King 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 Sri Ananta Padmanabha Swamy, whom they regarded as the actual owner of the land. 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. Before the birth of Kulasekhara (around 3,000 BC), his parents were childless, a worrisome situation for a monarch. Kulasekhara’s father, Drdhavrata, worshipped Lord Narayana and intensely prayed for a son who could rule the kingdom and lead everyone on the path of Krishna Bhakti. As a result of the king’s prayers, Alvar Kulashekhar was born.
Kulasekhara was sent by the Lord Himself to this world. He was a ksatriya of great prowess and became king not only of the Sera lands but also of the neighbouring lands of the Pandya and Chola dynasties. He had incredible intelligence. He learnt the knowledge of everything it took to rule the kingdom. He became a powerful warrior, expert at fighting with weapons, expert at diplomacy. He was so fair and just in the way he ruled his citizens that the weak people, the poor people were never afraid, they felt protected and empowered by their king and the wealthy people felt completely empowered as long as they were using their wealth and power for a just cause. And anyone who was arrogant and exploitative the king gave them no facilities to exploit the people with lower tendencies.
He actually ruled over all the three major kingdoms of South India – the Chola dynasty whose capital was in Kanchipuram, the Pandhya dynasty whose capital was in Madurai and the Chera dynasty in Travancore. All the three kingdoms wanted him to rule. He had everything. He was the ultimate success story materially but by the grace of God he wasn’t satisfied. As he was growing he was thinking I have everything but I have nothing. From sattva guna when we do good, our heart becomes very receptive to God’s grace. Even though king Kulasekhara have to work so hard and deal with so many worldly responsibilities, because he had such good intentions, such good motives and he was feeling himself, the servant of the people, he was receptive to God’s grace and in that grace, he began to think that this body is going to die. The living force the soul is real life; without the soul the body is just a corpse. The soul is taking shelter in a body for a little bit of time to do something in this world, but the purpose of life is to realize our eternal existence, and he was meditating in this way.
He became so much deeply spiritual that at one point he was thinking that without the association of saints, living in this world is like being in the gallows with a rope choking your neck. He cried out like Vibhisana, he was willing to sacrifice everything and anything to get the shelter of Lord Ramacandra. He said, “I will go to Sri Rangam to take shelter of the Supreme Lord Ranganathar Swamy, I will go to Tirupati to worship Sri Venkatesvara Balaji, I will go to Kanchipuram to worship Sri Varadaraj.” He just wanted to go to see the Lord to surrender himself to the Lord and to be with devotees. He started inviting great saints to his kingdom. 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.
Kulasekhara felt shackled to the throne and could find no happiness in royal wealth and splendour. Now his ministers didn’t knew what to do, because they loved him. Nobody could rule the way he could rule, nobody had the power of the faith of the people like he had. But he wants to leave, and his ministers were thinking if he goes to visit Sri Rangam and starts associating with Vaishnavas there, he will never come back and then what happens to us and the whole kingdom. Somehow we have to keep him here, so let us bring as many devotees as we can here and whenever he starts leaving for Sri Rangam they will come and Kulasekhara will have to serve them and he will never leave. So he was always surrounded by devotees. Every time he said that I am going to Sri Rangam, some devotees would come and say “I have just come to your kingdom”. He would give them prasad and hear Hari katha and do kirtan. In this way the king passed his days absorbed in loving feelings towards the Lord and His devotees. Kulashekhar understood, according to Sri Sampradaya scriptures, that by worshiping a pure saint one day one gets the same result as worshiping the Supreme Lord for 60000 years.
Kulasekhara chose to hear daily from the Valmiki Ramayana, the history of Lord Ramacandra. He was so entranced in spiritual consciousness that he lived and breathed the pastimes of Sri Ramacandra and felt them to be ever fresh and present. His hearing was not just theoretical. Some of us we read Ramayana because we have to give a class on Ramayana so we are making notes thinking, I hope I could remember those things. Some people read Ramayana to tell to the children to help them go to sleep. Some people read Ramayana because they will get the pious credit, some people read because they really want to develop devotion.
When King Kulashekhar heard Ramayana, it was like it was happening right now. It is not something that happened millions of years ago, it did happen millions of years ago but if you are absorbed, it is happening at the present moment in your very heart, in some universe somewhere. So whenever there was some beautiful thing that happened in Ramayana, Kulashekhar would celebrate in his kingdom. 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.
On one particular reading he was hearing the pastime when Suparnakha, sister of Ravana, approaches Lord Rama and proposes Him for marriage. Lord Rama explains how He had taken a vow of single wife and directs her to Laxmana. But Laxmana also puts off her request. Suparnakha became outraged and she attacked Sita, thinking that she was the cause of her not being able to marry Ram. Seeing this, Laxmana immediately cut off her nose. She ran to the nearby forest to call her brothers Khara and Dushana, they immediately marched towards Rama and Laxmana with an army of 14000 powerful mystic asuras. Rama told Laxmana to guard Sita in the cave and He stood there to face the army.
