Thirukoshtiyur Sowmyanarayana Perumal Temple
Located 60 kms south west of Madurai is the sprawling temple of Sowmyanarayanan. This is the place where the great Saint Ramanuja received the “secret mantra” from his acharya.
The legend of Ramanuja and Thirukoshtiyur
May 1st 2017 commemorated the 1000th birth anniversary of Sri Ramanujacharya. Contrary to the usual practice of taking the readers to the legend of the temple first and then to the pastimes of the acharyas, we would first immerse ourselves in the bliss of the pastimes of Ramanujacharya in Thirukoshtiyur.
Yamunacharya was a great acharya of Sri Vaishnavas and preached devotion to the Supreme Personality of Godhead Sri Narayana from his matha in Srirangam.
One of Yamunacharya’s chief sannyasi disciples was Sri Sailapurna. He had two sisters, the elder named Kantimati and the younger named Diptimati. Kantimati was married to a very pious brahmana known as Asuri Keshava Somayaji. Because of his expertise in the performance of all five kinds of fire sacrifices, he was also known as Sarvakratu. Years passed by, and the couple lived happily in the village of Bhutapuri, but, because they still had no children, Keshava Somayaji became disturbed at heart. He decided to perform a fire sacrifice to please the Lord and thus beg Him for the gift of a son. For this purpose he journeyed with his wife to the temple of Sri Thiruvallikeni Parthasarathi on the shores of the ocean, in what is now the city of Chennai. There they performed sacrifices together, begging the Lord to be merciful to them and grant them the benediction of a son. Certainly Lord Rukumini Parthasarathi of Thiruvallikeni was pleased by their prayers, for about one year later Kantimati gave birth to a baby boy, who bore all the auspicious marks on his body. This was in the year AD 1017, and it was this child who grew up to be renowned all over the world as Sri Ramanujacharya, the great devotee of Lord Narayana. At about the same time, Kantimati's younger sister, Diptimati, also gave birth to a son. On hearing the news of the births of his two nephews, Sailapurna, the intimate disciple of Yamunacharya, came to visit them. He was astonished to see all the auspicious marks on the body of Kantimati's son, and gave him the name Ramanuja, a name of Lakshmana which means the younger brother of Rama. To Diptimati's son he gave the name Govinda.
After Ramanuja’s education in the shastras from Yadavaprakasha, Yamunacharya once saw him in the temple of Lord Varadaraja in Kanchipuram and was impressed by the boy’s dedication to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. After his return to Srirangam, Yamunacharya summoned Ramanuja, but Yamunacharya left to the supreme abode much before Ramanuja could reach Srirangam.
Ramanuja soon took initiation into Sri Vaishnavism from Mahapurna, who was another intimate disciple of Yamunacharya. Ramanuja has 5 important gurus in his life:
1. Mahapurna, who performed his initiation at Sri Rama Temple, Madhuranthakam
2. Goshtipurna or Thirukkotiyur Nambi, who revealed the meaning of the “secret mantra” or the eight syllable mantra of Narayana
3. Sisalila purna or Periya Thirumalai Nambi (uncle of Ramanuja), who taught him the Ramayana
4. Thirumalai Andan, who taught him the verses of the great saint Nammalwar
5. Srirangam Aryar, who taught him the verses of Alwars
In this divya desam, a wonderful pastime of Ramanujacharya blossomed, which later on became the foundation of the whole faith that came to be called as Sri Vaishnavism.
After coming to Srirangam, Ramanuja was very pleased to resume his role as the disciple of Mahapurna; through this relationship he felt relief from the sadness that had afflicted him since the disappearance of Yamunacharya. By his behaviour toward Mahapurna, he set the example for all disciples to follow in rendering service to their spiritual master. Under the expert guidance of Mahapurna, he resumed his study of the revealed scriptures. Mahapurna was so impressed by the incomparable genius and Vaishnava qualities of his disciple that he gave his son, Pundarikaksha, to be the disciple of Ramanuja.
