Madhava-Vidyaranya: Contributions to Vedanta

The scriptures declare "धर्मो विश्वस्य जगतः प्रतिष्ठा" (तैत्तिरीय-आरण्यकम् – IX-63). Dharma indeed is the foundation of the universe. Sri Vidyaranya saw that dharma, once firmly established, engenders establishment of all that is good.  While dharma refers to cosmic order in the highest sense of the term, it is seen manifold in reality as conduct, practice, punishment and penance(अाचार,व्यवहार,दण्ड,प्रायश्चित्त). This should not be construed as a duplicity or flaw in dharma. To maintain harmony in the diversity of creation, it becomes important for dharma to address hierarchy and variety in this world. If, however, hierarchy and variety are destroyed in this world to achieve an artificially  ‘secular’ and ‘equal’ world, the world would no longer be a fit place to live in. Though dharma is an eternal value according to the Veda, we see that its interpretation and implementation change with time.

Time and again, we see seers who rise up to reinterpret dharma to create Smriti works of which eighteen are the most important. Of these eighteen, those of Manu, Yajnavalkya and Parashara stand tall. Of these, Parashara is the simplest and shortest and is regarded the best fit for this age of Kali ("कलौ पाराशरः स्मृतः"). While the Manu Smriti has notable commentaries by Medhatithi and Kullukabhatta, the Yajnavalkya Smriti has commentaries authored by Apararka, Vishvarupa and Vijnaneshvara. Seeing that the Parashara Smriti lacked a befitting commentary, Madhava composed the Parashara Madhaviya, a detailed and erudite gloss on it.

While the Parashara Smriti covered only the अाचार and प्रायश्चित्त parts, Madhava included an independently composed treatise on  the व्यवहार and दण्ड (civil and criminal law) aspects of dharma into the Parashara Madhaviya. This part, known as the Vyavahara Madhaviya, is not a mere gloss but an encyclopedic exposition of dharmashastra that stands equal to other renowned works such as Chaturvargachintamani (हेमाद्रिः), Viramitrodaya (मित्रमिश्रः), Smritichandrika (देवण्णभट्टः) and Kamalakarakritishreni (कमलाकरभट्टः). This work was recognized as an authority in South India. The list of works referenced in this work is bewildering and demonstrates the extent of Madhavacharya’s study.

Astrology is an important part of dharmashastra that helps in deciding the right muhurtas for Vaidika activities and resolving any doubts in the achievement of the right muhurta. A handbook covering this, Kala Madhaviya, stands as ample testimony to the astrological wisdom, a keen knowledge of climate, and erudition in dharma and shrauta shastras of Madhavacharya.

The concepts of dharma and brahma demonstrate the thoughts of our ancestors about synthesizing knowledge and action, the life here and beyond, as well as worldly desires and renunciation. As if to demonstrate the upanishadic synthesis shown in "अविद्यया मृत्युं तीर्त्वा विद्यया अमृतमश्नुते" (Having transcended death via avidya (works), one attains immortality through vidya (knowledge)), Madhava chose to elaborate on the Purva-mimamsa tradition that focuses on karma (works) as well as on the Uttara-Mimamsa philosophy (Vedanta). To help understand the essence of Purva-mimamsa, Madhavacharya composed works such as the JaiminIya-nyaya-mala and the Vaiyasika-nyaya-mala and produced glosses on the same.

While the prior works were composed by Madhavacharya as a grihastha (householder), the following works were composed after he became an ascetic and took up the renunciate name Vidyaranya in the dashanami tradition. The ten epithets in the dashanami (ten named) monastic tradition of Advaita, that is said to have originated from Sri Shankaracharya, are तीर्थ, वन, गिरि, अरण्य, पुरी, भारती, सरस्वती, आश्रम. सागर, पर्वत. The name Vidyaranya then literally means a forest of wisdom.

Sri Shankara composed commentaries on the ten principal Upanishads of which the biggest is the Brihadaranyaka. Sri Shankara’s foremost disciple, Sri Sureshwara composed an extensive and formidable gloss of around ten thousand verses on the Brihadaranyaka Bhashya known as the Brihadaranyaka-bhashya-vartika. This work is unparalleled for its coverage of different facets of Advaita Vedanta. To make this work approachable, Sri Vidyaranya condensed this work into a well-regarded Vartika-sara  of five thousand verses.

Another of Sri Shankara’s foremost disciples was Sri Padmapada, whose unfinished commentary on his master’s Brahma Sutra Bhashya is known as the Panchapadika. This work deals only with the bhashya of the first four aphorisms. Panchapadika-vivarana is a gloss on the Panchapadika composed by Prakashatman. Sri Vidyaranya condensed this gloss into a well-known work Vivarana-prameya-sangraha, which is invaluable to gain entry into the vivarana and the Panchapadika.

