By Swami Harshananda
Ahobila Maṭha literally means ‘the Ahobila Monastery’.
Maṭhas (monasteries) and maṭhādhi- patis (pontiffs) have played a very significant role in spreading, consolidating and preserving religion and culture among the masses. A maṭha is more than just a monastery, though the residence of the monk or monks is an important and integral part of the same. A temple, an auditorium and a school for the pursuit of religious and philosophical studies exist invariably in any maṭha of repute.
Among the more well-known of such mathas, "The Ahobila Matha", of the śri-vaiṣṇavas which follows the Viśiṣṭādvaita school of philosophy propagated by Rāmānuja (A. D. 1017-1137) and others, has carved out an important place for itself. Ahobila is an important place of pilgrimage situated in the Vedācala hill range of the Eastern ghats. It is about 23 kilometers (15 miles) from Āllagaḍḍa, in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh. When Mahāviṣṇu manifested himself in the form of Narasimha (‘man-lion’) and killed the demon Hiraṇyakaśipu with his bare hands, the gods are said to have exclaimed "aho! balam!" which means ‘Wonderful is the strength!’. Since many stone icons of this Narasimha aspect are found in the several ‘bilas’ or caves of this place, the place itself has been named ‘Aho-bilam.’
The founder-pontiff of the Ahobila Maṭha was Ādivaṇa-Śaṭhagopa-Yatīndra- Mahādeśikan, known as Srīnivāsa in his premonastic days. Born in 1378 A. D. in Tirunārāyaṇapura (the present Melkote near the Mysore City of Karnataka). He was brought up in a holy and scholarly atmosphere. Srinivasa was commanded by Lord Narasimha to go to Ahobila and take sanyāsa (monastic order). Accordingly he went there and initiated sanyāsa by an old monk who appeared there mysteriously, enlightened him about the mission of his life and disappeared.
Saṭhakopa acted as the servant of Lord Lakṣmī-Narsimha whose image he used to carry. He established a chain of maṭhas wherein he arranged for the study of the works of Rāmānuja and Vedānta Deśika. He is said to have accorded some privileges to the lower classes in the temples he built at Kadiri (Andhra Pradesh) and elsewhere. He passed away in 1458 A. D.
Among his successors, called Jīyars, Parāṅ- kuśa (A.D. 1499-1513) was reputed to have acquired extraordinary yogic powers. He was the 33rd, Śaṭhagopa (the VI) and converted robbers into devotees. The 38th, Śrīnivāsa (A. D. 1905-1909) proved to be an excellent administrator, and the 40th, Raṅganātha (the IV) (A. D. 1915-1923) was a rare combination of scholarship and yogic powers.
Unlike the other maṭhas, the Ahobila Maṭha does not have a Headquarters. It moves along with the Jīyar, the pontiff. The deity worshiped is known as Mālola Laksmi-Nṛsimha, the image being of solid gold. Only the devotees of the Vaḍagalai (‘Northern’) sect of Srīvaiṣṇavas are disciples and followers of this Maṭha.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore