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Ramanuja Acarya
(1017-1137 A.D.)

Page 1–Ramanuja and Sri Vaisnavism

Note: In India there are many schools of Vaisnavism, and they are generally named after the particular founder that initially propounded them. Consequently, there is the Vaisnavism styled after Madhva, Nimbarka, Vallabha, Caitanya, Ramananda, Jayadeva, J–anesvara, and so on. Each of these different schools of Vaisnavism has adapted itself to meet the local religious, social and language conditions where it developed. Together these schools form what has been called the bhakti movement of medieval Hinduism. Ramanuja’s particular form of Vaisnavism is the oldest of these schools and is often termed Sri Vaisnavism in order to distinguish if from that of Madhva and the other Vaisnava schools.

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The story of Ramanujacarya is actually the story Sri Vaisnavism in India. Unlike Madhva or Caitanya, who can justifiably be called the founders of their particular school of Vaisnavism, Ramanuja is not the founder of SriVaisnavism. Instead, he is an important member among a great succession of followers that trace themselves to the time of the Rg-veda. The school is known as Sri Vaisnavism because Sridevi, otherwise known as the Goddess Laksmi, is said to be its original propounder. In this system Sridevi holds an important theological position alongside Visnu and together they form the basis of ultimate reality. The descriptive name for the philosophy of SriVaisnavism is Visistadvaita.

The development Sri Vaisnavism can be divided into five historical periods: 1) the Vedic period 2) the period of the Agamas 3) the smrtis period 4) the period of the Alvars 5) and the period of the theologians (acaryas) includingSri Ramanuja.

The Vedic Period

Sri Vaisnavas argue that the philosophy, which underpins the Vedas, is monotheism. When the hymns of the Rg-veda address Indra, Agni, Vayu, Varuna, and any other devata, they are not intended for the particular deity, but for a Supreme Being who is the inner soul (antaryamin) for that deity. The various deities addressed in the hymns are simply different “faces” of this one Supreme Being. Despite its polytheistic appearance, the religion of the Vedas is, therefore, fundamentally monotheistic.

The hymns of the Rg-veda not only assert the existence of this one Supreme Being, but also describe the essential characteristics of this Being as the cause of all causes (sarva-karana), [1] the controller of all (sarva-niyamaka),[2] as immanent in the heart of every being (antaryamin), [3] as the ruler of the entire universe, [4] and as the giver of immortality. [5]   Such a Being is also described as omniscient (sarvajna), omnipotent (sarva-sakta), full of unsurpassed glory (sarvatisayi) and the greatest of all (sarva-mahima).

Above all the deities mentioned in the Vedas, Sri Vaisnavas identify Visnu as the original or prime face of this one Supreme Being, who is the foundation of the world and the gods. They quote numerous verses from theRg-veda and other Vedic texts to substantiate their position. [6] Perhaps the most important verse that is cited to establish the supremacy of Visnu above all others is the one that mentions the eternal abode (parama-pada) of Visnu: “As the blazing sun pervades the entire sky like an eye fixed in the heavens, so the divine seers eternally perceive that supreme abode of Visnu.” [7]Other mantras are also cited that identify Visnu as that Supreme Being, including the Purusa-sukta [8] which is regularly chanted during worship. In this way, Sri Vaisnavas trace their philosophic origins to the earliest Vedic period and assert that Sri Visnu is the foundation of ultimate reality.

The Period of the Agamas

Next to the Vedas there is another set of sacred literatures that Sri Vaisnavas call upon, not so much for their philosophic roots, but more for their religious and ritual importance. These are the Agamas. The date of the Agamas, like the Vedas, is in dispute between traditional and modern scholars and varies from 3000 BC to 800 AD. In general, however, we can safely say that theAgamas fall somewhere between the time of the Vedas and the smrtiliteratures including the Mahabharata. The Vaisnava Agamas fall under two categories: Vaikanasa and Pancaratra. The Vaikanasa Agamas are derived from the sage Vikhanas, who, with the help of his disciples, was their compiler. Vikhanas claims to have taken his teachings directly from the Vedas. The Pancaratra Agamas claim to be based on the Sukla-yajur-veda(which is no longer extant) and also purports to be of Vedic origin. The Pancaratra Agamas, in particular, are extremely voluminous. The number of texts is in the hundreds, but the most ancient and authoritative Pancaratra texts are the Sattvata, Pauskara and Jayakhya Samhitas.

