ACARYA AT SRI RANGAM
While all these events were taking place in Kancipuram, the devotees in Sri Rangam were still feeling the lack of an acarya to guide them. The ardent desire of all of them was that Ramanujacarya come there and be their preceptor. Mahapurna had stayed for some time in Kanci with the intention of bringing Ramanuja to Sri Rangam, but, because he had left so abruptly, he was unable to do so.
When the news reached Sri Rangam that Ramanuja had taken sannyasa, Mahapurna was very pleased and went into the temple of Lord Ranganatha. There, before the lotus-eyed Lord who reclines on His bed of Ananta-Sesa, Mahapurna began to offer fervent prayers, begging the Lord to bring Ramanuja to Rangaksetra. Hearing this impassioned plea from His pure devotee, Lord Ranganatha became compassionate and instructed Mahapurna, "My child, you must send Vararanga, the most sweet singer, to Lord Varadaraja in Kancipuram. When Lord Varadaraja is pleased by Vararanga's bhajans and offers him a benediction, then he should ask that Ramanuja be allowed to come here. Without Varadaraja's permission, Ramanuja will never leave His shelter."
DEPARTURE FOR SRI RANGAM
Vararanga was the son of Yamunacarya. He was a renowned singer and had set to music the beautiful verses known as the Sahasra-giti. Having received these instructions, Mahapurna sent Vararanga to Kancipuram after instructing him as to how he should accomplish his mission. Every day in the temple of Varadaraja Vararanga would sing bhajans before the Lord in such an exquisite way that anyone who heard him would become struck with wonder and filled with ecstasy. Eventually Lord Varadaraja became so pleased with Vararanga that He offered him a benediction in return for his services. Of course, Vararanga requested the Lord's permission for Ramanuja to come to Sri Rangam to be the acarya of the Vaisnavas there.
Ramanuja was sorry to leave Kancipuram, particularly as this meant losing the association of Kancipurna. But, at the same time, he was pleased at the prospect of being with the disciples of Alabandara. Thus it was with mixed feelings that he set off with Vararanga a few days later to make the journey from Kancipuram to Sri Rangam.
All the people of Rangaksetra were delighted when Yatiraja arrived in their city, and the assembly of Vaisnavas immediately installed him as the acarya. Lord Ranganatha was also very pleased to see this pure-hearted devotee in His temple, and He bestowed upon him two mystic powers – the ability to cure the sick and the strength to protect the devotees from illusion. On hearing the news of Ramanujacarya's coming to Sri Rangam, many Vaisnavas from the surrounding area came to see him; all were thrilled to hear his wonderful explanations of Vaisnava philosophy.
DELIVERANCE OF GOVINDA
A short time after his coming to Sri Rangam, Ramanuja began to consider the position of his dear cousin, Govinda, who years before had saved him from Yadavaprakasa's murderous plot. He recalled Govinda's simplicity and affection and how he had always been a dear friend to all living entities. While thinking of these things, a desire arose in Ramanuja's heart to bring Govinda to the shelter of Lord Visnu’s lotus feet.
As we have heard, ever since the fateful pilgrimage to Varanasi, Govinda had been a devout follower of Lord Siva, residing at the holy place known as Kalahasti, which is a place of pilgrimage for all Saivites. Ramanuja's uncle, Sailapurna, a disciple of Yamunacarya, was now living at Sri Saila, just a short distance from Kalahasti. Therefore, Yatiraja decided to write him a letter, requesting him to somehow or other make Govinda into a devotee of Lord Visnu. When he received this letter, Sailapurna went to Kalahasti with his disciples and made his camp near a large lake there.
Every morning Govinda would come to that lake to bathe and gather flowers for his worship. When he came one morning and found a venerable Vaisnava acarya seated nearby discussing the scriptures with his disciples, he was intrigued. Being desirous of hearing all that was said, Govinda climbed up a nearby patali tree to pick some flowers. As he listened to Sailapurna's words of devotion, Govinda's mind became more and more attracted to that saintly Vaisnava.
When the discourse was completed and Govinda was walking away to take his bath, Sailapurna called out to him, "0 holy man, may I know for whose worship you have picked those flowers." On being told that they were an offering for Lord Siva, he went on, "But how could flowers such as these be desirable for one who has earned the name Vibhuti-Bhusana by smearing himself with the ashes of material desires, which he has burned up knowing them to be the causes of material miseries. Lord Siva dances in the crematorium, being mad for the mercy of Lord Narayana. These flowers should properly be offered to the Supreme Lord Visnu, who is the reservoir of all auspicious qualities and from whom all this universe has come into being. I am surprised to find an intelligent person such as yourself gathering flowers for the worship of Lord Siva."
"Revered sir," replied Govinda, "in one sense I can see that your words are true, for no offering to the Lord ever benefits that Supreme Person, who is already the possessor of all things. What can I do for the great Lord Sankara, who is so powerful that he saved the entire universe by drinking an ocean of poison? Yet still there is some purpose in making such offerings, for by so doing we are able to express our devotion to the Lord. It is the devotion that the Lord appreciates, beyond the meager offering itself."
"0 Mahatma," said Sailapurna, "I am pleased by your devotion and humility. What you have said is true. What can we offer except self-surrender to that Personality, who in the form of a dwarf-brahmana took away all the possessions of the mighty demon king? This complete surrender is the highest form of worship, and by the strength of such surrender Bali Maharaja was able to captivate Lord Vamanadeva. Just try to understand something of the sweetness of the Lord's loving dealings with His devotees, of which you are depriving yourself by abandoning His worship for the sake of Lord Siva."
"But why are you making a distinction between Visnu and Siva?" said Govinda. "Are they not both aspects of the one Godhead?" When Sailapurna heard this statement of Govinda's, he realized that the young man was not only engaging in demigod worship, but was also influenced by the philosophy of the impersonalists.
Every morning Govinda and Sailapurna would meet by the lake and exchange words in a similar vein. Gradually, by hearing the pure theistic philosophy from such a great saint as Sailapurna, Govinda's heart began to change and the desire arose within him to take shelter of the lotus feet of Lord Narayana. One morning he fell down like a rod in front of Sailapurna and begged him for initiation. So it was that Govinda gave up his worship of Lord Siva and took to the path of undeviating devotion to the Supreme Lord, Sri Visnu.
After the initiation was performed, Sailapurna instructed Govinda to go to Sri Rangam to reside with his renowned cousin, Ramanujacarya. However, Govinda's devotion to his guru was so great that he was unable to tolerate the feelings of separation that he was undergoing. Therefore, he soon returned to the city of Sri Saila to render personal service to his spiritual master.
INITIATION FROM GOSTHIPURNA
After coming to Sri Rangam, Ramanuja was very pleased to resume his role as the disciple of Mahapurna: through this relationship he felt relief from the sadness that had afflicted him since the disappearance of Yamunacarya. By his behavior toward Mahapurna, he set the example for all disciples to follow in rendering service to their spiritual master. Under the expert guidance of Mahapurna, he resumed his study of the revealed scriptures. Mahapurna was so impressed by the incomparable genius and Vaisnava qualities of his disciple that he gave his son, Pundarikaksa, to be the disciple of Ramanuja.
One evening, when they had completed their studies for the day, Mahapurna said to Ramanuja, "Not far from here is a prosperous town known as Tirukkotiyur. Living there is a great scholar and devotee, Gosthipurna by name, who was born in the Pandya country. It is no exaggeration to say that there is no other Vaisnava like him in this part of the country. If you desire to fully learn the meaning and significance of the Vedic mantras, then there is none but he who is qualified to teach you. I advise you to go to Tirukkotiyur without delay and receive the mantra from Gosthipurna."
Having received this instruction from his guru, Ramanuja went to Tirukkotiyur a few days later to see Gosthipurna. In the presence of that famous devotee, he offered his prostrated obeisances and begged for the Vaisnava mantra to be bestowed upon him. Gosthipurna, however, was very reluctant to impart the secret of the mantra and replied, "You may come here some other day, and I will consider your request." Ramanuja felt very dejected at this reply, and with a heavy heart he returned to Sri Rangam.
A few days later a big festival was held in honor of Lord Ranganatha, and Gosthipurna came there to take part in the worship. At that time one of the priests in the temple was inspired by Lord Ranganatha, and he spoke as follows to Gosthipurna, "You should bestow the mantra on My devotee, Ramanuja, who is most worthy to receive it."
Realizing that the Lord was speaking to him through His servant, Gosthipurna replied, "But my Lord, is it not true that the mantra may only be given to one who has completely purified his mind by long austerities? How can the mantra, which is nondifferent from Yourself, reside in the mind of one who is not pure?"
To this the priest replied, "You do not understand the purity of this devotee. He is able to deliver all of humanity."
After this incident, Gosthipurna began to consider the matter deeply, but still he was unwilling to give the mantra to any other person. Time and again Ramanuja approached him, but repeatedly Gosthipurna refused his request. When his appeals had been denied on eighteen separate occasions, Ramanuja began to feel that there must be some great impurity in his heart and that it was for this reason that Gosthipurna would not bestow his mercy upon him. In this state of dejection, Ramanuja began to shed tears of despair.
When some people informed Gosthipurna of Ramanuja's condition, he was moved by pity for the young devotee. Therefore, when Ramanuja came before him again, he spoke to him in a kind way. "Only Lord Visnu Himself is aware of the glories of this mantra. Now I know that you are worthy to receive it, for you are pure and firmly fixed in devotion to the lotus feet of the Lord. At the present time I can find no one but yourself who is fit to receive the mantra, for whoever chants it is certain to go to Vaikuntha at the time of death. Because this mantra is so pure and sacred, it must not be touched by the lips of anyone who has material desires. Therefore, you must not disclose the mantra to any other person"
Having thus instructed Ramanuja, Gosthipurna initiated him into the chanting of the mantra of eight syllables. Ramanuja was filled with ecstasy to chant this wonderful vibration, and his face began to glow with spiritual effulgence. He considered himself the most blessed of all beings and bowed again and again at the feet of his guru.
REVEALING THE SECRET MANTRA
Having taken leave of Sri Gosthipurna, Ramanuja, in a joyful mood, began to return to Sri Rangam. But as he was walking, he began to think about the potency of the mantra that had been given to him. While thinking in this way, he became filled with feelings of compassion for the sufferings of all living beings in this material world. Then, as he was walking near the walls of the Visnu temple in Tirukkotiyur, he began to call out to all the people who were passing by, "Please, all of you, come near to Lord Visnu's temple, and I will give you a priceless jewel!"
Attracted by his pure expression and unusual words, a large crowd of men, women, and children began to follow him. A rumor began to spread all over the town that a prophet had appeared who could fulfill all of one's desires. Within a short time a huge crowd had assembled outside of the temple. On seeing this mass of humanity, Yatiraja's heart swelled with joy. He embraced the two disciples who had accompanied him, Dasarathi and Kuresa, and then climbed up the tower of the temple.
In a loud voice he began to address the gathering: "All of you are more dear to me than my own life. Therefore I have a strong desire to deliver you from the torments and sufferings all of us must undergo in this temporary world. Please recite this mantra which I have obtained for you. Do this, and the Lord's mercy will be upon you."
When they heard Ramanuja's words, all the people in the crowd called out, "Please tell us the mantra. Shower the Lord's blessings upon us!"
Then Yatiraja called out in a deep resounding voice the mantra he had just received from Gosthipurna; om namo narayanaya. Immediately the crowd responded, everyone calling out the sacred words together, producing a sound like thunder. Twice more Ramanuja called out the mantra, and twice more the thunderous response resounded from the crowd.
Every person became silent and looked at one another with feelings of deep ecstasy in their hearts. At that time it seemed that the earth had become Vaikuntha. The faces of the men, women and children were flushed with joy and it seemed that all miseries were gone from the earth. Those who had come running to the temple hoping to receive gold or jewels, immediately forgot their worldly desires, feeling as if they had been given a diamond in place of a piece of broken glass.
As the joyful crowd melted away, men and women came and prostrated themselves before Yatiraja, considering themselves most blessed to have received such a benediction from that great soul. Ramanuja then climbed down from the tower and began walking towards Gosthipurna's residence to worship the feet of his guru.
By this time Gosthipurna had come to hear in detail of everything that had taken place outside the temple and was extremely angry, feeling Ramanuja had betrayed his trust. When Ramanuja approached him with his two disciples, the aged acarya addressed him in a voice that trembled with rage. ‘Get out of my sight, O lowest of men! I have committed a great sin by entrusting the most precious gem to such an untrustworthily person as yourself. Why have you come here again, forcing me to commit the sin of looking at your face? Surely you are destined to live in hell for countless lifetimes.’’
Without any sign of remorse, Ramanuja replied to his guru in a most humble manner, saying, ‘ It was only because I am prepared to suffer in hell that I dared to go against your order. You told me that whoever chanted the mantra of eight syllables was certain to be liberated. Thus, according to your words, so many people are now destined to find shelter at Lord Narayana’s lotus feet. If an insignificant person like me has go to hell, it is off no great importance if so many others thereby attain the mercy of Lord Narayana.’’
On hearing these words, which fully revealed the depth of the devotee’s compassion , Gosthipurna was completely stunned and filled with great wonder. All his fierce anger disappeared in an instant, like the passing of violent storm, and he embraced Ramanuja with profound affection. Everyone who was able to witness this transformation was filled with joy and astonishment.
Gosthipurna then addressed Ramanuja with folded palms, ‘My child, I have never known anyone so magnanimous as yourself. From this day you are my guru, and I am your disciple. There is no doubt that you are a most intimate associate of the Lord, whereas I am nothing but a common man. How can I comperhend your greatness? Please forgive all of my offenses.’’
Ramanuja fell to his knees and clasped the feet of his guru. With his head bowed in humility, he said, ‘You are my eternal guru. The perfect mantra has become even more potent because it has emanated from your lips. Thus today it has burnt to ashes the miseries of so many thousands of people. Although I committed the offense of transgressing the order of my guru, I have become eternally fortunate by receiving your embrace, which is desired even by the gods. My prayer is that, regarding me as your son and servant, you will eternally bestow your mercy upon me.’’
Being highly pleased by Ramanuja’s humility and gentle behaviour, Gosthipurna asked him to accept his son, Saumya-narayana, as his disciple. Then, with permission of his spiritual master, Ramanuja returned to Sri Rangam. After this incident Yatiraja’s fame expanded even further, and for several weeks it seemed the local people could speak of nothing but this great devotee who had come into their midst.
INSTRUCTIONS TO KURESA
Residing once more in Sri Rangam, Yatiraja began to instruct the growing number of disciples who had taken shelter of him. One day his disciple Kuresa approached him and asked him to reveal the full meaning of the supreme verse of Bhagavad-gita :-
mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
moksayisyami ma sucah
"Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I wilt deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear."
Ramanuja replied, "A person who gives up all independent desires and serves his guru absolutely for an entire year can fully understand the meaning of this verse, and no one else."
"But life is so uncertain," said Kuresa, "how can I know whether or not I will live for another year? Please bestow your mercy upon me by making the meaning of the verse manifest in my heart even now"
Yatiraja considered this request for a while and then replied, "If you live for one month by begging alms from door to door, without knowing where your next meal will come from, then you will begin to realize the meaning of full surrender. At that time I will instruct you on all the meanings of this glorious verse."
For one month Kuresa lived as his guru had instructed. When the month had passed, he learned from Yatiraja all about the nature of surrender to Lord Krsna.
A tittle while later, Dasarathi, Ramanuja's second disciple, approached him with the same request as Kuresa. To him Yatiraja replied, "You are my relative, and therefore it is my desire that you understand the verse by hearing from Gosthipurna. Even though there may be some fault in you, I will tend to overlook it because you are my family member. The duty of the guru is to remove all taints from the heart of the disciple. Therefore it is better that you take instruction from Sri Gosthipurna." Dasarathi was famous as a great scholar and still a little proud of his learning. It was for this reason that Ramanuja directed him to approach Gosthipurna.
As instructed by his guru, Dasarathi went to reside in Tirukkotiyur and for six months he sat at the feet of Mahatma Gosthipurna. However, even at the end of this time, the acarya had still not explained to him the meaning of that sublime verse spoken by Lord Krsna.
Eventually, taking pity on the young man, Gosthipurna told Dasarathi, "You are certainly a most brilliant scholar; I know that well. However, you must understand that education, wealth, and birth in an aristocratic family can cause pride to arise in the heart of a small-minded man. In those who are virtuous, great learning brings self-control and thus gives rise to good qualities, not blemishes. Understanding these instructions, now return to your own guru; he will reveal the meaning of the verse as you desire."
Dasarathi then returned to Sri Rangam and reported to Ramanuja all that had taken place in Tirukkotiyur. At that same time, Attulai, the daughter of Mahapurna, came there, obviously in some distress. When Yatiraja inquired from her as to the cause of her unhappiness, she replied, "Dear brother, my father has sent me to you. I live at the house of my father-in-law and every day, both morning and evening, I have to bring water from a lake which is over two miles from the house. The road there is lonely and difficult to traverse and as a result I have become overwhelmed by fear and physical exertion. When I told my mother-in-law of these difficulties, rather than sympathizing with my plight, she flew into a rage, saying, 'Why did you not bring a cook from your father's house? Can I afford to employ a servant while you sit idly at home?' Being very unhappy at this treatment, I returned to my father's house and he has instructed me to come to you for help with this problem."
To this request Ramanuja immediately responded, "Dear sister, do not worry. Here I have one brahmana whom I will send with you. He will do the work of fetching water from the lake and the cooking as well."
So saying he glanced at Dasarathi, the great scholar. Although working as a servant in the kitchen was an occupation he might have considered unbefitting for a renowned pandit such as himself, Dasarathi understood the desire of his guru and gladly followed Attulai to her father-in law's house. There he began to do all the work in the kitchen with great care and devotion. In this way six months passed.
One day a Vaisnava came to the village and was explaining a verse before an assembly of people. Dasarathi was among the crowd and when he heard the speaker's presentation tinged with impersonalist misconceptions, he could not restrain himself from pointing out these errors. At this the man was very irritated and shouted out, "Stop, you fool! Where is a jackal and where is heaven! Whoever heard of a cook explaining the scriptures? Go back to the kitchen and display your talents there."
Without showing the least sign of annoyance at these harsh words, Dasarathi calmly went on with his explanation of the verse. His presentation, based on many different scriptures, was made so perfectly that everyone who heard his speech was captivated. Even the original speaker begged pardon from him by touching his feet and asking, "How is it that such a sincere devotee and learned scholar as yourself is engaged in doing menial work in the kitchen?"
To this Dasarathi replied that he was simply acting in accordance with the order of his guru, which was his life and soul. When all the people learned he was Dasarathi, the famous devotee-scholar, they went in a group to Sri Rangam. Before Ramanuja all of them presented their petition, saying, "0 Mahatma, it is not proper that your worthy disciple should be engaged as a cook any longer. He has not a trace of pride in his heart and is certainly an exalted paramahamsa. Please give orders so that in great honor we may bring him to your feet once more."
Yatiraja was so pleased to hear the people describing his disciple in such a way that he himself returned with them. When they met, Ramanuja embraced Dasarathi and blessed him. After returning to Sri Rangam he explained to him the full significance of Lord Krsna's final instruction to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita, which reveals the essence of a devotee's surrender to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Because Dasarathi had fulfilled his desire by rendering service to the devotees, from that day he was known as Vaisnava dasa.
LEARNING FROM MALADHARA
After this, at Mahapurna's request, Ramanuja again studied the writings of the south Indian devotees, this time under the direction of Vararanga. When this study was complete, Gosthipurna approached him with another devotee, saying, "This great soul, Sri Maladhara, comes from the city of Srimadhura in the land of the Pandyas where I was born. He is a learned scholar and one of the foremost disciples of Yamunacarya. He has fully understood the Sathari-sukta, the thousand songs composed by the great devotee Sathari. Learn all of this from him, and you will surely be blessed by Lord Narayana."
Following the order of his guru, Ramanuja began to study at the feet of Maladhara. One day, however, the teacher gave an explanation of one of the verses which seemed improper to Ramanuja, who put forward a different understanding. Being offended at what he saw as his student's great audacity, Maladhara immediately left Sri Rangam and returned to his home.
When Gosthipurna heard what had happened, he went to visit his godbrother and asked, "Could Ramanuja absorb the full meaning of the Thousand Songs?" To this inquiry Maladhara replied by explaining everything that had taken place in Sri Rangam.
"My dear brother," said Gosthipurna, "do not judge him as you would an ordinary man. None of us can understand Yamunacarya's intimate thoughts and desires to the extent that he can. Therefore, when he gives some explanation of the verses, you should hear him as if our beloved guru, Alabandara himself, were speaking."
Acting on this advice from Gosthipurna, Maladhara returned to Sri Rangam and resumed his teaching to Ramanuja. A few days later Ramanuja again spoke out to give some different explanation of a particular verse, but this time, instead of being annoyed, Maladhara listened to him with great attention. When he heard Ramanuja's explanation of the verse, Maladhara was amazed to see the young sannyasi's profound and inspired understanding of Vaisnava philosophy. In a mood of great reverence, he circumambulated Ramanuja and then brought forward his son to be his disciple.
