Ramanujar, who was born in AD 1017, is said to have lived for a hundred and twenty years.
The ancient books which chronicle the life of Ramanujar-Guruparamparai Prabhavam, Yadiraja Vaibhavam, Ramanuja Champu, Ramanuja Divya Charitam, Divyasuri Charitam, Koilozhugu Yadiraja Saptadi, Yadiraja Vamsati- view him with devotional fervour. So it is not surprising that the story of his life and the history of his times have been the subject of imaginative extensions and constructions.
Indian consciousness does not see time as a linear arithmetic progression of sequential events. Therefore, the historical explanation of events in terms of chronology and causality is not something that we should expect to find in the history of our ancestors. It is thus impossible, when we dramatize the life of someone who lived for a hundred and twenty years, to see that history in the light of the logic of events.
It is said that a straight line represents the shortest distance between two points. But a 'straight line' is itself a convenient fiction. The sequence of events dramatized in this play as scenes is a piece of imaginative construction too that we undertake in order to fully understand one of the great men of Indian history.
The aim of this play is to see how someone who lived nine hundred years ago is very much our contemporary.
Ramanujar was not the founder of the Vaishnavite religion. Well before his time, men like Nathamuni, Uyyakondan, Manakkal Nambi, and Alavandar, drawn by the devotional acts of the Azhwars, had laid the base for Vaishnavite doctrines. Ramanujar gave shape to those doctrines and also paved the way for the common people to have access doctrines and also paved the way for the common people to have access to those ideas which had been regarded as sacrosanct and exclusivist.
The Advaita philosophy, as expounded by Sankara during the period of Buddhist dominance, was a historical necessity. But the people who misunderstood his philosophy of maya, harped on the transience of human life and, in fact, took the stand that the world itself was an object to be hated.
Ramanujar lived after Sankara. He realized that while the concept of nirgunabrahmam ('attributeless godhead') was useful for attaining intellectual clarity, it could not be a spontaneously felt experience for the common masses who constituted the majority in society. Therefore, he erected, as the pillars of the edifice that he himself built, the path of devotion (bhakti), which was the fit path for all people, and its ultimate end, prapatti (the philosophy of saranagati or surrender). It should not be forgotten that even Sankara, at a later stage, had felt the need to sing the Bhajagovindam song, emphasizing bhakti.
From a psychological viewpoint, the individual cannot exist without God. That is why, till today, no philosophy which does not acknowledge the existence of 'God has succeeded. Events which happen have to have meaning. That is why Einstein, the greatest scientist of this century, said, 'God does not play dice'. If we image God as the ultimate meaning of events, then the journey of life becomes interesting. Ramanujar said that when we realize this point fully, chit ('atman') and achit ('body') are both one with God; and when we feel such a state experientially, life becomes an enjoyable journey. Ramanujar imaged God as Bhuvanasundaran ('one who embodies the beauty of the world') because he regarded bhakti itself as a rasa. The aham songs of the Azhwars, conceived in the nayaka-nayaki bhava also reinforce the idea of bhakti as a rasa.
Caste discrimination is the bane of Vedic religion. Even more outrageous was the justification of high and low births as the fruit of karma. Ramanujar rejected caste discrimination absolutely and fully. His first Vaishnavite guru was Tirukkacchi Nambi was belonged to the Vaisya community. Ramanujar must have posed this question; maintaining that chit and achit are both inseparable attributes of godhead, how can we accept that there are differences of high and low so far as achit is concerned? If we do accept such differences, then we must ascribe those deficiencies to God too. But then 'God is Brahman; the word is also derivable from Brihat. And Brahman means 'a unique thing complete in itself and possessing all the perfect attributes'.
In order to do away with caste discrimination, Ramanujar declared that Vaishnavism belonged to everyone. He made the Panchamas (the people of the fifth caste who had been relegated to the fringes of society) Vaishnavites and called them Tirukkulattar (people of the holy community). The historian Buchanan has described, with authentic evidence, the service that the Tirukkulattar rendered, standing shoulder to shoulder with Ramanujar, in building the Vishnu temple at Melukote and in retrieving the utsava deity who Ramanujar called Chellapillai ('darling child'). Buchanan further tells us that Ramanujar issued orders for conferring special honours on the Tirukkulattar in the temples of the Karnataka state at Melukote, Srirangapatnam, and Belur. Rice's Gazetteer and AD 1897 describes in detail this practice which has been handed down from generation to generation.
Another interesting fact of Ramanujar's life is his visit to Delhi and his retrieval, from the Turkish sultan, of Sampat Kumaran, the utsava deity of the Melukote temple. Even now there exists a shrine called Turuka Nachiyar in each of the major Vishnu temples. Even in the present times, at the Srirangam temple, on the day of the observance of Pahal Pattu during the Ekadasi festival, there is the practice of dressing Lord Vishnu in a lungi in the fashion of Muslims and granting darshan to the Turukka (Turkish) Nachiyar.
Atkondavilli Govindachariyar, who has chronicled the life of Ramanujar, has treated this story quite artistically. In the traditional accounts, this Turkish king is referred to as 'Emmadu Rayan'. Govindachariyar maintains that 'Emmadu' might be a variant of 'Mohammad' and ''Rayan' means 'king'. The Turkish king need not have reigned in Delhi. Even in those times there were minor Muslim rulers in regions north of the Hoysala country. Therefore 'Emmadu Rayan' could well have been a minor Muslim ruler of a neighbouring state.
