The Ultimate Refuge

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Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

Srimate SrivanSatakopa Sri Vedanta Desika Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:

One of the habits, which we were told to cultivate as children, is reading the newspaper. Not only was it considered important for keeping oneself abreast of what was happening in one’s own town and in the wide
world outside, it was also touted to be a means of developing one’s language and vocabulary. My father used to exhort me to read “The Hindu” every day, to improve my knowledge of English. Thus the newspaper

habit was inculcated in us early in life, so much so that it has become an addiction—on the rare days that the daily is not delivered due to a holiday, we feel as if the day is rather incomplete. Even after the advent of television, with its numerous 24-hour news channels, the newspaper has managed to hold its own so far.

People have different ways of reading the newspaper. Some (like my eleven-year old son) go straight to the Sports page, working their way backwards. Some prefer to be more methodical, beginning with the front page and the headlines and plodding patiently through the entire paper. I had a friend with the ghoulish habit of glancing at the “Obituary” column first—his justification for according priority to that particular page was that it was a “life and death” matter. We too do see this column, but in its turn. Somewhat funnily, you find the Obituary column tagged on to the Sports page (especially in “The Hindu”), indicating perhaps that human life and death represent an unending sport –“alagilaa vilayaattu”– to Emperuman.

We find that people are as different in death, as they are in life. From the obituary references, we learn that some people “attained Siva loka praapti”, some “slept in Jesus”, some “attained immortality”, while some others just “passed away”, depending upon their religious persuasions. When it comes to Sri Vaishnavites, we find that there are several variants in use, as far as obituary references are concerned. Some say, “Tirunaadu alankaritthaar” (the departed soul now adorns the halls of Sri Vaikunttam), and some others, “attained the Lord’s lotus feet”. By far, however, the accepted formula appears to be “Acharyan tiruvadi adaindaar” (the deceased reached the glorious feet of the Preceptor).

This sets us thinking. Why should we say that the departed soul attained the feet of the Acharya? Is it because we want to set ourselves apart from others in death, as in life? (it is the complaint of many a non-Vaishnavite that our Sampradayam is exclusive, much like an elite club, with unique precepts and practices). Would it not be good enough for the soul to reach the Lord’s lotus feet, rather than the Acharya’s? And is there any scriptural authority for saying this?

We owe an immense debt to our parents. Even the Shruti tells us to treat our parents as living Gods. Such being the case, why don’t we say that the departed soul reached its parents’ lotus feet?

Here, we need to make an important distinction between the role of parents and that of the Acharya.
Parents are indeed responsible for bringing us into this world and providing us with the wherewithal for survival, in this ugly mundane jungle filled with predators. However, their support, assistance and aid are useful only in this world. It does nothing for us, as far as emancipation is concerned. Further, their relationship with us is physical in origin and confined to one particular birth, among the countless janmas the soul passes through.

Though one can never belittle the contribution of parents to one’s life, yet when one looks at the broader Cosmic canvas, parental or filial relationships are as fleeting and ephemeral as those of two pieces of wood floating in the broad ocean, coming together due to a quirk of fate for a second, before being torn apart again by the buffeting waves (as the Ramayana tells us). Thus, it may not be appropriate to describe one as having reached the lotus feet of one’s parents, upon one’s release from the mortal coils.

The Acharya, on the other hand, is solely responsible for our spiritual welfare. It is he who shows us God, His nature, our own character as individual souls, the path to Paradise and what stands as a stumbling block on our way to Liberation. It is through him that we adopt an appropriate strategy like Bhakti or Prapatti, for ridding ourselves of our mortal shackles. It is he, whom we have to thank, for enabling us to reach Paramapadam and enjoy infinite bliss in the service of the Lord. It is an accepted tenet that the mediatory services of an Acharya are indispensable for God-realisation—“Acharyavan Purusho Veda”. Thus, vis-à-vis the birth that parents afford us, which only leads us to more and more mundane births, the Janma that the Acharya gives us (by eradicating the ignorance entrenched in us, thereby entitling us to emancipation), is extremely beneficial. The birth the Acharya bestows on us destroys the poisonous seed of Karma, preventing further births—“Janma pradhva msi janma” as Swami Desikan puts it.

Thus, if we attain Sri Vaikunttam after our sojourn here, it is solely due to the Acharya’s munificence and mercy. If we have to be eternally beholden to the Acharya, then so has the Lord too. Having taken numerous avataras and failed to attract mortals into his fold in any big measure, he takes avataras as Acharyas, lives and moves with the sinful populace, bringing them around slowly through patient guidance. The Acharya ultimately entrusts their souls to their rightful owner—the Lord– cleansed of all the dirt and grime of Samsara, through the unfailing strategy of Prapatti or Surrender. Thus, the Lord has as much to thank the Acharya for, as we mortals do.

