Ramanujacharya – Biography & Teachings | Visistadvaita philosophy

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Ramanujacharya visistadvaita

A brahmana named Keshavacharya, a descendent of Harita, the compiler of Dharma Shastras, lived in a village named Sriperumbudur (Mahabhuta Puri) situated about twenty-six miles from Madras (Chennai). Keshava and his wife Kantimati were pious and possessors of all good qualities. One day, desiring to have a son, they bathed in the river Kairavani and prayed to the Supreme Lord. Lord Hari being pleased with them soon fulfilled their desire. During those days, the land of Bharata-Varsha suffered from a lack of devotion to the Supreme Lord Vishnu. People were largely opposed to the principles of devotional science. To deliver the land of Bharata (India), Lord Hari empowered a suitable entity with the potency of His sankarsana to usher in an age of devotion. Thus Sri Ramanujacharya was born in the year 1017 AD to Keshavacharya and Kantimati devi on a Thursday during the period of Adra Nakshatra in the village of Mahabhuta Puri. He became the acharya of the Sri Vaishnava sampradaya and the proponent of Visistadvaita philosophy.

Childhood and Youth of Ramanujacharya :

#1 Kantimati devi was the sister of Sailapurna, a disciple of the exalted Vaishnava acharya Sri Yamunacharya who resided at SriRangam. Yamunacharya came to visit and bless the newborn. Seeing that the child’s symptoms were similar to that of Lakshmana, the brother of Lord Rama, he named the child Lakshmana.

#2 Lakshmana (Ramanujacharya) exhibited unprecedented genius and unflinching attachment towards devotional service from a very early age.

#3 Once without taking consent from his parents, young Lakshmana invited a devotee named Kanchipurna to his house for lunch. Kanchipurna was a great devotee of Lord Varadaraja and would travel every day from his residence at Purnameeli to Kanchipuram to worship Him. Lakshmana personally fed Kanchipurna with delicious food and messaged his feet. Kanchipurna was embarrassed and he tried to stop Ramanujacharya from doing so. He argued that he was a low-class Shudra whereas Ramanujacharya belonged to the brahmana family and hence he should not serve him. Ramanuja then explained that a Vaishnava can never be a shudra. A Vaishnava is the spiritual master of even a brahmana. He cited the example of Tiruppana Aloyara who despite being a shudra was worshiped by the brahmanas.

#4 Lakshmana soon got married to a girl named Rakshakambal at the behest of his parents. After his father’s death, Lakshmana spent some time with his family. Thereafter he approached Yadavacharya of Kanchipuram, who was a reputed teacher of Vedanta and began studying under his tutelage. During the reign of the Chola kings, Kanchipuram was a center for learning and Saraswati worship and was considered to be the crest jewel of Southern India.

Ramanujacharya visistadvaita

#5 But as days passed by, Yadavacharya grew envious of Ramanujacharya observing his acumen, although Ramanuja was now his student. On one occasion, Ramanuja was deeply saddened hearing Yadava’s explanation of the word ‘kapasyam’ while he was explaining the Vedic mantra ‘tasya yatha kapasyam pundarikam evam aksini’. Yadavacharya described the meaning as per Shankara’s purports and he likened ‘kapasyam’ to the anus of a monkey. Therefore he translated the verse as follows – The eyes of that effulgent personality are reddish, like the anus of a monkey. Hearing this Ramanuja became so aggrieved that tears began streaming from his eyes. On being challenged to provide a better interpretation to the verse, Ramanuja translated it as follows – ‘The eyes of Lord Vishnu who is situated within the sun globe are like lotus flowers blossomed by sunshine’. Ramanuja added that it was an offense to compare Lord Vishnu’s lotus-like eyes to the anus of a monkey. Though externally Yadavacharya displayed his rage at Ramanuja’s explanation, internally he could perceive that Ramanuja would grow into a great adversary to Shankaracharya’s philosophy in the future.

#6 On another occasion, Ramanuja corrected Yadavacharya by pointing out some discrepancies while he was explaining from Taittiriya Upanishad : satyam jnanam anantam brahma (Anandavalli 2). In this way, being challenged by his disciple again and again, Yadacharya hatched a plot to assassinate Ramanuja.

#7 Yadavacharya suggested that they all go to Prayaga to bathe at the confluence of the three holy rivers (Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati). In reality, he wanted to drown Ramanuja. Govinda, another disciple of Yadavacharya, quietly informed Ramanuja of this evil conspiracy. Ramanuja escaped from the party and ran for his life. He abandoned the main road and took a smaller path. When Yadava and his disciples found him missing, they searched for a long time but returned disappointed. Finally, Yadava inferred that Ramanuja had perhaps died in some mishap and thus felt relieved.

