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Meditating On The Archa: Amalanatipiran & Bhagavad Dhyana Sopanam





The invocatory verse or what is called a ‘taniyan’ for the Tamil Prabandham ‘Amalanatipiran’ by Thirupanalvar says “Let me contemplate on Munivahana (Thirupanalvar who was carried on the shoulders of Lokasarangamuni to the sanctum of Ranganatha), whose inner soul became enraptured at the sight of the reclining Ranganatha between the two streams of river Kaveri, and who, having experienced the vision of the Lord from feet to head declared that his eyes would not see anything else.”1

(Figure 1: Credit: Facebook – Lokasarangamuni)

Meditating on the archa as a means to achieving moksha takes us to the primary question of who is eligible for moksha? According to Visistadvaita Vedanta all are eligible, but only those who wish to attain moksha and strive to attain it through sadhana will achieve it by God’s grace. “God in order to shower His grace looks forward to a sincere desire for release on the part of an individual”.2

As Nammalvar says “குலந்தாங்குசாதிகள்நாலிலும்கீழிழிந்து, எத்தனை

நலந்தானிலாதசண்டாளசண்டாளர்கள்ஆகிலும்” (kulantanku saadhigal naalilum keezhizhundhu, ethanai nalandhaanilaadha sandaalargal aagilum) on who qualifies to be his master, even those who have been born in the lowliest of the kulas, beyond the four, if they are servants’ servant of the devotees of the discus-bearing Manivanna, meaning anyone from any community is eligible as long as being devotees of Narayana. Again he declares his own qualifications as “notra nonbilen nun arivilen” that he has not done any penances, nor possessing any subtle intelligence, but that doesn’t become an obstacle as long as there is a yearning to be the receiver of the Grace.3 That caste, and other qualifications do not pose a hurdle for attaining moksha.

(Figure 2: Credit: Pinterest – Nammalvar)

Tiruppaanalvar was such a devotee, who though born in a kulam that kept him away from setting foot on the grand temple of Sri Ranganatha at Srirangam and having his darshan, was recipient of His grace, and the ultimate that a devotee can attain. From what little we know of him through the Guru Parampara texts he was from a community of singers, portrayed as carrying a veena, and who continued to sing on Ranganatha sitting on the shores of Kavery even as he couldn’t get his darshan. Paanan as per the legend was hit by a stone one day by Lokasaranga Muni for obstructing his path to fetch waters from Kavery for the abhisheka of Sri Ranganatha. Paanan who was lost in his meditation realized he was obstructing and gave way. Later Lokasaranga Muni was made to realize his mistake by Ranganatha, who commanded that the Muni bring Paanan to his sannidhi. Since Paanan was barred from setting his foot inside the temple, Lokasaranga Muni carried him on his shoulder. He had the vision of Ranganatha once he was inside and composed the ten verses of the Prabandham called ‘Amalanatipiran’ describing his vision, indulging in the padadikesa varnanam of the archa murty at Srirangam.

(Figure 3: Credit: iStock – Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple)

The Taniyan quoted above sets the tone, and outlines the theme of meditation on the divyamangala vigraha of Ranganatha. In fact the Tamil Taniyan gives a gist of what we are going to read in offering praises to the holy feet of Tiruppanalvar who sang on the physical attributes of the murty as shown to him by the Lord, the lotus feet, the silk garment, the navel, the waistband, the holy chest, the neck, the red mouth, the eyes and the full Tirumeni, the divine form. We delve into the verses of both the Alvar and the verses of Acharya Vedanta Desikan’s ‘Bhagavad Dhyana Sopanam’ which has been composed based on the experience, the anubhava of Tiruppanalvar of Sri Ranganatha. While Alvar plunges into the description even as he is ecstatic with the vision straight away, Desikan prepares us for what is to unfold with his title that clearly indicates it is a step by step (Sopanam-ladder) Dhyanam on Sri Ranganatha. It is the anubhavam, experience akin to Alvar’s but is explained as the meditation on the kalyana gunas, auspicious attributes of the Lord.

