The life of Madhvacharya
Madhvacharya, the main exponent of dvaita philosophy was born in southern Karnataka in a small village of Paajakakshetra near Udipi in the Tulunadu area to a Shivalli Brahmin family. Majority of what is known about Madhvacharya are through a hagiography named Madhvavijaya, the victory of Madhva composed by his devotee and follower, Narayana Panditacharya. Although the biography is highly polemical I will rely on the Madhvavijaya as my source of reference
According to traditional narrations, Madhva was born in response to twelve years of prayer by Madhyageha Bhatt and Vedavati to Lord Ananteshvara. Lord Ananteshvara ordered his chief aide Vayu to incarnate on earth a third time to fulfil the desires of the couple and re-establish Dharma against the false and illusionist philosophies prevalent at the time.
The common consensus regarding the birth of Madhva is 1238 A.D. and in appreciation and gratitude to Lord Ananteshvara they named the child Vasudeva. According to Madhvavijaya, young Vasudeva showed extraordinary miracles and exceptional ability in studying Sanskrit and various other sciences. From a young age Vasudeva knew his calling was for establishing Dharma and expressed the desire to take renunciation, being the only son the request was swiftly refused by his parents. Nevertheless the young boy persisted for acceptance for a number of years finally being granted permission after Vedavati gave birth to another child.
Vasudeva was granted permission at the age of eleven and had left home in search of a spiritual teacher. Vasudeva was then accepted by Achyuta Preksha as a disciple and was formally ordained as a renunciate named Purna Bodha. Achyuta Preksha knowing the suitability of young Purna Bodha commenced the study of ‘Ishta-Siddhi’, an advaitic text; however Purna Bodha was dissatisfied with the explanation of Ishta-Siddhi in elucidating Vedanta and found thirty-two mistakes and flaws in the text. His Guru being staggered by the observations questioned his disciple regarding various matters with perfect responses in return from the young prodigy explaining his objections and demonstrating the imperfections of the Advaita position. Being in admiration for the intellectual knowledge of young Madhva, Achyuta Preksha conferred on him the title of ‘Ananda Tirtha’, the place of bliss.
Under the request of his teacher and various others, Ananda Tirtha commenced his commentaries on the canonical Vedic treatises. His first commentarial work was on the Bhagavad-Gita. After which he travelled to Badari to study Vedanta and wrote a commentary on the Brahma Sutras under the tutelage Veda Vyasa. The chronology of Madhva writing the Upanishads is fairly vague but it seems safe to suggest that the upanishadic commentaries came subsequent to the Bhagavad-Gita and Brahma Sutras.
Between the ages of eleven and seventy nine, Madhva gave discourses on Vedanta, partook in debate, religious congregations, performed miraculous feats and re-established sacred temples. Whilst writing other philosophical treatises and composing many devotional hymns in praise of Lord Vishnu, he established eight monasteries instructing his direct disciples to undertake and manage.
According to Narayana Panditacharya, Madhvacharya disappeared at the age of seventy nine whilst honoured with a shower of flowers from heavenly deities. According to Madhva tradition, Madhva did not die but is considered to be alive and residing in Badrinatha in theHimalayaswith his teacher and Lord, Vyasa.
The Philosophy of Dvaita Vedanta
Although the fundamental philosophical structure of Madhva’s dualistic philosophy is based around the prasthana trayi, he draws great inspiration and cites endlessly though very selective from other smriti texts, asserting the corpus of smriti texts as an authority but less so to sruti whilst establishing his school of thought.
In contrast to Shankara who almost exclusively cites shruti texts, Madhva recognised that smriti texts with their less metaphysical and philosophical nature, practical application, and establishment of a powerful yet personal being engrossed the spiritual world and its introduction was vital as a reaction towards the impersonal belief system of Advaita.
Madhva’s literary work is a combination of thirty seven works which can be summarised into four main categories collectively known as the sarva mula grantha:
The first category is Madhva’s commentarial works based on the prasthana trayi
1. Prasthana Trayi
Madhva just like his predesessors commented on the upanishads, be it with his own interpretation and charm. His commentary and theological stance were a marked difference between existing schools, however unperturbed he commented on the ten main Upanishads. In his commentary Madhva sets forth dialectical attacks on monistic thought whilst establishing the chief principle of Brahman to be equated with Sriman Narayana and establishing Brahman to be a personal being endorsed with limitless attributes, a stark contrast to the advaitic position of an impersonal being with no attributes.
The most famous commentarial but yet controversial presentation of Madhva’s interpretation is that of the famous phrase ‘tat tvam asi’, That you are, unlike previous commentators who have struggled to present the aphorism in a coherent manner conforming to their respective theological stance, Madhva skilfully using his Sanskrit grammatical knowledge separated the phrase to be read as ‘atat tvam asi’, that you are not, thus conforming seamlessly with his school of thought.
