caitradram sambhavam visnor darsana-sthapanotsukam

tundira-mandale sesa-murtim ramanujam bhaje

      “I worship Sripad Ramanuja, the incarnation of Ananta, who took birth in the month of Caitra (April-May) under the sixth lunar mansion in the Tundirades, and who came upon this earth to establish the philosophy of Sri Visnu.”

     Four major schools or sampradayas of Vaisnavism are considered authorized by Vaisnavas everywhere: the Brahma, Sri, Rudra, and Kumara Sampradayas. While Gaudiya Vaisnavas follow the disciplic line of Visnu worship originating with Brahma, Sripad Ramanujacarya is the founder-acarya of the Sri Sampradaya, the school of Vaisnavism or Visnu worship descending from the eternal consort of Visnu known as Laksmidevi or Sri.   His commentaries on Vedanta rival those of Sankaracarya, especially in Tamil-speaking South India, where Sri Vaisnavism is prominent to this day. He propounded the Vedantic philosophy known as Visistadvaita-vada, or qualified monism. The most famous among his numerous writings are his commentary on Vedanta (Sri Bhasya), his commentary on Bhagavad-gita, his Vedanta-Sara, and the Vedartha-Sangraha.

     Many biographies of Ramanuja were compiled shortly after his passing, including the  Sanskrit Prappanamrtam of Anantacarya and various Tamil works. These authorized sources provide quite a detailed portrait  of  Ramanuja's life and teachings. Before we consider Ramanuja's importance in the development of  Vaisnava philosophy and practice, however, we must first consider the South Indian Vaisnava traditions from which Ramanuja came and which influenced him.



     The first prominent acarya of the Sri Vaisnava school to formulate a systematic theology of devotion was Sri Nathamuni who appeared as the son of a scholarly South Indian brahmana in the year 908 A.D.  Nathamuni was the first important teacher to bring together the teachings of the Vedic Sanskrit texts and the ancient Tamil hymns of the Alwars, (South Indian saints who are famous as incarnations of the divine paraphernalia of Visnu, such as his disc, conch, lotus, wheel, garland and so on).  Nathamuni was responsible for compiling the “Tamil Vedas.”  These were a collection of prayers, devotional songs, and hymns to Visnu written by the Alwars in the Tamil language. These hymns, known as the Prabandha, are sung to this day before the deity of Visnu in the templeat Sri Rangam, the traditional headquarters of the Sri Vaisnavas and the most famous temple in South India.  At the end of his life, Nathamuni was the temple commander at the Sri Rangam temple.

     Nathamuni's son, Isvaramuni, died at an early age while his wife was still pregnant. Her child, Nathamuni's grandson later became famous as Yamunacarya, the direct  spiritual precursor of Ramanuja himself.  After the death of his own son, Nathamuni took sannyasa. Because of his vast learning, he was given the name “Muni” and because of his development in yogic perfection, he was famous as “Yogindra.” His systematic philosophy of Sri Vaisnavism is formulated in his treatise on logic, nyaya-tattva, and his views on the relationship between bhakti and mystic yoga are given in his book Yoga-rahasya.


     After Nathamuni, Sri Yamunacarya was the foremost exponent of Sri Vaisnavism before Ramanuja. Born about 953 A.D. in Madura, the capital of the kingdom of Pandura, Yamuna was raised by his mother and grandmother, as his father had passed away and his grandfather, Nathamuni had taken sannyasa. Although he was an orphan, he did well in his studies and soon surpassed all his fellow students in scholarship.  The academic genius of the young Yamuna amazed everyone.  His attention to his studies and proficiency in the scriptures endeared him to his teacher, Sri Bhasyacarya and his sweet and beautiful nature made him the darling of his classmates.

     When Yamuna was only twelve, he won a kingdom through the power of his wits.  At that time, the royal pandita of the Pandya king of Cola had succeeded in making all the other panditas in his country look like fools.  He was famous as “Vidvajjanakolahala” which means “One who throws scholars into an uproar.”  The royal pandita was very dear to the king who patronized him lavishly.  Vidvajjanakolahala used to extract an annual tax from all the panditas in the land.  Those who didn't pay had to face the royal pandita in argument and be humiliated and subsuquently punished.  For fear of losing their reputation as scholars, everyone used to regularly pay this tax without argument. One day a disciple of the royal pandita arrived at the asrama of Yamuna's guru demanding the tax.  Yamuna's guru was away at the time and Yamuna himself refused to pay the tax, considering it to be an insult to his gurudeva. He sent the disciple back with the message that an insignificant follower of Bhasyacarya would challenge the world-conquering royal pandita,  Vidvajjanakolahala in open debate.

     When the news of the twelve-year old boy's challenge came to the royal pandita, he simply laughed.  “All right,”  he said.  “Summon this scholar here and let us match wits.”  By the king's own order a day was set for the debate, and at the appointed time the boy scholar was brought before the royal court on a lavish palanquin.  Seeing the boy's beauty, the queen was charmed. She instantly took his side, while the king favored his own pandita. A wager was settled on by the king and queen. If the king's pandita won the debate, the queen was to submit to the king's every whim.  If the queen's favorite, the beautiful boy pandita, won the debate, the king was to award Yamunacarya half the kingdom.

     First the royal pandita examined the child, asking him many obscure questions about Sanskrit grammar which Yamuna answered perfectly.  Then it was Yamuna's turn to examine the scholar.  He said, “I will state three maxims.  If you can refute them, I shall admit defeat.  The first is this: your mother is not barren.”

     The royal pandita was dumbfounded.  To refute this maxim would be do deny his own birth. Unable to answer, he stood silent.

     Yamunacarya continued: “My second proposal is this: The king is righteous.  Refute this  if you dare.”

     Again the pandita was silenced.  How could he argue that his own king was impious?

     Finally the boy said: “My third proposal is this: The queen is chaste. Refute this and I am defeated.”

     Unable to refute these propositions, the pandita fought back.  “You are proposing things which are irrefutable. By asking me to challenge the piety of the king and the chastity of the queen you are committing treason and blasphemy.  How dare you ask this of me!  This is an outrage. If you think these propositions can be refuted then refute them yourself and be damned as an offender to the throne.  Otherwise admit your insolence and hang your head in shame.”

     The panditas followers filled the arena with applause, and the king felt confident that his champion had successfully turned back the challenge of this impudent boy. But Yamunacarya was not  finished. “As you wish,” he said.  “I shall refute these propositions myself. First I asked to to refute the proposal that your mother is not barren. Since you have failed to do so, I must cite the Manu Smrti on this matter. According to the Laws of Manu, “If a woman has no more than one child, she may be considered barren.” (eka-putro hy aputrena lokavadat, Manu-Samhita, 9.61, Medhatithi Bhashya). Since your mother had only one son, the proposal that she is not barren is refuted.

     “Now the second proposal: the king is pious.  I asked you to refute this, but you were unable to do so. The Laws of Manu also state that since he is responsible for their protection, the king assumes one sixth of the results  of the pious or impious deeds of his subjects. (sarvato dharmasad bhago rajo bhavati raksatah, adharmadapi sad bhago bhavatyasya hyaraksatah, Manu-Samhita, 8.304, Medhatithi Bhashya) Since this is Kali-yuga, the people in general are naturally impious, and so the king must assume a heavy burden of impiety. This refutes the second thesis: the king is pious.

     “As for my refutation to the third proposal—the queen is chaste.”  With this the crowd became quiet.  The queen herself blushed.  Yamunacarya's supporters wondered, how the boy could refute this proposition and conquer the pandita without embarrassing the queen.  Yamunacarya continued, “The Laws of Manu state that a great king is the representative of the gods.  The gods—Agni the fire-god, Vayu the wind-god, Surya the sung-god, Chandra the moon-god, Yama the lord of death, Varuna, Kuvera, and Indra—are all present in the body of the king.  The queen, therefore is wedded to more than just one man.  When a woman is married to more than one man how then can she be chaste? Thus the third proposition is refuted.”

     The crowd was astonished.  The boy scholar had certainly defeated the royal pandita. The queen was jubilant and embraced Yamunacarya, saying, “Alabandaru,” meaning “one who conquers.” The court pandita was disgraced. The king, who had been defeated in his wager with the queen, arose and said, “My boy, Alabandaru, child-scholar that you are you have defeated my royal pandita, the terror of scholars—Vidvajjanakolahola himself.  His pitiful life is now yours to do with as you see fit. I commend him into your hands.  As for yourself, I promised the queen to give you half my kingdom upon your victory here.  Now that you have won, I humbly request you to accept half my kingdom as your reward.”  The king awarded to Yamunacarya the place which is now called alavandara-medu.

     Yamunacarya, who had won the title of “conqueror” now became famous as Alabandaru, the boy-king.  As the years passed, he became involved  more and more in the affairs of state, practically forgetting the legacy of his grandfather, Nathamuni.  Surrounded by kingly opulence and royal power, he gradually became entrenched in the position of a king. Absorbed in politics, he had little time for spiritual affairs.

     About this time, Alabandaru's grandfather, Nathamuni, had passed away, but before he left this world, he called his most confidential disciple Nambi to his side and entrusted him with a sacred task: to inspire Yamunacarya to renounce his kingdom and champion the cause of Sri Vaisnavism.  Yamunacarya was uniquely qualified to propogate Sri Vaisnavism.  No one else could take the place of Nathamuni.

