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Scholarly saint of an ancient math

Sri Abhinava Ranganatha Swami, 33rd head of the Parakala Math, was a great scholar given to self-discipline of a high order. PREMA NANDAKUMAR writes...

Sri Gopala Desikan

SRIVAISHNAVISM, TRACING its origins to the Vedic stream and the hymns of the Azhwars, was given institutional strength by the establishment of Guru Paramparas. Vedanta Desika's disciple Sri Brahmatantra Swami who took to sanyasa established a Math in Tirupati and installed the Hayagriva idol he had inherited from his acharya. For a couple of centuries, the pontiffs of the Math vigorously toured even remote villages and propagated Srivaishnavism. When the Maharaja of Mysore became a disciple of the Math, the Math was moved to Krishnapuram, a lovely village on the banks of the River Cauvery. The Math was relocated in Mysore in the 19th century.

With its wide-ranging affiliations in terms of geography, the Math has been singularly blessed in having an unbroken line of acharyas, almost all of whom have been great scholars as well as spartan in their daily life. Among them, Sri Abhinava Ranganatha Brahmatantra Swatantra Parakala Mahadesikan who was the 33rd pontiff was a gem of purest ray serene.

Born at Atmakur (Andhra Pradesh) in 1884, Rangacharya was a prodigy with a phenomenal memory. He nurtured this natural gift by intensely meditating upon the Hayagriva mantra and became widely known for his unrivalled scholarship, especially in Nyaya shastra. At the same time his adherence to traditional Vaishnavite discipline became legendary.

When the 32nd pontiff passed away, the Maharaja of Mysore requested Rangacharya to accept the pontificate of the Parakala Math. Rangacharya agreed and made only two requests to the Maharaja. He wanted a step well within the Ashram premises so that he could bathe three times daily and perform japa on the steps, and a garden which would yield fresh flowers and tulsi for the daily worship of Hayagriva. The Maharaja immediately set up the well and the garden. When Rangacharya became the head of the Math he was 41.

For the next forty-three years he glowed like agni, leading his disciple with great compassion. His main strength lay in becoming a role model of severe self-discipline. He rarely rested and never slept during the day. Timings for all the activities of the ashram were observed strictly. After renunciation he avoided sweets and other rich food and had but a single bland meal consisting of rice, greens and buttermilk.

A stranger to pomp and show, the acharya's greatest love was worshipping the deities of the Math — Sri Lakshmi Narayana, Sri Lakshmi Hayagriva and Venugopala. It was a delight to watch him decorate the diamond studded swing with fresh flowers and perform arati, remaining self-merged in Narayana-consciousness. He enjoyed performing the Sri Vishnu Sahasranama Archana with Tulsi leaves brought to him in baskets, gathered fresh from the garden.

Always considerate, the acharya cured many sick devotees with mantric chantings to invoke the Lord's grace. Caste had no place in the help rendered to aspiring students.

Sri Abhinava Ranganatha Mahadesikan

The Paundrikapuram Andavan describes his Acharya as a king among rishi-s and writes about the Swami's strict administration. "The priests and cooks of the sanctum, Vaidiks visitors bringing offerings, cooks of the kitchen, storekeepers and other officials would adhere to the allotted timings and do their work with devotion. After the morning worship was over, the students of Kalakshepam would be ready at the Mandapam. Every three months he held examinations for them. They could get financial assistance only when they passed the test. He had thus run the religious institution of Parakala Math verily like a royal court. If there was any minor misunderstanding among the people of the math, he would personally enquire and his face would be red with anger. But if we happened to salute him at that time, he would smile at once and ask us about our well-being. Those who had the chance to observe him from close quarters felt that he was indeed an incarnation of Nammazhwar or Ramanuja or Vedanta Desika."

Sri Abhinava Ranganatha Swami was an ideal teacher. He conveyed the innumerable nuances of the Grantha Chathushtaya (Sri Ramanuja's Sri Bhashya and Gita Bhashya, Vedanta Desika's Srimad Rahasyatrayasara, Pillan's Manipravala commentary on Tiruvaimozhi known as Aarayirappadi) so well that he produced unassailable Vaishnavite scholars who have, in their turn, given a fillip to Sri Ramanuja Darsana.

The Swami's scholarship and capability as a teacher can well be gauged from the roll call of great disciples like Sri Gopala Desikan (present pontiff of the Paundrikapuram Ashram), Atmakur Dikshacharya, Kodacherla Pandurangacharya and Vaduvur Ranganathacharya. The Paundrikapuram Andavan has commenced the work of another disciple, Udayambakkam Vedanta Ramanujacharya, who has been celebrating the tirunakshatra of the Swami every year and in deference to the Swami's teaching, has made his sons and grandsons take to Vedic adhyayana and an austere way of life.

It was indeed a great occasion when the Swami's 121st birthday was celebrated recently in the Udayambakkam village near Kanchipuram with devotional fervour.

The sublime works of Sri Abhinava Ranganatha Swami include Goodartha Sangraha (a massive commentary on Sri Bhashya), Hayasiropakhyana and Upanishadsara. Never one to rest on his laurels, the Swami learnt Hindi at the advanced age of 75 before embarking on his North Indian tour. Travelling up to Badri, the Swami gave lectures in various places including Varanasi. Having made the Parakala Math a lighthouse of Srivaishnavism, this spiritual luminary withdrew from the physical on a holy Ekadasi day in 1967.

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