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Ramanuja Acarya
(1017-1137 A.D.)

Page 2 – Writings and Visistadvaita

During his lifetime Ramanuja wrote relatively few works compared to Sankara or Madhva, but what he did write had a major impact on the development of Vaisnavism in India. In fact Ramanuja has left us with nine works: Sri-bhasya,Vedanta-dipaVedanta-sŒraVedantasamgraha, three prose works (gadyas):Saranagati-gadyaSriranga-gadya and Vaikuntha-gadya, the Gita-bhasya andNityagrantha. Unfortunately, Ramanuja wrote no commentaries on theUpanisads as did his colleagues Sankara or Madhva.

The Sri-bhasya is Sri Ramanuja’s magnum opus. It is his commentary on Bodhayana’s Vedanta-sutra. It was completed when he was around a hundred years old. Here Ramanuja presents the fundamental philosophical principles ofVisistadvaita based on his interpretation of the UpanisadsBhagavad-gita and other smrti texts, the previous acaryas, and of course the Vedanta-sutra itself. This is done by way of refuting Sankara’s advaita-vedanta and in particular his theory of maya. In his Sri-bhasya he describes the three categories of reality (tattvas): God, soul and matter, which have been used by the later Vaisnava theologians including Madhva. The principles of bhakti as a means to liberation (moksa) are also developed. The Vedanta-dipa and the Vedanta-sara are also commentaries of the Vedanta-sutra, although in more brief form.

The Vedanta-samgraha is a summary of Ramanuja’s views on the importantUpanisads. In particular it is an exposition of the doctrines of categories of reality (tattva), the means to liberation, the goals of human life (purusarthas), the supremacy of Visnu and the powers of God. Next is Ramanuja’s famous commentary of the Bhagavad-gita called the Gita-bhasya. In this work Ramanuja establishes the Supremacy of Visnu in the form of Krsna  and discusses the details of bhakti-yogajnanayoga, karma-yoga as the means tomoksa. He also briefly discusses the Sri Vaisnava principal of prapatti or selfless surrender to God. The three gadyas are prose lyrics that also expound the doctrine of selfless surrender to God. Finally the Nitya-grantha explains the daily rituals and the mode of worship for Sri Vaisnavas. The writings of Ramanujacarya are most important because they provide a systematic account of the philosophic and religious principles of devotion for the first time in the history of Vaisnavism. Before Ramanuja’s we only had pieces of such an approach. Ramanuja’s writings also demonstrated how Vaisnavism could logically standup in the face of Sankara’s advaita-vedanta.

Visistadvaita: The Philosophy of Sri Vaisnavism

The system of philosophy held by the Sri Vaisnavas and taught by Ramanujacarya is known as Visistadvaita. The term advaita literally means non-dualism (na dvaita) and it stresses the oneness of ultimate Reality. This philosophical perspective is also called monism. In Hindu thought there are many schools that uphold the principle of monism although they do not all agree when it comes to determining in what sense Reality is one. The main problem of monism is to account for the diversity of the world and souls within the world. The issue that faces a monist is as follows: How does the One become many? In other words how does the one Reality relate to the diverse world of matter and spirit? There are a number of ways to resolve this important theological problem. The way proposed by Sankara’s school of absolute monism, called advaita, was to conclude that the world is ultimately not real, but only a phenomenal appearance of Reality. Ultimate Reality is absolutely one in the sense that it does not admit any kind of differentiation (visesa). Such an interpretation of monism implies the denial of reality to both the world and to the individual souls within this world. Both are unreal. The fact that we see distinction within this world and a plurality of souls is accounted for by the doctrine of illusion (mayavada). It is only due to illusion that we see this world as real and fail to see the oneness. Thus Sankara’s form of monism is sometimes called mayavada.

The approach to the theology of monism as held by Sri Vaisnavas and Ramanuja is different. Sri Vaisnavas propose that ultimate Reality, although one, is not Absolute without any differentiation. They admit the reality of the world and the plurality of souls within this world. The world appears real because it is real and not due to some form of illusion (maya) as Sankara proposes. Accordingly Ramanuja teaches three fundamental categories of Reality:  God (isvara), soul (cit), and matter (acit). On the basis of the principle of organic relation he upholds that ultimate Reality is one as a unity. God, as the creator of the world, is the immanent ground or inner soul of existence. God sustains and controls both the individual souls as well as matter. Soul and matter are dependant on God for their very existence and are organically related to God in the same way as the physical body is related to the soul within. The oneness of Reality is understood not in the sense of absolute identity, but as an organic unity. Though there is absolute difference between God and the other two categories of Reality, and for that matter between soul and matter, ultimate Reality is considered one because as an organic unity it is one. In this sense Ramanuja’s philosophy may be defined as “oneness of the organic unity” (visistadvaita). More commonly visistadvaita is translated as “differentiated” monism (visistadvaita) as opposed to Sankara’s absolute monism (advaita).

Shukavak N. Dasa


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