Sri Vidyaranya Swami as a Perennial Inspiration of DVG

This article is part 14 of 57 in the series Life and Legacy of DVG

DVG frankly reveals the pitfalls of our history and the boundaries of tradition even while he expounds on the deeper nuances of Sanatana Dharma and the trajectory[1] of its customs and practices.

Although we find in our Vedas and Itihasas the conception of uniting our ancient country under the umbrella of a Chakravartin, we have no evidence to show that this aspiration was ever realized…Even when Muslims invaded us from outside, none of our Rajas showed any spirit of unity…the Janapada system of democracy of ancient India  was immediate and physically accessible; the system of today is indirectly constituted…The aspirations and ideals of the people of that period were more honest, simple, and smooth; the mental proclivities of our people today are numerous and splintered and less than straightforward.   

Even more candidly, DVG remarks that while Adi Sankara’s spiritual and philosophical conquest showed the physical and cultural indivisibility of Bharatavarsha, its ultimate goal was not realized in the realm[2] of politics. This is tragically, a verifiable fact of Indian history. A century after Adi Sankara merged into Eternity, three major Hindu Empires became extinct due to mindless infighting and the northwestern gateway of India was left unguarded, paving the way for Mahmud of Ghazni’s barbaric invasions.

Boundaries of Tradition

DVG also notes how it is natural and organic for a tradition to expand its boundaries and enlarge its scope over time. The greatest evidence for this fact is the manner in which the corpus of our Dharmasastras became bloated in number, density, complexity and amplitude. Likewise, it is equally natural for traditions to die a sudden death. Our wisdom lies in how we respond to both situations. However, DVG also adds the caveat that just because something is a tradition it doesn’t automatically become Dharma because no one can predict all the situations where one can accurately pinpoint the way of Dharma and Adharma in each of these situations. Indeed[3], “no such Sastra exists and the genius who can write it is not yet born.” DVG offers a guide, something we can call the fourfold method: (1) independent analysis (2) theoretical mastery and contemplation (3) practical experience and (4) tradition and wisdom. In fact, a term and notion that has almost disappeared from public memory in recent times is wisdom.

In a tangential fashion, Shatavadhani Dr. R. Ganesh provides[4] a brilliant analogy to grasp the essence of DVG’s method. To paraphrase his words, none of the grand palaces that our emperors and kings built have survived. However, the domes and decorations and renovations they made to temples of untold antiquity have still survived. Thus, the hoysaḻeśvara  and vijayaviṭhṭhala temples today are mere specks of their former splendour but Virupaksha, the Deity predating the Vijayangara Empire has survived. By implication, the names of the rulers who respected all such temples that have been revered by countless generations in an unbroken fashion throughout our civilisational history have also been preserved. The same principle applies to all kings and chieftains and prominent people who made endowments and contributed to our sacred tīrthakṣetras. Ahalyabai Holkar remains immortal precisely because of her immortal service to Kashi.

The other aspect to this is the fact that almost no temple that kings and chieftains built have attained the status of a Kshetra. While the majestic and grand Brihadeeshwara Temple built by Raja Raja Chola justly deserves a pride of place in world history and continues to draw thousands of devotees, it does not enjoy the stature of say Tirupati. The Sanatana tradition has always respected and revered a sacred spot or structure that has universal sanctity from untold antiquity, a place or structure that is not the work of one person.    

Conversely, our civilization and culture also has a silent mechanism to relegate vain eminences to obscurity and oblivion.

Vidyaranya Swami as the Eternal Inspiration

This Sanatana spirit reverberates with the stentorian euphony of a full-bodied conch in DVG’s writings about Vidyaranya Swami, one of his stately ideals. DVG’s devotion towards Sri Vidyaranya was akin to the discharge of the sacred pitṛ-ṛṇa [5]. Over a lifetime, he had painstakingly collected a wealth of research and other material about the life and legacy of this warrior-saint who was both the inspiration for and an active participant in the founding of the magnificent Vijayanagara Empire. DVG also wrote extensively on Vidyaranya Swami including a play in Kannada. Few can equal DVG’s description[6] of the Swami, a panorama that envelopes us in its embrace:

Six hundred years ago, the Brahminical spirit in this sage instead of becoming a vocation of supplication was transformed into a courageous endeavor and contributed to the rejuvenation of the Vedas; the renunciation of this glorious eminence did not culminate in passive inertia but instead radiated the light of steely valour, and whose Vedanta instead of becoming dry recitation, directly became the cause for civilisational buoyance.        

In Vidyaranya Swami, DVG saw a full life fully dedicated to the cause of lokasaṃgraha[7] and dharmojjīvana[8] and emulated him in his own. This has a perfect echo in Acharya M. Hiriyanna’s memorable[9] words:

…the pursuit of [service] does not mean running away from society and seeking passive isolation…what is commended here is self-renunciation and not world-renunciation. Service is not regarded here as a mere concomitant of renunciation, but the very means of cultivating it…Even more important than this…will be influence which [the renunciate] silently exerts on [the society]by his life led in entire consonance with the ideal. This is the Gita conception of loka-saṃgraha; ‘what the best men do, that becomes the standard for the rest.’  

