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Why Is Ranganatha Called “Periya Perumal”?

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While on a visit to Srirangam and after a delightful darshan of Sri Rangaraja, my son asked me a question–“Why is Ranganatha called “Periya Perumal?” This set me thinking. Though there is perhaps only one correct answer to this question, my mind sought alternatives. Could Ranganatha be called Periya Perumal because of the dimensions of His supine figure? No, that could not be, there are bigger moorties at Tiruvanantapuram and Tiruvattaar. Could He be called that because of the huge number of devotees He attracts? Not really, Tirumala boasts of a much larger crowd. Could it be because of the size of His abode at Srirangam, which is itself called Periya Koil? This too could not be, because there are other temples too, equally big and beautiful. Is it because He was worshipped by Sri Rama, (who Himself is “Perumal”) and is hence called “Periya Perumal”-a Super Perumal who has the glory of having been venerated by no less than the Lord’s own incarnation? This indeed is the popular explanation. However, the same distinction is shared by Sri Nrisimha too, who too was adulated by Sri Rama and Sri Srinivasa too, for good measure-hence, though plausible and popular, this reason too fails to appeal.

Then why indeed is Sri Rangaraja adored as “Periya Perumal”? The answer is that it is He who has occupied the hearts of Azhwars and Acharyas, almost to the exclusion of Emprumans at other divyadesams. It is to Ranganatha that a vast majority of verses of Divya Prabandam, dripping with devotion, have been dedicated. Much more than any other, it is the Lord of Srirangam who has fascinated Azhwars and Acharyas like birds and bees are, by a honey-laden flower. If all Azhwars, (with the exception of Madhurakavi, who, in any case, confined his eulogies to Sri Nammazhwar) have made it a point to sing of Srirangam, whether or not they offered their verbal garlands to any other Emperuman, is it not reason enough to call this magnificent Lord “Peria Perumal?” Sri Ranganatha is the only Perumal to have two or more Prabandams devoted exclusively to Him (Amalanaadipiraan and Tirumaalai).

Two Azhwars, Sri Kulasekhara Perumal and Sri Tirumangai Mannan, have performed extensive kainkaryam at this holiest of holies. All Acharyas, without exception, have made Srirangam their head quarters for varying periods of time: Sri Ramanuja spent all his life (but for his enforced exile at Melkote) there, after leaving Kanchi: Sri Bhattar preferred to be born as a lowly dog, roaming the streets of Srirangam, to high birth elsewhere: Swami Desikan made Srirangam his second home, composed his magnum opus there and performed all manner of service to the Lord: Sri Pillai Lokacharya gave up his precious life in the defence of Sri Ranganatha: Sri Manavala Mamunigal spent a major portion of his ascetic life performing kainkaryam to Azhagia Manavaalan. It is the resultant sanctity of worship by all these Acharyas and the Azhwars before them, that entitles Ranganatha to the sobriquet, “Periya Perumal”.

However, even prior to Azhwars and Acharyas, the list of those who worshipped Sri Ranganatha reads like a Who’s Who of spiritual literature.

Emperors of the Chozha dynasty, beginning with Dharmavarma, were ardent admirers of Azhagia Manavalan and expressed their devotion in stone, mortar and metal, building several mandapams, corridors and other constructions, apart from adorning the Lord with priceless gems and jewels. Prior to Dharmavarma, it was Sri Vibhishana who performed tiruvaaraadhanam to the Lord (this, in fact, is the nucleus of the present article). And before Vibhishana, a long line of distinguished Emperors of the Ikshvaaku dynasty, up to Sri Rama, worshipped Rangaraja as their family deity. And Ikshvaaku himself obtained this priceless treasure of Ranga vimaanam and Rangaraja from the four-headed Brahma, who had in turn attained the same after long and sincere penance. When we stand before Rangaraja today, we feel pretty small and insignificant when we consider the long and illustrious line of devotees who have paid obeisance to Him over the ages.

However, if we poor mortals are able to feast our eyes on Sri Ranganatha today, it is Sri Vibhishana we have to thank for the privilege and pleasure.

It was this right-thinking raakshasa who obtained Azhagia Manavalan from Chakravartthi Tirumagan and established the moorthy at Srirangam, albeit unwittingly. Sri Rama gifted Ranganatha to Vibhishana on the occasion of His coronation at Ayodhya, we are told.

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We are slightly confused here. Several questions arise regarding the gifting of Ranga vimaanam and the deity, by Sri Rama to Vibhishana.

