Sri Ramanujacharya – The Great Vaishnavite Saint

Sri Ramanujacharya – The Great Vaishnavite Saint

If you are a regular follower of my blog you might be little familiar with this name. Yes! You guessed it right. He was the pioneer who solved the dispute over Lord Sri Venkateswara’s Idol in Tirumala during 10th century A.D. Those who are new to my blog, I would suggest them to read my previous posting “Controversy over Lord’s Idol” published on 13th May 2009 to know how this great saint had solved controversy. In this update I took up the opportunity to bring the story of this great saint Sri Ramanujacharya before you. I hope you enjoy it.

Sriperumbudur, a small town thirty miles to the southwest of Madras, became well known after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi on 21st May 1991. I wonder how many Indians know that Sriperumbudur is also the birthplace of the great vaishnavite saint Sri Ramanujacharya and thus a key pilgrimage centre for all Sri Vaishnavas.

In the year 1017 AD, a pious devotee called Asuri Kesavacharya of Sriperumbudur is said to have travelled to Madras to perform a yagna (fire ritual in which herbs, cooked rice, ghee and other sacrificial offerings are poured into the fire to the chanting of Vedic mantras) at the Parthasarathi temple located on the banks of the Tiruallikeni (lily-lake), now known as Triplicane in modern Madras. Parthasarathi is one of the names of Bhagavan Krishna referring to his role as the charioteer (sarathi) of Arjuna (Partha) in the Mahabharata war.

Asuri Kesavacharya was greatly devoted to the performance of yagnas and acquired the title of ‘Sarvakratu,’ meaning one who has performed all the yagnas mentioned in the scriptures. He was married to Kantimati, sister of Sri Sailapurna, the chief disciple of a great Vaishnava saint called Yamunacharya.

Distressed at the lack of progeny even after many years of marriage, the couple decided to please Parthasarathi with yagnas. It is believed that Kesavacharya had a dream after the completion of the rituals in which Parthasarathi himself promised to be born as a child to him to redeem the Vaishnava tradition. A year later, Kantimati gave birth to a child who was to become the future messiah of Sri Vaishnavism and the founder of the Visishtha Dvaita school of Vedanta.

Kantimati’s brother Sri Sailapurna is said to have given the name ‘Ramanuja’ (younger brother of Rama) to her son after noting the interesting fact that his month of birth and the zodiac were the same as those of Lakshmana & Shatrughna, the twin sons of Sumitra in the Ramayana. On seeing some of the auspicious signs on the body of the child, Sri Sailapurna was reminded of a prophecy made by Nammalvar, foremost among the 12 pioneering saints of Sri Vaishnavism, in his Tiruvoymozhi, that a great saint would appear to revive the Vaishnava tradition and the land would reverberate with devotion.

A touching incident in the early life of Sri Ramanuja gives us a clear glimpse of the large heartedness and revolutionary compassion that he would later become known for. A devotee called Kanchipurna used to travel everyday from Kanchi to Poonamalle, a neighbouring village to offer worship at the temple there. He would pass through Sri Ramanuja’s house at Sriperumbudur, which was midway between the two places. One day Ramanuja met Kanchipurna who was on his way back from Poonammalle. Attracted by his saintliness, Ramanuja invited Kanchipurna to his house that night. After serving him food, Ramanuja offered to stroke his feet (a gesture of devoted service to the elderly). Kanchipurna recoiled in embarrassment, as he was a lowborn whereas Ramanuja was a Brahmin. Saddened at this, Ramanuja is said to have declared that he alone is a true Brahmin who is devoted to God and not one who simply wears the sacred thread. Both of them were thus bound by love and respect for each other. Kanchipurna also came to be revered by the other brahmins for his deep devotion and saintly character.

At the age of sixteen, Ramanuja was married to a beautiful girl called Rakshakambal. A month after the marriage, Ramanuja’s father Kesavacharya passed away, plunging the family into grief soon after the joyous occasion.

Apart from being a man of deep devotion and a compassionate soul, Ramanuja was also an intellectual giant. He had the good fortune of studying under many worthy and illustrious teachers who recognised his prodigious memory and grasping power which made him their favourite.