Prabhakar's Yavanapriya tells of the marriage of the 'Turkish princess' to 'Sampat Kumaran'. During a Hindu marriage ceremony, the gotras (lineages) of the bride and the bridegroom are usually announced. Yavanapriya says that the gotras in this case were the Harita gotra for Sampat Kumaran (Chellapillai), because he was Ramanujar's 'son' and Gargiya gotra for the Sultani (the Turkish princess). According to Govindachariyar, all foreigners were in the classical Sanskrit tradition called Yavanas, and so 'Sultani' becomes 'Yavani'. Since all Greeks (Yavanas) were assigned the Gargiya gotram, it must have been given to the 'Sultani' as well. Though this sounds fanciful, there does seem to be an element of historical truth in it.
I am quite aware that it is no easy task to dramatize the life of Ramanujar which is so full of historical as well s highly imaginative events. What impelled me to write a play on Ramanujar was the fact that he was not only a thinker but a great man of action.
During the days when Sanskrit, like English today, had currency only among intellectuals and was the sole language of worship, it was Ramanujar who changed the trend and installed Tamil in the inner shrine of temples so that God could be worshipped easily by the post masses who constituted the majority. It was this accessibility that made it possible for everyone to accept the Vaishnavite religion without the discrimination of caste.
Ramanujar again was the first Vedic religious leader to accord women a status equal to that of men and to accept them as disciples In Vaishnavite discourse, Narayana is called Tirumagal Kelvan, after the interpretive tradition created by Ramanujar. The major women who were part of his mutt were Andal (the wife of Kuresar), Ponnachi, Kongu Piratti, Tiruven Paricharattu Ammai, Tiruvettaru Ammai, Tiruvananthapurathu Ammai, and others.
It must be mentioned here that this play departs from the Guruparampara accounts in some places. While talking about the three unfulfilled wishes of Alavandar, these accounts say that the first two of these wishes were naming Vaishnavite children after Veda Vyasa and his father Parasara. Alavandar is said, in these accounts, to have mentioned these before he attained Tirunadu. When, however, we consider that his third unfulfilled with was the writing of a vyakhyanam (commentary) on the Vyasasutras, we wonder whether he would have regarded his failure to bestow those names on Vaishnavite children as such a serious omission. That is why I have changed the first two 'wishes', to bring them on a par with the third. When we remember that Maraner Nambi, who belonged to the fifth caste, was a disciple of Alavandar, it seems certain that it was Alavandar who shaped Ramanuja's thought.
In the narratives of the Vaishnavite tradition, again, the Chola king has been the object of denunciation and has been portrayed as a religious fanatic. It is not clear, however, which Chola king this was. Ramanujar, who lived around a hundred and twenty years, must have seen the reign of five Chola kings,. When we look at historical documents, we can guess that it was perhaps Kulothunga I. but when we consider that he also bore the title of 'Sapta 'Vishnu Vardhanan', the question arises as to whether he could have been a Saivite fanatic.
It is for these reasons that, in this play, the Ghola king has been portrayed as initiating action against Ramanujar in the most reluctant fashion. The history of Christianity tells us that the Roman governor (Pilate) washed his hands after delivering judgment against Jesus Christ. The Ramanujar affair must have constituted a crisis for the Chola king. The Vaishnavites as well as the Saivites were opposed to Ramanujar. We should understood the dilemma the king must have found himself in. that is why he has not been depicted in this play as a hardened religious fanatic.
As Ramanujar is believed to have lived for a hundred and twenty years, certain problems may arise when the play is staged. He appears in the first scene as a youth and it is necessary to show him as progressively older in the subsequent scenes. He was 25 at the beginning of the play, 32 at the time of his renunciation, 79 when he went to Melukote, and 83 when he raised the Tirunarayanan temple at Melukote. He stayed at Melukote till the age of 99. He returned to Srirangam when he was 101 and he attained Tirunadu at the age of 120. The chronicles say that he remained healthy and strong till the very end and so there is nothing wrong in portraying him in the same state from the age of 60 till the end.
The play ends with Ramanujar declaring Kuresar's son as his (Ramanujar's) heir.
No sets are needed for the performance of this play. The events take place in Kanchi, Srirangm, the Nilgiri forests, Melukote, and the country ruled by the Muslim king. Indications of these places are provided in the text itself. However, it is not strictly necessary to follow these indications either. It is a matter of how the director's imagination shapes the places and events. I would like to say, however, that elaborate stage settings might interfere with the play of ideas of the drama.
The aim of the play is to make readers and audience see Ramanujar as our contemporary. A non-conformist thinker of a certain time is always shut up in a prison of the establishment by his own followers in subsequent times. It is my contention that we should rescue Ramanujar, a revolutionary in his own times, from such a prison and understand him fully. It is wrong, at the same time, to evaluate him by the yardstick of modern values. One truth, however, we can assert with certainty. From ancient times till now, the only yardstick that can establish the prime movers of history is their humanitarianism. There is no religion greater than humanitarianism.
From the Jacket
An important preceptor of medieval India and the proponent of the Visishtadvaita school of thought, Ramanuja established the supremacy of the Sri Vaishnava dimension of Hinduism.
Indira Parthasarathy's play, originally written in Tamil and published in 1997, is based on the life, ideas, and beliefs of Ramanuja. Retrieving its subject from the shackles of establishment, the play foregrounds Ramanuja's open-mindedness and spiritual equality. The ideas and beliefs of Ramanuja hold ground even after 900 years, and the play rings to light one of his most progressive social measures-initiate everyone into spiritual knowledge.
The English translation by T. Sriraman captures the tone of the Tamil original and makes the world-view of Ramanuja accessible to a wider audience. The reader's perception of the historico-social context of Ramanuja's life and mission is enhanced by C.T. Indra's critical introduction and extensive commentary. The play and the critical apparatus will appeal to students and scholars of literature in general and Tamil literature in translation in particular, as also those interested in cultural and religious studies and the history of medieval India.
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