LEARNING THE SCIENCE OF DHARMA
After completing his study of the Sathari-sukta, Ramanuja next wanted to learn about dharma from Sri Vararanga, the son of Yamunacarya. Every day Vararanga would go before Lord Ranganatha and sing bhajans in a most beautiful voice. Sometimes he would dance in ecstasy, and, when he became fatigued, Ramanuja would bring him relief by massaging his legs and rubbing turmeric powder on his body. Every evening he would prepare condensed milk for Vararanga and bring it to him like a menial servant.
For six months this continued, and then Vararanga said to Ramanuja, "I know of your desire to learn from me about dharma and because I am very pleased by the service that you have rendered to me, I will fully instruct you as far as my intelligence allows. Everything about dharma is fully understood by one who has realized the meaning of this verse:-
gurur eva param brahma
gurur eva param-dhanam
gurur eva parah kamo
gurur eva parayanam
"That person who sees his spiritual master as the personification of the Lord Himself and who serves his guru perfectly with no other desire, just as you have served me, he is the greatest knower of dharma. This is the limit of my understanding."
Ramanuja was very pleased to receive this instruction from his teacher and offered prostrated obeisances at his feet. Sri Vararanga had no children, but he had a younger brother named Chotanambi who was very dear to him. Now he brought this young man forward to become the disciple of Ramanuja.
In this way Ramanuja was instructed by Yamunacarya's five most intimate disciples: Kancipurna, Mahapurna, Gosthipuma, Maladhara, and Vararanga – each of whom embodied a different aspect of the great acarya. Now it appeared that Alabandara was present again on earth in the form of the pure devotee, Sri Ramanujacarya. When Yatiraja spoke, explaining the Vaisnava philosophy, everyone became struck with wonder to hear such beautiful descriptions. When he spoke about the glories of the Lord, the unhappiness and material desires of all those who heard him immediately went to a distant place.
THE GREAT DEVOTEE TIRUMANGAI
Of all the temples in India, that of Lord Ranganatha, situated on an island in the Kaveri River, is certainly the largest. The story of how this temple came to be built is very interesting.
About three hundred years before the birth of Ramanujacarya, which was in AD 1017, there lived in south India a devotee named Tirumangai. His heart was always filled with devotion for Lord Visnu, and in this mood of pure love he would compose beautiful poetic prayers.
From the time of his youth he was in the habit of travelling throughout the country to visit the various holy places of pilgrimage. In the course of his travels four great mystics had become attracted by his exalted nature and had become his disciples. Each of these disciples had a particular ability that set him apart from ordinary men.
The first disciple was named Tola Vazhakkan, and he was famous for his ability to vanquish any opponent in a debate. The second disciple was named Taluduvan, and he had the ability to open any lock without the need of a key. The third and fourth disciples both possessed most unusual talents. The third, Nizhalai Mithippan, could force any man to remain still simply by stepping on his shadow, while the fourth, Nirmal Nadappan, had developed the laghima siddhi, which enabled him to walk on water.
TIRUMANGAI'S VISIT TO SRI RANGAM
After touring many holy places of pilgrimage, Tirumangai at last came to the temple of Lord Ranganatha. The Deity of Ranganatha had originally been installed by Vibhisana, the brother of Ravana, but at the time of Tirumangai the temple was completely dilapidated and filled with bats. Once a day a priest would come there to offer a few flowers and a little water to the Deity before hurrying away out of fear of the wild animals that dwelt in the surrounding forest.
When he saw this unhappy state of affairs, a strong desire arose in the mind of Tirumangai to build a beautiful, opulent temple for Lord Ranganatha. However, he did not have a penny to his name and no more did any of his disciples. After consulting together they decided to approach every rich man they could find and beg him to give money for the building of a temple. Unfortunately, the effects of Kali-yuga having set in, not one of these rich men would give even a small coin and they frequently blasphemed the devotees by calling them rogues or thieves.
ADOPTING THE WAYS OF ROBBERS
Being a humble devotee, Tirumangai was not disturbed by this treatment, but the thought of the Supreme Lord standing uncared for in a wild forest full of jackals and hyenas caused him great pain. At last he could tolerate the situation no longer and exclaimed in front of his four disciples, "We have wasted enough time trying to persuade these rascals to serve the Lord. They will always remain atheists and unbelievers. Which is better – to beg from these villains while Lord Ranganatha remains in this sorry condition, or to humble them by building a temple for the Lord so magnificent that it will force them to bow down at his feet?"
The disciples answered, "The service of the Lord is our duty, not acting as the servants of these rogues."
"Then prepare yourselves," continued Tirumangai, "for from this day we will see to it that the wealth of these greedy men is spent for building a temple. These wealthy landowners, who are cruel by nature, have passed their lives taking from the poor, hard-working people and leaving them without enough to eat. Now then, let us rob these rascals and use their money for building a temple and feeding the poor."
The four disciples readily agreed to this proposal, and each of them spoke in turn. Tola Vazhakkan said, "No one can defeat me in argument. So, while I engage some rich man and his attendants in a debate, they will forget everything else and you will easily be able to carry off their wealth."
Taludhuvan said, "I have the ability to open any lock without a key. Therefore, no treasury door will ever be closed to us."
Nizhalai Mithippan said, "Anyone whose shadow is touched by my feet loses all power of movement. Therefore, it will be easy for us to stop rich travellers along the roads."
