According to the Sri Kurma inscriptions of Narahari Tirtha, his direct disciple, Sripad Madhvacarya was born between 1238 and lived for 79 years, until 1317 A.D. This is confirmed in the Anu-Madhva-Carita. According to the authorized biographies compiled by his disciples shortly after his passing away, Sripad Madhva was born in the village of Tulunada, which is located about 8 miles to the southeast of the city of Udipi in Karnataka. He came from a family of sivalli-brahmanas and was the son of Madhyageha Bhatta.
In his Caitanya Caritamrta commentary (CC Madhya 9.245), Sripad Bhakdivedanta Swami comments as follows: “In his childhood, Madhvacarya was known as Vasudeva, and there are some wonderful stories surrounding him. It is also said that his father piled up many debts, and Madhvacarya converted tamarind seeds into actual coins to pay them off. When he was five years old, he was offered the sacred thread. A demon named Maniman lived near his abode in the form of a snake, and at the age of five, Madvacarya killed that snake with the toe of his left foot. When his mother was very disturbed, he would appear before her in one jump. He was a great scholar even in childhood, and although his father did not agree, he accepted sannyasa at the age of twelve.”
When he was only 12 years old, Madhvacarya left home and accepted the renounced order of life, under the guidance of Acyutapreksa, his sannyasa-guru. Madhva's sannyasa name was Purnaprajna Tirtha. His deep study of the scriptures was unparalleled, and had convinced him of the uselessness of the Advaita interpretation of Vedanta. He was inspired to revive the original and pure interpretation of Vedanta which promotes personal theism. He was to do this on the basis of a profound and innovative interpretation of the scriptures, for which he was to become famous. This interpretation is known as Dvaita-dvaita-vada, or pure dualism.
After his initiation, Purnaprajna spent some time in the asrama of Acyutapreksa where he carefully studied the Vedanta commentaries of different acaryas, beginning with the ^stasiddhi of Vimuktatman. But soon, Purnaprajna's expertise in scriptural argument and his determination to establish personal theism as the conclusion of Vedanta grew to the point where he could defeat Acyutapreksa in argument. Recognizing Purnaprajna's superior scholarship, Acyutapreksa made him the head of his asrama. Purnaprajna was also awarded the title ananda-tirtha, by which he is often referred to in various scriptural literatures.
After he became the temple authority in the asrama of Acyutapreksa, Purnaprajna began training disciples, preaching his interpretation of Vedanta and defeating many scholars from different schools of philosophy, including Buddhists, Jains, Advaitins, and various impersonalists, agnostics, logicians, and the practioners of materialistic religion. His success in defeating all opposing scholars inspired him to tour South India in an attempt to preach the philosophy of personal theism and devotion to Visnu far and wide. At this time, he had completely formulated all the details of his philosophical system, but had not yet committed his system to writing.
His tour of South India was quite extensive: it took him from Udipi to the southernmost tip of India, (Kanyakumari)and from there to Ramesvaram, Sri Rangam, and many other important holy places of pilgrimage. Wherever he went he debated the prominent scholars of the impersonal school, smashing their interpretations of Vedanta with his brilliant advocacy of dualistic theism. His scathing criticisms of Sankaracarya's impersonal Vedanta met with stiff opposition, but no one could overcome him in scriptural argument or logical debate. It is said that when Madvha was at Kanyakumari he was challenged by a great impersonalist scholar of the Sankara school to write his own commentary on Vedanta if he disagreed with the teachings of the master. At that time, it is said that Madhva promised to write his own Vedanta commentary, fully elaborating the proper conclusions of personal theism. At Sri Rangam he also expressed a certain degree of dissatisfaction with the conclusions of Ramanuja's visistadvaita-vada, in that he felt it did not go far enough to refute the dangerous speculative philosophy of Sankaracarya. This further added to the young Madhva's firm determination to someday compose his own commentary incorporating his own unique interpretation.
After completing his South Indian tour, Madhva decided to tour North India as well. With his resolve to complete his own Vedanta commentary growing day by day, he was eager to begin the work. But Madhva wanted to have the blessings of the author of Vedanta, Vedavyasa himself, before beginning such an ambitious project. He set out for North India and the Himalays, then, in order to achieve the benedictions of Vedavyasa, for it was said that Vyasa, being immortal, still resided in his asrama at Badarainatha, although he never made himself visible to mortal eyes.