One evening, when he had completed their studies for the day, Mahapurna said to Ramanuja, "Not far from here is a prosperous town known as Thirukoshtiyur. A great scholar and devotee, Goshtipurna by name, who was born in the Pandya country, lives in Thirukoshtiyur. It is no exaggeration to say that there is no other Vaishnava like him in this part of the country. If you desire to fully learn the meaning and significance of the Vedic mantras, then there is none but he who is qualified to teach you. I advise you to go to Thirukoshtiyur without delay and receive the mantra from Goshtipurna."
Hearing this instruction from his guru, Ramanuja went to Thirukoshtiyur a few days later to see Goshtipurna. In the presence of that famous devotee, he offered his prostrated obeisance and begged for the Vaishnava mantra to be bestowed upon himself. Goshtipurna, however, was very reluctant to impart the secret of the mantra and replied, "You may come here some other day, and I will consider your request." Ramanuja felt very dejected at this reply, and with a heavy heart he returned to Srirangam. A few days later a big festival was held in honour of Lord Ranganatha, and Goshtipurna came there to participate. At that time one of the priests in the temple was inspired by the presiding Deity Lord Ranganatha, and he spoke on behalf of Lord Ranganatha as follows to Goshtipurna, "You should bestow the mantra on My devotee, Ramanuja, who is most worthy to receive it." Realizing that the Lord was speaking to him through His servant, Goshtipurna replied, "But my Lord, is it not true that the mantra may only be given to one who has completely purified his mind by long austerities? How can the mantra, which is non different from Yourself, reside in the mind of one who is not pure?" To this the priest replied, "You do not understand the purity of this devotee. He is able to deliver all of humanity."
After this incident, Goshtipurna began to consider the matter deeply, but still he was unwilling to give the mantra to any other person. Time and again Ramanuja approached him, but repeatedly Goshtipurna refused his request. When his appeals had been denied on eighteen separate occasions, Ramanuja began to feel that there must be some great impurity in his heart and that it was for this reason that Goshtipurna would not bestow his mercy upon him. In this state of dejection, Ramanuja began to shed tears of despair. When some people informed Goshtipurna of Ramanuja's condition, he was moved by pity for the young devotee. Therefore, when Ramanuja came before him again, he spoke to him in a kind way, "Only Lord Vishnu Himself is aware of the glories of this mantra. Now I know that you are worthy to receive it, for you are pure and firmly fixed in devotion to the lotus feet of the Lord. At the present time I can find no one but yourself who is fit to receive the mantra, for whoever chants it is certain to go to Vaikuntha at the time of death. Because this mantra is so pure and sacred, it must not be touched by the lips of anyone who has material desires. Therefore, you must not disclose the mantra to any other person." Having thus instructed Ramanuja, Goshtipurna initiated him into the chanting of the mantra of eight syllables.
Ramanuja was filled with ecstasy to chant this wonderful vibration, and his face began to glow with spiritual effulgence. He considered himself the most blessed of all beings and bowed again and again at the feet of his guru.
The temple tower from where Sri Ramanuja shouted out the 'secret' mantra
Revealing the secret mantra
Having taken leave of Sri Goshtipurna, Ramanuja, in a joyful mood, began to return to Srirangam. But as he was walking, he began to think about the potency of the mantra that had been given to him. He became filled with feelings of compassion for the sufferings of all living beings in this material world. Then, as he was walking near the walls of the Sowmyanarayana temple in Thirukoshtiyur, he began to call out to all the people who were passing by, "Please, all of you, come near to Lord Vishnu’s temple, and I will give you a priceless jewel!" Attracted by his pure expression and unusual words, a large crowd of men, women and children began to follow him. A rumour began to spread all over the town that a prophet had appeared who could fulfil all of one's desires. Within a short time a huge crowd had assembled outside of the temple. On seeing this mass of humanity, Ramanujacharya's heart swelled with joy.