#8 Meanwhile, Ramanuja saw a hunter couple and accompanied them. The whole day passed and the evening arrived. When the hunter’s wife requested her husband to fetch some drinking water, Ramanuja wanted to bring it. However, the hunter would not allow Ramanuja to go anywhere in the dark. The next morning, Ramanuja brought water for the hunter’s wife by climbing down the stairs of a well. He fetched water three times by carrying it within his palms. On the fourth occasion, he returned and noticed the hunter couple were nowhere to be found. And, instead of the surrounding dense forest, he observed a beautiful locality with roads. He discovered that he had arrived at his hometown in Kanchipuram. He related the entire episode to his Kanchipurna who concluded that Lakshmi-Narayana had appeared as the hunter couple to save his life and accept his service.

#9 Gradually Ramanuja’s news spread far and wide. The exalted Vaishnava Yamunacharya could perceive that Ramanuja would become a great Vaishnava preacher in the future. He sent his disciple Purnacharya to Kanchipuram and instructed Ramanuja that he should recite the stotra-Ratna that he had composed in front of Lord Varadaraja. On reading this wonderful composition, Ramanuja became drawn to Yamunacharya and yearned to meet with him. Purnacharya obliged and they set off for Sri Rangam, but on the way, they received the shocking news that Yamunacharya had passed away.

Ramanujacharya ranganatha

#10 Ramanuja came over to where the body of Sri Yamunacharya was lying. He saw that three of his fingers were closed and he understood that three of his wishes remained unfulfilled. After doing some research, Ramanuja publicly made these three following bold predictions –

  1. I shall pursue the path of Sri Vaishnavism. I shall uplift the people puzzled with ignorance by teaching them five samskaras and I shall engage them in bonafide devotional service of Supreme Lord Hari, as has been propagated through disciplic succession.
  2. I shall compose a commentary on Vedanta Sutra known as Sri-Bhasya after collecting all the necessary evidence, for the benefit of the people of this world.
  3. I will compile a dictionary based on the writings of Parasara Muni, that describes the nature and characteristics of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

As soon as he made the above statements, the three fingers of Yamunacharya unfolded. The onlookers remained wonderstruck at this extraordinary feat. They learned that Ramanuja would become the protector of the Vaishnava sampradaya.

#11 On receiving instructions from Lord Varadaraja, Ramanuja accepted spiritual initiation from Mahapurna.

#12 Ramanuja’s wife was a materialist and attached to fruitive activities. On one occasion she even insulted the wife of Ramanuja’s spiritual master when a drop of water from her rope fell onto her pitcher. She boasted of her noble lineage and insulted Purnacharya’s wife for belonging to a low class family. A few days later, Ramanuja’s wife insulted a hungry brahmana who had come begging for food. Ramanuja became very angry when these incidents came to his notice. Deciding to give up the bad association of his wife, He sent her to her father’s home on the pretext of her brother’s marriage. Meanwhile, surrendering his life unto Lord Varadaraja, he accepted tridanda sannyasa (renounced order of life) while remembering Sri Yamunacharya on the banks of Ananta Sarovara.

Ramanujacharya – Widespread Preaching :

#13 After his sannyasa, Sri Ramanuja started accepting disciples one by one. His first disciple was his nephew Dasarathi. Thereafter a man named Kuresa took shelter of his lotus feet. In Sri Sampradaya, Kuresa is accepted as a partial expansion of Lord Rama and Dasarathi, a partial expansion of Bharata. Yadavacharya, his previous teacher, also abandoned the path of mayavada and accepted Ramanujacharya as his spiritual master. Ramanuja accepted Pundarikaksha (Purnacharya’s son) as his disciple. In course of time, Ramanuja preached widely and became established as the sole acharya of the Sri sampradaya. 

#14 Ramanuja approached a disciple of Yamunacharya named Gosthi Purna to reveal to him the mystery of holy mantras. Gosthi Purna refused eighteen times. He finally agreed when Ramanuja requested him for the nineteenth time. He disclosed the mantras with their confidential meanings to Ramanuja and forbade him to disclose them to anyone. But upon seeing the unhappiness of others, Ramanuja summoned his seventy-four disciples and simultaneously initiated them by loudly chanting the mantras received from Gosthi Purna. This angered Gosthi Purna who rebuked Ramanujachrya saying that he would surely go to hell. Ramanujacharya replied that if he could benefit thousands of people by himself going to hell, then he would gladly accept it.  Gosthi Purna could understand the exalted mood of Ramanujacharya and hence instructed his son Saumya Narayana to accept initiation from Ramanujacharya.

