By Swami Harshananda
Śrīvaiṣṇavism, the religion and Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta, its philosophy, are of hoary antiquity. In his introductory verse of Śrībhāsya, Śri Rāmānuja traces this philosophy to the Upaniṣads, which was well guarded by the later Ācāryas like Vyāsa, Bodhāyana, Tanka, Dramiḍa, Guhadeva, Kapardin, Bhāruci and others.
According to the tradition that obtains among the Śrīvaiṣṇavas, the religion of Śrīvaiṣṇavism was first taught by the Lord Nārāyaṇa himself to Lakṣmī, his divine Consort, who communicated the same to Viṣvaksena. Then it was handed over to a series of teachers headed by Śaṭhagopa.
Ālvārs are Śrivaiṣṇava saints of the Tamil country who lived between the sixth and the ninth centuries A. D. The word Ālvār’ literally means one who is immersed in divine love. There are twelve Ālvārs. They are:
It was a religion of ecstatic love towards God for them. Hence, neither caste nor sex was any barrier to their attaining to that state. Historically the Ālvārs were the first to propagate the religion and philosophy of Śrīvaiṣṇavism through their songs. These songs, called the Nālāyira Prahandham, combine a rare poetic beauty and high philosophical tenets, couched in a simple language. Nammālvār, the author of the famous Tiruvāimoli, is by far the greatest among them. He is called the Kuṭastha by the later Ācāryas of Śrīvaiṣṇavism, because the fundamental doctrines of this faith as current today, were taught by him.
The Ālvār movement was more emotional in nature than metaphysical. The Ālvārs were great devotees of the Lord Viṣṇu. They believed in the impermanence of worldly enjoyments and in the acquisition of liberation by union with Him. They taught more by example than by precept, though they propagated the philosophy of Viśiṣṭādvaita in their songs.
Hence it was left to the Ācāryas beginning with Nāthamuni, who succeeded the Ālvārs, to put the system on a firm footing, based on both the Sanskrit scriptures and the Tamil teachings of the Ālvārs. The Ācāryas were very orthodox brāhmaṇas, well-versed equally in Sanskrit and Tamil, who passed through the different stages of orthodox life and discharged their duties so as to serve as an ideal for their followers. Apart from ex-pounding the philosophy of Viśiṣṭādvaita, they also laid down various rules for the proper observance of festivals, fasts, vows and customs. They were thus the makers of modern Śrīvaiṣṇavism. Therefore they in turn have become objects of worship like the Ālvārs whom they themselves apotheosized.
The first of the Ācāryas was Raṅganāthamuni, popularly known as Nāthamuni. He was at once an erudite scholar, a yogin, and a devotee. He first collected all the Prabandhams, edited them with proper introductory verses, popularized them by setting them to music, and made them sung in temples. He gave these Prabandhams the status equal to that of the Vedas in temple festivals. The various reforms brought about by Nāthamuni necessitated the creation of a post of a universal Ācārya whose authority was law in religious worship and whose advice was a guide to temples and house-holders. When such a post was established, the choice should fall on Nāthamuni. Since this office was combined with the management of the Śrīrangam temple, it was easy for the Ācāryas to revolutionize and re-organize the Śrivaiṣṇava sect by introducing the necessary reforms first in that temple, which is one of the most important shrines of Viṣṇu and a strong-hold of Śrīvaiṣṇavism.
Nāthamuni was succeeded by Puṇḍarikākṣa and Rāmamiśra for two short periods. Then came Yāmunācārya, who was the grandson of Nāthamuni. He endowed with great scholarship and insight, first attempted to put the Viśiṣṭādvaita philosophy on a firm foundation. He wrote scholarly works in Sanskrit defending it and established the orthodoxy of the Pāñcarātra school, whose authority is accepted as equal to that of the Śrutis by the Viśiṣṭādvaitins. Siddhitraya and Āgamaprāmānya are his two important works, in addition to the Gītārtha-sañgraha. He cherished a desire to write a commentary on the Brahmasutras according to the Viśiṣtādvaita, just as Śaṅkara had done according to the Advaita. But he died before he could attempt it and it fell on Rāmānuja to achieve it.
