Vyasaraya, the visionary Madhva scholar, logician, and musician

Today, the Saptami Thithi of the Shukla Paksha of Vaishaka Maasa, is the birth anniversary of Vyasaraya according to the Hindu Panchanga. In this article written for the occasion, Dr Radhakrishna Bellur outlines the life and work of the brilliant Madhva scholar who helped establish Kannada as a medium of Vishnu worship and paved the way for the Haridasa movement in Karnataka and beyond.

ByRadhakrishna Bellur

Published Apr 27, 2023 | 8:00 AMUpdatedApr 27, 2023 | 8:00 AM

Mural which shows Vyasaraya being carried on a palanquin to the Hampi Virupaksha Temple

In addition to the Bhakti Pantha (~Path of Devotion) making its way all across India in various forms, there was the concomitant growth of several uncentralised bhakti forms that derived their existence from the central tenet of bhakti.

Among these many bhakti streams, it is easy to identify the two main ones: the Shaiva stream or Shaivism (that believes Shiva is the Supreme God) and the Vaishnava stream or Vaishnavism (that believes Vishnu is the Supreme God).

The waning of Jainism and the rise of Shaivism in Karnataka

These streams that proliferated in the Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka regions of the time had a significant effect on the culture, language, and literature of these regions.

If we limit our scope to Karnataka, the waning of the influence of Jainism towards the end of the 10th century CE saw the rapid rise and spread of Shaivism. It is a historical fact that this rise of Shaivism overcame the inequalities of jati and turned into Veerashaivism.

Bhakti, Kaayaka, and Jnana — three paths leading to the same goal

Though travel along the three paths — of bhakti (devotion), kaayaka (work), and jnana (true, clear knowledge) — is different, the goal of each is the same: union (with the supreme) or release (from samsara).

Because it affected every aspect of social life and grew in organised fashion, Veerashaivism took on the form of a revolution.

Fall of Shaivism & rise of Vaishnavism

By the 12th century CE, when Veerashaivism had grown as much as it could and its dominance had begun to lessen, the first sprouts of Vaishnavism began to be seen. In the latter half of the 13th century, Madhvacharya’s preaching of the Madhva dharma laid a strong foundation for the Vaishnavite revolution.

Bhakti for Hari or Vishnu was the motivating factor for the Dasa pantha (creed). In Kannada, it was Narahari Tirtha, a contemporary of Madvacharya, who began the tradition of writing songs in praise of Hari.

It is argued by some, however, that Dasa Sahitya (Literature by Dasas) was begun by a dasa named Achalananda who is supposed to have preceded Narahari Tirtha. (It is worth noting in this case that dasa is short for Haridasa, which refers to people who were ardently devoted to Vishnu and usually lived austere lives.)

Also read: The performance of Thirukkurungudi Kaisika Ekadasi, an episode from the Varaha Puranam

Sripadaraya, the father of Kirtana literature in Kannada

The ninth Swami or head of the Mulabagilu Matha in Karnataka, Sripadaraya, is considered the father of Kirtana Sahitya (Kirtana Literature) in Kannada.

In particular, by having priests sing the Kannada kirtanas he wrote, Sripadaraya took a revolutionary step that raised the Kannada language to the status of a liturgical language. (A kirtana is a composition in praise of a God, usually set to a melody and rhythm.)

Vyasaraya, Sripadaraya’s direct shishya

Vyasaraya's Samadhi in Anegondi

Vyasaraya’s Samadhi in Anegondi; in the sculpture, Vyasaraya is the figure on the left holding a staff (RH Kulkarni)

This was the beginning of the tradition of writing and singing devaranamas, i.e. devotional songs for and about Vishnu. Vyasaraya was Sripadaraya’s direct shishya (disciple).

Vyasaraya (also called Vyasatirtha and Vyasaraja) was born in Bannuru in 1447, a village close to the town of Sosale that is part of the present-day Mysore district. His father was Ballana Sumati and his mother was Lakshmidevi or Akkamma. His name before he took Sannyasa was Yatiraja.

The guru who initiated him into Sanyasa was Brahmanya Tirtha. According to Brahmanya Tirtha’s instructions, Vyasaraya travelled to Kanchi and, having defeated the scholars there in (philosophical) argumentation, returned to Mulabagilu.

Upon his return, he formally became a shishya of Sripadaraya and attended to his studies continuously for 12 whole years. Afterwards, he embarked on a trip of North India and went as far as Bengal.

