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Sri Vallabhacharya (1479 – 1531) was a devotional philosopher, who founded the Pushti sect in India following the philosophy of Shuddha advaita (Pure Non-dualism).
He is regarded as an Acharya and Guru within the Vaishnava traditions as promulgated and prescribed by the Vedanta philosophy. He is often associated with Vishnuswami,the founder of Rudra Sampradaya.Within Indian Philosophy he is known as the writer of sixteen 'stotras' (tracts) and produced several commentaries on the Bhagavata Purana, which describes the many lilas (pastimes) of the avatar, Krishna. Vallabha Acharya occupies a unique place in Indian culture as a scholar, a philosopher and devotional (bhakti) preacher. He is widely considered as the last of the four great Vaishnava Acharyas who established the various Vaishnava schools of thought based on Vedantic philosophy, the other three (preceding him) being Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya and Nimbarkacharya. He is especially known as a lover and a propagator of Bhagavata Dharma. He was born in Champaran near Raipur in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh.
The ancestors of Vallabha acharya lived in Andhra Pradesh and belonged to a long line of Telugu Vaidiki Brahmins following the Vishnu Swami school of thought. According to devotional accounts, Krishna commanded his ancestor Yagnanarayana Bhatta that He would take birth in their family after completion of 100 Somayagnas (fire sacrifices). By the time of Yagnanarayana's descendant Lakshmana Bhatta who migrated to the holy town of Varanasi, the family had completed 100 Somayagnas. Vallabhacharya was born to Lakshmana Bhatta in 1479 A.D. (V.S. 1535) on the 11th day of the dark half of lunar month of chaitra at Champaranya. The name of his mother was Illamma.
The period surrounding Vallabhacharya's birth was a tumultuous one and most of northern and central India was being influenced by Muslim invaders. It was common for populations to migrate in order to flee from religious persecution and conversion. On one such occasion, Lakshmana Bhatta had to urgently move out of Varanasi with his pregnant wife. Due to terror and physical strain of the flight suffered by the mother, there was a premature birth of the child, two months in advance. As the child did not show signs of life, the parents placed it under a tree wrapped in a piece of cloth. It is believed that Krishna appeared in a dream before the parents of Vallabhacharya and signified that He Himself had taken birth as the child. According to popular accounts, the parents rushed to the spot and were amazed to find their baby alive and protected by a circle of divine fire. The blessed mother extended her arms into the fire unscathed; she received from the fire the divine babe, gleefully to her bosom. The child was named Vallabha (meaning "dear one" in Sanskrit)
His education commenced at the age of seven with the study of four Vedas. He acquired mastery over the books expounding the six systems of Indian philosophy. He also learnt philosophical systems of Adi Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Nimbarka along with the Buddhist and Jain schools. He was able to recite hundred mantras, not only from beginning to end but also in reverse order. At Vyankateshwar and Lakshmana Balaji, he made a strong impression on the public as an embodiment of knowledge. He was now applauded as Bala Saraswati.
Victory at Vijayanagara
At the behest of the great Tuluva king Krishnadevaraya, a sensational debate was conducted at Vijayanagara between the Vaishnavaites of Madhva and Shankarites over the philosophical question whether God is Dualistic or non-dualistic. Vallabhacharya participated in the discussion, considering it as a divine call.
Vallabhacharya, who had earned an epithet of Bala Saraswati, was given the opportunity to discuss the question. The discussion continued for 27 days in the conference hall. The day of victory for Vaishnavas was celebrated with great pomp at Vijaynagara. He was honoured with the kanakabhishekam ceremony by Krishnadevaraya. The title of ‘Acharya’ and 'Jagadguru' (world preceptor) was conferred on him. He was given vessels of gold weighing a hundred maunds. Vallabhacharya declined to accept them politely and distributed them among the poor brahmins and the learned only after keeping only seven gold mohurs. They were used for preparing the ornaments of their Lord Govardhananatha.
In the traditional Vedantic belief, an Acharya, the leader of spiritual preceptors, is one who has written his personal views and comments on the ‘Brahmasutra’, ‘Bhagavad Gita’ and ‘Upanishads’. Shankarcharya, Ramanujacharya, Nimbarkacharya and Madhvacharya had written their comments and obtained the designation of ‘Acharya’. People then addressed him as Shri Vallabhacharya
Establishment of Pushti Marg (literally, The Path of Grace)
It is believed that when Vallabhacharya entered Gokul, he thought about the important question of restoring people to the right path of devotion. He meditated on Krishna who appeared to him in a vision in the form of Shrinathji, deity discovered by Madhavendra Puri and disclosed the 'Brahma Sambandha' (Sanskrit for - "Relation with Brahman, the supreme Godhead") , a mantra of self dedication or consecration of self to Krishna. Vallabha Acharya related this experience to his worthiest and most beloved disciple, Damodardasa, in the early morning - “Damala, did you hear any voice last night” ? Damodaradasa replied in negative. He became the first Vaishnava initiated by Vallabhacharya. He wanted to preach his message of devotion to God and God’s grace called Pushti - Marga. He undertook three pilgrimages of India. He performed the initiation ceremony of religious rite by conferring on them ‘NamaNivedana’ mantra or ‘Brahma Sambandha’ mantra. Thousands became his disciples, but 84 devoted servants are most famous and their life has been documented in Pushti Marg literature as the ‘Story of 84 Vaishnavas’.
Vallabhacharyaji strictly adhered to three rules :
He was to remain a life-long celibate but the guru Vitthalanatha of Pandharipur commanded him to marry and live the life of householder. He married a woman named ‘Mahakanya’ and had two sons: Gopinatha and Vitthalanatha (also known as Shri Gusainji).
Asura Vyamoha Lila
Based on Pushti Marg literature, in about 1530 A.D., Shrinathji commanded Vallabhacharya to leave the worldly life and to come near Him. It is said that Shrinathji had previously expressed His wish on two different occasions. The third command was accepted by Vallabhacharya as the last verdict. He reached Kasi and according to Vedic traditions, formally renounced the world by taking Sanyasa and a vow of silence. He lived in a hut made of leaves on the Hanuman ghat for about a week. He spent his last days in contemplation of Krishna and suffered agonies of separation from Him. The members of his family assembled near him for his last darshan. When asked about his advice, Vallabhacharya scribbled three and a half Sanskrit verses in the sand by way of counsel. To complete this message, it is believed that Krishna Himself manifested visually on the spot and wrote in the form of a verse and a half. This collection of verses is known as ‘ShikshaSloki’ in Pushti Marg literature. He entered into the waters of the Ganges on the day of Rath Yatra (A festival that is celebrated on the second or third day of the bright side of the lunar month of Ashadha). People witnessed a brilliant flame as it arose from the water and ascended to heaven and was lost in the firmament. This episode is known as AsurVyamohLila.
Sri Vallabhacharya represented the culmination of philosophical thought during the Bhakti Movement in the Middle Ages. The sect established by him is unique in its facets of devotion to Krishna, especially His child manifestation, and is enriched with the use of traditions, music and festivals. Today, most of the followers of this sect reside in western and northern India.