Shri Ramanujacharya

Sri Ramanujacharya (AD 1017 -1137) was a well-known philosopher of Sri Vaishnava Sampradaya. He was the exponent of the Vishishtadvaita philosophy or qualified non-dualism. Sri Ramanujacharya was popularly known as Sri Ramanuja amongst his disciples and dear ones.

Not only was he a great scholar who wrote commentaries on sacred texts such as the Bhagvad Gita and inspired the Bhakti movement in India but he was also an ardent social reformer and did not believe in the caste system. He established the Yatiraj Mutt and the Cheluvanarayana Swami temple at Melkote in Karnataka, besides renovating many ancient temples.

According to Ramanuja’s teachings, Lord Narayana or Lord Vishnu is the Ultimate Truth and there is none superior to Him. He sets off Universal laws and the rest of the jivas or souls are completely subservient to Him. Sri Ramanuja focused on Prapathi through ‘Bhakti’ i.e. ‘surrender through devotion of liberation’ as mentioned in his book Vishishtadvaita Vedanta.

It must be noted that Ramanuja did not start a new philosophy. He only

carried on the traditions of his predecessors but his supreme efforts resulted in a systematic presentation of Vishishtadvaita. Sri Ramanuja is said to have lived all of 120 years, preaching and practicing his philosophy with zeal.

Birth and Parentage

In the year 1017 AD, Ramanuja was born in the small village called Perumbudur, around 25 miles west of the present day Chennai, Tamil Nadu. His father’s name was Keshava Somayaji and his mother’s name was Kantimathi. It is said that Kantimathi was an extremely pious and virtuous lady. Ramanuja’s Tamil name was Ilaya Perumal.

When Srisaila Purna, the maternal uncle of Ramanuja came from Srirangam to see the child and take part in his naming ceremony, he noticed the divine traits in his nephew. He was of the firm opinion that his nephew had all the qualities of Adisesha in Kali Yug like Lakshmana of Treta Yug.

Hence the family decided to name the child Ramanuja or the brother of Ram. Interestingly, Ramanuja’s month of birth (Chaitra) and Zodiac Sign (Cancer) are the same as that of Sumitra’s sons Lakshmana and Shatrugna. Vaishnavites generally regard Ramanuja as the manifestation of both Adisesha (just as Lakshmana) and the five weapons of Lord Vishnu.

Ramanuja lost his father when he was very young. It was after his death that Ramanuja’s family moved to Kancheepuram with the intention of initiating young Ramanuja in the study of the Vedas. Those days the town of Kanchi was a great centre of learning and Ramanuja began his Vedantic study under one Yadavaprakasha, a teacher of Advaita philosophy.

Even before his formal initiation into the gurukula for Vedantic studies, Ramanuja was married to one Rakshakaambaal, when he was around 16 years of age.

Early Education and First Threat to Life

Young Ramanuja was a very brilliant student and could grasp what was taught to him very quickly. There were many occasions when Ramanuja found his guru Yadavaprakasha’s interpretations of Vedic texts were not satisfactory and had errors. With courage and honesty, Ramanuja used to point out his teacher’s mistakes and would also offer his own understanding of a particular lesson. While the rest of the students cheered Ramanuja and appreciated him, Yadavaprakasha did not enjoy his student’s fearless approach and knowledge.

Yadavaprakasha found out that Ramanuja had all the calibre of demolishing Advaita philosophy and creating a new one of his own. Fearing this, he plotted to kill Ramanuja by drowning him in the River Ganga while on a pilgrimage of the country with his disciples. When Ramanuja came to know about this plot through Govinda, another disciple who was also associated with him, he slipped out into the forest in the middle of the night. Miraculously, an aged hunter couple appeared before him and guided him through the dense forest. Ramanuja fell into a blissful sleep and when he woke him, he found himself on the outskirts of Kanchi but the aged couple had disappeared. He recognized it was none other than Lord Narayana and Mahalakshmi who resided in Kanchi as Lord Varadaraja and Perundevi Thayar. Playing the role of a hunter couple, they had come to save their devotee from distress. Overwhelmed with gratitude, Ramanuja vowed to serve the Lord and began carrying water from the lake to the temple daily.

