One of the chief saints of the Sri Vaisnava tradition of South India
THE NAME OF King Kulasekhara is well known to followers of Srila Prabhupada. Prabhupada used to relish the Mukunda-mala-stotra, written by this great saintly king. This stotra (prayer) is commonly known in ISKCON as "The Prayers of King Kulasekhara."
Who Are The Alvars?
Srimad-Bhagavatam (11.5.39-40) states, "In the Age of Kali those persons who drink the waters of the holy rivers of Dravida-desa [South India], such as the Tamraparni, Krtamala, Payasvini, the extremely pious Kaveri, and the Pratici Mahanadi, will almost all be pure-hearted devotees of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vasudeva." The Alvars are twelve especially great devotees who appeared in South India. According to the traditions of the Sri Vaisnavas (one of the four disciplic successions of Vaisnavas, devotees of Krsna or Visnu), the Alvars are not ordinary jivas (living entities) but are incarnations of the parsadas (paraphernalia) of Lord Sri Krsna. The Tamil word alvar means "drowned in love of God."
Although modern scholars say the Alvars appeared in the seventh to ninth century A.D., according to the tradition of the Sri Sampradaya they appeared between 4,700 and 6,200 years ago. Dates aside, the Alvars all composed devotional songs, mostly in the Tamil language, in praise of Lord Krsna and His incarnations. The songs embody elevated knowledge of the science of God, and the followers of the Sri Sampradaya consider them as good as the Vedas. The acaryas, or great spiritual teachers, of the Sri Sampradaya, such as Nathamuni, Yamunacarya, Ramanujacarya, Vedantadesika, and Viraraghavacarya, learned not only the four Sanskrit Vedas but also the Tamil Veda, or the Divya-prabandha, consisting of the four thousand songs of the Alvars.
A Hidden Saint
Maharaja Kulasekhara was born into the Sera dynasty of the royal family of Travancore, the southern half of the modern state of Kerala, in southwest India. The rulers of the land did not claim to own the kingdom but considered themselves vassals and ministers to Ananta Padmanabha Swami, the Deity of Visnu, whom they regarded as the actual owner of the land. Ananta Padmanabha, situated at Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), was, and still is, the worshipable Deity of the people of that area. The kings of Travancore would come before the Lord at least twice a day to offer obeisances and report on the administration of the country. (The tradition of the Maharaja of Travancore's visiting Lord Ananta Padmanabha Swami goes on to the present day, even though the king has no real political power.) Such was the pious and saintly quality of the ancient line of Vedic kings among whom Maharaja Kulasekhara appeared.
Before the birth of Kulasekhara (around 3,000 BC), his parents were childless, a worrisome situation for a monarch. Kulasekhara's father, Drdhavrata Maharaja, prayed intensely and worshiped Lord Narayana, an expansion of Lord Krsna. The Lord was pleased and blessed Drdhavrata to have as his son a plenary portion of the Kaustubha gem, which Lord Sri Krsna wears as a pendant on His neck. That son was Kulasekhara.
To prepare for the throne of the Sera dynasty, Prince Kulasekhara learned warfare and government, as well as the Vedic scriptures. When Kulasekhara came of age, Drdhavrata installed him as the king and retired to the forest to pursue undisturbed spiritual life, as recommended in the scriptures for saintly kings.
Kulasekhara was a ksatriya (ruler and military man) of great prowess and became king not only of the Sera lands but also of the neighboring lands of the Pandya and Chola dynasties. Kulasekhara's flawless administration stood for peace, virtue, justice, and happiness. He nourished the people, and he personified magnanimity.
But despite his good qualities, the king was spiritually blind. Playing the part of a worldly king given over to his senses, he considered himself independent of God. But Lord Krsna had a plan for His servant Kulasekhara. By the causeless mercy of Lord Krsna, King Kulasekhara's consciousness gradually transformed. Spiritual perceptions dawned, and he saw the world and its concerns at their real value. He was also blessed with visions of the true nature of the Lord. According to the Sri Vaisnava tradition, Lord Narayana sent Visvaksena, His commander-in-chief, to Kulasekhara Alvar to initiate him into Vaisnavism.
Blessed by the mercy of the Lord, Kulasekhara would often go into ecstasy. He recorded his spiritual visions and deep realizations in devotional songs, which became part of the Divya-prabandha. He now saw everything with purified spiritual eyes and developed a strong sense of detachment. He would daily condemn his responsible worldly position as king, ever hankering to go to Sri Rangam, to the temple of the Deity Ranganatha Swami, to stay there at the feet of the Lord forever. Sometimes he would sigh, hankering to visit the holy shrine of Tirumalai (Tirupati) and have the audience of the Deity Sri Venkatesvara Swami. He would sometimes yearn to go to another holy place and another, and yet another and at each place reside for life. A divine love-sickness had set in.
