The Raja-guru of Krishnadevaraya, and a prominent poet-saint who espoused Madhvacharya interpretation of Dvaita Vedanta, Vyasatirtha was an intellectual titan who had an elevated stature in the Vijayanagara court for close to five decades.
The Vijayanagara empire emerged in the mid-fourteenth century, after decades of considerable political turmoil in South India. The empire lasted for almost three centuries and witnessed the rule of four lineages- Sangamas, Saluvas, Tuluvas, and Aravidu. It did not dominate South Indian politics all through, as this region south of the Tungabhadra experienced many political fluctuations in this period, including fierce contestation between Vijayanagar and the Bahmani Sultans followed by the disintegration of the Bahmanis into five independent Sultanates towards the end of the fifteenth century. The Vijayanagara empire reached its zenith under Krishnadevaraya, who ushered a period of political dominance and cultural efflorescence that transformed the complexion of South Indian society. The Sultanates however struck back and decisively defeated the Vijayanagara empire in 1565 in Talikota, following which the empire slowly and steadily faded into oblivion.
Political dynamics essentially unfold within a specified time and space, but ideas and discourse transcend such limitations. An empire isn’t solely constructed on the basis of military dominance; it also is shaped by cultural and ideological forces. This cultural scaffolding helps it consolidate its position across the territories it governs. This is where we can locate the role played by religious establishments and philosopher-saints in consolidating the Vijayanagara empire.
Vyasatirtha, in a career spanning more than six decades, managed to carve an extremely distinguished position for himself in the Vijayanagara court. Modern philosophers and scholars too appear to be blown away by his polemical prowess and scholarly reputation. Surendranath Dasgupta suggests that he (alongside the equally prolific Madhwa philosopher Jaya-tirtha) represents the ‘highest dialectical skill in Indian thought’. Sarojini Devi Konduri also regards him to be the ‘brightest star in the firmament of Dvaita Vedanta’. He has been variously characterized as a ‘preceptor’, ‘guardian saint’, or ‘raja-guru’ of the Vijayanagara emperor, and treatises like the Vyasayogicharita of Somanatha point to his elevated stature within the kingdom.
Vyasatirtha did not ideate in a vacuum; his socio-cultural milieu and political ambitions did condition his worldview. To understand the implications of Vyasatirtha’s efforts, it is apposite to emphasize the complex relations between courts and mathas (monasteries) in medieval south India. As Valerie Stoker argues, mathas replicated the court’s power and authority in far-flung locations, enabling kingdoms to firmly integrate recently conquered territory into the empire. These mathas over time turned into alternative seats of power and their popular appeal was leveraged by courts to legitimize their authority in frontier regions. Inscriptions of the silasasanam variety (those engraved on stone slabs) depict the way sectarian leaders donated to temples of their own initiative, suggesting their local prominence. In the case of Vijayanagar, as we have just seen, patronage was rather eclectic, as various groups received recognition from the courts.
Monasteries formed an integral component of statecraft, right from the inception of the empire. Legends of the empire’s genesis allude to the role played by Vidyaranya Swami, head of Sringeri Math. While such legends cannot be relied upon for their accuracy, inscriptions do point towards the patronage of the Smarta Advaita Brahmins by the Sangamas. A very prolific Advaitin scholar named Sayana composed one of his most authoritative treatises, ' Vedartha Prakasha’, upon being funded directly by Bukka Raya II. However, the fluctuating fortunes of kingdoms in this period didn’t escape the philosophical and religious universe. By the late 15th century, Sangama rule had been terminated, and patronage too began diversifying. By this time, Ananda-tirtha and Jayatirtha had continued the Dvaita tradition of Madhvacharya and an illustrious trio was completed when Vyasatirtha came into his own in the early 16th century.
Vyasatirtha became a master polemicist only after years of rigorous training and concerted efforts. His story is emblematic of the nature of philosophical debate in India, wherein excellence was acquired not through mastery over one’s own sect’s doctrines, but by studying all existing philosophical paradigms with due diligence. Vyasatirtha had been initiated into the Madhva tradition by his guru Brahmanyatirtha, but this was only the onset of his philosophical exploration. He traveled and stayed for a few years in Kanchi wherein he studied all six philosophies in great depth. This was followed by years of philosophical inquiry in Mulbagal, under the tutelage of Madhva philosopher Sripadaraja. These years of rigorous training helped him identify the contradictions in rival philosophies, which he wilfully exploited to his advantage in the years that followed.
