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Ramanuja Acarya
(1017-1137 A.D.)

Page 3 – Sri Vaisnavism after Ramanuja

As long as Ramanuja was alive, Sri Vaisnavas attached equal importance to both the Sanskrit and Tamil sides of their tradition. They stayed together as one group following the beliefs and practices of the acaryas and the Alvars. After Ramanuja however, certain teachers tended to emphasise the Sanskrit Vedas, while others emphasised the Tamil Divya Prabandhanas. The move toward the Tamil Divya Prabandhas was natural because Tamil was the mother tongue of the people, but the consequences of this division between the Sanskrit and Tamil sides of the tradition, led to differences of philosophical interpretation. This in turn eventually led to a split among the Sri Vaisnavas into two groups, the so called Northerners, the Vadakalai, and the so called southerners, the Tenkalai.

In theory the Vadakalai place greater stress on the Sanskrit side of the tradition, whereas the Tenkalai give more emphasis to the Tamil side. In actual practice however, the Vadakalai and Tenkalai connect themselves to Ramanuja through descendent lines running throught different theologians. The Vadakalai connect themselves through Vedanta Desika (1268-1369), where as the Tenkalai connect themselves through Pillailokacarya (1264-1369) [1] .

These two descendent lines from Ramanuja are shown below:

Vadakalai Sri Vaisnavas


Tenkalai Sri Vaisnavas


Although the seeds of this division can be traced back to the time of theacaryas and the Alvars, the actual split into Vadakalai and Tenkalai did not formally occur until the 18th century. The philosophical differences that developed between the Vadakalai and Tenkalai sides of the Sri Vaisnava tradition are shown on Vadakalai/Tenkalai Doctrinal Differences.Of the eighteen differences that are cited, two of the most important differences center on the nature of God’s mercy (svami-krpa) and the ontological status of Laksmidevi.

The Tenkalais take the view that God’s grace does not depend on the effort or merit of the devotee. If God had to depend on anything for the distribution of divine grace, even the sincerity of a devotee, God would be limited. It is the view of the Tenkalai that God’s grace was therefore, completely causeless. The Vadakalai, on the other hand, take the view that God’s grace depends on the good actions of the devotees, who must prepare and qualify themselves for divine grace. God’s grace was, therefore, directly related to the effort of the devotee. The Tamil speaking Alvars appeared to favor the former view, whereas, the Sanskrit based acaryas appeared to favor the latter view.

Regarding the ontological status of Laksmi or Sridevi, the Tenkalai hold that Laksmi is a jiva soul, albeit a very important one. In other words, Laksmi is a finite being and a servant of God just like all other souls. She can plead with God on behalf of the jivas, but she has no independent power to give liberation (moksa) on her own. The Vadakalai, on the other hand, consider Laksmidevi to be equal to God. She possesses all the powers of God (vibhutvam) and on her own she can grant moksa to the devotee. Laksmi is therefore, as important as God.

Apart from the Vadakalai/Tenkalai split that developed, other developments and important personalities arose after Ramanuja. One was the development of the manipravala [2] language that interspersed Tamil and Sanskrit words to form a Sanskritic Tamil prose. Those Tamil readers who were not well versed in Sanskrit could more easily understand this type of language. The literature of the manipravala language is mostly in the form of commentaries on the Sanskrit works of Yamuna and Ramanuja acaryas, as well as the Tamil hymns of the Alvars, the Divya Prabandha. The rise of the manipravala language marked the popularization of the teachings of the Alvars.

The two most important personalities that arose in the post Ramanuja era are Vedanta Desika and Pillailokacarya. Vedanta Desika (1268- 1369) is also known as Venkatanatha. He was an intellectual giant and a person who was distinguished in all branches of traditional learning. During his lifetime he wrote more than a 100 works in both Sanskrit and Manipravala on virtually every aspect of Visistadvaita philosophy and religion. Unlike most of his predecessors, including Ramanuja, Vedanta Desika remained a married man (grhastha) throughout his 100 years. He never adopted the ascetic lifestyle (sannyasa). He therefore showed that it was possible to become an important theologian within the Sri Vaisnava tradition without being an ascetic. In the hands of Vedanta Desika, Sri Vaisnavism was indeed strengthened beyond anyone’s imagination. Vedanta Desika is today associated with the Vadakalai side of the tradition.

Amongst the Tenkalais the name of Pillailokacarya (1264-1369) is most important. He also lived for over a 100 years. During this long lifetime he wrote 18 book in the Manipravala language and had a major impact in bringing the teaching of Visistadvaita and the Alvars to the common people. Pillailokacarya was a senior contemporary of Vedanta Desika and although the two theologians were on good terms, their views differed on important theological issues that later contributed to the Vadakalai and Tenkalai split mentioned earlier.

After the time of Vedanta Desika and Pillailokacarya many centers of learning developed associated with both the Vadakalai and Tenkalai communities. These were religious institution (mathas) similar in style to the mathas of the Madhvas. Amongst the Vadakalai there is the Ahobila, Paralala and AndovanMathas each headed by an eminent sannyasi for the propagation of Ramanuja’s teachings as interpreted by Vedanta Desika. The Tenkalai sect also set up centers of learning, chief of which, are the Vanamamalai Matha at Nanguneri, Tirumalai Jiyar Matha at Tirupati, the Sriranga-narayana Jiyar Matha at Srirangam and the Yatiraja Matha at Melkote. The mathas of both these groups continue to serve the needs of Sri Vaisnava philosophy and religion down to the present day.

Shukavak N. Dasa

[1] It is also said that the Tenkalais trace themselves to Ramanuja through Manavalama Muni (1370-1443), who came after Pillailokacarya.

[2] Manipravala literally means pearl (mani) and coral (pravala)


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