During the latter half of the 9th century A.D. and the beginning of the 10th, there lived in the town of Srirangam, near Tiruchirappalli, a learned Vaishnavite scholar named Ranganathacharya, more usually called Nathamuni, or the sage Natha. He is credited, in popular tradition, with having reached the fabulous age of over 500 years and to have closed his career at about 920 A. D. He was a native of Viranarayanapura, the modern Kattumannargudi, of the Cuddalore district, in what appears to be the dominions of the Chola rulers of the day, who had not yet risen to the greatness, which preceded their final decline in the end of the 13th century. He was probably a descendant of early Vaishnava immigrants, from the banks of the Yamuna and other parts of the north, who carried the Bhagavatha or the Pancharatra cult to the south and laid the foundation for the spread of Vaishnavism during the second to the seventh centuries of the Christian era which were the palmy days of the Pallava rule. The period just mentioned was the period of the Vaishnavite Azhwars, of whom the most revered is Satakopa or Nammazhwar and the last is Thirumangai Azhwar. The latter was a contemporary of Thirugnana Sambandhar, the Saiva saint, and of the Pallava ruler Narasimhavarman I of Kanchi (625-645 AD). The earlier Azhwar must have lived long before this period, possibly in the opening years of the Christian era*. He was a native of the city of Kurugai, now Azhwar Thirunagari, near Tirunelveli, on the Tamirabarani, in the kingdom of the Pandyas, and composed over a thousand stanzas in classical Tamil.
The literature of the Azhwars presupposes a thorough knowledge of the Krishna stories and the stories of the earlier avatars of Vishnu, and the frequent impassioned references to such stories, even in the songs of the earliest of Azhwars, show that the South must have been flooded with these marvellous legends at a very early period. The story goes that Nathamuni, while at the Vishnu temple of Mannargudi, his native place, heard some Brahmins from the southern end of the Peninsula recite Tamil verses of Satakopa addressed to the Vishnu God of Kumbakonam (Aravamudhan) and was charmed with their sense and diction. He also found that these verses concluded with the words “These 10 out of the thousand, composed by Satakopa.” Nathamuni, thus placed in the track of research, seems to have finally recovered the whole of Satakopa’s works, and he then arranged them and the extant works of the other Azhwars into four collections of about a thousand stanzas each. He is also said to have brought about the system of regular recitation of these texts during the festivals of the God at Srirangam and the system continues even to this day in the most ancient temples dedicated to Vishnu. Nathamuni was, we may take it, well-versed in the Sanskrit literature of the day and is said to have been an adept in yoga and to have been the last to practise it in this part of India. He is said to have composed a work called Nyayatatva, and a work on yoga philosophy, ‘The Yoga Rahasya.’ Neither of the works seems to be extant now, but extracts from the former are given in the Nyasiddhanjana, a work of Venkatanatha, or the famous Vedanta Desika, a voluminous Vaishnava writer in Sanskrit and Tamil (1269-1370 A.D.), contemporary with the equally famous Vidyaranya, the Vijayanagar minister. The Nyayatatva seems to have been an elaborate treatise covering the whole field of philosophy from the point of view of the Ramanuja School and was developed further by later writers of the same school. Though possibly a good Tamil scholar, Nathamuni has left no Tamil work of his own behind, except a few memorial verses (thaniyans) prefixed to the works of three of the Azhwars, namely, Nammazhwar, Vishnuchitta (Periyazhwar) and Madhurakavi. Certain similar Sanskrit verses (thaniyans) prefixed to the works of Nammazhwar are also ascribed to him.
The ritual of worship as observed in Vishnu temples is based on two early standard works. One of them is known as the Vaikhanasa sutra, probably belonging to the black (Krishna) Yajur Veda School. The other work is the Pancharatra Agama belonging to the extensive Tantra literature, popularly believed to have been composed by God Narayana Himself. In addition to laying down the modes of worship both in temples and at houses, the Agama contains rules of conduct for the Vaishnavites and has a peculiar philosophy of its own, namely, that of the Bhagavatha cult. The system is, of course, of very ancient date and is referred in the Mahabharatha; and the Badarayana’s (Vyasa) sutras on Uttara Mimamsa are understood to refer to this philosophy in the four sutras that conclude Pada II of the 2nd Adhyaya. Nathamuni’s contribution to the ritual was the provision for the recitation of the Tamil vedas, as the works of the Azhwars came to be collectively called, on appropriate occasions during the main festivals of the God. The immediate effect of such an arrangement was the critical study of the Thiruvaimozhi as Satakopa’s work is usually called; and from this time forward, a school of combined Sanskrit and Tamil scholarship arose, which developed into great importance in later days and finally divided the Vaishnava sect into the two forms of the Northern and the Southern or the Vadakalai and the Thenkalai sections. The first commentary on the work of Satakopa was, however, written only in the twelfth century towards the close of Ramanuja’s life by a pupil of his. We have no means of ascertaining whether Nathamuni was a complete follower of all the doctrines that now go by the name of the Ramanuja School, but as he is traditionally considered the founder of that school, it is to be presumed that he was. We shall see further on that his grandson Yamunacharya (Alavandar) has really laid the foundation for all the doctrines that now go under Ramanuja’s name. The doctrine peculiar to the Ramanuja School and considerably elaborated by the religious teachers who succeeded him is the doctrine of Saranagathi (Prapatti) or surrender to God in absolute renunciation and faith. This doctrine is considered to have some slight basis in the Upanishads, but is not referred to in the Sri Bhashya of Ramanuja. It is practically founded on the Pancharatra Tantra referred to already and is a cardinal doctrine of the Vaishnavite in his practical religion. It is, however, said to have been accepted and brought into practice by the sage Satakopa himself and by Nathamuni after him. The details of the doctrine are a fruitful source of controversy among the followers of Ramanuja and a very respectable amount of literature is even now extant on the subject.
A few anecdotes of Nathamuni’s life are not uninteresting and may be mentioned. Readers of the Ramayana will remember how that great work is said to have been published for the first time by being sung in the court of Rama himself by two musical pupils of Valmiki, the author, who afterwards turned out to be Rama’s sons. The Tamil songs of Satakopa are similarly sung to this day at Srirangam and other places and Nathamuni is said to have set them to music soon after his discovery of the work. The music was, however, of a celestial kind not easily appreciable by ordinary folk. It is said that a dancing girl of the time sang songs in the celestial tune in the court of the Chola king of the day whose capital was Gangaikonda Cholapuram, in the then Tiruchirappalli district, not far from the birthplace of Nathamuni. The king is said to have slighted the musician as he could not appreciate the celestial note and to have preferred another singer who sang the usual tunes. The former dancing girl soon after reached Viranarayanapura and sang before the god of that place and was warmly appreciated by Nathamuni as the music wad after his own heart. The Chola king, on hearing of Muni’s appreciation, paid a visit to the shrine and meeting Nathamuni inquired the reason of his appreciation of the unfamiliar tune. It is said that Nathamuni directed a number of bronze cymbals of different weights to be sounded together and forthwith described correctly their different weights from a perception of the acute differences in the pitches of the notes. The king, admiring his peculiar powers, was satisfied of the superiority of the celestial tune to which the Tamil songs had been set. It may upset chronology, as ascertained at present, to be told that Gangaikonda Cholapuram was founded so early as the end of the 9th century, as it is usually associated with Rajaraja the Great, the Lord Paramount of Southern India who did not mount the throne till 985 A.D.; but we may take it that the site of the city was even then an alternative capital of the Cholas with Uraiyur, near Tiruchirappalli, which was no doubt the metropolis of the dominions. Contact with the Chola ruler is frequently mentioned both in the life of Nathamuni and of his grandson Yamunacharya find it is clear that the reference is to the Chola ruler when he went into residence at the secondary capital above referred to, though no doubt both the sages spent a large portion of their later lives at Srirangam which was near the permanent capital Uraiyur. More correctly speaking, Uraiyur had ceased to be the capital by this time. Tanjore had not yet become the capital of the Cholas.
Another anecdote in the life of Nathamuni connects him with the Tamil poet Kamban, the author of the Tamil Ramayana. It is said that this future Poet-Laureate of various kings composed his grand poem at the residence of his first patron Sadagopa Mudaliar at Tiruvannainallur, generally assumed to be the place of that name in the erstwhile South Arcot District, and went about the country reading out portions of his work and soliciting favourable opinions of scholars. On reaching Srirangam he had to face an assembly of scholars (Pandits) presided over by Nathamuni. It would seem that the latter was at first not appreciative but, was finally won over by the intrinsic merit of the production. It is also supposed that an existing poem of over 100 stanzas on Satakopa is by Kamban and was composed to honour the Vaishnava Azhwar. This anecdote may appear to be the invention of Tamil scholars of the Vaishnava persuasion to bring the eminent Kamban into the fold of the admirers of Satakopa and Nathamuni and is incompatible with the general opinion that Kamban was the court-poet of chola king Kulothunga I who reigned from 1070 A. D. But there is a tradition embodied in an ancient Tamil verse that Kamban composed his Ramayana in the Saka year 807, corresponding to 885 A.D. If this is to be relied upon as accurate, there is no inherent improbability in the story of young Kamban meeting the sage Nathamuni who must have been then well advanced in years.
In accordance with the custom of the times, Nathamuni went on tour to Northern India, visiting the scenes of Krishna’s birth at Mathura and the neighbouring places. His travels extended to the distant Badri or Badrinath on the North, Dwaraka, Krishna’s capital in Kathiawar on the West and Jagannath on the Eastern coast. Nathamuni’s travels were apparently for pilgrimage and not for religious propagandism, as was that of Sankara before him or of Ramanuja afterwards. It was in commemoration of this visit, with his son and daughter-in-law, to the banks of the Yamuna, that his grandson, born about 916 A.D., is said to have been named Yamunacharya. Nathamuni returned to the south in due course via Jagannath and is said to have lived a few years only after the birth of his grandson.
The story of Nathamuni’s death is worthy of the ardent devotee that he is reputed to have been. One day a party of huntsmen headed by the Chola king rode past the residence of Nathamuni at Viranarayanapura. The sage, interrupted in his meditations by the attendant bustle, opened his eyes and, construing the party to be the divine Rama and his brother, on whom, we may suppose, his thoughts were wholly bent in meditation, followed the track of the party and walked with weary steps till the very gates of the Chola capital Gangaikonda Cholapuram, and there dropped down dead through sheer fatigue. His son Ishwaramuni, the father of the famous Yamunacharya (Alavandar), duly discovered his whereabouts and did the funeral obsequies which the remains of the illustrious man demanded. The duration of Nathamuni’s life must be left undetermined, as we cannot accept as reliable the traditional accounts which assign a period from 450 to 500 years for the sage. We must, for the present, be satisfied with supposing that the sage was born somewhere in the first quarter of the 9th century and that lived just over a hundred years, an age exceeded by Ramanuja himself, by Vidyaranya and by the latter’s contemporary, Vedanta Desika.
* Guru Parampara Prabhavam credits Nammazhwar’s birth to have occured on the 43rd day of Kali Yuga, a day much before than what modern scholars have ascertained.
Source: The Vaishnavite Reformers of India by T. Rajagopalachariar, G.A. Natesan & Co., Esplanade, Madras.