Chief exponent of the Vishishtadvaita school of Vedanta and a great social reformer. "If I can bring deliverance to so many, I do not mind being condemned to hell," he said, and spread his spiritual message to even the lowliest of classes of people. He established the Yatiraja Math and the
Cheluva narayana swami temple at Melkote in Karnataka, and also renovated many ancient temples. He wrote many philosophical works and preached the oneness of mankind.
Author - 'Raghusuta'
The worshippers of Vishnu are 'Vaishnavas'. They devoutly worship Sri Rama and Sri Krishna, the incarnations of Vishnu. 'Sri' is Lakshmi. The devotees worship Mother Lakshmi and through her they try to propitiate Lord Vishnu. These devotees are the Srivaishnavas and they follow the tenets of Vishishtadvaita.
It was the Alwars, the Vaishnava devotees of Tamilnadu, who widely popularized the Srivaishnava religion. They lived between the sixth and the ninth centuries of the Christian era. They were twelve in number. They did not have any caste distinctions. These Vaishnava devotees were drawn from all castes of the Hindu religion. Today all of them are worshipped by the Srivaishnavas.
The tradition of the Acharyas began after the Alwars. 'Acharya' means a teacher. Among them Yamunacharya
was foremost. The next in succession was Ramanujacharya. It was he who provided a good framework to the Bhakti cult. He gave a comprehensive form to the tenets of Vishishtadvaita. He propounded a philosophy, which could command a universal following
Yamunacharya was also called Alawandar'. Srishailapurna was his disciple. The latter had two sisters, the elder of whom was Bhudevi. She was the wife of Asuri Keshavacharya, also called Keshava Perumal. Bhudevi and Keshavacharya lived in a temple at Sri Perambudur, about thirty miles away from Madras. Ramanuja, their only son, was born in A.D. 1017. Sridevi was Shailapurana's younger sister. She was the wife of Kusumanayana Bhatta. A boy called Govinda was born of this couple exactly at the same time as Ramanuja was born. These two continued to live in amity till the end of their life, and had great mutual affection.
Ramanuja was a bright child. Since he resembled Sri Rama's brother ('anuja') Lakshmana, he was called Ramanuja or Rama's brother.
The boy Ramanuja was very smart. If he read or listened to his lessons even once, he could always remember them. Naturally the teachers came to like him. They were very fond of him. He learnt the Vedas and the Vedangas even as a child.
He had his sacred thread ceremony at the right time. When Ramanuja was about sixteen years old he married a girl called Rakshambal who appears to have been known also as Tanjamma. After a few days, his father Keshavacharya died. This caused bitter sorrow to Ramanuja. With his wife and mother he left for Kanchipuram and settled there. Govinda followed them to Kanchipuram.
Ramanuja had not yet received all his lessons in Vedanta. He was on the lookout for the right' guru'. Yadavapraksha was one of the greatest scholars of those days. Ramanuja became his student.
Though he became a student, he did not relish the manner in which the teacher taught him. It would of course be wrong to find fault with one's teacher. But in Ramanuja's judgement, Yadavaprakasha was not explaining the texts properly. Ramanuja was in a dilemma.
One day the teacher was explaining some intricate sentence in the Chandogya Upanishad. The meaning of the passage as given by the teacher was rather crude. Ramanuja gave his own interpretation of the line. The teacher resented that the student had the temerity to debate a point with the teacher. He was even nervous that some day his student might steal a march over him. It happened that on another day, they were discussing a line in Taittiriya Upanishad. The teacher gave a faulty explanation. Ramanuja explained the line in his own way. The teacher should have felt happy with his student who had given such a brilliant exposition. Instead he became angry with him.
"Look here. If you are not satisfied with my way of teaching, you don't have to take any more lessons." The teacher spoke with obvious displeasure. Ramanuja went away without uttering a word. He was too full of respect for his teacher.
Who Saved Him?
His fellow students hated Ramanuja and wanted to get rid of him. The teacher and the students including Govinda and Ramanuja were all going on a pilgrimage to Varanasi. They approached the Vindhya Mountains. They were travelling through an impenetrable jungle when Yadava Prakasha and his other disciples hatched a plot to kill Ramanuja, Govinda somehow sensed it; he warned his brother and advised him to run for his life. Accordingly Ramanuja went away. The teacher and the other students frantically searched for him in the forest. They presumed that he had been killed by some wild animal and they proceeded on their way to Varanasi.
