21.11 : TOWERING GIANTS OF SPIRITUALITY --
GATHERED AS ONE GALAXY OF SPIRITUAL SCIENTISTS
The twelve Alvars and sixty-three Nayanmars, the last of whom lived in the 9th century AD -- all of whom were inspired God-intoxicated devotees who transmitted their divine infatuation to millions. Some of them have left behind an imperishable legacy of devotional Tamil poetry -- nAlAyira prabandham (considered to be the essence of the Vedas, in Tamil), tevAram and tiruvAchagam. These have been rarely equalled either in quantity or in quality ever after. The one held in greatest esteem among the Alvars is Nammalvar. He is the 'soul' of the twelve Alvars. Tradition dates him at 3102 BC but scholars ascribe him to the seventh century AD. He sang of God and trumpeted about Him because he simply could not resist that urge in him. His contribution to the four thousand prabandhams is as many as 1352. He poured the cream of the Vedas into his songs. Next in line is Perialvar who delighted in worshipping the Lord as mother, nurse, devotee and lady love. To Andal, the divine gift to him in the form of a daughter is attributed the tiruppAvai, a most beautiful string of 30 verses giving expression to the purest love of God -- equivalent to the love of the cowherdesses of Brindavan for Lord Krishna in mythological times. While the Alvars are devotees of Vishnu, the Nayanmars are devotees of Siva. The foremost among them are four: Tirunavukkarasu-nayanar, also known more popularly as Appar, whose miracles have been chronicled everywhere in Saiva literature and history. His soul-stirring songs are clear and emphatic and show him as an exemplary devotee of the Lord. His junior contemporary, Tiru-jnana-sambandar, was a wandering minstrel who sang poems after poems in his very short life of 16 years and triumphantly re-established the Saiva branch of Hinduism in opposition to religions like Buddhism and Jainism. Sundarar, who was in such great friendly intimacy with the Lord without ever being oblivious of His Divinity, that he made use of His services even for settling domestic quarrels; he was the first to sing the praise of the sixty-three Nayanmars. Manickavachagar, whose unique bridal mysticism, undivided loyalty and exclusive devotion to the Lord, find immortal expression in his exquisite poems like tiruvAchagam, which is a work of devotion-cum-wisdom par excellence known to melt even the hardest of hearts. To this day these 75 saints are a living tradition.
Tiruvalluvar, of perhaps the third century BC, known all the world over for his tirukkuraL (referred to as the Bible of South India, by Schwietzer), is held in sacred esteem by the entire Tamil world. It is difficult to find a greater teacher of Dharma in all its aspects than this eminently practical eclectic, within the larger framework of a liberal Hinduism. His was an honest and convinced thinking that would be guided only by one's own conscience.
Tiru-moolar, one of the greatest mystics that India has produced in its long history. He was, a great saint, traditionally allotted a date of 3000 BC but is assigned by historians to the period between the fourth and sixth centuries AD by scholars. His original name was Sundarar who lived as an enlightened ascetic right at the feet of the Lord Siva in His heavenly abode in Kailas, beyond the Himalayas. His contribution to posterity is the great work tirumandiram, consisting of 3000 verses, given out by him spontaneously every now and then when he came back to consciousness from his trance. The beauty of it is that he came back to consciousness only once a year! The interesting legend about this is one of the greatest mysteries of ancient Tamil history. tirumandiram, is indeed a spiritual encyclopaedia. It contains a synthesis of all knowledge right from the Upanishadic times down to the then-modern days of devotional revival, goes through all the maze and mystery of yoga and tantra, contains very strong criticisms of ritualistic idolatry, pours out forthright condemnations of external gymnastics of occult practices, and expounds the esoteric significance of almost every kind of ritual and tradition. It is profound to the core, set in simple and cryptic style. The lilting Tamil in most of the verses can be enjoyed if one knows the language. Like the Upanishads it admits of several meanings at the same time.
Naatha-muni, of the ninth century AD, the foremost Acharya of the Vaishnavas, who collected the Tamil prabandhams, classified them, made the redaction, set the hymns to music and spread them everywhere. He is said to have received the divine hymns straight from Nammalvar by yogic insight.
Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhwa, of the 9th, 11th and 13th centuries AD, respectively. (One school of research ascribes Sankara to the third century BC). To this triumvirate of Supermen must be given all the credit for the superlative fame of India as a spiritually great Nation. Successive generations of the Acharya-lineages originally institutionalized by them, are still carrying the torch. Deep thinking, profound scholarship, lucid exposition, high poetry, mystic power, compassion to the core -- in all these, none of them have been excelled either before or after, though each had a style, a genius, a method and a philosophy of his own and thus a distinctive stamp on the cultural, religious and spiritual milieu of India.
Jayadeva of the 12th century, whose lyrical extravaganza, known as Gita-govindam, describing Krishna-Radha love-sport in delightful poetry without inhibitions, is venerated as God's own writing. It is at the very center of religious poetry in the tradition, despite its being considered erotic from a Victorian viewpoint. It is sung all over India, particularly in congregatory devotional singing, the singers often reaching heights of ecstasy, singing and dancing and being thus totally absorbed not only in the music and rhythm but also in the lyric of Gita-govindam which revels in the description of the sacred sport of the divine.
Jnaneswar, of the 12th and 13th centuries, the great poetic genius and mystic saint of Maharashtra. He established the Bhagavata tradition. His commentary on the Gita known as JnaneSvari is probably the most elaborate, ever written. He also composed a series of short poems called Abhangs in praise of the Lord of Pandarpur. His Bhakti is pure and serene, like the love of husband and wife, of Krishna and Rukmini.
Vedanta Desika, Pillai Lokacharya, and Namdev, all of the 13th and 14th centuries. The first was the most learned scholar and the foremost Vaishnava devotee and AcArya of medieval India., next only to Ramanuja himself. He was a great teacher, expositor, debater, poet, philosopher, thinker and defender of the faith of Vaishnavism. His writings number more than a hundred. The second is considered as the real founder of the tenkalai (Southern Learning) sect of Vaishnavism. The third is the Marathi saint whose numerous compositions of Abhangs in Marathi continue to inspire even the lowliest into devotion. 'As a bee's heart might be set on the fragrance of a flower or a fly might resort to honey", so did the mind of Namdev cling to God. What is needed, according to him, is constant prayer. Prayer can work miracles. He condemned caste, polytheism and idolatry and pleaded for service to mankind and secondly dedicating oneself to God.
Swami Ramananda, (14th century), the apostle of Bhakti in North India who changed its face from its Vedic ritualism to Devotion. He opposed caste distinctions and ignored religious differences. He shocked the orthodox by including among his disciples an outcaste, a Muslim, a barber and a cobbler -- who were, in his time, considered not to belong to the 'high' castes. If Hinduism is convinced today that various religions are but different paths to the same spiritual goal, it is in no small measure due to the waves of Bhakti movement that followed in the wake of Ramananda's teachings. It appears he derived great inspiration from Ramanuja.
Vidyaranya, also known as Madhavacharya, Chandidasa and Vidyapati, all of the 14th century and early 15th century. The first was the polymath commentator of the scriptures known as smRtis, which deal with codes of daily life and behavior, author also of the masterly pancadaSI, the much-translated comprehensive popular manual of advaita philosophy, and spiritual Guru of the Vijayanagar kings. He was also the twelfth Pontiff of the Sringeri Sankaracharya Mutt. The second was the greatest lyric poet of early Bengali and was the inspiration for Chaitanya of the 16th century to propagate the practice of congregational singing of bhajans among the masses. The third was the foremost devotee in the eastern part of India after Jayadeva. His poems in the Maithili language on Radha and Krishna and his description in 1000 verses of the Durga festival are very famous.
Kabir, (15th century), was the first one to draw inspiration from both Hinduism and Islam. His numerous songs breathe full conviction of the unity of all paths to God. He raises questions that make man perpetually unsure of his dogmatic beliefs. He was the most outstanding disciple of Swami Ramananda from whom he imbibed the message of universal love preached by Ramanuja. With his tremendous popularity he could have easily established a sect himself, but he did not, (though his followers did, after his death) nor did he accept any sectarian thinking. As an experimenter with truth, he spent much of his time in prayer and contemplation. And when he spoke out, he spoke out his mind fearlessly. His songs reverberate with his spiritual experiences and visions. His lucid but brief lyrics of devotion, for the first time composed in the local language, Hindi, rather than in elitist Sanskrit, reached the remotest villages throughout the country. He was a rebel against everything unspiritual and against all ritualistic norms in both Hinduism and Islam.