Vyasaraya as the progenitor of Bengal’s Vishnu-worshipping Chaitanya pantha

Consequently, Vyasaraya is the inspiration behind the Chaitanya pantha in Bengal. Even now, the Chaitanya pantha regards Vyasaraya as its guru. It was during these travels that Vyasaraya was honoured for his scholarship by the king of Delhi at the time, Bahlul Lodi.

Upon returning, Vyasaraya listened to his guru’s orders and became the asthana pandita (court scholar) in Saluva Narasimha Deva Raya’s court. From there, he moved to Vijayanagara, when it was made the capital of the Karnataka Empire (or Vijayanagara Empire) during the time of King Thimmaraya.

Vyasatirtha during the time of the Karnataka empire (Vijayanagara empire)

By this time, Vyasatirtha had already written the ‘Tatparya Chandrika’, a text explaining Dvaita philosophy as well as two other texts titled ‘Nyayamruta’ and ‘Tarka Tandava’. In Vijayanagara, a Matha called ‘Vishwa Pavana’ was built for him.

The story goes that, after this, he spent 12 years as the archaka (priest) of Tirupati, during which time he worshipped the idol of Venkateshwara. Likewise, it is said that Vyasaraya, during King Thimmaraya’s time, installed 732 mukhyaprana statues, all the way from Vyasatirtha to Penugonde. There are also records of Vyasaraya being honoured by Adil Shah, Babar, and Portuguese representatives.

Also read: Kanakadasa, an exceptional devotee of Krishna

An emerald linga as a gift for defeating Basava Bhatta in a debate

To this day, a special emerald linga given to Vyasaraya can be seen in the Vyasaraya Matha. It was given to him by Basava Bhatta, who had come to Vijayanagara from Kalinga. It is said the two debated for several months, with Vyasaraya finally winning the debate and then honouring Basava Bhatta as he left to return home.

Meanwhile the king was impressed by Vyasaraya’s debating ability and gifted him a fan made of gold as well as a pair of wooden slippers, another fan made from the long hair of the yak, a bejewelled platform, and some land.

Vyasaraya’s largesse and social welfare schemes

Vyasaraya distributed all that had been been gifted to the people. Inscription stones of the time that refer to Vyasaraya give details of how he distributed these gifts among the people and temples. He is also said to have got lakes and wells built for the citizenry.

Vyasaraya was the Rajaguru (king’s advisor on dharma) during Krishnadevaraya’s time. During his time as Rajaguru, he earned the king’s trust, affection, and respect. 

On 3 January 1521, Vyasaraya got himself coronated by Krishnadevaraya himself and ascended the throne in an effort to exorcise the kuhu yoga that had struck Krishnadevaraya. Vyasaraya himself led the ceremony and the recitation of the shanti mantras that were a part of the cleansing exercise.

In addition to installing Yogavarada Narasimga within the Vitthala temple in Hampi, Vyasaraya was also responsible for the revitalisation of the Madhva sarovara in Udupi and the Anantheshwara temple.

Also read: Hampi through a photographer’s lens

Vyasatirtha’s fundamental contribution to Karnatak music

By explicating the allusions found in treatises related to the music of South India, Vyasatirtha settled a number of matters that had proved problematic. By doing so, he also laid the foundation for Classical (Karnatak) music. His direct disciple, Purandara Dasa, would later further his guru’s work and come to be regarded as the Pitamaha (founding father) of Karnatak classical music.

The Rajaguru of the Karnataka Empire and an itinerant sannyasi

During his lifetime, Vyasatirtha travelled to several places of Bharatavarsha. He set up mathas in Haridwar, Gaya, Kashi, Bengal, Kumbakonam, Kanchi, Udupi, and Mulabagil and nominated his disciples to head the mathas.

Through his debating and teaching, he also spread the tattva (essence) of the Madhva philosophy all across India. He was also the Rajaguru during the reign of the kings Saluva Narasimha, Tammaraya, Narasa Nayaka, Veera Narasimha, Krishnadevaraya, and Achyutaraya.

Establishing Vyasakootas and Dasakootas to creating a unified Vaishnavism

By establishing the Vyasakoota and Dasakoota, he also gathered all the haridasas under one large umbrella. His life was a confluence of bhakti (devotion), jnana (spiritual knowledge), and vairagya (worldly renunciation). 

Having lived a full life of 92 years, Vyasaraya become one with the “supreme” on 8 March 1539. His samadhi (final resting place) can be found in Nava Brundavana, on an island in the Tungabhadra river near Anegundi.

As someone who was the Rajaguru of the Karnataka Empire during the time of its ascendancy and who was known for the brilliance of his scholarship, Vyasatirtha has been mentioned in the accounts of several foreign travellers.