There was also a fundamental and immediate reason DVG found inspiration and sought refuge in Vidyaranya Swami, who epitomized his name: Forest of Knowledge. The major part of DVG’s youth was lived in an India where the British colonial  exploitative oppression was at its peak and he (and thousands of stalwarts like him) had to work under throttling constraints: censorship, police action, disturbances and unnecessary deaths of fellow-Indians. Even worse, he also had to contend with the third generation of Macaulayite Hindus, who were gnawing at the vitals of the Hindu cultural inheritance he so prized, from within. Overall, it was tough for someone who worked in the public and cultural life of India to retain his sanity amid such chaotic desolation.

And then, the other reason was DVG’s early training and formative years[10] spent in the company of and tutored by traditional scholars, pandits and teachers, and the general cultural and spiritual environs of Mulabagal and elsewhere.

Frugality, Detachment, Renunciation

The natural outcome was his lifelong attachment to titanic viraktas (renunciates) such as Chanakya, Bhartruhari, and Sri Vidyaranya whose inherent imprint we notice across his writings. In their tradition, he extols and recommends politicians to cultivate a sense of detachment even when they wield power. In an extraordinary passage, he quotes[11] Vishakhadatta’s immortal play, mudrārākṣasa, which describes Prime Minister Chanakya’s lifestyle.

Aha! How do we even describe the opulence of Emperor Chandragupta’s Prime Minister!
Look here! there’s a stone meant to pound the dried cow dung cake meant to be used in his Homa.
And here, there’s a pile of dried grass which his disciples have brought.
And this house! Old, cracked walls; its roof, bent under the constant weight of the samits.[12]`
And the person who lives in such a house, who addresses the king as, “Hey, boy!” is highly appropriate;
Because to the person who is completely bereft of desire,
the king is akin to grass, does not count for anything.

Among contemporary political figures who lived this sort of frugal life, DVG lauds Sir M. Visveswaraya and Joseph Mazzini in his fine and detailed profiles on them.

It may be argued that the Chanakyan ideal has no place in the present time especially in the realm of politics. However, the argument itself is evidence of the urgent need to revive and uphold this ideal. Or at any rate in India, the cultural and value-anchor informed by Chanakya is still quite sturdy and widely respected and like in DVG’s time, it simply needs an electric jolt of reawakening.  

DVG also cautions against mere outward exhibitions of detachment and frugality in public life. The question is not even one of honest intent in politicians but one of implementation[13] and outcome: “You cannot kill a goat and claim that you have donated footwear made from its hide. You cannot demolish a temple and then build a dome.” As DVG remarks elsewhere, Gandhi’s saintly ideals and methods resulted in national misery. As always, arrives at the same, time-tested conclusion couched in Vidyaranya Swami’s verse:

āninā carituśakyam
samyag r
ājyadi laukikaṃ  ||
Only a Brahmajnani who is detached and selfless can properly discharge the affairs of politics and worldly matters.

This certainly reminds us of Plato’s ideal philosopher-king because the eternal fount of both is the same. People who run a country must be philosophers in the truest sense because an honest realization of philosophy engenders detachment. DVG invokes the selfsame Plato to spell out the consequences of the absence of such a political leadership.  

If [political leaders] lack detachment and philosophical wisdom, the fate of the country that they rule will be akin to that of a ship which is manned by a drunkard and is caught in a storm mid-sea.

To be continued


[1]D V Gundappa: Rajyashastra, Rajyanga—DVG Kruti Shreni: Volume 5 (Govt of Karnataka, 2013): Episode 1: Purvacharitreya Rupada Pithike: pp 11-18

[2] D V Gundappa: Jivana Charitre, Makkala Sahitya—DVG Kruti Shreni: Volume 4 (Govt of Karnataka, 2013) p 486

[3] D V Gundappa: Rajyashastra, Rajyanga—DVG Kruti Shreni: Volume 5 (Govt of Karnataka, 2013): p 267

[4] In guidance provided to the author

[5] Debt owed to one’s ancestors.

[6] D V Gundappa: Jivana Charitre, Makkala Sahitya—DVG Kruti Shreni: Volume 4 (Govt of Karnataka, 2013) p 260.

[7] It is difficult to give a precise meaning for this term. It may be translated as “welfare of the world.”

[8] Rejuvenation of Dharma

[9] M. Hiriyanna: The Quest After Perfection – The Message of Indian Philosophy (Kavyalaya Publishers, Mysore, 2000) pp 47, 53)

[10] See the first chapter of this work for a fuller description.

[11] D V Gundappa: Jivana Charitre, Makkala Sahitya—DVG Kruti Shreni: Volume 5 (Govt of Karnataka, 2013) pp 188-9

[12] Small to medium sized dried twigs

[13] D V Gundappa: Jivana Charitre, Makkala Sahitya—DVG Kruti Shreni: Volume 5 (Govt of Karnataka, 2013) pp 189




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