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RĀMĀNUJA (1017–1137), Hindu Vaishnava teacher and philosopher. A South Indian Brahman, Rāmānuja has a dual importance, as a thinker within the tradition of Vedantic philosophy and as a religious figure within the Sri Vaishnava community. Even though he is acknowledged today as a great expositor of the Vedāntic tradition, the many accounts of his life revere him more for his pious life and religious leadership than for his intellectual prowess. Rāmānuja lived at a time when Hinduism was firmly established in India, with Buddhism having almost disappeared and Jainism being confined to a few pockets of western India. Within the Hinduism of his time, Rāmānuja's self-perceived role was to preserve the integrity of the ancient Vedantic tradition and to explicate it in a new context. This inevitably generated conflicts, both with other schools of thought and with some contemporary forms of religious practice. In particular, Rāmānuja saw his main opponents as the Shaivites in religion and the Advaitins in philosophy. This conflict accounts in part for the polemical tone of much of his writing.

Within the Sri Vaishnava community, Rāmānuja was acknowledged as the sixth great guru in their line of gurus. There is a well-known story that illustrates both his character and the impact he had on subsequent Hinduism. Rāmānuja was initiated into the community of the ācārya (authoritative teacher) Yāmuna by the latter's disciples. When it came time to impart the all-important secret formula (mantra) of the community, they swore Rāmānuja to secrecy. The day after receiving the mantra, however, Rāmānuja shouted the mantra out loud to his fellow devotees from the temple top. Acknowledging that he might well go to hell for this radical act of disobedience, he justified himself thus: "But because of their connection with you [his teachers] these souls will be saved." This concern for the spiritual welfare of others marked the active religious ministry of Rāmānuja. He became the head of the main Sri Vaishnava temple at Srirangam in South India and loosened the caste restrictions so as to honor both his own lower caste teacher and to open the doors of worship to non-Brahmans. For this he suffered the persecution of the reigning Shaiva-oriented king in the South and had to flee to the Hoysala kingdom of the North, where he spent the last part of his life. As a result of his efforts, Brahmanic Hinduism was transformed: the quality of bhakti (religious devotion) rather than caste-based ritual purity was, at least in principle, made the criterion of authentic religious life.

Rāmānuja's philosophy was of one piece with his religious practice. The three most important of the nine texts conventionally attributed to him are his commentaries on the Vedānta Sūtra: his famous Shrībhāsya and the shorter Vedāntadīpa and Vedāntasāra. In them he provided his own exposition of the Vedānta, which in contemporary terms may be characterized as a version of pantheism. God and the world are both real and internally related in the way a human self is related to its body. God may be distinguished but not separated from the world, and just as the self transcends the body, so also God transcends the world. In laying out his own views, Rāmānuja severely criticized what he saw as the errors of Shankara. Rāmānuja moved Vedānta in a firmly theistic direction in contrast to the impersonal nondualism of Shankara. I Īshvara as the lord of creation is the highest God, the saguṇa ("with qualities") Brahman, above whom there is none. He disagreed, therefore, with Shankara's hierarachy of nirguṇa ("without qualities") and saguṇa Brahman. He likewise qualified Shankara's nondualism—hence the name of the Vedāntic school with which Rāmānuja is associated, Vishiṣṭadvaita, or "qualified non-dualism." The reality of God is internally differentiated to create the space within the godhead for selves and matter. Unlike Shankara, for whom the primary religious act is that of right knowledge (jnāna), whereby one sees through and beyond the illusory nature of the world, Rāmānuja emphasized bhakti, or devotion. Being grounded in God, the religious acts of devotion and surrender are a form of ontological homage—the return of the creature to his or her source.

Joseph Prabhu

See alsoShankara ; Upanishadic Philosophy


Carman, J. B. The Theology of Ramanuja. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1974.

Lipner, J. J. The Face of Truth. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986.

Lott, E. J. God and the Universe in the Vedantic Theology of Ramanuja. Chennai: Ramanuja Research Society, 1976.

Radhakrishnan, S. The Vedanta according to Sankara and Ramanuja. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1928.