I have heard that Upanishad Brahmendra was one of the teachers of Saint Tyagaraja; and also that he wrote commentaries on Upanishads. I am unable to find information about him, his life etc. Can you please post something on him? Namaskar.Vasudev-anand
Sri Upanishad Brahmendra
1.1. Yes, as you mentioned, not many details of Sri Upanishad Brahmendra’s life are known; and, I reckon there are no major biographies either. I have also not seen a picture or a sketch of the Yogin. [I read somewhere of an old sketch on the Mutt walls in Kachipuram where he is depicted in a kaupina. But, I have not seen the Mutt or the sketch]. I understand that the Journal of the Music Academy, Madras, way back in the fifties published The Life and works of Upanishad Brahman written by the well known scholar Dr. V Raghavan; but, that does not seem to be available now, either in print or on the net. However, I came across a brief paragraph about Sri Upanishad Brahman in Prof. SK Ramachandra Rao’s Tantra of Sri Chakra, besides some references to the sage in other works. The following is based on those bits of information.
I wish someone more knowledgeable responds, presenting a fuller picture.
Adistanam of Sri Upanishad Brahmendra
2.1. Sri Upanishad Brahmendra Yogin or Upanishad Brahmendra Saraswati or Upanishad Brahmam a scholar of great merit and a sanyasin, renowned for his unprecedented performance of producing commentaries on all the 108 Upanishads listed in the Mukthiko-panishad, was one of the savants of the eighteenth century. He is reckoned along with Sri Sadashiva Brahmendra (1653? -1753) the renowned Avadhuta, the author of Atma Vidya Vilasa and other Advaita texts and also the composer of sublime kirtans, songs in celebration of various deities; as also with Bhaskararaya Makhin (between 1690 and 1795) the celebrated commentator of Bhavanopanishad a revered text of the Sri Vidya tradition . The Karnataka Music Trinity: Saint Tyagaraja (1767-1847), Sri Mutthuswamy Dikshitar (1775 – 1835) and Sri Shyama Sastry (1762 – 1827) too were contemporaries of Sri Upanishad Brahmendra. What was more remarkable was that all those giants lived, at one time, in and around the Cauvery delta, say within a radius of about a hundred miles.
3.1. As regards his early life, it is said that his initial name was Sivarama. He was the son of Sivakamesvara (Sadashiva) Avadhani and Lakshmi Devi of Vadhulasa gotra. His father was a learned scholar who intended to comment on all the Upanishads but, for some reason, could not achieve his ambition. Later in his life, Sri Upanishad Brahmendra towards the end of his vyakhya commentary on Mukthiko-panishad mentioned that he as a dutiful son was trying to fulfil his father’s ambition; and all his works were a tribute to his departed father.
Sivakamesvara Avadhani is said to have hailed from Brahmapuram on the banks of the river Palar.
3. 2. There is no definite information about his date of birth or death. In any event, Sri Upanishad Brahman lived a very long (nearly one hundred years) and a very active and fruitful life. Some biographies of Sri Thyagaraja mention that Sri Upanishad Brahman was younger to Rama-Brahman (father of Sri Thyagaraja) by about twenty-five years; and elder to Sri Thyagaraja by about twenty years. When Sri Thyagaraja last met Sri Upanishad Brahman at Kanchipuram , on his way to Tirumala-Tirupathi, in the year 1839, the former was about seventy-two years of age; which meant that Sri Upanishad Brahman was at that time about ninety-two years old. By putting together these bits of information one can surmise that Sri Upanishad Brahmendra was born around the year 1747.
3.3. By about the age of twenty-five, Sivarama was initiated into Sanyasa by his guru Sri Vasudevendra Sarasvati and assigned the name: Ramacandrendra Sarasvati. Under the Dasanami order of sanyasins, the Sarasvati sampradaya has two branches: Ananda – Sarasvati and Indra- Sarasvati. Ramacandrendra Sarasvati belonged to the latter order. And, all the sanyasins of the Kanchi-Kamakoti Peeta belong to the Indra-Sarasvati order.
4.1. Soon after his initiation into Sanyas, Ramacandrendra Sarasvati wandered for some time as Parivrajaka (wandering monk); and then settled in Thanjavur which then was the cultural capital of South India , because of the encouragement and patronage extended to arts and culture by its Maratha kings. During his stay at Thanjavur, Ramacandrendra Sarasvati devoted himself to propagation of Upanishad ideals and philosophies. His discourses on Vedas, Upanishads and Ramayana were well attended and highly appreciated. Around this time, Ramacandrendra Sarasvati launched his monumental and almost life-long project of writing commentaries on all the Advaita oriented Upanishads listed in the Mukthiko-panishad. His involvement in this task was so complete he came to be recognized and respected as Sri Upanishad Brahmendra Yogin or Sri Upanishad Brahman. His original Sanyas-ashrama name virtually faded into background.
4.2. The year 1779-80 was a restless and politically uncertain period in the state of Thanjavur. The British East India Company which had been scheming since 1749 to take over the State of Thanjavur finally succeeded. And, in October 1799 the East India Company assumed absolute sovereignty of the State by deposing Raja Serfoji II. The deposed Raja bereft of power and purse was allowed to retain only the capital and a small tract of surrounding villages.
4.3. With the loss of royal patronage and support, most artists and intellectuals migrated out of Thanjavur and drifted into other cities and states in search of livelihood. Upanishad Brahman too did not stay long thereafter in Thanjavur; but went on a pilgrimage to North India. On his return, say, towards the end of the year 1780, he settled down in Kanchipuram and established his own mutt at a place then known as Agasthya-ashrama .The Mutt later came to be known as Sri Upanishad Brahmendra Mattha. Sri Upanishad Brahman resumed his work on the commentaries.
5.1. Sri Upanishad Brahmendra was a prolific writer who produced several scholarly works based in Advaita philosophy in addition to commentaries on Bhagavad-Gita and Brahma Sutras. Apart from those texts , his independent works include: treatise (vritti), study of the origin, nature and validity of knowledge (Paribhasha), advices to aspirants (updaesha), minor dissertations explaining the basic concepts (prakaranas), hymns (stotra) addressed to various divinities, and songs(Divya nama samkirtanam). On the subject of Bhakthi and reciting the name and glory of the Lord he wrote treaties extolling the virtues of their practice (Nama-siddantha). He is said to have evolved the method of contemplation on the Pranava (AUM), its esoteric quality of sound (pranava-nada).
5.2. Sri Upanishad Brahmendra yogin’s fame rests mainly on the monumental sets of commentaries he wrote on all the 108 Upanishads listed in the Mukthiko-panishad. He was the first scholar in the Advaita tradition to have provided commentaries on all those listed Upanishads.
[A short explanation appears necessary here. It is not as if there are only 108 Upanishads. The exact number of Upanishads is not known; there are as many Upanishads as one can list. According to some, there are more than 360 Upanishads which include the major and the minor ones; the ancient and the not so ancient; some well known and some hardly known. Even Bhagavad-Gita is listed as an Upanishad, as it is regarded the essence of all Upanishads. Srimad Ananda-thirtha (Sri Madhwacharya) quotes from Brahma tattva and Vishnu Upanishad which now are hardly known.
As per tradition, about thirteen Upanishads are considered major Upanishads; and they represent the core of the Upanishad wisdom. They are of doubtless antiquity and constitute the first tier of the prasthana-traya (the set of three principal texts), the foundations of the Vedic heritage; the other two tiers being the Brahma Sutras and the Bhagavad-Gita. Sri Shankara commented on ten of those major Upanishads (Ishavasya, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Taittireeya, Aithreya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka, Mundaka and Mandukya); and cited the other three (Kaushitaki, Svethavatara and Jabaala) as being authoritative.
Over the centuries, varieties of texts gave themselves (or were tagged) the suffix-Upanishad – to their title. That was perhaps meant to provide those texts a halo of authority and an elevated position in the hierarchy of traditional texts. The thoughts in most of such texts were neither fresh nor universal. Many of those texts were theistic and sectarian in their approach; and were, therefore, classified according to their affiliations, such as Vaishnava, Shaiva and Shaktha etc. All such Upanishads are enumerated in the Charana-vyuha section of Atharva Veda, to which they are affiliated. That section itself has a supplementary character about it.
Mukthiko-panishad itself a minor Upanishad of recent origin , affiliated to Shukla-Yajur Veda, lists 13 major Upanishads , 94 minor Upanishads and lists itself as the 108th Upanishad. ]
5.3. At the end of his gloss on Muktikopanishad , Sri Upanishad Brahmendra mentions that he completed the huge task in the year Prajothpatti , Dhanrus masa (Margasirasa) , Ekadasi , Asvini , Tuesday ( I am , however unable to correspond that to the calendar date. Sorry).
Sri Upanishad Brahmendra’s commentaries are considered authoritative, and are therefore held in high esteem in the Advaita tradition. It is said he harmonizes (samanvaya) the different shades of Advaita doctrines spread across various texts; and weaves them together into a philosophical framework consistent with the spirit of Upanishads, Brahma sutra, and that of Sri Sankara.
5.4. As a precaution against the possible unauthorized insertions into his texts, Sri Upanishad Brahmendra took care to mention at the end of each of his works the number of stanzas it contained. The total numbers of such stanzas, it is said, add up to about 45,000.A very impressive and valuable contribution to Advaita School.
Manuscripts of his commentaries and his other works are now said to be preserved in the Adyar Library. And, all his commentaries were published by the Adyar Library, Madras during the period 1920-1953.
Association with music
6.1. Sri Upanishad Brahmendra was well versed in music. Although an Advaitin by conviction, he was intensely devoted to Sri Rama, his Ishta-devatha. He followed the Divya– nama-samkirtana, the Bhajana form in worship of Sri Rama. He is credited with number of Bhajana-samkirtanas, devotional songs set to music, singing the glory of the Lord.
6.2. He explained Divyanama –samkirtana, the recitation of the sacred name of the chosen deity (Istadevata) as Upaya the means for attaining the ultimate (Upeya) the Brahman. Then, Sri Rama just as the symbol (pratika) Om, according to him, would no longer be a nama of a rupa (form) but will be the very essence of the supreme divinity. Thus, Divya-nama or nama-chit (name –consciousness) is the means (sadhana) and also the end (sadhya). He asserts that the quote “Om eti ekaksharam Brahma” (Bhagavad-Gita: 8.13) gives expression to the identity of the symbol or the name (abhidana) with the object of contemplation (abhideya). Sri Upanishad Brahmendra Yogin explained these concepts in his work Upeya -nama – viveka where he attempts to synchronize Advaita with Bhakthi.
6.3. Sri Upanishad Brahmendra was an integral part of the tradition that was in vogue during those times when the sanyasins based in Advaita ideology also cultivated Bhakthi (devotion) and Sangitha (music). Apart from Upanishad Brahmendra the two other Advaita-sanyasins – Sri Narayana Thirtha and Sri Sadashiva Brahmendra – excelled in practice of Nada-vidya as a part of their Sadhana. This was followed by Sri Tyagaraja who had a great affinity towards Upanishad Brahmendra. Sri Tyagaraja too, like his ideal, lovingly adorned Sri Rama in hundreds of his songs; and he too later in his life took to sanyasa – bringing together devotion, music and knowledge of self (jnana– vairagya). They all asserted that Bhakthi was the means (sadhana) to realize the goal (sadhya) of attaining unity with God or Brahman.
6.4. Besides this , there arose, in the Cauvery delta , a movement – Bhajana Sampradaya – that firmly believed in the power of the sacred name (Namasiddantha).It asserted the faith that recital of the holy name in loving devotion and giving expression to that through soulful music (nama samkirtana) was the most potent means for liberation. The movement cut across the distinctions of caste (varna) and the stages of life (ashrama). It brought into its fold householders, men, women and children of all sections of the society. Sri Sridhar Venkatesha Ayyaval, Sri Bhodendra Sarasvathi and Sri Bashyam Gopala Krishna Sastry renowned as the triumvirate of Bhajana tradition were the prominent leaders of the congregational devotion (Bhajana mandali) practices. They were followed by Sri Venkataramana – Sadgurusvami who strengthened and gave a form to the Bhakthi and Bhajana-paddathi movement.
Influence on Sri Tyagaraja and Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar
7.1. The influence of Sri Upanishad Brahman on Sri Tyagaraja and Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar was significant. Sri Upanishad Brahman and Sri Tyagaraja shared the intense fervour of devotion to their Ista-devatha Sri Rama and to his nama-samkirtana, singing the glory of the Lord. Sri Upanishad Brahman and Sri Mutthuswami Dikshitar shared the principles of Advaita philosophy, the use of its terms in their songs and the adoption of classic Sanskrit as the language of their music.
7.2. While he was living in Thanjavur (prior to 1780), he (then known as Ramacandrendra Sarasvati) used to conduct discourses on Ramayana and also lead chorus-singing of the devotional songs he composed in praise of Sri Rama. It is said, the boy Thyagaraja who was in his early teens, say of ten-twelve years, used to attend, along with his father (Ramabrahmam), the musical discourses and Bhajans conducted by the Sanyasin. (Thiruvayaru where the Ramabrahmam family lived is just 13 Km from Thanjavur).
7.3. The musicologists and experts opine that the traces of Ramacandrendra Sarasvati‘s influence can be found in the Divya-nama-samkirtana songs composed by Sri Thyagaraja. They point out the similarities in the structure of songs and in the word-play (pada-jaala) employed by Sri Thyagaraja and his inspiration, Ramacandrendra Sarasvati. For instance it is said; Sri Tyagaraja’s songs: Dhyaname varamaine; Gangasnaname; and Kotinadula which emphasize that the real snana and thirtha (the bath and the holy waters of the pilgrimage) are verily in the contemplation on the name of the Lord and not in the rivers , were inspired by Sri Upanishad Brahmendra ‘s Tarangas in his Sri Rama Taranga . It is also mentioned that this work of Sri Upanishad Brahmendra was in turn influenced by the songs in most enchanting opera Krishna-Leela-Tarangini of Sri Narayana Thirtha (1650 -1745).
7.4. As regards Sri Mutthuswamy Dikshitar, he too met Sri Upanishad Brahmendra. After about seven years of stay and study at Varanasi, Sri Dikshitar on his way back home to Thiruvarur, stayed for some time with Sri Upanishad Brahmendra in his mutt at Kanchipuram. This is said to have taken place in the year 1809 when Sri Dikshitar was about thirty-four years of age; and Sri Upanishad Brahmendra was about sixty-two. During his stay, Sri Dikshitar set to music Rama Ashtapadhi a collection of stanzas composed by Sri Upanishad Brahmendra adoring the glory of Sri Rama. This musical composition is, sadly, lost now.
Association with Sri Thyagaraja
8.1. When Sri Upanishad Brahmendra and Sri Thyagaraja first met in Thanjavur just prior to 1780, the Sanyasin was a young man of thirty-three years and his admirer was a lad of thirteen. They did not meet again for a very long time. When they met again at Kanchipuram in 1839, after a lapse of nearly sixty years, both had grown into old men; Upanishad Brahmendra was in ripe old age at ninety-two and Thyagaraja too was old, he was seventy-two.
8.2. How this meeting came about is described in fair detail in a weblog page titled manaku teliyani mana tyAgarAju, meaning our Thyagaraja that we do not know. The article is basically about Sri Thyagaraja and references to meeting with Sri Upanishad Brahmendra are incidental to the narration. The article in Telugu language is written in Roman script; and, it makes a very tedious reading. I wish an English translation too was posted.
9.1. It is mentioned that one Kovvur Sundaresa Mudaliyar a wealthy merchant and a Dubash (interpreter as also one who acted as steward, banker and general agent) of the British East India Company at Madras, called on Sri Upanishad Brahmendra at Kanchipuram in order to pay his respects. During the course of their conversation Sundaresa Mudaliyar learnt that the Swamin was well acquainted with Ramabrahmam (father of Thyagaraja). He then went on to describe in laudatory terms the musical genius of Sri Thyagaraja. Sri Upanishad Brahmendra too had heard of the sublime music of Sri Thyagaraja. His conversation with Sundaresa Mudaliyar revived old memories and he longed to see the boy he knew, now grown into a musical celebrity. Sri Upanishad Brahmendra, at the instance of Sundaresa Mudaliyar, decided to send an invitation asking Thyagaraja to visit him at Kanchipuram.
9.2. In his letter, Sri Upanishad Brahmendra mentioned that though he was very desirous of listening to Thyagaraja’s divine music he was unable to visit Thiruvayaru as he was in no position to travel long distances because of his ’extreme age’. And, he said, he would appreciate if Thyagaraja could visit him at Kanchipuram and let him have the pleasure of listening to sublime music. The letter “Sri-mukham’ (a formal communication bearing the official seal and insignia of the Mutt) was sent to Sri Thyagaraja through Thanjavur Rama Rao who was acting as a sort of manager and caretaker of Thyagaraja after the demise of his (Sri Thyagaraja) wife Kamalamba. [It is said; that srimukham along with some of Thyagaraja’s compositions, in his own writing on palm leaf, are preserved in the Saurastra Sabha at Madurai.]
