Rāmānuja Biography | Part 11
THE GREAT DEVOTEE TIRUMANGAI ALVAR
Of all the temples in India, that of Lord Ranganātha, situated on an island in the Kāverī River, is certainly the largest. The story of how this temple came to be built is very interesting.
About three hundred years before the birth of Rāmānujācārya, which was in AD 1017, there lived in south India a devotee named Tirumangai.
His heart was always filled with devotion for Lord Viṣṇu, and in this mood of pure love he would compose beautiful poetic prayers.
From the time of his youth he was in the habit of travelling throughout the country to visit the various holy places of pilgrimage.
In the course of his travels four great mystics had become attracted by his exalted nature and had become his disciples. Each of these disciples had a particular ability that set him apart from ordinary men.
The first disciple was named Tola Vazhakkan, and he was famous for his ability to vanquish any opponent in a debate. The second disciple was named Taluduvan, and he had the ability to open any lock without the need of a key.
The third and fourth disciples both possessed most unusual talents. The third, Nizhalai Mithippan, could force any man to remain still simply by stepping on his shadow, while the fourth, Nirmal Nadappan, had developed the laghima siddhi, which enabled him to walk on water.
TIRUMANGAI'S VISIT TO Śrī RANGAM
After touring many holy places of pilgrimage, Tirumangai at last came to the temple of Lord Ranganātha.
The Deity of Ranganātha had originally been installed by Vibhīṣaṇa, the brother of Rāvaṇa, but at the time of Tirumangai the temple was completely dilapidated and filled with bats.
Once a day a priest would come there to offer a few flowers and a little water to the Deity before hurrying away out of fear of the wild animals that dwelt in the surrounding forest.
When he saw this unhappy state of affairs, a strong desire arose in the mind of Tirumangai to build a beautiful, opulent temple for Lord Ranganātha. However, he did not have a penny to his name and no more did any of his disciples.
After consulting together they decided to approach every rich man they could find and beg him to give money for the building of a temple.
Unfortunately, the effects of Kali-yuga having set in, not one of these rich men would give even a small coin and they frequently blasphemed the devotees by calling them rogues or thieves.
ADOPTING THE WAYS OF ROBBERS
Being a humble devotee, Tirumangai was not disturbed by this treatment, but the thought of the Supreme Lord standing uncared for in a wild forest full of jackals and hyenas caused him great pain.
At last he could tolerate the situation no longer and exclaimed in front of his four disciples:
"We have wasted enough time trying to persuade these rascals to serve the Lord. They will always remain atheists and unbelievers.
Which is better - to beg from these villains while Lord Ranganātha remains in this sorry condition, or to humble them by building a temple for the Lord so magnificent that it will force them to bow down at his feet?"
The disciples answered, "The service of the Lord is our duty, not acting as the servants of these rogues."
"Then prepare yourselves," continued Tirumangai, "for from this day we will see to it that the wealth of these greedy men is spent for building a temple.
These wealthy landowners, who are cruel by nature, have passed their lives taking from the poor, hard-working people and leaving them without enough to eat.
Now then, let us rob these rascals and use their money for building a temple and feeding the poor."
The four disciples readily agreed to this proposal, and each of them spoke in turn.
Tola Vazhakkan said, "No one can defeat me in argument. So, while I engage some rich man and his attendants in a debate, they will forget everything else and you will easily be able to carry off their wealth."
Taludhuvan said, "I have the ability to open any lock without a key. Therefore, no treasury door will ever be closed to us."
Nizhalai Mithippan said, "Anyone whose shadow is touched by my feet loses all power of movement. Therefore, it will be easy for us to stop rich travellers along the roads."
Nirmal Nadappan said, "The big houses of rich landowners, which are surrounded by moats of water, are always open to me, for I can easily walk over water. Therefore from today, all the treasure of kings is yours"
CONSTRUCTION OF THE RANGANĀTHA TEMPLE
With the assistance of his four disciples, Tirumangai soon became the leader of a large gang of robbers. Together they accumulated a great hoard of riches that was kept concealed in a secret place on Lord Ranganātha's island.
Spending large sums of money, Tirumangai brought the best architects in the land to design a huge temple for the Lord and at an auspicious moment he laid the foundation stone.
The inner temple room, encircled by the first ring of walls and crowned with a high tower, was completed in two years.
