Preceptors of Advaita

by T. M. P. Mahadevan | 1968 | 179,170 words | ISBN-13: 9788185208510

The Advaita tradition traces its inspiration to God Himself — as Śrīman-Nārāyaṇa or as Sadā-Śiva. The supreme Lord revealed the wisdom of Advaita to Brahma, the Creator, who in turn imparted it to Vasiṣṭha....

41. Madhusūdana Sarasvatī



V. Rajagopalan

vaṃśīvibhūṣitakarānnavanīradābhāt pītāṃbarādaruṇabiṃbaphalādharoṣṭhāt
pūrṇendusundaramukhādaravindanetrāt kṛṣṇātparam kimapi tattvamaham na jāne

How can an ardent follower of Śaṅkarāchārya who believed and proclaimed that there is only one ultimate reality, that is, the nirguṇa Brahman, which is devoid of any attribute, be also an ardent devotee of Śrī Kṛṣṇa? To many, it is a wonder as to how the learned monk, Madhusūdana Sarasvatī, who established the supremacy of the Advaita school of Śaṅkara by writing one of the accepted masterpieces of the Vedānta philosophy, the Advaitasiddhi, for refuting the objections raised against Advaita by Vyāsatīrtha, a follower of the dualistic school of Madhva, can proclaim Lord Kṛṣṇa as the ultimate reality, or in other words, that there is no other ultimate reality except? Śrī Kṛṣṇa. A number of such doubts may arise in the minds of the readers of Madhusūdana Sarasvatī’s works. The path of knowledge or jñānamārga has been accepted to be the only direct path leading to salvation by the sage Bādarāyaṇa and his large followers of the Advaita school beginning with Āchārya Śaṅkara, 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 nirguṇa or attributeless. But Madhusūdana considered Śrī Kṛṣṇa as the Ultimate Reality and as the incarnation of the nirguṇa Brahman. Can any one by any stretch of imagination consider Śrī Kṛṣṇa to be nirguṇa or attributeless? Has Madhusūdana given up the path of knowledge and become the advocate or the follower of the bhaktimārga or the path of devotion? Or, should we take it that he was the follower of the bhaktimārga preached in the Bhāgavatapurāṇa till he became the follower of Śaṅkara’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 Siddhāntabindu , Vedāntakalpalatikā, Advaita-siddhi, and Advaitaratnarakṣaṇa. There is no evidence for such a change in the meagre sketch of the life of Madhusūdana 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 sannyāsa very early in his life, and that he was ordoined to sannyāsa by Viśveśvarānanda Sarasvatī But in some of his works he has mentioned two others, namely, Śrī Rāma and Mādhava as his gurus:

srīrāmaviśveśvaramādhavānām praṇamya pādāṃbhujapuṇyapāṃśūn
teṣām prabhāvād ahamasmi yogyaḥ śilāpi
c haitanyarn alabdha yebhyaḥ.

śrīmādhavasarasvatyo jayanti yaminām varāḥ
vayam teṣām prasādena śāstrārthe pariniṣṭhitāḥ

It is also said that his name was Kamalajanayana in the pūrvāśrama 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 sannyāsin. His commentators like Brahmānanda also have not given us any hint to ascertain the native place of Madhusūdana. In the Vedāntakalpalatikā, Madhusūdana has mentioned the name of a deity, nīlāchalanāyaka, the lord of the blue mountain.

aupaniṣadāstu bhagavatā nīlāchalanāyakena nārāyaṇenānugrihītaḥ[1]

Arbitrarily many north Indian scholars have not only identified the nīlāchalanātha, the lord of the blue mountain with Lord Jagannātha of Puri, but also Madhusūdana as a resident of Puri. But a few scholars of Kerala consider that nīlāchalanātha can be more appropriately identified with Lord Kṛṣṇa at Guruvāyur (Guruvāyupuram) or with the Lord Kṛṣṇa at Uḍipi where the deity in the temple is in the form of Bālakṛṣṇa. Madhusūdana was an ardent devotee of Śrī Kṛṣṇa and he had a very great fascination for Bālakṛṣṇa and this is evident from a number of devotional verses composed by him in his works, Gūḍārtha-dīpikā, Saṃkṣepaśārīrakaṭīkā, Bhaktirasāyana, etc. From a study of his works, it is very clear that Madhusūdana was a very great devotee of Śrī Kṛṣṇa and that he was more attracted by the bālatva aspect of Lord Kṛṣṇa which is vividly described in the Bhāgavatapurāṇa to which he attached the same importance as to the three prasthānas. His fervent devotion for Kṛṣṇa was so much as to make him believe that Puṣpadanta’s Śivamahimna-stotra or Mahimna-stotra as it is more popularly known is praising both Śiva and Kṛṣṇa and induced him to write a commentary on the Mahimnastotra called Mahimnastotraṭīkā with great skill.