He lived in A. D. 1017-1137. The name of Rāmānuja is inseparably associated with the Viśiṣṭādvaita, just as Śañkara’s is with the Advaita. The traditional date of his birth is A.D. 1017 and he is said to have lived for 120 years. Yāmuna died before Rāmānuja became the Ācārya and the interval was filled up by Mahāpurṇa. Yāmuna bequeathed to Rāmānuja the three great tasks of his life which he himself had failed to achieve. They are:
- The perpetuation of the memory of the sage Parāśara
- The immortalization of the glory of Nammālvār
- The interpretation of Bādarāyaṇa’s Brahmasutras according to the Viśiṣṭādvaita system
Rāmānuja fulfilled all these three in his lifetime. He commanded Bhaṭṭa, the son of Kureśa, to write a commentary on the Visnusahasranāma and named him as Parāśara. He authorized Kurukeśa, the son of his uncle Sriśailapurṇa, to compose a commentary on the Tiruvāimoli of Nammālvār. To achieve the third object, Rāmānuja had to undertake an arduous journey to Kashmir, where the last surviving copy of the Vrtti of Bodhāyana, a commentary on the Brahmasutras was available.
After going through it with great difficulty, he composed his Śribhāsya, a masterly commentary on the Brahmasutras. Rāmānuja was as great an organizer as he was a thinker. He divided the Śrivaiṣṇava world into seventy-four Acāryic dioceses, over each of which he appointed a pious householder as the head or ‘simhāsanādhipati’. He was called by that. These spiritual leaders earnestly took up the work of carrying the message of Viśiṣṭādvaita to all the villages and homes, each within his diocese.
The demise of Rāmānuja was followed by a period of sectarian split among the Śrīvaiṣṇavas, which ultimately ended in the permanent division of their ranks into the two sects of Vaḍagalais and Teṅgalais. These words literally mean the followers of the northern and the southern schools respectively. The two sects developed separate sets of works, separate lineage of gurus and separate traditions in many matters of practical importance.
The language of the holy books to be studied, the comparative importance of bhakti and prapatti in the path of liberation, relation with the lower castes, details of certain ceremonials to be observed on certain special occasions, and a few other questions were the causes for such a division. The Vadagalais favored the Sanskrit works and the path of bhakti. They were more conservative in their relation towards the lower castes. The Teñgalais, on the other hand, preferred the Tamil works to the Sanskrit ones and laid greater stress on prapatti based on the mārjālakiśoranyāya than on the markatakiśoranyāya.
The former assumes self-effort as a pre-requisite to prapatti whereas the latter does not. Though there has never been a check to inter-dining, intermarriage and free social harmony at home or at the temple, the allegiance to different teachers and philosophies and the scramble for control over the temples, has perpetuated this division.
Apostolic Successors of Rāmānuja
The two sects have a different guru-paramparā though both trace their origin to Rāmānuja himself. Kurukeśa was the first successor of Rāmānuja according to the Vaḍagalais. Viṣṇucitta, his successor, is the author of two famous works Sārārthacatustaya and Visnucittiyam. The next in line is Varadārya or Varadācārya, otherwise known as Naḍādur Ammāl. A substance of his lectures and interpretations of the Sribhāsya was committed to writing under the title of Śrutaprakāśikā by a talented disciple of his, named Sudarśanasuri. After the death of Varadārya, the Acāryaship devolved on Atreya Rāmānuja, who in turn was succeeded by Vedānta Deśika or Veṅkaṭanātha.
He lived in A. D. 1268-1370. Vedānta Deśika, who was a contemporary of Vidyāraṇya, is undoubtedly the greatest of the Ācāryās of the post Rāmānuja period. For more than three quarters of a century, he enriched the Śrivaiṣṇava world with his teachings and writings. His works number more than a hundred and are characterized by versatility, beauty of style and thought, and a deep spiritual insight. He was a poet, a philosopher, a thinker, a polemist and a sage. His works include original writings in Tamil, and also commentaries on older works.
