Page 4 – Vadakalai/Tenkalai Doctrinal Differences
The divisions that developed within the Sri Vaisnava community in the centuries after Ramanuja are the result of doctrinal differences, the roots of which, can be traced back to the time of the Alvars and the acaryas. The actual split into two schools, the Vadakalai and the Tenkalai did not occur until the time of Manavala Mamuni in the 17th century. Sometimes the terms vadakalaiand tenkalai are translated as the Northern and the Southern schools, but no geographical distinctions are apparent today. In place of the terms “vadakalai” and “tenkalai,” the expressions “Kanchi acaryas” and “Srirangam acaryas,” have also been used. These expressions illustrate some of the post-Ramanuja history within Sri Vaisnavaism. They shed light on how the differences between the two schools may have developed. After Ramanuja two camps ofSri Vaisnava scholars arose. One group, located in Kanchi became known for its Sanskrit scholarship, probably because Kanchi was a great center of Sanskrit learning in ancient times. People of all religious traditions lived there, and debate between Sri Vaisnavas and non-Sri Vaisnavas was active. Hence, the greater of use of Sanskrit and Sanskrit ideas by the “Kanchi acaryas,” the northerners who eventually became the “Vadakalai.”
The other group was located in Srirangam, which was a purely Vaisnava center. Here, popular Vaisnavaism was more prominent than the Sanskrit-oriented Vaisnavaism that had to constantly defend itself from opposing schools. Hence, there was more opportunity for the public use of the Divya Prabandhams and the general bhakti literature in Tamil. In this area the local Tamil language was at least as prominent as Sanskrit.
Naturally, with such differences in intellectual climate and language, came differences in philosophical interpretation. A work entitled, Astadasabheda-nirnaya by Vatsya Ranganatha describes eighteen points of doctrinal differences. Here I briefly list the ten important of these differences.
1. God’s Mercy.
Vadakalais emphasize the need of the individual soul to actually perform an act of surrender to God. Some positive gesture is necessary on the part of the soul to deserve the grace of God and attain moksa.
Tenkalais emphasize the greatness and overwhelming grace of the Lord to “save His own”, and therefore speak more of the attitude of surrender than the act of surrender. Tenkalais feel that performing “an act of surrender” is inappropriate since the soul is offering itself to God when in actuality it already belongs to God. Besides, not even the physical act of surrendering can force the Lord to save the soul. God saves the soul on His own initiative; and the devotee should not try to force Him. God’s grace is spontaneous and He can grant moksa to anyone He wishes.
2. The Status of Laksmi
Vadakalais believe that Laksmi is the means for attaining salvation as much as the Lord Himself and that she has the role as a mediator (purusa-kara). Like the Lord, She is infinite and partakes of the nature of the paramatma as much as the Lord.
Tenkalais believe that Laksmi is a jivatma like other souls and that she has no independent power to grant moksa. They do, however, accept that she is a special soul who can intercede on behalf of ordinary souls to recommend them for moksa.
3. Regarding Kaivalya (Oneness with God)
(Sri Vaisnavas regard kaivalya as a state of oneness with God wherein individual identity is lost.)
Vadakalais view kaivalya as a state that is inferior to residence in Vaikuntha.Kaivalya is a condition that is non-eternal and exists outside of Vaikuntha.
Tenkalaisaccept that kaivalya is an eternal position within realm of Vaikuntha. They say, however, that kaivalya only exists at the outer most regions of Vaikuntha.
4. Bhakti and Prapatti
Vadakalais accept both bhakti and prapatti as a direct means for attainingmoksa. They believe, however, that bhakti is more difficult and slow. Prapatti,on the other hand, is easy and immediate.
Tenkalais do not accept any means for attaining moksa because the individual soul is completely incapable of properly adopting bhakti or prapatti. Moksa can only be obtained through God’s causeless mercy.
ForVadakalais prapatti is a specific act of surrender by the soul to God (paramatma)
For Tenkalais no specific act is necessary. All that is required is knowledge of the nature of the soul and a mental acceptance of God’s grace in granting salvation (moksa).
6. Sin (papa)
Vadakalais believe that when a soul surrenders, the Lord forgives the sins committed by that soul and grants moksa.
Tenkalais believe that the sins of a soul are a source of joy for the Lord, who relishes them like a cow licking the dirt off the body of its calf.
7. Obligatory Duties such as Daily Prayers (sandhya-vandanam)
Vadakalais believe that obligatory duties are laid down by sastra. They are the Lord’s commandments. Neglect of such rules is a breach of instruction and will render the striving soul (prapanna) liable for punishment.
Tenkalaisbelieve that a highly evolved soul has no need to follow obligatory duties. Such a person does, however, continue to perform them in order to set an example for less evolved souls.
8. Interpretation of the words “sarva dharman parityajya” in thecarama-sloka (BG 18.66)
Vadakalais believe that dharma as it is used in this verse refers to the 32 vidyasof bhakti-yoga that have been relinquished up by the surrendered soul (prapanna).
Tenkalais interpret this to mean, ” First, give up your duties and then take shelter of God.”
9. The Lord’s Grief at the Suffering of Souls
Vadakalais say that one can have grief only when one cannot remove the suffering of another. But, since the Lord is capable of removing suffering, there is no need for Him to grieve.
Tenkalais say that God feels pain upon seeing the sufferings of souls. They cite examples from the Ramayana where Sri Rama grieves over the misery of others.
Vadakalais say that statements that describe God as smaller than the atom is an example of God’s immanence (antar-vyapti). Those statements that describe Him as the greatest are understood in the sense that He pervades and surrounds everything. This is an example of God’s transcendence (bahir vyapti).
Tenkalais say that God’s seemingly contradictory nature as both minuscule and immense are examples of God’s special powers (agatitha-ghatana-samartya) that enable Him to accomplish the impossible.
[In fact, most people only see the difference between to two groups of SriVaisnavas in terms of the application of the white clay tilaka marks. (SeeTilaka.) The Vadakalais form their tilaka marks in the shape of a "U." The Tenkalai form their tilaka mark in the form of a "Y." See accompanying photos. It is unfortunate that some later day enthusiasts of the two branches went to the extreme of putting their respective tilaka on the forehead of the temple elephant. This even led the Sri Vaisnavas the dispute the matter in court!]
Vatsya Ranganatha, Astadasabheda-nirnaya. Edited and translated by Suzanne Siauve. Pondichery: Intitut Francais D ‘Indologie Pondichery, 1978