First and foremost, would anyone give away the Perumal who forms the object of one’s daily worship? And more pertinently, would one part with a moorthy which had been worshipped by one’s distinguished ancestors, who had themselves obtained the Perumal after Herculean effort? For instance, would you part with a Saalagraama moorthy or vigraham which has been in your family for ages and has been ministered to lovingly by your forefathers? Not only would you not do it, you wouldn’t even think of such a thing. Yet, this is what Sri Rama did-He gifted away to Vibhishana the Ikshvaaku kula daivatam, which had been bequeathed to Him and which was more precious to Him than the entire kingdom of Kosala.

Secondly, why was Vibhishana chosen for this invaluable gift and why not Sugriva or Angada, who had aided Sri Rama no less in reclaiming Sri Mythily? And, more pertinently, why not Hanuman, whose devotion to Raghava was beyond parallel? You could think of a host of other worthies who were apparently eligible for this priceless gift. Yet, it was Vibhishana whom Sri Raghava chose.

Since Sri Rama is the embodiment of righteousness (“Ramo vigrahavaan Dharma:”) what He did must have indeed been correct, for He was capable of no wrong. When you search for a reason, it dawns on you immediately. It was only Vibhishana who performed Saranagati at the lotus feet of Sri Rama and to whom the latter felt infinitely beholden. He may have had innumerable well-wishers, any number of worthies may have aided and assisted Him in His endeavours, but the Lord feels an immense sense of obligation to none else but the Saranagata, who surrenders to Him heart and soul. Neither Sugriva nor even Hanuman can boast of having explicitly performed Saranagati to the Lord, as could Vibhishana. It was this rakshasa who recognized Sri Rama as the universal saviour and refuge, as are evident from his words on the occasion of his surrender – “Sarva loka saranyaaya Raaghavaaya mahaatmane”. And it was he and none other who spurned untold wealth, a beloved wife and loving children (“tyaktvaa putraanscha daaraanscha”) and left behind a life of princedom and pleasure, all for the sake of the Lord. This simple act of Saranagati imposed such a burden of debt on Raghava that He felt partly relieved only after He crowned Vibhishana the Emepror of Lanka – “vijvara: pramumoda ha”. And it was again as a token of His boundless love for surrendered souls that Sri Rama gifted to Vibhishana the famed Ranga vimaanam and Sri Ranganatha’s moorthy, for He could think of nothing more valuable to reward the saranaagata with. Swami Desikan tells us that the Lord hastens to bestow the prapanna with all His boundless bounty, and is prepared to proffer Himself too, all in return for the simple and singular strategy of Saranagati – “tamadu anaitthum avar tamakku vazhangi”.

Is there any evidence in the Ramayana for Sri Rama having gifted the Ranga vimaanam to Vibhishana, or is it just folklore? For instance, in many villages, especially in Karnataka, people say that Rama and Lakshmana stopped there for a night or more, as proof of which they point to the name of the place, which is usually Ramanagara or Ramapura etc. And if an old wives’ tale is recounted long enough and loud enough, it becomes quasi-history and in course of time acquires an unchallenged authenticity. However, the episode of Vibhishana obtaining Sri Ranganatha from Sri Rama is well-documented in Srimad Ramayanam.

After Sri Rama pattabhishekam, all those who attended prepare for returning home. It is on this occasion that Sri Rama rewards all the vaanara veeras and Vibhishana, as is proper and befitting the status of each-”Yathaarham poojitaa: sarve kaamai ratnaischa pushkalai”. While Sugriva, Hanuman and other personalities are honoured with various presents, when it is the turn of Vibhishana, Sri Rama obviously feels that the only fitting gift was His own deity of daily worship-Sri Ranganatha. He could think of no other reward more precious and prized. Sri Valmiki says that Vibhishana returned to Lanka, having obtained the family heirloom – “Labhdhvaa kula dhanam Raja Lankaam praayaat Vibhishana:”. Having parted with His priceless possession, did Rama feel sorry, as an afterthought, as many of us do? Not at all– to the contrary, in His extremely generous heart, He felt immensely happy that He could reward the Saranagata with a fitting present – “Raaghava: paramodaara: raraaja parayaa mudaa”.

There are those who say that the aforesaid lines of Valmiki are general in nature and do not refer in particular to the Ranga vimaanam and that the words “Kula dhanam” (ancestral treasure) refer to Vibhishana’s traditional property of the Kingdom of Lanka (of which Rama crowned him emperor) and not to Rama’s heirloom of Ranga vimaanam. Just to convince these doubting Thomases, the Paadma Puranam explicitly confirms that Rama’s gift to Vibhishana was indeed the former’s deity of daily worship, Sri Ranganatha-

“iti uktvaa pradadou tasmai sva vislesha asahishnave

Sri Ranga saayinam sva archyam Ikshvaaku kula daivatam

Rangam vimaanam aadaaya Lankaam praayaat Vibhishana:”

To Vibhishana, who could not bear separation from Rama, Rama gifted His own icon of worship, which had belonged to the Ikshvaaku dynasty for countless millennia. Happy beyond measure at the unexpected and priceless gift, Vibhishana repaired to Lanka with the Ranga vimaanam, says the Paadma Purana. These slokas have been quoted by commentators of Ramayana, while dealing with the gift to the raakshasa raja.