In general, the Vaisnava Agamas describe Visnu is the Supreme Being and the foundation of all existence. They describe the consecration of sacred images (murti-sthapana), the practice of image worship (murti puja), the building of temples, the observance of specific daily rituals and other festivals in these temples. Because of the emphasis on image worship, many scholars take the view that the Agamas are not Vedic in origin, but are representative of another tradition of ancient India known as the Sattvata orBhavavatas tradition. [9] Although there is much debate over this issue, there is little doubt that the Agamas are at least pro-Vedic and have had a major influence on the religious development of Sri Vaisnavism.

The Smrti Period

The next phase of Sri Vaisnava development comes from the later Vedic texts, the so-called smrti texts. These include the RamayanaMahabharata,Puranas and the Vedanta-sutras. The smrti texts naturally include theBhagavad-gita, which is a part of the MahabharataSri Vaisnavas consider the Ramayana, the oldest and most authoritative of the smrti texts. TheRamayana describes how Visnu Himself incarnated on earth and played the role of a human being. The text describes the greatness of the Goddess Laksmi through the character of Sita and the devotional attitudes of service and surrender to God illustrated in the characters of Hanuman, Vibhisana, Laksmana and Bharata. For Sri Vaisnava the Ramayana is often called thesaranagati-sastra because it best shows the way of surrender to God  (prapatti), which is a key feature of Sri Vaisnava philosophy.

Next in prominence comes the Mahabharata, which is considered the encyclopedia of Vaisnava philosophy and religion. In the Mahabharata the single identity of Vasudeva, Narayana, Visnu and Krsna is established. The supremacy of Visnu over other deities including Siva and Brahma is also established. The Bhagavad-gita, as part of the Mahabharata, outlines the principals of karmajnana, and bhakti yogas and like Ramayana teaches surrender to God (prapatti).

Among the eighteen PuranasSri Vaisnavas acknowledge the Visnu-puranaas the oldest and most authoritative. For them it presents the basic philosophic and religious foundations of Sri Vaisnavism. Later schools of Vaisnavas lay more emphasis on the Bhagavata-purana instead of theVisnu-purana.

The Period of the Alvars

 Sri Vaisnavism does not, however, base its authority solely on the Sanskrit Vedas, Agamas and smrti texts, but also on the Tamil writings of the Alvars. The twelve Alvar saints were born in different parts of south India and appear to span the dates 200 AD to 800 AD. Orthodox tradition, however, places the earliest Alvar saints at 4203 BC and the latest at 2706 BC.

The Alvars were mystic saints who immersed themselves in devotional experiences and expressed their divine experiences in Tamil verses that have been collection into 4000 stanzas call the Divya-prabandha or Divine Hymns. These sacred writings contain rich philosophical and religious material taken from the Upanisads, the RamayanaMahabharata and thePuranas and are accepted by many Sri Vaisnavas to be on par with the Vedas themselves.

The main teachings of the Alvars assert 1) that Sri Visnu along Sridevi forms the basis of ultimate reality 2) that self-surrender (prapatti) through acts of devotion (bhakti) is the means to attain salvation (moksa) 3) that service to God and godly souls is an essential duty for Vaisnavas 4) and that moksa or salvation from rebirth is the supreme goal of life.

Amongst the 4000 verses of the Divya-prabandha, the 1102 verses attributed to Namma Alvar are often considered the most important and are sometimes called the Tamil Veda. Based on the teaching of the Upanisads, these verses have inspired their own set of commentaries and sub-commentaries and have played a major role in the development of SriVaisnavism down to the present day. You may select the following link to hear a sampling of these hymns recorded in Malkote in 1986.

