Swami Vidyaranya

Story of Vidyaranya

Among the treasures housed in the Chinmaya Archives in Mumbai is this manuscript prepared by Pujya Gurudev, with the seeming intention of publishing a commentary on the Panchadasi by Swami Vidyaranya. The introduction about Swami Vidyaranya is typed,with corrections in his own hand. The next section of the introduction on Prakarana Granthas is handwritten. Besides these, there is the handwritten explanation of the first two verses of the tenth chapter. The manuscript stops with this.

We have great pleasure in sharing this precious document with our readers. We have given subtitles for ease of reading, but the footnotes were given by Pujya Gurudev himself. 


Veil of Anonymity​

Self-obliteration is the secret of inspired living and generally a genius lives a life of spectacular achievement and then disappears from the stage of life without leaving any clue to his personal identity. The autobiographies of such are the story of the civilisation of the age that followed and the story of the culture which they had initiated. This is true generally of all real artists, whatever be their field of endeavour.

The spiritual culture of India definitely insists upon this way of life, wherein the ego is to be transcended completely. Naturally, very rarely do we get, if at all, even a vague outline of the story of our Rishis or Acharyas. Mainly, it is all mixed up with traditional trash and exaggerated glorification.

Even kings and ministers imitated this idea of selflessness and left their achievements under a veil of anonymity. Their attention was engaged, all through life, to observe and detect the continuous revelation of His Story in actual life, rather than chronicling the happenings as a factual history.

All brilliant thinkers, scholarly teachers, deep meditators and even victorious warriors, came, lived, served and enriched our nation and its culture and disappeared at the end of their mission,like birds flying in the sky and disappearing in the distance, leaving no footprints behind them. But the memory of the enchanting colours of the Sun reflected on their plumage must have pierced through our perception to colour our hearts and the lingering joys of the remembered beauty stays permanently with those who had eyes to see. Each generation faithfully reported these memories to the rising new generations.

Details of Early Life​

The life of Sri Vidyaranya Swami is so shrouded with theories and traditional beliefs that it is rather difficult to rebuild it with any authoritative assertion. Shreds of facts have got woven with fancies and imageries born out of admiration, devotion and reverence. Tradition exaggerates. Reports magnify. Beliefs distort. And the available facts are insufficient and incomplete. Therefore, to dig up and explore the life of the author of Panchadasi in order to discover the true nature of this mighty man of intellect and intuition is, no doubt, more the work of a poet of vision than the industry of a diligent student of facts.

We are trying to rebuild the life-story of this great man, who had contributed, in the middle of the 13th century, more than any other single individual in the country, both for the political integrity of the country and for the spiritual revival of its people. An invincible warrior, an able administrator, a great diplomat, a popular politician, an erudite scholar, a precise poet, a man of detachment and renunciation, of charity and nobility, of sannyasa and study, Vidyaranya was, indeed, a rare manifestation divine.

On the banks of the river Tungabhadra is a temple-town, called Vijayam then, which was glorified in the Ramayana as Kishkindapuri, and which, shaped and reshaped on the anvil of history, stands today as Golconda. There, near the famous Virupaksha Temple in the village, lived a couple, Mayana and Srimathi. To them was born in 7296 A.C. a boy, who was named by his devoted parents as Madhava.

Though there is direct evidence to prove this parentage of Madhava in his own work Parashara Madhaviyam, there is also other evidence to prove that this concluding stanza is a later interpolation. However, we have unearthed an inscription,1 according to which Madhava’s father was Chamundayya or Chamundabhatta. A Goan inscription has it that his father was Chandra Bhatta and his mother was Machambika.

In the last stanza of his Veda Bhashya, we find it mentioned that he had two brothers, Sayana and Bhoganath. European scholars seem to identify Madhava and Sayana to be one and the same. But this theory stands now conclusively disproved since the discovery of the Bitragunda Grant of Sangama the II. Of the two brothers, Sayana and Bhoganath, the latter was the court jester of the Sangama the II (1356). Madhava, the eldest of the brothers, was born in 1314.

The father of Madhava was the Guru of Sangama, and therefore, under the royal patronage, they must have been, if not rich, at least above wants. The theory that the brothers had suffered from poverty and privations is not very logical and really acceptable. The genius in Madhava could not have blossomed forth, all of a sudden, in the later periods of his life. He was a great devotee of Mother Gayatri, and in Her grace, his sharp intelligence seems to have acquired a brilliance which time finds it impossible to tarnish.

A Veritable Vedavyasa

Among the Hindu Sanskrit authors, we cannot compare Shri Vidyaranya, either in his poetry or philosophy, erudition or scholarship, catholicity of interest or width of sympathy, with anyone, except perhaps, Vedavyasa himself. There is almost no branch of knowledge of which this modern Vyasa had not a felicitous understanding, and many are the departments of human activity, both secular and sacred, in which he can be considered an unquestionable authority.

There is in him a happy blending of the highly subtle philosophical vision and the greatly gross realism of a material world of secular activities. The list of works2 that stands today attributed to him clearly declares his omniscient knowledge (sarvajnatvam).

