should not be confused with superstition." His opponents were equally bold. They continually denounced his reforms and went so far as to raid and pillage his large collection of rare manuscripts.
Madhva was as physically powerful as any warrior. On one occasion two champion wrestlers came to challenge him. Engaged in chanting the names of Lord Vishnu, Madhva paused to say he doubted they were strong enough for the contest. At this they began lifting and throwing heavy objects to demonstrate their prowess. Madhva said he would wrestle them if they could, by choking him, silence his japa. Grasping his neck, the two powerhouses tried to stop his chanting one at a time and then together, but to no avail. Exhausted, the Goliaths bowed in defeat and asked, "What, may we ask, is the source of your power?" Madhva said, "It is the names of Vishnu." They, too, became disciples.
Madhva undertook one more tour of North India between 1280 and 1290, after initiating a number of his disciples into sannyasa. The final destination of his troupe was Badri. Among their many adventures was a famous encounter at the south bank of the Ganga. They were planning to cross by boat, but none was operating. They learned that war was brewing locally and that Balban, the Sultan of Delhi, camped on the north bank, had forbidden anyone to cross without permission. He who disobeyed would be brought to him and put to death. Hearing this, Madhva had his disciples stand in line behind him, each holding the garment of the one in front, and, walking on the river bottom, led them safely to the other side. Seeing them emerge from the river, the Sultan's soldiers rushed forward to arrest them. Madhva is said to have commanded, "Be quiet and behave yourselves. I want to see the Sultan." Appearing swiftly, Balban demanded to know how they dared defy his decree. Madhva answered in fluent and chaste Persian, presenting himself as an apostle of theism who took directives only from God. "I worship that Father who illumines the entire universe; and so do you. Why should I fear then either your soldiers or you? I am traveling through on my life's mission to spread the true faith in the one Supreme Being who is the ruler of the cosmos, whom all persons should worship by their honest work and loving devotion. We are all citizens of His kingdom." Disarmed by Madhva's fearlessness and purity, the Sultan paid his respects, offered gifts, which Madhva declined, and provided safe passage to the monk and his followers.
When highway robbers attacked the itinerants in a deep jungle, Madhva rolled up one of his saffron robes and threw it into their midst. By his mystic power they saw it as a bag of gold and began fighting over it while the travelers walked safely on.
It was on this tour that Madhva secured several more important sacred icons and artifacts that to this day are the focus of worship for followers, including a set of ancient icons of Sri Rama and Sita that were retrieved from the treasury of the Kalinga court. It is known that before returning to Udupi, the saint visited Goa, where he is said to have enthralled audiences, not only with his oratory, but with his music.
Returning at last to Udupi, Madhva spent the next two decades, 1290-1310, engaged in missionary work in Tulanad, the home territory of his burgeoning new sect. It is said he visited every home in the region. It was during this time that he faced the most formidable adversary he had ever debated, Trivikrama Pandit, a champion of Shankara's Advaita. Over fifteen days of fierce dialog between two opposite views of Vedanta, Madhva slowly but steadily gained ground. Finally, on the fifteenth day, Trivikrama admitted defeat and prostrated to Madhva in submission. Rising from the floor, the pandit had a spiritual vision in which he saw in Madhva the three incarnations of Vayudeva: Hanuman, Bhima and Madhva. He spontaneously spoke forth a shloka in praise of Madhva that is recited daily by Madhvans to the present time.
Perhaps Madhva's greatest genius was that he recorded his philosophy and system of religion so eloquently and completely. He authored--not by writing, but by dictation--thirty-nine original Sanskrit works, including four works on the Brahma Sutra, commentaries on the ten major Upanishads and on the Rig Veda Samhita's forty hymns; commentaries on the Mahabharata and Bhagavat Purana, and two commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita; five hymns in praise of the Divine and five manuals on sectarian practices. This literary legacy, along with the scriptures it comments on, forms the canon of his sampradaya, which is today one of the strictest, well organized and tightly administrated spiritual bodies in India.
Madhva's bold approach and the clarity and force of his scholarly writings are unique not only in India but in any theistic tradition anywhere in the world. If Shankara was the original "Unitarian," as the one, for instance, whose philosophy influenced the views of Emerson, Thoreau and other transcendentalists, then Madhva was a "unique-itarian" standing as the fearless champion of the eternal existence of the individual soul. His bold assertion that the eternal truth of the Vedas was nearly lost and so he had to go straight to the source--to sit at the venerable feet of Vedavyasa in Uttara Badri, hear the true meaning of the Vedas from their original source and write that truth as his own commentary on the Brahma Sutra--is stunning.
After his parents passed on, Madhva initiated his brother, Vishnuchitta, and seven other disciples into the order as sannyasins. The brother became known as Sri Vishnutirtha. Through these eight, Madhva established eight (ashta) mathas in Udupi: Palimaru, Admaru, Shirur, Kaneyur, Pejavara, Krishnapura, Puttige and Sodhe.
Madhvacharya had a profound influence on other bhakti schools in his day, the most obvious and currently visible being the Gaudiya branch of Vaishnavism. Originating from Shri Chaitanya in West Bengal, its followers are widely known through the presence of ISKCON and related groups. The Gaudiya lineage traces itself to Madhva, though the followers of Madhva are of the opinion that the Gaudiyas have deviated significantly from many important points in Madhva's teachings. Yet, both sects accept the nine points presented in this Insight (see sidebar below) as bedrock Dvaita Vedanta and have built their teachings on Madhva's foundation.
As for his own identity, in the last verse of his brief work summarizing Dvaita, the Vishnu Tattva Vinirnaya, Madhva declares, "In my first birth I was Hanuman, born to help Lord Rama rescue Sita from the asura Ravana. In my next birth I was Bhima, the strength of the Pandavas, born to defeat adharma in the form of the evil-minded Duryodhana. And in this birth I am born to restore the real purport of the Vedas as serving only the highest truth, Lord Hari."
One of the two most popular images of Madhva shows him as the muscular and indefatigable hero, scion of Vayu, the life force itself, in His triple form of Hanuman, Bhima and Madhva. The other shows him seated, resolute and focused, with two fingers on his right hand raised while chanting the slogan of Dvaita Vedanta, "Difference is real."
Madhva left his body at the age of 79 in the year 1317. By one account, this occurred while he was lecturing to hundreds of disciples at the Ananteshvara Temple on the Aitareya Upanishad, his personal favorite. He recited a prayer based on the invocation to that terse scripture as his final instruction: "Om, may my mind and speech always be fixed upon the Supreme Being Who is the greatest of all. May that Being reveal Himself to me now and for evermore. May my mind and speech help me to understand the Vedic truths and may that truth always be present within me. Do not be idle. Day and night, remain dedicated to this endeavor. Always think this Truth and speak it to those who will listen. Lord Vishnu will protect those who do this and bring wisdom and peace to the world." It is said that as he gave this final call for his followers to go forth and preach, heavenly beings blanketed him in a shower of flowers under which he disappeared from this world and took residence in the transcendent realm of Sage Vedavyasa, high in the Himalayas. The place of his disappearance is honored as a holy spot to this day. By a simpler account, after passing on his various responsibilities to his disciples, he set out, all alone, for a third journey to Badri, never to be seen again. The day of his departure is celebrated as Madhvanavami.
Sriman Madhvacharya was the embodiment of resolution, individuality and eternal truth, serving the wishes of Bhagavan Sri Vishnu to establish the eternal truths of the Hindu dharma, even with his final breath. He is one of Hinduism's greatest heroes. The followers of Madhva continue his tradition with steadfast fervor.