Nirmal Nadappan said, "The big houses of rich landowners, which are surrounded by moats of water, are always open to me, for I can easily walk over water. Therefore from today, all the treasure of kings is yours"
CONSTRUCTION OF THE RANGANATHA TEMPLE
With the assistance of his four disciples, Tirumangai soon became the leader of a large gang of robbers. Together they accumulated a great hoard of riches that was kept concealed in a secret place on Lord Ranganatha's island. Spending large sums of money, Tirumangai brought the best architects in the land to design a huge temple for the Lord and at an auspicious moment he laid the foundation stone.
The inner temple room, encircled by the first ring of walls and crowned with a high tower, was completed in two years. Thousands of builders were engaged to take part in the construction, but even so it took four years to complete the next ring of walls and apartments, six years for the second, eight years for the third, ten years for the fourth, twelve years for the fifth, and eighteen years for the sixth. In all it took sixty years to complete the construction of the temple, and by this time Tirumangai was over eighty years old.
After the construction of the inner temple, kings began to send money to Tirumangai of their own accord, convinced now that he was a genuine devotee. Moreover, he was now the leader of a gang of over one thousand robbers and other wealthy landowners gave money liberally to assist with the work, fearing that all of their property would otherwise be plundered. Despite all this, Tirumangai still lived the simple life of a devotee, eating only once a day prasadam cooked by his own hand and prepared from food he obtained by begging. He would also ensure that all the people in that area never suffered for want of food -only the rich lived in fear of the sage Tirumangai.
THE ROBBERS' ANGER
Now that all seven walls of the temple were completed, Tirumangai generously rewarded all the architects. After making this payment there was not a penny left in the treasury. At that time the host of robbers, who had been his accomplices, came to him to demand their share of the wealth they had plundered. Tirumangai thought for some time about the robbers' demands, and, finding no way he could pay them, he consulted with his disciple Nirmal Nadappan in a secluded place.
In the meantime all the robbers, believing that Tirumangai had cheated them by spending all the money for construction of the temple, made a conspiracy to kill their leader. Just as they were about to put their plans into effect, however, Nirmal Nadappan stepped amongst them, saying, "My dear brothers, somewhere hidden along the northern bank of the Kaveri there is a large amount of treasure belonging to our master. Look, here is a boat; I will take you to that place where the treasure is hidden, and then we can divide it among ourselves."
The robbers happily agreed to this proposal, and all got aboard a large boat that had been used to carry blocks of stone for the temple. It was the rainy season, and the monsoon had swollen the Kaveri into a mighty flow over a mite wide. The day was drawing to a close, and dark clouds began to blot out the light of the setting sun. As Tirumangai and his three other disciples stood on the island of Sri Rangam, they could only faintly discern the outline of the huge boat as it moved slowly towards the distant shore.
Suddenly, above the roar of the water and the sound of the wind, they heard a horrible cry of distress that seemed to come from within the Kaveri itself. Then there was silence, and the boat could be seen no more. In the roaring waves of the Kaveri nothing else was noticed.
After a short while one man walking with steady strides over the water came near Tirumangai and bowed down at his feet. This man was none other than Nirmal Nadappan, the fourth disciple. Tirumangai raised him up and said, "Do not feel concerned for these men. After all the service they have rendered, surely Lord Ranganatha will protect them. Is it not better for them to leave the world at this time than to continue living as robbers? Now let us all pass the remaining days of our lives in the service of Lord Ranganatha, for our purpose in adopting the robbers' lifestyle has been fulfilled."
So Tirumangai and his four disciples then absorbed themselves in rendering service to the Deity of Ranganatha. A few years later they passed from this world and returned to the shelter of Lord Visnu's lotus feet.
THE HIGH PRIEST OF THE TEMPLE
In this way the temple of Lord Ranganatha came to be built and was famous as the largest temple in all of India. At the time of Ramanuja, however, the high priest of the temple was not at all a devoted or pious man. He had used his position to amass a fortune for himself, and he was willing to remove any person who became an obstacle to his ambition. Ramanujacarya now proved himself to be just such an obstacle.
The high priest-observed how people would offer respect and veneration to Yatiraja and that his own position was now being overlooked. That envious person could not tolerate this threat to his prestige and status, and so he immediately began to consider ways by which he might be rid of this dangerous rival. After formulating a plan, he went to Ramanuja one day and invited him to take alms at his house. Then he quickly returned home and instructed his wife, "Today I have invited Ramanuja to take alms here. This is our opportunity to be rid of the scoundrel once and for all. You know where the poison is to be found. Need I say more?"
The priest's wife was a woman of similar disposition to her husband, and she gladly agreed to his proposal. The high priest then went back to the temple, and at noon Yatiraja arrived at the house to take alms as he had been invited. The wife of the priest received him with great courtesy, washing his feet and offering him a nice sitting place. Although this woman was known to be hard-hearted by nature, when she beheld the transcendental appearance of the great devotee with his pure, guileless expression, feelings of compassion began to arise within her.
When she brought the poisoned dish forward, she was unable to restrain herself and, shedding tears, addressed Ramanuja, "My child, if you want to save yourself, then go elsewhere to take your meal. If you take this food you will die"
Yatiraja was shocked to hear these words, and he sat silently for some time wondering what he might have done to bring out such hatred in the priest. Eventually he rose and, leaving the house, walked slowly towards the Kaveri. Seeing Gosthipurna there by the banks of the river, he ran towards him and fell down at his feet. Gosthipurna raised him up and inquired as to the cause of his distress.