Thousands of builders were engaged to take part in the construction, but even so it took four years to complete the next ring of walls and apartments, six years for the second, eight years for the third, ten years for the fourth, twelve years for the fifth, and eighteen years for the sixth.
In all it took sixty years to complete the construction of the temple, and by this time Tirumangai was over eighty years old.
After the construction of the inner temple, kings began to send money to Tirumangai of their own accord, convinced now that he was a genuine devotee.
Moreover, he was now the leader of a gang of over one thousand robbers and other wealthy landowners gave money liberally to assist with the work, fearing that all of their property would otherwise be plundered.
Despite all this, Tirumangai still lived the simple life of a devotee, eating only once a day prasādam cooked by his own hand and prepared from food he obtained by begging.
He would also ensure that all the people in that area never suffered for want of food -only the rich lived in fear of the sage Tirumangai.
THE ROBBERS' ANGER
Now that all seven walls of the temple were completed, Tirumangai generously rewarded all the architects. After making this payment there was not a penny left in the treasury.
At that time the host of robbers, who had been his accomplices, came to him to demand their share of the wealth they had plundered.
Tirumangai thought for some time about the robbers' demands, and, finding no way he could pay them, he consulted with his disciple Nirmal Nadappan in a secluded place.
In the meantime all the robbers, believing that Tirumangai had cheated them by spending all the money for construction of the temple, made a conspiracy to kill their leader.
Just as they were about to put their plans into effect, however, Nirmal Nadappan stepped amongst them, saying:
"My dear brothers, somewhere hidden along the northern bank of the Kāverī there is a large amount of treasure belonging to our master. Look, here is a boat; I will take you to that place where the treasure is hidden, and then we can divide it among ourselves."
The robbers happily agreed to this proposal, and all got aboard a large boat that had been used to carry blocks of stone for the temple.
It was the rainy season, and the monsoon had swollen the Kāverī into a mighty flow over a mite wide. The day was drawing to a close, and dark clouds began to blot out the light of the setting sun.
As Tirumangai and his three other disciples stood on the island of Śrī Rangam, they could only faintly discern the outline of the huge boat as it moved slowly towards the distant shore.
Suddenly, above the roar of the water and the sound of the wind, they heard a horrible cry of distress that seemed to come from within the Kāverī itself. Then there was silence, and the boat could be seen no more. In the roaring waves of the Kāverī nothing else was noticed.
After a short while one man walking with steady strides over the water came near Tirumangai and bowed down at his feet. This man was none other than Nirmal Nadappan, the fourth disciple.
Tirumangai raised him up and said:
"Do not feel concerned for these men. After all the service they have rendered, surely Lord Ranganātha will protect them. Is it not better for them to leave the world at this time than to continue living as robbers?
Now let us all pass the remaining days of our lives in the service of Lord Ranganātha, for our purpose in adopting the robbers' lifestyle has been fulfilled."
So Tirumangai and his four disciples then absorbed themselves in rendering service to the Deity of Ranganātha. A few years later they passed from this world and returned to the shelter of Lord Viṣṇu's lotus feet.
THE HIGH PRIEST OF THE TEMPLE
In this way the temple of Lord Ranganātha came to be built and was famous as the largest temple in all of India.
At the time of Rāmānuja, however, the high priest of the temple was not at all a devoted or pious man. He had used his position to amass a fortune for himself, and he was willing to remove any person who became an obstacle to his ambition. Rāmānujācārya now proved himself to be just such an obstacle.
The high priest-observed how people would offer respect and veneration to Yatiraja and that his own position was now being overlooked.
That envious person could not tolerate this threat to his prestige and status, and so he immediately began to consider ways by which he might be rid of this dangerous rival.
After formulating a plan, he went to Rāmānuja one day and invited him to take alms at his house.
Then he quickly returned home and instructed his wife:
"Today I have invited Rāmānuja to take alms here. This is our opportunity to be rid of the scoundrel once and for all. You know where the poison is to be found. Need I say more?"
The priest's wife was a woman of similar disposition to her husband, and she gladly agreed to his proposal. The high priest then went back to the temple, and at noon Yatiraja arrived at the house to take alms as he had been invited.
The wife of the priest received him with great courtesy, washing his feet and offering him a nice sitting place.