Had he been only an author, we could have probably accepted him as a great theoretical student of all the burning problems of his age. Considering his philosophical works, one should judge him as the most erudite scholar of the middle ages in India. But when we remember that he took his pen and wielded it in so masterly a manner only during the jealous leisure hours of a busy administrator, successful minister and an accredited general, our admiration for him naturally overruns all bounds to become a violent acclamation. Deeper students of culture become dumb with voiceless amazement.

Even in any one of the above branches, if an individual had accomplished as much as Madhava did, it would have been a monumental memoir of a genius, and came to be the Court Guru and no society would ever have forgotten him in his country.

Various Roles in Vijayanagara

Even in his early days, he must have had not only all the chances to educate himself, but must also have had a peep into the court-life in the palace of Sangama the II, who ruled over the Anegondi. His father was the Royal Guru, and therefore, it must have been easy for him to enter into the inner palace life. As the intelligent and erudite son of the Acharya, he became a boyhood friend of the royal princes Bukka and Harihara. When they, in the maturity of time, came to the throne, this dear friend of their boyhood, Madhava, became the trusted Consultant (mantri), Chief Administrator (sachiva) and later on the Minister (amaatya) himself.

There is a school that would like to believe that Madhava took sannyasa early in life, and later came to be the Court Guru and helped Bukka and Harihara with his advice and counsel. The story, if true, would have been more attractive, indeed, as a religious romance! But this seems to be rather questionable and tradition has no evidence to prove these facts in the life of this great man. The period between the 10th and the 14th century was the most orthodox era of Hinduism. We may call it as an Era of Temples. All man-made majestic magnificent mansions of God were built and installed with divinity only during these three centuries. Never before was architecture brought to serve religion, nor was sculpture, music or dance employed to enrich religion. And in such an era to expect a sannyasi to come into the palace as an administrator or an advisor would be considered a sacrilege, an abomination.

Also, in all the available inscriptions we have so far unearthed, we find him mentioned as Madhava Amaatya, Madhava Mantri and Madhava Sachiva. Never have we come across anywhere the appellation as Acharya Madhava or even as Vidyaranya Madhava. This makes it clear that the minister who must have been, no doubt, a great devotee, well-read in the scriptures and shastras of India, studious and scholarly, erudite and wise, was not a sannyasin or mahatma.

We have got enough historical evidence and a clear study of inscriptions available tell us that Madhava Amaatya helped Bukka and Harihara to found the empire of Vijayanagara. He not only helped in the empire-building as a mere civil officer indicating strategy, declaring policies and directing the diplomacy of the state, but we find it mentioned that he was sent out as a General, commanding an army to relieve Goa. The inscriptions also unfold the brilliant career of this genius of the age when they describe how the consolidation work of the newly carved out empire was shouldered efficiently by Madhava when he served as Chief Minister of the state. In short, though history chronicles that Bukka and Harihara won the kingdom and sat on the throne of the Vijayanagar Empire, the brilliant genius who planned and executed so silently from behind the scenes was this Brahmin Madhava.

When we remember these facts, we are not trying to belittle the sage in Madhava, who is yet to unfold himself in all his majesty, purity, serenity and wisdom. We must emphasise these ideas and take into consideration all his contributions to politics and service of his country, his loyalty to his king, his industry and his deep study, in order to recognise the mighty preparation he had before he too sannyasa.

In our times, the story of Madhava blossoming into Shri Vidyaranya should open the eyes of the mighty men of action and leaders of people at least in our country to a full realization that the day-to-day cheap popularity would fade away in the kaleidoscopic changes that happen in every nation’s life. With the Vijayanagar Empire, Amaatya Madhava is also dead and forgotten. But Vidyaranya can never die, and the saintly service of this mighty man of renunciation embalms even the mortal Mantri’s material success and ministerial achievements.

Memorable Contributions

When the empire was completely and efficiently brought under a healthy administration, Madhava became the Viceroy of the western districts. He went there and built his Raj Bhavan in Chandragunta, today called as Chandragutti, the capital of the western districts. Apart from administrative improvements, benevolent irrigational projects and liberal encouragement to native handicrafts and arts, we find him extolled in the available records as a great patron of learning and literature.

A devout Hindu, he strove to stand for what he believed and did all he could for the revival of our culture and the renaissance of our learning. At Banavasi, he built a temple of Madhukeshwara in about 1368; at Goa he constructed, employing all the greatest local artists available then, the temple of Saptanatha. In a Maharashtra poet’s work, we find it mentioned that Madhava was born earlier to the Salivaka era of 1300. In a well-preserved copper plate, we read that during a solar eclipse, he, ‘the great minister and the undaunted follower of the Upanishadic path, Madhava Raja, Governor’, gave away in charity a village called Khachar, after renaming it as Madhavapura (Palaspalli), to twenty-four learned brahmins, invited to settle down therein from Kashmir.3

Royal Minister to Renunciate

How exactly or when did this mighty intellect, scholar and statesman, with his secular achievements and spiritual thirst, actually take sannyasa is not known. However, we know that in the maturity of his experiences in the world, he renounced all the pomp and glory of court life, and of the with a beggar’s bowl, clad in the sannyasa robes, he roamed about, spending his entire time in the contemplation of the most High. During such roaming, he reached Benares, where tradition has it that the bhikshu had a darshan of immortal saint Vyasa.

