Sri Shridhara Venkatesa, known as Sri Shridhara Ayyaval, was born as the only son of Sri Lingaarya. Sri Lingaarya was a great scholar and was respected by the King of Mysore. The king, who was much impressed with Sri Lingaarya’s scholarship, rewarded him with a high post in the court and huge wealth. As the only child of Sri Lingaarya, Sri Shridhara Venkatesa was the sole inheritor of all these riches.
Even as a child Sri Shridhara Ayyaval cherished great devotion towards Lord Shiva and spent most of his time in chanting the Divine Names of Lord Shiva. He learnt all the scriptures and became an expert at a very young age. At an appropriate age Sri Lingaarya found a good bride for his son from a good and devout family. She too proved to be a fitting match for Sri Shridhara Ayyaval and his devotion.
After his father’s passing away, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval was offered the post of ‘Divan’ in the Kingdom of Mysore. A personification of dispassion that Sri Sridhara Ayyaval was, he declined the offer as he considered any material comfort trifling compared to the wealth of bliss attained in worshipping Lord Shiva.
Days passed in loving worship of Lord Shiva. One day, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval decided to move from Mysore. His mind could find no rest in residing in the same place. He could easily sense the divine call guiding him to move around in this world and spread the divine message of true devotion and Nama Kirtan. This meant quitting his well-furnished home which was nothing less than a palace. Quitting the comforts that he had hitherto enjoyed was by no means, a tough decision for Sri Shridhara Ayyaval. But in the intent of knowing his wife’s and mother’s heart, he ran it by them, only to hear back that they were only too happy to follow him. Happily the family decided to leave the city that very moment. On knowing his decision, the king and people of Mysore gathered at his doorstep. Saddened at heart and overwhelmed with sorrow, they pleaded with him to stay back even if he does not want to accept the post in the court. But who can stop the one who is guided by a Divine force to move on? Addressing the loving crowd, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval said, “These riches belong to me no more! Anyone can walk in and take whatever he/she wants without any restriction. Everybody has a right on this wealth from now!” Saying so, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval walked out of his mansion followed by his devoted wife and loving mother, while the King and the people watched on helplessly.
After leaving the city of Mysore, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval passed through many cities and villages. He had taken to ‘Unchchavriti’ way of life wherein one goes on the streets singing the Divine Names of the Lord, accepting things offered as alms and partaking of the same after offering it to the Lord.
He would stop for a day or two in each village and teach the mass the essence of the scriptures. He would chant the Divine Names of the Lord and speak of its glory and ease of chanting it. After winning the hearts of the people there and hearing them chant with devotion, he would continue his journey.
Thus, moving about, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval reached the town of Tirichirapalli in Tamil Nadu, South India. He continued spreading his message of Nama Kirtan by discoursing in a simple language which helped people comprehend the profound truth with ease. His discourses emphasized devotion towards both Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva without bias. Every evening he visited the temple of Lord Shiva and spent the afternoons in chanting divine names and reading scripture.
The king of Tirichirapalli was a devout Vaishnavaite (devotee of Lord Vishnu). A few people, who had heard the discourses of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval felt that he had more leaning towards Lord Shiva than Lord Vishnu. They voiced their opinion to the king and wanted him to test the devotion of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval towards Lord Vishnu. The king, who was a great devotee himself, did not like the idea of testing a saint and also feared that it might bring downfall to him and his kingdom. However, the desire to know the heart of this saint sprouted in him and hence he decided to test Sri Shridhara Ayyaval without malice and hit upon a plan. He ordered the priests to dress up Sri Mathrubhuteshwara, Lord Shiva in Tirichirapalli as Lord Krishna and take Him in procession. He thought that Sri Sridhara Ayyaval’s reaction would indicate his bias, should he have any. When the procession passed through the home of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval, he was meditating on Lord Shiva. Once out of his trance, he came out of his home hurriedly and finding Lord Krishna there spontaneously prayed to Lord Krishna “Oh! Lord Krishna! When will I spend every moment of my life in meditating on your Lotus Feet by reminding myself of the transitory nature of this world, being humble, knowing my deficiencies, turning blind to other’s faults, being compassionate towards all living beings, being a servant of the devotees of the Lord and eyeing both joy and sorrow alike?”
He thus composed 12 verses known as ‘Krishna Dwadasa Manjari’. In a few verses in this, he did not hesitate to sing that Lord Krishna’s vision was not easy for Lord Shiva Himself! Hearing this, the king was relieved and the people who had induced him to test fell at Sri Shridhara Ayyaval’s feet and apologized for their ignorance and arrogance. Knowing Sri Shridhara Ayyaval to be a great saint of uncommon devotion and glory, the king wanted him to stay in his city forever. He spoke his mind to Sri Shridhara Ayyaval at an appropriate time. But when Sri Shridhara Ayyaval came to know of this, he decided to leave the city that very night. He knew that if he chose to stay in one place forever, then his mission of spreading the divine message to the world would not materialize.
He left Tirichirapalli that very night. The king could not console himself when he came to know of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval’s departure. Perplexed and worried, the king felt very restless, for he felt he had offended the saint by with his request. Sri Shridhara Ayyaval appeared in the king’s dream that night in the form of Lord Shiva and said, “Oh! King! Do not worry yourself. I have incarnated to spread the Divine Name in this world. I have left the city with this very purpose in mind.” It was only then that the king realized Sri Shridhara Ayyaval to be Lord Shiva Himself. Recounting the rare fortune of having been in the Lord’s presence all this while, he considered himself blessed.
After leaving Tirichirapalli, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval passed through many cities and villages before reaching the city of Tanjavur. During the course of his journey, his mother attained the Feet of the Lord. The King of Tanjavur, Shahaji, hearing the scholarship and devotion of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval, visited him and felt blessed by his darshan. Though Sri Shridhara Ayyaval stayed for a while in the city he could not stand the bustle of city life for long. He wished to reside in a more serene and peaceful atmosphere and was in search of a suitable place. When he reached the village of Tiruvisainallur, he realised he had found the place he had desired and decided to reside there. Among all the great scholars who lived there, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval was the most accomplished and revered.
King Shahaji had tremendous devotion and love for Sri Shridhara Ayyaval and so visited him quite often. Sri Shridhara Ayyaval also loved the king for his devotion and sincerity. Sri Shridhara Ayyaval did not hesitate to give proper counseling to the King whenever it was essential. He had such deep affection for the king that he even accepted the seat of 'Divan' in his court. During this period, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval wrote many great literary works. As days passed, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval, who was naturally inclined towards a simple and devout life felt the need to give up the association with king and his worldly affairs. However, the king would not permit this. One day, while Sri Shridhara Ayyaval was pondering over this a messenger from the king arrived. Looking at Sri Shridhara Ayyaval the messenger asked, "Oh Bhagavata (Devotee of the Lord)! Is the Divan in?" As soon as Sri Shridhara Ayyaval heard this question, his face bloomed with joy and he sent a reply in writing stating-"The Divan is dead. Only the Bhagavata remains." When Shahaji saw the reply, he thought Sri Shridhara Ayyaval to be dead and could not contain his sorrow. Weeping, he reached the hut of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval only to find him alive and happy. He enquired as to why Sri Shridhara Ayyaval had written 'The Divan is dead'. Sri Shridhara Ayyaval said, "Since I got the epithet of 'Bhagavata', which is a higher post in the kingdom of God than that of Divan in your kingdom, I replied so!" Shahaji understood the heart of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval and did not compel him to continue as the Divan. His respect for Sri Shridhara Ayyaval grew more than ever before.
Sri Shridhara Ayyaval was an embodiment of humility. For the sake of uplifting man he composed many works. Bhagavan Nama Bhooshanam, Aakya Shashti, Dayashatakam, Stuti Paddhathi, Shiva Bhakti Kalpalatha, Shiva Bhakta Lakshanam, Achyutaashtakam, Dola Navaratna Malika etc. are a few to name. Though titled differently, all these works were primarily about the greatness and glory of the Divine Names of the Lord.
Sri Bhagavan Nama Bodendra Swamigal was a contemporary of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval. Sri Bodendra Swamigal had deep reverence for Sri Shridhara Ayyaval. They used to meet often and enjoy the bliss of talking about the glory of the Lord. Though Sri Shridhara Ayyaval saw no difference in the prowess of Lord Shiva's name and Lord Vishnu's name he loved chanting the names of Lord Shiva. Similarly, Sri Bodendra loved the name of Rama more than anything. When Sri Bodendra Swamigal read the work of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval named 'Aakya Shashti', which primarily talked only about the greatness of Lord Shiva's names in sixty verses, he said, "You could have named this work as 'Shivaakyashashti' instead of 'Aakya Shashti'! Though all the names of the Lord are equally sweet and powerful, you have chosen to sing the greatness of only one of them! Why is it so? Don't you like singing the divine Name of Lord Rama?" The moment Sri Shridhara Ayyaval heard this from the great saint, he replied in a beautiful verse emphasizing the greatness of the Divine Name of Lord Rama. "While Lord Shiva, the glory of whose name I have sung in these sixty verses, himself does not cease to chant the Divine Name Rama even for a moment out of such taste and love for that name, how can I dare to describe the beauty and glory of the Divine Name of Rama?"
Sri Bodendra Swamigal shed tears of joy hearing this verse.
Sri Bodendra Swamigal and Sri Shridhara Ayyaval spent many such wonderful moments of divine bliss. Sri Sadashiva Brahmendra, another great Saint of the same time, also used to join Sri Shridhara Ayyaval and Sri Bodendra Swamigal in their discussions.
A few learned scholars of the city envied Sri Shridhara Ayyaval for the place he had found in the heart of the king. Once, they had arranged for the celebration of Janmashtami festival with much pomp and show. Sri Shridhara Ayyaval did not relish the worship that was devoid of devotion. Therefore, he did not participate in the function. The people who conducted the function carried a picture of Lord Krishna in procession. When Lord Krishna's procession came to the door of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval, the priests and scholars refused to accept the offerings of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval. Reprimanding Sri Shridhara Ayyaval for not taking part in the festival because of pride, they said, "Why feign devotion when you totally lack devotion?Keep away. Our Lord Krishna hardly needs your worship." Sri Shridhara Ayyaval smilingly replied, "Lord Krishna knows who His devotees are!" Cut to quick by these words, the priests and scholars said, "Well! In that case, why don't you call Lord Krishna? If you are indeed a great devotee, let us see if Lord Krishna accepts your invitation!" Without a moment's hesitation, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval composed and sweetly sang the names of Lord Krishna in a beautiful verse. While Sri Shridhara Ayyaval stood on, the priests ordered the procession to move on. Sri Shridhara Ayyaval too went inside his humble home.
When the procession reached the next house, the priests and scholars found the image of Lord Krishna missing in the photograph! Trembling with fear, they ran to the house of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval to beg his pardon. Sri Shridhara Ayyaval was putting Lord Krishna to sleep. He composed the 'Dola Navaratna Maalika' on Lord Krishna that night. The priests and scholars who had offended Sri Shridhara Ayyaval, out of ignorance, now understood the glory of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval and his steadfast devotion and love for the Lord. To absolve themselves of the sin incurred by offending a great devotee and with a hope to develop the kind of love for the Lord which Sri Shridhara Ayyaval had they too spent the entire night with Sri Shridhara Ayyaval, singing the Divine Names of the Lord.
Sri Shridhara Ayyaval used to visit the Temple of MahaLinga, Lord Shiva, in the nearby city of Madhyarjuna. Rain or shine, he would not miss visiting the temple. He preferred to see the Lord when there was not much crowd and so chose the early hours of the morning for the visit.
Once, Lord Shiva intended to test the love and devotion of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval. That day, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval was on his way to the temple as usual. He had to cross the river Kaveri in order to reach the temple. On reaching the banks of Kaveri he found the river flooded. Boatmen refused to ferry the boat across the river. Sri Shridhara Ayyaval could not bring himself to return home without seeing His Lord in the temple. Gazing at the tower of the temple on the other shore, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval stood with tear-filled eyes. He felt he must have offended the Lord in some way and that sin acted as a block to the darshan of His Lord. He composed a soulful prayer called 'AarthiHara Stotra' in which he prayed, "Oh Lord! Please bestow your loving and compassionate glance on me, who is suffering from the pangs of separation from you! You have the untarnished fame of relieving the one who merely chants your Divine name from the clutches of sorrow! How is it that though I have sought refuge in You, I am agonized? Did you not bestow your grace on the hunter who, on death bed, chanted your divine name 'Hara Hara Hara' unintentionally, while teaching his son the way to hunt-'Prahara, Aahara, Samhara'(attack, bring, kill)? Such being your compassion, how can you turn your face away from me who am piteously praying- 'Save me Lord Shiva!'
While Sri Shridhara Ayyaval was lamenting thus a priest of the Shiva Temple, who was known to him, came to him and gave Vibhoothi Prasada (Sacred ashes). He said to Sri Shridhara Ayyaval, "I did not find you in the temple today. Knowying that you would be saddened at not being able to cross the river and have the vision of the Lord I decided to come and give you the sacred ashes." Transported to Bliss Sri Shridhara Ayyaval prostrated before the priest and accepted the sacred ashes with reverence.
While Sri Shridhara Ayyaval moved towards his home, shedding tears of joy thinking of the love of the Lord towards His devotees, the question 'how did the priest manage to cross the flooded river?' arose in him. From his memory he recalled that the priest was not a bit wet and the sacred ashes smeared on his body were not sumdged! Sri Shridhara Ayyaval wondered if it was Lord Shiva himself who had come in the garb of the priest. Next day, the flood subsided and Sri Shridhara Ayyaval went to the temple and found the same priest there. Sri Shridhara Ayyaval thanked the priest for his kindness and said that his mind was at peace only after receiving the sacred ashes from him the previous day. The priest was utterly confused hearing this. He said, "Sir! I never came to the other shore! Indeed, who could have dared to cross the flooding river?"
On hearing this, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval was moved beyond words. He realized it was Lord Shiva himself who had taken pity on him and come to give the sacred ashes. With a grateful heart he sang the glory of the compassion of the Lord in the hymn 'Dayashatakam'. In this hymn, he sings, "Oh! The Compassion of the Lord! One is cleansed of all his sins the moment you cast your glance on him! When will you bless me so that I will always be immersed in the bliss of chanting the Divine names like 'Madhava', 'Murari', 'Kaamaarey', 'Shiva', 'Mahadeva', 'Govinda' and 'Purahara'! Be pleased to bestow two boons on me! That my mind may always be established in the Divine Form of Lord Shiva and that my tongue may always chant the Divine Names! In my last breath, let me chant the Divine Name 'Shiva'!"
Sri Shridhara Ayyaval, who composed 100 such verses glorifying the compassion of the Lord, was none other than Lord Shiva himself! Needless to say, he was an epitome of compassion! He could not bear to see anyone suffer. He considered even liberation a trifling matter as compared to compassion to all beings.
One day, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval was on his way to River Kaveri for a bath. It was a day of 'Sraardha' (annual death rites for ancestors) in his home and all food offerings were ready. On the way he found a poor man belonging to a low caste fallen down in an unconscious state due to hunger. Unable to bear the sight of the suffering of the poor man Sri Shridhara Ayyaval rushed back to his home and returned with the food prepared for the ceremony. He gave it to the man. Sri Shridhara Ayyaval , who saw the Lord in all, neither had a second thought about doing this nor was he bothered about the sin he might incur. He knew that by appeasing the hunger of this man he would be pleasing the Lord. After giving him food Sri Shridhara Ayyaval went back home and cleaned the entire place. He cooked fresh food for the priests and invited them for performing the ceremony. The priest who were to perform the ceremony were a jealous lot who envied Sri Shridhara Ayyaval and chose this as the right moment to create trouble for him. They picked up an argument with him on this matter. Sri Shridhara Ayyaval quoted scriptures to show the greatness of timely help and said it was in no way sinful to feed a hungry man. However, the priests were adamant and refused to accept any explanation. They all walked out of the house and proclaimed Sri Shridhara Ayyaval as an outcaste. Sri Shridhara Ayyaval accepted this too as the divine will of Lord and continued the ceremony without the help of the priests. The Trinity -- Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma -- themselves appeared at the home of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval and participated in the ceremony! They partook of the food cooked by Sri Shridhara Ayyaval with pleasure. What will the Lord not do for His loving devotee?
Though the ceremony was performed in this manner that year, the following year Sri Shridhara Ayyaval, very compassionate, requested the priests to participate in the ceremony. The arrogant priests refused the invitation bluntly. Sri Shridhara Ayyaval pleaded with them to accept his invitation and said that he would carry out any atonement that they prescribed for the sin incurred. The priests then said, "Take a dip in the Holy Ganga. That is the only atonement for the terrible sin incurred." Sri Shridhara Ayyaval replied, "The Holy Ganga is up in north and I am already old. I do not think I can travel that far. Instead, I shall bring the Holy Ganga to me in the well here my backyard." Hearing this, the priests said, "How preposterous of you to speak so! Of course, there are some verses in the scriptures which exalt the Holy Name of Ganga by saying that if one takes a dip in any water chanting the name of Ganga, he would gain the merit of having taken a dip the Holy River Ganga. But these are nothing but exaggerations! Just as you exaggerate the glory of Divine Names!" and laughed out. "Don't even imagine that you can trick us and become one among us again!" Sri Shridhara Ayyaval humbly replied, "I do not intend to cheat anybody. I shall bring the Holy Ganga right here." Saying this, he prayed to Holy Ganga through eight verses of Gangashtakam composed by him then. And lo! The Holy River Ganga gushed out of the well in the backyard of Sri Shridhara Ayyaval's home! The priests were terrified to witness this miracle. Now they were alarmed to see the river gush out to the roads! They ran and fell at Sri Shridhara Ayyaval's feet and begged his pardon. They requested Sri Shridhara Ayyaval to send the river back! Sri Shridhara Ayyaval invited all of them to take a dip in the river. The panicked mass insisted he send it back and refused to take a dip. Sri Shridhara Ayyaval then prayed to Mother Ganga to stay in his well in the backyard of his home for ever. The Holy River Ganga paid heed to his prayer and subsided into the well. This incident occurred on the new moon day in the month of 'Karthika'. Till this day, many pilgrims travel to Tiruvisainallur to take a dip in this well every year on the new moon day of the Karthika month.
Sri Shridhara Ayyaval joined Sri Bodendra Swamigal in spreading the message of chanting the Divine Names as the easiest means to gain both material and spiritual benefits. One day, while Sri Shridhara Ayyaval was on his way to visit the temple of Lord Shiva he discoursed to his devotees emphasizing the glory of divine names and love for the Lord. Sri Shridhara Ayyaval looked unusually bright and lustrous that day. In the sanctum sanctorum of the Lord, with tears in his eyes, he prayed to the Lord through many verses. Overwhelmed by the pangs of separation from the Lord and unable to stand it any longer, Sri Shridhara Ayyaval rushed to the Sanctum of the Lord in order to embrace Him. While the priests attempted to stop him Sri Shridhara Ayyaval ran and disappeared into the Sanctum of the Lord. The Lord, in the form of Linga, shone brightly like a sun for some time. The awestruck devotees stood looking on, as this wonderful incident happened, and shed tears.
Sri Shridhara Ayyaval spent every moment of his life striving to uplift the mass by spreading the nectarine Divine Names of the Lord. Let us all pray to Sri Shridhara Ayyaval to bless us all with a taste for the Divine Names of the Lord.