Origin of Sri Vaishnavism

Unlike Madhvacharya or Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, who are the founders of their particular school of Vaishnavism, Ramanuja is not the founder of Sri Vaishnavism but an important advocate of a system that dates back to the Rig Vedic times. Prior to him, there have been other notable members in this school of thought. This school is known as Sri Vaishnavism because Sridevi, otherwise known as Goddess Lakshmi, is believed to be the first and original founder. In this system, the Goddess occupies an exalted position along with her consort, Lord Vishnu and followers believe that reaching their feet is the ultimate aim of human existence. The eloquent name for Sri Vaishnavism philosophy is Vishishtadvaita. The development of Sri Vaishnavism can be divided into five historical periods:

  • the Vedic period
  • the period of the Agamas
  • the smrtis period
  • the period of the Alwars
  • and the period of the theologians (acharyas) including Sri Ramanuja

The basic tenet of Sri Vaishnavism is the supremacy of Lord Vishnu, be it in any period of time. According to which:

Maha Vishnu is the Supreme Brahman; All the worlds, materials and souls constitute His body; He dwells in all, as their Soul; The summum bonum of life is to get liberated from the cycle of births and deaths; Self-surrender or prapathi is the surest means of attaining it. Sri Vaishnavism bases its authority not only on the Sanskrit VedasAgamas and smrti texts, but also on the Tamil writings of the Alwars, Sri Ramanujacharya’s predecessors. There were 12 of them who were ardently devoted to Lord Vishnu and expressed their divine experiences in Tamil verses that have been collected into 4,000 stanzas called the Divya-prabandha or Divine Hymns.

The Alwars lived in the period between 200 and 800 AD, many centuries before Sri Ramanujacharya. However, their influence on the Acharya was immense. The next period in the development of Sri Vaishnavism was in the ninth century during when the three philosophers emerged, namely Nadhamamuni, Yamunacharya and Ramanujacharya, whose sole mission was to defend the religious precepts of Sri Vaishnavism against varying schools of thought, specifically Shankara’s Advaita philosophy. Like the Alwar saints, all the three leaders propagated prapathi or total surrender to the Lord.

Ramujacharya’s Three Vows

Yamunacharya also known as Alavandar (or the conqueror) was a profound influence on Ramanujacharya although the two had never met. Born in 916 AD, he composed six major works that outline the principles of Vishishtadvaita. Yamunacharya’s writings are today revered as the basis for Ramanujacharya’s great systemization of Vishishtadvaita. When Yamunacharya heard about the brilliant student of Yadavaprakasha and his opposition to the monotheistic views, he travelled to Kanchi to observe Ramanujacharya in secret to see if he was worthy enough to become his successor. Pleased with what he saw he decided that Ramanujacharya should become his successor. Yamunacharya sent one of his disciples, Mahapurna, to bring Ramanujacharya to Srirangam. But as fate would have it, Yamunacharya died before Ramanujacharya could reach Srirangam. Mahapurna took Ramanujacharya close to the body of Yamunacharya for a final look at the great master and that was when Ramanuja observed that three fingers of Yamunacharya were folded into his right hand’s palm indicating his three unfulfilled wishes.

Closing his eyes and contemplating for a minute, Ramanujacharya then declared aloud, “Remaining fixed in devotion to Lord Vishnu, I shall free the people from illusion by spreading the glories of the Lord throughout the land.” As these pious words were uttered, one of the fingers got straight and relaxed. Ramanujacharya uttered again, saying, “To establish that there is no truth beyond Lord Vishnu, I shall write the Sri Bhasya—the commentary on the Vedanta-sutra.” At this, Yamunacharya’s second finger became straight. Ramanujacharya declared again, “In order to show respect to the Sage Parasara, who has so wonderfully described the glories of the Lord in the Vishnu Purana, I shall name one learned Vaishnava after him.” With this final statement, the last of Yamunacharya’s fingers relaxed and became straight.

The crowd rejoiced that a suitable successor had been found and Ramanujacharya would be the future torchbearer of the Sri Vaishnava tradition.

Attaining Sanyas to Serve

By the time he was around 32 years of age; he relinquished his family life and became an ascetic. He was given the name Yatiraja by Kanchipurna, one of the senior disciples of Yamunacharya. This point in Ramanujacharya’s life was really the beginning of his long journey as a philosopher and preacher within the school of Sri Vaishnavism. He spent the next 80 years preaching Sri Vaishnava philosophy and writing commentaries/books. Ramanujacharya’s fame quickly spread far and wide and he attracted many disciples, Dasharathi and Kuresha being the most important ones among them. With these disciples in tow, he soon started off his tour to north India where he visited many sacred places including Kashi, Kashmir, Badrinath, and even Puri.

