‘Without Bhakti, we cannot get Jnana’ -Tyagaraja – 2 (Post No.7955)

WRITTEN BY R. NANJAPPA                        

Post No.7955

Date uploaded in London – – – 11 May 2020   

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Great Teachers

Great Teachers, like philosophers, spring from a specific environment, both physical and cultural, economic and political. They also come from some religious-spiritual background. But what makes them great is not just that they represent and reflect or renew the tradition, but change and transform it, either by enrichment or even by branching off on their own, even if it involves at times a radical departure from their old traditions. This standard can be applied to all the great philosophers and poet-saints of India. All the great leaders in the spiritual field whom we remember are initiators of new paths, not repetitors of the old. It is as if they come with a commission from God to meet the needs of particular times. On the surface, we may speak of tradition as if it is fixed, but within it is very flexible. Every great teacher has left behind a universal message. They are local in origin, global in impact, universal in spirit.

Mainstream Hindu orthodoxy today stems from Acharya Sankara, but he was a great reformer. His followers make him appear like a fixed event, but the Smartas who claim his tradition have all been innovators in their own way. They quietly initiated a revolution, like Sankara before him. Sankara gave a unified philosophical base for his interpretation of Vedanta, and also consolidated ritual religion on the basis of Shanmata. This gave a broadness and depth to the religious and spiritual life of the Smartas as against the exclusiveness of the others which became  sects.  

Muslim Invasions

With the onset of the Muslim invasions, a new chapter begins in Indian cultural and religious history. Up to then, India had assimilated all foreign elements who chose to settle here. But the Muslims came with a distinct mission to loot and plunder, and later, to convert, conquer and subdue. Not only assimilation was impossible, it became increasingly difficult to practise our religion in our own land, and we withdrew into a shell. No power in the North could stem the Muslim tide and our Rajput states fell one by one. Vijaynagar rose in 1336 and for over 200 years protected the South from Muslim expansion, but with its fall in 1565 things became difficult. The Marathas then rose in 1674 and held for another century or so, but by their fall in 1818, the Europeans had come in and the British had established themselves in Bengal. Hindu India had not only lost its supremacy and independence, but its very identity. [It is necessary to remember that the British took over from the Marathas, not from the Mughals. See the extent of Maratha empire at the relevant time.]

Through all this, the Tanjore region underwent lot of turmoil. The Cholas had fallen in the 13th century to the Pandyas. Madurai was invaded in 1311 by Malik Kafur for loot and plunder; it was invaded again 1314 by Khusrav Khan and in 1323 by Ulugh Khan who finally defeated and destroyed the Pandyan kingdom and annexed it to the Delhi sultanate, of which Ulugh Khan later ascended the throne  in the name Mohammad bin Tughlaq! Tamil Nad lost its independence. Muslims ruled from Madurai, persecuting Hindus and inflicting heavy sufferings on them, chronicled by their own men like Ibn Batuta, apart from others.

 Hindu temples were desecrated, including Srirangam. In 1371 they were defeated by Vijaynagar forces under the command of Kumara Kampanna Udayar, son of Bukka Raya I. ( On his way Kampanna had to face opposition from the Sambuvarayars who ruled around Kanchipuram and supported the Delhi sultans; he defeated them.) Srirangam Temple  was restored to its glory. 

After the fall of Vijaynagar empire in 1565, the Nayaks heading Madurai  gradually asserted their independence and they conquered Tanjore in 1646. Vijayaraghava  of Tanjore was killed by Chokkanatha Nayak of Madurai who annexed Tanjore and placed his brother Alagiri on Tanjore throne in 1673. But soon Alagiri declared his independence. A son of Vijayaraghava approached the Bijapur sultan to help him get back his kingdom. The sultan sent an army under the command of Venkoji (Ekoji), brother of Shivaji to Tanjore  in 1675, but on winning, Venkoji himself became the ruler, thus beginning the Maratha rule in Tanjore. It lasted until 1855 when the last Maratha ruler, Shivaji II died without a male issue, the British refused to recognise the adopted son, and Tanjore was annexed to British territories under the Doctrine of Lapse.

It is necessary to recall these facts as there is a tendency on the part of Tamil historians to whitewash the Muslim rule in Madurai, and its atrocities on Hindus, and overlook the role of Vijaynagar in saving our religion and culture in the Tamil region. Linguistic nationalism did not exist in those days, and all native rulers were Hindu, including the Tamil kings and chieftains. However, there was no lasting unity among them and even Tamil kings fought among themselves fiercely, in the name of valour, even from Sangam days, as seen from many of the songs in Purananuru. Pattinappalai even describes how the Chola Karikala destroyed the fertile lands of the other kingdoms within the Tamil territory.