amalan AthipirAn adiyArkku ennai Atpaduththa

vimalan viNNavar kOn viraiyAr pozil vEngkadavan

nimalan ninmalan nIthi vAnavan, nILmathiL aranggaththu ammAn,

thiruk kamala pAtham vanthu enkaNNinuLLana okkinRathE

Alvar begins with the description of the qualities of God, as blemishless, the primordial one responsible for Jagath Karanam. The lotus feet of the Lord of Arangam have entered my eyes, he says as his vision falls on the feet of Ranganatha. Desikan first offers a broader salutation, and clearly says the one who resides in the middle of Srirangam is a “vessel of perfect liberation, healer of the sorrows of the poor and afflicted”.4 It is in the second verse Desikan talks about the thirupadam, the lotus feet of the Lord that are reflected in the pool of his memory.

Tiruppanalvar’s ten verses are clearly describing the Archa, the divyamangala vigraha of Sri Rangantha at Srirangam. It also establishes the paratattva, ultimate reality as Narayana, with divine attributes and also sings about the vibhava avataras, the divine incarnations. The consecrated vigraha, the archa in temples, homes are a manifestation of the Supreme Paravasudeva as much as the manifestations vuyha, vibhava and antaryami. “That is how the great Vaisnava saints and mystics got themselves submerged completely in the contemplation of the idols enshrined in the various holy places”.5

Though Alvars in general have sung about all the five manifestation, vibhava and archa stand out. Archa in specific holds greater attention, as that is the most accessible, and approachable for everyone. Among the kshetras Srirangam is the foremost, and Ranganatha the Periya Perumal, the elder one, the primary Lord. All the Alvars except Madhura Kavi have sung on Rangantha. First, on the idea of veneration of the archa. “It might seem incongruous that Nammalvar could think of the same God who is the primordial cause of the universe being fully present in the small man-made image…To him it is a sign of God’s greatness that he can be fully present in the small as well as in the large,” to quote Kaylor and Venkatachari.6 Alvars as Nammalvar mentioned here place a deity at particular place to be the only refuge, even as they describe all the avataras, creation and the mighty deeds, who is also present in the image at a particular kshetra. Tirumangai Alvar in one of the pasurams in his ‘Periya Tirumoli’ gives the essence of who is the deity who presides over at Arangam.

“Pandai naanmarayum, velviyum, kelvi padangalum, padangalin porulum

pindamaai virindha pirangu oli analum, perugiya punalodu nilanum

kondal maarudhamum, kurai kadal ezhum, ezhu maamalaigalum visumbum

andamum than aai ninra em peruman – Aranga maa nagar amarndhaane”

(“The timeless Vedas, the Sacrifices, the Prasnas, the Vyakaranas, their meanings, – the cause of all these, the sacred fire-altar, the holy waters of rivers, the Earth, the clouds, the wind, the seven oceans, the seven mountain ranges, the sky, the Universe, — the Lord stands as all these, and as the resident of Arangama nagar.”)

In the context of meditating on the arhca would like to quote Pippalada from the Vastusutra Upanishad who says that “without the guidance of images the mind of the devotee may go astray and form wrong imaginations. Images dispel false imaginations and point out the right way of worshipping the divinity” and “when worship is done without bodily images, the mind becomes particularly vitiated by indiscriminate imagination”.

Sri Ranganatha is a Swayam Vyakta self-manifest and Srirangam a Swayam VyaktaKshetram, so while quoting Vastusutra Upanishad not committing an error of comparing a form made by a man to the self-manifest archa at Srirangam. The point here is limited to highlighting the importance of form.

Again to quote from the same book the idea of Frithjof Schuon: “That the sensible form is what corresponds most directly to the intellect, by reason of the inverted analogy which plays between the principle and the manifested (order of things), so that the highest realities manifest themselves in the most striking manner in their most distant reflection, which is the sensible or “material” order.”

In that essence of immersing in the archa, Panan in the second verse goes a step further and says “araichivanda aadayin mel senradaam en sindhanaye”, that his mind strolled on to the red cloth on his waist, that his mind moved from the lotus feet and went after the anubhava of that garment without even him realizing it happening. Desikan takes a few more steps in between dwelling on the jangha that is the part between the knee and ankle, thighs, in the ladder of meditation which the Alvar had skipped going straight to the red vastra on the waist. Desikan in his taniyan to his commentary on ‘Amalanatipiran’, the ‘Munivahana Bhogam’ says he is venturing on the commentary of Sukavi Tiruppanalvar’s Prabandham with Bhakti and restraint over the senses. On the worship of the beautiful jangha he says it leads to the “cessation of mindless wandering”.