At Kashmir, Shri Sharda, the Goddess of learning made herself present before Ramanujacharya and showered her blessings upon him by presenting him the icon of Hayagreev, a form of Vishnu with the face of horse. At Puri he reorganized the temple service at the famous Jagannath shrine and also established the Embar Mutt. At Kashmir, he procured the old commentary on the Brahma Sutras by the philosopher Bodhayana after a lot of struggle. However, en route the return journey, the manuscripts were stolen by force but thanks to his disciple Kuresha who had memorized each and every word, Ramanujacharya was able to retrieve and read it before commencing his own work. His work drew inspiration from Bodhayana’s earlier rendition.

On his return to the Southern India, he reached Tirupati and found the Shaivites and the Vaishnavites quarrelling with one another over whether the main deity in the Tirupati temple was a form of Shiva or Vishnu. The priests were asked to leave the ornaments of both the Lords at the feet of their respective images and wait outside throughout the night. In the morning, when the doors were opened, the priests found that the image of Lord Vishnu was adorned with all the ornaments. This decided that the temple should follow Vaishnava traditions and it has remained so ever since

Literary Works

Sri Ramanujacharya has written 9 important literary works on Sri Vaishnavism. They include:

Sri Bhashya: This is a detailed commentary on Brahma sutras and is the magnum opus of Ramanujacharya’s works. Invigorating the philosophy of Vishishtadvaita, he has explained the fundamental concepts namely Prapathi, Sugunabrahma and Sarirasiribhava. While explaining the philosophy of Vishishtadvaita, Ramanujacharya clearly depicts the untenability of other school of thought. After returning to Srirangam, Ramanujacharya composed this treatise with the assistance of his disciple Kuresha. This commentary earned Ramanujacharya immense name and fame. He later began to be known as ‘Sribhashyakara’.

Gita Bhashya: This text comprises of a reflective commentary on Bhagvad Gita. Ramanujacharya explains here that it is only through Bhakti that one can achieve the highest reality.

Vedastasangraha: This text is a resume of Vedanta. It brings forth the total revelation of Upanishads in its own style without forming usual subdivision. Many controversial text and contradictory views have also been discussed in this text. Vedastasangraha comprises of the most famous treatise on philosophy of Vishishtadvaita derived from the Shrutis. Ramanujacharya has compiled his interpretation on Upanishads after getting inspired from ancient philosophers including Dramida, Tanka and Bodhayana. As part of the Upanishadic practices, the concept of Moksha, Bhakti and Brahman have also been elaborated thoroughly.

Vedantasara (the essence of Vedanta): Vedantasara is a brief commentary on the Brahma Sutras and is intended for beginners. Vedantadipa (the light of Vedanta) is a concise commentary on the Brahma Sutras and gives all the Vishayavakyas, Vishaya, Purvapaksha and Siddhanta.

Gadyatrayam Saranaagatigadya: The concept of ‘self-surrender’ forms the central concept of this devotional lyric compiled in the form of a prose. Surrendering one’s self at the lotus feet of Lord Narayana brings salvation, says Ramanujacharya. This process starts off with paying obeisance to Mahalakshmi, Sri Ranganatha’s consort. She is also considered as a divine mediatrix between the Lord and the devotee.

Srirangagadya: In the form of this divine prayer, Ramanujacharya prays to Lord Sri Ranganatha to kindly accept him as his ardent devotee.

Srivaikuntagadya: Of the three prose composed by Ramanujacharya, Srivaikuntagadya is the last one and depicts all the tenets of Vishishtadvaitaschool of philosophy. This prose explains about Vaikunta, the celestial abode of Lord.

Nitya Grantha: A short manual to guide devotees in their daily life. When Ramanujacharya was 79 years old, he had to leave Srirangam as the then King Kulothunga I was a staunch Shaivite and began persecuting the Vaishnavas. Ramanujacharya, with a few followers, wandered into the then Mysore kingdom and settled in a small town called Melkote. He continued preaching the Vishishtadvaita philosophy and spent some years in this region. Bhatti Deva was the name of the king who ruled the Hoysala dynasty. He had a daughter who was believed to be possessed by evil spirits. Since she could not be cured by local doctors, the raja sought the help of Ramanujacharya who was able to succeed in warding off the demon in her and helped her to regain her normal health. The king was overwhelmed with gratitude and became his ardent disciple.

Temple at Melkote 

A Muslim chieftain had earlier raided this town and made away with the

Utsava Murthy (replica of the bigger deity used in processions, etc) of Sampath Kumara (Cheluva Narayana). The Moola Vigraha (main deity) lay buried under an ant hill. Ramanujacharya travelled to North India in order to save the idol from Sultan. However, Sultan’s wife was madly in love with that idol and hence she followed it to Melkote. She lived there for many years serving that idol and when she passed away, the Sri Vaishnavas impressed by her love, made her statue and placed it at the foot of the idol which can be seen even today. The idol of Lachimar is revered as Bibi Nachhiar. He constructed a temple at Melkote, and installed the main deity by digging up the ant hill and retrieving it. Because many untouchables helped Ramanujacharya in carrying the smaller idol from North India to Melkote, he initiated a system by which even the lower caste people could enter the temple on some specific days and offer prayers. This practice is adhered to even till date. Ramanujacharya also built a few more Vishnu temples in and around Mysore. He also set up a strong Vaishnavite community so that the entire region belonging to the royals could practice Vishnu worship and Vishishtadvaita philosophy. He lived in this region for nearly 20 years.

By this time he had already fulfilled two of his vows made in front of the body of his guru, Yamunacharya. He then asked Kuresan to name his two sons after Veda Vyasa and Parasara and thus fulfilled his third promise as well. It was this Parasara Bhattar who subsequently wrote the famous commentary on Vishnu Sahasra Nama as ordained by Ramanujacharya.

Essence of Ramanujacharya’s teachings

Sri Ramanujacharya gave special emphasis to selfless surrender to God, which he called prapathi. He said that one should give up attachments to material objects, give up his/her ego and completely surrender to God. Only through this surrender can man attain salvation. He believed that God is omnipotent and omnipresent and the ruler of the Universe. He alone is the Divine personality and superior to all other living and non-living beings. Ramanujacharya also believed that happiness as a concept was more of an illusion, a maya and one should strive not just for happiness but to get the grace of the Lord, who is our everything—the mother, father, friend, philosopher and guide.

He was of the opinion that a true devotee is one who spends his time, energy and money in the pursuit of realizing God. As maintained by Ramanujacharya, God showers his Supreme Divine bliss upon all those who ask for forgiveness in a humble manner.

Ramanujacharya was also a social reformer who snubbed the caste system and promoted equality. He also stressed on the fact that every person on this earth, irrespective of his caste, creed and sex can completely surrender unto Lord Narayana to seek his divine grace.

Final Days and Disappearance

By the time Sri Ramanujacharya reached Srirangam, he was 100 years old and although he lived for another 20 years more, he did not travel anywhere else and spent all his time in Srirangam. It was during this period that Ramanujacharya completed his famous Vedanta-sutra commentary, the Sri Bhashya. Through his Sri Bhashya, he established the monotheistic principles of Sri Vaishnavism or Vishishtadvaita. He proclaimed to the world, the concept of bhakti and prapathi i.e. the doctrine of devotion and surrender to God.

It was when Ramanujacharya reached the age of 120 years; he delivered his final message to his disciple: “Shed your ego. Love the devotees of God. Serve the cause of mankind who is God’s children. Nobody is infallible; do not humiliate any one. What is of supreme importance is purity of mind and deed.”

A stone deity of Ramanujacharya was also constructed so that his followers could worship their Acharya (guru) in the idol form.

It was in the year 1137 A.D. that Ramanujacharya gave up his physical body and returned to the abode of Lord Vishnu. While the life-like statue was installed at Sriperumpudur, his birthplace, near present day Chennai, his physical body is said to be preserved even to this day in a sitting posture in the sanctum sanctorum dedicated to him in the south west corner of the Srirangam temple complex.

His philosophical concepts continue to be disseminated through his team of 74 disciples and several Mutts (institutions for propagating Vishishtadvaita) that were built in different parts of India to carry on his tradition of Sri Vaishnavism.