The founder of the Madhvism sect of Hinduism, Madhva (c. 1197-c. 1276) stressed the importance of bhakti, or devotion, in the worship of his Dvaita, or dualist, interpretation of the Vedanta, the philosophy of Hinduism as expressed in the Hindu scriptures, the Veda.
Believed to be the incarnation of the Hindu god Vayu, Madhva is believed by his followers to have performed many miracles. Regarding the Samkara branch of Hinduism to be a facsimile of Buddhism, Madhva developed his own theology based on his interpretations of the Upanishads, the last section of the Veda, in which he stressed his pluralistic view of the separate realms of the world, the human soul, and Vishnu (God). Madhva developed his theology from the Vedanta, a philosophy that stresses the search for ultimate meaning. Madhva's theories differ, however, from other such Vedantic faiths as Samkara. Similar to the Christian and Muslim faiths, Madhva preached predestination and the existence of an eternal heaven and hell. He believed as well that eternal salvation is possible through the continuous practice of bhakti, but is not guaranteed. Some religious scholars note the many similarities between the stories of Madhva and Biblical New Testament accounts of the life of Jesus Christ.
Developed New Hindu Sect
Experts disagree on the approximate date of Madhva's birth; some believe it was 1197 while others place the date as late as 1238. As an infant, Madhva was named Vasudeva. His father, Madhyageha Bhatta—also called Madhya Geha—and mother, Vedavati, were Tulu Brahmins who lived in the Indian city of Rajatapitha, located near the modern city of Udipi. Credited with tremendous physical power, Madhva earned the nicknamed Bhima, after the Hindu deity who also dedicated himself to refuting the tenets of Samkara. Stories of Madhva performing miraculous feats are numerous, including stilling ocean waves so that he might bathe undisturbed; diving to the ocean floor to retrieve an image of Krishna from a capsized boat; and unconsciously building a dam in a single day while in a meditative trance. As an adult, he received Samkara religious instruction from Achyutapreksa, also known as Achyutaprakashacharya, and was initiated under the name Purnabodha, or Purnaprajna. He continued his Vendantic studies at the Anantesvara monastery in Udipi, where he adopted his penname Ananda Tirtha, also transliterated Anandatirtha.
Madhva traveled through southern India, developing a contrary view of the monism—a belief that all existence consists of one element—expressed by the Samkara. His preaching of dualism led him to several debates with religious leaders in the area, and he ultimately raised the anger of the head monk of the Samkara-based Sringeri monastery in Anantapura, in modern-day Trivandrum. Fearing for his life, Madhva removed himself to Ramesvara for four months before returning to Udipi. The result of the heated debate, however, was a lasting enmity between Madhva's followers and the Sringeri monks. After several years spent researching and writing on the Vedanta Sutras, Madhva embarked on a tour of northern India. Upon reaching Hardwar, he disappeared into the Himalayan mountains, where his followers believe he encountered Vyasa, the supernatural being credited with convincing Madhva to publish his Vedantic interpretation. When he returned to Hardwar, he declared the invalidity of the Samkara monistic system of belief and initiated the conversion of his teacher Achyutapreksa. The Sringeri monks vehemently opposed the new sect and confiscated Madhva's library. A local prince intervened, however, and the library was returned. He traveled again to northern India; there, his followers believe, he resides with Vyasa and awaits his return to the human world. He composed many commentaries before his death, many of them interpretations of the Vedanta Sutras, the Bhagavad-Gita, and the Mahabharata.
Among the principal teachings of Madhva was that Vishnu is the brahman of the Upanishads. Vishnu always is accompanied by his son, Vayu, who is considered the savior of humankind. Followers of Madhva call themselves Sad-Vaisnavas; they harbor the dualistic belief that the spirit of Vishnu is independent from human life and further believe in five separate distinctions. The first is a difference between the Godhead and the human soul; the second a difference between the Godhead and physical matter; the third a difference between the human soul and physical matter; the fourth a difference between individual souls; and the fifth a difference between various types of matter. Existence came into being, wrote Madhva, not as an order of creation from Vishnu, but as a gradual evolution from preexisting matter that responds to the will of Vishnu. In addition, the existence of Vishnu cannot be proven, but only learned through the study of the Hindu sacred texts. He acknowledged that reality was not grounded in appearance but only through objective experience, foreshadowing the theories of 19th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Bhakti, the dedicated display of devotion to Vishnu, is the only hope of humans for eternal salvation, according to Madhva. Study of the sacred texts is one step toward this salvation, because it readies the mind to receive divine grace.
Many scholars note that Madhva's theology owes much to Christian beliefs. In fact, a group of Nestorian Christians resided in Kalyanpur, near Madhva's childhood home, and their presence generally is regarded as the earliest encroachment of Christianity upon the Indian continent. Many of the stories told about Madhva, for example, closely resemble the stories of the Christian Son of God, Jesus Christ. For example, Madhva's birth was foretold by a messenger who declared that a kingdom of heaven was imminent, resembling the Christian story of the visitation of Jesus' mother Mary by the Archangel Michael, who informed her of her pregnancy. Another story relates how a five-year-old Madhva disappeared for three days before his parents found him teaching religious scholars, a story that is often told about a 12-year-old Jesus. Like Jesus, Madhva is said to have also performed such miracles as walking on water and multiplying food for his disciples. Madhva's stay in the Himalayas is similar to the story of Jesus' 40-day fast in the desert. The greatest similarity to Christianity, however, is the concept of bhakti as imperative for eternal salvation. Salvation itself is only possible through the acceptance of Vayu as the son of Vishnu, resembling the central precept of Christianity of salvation granted through the belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
Devotion to Vayu is displayed by Madhva's followers by the branding of symbols representing Vishnu on the shoulders and chests and expressed by naming one's sons after one of the many names of Vishnu. Followers are also expected to perform bhakti in words, thoughts, and deeds. The sect also encourages frequent fasting and sacrifices of symbolic lambs made from rice meal. The sect is centered in Udipi in a monastery believed to be built by Madhva. Two other monasteries exist in Madhyatala and Subrahmanya in the Mangalor district of India.
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Sivandanda, Sri Swami, "Madhva," http://www.sivanandadlshq.org/saints/madhva.htm (February 7, 2002).