By Swami Harshananda
Sometimes transliterated as: Ramanujacarya, RAmAnujAcArya, Raamaanujaacaarya
Country seems to have a special knack of producing great saints almost on a ‘made to order’ basis as per the needs of the times. When Śaṅkara’s Advaita Vedānta was being mis interpreted and misused, there was a great need to restore the balance between true jñāna and genuine bhakti. It was during this critical period that Rāmānuja’s advent took place. Rāmānujācārya lived in A. D. 1017-1137.
Birth & Education of Rāmānujācārya
Rāmānuja was considered as a reincarnation of Laksmana, the younger brother of Rāma by his followers. He was born as the son of Āsuri Keśava Dīkṣita and Kāntimatī at Srīperumbudur, 48 kms. to the south-west of Madras or Chennai, the present capital of Tamil Nadu.
Endowed with a sharp intellect and a prodigious memory, he was well-educated even at a young age. Keśava Dīkṣita got him married at the age of sixteen, as was the custom during those days. Soon after this, Keśava Dīkṣita passed away, plunging the whole family in grief. Partly to forget the grief of bereavement, but mainly for the higher education of Rāmānuja, the family shifted to the well known town of Kāñcīpuram. Rāmānuja now started his higher studies under Yādavaprakāśa, a Vedāntic scholar of repute during those days. Yādavaprakāśa’s leanings towards dry monism, bereft of devotion to a Personal God, soon brought him into intellectual conflicts with Rāmānuja whose genius and deeply devotional temperament could not be countered by him. After a few unfortunate incidents and encounters, Rāmānuja had to leave him for good.
Famous as Yāmunācārya
Meanwhile Rāmānuja’s name had become so well-known that Yāmunācārya, the chief pontiff of the Srīvaiṣṇava monastery at Srīraṅgam had decided to take him as his successor. However, he died before he could carry out his wish. It so happened that Rāmānuja reached the burial ground before the body was consigned to the earth, but found three fingers of his right hand clenched. Learning of the dead-saint’s last desires, three in number and unfulfilled during his lifetime, he openly promised before the gathering of mourners to fulfill all of them. And the three fingers opened out.
The following were those promises:
- Remaining in the Vaiṣṇava fold, I shall arrange for a commentary to be written on the Tiruvāymoli of Nammālvār.
- I shall write a commentary on the Brahmasutras of Bādarāyana.
- In honor of the great sage Parāśara, who wrote the Visnupurāna, I shall leave behind a great Vaiṣṇava by that name.
Sanyāsa of Rāmānujācārya
Rāmānuja had been in close touch with Kāñcīpurṇa, a great devotee of God, whose company he often sought and felt inspired. However, since he belonged to the Śudra caste, Rāmānuja’s wife RakṣāmbāJ treated him with disdain. Even other incidents revealed his wife’s innate incapacity to rise to the higher levels of his own psychological make-up. It made Rāmānujācārya renounce the world and take sanyāsa at Kāñcīpuram in front of the temple of Varadarāja, assuming the new name ‘Yatirāja’.
Traverse from Yatirāja
He then retired to Śrīraṅgam, settled down there and studied many Vaiṣṇava texts under the guidance of an outstanding scholar of those times, Mahāpurṇa. He also received the sacred aṣṭākṣarimantra from the great saint Goṣṭhīpurṇa who also forbade him from revealing it to anyone else. Strangely enough, the very first act of Rāmānuja was to announce it loudly to everyone and all from the tower of a way-side temple, much to the chagrin of his guru Goṣṭhīpurṇa. When Rāmānuja confessed his ‘guilt’ but explained that he was prepared to go to hell because of this sacrilegious act, if the listeners of the mantra would instantly be liberated, the guru was dumb-founded and fell at his feet.
As an Administrator of Temple
At the command of God, Rāmānuja took over the management of the temple of Śrīraṅgam and reorganized it very efficiently. This raised the animosity of some priests who had their own axes to grind. However, all their machinations to harm him were set at naught by divine grace.
During his long stay at Śrīraṅgam, Rāmānuja was able to win many disciples, quite a few of whom were weaned away from other schools and sects to Vaiṣṇavism. He also trained seventy-four pious householders to become family gurus to the general run of devotees and followers in his maṭhas.
Keeping the Promise
As promised before the dead-body of Yāmunācārya, Rāmānuja wrote the Śribhāsya, a detailed commentary on the Brahmasutras or Vedāntasutras of Bādarāyaṇa Vyāsa according to theistic or Vaiṣṇavite philosophy which is now well-known as Viśiṣṭādvaita. For this he had to travel all the way to Kāśmīra where the only manuscript of a famous ancient commentary by the sage Bodhāyana was available and which formed the basis for his work. He was lucky to get its help. He thus fulfilled the most important of the three promises he had given to the soul of Yāmunācārya. He had already fulfilled the first promise by his discourses on the Tiruvāymoli of Nammālvār and by giving the Divyaprabandhams a status equal to that of the Sanskrit scriptures.