Ramanuja wandered wildly in the forest. He was tormented by hunger and thirst. There was also the fear of the wild animals. He prayed to God and slept under a tree. It was already nightfall when he awoke. He was not feeling hunger and thirst any longer. However it was not easy to find his way out from the wild forest.
Just then a man and a woman appeared on the scene. They were a hunter-couple. They felt sad when they heard the boy's tale of woe. Since they were also heading south, Ramanuja followed them.
It was already dark when they emerged from the jungle. They found a suitable place in the plain and rested for the night. Some time after midnight, the hunter’s wife said she was thirsty. Ramanuja got up and went in search of water. He fetched water from a far-off pond. The hunter's wife, after drinking it, asked for some more. When Ramanuja went back to the pond for more water, it was already daybreak.
Ramanuja surprised to find himself in the midst of familiar surroundings - temple towers, coconut trees and woods. He had unconsciously come back
He wondered how he had managed to come all the way here from the Vindhyas, and that in a single night. It must be the will of -the Almighty, he thought. He then guessed that the hunter-couple who had
accompanied him were none other than Lord Narayana and his consort Lakshmi.
He rushed back to the, place where the hunter-couple had stayed. They were no longer there.
Ramanuja was profoundly grateful to God. From that day onwards he made it a custom to carry water from the pond for the worship of God Varadaraja. Ramanuja took upon himself the responsibility of carrying the holy water every day.
Back To the Old Guru
Yadavaprakasha and his disciples returned to Kanchi from Varanasi. They feared that their evil designs had come to light. They were dismayed to find that Ramanuja had come back safely. But Ramanujaremained unperturbed and explained the divine intercession, which had enabled him to return to Kanchi in one night. The guru told Ramanuja to come back to him for continuing his lessons. Ramanuja's studentship was thus resumed.
The Lamp of the Future
In those days Yamunacharya was the leader of the Vishishtadvaita School. He had authored many learned works in Sanskrit on that school of philosophy. Mighty contributions yet remained to be made for the development of its tenets, but Yamunacharya was becoming very old. He was wondering who would continue the great tradition. He was then living in Sriranga. He had devoted himself to the worship of Lord Ranganatha. He used to hear now and then about Ramanuja. Once he happened to come to Kanchi. He saw Ramanuja when the latter was going in a crowd, and was much pleased. Ramanuja was tall, handsome and well built. He thought that Ramanuja was the right man for the task of guiding the Vishishtadvaita School. He prayed to God Varadaraja Swami that Ramanuja would be the
successor. That day was not tar off.
Ramanuja's guru continued to nurse his ill feeling towards his disciple. One day the teacher was explaining the Upanishadic line -Sarvam khalvidam brahma (God is everywhere). The explanation did not appeal to Ramanuja. He gave his own explanation. The teacher grew angry and told him unequivocally that he would not teach him any longer. Ramanuja was sad. He thenceforward spent all his time in the service of Lord Varadaraja.
"I Shall Fulfil Your Aspirations"
Yamunacharya came to know that Ramanuja had been estranged from Yadavaprakasha. His own end was drawing near. He told his student Mahapoorna to fetch Ramanuja from Kanchi. However, Yamuna died even before Ramanuja arrived.
Mahapoorna travelled day and night and reached Kanchi. He was fascinated by the magnificent personality of Ramanuja.
He explained to Ramanuja the condition of Yamunacharya. Ramanuja longed to see the great man. They came to Sriranga. They saw a crowd on the banks of the river Cauvery. People had assembled there for the funeral rites of the great Yamuna. Ramanuja was shocked. But he felt comforted that he was fortunate to see at least the dead body of the great man.
A miracle happened then. Ramanuja stood before the corpse and gazed at it. He observed that the three fingers of the right hand had been bent. He was told by disciples of the guru that the latter had left unfinished three important tasks in his life. Ramanuja took an oath that he would accomplish them. He vowed that he would propagate the Srivaishnava philosophy, that he would pay his tribute to Vyasa, Parashara and Nammalwar, and that he would write a commentary on Vyasa's Brahma Sutras. Even as he declared his vows, the three fingers of Yamunacharya got straightened one by one. It was clear that Sri Yamuna had blessed Ramanuja. It was also clear that Ramanuja would be the future torchbearer of the Srivaishnava tradition.