He embraced the two disciples who had accompanied him, Dasharathi and Kuresha, and then climbed up the tower of the temple. In a loud voice he began to address the gathering, "All of you are dearer to me than my own life. Therefore I have a strong desire to deliver you from the torments and sufferings all of us must undergo in this temporary world. Please recite this mantra which I have obtained for you. Do this, and the Lord's mercy will be upon you." When they heard Ramanuja's words, all the people in the crowd called out, "Please tell us the mantra. Shower the Lord's blessings upon us!" Then Ramanuja called out in a deep resounding voice the mantra he had just received from Goshtipurna.
Immediately the crowd responded, everyone calling out the sacred words together, producing a sound like thunder. Twice more Ramanuja called out the mantra, and twice more a thunderous response resounded from the crowd. Everyone became silent and looked at one another with feelings of deep ecstasy in their hearts. At that time it seemed that the earth had become Vaikuntha. The faces of the men, women and children were flushed with joy and it seemed that all miseries were gone from the earth. Those who had come running to the temple hoping to receive gold or jewels, immediately forgot their worldly desires, feeling as if they had been given a diamond in place of a piece of broken glass. As the joyful crowd melted away, men and women came and prostrated themselves before Ramanuja, considering themselves most blessed to have received such a benediction from that great soul. Ramanuja then climbed down from the tower and began walking towards Goshtipurna's residence to worship the feet of his guru.
By this time Goshtipurna had come to hear in detail of everything that had taken place outside the temple and was extremely angry, feeling Ramanuja had betrayed his trust. When Ramanuja approached him with his two disciples, the aged acharya addressed him in a voice that trembled with rage. ‘Get out of my sight, O lowest of men! I have committed a great sin by entrusting the most precious gem to such an untrustworthy person as yourself. Why have you come here again, forcing me to commit the sin of looking at your face? Surely you are destined to live in hell for countless lifetimes!’’ Without any sign of remorse, Ramanuja replied to his guru in a most humble manner, “It was only because I am prepared to suffer in hell that I dared to go against your order. You told me that whoever chanted the mantra of eight syllables was certain to be liberated. Thus, according to your words, so many people are now destined to find shelter at Lord Narayana’s lotus feet. If an insignificant person like me has to go to hell, it is of no great importance if so many others thereby attain the mercy of Lord Narayana.’’ On hearing these words, which fully revealed the depth of the devotee’s compassion, Goshtipurna was completely stunned and filled with great wonder.
All his fierce anger disappeared in an instant, like the passing of a violent storm, Goshtipurna embraced Ramanuja with profound affection. Everyone who was able to witness this transformation was filled with joy and astonishment. Goshtipurna then addressed Ramanuja with folded palms, ‘My child, I have never known anyone as magnanimous as yourself. From this day you are my guru, and I am your disciple. There is no doubt that you are a most intimate associate of the Lord, whereas I am nothing but a common man. How can I comprehend your greatness? Please forgive all of my offenses.’’ Ramanuja fell to his knees and clasped the feet of his guru. With his head bowed in humility, he said, ‘You are my eternal guru. The perfect mantra has become even more potent because it has emanated from your lips. Thus today it has burnt to ashes the miseries of so many thousands of people. Although I committed the offense of transgressing the order of my guru, I have become eternally fortunate by receiving your embrace, which is desired even by the gods. My prayer is that, regarding me as your son and servant, you will eternally bestow your mercy upon me.’’ Being highly pleased by Ramanuja’s humility and gentle behaviour, Goshtipurna asked him to accept his son, Sowmyanarayana, as his disciple. Then, with the permission of his spiritual master, Ramanuja returned to Srirangam. After this incident Ramanuja’s fame expanded even further, and for several weeks it seemed the local people could speak of nothing but this great devotee who had come into their midst.
