Vedantadesika (1269 – 1370) is the second great name in Vaishnavism. The death of Ramanuja in 1137 A.D. was followed by a period of sectarian split among the Sri Vaishnavas. By the end of the 14th century this turned up into a permanent division into two sects: Vadakalai (northern learning) and Tenkalai (southern learning). The followers of the former consider Vedanta-Desika as their proponent-AcArya.
Tradition regards Vedanta-Desika as the incarnation of the ghanTa (=Bell) of the Lord of Tirupati. Born in Tuppil, near Kanchipuram, educated and trained by a scholarly uncle of his, he mastered all the known religious literature by age 20. Thereafter for more than 75 years he enriched the Vaishhnava world with his teachings and writings. He was a great teacher, expositor, debater, poet, philosopher, thinker and defender of the faith of Vaishnavism. His writings number more than a hundred. His works include: devotional works on deities and AcAryas, treatises on Višishtadvaita, commentary on the Gita, a gloss on the meanings of the vedas, works in Tamil and Samskrit reconciling the teachings of the Alwars and the prasthAna-traya , secret doctrines of Vaishnavism, original Tamil poems, epic poems and allegorical dramas in Samskrit, dalectical works directed against rival schools, treatises on practical daily life and several other miscellaneous treatises. It is not surprising that Vedanta-Desika was called in his own time kavi-tArkika-simha (the lion of poets and philosophers) and sarva-tantra-svatantra (the master of all science and knowledge). Though the word deSika commonly means AcArya or guru, after Vedanta-desika’s time, deSika stands only for vedAnta-deSikAcArya! His poems are great not only for their poetic sentiment but they also contain an incisive clarity of appeal that is instructive to the seeker as well as enjoyable by the connoisieur. In talking about the eight-lettered mantra of Narayana, he mentions several things which can also have an eight-fold classification – like, eight kinds of devotion, eight siddhis, eight functions of the intellect and so on. In the same strain he talks of eight flowers for the worship of God; these are:
Non-violence; sense-control; universal compassion; infinite patience;
wisdom; austerity; meditation; and truth.
His explanations of the Transcendence and Immanence of God are very illuminating. Transcendence ( = bahir-vyApti) means: He is there even where Matter and Spirit are not there. Immanence ( = antar-vyApti) means: He is inherent in Matter and Spirit in such a way that you can never say He is not there. When he explains the theory of surrender (prapatti) he analyses the situation of man’s sins vanishing after the surrender of Man. The sins acquired before surrender vanish at the point of surrender. Afterwards, sins done because of inevitability will not accrue to the doer. Sins done involuntarily or unconsciously certainly will not accrue to him. On the other hand, sins done consciously, in the sense they were not inevitable, will vanish in the following manner: one-fourth of them by a proper remorse; one-fourth by a determination not to repeat the sin; one-fourth by a preparation to do the regretful ritual of prAyScitta and the last one-fourth by the actual doing of that ritual! The examples of Vedanta-desika’s enjoyable poetry coupled with devotional fervour are too many to be exhausted. We shall just cite one. Here He speaks to
Oh God! You are the Fullness because You have no blemish;
You are the Bliss because You cleanse our sorrows.
Myself You are, since You reside in me;
You are mine all, since everything is yours!
Vedanta-desika’s pAdukA-sahasram -- meaning one thousand verses on the sandals, is in praise of the sacred sandals on which the Lord’s lotus feet rest. The whole work is a monument for supreme devotion and superb poetry, all in one night’s intuition, - an overnight miracle of one thousand verses! It was done by him just as a fulfillment of a competition committed to as a challenge by his disciples who were provoked by members of the tenkalai school. It is full of beautiful poetry, of superb devotion, of conceptual density, of philosophy, of mythology, of poetic gymnastics, of lilting rhyme, of majesty of language and of what not. All this was composed by deSika (as he puts it, by the Grace of the pAdukA of the Divine) in just one quarter of the night, actually the third quarter. The earlier two quarters were devoted by him, as soon as he accepted the commitment, to yoga and yoga-nidra (=sleep induced by yoga and resulting in intuition). The opposite school kept awake the whole night and brought forth 300 of the 1000 promised, on the lotus feet of the Lord. The spirit of the pAduka-sahasraM is unequalled in any religious literature. The pAdukA of the divine is equal to the guru or the AcArya whose grace is more powerful than the grace of the Lord. The AcArya implied in every verse of the pAdukA sahasram is Nammalvar, the great author of tiru-vAi-mozhi, who is generally considered as the pAdukAof the divine. Here are a few examples of this unusual eulogy of the pAdukA.