The Period of the Acaryas

The next stage in the development of Sri Vaisnavism brings us to more recent times (1000 AD) and is the development brought about by theacaryas or principal theologians amongst the Sri Vaisnavas. Three principleacaryas are named: Nathamuni, Yamuna and Ramanuja. By the time of theacaryas at the beginning of the ninth century, Sri Vaisnavism had to contend no only with rival philosophic and religious systems that included Buddhists, Jainas, Saivas, Sankhyas, Nyayikas, Vaisesikas, Mimamsa, but also the school of Sankara, advaita-vedanta. In order to defend the teachings of SriVaisnavism from these religious and philosophic schools there was an urgent need to consolidate and systematize Sri Vaisnavism as a coherent philosophical system and formal religious organization. This was the work of the acaryas, among which, the works of Ramanuja are the most comprehensive and well known.

Born in 824 AD, Nathamuni is the first of this group of theologians. Unfortunately his works are no longer extant. We only know of them through the references of Ramanuja and his later follower, Vedanta Desika. Nathamuni is most famous for having revived and edited the 4000 hymns of the Alvars. He was the one who arranged them into four sections and introduced their recitations as part of daily temple worship. Nathamuni also appears to have advocated the Alvaric doctrine of prapatti.

The next great acarya is Yamunacarya, who was the grandson of Nathamuni. Yamuna is also known as Alavandar. Born in 916 AD, he produced six major works that outline the principals of visistadvaita. His writings are the first extant works in Sanskrit by a Vaisnava acarya. In his writings he argues for the supremacy of Sri Visnu as the basis of ultimate reality and makes the case for the ontological status of Sri Devi, which in later Sri Vaisnavism became a topic of divisive controversy. Yamunacarya has also argued for the authority of the Agamas and like Nathamuni he promoted the doctrine of self-surrender (prapatti). Yamunacarya’s writings are today considered the starting point for Ramanuja’s great systemization ofvisistadvaita.

The Life of Sri Ramanujacarya

Like Madhvacarya, Ramanuja was born during a time when Sankara’sadvaita-vedanta had become a dominant philosophical force. In Sankara’sadvaita-vedanta ultimate reality is impersonal and devoid of qualities (nirguna). Advaita-vedanta in effect subordinated the personal God of the Vaisnavas to this impersonal reality. The Alvars and the acaryas, on the other hand, could not accept that ultimate reality was impersonal and devoid of qualities. Ramanuja’s mission was, therefore, to diminish Sankara’s teaching and to establish, on stronger logical foundations, the philosophy ofSri Vaisnavism. This was done primarily on the basis of the Upanisads,Bhagavad-gita and the Vedanta-sutras.

Ramanuja’s biographers inform us that he was born in the village of Sriperumbadur in 1017 AD. (See the photo of the temple established at this site.) Today this village is about 20 km north of Chennai (Madras). See the side map. Ramanuja received his upper level education, together with his cousin Govinda Bhatta, from the Advaitin teacher, Yadava Prakasa. Just prior to studying with Yadava Prakasa, Ramanuja had been married and so it is estimated that he would have been about age 16 at this time.

As with Madhvacarya and his teacher, Ramanuja’s biographers describe how he often disagreed with Yadava Prakasa over the interpretation of variousUpanisads verses. Yadava Prakasa interpreted the verses in a monastic way, whereas Ramanuja wanted to understand them a devotional way. We are told that the disputes became so intense that Yadava Prakasa apparently plotted to have Ramanuja drowned while on pilgrimage to Allahabad. Apparently Ramanuja’s cousin, Govinda, got wind of the plot and allowed Ramanuja to escape unharmed. Later Ramanuja was reconciled with his teacher and resumed his studies.

We are also told how Ramanuja’s great learning and objections to Yadava Prakasa monastic views caught the attention of Yamunacarya in Srirangam. Yamuna traveled to Kanci to observe Ramanuja in secret to see if he was fit to become his successor. Evidently Yamuna was pleased with what he saw and decided that Ramanuja should become his successor. Eventually Ramanuja fell-out with Yadava Prakasa and left for good. On hearing of this break-up, Yamuna sent one of his disciples, Mahapurnam, to bring Ramunaja to Srirangam. But as fate would have it, Yamuna died before Ramanuja could reach Srirangam.

It is said that Ramanuja was taken to the body of Yamuna for a final look at the great master when he noticed that three of Yamuna’s fingers were folded into the palm of his right hand. On inquiring, Ramanuja was told that the master had three unfulfilled wishes. Ramanuja understood that this was a sign left by Yamuna and pronounced the following three vows. 1) I vow to enter the Vaisnava faith and devote myself to the task of uplifting humanity by teaching the doctrine of surrender to God (prapatti). The first of Yamuna’s fingers opened. 2) I vow to collect the teachings of the Vedas and the acaryas into a commentary on the Vedanta-sutras and place the means of salvation within the reach of all. The second of Yamuna’s fingers opened. 3) I vow to perpetuate the name of Parasara Muni who, in the Visnu Purana, has revealed the position of God, His relation to the souls of this world and the path of liberation. The final finger of Yamuna opened. His hand was now wide-open.

Ramanuja was soon initiated into Sri Vaisnavism by Mahapura according to the panca-sanskara rites. (Select the link for an explanation of the panca-sanskara ceremony.) Sometime later Ramanuja relinquished his family life and became an ascetic (sannyasi). By this time he was about age 32. Afterwards he sought further initiation from Gosti Purna, another follower of Yamuna. Ramanuja’s biographers tell us that it took Ramanuja successive attempts before Gosti Purna would accept him for initiation. In the end Gosti Purna initiated Ramanuja into what was then the most secret and sacred of Vaisnava prayers, the eight syllable (astaksari) mantra: om namo narayanaya. The story goes that immediately after initiation Ramanuja proceeded to climb the temple tower at Tirukkottiyar and call this mantra and the teaching of Gosti Purna out to anyone who would listen. On hearing of this Gosti Purna became furious and condemned Ramanuja to hell. Ramanuja readily accepted, saying that if the sacred teachings of Gosti Purna could elevate everyone to the state of salvation (moksa), he would gladly sacrifice himself. On hearing Ramanuja’s explanation Gosti Purna blessed him. He had passed the test.

This point in Ramanuja’s life is really the beginning of his long life as a philosopher and preacher within the school of Sri Vaisnavism. He was now 40 and he was to spend the next 80 years preaching and writing SriVaisnava philosophy.

Ramanuja’s fame quickly spread far and wide. He soon undertook a tour to North India where he visited many the sacred places including Kashi, Kashmir, Badrinath, and even Puri. In Jagannatha Puri we are told how he tried to change the Deity worship from the rituals based on advaita-vedantato the Vaisnava pancaratra system, but was rejected from the temple for his attempt. On his return to the south he visited Tirupati where he found theSaivas and the Vaisnavas quarrelling with one another over whether the image of God in the Tirupati temple was a form of Siva or Visnu. Ramanuja again intervened in temple affairs and proposed that they should leave it to the Deity Himself to decide. The priests were told to leave the ornaments of both Siva and Visnu at the feet of the image and wait outside all night. In the morning, when they opened the doors, they found that the image was wearing the ornaments of Visnu. This decided that the temple was Vaisnava and it has remained so ever since.

Ramanuja finally returned to Srirangam where he settled permanently and continued to preach and write. Daily hundreds of people flocked to him to hear his lectures. By now he had a following of over 700 sannyasis and thousands of followers, who revered him as their guru. He had converted thousands of people to the path of devotion. He was now seventy years old and what would have been the end of a long career for most people was just the beginning for Ramanuja. He was destined to live many more years.

About this time the Chola king, Kulothunga I, came to power. He turned out to be a ruthless follower of Siva and tried to convert his kingdom to Saivism under the threat of force. When he ordered Ramanuja to subscribe to his faith or be prepared to face the consequences, Ramanuja called on two of his best disciples to go to the king and work out a compromise. They argued for tolerance but the monarch refused to consider their request and had their eyes put out.

As a result, Ramanuja was forced to flee to the Western Ghats, forty miles west of Mysore. There, after great difficulties, he established himself in the Mysore kingdom where he spent the next 22 years of his life in exile away from his beloved Srirangam.

