In the land of the Cholas, on the banks of the Kaveri, there was a devout Brahmana called Vimala. He was blessed with a boy. While in his teens, he mastered all the Vedas and showed an extreme distaste for worldly life. He earnestly hoped for a guru who would lead him across the ocean of samsara. Refusing to marry, he travelled with the purpose of finding such a guru. Fortunately for him, Sri Shankara was staying at Kashi, expounding his inimitable Bhasyas. The boy resplendent with Brahma-Tejas ran to him and threw himself at his feet. The Acharya perceived the learning, courage and earnestness of the newcomer. He accepted him as his disciple. He initiated him into the Sanyasa Ashrama under the name of Sanandana.
He was first of Shankara’s disciples. He was first in more than one sense. His unrivalled devotion so pleased the teacher that, in appreciation of his earnest search for truth, the Acharya took the trouble of explaining to him his works thrice. This partially engendered in the other disciples a feeling of misgiving, which the Acharya immediately took care to eradicate.
When Sanandana and a few other disciples were once on the other bank of the river Ganga, the Acharya called them to come to him. No boat was available. But Sanandana, secure in faith and grace of the Acharya, stepped on the water and began to walk. Struck with his devotion, the divine Ganga showed her admiration by placing lotuses on the water to support his feet at every step. To the astonishment of all, he unconcernedly crossed over to the other bank where he was duly rewarded by the embrace of the Acharya. It was a mark of affection, which no other disciple had ever received. In memory of this incident, he was henceforth known as Padmapada at the desire of the Acharya.
Even before becoming a disciple, he was in the centre of the world of Vedic, traditional scholarship of his times. It is however not the revelation of his great scholarship, but the great challenge he faced, the course he opted, of flowing generosity and atonement, and the prophetic understanding he displayed that made him great as a person.
There is a famous incident of his saving the life of the Acharya. A devotee of Bhairava, a Kapalika took advantage of the nobility of the Acharya. He begged him to give his head as an offering to the terrible Bhairava. The Acharya willingly consented. But he warned that his head must be taken without the knowledge of his disciples, especially of Padmapada.
When the disciples had all gone to have their bath in the river, the Kapalika came. He found the Acharya in Samadhi. He raised his sword to smite and sever the head. Unfortunately for him, Padmapada intuitively divined the nefarious intention of the Kapalika. By force of his meditation on Lord Narasimha, he assumed the latter’s form. He pounced upon the Kapalika and tore him to pieces. Having done this, he sent up a terrible roar of triumph.
His co-disciples rushed to the spot and the Acharya rose from his Samadhi. He was as much astonished as the others. With great difficulty, he made Padmapada resume his form. They were all surprised to learn that in his Purvashrama, Padmapada was a staunch devotee of Nrisimha. He had contemplated on Narasimha while doing penance on the hills of Ahobila.
Padmapada also related an incident. A hunter asked him what he was doing in the forest. When told that he was seeking Narasimha, the hunter said that there was no such being as he knew every inch of the forest. Padmapada insisted that indeed there was such a being and described minutely the form of man-lion. The hunter said that he would produce the man-lion the next day before sunset.
The hunter roamed about in search of the elusive being. Failing to catch it in the stated time, he decided to take away his life. Narasimha was pleased with the hunter’s devotion and steadfastness. He appeared before the hunter who immediately put the rope round the neck of Narasimha and dragged him to the presence of Padmapada. Surprised beyond measure, Padmapada could not help asking the incarnate Deity how it happened. Sri Narasimha replied that even Brahma had not shown such earnestness in contemplation as the illiterate hunter.