Vidyaranya (IAST: Vidyāraṇya) is variously known as a kingmaker, patron saint and high priest to Harihara I and Bukka Raya I, the founders of the Vijayanagara Empire. He was the 12th Jagadguru of the Śringeri Śarada Pītham from 1380-1386.
Vidyaranya helped the brothers establish the empire sometime in 1336. He later served as a mentor and guide to three generations of kings who ruled over the Vijayanagara Empire. Vijayanagara (Hampi), the capital of the empire, had a temple dedicated to Mādhavācārya.
He was also a reputed Sanskrit-language author. Some people identifies him as Madhavacharya, the author of the Sarvadarśanasaṅgraha, a compendium of different philosophical schools of Hindu philosophy and Pañcadaśī, an important text for Advaita Vedanta.
However, according to the records of the Sringeri Sharada Peetham, Vidyaranya was a different person, and Sayana and Madhava were actually his disciples. According to this account, Vidyaranya was born in c. 1296 CE in Ekasila Nagara (present-day Warangal). He was the elder brother of Bharati Tirtha, who preceded him as the acharya of Sringeri. This account also claims that Vidyaranya wrote some Veda bhashyas, and his disciples Sayana and Madhava completed these works.
Yet another theory states that Bharati Tirtha and Vidyaranya were the same person, although the Sringeri records clearly identify them as two different persons.
Vidyaranya served as a prime minister in the Vijayanagara Empire and played an important role in the establishment of the empire. According to one narrative, the empire's founders Harihara Raya I and Bukka Raya I were two brothers in the service of the Kampili chief. After Kampili fell to the Muslim invasion, they were taken to Delhi and converted to Islam. They were sent back to Kampili as the Delhi Sultan's vassals. After gaining power in the region, they approached Vidyaranya, who converted them back to the Hindu faith. The historical authenticity of this narrative is a matter of debate. The contemporary documents, including the inscriptions issued by the earliest rulers of Vijayanagara, do not mention this account. The contemporary Muslim records refer to Harihara (as "Harip" or "Haryab"), but do not mention anything about his conversion to Islam, although they contain details of other converts from Deccan. The first works to mention this narrative were written over 200 years after the establishment of Vijayanagara.
A local legend goes like this: Once, during a hunt, Harihara saw a big rabbit and sent his hunting dog after it. However, the rabbit bit the dog and escaped. While returning from the hunt, Harihara saw a holy man, and narrated the strange incident to him. The holy man was Vidyaranya. The two men went to the place where the rabbit had escaped. Vidyaranya told him that the place was sacred, and advised him to establish the capital of his new kingdom there.
Vidyaranya's most famous works are Pārāśara-Mādhavīya and the Sarvadarśanasaṅgraha "Compendium of school of philosophies", a compendium of all the known Indian schools of philosophy. To quote Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the Sarvadarśanasaṅgraha "sketches sixteen systems of thought so as to exhibit a gradually ascending series, culminating in the Advaita Vedanta (or non-dualism)." The sixteen systems of philosophy expounded by him are:
The Sarvadarśanasaṅgraha itself doesn’t contain the 16th chapter (Advaita Vedanta, or the system of Adi Shankara), the absence of which is explained by a paragraph at the end of the 15th chapter, (the Patanjali-Darsana). It says: “The system of Sankara, which comes next in succession, and which is the crest-gem of all systems, has been explained by us elsewhere, it is, therefore, left untouched here”.
Vidyaranya tries to refute, chapter by chapter, the other systems of thought prominent in his day. Other than Buddhist and Jaina philosophies, Vidyaranya draws quotes directly from the works of their founders or leading exponents and it also has to be added that in this work, with remarkable mental detachment, he places himself in the position of an adherent of sixteen distinct philosophical systems.
Sarvadarśanasaṅgraha is one of the few available sources of information about lokayata, the materialist system of philosophy in ancient India. In the very first chapter, "The Cārvāka System", he critiques the arguments of lokayatikas. While doing so he quotes extensively from Cārvāka works. It is possible that some of these arguments put forward as the lokayata point of view may be a mere caricature of lokayata philosophy. Yet in the absence of any original work of lokayatikas, it is one of the very few sources of information available today on materialist philosophy in ancient India.
Vidyaranya's Pañcadaśī is a standard text on the philosophy of the Advaita Vedanta tradition. It consists of fifteen chapters which are divided into three sections of five chapters each, which are designated as Viveka (Discrimination), Deepa (Illumination) and Ananda (Bliss). The text elucidates many Vedantic concepts, such as, the five sheaths of individuality, the relation between Isvara (God), Jagat (world) and Jiva (individual), the indistinguishability of cause and effect, etc.
Vidyaranya wrote Madhavia Shankara Vijaya also known as Samkshepa-Sankara-Vijaya. The book is about the life and achievements of Shankara Bhagavat-Pada (Adi Sankara).