bhūtibhūṣitadehāya dvijarājena rājate
ekātmane namo nityam haraye cha harāya cha

While commenting on śloka 2, he states:

‘navajaladharaśyāmadhāmani śrīvigrahe
vaikuṇṭhavartini veṇuvādanādivividhavihāra-
parāyaṇe gopakiśore vā brindāvanavartini
kasya manaḥ nāpatati.’

In this he has explicitly mentioned his great fascination for Kṛṣṇa as a child. Only in Guruvāyūr and Uḍipi, Kṛṣṇa is worshipped as a child. There is also every probability of Madhusūdana being either a native or a resident of Guruvāyur in Kerala or Uḍipi in South Canara. He wanted to attack the Dvaita school and establish the supremacy of the Advaita school. Unless he studied the works of Madhvāchārya 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, Madhusūdana must have taken pains to go to Uḍipi, where Madhvāchārya and his disciples in the different mutts were flourishing. At Uḍipi he might have been attracted by the beautiful idol of Bālakṛṣṇa, installed by Śrī Madhvāchārya, or perhaps he could have taken a pilgrimage to Kālaḍi the birth place of Ādi Śaṅkara and remained there visiting the surrounding holy places. The Lord of Guruvāyūr could have fascinated him. Even now there are a number of Brahmin families in Cochin area, near Kāladi, called Gauda Sārasvata Brahmins. They have settled in Kerala for a number of generations. There is a tradition amongst them that they have migrated to Kerala from Gauḍa Deśa and that they belong to the Sārasvata community or the Brahmin community, which was in charge of imbibing and imparting knowledge in ancient India. Madhusūdana and his disciple Gauḍa Brahmānanda too could have belonged to this community which migrated to Kerala and lived there.

In ancient India only Sannyāsins were considered to be qualified to study the Vedānta. But even in those days non-sannyāsins like Śrī-Harsha, the author of Khaṇḍana-khaṇḍa-khādya and Vāchaspatimiśra, the author of Bhāmatī, did not only study the Vedānta, but also contributed to the sum total of knowledge by writing works on Advaita Vedānta. Renunciation, if at all, was resorted to only during the last days. It will not be incorrect to presume that Madhusūdana was an ardent devotee of Kṛṣṇa following the bhaktimārga preached in the Bhāgavata-purāṇa, and mastered the Vedānta, both the Advaita and its opponent schools afterwards. He was so much saturated with Kṛṣṇabhakti that he identified the nirguṇa Brahman with the incarnation of Kṛṣṇa. According to him there is nothing incompatible between the attributeless monism of Śaṅkara and the ardent devotion of Kṛṣṇa who is no other than the Supreme Being Itself. He has synthesised the bhakti school and the path of knowledge and thus inculcated a new line of thought or approach in the Advaita school. Saguṇabrahmopāsanā or meditation on the Supreme Being with attributes has been prescribed by the Advaitins as a preliminary step for self-realisation. Śaṅkarāchārya 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 pūjā to the Lord Chandramāulīśvara and the goddess Tripurasundarī. All the sannyāsins, many of whom are released and yet alive (jīvan-muktas) are uttering the name of Śrī Nārāyaṇa. So there is absolutely no contradiction in being a devotee and at the same time a follower of the oath of knowledge to realise the Supreme Being as identical with the self.

Madhusūdana’s ardent devotion for Śrī Kṛṣṇa was not at all affected by his belief that Brahman which itself took incarnations did so through māyā. The incarnations were those of the nirguṇa Brahman itself, but they were all unreal. Madhusūdana criticised all those who held the view that Brahman is eternal and yet assumes real incarnations, as unreasonable and groundless. He fully concurred with Śaṅkara’s conception of jagat, jīvātmā and Paramātmā and also the path of knowledge as directly leading to mokṣa. In the synthesis of bhaktimārga and the path of knowledge he followed the famous Sarvajñatmamuni, the author of Saṃkṣepaśārīraka who has offered salutation to nirguṇa Brahman called Murāri in the very first verse of his work which is a summary, in verses, of Śaṅkara’s Brahmasūtra-bhāṣya.[3] So nirguṇa-bhaktimārga cannot be called a new innovation of Madhusūdana.

There seems to be some apparent contradiction in his works about the path of devotion and the path of knowledge as means to mokṣa. In his Gūḍārthadīpikā, a commentary on Śaṅkara’s bhāṣya on the Bhagavadgītā, he believes the main teaching of the Gītā to be that nirguṇa Brahman could also be attained through loving devotion to the Lord. It is also supported by his Bhaktirasāyana which propounds that both bhakti and jñāna are the means to mokṣa, but both differ as regards their nature, their means, their goal, and the persons entitled to both (adhikārins).

Bhakti is of the nature of a conditional modification of the mind experiencing beatification, while Brahmavidyā is of the nature of a conditionless modification of the inflexible mind illumined by the secondless Ātman. The means of bhakti is the hearing of the innumerable merits of the worshipful, while that of Brahmajñāna is the mahavākyas 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 sannyāsins having the four-fold aid are fit for Brahmavidyā. 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 Brahmavidyā, it is enjoyable in all places at all times and by all bodies. In his Bhaktirasāyana, devotion is mentioned as superior, because it accelerates the realisation of the truth more quickly than jñāna and that there is no difference in the conception of mokṣa achieved through either. According to him, the Knowledge of Brahman is as essential for a devote 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 alter death and when the knowledge is thus obtained, he becomes one with Brahman along with Hiraṇyagarbha. 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 Madhusūdana, all beings including beast and birds are entitled to bhakti, but only the sannyāsins having the four-fold aid are fit for jñānamārga. He also considered bhakti as one of the aims of life, bhakti for bhakti’s sake which is identical with Brahmānanda. In his Bhaktirasāyana he quotes the śloka from the Bhāgavatapurāṇa that even sages who enjoy Brahmānanda and who are far from the shackles of saṃsāra dedicate themselves spontaneously to Viṣṇu without any aim or purpose. Or in other words even jīvanmuktas 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 Madhusūdana, while the path of knowledge is restricted to sannyāsins. He is emphatically of the view that only by getting the knowledge of Brahman, either by being taught by the teacher who is a sannyāsin or by getting the revelation of knowledge along with the creator, one can get mokṣa.

About the date of Madhusūdana there are different opinions. Professor Burnouf and Professor Lassen assigned Madhusūdana 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 Madhusūdana has quoted a number of passages from Vidyāraṇya’s Pañchadaśī and Jīvan - muktiviveka. Professor Winternitz also fixes his date as the beginning of the 16th century. In the life of Vallabhāchārya it is mentioned that once Śrī Vallabhāchārya went from Vāraṇasī to Prayāg where he stayed for a number of days performing the pārāyaṇam of the Bhāgavatapurāṇa and there he happened to meet a very learned sannyāsin named Madhusūdana Sarasvatī, who was not only an advocate of māyāvāda but also an ardent devotee of Śrī Kṛṣṇa and who showed him ins work called Bhaktirasāyana and his commentary on Śaṅkara’s bhāṣya on the Gītā. Impressed by the great qualities of Madhusūdana, he entrusted his son Viṭṭhalnāth to the care of Madhusūdana for studying the various śāstras. Viṭṭhalnāth was born in saṃvat 1572 or 1516 A.D. So the date of Madhusūdana can be fixed as the beginning of the 16 th, century. But there is a tradition that Madhusūdana wrote a commentary on the Siddhāntaleśasaṅgraha of Appayya Dīkṣita.

It is conflicting with the fact that one of the students of Madhusūdana named Śeṣagovinda was the guru of Bhaṭṭoji Dīkṣita who studied Vedānta from Appayya Dīkṣita. Śeṣagovinda refers to Madhusūdana as follows:

sarasvatyavatāram tam vande śrīmadhusūdanam.

Śeṣagovinda and Appayya Dīkṣita must have been contemporaries and Madhusūdana was senior to Appayya Dīkṣita. Moreover, no such commentary of Siddhāntaleśasaṅgraha attributed to Madhusūdana has come to light though mentioned by one or two collectors of manuscripts.

There is also another tradition that Gadādhara, the famous Naiyāyika was a contemporary of Madhusūdana:

navadvīpe samāyate madhusūdana vākpatau
chakaṃpe tarkavāgīśaḥ kātaro’bhūt gadādharaḥ.

Gauḍa Brahmānanda who wrote a commentary called Chandrikā on the Advaita-siddhi of Madhusūdana was considered to be a costudent of Gadādhara. So Madhusūdana must have been an elder contemporary of the famous logician Gadādhara. All these evidences clearly establish that Madhusūdana must have flourished in the beginning of the 16th century.

Madhusūdana wrote a number of works on bhaktimārga and also on the Advaita Vedānta as propounded by Śaṅkara.

His works are

  • Ānandamandākinī,
  • Bhaktirasāyana,
  • Īśvarapratipattiprakāśa,
  • Mahimnastotra-vyākhyā,
  • Harilīlā-vyākhyā,
  • Bhāgavatapraihamaślokatīkā,
  • Vedāntakalpalatikā,
  • Siddhāntahindu,
  • Saṃkṣepaśārīraka-vyākhyā,
  • Gūḍārthadīpikā,
  • Advaita-siddhi
  • and Advaita-ratna-rakṣaṇa.

There were also some others having the name of Madhusūdana who were the authors of works like Anyāpadeśaśatakam and a commentary on Mahānāṭaka, but one can easily find out the difference between the works of Madhusūdana who is a Vedāntin and others bearing the name of Madhusūdana.

Ānandamandākinī is an original poem of more than one hundred ślokas in praise of Lord Kṛṣṇa. This work was his maiden attempt. One can easily appreciate the fervent devotion of the author to Śrī Kṛṣṇa. His Vedāntakalpalatikā is a small treatise on the Advaita Vedānta. He has discussed the nature of the Absolute, refuted the conception of liberation according to other schools, explained how the avidyā ceases to exist by the direct apprehension of Brahman arising out of hearing the mahavākyas and ultimately explained the concept of mokṣa according to Advaita. The Siddhāntabindu is a commentary on Śaṅkara’s Daśaślokī 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 āchāryas on important concepts of Advaita without going into details. His commentary on the Saṃkṣepaśārīraka is known as Saṃkṣepaśārirakasārasaṃgraham. Madhusūdana has expressed his views on the Brahmasūtras by commenting upon Sarvajñātmamuni’s Saṃkṣepaśārīraka which is a brief but lucid commentary in verse on Śāṅkara bhāṣya on the Vedānta-sūtras. Advaita-siddhi is his masterpiece. This work was written mainly to refute the charges raised against Advaita by Vyāsatīrtha. Gūḍārthadīpikā is a commentary on Śaṅkara’s bhāṣya on the Bhagavadgītā upholding Śaṅkara’s interpretation but in some places deviating while advocating the path of devotion taught in the second six chapters. Bhakti and jñāna are the two banks of the river of Gitā according to him. His last work is Advaita-ratna-rakṣaṇa where he has answered the unjust attacks of the Naiyāyikas and followers of Dvaita school in a vehement manner at times in abusive words. Bhaktirasāyana is a great treatise on bhakti. Mahimnastotraṭīkā and Harilīlā-vyākhyā are commentaries on Puṣpadanta’s Śivamahimnastotra and Bopadeva’s Harilīlā respectively for proclaiming the wonderful qualities of Śrī Kṛṣṇa. He has exhibited his great skill by interpreting the ślokas in praise of Śiva as praising Lord Kṛṣṇa.

In the firmament of Advaita philosophy getting light only from Śaṅkara who was resplendent like the sun, Madhusūdana shone like the moon excelling all the other philosophic stars and enlightening the people with ambrosial teachings worthy of his name,

Footnotes and references:


Vedāntakalpalatikā , Sarasvatī Bhavana Texts, No. 3, p. 6.




murāreḥ, paramapadam pranayādabhīṣṭavīmi.

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