10.1. The invitation from Sri Upanishad Brahmendra threw Sri Thyagaraja into a dilemma. He could not refuse the invitation from one whom he considered almost a guru (guru-samana) and a very senior person; but, at the same time he was most unwilling to leave his home and his daily worship (Rama-panchayatana) of his beloved deity Sri Rama. He was restless for a couple of days. It is said, it was during these stressful days that Sri Thyagaraja sang the kriti in Todi Raga “koti nadula danushkoti lo undaga, etiki tirugadave O manasaa’; meaning when millions of rivers are merged in danushkoti (the ocean) why do you wander aimlessly, Oh my mind. However, after his disciples assured and promised to conduct regularly the daily puja of his deity Sri Rama, without fail, Sri Thyagaraja agreed to make the trip.
10.2. According to the travel plans arranged and finalized by the Manager Thanjavur Rama Rao, Sri Thyagaraja and party would first visit Sri Rangam; then on to Kanchipuram to call on the sage Sri Upanishad Brahmendra honouring his invitation ; and from there to Tirupthi-Tirumala to have the darshan of Lord Venkateshwara . The return journey would be via Madras, Tiruvattiyur and Lalgudi. Each of those places is a celebrated centre of pilgrimage.
10.3. In the summer of 1839 when Sri Thyagaraja was seventy-two years of age, he departed from Thiruvayaru after attending to the seven-day Chaitra-maasa Saptastana Utsavam celebrations at Panchanadeeswara (Shiva) temple. The travel party included about twenty disciples; and during most of the journey Thyagaraja was carried in a palanquin.
Meeting with Sri Thyagaraja
11.1. After worshipping Lord Sri Raganatha at Sri Rangam, the party reached Kanchipuram when the Dolothsavam of the Lord Varadaraja swami was in progress. Sri Thyagaraja was delighted; and in ecstasy he burst forth into the song ‘Varadaraja Ninnukori vacchiti’ (Swarabooshani).
11.2. When they first met (c. 1780) in Thanjavur, Sri Upanishad Brahmendra, youth of thirty-three was in the prime of life; and Sri Thyagaraja a lad of twelve was just on the threshold of life. And, when they met again at Kanchipuram (1839) after about sixty years, both had grown into ripe old sages glowing with mellow joy; Sri Upanishad Brahmendra was about 92 and Sri Thyagaraja was about 72.During those long years both walked the path of life with singular devotion in pursuit of their aspirations and ideals. Both achieved success substantially. The meeting at Kanchipuram was between two blessed and enriched persons sharing mutual regard and admiration.
11.3. Sri Upanishad Brahman was greatly delighted by the musical excellence and pure devotion of Sri Thyagaraja. He enjoyed every moment of Thyagaraja’s stay with him; and is said to have remarked it was worth waiting almost a lifetime for enjoying the delight (raga –sudha) of Sri Thyagaraja’s music. The travel party after a stay of about two weeks at the Sri Upanishad Brahmendra Ashram left for Tirupathi by way of Walajapet where Sri Thyagaraja’s disciple Venkataramana Bhagavatar was waiting anxiously to receive his Guru.
11.4. This was the only elaborate tour that Sri Thyagaraja took in all his life; and, Tirupathi was the farthest place in North that he reached. The trip which basically was undertaken to honour the invitation extended by his guru-samana Sri Upanishad Brahmendra turned out a great success; and musically highly productive. It was a blessing and a boon to Karnataka – music. It gave birth to series o compositions, kriti-groups popularly called kshetra-kritis. They are musical gems; remarkable for their soulful music, inspired rich lyrics and complex structure. The music lovers are in eternal debt to Sri Upanishad Brahmendra and the creator of sublime music Sri Thyagaraja.
12.4. At each of the places and temples he visited, Sri Thyagaraja composed inspired kritis singing the glory of its presiding deities: Varadaraja (Sri Rangam); Kamakshi (Kanchipuram); Venkateshwara (Tirupathi); Kovur (Sundareshwara); Lalgudi (Saptharisheeswar and Srimathi). For details : please check Kshetra Kirtanas.
12.5. It was a tradition in those days for the musical composers of merit to compose and sing songs in honour of the presiding deities whenever they visited a prominent temple-town. Such compositions were classified as Kshetra kirtanas. Sri Thyagaraja followed that sampradaya the time honoured practice. Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar too followed this practice. He, in addition, built into his kritis brief references to the temple, its architecture, its rituals and its deity. Amidst these details he skilfully wove the name of the raga (raga mudra) and his own Mudra, signature. All these were structured into well-knit short kritis of grand music glowing with tranquil joy.
References and sources
The Tantra of Sri Chakra
By Prof.SK Ramachandra Rao
Manaku teliyani mana tyAgarAju – 4
Full text of T_T_D_ monthly bulletin vol viii