Ramanuja – Who Was He Really?

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Life Story – A 1000 Year Old History

60 yrs is the average life expectancy of man. Ayurveda states the full life expectancy of man to be 120 years. Very few people round the world are blessed enough to lead a fruitful life that long. Sri Ramanujacharya was one of the blessed few who lived a hale, healthy and hoary life for 120 yrs, a full life, Poornayush.

Ramanuja was born on 4th April, 1017 CE in Sriperambudur between modern Chennai and ancient Kanchipuram, to a pious, childless couple, Asuri Keshava Somayaji Deekshitar, a Vedic Pandit and Kantimati Amma, a devout lady. He was given the name Ilayazhwar at birth.

Descending Across Forms and Generations

Ramanuja, is a name which means younger brother, Anuja of Rama – a respectful way of referring to Lakshmana.

Ramanuja was also called by this name meaning the brother of Rama, since He was believed to be the incarnation of the Divinity Adisesha, also found to have incarnated as Lakshmana, the brother of Rama, 7100 years ago and as Balarama, the brother of Krishna, 5100 years ago. Ramanuja, is revered as a form of Adisesha, descended as an incarnation 1000 years ago.

Ascending Following

Ramanuja, who propounded Vishishtadvaita, a qualified form of non- duality, set Vaishnavism on the path that it has been followed since, for the last 1000 yrs.

In His long lifespan, He set the temple practices in all the Vaishnava temples across the land from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Even the rituals at the premier temple of India, the Venkateshwara temple at Tirumala, were formalized by Ramanuja. He also reinforced the tradition of maintaining Nandavanams, flower gardens, attached to the temples for supplying flowers to the deities.

Ramanuja also set the Parampara of when and what rituals, Seva are to be performed in the temples and which hymns are to be recited during these Seva. This Parampara is since being followed in all Vaishnava temples of the land.

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Ramanuja

Transcending Languages

Ramanuja was a scholar both in Samskrt and Tamil. He was also a scholar in a language prevalent then called Manipravalam which was a beautiful blend of Samskrt and Tamil.

Vishishtadvaita in Samskrt

He has authored many works which present the Veda and Upanishad from a Visishtadvaita perspective. The prominent ones which are 9 in number, include,

  1. 3 Bhashya (commentaries) – Sri Bhashyam on Brahma Sutra, Gita Bhashyam on Bhagavad Gita and Vedartha Sangraha an overview on Upanishads
  2. 3 Gadya (Prose Texts) – Sharanagati Gadyam, Sriranga Gadyam and Vaikunta Gadyam on Sri Vaishnavam
  3. 3 Vedanta – Vedantasara and Vedantadeepa (concise commentaries on Brahma Sutra) and Nitya Grantha (Daily Rituals for a Sri Vaishnava)

These 9 popular texts are referred to as Navaratna – 9 gems.

For all these, He earned the title Bashyakara which is one of the highest accolade one can receive in connection with the Veda. For, understanding the Veda itself is a great feat. To be able to write commentaries on the Veda for others to understand is an even greater feat. The Bashya works are usually bigger than the originals that they comment upon.

Ramanuja travelled all the way to Kashmir at the northern end of the land to read Bodhayana’s exposition, vritti on Brahma Sutra before completing His Sri Bhashyam, His commentary on Brahma Sutra.

Vaishnavism and Tamil

Ramanuja popularized the Tamil form of Vaishnavism.

He brought to fore the primacy of the Nalayira Divya Prabandham, the 4000 divine, specially composed verses in the traditional Tamil language by mandating their recitation as a daily temple ritual. He thus elevated Tamil to the status of a divine language.

He consecrated idols of the 12 Alwars, Tamil poets who had composed this divine poetry, in all temples from Tirumala to Thiruvananthapuram. He thus gave a position of pre-eminence to these Tamil poets, to their poetry and thereby to the whole Tamil language and made poetic Tamil an integral part of daily life.

In appreciation of His service to Tamil and divine Tamil poetry, after His times, people out of reverence added His idol too at the end of the line of the 12 Alwars. This happened in every Vishnu temple, in every town. It speaks volumes of the spontaneousness, the readiness with which people venerated Him and took to His teachings.

Of these 12 Alwars, 8 were not Brahmins. Treating them all on par, showed how Ramanuja looked at all as equals irrespective of their Jati – Varna.

Vaishnavism Across India

Not just in the Tamil land, Ramanuja travelled far and wide to not just spread the tenets of Vaishnavism but also to learn principles of Veda and Upanishad from across the land.

Besides Kashmir, Ramanuja also travelled to the northern slopes of Himalaya to Muktinath Kshetra in present day Nepal.

1000 years ago he had travelled across the length and breadth of the country from Thiruvananthapuram to Dwaraka in the west, to Kashmir and to Muktinath, Nepal in north, to Puri Jagannath in East to establish a parampara both in worship and good living. His prescribed format of rituals is still followed in many Vaishnava temples of India today.

Ramanujacharya’s codes of Vaishnavism was taken up and spread further through the Vallabhacharya sect of Gujarat and Rajasthan, Varkari sect of Maharashtra, Chaitanya sect of Bengal and Central India, Shankar Dev sect of Assam and Eastern India as well as the Swami Narayan sect followed today. Ramanujacharya and His teachings thus were a source of inspiration to many.

Ramanuja had travelled all through the land, uniting people, for, He saw the land as one timeless cultural entity with many kingdoms that kept coming and going with time.

In Service of the Community

Water Harnessing

Temple Tanks, Pushkarani, Kalyani, Sarovar Tirth, Teppam, Kulam are a common sight in every temple town that Ramanuja spent some time in, be it Tirumala, Kanchipuram, Srirangam or elsewhere. In all these places Ramanuja focussed on Theerthavari Seva wherein, He had the temple tank, Pushkarani cleaned, repaired and restored, thus ensuring clean water for the Lord and the community.

Ramanuja was one of those visionaries who had understood the importance of harnessing waters be it for serving the Divine or for the community. He built a few and renovated the many temple tanks right in the middle of the village, as a practice. This not only ensured availability of water for temple rituals but due to percolation, also ensured that the wells of those living near the temple, stayed ever full.

A standing example of the importance He gave to water harnessing can be seen in the form of the still in good repair, large, 2200 acre temple tank at Tondanur, called Tonnur Kere about 20km from Melkote.

With the derelict state of the temple tanks today, we need to take a leaf out of Ramanuja’s practice and renovate each temple tank, Pushkarani, to rejuvenate the ground water for the village community living around each temple. Pushkaram means fertile. Pushkarani is that which gives fertility to the land, in this case the locality.  This will be a socially useful, productive and befitting obeisance that we can pay to Ramanuja, on His 1000th year anniversary.

Free Feeding

Ramanuja also formalized the parampara of giving prasadam, food, to devotees in every temple as He had recognized that this food, prasadam was one way of bringing people together. It was a land of prosperity and there was plenty. So He brought in the concept of locals coming together, contributing food grains to the temple, which in turn, after due rituals to the Lord, was offered back as Prasadam to the people. This one act brought locals together as it became a community service.

In times when hotels and restaurants were not the norm, travelers, mainly pilgrims across the land, had to rely on locals to offer them food and shelter. This practice of prasadam ensured that pilgrims visiting the temples did not have to starve or go door to door seeking hospitality.  The needy of the village too were looked after due to this practice.

Selflessness & Compassion

There lived a great saint of those times in a temple town called Thirukoshtiyur near Madurai. Ramanuja learnt from this saint, His Guru the Moolamantra which when recited would lead the one reciting it, to Moksha, liberation.  The only hitch in this was that, there was a Nibandana, a bond, that it should be taught only to a true disciple, one to one. There was a condition that if it was taught to everybody, while the one who receives the knowledge would attain Moksha, the one who imparts the Mantra, will be denied Moksha.

Ramanuja walked from Kanchipuram to Thirukoshtiyur to the ashram of this guru seeking audience and this Mantra. He was refused audience repeatedly by His Guru, 18 times, before the Guru seeing Ramanuja’s perseverance, relented to impart the Moolamantra to Ramanuja along with the Nibandana that went with it.

On learning the mantra, Ramanuja offered His respects to the Guru and then promptly climbed on to the Gopura, tower of the Thirukoshtiyur temple. He called all the village folk and broadcast this MoolamantraOm Namo Narayana” to everyone.

Hearing of this the Guru admonished Ramanuja for breaking the Nibandana, the bond. Ramanuja obediently asked of His Guru what the punishment would be. The Guru responded that Ramanuja Himself would be denied Moksha for breaking the bond but all those who had now heard the Moolamantra “Om Namo Narayana” and shall chant it, shall attain liberation.

Instead of remorse, Ramanuja was overjoyed on hearing this. He replied to His Guru that if at the cost of Him alone not attaining Moksha, if everyone else would attain Moksha, then He had achieved the purpose of His life.

It is then that the Guru realized the quality of a true guide and teacher as someone who is selfless in teaching and benevolent in nature, having the interest of the pupil, the people and welfare of the society at large, in heart.

With this selfless act, from thereon, He was referred to as Ramanuja Acharya.

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Leading by Walking The Path

The word Guru, etymologically comes from the root Gur, which means to lift, draw up, draw towards. A Guru is one who elevates thoughts, words and deeds of people around. Guru also denotes heaviness as heavy objects tend to pull and Gurutva Akarshana in Samskrt is the phonetic and semantic root for the sound and understanding of Gravity.

If Guru is one who elevates us, an Acharya is one who helps us stay elevated by showing us how to act, to stay elevated. An Acharya leads by action, by example. For, the very word Acharya comes from Achar, Acharam meaning practices, acts.

This land has been fortunate to have been adorned by hundreds and thousands of noble Acharya. Of all these, 3 stand apart for expressing clearly the 3 basic philosophies. Adi Shankara for Advaita, Madhva for Dvaita and Ramanuja for Visishtadvaita.

With His choice of propounding Visishtadvaita as well as His teachings, Ramanujacharya was building the bridge between Dvaita and Advaita.

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Social Engineering

Ramanuja was one who found social discrimination to be incorrect and acted on it to bring in the concept of Thirukulaththor where everybody was regarded as belonging to the same Kula, the lineage that comes from the divine.

Today people speak of social engineering as a new age jargon. What Ramanuja had practically implemented 1000 years ago itself, was way beyond all this jargon.

Temples and Rituals As Tools for Uniting Than Isolating

He established a model keeping the temple as the centre, creating roles for each community around it, finally joining them all through food, prasadam as a SamaPankti bhojana, eating food, sitting as equals in a row. Pankti meaning row and sama is equal.

Every community in the village had an important role to play in the running of the temple. He thereby amalgamated different sections of the society by associating them with a local temple the center of their community.

Every conceivable community such as potter, weaver, carpenter, ironsmith, farmer, oil producer, had their roles carved out to ensure the smooth and successful functioning of the temple.

He thus setup a model that brought in families from different communities, all as one, in service of the divine.

This was a major achievement, executed 1000 years ago, an amalgamation that had stood the test of time till recent years when such a model of using the temple itself as a uniting edifice, was wrecked in the name of “secular” Government policies.  No other social engineering effort of people building, community building and harmonious living has stood the test of time for 1000 years like this.

Quality and Equality

He appealed to people to accord more importance to the quality of a person than the person’s stature or Jati in society. He also walked the path that He preached. Many incidents stand out as shining examples for His equal acceptance of one and all in society.

One was the incident concerning Kanchi Purna, a man belonging to the lower strata of society but who was pious and lived life with the spirit of humanity and devotion. Even when society shunned him and even when Kanchi Purna himself was diffident, Ramanujacharya, moved by Kanchi Purna’s innate qualities and character, begged Kanchi Purna to accept Him as His disciple and gave Kanchi Purna the status of His Guru.

Further, when Ramanujacharya found His own wife practicing social discrimination, He renounced family life and took Sanyasa to dedicate His life wholly to remove such stigma in society. From this was born His multifold strategy

  1. revamping temple, worship and religious customs to include people of all strata by giving all – men and women across Jati, a definite role to play in the daily running of the temple and continuity of religious practices
  2. propounding the Visishtadvaita form of Sri Vaishnavism with focus on Seva of Bhakta,  i.e service to devotees as a form of keeping these customs alive and the society integrated.
Caste and Gender Equality

Yet another instance of Ramanujacharya placing quality and character above Jati or strata can be seen in His appointment of Mudhali i.e forerunners for Sri Vaishnavism. Out of the 74 Mudhali that He appointed, many were not Brahmins and atleast 5 were women.

His life history abounds with narratives of many instances of how Ramanujacharya forced situations to highlight messages of equality by birth, by gender, by vocation, to people.