The king of Mysore, Bhatti Deva of the Hoysala dynasty, was pleased to have Ramanuja in his kingdom and readily became his disciple. Thereafter, Ramanuja was allowed to construct Visnu temples in and about Mysore. In particular he constructed a temple at Melkote and created an active Vaisnava community that is still thriving today. (See photos.) Ramanuja’s labors were successful and his followers grew until they numbered hundreds of thousands in the Mysore kingdom.

Meanwhile, Kulothunga Chola 1, who had persecuted Ramanuja, died. The followers of Ramanuja at Srirangam immediately requested him to return. Ramanuja himself longed to go back to his followers in Srirangam and worship in the temple there. Buthis disciples at Melkote and other places in the Mysore kingdom would not let him go. So he constructed a temple for himself, installed his own image for worship by his disciples, and left for Srirangam.

Back in Srirangam his friends and disciples welcomed him. The successor to Kulothunga Chola I was favorable to Ramanuja so he was left undisturbed. During his final stage of his life Ramanuja completed is famous Vedanta-sutra commentary the Sri-bhasya.Through his Sri-bhasya he established the monotheistic principles of Sri Vaisnavism and opposed the philosophy ofSankara. He proclaimed to the world the doctrines of devotion and surrender to God (bhakti and prapatti). Ramanuja stands as an important milestone in the history of not just Sri Vaisnavism but Vaisnavism in general. The great Vaisnava teachers that succeeded him, Madhva, Nimbarka, Vallabha, Caitanya are indebted to Sri Ramanuja. In Srirangam Ramanuja continued his labors for another 22 years and finally closed his long career after attaining the remarkable age of 120 years.

[1] RV VI.7.6 and X.5.7.

[2] RV III. 20.4 and IV.30.2.

[3] RV VI.9.5. and VI.9.6.

[4] RV VI.36.4

[5] RV VI.7.7 and I.154.5.

[6] RV I.156.4, Taittiriya Aranyaka, 1.8, RV VII 99.1 and 2. RV 1.22.18.Satapatha Brahmana 1.1.2 and 1.4.2.

[7] RV 1.22.20: tad-visnoh paramam padam sada pasyanti surayah

diviva caksur atatam/ tad-vipraso vipanyavo jagrvamsas samindhate/ visnor yat paramam padam//

[8] RV X.90. The purusa-sukta is found in all the four Vedas and is therefore mentioned in the Pancaratras and the Puranas as the most important Vedic hymn. Surprisingly, the name of Visnu is not mentioned anywhere in the hymn, but still Vaisnavas universally take it as an address to Visnu.

[9] See Dasgupta, Surendranath, A History of Indian Philosophy volume III pp.14-20 for a discussion on this point.

Shukavak N. Dasa

Bibliography

Aiyangar, S. Krishnaswami; Chariar, Rajagopala; and Rangacharya, M, Sri Ramanujacharya: a sketch of his life and times and His Philosophical System, with an account of Ramanuja and Vaishavism. Madras: G. A. Natesan, 1911? (Microfiche)

Ramakrishnananda, Swami, The Life of Sri Ramanuja. Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1965.

Srinivasa Chari, S. M. Visistadvaita Vedanta. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1998.

Rangachari, Dewan Bahadur, The Sri Vaishnava Brahmans. Delhi: Gian Publishing House, 1986.

Dasgupta, Surendranath, A History of Indian Philosophy, Volume III. Delhi: Motilal Banasidass, 1975.

“Ramanuja.”  Encyclopedia Britannica 2003  Encyclopedia Britannica Premium Service.

30 Jan, 2003 http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=64159.

Srinivasa Chari, S. M. Vaisnavism, Its Philosophy, Theology and Religious Discipline. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 20

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Ramanuja

Ramanuja Acarya

Ramanuja’s Dates Year Age
Birth 1017 0
Study with Yadava Prakasa 1033 16
Arrival at Srirangam to see Yamuna 1043 26
First Initiation 1049 32
Second Initiation    1057 40
Flight to Mysore to escape persecution   1096 76
Conversion of Bittadeva    1098 78
Establishing temple at Malkote 1100 80
Stayed in Malkote until 1116 96
Return to Shri Rangam 1118 98
Completed Sri-bhasya 1117-1127 97-107
Death 1137 120