#15 Kanchi Purna, Purnacharya (Maha Purna), Gosthi Purna, Maladhara and Vararanga were very intimate disciples of Yamunacharya and Ramanuja accepted all of them as his instructing spiritual masters.

#16 Some selfish people could not tolerate Ramanujacharya’s exalted position and reputation as a Vaishnava. Being unable to diminish his prestige in any way, they finally hatched a plot to kill him. They conspired with the temple priests and tried to mix poison in his food and even in the Lord’s Charanamrita. But by the mercy of Lord Ranganatha he was saved each time.

#17 To fulfill his promise to Yamunacharya, Ramanujacharya decided to compose the Sri-Bhasya commentary on Vedanta Sutra. He wanted to write his commentary based upon the teachings of Bodhayana, their previous acharya, and hence Ramanuja along with Kuresa traveled to Nrsimha Pitha in Kashmir to acquire the books written by Bodhayana. However, the place was controlled by the followers of Advaita-vada (Mayavada). Initially, they denied that the literature even existed anymore as they considered Vaishnavism a threat to their philosophy. However, later, Lord Nrsimhadeva secretly delivered the books to Ramanujacharya and ordered him to leave that place quickly.

#18 When the followers of Advaita vada at Saradha Pitha found ‘Bodhayanavriti’ missing, they thought that Ramanujacharya had stolen it. After searching for about a month they finally found Ramanuja and forcibly took the book away from him. Kuresa then consoled the aggrieved Ramanuja stating that he had memorized the entire book and can reproduce it from his memory in no time. Kuresa wrote the entire book in five or six days and using it Sri Ramanujacharya composed his Sri Bhasya commentary. After Sri Bhasya, Ramanuja composed a few more literatures before setting out to conquer all four directions. The lives of thousands of people became transformed by his mercy. Lord Nrsimha deva was so pleased with Ramanujacharya’s explanations that He awarded him with the title ‘Bhashyakara’.

Ramanujacharya

#19 Krimikantha, the king of the Cholas, was a devotee of Lord Shiva and was a follower of the smarta traditions. When he observed that Ramanuja was propagating the Vaishnava philosophy everywhere, he sent a few strongly built men to arrest him. Kuresa sensed the imminent danger. Hence he dressed himself up as Ramanujacharya without informing him and accompanied the guards to the royal court. Kuresa who identified himself as Ramanujacharya was abused at the royal court. Some of the king’s followers tried to debate with him and when Kuresa refuted their misconceptions, they attacked him. Finally, on the king’s orders, Kuresa was blinded by the King’s cruel associates.  After this incident, Kuresa somehow managed to return to Srirangam with the help of a beggar. He related the entire incident to Ramanujacharya. King Krimikantha was soon afflicted with a dreaded disease and passed away, suffering the consequences of his sinful actions. Ramanujacharya became jubilant on hearing the news of the King’s death. Meanwhile, by the mercy of Lord Varadaraja, Kuresa received a transcendental vision enabling him to see Lord Hari, his spiritual master, and the Vaishnavas.

#20 A king named Vallala Rao surrendered unto Ramanuja’s lotus feet and accepted initiation from him. He became subsequently known as Vishnuvardhana. Along with him, many followers of Buddhism also accepted Vaishnava dharma. Ramanujacharya reinstated the lost service of Lord Vishnu at Yadava Hill. In this way Ramanujacharya established the lost essence of devotional science in Bharatavarsha once more.

#21 Ramanujacharya spent the last sixty years of his life at SriRangam, and engaged his disciples in the propagation of devotional science. During this period, on the request of his disciples, a deity of Ramanujacharya was installed at SriRangam. Thereafter, one day, he expressed his desire to depart from the material world. After entrusting various responsibilities of preaching to his qualified disciples, Ramanujacharya passed away in the month of Magha in the year 1137 AD. His disciples continued preaching following the instructions they had received from their spiritual master.