As regards the third, it was fulfilled by giving the name Parāśarabhaṭṭa, to the son of his prominent disciple Kureśa and urging him to write a bhāṣya or commentary on the well-known hymn of Viṣṇu, the Viṣṇusahasranāma, thereby perpetuating the memory of the great sage Parāśara.
Migration to Melkote
During his stay at Śrīraṅgam in Tamil Nadu, Rāmānuja had to face the wrath of the fanatical Śaiva king Kulot-tuṅga. To escape from him, Rāmānuja migrated to Melkoṭe near the city of Mysore where he built a nice temple of Viṣṇu known as Celuvanārāyaṇa or Selvapillai. Since the people of the depressed castes had helped him to recover the original or ancient image buried under a mound, which he later established in the temple, he gave them the privilege of entering the temple for a vision of the Lord, for three days every year. This was a revolutionary step for those days of rabid casteism.
Before he returned to Śrīraṅgam after the demise of Kulottuṅga, his image was installed in the Melkoṭe temple premises with his consent. A similar image was also installed at Śrīperumbudur, his birthplace. He spent his last days at Śrīraṅgam itself and passed away peacefully during the month of Māgha in A. D. 1137.
Contributions of Rāmānujācārya
The greatest contribution of Rāmānuja was to preach and establish a religio-philosophical system that gave equal importance to jñāna and bhakti. Rāmānuja wrote total eight works in Sanskrit, of which the Srībhāsya was the magnum opus. The other seven are:
- Vedārtha Sañgraha - It is a compendium of important statements from the major Upanisads with his own interpretation, according to the Viśiṣtādvaita school
- Vedāntadipa and Vedāntasāra - It is abridged commentaries on the Vedāntasutras or the Brahmasutras.
- Nityagrantha dealing with the daily rituals and devotional practices for his followers
- Three hymnal works in prose known as the Gadyatraya.
Rāmānuja’s great contribution lies in his bringing together the Vedic ideology and methodology rooted in the Sanskrit scriptural texts and the purely devotional heritage of the Ālvārs, thus creating what is now called the ‘Ubhaya-Vedānta,’ ‘Vedānta based on two traditions’.
Sections of Gadyatraya
The three components of the Gadyatraya are:
- Śaraṇāgatigadya - dealing with the greatness of self-surrender
- Śrirañgagadya - prayer to God to accept him as his eternal servant
- Vaikunthagadya - a description of Vaikuṇṭha, the world of Viṣṇu
The Vedānta system of Rāmānuja is known as the Viśiṣtādvaita Darśana. The ideology of this scripture is as follows:
- It is advaita or monism but viśiṣṭa or qualified.
- According to him Brahman is the highest and independent reality.
- Acit and cit are also eternal realities but dependent on Brahman who includes them and also transcends them.
- Brahman is the Supreme Person endowed with infinite auspicious qualities. He is responsible for sṛṣṭi, sthiti and pralaya of this world.
- The jīvas are atomic in size and infinite in number.
- They are different from the body and possess consciousness as an attribute.
- The aspirants desirous of attaining mukti or liberation must start with the performance of prescribed karmas or duties.
- This leads to the purification of their minds making them fit to tread the spiritual path of jñāna and bhakti, including prapatti.
- Acit is the insentient matter, the matrix of the world, out of which the physical universe is created.
- The liberated jīvas live in Paramapada or Vaikuṇṭha, the special abode of the Lord Nārāyaṇa, with divine bodies, eternally enjoying his company. They will never again return to this mundane existence.
- Śaṅkara lived in A. D. 788-820
- Jñāna means spiritual wisdom.
- Bhakti means devotion to God sans sentimentalism.
- It is approximately 30 miles.
- Srīvaiṣṇava is a sect of Vaiṣṇavas or worshipers of Viṣṇu.
- Srīraṅgam is a famous temple town on the bank of the river Kāverī in Tamil Nadu.
- Sanyāsa means monastic orders.
- He is lord Viṣṇu.
- Aṣṭākṣarimantra is an eight-syllabled mantra of Nārāyaṇa.
- Here God refers to deity Raṅganātha.
- Maṭhas means monastery.
- Parāśara was the father of Vedavyāsa and composer of the Viṣṇupurāṇa.
- It is in January-February.
- Brahman is God, the Absolute.
- Acit is the insentient nature, also known as prakṛti.
- Cit is the conscious beings, the jīvas or individual souls.
- Supreme person means Sarveśvara.
- Sṛṣṭi means creation.
- Sthiti means maintenance.
- Pralaya means dissolution.
- Jñāna means knowledge.
- Bhakti means devotion.
- Prapatti means self- surrender.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore