This article is written by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar of Coimbatore
Who is the most merciful person in the whole world? Some may say it is one’s mother, because she puts up with quite a lot of trouble with the child, even before it is born.The physical inconveniences, which a mother undergoes before, during and after childbirth, are beyond description and only those who have experienced motherhood would be able to appreciate their magnitude. Even if the son is totally impervious to the mother and her needs, she never ceases to care for him till the end. Others may ascribe maximum mercifulness to the Lord, for He patiently forgives all our transgressions and strives constantly to emancipate us through various strategies.
However, the fact remains that the most merciful of all is the Acharya. More than the mother, who cares for our physical and material welfare (which does not save us from the eternal and vicious cycle of births and deaths), more than the Lord (who liberates us because He selfishly craves our company -“Sa EkAkI na ramatE”- to relieve the tedium of loneliness in Sri Vaikuntam), it is the Acharya, who yearns for our spiritual well-being and liberation from samsara, who displays the maximum mercy. The mother may put up with us because we are from her own body, the Lord may forgive us because we are an inseparable part of Him, but to the Acharya, we are complete strangers, and whatever he does for our upliftment is absolutely without any expectation of a quid pro quo. Our Acharyas are “KripA mAtra prasanna Acharyas”, driven solely by the motive of mercy towards misguided mankind. They scrupulously adhere to the dictum “KripayA nisspruhO vadEt” (The Acharya should impart instruction to the disciple without expecting anything in return).
What makes the Acharyas more merciful than any other category, is their propensity to seek out souls in need of succour and to provide them appropriate relief, instead of waiting for the needy individual to seek their assistance. They do not stand on prestige and think nothing of taking deliverance to the sishya’s doorstep. While the normal procedure is for the intending disciple to search for an Acharya, satisfy him through sincere personal services and obtain the desired instruction (“tat viddhi praNipAtEna priprasnEna sEvayA”), there have been numerous instances of the Guru himself going after the prospective sishya, driven by concerns forthe latter’s spiritual welfare and the need for diverting the disciple before he travels too far on the path to nowhere. One such instance involves Sri Parasara Bhattar, the illustrious adopted son of Lord Ranganatha Himself, which is recounted below.
When Sri Bhattar was engaged in the Lord’s service at Srirangam, a Srivaishnava from Thirunarayanapuram visiting Srirangam sought him out for paying obeisance, and in the course of the ensuing conversation, disclosed that an erudite, generous and extremely wealthy advaiti, endowed with sterling qualities, was holding court near Melkote, with an enviable strength of disciples. He was also in the practice of feeding a battalion of the hungry every day, putting his considerable wealth to good use.
When Sri Bhattar heard this, perhaps due to the Lord’s will, it occurred to him as to what an acquisition the VedAnthi (the gentleman of Melkote) would be to the Sampradaya. Though Sri Bhattar realized that this would be a difficult task in view of VedAnthi belonging to a diametrically opposite philosophical camp and his apparent invincibility in debate, yet the Acharya decided to go after him, driven solely by boundless mercy for the unseen stranger.
Sri Bhattar, who had notknown physical discomfort since birth, journeyed to Thirunarayanapuram traveling on foot over hill and dale, braving inhospitable terrain. En route, when he reached the banks of Cauvery, Sri AnanthAzhwan came running to him, having heard ofthe Acharya’s journey and its purpose. Despite Anantazhwan’s remonstrations in regard to the Acharya going after a prospective disciple, Sri Bhattar continued till he reached Thirunarayanapuram, where he performed mangalasasanam of Sri Yadugiri Nacchiar, Sri Selvapillai and Sri Yoganrisimha , with a prayer for the successful completion of his task.
Thereafter, the Acharya proceeded to GangOthri, the village where Vedanthi was put up. Hearing that the Vedanthi could not be accessed so easily due to a bevy of sishyas restricting entry to his quarters, Sri Bhattar went to the Vedanti’s house in the garb of a poor Brahmin in search of food. When others who had come for a similar purpose made a beeline for the dining hall, Sri Bhattar strayed from the line and found Vedanthi ensconced on a high pedestal, imparting his erudition to admiring acolytes. When the disciples espied the presence of an unbecomingly-clad stranger in their midst, they sought to direct him to the dining hall, where, they were sure, he belonged. When Sri Bhattar refused to move, Vedanthi asked him what he wanted (“KA bhikshA?”). Seizing the opportunity, the newcomer replied that he wanted a debate (“Tharka bhikshA”). Though not clad in finery, Sri Bhattar’s face betrayed his scholarship and spirituality, which impressed the Vedanthi, apart from the stranger’s bold request for a debate, knowing full well that no one had yet scored over the host in debate. Though the Vedanthi was not in the habit of taking on debaters personally, as he had an abundance of capable students who could make mincemeat of most would-be debaters, something in Sri Bhattar’s manner, bearing, radiance of the face and bewitchingeyes, and above all, the will of the Lord who wanted the new convert as badly as Sri Bhattar, made Vedanthi agree to the challenge.
Sri Bhattar and Vedanthi argued back and forth for nine days in defence of their respective tenets with neither yielding an inch of ground. The entire population of scholars from near andafar was witness to the marathon debate, with scintillating arguments from both sides. It was an unseen and unheard-of spectacle, the likes of which had not been chronicled before. Sri Valmiki, trying and failing to find similes forthe valiant battle between Sri Rama and Ravana, ends up lamely with “RamaRavanayO: yuddham Rama RavaNayO: iva” (the encounter between Chakkravartthi Thirumagan and Ravana had no parallels-it could be compared only with itself). Such was the case with the confrontation between the son of Sri Ranganatha and the erudite Vedanti. The seesaw battle showed no signs of tilting in either side’s favour, and Sri Bhattar, despite his indomitable spirit, began to feel dishearteneddue to his lack of progress. At the end of the ninth day of verbal battle, Sri Bhattar performed tiruvArAdhanam and went to sleep without partaking of the prasadam, with his mind fixed on the lotus feet of Sri Ramanuja and Peria Perumal.
That night, Aranganagarappan appeared in Sri Bhattar’s dream and told him, “We waited so long only to exhibit your scholarship to the world. You will score over the Vedanthi tomorrow. Just keep in mind the essence of Sri Kalian’s ThirunedumthAndakam and the sreesooktis of Sri Alavandar and you will sail through.”
Buoyed up beyond measure by Peria Perumal’s assurance, Sri Bhattar appeared at the opponent’s palace with his countenance radiant with joy at the impending victory. The moment Vedanthi looked at the face of the youthful challenger, he sensed that Sri Bhattar had come to draw blood that day, and without further ado, admitted defeat despite Sri Bhattar’s protestations. The vanquished Vedanthi prayed to the victorious Bhattar to accept him as a disciple and to purify him with pancha samskArAm, and Sri Bhattar readily obliged.
Mission accomplished, Sri Bhattar returned to Srirangam with the satisfaction of having saved a worthy soul from waywardness. The Vedanthi too, unable to bear separation from his new-found Acharya, followed him to Srirangam some time later, having assumed sanyAsam, with his riches laden on a camel, which he surrendered at Sri Bhattar’s feet. This wealth was used for putting up a beautiful garden of flowers for the Lord’s adornment and for feeding bhAgavatAs. Pleased at the new disciple’s devotion to the Lord and His votaries and his scant regard for worldly possessions despite a lifetime of princely pleasures, Sri Bhattar embraced Vedanthi, calling him affectionately, “nam Jeeyar”. This sobriquet stuck to the sanyasi and he came to be known as “Nanjeeyar” thenceforth. Nanjeeyar was his master’s constant companion and imbibed all esoteric concepts of the Sampradaya, along with Sri Bhashya, Aruliccheyal and its unfathomed depths of blissful experience.
Applying his existing scholarship and Sri Bhattar’s nectarine kAlakshEpams on ThiruvAimozhi, Sri Nanjeeyar authored the second commentary on Sri Nammazhwar’s magnum opus, titled “onpadinAyirappadi”, incorporating and expanding the short, sweet and succinct “Thiru ArAyirappadi” of Sri Thirukkurugai PirAn PiLLAn. The “onpadinayirappadi” was the precursor and forerunner to the subsequent IrupatthunAlAyirappadi of Sri PeriavAcchAn PiLlai and the “eedu” of Sri Vadakku Tiruveedipillai. We find the later vyAkhyAnams quoting Sri Nanjeer verbatim in the commentary for many of the pasurams and incorporating his ideas too for the most part.
He also authored a bhAshyam for the SriSUktham, emphasizing the glory of PirAtti and dispelling many misconceptions in that regard. Swami Desikan quotes Sri Nanjeeyar with reverence at several places in Srimad Rahasyatrayasaam, attesting to the erudition, depth of devotion and Acharya bhakti of this Preceptor par excellence.
This is the tale of how an Acharya, driven by boundless mercy, traversed hundreds of miles on foot to win over and emancipate a single sishya, who proved worthy of his Acharya’s efforts.
This article is written by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar of Coimbatore