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Article on Madhvacharya which appeared as a feature article in Hinduism Today

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 all the Vedas to mastery level by the age
of eighteen, a powerful debater who openly and publicly challenged all views. A mountain
climber who walked to Badarik Ashram high in the Himalayas while fasting, met the eternal
Rishi Vyasadeva personally and claimed to receive his teachings directly from him. He
announced himself as an avatar of Prana Vayu, the life force itself, and declared himself to be the
reviver of the real eternal meaning of the Vedas. Allow me to introduce Vasudeva a.k.a.
Parnaprajna, a.k.a. Anandatirtha, a.k.a. Madhvacharya, the famous founder of the Dvaita school
of Vedanta. In the 79 years of his life, through his 37 original Sanskrit works, he changed the
course of history forever. Because of him, our view of the Vedas and their meaning will never
be the same.
The Hindu/Vedic culture of India has always held a vision that both this world and the
Transcendental world beyond it, are populated with Divine Beings who can, at their own will,
descend into our planet in what appears to be a human body. In some cases, they are
manifestations of the Parabrahman from beyond all matter, thus their apparent bodies are in fact
projections of their transcendent being. In this case, they are not ―born‖ and do not ―die,‖ though
their appear to do so. This descent of Divinity down to our human realm is not
―reincarnation‖— ―carne‖ means ―meat or flesh‖ — these Divine beings are not compelled to
take a fleshy body as we have been. Thus they are called ―avatar‖ or a voluntary descent of a
Divine Being to appear in the material realm. Avatars manifest a percentage of Divine qualities,
from the most perfect ever recorded called ―purna‖ avatars like Lord Ram and Lord Krishna, to
various other avatars who are descents of Devas or the Divine beings who manage our material
world. All these avatars descend for the same purpose, which is described by Lord Krishna in
the Bhagavad-gita Ch. 4 verse 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.‖ Thus all
avatars, either full or transcendental, or partial such as the maintainers (Devas) of our world,
make their appearance on a mission to restore the true dharma both of this world and the eternal
truth. 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.
This by way of introduction to the life of Madhva, who declared himself to be an avatar of the
greatest of Devas – Prana Vayu, the mighty wind blowing everywhere, who is our very life
force. Madhva declared himself to be the third avatar of Vayu in recent history, the first as
Hanumanji in the Ramayana, the second as Bhimasena of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata, and
the third as Madhva, on a mission to restore the true meaning of the Vedic knowledge. This
assertion is a challenge to us to come to terms with his appearance and teachings from a very
specific Vedic perspective. Outsiders will say that the miracles and extraordinary feats attributed
to Madhvacarya are mere hagiography, an exaggeration by over-zealous followers who are
fabricating fantasy to create an aura of divinity for their teacher.
Humans being what we are, such lying and exaggeration is always possible. Outsiders to the
Vedic culture may be inclined to see it that way; scholars are bound by their academic limitations
to do so. But for us as Hindus, an openness to such Divine activities that so violate the ordinary
laws of nature, is part of the challenge to understand that eternal truth can and does appear even
in a world of untruth. It is said that before Madhva’s birth, at a festival held in honor of
Annanteshvara, in the city of Udipi, a man climbed the stone flag pole in front of the temple and
proclaimed that Lord Vayu, the closest Deva to Lord Vishnu, would soon take birth for the
purpose of receiving Hindu/Vedic Dharma. Sometime after this announcement, Madhva was
born in the village of Pajaka, eight miles south-east of the city of Udipi in what is now called
South India. The year was 1238 C.E. and Madhva’s parents named him Vasudeva.
Even from a very young age, 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. Without his parents’ knowledge, he followed the bull all day long. At sunset, Vasudeva
returned, to the great relief of his worried parents, having missed lunch but otherwise happy. On
another occasion, at the age of three, he disappeared in the morning and was not seen all day.
His increasingly frantic parents searched everywhere for him. Finally, his father found him eight
miles away, in Udipi. Young Vasudeva had gone on his own to the Ananteshvara temple and
was found having darshan of the deity.
Two years later, at the age of five, his mother took Vasudeva to a spiritual discourse being held
by a prominent pundit. At one point, the speaker made a mistake. Vasudeva immediately stood
up and corrected him, offering the correct explanation with reference to the shastra. The teacher
was impressed by his knowledge and praised Vasudeva’s courage for speaking the truth. Soon
thereafter, a money lender came to their house demanding immediate payment for an overdue
debt owed by Vasudeva’s father. By chance he told the child of his purpose. Vasudeva asked
him to wait a moment, went into the back yard, picked up some dry tamarind seeds, rubbed them
in his palms and transformed them into gold coins. With these he then paid the man even more
than the amount of the debt.
At the age of seven Vasudeva received his Upanayana initiation and was put through a course of
Vedic studies at the gurukulam of Totanillaya. Once his teacher observed that Vasudeva played
a great deal, wrestled and was very physically active and fearing that he was neglecting his
studies, he questioned Vasudeva, who replied, ―I don’t see any point in repeating what I have
heard once and memorized.‖ Angered at what appeared to be impudence his teacher replied,
―Very well, repeat the shlokas I taught this morning.‖ Madhva did and then recited more from
the same text. His amazed teacher never doubted Vasudeva’s study skills again. At the end of
formal learning, the students would take a vow to become something in the world. Some aspired
to be priests, doctors, astrologers, merchants. Vasudeva took the vow that he would study the
scripture, find out its true meaning and convey that to the world.
Shortly thereafter, Vasudeva asked for his parents’ permission to enter the renounced order of
life. Since he was their only child, they denied his request, to which Vasudeva replied, ―If you
have another son then allow me to go.‖ Soon, another son was born at which time they agreed to
his request. Thus at the age of ten, Vasudeva entered the Sanyasa order, initiated by Achyuta-
prajna, who gave him the name Purnaprajna. Philosophical disagreements with this teacher soon
caused them to part. Eventually another teacher Achyutapreksha made Purnaprajna (Madhva)
the head of his ashram and gave him the name Anandatirtha. Finally, for reasons of his own,
Anandatirtha gave himself the name Madhva, the name by which the world has come to know
him.
Soon, scholars began to come to Udipi for the purpose of debating with Madhva. His fierce
logic and vast knowledge of all Vedic shostra made him a formidable opponent. Over time
many were defeated and became his disciples or went away. At his point, Madhva’s own guru
Achyutapreksha still had philosophical reservations regarding Madhva’s Vedantic view. Soon
Madhva wrote his first commentary on the Bhagavad-gita and went on a tour of South India
where he continued debating the Dvaita view and gathering disciples.
Finally, Madhva decided to go directly to the source of Vedic knowledge. He was deeply
concerned that the true meaning was lost and the view of Hindu Dharma getting fragmented. So
he took some of his closest disciples and went to Badri in the Himalayas. There he fasted and
remained silent for 48 days asking for spiritual guidance. Finally the call came from within that
he was to go to Uttara Badri, the harsh and isolated spot high in the Himalayan peaks, where the
great Vyasadeva is said to still reside. Leaving a note for his disciples, he left alone on the
arduous journey. One of his disciples named Satyatirtha, tried to follow his master into the
impassable frozen peaks. He made it to where Madhva had gone, only halfway to Uttara Badri
and then realized he could neither go on nor go back the way he had come. It is said that in this
moment, Madhva blew on him and with a burst of air sent him back to safety with the other
disciples.
Once Madhva reached Uttara Badri he fell at the feet of Vyasa and spent weeks receiving direct
instruction from him on how to present the true meaning of the Vedas. Upon his return to Badri
where his disciples were waiting he dictated the commentary given by Veda Vyasa to his faithful
disciple Satyatirtha, who wrote it down verbatim in Sanskrit, and arranged for it to be copied and
distributed. Then Madhva and his followers returned to Udipi.
Soon thereafter, he went to Jaganatha Puri where the famous scholar Puri Swami Shastri debated
with Madhva. After surrendering he became a disciple and Madhva named him Narahari Tirtha.
Soon after this, Madhva’s own guru, Achuta Prajna accepted Madhva’s Dvaita view as supreme
and was renamed Padmanabha Tirtha. Soon after this, an amazing event occurred in Udipi. One
day Madhva was meditating by the seashore. At that moment a cargo ship from Dvaraka began
to flounder and sink in the heavy waves. Seeing this, Madhva began to wave his saffron cloth
from where he sat. The sinking ship suddenly stabilized, the waves abated and the ship and crew
made it safely to shore. Certain that they had survived by the grace of a holy man, they came to
Madhva with expensive gifts. He accepted their gratitude but refused the gifts, explaining that as
a Sadhu he had no need for them. He then said that if they were carrying any gopi chandan clay
from Dvaraka he would be glad to have some. Gratefully, they brought him a very large piece of
the sacred clay and bowing, left.
Madhva took the clay back to the temple of Ananteshvara, submerged it in one of the pools of
water and from its center, a deity of Gopala, Lord Shri Krishna emerged. Madhva then cleaned
the deity and eventually installed it in a temple which began the special deity worship followed
by his disciples to this day. Madhva was also deeply troubled that many priests performing
Vedic sacrifices were killing animals in the yajna. He took it as a personal mission to change
this corrupt practice. In time he was able to convince the priests that offerings of cooked flour
and not animal flesh were the true Vedic way.
Madhva was not only famous for his vast erudition, flawless memory and profound soul; he was
also as physically powerful as any warrior. On one occasion someone offered him an entire tree
of bananas for lunch. Happily he consumed all of them, hundreds in one sitting. On another
occasion, two champion wrestlers who had heard of his wrestling prowess came to challenge
him. When they arrived, Madhva was sitting and chanting japa of the names of Lord Vishnu.
They called him to wrestle with them, to which he replied that he was not certain that they were
strong enough for the contest. At this they began lifting heavy objects and bragging of their
strength and prowess. Finally Madhva suggested that they try to choke him while he chanted
japa. If they could do this he suggested perhaps they could wrestle safely. The two powerhouses
tried one at a time and then together to choke Madhva, who simply continued calmly to chant his
japa. At this point, both wrestlers bowed to Madhva and asked what the source of his power
could be. Madhva told them it was the names of Vishnu and accepted them as disciples.
On another occasion some highway robbers attacked Madhva and his disciples in a deep jungle.
Madhva rolled up one of his saffron robes and threw it in their midst. By his mystic power they
saw it as a bag of gold and began to fight with one another over it while Madhva and his students
walked safely on.
On another occasion he and his students approached the south bank of the Ganga to cross it by
boat, only to see that none of the boats were operating. Upon inquiring, they were told that a
Muslim sultan was camped on the North bank of the river and had forbidden anyone to cross.
Hearing this, Madhva instructed his disciples to stand in line behind him, each holding the
garment of the one in front of them. In this way they followed their guru single file across the
bottom of the river and safely emerged on the other side. Seeing them emerge from the river, the
started soldiers of the sultan began to threaten them. Madhva told them in a commanding tone
that they had come to see the sultan, to be quiet, behave and take them to the ruler. Once in the
presence of the sultan, who asked why they dared to disobey his decree, Madhva told him, ―I am
here 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.‖ The
sultan was so impressed by Madhva’s purity and courage that he let them go on their way.
While he was on a tour, Madhva’s famous library of Vedic knowledge was robbed by some of
his jealous philosophical adversaries. Eventually the thieves were caught and the books returned
through the help of Maharaja Jayasimha, the ruler of Kumbla.
