Preceptors of Advaita
How can an ardent follower of Sankaracharya who believed and proclaimed that there is only one ultimate reality, that is, the nirguna Brahman, which is devoid of any attribute, be also an ardent devotee of Sri Krishna? To many, it is a wonder as to how the learned monk, Madhusudana Sarasvati, who established the supremacy of the Advaita school of Sankara by writing one of the accepted masterpieces of the Vedanta philosophy, the Advaita-siddhi, for refuting the objections raised against Advaita by Vyasatirtha, a follower of the dualistic school of Madhva, can proclaim Lord Krishna as the ultimate reality, or in other words, that there is no other ultimate reality except Sri Krishna. A number of such doubts may arise in the minds of the readers of Madhusudana Sarasvati’s works. The path of knowledge or jnanamarga has been accepted to be the only direct path leading to salvation by the sage Badarayana and his large followers of the Advaita school beginning with Acharya Sankara, who revealed the identity of the individual soul with the supreme Self by properly explaining the correct meaning of the scriptural texts which appear to be mutually contradictory. All the Advaitins have accepted that the ultimate Reality is nirguna or attributeless. But Madhusudana considered Sri Krishna as the Ultimate Reality and as the incarnation of the nirguna Brahman. Can anyone by any stretch of imagination consider Sri Krishna to be nirguna or attributeless? Has Madhusudana given up the path of knowledge and become the advocate or the follower of the bhaktimarga or the path of devotion? Or, should we take it that he was the follower of the bhaktimarga preached in the Bhagavatapurana till he became the follower of Sankara’s Advaita School later in life when he could have probably been very enthusiastic to establish the supremacy of the Advaita School by producing the most popular works like Siddhantabindu, Vedantakalpalatika, Advaita-siddhi and Advaitaratnarakshana. There is no evidence for such a change in the meager sketch of the life of Madhusudana available to us in the introductions of his various works published so far. All that we come to know about him from these prefaces is that he took to sannyasa very early in his life and that he was ordained to sannyasa by Visvesvarananda Sarasvati. But in some of his works he has mentioned two others, namely, Sri Rama and Madhava as his gurus:
It is also said that his name was Kamalajanayana in the purvasrama and that he was a native of Bengal. From his works we cannot say with any degree of certainty where he was born or by which name he was called before becoming a sannyasin. His commentators like Brahmananda also have not given us any hint to ascertain the native place of Madhusudana. In the Vedantakalpalatika, Madhusudana has mentioned the name of a deity, nilachalanayaka, the lord of the blue mountain.
“aupanishadastu bhagavata nilachalanayakena
Arbitrarily many north Indian scholars have not only identified the nilachalanatha, the lord of the blue mountain with Lord Jagannatha of Puri, but also Madhusudana as a resident of Puri. But a few scholars of Kerala consider that nilachalanatha can be more appropriately identified with Lord Krishna at Guruvayur. (Guruvayupuram) or with the Lord Krishna at Udipi where the deity in the temple is in the form of BalaKrishna. Madhusudana was an ardent devotee of Sri Krishna and had a very great fascination for BalaKrishna and this is evident from a number of devotional verses composed by him in his works, Gudarthadipika, Samkshepasarirakatika, Bhaktirasayana, etc. From a study of his works, it is very clear that Madhusudana was a very great devotee of Sri Krishna and that he was more attracted by the balatva aspect of Lord Krishna which is vividly described in the Bhagavatapurana to which he attached the same importance as to the three prasthanas. His fervent devotion for Krishna was so much as to make him believe that Pushpadanta’s Sivamahimnastotra or Mahimna-stotra as it is more popularly known is praising both Siva and Krishna and induced him to write a commentary on the Mahimnastotra called Mahimnastotratika with great skill.
bhutibhushitadehaya dvijarajena rajate
ekatmane namo nityam haraye cha haraya cha.2
While commenting on sloka 2, he states:
vaikunthavartini venuvadanadivividhavihara –
parayane gopakisore va brindavanavartini
kasya manah napatati.’
In this he has explicitly mentioned his great fascination for Krishna as a child. Only in Guruvayur and Udipi, Krishna is worshipped as a child. There is also every probability of Madhusudana being either a native or a resident of Guruvayur in Kerala or Udipi in South Canara. He wanted to attack the Dvaita school and establish the supremacy of the Advaita school. Unless he studied the works of Madhvacharya and his followers who attacked the Advaita school, it could not be possible for him to refute their arguments. And it is more likely that to get access to the works of the Dvaita School, Madhusudana must have taken pains to go to Udipi, where Madhvacharya and his disciples in the different mutts were flourishing. At Udipi he might have been attracted by the beautiful idol of BalaKrishna, installed by Sri Madhvacharya, or perhaps he could have taken a pilgrimage to Kaladi the birth place of Adi Sankara and remained there visiting the surrounding holy places. The Lord of Guruvayur could have fascinated him. Even now there are a number of Brahmin families in Cochin area, near Kaladi, called Gauda Sarasvata Brahmins. They have settled in Kerala for a number of generations. There is a tradition amongst them that they have migrated to Kerala from Gauda Desa and that they belong to the Sarasvata community or the Brahmin community, which was in charge of imbibing and imparting knowledge in ancient India. Madhusudana and his disciple Gauda Brahmananda too could have belonged to this community which migrated to Kerala and lived there.
In ancient India only Sannyasins were considered to be qualified to study the Vedanta. But even in those days non-sannyasins like Sri-Harsha, the author of Khandana-khanda-khadya and Vachaspatimisra, the author of Bhamati, did not only study the Vedanta, but also contributed to the sum total of knowledge by writing works on Advaita Vedanta. Renunciation, if at all, was resorted to only during the last days. It will not be incorrect to presume that Madhusudana was an ardent devotee of Krishna following the bhaktimarga preached in the Bhagavatapurana and mastered the Vedanta, both the Advaita and its opponent schools afterwards. He was so much saturated with Krishnabhakti that he identified the nirguna Brahman with the incarnation of Krishna. According to him there is nothing incompatible between the attributeless monism of Sankara and the ardent devotion of Krishna who is no other than the Supreme Being Itself. He has synthesized the bhakti school and the path of knowledge and thus inculcated a new line of thought or approach in the Advaita school. Sagunabrahmopasana or meditation on the Supreme Being with attributes has been prescribed by the Advaitins as a preliminary step for self-realisation. Sankaracharya himself composed a number of devotional hymns, though he considered and established the Supreme Being as devoid of attributes. His successors adorning the five mutts established by him in the different parts of India are performing daily puja to the Lord Chandramaulisvara and the goddess Tripurasundari. All the sannyasins, many of whom are released and yet alive (jivanmuktas) are uttering the name of Sri Narayana. So there is absolutely no contradiction in being a devotee and at the same time a follower of the path of knowledge to realise the Supreme Being as identical with the self.
Madhusudana’s ardent devotion for Sri Krishna was not at all affected by his belief that Brahman which itself took incarnations did so through maya. The incarnations were those of the nirguna Brahman itself, but they were all unreal. Madhusudana criticised all those who held the view that Brahman is eternal and yet assumes real incarnations, as unreasonable and groundless. He fully concurred with Sankara’s conception of jagat, jivatma and Paramatma and also the path of knowledge as directly leading to moksha. In the synthesis of bhaktimarga and the path of knowledge he followed the famous Sarvajnatmamuni, the author of Samkshepasariraka who has offered salutation to nirguna Brahman called Murari in the very first verse of his work which is a summary, in verses, of Sankara’s Brahmasutra-bhashya3. So nirguna-bhaktimarga cannot be called a new innovation of Madhusudana.