Ramanuja narrated to him the whole story and then asked his spiritual master, "I am so unhappy at the thought of his mental condition. How can he be freed from such a great sin?"
"My child," Gosthipurna replied, "when you desire the Lord's mercy for this sinful soul, there is no need to fear for him. Very soon he will give up his evil ways and become a righteous man."
When he had left his guru, Ramanuja returned to the asrama, where he found a brahmana waiting with various types of prasadam. He took a little and distributed the rest to his disciples without telling anyone what had befallen him at the house of the high priest. Sitting alone, he continued to contemplate how the priest's sinful nature might be reformed.
In the meantime the high priest had returned to his residence and discovered that his plot had been unsuccessful. He was extremely angry, but, considering that a woman's heart is naturally soft, he excused his wife and immediately began to devise another scheme to do away with his imagined rival.
Every evening Yatiraja would visit the temple to see Lord Ranganatha. That evening, when he was standing before the Lord, the high priest came towards him, offering him caranamrta. Ramanuja gratefully accepted and drank the caranamrta, even though he knew that it was mixed with poison. Then he offered prayers to Lord Ranganatha, "0 ocean of mercy, how great is your affection for your devotee. I am not worthy to accept such nectar from Your lotus feet. Your mercy is causeless and unlimited."
When he had finished offering prayers, Ramanuja left the temple, his body trembling in ecstasy. Seeing these emotions, the high priest mistook them for signs that the poison was taking effect and was very pleased, thinking that his mission was accomplished. He was convinced that the next morning he would see the smoke of Yatiraja's funeral pyre, for he had put in the caranamrta enough poison to kill ten men.
THE PRIEST'S REPENTENCE
However, in this he was to be disappointed. The next morning, as he was going to the temple as usual, he heard the sound of many voices singing joyful songs in praise of Ramanuja. The priest hurried to the place the sound was coming from and saw there that all the people of Sri Rangam were singing and dancing around Yatiraja, offering flowers at his feet. The acarya himself was sitting on a low seat in a trance of ecstasy, his mind fixed on the Supreme Personality of Godhead. His pure features were more radiant than ever, with tears of jubilation flowing from his eyes. As he beheld that wonderful sight, even the stone-like heart of that evil priest began to soften.
In an instant the high priest realized the folly of his envy towards this great mahatma and rushed through the crowd towards him. Weeping bitterly, he fell down at Ramanuja's feet praying, "You have descended to enact the desires of Lord Visnu by destroying sinful men like me. Delay no longer, my lord. Send me at once to the abode of Yamaraja. I am not fit even to touch your feet, so please punish me immediately for all my sins. Only then may I achieve relief from their reactions. Delay no longer! Throw me at once under the feet of an elephant or into a blazing fire. I do not desire to live for a moment more."
Having said this, the priest began to strike his head on the ground so hard that the place became soaked with blood. The people all around tried to restrain him, but he was so agitated that he began to strike his chest until his whole body became covered with blood. Then Yatiraja returned to external consciousness and pacified the priest by placing his hand upon his head and saying, "Do not act in such a terrible way. Lord Ranganatha has certainly forgiven all of your sins."
"How can you look with such kindness on a man as abominable as myself!" exclaimed the priest.
"0 savior of the fallen, this glory of yours will be proclaimed by men for all time to come."
Ramanuja then blessed the high priest and bestowed his full mercy upon him. From that day on, the priest was like a different person. He cast far away all the enviousness which had polluted his heart and became a humble servant of the Lord, completely devoted to his savior and guru, Ramanujacarya.
THE DEBATE WITH YAJNAMURTI
At that time there lived a great scholar and pandita named Yajnamurti, who by dint of his learning and keen intelligence had become unconquerable in debate. Although born in south India, he had travelled throughout the northern regions of the country without finding anyone who could rival his abilities in argument. On returning to south India he heard of the fame of Ramanujacarya, the renowned Vaisnava who was so expert at refuting impersonalist philosophy. Therefore he hastened to Sri Rangam, followed by a cart filled with the books he always took with him.
Appearing before Ramanuja, Yajnamurti immediately challenged him to a debate. At this Yatiraja merely smiled, saying, "0 Mahatma, what is the value of this mental wrangling? I will accept defeat at your hands, for you are a scholar without second. Victory follows you everywhere."
"If you acknowledge your defeat," rejoined Yajnamurti, "then you must accept the flawless doctrine of monism and give up forever the false ideas of the Vaisnavas".
Of course this was something that Ramanuja could never accept, and so he protested, "It is mayavadis such as yourself who are filled with illusion. According to such speculators all arguments and reasonings of the mind are simply aspects of maya, so how is your own doctrine free from illusion?"
"Whatever exists in time and space is illusion," said Yajnamurti, "and both of these must be transcended before one can reach the real truth. You accept a form of God as truth, but actually all forms are nothing but illusion."
In this way the great debate began and for seventeen days it continued, as neither of the two scholars seemed able to finally defeat the other. At the end of the seventeenth day, when Yatiraja still found it impossible to nullify all of his opponent's clever arguments and establish the supremacy of Lord Visnu, he felt very disappointed at heart.
Returning to the asrama that evening, he went before the Deity and began to pray with folded hands, "0 Lord, the truth that is revealed in all the scriptures has become covered by the cloud of mayavada arguments. By cleverly juggling words these impersonalist present arguments which are bewildering even to great mahatmas. 0 Supreme One, for how long will You allow Your children to be thus kept from the shade of Your lotus feet?"