After a long journey by foot, Sripad Madhva finally arrived at the Anantamatha at Badarinatha. There he remained for seven weeks, absorbed in fasting, prayer, and devotional meditation. Inspired from within, he hiked further up into the Himalayas, to Badarikasrama, in upper Badari, where Vyasadeva has his hermitage. There he met Vedavyasa and explained his commentary on Bhagavad-gita to Vyasa himself, who approved. When he met Vyasa, he was given a salagrama-sila which is known as Astamurti. After discussing the scriptures with Vyasadeva, Sripad Madhvacarya's understanding of their inner meaning became even more profound. He remained at Badarikasrama for some months until he finished composing his commentary on Bhagavad-gita, whereupon he returned to the Anantamatha. At that time Madhva's companion Satya Tirtha wrote down the entire commentary. At this time, Madhva also wrote his commentary on Vedanta.
Bidding farewell to Badarinatha, Madhva began the long journey home. On the way, he again met with and defeated many scholars of various philosophical schools. He traveled through Bihar, Bengal, Orissa, and andhradesa. The Madhva-vijaya describes how when Madhva reached Ganjama, on the banks of the river Godavari, hed met two prominent scholars, who were well-versed in all the important scriptures: Sobhana Bhatta and Swami Sastri. After converting them to his school, these scholars became renowned as important followers of Sripad Madhva. They became famous as Padmanabha Tirtha and Narahari Tirtha and are regarded as the principle acaryas of the Madhva school after Madhva himself. Narahari Tirtha is famous for his commentaries on Madhva's Gita-bhasya and Karma-nirnaya. He was the Prime Minister of Kalinga between 1271 and 1293. Padmanabha Tirtha wrote commentaries on many of Madhva's works, including Madhva's Brahma-sutra-bhasya, his Anuvyakhyana, and his Dasa-prakaranas. He was the first commentator on many of the major works of Madhvacarya.
After converting Sobhana Bhatta and Swami Sastri, Sripad Madhvacarya journeyed through Andhrapradesa, Maharastra and Karnataka arrived at last in Udipi. Upon his return to Udipi from North India, Madhva confronted Acyutapreksa, who had refused to accept his ideas previously. Now the roles were reversed; guru became disciple and disciple became guru. Madhva converted Acyutapreksa from Sankara's Vedanta to the cause of Vaisnavism and accepted him as a follower.
As a result of Madhva's success in defeating opposing scholars and gurus, his reputation spread, and enthusiasm grew for his new system of Vedanta philosophy. As his commentaries on Bhagavad-gita and Vedanta gained wider and wider acceptance, followers and new converts began to join his camp from all over India, attracted by his charismatic personality, invincible logic and scriptural knowledge, and his inspired faith.
While he stayed in Udipi, it was Madhva's regular habit to bathe in the ocean. One day, he was sitting on the beach absorbed in contemplation upon Sri Krsna. At that time, he spotted a ship, bound for Dvaraka, that was about to founder on a sand bar. He signaled the ship to safety, and it was able to safely approach the shore. The captain of the ship wanted to bestow some present upon Sri Madhvacarya, and he accepted a large chunk of gopi-candana tilaka. As it was being presented to the acarya, the large chunk of tilak broke in half, revealing a huge deity of Krsna. Everyone was astonished to find a Krsna deity within the block of tilak, but Madhvacarya was not unaccustomed to miracles and accepted it as the Lord's grace. At that time he composed some beautiful prayers glorifying Sri Krsna, and soon after that the Deity was installed at the temple in Udipi where it remains today. The Deity weighed so much that even thirty men had difficulty moving it. Madhva, however, was superhumanly powerful—it is said that he was an incarnation of Vayu—and managed to personally carry the Deity to Udipi.
After installing the Deity of Krsna in Udipi, he revised the system of Deity worship, establishing a strict regimen of ceremonial ritual and proper conduct among his followers, imposing among other things the rigorous observance of fasting on Ekadasis.
Having achieved such great success at home, it was time for Madhva to once more travel afar. He began a second pilgrimage to North India, where he once again visited Badarikasrama. The Madhva-vijaya, written by the son of one of Madhva's disciples describes how Madhva used his sharp wits, his knowledge of many languages such as Turkish and Persian, and his courage to overcome great obstacles in his preaching. While on his North Indian tour, Madhva and his disciples arrived at a place in the province of Ganga Pradesh where political tensions between Hindus and Muslims prevented them from crossing the river. The Hindus were on one side of the river and the Muslims on the other side. No one dared cross, and no boat was available. Madhva and his followers, without regard for the Muslim soldiers who guarded the crossing, swam across the river. The entire camp was placed under arrest. Madhva himself was taken before the Muslim King, Sultan Jalal-uddin-Khilji, who demanded an explanation. When Madhva was finally allowed to speak on his own behalf, he spoke in Persian, addressing the king at length on devotional theism. Seeing the intensity and saintly purity of Sripad Madhvacarya, the Sultan's heart was softened. So impressed was he with Madhva that he wanted to offer him land and money, but Madhva set the example of renunciation by humbly declining the Sultan's offer.
Where wit would not help, Madhva would sometimes use his superhuman strength to save a situation. Once his traveling companion and sannyasi disciple Satya Tirtha was attacked by a fierce Bengal tiger. Fearless, Madhva went to the rescue. After wrestling the tiger away from Satya Tirtha, he sent it away with its tail between its legs. Another time, while walking on pilgrimage through a dangerous part of India, he was attacked by murderous dacoits, but he easily held them off.
Madhva was a multi-faceted personality who lived a long and healthy life. He was a natural leader who believed in physical culture as well as intellectual, moral, and spiritual culture. He took part in many athletic activities, such as wrestling, swimming, and mountain-climbing, which served him well in the Himalayas. As he came from a family of brahmanas that had descended from the warrior brahmana and incarnation of Godhead, Parasurama, he was tall, strong, and robust. It was reputed that there was no limit to his bodily strenghth. The Madhva-vijaya records how a strongman named Kadanjari who was said to have the strength of thirty men once challenged Madhvacarya to a contest of strength. Madhvacarya placed the big toe of his foot firmly upon the ground and asked Kadanjari, the famous strongman, to see if he could lift it. Straining with all his brawn again and again, the mighty Kadanjari was unable to move even the big toe of Madhvacarya. According to Trivikrama Pandita, Madhvacarya was endowed with all the thirty-two bodily symptoms of a great personality. He had a deep, sonorous, and melodic voice and was an expert singer. His recitation of the verses of Srimad-Bhagavatam was regarded as being especially sweet.
In this way, Madhva traveled extensively throughout the whole of India. He returned to South India after having visited Badarinatha, Delhi, Kuruksetra, Benares, and Goa. After this, his travels were mostly limited to those provinces of South India near Udipi. After Sankaracarya, who had also traveled extensively, He was the second important Vedanta acarya to travel throughout India, and his broad preaching campaign had a lasting effect. Gradually, his following grew, as great personalities from all parts of India accepted him as guru. The Madhva-vijaya mentions that he had disciples from many lands, and his present day followers still include the speakers of eight different languages—Tulu, Kannada, Konkani, Maratha, Telugu, Southern Saurastri, Bengali, and Hindi.
After returning to Udipi, Madhva once again immersed himself in prolific literary activity. He wrote commentaries on the ten major Upanisads. He wrote ten major philosophical treatises, the Dasa-Prakaranas, as well as what many consider his most important work, the Anu-Vyakhyana. He wrote a summary of Mahabharata called the Moksa-dharma, and he also commented on Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Madhvacarya's dedication to the Lord and his deep scholarship made him a feared and hated enemy of the followers of Sankaracarya, who had a vested interest in maintaining their position as the only bona fide Vedantists. It has been said, “Of all the plagues with which mankind is cursed, ecclesiastical tyrrany's the worst.” The tyrrany of the acaryas of the Srngeri-matha founded by Sankaracarya led them to attack Sripad Madhva with every means at their disposal. They employed various means to harass the followers of Madhva. They tried to prove that Madhva did not come from any authorized disciplic succession. Finally they challenged Madhva to a debate.
