Sri Ramanuja – Life & Philosophy
In this, world, many philosophers have come and gone. But the advent of a mystic philosopher is the rarest of the rare occasions indeed. Mysticism in purely emotional and philosophy is purely logical. It was only Sri Ramanuja who could bridge the gulf between the head and the heart (emotion and logic) and arrive at a universal philosophy…
Nearly nine hundred and ninety years ago the Earth was graced by the brightest star in the philosophical firmament of India. This was none other than Acharya Ramanuja: preceptor par excellence, compassion incarnate, and foremost among social reformers. He was a perfect example of an Acharya who spared no effort to lift up the spiritually downtrodden masses who had no hopes of spiritual redemption.
Foremost among the Acharya-s of the Srinivaishnava Acharya lineage and the personification of matchless compassion, Acharya Ramanuja was able to understand and address the serious suffering of the spiritually downtrodden masses who were not capable of serious spiritual pursuits and practices like Meditation or penance. His heart literally bled for the philosophically weak and for those born in the under-privileged classes. His predecessors belonging to other philosophical disciplines like Non-Dualism and Dualism•-cum- Non-Dualism had denied the privilege of spiritual redemption for those who did not belong to the class of Brahmins. They strongly advocated that one can attain spiritual emancipation only after being born as a Brahmin. Acharya Ramanuja was the first to declare that everyone in this world is entitled to attain spiritual redemption irrespective of the (class) caste or creed in which he is born.
Not only was Ramanuja bold enough to declare this, but he also implemented this idea practically in his life. When he was seeking to learn the secret esoteric teachings of Vedanta from his preceptor Gosthipurna, Acharya Ramanuja had to make l8 trips to Gosthipurna’s place of residence at Tirukkottiyur, a place far away from Srirangam, where Ramanuja was dwelling. Eventually though, after examining Ramanuja in rigorous ways and warning him of severe consequences if he revealed the secrets he would learn to undeserving disciples, Gosthipurna did divulge this secret esoteric teaching. But after learning this secret, what did Ramanuja do? As an embodiment of compassion, Ramanuja could not bear the sufferings of the frail human beings who were caught in the severe net of the cycle of birth and death of this trans—migratory world.
Hence, as soon as he gained knowledge of this spiritual elixir which could immediately deliver suffering souls from this transmigratory world and offer spiritual redemption, he climbed to the top of the temple of Tirukkottiyur and invited all the people seeking this knowledge, irrespective of caste or creed, to share the valuable teachings he inherited from Gosthipurna which would grant them salvation. The qualification to receive these spiritual secrets he prescribed was that one should have a burning desire to receive these secrets, an intense longing for spiritual union with the supreme and a strong desire to offer totally selfless service to the Lord Srimannarayana. When this clarion call was given, thousands of people assembled and received the secret teachings of the Vedanta and obtained spiritual redemption.
When his preceptor Gosthipurna first realised that he was divulging the teachings, he could not contain his anger. I-le thought Ramanuja was too liberal to share the secret teachings with so many people who had a desire to learn but had not been seriously tried or examined to assess whether they were worthy of receiving such valuable esoteric teachings. When he confronted Ramanuja, he burst forth with the words:
"How dare you divulge such valuable teachings to ordinary people without seriously examining them? Do you know the consequences of transgressing the vows that you had undertaken, not to divulge these secrets to undeserving people?"
Ramanuja answered, "l am sure to be condemned to go to hell, since I have transgressed the vow that I had given to my Acharya, but l could not resist the temptation to divulge this to those people when I saw the sufferings of the frail human beings who were caught in the net of transmigration. Since these suffering human beings, who have received these teachings, are sure to get liberation, I am prepared even to go to hell. Should not one sacrifice his spiritual benefits for the spiritual well being of hundreds of people?"
When Gosthipurna heard these words, at once, his eyes were opened. He was overwhelmed by the catholicity and compassion of Ramanuja. He hugged Ramanuja, overpowered by emotion and conferred upon him the title ‘Emberumanaar’ (my master). Keeping this in mind, our predecessors call Ramanuja: Kripa—matra-prasanna—acharya, meaning a preceptor who is driven to guide his disciples by compassion alone.
From the 8* century onwards many Acharyas like Shankara, Udayana and others waged severe philosophical war against the Buddhists who had propagated their philosophy of Nihilism and Transience. Shankara and Udayana are said to be great Acharyas who could redeem the soul of India strongly advocating the existence of consciousness. Shankara’s theory of pure consciousness was a sincere effort to wean away the masses from the nihilistic philosophy of the Buddhists. By the l2‘“ century the time was ripe for Ramanuja to continue from where Shankara had left off and further explain the Supreme consciousness advocated by Shankara, with greater elaboration of its innumerable virtues and divine forms, taking his cue from the Upanisads and the teachings of the Acharyas of his spiritual lineage. Hence, Ramanuja depicted the Supreme Brahman as most compassionate and waiting to shower his unlimited grace on those who were ready to receive it.
Another greatness of Ramanuja’s lies in his adopting the mystic literature of the Alwars written in the local language (Tamil) into temple worship. Being an ardent devotee of the foremost Mystic poet Saint Nammalwar, he canonized the secular literature of the Alwars and gave prime place for their recital in the temples. This was a revolutionary act of Ramanuja, particularly in the I2" century when canons written in no other language than Sanskrit were accepted as sacred. Thus Ramanuja was capable of bringing even the philosophically under—privileged into the fold of spirituality.
