Music has always played an important role in the realm of Madhwa religion and philosophy. The Madhwa seers starting from our preceptor, Madhwacharya (1199-1287), have always made use of music to teach the tenets of Dwaitha philosophy.
Seers after Madhwacharya such as one of his four direct disciples-Narahari Theertha (1241-1333)-commenced the tradition of composing Devaranamas. This was further continued by Sripadaraja of Mulabagal (1404-1502) and his disciple Vyasa Raja or Vyasa Theertha (1447-1539).
The next avatar of Vyasa Raja was Raghavendra Swamy (1595-1671) and he was one of the most outstanding saints of the Madhwa Parampare.
Music flowed in his veins and the family of Raghavendrta Swamy were deeply involved in music.
Raghavendra Swamy’s great grandfather, Krishna Bhatta, was a renowned veena player of his times and he taught Veena to the Vijayanagar Emperor, Krishna Deva Raya. Krishna Bhatta was one of the many luminaries who adorned the court of the Raya and he was a contemporary of Tenali Ramakrishna, Allsani Peddanna and any others.
Krishna Bhatta’s son Kanakachala Bhatta was also a well-known veene exponent. He too taught Veene at the royal court of Vijayanagar. By the time Kanakachala’s son, Thimanna Bhatta, came of age, the Vijayanagar empire was completely destroyed in 1565 and Thimanna Bhatta, the father of Rayaru, was forced to flee Hampi or Vijayanagar and seek shelter elsewhere.
Thimanna Bhatta trained both his sons-Gururaja the eldest and Venkatanatha, in veene. Venkatanatha soon became an expert Veene player.
He always carried with him his beloved veene. It was his constant companion. When not composing works or teaching students, Venkatanatha was always found playing the veena.
When Venkatanatha became Raghavendra Swamy and was given the pontificate of the Sri Matha of Kumbakonam sometime in 1624, he did not discard the veena. Instead, he played on the veena and sang his heart out before his beloved Moola Rama.
It is widely believed that Rayaru composed Indu Yenage Govinda and sang it before the idol of Krishna in Udupi. His companion then was his veena.
The love that Rayaru had for music, particularly veena, stemmed from his first avatar as Shanku Karna. When Shanku Karna was plucking flowers for Brahma at Nava Brindavana near Hampi, he was captivated by a melodious voice accompanied by the sweet sound that came from a veena. He subsequently found that it was Goddess Saraswathi, the wife of Brahma, who was singing.
The melody in the voice of Goddess Saraswathi and the sweet sounds from the veena remained with the rest of the avatars of Shanku Karna.
Narada sang the glory of Hari strumming his tamboori when Prahalada, the first avatar of Shanku Karna, was in the womb of his mother, Leelavathi, the wife of Hiranyakashipu. Narada’s musical refrain captivated Prahalada.
We do not have much information on the next avatar after Prahalada and this was Bahlika Raja. All we know is that Bahlika was the brother of King Shantanu and that he fought on the side of the Kauravas in the Kurukshetra war. He died at the hands of Bheema during a mace fight.
The next avatar of Shanku Karna is Vyasa Raja. He was a renowned composer and a majority of his compositions is on Krishna and his ankita was initially Krishna and then Sri Krishna. Though there is not direct evidence of Vyasa Raja being an expert in playing musical instrument, we can be sure that he had a head and of course heart for music.
However, we can be sure that Vyasa Raja was a musical genius as he had a superb sense of raga and tala. His “Krishna Nee begane Baro” is such a magnificent piece that it is popular even five centuries after it was composed.
It is as Raghavendra Swamy that Shanku Karna becomes an expert veena player. His father, Thimanna Bhatta, was his first veena teacher.
That Rayaru loved music is irrefutable. He has to his credit one of the most beautiful and evocative songs on Krishna which he began…”Indu Yenage Govinda.” Similarly, “Krishna Nee Begane Baro…”, is today the staple diet of all dance performances in the world.
Rayaru thus inherited the love for music from his earlier avatars.
Rayaru was also a superb orator and debater. He could easily outsmart his rivals in debate and his personality was such that it drew people to him like a magnet.
We see that both Vyasa Raja and Rayaru sparked the Haridasa movement and the outpouring of faith and devotion to Hari continued even after they entered Brindavana. This shows that these two saints-Vyasa Raja and Raghavendra Swamy-had the magnetism and greatness to make people fall in line with the tenets of Hari even after they physically disappeared.
Both these saints inspired the Haridasa movements in different centuries. If Vyasa Raja did inspire Puranadara and Kanaka in the 16th century, Raghavendra Swamy did it in the eighteenth century with Vijaya Dasa, Jagannatha Dasa, Gopala Dasa, Guru Jaggantha Dasa and others.