Spiritual guide to the Vijayanagara Emperor
Sripadaraja directed him to the court of Saluva Narasimha at Chandragiri to ‘guide’ the Vijayanagara emperor in matters of spirituality and dharma. He became an integral part of the court for almost four decades, and inscriptions and hagiographies likened him to both a deity and a ruler. According to some legends, the Tuluva emperor Krishnadevaraya worshiped him like a family deity, and there is enough epigraphic evidence to postulate a close relationship between the two of them. In 1511, the emperor granted a part of the Varadaraja temple in Kanchi to Vyasatirtha, and over the next few years, a lot of territory between Bangalore and Mysore was handed over to the philosopher-saint. These were regions where Krishnadevaraya had only recently seized several forts, and Vyasatirtha’s appointment was perhaps a method to placate the sentiments of locals. In 1521, following victory over the Adil Shahis, he granted land near the Raichur Doab, once again a region redolent with strategic significance. This was an imperial strategy of placing loyal subjects in unstable regions, and the presence of a very prominent ascetic like Vyasatirtha ensured that tensions between landed magnates and the imperial court didn’t always flare-up. In 1524, Vyasatirtha was granted three sites near the Venkateshwara temple, and this was a very significant moment because Tirupati happened to be one of the most important redistributive sites for the empire. Thus, the insertion of Madhva Brahmans in such vibrant landscapes attests to their growing significance in the context of empire-building.
However, Vyasatirtha’s most lasting political contribution was in the philosophical domain. The Gajapatis based out of Kalinga were the chief adversaries of the Vijayanagara empire in the early 16th century, and conflicts extended into philosophical matters. During Narasa Nayaka’s reign, Vyasatirtha participated in an 18-day debate with Basava Bhatta, an Advaitin emissary from Kalinga, and soundly defeated him. However, an event that almost epitomizes the scholarship of Vyasatirtha is when the king of Kalinga himself sent a text to Vyasatirtha soliciting his critique. Can you imagine a philosopher being felicitated with jewels by a reigning monarch simply for performing his job by critiquing a text? When the Madhva scholar offered a line-by-line rebuttal to this text, Krishnadevaraya performed a ratnabhishekha (ritual bathing with jewels) in his honor. The story doesn’t end there as Vyasatirtha's indifference to material wealth led him to donate the jewels to various officials of the empire.
Three major sects jostled for patronage under the Vijayanagara empire- the Smarta Advaitins, the Srivaishnavas, and the Madhvas. Here the principal conflict was one between Advaita (non-dualism) and Dvaita (dualism). Advaita fundamentally considers the self (atman) to be no different from the ultimate reality (brahman); while Dvaita considers difference to be integral to this relationship. Thus, there is an apparent conflict between a monist and a pluralist ontology. Vyasatirtha is renowned for composing three major texts- Tarkatandava, Nyayamruta, and Tatparya Candrika; and the last two are pointedly aimed at Advaita and Vishishtadvaita respectively. The Smarta Brahmins of Sringeri, who espoused Advaita, were the principal opponents of Vyasatirtha. The contest took place on several fronts: the nature of ignorance (avidya), ego-hood (ahankara), world appearance, and negation among other issues. Here, only one issue with profound socio-political significance shall be discussed. In the fourth volume of the Nyayamruta, called Jivanmukti Bhanga, Vyasatirtha demolished the Advaitin conception of jivanmukti (liberation). Proponents of Advaita had argued that the state of moksha could be attained while living, and monks who acquired such a position were to become the most well-regarded teachers within their tradition. In contrast, according to Madhvacharya, liberation could be attained only through the direct realization of God, i.e, aparoksha-jnana. God alone is to be treated as the cause of all bondage, as well as liberation. Devotion alludes to unconditioned and limitless love towards God, and only when God is pleased (atyartha prasada) can one get liberated. Vyasatirtha believed that the terms jivanmukti and aparoksha-jnana could be treated interchangeably, and that jivanmukti fitted perfectly within the Dvaita paradigm because of its realistic outlook. It was entirely incompatible with the Advaitin worldview because the very notion of singular reality obviated the existence of ‘temporary’ liberation. Valerie Stoker shows in this context how Vyasatirtha co-opts some of the core Advaitin concepts (Jivanmukti and sadhana) to marshal his sectarian cause, and this was done without any inhibitions of causing damage to his sect. Vyasatirtha’s arguments were rebutted many years later by Madhusudan Saraswati, an Advaitin based out of Varanasi. His Advaita Siddhi is a line-by-line refutation of Vyasatirtha’s Nyayamruta and Madhva scholars like Vidyadhisha Tirtha promptly responded to his assertions to keep the debate alive. Thus, Vyasatirtha’s views continued to stimulate discourse well into the seventeenth century.
It must be borne in mind that besides being a polemical genius, Vyasa-tirtha also participated in the Haridasa movement. This was a Vaishnava devotional movement wherein several bards and saints traveled all across South India rendering emotionally charged songs on Vishnu. Though Madhvacharya had started the movement in the 13th century, saints like Vyasatirtha gave it an impetus in the 15th and 16th centuries. Two of his students- Puramdara Dasa and Kanaka Dasa- made their mark in the world of music. Puramdara Dasa’s songs bear an imprint of the Haridasa movement, particularly because of his association with the dasa-kuta. The basic music lessons that he formulated, including the introduction of Raga Mayamalavagowda, are followed down to this day. This is why he is recognized as the Pitamaha (father) of Carnatic Music. Needless to say, his outlook and compositions owe a great deal to his association with Vyasatirtha. Scholar B.N.K. Sharma suggested that Vyasa-tirtha also influenced a very renowned contemporary in Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, as some of his biographies speak reverently of Vyasatirtha’s treatises.