From New World Encyclopedia
An artistic representation of Shri Madhvacharya.

Shri Madhvacharya (shortened as Madhva) (1238 – 1317 C.E.) was a Indian philosopher-sage who founded the Dvaita (dualistic) school of Hindu philosophy. Dvaita is one of the three most influential branches of Vedanta, along-side the schools of Advaita (non-dualism) and Visistadvaita (qualified non-dualism). Madhva’s dualism insisted that human beings and God (Vishnu) were wholly separate, and that the division between humanity and the divine could only be bridged by bhakti, or devotion. Many of Madhva's views, such as his beliefs in eternal damnation and the co-eternal nature of God, Time, and matter, stand in contrast to many standard Hindu philosophical perspectives.


Little is known about the actual life of Shri Madhvacharya, save for that which can be culled from hagiographies. It is agreed that he was born as Vasudeva (or “the son of Vishnu”) to his father Madhyageha Bhatta and mother Vedavati at Pajakaksetra in Udupi District, in the Tulunadu area of the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Madhva was obviously influenced by the pluralistic religious climate of the region in which he grew up. Karnataka of the thirteenth and fourteenth century was not only replete with scholars adept in the philosophies of Vedantic thinkers like Ramanuja and Shankara, but was also home to Jains, Virashaivites and Buddhists, as well as traditions dedicated to Shiva. Sarma has noted that “[i]t is likely that this atmosphere of plurality…made [Madhvacarya] aware of the boundaries between religious worlds and the ways to maintain those boundaries...”[1] an ideal which would guide his later teachings.

Madhva was educated in the Vedas as well as the emerging exegetical traditions of Advaita and Visistadvaita, from which his later teachings would come to differ drastically. Unsatisfied with what he had learned from these schools, Madhva met Acyutapreksa, an ascetic who also disagreed with the other Vedanta schools, particularly Advaita. With Acyutapreksa, Madhva underwent traditional initiation rites to become a sanyassin (a renunciate). However, in the years that followed he and his teacher were constantly engaged in heated debates, which eventually lead Acyutapreksa to make Madhva the head teacher of his fellow disciples due to his superior abilities.

Upon completion of his studies, Madhva proceeded to travel across India to disseminate his interpretation of Vedanta to other learned individuals. In the process, he proceeded to refute the other schools of Hindu philosophy with considerable success. He eventually ended up in Mahabadarikasrama, home of Vyasa, the founder of Vedanta who had penned the Brahma Sutras. With guidance from Vyasa, Madhva wrote his own commentary upon this text, and composed a total of 37 other treatises over the course of his life. Unlike many other significant religious figures throughout history, Madhva openly proclaimed himself to be divine in many of his writings. He claimed to represent the third avatar of Vayu, the Vedic wind god, following Hanuman. Thus, Mahdhva considered his knowledge to be direct revelation of the divine rather than derivative of his worldly experience.

In addition to his writings, Madhva founded the Madhva sampradaya (community) in Udipi, where it is said he discovered an idol of Krishna encased in mud. He placed this statue in the Udipi temple. He also ordained eight monks in eight different monasteries (astamathas) who propagated his teachings both during his life and afterward. Madhva died in 1317 C.E., though hagiographies suggest that he did not actually die but simply disappeared, with a shower of flowers from the heavens marking his departure from the physical world. Accordingly, Madhva is still considered by his followers to be to be alive and residing in the Himalayas with Vyasa.



Madhva’s Dvaita school is decidedly realist in the same category as other Indian philosophical schools such as Samkhya, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, and Purva mimamsa. In contrast to Advaita Vedanta, Madhava explained that the universe is not fundamentally illusory, but is instead a real creation of Brahman. Therefore, all objects within the universe exist in and of themselves. Within this reality, Madhva insisted that there are two kinds of entities: asvatantra (dependent entities) and svatantra (independent entities). Dependent realities include the plurality of atmans or souls, as well as Prakriti, the material aspect of the universe described by the ancient Samkhya philosophy. Vishnu, meanwhile, is the sole independent entity in the universe; all other things depend on him. Vishnu is the pinnacle of reality and governs all real things existing within it, living or dead, as well as all the events which can potentially occur. This bifurcated nature of reality marks a fundamental dualism between creator and created, hence affording Madhva Vedanta the name Dvaita, or "dualism."

