At the time of the Norman Conquest a revolution took place in the religious life of medieval India. A ware of devotion to Visnu, the one Supreme Lord of the Vedas, spread across the entire subcontinent. Spearheading this movement was a philosopher, saint and devotee – Ramanuja. Herein is described his life and teachings, his struggles against prejudice and persecution, and above all his purity and deep love of God.
Ramanujacarya (1017-1137) was the principal acarya in the Sri Sampradaya, one of the four main lines of Vaisnava teachers and disciples. His Vedanta-sutra commentary – Sri-bhasya-establishes the doctrine knows as Visistadvaita, “qualified nondualism.” A staunch proponent of the philosophy of personalism, he taught that although the Supreme Lord and the individual souls are qualitatively one, there is still a difference between them, for the Lord is infinite and the living entities are infinitesimal. Srila Ramanujacarya traveled extensively throughout India, teaching personalism and defeating proponents of monistic philosophy.
He founded seventy-four centers of Sri Vaisnavism and initiated seven hundred sannyasis (renounced monks), twelve thousand brahmacharis (celibate students), and thousands of householders, including kings and wealthy landowners.
Great saints and devotees of the Lord give purpose to this material world and its history by their presence; their absence renders this world use- less and its history a chronological record of non- sense. By providing another glimpse into the ways that pure devotees transform the lives of materialistic people and alter the course of history, Naimisaranya Prabhu has done great service to all English readers, especially Vaisnavas and aspiring Vaisnavas. Without such information, people tend to doubt or forget that another plane, beyond the mundane, exists and even controls the destiny of that mundane plane. In the examples they set in their lives, however, saintly persons help us to see the path to Krsna consciousness. "Example is better than precept." The philosophy of Krsna consciousness remains inaccessible except by the mercy of the pure devotees whose behavior gives three dimensions to such philosophy.
Only the hearts of unfortunate persons will not melt upon reading or hearing this moving depiction of the life of Srila Ramanujacarya. The nectarean subject matter and the competent rendering by Naimisaranya Prabhu combine to produce genuine spiritual effects within the mind. I hope Naimisaranya Prabhu will continue producing such illuminating accounts of the lives of great devotees.
It is the desire of all teachers working in our gurukulas to vie the children an acute awareness of the great Vaisnava tradition that they will inherit when initiated into our sampradaya. We hear frequently that the Krsna Consciousness movement is propounding highest form of religion found anywhere in the world, but, living in the western culture, we sometimes find it hard to be constantly aware of the true position of Vaisnavism. In the West Vaisnavas are frequently looked upon as strange fanatics enacting bizarre rituals or some residual leftover from the hippy days of the sixties and early seventies. Therefore it is very important that all devotees and the children in particular, become conversant with the centuries old religious tradition that our movement today represents.
It was for these reasons I felt it imperative to start a course on the history of Vaisnavism when I began teaching a class of older boys at the Bhakti-vedanta Village Gurukula in California. From studying Srila Prabhupada’s books I was aware that Flamanuja was one of the great Vaisnava acaryas, but I knew little of his life and teachings. Therefore I set about researching the subject, using various books that I was able to obtain from India and the university libraries in Los Angeles. At this point I began to learn the wonderfully instructive stories contained in this book. As I recounted them to my students, ‘History of Vaisnavism’ quickly came to be our most popular class.
From this point, with the encouragement of other devotees working in gurukula, it seemed natural to begin writing down the subject matter as I was teaching it. There is, of course, a great need at the present time to provide suitable reading material for the hungry young minds eager to employ the reading skills we have taught them in their early years in gurukula. It is therefore my hope and expectation that this book will be the first of many as we build up a full library of books for our older students, in addition to the publications for younger children that have been provided by Bala Books.
Although this book was originally written for our older gurukula students—and for this reason the emphasis is on pastimes rather than philosophy- I am confident that all devotees will like to read about the life of this great acarya and gain inspiration from the wonderful example he set. In addition, I think that parents of younger children’s for whom the style of writing may be too advanced, will find that their sons and daughters will relish these stories if they are read aloud to them.
The main source for the life of Flamanuja is a book called the Prapannamrta, written in Sanskrit by Anantacarya, a descendant of Andhrapurna. There is some controversy about the date of this work. Some scholars have tried to show that it was written as late as the seventeenth century, but most authorities agree the author was a junior con- temporary of Ramanujas and therefore able to compile the material from first-hand sources. There are 126 chapters in the Prapannamrta, the first 68 of which describe the life of Ramanujacarya. The remaining 58 chapters deal with the lives of Yamunacarya, Nathamuni, and other south Indian Vaisnavas. It is this book to which Srila Prabhupada refers when he mentions the life of Ramanuja in his purports to the Caitanya-caritamrta.
Another important work on the life of Flamanuja is the Divya-suri-charitai, a book written in Tamil by Garudavaha, who was also probably a contemporary of Ramanuja, although again this fact is disputed by some authorities. In addition, there is the Guru-parampara-prabhavam by Perumal Jiyar, writ- ten in the early part of the fourteenth century and Lokam-Jiyar's Ramanujarya-divya-charitai.
The main pastimes are the same in all these works, but it is frequently found that they vary quite considerably in the detail. For this reason I have occasionally had to use my own discretion in choosing between the different versions. The names of the various characters described also vary, depending mainly on whether they are given in Tamil or the Sanskrit equivalent. By and large I have used the Sanskrit form of the names where I could find them, as l considered that these might sound more familiar to the reader.
One further point that I feel should be mentioned at this stage is the debt that all Vaisnavas owe to Ramanujacarya, whether they be within or outside of his direct disciplic succession. As Gaudiya Vaisnavas, most of our philosophical doctrines come from the writings of the six gosvamis of Vrndavana, in which they transcribed the teachings that had been given orally by Caitanya Mahaprabhu Himself. However, any devotee who studies the philosophical teachings of Flamanuja, and Yamunacarya also, will quickly realize how much we have inherited from him in our basic philosophical conclusions. Particularly in the refutation of the mayavada ideas of Sankara, the works of Ramanuja play a key role. As Srila Prabhupada explains: "The statements of the Sankara philosophy, which are the teeth of the Mayavadi philosopher, are always broken by the strong arguments of the Vaisnava philosophers such as the great acaryas, especially Ramanujacarya.”
Finally I would like to offer my most humble Obeisance’s at the feet of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhakti-vedanta Swami Prabhupada, without whose mercy the glories of the Vaisnava acaryas would still be a closed subject to the Western world. I would also like to thank all the devotees who have helped and encouraged me in devotional service over the years. I am well aware that there are many discrepancies and shortcomings in this presentation, but I am praying that all the Vaisnavas will display their characteristic generosity towards me and try to overlook these deficiencies.
Ramanuja is well-known as the great philosopher and acarya of the Sri Vaisnava sampradaya. However, it should not be misunderstood that he was the founder of the Sri Vaisnavas. Originally started by Lakshimidevi Herself, the Sri sampradaya contained many exalted devotees prior to Ramanuja's appearance to whom he admits his debt in his writings. In their expressions of devotion to the Supreme Lord, all South Indian devotees were influenced by the nine Alvars, who lived several hundred years before the birth of Ramanuja. Despite some minor philosophical differences, it is plain that the themes of devotion and surrender to God, which are essential to Ramanuja's teachings, are based to a large extent on the writings of the Alvars.
In terms of philosophy also Ramanuja was undoubtedly influenced by the teachings of previous Vaisnava acaryas, most notably Yamunacarya and Bodhayana, the commentator on the Vedanta- sutras. In many ways the major achievement of Ramanuja as an acarya was to establish a solid philosophical basis for the devotional sentiments that had been expressed in the hymns of the Alvars. In order to do this it was first essential that he refute the impersonalist teachings of Sankara's advaita-vada and large sections of his philosophical writings are dedicated to this task. To combat the teachings of the nondevotional monists, Ramanuja attacked them on their own ground, rarely expressing devotional sentiment and for the most part citing the Upanisads and Vedanta-sutras as scriptural evidence, rather than the overtly Vaisnava sastras. It is for this reason that Ramanuja, unlike Madhva, does not use the Srimad-Bhagavatam to support his teachings. The main philosophical works of Ramanuja are his commentary on Vedanta-sutra (Sri Bhasya), the Vedartha-samgraha, the Vedanta-sara and his commentary on the Bhagavad-gita.
Three hundred years before Ramanuja, Sarikaracarya had attempted to establish his doctrine of absolute oneness, a concept bearing many similarities to the Buddhist philosophy. According to Sankara, nothing exists anywhere except Brahman, which is formless, changeless, eternal, and devoid of all attributes. Therefore the variety that we perceive in this world is simply an illusion and does not in reality have any existence. Because the living being is covered by ignorance (avidya or maya) he perceives variety and changes; but when enlightened by pure knowledge, he will realize that everything is in fact Brahman and that his previous perceptions were simply illusion. Obviously, in such a philosophy devotion is also ultimately meaning- less because the distinction between God and His devotee is also illusory.
In his commentary on Vedanta sutra, Ramanuja strongly attacks Sankara's ideas. He states that the concept of Brahman as being indeterminate, without qualities or changes, is meaningless. Any reality that cannot be perceived, known, thought of, or even spoken about is simply fiction. The cosmic manifestation with all of its varieties may be temporary, but that does not mean it is unreal. Illusion is to perceive something as different from its real nature and not, as Sankara states, to perceive something that does not in fact exist. When one mistakes a shell for silver, both the silver and the shell are real; but the illusion is mistaking one thing for the other. Therefore the universe is real, but the illusion is to accept it as the all in all, and not consider the underlying basis of existence, which is God.
In commenting on the second aphorism of the Vedanta sutra, janmady asya yatah, Ramanuja establishes that all manifestations from the Supreme Reality must also be real. The sutra states that Brahman is that from which everything else has come into being. Because it does not state that Brahman is that from which the illusion of manifestations arises, it must be accepted that the manifestations are not illusory.
The philosophy Ramanuja presented as a logical alternative to that of Sankara is called Visistadvaita vada, or qualified oneness. It is accepted that there is an underlying unity to all existence, but this oneness of Brahman is qualified by variety. Three categories are recognized, which are distinct from one another, but together comprise a unity. These are cit, the individual living beings, acit, inert matter and Isvara, the controller-God. Cit and acit are seen as the body of God and thus are dependent upon Him, just as the body is dependent on the soul and cannot exist without it. This idea of matter and the living beings comprising the body of God is essential for understanding the relationship between them. There is unity between the body and soul, yet a real distinction is recognized.
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