Learned Husband, Ignorant Wife
Ramanuja did not believe in the caste system. He disliked superstitions. The sage Kanchipoorna was a devotee of Lord Varadaraja. He was known to be a great man. He was not a brahmin. But Ramanuja accepted him as his guru and he used to prostrate before him. The guru had forbidden Ramanuja to greet him. But Ramanuja persisted since he always considered himself a disciple of Kanchipoorna.
It happened that once Ramanuja invited sage Kanchipoorna to a dinner at his house. He wanted to feed him and receive his blessings. The sage accepted the invitation and dinner was arranged. The sage knew that Ramanuia's wife was a very orthodox woman. So, he went to their house when Ramanuja was away to fetch the distinguished guest. Kanchipoorna dined at Ramanuja's house aid returned. Ramanuja's wife gave away the remaining food to some others; she cleaned the house, bathed and cooked fresh food for the family.
Ramanuja came back and realized what had happened. He was angry that his wife had denied him the opportunity
of receiving the blessings of the guru. Her narrow- mindedness disgusted him. She was incapable of understanding the noble feelings of Ramanuja, the great man who had taken birth for the welfare of mankind.
On another occasion a group of hungry people came to his doors. Ramanuja asked his wife to see if she could find some food in the house for them. She replied that there was no food to offer. Ramanuja became furious when he later came to know that she had told a lie.
Ramanuja Becomes "Yatiraja"
Whenever Ramanuja wanted solutions to any philosophical questions, he would refer them to Kanchipoorna. The latter would often find it difficult to answer the questions, since Ramanuja himself was a profound scholar. On such occasions he stood before the deify and appealed for answers. He conveyed back to Ramanuja the response he received from god. Ramanuja was most happy with the answers. These became the basic tenets of Vishishtadvaita.
Ramanuja left for Sriranga to meet his prospective guru Mahapoorna. At the same time Mahapoorna and his wife were on the way to Kanchi to persuade Ramanuja to take up the task left uncompleted by Yamunacharya. Their paths crossed and they both met on the way. Mahapoorna agreed to Ramanuja's guru. Ramanuja was taken to a place near a bakula tree, and after the preliminary rituals he was taught the philosophical intricacies of Vishishtadvaita. Ramanuja took his guru to Kanchi and kept him with him there.
For nearly six months Ramanuja served his master and learnt from him the inner esoteric meaning of the 'Nalayira' (four thousand) Prabandha compositions. He learnt the essence of Vishishtadvaita contained in those hymns.
Mahapoorna was not a brahmin. One day his wife was drawing water from the well, and inadvertently a few drops were splashed on the pitcher of Ramanuja's wife. The latter became angry that she had been polluted and started a row. Maha- poorna felt deeply hurt by her conduct. He decided to leave the place lest his presence create further estrangement between Ramanuja and his wife, and proceeded to Sriranga. Ramanuja came to know that his guru had left. His anger knew no bounds. How could he continue to live with such a wife? He cleverly dispatched her to her father's house and took to Sannyasa in the presence of Lord Varadaraja. Ramanuja thus became Yatriraja. His worldly bonds had been severed forever.
The news of Ramanuja's becoming a sannyasi spread everywhere. People came to see him in large numbers. Many were attracted by his brilliant personality and became his disciples. Among them were Ramanuja's nephew Dasarathi and Kooresha. His old guru Yadavaprakasha had by then repented for his past follies. When he came to know that a vast number of people went to call on Ramanuja, he too joined them. He met Ramanuja and he too was happy. Kooresha was able to find answers to many of the philosophical questions which were vexing Yadava- prakasha. He was thus converted into Srivaishnava faith and then onwards assumed the name 'Govinda Jeer'.
Although Ramanuja had no dearth of disciples, he felt the need of his brother Govinda. He was therefore brought to Kanchi from Kalahasti.
The disciples of Yamunacharya at Sriranga continued to think of Ramanuja. They sent their chief Vararanga in order to fetch Ramanuja to Sriranga. They propitiated the God at Sriranga and succeeded in taking Ramanuja to Sriranga.