The story goes that the sadhu immediately requested Vyasa to see through his Veda Bhashya and correct it thoroughly. Veda Vyasa read them through, and surprised at the scholarliness of the author, finding nothing to add or correct, the ancient seer, blessing the son of the Rishis, gave him the appellation ‘Vidyaranya’, meaning ‘A Forest of Knowledge’.

Traditions are to be taken with a pinch of salt, but they always have a core of truth behind them. That even Vyasa, the author of the Brahma Sutra, whose pen has painted the immortal pictures of the Puranas, could not add or substitute even a phrase from the great Veda Bhashya is the highest compliment that an Indian can pay to a commentator of the great Vedas.

From the internal evidences gathered from his own works, we find different names mentioned as the Guru of Vidyaranya. In his Sarvadarshana Sangraham, he salutes his teacher, mentioning him by name: Sarvajna Vishnu. In Panchadashi, the work opens with a devoted prostration to his teacher Shri Sankarananda. Again, in Shri Sankara Digvijayam and Jivanmukti Vivekam, we gather that Shri Vidyatirtha was his Guru. No definite information is available to establish any one of them as his sole teacher. Most probably, in his various works, according to his mood, he must have saluted and invoked the blessings of his Family Guru, or his Diksha Guru or his Vidya Guru.4

His Vidya Guru, Shri Vidyatirtha, who has also been mentioned as Vidya-Sankara Swami, was the tenth pontiff of Shri Sankara Mutt at Sringeri. It is believed that under his instruction and advice, Vidyaranya agreed to serve as the twelfth pontiff to grace the pitham after Shri Sankara had established the Sringeri ashram. Tradition has it that he lived up to a reasonable ninety years and then entered into mahasamadhi. There is no evidence either to prove or disprove these contentions.5

Except his name ‘Vidyaranya’, very little indeed is definitely known about this scholar, saint and statesman. It is easy to brush aside the Vyasa story that tradition spun around him; ‘Vidyaranya’ may not be a title given to him by Vyasa. But it is not difficult to believe that this was the name given to him by his Guru, since ‘aranya’ is one of the ten names of sannyasins(dasanami). Apart from his name, very little is definitely known of him. Was he married? Did he have children? Is there any one in India who is a descendent of his family? Where exactly did he attain mahasamadhi? How was he interred? In fact, nothing is known of this great genius who so brilliantly lit up the Hindu horizon of his age and disappeared, like a meteor, leaving a brilliant trail and vanishing into a sacred sanctum of silence and mystery.

In any other great author of this stature, this would have been an inexcusable crime and the generation would have accused the chroniclers of that country, but never so in India, especially when the hero is a Man-of-Perfection, a sannyasi. Self-abnegation and self-obliteration constitute the very creed of sannyasa. His works alone are his monuments. His thoughts are the eternal angels that sing the glories of his life. The polish and culture he leaves behind in his own age is the only recorded biography of a Mahatma.

The Sachivottama died in the Amaatya and the Amaatya disappeared into the Vidyaranya. And after blooming forth into a perfect man of spiritual vision, in his mature old age, he did his best to his community and to the world of thought, and disappeared to become the music that wings forth from the chords of every seeker’s glowing heart.



1 Shikarpur Taluq Inscription No. 281 of 1368 A.C.

2 To mention but some of his important works: Veda Bhashya (Commentary on thefour Vedas), Sarvadarshanam, Anubhuti Prakashanam, Brahma Gita, Panchadashi, Jivan-mukti-viveka, Drik-drishya-viveka, An elaborate commentary on Parashara Smriti, Jaimaneya Nyaya-Mala-Vistara (a thesis onthe Logic of Ritualism), Achara Madhavam, Vyavahara Madhavam, Shri Sankara Digvijayam, Sankara Vilasam, Upanishad Dipika.

3 There is a tradition that it is the children of these twenty-four families that have grown up into the Saraswat Brahmin community,who were settled in Goa first, and who, during the French invasion, evacuated those places, and faithful to their culture and tradition, sought the healthier and tolerant hospitality of Kerala to live peacefully, away from proselytization threats, ever-devoted to their Shaiva faith. From Gokarnam to Kanyakumari, we find them even today, fairer in colour, having a dialect of their own, which is a clear mixture of Maharashtra, Kannada, Gujarati and an insignificant smack of Pishtu.

4 Every family has got a traditional relationship with a family of pundits; by heredity,the eldest living member of the pundit’s family is the Family Guru. One who gives the sannyasa symbols and presides of the sannyasa ceremony is called the Diksha Guru. The one at whose feet, after sannyasa, an individual stays continuously to study the scriptures, reflect upon them, and ultimately, guided by whom one come to ascend into the portals of Truth, is calledthe Vidya Guru.

5 However, another version reports an exaggerated hundred and two years.

Tapovan Prasad © Central Chinmaya Mission Trust, Mumbai, India. Reproduced courtesy of Central Chinmaya Mission Trust.

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