Due to the dualistic nature of reality delineated in his Vedanta, the concept of difference is discussed in detail within the works of Madhva. For Madhva, difference is the essence or svarupa of any given apprehended object, the quality which distinguishes said object from other objects. Madhva notes that if svarupa is not characterized by difference, then no differentiation would ever occur between objects; moreover, one could not perceive themselves as different from other things. Madhva conceives the universe to be governed by five fundamental types difference, or pancabheda: 1) matter and another, 2) matter and Brahman, 3) matter and Atman, 4) individual Self and other Selves, and 5) Selves from Brahman. Contrary to the Idealistic schools like Yogacara, Madhyamika Buddhism or Advaita, Dvaita maintains that difference, rather than sameness, is in the very nature of the universe.


Madhva's Conception of the Soul

Madhva's view of the soul in relation to Brahman forms a distinct part of his philosophical viewpoint. In opposition to the Shankara's position that Atman is fully equivalent to Brahman, Madhva instead taught that there is a fundamental differentiation between the individual soul and the supreme divine. He insisted that souls are co-eternal with God, and were not created by Him, as in the Abrahamic religions. All souls are independent, both from each other and from Vishnu, though God is responsible for each soul's continued existence. In this sense, Madhva has compared this relationship between souls to that between a source (bimba) and its reflection (pratibimba). The essence of the soul is comprised of elements of God such as knowledge and bliss, however, jiva is incomplete, and can in no way be said to be equivalent to the supreme divinity. As dependent beings, the agency of the soul is only partial, and its power to act derives from Vishnu. Thus, despite their differences, the soul and God are eternally connected in Madhva's view.

Madhva's Conception of God

According to Madhva, the divine is identified as Vishnu, the preserver god of the Hindu Trinity, a highly personal creator god—singular, perfected, and immutable. This god is invariably. Therefore, Madhva's notion of the divine can be classified as Saguna Brahman, or "Brahman with qualities." This stands in direct contrast to Advaita Vedanta, which holds "Nirguna Brahman" ("Brahman without qualities"), to the highest spiritual ideal. Madhva claims that such descriptions are merely a reflection of the human inability to fully comprehend Vishnu's magnificence, and noted that such an ideal was inaccessible to religion as it is practiced upon the everyday, non-philosophical level. For Madhva, and the Dvaitic tradition that followed, these anthropomorphic characteristics are not perceived to deplete Vishnu's ultimate identity as supreme cosmic principle in any way. This vision of monotheism is comparable to that of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in which the personal creator exists separately from His creation.

Much like Judeo-Christian thinkers, Madhva draws upon the cosmological argument in suggesting that Vishnu must be the first cause for the rest of the universe. However, Vishnu does not create the universe ex nihilo in the way that the Judeo-Christian god does. Instead, he fashions all non-eternal entities from preexistent prakriti. Thus, Vishnu is an efficient cause and not a material cause. If Vishnu were the material cause, Madhva argues that he would undergo a change, which would suggest Vishnu was imperfect; thus, this position serves to keep Madhva's position that God is immutable out of jeopardy. Nonetheless, this doctrine mitigates Vishnu’s monotheistic power, as he is necessarily co-eternal with other entities such as prakriti as well as Kala (Time ). On the other hand, it also solves the problems of evil, since intrinsically wicked souls can also be said to exist eternally, and so Vishnu cannot be held accountable for their actions.


In Madhva's view, incorrect knowledge of the nature of Brahman provides the sole reason as to why souls are reborn as sentient beings. Humans are dependent beings, as is dictated in Madhva’s ontology, though many humans are ignorant of this fact, seeing themselves as independent entities. One’s knowledge of Vishnu as well as one’s place within this hierarchy of Vishnu’s creation is what allows for liberation from the cycle of rebirth. Once a human being realizes his or her fundamental dependence on God, he or she can then attain moksha. Those who do not realize that Vishnu is the only independent entity will stay trapped in the cycle of rebirth until they understand.

