By Vraja Vihari Dasa
The life and teachings of this pure devotee of the Lord, who appeared in the eleventh century, were a major turning point in Vaishnava history.
An empowered spiritual leader in South India greatly broadened people’s understanding of bhakti.
Ramanujacharya was a foremost teacher of the bhakti tradition. His example and teachings have shaped the bhakti movement in South India for over a thousand years. He was born on April 13, 1017 at Sriperembudur, twenty-five miles west of modern Chennai. He was named Ilaya Perumal by his religious parents.
Before his advent, bhakti, or devotion to God, was seen as one of the means to salvation. Sankaracharya (eighth century CE) and his followers taught that the Absolute Truth, known as Brahman, is formless and that bhakti is at best a ladder that can help us come close to realizing the formless, nameless Brahman. They maintain that the path of bhakti is temporary and is merely a product of illusion (maya). Because they declare God and this world to be maya, these philosophers are called Mayavadis. And because they dismiss the personal aspect of God, they are also referred to as impersonalists, and their teaching, impersonalism.
Ramanujacharya, coming after Sankaracharya, broadened the scope of Vedic teachings. He taught that bhakti is eternal. It’s not simply a means to God; it’s also an end in itself because it entails an active relationship with God. Service to God and His devotees is an integral part of bhakti.
Ramanuja presented God as a person, a sentient being with whom anyone can establish a loving relationship. He also broke the rigid caste barriers of his time and embraced people from all walks of life into the bhakti fold. He thereby made relationship with God not only a tangible reality, but also accessible to all.
Four Prominent Schools of Bhakti
In the bhakti tradition there are four prominent schools, and Sri Vaishnavism, led by Ramanuja, is one of them. This school maintains that the Lord Himself imparted the bhakti knowledge to His consort Lakshmi (Sri), and in the disciplic line the legacy was passed to Ramanujacharya.
The other three schools of bhakti:
Brahma – The Lord first imparted transcendental knowledge to Brahma, and then in a chain of disciplic succession it passed down to Madhvacharya. In recent times, the ISKCON movement, established by Srila Prabhupada, follows the same tradition.
Kumara – The four Kumaras learned the spiritual science from the Lord, and one of their foremost teachers was Nimbarkacharya.
Rudra – Vishnusvami was prominent in this school, which traces back to Lord Shiva, and centuries after Vishnusvami, Vallabhacharya became the foremost teacher in the tradition.
Ramanuja’s Devotion in Childhood
The story of Ramanujacharya begins years before his birth. A stalwart devotee of Lord Vishnu named Yamunacharya desired that the message of love for God should spread far and wide. He fervently prayed for a successor who would spearhead this movement. Through his divine vision he realized that the young boy Ramanuja would carry forward this tradition of loving devotional service.
Yet Yamunacharya saw a serious challenge to this prospect: the prevalent philosophy of impersonalism was so deeply rooted in the society that even the prodigious Ramanuja was enrolled in the school (gurukula) of a prominent Mayavadi, Sri Yadava Prakasha. How then would the bhakti movement spread? Yamunacharya chose patience; he waited for the right time and knew that things would soon fall in place.
While Yadava Prakasha taught the impersonal interpretation of the scriptures, young Ramanuja’s heart hankered to hear personal and devotional explanations. As a submissive student, he quietly tolerated the dry, speculative theories that were devoid of deep sentiments for Lord Vishnu – until one day when he could tolerate no further.
Yadava Prakasha relaxed as he lay on the floor and chanted verses from the Chandogya Upanishad while Ramanuja massaged the feet of his guru. Yadava Prakasha then babbled an offensive interpretation of a verse where he compared Lord Vishnu’s eyes to a monkey’s buttocks. Ramanuja’s fine devotional sentiments were hurt, and he felt furious, but being a humble student, he wouldn’t confront his teacher. He swallowed the pain, but his eyes brimmed with tears on hearing derogatory statements about his worshipable Lord. As he quietly continued to massage, hot tears from his eyes fell on the thigh of Yadava Prakasha, who rose with a start.
“You are crying?” asked Yadava Prakasha. “What’s wrong with you?”
Ramanuja fearlessly yet humbly replied, “Dear Gurudeva, your interpretations of this verse are not only insensitive to God but also wrong.”
Outraged by Ramanuja’s response, Yadava Prakasha challenged, “You arrogant fool; you think you are better than your own spiritual master?”
Ramanuja hung his head low.
The guru roared, “Let me see if you can offer a more cogent description.”
Ramanuja replied, “The verse says that Lord Vishnu’s eyes are kapyasam, and you translated the word literally, where kapi means a monkey and asam means buttocks. But this smacks of your insensitivity, because scriptures offer poetic descriptions of the Lord’s beauty. When you understand this mood, you will see the word differently. The word kapyasam also means ‘that which grows in water.’ Kapi can mean ‘that which swallows darkness,’ and asam can mean ‘blossom.’ What does the sun, which swallows darkness, cause to blossom? That’s a beautiful lotus that abundantly grows in lakes. Therefore to say that the Lord’s eyes are like kapyasam means they are like the beautiful petals of a lotus.”
The Lord Offers Protection
Yadava Prakasha was stunned to see Ramanuja’s clarity and devotion. Instead of celebrating his student’s talent, however, he felt threatened. He knew he had a rival in-house. Plotting to kill the young Ramanuja, he organized a pilgrimage to Kashi. The plan was to murder him on the way and then atone for the sin by bathing in the Ganga. Only a select few of Yadava Prakasha’s students knew of this evil design. But during the journey, Ramanuja’s cousin Govinda, who studied in the same school, learned of the plan and alerted Ramanuja. On a quiet night when the party rested in a forest, Ramanuja fled deep into the woods.
Once he had run a far distance away, he realized he was lost and surrounded by wild animals in a dangerous forest. Just then, out of nowhere, an effulgent and unusually attractive hunter couple, dressed in deerskin, appeared before him. Ramanuja was wonderstruck to see their majestic appearance. Instantly, devotional sentiments filled his heart, and tears swelled up in his eyes.
The hunter asked the young Ramanuja, “You seem to be lost in this forest, young man. Are you alone?”
“Not anymore,” Ramanuja replied, crying tears of joy.
The couple helped Ramanuja cross the forest. They walked the whole night, and during the journey Ramanuja’s love for his worshipable Lord Vishnu and His consort Mother Lakshmi grew a millionfold in his heart.
After a few hours, the man turned to Ramanuja and said they could all take rest for some time before continuing the journey. A little while later, Ramanuja woke up and to his astonishment discovered that the couple had disappeared and he was right outside the town of Kanchipuram. He realized the hunter couple was none other than his worshipable Lord Varadaraja (Vishnu) and Goddess Lakshmi. He ran to the temple of Varadaraja and offered prayers of gratitude and love. He was now under the shelter and protection of his Lord.
Strains in Relations with Yadava Prakasha
Meanwhile Yadava Prakasha and his students woke up to discover Ramanuja was missing. Govinda spun a yarn. He said he had seen a wild boar chase Ramanuja, who had drowned in the river. Yadava Prakasha feigned sadness, but internally rejoiced at the news. Further, he considered that he had been saved from committing the sin of murder. Happily he returned to Kanchipuram.
Soon, however, he discovered that Ramanuja was alive. Ramanuja even resumed his studies in Yadava Prakasha’s school. He explained to his teacher how he was saved by someone in the river and had returned to Kanchipuram safely.
While Ramanuja humbly continued to serve his spiritual master, Yamunacharya returned to find Ramanuja. Again he saw that Ramanuja was serving a Mayavadi guru, and he left, realizing the time was still not right. He continued to pray to Lord Vishnu to release Ramanuja from the clutches of this deviant guru. He fervently desired that Ramanuja would spread the Sri Vaishnava teachings.
During this time, the daughter of the king fell seriously sick. She was haunted by a ghost, and her fits and pain caused great anguish to her parents. After trying all conventional methods, they called for the respected guru Yadava Prakasha to exorcise the ghost. As soon as the ghost saw him, he screamed that he would never leave the princess’s body and Yadava Prakasha wouldn’t be able to try any of his powers because he lacked spiritual potency. The ghost within the body of the girl declared loudly, for everyone to hear, that he’d leave the body only if he got the water that had washed the feet of the saintly Ramanuja.
While Yadava Prakasha was shocked, the king excitedly sent for Ramanuja, who humbly did what was asked of him. The ghost vanished. The news soon spread far and wide. Ramanuja’s devotional stature was now confirmed. Yadava Prakasha, however, felt humiliated.
Soon Ramanuja and Yadava Prakasha’s relations became strained. The gurukula saw intense philosophical debates between the guru and the disciple. Meanwhile Ramanuja’s popularity soared; his devotional interpretations had many takers, and Yadava Prakasha was losing popularity and goodwill.
The two finally, officially, separated one day after a showdown in a public program. During their discourse, Yadava Prakasha quoted the famous Chandogya Upanishad verse (3.1) sarvam khalv idam brahma and gave it an impersonal interpretation. He said that everything in the creation, and the universe itself, is Brahman – God, or the Absolute Truth. There is nothing more to reality.
Ramanuja humbly protested. On being challenged, he qualified the verse by saying that the universe rests within Brahman but by itself is not Brahman. It is pervaded by Brahman. Just as a fish is born in the water and lives and dies in the water, similarly the universe is created, sustained, and dissolved within Brahman; the universe itself is not Brahman. Just as the fish belongs to water but doesn’t become water, similarly the universe is within Brahman, but it is not Brahman.
Ramanuja’s sound logic didn’t go well with Yadava Prakasha. In a desperate attempt to salvage his pride, he roared another verse from the scriptures.
“The Katha Upanishad (4.11) says neyam nanasti kincana, and this confirms that there is no distinction between the individual souls and God. We are all identical to God and the Absolute Truth.”
Immediately Ramanuja countered, “This verse doesn’t say that we are equal to God; it only says that the soul and God are connected. Pearls are strung together in a necklace. Although all of them are similar, each has a distinct reality, and they have a common connection with the thread. Likewise everything in the universe shares the common connection with Brahman. Yet each aspect of this creation has a distinct identity and reality.”
Yadava Prakasha was livid. Ramanuja quietly left the ashram; he had now rejected his guru.
Breaking Caste Barriers
Ramanuja’s mother, seeing the turn of events, suggested he take shelter of Kancipurna, a devout lover of Lord Varadaraja. She reasoned that Kancipurna’s association would soothe his heart and nourish his bhakti sentiments. Ramanuja leapt at this sagacious advice. Ramanuja, although born in a high-caste brahmana family, accepted Kancipurna, a lower-caste devotee, as his spiritual master. This was socially unconventional; brahmanas never took lessons from those lower in the social hierarchy. Yet Ramanuja saw devotional substance, and by his actions declared boldly that all other considerations didn’t matter.
But Kancipurna refused to accept Ramanuja under his tutelage.
“I’m a lowborn shudra,” he cried, “and you are a great devotee of God. I’m not qualified to be your teacher.”
His humble disposition only intensified Ramanuja’s determination to accept him as his guru. Finally Kancipurna relented and engaged the great scholar Ramanuja in the menial service of carrying water for Lord Varadaraja. Daily Ramanuja offered various simple services to the Lord and heard and chanted the Lord’s glories in the association of his spiritual master, Kancipurna. Ramanuja’s heart churned with ever deeper and more intense emotions for Krishna.
Meanwhile, Yamunacharya, who lived at Srirangam, turned old and weak. He learned that Ramanuja was now under the guidance of the great devotee Kancipurna. Yamunacharya was delighted; he declared that Ramanuja was now ready to spread the message of bhakti all over. He sent his trusted disciple Mahapurna to Kanchipuram to fetch Ramanuja. Yamunacharya desired to meet Ramanuja, for he felt his own departure was now imminent. He wanted to offer some final instructions to him to carry forward the legacy.
Mahapurna met Ramanuja, and they rushed to Srirangam.
Ramanuja Makes a Vow
On arrival, they discovered the great Yamunacharya had already left this world; his followers surrounded his transcendental body and cried in grief. Ramanuja felt devastated. As he entered the assembly, a hushed silence filled the room. He came close to Yamunacharya’s body, which lay with three of his right-hand fingers closed.
Ramanujacharya loudly proclaimed a vow before the dead body of his revered Yamunacharya.
“O great teacher, I vow today that I shall dedicate my life to fulfill three of your wishes. I shall teach the universal message of surrender to the Lord in pure bhakti.”
No sooner did Ramanuja say this than one of Yamunacharya’s fingers opened.
To the astonishment of the devotees gathered around, Ramanuja spoke his second vow.
“I promise I shall write a detailed commentary on the devotional poems of the Alvars (the great devotees of South India).”
Yamunacharya’s second finger opened. It was now obvious that these were his unfulfilled desires, and Ramanuja was promising to fulfill them.
“I promise I shall write a Sri Vaishnava commentary on the Vedanta-sutra,” said Ramanuja, “and reestablish the position of Vedavyasa and Parashara Muni.”
Immediately the third finger of the great saint opened. Thus it was established that Ramanujacharya was the chosen one; he’d now carry forward the legacy of the Sri Vaishnava tradition.
After Yamunacharya’s final rites were performed, Ramanujacharya returned to the devotional association of Kancipurna. Soon after, he accepted sannyasa, the renounced order of life, and spread the bhakti movement all across India.
Vraja Vihari Dasa, a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami, has served full time at ISKCON Chowpatty since 1999. He has an honors degree in economics and a master’s in international finance. He teaches Krishna consciousness to youth and the congregation and has written four books. You can read his daily reflections at www.yogaformodernage.com.