A Poetry Contest (Padhuka Sahasram)

Srimathe Ramanujaya Nama:

There are some who claim that Vedanta Desikan wrote the Padhuka Sahasram - a magnificent work on the padhukais of Lord Sri Ranganatha - due to a challenge by another person.It is said by them that Swami Desikan was challenged to a contest of poetry writing - apparently, the challenge was to come up with a thousand shlokas work over night - by none other than Sri Azhagiya Manavala Perumal Nayanar, the younger brother of Pillai Lokacharyar.Over the years, I have seen some variations to this story. Some times it is claimed that they both went together to Lord Ranganatha where Nayanar expressed the desire to write about the Lord’s divine feet; at which point, Desikan stated that one could even write about the Lord’s sandals. Some people, perhaps realizing that stating that one acharya challenged another may not sit well with everyone or sound apropriate, state the same story but claim that Desikan was challenged by ’some person or some vidwan’.

Let us attempt to run a critical analysis of this story.What we need to examine is:

  1. Would a Srivaishnava acharya challenge anyone, let alone another acharya, to a poetry contest?
  2. If so, would Azhagiya Manavala Perumal Nayanar be one to do that?
  3. And, would Vedanta Desikan be one to accept such a challenge?

There is no evidence in our sampradhayam to show that acharyas would go about creating or participating in such contests. Guru Parampara abounds with incidents of acharyas challenging each other. But these are typically limited to philosophical debates, where they try to win over the opponent. As examples, we have the case of Emeperumanar himself debating Arulala Perumal Emperumanar (Yagnyavalkar), and Bhattar challenging Nanjeeyer (Vedanti). But, I don’t recall seeing anywhere that poetry contests were in vogue.

Let us next examine who Azhagiya Manaval Perumal Nayanar was. As stated, he is the younger brother of Pillai Lokacharyar. Pillai Lokacharyar is one of the greatest acharyas of the Ramanuja sampradhayam and more than any other acharya, responsible for the philosophy of Thennacharya sampradhayam as we know it today. His younger brother, Azhagiya Manavala Perumal Nayanar is no less an authority in the sampradhayic matters and is the author of the most amazing work “Acharya Hrudayam”, in addition to writing commentaries for a few works such as Thiruppavai, Kanninun Siruththambu, etc. And this is the acharya who is supposed to have challenged someone, nay not anyone, challenged another renowned acharya to a poetry contest.

Let us also look at the ages of these acharyas.It is commonly accepted that Desikan lived from 1268 to 1369 CE. Pillai Lokacharyar’s period on this earth lasted from 1205 to either 1311 or 1325 CE. Nayanar is said to have been born two years after Pillai Lokacharyar and lived to the age of 100 years. Therefore, his period would have been 1207-1307 CE. This puts the age difference between Nayanar and Desikan at 61 years! I am not sure at what age Swami Desikan wrote Padhuka Sahasram. But it seems like either Nayanar was a very old person at that time or perhaps had even left for His abode.

Next, let us look at Nayanar’s works. They are all toward writing prose. His magnum opus Acharya Hrudayam is prose. His other works are prose commentaries. Why would such a person decide suddenly that he could write poetry? And to top it, decide to challenge Desikan, a renowned poet, a kavi simham? Seems pretty far fetched!

Let us see if Swami Desikan would have been one to accept such a challenge had it actually occured. There is a biography of Desikan that I read once which stated that at one time Nayanar challenged Desikan to a philosophical debate and that Desikan out of respect to another acharya of the sampradhayam turned down the request. However, it is being claimed that Desikan later got into a poetry contest with the same acharya. It is extremely hard to imagine why a debate, which is a more natural order of things for acharyas to get into, is said to have been turned down and yet a poetry contest became acceptable to Desikan.

Desikan’s life history shows him to be a model of humility. At one time, when he was living in dire poverty and surviving on alms, he was invited by his childhood friend Sri Vidyaranyar to visit the court of the king where Vidyaranyar was the court poet. For sure, he could have helped Desikan materially in a long way. However, Desikan responded with his Vairagya Panchakam - showing his disdain for wordly things. Yet, such a vairagya shIla, is suddenly said to have jumped into a poetry contest.

Finally - Nayanar’s grand work Acharya Hrudayam is on Swami Nammazhvar and was written to prove the validity of his prabandham Thiryvaymozhi when Azhvar’s caste and thereby his work was questioned by someone. Desikan’s Padhuka Sahasram deals with the maNi pAdhukais of Lord Ranaganatha which is none other than Nammazhvar. To claim that the two would have a contest on Nammazhvar is naive to say the least.

There is nothing to show in the history of Nayanar or Desikan that either would indulge in such antics. The inevitable conclusion that all this leads to is, such a contest never took place.

Our Azhvars and Acharyas wrote works on the Lord to praise Him - for mangaLAshAsanam. Not for any other reason. To say that one of them wrote a poem for a contest and won is not actually praise for that acharya. It is in fact putting them down.

It is my belief based on this and other stories that some people who wanted to glorify their acharya went overboard and decided that they had to start showing other acharyas of his time in poor light vis-a-vis Swami Desikan. Such stories need to be rejected by one and all - from both sampradhayams. Our acharyas showed the utmost respect to each other even if they chose to disagree in philosophy. This is mentioned by Vedanta Desikan himself. It is a shame that some followers decided to come up with such stories - stories that would make the very acharya who they are attempting to glorify by such means, uncomfortable and unhappy.

It is only when such stories are dropped and an understanding achieved of the grand respect that our pUrvAcharyas had for each other, that we would begin to realize what Srivaishnava sampradhayam truly stood and stands for.

Azhvar Emberumanar Jeeyar Thiruvadigale Sharanam

adiyEn madhurakavi dAsan

Written in Oct 2005