There seems to be some apparent contradiction in his works about the path of devotion and the path of knowledge as means to moksha. In his Gudarthadipika, a commentary on Sankara’s bhashya on the Bhagavadgita, he believes the main teaching of the Gita to be that nirguna Brahman could also be attained through loving devotion to the Lord. It is also supported by his Bhaktirasayana which propounds that both bhakti and jnana are the means to moksha, but both differ as regards their nature, their means, their goal and the persons entitled to both (adhikarins).
Bhakti is of the nature of a conditional modification of the mind experiencing beatification, while Brahmavidya is of the nature of a condition-less modification of the inflexible mind illumined by the second-less Atman. The means of bhakti is the hearing of the innumerable merits of the worshipful, while that of Brahmajnana is the mahavakyas like tat tvam asi. Their fruits are respectively intense love for God and the disappearance of ignorance which is the prime cause of all evils. All beings are eligible for bhakti, but only sannyasins having the four-fold aid are fit for Brahmavidya. But the bliss of bhakti is not the same or similar to svarga which is to be enjoyed in a particular place at a particular time and by a particular body. But like Brahmavidya, it is enjoyable in all places at all times and by all bodies. In his Bhaktirasayana, devotion is mentioned as superior; because it accelerates the realisation of the truth more quickly than jnana and that there is no difference in the conception of moksha achieved through either. According to him, the knowledge of Brahman is as essential for a devotee as it is for pursuing the path of knowledge. But the devotion helps one in securing the grace of the Lord by which the scriptures are revealed to him at the end of the yuga while he stays in the Brahmaloka after death and when the knowledge is thus obtained, he becomes one with Brahman along with Hiranyagarbha. Another benefit which one gets by the grace of God is that he is freed from undergoing the punishment for his sins without performing any propitiatory rites. To Madhusudana, all beings including beast and birds are entitled to bhakti, but only the sannyasins having the four-fold aid are fit for jnanamarga. He also considered bhakti as one of the aims of life, bhakti for bhakti’s sake which is identical with Brahmananda. In his Bhaktirasayana he quotes the sloka from the Bhagavatapurana that even sages who enjoy Brahmananda and who are far from the shackles of samsara dedicate themselves spontaneously to Vishnu without any aim or purpose. Or in other words even jivanmuktas are devoted to God. He thus establishes bhakti as the highest goal of human life. So the path of devotion is prescribed for all by Madhusudana, while the path of knowledge is restricted to sannyasins. He is emphatically of the view that only by getting the knowledge of Brahman, either by being taught by the teacher who is a sannyasins or by getting the revelation of knowledge along with the creator, one can get moksha.
About the date of Madhusudana there are different opinions. Professor Burnouf and Professor Lassen assigned Madhusudana to the middle of the 14th century A.D. But Mr. Telang holds the view that he must have flourished about the end of the 15th century or the beginning of the 16th century. For Madhusudana has quoted a number of passages from vidyaranya’s Panchadasi and Jivanmuktiviveka. Professor Winternitz also fixes his date as the beginning of the 16th century. In the life of Vallabhacharya it is mentioned that once Sri Vallabhacharya went from Varanasi to Prayag where he stayed for a number of days performing the parayanam of the Bhagavatapurana and there he happened to meet a very learned sannyasin named Madhusudana Sarasvati, who was not only an advocate of mayavada but also an ardent devotee of Sri Krishna and who showed him his work called Bhaktirasayana and his commentary on Sankara’s bhashya on the Gita. Impressed by the great qualities of Madhusudana, he entrusted his son Vitthalnath to the care of Madhusudana for studying the various sastras. Vitthalnath was born in samvat 1572 or 1516 A.D. So the date of Madhusudana can be fixed as the beginning of the 16th century. But there is a tradition that Madhusudana wrote a commentary on the Siddhantalesasangraha of Appayya Dikshita. It is conflicting with the fact that one of the students of Madhusudana named Seshagovinda was the guru of Bhattoji Dikshita who studied Vedanta from Appayya Dikshita. Seshagovinda refers to Madhusudana as follows:
sarasvatyavataram tam vande srimadhusudanam.