Although this woman was known to be hard-hearted by nature, when she beheld the transcendental appearance of the great devotee with his pure, guileless expression, feelings of compassion began to arise within her.
When she brought the poisoned dish forward, she was unable to restrain herself and, shedding tears, addressed Rāmānuja:
"My child, if you want to save yourself, then go elsewhere to take your meal. If you take this food you will die"
Yatiraja was shocked to hear these words, and he sat silently for some time wondering what he might have done to bring out such hatred in the priest.
Eventually he rose and, leaving the house, walked slowly towards the Kāverī. Seeing Gosthipurna there by the banks of the river, he ran towards him and fell down at his feet.
Gosthipurna raised him up and inquired as to the cause of his distress.
Rāmānuja narrated to him the whole story and then asked his spiritual master:
"I am so unhappy at the thought of his mental condition. How can he be freed from such a great sin?"
"My child," Gosthipurna replied, "when you desire the Lord's mercy for this sinful soul, there is no need to fear for him. Very soon he will give up his evil ways and become a righteous man."
When he had left his guru, Rāmānuja returned to the āśrama, where he found a brāhmaṇa waiting with various types of prasādam. He took a little and distributed the rest to his disciples without telling anyone what had befallen him at the house of the high priest.
Sitting alone, he continued to contemplate how the priest's sinful nature might be reformed.
In the meantime the high priest had returned to his residence and discovered that his plot had been unsuccessful.
He was extremely angry, but, considering that a woman's heart is naturally soft, he excused his wife and immediately began to devise another scheme to do away with his imagined rival.
Every evening Yatiraja would visit the temple to see Lord Ranganātha. That evening, when he was standing before the Lord, the high priest came towards him, offering him tirtha-prasāda (holy water).
Rāmānuja gratefully accepted and drank the tirtham , even though he knew that it was mixed with poison.
Then he offered prayers to Lord Ranganātha:
"O ocean of mercy, how great is your affection for your devotee. I am not worthy to accept such nectar from Your lotus feet. Your mercy is causeless and unlimited."
When he had finished offering prayers, Rāmānuja left the temple, his body trembling in ecstasy.
Seeing these emotions, the high priest mistook them for signs that the poison was taking effect and was very pleased, thinking that his mission was accomplished.
He was convinced that the next morning he would see the smoke of Yatiraja's funeral pyre, for he had put in the tirtham enough poison to kill ten men.
THE PRIEST'S REPENTENCE
However, in this he was to be disappointed.
The next morning, as he was going to the temple as usual, he heard the sound of many voices singing joyful songs in praise of Rāmānuja.
The priest hurried to the place the sound was coming from and saw there that all the people of Śrī Rangam were singing and dancing around Yatiraja, offering flowers at his feet.
The ācārya himself was sitting on a low seat in a trance of ecstasy, his mind fixed on the Supreme Personality of Godhead. His pure features were more radiant than ever, with tears of jubilation flowing from his eyes.
As he beheld that wonderful sight, even the stone-like heart of that evil priest began to soften.
In an instant the high priest realized the folly of his envy towards this great mahatma and rushed through the crowd towards him.
Weeping bitterly, he fell down at Rāmānuja's feet praying:
"You have descended to enact the desires of Lord Viṣṇu by destroying sinful men like me. Delay no longer, my lord. Send me at once to the abode of Yamaraja.
I am not fit even to touch your feet, so please punish me immediately for all my sins. Only then may I achieve relief from their reactions. Delay no longer! Throw me at once under the feet of an elephant or into a blazing fire. I do not desire to live for a moment more."
Having said this, the priest began to strike his head on the ground so hard that the place became soaked with blood. The people all around tried to restrain him, but he was so agitated that he began to strike his chest until his whole body became covered with blood.
Then Yatiraja returned to external consciousness and pacified the priest by placing his hand upon his head and saying, "Do not act in such a terrible way. Lord Ranganātha has certainly forgiven all of your sins."
"How can you look with such kindness on a man as abominable as myself!" exclaimed the priest.
"O saviour of the fallen, this glory of yours will be proclaimed by men for all time to come." Rāmānuja then blessed the high priest and bestowed his full mercy upon him.
From that day on, the priest was like a different person. He cast far away all the enviousness which had polluted his heart and became a humble servant of the Lord, completely devoted to his saviour and guru, Rāmānujācārya.