Kulasekhara felt shackled to the throne and could find no happiness in royal wealth and splendor. To alleviate his spiritual thirst, he invited sages to his capital. With them he carefully studied all the Vedic scriptures. He plucked out the best pearls of wisdom and strung them into a garland (mala) of poems called the Mukunda-mala. Srila Prabhupada was especially fond of this work and would often sing one verse in particular:
adyaiva me visatu manasa-raja-hamsah
kanthavarodhana-vidhau smaranam kutas te
"O Lord Krsna, let the royal swan of my mind now enter the tangled stems of the lotus of Your feet. How will it be possible for me to remember You at the time of death, when my throat will be choked with mucus, bile, and air?"
Lover of Rama
Kulasekhara Alvar chose to hear daily from the Valmiki Ramayana, the history of Lord Ramacandra, Lord Krsna's incarnation as the ideal king. Kulasekhara was so entranced in spiritual consciousness that he lived and breathed the pastimes of Sri Rama and felt them to be ever fresh and present.
One day, during the recitation of the Ramayana by his guru, Kulasekhara heard the following passage:
There twice seven thousand giants stand
With impious heart and cruel hand.
Here Rama stands, by virtue known;
How can the hero fight alone?
On hearing the line "How can the hero fight alone?" Kulasekhara rose in a frenzy of devotion for his Rama and commanded his army to march with him to where Rama was fighting alone and helpless. To relieve Kulasekhara's distress, the ministers arranged for a party of soldiers to meet him as he was going out and tell him that Rama had been victorious. In spiritual delirium, Kulasekhara believed their tale and returned home.
The king celebrated with great care every important event mentioned during the daily recital of the Ramayana. Kulasekhara would have the Deity of Sri Rama carried through the streets of the city in procession, and then he would serve everyone a feast of prasadam, food offered to Sri Rama.
To prevent Kulasekhara from slipping into spiritual madness, his guru sometimes skipped parts of the Ramayana that might disturb the king. One day, however, the guru was absent and his son performed the reading without discrimination. On hearing of the demon Ravana's kidnapping of Sita, Lord Rama's wife, King Kulasekhara, greatly angry in spiritual ecstasy, shouted, "I must march across the sea, reduce Lanka to ashes, slay its ruler Ravana with all his friends and kinsmen, rescue my weeping mother Sita, and join Her with my father Sri Rama!"
Kulasekhara rose, armed himself, gathered his army, marched to the sea, and plunged in. It is said that the king's Deity of Lord Rama then appeared to Kulasekhara and consoled him.
In the company of Sita, Lord Rama said to Kulasekhara, "O my faithful servant, listen. We are returning victorious from the battlefield. Our enemies have all perished, and we have rescued Sita Devi. Your wish has been fulfilled. Let us all return to the city. Let me carry you to the shore, just as I carry souls from the ocean of birth and death to the shores of the spiritual world."
Then Sri Rama caught hold of Kulasekhara, brought him safely to the shore, and after accompanying him to the city, disappeared.
The king's ministers were deeply troubled. How could they help the king manage the kingdom when he was in such a state? They concluded that his association with devotees was the cause of his divine infatuation, and they decided to wean him from that association. Meanwhile, the king had decided to retire to Sri Rangam.
The ministers thought, "Once the king is there, he will never return."
So the ministers schemed to keep the king at home. Whenever the king said he was about to leave for Sri Rangam, the ministers had a group of Sri Vaisnavas come to the city, and the king would postpone his journey on their account.
Soon, however, the king's court, his palace, his private apartments, and all the public places were filled with Sri Vaisnavas. The king allowed the devotees free access and familiarity; he venerated and adored them.
The ministers saw the saintly devotees as a nuisance and were in a quandary about what to do. If they tried to dissuade the king from going to Sri Rangam, they would have to suffer bringing the godly devotees to the kingdom; and if they tried to cut the root of the king's divine ailment the association of devotees the king would simply renounce his kingdom and depart.
The ministers then tried to discredit the devotees by blaming them for the theft, which they arranged, of a valuable necklace belonging to the king's personal Deity of Sri Rama. But when Kulasekhara heard the accusations, he exclaimed, "O ministers, lovers of God are incapable of stealing. There is no vice in their thoughts or actions. To prove the truth of my conviction and the falsity of your accusations against these innocent devotees, let a vessel be brought to me with a venomous cobra in it, and I shall thrust into that vessel my hand."