#22 Prominent works of Ramanujacharya include – Vedantasara, Vedantadipa, Vedartha Sangraha, Essays, Commentary on Bhagavad Gita, Commentary on Vedanta Sutra and Nityakrama, Vedanta Tattvasara, commentary on Vishnu sahasranama, etc

Teachings of Ramanucharya in brief – The philosophy of Visistadvaita

#23 In ‘Nabadwip dham mahatmya’ it has been stated that when Ramanuja acharya visited Jagannatha Puri, Lord Jagannatha revealed to him the glories of Lord Gauranga and instructed him to visit the transcendental abode of Nabadwip. ‘Sri Rangam, Sri Venkata, and Yadavachal are simply minor parts of Nabadwip’, the Lord explained. ‘You came to the earth to preach devotion. May your birth be successful by the mercy of Gauranga. See Nabadwip and then go to Kurma Sthan. You will meet your disciples there’, the Lord added. Receiving Jagannatha Swami’s instructions, Ramanuja secretly came to Nabadwip. Ramanuja received the darsana of Lord Narayana in Nabadwip. Then the Lord revealed to Ramanuja the enchanting form of Lord Gauranga, beholding which Ramanuja became overwhelmed with divine ecstasy. ‘Ramanuja fainted beholding the luster of the Lord’s form, and Sri Gaura put His feet on Ramanuja’s head’. Ramanuja wanted to stay back at Nabadwip. Lord Gaurahari blessed Ramanuja, and said, ‘When My Pastimes in Nadia manifest, you will be born in Nabadwip once again’. ‘Saying this, Gaurahari disappeared. Satisfied, Ramanuja departed’. After meeting with his disciples, Ramanuja continued to preach Dasya-rasa (love in servitude unto the Supreme Lord) while internally always meditating upon Nabadwip and Sri Gauranga.

  1. ‘Cit’, ‘acit’ and ‘isvara’ – these three eternal truths have been accepted by the visistadvaita Siddhanta. The words ‘cit’ refers to spirit soul, ‘acit’ refers to matter and ‘isvara’ refers to Narayana, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, who is the controller of both spirit and matter.
  2. The spirit soul or ‘cit’ is distinct from material objects such as the gross body, senses, mind, and life air. He is self-illuminated, unalterable, blissful, eternal, infinitesimal, and is not seen by the blunt material eyes. The soul cannot be cut, pierced, or killed. The spirit soul is fully reliant on the Supreme Lord and is meant to be enjoyed by the Supreme Lord.
  3. The Supreme Lord is the complete whole whereas the individual living entities are His fragmental parts and parcels. As light cannot be separated from its source, similarly the living entities are inseparable from the Supersoul, who is their source.
  4. Because the non-dual Supreme Brahman alone is the cause and effect, all qualities found in the effect are present in Him. Both spirit and matter are the qualities of the effect of the Supreme Brahman, who is their ultimate cause. The body is meant to be regulated for it is the shelter of the spirit soul. In their constitutional positions, there is no difference between spirit souls. The designations of ‘demigod’, ‘human being’, etc are mere adjectives that are conferred, depending upon the particular type of body the soul has received based on his previous Karma (activity).
  5. ‘Acit’ or matter is inert, devoid of knowledge, and changeable. Matter is of three types – suddha sattva, misra tattva, and sattva sunya. ‘Suddha-sattva’ is devoid of the modes of passion (raja) and ignorance (tama). It is eternal, full of knowledge, bliss and devoid of fruitive activities. ‘Suddha-sattva’ is sometimes manifested as the airplanes, palaces, courtyards and the interiors of Vaikuntha (spiritual world). Some people refer to it as matter while some call it ‘anti-matter’. ‘Misra-sattva’ is a combination of the three modes of material nature – goodness, passion, and ignorance. It covers the spiritual reality. Another name of ‘Sattva-sunya’ is Kala or time. It is a perverted form of material nature and material objects. ‘Kala’ is eternal and assists the pastimes of the Supreme Lord. The ‘Suddha-sattva’ is meant for the enjoyment of the Supreme Lord while ‘Misra-sattva’ is meant to be enjoyed by the conditioned living entity. They manifest as ingredients (such as eyes) as well as places (such as the fourteen worlds) for their enjoyment.
  6. Lord Narayana is the Supreme Personality of Godhead who is the cause of creation, maintenance, and destruction of the material worlds. Lord Narayana remains unchanged while transforming Himself into the material worlds or the living entities. Lord Narayana is free from all evil. He is all-auspicious, a reservoir of unlimited transcendental qualities, the life and soul of everyone, pleasant and the proprietor of everything material and well as spiritual. He is the Supreme Brahman, the supersoul and the ultimate goal of all Vedic literatures. He is the master of the potencies known as Sri, Bhu and Nila. Lord Narayana always resides along with His wife Lakshmi devi within the hearts of the fully devoted.
  7.  In the visistadvaita conclusion of Sri Ramanuja, the complete oneness, the complete difference as well as formal oneness and difference are all refuted.

Image Credits

Debanjon, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Todayindian, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Nittavinoda, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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