RĀMĀNUJA (1017–1137), Hindu philosopher-theologian and the most influential exponent of a theistic interpretation of Vedantic philosophy that opposed the earlier monistic teaching of Śaṅkara. Within the Śrī Vaiṣṇava community Rāmānuja's importance comes from his authoritative exposition of the Vedānta, his leadership of the community in a period of formative growth that brought Tamil devotion together with Sanskrit philosophy and ritual, and, above all, his decisive mediation of divine grace to Śrī Vaiṣṇavas of all subsequent generations.
Accounts of Rāmānuja's life figure prominently in many Tamil and Sanskrit hagiographies. Two purport to be by contemporaries of Rāmānuja, but the earliest that can be dated with certainty was written more than a century after his death. Rāmānuja is presented as the last of the three great ācārya s, the first of whom was Nāthamuni, and second, his grandson Yāmuna. Rāmānuja just failed to meet Yāmuna before the latter's death, but during his own lifetime he was able to carry out Yamuna's unfulfilled wishes for establishing the community on a firm footing. Yāmuna's extant writings do in fact anticipate major tenets of Rāmānuja's philosophy; they also provide a spirited defense of the Pāñcarātra system of ritual, and express in Sanskrit verse some of the sentiments of the earlier Tamil hymns of the Ᾱlvārs.
Rāmānuja had to be instructed in five aspects of Yāmuna's teachings by five of the latter's disciples. The one who was to teach Rāmānuja the secret meaning of the fundamental ritual formula (mantra) of the community made Rāmānuja come to see him eighteen times before he swore the bright young convert to silence and disclosed the secret. The very next day, however, Rāmānuja went up onto the temple balcony and shouted down the secret to the Śrī Vaiṣṇavas below. Cheerfully acknowledging that for disobeying his teacher he would go to hell, he added, "But because of their connection with you these souls will be saved!" The teacher was so impressed with Rāmānuja's concern for the welfare of others that he recognized him as Yāmuna's successor and the new leader of the community. This well-known story, along with many other stories in the hagiographies, suggests a gradual shift in emphasis from a secret yoga passed on to a small number of disciples to a more open teaching shared with a community jointly worshiping Lord Viṣṇu and his consorts, incarnate in temple images.
Rāmānuja is responsible for many innovations in the Śrī Vaiṣṇava community. He reorganized the central Śrī Vaiṣṇava temple at Śrīrangam to accommodate his growing band of disciples, traveled widely to other temples to try to persuade them to adopt a more strictly Vaiṣṇava liturgy, and went all the way to Kashmir to consult ancient commentaries. He then composed new commentaries intended to convince brahman scholars all over India of the theistic Vaiṣṇava interpretation of the Sanskrit scriptures.
Much of the latter part of Rāmānuja's life was spent in the Hoysala kingdom to the north where he fled to escape the persecution of the Śaiva-oriented Cōḻa king. Indeed, the earliest "hard evidence" for Rāmānuja's historical reality is a stone carving and inscription showing him with the Hoysala king he is said to have converted from Jainism.
In general, the hagiographers put less emphasis on Rāmānuja's intellectual prowess than on his fervent devotion to Lord Viṣṇu, his lifelong efforts to establish Yāmuna's teaching, and his skill in awakening the loyalty and utilizing the distinctive talents of his disciples and scholarly converts. The success of his efforts to persuade many of his own relatives and other brahmans to join the multicaste community of Viṣṇu worshipers had a double effect: The leadership of the community passed still more completely into brahman hands, while Brahmanic Hinduism itself was transformed so that forever after caste ranking, in principle if not always in practice, has been subordinated to the quality of devotion. The story about Rāmānuja's renouncing his wife and becoming an ascetic does not imply that it is necessary in general for devotees to leave their life in society, but in this particular case Rāmānuja's wife stood in the way of his spiritual progress. She was unwilling to subordinate caste ranking to spiritual preeminence and therefore thwarted Rāmānuja's desire to honor his lower-caste teacher.
Nine writings have consistently been attributed to Rāmānuja since the earliest hagiographies and biographical compendia. Three are commentaries on the Vedānta Sūtra : the famous Śrībhāṣya and the briefer Vedāntadīpa and Vedāntasāra. One, perhaps his earliest work, is an independent summary of his philosophical position, called the Vedārthasaṃgraha. A fifth is his commentary on the Bhagavadgītā, in which his mood is at least as devotional as polemical. The remaining four works are very much in the devotional mood and are sufficiently different from the major works that their authenticity has recently been challenged. One is a manual of daily worship called the Nityagrantha. The other three are hymns in prose, the Śaraṇāgatigadya, Śrīrangagadya, and Vaikuṇṭhagadya. The first of these has been interpreted as Rāmānuja's own conversation with the Lord during the solemn ceremony of "taking refuge" (śaraṇāgati), and is taken by the tradition to provide a clear warrant for replacing the path of disciplined meditation with the path of "humble approach" or "surrender" (prapatti). (The text itself seems not to diverge so radically from the philosophical works as either the renowned teacher Vedānta Deśika or modern critics maintain. In this author's opinion all these minor works are genuine.)
Rāmānuja's epistemology is hyperrealistic. The first two sources of knowledge are perception and inference, and they are trustworthy notwithstanding general human subjection to "beginningless ignorance." Knowledge is always of the real, even in dreams, and error is a disordered perception or faulty inference concerning what is really there. The third source of knowledge is the testimony of scripture, or more strictly, śabda ("eternal sound"), which helps to establish much that is uncertain on the basis of sense perception and inference, notably the existence and nature of the ultimate reality (brahman ), who is also the Supreme Person and personal Lord. In explicit contrast to Śaṅkara's doctrine of two levels of truth in scripture, Rāmānuja maintains that scriptural texts are all at the same level; apparent discrepancies or contradictions must therefore be resolved without placing one side or the other on a lower level. The emphasis on unity in some texts and duality or plurality in others is resolved by noting the synthetic principle in a third group of texts: radical distinction and inseparable connection coexist in the relation between the self (whether finite or infinite) and the body that it ensouls, and likewise in the relation between a substance and its mode.
Scripture testifies to a supreme self who is the inner self of finite selves. Thus the finite self is to the supreme self as the material body is to the finite self. This is Rāmānuja's celebrated doctrine of śarīra-śarīri-bhāva : the relation of the self to the body, which corresponds to the relation between grammatical subject and predicate adjective, or substance and mode. It is the special characteristic of finite selves to be a mode in relation to God and substance in relation to material things, which are their bodies or instruments. The entire finite universe of souls and material bodies is also the body of God. Thus God is the only ultimately substantial reality, and reality may be viewed as viśiṣṭādvaita (the later philosophical label for this school of Vedānta, not used by Rāmānuja): the nondual reality of that which is (internally) distinguished.
Rāmānuja defines the self-body relation in terms of three subordinate relations, those between the support and the supported, the controller and the controlled, and the owner (ṣeṣī) and the owned (ṣeṣa). It is the third relation that is most distinctive, for ownership is understood to include the obligation of the slave to serve the master and the confident expectation that the master will look after the slave. In each case it is the Supreme Self who provides the defining instance; the finite self's relation to its body is only a limited approximation of complete supporting, controlling, and owning its body.
Rāmānuja assumes that there are three kinds of reality: nonsentient matter (acit ), sentient but finite selves (cit ), and the Lord (Īśvara), who is the Supreme Self. The world consists of material bodies controlled by finite selves. While the particular bodies are temporary, the basic matter of which they consist and the finite selves that they embody have no beginning in time. The bondage of many finite selves to "beginningless karman " causes their repeated return to the world in new bodies, but the entire world of material bodies and embodied souls is intended to glorify God, that is, to express in the finite realm his power and goodness. Those who escape the ignorance induced by karman can see that the finite world is now, along with God's infinite world, a realm of glory (vibhūti ). Despite his horror of linking God with anything defiling in the material world, Rāmānuja insists that the entire finite universe is the body of God.
Finite selves and the Supreme Self are similar but not identical in their essential natures: both have consciousness and bliss as their essential characteristics, but the finite self is limited in its power and extent whereas the Supreme Self is all-powerful and all-pervasive. Moreover, finite selves still "bound" to the material world have their secondary consciousness (that which they possess rather than are ) obscured by the ignorance produced by "beginningless karman."
The Vedānta is concerned with the proper knowledge of reality in order to find liberation from this bondage. In Rāmānuja's interpretation of Vedānta both performance of social and ritual duties and knowledge of reality are auxiliary means in seeking liberation, but the chief means is bhakti (devotion), a calling to mind of God's attributes with an attitude that should become as constant as the flow of oil, as vivid and immediate as sense perception, and so emotionally gripping that the devotee feels unable to live without the pervading presence of God.
The ultimate reality thus "remembered" in devotion is not an abstract principle but that most concrete and substantial reality who is the personal Lord, the Lord who escapes all self-confident seeking by finite selves but who chooses to become available to those who acknowledge their dependence. The Lord descends and condescends out of his great compassion to save, but those who most deeply feel their need for God's presence learn the deepest secret: the Lord also needs them. This emphasis on God's initiative along with the surprising secret that the Lord who owns everything needs his devotees' love leads to a second way of talking about the salvific process that is quite different from the first. Instead of loving devotion being the means to attaining the Lord's presence, the Lord is the means to enabling devotion that is a mutual participation of infinite and finite selves. The end has become the means, and the means has become the end. Rāmānuja seems to be able to move back and forth between the older concept of devotion as means and the implications of a radical doctrine of grace.
A century after his death, Rāmānuja was understood by his followers to have taught surrender (prapatti ) as a preferable alternative to the path of devotion, and they were beginning to differ as to whether some human response to grace was part of this surrender. That difference would gradually split the community in two, but for both groups it was Rāmānuja's own act of surrender that gave the assurance of divine grace for all his followers, a grace then mediated through the generations by a succession of teachers. It is as if they continue to say to Rāmānuja what he is purported to have said to the teacher whose secret he made public: "Because of their [our] connection with you their [our] souls will be saved."
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John B. Carman (1987)
Nearly a millennium has past since Ramanuja (ca. 1017-1137) wandered the roads of southern India, yet his legacy as theologian, teacher and philosopher remains alive. His many followers consider him to bea saint and one of the greatest teachers of Vishishtadvaita Vedanta, one of the six classical systems of Indian philosophy.
Ramanuja belonged to the Acaryas, believers who worked to systemize the monotheistic theology of Vaishnavism. He was an exponent of a qualified nondualism known as Vishishta-Advaita. He combined the northern and southern traditions of Vaishnavism and strengthened the religious belief and worship of Vishnu. He encouraged the general population toward a devotional expression of Hindu spirituality by teaching that the Divine entails rather than transcends all qualities.
Responsibility at an Early Age
Information on the life of this Indian theologian and teacher is based primarily on legend handed down through the centuries. Ramanuja was born into a privileged Brahmin family in about 1017 in Sriperumbudur, a village in southern India about 25 miles west of Madras. His father was Keseva Samayaji, his mother, Kantimathi. Around 1033, Ramanuja married a girl named Rahshambal. His father died within a few days of the wedding, and this caused him considerable grief. Ramanuja gathered his young wife and his mother and left for Kanchipuram, where he settled. Ramanuja's cousin, Govina Bhatta, his closest friend and a man with whom he shared a mutual affection from early childhood soon joined them. Bhatta would play a pivotal role in Ramanuja's future, delivering him from a plot to take his life. Ramanuja's marriage lasted until he was thirty, when he gave up the worldly life for that of religion.
A Jealous Teacher
Ramanuja was considered a brilliant boy of extraordinary intelligence and as a youth studied the Vedanta, one of the six classical systems of Indian philosophy. Soon after moving to Kanchipuram, he met Yadavaprakasha, a teacher of Advaita philosophy and follower of the monistic system of Vedanta of Shankara, an eighth-century philosopher. Ramanuja adapted well to his studies but soon found himself in conflict with his teacher. Yadavaprakasha preached strict nondualism, while Ramanuja qualified his beliefs, stating that the Divine One is not without distinction but embodies infinite contrast. Profoundly religious, he frequently argued with his teacher, questioning his instruction and professing a different understanding of the religious teachings. He found mistakes in Yadavaprakasha's teachings, and soon the teacher became jealous of his student. Yadavaprakasha realized that his student had a clearer understanding of the religious texts than the teacher. After several more instances of being corrected by his student, the guru considered him a threat and plotted to kill him.
Yadavaprakasha arranged for Ramanuja to join him on a pilgrimage to Varanasi with several other students and his cousin, Govina Bhatta. As the trip progressed, Bhatta learned of the plot and told his cousin, helping him to escape. Ramanuja wandered lost in the forest and was soon found by a hunter and his wife who helped him find his way out. During this time he was said to have had a vision of the God Vishnu and his wife Laksmi. Ramanuja believed the hunter and his wife to be the incarnations of Vishnu and Laksmi and immediately began a daily worship ritual at the place where he first beheld them.
When the teacher and his students learned of Ramanuja's escape, they sought him but were unable to find him and believed he died in the forest. Soon Ramanuja found his way out of the forest only to discover that he had returned to the same spot from which he had departed. When Yadavaprakasha discovered that Ramanuja returned he feared his plot would be discovered, and he set about convincing the young man to return to the guru and resume his lessons. Ramanuja agreed, but times had not changed, and Ramanuja continued to find fault with Yadavaprakasha's interpretations of religious writings resulting in a final falling out between student and teacher.
After the second split, Ramanuja became a temple priest at the Karadaraja temple at Kanchi where he was loved and respected by his students. At the temple he began teaching that the worship of a personal god and the soul's union with him is an essential part of the doctrines of the Upanides (part of the ancient Hindu texts) on which the system of Vedanta is built.
A New Guru
During this time, Ramanuja came to the attention of a guru by the name of Yamunacharya, the leader of the Vishishtadvaita school. He was an elderly man, aware that he was dying. He had been searching for the right man to follow in his tradition, and upon seeing Ramanuja he became convinced this was the right one to continue his work.
When Yamunacharya learned of the separation of Ramanuja and his guru, he invited Ramanuja to visit. Ramanuja traveled to Srirangam to meet the famous teacher, but upon his arrival he discovered the great man had died. While viewing the body, he observed that three of Yamuna's fingers were twisted, and Ramanuja interpreted this to be a message directing him to make three vows-to make the people surrender to God; to write a commentary on the Vedantasuta (Sri bhashya) and to write an encyclopedia on the Puranas. He was told by the disciples of Yamunacharya that he had been selected by the guru to carry on his teachings.
A Popular Teacher
Ramanuja was a popular teacher and remained in Srirangam, but like many Hindu thinkers he undertook an extended pilgrimage throughout India. Upon his return to Srirangam, the king of the Chola dynasty persecuted him. This monarch was a fanatical worshipper of Shiva and planned to force Ramanuja to adopt his religious views. Ramanuja fled to Mysore where he was said to have founded 700 monasteries. He organized temple worship and taught a monistic philosophy based on a doctrine of devotion to the incarnation of Vishnu.
While in Mysore, he converted King Bittiveda of the Haysala dynasty. This act led to the founding of the town of Milukote (1099). It was here that he dedicated the temple to Selva Pillai. It was twenty years before Ramanuja returned to Srirangam, where he organized a temple of worship, and it was said that here he founded 74 centers to disseminate his doctrine. According to tradition, Ramanuja died in 1137 at 120 years of age.
A Religious Legacy
Ramanuja is considered the most influential thinker of devotional Hinduism. He spread devotion and discipline in society through his nine works known as Navaratnas. In his three major commentaries, the Vedartha-Samgraha, the Sribhasya and the Bhagavadgita-bhasya, he provided an intellectual basis for devotional worship. He gave new insight into southern Indian Vaishnavism and became known as its foremost saint.
Ramanuja formulated a Yoga that taught that the cultivation of bhakti is more important than mediation. Bhakti-Yoga is a form of supreme attachment to one divine person. Ramanuja believed and taught his disciples that devotion was not merely the means to liberation but the goal of all spiritual endeavors.
The prayer he repeated at the beginning of his Sri-Bhasya best describes the essence of his teachings-"May knowledge transformed into intense love directed to Sri Narayana (Vishnu), the highest Brahman, become mine, the Being to whom the creation, preservation and dissolution of the Universe is mere play, whose main resolve is to offer protection to all those who approach Him in all humility and sincerity, and Who shines out like the beacon light out of the pages of the Scripture (vedas)."
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The major works attributed to him are Śrībhāsyam, Vedāntadīpah, and Vedāntas̄arah (all commentaries on the Vedanta Sūtras), a commentary on the Gīta, Vedārthasamgraḥah (an exposition of his viewpoint), Śaraṇāgatigadyam (on self-surrender to God), Śrīrangagadyam (on the devotions and praise evoked by the Śrīrangam temple and its presiding deity), Vaikuṇṭhagadyam (on the nature of the liberated state), and Nithyagranthah (on worship).
Rāmānuja agreed with Śaṅkara that Brahman is that which truly is, without distinction (advaita), but did not agree that there is nothing else that is real, and that all else is māyā (appearance), the projection of avidyā (ignorance). He held that individual selves and the world of matter (described in terms derived from Sāṃkhya) are real, but that they are always dependent on Brahman for their existence and functions—hence his view is known as qualified non-duality, viśiṣtādvaita. Selves and matter are the instruments of Brahman in a relationship like that of souls and bodies (śarīra-śarīrī-bhāva). Although God is beyond description, nevertheless much can be inferred and attributed analogously to God from his manifestations in the world as avatāra (incarnation). He is thus the source of grace (anugraha), seeking the salvation of those who turn to him, in a general way through revelation (Veda), and in particular to his devotees.