The bond between a Guru and disciple is highly valued in our Sanatana Dharma tradition. The Guru-Shishya lineage plays an important role in the propagation of our religious practices and culture. There are numerous preceptors (Gurus) and disciples who have a made a deep impact in our sampradaya. We know of several disciples such as Ekalavya (Guru: Drona), Arjuna (Drona), Krishna (Santhipani), Vivekananda (Ramakrishna), Shivaji (Ramdas) etc, who excelled in being role-models and gaining their teachers’ appreciation. One of the lesser-known disciples who comes under this category is Koorathazhwan. With his unparalleled knowledge, unflinching devotion to his Guru Sri Ramanuja and service to Vishistadvaita philosophy, Koorathazhwan has etched his place in the annals of our spiritual history.
Koorathazhwan was born as Kuresa in a place known as ‘Kooram’ near Kancheepuram in 1009 CE (Sowmya year) in the Tamil month of Thai under the Hastam star. Though born in an affluent family, he was humble and soon became an expert in scriptures and vedas. He married Andal who matched his academic brilliance and piety. Being in Kanchi, they were devoted to Lord Varadaraja and were spending their endless wealth in philanthropic activities.
Path to Spiritual Excellence
As per legend, once Lord Varadaraja and his consort Perundevi Thayar heard a heavy sound of a door closing at night. They spoke about how Koorathazhwan’s door gets closed at night after distributing food to the needy daily. This was overheard by the temple priest who informed Azhwan with awe. However, instead of pride Azhwan felt guilt because the divine couple were discussing his wealth rather than his salvation. At once, he and his wife decided to renounce all their belongings and move to Srirangam, and became the disciple of Sri Ramanuja. From then on he became an indispensable and favourite disciple of Ramanuja in all aspects.
Azhwan is celebrated even today because he practised what he preached. Though being from a wealthy family, he did not care for any material wealth taking his Acharya’s words to heart. Once while the couple was travelling through a forest way, Azhwan noticed that his wife Andal was circumspect about something. When he checked with her, she said that she was afraid about being attacked by robbers. When he mentioned that those own nothing have nothing to fear, she added with hesitation that she saved his golden plate and carrying it with her. Azhwan simply took the plate from her and threw it afar saying that now they can walk without any fear. Such was his detachment to material wealth.
Birth of two gems
Having settled down in Srirangam, Koorathazhwan and Andal started leading a very simple life. Their meals consisted only of what he received as alms. During one time, the day of completing his fasting coincided with heavy rains. As a result, he could not go for getting alms. Unable to bear his husband’s condition, Andal thought about how the Lord was enjoying his offerings while His devotee was starving.
The all-knowing and compassionate Lord immediately sent sacred food to the couple through his priests. Having found out what Andal did, he advised her never to ask the Lord anything as he always knows what is good for his devotees. However, since it was God’s will, he partook the sacred food sharing it with his wife. After this divine incident the couple was blessed with two extremely gifted children. Named Parasara Bhattar and Veda Vyasa Bhattar by Ramanuja himself, both became prominent scholars in Vaishnavite philosophy.
Contribution to Ramanuja’s Sribhashyam
Ramanuja decided to write a commentary on Brahmasutra (truths about nature of human existence and the universe). In order to do so, he needed Sage Bodayana’s book called Vritti Grantha which was available only at Sharada Peetam, Kashmir. So along with Azhwan he set off to Kashmir. The king of Kashmir accorded a warm welcome and offered a copy of the same to them.
While returning to Srirangam, they were waylaid by Kashmiri pandits who did not want a new interpretation of Brahmasutra. Having lost the book, Ramanujacharya was dismayed as the entire journey appeared to be futile. Azhwan came forward and politely enquired to his Acharya, ‘should I recite the content of the book now or after reaching Srirangam?’ He had read and memorized the entire text overnight. Delighted, Ramanuja hugged his favourite disciple. Thus he helped his Acharya in the composition of much venerated Sribhashyam.
The great sacrifice
Later, the Chola king Kulothunga II, who embraced Shaivism stared to persecute all Vaishnavas. Learning that Sri Ramanuja is the head of all Vaishnavas, the king ordered his soldiers to bring him to his court intending to harm him. Upon hearing this, Azhwan forced Ramanuja to wear the clothes of a family man and sent him to Thirunarayanapuram (Melkote, Karnataka). He then wore the saffron robes and proclaimed to the king’s soldiers that he is indeed Ramanuja and went to meet the king. He was accompanied by Peria Nambi, one of the gurus of Ramanuja.
When the king demanded that they accept Lord Shiva as the supreme being, Azhwan defied the king and refused to do so. The king was infuriated and ordered their eyes to be pulled out. Azhwan at once pulled his eyes out by himself and threw them at the king. This violent action caused Peria Nambi to pass away as he was already of an advanced age. Unfazed by the king’s cruetly and happy that his Guru had escaped this fate, Azhwan left to Thirumaliruncholai (Azhagar Koil) where he stayed for 12 years. Having committed a heinous crime, Kulothunga Chola II died painfully of throat cancer, and was known as forever as Krimikanta Chola.
Forgiveness to his enemies
After 12 years at Melkote, Ramanuja decided to return to Srirangam. With extreme joy, Azhwan rushed from Thirumaliruncholai and met with his Acharya. Upon seeing his plight, Ramanuja was filled with sorrow. He suggested that he request Lord Varadaraja of Kanchi to restore his eyes. Azhwan composed Varadaraja Sthavam but when the Lord appeared in front of him, he didn’t ask for his eyes back. Instead he asked for salvation (moksha) to all those associated with him, including the traitor Nalooran who betrayed him to the Chola king. Such was his kindness.
Koorathazhwan composed several books. He sang pancha sthavams – Vaikuntha sthavam, Athimanusha sthavam, Sundhara Baahu sthavam, Varadaraja sthavam and Sri sthavam – containing the essence of Vedanta. He also composed Yamaka Ratnakara on the life of Lord Krishna and Kooresa Vijayam on Sriman Narayana as the Supreme Lord.
Ascension to Vaikunta
In his final days Azhwan requested Moksha from the Lord. Seeing this, Ramanuja asked him how can he leave him. To which Azhwan quoted a verse from Thiruvaimozhi and said, “When one goes to Moksha, all the celestials welcome the new soul by washing his feet. How can I allow you to come and do that for me? That is why I am leaving before you.” Such was his Guru Bhakthi. Koorathazhwaan ascended to Sri Vaikuntam in 1132 CE all the while thinking about Swami Ramanuja’s lotus feet.
Though Swami Ramanuja had innumerable disciples, none could match Koorathazhwan in his knowledge, humility, devotion to his Guru and dedication. Thus Koorathazhwan stands as the epitome of disciple-hood (shishyabhava) – another true icon of Bharatavarsha.