A renowned teacher of Advaita Vedanta, Yadavaprakasa by name, lived in Kanchi then and attracted many disciples. Ramanuja also sought his teaching and very soon became his chief disciple and favourite student. But even this sacred relationship between teacher & disciple was not to remain uncorrupted by time and soon the teacher would grow jealous of his disciple and even try to murder him.

The true mettle of a teacher becomes known when he comes face to face with a disciple who is superior to him in intellect or character. A mediocre teacher or one of shallow character may harbour feelings of jealousy or malice towards his own students who may be of superior calibre whereas great teachers always control their ego, pride and arrogance and allow the disciples to become even greater than them.

Yadavaprakasa, the renowned teacher of Advaita Vedanta in Kanchipuram faced this dilemma when Ramanuja began contradicting his teachings with his own scholarship and insight. Yadavaprakasa’s scriptural learning made him haughty, proud and insecure of anyone who challenged his authority. A sharp intellect not tempered with compassion and selfless service, often falls prey to unethical and even criminal tendencies.

One day, Yadavaprakasa was expounding a commentary on the Chandogya Upanishad written by Adi Sankaracharya. Sankara is said to have interpreted the mantra “kapyasam pundarikamevamakshini” as “The two eyes of that Supreme Being are like lotuses resembling the buttocks of a monkey (kapyasam)!” Ramanuja was deeply shocked and pained at hearing this vulgar interpretation of the verse and tears started tricking down his eyes.

On being asked for the reason for his tears, Ramanuja replied that he found the interpretation unbecoming of a great scholar like him. Yadavaprakasa flared up on being challenged by a young disciple and challenged him to dare come up with a better meaning than the one Adi Sankara himself had given. Ramanuja derived a new meaning for the word kapyasam as ‘kam jalam pibati’ (he who drinks water, the sun) and so the mantra would then mean, “The eyes of that Supreme Being resemble the beautiful lotuses blossomed by the rays of the sun!”

Another day, during a debate on the Mahavakya (great Truth or utterance) “satyam gnanam anantam brahma,” Ramanuja differed with Yadavaprakasa’s interpretation that Brahman itself is truth, intelligence and infinity. Ramanuja was of the opinion that Brahman is endowed with these qualities and it doesn’t mean that Brahman itself is all these qualities.

Thus, the seed of distrust, jealousy and hatred against Ramanuja took root in the dry heart of the intellectual Yadavaprakasa and the teacher decided to get rid off this ‘dangerous’ disciple who seemed to be refuting Advaita itself in favour of dualistic interpretations. Yadavaprakasa and his close disciples hatched a clever plan. They would go on a pilgrimage to Kasi and on the way murder Ramanuja in a secluded forest and then proceed to the Ganga to wash off the sin of having killed a Brahmin!

However, Ramanuja’s Cousin Govinda Bhatta (a favourite of Yadavaprakasa) discovered the plot and helped him escape. Ramanuja returned to Yadavaprakasa’s tutelage but after another disagreement, Yadavaprakasa asked him to leave. Ramanuja’s childhood mentor, Kancipurna, suggested him to meet with Kancipurna’s own guru, Yamunacharya. After renouncing the life of a house-holder, Ramanuja travelled to Srirangam to meet an aging Yamunacharya, a philosopher of the remergent Vishishtadvaita school of thought. Yamunacharya had died prior to Ramanuja’s arrival. Followers of Ramanuja relate the legend that three fingers of Yamunacharya’s corpse were curled.R

amanuja saw this and understood that Yamunacharya was concerned about three tasks. Ramanuja vowed to complete these and they are to –

1. Teach the doctrine of Saranagati (surrender) to God as the means to moksha.

2. Write a Visishtadvaita Bhashya for the Brahma Sutras of Vyasa which had previously been taught orally to the disciples of the Visishtadvaita philosophy.

