Sri Bhagavad Ramanuja
Ramanuja was the leading expounder of Visishtadvaita, one of the classical interpretations of Vedanta. Born exactly a thousand years ago, he practiced equality among people irrespective of caste and creed. He established Vaishnavism on a strong foundation. He propounded Visishtadvaita philosophy. According to his teachings the only way to salvation is by total and unconditional surrender to Bhagvan. He encouraged the general population toward following a committed and sincere religious life and most importantly to worship of Sriman Narayana. Here is the Life Story of this Great Saint and Philosopher who is nothing but God Himself to millions of people.
Birth Of Sri Ramanuja
In Sriperumbudur, a small village about 50 kms from chennai, lived a pious couple, Asuri Kesavacharya and his wife Kantimati. They were leading a happy and peaceful life. Upon performing yagas and special pujas towards Lord Parthasarathy in the temple located at Tiruvallikkeni, Chennai, in April 1017, they were blessed with a boy baby. Kantimati had a brother called Periya Tirumalai Nambi, and a sister called Mahadevi. Around the same time that Kantimati gave birth to a child, Mahadevi also had a baby. When Periya Tirumalai Nambi, their brother visisted them, he saw Kantimati’s baby was born with several auspicious marks on his body similar to the ones Lord Rama’s brother Lakshmana had. Therefore he named him Ramanuja. (It is also believed that he was the incarnation of Adisesha, Vishnu’s serpent bed, just like Lakshmana was). A sloka in Yadavaachala Mahatmiyam states thus,
Ananthah Prathamam Roopam Lakshmanascha Tathah Parah |
Balabadram Thritheeyasthu Kalou Kaschit Bhavishyathi ||
Meaning: It is the same who was Adisesha first, Lakshmana next and Balarama in the third, who is born as Ramanuja in Kali yuga.
And he named Mahadevi’s child, Govinda. Both the children grew up with proper care and attention from their parents and uncle. They underwent all the rituals at appropriate ages and were initiated into religious studies.
Education Of Sri Ramanuja
As a student, Ramanuja was very brilliant. He could memorise and repeat the lesson by just hearing it once. He moved with good friends kept close to holy men and learnt a lot from them. His teachers liked him not only because of his intelligence and studious nature but also because he was very kind and courteous to everyone.
This way he continued his education and at the age of 16 Ramanuja got married. But just a few months after the marriage, Ramanuja’s father attained the lotus feet of Narayana (which means he passed away). Not wanting to live in Sriperumbudur anymore the couple along with his mother, moved to Kanchipuram which was a centre for religious education famed for its scholars and magnificient temples. It is home to Sri Varadaraja Perumal. A noble person by name Thirukachi Nambi who served at the temple of Kanchipuram had a great gift of conversing with Sri Varadaraja Perumal Himself. He became the guardian for Ramanuja and kept bringing messages from Bhagavan to Ramanuja at crucial times.
There lived a renowned Advaitic scholar Yadavaprakasa. Ramanuja became his disciple and learned the philosophy of Advaita ( non-dualism ) and other vedic literature. Yadavaprakasa was very happy to have him as a student. Although Ramanuja was not completely in agreement with Adi Sankara’s philosophy he still learnt it thoroughly under the guidance of Yadavaprakasa. But things did not stay the same for long. As Ramanuja grew up the differences of opinion between them also grew. Ramanuja voiced out his opinion very clearly which caused tremendous stress and irritation to Yadavaprakasa.
Experiences with Yadavaprakasa
Plot to kill Ramanuja
Once when Ramanuja was engaged in service to his guru, another disciple came up with doubt in one of the verses describing Bhagavan’s eyes. Yadavaprakasa gave a crude explanation comparing it to the behind of a monkey. This saddened Ramanuja very much. Tears filled his eyes and in a low but clear voice, he objected to this explanation given by his guru. Hearing that, Yadavaprakasa’s anger shot up. He snapped at Ramanuja saying, “If you know everything why don’t you be the guru and explain to this disciple?” Ramanuja then recited the sloka and with great humility and sincerity gave the following explanation. “Bhagavan’s eyes are like two lotuses that have just blossomed by the rays of the morning sun.”
There were several such instances where Ramanuja differed with Yadavaprakasa in the very foundation of the Advaita philosophy. Yadavaprakasa was highly disturbed by this. Ramanuja and his different interpretations of the Vedanta were both getting popular. This made his guru feel extremely humiliated, which at a point of time, even made him plan to kill Ramanuja. Along with his other loyal disciples, he made a plan to take a pilgrimage and on the way kill Ramanuja.
On an auspicious day, the pilgrimage started and when they reached the Vindya mountains, Yadavaprakasa decided that it was the right time to execute his plan and started working on it. Fortunately for Ramanuja, his cousin Govinda was also in the same gurukul. Somehow Govinda came to know about this plan and forewarned Ramanuja about it. He urged Ramanuja to escape into the forest nearby. As Govinda was his cousin and a trusted friend, Ramanuja took his advice. Not finding Ramanuja even after a long search, Yadavaprakasa and his disciples concluded that some animals must have killed him and made the job easier for them. Thinking so they left the camp.
In the forest, Ramanuja was rescued by a couple and was magically and safely brought back to Kanchipuram. It is believed that the couple was none other than (Sri Varadaraja Perumal and Perundevi tayar the presiding deities of Kanchipuram temple). His mother was relieved to see her son safe and sound. Ramanuja thanked Sri Varadaraja Perumal with all his heart for having saved his life.
He then resumed his work of spreading the Visishtadvaita philosophy. Yadavaprakasa and his disciples returned back after completing their pilgrimage. They were shocked to see Ramanuja alive. His discourses on Visishtadvaita philosophy was gaining more acceptance. As Ramanuja’s knowledge grew the differences between his guru and himself also grew in proportion. Still, Ramanuja continued as a disciple of Yadavaprakasa.
Driving away BramharAkshas
Once, the king who was ruling that place had a daughter who was suffering from a strange mental disorder as she was possessed by a BramharAkshas. His ministers suggested to the king that Yadavaprakasa is the one capable of curing the princess and therefore he was invited to the palace. Yadavaprakasa came to the palace along with all his disciples and with great confidence chanted a few mantras and ordered the BramharAkshas to leave the body of the princess. But the BramharAkshas spoke thus, “Oh guru !! I will not obey a mean person like you. There is one great soul among your disciples who is far more superior to anyone.” And pointing to Ramanuja, it further said, “If he ordered I will leave immediately.” Truthful to its words the BramharAkshas left the princess’s body when Ramanuja commanded it to do so. After a few such instances, Ramanuja left Yadavaprakasa’s gurukul. At that time. Thirukachi Nambi advised him to engage in service by bringing holy water for Sri Varadaraja Perumal every day from the temple well nearby. Ramanuja happily agreed and continued this service until he left Kanchipuram for Srirangam.
Srirangam, a temple town in Tiruchirapally district in TamilNadu, is were Lord Ranganatha resides lying on Adisesha and showering his blessings upon all his devotees. It is said that he is facing southwards implying that he is also watching over Srilanka, as a special blessing to Vibhishana who ruled Srilanka after his tyrant brother Ravana was killed by Lord Rama. There lived a great saint and guru, Yamunacharya who was respectfully called by everyone as Alavandar.
Getting Introduce to Yamunacharya
Let us see a little about Swamy Alavandar (Yamunacharya). He was the grandson of the great acharya Nathamuni. Born in the year 916, Alavandar was a child prodigy. Once he won over a rajpurohit by name AkkiAlwan, in a debate where the reward was half the kingdom. As promised, the Pandya king gave away half his kingdom to Alavandar. Though not many records are available, it is said that he enjoyed the aristocratic life until the time when Manakkal Nambi, (a trustworthy student of Uyyakkondar who was a disciple of Nathamuni), came to find him and took him away from the life filled with mundane matters, affluence, luxury and brought him back in the path to accomplish the religious goals set by Swamy Nathamuni. But like his grandfather, even Alavandar could not achieve the set goal of establishing the philosophy. In his old age as he was worried about finding the right person to appoint, who would work towards achieving the goal.
During that time he happened to hear about Ramanuja from two Brahmanas who came from Kanchipuram. Eventually, he sent one of his trusted disciples, Periya Nambi to go Kanchi and bring Ramanuja. Periya Nambi did not directly give the message. He saw Ramanuja fetching holy water from the temple well. Slowly he started reciting “Stotra Ratnam” a set of hymns rendered by Alavandar. Hearing it, Ramanuja was deeply touched by the meaning and so inquired about the author. Periya Nambi took the chance and told him all about Alavandar and his interest in Ramanuja. He also advised Ramanuja to go to Srirangam and pay his respects. This was not something Ramanuja would refuse to do.
Vowing to accomplish the goals set by Alavandar
Accepting the proposal Ramanuja went to seek permission from Sri Varadaraja Perumal and Thirukachi Nambi. After that, he left for Srirangam with Periya Nambi. Unfortunately before Ramanuja could reach, his guru Yamunacharya had attained the lotus feet of Bhagavan. A dejected Ramanuja noticed his guru’s three fingers were folded separately as if he were counting something. After some thought Ramanuja realized that his guru had left a mission for him to be completed and thus declared aloud, the following:
- I shall make all people know about our tradition and bring them with bhakti to the lotus feet of Narayana. As he said this, the grieving disciples around found one finger straightened. Then he vowed
- I shall write the Sri Bhashyam commentary on Vedanta-sutra to give the world true knowledge. At this, a second finger also folded. Now there was one last finger that remained folded. Ramanuja vowed for a third time, that as respect towards Parasara muni who had authored the great Vishnu Purana,
- He would name one deserving Vaishnava Parasara. When he finished his sentence, the third folded finger also straightened. Everyone around was amazed to see this.
Taking up Sanayasam
Very upset that he could not meet and take blessings from Alavandar, whom he had now accepted as his guru, like how Ekalaiva found a guru in Dronacharya, Ramanuja returned to Kanchipuram and continued his normal life. But he never stopped learning. He engaged himself in learning various Vedic and religious texts and also continued teaching his visishtadvaita philosophy. But destiny was working a different plan. His wife though a pious Vaishnava and a very well brought up brahmin lady, could not keep up with Swamy Ramanuja’s liberal attitude in terms of caste and his secular ideas. On a few occasions she happened to disrespect Ramanuja’s guests who were not brahmins. She also picked up a fight with Periya Nambi’s wife. But what caused the most impact was when she insulted Thirukkachi Nambi.
Once Ramanuja had invited Thirukkachi Nambi for lunch. After serving food, his wife threw away the rest of the food and prepared fresh food. When he returned home hoping to have lunch that had been offered to Thirukachi Nambi, Ramanuja was saddened by the fact that his wife had thrown away the remaining food. Considering it as the greatest insult to his guru, he left home and surrendered at the lotus feet of Kanchi Varadaraja Perumal. There he decided to renounce his life as a house-holder and took up Sanyasam. He was welcomed and instantly accepted by all the scholars and acharyas and was given the title “YatiRajan” (which means king of saints).
Yadavaprakasa becomes a disciple
Ramanuja’s disciples grew in number and there was a day when Yadavaprakasa’s mother happened to see Ramanuja and his followers. She felt that if her son was also a part of this great saint’s followers his life would be elevated. Thus she urged her son Yadavaprakasa to join Acharya Ramanuja. After long deliberation and a battle of thoughts in his mind, Yadavaprakasa finally realized the greatness of Ramanuja and the truth behind his philosophy. He lost his ego and threw himself at the feet of Yatirajan, and asked to be accepted as a disciple. Acharya embraced him with warm affection, granted him sanyasam and gave him the title “Govinda Dasa”.
Leaving Kanchipuram and assuming responsibility in Srirangam
While all these events were taking place, devotees in Srirangam had no one to guide them. With the blessings of Kanchi Varadaraja Perumal, Ramanuja decided to leave Kanchipuram and move to Srirangam along with a few of his loyal disciples. In Srirangam, he was readily accepted as their preceptor. But he never stopped learning. He was introduced to a great scholar Tirukkoshtiyur Nambi, from whom he was supposed to learn the most powerful mantra called “Tirumandiram”. But every time he visited, he was sent back saying he was not qualified yet to learn the mantra. Though he did not get the Tirumandiram, in every attempt he was taught one aspect of Sri Vaishnava tradition. At last in the eighteenth attempt, seeing his determination and sincerity, the acharya became ready to teach him Tirumandiram, but on one condition. He prohibited Ramanuja from revealing it to anyone. Especially not to the ones who do not have a systematic disciplined way of life. He said the eight-syllable mantra was the most powerful one, by chanting which a person could attain the highest of rewards which is Moksha (salvation).
Having learned the mantra Ramanuja paid his respects and was on his way back. He was very happy for a reason. His naturally generous self did not
allow him to keep this precious mantra for himself. Being a selfless person, always thinking about ways to lift the common people from the depths of the mundane matters and bring them to the path of bhakti and self-realization, he has now found a way. He immediately climbed atop the tower of the Vishnu temple in Tirukkoshtiyur and began calling out to all the people passing by. He told them that he had a precious jewel to offer them. Being attracted by the words people started collecting near the tower. Within a short time, the whole city gathered eagerly to see what Ramanuja had to give them. On seeing such a huge crowd Ramanuja’s heart swelled with joy. He then said, “All of you are dear to me. Today I have obtained a powerful mantra which can relieve you of all the pain caused by birth and death cycle. Repeat the mantra after me and I promise it will get you the highest reward which is Moksha”. Hearing this the people shouted back to him, Please give us the mantra we want to be cut off from this bondage.
Then Yairaja called out in a deep resounding voice, the Tirumandiram he had just received “om namo narayanaya“. Immediately the crowd responded, everyone, calling out the sacred words together, producing a sound like thunder. Ramanuja repeated it and the crowd became ecstatic. They repeated after Ramanuja and had a divine experience. It felt as if all the miseries vanished from the face of the earth. The people who came running expecting to get gold and jewels, forgot what they came for and were rejoicing in the soothing effect of the mantra.
But there was one person who was not happy at all. It was the guru who taught him the mantra. He was unhappy because despite warning him against giving the mantra away, Ramanuja had gone ahead and given it to the entire city. He told in an angry voice that Ramanuja would suffer in hell for having gone against the words of his guru. But without any sign of remorse, Ramanuja replied to his guru in a most humble manner, saying, “It was only because I am prepared to suffer in hell that I dared to go against your order. You told me that whoever chanted the mantra of eight syllables was certain to be liberated. Thus, according to your words, so many people are now destined to find shelter at Lord Narayana’s lotus feet. If an insignificant person like me has gone to hell, it is of no great importance if so many others can thereby attain Moksha”. On hearing these words, which revealed the depth of Ramanuja’s compassion, the guru was completely stunned and filled with great wonder. All his anger faded away and he embraced Ramanuja with great affection.
Cousin Govinda got the name “EMBAR”
Ramanuja’s service to promote SriVaishnava tradition grew day by day and he established a system at Srirangam temple which is called “Koilozhugu” to perform the daily rituals and procedures to run the temple. This is followed even today. He had also sent word for his cousin Govinda to come to Srirangam. After Govinda joined as a disciple of Ramanuja he was given the name “EMBAR” and stayed with Acharya till the end. Writing SriBhAshyam and fulfilling the other two promises Ramanuja then set upon the task of fulfilling the promises he made to Alavandar. He set his mind on writing commentary for Bramhasutra. But before attempting that task he wanted to read the book written by Sage Bodhayana. The book was called Bodhayana Vritti Grantha. He recalled that there was only one copy of this available at the Sarada Peetham in Kashmir. He along with his closest disciple and confidante, Kooratthazhwan fondly called Kuresa, set a journey to Kashmir to get a copy of Bramhasutra. They walked for 3 months continuously and finally reached Sarada peetham. The scholars had good discussions and debates with Ramanuja. They were deeply moved by Ramanuja’s knowledge and treated him as an honored guest. But when they came to know the reason for Ramanuja’s visit they refused to part with the book. It is said that Devi Sarada herself came and handed over the book to Ramanuja. But on the way back they were attacked by some miscreants and the book was lost. Fortunately, Kuresa had the great gift of memory. He could reproduce the entire text after just reading it once. On their journey back home, every night when they rested, Kuresa did not waste time. He had read the book thoroughly and remembered each and every sloka. With his help, Ramanuja wrote a detailed commentary on Bramhasutra. This is called SriBhAshyam. In admiration and approval of his work, Goddess Sarawati conferred upon him the title “Bhashyakarar”.
He chose seventy-four of the best of his disciples and appointed them as simhasanadipathis (pontiffs) to spread Sri Vaishnava tradition. To keep the last promise, he named the child of Kooratthazhwan as “Parasara Bhatta”.
Swamy then set out on a pilgrimage. When he reached Tirumala there was a controversy about the identity of the presiding deity. Some said it was Shiva, Some said it was Subramanya or Devi. The king had announced an open debate. Ramanuja suggested that they leave the insignia of all the deities, and the Lord would choose the correct ones. Next morning to the surprise of all, the deity was wearing Shanka and Chakra. It was then proclaimed to be the form of Vishnu. Swamy Ramanuja was given full authority in setting up the procedure for worship. He then established the system of puja procedures which is followed till date.
Persecution of Srivaishanava and journey to Karnataka
Around that time, the Chola king, Krimikanda Chola, started the cruel persecution of Srivaishanavas. Followers of Ramanuja insisted that the Acharya moved away from Srirangam to a safe place. Following this Ramanuja moved to Karnataka. At Thirunarayanapuram, (Melkote), he salvaged the Narayana Vigraha (idol), which was lost and buried under a termite hill and installed the same in the temple. He also came to know that RamaPriyan, the Utsava Murthy ( the small replica of the main deity used for taking out on procession), was also missing and that it was taken away to Delhi by a Sultan. Ramanuja traveled all the way to Delhi and brought him back to Melkote with the consent of the king. Check the Melkote temple in Temples Of India.
He set up a separate sannidhi for utsava murthy, something which is not found commonly in other temples. He also systematized the puja procedures in the temple. But there was a bar on people considered to be of lower caste from entering the temple. He arranged for special entry for them and called them ‘tirukkulattar’ meaning people of sacred caste. Swamy Ramanuja was the foremost social reformer. He stayed in Melkote for 12 years.
In the meantime, Koorattazhwan, in a bid to protect his Acharya, wore Ramanuja’s clothes and went to face the Chola king. His eyes were brutally burnt as ordered by the king. There is also a version that says, Kurattazhwan felt it humiliating to be punished by this Chola king so he plucked his eyes out even before the king’s servants could hurt him. (Later Ramanuja prayed for his eyes to be restored and it happened so). Sooner than Chola king died a very pathetic death due to very bad bacterial infection (thus the name Krimikanda Chola).
After twelve years, Acharya returned to Srirangam and continued his efforts to spread Srivaishanava tradition. He lived for 120 years and attained Vaikuntam from Srirangam.
Few Major Works Of Sri Ramanujacharya
Before departing he gave the following three instructions to his dear disciples which are followed sincerely by every devotee.
- Always remain in the company of good people who are devoted to Lord Narayana and serve them.
- Have faith in the teachings of the Vedas and in the words of great saints.
- Never become slaves of your senses. Conquer the three main enemies: anger, lust and greed and always strive to be immersed in thoughts of Bhagavan.
With these departing words, Acharya Ramanuja breathed his last on the lap of his cousin Govinda (who was known as Embar) and entered Vaikuntam.
Names Of Swamy Ramanuja
The great saint Swamy Ramanuja is also known by the following names
- Thiruppavai Jeeyar
Works of Sri Ramanuja
- Sri Bhashyam – a detailed commentary on the Vedanta Sutras known as Badarayana Sutra.
- Gita-Bhashyam – a detailed commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita.
- Vaikunta Gadyam – Describing the realm of Vaikuntam and the position of Atmas on reaching there.
- Sriranga Gadyam – A song of Saranagathi which means total surrender to Bhagavan.
- Saranagathi Gadyam – An imaginary dialogue between Ramanuja and the divine couple Sriman Narayana and Lakshmi, requesting Lakshmi thayar to recommend Bhagavan to give him Moksha. Eventually, they agreed.
- Vedartha Sangraha – A Treatise presenting the tenets of Visishtadvaita.
- Vedanta Sara – Another brief commentary on the Vedanta Sutras.
- Vedanta Dipa – Another commentary to Sri Bhashyam.
- Nithya Grantha – A manual about day to day activities to be followed by Srivaishnavas.
Related Places to Visit
- Kanchipuram Sri Varadaraja Perumal Temple
- Sriperumbudur temple
- Thirukkoshtiyur temple
- Thirupathi temple
- Melkote temple
- Kashmir Sarada Peetham