Tanjore region merits special attention. With its  rich delta, its economic potential was great, but it had suffered greatly through all this political turmoil for two centuries. Independent farmers had declined, and become labourers. People suffered from excess demands from the rulers. Long before the annexation the British had reduced the King to a titular toy, making him dependent on a pension, whose rule really did not extend beyond the fort.[ The same happend in Delhi where it was said:

The empire of Shah Alam

Extended from Delhi to Palam]

 He was therefore unable to support the people or help them either militarily or economically.

Nama Siddhanta

With all this, however,  it is a marvel  that  somehow it managed to keep its cultural life and traditions alive. All its rulers had encouraged learning and fine arts, within the constraints. But it had undergone a subtle change. The old ritual traditions had declined, in the absence of regular and firm royal support and a new bhakti movement had started, based on Nama Siddhanta. Initiated by Bodhendra (d.1694)  (59th Sankaracharya of Kanchi Mutt) supported by others like Sridhara Venkatesa Ayyaval, Sadashiva Brahmendra, Sadguru Swami, Narayana Tirtha, Melattur Venkatarama Sastri (1770-1830),  it had taken firm hold and spread. (Incidentally, all of them were Smartas, who were Advaitins by conviction, and liberal by temperament in religious matters, without bigotry.)

They were aware of the changing times and the unsuitability of the old ways and so combined all the relevant and practical old elements like mantra, japa with Nama Siddhanta which would suit any one as it did not demand  much  by way of resources, organization or patronage. They did not seek to change society or tackle all its problems, but only wanted to keep alive some practical way for the people to pursue religious and spiritual goals, so that they would not be totally overwhelmed by the external forces and pressures. They did not talk philosophy, but of a sure way to seek God.

Great Philosophers and Bhakti movement

It is necessary to place these facts in context. The last of the great orthodox philosophers was Sri Madhvacharya (1199-1278). Sri Ramanuja came earlier (1017-1137) Sankara had come even earlier. Though these Acharyas talked philosophy, they had already combined lot of theology. In fact, Sankara’s Advaita is pure philosophy, but his system survives in practice because of the system of worship he instituted, though this involves some contradiction with strict Advaita. After them no great figure propounded pure philosophy, but only advocated bhakti. Let us look at them:

Jayadeva                                  12th Century

Jnanadeva                                1275-1296

Namdev                                    1270-1350

Ramananda                            1299-1410

Narsi Mehta                            1414-1481

Purandaradasa                      1484-1564

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu       1486-1534

Mirabai                                    1498-1557

Goswami Tulsidas                 1497-1623

Tukaram                                 1577–1650

Samartha Ramadas              1609-1681

Bhadrachala Ramadas        1620-1680

Sadashiva Brahmendra        17th Century*

Sri Bodhendra                                -1692*

Sridhara Ayyaval                  1635-1720*

Narayana Tirtha                   1650-1745*

Sadguru Swami  1776-1817*            

* All these in the Tanjore area!

All these great souls lived during the period of great turmoil, when Hindus faced persecution from Muslims and later Christian missionaries and it is they who saved and served the common man. None of them talked philosophy- it was merely incidental to their teaching Bhakti. It was thus Bhakti and Bhakti movement alone that saved the common people in the medieval period, and served their religious aspirations and spiritual needs.

Tyagaraja’s birth

We can now see clearly where Sri Tyagaraja belongs! And what would have been the atmosphere like in Tanjore area where he too was born . He was born in Tiruvarur on 4 May 1767 ( very easy to remember: 4-5-67). By that time Bhakti movement had taken root. The songs of Purandaradasa and the story of Bhadrachala Ramadas were already well known in orthodox circles. Tyagaraja combined with it the ideals of Narada and the elements of Vedanta. His own experience of worship of Ishtadevata through mantra japa, puja and Kirtana provided an excellent model. Singing  with the mouth and thinking in the mind, we can burn  away all sins, declared Andal in 9th century:”:vaayinal paadi manadinaal sindikka poya pizhaiyum pukutaruvan ninranavum teeyinil toosakum”. [“வாயினால் பாடி மனதினால் சிந்திக்க, போய பிழையும் புகுதருவான் நின்றனவும் தீயில் தூசாகும்“] 

 “Dhyayan stuvan namasyancha”, declares Vishnu Sahasranama. Tyagaraja combined all this  with “Sankirtya Narayana Sabdha matram” so  that we may get rid of our suffering and attain sukham! It is a great privilege and fortune to be able to study Sri Tyagaraja Sahitya!.


  1. Orthodox circles tend to deify holy figures, and neglect socio-cultural history, and the politico-economic environment. In writing biographies of even recent figures, they focus on the unusual and the miraculous aspects. This has happened in the case of Sri Tyagraja also. These books do not cover the social history of the period, or the economic conditions of the society then. When we understand how unsettled the conditions were then, we will be able to appreciate better the role and contribution of Tyagaraja. He was not just music composer or bhajan singer. One invaluable resource here is: William J.Jackson: Tyagaraja-Life and Lyrics, OUP, 1991. See also his Tyagaraja and the Renewal of Tradition, Motilal Banarsidass,1994.
  • Hindu concept of dharma is so unique; there being no central religious authority to enforce it, it depends on the Kshatriya power for its very survival. Swami Vivekananda was an admirer of Buddha personally, but has pointed out that after his advent, Kshatriyas declined in India and when the Muslim invasions took place, there was no strong Kshatriya resistance. Sri Aurobindo  agreed with this and also added that Sankara’s Mayavada also contributed to this, since it drew people away from this world. People became tamasic in the name of Satvik. 

We have two positive examples to prove this from recent history.  A strong Vijaynagar empire was able to stop Muslim expansion in India for two centuries. Later, strong Maratha power was able to engage the Muslims and stop their expansion for another century. Shivaji in fact spoke of Swaraj. Behind both these powers were strong Dharmic forces: Vidyaranya ( Sringeri Pontiff) behind establishment of Vijaynagar empire and Samarth Ramadas behind the great Shivaji.  And both were Smarta Advaitins!.

Conversely, we also see how the ‘secular’ govt of Independent India has been inimical to Hindu dharma. India is not even a Hindu country now- Hindus have no “homeland”!

3. Samarth Ramadas outwitted the decree of Sultans that no Hindu temples should be built or worship conducted in them by organising Bhajan sabhas where Hanuman Vigrahas were quietly installed, and  Rama  worshipped. This spread widely and later provided support base for Shivaji. Our mainline history books do not record such vital things. For a thrilling account of those times, see:

Swaminatha Atreyan:Sri Samartha Ramadas Charitam, (Tamil) Bhagavan Nama Publications,Chennai-33, 2008.

4. Whatever may be the philosophical differences, there is a large area of agreement between the Smartas and Madhvas. Their Acharyas and learned men had also been close. Sri Vijayeendra Tirtha (1517-1614) was a friend of Appayya Dikshita (1520-1593) and they delighted in each other’s company. Vijayeendra Teertha was responsible for saving the temples of Kumbhakonam at a crucial time, including the famous Shiva temples.  Details can be read in Amman Satyanathan’s book on Vijayeendra Teertha.

5. In North India, at a crucial time, Ramcharit Manas of Tulsidas became the rallying point for the common Hindus. Tulsidas was an advaitin, though he was a devotee- indeed goswami. He stressed pure bhakti. In the South, Sri Vyasaraja (1460-1539) established 732 Hanuman images in different places for people to worship and thus united them in Bhakti.

Philosophy divides; bhakti unites.

6. Bhakti is a common element in all the three main schools of Vedanta: Dwaita, Visishtadvaita and Advaita. However, there is a big qualitative difference between the position of bhakti in Advaita on the one hand, and the other two on the other. This is an important question for Smartas. For Sankara, Brahman alone is real ie Satya, jnana alone is the valid path to liberation. Iswara is coterminus with Jiva and jagat. In the ultimate analysis, even Iswara has to be given up. So the whole scheme has an unconvincing tone. Absolutely speaking, for Sankara the whole issue of Jiva, jagat and Ishwara is unreal, and is a concession to ignorance.  But the Bhakti schools believe that Iswara can grant Liberation, and Bhakti can lead to Ishwara. And some schools go to the extent of saying that we should seek bhakti and not mukti, as Ishwara can grant it. They rate bhakti even higher than mukti, a sentiment often expressed by Sri Ramakrishna. It is remarkable that all the Tanjore based saints/holy men stressed bhakti, though they were all Advaitins/ Smartas.. The Nama Siddhanta that they evolved falls under the  9 forms of bhakti  revealed by Narada. 

For a detailed and reasoned discussion on the role of Bhakti in Vedanta, see: Swami Tapasyananda: Bhakti Schools of Vedanta, Sri RK Math, Chennai, 1990.

For a detailed discussion on Sankara’s position, based on his own works, see:Sudhakshina Rangaswami: The Roots of Vedanta, Penguin, 2012.

7. For some idea about the prosperity of the Tanjore region, and how it was looted/destroyed by the machinations of the Nawab of Arcot and the  wily British, see Romesh Chander Dutt: The Economic History of India, Publications Division, Government of India.

Academic discussions and debates can be dry and unprofitable. They certainly lead us nowhere. This is where a Sadguru is relevant with  his practical experience. Sri Ramakrishna advocated Bhakti. Sri Ramana said; ‘enquire or surrender’. Sadguru Tyagaraja Swami says:  “Anuragamuleni sujnanamu raadhu” ie

‘without bhakti, we cannot get jnana!’

[அனுராகமுலேனி ஸுஞானமுராது]

tags– Tyagaraja – 2, Bhakti, Jnana