The Tamil word perumAL is used by Vaishnava tradition to denote the Supreme Divinity as well as the idol -- arcA -- of the Divine. The two words which compose to make perumAL are perum, which means ‘the great’ ‘the gigantic’ ‘the supreme’ and ‘AL’ which means ‘personality’. The corresponding Samskrit word is ‘purushottama’. The sandals of Perumal are known as the SaThAri. The SaThAri is like a crown placed reverentially on the heads of devotees who receive it with humility , and with one hand on the mouth as if to keep it shut. The classic instance of this act was first done by Bharata when he received the sandals of Lord Rama. But before he receives it, he requests the Lord to wear the sandals once and remove it. The act of Rama that is requested here is to step on the sandals and step down. This drama does not find a place in either the Tamil Ramayana of Kamban or the Hindi Ramayana of Tulsi. But the original poet Valmiki describes it. ‘Oh Lord’, says Bharata, ‘Please step on these sandals and step down. These sandals are the ones which support and sustain the welfare of the three worlds’. And Rama obliges. Imagine this scene in your mind. What does it mean? Does it have an esoteric significance? The obvious significance that suggests itself to us is that Râma is requested to step on the sandals and step out so that the pAdukA may receive the spiritual vibrations from the Lord and therefore become sacred so as to be venerated and be able to receive the honour of being the object of worship from Bharata for the next fourteen years, the period of Râma’s exile. This is what the great AcArya, Vedanta-desika, also thinks and weaves in his verse No.113 of his pAdukA-sahasram. But three verses later he eulogises the pAdukA to such heights that this scene of Rama's stepping on and stepping down from the sandals obtains an enormous significance, revealed only by the great intution of the super-devotee Vedanta desika. The why of that divine act as explained by the master-poet is wonderful.
The pAdukAs of the Divine are more powerful than the Divine itself. So when the Lord is on the point of embarking on a commitment to walk through the forests of the country for the next fourteen years, he was relying on the power of the pAdukA to protect him and his feet. Now that Bharata is asking for the pAdukAs, and that means separation from them, as far as Râma is concerned, He is now stepping up on them and stepping down so as to receive the spiritual vibrations from them and thereby the energy for him to sustain the challenge of walking barefooted through the entire forest. So the poet says: If he did not do it, how could he have walked through the rough ground and dense shrubbery of the Dandaka forest with bare feet for so long? Is this not the height of devotion to the divine pAdukA on the part of Desika?
The pAdukA is greater than even Vibhishana and Sugriva - says the poet in another verse
Oh wonderful sandals, You are certainly equal to Vibhishana and Sugriva in that all three of you support the divine feet of the Lord on your head; but you are even greater than them, since you were coronated first!
tulyepi devi raghuvIra padASrayatve
pUrvAabhishekam-abhigamya garIyasI tvaM;
tenaiva khalv-abhijAtam mani-pAdarakshe
rakshaH-plavaMgama-patI bhavatIM sva-mUrdhnA.
You are even greater than Rama, continues the poet again:
Oh sandals, You are even more glorious than Rama whose glory pervades all the three worlds. For, if not, how did Bharata, who wanted only Rama, accept you as security for Rama’s return? (Is it not common knowledge that a thing accepted as security for money promised to be returned, must have a value greater than the money lent?)
padAvani prabhavato jagatAm trayANAM
rAmAdapi tvam-adhikA niyatam prabhAvAt;
no chet kathaM nu bharatasya tameva lipsoh
pratyAyanaM paripaNaM bhavatI bhavitrI