Purandaradasa- Sangeeta Pitamaha

Dear Readers, it’s been over a month since my last story. Here I am once again, and this time I am going to narrate the story of Saint Purandaradasa. Before we go to the story, let us see some historical facts.

This saint lived in the period 1480 AD (or 84) to 1564 AD. He is believed to have born in a place called Purandaragadh near Pune (though latest research suggests that he was born in Karnataka at a place called Tirthahalli in Shivamogga district). He spent the last part of his life in Hampi just before the fall of the Vijayanagara Empire.

Purandaradasa is considered to be one of the chief proponents of South Indian Classical music and has structured the basic exercises for learning of Carnatic music. He was a prolific composer of Bhakti literature and his songs were classified as Dasa Sahitya and they were woven around the Madhwa philosophy. But how did Purandaradasa become a saint? It is the story we are going to see.

Varadappa Nayaka was a reputed diamond merchant who lived with his wife Leelavathi. Though a great businessman, he sadly did not have the joy of having a child for many long years.

After many years of prayer to the Lord Sreenivasa of Tirupati, he was blessed with a baby boy whom he named Sreenivasa Nayaka. Sreenivasa Nayaka was given a good education and he gained proficiency in Kannada, Sanskrit and music. When he came of marriageable age (which was about 16 in those days), he was married to one Lakshmamma in accordance with his family customs. Lakshmamma was very pious and God fearing in addition to being very generous and charitable.

Years went by and Sreenivasa, by assisting his father at work, gained good knowledge of the business of diamonds and gemstones. When he was twenty years old, his parents passed away one after the other and he was left to inherit the huge diamond business built by his father. In due course, Sreenivasa and Lakshmamma were the proud parents of four children.

A shrewd businessman , as he was, Sreenivasa Nayaka managed the business very well and was in no time much more prosperous than his father was, and thereby came to be known as “Navakoti Narayana” literally meaning the Narayana owning nine crores worth of assets. But as his business empire grew, his humaneness shrunk in direct proportion and soon people were talking on how miserly he was. His nature was in total contrast to his wife’s nature. He would never part with one coin towards charity.

Though Lakshmamma knew about it and felt very bad, there was nothing she could do about this.

One day an elderly brahman from a nearby village wearing tattered clothes came to the shop of Sreenivasa.

On seeing him Sreenivasa knew that he had not come to buy or sell diamonds in his so but to seek alms.

As expected, the man slowly approached him and said, “Sir, I am planning to conduct the thread ceremony of my son and require some money for it. May I request you to please give me whatever financial help you can? I will certainly repay the amount”.

There was so much hesitation on the man’s face and shame felt by the man in seeking alms was very evident. He was genuinely poor and required help and it was apparent that he had no other way out.

Sreenivasa in his arrogance did not even look at him and said, “Is this the time to come and ask for alms? Can’t you see I am busy? Hmph… Come tomorrow”

The man with his head hung walked away without saying a word. He again came the next day. Sreenivasa pretended not to even see him and after a long time looked at him and told him the same answer as the previous day.

The man went back and kept coming back almost every day for nearly six months only to get the same reply from Sreenivasa.

When the man came next, Sreenivasa decided to tease him even more and took out a fake gold coin he used to play with, in his childhood and gave it to the man with a cynical smile and said, “I think this will be enough to meet your financial need. Now, go away from here and don’t come back again and disturb me”

The man knowing that it was a cheap coin was distraught at insult being added to injury, left the place with his head hung in shame and tears in his eyes.

As he was passing by Sreenivasa’s house in the next street, he saw Lakshmamma sitting in the verandah of the house cleaning some grain. She looked so graceful and divine like a goddess and her eyes were flowing with benevolence. The man did not know it was Sreenivasa’s wife and felt that she would certainly help him out. He hesitantly walked towards the house, the coin in hand.

Lakshmamma looked up and true to her nature, stood up and welcomed the man.

“Welcome Sir!” she said with a sweet smile. Not waiting for his reply, she quickly went into the house and came with a small pot of water for him to wash his legs.

“Please wash your legs and come in. It is so hot outside” she said.

The man whose mind was soothed by her words, washed his legs and went in. She offered him a seat served him with a glass of cool water and casually enquired about him since she knew he was not from this village.

The man, as though waiting to pour out his grief almost cried while narrating his tale of woe not knowing that the lady to whom he was speaking was the wife of the ‘villain’ he was talking about.

Lakshmamma though, realised that it was her husband he was talking about and was pained at the behaviour of her husband. She felt very distressed at the old man’s plight.

“I wish I could help you Sir!” she said with real concern in her voice. “I am only concerned at what my husband would say, as he is not here at the moment….”

The man understood her hesitation and said, “I appreciate your intention Amma, but is there not anything you can give me without asking your husband?”

Lakshmamma thought for a while and suddenly her face lit up. She removed her diamond nose ring.

“Don’t worry Sir, here is my diamond nose ring. This was given to me by my parents and so I can gift it to you. Please sell this and conduct your son’s thread ceremony”

The nose ring had eight diamonds in it.The man was taken by surprise at her generosity which seemed to have no bounds. He looked at her with reluctance. But she was insistent. Not able to refuse, the man took the ring and wrapped it carefully in a piece of cloth he had in his bag and thanking her profusely, left the place.

And where did he go to? Straight to Sreenivasa’s shop! Sreenivasa was examining some diamond and when he chanced to look up, he was surprised to see the same old man coming back but there was an air of confidence about him which puzzled Sreenivasa.

Before Sreenivasa could utter a word, the man said, “Sir, I have not come to beg you for money but to either pledge or sell this diamond ring”. So saying, he carefully pulled out the cloth packet and took out the dazzling diamond nose ring.

The moment Sreenivasa saw it, he recognised the ring. When he enquired about it, the man told him that a ‘noble hearted lady’ had gifted it to him. Knowing who the ‘noble hearted lady’ was, Sreenivasa took the ring and put it in the cash draw in a silver cup,locked the draw and stuffed the keys in the secret pocket in the fold of the dhoti in his waist.

He told the man, “This has to be valued and only then I can give money to you. It is lunch time now and I am going home for lunch. Wait here till I come back”. Seething with anger, he stomped out of the shop and rushed to his home, making the man wonder why he was so angry. The man settled down in the verandah of the shop waiting for Sreenivasa.

Back home, Sreenivasa’s suspicion was confirmed when he saw that the nose ring was missing on Lakshmamma’s nose. Lakshmamma also noticed that he was glancing at her nose and knew that she was in for big trouble.

“Lakshmamma,” he said in an angry voice, “Where is your nose ring huh?”

“Er…. mm… I….. I…. have removed it… since… I took oil bath today….” Her faltering speech in a trembling voice was enough to give her away.

“You are lying aren’t you??” shouted Sreenivasa, his eyes red with anger. “Go… and bring the nose ring from wherever you have kept it and show it to me now!”

Lakshmamma who had never ever lied in her life and who had always lived as per Sreenivasa’s whims and fancies was terrified at the thought of her fate when Sreenivasa would know the truth.

“It is better to die than to suffer this insult”, she thought to herself and went and stood in front of the altar in their house. She poured out some poison in a small silver cup and kept it in front of her favourite Lord Krishna. With her eyes tightly shut and tears streaming from the eyes, she was mentally pleading with Krishna to forgive her for the sin committed by her and telling him that she would repent for it by giving her life.

After a few minutes of this intense prayer, calming down, she took the cup of poison, ready to drink it and when she just lifted it near her chin, there was this sound ‘clink’. Something seemed to have fallen into the cup. The puzzled Lakshmamma looked into the cup and lo and behold! The nose ring was in the cup of poison gleaming. Startled and pleasantly surprised at this turn of events, Lakshmamma quickly controlled her emotions, thanking her Krishna profusely in her mind, took the ring out, washed it in water and wiped her tears and went to the hall to Sreenivasa who was waiting impatiently for the ring.

“Here it is!” said she, not daring to look into his eyes and dropped the ring on his extended palm.

Now it was Sreenivasa’s turn to be shocked. He rubbed his eyes and looked at the ring. It was the very same ring which he had locked in the cash draw half an hour back. Unwittingly his right hand was reaching the secret pocket in the folds of his dhoti to check for the keys and the keys were there intact. So where did this ring come from?

Bewildered beyond words, Sreenivasa, without saying a word literally ran back to his shop holding the ring tightly with his fist closed. As soon as he entered the shop, he tried to pull open the draw thinking that he might have forgotten to lock it. But it was locked. Taking out the keys with a trembling hand, he opened the draw and the jewel was missing. The cup was very much there but the ring was not.

Confused and almost mad at what was happening, Sreenivasa rushed home once again and Lakshmamma was anxiously waiting at the door.

Suddenly it struck to Sreenivasa, that this was not humanly possible. Visibly shocked for words, he stuttered and asked her, “Tell me, what is happening. Are you doing some magic??

Lakshmamma started sobbing and told him all that had happened. He was totally perplexed. This power of devotion or Bhakti of his wife was matchless! He could not bring himself to believe that the all-encompassing divinity was so submissive to her devotion.

And that one surreal moment was the trigger for the miserly Sreenivasa Nayaka to transform into a saint. Something changed in him suddenly. He was not the miserly diamond merchant anymore. He had realised that it was the Lord Krishna who was in each and every atom of this universe and the claims of ‘I’ and ‘Mine’ were meaningless. He would give up everything of his and become the ‘Dasa’ (servant) of Hari, who was indeed the Lord of the Universe. He ran to the shop to fall at the feet of the man who he knew was Krishna but the man had vanished!

The very next day, he called his friends gave up all his wealth and belongings to them and left the place with his wife and family to live a saintly life travelling to the abodes of Lord Krishna, seeking alms by singing the glory of the Lord.

It is said that in his wanderings he met the saint Vyasatirtha who advocated Madhwacharya’s teachings and it is believed that he gave a formal initiation to him and bestowed him with the name “Purandaradasa”. Purandaradasa also travelled extensively through the length and breadth of the then Vijayanagara Empire. He was a contemporary of Saint Kanaka Dasa as well.

Purandaradasa, played a great role in systematizing Carnatic music, the way it is sung today. He introduced the Raga Mayamalavagoula as the basic scale for studying music at beginner’s level. He also brought in a series of graded lessons for the beginners which is followed even this day. In addition to this he also composed thousands of hymns on Lord Vishnu and many of his hymns are highly popular to this day. He used the phrase ‘Purandara Vitthala” as his signature in the hymns he composed.

In his last years, he settled at Hampi and sang in Emperor Krishnadeveraya’s durbar. He died at the age of eighty in 1564.

Being a student of music, I feel greatly honoured to narrate this story in my own words as I have heard it and may Lord Krishna bless us all!

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