Next the Alvar and Desikan both move to the beautiful, shining navel – that divine beauty of the navel that created the creator Brahma.

anthi pOl niRaththu Adaiyum athanmEl ayanaip padaiththathOr ezil unthi mElathanRO adiyEn uLLaththu innuyirE



ramyaavarta dhyuti sahacharii raNganaathasya naabhi”.

The image of the archa with his waistbelt is referenced next, and it is related to the marks that were formed during Krishnavatara, where as a child he was bound by a rope by Yashoda– Damodara by Panan. “Thiruvayitru udhara bandha men ullathul ninru ulaakinradhe”.

pAramAya pazavinai paRRaRuththu ennaiththan

vAramAkki vaiththAn vaiththathanRi ennuL pugunthAn,

gOra mAthavam seythanan kol aRiyEn aranggaththu ammAn,

thiru-vAra mArbathanRO adiyEnai AtkoNdathE

By the time we reach the fifth verse, the full import of the Grace, the results and the impact of the vision gets clear. It was His grace that cut him loose of the burden of his old self, He made him his own and entered him. The phrase “ennul pugundhan”, he entered me, we find Alvar’s verses indicating the antaryamitvam. Though the personal, poetic outpourings are classified as emotional-bhakti as distinct from an intellectual and philosophical expositions, in this string of pasurams one can clearly see the understanding, clarity on the essential theistic principles. There is indeed an emotional connect between the deity and the devotee, but in its expression one can see the embedded philosophical understanding of the God as the goal, as well as the means who by His grace guides, takes over the devotee to offer his vision, and liberation. Desikan while following Alvar in reflecting on the chest with similar descriptive passage says the chest “soothes the fever of my mind” “removes all the afflictions of (his) mind”.

Before moving into the rest of the verses and without getting into specifics of the Karma, Jnana and Bhakti Yogas, would like to go draw attention to the aspect of Dhyana, as understood from Swami Ramanuja’s ‘Vedanta Sutras’. “Dhyana does not mean mere meditation on an object as it is ordinarily understood. In the initial stage, the mind is to be focussed on the object of contemplation, which in the Yoga system is called dharana or concentration. Dhyana follows dharana. It signifies a constant and continuous reflection on the divine form with all its glory.” As mentioned earlier in relation to specific verses, dhyana is reflecting on the svarupa, the essential nature, rupa, the divine personality, guna, the auspicious attributes of Brahman.

Dhyanam nama taila-dhaaravat avicchinna smrti-santatih….” – It is a process of continuous concentration on the divine form without any interruption, just like a steady flow of oil poured from one vessel to another one has to meditate without any distraction.

“This is what is intended in the expression duruvasmrtih used in the Chandogya Upanishad for dhyana or upasana. The same truth is reiterated by the ‘Vedanta Sutra’ when it states that meditation is to be repeated often. This is to be done with deep devotion towards God. Anything done devoid of love to God is not pleasing to Him and will not lead to desired goal.”

Therefore, meditating on the form of Ranganatha continues as a tradition, from Panan to many acharyas, and vaggeyakaras – the stotra ‘Sri Rangarajastva’ of Parasara Bhattar to the kritiRanganayakam bhavaye Sri Ranganayaki sametha” by Muthuswami Dikshitar.

(Figure 4: Credit: iStock – Vintage stamp with Indian musician, Muthuswami Dikshitar)

In verse six, Panan sees the throat, the one that swallowed all things during the maha pralaya. The darshan of the neck “saved me his slave”, uplifting Alvar to understand His nature and the saving grace that He is. Desikan in his next step, moves to the arms, one stretched to the knee and the other folded to serve as a resting pillow, and compares it to branches to Kalpakavriksha. He describes his state as that of a female elephant in ecstatic state tied down to keep it under control. Alvar too launches into an ecstatic state in the last three verses. Ranganatha wielding spiral Sankam and fiery Chakram with a body of a dark mountain, wearing fragrant Tulasi crown rests on the serpent bed in the jewelled city of Arangam – “aiyanAr, aNiyarangganAr aravin aNaimisai mEya mAyanAr, seyya vAy aiyO ! eannais sindhai kavarnthathuvE”. It comes with the exclamation of aiyo to express how his mind is ravished by the red lips.

Would like to mention here a verse from Tondaradipodi Alvar. How, in that ecstasy of the vision of the form, immersed in its beauty and its description declares that he does not want liberation, but just to remain there in His presence to enjoy the sweetness of that form. “Pachhai Maamalai pol meni, pavala vai kamalach chengan, Achyuta! Amarar yere! Aayartam kozhundhe! ennum icchuvai thavira yaan poi Indira lokam aalum achuvai perinum venden Arangama Nagarulane.”

Both Alvar and Desikan have the most beautiful expressions reserved for the thirumukhamandalam, the face of the God.

kariyavAkip pudaiparanthu miLirnthu sevvariyOdi, nINdavap periya vAya kaNkaL ennaip pEthamai seythanavE

(That his charming big eyes made a fool of me. Desikan says the beautiful smile and the compassionate eyes, the tilakam on his forehead are embedded in his mind forever.)

The last two verses of ‘Amalanatipiran’ are so beautiful, and it captivates the readers and listeners alike. No wonder they are part of the repertoire of Carnatic musicians and Bharatanatyam dancers.

“AlamA maraththin ilaimEl oru bAlaganAy,

njAlam Ezum uNdAn aranggaththu aravin aNaiyAn,

kOla mAmaNi Aramum muththuth thAmamum mudivilla thOrezil nIla mEni aiyO!

niRai koNdathu en nenjinaiyE!”

Till now the Alvar was looking, moving step by step from one limb to another, and then he sees the full Thirumeni, the full picture puts him in rapture. He is consumed with the beauty of the Thirumeni, leading once again to the exclamation of aio, “neelmeni aio nirankondadhen nenjinaye” – “My God! His lovely dark body of unfading beauty, strung with pearls and big dazzling gems fills my heart!”

“koNdal vaNNanaik kOvalanAy

veNNeyuNda vAyan ennuLLam kavarnthAnai,

aNdar kOn aNi arangan en amuthinaik

kaNda kaNkaL maRRonRinaik kANAvE”

Just as the cowherd boy who stole butter, He had stolen the heart of Alvar. He says after having seen His nectar, his eyes will never see anything else. If we say Dhyana, and in the previous verses when there was an ecstatic exultation was there an unsteadiness, a loss of composure? It was that getting drawn into the nature of the Lord, and being bewitched by Him, that finally leads to the realization of His nature and the nature of oneself. That is why in ‘Munivahana Bhogam’ Desikan points out how from “my eyes”, “my mind”, “my thought” the Alvar in the final verse says “kanta kankal” the eyes that saw, without the use of “I”.

“This is a distinct pointer to the dawn in him, of ‘Tattva Jana’, and the resultant detachment from the self and the material things around, in their totality. Even the little bit of ‘I-ness’ and ‘Mine-ness’ that was lingering in him, has now left him for good, the immediate result of his realisation of his essential nature (svasvarupa) and one’s inter-relationship with God (Supreme Lord).”

While the Tamil prabandham did not leave a phalashruti which has been a hallmark of Alvar verses – we can see how the Alvar after having that vision merged with Ranganatha and therefore we do not have the verse that would either leave his signature or a benediction. As per the Guru Parampara Prabhavam Alvar never looked at anything again, and “even as all intelligent beings looked on, the saint entered bodily into the holy body of the great Perumal, mercifully purifying those whose minds were muddled by confusion”. However, the ‘Bhagavad Dhyana Sopanam’ ends with the benediction – “Recitation of this stotra on Lord Ranganatha will grow Bhakti for the Lord, making them proficient practitioners of Bhakti Yoga, and those who aspire to ascend the ladder of Moksham, will be blessed with the attainment”. As Desikan himself says in another work of his called ‘Navamanimalai’, “nin vadivazhagu maRavaathaar piRavaathaarE”, that is those who remember the beautiful form would not be born again, emphasizing on the aspect of meditation on the form as a tool of liberation.

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