As Kulashekhar was listening to this, his love of God went into frenzy. He called out to his ministers and army to prepare for battle and he began to march towards Panchvati. Now the ministers were thinking that the battle took place millions of years ago. But Maharaja Kulashekhar was experiencing the pastime now. He was fully enlightened but sometimes enlightenment does not harmonize with effective material management. The ministers asked a group of soldiers to go ahead and come back and tell the king that they had just been to Panchvati and that Lord Ramacandra single handily defeated the entire army. In spiritual delirium, Kulasekhara believed. He started crying and said “my Lord has conquered everyone.” Let us go back and celebrate.
After this incident the ministers decided that whoever is reading Ramayana should only read happy parts and skip other parts. There was one scholar who was reading the Ramayana as per this editorial policy and one day the he had to attend to some business and he asked his son to read the Ramayana, however he forgot to mention this policy. So he read the part where Maricha was asked to take form of a golden deer to allure Rama and Laxmana. Maricha appeared as the golden deer and Sita requested Rama to catch the deer for her. Rama told Laxmana to protect Sita but Maricha called out in Rama’s voice for help and Sita forced him to go and help Rama. At that time Ravana came in the disguise of a sadhu and abducted Sita. As Ravana was taking Sita, Jatayu tried to protect her but he died while fighting.
Kulashekhar upon hearing this proclaimed his armies to get ready and march to Lanka. The whole army started galloping towards Lanka. They reached Rameswaram and reached the ocean. Kulashekhar marched right into the ocean and was getting submerged while moving further. They were seeing him getting drowned. In that incredible crisis of devotion, Lord Ramachandra appeared right in the ocean coming from direction of Lanka. Rama said “the battle of Lanka is over. I won the war and I am again with Sita.” Sita said, “I am here with Rama and Laxmana is here too. So let us go back to kingdom and celebrate.”
Lord Ramacandra said, “Just as I lift My devotees from ocean of samsara and lift them to My eternal abode I will carry you.” He brought Kulashekhar to the kingdom and then disappeared. Kulashekhar then had a big festival on the occasion of Rama’s victory over Ravana. We cannot imitate such devotion. We can simply cherish it by being the servant of the servant of such devotees.
Ministers plot :
The ministers were worried that the king always wants to go to Sri Rangam and if he goes there he will never come back. To avoid this we started bringing devotees for Hari Katha, but our solution has become a bigger problem. Even in midst of important meeting, the king will leave to serve the visiting sadhus.
The ministers thought that the solution is if he loses faith in devotees he will lose faith in Sri Rangam. The foundation for all problems is the faith in the Vaishnavas. The king worshiped a deity of Lord Rama. So the ministers made a plot to take the deity’s necklace from jewellery box and hide it. When it comes to his attention he will hold investigation and since only Vaishnavas have access to it they will be found guilty. The ministers reported the theft and asked the king to bring Vaishnavas to trial. Kulashekhar listened to his ministers and he said, “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 basket be brought to me with a venomous cobra in it, and I shall thrust my hand into that vessel. If devotees are pure then that cobra cannot harm me and if they have stolen then let that cobra bite me and kill me.”
The ministers had to do as ordered. So they brought a basket with a venomous cobra in it and the king plunged his hand in the basket and took it out. The hand was spotless. Seeing the display of faith startled the ministers. Ashamed, the ministers hung their heads. 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 Vaisnavas.
Final days of King Kulashekhar :
The incident however convinced Kulashekhar that the time has come for him to go to Sri Rangam and do seva there. “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.”
He gave the throne to his son and travelled to various holy places and he made his base in Sri Rangam where he spent so many years of his life in loving service of Sri Ranganatha and all the 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 (Tamil name for the Adi Kesava temple, where Lord Caitanya found the important scripture Brahma-samhita), near present-day Tirunelveli. From Tirunagari, he went to the holy place called Brahma desam – Mannarkoil near Tirunelveli, where he stayed for some time serving the presiding Deity, Rajagopala Swamy. There in association of Vaishnavas, he worshiped the deity of Rajagopala Swamy and returned to the spiritual world at age 67. Mannarkoil is a small village located at a distance of around 5 km from Ambasamudram near Tirunelveli. The temple at Mannarkoil is named as Rajagopala Swamy Kulasekara Perumal temple. From Tirunelveli it takes about 1 hour to reach here. This temple is over 1000 years old and has beautiful architecture. Inside Sri Ananta Padmanabha temple, Trivandrum there is a place called the Kulashekhar Alvar Mandapam where, according to the legends, he composed the Mukund Mala Stotra. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami 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 Krishna, 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?”
Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu visited all these places and the beautiful thing is, by doing so He has opened the treasures of incredible wisdom and history of these places and revealed them to the world. This is why we are so enthusiastic, every year, to come to yatra to feel that devotion, take association of the devotees and in our hearts of hearts cry out the holy names:
Hare Krishna Hare Krishna Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama Rama Rama Hare Hare
Whatever austerities we perform to do something holy, those austerities they come and go and we forget them. But the experience of the darshan, the experience of the blessing, the experience of the seva that we performed there is forever, eternal and enshrined in the hearts of the devotees.
KING KULASHEKARA ALVAR & his MUKUND MALA STOTRA (BBT publication)
Selections from Mukunda-mala-stotra By Kulasekhara Alvar 7
cintayami harim eva santatam
nanda-gopa-tanayam parat param
I always think of Lord Hari [Krishna], 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 splendour. 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 [Krishna], 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 [Krishna], 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.