He once asked a woman from the lower strata to step aside as He walked with His followers. This made her ask of Him, as to how, when surrounded on all sides by the Divine and purity, could anyone be regarded impure in this world, leave alone find an impure place to resign to? As a constant reminder of this message to people for times to come, that everything and everyone in this world is Divine and pure, Ramanuja established a shrine for her in Tiruvali Thirunagari in south India, where this incident took place.

Harmony Across Religions

When Ramanuja was oppressed by a parochial Hindu, Chozha king, He fled to the region of Melkote near Mysore to reestablish His Mutt. Melkote means the fort on the hilltop.

When the Badshash of Delhi attacked the Mysore kingdom, in that war, he also took the idol of Melkote, ThiruNarayana as war booty, back to Delhi.

Ramanuja at a ripe age of 80, went all the way to Delhi, to retrieve the idol back for worship. The daughter of the Delhi Badshah, Laachma Bibi, who had taken a fancy to this idol and was adoring it with all her love, refused to part with it. Ramanuja sang paeans to the idol, cajoled and convinced the young princess to part with it, brought the idol to Melkote and reinstalled it for worship once again.

It was a feat that was thought impossible in those times.

Commemorating this, the idol has since been called Chellappillai meaning the adorable child. There stands a shrine for this Islamic princess who looked after this deity in Delhi and came to Melkote as she could not bear to be separated from this idol. She is known as Bibi Nachiar and the offering made to her is Roti, in line with her tradition.

His consecration of an idol of the Islamic princess Bibi Nachiar as a Divine mother Goddess in Melkote temple is an example of His efforts to integrate people not just across strata but also across religious boundaries.

A Role Model to Emulate

In the demographics of the present, the instructions and examples on inclusive community development and administration from the social engineering practices and models followed by Sri. Ramanujacharya can serve as a beacon.

Infact, one of the leaders of post Independent India, who found Sri Ramanujacharya’s teachings to be relevant for the India, as India has evolved into, was Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar, who was influenced by Sri Ramanujacharya’s message and His models of social engineering. He openly expressed his acquiescence of Sri Ramanujacharya’s acts, approach and advise in his writings, prominent among them being his editorial in his news magazine Bahishkrit Bharat (Untouchable India) of 3rd June 1927.

An Unique Honour

There are 3 idols of Ramanuja that are specially associated with Him. In the Tamil language, Thirumeni means idol, figurine. Ugandha means be worthy, be right, fit, rise up to occasion, to be suitable.

  • Sri Perumbudur, near Kanchipuram got Thaan Ugandha Thirumeni – an idol that became sanctified on its own while Ramanuja was in Srirangam.
  • Melkote, near Mysore got Tamar Ugandha Thirumeni – an idol that was fashioned and sanctified by Him for His disciples
  • Srirangam, near Trichy got Thanana Thirumeni – an idol that is He, Himself.

He was such a celebrated saint of His times who had codified the worship system itself that post His passing, a life size idol of his form has since been kept in a sitting posture in a shrine in the Prakara, a circumambulatory path of the Srirangam temple complex itself. Such an honour has not been bestowed on any other saint.

A unique honour for a unique saint indeed!

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For being such a distinguished saint, he also earned the title Yati RajaYati etymologically comes from the root ‘Ya’ meaning “to spread”. Yati denotes one who spreads, propounds knowledge or a message. Yati thus stands for a knowledge messenger, a saint. Yati Raja is king among saints.

So, Who was Ramanuja?

It is 1000 years since his birth. But who was the real Ramanuja?

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From A Smartha to A Vaishnava?

Not Dvaiti and Advaiti but A Visishtadvaiti?

A Yati? Or A Raja?

A Guru? Or An Acharya?

A Bashyakara? Or A Vedanti?

A Samskrt Pandit? Or A Tamil Pulavar?

A Poet? Or A Literatur?

A Disciplinarian? Or A Radical?

An Administrator? Or A Community Worker?

A Student? Or A Teacher?

A Seeker? Or A Guide?

A Religious Leader? Or A Social Engineer?

A Humanitarian? Or A Devotee?

Man or Divine?

Through which lens must we see Him?

From which perspective should we understand Him?

With what words can we appreciate Him?

By what acts may we revere Him?

Sarva Desa Dasa Kaleshu Avyahata Parakrama |

Ramanuja Arya Divyajna Vardhatam Abhivardhatam ||

Meaning: Let the most Magnificent instruction of Sri Ramanuja increase and pervade through all countries at all times, without any hindrance.

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