Few more important works are:
- Bhāṣya on the īśāvāsyopanisad
It is not a matter of surprise that he was called in his own times as ‘Kavitārkika-siṅiha.’ One of the greatest of his services was his saving the Srutaprakāśikā from the chaos that followed in the wake of invasion of Śriraṅgam by the Mohammedans. It is for this reason that his name as Vedāntācārya is gratefully remembered by all the Śrīvaiṣṇavas, without sectarian bias, in beginning the study of the Śrībhāsya.
He lived in A. D. 1264-1327. The Teṅgalai sect traces the apostle ship in succession of Rāmānuja in the following manner:
- Parāśara Bhatta
- Pillai Lokācārya
- Tirumalai Ālvār
- Maṇavāla Māmuni or Varavaramuni
Among these, Pillai Lokācārya, who was a contemporary of Vedānta Deśika, occupies the same place amidst the Teṅgalais as Deśika does among the Vaḍagalais. In fact, he is generally regarded as the founder of Teṅgalaism as a distinct sect. Being a man of brilliant intellect, he composed several treatises in order to uphold his school. Vacanabhusana is a difficult work in aphoristic style which deals with the doctrine of prapatti in all its aspects.
For the benefit of women and the common folk, Lokācārya composed sixteen treatises on the secret doctrines and the philosophy of Śrīvaiṣṇavism like Nigamanappadi, Mumuksuppadi, Tattvatraya, Arthapañcaka, etc. Though most of these works are smaller in size, they are regarded by the Teṅgalai school as the only correct interpretation of the sects of Rāmānuja and the Ālvārs.
He lived in A. D. 1370-1443. Pillai Lokācārya was succeeded by Śrīśaileśa, who in turn handed over the Ācāryaship to Maṇavāla Māmuni, also known as Alagiya Maṇavāla or Varavaramuni. He was a master of the Tamil Veda and other lore. Though he was trained by the teachers of the Vaḍagalai sect also, he openly declared that Idu was the equal of Śribhāsya. He wrote several works explaining the treatises of Pillai Lokācārya. Though his works were limited in range and diction, he gave a definite form to Teṅgalaism. His magnetic personality elevated him in the eyes of his followers to the position of an incarnation of Rāmānuja.
Everyone born in a Śrīvaiṣṇava family must approach a proper guru and undergo pañcasaiṅskāra, if he is to be considered a true Śrīvaiṣṇava. This five-fold ritual includes the following:
- Tapas or the Ācārya’s initiating the student into the sacred fire by branding the latter’s shoulders with the symbols of Viṣṇu
- The puṇdra or initiating into wearing the sectarian mark, the symbol of the Lord’s foot
- Giving a spiritual name like Nārāyaṇadāsa or Govindadāsa to the disciple
- Imparting the three mantras, viz., the astāksarl, the dvaya, and the carama-śloka
- Handing over a śālagrāma or other concrete objects for daily worship
Though in theory this pañcasanskāra is enough to secure the devotee’s entry into the blissful world of Lord Viṣṇu, in practice he finds that his past karma and present weaknesses are serious obstacles to spiritual progress. He is thus forced to realize that the Lord’s grace is absolutely necessary, and therefore surrenders himself at his feet. This is technically called ‘prapatti’ or ‘śaraṇāgati’ and the devotee who does it is known as a ‘prapanna.’ The prapanna is in the need of a mediator, since he is unable to communicate with the Lord directly. Therefore, he has to go to a teacher and beg him to intercede on his behalf and place his soul at the Lord’s feet. This vicarious employment of the teacher is technically designated as ‘bhāraṇyāsa.’