The Sankarites chose as their champion pandita a highly learned scholar named Pundarika Puri, who was famed for his erudition and expertise in argument. In the debate with Madhva he was humiliated. In arguing with Madhva Pundarika was like a schoolboy facing a professor. Aching for vengeance, the defeated pandita arranged for one of his cohorts, a sannyasi named Padma Tirtha, to steal a priceless collection of ancient Sanskrit scriptures from the library of Sripad Madhvacarya. The books were later recovered with the help of King Jayasimha of Kumla.
After Jayasimha Raja recovered the books of Madhvacarya, an audience was arranged between the Jayasimha and Madhva. Their meeting was to be followed by a debate between the king's own court pandita and Madhva. The pandita, Trivikrama Pandita, a resident of Visnumangala, was the foremost authority on impersonal Vedanta in the land of Kumla and an expert poet. They met in the temple of Kudil. At the end of the day's discourse, Trivikrama Pandita had failed to defeat Madhva, but he refused to surrender. The debate was continued on the following day. The next day, Trivikrama Pandita used all his learning, his wit, and his power of argument in an attempt to embarrass Madhva, but after exhausting himself was again unable to defeat him. This went on for fifteen days, when Trivikrama Pandita, his intellect spent, his doubts destroyed, recognized Sri Madhva as his guru. He surrendered to the lotus feet of Sripad Madhvacarya and was accepted by him as a disciple. Madhva ordered him to write a commentary on Vedanta. Trivikrama Pandita's commentary is called the Tattva-pradipa. His conversion was a turning point in Madhva's preaching mission. After his conversion, Trivikrama Pandita's own brother and seven other important scholars took sannyasa from Madhva and became the first directors of the eight Madvhaite monasteries in Udipi. Trivikrama Pandita's son, Narayanacarya who later wrote the Madhva-vijaya.
In the final years of Madhva's life, he wrote further commentaries on the scriptures, including the Nyaya-vivarana, the Karma-nirnaya, the Krsnamrta-Maharnava, and others. By this time, Madhvacarya was growing old. He had completed what he set out to do. He had preached his message far and wide, elaborated his philosophical system in numerous commentaries, and had many trained missionaries who could carry on his work with great energy. He had written original works of such a profound character that they would continue to influence devotional theism well into the 20th century. He had established the worship of Krsna in Udipi and had given sannyasa to expert scholars and veteran preachers such as Padmanabha Tirtha, Narahari Tirtha, Madhava Tirtha, and Aksobhya Tirtha, who would succeed him in promoting the philosophical ideals of pure dualistic theism. As he finished his commentary on the Aitereya Upanisad, on the verge of his eightieth birthday, Sripad Madhvacarya passed away from this world and entered the eternal Vaikuntha planets on the ninth day of the full moon in the month of Magh (corresponding to January-February) in the year 1317.
The essential principles of Sri Madhvacarya's teachings—where they run parallel to the teachings of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu—have been summarized in ten points by Baladeva Vidyabhusana in his Prameya-Ratnavali. These ten points are as follows:
shri madvhah praha vishnum paratamam akhilamnaya vedyam ca cisvam
satyam bhedam ca jivam hari carana jusas tartamyam ca tesham
moksham vishnv-anghri-labham tad-amala-bhajanam tasya hetum pramanam
pratyaksadi trayam cety upadisati hari krsna-caitanya chandra
"Shri Madhvacaharya taught that:
1) Krishna, who is known as Hari is the Supreme Lord, the Absolute.
2) That Supreme Lord may be known through the Vedas.
3) The material world is real.
4) The jivas, or souls, are different from the Supreme Lord.
5) The jivas are by nature servants of the Supreme Lord.
6) There are two categories of jivas: liberated and illusioned.
7) Liberation means attaining the lotus feet of Krishna, that is, entering into an eternal relationship of service to the Supreme Lord.
8) Pure devotional service is the cause of this relationship.
9) The truth may be known through direct perception, inference, and Vedic authority. These very principles were taught by Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu."
In his Caitanya Caritamrta commentary (CC Madhya 9.245), Sripad Bhakdivedanta Swami comments: “For further information about Madhvacarya, one should read Madhva-vijaya by Narayana Acarya.”
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