As a social reformer Ramanuja was the first among the Acharyas to admit the Harijans (in those days condemned as outcastes) into the fold of spiritual service to the Lord. Even today this can be witnessed in Melkote otherwise known as Tirunarayanapuram, where a Harijan leads the temple processions by blowing a trumpet. In fact Ramanuja named them as “Tirukkulattar" i.e. born in the “sacred lineage" or born in the family of goddess Lakshmi. Such social reforms are unheard of in the last several centuries except in the spiritual lineage of Ramanuja.
Who are we and where are we to write the biography of Ramanuja and his successors? We are convinced of our inability, lack of competence and understanding. Still, our awe and reverence for the greatness of Ramanuja urge us to write at least something about Ramanuja. The present work is a result of such strong desire. When emotion overpowers a person he forgets about his inabilities and inadequacies and speaks spontaneously. This is our "Vacika Kainkaryam" (service in the form of words) to Ramanuja, trying to extol his greatness, however weak we may be in our expressions and so on. We hope seekers of spirituality will appreciate us for the small efforts we have made to ruminate the valuable incidents in the life of Ramanuja and his successors to some extent. If this small and inadequate effort is able to stir the feelings of seekers of spirituality, we would be blessed indeed. We beg pardon of the great devotees of Ramanuja for any deficiencies that might have crept into the body of this text due to our own inadvertency and shortcomings. We request the motivated readers to accept this small offering at the feet of Ramanuja and bless us to have more spiritual enlightenment. We are sure to make the necessary amendments, if any are suggested by the devotees of the Acharya, in succeeding editions.
Aims of this book
When I first embarked upon writing a life history of the divine personality of Ramanuja, I knew that there were already quite a number of books on this topic, written by great stalwarts in the field. So I asked myself the question: ‘Should I really write a separate book on this topic? Might another book not be redundant? I was familiar with three other works in particular. The first was the one by Sri Alkondavilli Govindacharya published in the I920s and republished recently. The second one was published by the Ramakrishna Order, written by one of its members Sri Ramakrishnananda, originally from Bengal. Another text was by a Sri Naimisharanya Das belonging to the ISKCON tradition. Each hook, I felt, had its own uniqueness, but I felt that none of them provided the general overview of Ramanuja's life and philosophy which I felt was missing. The aims of this new hook were to give a totally authentic account of the life of Ramanuja in simple and lucid English language while also illustrating some of the unique aspects of the distinctive system of philosophy he propagated. In many places in this text, details about how Ramanuja practiced and demonstrated the philosophy he himself preached have been recounted. How far I have succeeded in these aims is for the readers and critics to judge.
Sri Ramanuja propounded a unique system of Philosophy that hitherto has remained not very well known either to scholars or the masses. Though there are several treatises in Sanskrit, Tamil and Mani-pravala languages written by succeeding Acarya-s which focus on Ramanuja’s philosophy, there are not many books in English that depict both his life and philosophy in an authentic manner. Noticing this void, this attempt is being made. Ramanuja’s life history forms the main focus of the text, but episodes in his life have also been developed to explain some important aspects of his philosophy as well as certain problems that arise while trying to precisely understand his philosophy.
Ramanuja’s philosophy: Meaning of the term ‘Visistadwaita’
It is well known that Ramanuja is the principle exponent of the philosophy of Visistadwaita. However, many people, including scholars of other systems of Vedanta as well as Indian philosophy, often wonder what Visistadvaita really means. We are able to understand ‘Advaita’ and its philosophy which specifically and clearly states that both the jivatma (individual soul) and Paramatma (Supreme Soul) are identical i.e. one and the same and that there is no difference between them whatsoever. We are also able to understand ‘Dvaita’ and its philosophy which specifically and clearly states that the jivatma (individual soul) and Paramatma (Supreme Soul) are totally different and can never become one and the same. However, what does the philosophy of Visistadwaita say? It is generally understood that this philosophy accepts that the jivatma (individual soul) and Paramatma (Supreme Soul) are different, yet also identical. Obviously, this can prompt many questions, not least: ‘How can two objects be different yet identical?’ For example, if there are two objects, say a pen and a book, the two objects are clearly different.
Moreover, a pen and a book can never become one and there is no question of their ever being identical. However, there is also the example of the clay and the pot. Clay and pot are two different objects, but we can also say, "this pot is nothing but <•lay". Also, in the shaped form of a pot, we can also say that "this clay is nothing but a pot." Of course, a lump of clay and a pot are different, but at the same time it is irrefutable that the pot is clay, and shaped clay and a pot can be identical. This rather crude analogy illustrates the key point that two different things can be different, yet identical: it just depends at which stage or state one considers them. In Visistadwaita, the same is said of the Jivatma (individual soul) and Paramatma (Supreme Soul). In terms of the individual soul and Supreme Soul, this can only be understood experientially, but in terms of a general analogy, the ‘clay and pot’ example shows how Visistadvaita views jivatman and paramatman. It is this seemingly plural viewpoint which makes Ramanuja’s philosophy so distictive, for some so appealing, and certainly so thought—provoking.
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