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Further evidence, if required, of the close connection between Srirangam and Vibhishana, is available in the Divya Prabandam too, with Sri Tondaradippodi telling us that the recumbent figure of Ranganatha looks benignly towards Lanka-”ten disai Ilangai nokki”. When there are a hundred places south of Srirangam, it is indeed significant that Azhwar considers Ranagaraja to be facing Lanka, the home of Vibhishana. Having disappointed Vibhishana by not choosing to become a resident of Lanka, the Lord apparently thought that He would make up somewhat by looking towards Lanka. This can be inferred from the following lines of Sri Periazhwar — “Mannudaya Veedanarkkaa madil Ilangai disai nokki malark kan vaittha ennudaya Tiruvarangar”

In a classic case of slips between the cup and the lip, Vibhishana could not retain the idol of Rangaraja and take it with him to Lanka, where he intended to house Him in his palace. Having had enough of palace sojourns, Ranganatha decided to settle down at the idyllic spot between two branches of the Kaveri. It was evening when Vibhishana was returning to Lanka and the sun was about to set. Particular about performing sandhyavandanam in time (ironically, even rakshasas appear to be meticulous about this, but not we) the king of rakshasas set down the vimaanam at a picturesque and enchanting place, on a stretch of sands surrounded by thick groves where birds and bees sang incessantly and the river Kaveri flowed serenely, with two branches together resembling a mighty garland. After worshipping sandhya, when Vibhishana was ready to resume his journey to Lanka, he found that he could not lift the Lord from the place where he had set Him down. Try as he might with all his might, the rakshasa could not make the Lord budge from the new place He had decided to make His home. And so came into being Srirangam, which was to acquire acclaim and renown as “Bhooloka Vaikunttam” or heaven on earth.

Dispatching a swan with a message to Sri Mythily imprisoned at the distant Asokavanam, Sri Raghava describes in detail the places and people the swan would encounter on its way to Lanka. It is in this context that Srirangam too comes in for its share of adulation, with Sri Rama describing it as the future abode of Sri Ranganatha, who had hitherto blessed the Ikshaavuku emperors as their family deity, reigning with splendour in their palace temple.

And why did the Lord change plans midway and decide to settle down between the two branches of Kaveri at Srirangam, when Sri Rama had intended the Ranga vimaanam as a gift to Vibhishana, presumably to be established at Lanka? Though the ways of the Lord are inscrutable and His mind unfathomable for mortals like us, we can at best hazard a guess. It would appear that Sri Ranganatha was tired of residing at palaces and being the preferred object of worship of emperors and did not want to hop from the Ayodhya palace to the Lankan palace. Instead, He yearned, in all His Soulabhyam, to reside amidst the proletariat, to be the object of adulation and admiration of countless ordinary devotees, to see and be seen daily by hordes of bhaktas poor materially but rich spiritually.

And we really shudder to think of what might have happened, had Emperuman really obliged Vibhishana and travelled with him to Lanka, to reside there forever-there would have been no Azhwars’ outpourings on Ranganatha-Tirumaalai of Tondaradippodi, Amalanaadipiraan of Paan Perumal and Kangulum Pagalum of Nammazhwar would not have seen the light of the day. Our Acharyas would have felt themselves extremely poor without the benign presence of Rangaraja: Sri Ranga Gadyam of the Bhaashyakaara with its plaintive appeal to the Ultimate, Rangaraja Stavam of Sri Bhattar with its inspiring imagery, Bhagavat Dhyaana Sopaanam of Swami Desikan and more pertinently, his Paaduka Sahasram, would not have been composed at all. And our Sri Vaishnava Sampradaayam, which has as its daily prayer the well-being of Srirangam, would definitely not have grown to its present stature like a giant banyan putting down roots anywhere and everywhere.

The next time we stand before Sri Ranganatha at Srirangam, won’t our thoughts automatically fly to Lanka and to Vibhishana, to whom we owe this wonderful treasure and whom the Lord Himself looks at benignly, even today? If the residents of Sri Vaikunttam are loathe to taking their eyes away from Emperuman’s magnificent form (“sadaa pasyanti sooraya”), it would appear that the Lord of Bhooloka Vaikunttam is so smitten with Sri Lanka and Sri Vibhishna that He can hardly take His eyes from both of them. If we feel, while before Rangaraja, that He is looking over our shoulders at someone behind, we would know for sure whom His merciful glances are directed at.

Writeup by : Sri Sadagopan Iyengar

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