Following the tradition of condensation of existing works, Sri Vidyaranya composed other works such as the Anubhuti-prakasha (condensing the message of the Upanishads), Aitareyopanishad-deepika and the Nrusimha-tapaniyopanishad-deepika (explanatory works on the Aitareya and Nrusimha-tapani Upanishads).

In addition to strengthening the Advaita tradition through explanatory works, Sri Vidyaranya also composed the following independent works on Vedanta.

Drg-drishya-viveka – The discrimination between the seer and the seen -  is a masterful and concise Vedantic handbook of only 42 verses that deals with दृष्टि-सृष्टि-वाद and बिम्ब-प्रतिबिम्ब-वाद.

The most famous of  Sri Vidyaranya’s works (composed in co-ordination with Sri Bharati Tirtha) is probably the Vedanta Panchadashi or the Panchadashi, known as such because of the fifteen chapters in it. The Panchadashi is also one of the most popular works in all of Vedantic literature. This work is divided into three pentads – Viveka-panchaka, Deepa-panchaka and Ananda-panchaka. Its lucid, conversational and poetic style enhances the attraction of this work that is completely in verse. The felicity in language is reminiscent of the style of Sri Shankara, Sri Sureshvara and Jayanta Bhatta. At the outset, the work, using just reason and experience, explains the existence of the Self, the existence of Brahman, the identity of the two, the nature of Brahman/Atman as Existence-Consciousness-Bliss and the unreality of the world according to Advaita Vedanta. In not taking recourse to the Veda, this part is reminiscent of the अध्यास-भाष्य, Sri Shankara’s masterful introduction to the Brahma Sutra Bhashya. Then the same concepts are elaborated via Vedic passages.

The concepts of vruitti, the nature of sacchidananda (Existence-Consciousness-Bliss), the relative nature of Word and Form (nama-rupa), the nature of maya and avidya, the forms of saguna and nirguna brahman and the relative nature of all of creation have been dealt with in this work. Well known techniques of Vedanta such as the analysis of the three states of waking, deep sleep and dreaming (अवस्था-त्रय-विवेक), the discrimination of the five-sheaths (पञ्चकोष-विवेक) as well as an analysis of the four mahavakyas ( तत्त्वमसि, अहं ब्रह्मास्मि, अयमात्मा ब्रह्म and प्रज्ञानं ब्रह्म) are presented in an easily understandable way.

Interested readers can find various detailed expositions of the Panchadashi translated into Indian languages as well as English.

The last work of Sri Vidyaranya is probably the Jivanmuktiviveka that deals with liberation in life. Since the Panchadashi concludes with the topic of Brahmananda and the Jivanmuktiviveka begins with it, the latter is said to be an appendix to the former. The Jivanmuktiviveka, unlike the verse-only Panchadashi has a mix of text and verse. With elaborate references from smritis, itihasas, puranas and other works, this is an encyclopedia of monastic life. This work has five chapters that respectively deal with

1. Scriptural testimony to liberation in life (प्रमाण-प्रकरणम्),
2. The obliteration of latent impressions (वासना-क्षय-प्रकरणम्),
3. The dissolution of the mind (मनो-नाश-प्रकरणम्),
4. The purpose of attainment of one’s own form (स्वरूपसिद्धि-प्रयोजन-प्रकरणम्) and
5. The renunciation of the knowing one (विद्वत्-संन्यास-प्रकरणम्).

Beginning with a two-fold classification of samnyasa as vividisha-samnyasa (the renunciation of the seeker) and vidvat-samnyasa (the renunciation of the knower), the work holds the former as a preliminary stage to the second. Vidvat-samnyasa, that is beyond external emblems of samnyasa and beyond obligatory and prohibitory injunctions (विधि-बिषेध), is the acme of spiritual practice. It is also interesting to note that this work supports the eligibility of women towards formal samnyasa and that there are sufficient scriptural quotes in favor of this eligibility. This shows Sri Vidyaranya’s broad-mindedness, definiteness in knowledge and a keen understanding of society.

Through such Vedantic works, Sri Vidyaranya demonstrated that the summum bonum of life is the attainment of the Atman (Self) or Brahman or the Universal Spirit. This indeed is the final reason for the Indian Renaissance and the establishment of Sanatana Dharma. That all the arts and scriptures, all the sciences and statecraft finally mingle in this ocean of undifferentiated Brahman – is the holistic vision of Sri Vidyaranya, which is in line with the views of his illustrious predecessor, Sri Shankara.

To be concluded...



Engineer. Lapsed blogger. Abiding interest in Sanskrit, religion, and philosophy. A wannabe jack-of-all.