Again, Madhva went on a series of tours throughout India to Kashi, Gaya, Jaganatha Puri and
finally to Kudil near Kasargod in Kerala. There, one of the greatest scholars in India challenged
Madhva to a debate. After a fierce and learned discussion, the scholar bowed to Madhva and
became one of his greatest disciples – the learned author and disseminator of Madhva’s views –
Trivikrama Pundit.
Shortly thereafter, Madhva’s parents passed on. Upon their departure, Madhva’s younger
brother and seven Faulava disciples joined with Madhva. In time these eight would become
founders of the Asta-Mathas that still exist in Udipi to this day.
Though Madhva was not a ―Dualist‖ he certainly was a ―Duelist‖ who debated all other views in
his confronting ―Realistic‖ style. His ―Distinctivism‖ is sometimes called ―Tattvavada‖ pointing
to the reality of this world, compared to Shankara’s ―Mayavada‖ which denied the reality of the
world. To Advaita, the world is maya, or false. To Madhva, maya is how we look at the world.
To him, the temporary is not false, it is a real reflection of the eternal.
The range of Madhva’s scholarship is a remarkable testament to his genius. Not only did he
write thirty-seven original Sanskrit works including two different commentaries on the Bhagavad
Gita. He also wrote a commentary on the Rig Veda. Unfortunately, many of the reference works
from his personal library are no longer available, except for his quotes from these now missing
texts.
On the subject of his influence on other Bhakti schools, the most obvious and currently visible is
the Gaudiya branch of Vaishnavism, originating from Shri Chaitanya in West Bengal, whose
followers have come to the modern world as ISKCON and related groups. The Gaudiya lineage
traces itself to Madhva, even though they differ on many points. The followers of Madhva are of
the opinion that the Gaudiyas have deviated significantly from many important points in
Madhva’s teachings. In spite of this, both groups accept the nine points presented in this article
as bedrock Dvaita Vedanta and have built their teachings on Madhva’s foundation.
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 the American Transcendentalists, then Madhva is a ―unique-itarian‖ standing as the
fearless champion of individualism anywhere in the world. His bold assertion that by his time
the eternal truth of the Vedas was nearly lost and so he had to go straight to the source in
Badarikashram, to sit again at the venerable feet of Vyasadeva and thereby hear the true meaning
of the Vedas and write that truth as his own commentary on the sutras is stunning.
The first of the Vedanta-sutras says, ―Now therefore, let us inquire into the nature of Brahman
(athato brahma jijnasa).‖ In his powerful, terse and direct way, Madhva comments, ―If, as
Shankara says, names and forms are illusion and Brahman is formless and devoid of
characteristics, then why does the first sutra, using words, invite us to study the nature of
Brahman? If it is formless there is nothing to study, if it can be described then it must have
distinctions that are eternally real.‖
As for himself, in the last verse of his brief work summarizing Dvaita, the Vishnu Tattva
Vinirnaya, Madhva says, ―In my first birth I was Hanuman, born to help Lord Ram 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.‖
The two most popular images of Madhva show him as the muscular and indefatigable hero of the
individual, scion of Vayu the life force itself in His triple form of Hanuman, Bhima, Madhva.
The other shows a resolute and focused Madhva, sitting with two fingers on his right hand, raised
and chanting the slogan of Dvaita Vedanta, ―Difference is real.‖ True to his nature, Madhva left
his body at the age of 79, in the year 1317 C.E., while lecturing to hundreds of his disciples on
the Aitereya Upanishad, his personal favorite. He quoted the last verse 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 forever more. 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 and do nothing. 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 peace to the world.‖
Sriman Madhvacarya was the embodiment of resolution, individuality and eternal truth, serving
the wishes of Bhagavan Shri Vishnu for re-establishing the eternal truths of the Hindu/Vedic
Sanatana Dharma culture, even with his final breath. He is one of our greatest Vedic action
heroes.