It is Vijayadashami here in Karnataka, a hallowed tradition that celebrates both the victory and renewal of the spirit of Sanatana Dharma in South India. A tradition handed down to us from the time Harihara established the Vijaynagar empire after defeating the marauding Islamic armies that threatened to sweep the entire South India. It won’t be off the mark to say that the form of Hindu traditions as we know them today in South India largely follows the pattern set in the time of the Vijaynagar empire. And we fleetingly remember the man who inspired it all. The poet, saint, seer, statesman and scholar par excellence, Madhava-Vidyaranya.
A few scattered thoughts remembering him.
In the secular annals of Indian history, the chapter on Vijaynagar is hurriedly dismissed. Simply because it is an outstanding testimony of a vigorously renewed Hindu spirit, which perhaps had a parallel only in the age of the Guptas. But mainly because secularism implies an automatic anathema to anything good in Hinduism. Understandably, the Vijaynagar empire stands out like an eyesore. The spark he lit blazed continuously for more than 200 years. Hindu society steadily sped downhill ever since but his legacy is alive till date.
In what is another enactment of government-sponsored shamelessness, a few years ago, the Hampi (Kannada) University published a multi-volume series on the history of Karnataka. Vidyaranya figures there as a probability: he might have existed–if he did, he was a minor figure, our information about him is mainly through legends, in any case, he does not play a prominent part in the history of Vijaynagar. The narrative also paints the rise of the Vijaynagar kingdom as owing to economic reasons, the standard Marxist template for writing Indian history.
Yet, we know that Harihara and his brother, Bukkaraya were reconverted to Hinduism from Islam, which they had embraced as the Delhi sultan’s prisoners. It was Vidyaranya’s teachings that propelled their hearts to reconvert, save, and uphold their ancestral religion. Vidyaranya was perhaps one of the first persons to fully understand Islam as a philosophy of imperialism and simultaneously, formulate a strategy to combat it. Islam’s conquest of the Deccan from Khilji to Muhamad Bin Tughlaq left the landscape in its wake burnt and bloody, a fact that didn’t escape the notice of the conquered. No resisting Hindu king could understand what motivated such barbarism. Inter (or intra) religious feud in India till Islam’s advent comprised furious verbal debate. Physical violence occurred but between individual debaters, and that on philosophical matters. India took a few hundred years to even try and decipher why Islam’s soldiers rent such wanton destruction on temples and other Hindu religious symbols and institutions. Vidyaranya understood this. As surviving examples, contrast the temple structures built by Vijaynagar kings and those that were built before them. Vijaynagar-style temples are typically built like fortresses with huge ramparts, tall towers, and easily defensible. Older temples are in this sense, “defenceless” because nobody could fathom the idea that a temple would be destroyed in wartime.
Vidyaranya was a voracious composer of mainly philsophical works like the monumental Panchadashi, a treatise on Advaita. Born Maadhava (not to be confused with Madhvacharya, the founder of the Dwaita school), he was ably accompanied in all his pursuits by his younger brother, Saayana. Saayana was himself a soldier, scholar, and philosopher. Apart from his active military participation, he wrote treatises and other philosophical works numbering more than a hundred. His major work remains the Vedartha Prakasha (Light on the meaning of the Vedas) while his Sudhanidhis (Treasures of Ambrosia) include manuals on ritual, ayurveda, music, prosody, and grammar. Maadhava at some stage in his life renounced material life and became a Sanyasi. He was subsequently appointed as the 12th Shankaracharya at Sringeri. He is said to have replaced a Sharada idol made of sandalwood with a stone idol covered in gold in the main Sharadamba temple in Sringeri.
Vidyaranya’s works are the best evidence of his accomplishments as a philosopher-writer-spiritual guide. His Sarvadarshana Sangraha (Compendium of all philosophical schools of thought) is a good example. While it upholds Advaita by comparing it to other schools, it does so in a tone of inquiry. His Paarasharamaadhaviiya (Exposition by Madhava on the Parashara Smriti) can be called as an encyclopedia of the Dharma sutras of Parashara. This tone of inquiry rather than confrontation/rude refutation set the pattern for posterity. The need of the hour was unity in the Hindu society and confrontational works/speeches would wreck it. We have on record that majority of the philosophical works produced during the Vijaynagar period were mostly commentaries and expositions. No new philosophical schools sprung up during the period.
Vidyaranya lived for a little more than ninety years, and left behind an everlasting legacy. A priceless philosophical and spiritual inheritance, which he bequeathed for free. The sun, which set on the Vijaynagar empire rose as brilliant flares down time in several parts of South India. The Mysore Wodeyars were perhaps the last to carry it, and pass it on to the democratic government of Karnataka, which continues to make a mockery of Dasara year after year.
The man who ignited it remains in relative oblivion.