When he had finished his prayer, Ramanuja began to shed tears. That night the Lord appeared to him in a dream and told him, "Do not be anxious. Before long the full glory of devotional service will be revealed to the world through you."
The next morning when he arose and recalled the instructions the Lord had given him in the dream, Yatiraja felt great joy. When he had finished all his morning duties, he walked over to the monastery where Yajnamurti was staying. On seeing the blissful effulgence in Ramanuja's face the impersonalist was completely amazed, thinking to himself, "Yesterday, Ramanuja returned to his asrama greatly disappointed and on the verge of defeat. But today he returns looking like one of the gods. I can see that he is divinely inspired, and thus it is futile to argue with him any longer. This man has indeed attained full perfection. Anger and pride never approach him, and his face glows with a transcendent beauty. I shall atone for my sinfulness by becoming his disciple and thus destroy the root of my false pride."
Having made this decision, Yajnamurti fell down to offer obeisances to Ramanuja, who then addressed him, "0 Yajnamurti, such behavior is not proper for a great man like yourself. Why this delay in resuming the debate?"
"0 great soul," replied the scholar, "I am no longer the same wrangler who has tried to overcome you with clever arguments for so many days. I will argue no longer with a pure devotee such as yourself. I stand before you not as a rival, but as your eternal servant. Please fill up my darkened heart with the light of your purity."
Yatiraja was not surprised by the transformation that had taken place in Yajnamurti, for he clearly recalled the words spoken to him by Sri Devaraja, the Deity installed in the asrama. He realized that it was only through the mercy of the Lord that the proud pandita had gained the jewel of humility. Then, speaking in a gentle voice, Ramanuja said to the scholar, "May the name of Sri Devaraja be ever glorified, for his grace can melt even the stones. To give up pride in one's learning is all but impossible for any man, but by His mercy it has been made possible. You are supremely fortunate."
"When I have been given the chance to meet a pure devotee such as yourself, then I am indeed fortunate," said Yajnamurti. "Now please instruct me. Show me how to become a devotee of the Lord."
On receiving this surrender from the famous pandita, Yatiraja at once prepared to initiate him into the Vaisnava sampradaya. Yajnamurti anointed his body with tilaka and then accepted the symbols of Lord Visnu: the conchshell, disc, club and lotus. Because he had been delivered by the mercy of Sri Devaraja, Ramanujacarya gave Yajnamurti the name Devaraja-muni and instructed him, "Now that your learning has been freed from the contamination of pride, it can shine forth upon the world. You should engage yourself in writing books which perfectly explain the behavior and philosophy of the Vaisnavas." It was in accordance with this order from his guru that Devaraja-muni later wrote two wonderful devotional literatures, Jnana-sara and Prameya-sara.
THE HUMILITY OF DEVARAJA-MUNI
A few days later, four intelligent, devoted young men approached Ramanuja and begged for initiation from him. When he had heard their request, Yatiraja considered the matter for a little while and then told them, "Go to Devaraja-muni and become his disciples. He is not only a great pandita, but also a most advanced devotee of Lord Narayana."
Accepting this order with great respect, the four young men duly became disciples of Devaraja-muni. That previously arrogant scholar, however, was not at all pleased to find himself in a position where he had to accept worship and veneration from disciples. "What a disturbance this is to me," he thought, "I have been endeavoring with all my strength to rid myself of vanity, but now I am forced to become a guru and listen to my praises being sung."
In bewilderment he approached Ramanuja and humbly submitted, "0 master, I am your surrendered servant. Why do you behave so cruelly towards me? By your grace I have endeavored to shake off the demon of false pride, so why do you hurl me once more into the arms of vanity by ordering me to become a guru? I am not detached enough to accept such a position, so please allow me to remain here as your menial servant. For me, to be in such a position would be the supreme perfection."
Highly pleased by his disciple's words, Yatiraja embraced Devaraja-muni and said warmly, "I did all this simply to test whether you had truly overcome your pride. Now that you have passed the test, you should remain here with me and Lord Devaraja." Devaraja-muni was very satisfied to receive this order from his guru. He passed the remaining years of his life absorbed in rendering service to the lotus feet of his spiritual master and Lord Devaraja.
INSTRUCTIONS TO DISCIPLES
Now that Ramanujacarya had accepted a number of disciples, he began to give them formal instructions on the Vaisnava scriptures. First he studied with them the Sahasra-giti, the thousand hymns praising Lord Visnu which had been composed by Nammalvar, a famous devotee from south India. All the disciples were entranced to hear the wonderful way that Yatiraja explained these verses, revealing to them the glories of Lord Visnu.
One day they came to a verse which described the holy dhama of Sri Saila, which is also known as Tirupati: "This Sri Saila is like Vaikuntha on earth. One who spends his life in that holy place does in truth live in Vaikuntha and at the end of his life will attain the lotus feet of Lord Narayana."
When they had read that verse, Ramanuja asked his disciples, "Who among you is willing to go to Sri Saila, make a flower garden and serve Lord Srinivasa there until the end of his life?"
It was Anantacarya, a very quiet disciple, who replied, "0 master, if you will permit me, I shall go to that sacred hill and there achieve the mercy of the Lord."
"You are indeed blessed," said Yatiraja, "and by your devotion you have delivered fourteen generations of your ancestors. I consider myself most fortunate to have a disciple such as yourself." Then, after worshiping the feet of his guru, Anantacarya departed for Tirupati.