3. That the names of Paraśara, the author of Vishnu Purana and saint Śaţhakopa should be perpetuated.

Legend goes that on hearing the vow, the three fingers on the corpse straightened. Ramanuja accepted Yamunacharya as his Manasika Acharya and spent 6 months being introduced to Yamunacharya’s philosophy by his disciple, Mahapurna although he did not formally join the community for another year. Ramanuja’s wife followed very strict brahminical rules of the time and disparaged Mahapurna’s wife as being of lower subcaste. Mahapurna and his wife left Srirangam. Ramanuja realized that his life as a householder was interfering with his philosophical pursuit as he and his wife had differing views. He sent her to her parent’s house and renounced family and became a sanyasi. Ramanuja started travelling the land, having philosophical debates with the custodians of various Vishnu temples. Many of them, after losing the debates, became his disciples. Ramanuja standardized the liturgy at these temples and increased the standing and the membership of the srivaishnava school of thought. He wrote his books during this time. Ramanuja, who was a Vaishnavite, might have faced threats from some Shaivite Chola rulers who were religiously intolerant. Ramanuja and a few of his followers moved to the Hoysala kingdom of Jain king Bittideva and Queen Shantala Devi in Karnataka. Bittideva converted to Srivaishanavism, in some legends after Ramanuja cured his daughter of evil spirits, and took the name Vishnuvardhana meaning “one who grows the sect of Vishnu”. However, the queen and many of the ministers remained Jain and the kingdom was known for its tolerance. Ramanuja re-established the liturgy in the Cheluvanarayana temple in Melukote in Mandya District and Vishnuvardhana re-built it and also built other Vishnu temples like Chennakesava Temple and Hoysaleswara Temple.

Differences with Shankaracharya:

Adi Shankara had argued that all qualities or manifestations that can be perceived are unreal and temporary. Ramanuja believed them to be real and permanent and under the control of the Brahman. God can be one despite the existence of attributes, because they cannot exist alone; they are not independent entities. They are Prakaras or the modes, Sesha or the accessories, and Niyama or the controlled aspects, of the one Brahman.

In Ramanuja’s system of philosophy, the Lord (Narayana) has two inseparable Prakaras or modes, namely, the world and the souls. These are related to Him as the body is related to the soul. They have no existence apart from Him. They inhere in Him as attributes in a substance. Matter and souls constitute the body of the Lord. The Lord is their indweller. He is the controlling Reality. Matter and souls are the subordinate elements. They are termed Viseshanas, attributes. God is the Viseshya or that which is qualified.

Ramanuja opines, wrong is the position of the Advaitins that understanding the Upanishads ithout knowing and practicing dharma can result in Brahman knowledge. The knowledge of Brahman that ends spiritual ignorance is meditational, not testimonial or verbal.

In contrast to Shankara, Ramanuja holds that there is no knowledge source in support of the claim that there is a distinctionless (homogeneous) Brahman. All knowledge sources reveal objects as distinct from other objects. All experience reveals an object known in some way or other beyond mere existence. Testimony depends on the operation of distinct sentence parts (words with distinct meanings). Thus the claim that testimony makes known that reality is distinctionless is contradicted by the very nature of testimony as a knowledge means. Even the simplest perceptual cognition reveals something (Bessie) as qualified by something else (a broken hoof, “Bessie has a broken hoof,” as known perceptually). Inference depends on perception and makes the same distinct things known as doe’s perception.

He also holds that the Advaitin argument about prior absences and no prior absence of consciousness is wrong. Similarly the Advaitin understanding of a-vidya (not-Knowledge), which is the absence of spiritual knowledge, is incorrect. “If the distinction between spiritual knowledge and spiritual ignorance is unreal, then spiritual ignorance and the self are one.”

The Seven objections to Shankara’s Advaita:

Ramanuja picks out what he sees as seven fundamental flaws in the Advaita philosophy to revise them. He argues:

I. The nature of Avidya. Avidya must be either real or unreal; there is no other possibility. But neither of these is possible. If Avidya is real, non-dualism collapses into dualism. If it is unreal, we are driven to self-contradiction or infinite regress.

II. The incomprehensibility of Avidya. Advaitins claim that Avidya is neither real nor unreal but incomprehensible {anirvachaniya.} All cognition is either of the real or the unreal: the Advaitin claim flies in the face of experience, and accepting it would call into question all cognition and render it unsafe.