A servant carried out the command. The king thrust his hand into the vessel of death, but withdrew it unharmed.
Ashamed, the ministers hung their heads. To trifle with the king, they realized, was useless. They fell at his feet, confessed their trick, brought the necklace, and placed it before him in fear and respect. Maharaja Kulasekhara pardoned them and asked them to become servants of the Sri Vaisnavas.
"No more will I dwell with these vile and scheming ministers," the king thought. "I am disgusted with them. Indeed, I am weary of the whole world. I would prefer to leap into fire than keep company with brutes turned away from God."
The King Retires
The saintly King Kulasekhara decided to give up his kingdom. He installed on the throne his son Drdhavrata (named after the young man's grandfather) and, accompanied by his daughter, left for Sri Rangam.
On arriving at Sri Rangam, Kulasekhara gave his daughter in marriage to the Deity, Lord Ranganatha Himself. (Kulasekhara's daughter is considered a portion of Nila-devi, one of the Lord's energies.) Kulasekhara stayed at Sri Rangam for many years, engaged in the service of the Lord and His devotees. He would sometimes go on pilgrimage to other holy places, such as Tirupati, Ayodhya, and Chitrakuta. In Sri Rangam, Kulasekhara composed the Perumal-tirumoli, a work containing 103 devotional songs.
In his last days Kulasekara went to the shrine of Nammalvar at Tirunagari,* near present-day Tinevelli. From Tirunagari, he went to the holy place called Brahmadesa Mannar-Koil, where he stayed for some time serving the presiding Deity, Raja-gopala Swami. There, at age 67, Kulasekhara returned to the spiritual world.
*Tirunagari is the Tamil name for the Adi Kesava temple, where Lord Caitanya found the important scripture Brahma-samhita. Sri Vaisnava scholars believe that the Brahma-samhita was revealed to Nammalvar in trance and that he wrote it down.
Govindacharya, Alkondavilli, 1982 (reprint), The Holy Lives of the Azhvars or Dravida Saints, Bombay: Anantacharya Indological Research Institute.
Syamasundara Dasa, a disciple of Srila Prabhupada's, is a well-known astrologer in ISKCON. He and his wife live in North Carolina, USA.
Selections from Mukunda-mala-stotra
By Kulasekhara Alvar
cintayami harim eva santatam
nanda-gopa-tanayam parat param
I always think of Lord Hari [Krsna], whose joyful lotus face bears a gentle smile. Although He is the son of the cowherd Nanda, He is also the Supreme Absolute Truth worshiped by great sages like Narada.
srama-musi bhuja-vici-vyakule 'gadha-marge
hari-sarasi vigahyapiya tejo-jalaugham
bhava-maru-parikhinnah klesam adya tyajami
The desert of material existence has exhausted me. But today I will cast aside all troubles by diving into the lake of Lord Hari and drinking freely of the abundant waters of His splendor. The lotuses in that lake are His hands and feet, and the fish are His brilliant shining eyes. That lake's water relieves all fatigue and is agitated by the waves His arms create. Its current flows deep beyond fathoming.
mura-bhidi ma viramasva citta rantum
sukha-taram aparam na jatu jane
O mind, please never stop taking pleasure in thinking of the Mura demon's destroyer [Krsna], who has lotus eyes and bears the conch and disc weapon. Indeed, I know of nothing else that gives such extreme pleasure as meditating on Lord Hari's divine feet.
visama-visaya-toye majjatam aplavanam
bhavati saranam eko visnu-poto naranam
The people in this vast ocean of birth and death are being blown about by the winds of material dualities. As they flounder in the perilous waters of sense indulgence, with no boat to help them, they are sorely distressed by the need to protect their sons, daughters, and wives. Only the boat that is Lord Visnu can save them.
bhava-jaladhim agadham dustaram nistareyam
katham aham iti ceto ma sma gah kataratvam
sarasija-drsi deve taraki bhaktir eka
naraka-bhidi nisanna tarayisyaty avasyam
Dear mind, do not bewilder yourself by anxiously thinking, How can I cross this fathomless and impassable ocean of material existence? There is one who can save you Devotion. If you offer her to the lotus-eyed Lord [Krsna], the killer of Narakasura, she will carry you across this ocean without fail.
tattvam bruvanani param parastan
madhu ksarantiva mudavahani
pravartaya pranjalir asmi jihve
My dear tongue, I stand before you with joined palms and beg you to recite the names of Lord Narayana. These names describing the Supreme Absolute Truth bring great pleasure, as if exuding honey.