Unlike previous commentators who only had written one commentary on each, Madhva had written four commentaries on the brahma sutras alone, each serving a difference purpose.
The first commentary and perhaps Madhva’s most important work named ‘brahma sutra bhashya’ deals mainly in his theological position whilst simultaneously moving away from previous commenterial styles. The second and third, anu bhashya and nyayavivarana are smaller in size and can be best described as an index to dvaita interpretation and technical formalities of interpretation. The fourth, anu vyakhyana unlike the previous commenatries is known for its unsparing nature in refuting various schools of thought, notably a vehement response to theAdvaiticSchoolof shankara. According to B.N.K Sharma ‘it is undoubtedly a classic in the full sense of the term. It is his magnus opus. It has logic, fire, unity, eloquence and a certain stately music of words’.
Madhva wrote two commentaries on the bhagavad gita, a bhashya and a tatparya nirnaya. The former is understood to be Madhva’s earliest work and hence holds considerable historical and philosophical importance to the Madhva community.
The bhashya is brief and precise as possible, whilst quoting from available and rare sources in presenting his views and theological stance. Unlike previous commentators who wrote comprehensive commentaries inacting oppositional questioning and providing answers, Madhva refrained from indulging in such styles but rather highlighted and commented on important areas where he saw necessary, whilst interpreting key points.
The tatparya nirnaya is a later work and in essence a supplement to the bhashya. Whilst expanding points raised in the bhashya, Madhva provides new explanations and interpretations. One can conclude that as the tatparya is a later work, the exposure of people and audience Madhva drew together inevitably changed his style and provided further experience to draw upon whilst commenting on the bhagavad gita a second time.
2. Dasa Prakarana
The dasa prakarana is the collective name given to ten minor works of Madhva in which he presents arguments concerning ontology and epistemology whilst expounding the dvaita system. However due to the monistic and dualistic philosophies of shankara and madhva being contrary to one another, Madhva spends much time refuting the monistic concept dedicating five of the ten works in refuting the advaitic idea.
3. Purana Prasthana
Apart from commenting on the canonical scriptures to establish the orthodoxy of his philosophy he wrote commentarial works on the bhagavata purana, Mahabharata and rig Veda, although the riga veda bhashya per se is a sruti text, contemporary scholars in also include this among the purana prasthana.
4. Other Works
Besides the commentaries and treatises dealing with the metaphyiscs of his school, Madhva composed numerous hymns in praise of God and other practical doctrines which still play a role in Madhva Vedanta today.
According to Madhva Vedanta, Brahman is equated only to Lord Visnu, the only independent reality, who transcends all creation, ‘who is cognisable in all his uniqueness only through the right scriptures, who wholly transcends the kshara [individual souls] and akshara [Sri Lakshmi] and who is flawless and abounds in all excellent attributes’.
Madhva declares that Lord Visnu is the main deity and topic of worship for the scriptures whilst asserting him to be the underlying creator and controller of the animate and inanimate world. Furthermore, unlike previous philosophers who state that the multitude of beings and matter emanate from a divine being, Madhva holds to the fact that individual souls and matter are actually eternal and hence do not emanate or come into existence but naturally exist eternally.
Madhva explains that the individual soul and Brahman are different; his explanation is based on the Vedic injunctions that declare that Brahman is non-dual, eternal, changeless and indivisible and hence individual souls emanating from Lord Visnu would be illogical, thus presenting the idea that souls pre-exist rather than be created.
In addition to this, the philosophy introduces a classification hierarchy and categories of souls whilst explaining that each individual soul, eternal and blissful in nature, is distinct from any other whilst dependent on Lord Visnu in attaining liberation.
Opposing Shankara’s view that reality is a mere illusion and a designation of a state of relative reality; Madhva accepts the world to be wholly real and created on the request of Lord Visnu by his consort Sri Lakshmi.
Similar to the logic presented earlier of distinct individual souls, Madhva establishes the same framework for material creation where no two objects are essentially the same.
Madhva asserts that reality in essence is composed of three basic principles, the supreme divinity designated to Lord Visnu, who alone is the only independent entity and two dependent realities, individual souls and matter.
In essence the Madhva schools system of reality is based on sheer realism where all elements and components of his realist philosophy are arranged hierarchically where some components have more authority and power than others, whilst some individual souls are destined to have increased capabilities over others.
For Madhva, the individuals’ devotion supplemented by karma and gyana, as well identifying their position in the hierarchy is the best way to achieve Liberation. Unfortunately Madhva elaborates that although the above maybe true, he discourages aspirants to learn on their own but rather learn in an institutionalised environment with an appropriate guru. He then further goes onto to detailing that although the aspirant may now have guru prasada, the individual must obtain the assistance of Madhva, the third incarnation of Vayu, to gain Visnu prasada.
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