The evolution and consolidation of Śrivaiṣṇavism as a sect is closely associated with the origin and development of the Śrīvaiṣṇava Maṭhas or monasteries. From the most ancient times, āśramas and maṭhas in the country have been the repositories of religion in theory and practice. Their heads, whether monks or pious householders, have been responsible for arresting the decay of dharma and for propagating true religion, apart from guiding the society often in secular matters also. The same holds good in the case of the Śrīvaiṣṇava Maṭhas too. Some of the important maṭhas of Śrivaiṣṇavism are:
- Ahobila Maṭha - The Ahobila Maṭha was founded in the year A.D. 1398, in the Ahobila Kshetra of Andhra Pradesh, by Śrīnivāsācārya, who became a sanyāsin under the name of Ādi Vaṇa Śaṭhagopa Svāmin. He was a great scholar and lived as a saṅyāsin for the full length of sixty-years. The successive Jeers or abbots of the Maṭha have kept up the tradition of erudition and of touring the country to spread religion.
- Parakāla Maṭha - According to the tradition that obtains at the Parakāla Matha in Mysore, its founder was Vedānta Deśika himself. His disciple, Periya Brahmatantra Svatantra Svāmin, occupied the pīṭha or pontifical seat in A. D. 1360. So far there have been thirty-three Jeers. The principal deity worshipped in the Matha is Hayagrīva, which has been handed down to the Maṭha from Vedānta Deśika himself.
- Yadugiri Yatirāja Maṭha - Yadugiri is a small hill, about 48 kms. to the east of Mysore. It is claimed that Rāmānuja himself established a maṭha here during A.D. 1103. This Maṭha, known as Yadugiri Yatirāja Maṭha, had a branch at Rewa, which is now functioning independently. Some of the Jeers of this Maṭha had kept contacts with North India also.
- Āṇḍavan Maṭha - The Āṇḍavan Maṭha, better known as “Śrīraṅgam Āṇḍavan Āśrama,” has its main centre at Śrīraṅgam in Tamil Nadu. Vedānta Rāmānuja Deśika is the founder of this Maṭha, the youngest among the Śrīvaiṣṇava Maṭhas. It was started in early nineteenth century. The present head is the seventh in the apostolic succession.
- Vānamāmalai Maṭha - Vānamāmalai Maṭha was established at Nangunderi, Tirunelveli District, Tamil Nadu, by Maṇavāla Māmuni during the fourteenth century A. D. So far there have been twenty-seven Jeers.
The Philosophy of Viśistādvaita
Any account of the history of Śrivaiṣṇavism should be deemed incomplete without a description of its philosophical tenets. This philosophy is much older than that of Rāmānuja, who only systematized it. However, the pioneering and yet stupendous work he has turned out in the cause of Viśiṣṭādvaita has justified its being called Rāmānuja Darśana. Viśiṣṭādvaita is essentially a philosophy of religion. In it, reason and faith coalesce to become ‘reasoned faith.’ It is often identified with the older Seśvara Mīmānsā, and is also called Ubhaya Vedānta, since it accepts both the Sanskrit Prasthānatraya and the Tamil Prabandham as equally authoritative. Pāñcarātra treatises are also considered at par with the Vedas.
Thus Śrivaiṣṇavism, with its philosophy of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta and the great stress laid on bhakti and prapatti, has made the path of spiritual evolution a little more easy for the ordinary sādhakas or spiritual aspirants. It has also contributed to the social harmony at least among its own ranks.
- Śrībhāsya means the commentary on the Brahmasutras.
- He lived in A. D. 824-924.
- He lived in A.D. 918-1038.
- Prapatti means self-surrender.
- Mārjālakiśoranyāya means the maxim of the kitten totally dependent on its mother.
- Markatakiśoranyāya means the maxim of the young one of the monkey which clings to its mother.
- Paramparā means succession of teachers.
- Visnucittiyam means a commentary on the Viṣṇupurāṇa.
- He was the famous commentator of the Prabandham
- Idu is the commentary by Kṛṣṇapāda on the Tamil Veda.
- It is in Karnataka.
- Jeers means abbots.
- It is approximately 30 miles.
- It is in Madhya Pradesh.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore