Vallabhacharya’s undying devotion for Lord Krishna

Vallabha believed that the love of Sri Krishna was enough of a spiritual path for householders and regular men and women.
Image used for representational purpose.( Photo | Ashwin Prasath)
Image used for representational purpose.( Photo | Ashwin Prasath)

What if you try hard to overcome loss and achieve a meaningful life, but the very force that blessed you with success changes your path? The poignant story of Sri Vallabhacharya comes to mind. Vallabha (1479-1531) was a South Indian born and bred in North India. He apparently consecrated the Krishna idol called ‘Shrinathji’, which was first worshipped in Mathura and later installed in Nathdwara in Rajasthan. Shrinathji is depicted in the genre of painting called ‘pichwai’.

Vallabha believed that the love of Sri Krishna was enough of a spiritual path for householders and regular men and women. He described it as an everyday love in which simple, glad thoughts of God helped one lead a decent and meaningful life. This view cut across caste and class. He founded the school of devotion called ‘Pushti Marga’ (the path of nourishment through God’s grace) and established Sri Vaishnavism in Rajasthan and Gujarat. His poem, Madhurashtakam, is sung and danced to even today.

It all began when his parents Lakshman Bhat and Yellama ran for their lives from Varanasi at the news of an impending invasion. They made their way to the relative safety of Champaranya in today’s Chhattisgarh. Yellama, who was pregnant, was traumatised by the fear and hardship of their journey. Her son was born two months early, late at night. He appeared to be dead. Heartbroken, the parents covered his little body to await cremation in the morning.

But Yellamma had a dream in which Sri Krishna appeared and told her to pick up the baby. She awoke and took the little corpse in her arms. Miraculously, it kicked and cried. Yellamma and Lakshman Bhat were overjoyed. They called their son ‘Vallabha’, meaning ‘precious’ and ‘dearly beloved’. Lakshman Bhat found employment as a teacher and they moved into a little house of their own.

In gratitude, Yellama brought up Vallabha to love Krishna. She sang him many songs about Krishna and often dressed him up as Krishna. When he was older, she told him a story about Krishna every day. She took him to the local Krishna temple every week and celebrated Janmashtami, Krishna’s birthday, as though there was a wedding in the family.

Growing up with Krishna in this fashion left its mark on Vallabha. He spoke to Krishna all the time in his mind, even to help him memorise his lessons when he was sent to gurukul. Vallabha’s bright little mind sang and danced at gurukul. His teachers praised him to the skies and his little class-fellows looked up to him.

Vallabha’s safe, happy world came crashing down one monsoon when typhoid struck Champaranya and carried off both his parents. After the funeral, Vallabha’s teacher took charge of his pet pupil and brought him home to stay. But Vallabha’s heart was broken.

“Why did you take my parents away, Krishna?” he wept at first. Then, a lucky idea occurred. “But I have you still,” he thought and remembered what his mother had said about fleeing Varanasi to come to Champaranya: “When you think only of problems, you get more problems. When you think of possibilities, you get opportunities. We are safe and happy because we took our chances and refused to sit there meekly awaiting our fate.”

Several years passed and Vallabha, despite his inner desolation, made steady progress in his scholarship, his mind fixed on Krishna. He famously won a scholarly debate in Hampi, which was then a great world capital.

But the victory felt flat to Vallabha. “I will go on pilgrimage,” he resolved, “perhaps that will help me find my life’s purpose.” He made three long pilgrimages all over Central India and the Deccan. Back in Champaranya, he told his teacher, “I was upset to see people bound up in ritual after ritual or leaving home to become ascetics. They seemed unaware that God is with us in our daily lives.”

“What can you do about it?” asked his teacher.

“I don’t know. But I felt Krishna calling me as though he wanted to tell me something. I think I will go to his old home, to Mathura.”

Vallabha made his way to Mathura and with his scholarship and attainments, he was soon accepted in the religious circles there. A senior saint, though celibate himself, told Vallabha to get married at once. He was Sri Vittalnath from the holy town of Pandharpur and had grown attached to Vallabha.

“If you are serious about helping people realise God, you should lead by example,” said the saint earnestly. “What does a sanyasi, like I, for instance, know about the joys and sufferings of ordinary people? I say this with absolute honesty out of love for my fellow beings. Teach them the Krishna-love that you carry like a jewel in your heart which your mother gave you. It will brighten their lives, as it did yours.”

“But I don’t know any girls and I have no family to speak for me,” said Vallabha, though convinced by his opinion.

“Leave it to me,” said the old sanyasi, for all the world like a fond match-making mamma, and spread the word amongst his followers. Soon, a highly respectable match turned up in the form of Mahakanya, the pretty daughter of a local priest. Vallabha was duly married and two sons were born to him.

However, his sleep was frequently disturbed by dreams of Krishna calling him. Vallabha was now fifty-two years old and should have been blissfully content with his family life and spiritual cause, but the dreams persisted. “You have done your work here. Now come to me at Kashi,” said Krishna repeatedly in his sleep.

Vallabha decided to take sanyas. He bid farewell to his tearful wife and children, and changed his white clothes for ochre robes. He made his ascetic vows and left for Kashi with a light, carefree heart. It was going to be alright, he thought. Krishna had called again, and he was bound to answer.

Renuka Narayanan

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