Biography of Sri Vidyaranya
Tradition has it that Madhava (the generally accepted pre-ascetic name of Sri Vidyaranya) was the elder of two Brahmachari brothers belonging to a poor but learned Brahmin family of Ekasila Nagari (present-day Warangal). The younger of the two, wandering south in search of true knowledge, reached Sringeri when the great Vidyashankara Tirtha was the reigning pontiff. On seeing the innate greatness of the young Brahmachari, Sri Vidyatirtha readily gave him sanyasa diksha with the ascetic name of Bharati Krishna Tirtha in 1328 A.D.
In the meanwhile, Madhava left home in search of his younger brother. After much wandering, he finally reached Sringeri where he found his brother as the junior pontiff Bharati Krishna Tirtha. At the junior pontiff’s request, Sri Vidyatirtha readily gave Madhava sanyasa diksha in 1331 A.D under the ascetic name of Sri Vidyaranya, in other words, verily a forest of knowledge. Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha, though younger than Vidyaranya became his senior by virtue of his earlier ordainment into Sanyasa Ashrama and came to be known as the senior Sripada and Vidyaranya the junior.
Sri Vidyaranya then started on a pilgrimage and reached Kashi. At the direction of Sri Vyasa, he went to Badrikashrama where the great sage himself initiated him into Sri Vidya. Returning south, he retired to Matanga hill, near Hampi, where he immersed himself in intense meditation. It was at this time that the two brothers, Madhava and Sayana, the sons of Mayana of Bharadwaja Gotra, approached Sri Vidyaranya and sought his blessings. Sri Vidyaranya graciously gave them his unfinished Veda bhashyas and some other works. He blessed them to complete the works in their own names as Madhaviyam and Sayaniyam. Later, both the brothers served as ministers in the Vijayanagara empire under Bukkaraya and Harihara I and II. At Sringeri, Sri Vidyatirtha attained Mahasamadhi by entering into Lambika Yoga Samadhi and Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha succeeded him as the 11th Jagadguru of the Sringeri Mutt and reigned from 1333 to 1380 A.D.
The Jagadguru’s Greatness
Sri Vidyaranya then resumed his pilgrimage to Varanasi. While he was there, Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha at Sringeri had already started construction of the magnificent Vidyashankara temple over the tomb into which his guru Sri Vidya Tirtha had entered into Lambika Yoga Samadhi.
Bukka and Harihara who were sharing the responsibilities of ruling their empire and were marching from victory to victory, went to Sringeri in 1346 for the blessings of Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha. They celebrated the occasion with a land grant to the senior Sripada.
Bukkaraya communicated all the details to Sri Vidyaranya in Kashi, forwarding to him Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha’s srimukha. It desired his early return to Sringeri, which Sri Vidyaranya complied with, reaching Sringeri via Hampi, accompanied by Bukkaraya. At Hampi, Sri Vidyaranya had built a Mutt near the Virupaksha temple, for his use. After Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha attained videha mukti, Sri Vidyaranya assumed charge of the Sringeri Mutt and reigned as Jagadguru for six years from 1380 to 1386. The Acharya initiated the emperor into the mysteries of Advaitic meditation, and in 1386 attained videha mukti. Shortly after this event, Harihara visited Sringeri and founded the agrahara of Vidyaranyapura in memory of the guru.
Sri Vidyaranya was indeed a unique personality, scholar and sage, rightly regarded as a great thinker in the post-Shankara period. No wonder he was extolled and virtually raised to divinity by kings Bukka and Harihara when making royal grants:
Sri Vidyaranya’s powers of exposition are more wonderful than those of Brahma; he can make (by his dialectics) the eloquent dumb and (by his teaching) the dumb eloquent (Copper Plate May 1384)
Can he be Brahma? We do not see four faces; can he be Vishnu? He does not have four hands; can he be Shiva? No oddness of the eyes is observed. Having thus argued for a long time, the learned have come to the conclusion that Vidyaranya is verily the Supreme Light Incarnate. (Sringeri Plate of Harihara II May 1386)
Under Sri Vidyaranya’s direction, the emperors made endowments to Mutts founded by him or by Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha in different parts of South India, some of which rose to importance as branches of the Sringeri Sharada Peetha or as subordinate monastic establishments. Prince Chikka Raya (afterwards Virupaksha I) made a grant to Satyatirtha of Muniyur Mutt which marks the origin of the Sakatapuram or Bandigade Mutt.
Hariharapura, an agrahara about six miles from Sringeri was founded by Harihara II, and Sri Ramachandra Saraswathi was the first Acharya of the Mutt established there. The Tirthamuttur Mutt (Tirthahalli taluk) and the Kudali Mutt also came into existence some centuries later under the guidance and encouragement of the Sringeri Gurus and the emperors. The agraharas of Sringapura and Vidyaranyapura were laid out by Harihara II.
A vritti was allotted to the Sri Janardana temple. Of the new temples built during this period, the Vidyashankara temple was the grandest. It was during Sri Vidyaranya’s time, that Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha substituted the present golden image of Sri Sharada for the one in sandalwood originally consecrated by Sri Shankara over a Sri Chakra on a rock and over which a small temple had been raised. The temple was enlarged. The Bharati Ramanatha temple was built over the samadhi of Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha and the Vidyavishweswara temple in memory of Sri Vidyaranya. Sri Vidyaranya made grants for the worship of Gopinatha in Paschimavahini, a few furlongs from Sringeri on the westward bend of the Tunga, and consecrated lingas and Sri Chakras in several places.
A New epoch
Vedic dharma, which had received a rude shock under Muslim rule in the North found a bulwark in the South. The re-emergence was on all fronts. On the political front, Sri Vidyaranya’s grace helped in the formation of a Hindu empire. On the socio-religious front, to begin with, worship that had been suspended in several temples, including the famous temples of Srirangam and Madurai was restored. Mysore inscriptions speak of grants to temples under the direction or in honour of Sri Vidyaranya. From now on, Vijayanagar emperors and their vassals carried out renovations, with extensions on a lavish scale of hundreds of temples.
Till this period in the history of the Sringeri Sharada Peetha, the Jagadgurus had been concentrating on imparting Brahmavidya to the elect, and training spiritual aspirants. Since Sri Vidyaranya, the Jagadgurus also took upon themselves the tasks of prescribing proper modes of divine services, in temples and guiding the socio-religious activities of the millions of disciples so as to bring them under the discipline of religion.
The Resplendent Jewel amongst Jagadgurus: Sri Vidyaranya was the head of the Sringeri Mutt for only a short span of six years. But because of his association with Sri Bharati Krishna Tirtha (his predecessor Jagadguru and poorvashrama brother) for over five decades, he left an indelible mark on the spiritual life of his times. The Vidyashankara ‘ Bharati Krishna Tirtha ‘ Vidyaranya epoch marks the rise of the Sharada Peetham to the highest of eminence and led to the emergence of the spiritual institution as the torchbearer in sustaining Sanatana Dharma. Sri Vidyaranya is rightly considered as one of the brightest jewels in the illustrious line of Sringeri Guru Parampara.
विद्याविद्याविवेकेन पारं संसारवारिधेः ।
प्रापयत्यनिशं भक्तान् तं विद्यारण्यमाश्रये ॥
Homage to this serene Vidyaranya who holds aloft the torch of discrimination, Knowledge of the Real form unreal and helps the devoted across the sea of birth!