Being an “Atma Sambhandam”, a special Spiritual Relationship, the tie with our Acharya continues much beyond our worldly life and persists even when we ascend to Sri Vaikunttam. Due to the glorious nature of the benefits he has conferred upon us, we tend to value him as much in Paramapadam, as we do here, perhaps more so. And the liberated soul deems it as much a pleasure to perform service to the Acharya in the eternal abode, as in this mundane one.

Further, we Vaishnavites value and treasure Acharya Sambandham much more than any other relationship. We hold it even higher than that with the Lord. After all, just as we know our father only because our mother points him out to us, so too, we know God only due to the Acharya’s munificence and mercy. Hence, there is hardly anything strange in our considering the Guru’s feet as our sole refuge, not only in this world, but also in Sri Vaikunttam. The Acharya is thus not only the “Praapakam” (the Facilitator) but also the goal to be attained (“Praapyam”). Thus, when we say that someone reached his or her Acharya’s lotus feet, we are only recording the soul’s journey to its logical destination.

All this is fine, but is there any authority for saying so? Or is it a new-fangled practice that has sprung up during recent times, like so many others of its kind?

Allaying our misgivings is Sri Alavandar, who lays down clearly that the Acharya’s tiruvadi is as much a refuge to him in this mundane world, as at Paramapadam—“atra paratra cha api nityam yadeeya charanou sharanam madeeyam”. Recording his debt of gratitude to his grandfather and Praacharya, Sri Nathamuni, Sri Alavandar codifies the Vaishnava’s conduct towards his Guru, here and elsewhere. Expanding on this, Swami Desikan tells us that the Acharya is a refuge to us in this life, due to his catalytic role–ensuring germination of the seeds of Bhakti and Gnaanam in the barren soil of our soul—“Mukte: poorva avastthaayaam Gnaana, Bhakti utpaadana mukhena sharanatvam”. And in Sri Vaikunttam too, when one recollects the invaluable assistance the Acharya has been in one’s ascent to the Lord’s abode, one tends to accord the same exalted pedestal to the Acharya, as one has on earth—“praacheena mahopakaara saakshaatkaarena visesha pratipatti vishayataya”. The word “api”, which follo ws the phrase “atra paratra cha”, dispels any lingering doubt as to the possibility of the Preceptor forming the liberated soul’s refuge.

Swami Desikan adduces further scriptural authority in this regard, by quoting from the Pancharatra text of Saatvata Tantram—

“Gurureva param Brahma, Gurureva paraa gati:
Gurureva paraa vidyaa Gurureva paraayanam
Gurureva para: kaamo Gurureva param dhanam
Yasmaat sat upadeshta asou tasmaat gurutaro Guru:”

This beautiful verse tells us that the Acharya is the highest of deities we can worship, the safest of refuges we can ever find, the best of all knowledge that can ever be acquired, the best of goals we can ever aspire for and the most precious of treasures we can hope to find.

The Acharya being both the Goal to be attained and the strategy therefor, is borne out by the quote, ”Upaaya upeya bhaavena tam eva sharanam vrajet”.

With all this wealth of scriptural evidence, is it strange that we SriVaishnavas consider the Acharya our all, both in this mundane world and in Paradise?

And more than anything else, that the departed soul’s ultimate refuge is its preceptor’s holy feet, is borne out by the immortal words of the wise Sabhari, renowned for her righteous conduct– “Dharma chaarineem”. Srimad Ramayanam tells us that after a long tenure of blissful service to her Acharyas, Sabhari, after shedding her mortal coils, attained the sacred feet of her Gurus—

“teshaam icchaami aham gantum sameepam bhaavitaatmanaam
Muneenaam aashramo yeshaam aham cha parichaarinee”

And when you consider the fact that the Acharya is none other than the Lord Himself in human form (“Peetaka aadai Piraanaar Pirama guru aagi vandu”—Sri Periyazhwar), there is not much difference between attaining the Lord and the Acharya. Hence “Acharyan tiruvadi” is as good as the Lord’s lotus feet. Thus, when the individual soul, having performed Prapatti, attains Paramapadam, it is the Acharya’s feet that it reaches.

Srimate Sri LakshmiNrisimha divya paduka sevaka SrivanSatakopa Sri Narayana Yatindra Mahadesikaya nama:

dasan, sadagopan

Article by : Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore

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