III. The grounds of knowledge of Avidya. No pramana can establish Avidya in the sense the Advaitin requires. Advaita philosophy presents Avidya not as a mere lack of knowledge, as something purely negative, but as an obscuring layer which covers Brahman and is removed by true Brahma-vidya. Avidya is positive nescience not mere ignorance. Ramanuja argues that positive nescience is established neither by perception, nor by inference, nor by scriptural testimony. On the contrary, Ramanuja argues, all cognition is of the real.

IV. The locus of Avidya. Where is the Avidya that gives rise to the (false) impression of the reality of the perceived world? There are two possibilities; it could be Brahman’s Avidya or the individual soul’s {jiva.} Neither is possible. Brahman is knowledge; Avidya cannot co-exist as an attribute with a nature utterly incompatible with it. Nor can the individual soul be the locus of Avidya: the existence of the individual soul is due to Avidya; this would lead to a vicious circle.

V. Avidya’s obscuration of the nature of Brahman. Sankara would have us believe that the true nature of Brahman is somehow covered-over or obscured by Avidya. Ramanuja regards this as an absurdity: given that Advaita claims that Brahman is pure self-luminous consciousness, obscuration must mean either preventing the origination of this (impossible since Brahman is eternal) or the destruction of it – equally absurd.

VI. The removal of Avidya by Brahma-vidya. Advaita claims that Avidya has no beginning, but it is terminated and removed by Brahma-vidya, the intuition of the reality of Brahman as pure, undifferentiated consciousness. But Ramanuja denies the existence of undifferentiated {nirguna} Brahman, arguing that whatever exists has attributes: Brahman has infinite auspicious attributes. Liberation is a matter of Divine Grace: no amount of learning or wisdom will deliver us.

VII. The removal of Avidya. For the Advaitin, the bondage in which we dwell before the attainment of Moksa is caused by Maya and Avidya; knowledge of reality (Brahma-vidya) releases us. Ramanuja, however, asserts that bondage is real. No kind of knowledge can remove what is real. On the contrary, knowledge discloses the real; it does not destroy it. And what exactly is the saving knowledge that delivers us from bondage to Maya? If it is real then non-duality collapses into duality; if it is unreal, then we face an utter absurdity.

Bhagavad Ramanuja taught his followers to highly respect all Sri Vaishnavas irrespective of caste. It was cited from Sri Ramanuja, His Life, Religion, and Philosophy, published by Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India.

Some interesting facts:

It is believed that 870 years old physical body of Sri Ramanujacharya, (A.D. 1017 – 1137), the patron saint of the Vishishta Dvaita school of Vedanta, was being preserved in the shrine of Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple in Srirangam. After the darshan of Sri Ranganatha Swamy, one can visit in a small shrine called “Sri Ramanujaa Sannidhi”. The Shrine is small almost like a cave and poorly lit. Believe me it is not an idol, in fact a real physical body of the great saint.

Every year in the month of Thula (October/November), the body is anointed with a special paste called “thirumanjanam” which acts as a preservative, something akin to the way the Egyptians preserved the remains of their Pharaohs. Pilgrims visiting the shrine get awestruck with the way it had been preserved for so many years. When ever and who ever forget about this great saint, Ramanuja Sannidhi at Ranganatha Swamy Temple of Srirangam always reminds of his presence.

Saint Ramanujacharya was such a great philosopher who born once in a million years. It is believed that he was the mentor of religious movement in ancient India. It was Sri Ramanujacharya who pivoted the movement to protect Hinduism from the attack of other alien religions. Hinduism was on the verge of sinking during those days due to the emergence and increasing influence of Buddhism and Jainism. It was great saint’s like Ramanujacharya who enrooted our age old religion through his writings and preaching. It was Sri Ramanajacharya who resolved the long lasted dispute over Lord Venkateswara’s Idol in Tirumala .

Published in: on July 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. A very nice presentaton on the life Sri Ramanujachary. Excellent diction. But the language is somewhat jargon. Thanq very much

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