Ramanuja (1017 – 1137 C.E.) was a south Indian philosopher who helped to consolidate the Visistadvaita Vedanta (qualified non-dualism) School of Hindu philosophy and is renowned as a saint by the Sri Vaisnava branch of Hinduism. Whereas previous Hindu philosophers, such as Shankara, had focused on introspective wisdom (jnana) at the expense of devotion (bhakti), Ramanuja’s philosophical writings bolstered the intellectual rationale for devotional practice within Hinduism, and realigned Hindu philosophy with the type of theism practiced by the majority of Hindus. Ramanuja can be credited with spreading the doctrine of Vaishnavism (worship of Vishnu) and making it more popular. During his travels, it is said that he also started 74 Visistadvaita centers throughout India. Today, Ramanuja remains one of the greatest figures in Indian philosophy, renowned for astute synthesis of ardent devotion with intense intellectual inquiry.
Ramanuja was born in 1017 C.E. to Brahmin parents in Sri Perumbudur, Tamil Nadu, India. According to Hindu legend, his parents prayed for a son, and it is said that the Hindu god Vishnu incarnated himself as Ramanuja. As a child, Ramanuja demonstrated an aptitude for philosophy, and his mother sent him to Kanchipuram to study with Yadavaprakasa, a renowned Advaitic scholar who followed the teachings of Shankara. Though Ramanuja excelled as a student of philosophy, he refused to accept the Advaitic assertion that worship of Isvara, or god in personal form, was an inferior path to inner reflection (jnana). He also did not accept Shankara’s viewpoint that the material world is an illusion (maya) resulting from ignorance (avidya). Yadavaprakasa was concerned about Ramauja’s preference for bhakti, and according to one tradition, began to view the young Ramanuja as a threat and plotted to kill him. However, it is said that Ramanuja learned of the plot and escaped with the help of another disciple.
Thereafter, Ramanuja traveled around India to spread his philosophical ideas. Yamunacharya, a prominent Visistadvaita scholar, had heard about Ramanuja, and decided he would be a suitable successor as a leader of the Visistadvaita School. Yamunacharya sent his disciple, Makapurna, to bring Ramanuja to him. However Yamunacharya had passed away by the time Makapurna and Ramanuja reached him. Anticipating Ramanuja’s arrival, he left Ramanuja with the responsibility of fulfilling three duties: to spread the doctrine of complete surrender to God as the pathway to enlightenment (moksha); to write a commentary on the Brahma-Sutra; and to spread the names of the sages Sathkopa and Parasara, important figures in the Visistadvaita School. Traditionally, Yamunacharya’s corpse held three fingers straight to symbolize these three duties, and Yamunacharya’s hand is said to have closed when Ramanuja took a vow to fulfill these duties.
Following this vow, Ramanuja renounced the world and began life as an ascetic. He traveled around India to Rameswaram in the south of India, Badrinath and the Ganges in the north, and along the east coast. Ramanuja also traveled to Kashmir to read the Brahma-sutra and wrote a commentary on this work, known as the Sribhasya. It is said that Ramanuja converted many Jains, and encouraged a return to bhakti (worship) among Hindu philosophers. According to tradition, his former guru, Yadavaprakasa was so impressed with Ramanuja’s devotion that he became a disciple and was renamed Govindadasa. Ramanuja can be credited with spreading the doctrine of bhakti, particularly Vaishnavism (worship of Vishnu), and with providing an adroit philosophical basis for the practice of bhakti. During his travels, he also started 74 Visistadvaita centers.
Ramanuja’s teachings helped to bolster the Visistadvaita Vedanta School of Hindu philosophy. Many of his arguments were formulated against Shankara’s rival school of Advaita Vedanta, with which he disagreed on many levels.
Both Ramanuja and Shankara's systems of Vedanta were predicated on their respective interpretations of the Upanishads and Brahmasutra Bhasya. Since the heterogeneous Upanishads presented inconsistent views on God, containing contradictory passages about the unity and diversity of Brahman, it is not surprising that Ramanuja and Shankara developed different perspectives on Brahman. Whereas Shankara attempted to reconcile the conflicting Upanishadic passages by positing two levels of reality (nirguna and saguna Brahman), Ramanuja, in contrast, postulated three interrelated theories to account for the unity and diversity of Brahman: (1) the "Body of God" doctrine, (2) co-ordinate predication (samanadhikaranya), and (3) the body-inner-controller relationship (sarira-sariri bhava). Each of these theories will be briefly explained below.
Ramanuja boldly stated in his Vedarthasamgraha text, "The scriptures declare the glory of Brahman by saying that Brahman has the whole universe as its body" (Verse 81). According to Ramanuja, the universe is made up of souls (jiva), matter (jagat), and Brahman. He asserted that souls and matter are entirely dependent on Brahman, and qualify Brahman's existence. Thus, the whole universe is the body of God, which consists of two modes: finite souls and matter. The relationship between these two modes is inseparability (aprathaksiddi). Consequently, Ramanuja's system of thought is called Visistadvaita (qualified non-dualism), because Brahman is allegedly qualified (visesya) by souls (cit) and matter (acit). Such qualities (visesanas) are distinct from God yet constitute interrelated modes of God's body.
Ramanuja used the concept of co-ordinate predication to show how two aspects of Brahman can be distinct from each other yet inseparable. For example, the phrase "green tree" is an example of co-ordinate predication. The latter is a substance while the former is an attribute. In the same way, the universe, while distinct from Brahman, is still a part of Brahman—it is an attribute and not an independent principle capable of functioning on its own. In other words, the universe is dependent on, and inseparable from God.
Ramanuja taught that souls and matter are utterly dependent on Brahman for their existence. Brahman is the supreme Soul who is present in all finite souls and matter. Brahman dwells in the souls unrecognized and unknown until liberation (moksha) is reached. During liberation, the finite souls realize their divine nature but do not become identical with God—Brahman and souls remain distinct yet inseparable.
Both his Vedarthasamgraha and Sri Bhasya writings contain lengthy expositions of the "body-inner-controller" relationship (Sarira-sariri-bhava). Ramanuja focuses on passages in the Upanishads that describe Brahman as the inner-controller of all matter (acit) and finite souls (cit). He states that Brahman is both the inner-controller (sariri) and inner-ruler (antaryamin) present in all souls and matter. The world or matter is not simply an illusion, but is real and a part of Brahman. To deny the separate existence of matter, as Advaita Vedanta does, is to deny the glorious creation of Brahman. However, this concept in Ramanuja's thought accounts for both the transcendence and immanence in the nature of Brahma, for though Brahman is found in every soul as the inner-ruler (antaryamin), Brahman also transcends souls that depend on Him. Thus, Ramanuja asserts the utter dependency of the body and soul on God (the inner-controller).
Finally, Ramanuja taught that God's grace is available to anyone regardless of caste or gender distinctions so long as they fully and genuinely devote themselves to the Lord. He claimed specifically that self-surrender (prapatti) to Vishnu is the key to spiritual liberation. Like Christian theology, Ramanuja insisted that humans are unable to be saved by their own efforts, and they require the grace of God. Such grace becomes available to souls who completely surrender themselves to God acknowledging their full dependence on him. In return, Brahman enables these souls to achieve moksha through his grace. Ramanuja believed that the pathway to enlightenment (moksha) is not realizing the oneness of Atman and Brahman through merging with Brahman, but by complete self-surrender to Brahman through the theistic worship of Lord Vishnu or Isvara where one retains one's distinct identity as lover and beloved.
Ramanuja's Criticisms of Shankara
Ramanuja argued that Shankara's interpretation of the Upanishads had serious errors. His major objections were fourfold: (1) He argued that Brahman was differentiated rather than undifferentiated consciousness; (2) He argued that Shankara's concept of nirguna Brahman was untenable and fallacious; (3) He argued that beginningless karma, rather than superimposition, was the cause of avidya; and (4) He argued that Shankara's view of avidya-maya had seven major inconsistencies and flaws. In particular, Ramanuja did not accept the existence of avidya, because if Brahman were omnipresent and non-dual then it would be impossible for an opposing force such as avidya to exist. Moreover, if the world and everything in it was truly an illusion, as Shankara contended, then all religious scriptures must also logically be illusionary, which contradicts Shankara's assertion that the Vedic scriptures resonate with truth. For these and other reasons, Ramanuja rejected Shankara's doctrines of maya (illusion) and avidya (ignorance).
Nine writings have been authoritatively attributed to Ramanuja. His most famous work, the Sribhasya, is a commentary on the Brahma-sutra from the perspective of a bhakti practitioner. He also wrote several works that describe his own philosophy in detail (Vedantasara, Vedantapida, and Vedarthasamgraha), a commentary on the Bhagavad Gita (Gitabhasya), a manual of daily worship (Nityagrantha), and several hymns (Saranagatigadya, Vaikunthagadya, and Srirangagadya).
Impact and Subsequent Schools
Ramanuja has had a great impact on Hinduism and Indian philosophy. His ideas provided a respectful philosophical basis for bhakti, thus aligning philosophy with the form of religion practiced by the majority of Hindus. Ramanuja can also be credited with spreading Vaishnavism (worship of Vishnu) to the Indian population, and in particular for inspiring the emergence of two subsequent schools known as the northern Vadakalai School, and the southern Tenkalai School, founded by Vedanta Deshika and Manavalamamuni, respectively. These two later schools differed on several interpretations of Ramanuja’s philosophy. The most significant point of contention concerned the role of prapatti (surrender to God). According to the Vadakalai School, following the rituals prescribed in the Vedas is essential to proper worship. However, the Tenkalai School concerns itself with following the example of the 12 Tamil Vaishnava saints (Alvars), renowned for their devotional poetry dedicated to the Hindu deity, Vishnu. Thus, for the Tenkalai School, the act of devotion itself is considered to be more important than the rituals surrounding it. Additionally, both schools hold that the grace of Brahman is required to achieve liberation. The Vadakalai School believes that grace is conditional, based on the effort of the individual. Therefore, an individual’s liberation is a cooperative effort between the individual and Brahman. This school is known as the “monkey school,” because as a baby monkey has to make an effort and cling onto its mother to be protected, so must human beings make an effort to attain liberation. The Tenkalai School believes that liberation is dispensed freely at the discretion of Brahman, and it will be granted to an individual when they are ready to receive it. Thus, liberation is solely the responsibility of Brahman. This school is known as the “cat school” because as a kitten is protected by its mother without any effort on the part of the kitten, so Brahman will grant liberation to human beings without effort on the part of the individual.
- Bartley, C. J. The Theology of Ramanuja. RoutledgeCurzon, 2002. ISBN 0700714596
- Carman, John. Majesty and Meekness: A Comparative Study of Contrast and Harmony in the Concept of God. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994. ISBN 0802806937
- Gupta, A. S. A Critical Study of the Philosophy of Ramanuja. Varanasi, India: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series, 1967.
- Lipner, Julius. The Face of Truth: A Study of the Meaning and Metaphysics in the Vedantic Theology of Ramanuja. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1986. ISBN 0887060390
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