According to Madhva's philosophy, some individuals possess a higher level of eligibility (adhikara) to access this knowledge of the true nature of Brahman and thereby exude devotion toward him. Others can gain only partial knowledge and exude half-hearted devotion, or else none at all. With this in mind, Madhva divides souls into three classes: one class which qualifies for liberation Mukti-yogyas; another subject to eternal rebirth or eternally transmigration due to samsara, Nitya-samsarins; and finally, a class that is eventually condemned to eternal hell or Andhatamas, known as Tamo-yogyas. With this concept of eternal damnation, Madhvacharya differs significantly from traditional Hindu beliefs concerning the fate of the soul; by contrast, most Hindus believe that all souls will eventually obtain moksha, though it may take millions of rebirths. Among those who are most eligible to qualify for liberation are male members of the twice-born castes (Brahmins, Kshaytrya, Sudras), while females and lower caste members have only limited access to Madhva's teachings and therefore remain in the cycle of rebirth.

In order to attain liberation, one must attend to caste duties (karma yoga) and gain knowledge of brahman (jnana yoga), although these yogas are only first steps. The only true way to gain unmediated knowledge (aparoksa-jnana) of Brahman is through bhakti yoga, the path of devotion toward god. Without bhakti, jnana and karma yogas are insufficient means to liberation. The complete loving devotion to the divine and absorption of all aspects of the self into God is both the means and end of spiritual attainment for the follower of bhakti. The experience of moksha, according to Madhva, involves the actualization of a deep personal engagement with the divine, the most intense possible level of bhakti. However, attainment of this state is not based solely upon devotional works; Vishnu is the only entity who can cease the bondage of a soul within the cycle of rebirth. Therefore, the attainment moksha is ultimately impossible without Vishnu's grace. In contrast to Advaita, Madhva holds that souls maintain their individual identities after coming into union with Vishnu, and so their separation from (and subordination to) him remains eternal. In this realm, people live a life comprised of good eating, frolicking with women and the chanting Vedic hymns along with the other liberated souls. Even Madhva's notion of the afterlife is hierarchical, and accordingly, those with less cultivated levels of bhakti obtain lesser forms of moksha.

Impact of Madhva's Teachings

Madhva's Dualistic view, along with Advaita (non-dualism) and Visistadvaita (qualified non-dualism) represent the three foremost Vedantic perspectives on the nature of reality. Madhva is considered to be a very influential Hindu theologian due to his revitalization of monotheism in the face of the powerful doctrines of monism and polytheism. His influence was particularly evident in Karnataka, where great leaders of the Vaishnava Bhakti movement such as Purandara Dasa and Kanaka Dasa adhered to the Dvaita traditions. Furthermore, the famous Hindu saint, Raghavendra Swami, was a dedicated follower of Madhva's philosophy. In a testament to the longevity of Madhva's teachings, his eight original monasteries of Udupi are still in existence today, and the main icon of Krishna, which he allegedly recovered from the mud still stands in the temple there, as well.


  1. Sarma, An Introduction to Madhva Vedanta (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2003), 13.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Rao, Vasudeva. Living Traditions in Contemporary Context: The Madhva Matha of Udupi. London: Sangam Books, 2002. ISBN 978-8125022978
  • Sarma, Deepak. An Introduction to Madhva Vedanta. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2003. ISBN 978-0754606376
  • Sarma, Deepak. Epistemologies and the Limitations of Philosophical Inquiry: Doctrine in Madhva Vedanta. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2005. ISBN 978-0415308052
  • Sharma, B. N. K. History of the Dvaita School of Vedanta and its Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981. ISBN 81-208-1575-0
  • Sharma, B. N. K. Philosophy of Sri Madhvacarya. Delhi: Motilal Barnarsidass, 1986. ISBN 81-208-0068-0

External links

All links retrieved November 5, 2022.


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