Though Ramanuja preached hisphilosophy daily he felt that his knowledge was still incomplete. Therefore he once again approached Mahapoorna and learnt quite a few things from him. But ' Mahapoorna said: "There is a man called Goshtipoorna in Goshtipura, he is the only man who can further teach you the significance of Srivaishnava tenets."
"What If I Go To Hell ... ?"
Goshtipoora did not easily accord his benediction to Ramanuja. He was bent on testing the latter's fitness and devotion.
He often evaded Ramanuja saying he was busy and refused to meet him. At last he was convinced that Ramanuja was a deserving student. He told Ramanuja to approach him with his walking stick and Kamandalu. Ramanuja came accompanied by Dasarathi and Kooresha. "I told you to come alone. Why did you bring these two with you?" the guru asked. Ramanuja said: "Dasarathi is my walking stick and Kooresha is the Kamandalu. I just cannot survive without them." Goshtipoorna was deeply touched by Ramanuja's affection for his disciples.
He taught Ramanuja the significance of the 'ashtakshari' hymn: "Since those who recite it will find god realization, you should be discriminating while teaching it," he said.
But Ramanuja did not like such invidious distinctions between man and man. He wanted that every one should profit by such divine knowledge.
Next day he climbed the temple tower and summoned all the residents of the town. He spread broadcast to them all the mystical knowledge he had learnt. He made them repeat the hymn and then explained the meaning. People were elated with joy.
Goshtipoorna was wrathful when he heard all this. He asked Ramanuja if ever he knew what punishment would befall him for the crime he had committed. Ramanuja spoke calmly: I know I may have to go to hell for having defied my Guru. My action has brought happiness and deliverance to so many, and hence it does not matter even if I am condemned to everlasting perdition."
The words brought wisdom to Goshti-poorna. He realized that Ramanuja was a great man who had taken his birth only for the deliverance of the world. He called him 'My Lord and embraced him.
The Perfect Guru
The teachings of Yamunacharya had been distributed among his five disciples, namely Kanchipoorna, Mahapoorna, Goshtipoorna, Maladhara, and Vararanga. Ramanuja had received instruction at the hands of three of them. He was yet tomeet the remaining two' He went to Maladhara to learn the hymns of Nammalwar.
Maladhara was also known as Tirumalai Andan. Ramanuja sat at his feet to learn. The guru explained Nammalwar's 'Tiruvaimoli' in the light of the interpretation he had heard from the lips of Yamuna- charya. But Ramanuja tried to read even richer meaning into those songs. Maladhara was displeased. Goshtipooma also came to know of it, and tried to mollify the feelings of Maladhara. He assured him that Ramanuja was a great genius who had received the grace of his guru Yamuna- charya, and therefore the teacher should continue his lessons unmindful of the incidental irritation. Later Ramanuja received lessons for Vararanga on the Nalayira hymns.
The philosophical tenets of Yamunacharya which had remained fragmented were gathered together from various sources and codified by Ramanuja. Ramanuja thus became Paripooma ('complete') and his probation was over. He was in a position to disseminate the essentials of Srivaishnava religion among his contemporaries. He wrote the three classics called Gadya- traya, Nitya-grantha and Gita-bhashya. He exercised all his faculties in obtaining divine grace and sharing the fruits of his experience with his fellowmen.
After Ramanuja came to Sriranga, the stranglehold of the priests was released. But they felt frustrated and were waiting for a chance to avenge them by killing him. One day when Ramanuja was on his usual rounds to collect the day's alms, he was standing before the doorsteps of a house. The lady of the house came out to offer him alms. As soon as she saw the unusually brilliant eyes and graceful saintly face of the sannyasi, she began to shiver with fright. When Ramanuja asked her the reason for her strange conduct, she could not help confessing the truth before the great man. She had been instigated by her husband and his friends to poison the food that was to be offered to the sannyasi. Ramanuja threw the food into the river.
When the disciples came to know what had happened, they decided to cook the food themselves thereafter.
There lived a famous scholar called Yajnamurthy. He had defeated many opponents in philosophical disputes. He was a very insolent man, too. He came to Ramanuja in order to challenge him to a dispute. He came to Sriranga withcartloads of ancient tomes and a crowd of disciples. The arguments went on for eighteen days. It was a meeting of two equals. On the nineteenth day Ramanuja presented a line of argument based on Yamunacharya's works. The proud controversialist was humbled, and later he became a favorite disciple of Ramanuja. He became known as Devaraja-muni.
Thus Ramanuja's reputation extended far and wide. He wanted to visit holy places. Accompanied by his students he visited the places where once the 'Alwars' lived and he came to a village called Ashtasahasragrama. There he had two disciples-Yajnesha, a rich man, and Varadarya, a poor man. Ramanuja and his disciples visited the house of Varadarya for collecting alms for the day. They were cordially welcomed by the lady of the house. But there was little that the poor woman could offer to the guests. But Ramanuja admired her devotion. The other disciple was rich but somewhat insolent. He waited in vain for his guru the whole day. He realized his folly and went to his teacher. He fell at his feet and apologised. Ramanuja exhorted him to treat all living creatures with equal humanity.
Then Ramanuja went up the Tirupati Hills to offer worship to Lord Srinivasa. At the foot of the hills he spent nearly a year studying Ramayana under the guidance of Srishailapoorna.
The Great Commentator
It was then that Ramanuja remembered he had not fulfilled one of the promises he had made to his departed guru Yamuna. He was yet to write a commentary on the Brahma Sutras of Vyasa. He needed to consult the learned commentary written by Bodhayana, the immediate disciple of Vedavyasa. But that great work was in Kashmir. Ramanuja and his disciple Kooresha went on foot all the way to Kashmir. The King and his court-scholars were astounded by Ramanuja's profound knowledge. Ramanuja begged them to give him the work of Bodhayana. But the scholars refused. They did not even permit him to make a copy of the text. "At least, please let me glance through the work once," he begged of them. It was a very difficult text, and the scholars thought that there would be no harm if they allowed Ramanuja to merely thumb through the pages of the book. Kooresha read it aloud from cover to cover, and the teacher listened in silence. Kooresha understood his master's predicament. He had a prodigious memory and he was able to make a copy of the whole book by a mere cursory glance at it. The happy guru and his disciple returned to Sriranga. And then began the composition of Sribhashya, the commentary on Bramha Sutras. The guru dictated and the disciple wrote it down. Whenever doubts occurred he would stop and listen. Thus the writing went on.
At one point the disciple grew a little uncertain about the meaning of a passage, and he paused. Seeing that Kooresha had stopped writing down, the teacher became angry; he abruptly got up and went out.
But he soon realized his mistake and apologized to his student. He had clearly made a mistake and if the student had mechanically continued the writing, a serious mistake would have crept into the commentary.
Thus the Sribhashya was concluded and Ramanuja came to be called 'Sribhashyakara.' The students of Ramanuja wanted what their teacher's mission should also include visits to pilgrim centers. The teacher agreed and they went on foot all the way. They toured the Chola and Pandya kingdoms and went to North India. They visited distant holy places like Dwaraka and Badari and reached Kashmir. They’e the Goddess of learning Sri Sharda appeared before him and blessed him by presenting an icon of Hayagreeva. Later he visited Varanasi. At Puri he established the Embar Math. He reorganized the temple service at Jagannath. He toured all over India and returned to Sriranga.
Karikala was the ruler of the Chola kingdom. He was a worshipper of Shiva, and he was a fanatic. He wanted to force Ramanuja to accept his religion. He issued a proclamation saying 'There is no god greater than Shiva' and someone suggested that the king should get Ramanuja to subscribe to that view. He sent for him. When the king's emissaries arrived at Sriranga, Ramanuja was taking his bath. Sensing the imminent danger to the master, Kooresha disguised himself as Ramanuja. Ramanuja came to know of what had transpired from Dasarathi, and was thus able to escape. He decided to leave Sriranga. He crossed the Cauvery River and arrived in Karnataka.
The disciples of Ramanuja had to bear the brunt of the tyrant's wrath. Kooresha and Mahapoorna were taken to a jungle and their eyes where gouged out. Mahapoorna died in agony. Kooresha settled in a small remote village.
On arriving in Karnataka Ramanujareached Saligrama. The serene atmosphere of the place appealed to him. Vaduhanambi, the priest of the local Narasimha temple, became Ramanuja's disciple. The people of the vicinity, on learning that Ramanuja had arrived at the village, gathered round him. There is pond in that village and it is a kind of memorial to the great man. Even today Sripada Tirtha is considered to be sacred to all Srivaishnavas. The temple is still in charge of the descendants of the family of Vaduhanambi.
Ramanuja traveled eastward and came to Tondanur, the second capital of the Hoysala Empire. Bitti Deva (Vittala Devaraya) was the name of the Hoysala ruler. His daughter was suffering from a mental illness. Ramanuja by now had become famous as the man who cured the illness of the Chola princess. When the king sent for Ramanuja, he did not go at first. But when a disciple,Tondanurunambi, assured him that the Hoysala king was not a fanatical tyrant like the Chola king, Ramanuja agreed to go. He cured the illness of the princess, to the delight of the king. He was drawn to Ramanuja's faith and became a Srivaishnava. He then onwards came to be known as Vishnu- vardhana. In memory of this great event, the king built five Vaishnava temples Channiganarayana temple at Belur, Nambinarayana temple at Tondanur, Kirtinarayana temple at Talakad, Veeranarayana temple at Gadag and Chaluvanarayana temple at Melkote. These temples are lasting monuments of Karnataka culture and architecture. Ramanuja built many other temples too in Tondanur. He also got constructed a huge reservoir called ‘Tirumalasagara'(now called Moti Talab).
He left Tondanur for Melkote, which was also known as Tirunarayanapura or Yadavagiri. It was a hilly area overgrown with a thick jungle. The original idol of god Tirunarayana was lying hidden in a molehill. Ramanuja got it dug out and installed the idol in a specially built shrine.
There is a beautiful legend about the Utsavamoorti of this temple. (Utsavamoorti is a small idol of the same deity used for taking out in procession.)
Formerly the temple did not have the idol, which is meant for being taken out in procession. It was said that the idol was in the custody of a Muslim king. When Ramanuja went to see the Sultan, the Sultan was impressed by Ramanuja's magnificent personality. He had no objection to parting with the idol if his daughter also agreed. It is said Ramanuja called aloud - "Come, my king Selvapillay' and the idol came dancing to Ramanuja. The Sultan's daughter would not easily part with the idol, since she loved it dearly, and she followed it when it was taken out to Melkote. It is said that when she could not get back the idol, she put an end to her life at the feet of the deity.
The Harijans ware of great help to Ramanuja in building the shrines and in accomplishing other public utility works in Melkote.
Ramanuja called them 'Tirukulattar' ('high-born'). He arranged to have them admitted to the temple on three days in a year, when they could have free darshan of the deity.
Ramanuja lived in Karnataka for twenty years. He established the Yatiraja Math in Melkote, and also several other Maths and temples. He had succeeded in spreading the tenets of Srivaishnava relig ion in Melkote. He wanted to return to Sriranga to complete his task there. He remembered his former disciples, Kooresha, Dhanurdasa and others. Much work remained to be done. The fanatical Chola king was no more and his successor was more tolerant towards other faiths. Time was thus propitious for returning and Ramanuja came to Sriranga, after bidding farewell to associates at Melkote.
Ramanuja's old acquaintances were electrified with new zest when Ramanuja was back among them. He was deeply moved to see the blinded old man Kooresha who passed away some time later.
Ramanuja renovated many old temples, which were in ruins. He was by now a ripe old man of 120 years. His eyes turned Heavenward since he had fulfilled all that he wanted to achieve. He decided to cast of his mortal frame. A life-size statue of his was made. Ramanuja breathed life into it before he passed away. The life like statue was installed in Sri Perambudur.
Ramanuja delivered his final message to his disciples: "Shed your ego. Love the devotees of God. Serve the cause of mankind who is God's children. Nobody is infallible; do not humiliate any one. What is of supreme importance is purity of mind and deed." His message was spread all over the country by his seventy-four disciples and Maths was built in different parts. The end was nearing. Ramanuja lay down keeping his head on the lap of Govinda and his feet on Andhrapoorna's lap. He attained eternal bliss in that posture, on the tenth day of the month of Magha, in the year 1059 of Shalivahana era (A. D. 1137).
Ramanuja particularly laid stress on the merciful nature of God. God possesses numerous attributes like truth, grace and beauty. If we worship God devotedly, he will bless us. We should not make much of personal happiness. Those who love God are the real great men irrespective of their caste or religion. Ramanuja loved all mankind without making any distinction between man and man. He taught his disciples the virtues of humility and equality.