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Faith alone deserves deference

PARASHARA BHATTAR, one of the greatest religious leaders of the Vaishnava fold in the post-Ramayan period, was born in Srirangam to Kurathazhwar, arguably the disciple dearest to Ramanuja.

Bhattar was precociously well-versed in Sanskrit and Tamil. In a life span of a mere 30-odd years, he emerged as a distinguished poet-philosopher of his time and a prolific writer authoring 12 major works - 10 in Sanskrit and three in Tamil.

His commentary on the ``Sri Vishnu-sahasranamam'' entitled ``Bhagavad-guna-darpanam'' is generally acknowledged to be in the same league as Adi Sankara's ``bhashya'' on the same work.

Bhattar's two splendid Sanskrit poems in praise of the deity at the Srirangam temple are cherished to this day by the Vaishnava laity.

They are ``Sri Ranganatha stotra'' and ``Sri Rangaraja-stavam''. Parashara Bhattar became a leading light of the Srirangam temple and its affairs and was popularly known as ``Sri Parashara- Bhattaarya: Sri Rangesha- Purohitah.'' - high priest of the Lord of Srirangam.

Bhattar endeared himself to one and all but as a religious leader he identified himself more with the unlearned masses rather than the elite pundits.

At a time in history when the Vaishnavite movement was gradually drifting and diffusing into doctrinaire sectarianism, Bhattar strove to bring Ramanuja's philosophy of Visishtadvita, with its primary emphasis on simple ``bhakti'', to the common folk in their own uncomplicated language and idiom. An incident from Bhattar's life illustrates the fact.

Bhattar's house in Srirangam adjoined the great wall running around the Ranganatha temple.

The house had a front-yard where he used to assemble his disciples in the early hours to tutor them in the Vedas, Prabhandham and Sastra.

It was a daily routine. At about the same time, a Vedic pundit of local repute too used to pass Bhattar's front-yard on his way to the temple.

Bhattar was known to studiously ignore him and it used to make the pupils very curious why the master was giving such rude and short shrift to a well-respected Vedic scholar.

Their surprise was even more when, a short while after, another gentleman used to turn up at the front-yard to whom Bhattar accorded extraordinary deference and courtesy.

This gentleman passed by everyday carrying a huge pot of water for use in the temple ``madapalli'' (kitchen).

He was known throughout Srirangam to be of slightly unsound mind, given to quirky behaviour but an otherwise cheerful, honest man making a living through `voluntary-service' (``kainkaryam'') and running menial errands in the temple kitchens. He was also the butt of harmless ridicule in the community as a ``madapalli jadam'', the half-wit of the Srirangam temle- kitchen.

When he passed by, Bhattar always stopped his teaching and greeted him with the rather typically effusive expressions of cordiality.

The simpleton perfunctorily reciprocated if in the right frame of mind, and if not, was known to ignore the great Bhattar and unmindfully carry on.

All these intrigued the pupils so much that one day one of them gathered courage to ask the master why a complete fool deserved more courtesy than a Vedic pundit.

Bhattar was amused by the query. With a mischievous twinkle in his eyes, he asked his pupils to wait until the following day for an answer.

The next morning when the pundit passed by, Bhattar called out to him. ``Sir, my students and I would be honoured if you'd care to please step in for a moment.'' The pundit readily acceded.

The pundit was respectfully received and settled comfortably on a stone-bench amidst Bhattar's pupils. Bhattar inquired if the pundit was making good progress in his Vedic studies and spiritual endeavours.

At this, the pundit immediately began recounting at great length the various texts, treatises, essays and commentaries he had mastered.

After a good part of an hour spent thus in listening to the pundit blowing his trumpet, Bhattar finally asked him a question. ``Sir, your Vedic erudition is truly awesome. Tell me now, then, after all these years of arduous study you must have certainly mastered what is called ``para-tattvam'' (i.e. the Supreme Principle which the Upanishads glorify as Ultimate Reality).''

Bhattar's question flustered the pundit completely. After a few moments of hesitation he confessed to Bhattar, ``Oh, that one, Sir! That's the one thing which still eludes me! I have grappled with the matter for long and yet can't seem to comprehend it!''

Bhattar glanced at his pupils momentarily and spoke again to the pundit.

``Oh I see! Never mind. Keep up your good work, Sir, and who knows, one day you might perhaps discover ``para-tattva'' after all''. Bhattar dismissed the pundit who went on his way.

Shortly later, the ``madapalli'' idiot strolled by, an oversized pot of water on his shoulders, making his way to the Srirangam temple kitchens. The idiot seemed to be in good spirits that morning and responded merrily to Bhattar welcoming him to step inside the house and spend a few moments with the students.

Bhattar warmly bade him sit down and and said, ``These students wish to know what is ``para-tattva'' and where the Supreme Principle resides. And I'm not sure I have an answer''.

For a moment the ``jada'' sat immobile as if stunned out of his wits.

Then he asked Bhattar incredulously, ``What! Do I hear you right, Sir? You say you don't know `para-tattva'? Are you sure''?

``Yes Sir '', Bhattar replied.

The ``jadam'' suddenly got up, clenched his teeth and his face went livid with rage.

``Listen! You want to know what para-tattva is? Let me tell you! I've known it for years now. If only you'd asked me earlier I'd have enlightened you!''

With those words he heaved his great pot of water over the head, and with all might, flung it across the front-yard sending it sailing like a missile over the street.

Pointing out at the wall the half-wit said, ``Look, Parashara, look sharply! I'll show you now where para-tattva is! It is right there where the pot crashed. `Para-tattva' lies right behind the wall, inside the temple sanctum! It has been lying there for all times and will remain lying there for all time to come! Its name is Ranganatha!''

After the man departed, Bhattar turned to his disciples, smiled knowingly and gently asked them, ``Now, my dear children, you watched the Vedic pundit and the temple half-wit... the man of knowledge and the man of faith! Tell me, who is more deserving of our deference?''

His disciples understood Bhattar's great lesson.


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