Sri Nigamanta Mahadesika, popularly known as Vedanta Desika, was a rare preceptor who had the distinction of being deified during his lifetime. He himself has referred to this in the prologue to his drama, the Sankalpa-sooryodaya . His disciples and followers have composed many verses and gadyams (poetic prose) eulogising him — Saptati-ratnamalika , Vedanta Desika-prapatti , Vedanta Desika-gadyam and so on .
Two other important works of this genre are Desika divya-sahasranama and Nigamanta Mahadesika Nama-ashtottarasatam, the book under review. While the former was composed by Tirukkudandai Desikan, the latter was composed by Venkatacharya, son of Satakratu Ayya Kumara Tathadesikan, the mentor of Acchyutappa Nayak of Tanjore. This litany of 108 names is in extensive use for worship in shrines dedicated to Vedanta Desika. The work was first published, along with a Tamil commentary, by Kurichi Gopala Tathacharya a century ago.
The present edition has several welcome additions and features. The text is given in the Devanagari script (which is more widely known than the grantha used in the earlier edition) and the Tamil notes contain transliteration of Sanskrit words. There are copious references and quotations, besides seven useful appendices. On the whole, this is an emotionally appealing and intellectually satisfying book, not only for those following the Desika sampradaya , but also for researchers.
Like the Rama-ashtottara and the Lakshmi-ashtottara , this Ashtottara-satanama is easy to pronounce, and the one who chants the names can do so with a clear understanding of their import. The namavalis are divided into two almost equal parts — the first referring to Desika’s advent, his education, his receiving the grace of Garuda and Lord Hayagreeva, and his upholding the Visishtadvaita philosophy in debates with the protagonists of other faiths.
The second part deals extensively with Desika’s interpretations of the three esoteric mantras — the Ashtakshara, Dvaya and Charamasloka — and his arguments in support of prapatti (surrender) as an easy and effective means of attaining liberation. Eleven of the names bring out how Desika stands out as an ideal preceptor, measuring up to the standards he has set in Nyasa-vimsati. As for the appendices, they give the meaning of Sanskrit names in Tamil; bring out the similarities between these 108 names and those figuring in the Vishnu-sahasranama; provide an overview of the Visishtadvaita philosophy; and highlight its important facets as delineated by Desika in his Pradhana-sataka. There is also an interesting comparison between the namavalis and the sequence of the Brahmasutras, an area that lends itself for further research. To sum up, the value of the book far exceeds its immediate purpose of chanting the names. It invites one to read over and over again, thanks to the new insights the reader gets into Vedanta Desika’s eminence and contribution to Visishtadvaita Vedanta, every time one goes through it.