A number of inscription stones of the time also talk about Vyasatirtha’s qualities and personality. Vyasatirtha’s own guru, Sripadaraya, was unequivocal in his praise of Vyasatirtha.

Vyasaraya — musician, composer, and savant

As a believer who spread the Madhva tattva, a philosophy savant, a visionary, a poet, a vaggeyakara (songwriter-composer), an organizer of the Haridasa pantha, a guru, and a Rajaguru, Vyasaraya’s achievements were enormous.

In Kannada, Vyasaraya has written kirtanas, suladis, ugabhogas, and vruttanamas. A vruttanama comprises a pallavi (refrain), a vrutta (a type of metrical passage), and a stanza — an order that can repeat itself. A suladi refers to a type of verse as well as the seven extant talas or time-schedule rhythms. An ugabhoga is a musical composition that can be sung in any raaga (~melody).

This was an innovation of Sripadaraya’s and a new type of poetic form in Kannada. But it was Vyasaraya who used it best. It was using the vruttanama that he wrote the Bhagavad Gita in Kannada.

Though more than 150 kirtanas composed by Vyasaraya are available, there is some argument about whether he was the composer of all the kirtanas attributed to him. The reason for this is the existence of variations in the text and, in some cases, the lack of clarity about the ankita (signature) of the composer. A number of Vyasaraya’s compositions have also not yet been found.

Promoting the Madhva philosophy through his kirtanas

The tattva (philosophical essence) of Vishnu or Hari being the supreme being is the central theme of Vyasaraya’s kirtanas. Since the Madhva philosophy, a dvaita (dualism) that accepts the separate existences of the atma (spirit or soul) and paramatma (supreme spirit), was the foundation of Vyasaraya’s entire philosophical belief, it is not surprising that all his kirtanas promote this philosophy in one way or the other.

They also speak of how best to live this life so as to achieve release from samsara (the cycle of birth and death) and unite with the supreme being. Through bhakti (devotion) comes mukti (release from samsara) and this can be achieved by a renunciation of worldly attachments – this is the simple philosophy underlying the kirtanas.

Some kirtanas also talk about this world and its paraphernalia, the better to learn how to renounce its attachments.

Generally speaking, Vyasaraya’s kirtanas laid the foundation for the haridasa literature that emerged later. Additionally, by determining and noting the tala (~rhythm) and raga (~melody) for each of his kirtanas, Vyasaraya also contributed to music and music theory.

Creator of several Sanskrit philosophical works and a master of tarkashastra

Tatparya Chandrika, Nyayamruta, and Tarka Tandava – these are Vyasaraya’s three independent Sanskrit works. The main object of these works is to promote the Madhva philosophy and criticise non-Madhva philosophies. Besides these three, Vyasaraya also wrote the critical treatises, Bodhojjevana and Tattva Viveka, in Sanskrit.

In the final analysis, Vyasaraya was a brilliant scholar and an advocate of the Madhva philosophy. A mega-savant who acquired a deep knowledge of tarkashastra (the way of logical argumentation), he was a man of extraordinary achievement. To this day, the path he carved out for the Madhva creed is the path that continues to be followed.

Also read: Nampillai, genius commentator on Nammazhwar’s Thiruvaimozhi


1. Shri Vyasarayara Krutigalu, Dr. TN Nagaratna, Prasaranga, Manasa Gangotri, Mysuru. 2001.
2. Vyasarayara Haadugalu, Kavyapremi, Samaja Pustakalaya, Dharwad. 2001
3. Shri Vyasarayaru, Korati Srinivasa Rao, Ananda Nilaya Prakashana, Bengaluru. 1977
4. Haridasa Andolana, Dr. MK Ramasheshan, Mitra Printers, Vidyaranyapuram, Mysuru. 1991
5. Srimadvyasaraya Gurusarvabhouma, TK Venugopaladasaru, Gururaka Prakashana, Bengaluru. 1985
6. Kannada Sahitya Charitre, RS Mugali, Geeta Book House, Mysuru. 2014

(This article is a translation by Madhav Ajjampur of an essay by Dr. Radhakrishna Bellur.

Dr. Radhakrishna Bellur is an associate professor in the Department of Post-Graduate Studies and Research at the Goverment College of Kasargod. He has published 23 works, including ‘Tulu Lipi’, ‘Tulu Shasanagalu’, ‘Tulu Chandassu’, ‘Agni Jihva’, ‘Balipa Narayana Bhagavataru’, and ‘Shabda Sootaka’. Dr Bellur is a member of the Academic Committee at a number of universities and a research guide at Kannur University’s School of Indian Languages, Kasaragod. He has been recognised as a Yakshagana B-Grade artist by AIR Mangalore.)