Dasharathi and essence of Bhagavad-gita
A little while later, Dasharathi, Ramanuja's second disciple, approached him with the same request as Kuresha. To him Ramanuja replied, "You are my relative, and therefore it is my desire that you understand the verse by hearing from Goshtipurna. Even though there may be some fault in you, I will tend to overlook it because you are my family member. The duty of the guru is to remove all taints from the heart of the disciple. Therefore it is better that you take instruction from Sri Goshtipurna." Dasharathi was famous as a great scholar and still a little proud of his learning. It was for this reason that Ramanuja directed him to approach Goshtipurna. As instructed by his guru, Dasharathi went to reside in Thirukoshtiyur and for six months he sat at the feet of Mahatma Goshtipurna. However, even at the end of this time, the acharya had still not explained to him the meaning of that sublime knowledge spoken by Lord Krishna. Eventually, taking pity on the young man, Goshtipurna told Dasharathi, "You are certainly a most brilliant scholar; I know that well. However, you must understand that education, wealth, and birth in an aristocratic family can cause pride to arise in the heart of a small-minded man. In those who are virtuous, great learning brings self-control and thus gives rise to good qualities, not blemishes. Understanding these instructions, now return to your own guru; he will reveal the meaning of the verse as you desire."
Yamunacharya Deity Sri Ramanuja moolavar Deity in Thirukoshtiyur
Dasharathi then returned to Srirangam and reported to Ramanuja all that had taken place in Thirukoshtiyur. At that same time, Athulai, the daughter of Mahapurna, came there, obviously in some distress. When Ramanuja inquired from her as to the cause of her unhappiness, she replied, "Dear brother, my father has sent me to you. I live at the house of my father-in-law and every day, both morning and evening, I have to bring water from a lake which is over two miles from the house. The road there is lonely and difficult to traverse and as a result I have become overwhelmed by fear and physical exertion. When I told my mother-in-law of these difficulties, rather than empathizing with my plight, she flew into a rage, saying, 'Why did you not bring a cook from your father's house? Can I afford to employ a servant while you sit idly at home?' Being very unhappy at this treatment, I returned to my father's house and he has instructed me to come to you for help with this problem." To this request Ramanuja immediately responded, "Dear sister, do not worry. Here I have one brahmana whom I will send with you. He will do the work of fetching water from the lake and the cooking as well." So saying, he glanced at Dasharathi, the great scholar. Although working as a servant in the kitchen was an occupation he might have considered unbefitting for a renowned learned man such as himself, Dasharathi understood the desire of his guru and gladly followed Athulai to her father-in law's house.
There, Dasharathi began to do all the work in the kitchen with great care and devotion. In this way six months passed. One day a Vaishnava came to the village and was explaining a verse before an assembly of people. Dasharathi was among the crowd and when he heard the speaker's presentation tinged with impersonalist misconceptions, he could not restrain himself from pointing out these errors. At this the man was very irritated and shouted out, "Stop, you fool! Where is a jackal and where is heaven! Whoever heard of a cook explaining the scriptures? Go back to the kitchen and display your talents there." Without showing the least sign of annoyance at these harsh words, Dasharathi calmly went on with his explanation of the verse. His presentation, based on many different scriptures, was made so perfectly that everyone who heard his speech was captivated. Even the proud speaker begged pardon from him by touching his feet and asking, "How is it that such a sincere devotee and learned scholar as yourself is engaged in doing menial work in the kitchen?" To this Dasharathi replied that he was simply acting in accordance with the order of his guru, which was his life and soul. When all the people learned he was Dasharathi, the famous devotee-scholar, they went in a group to Srirangam. All of them presented their petition before Ramanuja, "O Mahatma, it is not proper that your worthy disciple should be engaged as a cook any longer. He has not a trace of pride in his heart and is certainly an exalted paramahamsa. Please give orders so that in great honour we may bring him to your feet once more." Ramanuja was so pleased to hear the people describing his disciple in such a way that he returned with them. When they met, Ramanuja embraced Dasharathi and blessed him. After returning to Srirangam he explained to Dasharathi the full significance of Lord Krishna's final instruction to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gita, which reveals the essence of a devotee's surrender to the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Because Dasharathi had fulfilled his desire by rendering service to the devotees, from that day he was known as Vaishnava Dasa.
Thus Thirukoshtiyur is an important place where both the secrets of Bhagavad-gita and the essence of Vaishnavism spread to the whole world. In the next issue we will take a tour of the temple of Sowmyanarayana of Thirukoshtiyur.