Seshagovinda and Appayya Dikshita must have been contemporaries and Madhusudana was senior to Appayya Dikshita. Moreover, no such commentary of Siddhantalesasangraha attributed to Madhusudana has come to light though mentioned by one or two collectors of manuscripts. There is also another tradition that Gadadhara, the famous Naiyayika was a contemporary of Madhusudana--:
navadvipe samayate madhusudana vakpatau
chakampe tarkavagisah kataro’bhut gadadharah.
Gauda Brahmananda who wrote a commentary called Chandrika on the Advaita-siddhi of Madhusudana was considered to be a co-student of Gadadhara. So Madhusudana must have been an elder contemporary of the famous logician Gadadhara. All these evidences clearly establish that Madhusudana must have flourished in the beginning of the 16th century.
Madhusudana wrote a number of works on bhaktimarga and also on the Advaita Vedanta as propounded by Sankara. His works are Anandamandakini, Bhaktirasayana, Isvarapratipattiprakasa, Mahimnastotra-vyakhya, Harilila-vyakhya, Bhagavataprathamaslokatika, Vedantakalpalatika, Siddhantabindu, Samkshepasariraka-vyakhya, Gudarthadipika, Advaita-siddhi and Advaita-ratna-rakshana. There were also some others having the name of Madhusudana who were the authors of works like Anyapadesasatakam and a commentary on Mahanataka, but one can easily find out the difference between the works of Madhusudana who is a Vedantin and others bearing the name of Madhusudana.
Anandamandakini is an original poem of more than one hundred slokas in praise of Lord Krishna. This work was his maiden attempt. One can easily appreciate the fervent devotion of the author to Sri Krishna. His Vedantakalpalatika is a small treatise on the Advaita Vedanta. He has discussed the nature of the Absolute, refuted the conception of liberation according to other schools, explained how the avidya ceases to exist by the direct apprehension of Brahman arising out of hearing the mahavakyas and ultimately explained the concept of moksha according to Advaita. The Siddhantabindu is a commentary on Sankara’s Dasasloki and is written by him for the benefit of his pupil Balabhadra. In this work, he has refuted the views of other schools, established the views of the Advaita School and has also presented the views of the various Advaitic acharyas on important concepts of Advaita without going into details. His commentary on the Samkshepasariraka is known as Samkshepasarirakasarasamgraham. Madhusudana has expressed his views on the Brahmasutras by commenting upon Sarvajnatmamuni’s Samkshepasariraka which is a brief but lucid commentary in verse on Sankara bhashya on the Vedanta-sutras. Advaita-siddhi is his masterpiece. This work was written mainly to refute the charges raised against Advaita by Vyasatirtha. Gudarthadipika is a commentary on Sankara’s bhashya on the Bhagavadgita upholding Sankara’s interpretation but in some places deviating while advocating the path of devotion taught in the second six chapters. Bhakti and jnana are the two banks of the river of Gita according to him. His last work is Advaita-ratna-rakshana where he has answered the unjust attacks of the Naiyayikas and followers of Dvaita School in a vehement manner at times in abusive words. Bhaktirasayana is a great treatise on bhakti. Mahimnastotratika and Harilila-vyakhya are commentaries on Pushpadanta’s Sivamahimnastotra and Bopadeva’s Harilila respectively for proclaiming the wonderful qualities of Sri Krishna. He has exhibited his great skill by interpreting the slokas in praise of Siva as praising Lord Krishna.
In the firmament of Advaita philosophy getting light only from Sankara who was resplendent like the sun, Madhusudana shone like the moon excelling all the other philosophic stars and enlightening the people with ambrosial teachings worthy of his name.
1. Vedantakalpalatika, Sarasvati Bhavana Texts, No. 3, p. 6.
3. murareh paramapadam pranayadabhishtavimi.
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