Ravidas, a cobbler-disciple of Swami Ramananda, whose hymns reflect the crystal-like purity of his heart. About thirty of his songs have found a place in the holy scripture of the Sikhs. He is said to have initiated Mirabai, the mystic royal-poet-singer saint of Rajasthan, in the art of devotional music. Sankara-Deva, whose prolific writings in the local language brought home the tenets of Vaishnavism to the north-east territories; and Talapaka Annamacharya, who is said to have composed more than 32000 songs on the Lord of Tirumalai Hills -- all of the 15th century.
Guru Nanak (15th and early 16th century), the founder of Sikhism. He boldly practiced and preached equality of man before God-- 'The One Great and True Being'. He rebelled against the caste system and defied brahminical rituals. As a great prophet with a vision of finding God in man and aiming at building a classless and casteless society, he went from place to place singing the glory of God and spreading his divine message of love through his own compositions. He had miraculous powers, several manifestations of which during his lifetime are recorded. His descriptions of the Almighty come from his own Self-realization and form a beautiful synthesis of the Upanishads, mystic experiences across the world, and the teachings of the Buddha, Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammad. He acknowledged Kabir as his spiritual guide.
Vallabhacharya and Surdas (both of the 15th and early 16th centuries). The first was a master-teacher who propagated the path of Grace to God, not of merging in Him. Eight of his disciples constitute what is called Ashta-chaap (Eight reprints!) The foremost of these was Surdas, the master-composer, singer and poet. Endowed with uniqure inner vision in spite of his physical blindness, he describes in thousands of songs, Lord Krishna and his exploits, as if he is seeing them directly.
Krishna Chaitanya, also called Gouranga (of the 16th century) showed by his own example and by preaching, the importance of the recitation of God's names. The sincerity of the overpowering religious experience that Chaitanya radiated could not but move millions, scholars and laymen alike, irrespective of caste or creed., to partake in the ecstasy of his nama-samkirtana, which took place incessantly all his life and which became the inspiration for the modern Krishna-Consciousness revival.
Narsi Mehta (16th century), the great Gujarati poet-saint, introduced philosophical poetry into the bhakti world of Gujarat. He composed about 740 songs. Vaishnava janato, the prayer song popularized by Mahatma Gandhi, is a composition of Narsi Mehta's. He went through several misfortunes but not once was this exemplary devotee forsaken by his Lord. For this devotee the Lord appeared in person before one of his creditors and honored his check.
Purandaradasa (16th century), in whose wealthy life the spiritual enlightenment came by a miraculous intervention by the Lord Himself. He was one of the earliest composers of devotional music in the vernacular. He is regarded as the originator of Carnatic music. His compositions on the Lord of Pandarpur, all set to music by himself, number more than 2000. They are most popular, wherever either music or devotion is the theme, even far beyond the boundaries of the Kannada territory. The Lord put him to the severest test by subjecting him to a nasty scandal and, finally, when the law was all set to have him publicly whipped, at the crucial moment the whip was simply snatched away by the Lord Himself in the form of the Vithala idol of Pandarpur and Purandara dasa stood redeemed.
Tulsidas (16th century), the author of the retelling, in immortal Hindi poetry, of Valmiki's Ramayana under the title Ram-charita-maanas, which has, in effect, replaced the original in North India. His is a household name and millions have been inducted into bhakti by his masterpiece. Enlightenment and initiation into spirituality came to him in a unique manner, when he was taunted by his own wife for his excessive infatuation for her. From then on he became the apostle of bhakti towards his favorite deity, Ram, for whose darSan he meditated for years. In spite of his exclusive devotion to Ram, he is known to have adored all the gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon. But Ram as the supreme manifestation of the Absolute Brahman, and Tulsi as the humblest devotee of Ram, reverberate through all his writings. He ranks next only to Vyasa and Valmiki in terms of extent of influence and its persistence over centuries.
