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Ramanuja is one of the three preeminent Vedantic theologians; the others are Madhva and Shankara.
Shri Ramanuja is known as the greatest exponent of Vishishtadvaita Vedanta (qualified monism). He appeared around 1017 A.D in a pious brahmana family. His birthplace is a small village some 25 miles southwest of Madras (now Chennai). He became the foremost Acharya in the Shri Sampradaya and was reputed to be the incarnation of Shri Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Sri Rama. (‘anuja’ means ‘following’).
He was a boy of extraordinary intelligence and placed himself under the charge of Yadavacharya, a renown scholar coming in the line of Shankara, favouring the path of jnana. His guru was struck by his marvelous intellect but became very uncomfortable on account of the boy’s firm faith in bhakti. One day while taking a massage, Yadavacharya was explaining to Ramanuja a sutra “tasya yatha kapyasam pundarikamevamaksini” (Chandogya Upanishad 1.6.7), saying that according to Shri Shankara, the two eyes of ‘Pundariksha’ (Vishnu) are like two lotuses, red like the rear-end of a monkey. On hearing this interpretation with the unbecoming simile, Ramanuja’s soft heart, tender by nature and softened by devotion, melted further. As he continued massaging, hot tears rolled down from his eyes, and fell on the thigh of Yadava. At the touch of these hot tears, Yadava understood that something troubled his disciple. Ramanuja explained his dismay at hearing such an unbecoming explanation from his guru. He thought it sinful to compare the eyes of the Supreme Lord, who is endowed with all gracious qualities and is the reservoir of all beauty with the posterior of a monkey. Yadava, however, was angry at the boy’s audacity and told him to explain the verse if he could. Ramanuja analysed the word ‘kapyasam’ to mean `blossomed by the sun’ and the verse to mean “The eyes of that Golden Purusha are as lovely as lotuses blossomed by the rays of the sun.”
After a few more incidents where Ramanuja corrected his guru, Yadavacharya considered this student to be a threat to the advaita sampradaya (disciplic succession) and plotted to kill him. By the grace of the lord, and with the help of his cousin Govinda, Ramanuja foiled this attempt on his life. Later Yadavacharya realised his folly and became the disciple of Sri Ramanuja.
About the end of the tenth century, the Vishishtadvaita system of philosophy was well established in Southern India and the subscribers were in charge of important Vaishnava temples at Kanchipuram, Shrirangam, Tirupati and other important places. The head of the important Vaishnava institution was Yamunacharya, a great sage and profound scholar; and he was also the head of the ashram at Shrirangam. One of his disciples, by name Kanchipurna, was serving in the temple at Kanchipuram. Although a shudra by birth, Kanchipurna was so pious that the local people had great respect and reverence for him. At present, there is a temple at Kanchipuram where Kanchipurna’s image has been installed and where he is worshipped as a saint.
Young Ramanuja came under Kanchipurna’s influence and had such reverence for him that he invited him to dinner in his house. Ramanuja’s intention was to attend on Kanchipurna and personally serve him at dinner and subsequently take his own meal afterwards. Unfortunately, Kanchipurna came to dinner when Ramanuja was not at home, and took his meals served by Ramanuja’s wife. When Ramanuja returned home, he found the house washed and his wife bathing for having served meals to a shudra. This caste consciousness upset Ramanuja and turned him against his wife, who was an orthodox lady too proud of her social standing. After a few similar incidents, Ramanuja abandoned the life of a householder and took sannyasa.
Yamunacharya having heard of Ramanuja’s extraordinary purity, called for him with the intent of placing him in charge of the mission after his disappearance. Ramanuja was on his way to see Yamunacharya when he received the shocking news of the acharya’s departure from the world. Arriving at Shri Rangam, Ramanuja went to have his last darshan of that great soul. He noticed that three of other acharya’s fingers were clenched.
Ramanuja then made three vows. With each, one of the acharya’s fingers straightened:
- To present the glories of the Lord throughout India.
- To write a commentary on the Vedanta Sutra (which was later called Shri Bhashya) and tonullify the atheistic doctrines of the monists and others.
- To honour the great Vaishnava Parashara Muni (who wrote the Vishnu Purana) by naming a disciple after him.
For the last twelve years of his life, Ramanuja became the acharya at Shrirangam and travelled throughout India vigorously defeating atheists and impersonalists by preaching the Vishishtadvaita doctrine. He attracted much opposition for his liberal policies, such as his shunning of the rigid caste system and his insistence that it was Vishnu, a personal Deity, who was supreme. Ramanuja qualified Shankara’s teachings by pointing out some of the differences between the soul and God. He particularly emphasised the role of god’s grace in transcending the world, and stressed that this can be won only through service to saintly people. The Shri Vaishnava tradition still flourishes today, with two main branches in South India.