Appayya Dikshidar, the mighty intellectual scholar-devotee-teacher of Advaita Vedanta, whose works number about 100 and who became for posterity the role model of an integrated life of Works, Devotion and Enlightenment; Eknath, who brought out the first authentic edition of Jnanesvari, whose own commentary in 18000 verses on the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavatam is a scripture by itself and who, though a brahmin himself set an example by not observing caste distinctions against which he preached vehemently; Rupa-Goswami, who wrote the monumental work Bhakti-rasAmrita-sindhu (The ocean of the nectar of the essence of Devotion) where the poetic sentiment and mAdhura-bhakti (devotion by Love) were beautifully blended to establish once for all the school of bhedAbheda-vAda (the theory of smooth co-existence of difference and non-difference); and Meerabai, the royal, mystic poet-singer saint of Rajasthan, the sweet melody of whose devotional songs echoed her absolute surrender to Lord Krishna ; and Swami Haridas, the spiritual preceptor of the celebrated Tansen, himself famous for his melodious songs of the Divine-- all of the 16th century.
Narayana Bhattatiri, (16th and 17th century) author of nArAyanIyam, the inimitably faithful epitome in 1036 Sanskrit verses of the 18000 verses of Srimad Bhagavatam, in such a masterly fashion that the epitome itself is considered as sacred a scripture as the original. In 1587 AD Bhattatiri took the paralysis of his Guru on himself and to get rid of his illness, he composed the nArAyanIyam sitting in front of the idol of Krishna at Guruvayoor temple, where, on the 100th day of the composition, he was blessed by the Lord with a darSan and also a complete cure of his illness.
Tukaram, the celebrated Marathi singer of 4500 abhangs all of which display a high order of spirituality; Swami Bodendra Saraswathi, the 58th Pontiff of the Kamakoti Sankaracharya Mutt and the author of the authoritative work, nAmAmrita-rasAyanam, which is a treatise on the efficacy of reciting the names of God for attaining Salvation; Samarth Ramdas, who at the age of 24, after twelve years of severe penance had the vision of Lord Rama, who popularized the thirteen syllabled mantra SRI RAMA JAYARAMA JAYA JAYA RAMA , who founded a distinct school of thought with the philosophy of activism and spirituality and who was the most revered Guru of Shivaji -- all of the 16th century.
Sri Raghavendra, (of the 17th century), considered as a manifestation of the mythological Prahlada, is so overflowing with spiritual merit that he still lives in his 'jIva-samAdhi' as a kalpa-vriksha (wish-fulfilling tree) and a kAma-dhenu (wish-fulfilling cow) that bestows anything that one wants right at the moment of the wish.
Sadasiva Brahman, one of the greatest siddhas (mystics of an advanced kind) of all time whose mind was always merged in the Transcendental Absolute so completely that it was transparent to every one who came into contact with him that his body-experiences had no impact on him; Bhakta Ramadas, who built the famous temple at Bhadrachalam and for whom the Lord Himself came to redeem him from his debt to his Muslim monarch; and Bhaskararaya, the mystic devotee of Mother Goddess, whose commentary on the LalitA-sahasra-nAma is an all-time classic and who remains even now the ultimate authority on all worship of the Divine Mother -- all of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Tayumanavar, famous for the thousands of divine songs oozing out, through their simple Tamil but of profound meaning, the divine bliss he himself enjoyed, and who was known for his emphasis on the unity of all paths to God and of all religions, and, in particular of Vedanta and Saiva Siddhanta; and Ramaprasad, who was a revivalist and silent seeker, whose poems, known for their alliteration, rhyme and lucidity, penetrated the far-flung villages of Bengal -- both of the 18th century.
Tyagaraja (1769 - 1847), Shyama Sastri (1762 -1827) and Muthuswamy Dikshidar (1775 - 1834): The three great celebrities in the world of Carnatic music. Their immortal creations, many of them composed while in trance, numbering in thousands, constitute an ocean of devotion and spirituality. Even the layman can enjoy through their music and poetry the highest expressions of devotional sentiments or spiritual enlightenment. Each one of them had the rare combination of philosophy, musicology, poetics and mystic devotion.
Swami Narayan (1781 -1830): Hailing from Gujarat, he became a sannyasi at the age of 12, was thereafter known as Sahajananda Swami and was accepted as a divine incarnation at 24. He fought sati, infanticide and other questionable practices in the name of religion.
Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824 - 1883) who founded the first formal successful movement against the western political and cultural impact, in the form of the Arya Samaj. With his slogan, 'Back to the Vedas' and his monumental work 'satyArtha prakAS', he paved the way for the reformation of Hinduism through a return to its roots.
Jothi Ramalinga Swami (1823 - 1874) who promoted a casteless society with every one uniformly seeking Grace through the inner light of oneself, whose was a voice which refused to heed any but the voice of one's pious conscience, whose prayers included not only the routine plea to Godto show us the Light within, not only the universal prayer for the cleansing of our minds but also the unusual and unique prayer, in compassion, of asking for the dead to be revived by the Lord. He composed thousands of verses breathing universal love and peace, which are all available today as a single book called 'tiru-arut-pA' and is considered as one of the greatest Tamil poets of the 19th century, in spite of his total lack of any formal education.
Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836 - 1886), the messiah, the prophet of the modern age, who was no scholar but only a man of superlative faith. From him came the authentic proclamation to the entire world that what lies behind the various religions of the world is a single Reality. Without any sophisticated education, he was able to influence the greatest intellectuals of his time, even the most westernized in their thought process. Coming in the direct line of Chaitanya, he would frequently pass into ecstasy, even at the mention of God's name by somebody in his presence. What is most important for all humanity is the inexhaustible fund of conversation with him that his disciples have preserved for us, through which, by suitable parables and allegories, he explains the most abstruse truths of the complex religion that is Hinduism and its central cord of unity with other faiths, of which he had personal experience through experimentation. He represented all the facets of Hindu religion in his own person. His life itself was a unique synthesis of all higher thinking in the spiritual levels of the world. He is the gift of Hinduism to posterity.
Swami Vivekananda (1863 - 1902) who was Ramakrishna's unique gift to posterity and who carried the message of his Master to every part of the world in a dramatic fashion and in the process of institutionalizing it, gave also a spiritual bias to Indian nationalism.
Aurobindo (1872 - 1950). The greatest exponent of the integral spiritual ideal taught in the Rg Veda, the early Upanishads and the Gita. Author of the magnum opus of twentieth century original writing, 'The Life Divine' and of the poetic counterpart of this, called 'Savitri', a poem twice as long as Paradise Lost. In these and in numerous other writings of his, he teaches a profoundly spiritual process called Integral Yoga. He has left innumerable records of his mystic experimentation which surpass the grandest sophistication which modern science and mathematics can muster. The aim was to reaffirm the integral view of life set forth in the scriptures and free the ancient sAdhanA from the limitations and symbolism of any particular theology so that all humanity may avail of it to reach a higher plane of spiritual evolution. The Ashram that he founded at Pondichery has an international following.
The Mother (1878 - 1973) who guided the Aurobindo Ashram ever since Aurobindo made himself unavailable for public interaction. She continued his shower of Grace on the Finite minds which chose to raise their hands to reach the Infinite.
Dr. Annie Besant (1837 - 1934) whose interpretations of the ancient scriptures of India came just at the right time when Science was making some of the greatest breakthroughs of the twentieth century and, when, to the ordinary layman, it appeared as if the issue of Science versus Spirituality was getting more and more clouded.
Swami Sivananda (1887 - 1963), who, by his mesmerizing propagation of ancient spiritual habits of life, pioneered the modern practice of running residential courses on Hinduism, in the sylvan atmosphere of the Himalayan slopes.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869 - 1948) who had seven Himalayan achievements to his credit, each of which was firmly founded on his faith in spirituality . Any single one of these could have earned him the title of a Mahatma. He guided and conducted the most gigantic revolution of the twentieth century for almost a quarter of a century on the basis of Non-violence. He made the Right Wing agree to changes and reforms and at the same time made the Left Wing agree that changes and reforms could happen only step by step. He convinced politicians steeped in Chanakya-like statesmanship agree to accept True Religious Spirituality as the only proper guideline for action. Just as mankind has an ethics and morals of their own he was the one who initiated the thought process that Nations must also have an ethics and morals among the comity of nations. It was he who woke up the Indian masses to be aware of the evils of untouchability, widow ill-treatment, child marriage and drug addiction and made them rise against them. It was he who made the Indian people rise above their religious and cultural prejudices and rise as one nation. It was he who shook up the spineless nature of the nation because of its fear of the police, fear of muscle power and money power, fear from superstitious traditions, fear of beaurocracy, and fear from caste and religious prejudice . His authentic voice of sincerity demonstrated to the world that the inner strength of personal religious convictions could be a great 'force' even to solve political and social problems.
Ramana Maharshi (1879 - 1950), who, before anybody could tell him, even as a boy of thirteen, had spiritual enlightenment, through a personal inner experience. The boy became a saint then and there. He renounced home and spent fifteen long years in deep meditation on the Arunachala Hills, in Tiruvannamalai, Tamilnadu. He had become a Maharshi. Disciples came one by one and the Ramana Ashram grew into a major center of learning, and training in spirituality. With his tremendous faith in the universal brotherhood of man and the need to attain spirituality by constant questioning of one's own self, the maharshi spread the message of the transitory nature of the material and visible world and the message of divine bliss that is inherent in every Being -- by his preaching, certainly, but even more, by his silent transmission of spirituality to those who had the good fortune to sit before him and yearn for that message. His was a monumental example of what an Upanishadic Seer would look like and act like. He is known for the emphasis on the relentless pursuit of the question, Who am I? and thus spiritually illumining millions of minds.
Kanchi Mahaswamigal (1894 - 1994), the sage of Kanchi in Tamilnadu, who was so simple, humble, profound, enlightened, compassionate, scholarly and full of Grace that he naturally and effortlessly touched the hearts of men and women, prince and pauper , around the world. Ascending to the Headship of the Kanchi Kamakoti Mutt at the age of thirteen as the 68th pontiff in the line of succession from Adi Sankara, he ministered to the needs of the afflicted and the distressed and spread the message of compassion and of a return to the most treasured ancient values. After a mission like this full of action for almost half a century which included a 30-year walking pilgrimage of the entire subcontinent of India, he laid down his headship and devoted his time, for the next forty years, to severe penance for universal welfare. Not one of those thousands who had his darSan every day missed to feel the soul-stirring presence of 'the Living God' in their veins.
Ma Anandamayi (1896 -1982), who, endowed with divine intuition even as a teen-ager, became India's most popular woman saint in recent times.
J. Krishnamurti (1895 -1986) who, by his life and letters, has provoked thousands to delve into the true knowledge of the self, without having to go through conventional ritualistic standards and prerequisites.
Paramahamsa Yogananda (1893 -1952), whose Self-Realization Fellowship Estate near Los Angeles is world -famous. His Autobiography of a Yogi has been one of the earliest spirituality-oriented books which caught on like a blizzard in the western world. His simplicity of living and high thinking brought thousands of students flocking to him to learn what he called kriya-Yoga. For as long as three decades he showed by his radiant personal example that the simple free lifestyle of a spiritual community is what is most needed for the material west.
A.C. BhaktiVedantaswami also known to his disciples as Shrila Prabhupada (1896 - 1977), whose remarkable achievement was the transformation of the most materialistic youth of the times, literally in thousands, into the mostly godly personalities with the loftiest of spiritual and ethical ideals. He has created a new international community of the young and old, male and female, scholars and laymen, all of them fully versed in the teachings of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Srimad Bhagavatam and all of them fully convinced that no man-made system can cure the ills of the world, it is only the eternal reality of Lord Krishna that will do it. The unceasing chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra by this ocean of devotees singly and collectively, in the Chaitanya tradition has now made the mantra the most popular mantra the world over. He has left behind him a large and growing organization of properties and monies intended one hundred percent. for the purpose of devotional service to Krishna, through the International Krishna Consciousness Movement.
Swami Chinmayananda (1916 -1993), who by his whirlwind tours and lectures worldwide and through the mission centers at almost every major city across the world, propagated the thought that Vedanta is just another Science that can be neglected only at the peril of civilization itself.
The Sai Baba Phenomenon (1854 -1918; born 1926; and to-be-born in the 21st century), a phenomenon of three lives ( ! ) which is engulfing every part of the world with its miraculous powers to turn the thinking of the masses inward.