     Years passed. Finally the time came to spur Yamunacarya to action. Nambi, remembering the order of his gurudeva set out to confront Yamunacarya and convince him of the need to renounce the world and preach. When he arrived at the palace gates, however, he was turned away.  It was not easy for a humble mendicant to get an interview with the great King Alabandaru. Through inquiry, Nambi came to know who the royal cook was.  One day, while the cook was returning from the marketplace with fresh produce, Nambi stopped him and gave him some vegetable greens called tuduvalai, which are supposed to promote mental purity and increase one's tendency towards contemplation and spiritual life. He asked to cook to please prepare these greens regularly for the welfare of the king.  The pious cook understood the rarity and purity of these greens and was pleased to cook them for the king.  From that day on, he began regularly preparing them for the king's lunch. The king very much enjoyed the greens, and Nambi would regularly supply the cook with them.

     One day, Nambi held back. The king missed his greens and asked the cook why they had not been prepared.  When the cook explained about the mysterious mendicant who supplied these greens, the king's interest was piqued. “The next time this sadhu comes,” the king ordered his royal cook, “bring him before me.”

     The next day, when Nambi returned with the greens, the cook brought him before the king and introduced him. “What do you want of me?” the king asked.  “Why do you bring these greens every day for no payment?” Nambi requested a private audience.  The king ordered all his attendants to leave them alone, and when everyone had gone he offered Nambi a seat. “Please speak,” he said.

     Nambi then told Alabandaru of his grandfather's passing. He told him of Sri Nathamuni's anxiety that the sampradaya of Sri Vaisnavism needed a champion, a great scholar who could defeat opposing schools of philosophy and establish the religious principles of their tradition.  Only Yamunacarya was qualified enough to do this, but he had now become King Alabandaru, a ruler of men attached to royal luxury and power.  Gradually Nambi awoke in Yamunacarya's heart a desire to renounce the throne and lead the Sri Sampradaya. After deeply considering the message of Bhagavad-gita in Nambi's company he visited the temple of Sri Rangam, where he accepted the mantra from Nambi and committed himself to giving up the opulence of royalty and taking up the mission of his grandfather.

     After surrendering himself fully to a life of spiritual discipline, contemplation and devotion, Sri Yamunacarya went on to become a great teacher.  He quickly became the intellectual and spiritual leader of the Sri Vaisnavas, highly regarded for his realization, his scholarship, and his synthesis of Nathamuni's system of philosophy with the system of Pancaratra worship ordained by the Vedas. Yamunacarya's unquestioned status as a brahmana helped him to establish his Pancaratrik version of Vedanta above the protests of the followers of Sankaracarya.  Thus he increased the prestige of Vaisnavism and Krsna-bhakti by demonstrating  both its scriptural basis and its spiritual superiority to mundane casteism.  Among his writings are the famous devotional prayers to Visnu known as the Stotra-ratnam, the Jewel of Prayers.  His writings  also include various philosophical and theological works: the Gita-sangraha, an explanation of his views on Bhagavad-gita; his Agama-pramanya, expounding the synthesis of the Pancaratra tradition with his version of Vaisnava Vedanta; and other important doctrinal works, such as the Siddhitraya or Threefold Perfection (of which only fragments survived him) and the Atma-siddhi, or Treatise on Self-realization.

     Yamunacarya's principle writings are in Sanskrit.  Writing in Sanskrit  was for Yamunacarya somewhat of a strategic departure from the tradition of the South Indian Alwars, who wrote in Tamil.  By writing his scriptural commentaries in Sanskrit, however, Yamunacarya hoped to establish the South Indian tradition  within a more classic framework of exposition acceptable to a wider range of Vedic scholars.  In this way, he laid the groundwork for Ramanuja to establish Sri Vaisnavism as an orthodox sampradaya, or major school of theology.

     The general outline of Sri Vaisnavism, as well as many of its details were chalked out by Yamunacarya in his writings.  It remained for Ramanuja to fill in that outline, to etch out its  finer details, to establish a more orthodox Sri Vaisnavism in the collective consciousness of South India, and to build a place in history for the Sri Vaisnava sampradaya. 

     Yamunacarya attracted many followers and disciples; history records the names of only twenty of them.  Although they were sincere and devoted to their beloved gurudeva, none of them were blessed with the deep scholarship or determined energy required to carry on his great work in a significant way.  It was left to Sri Ramanujacarya to fulfill Yamunacarya's hopes for the future of Sri Vaisnavism.

     Periya Tirumalai Nambi, who is also called Sri Saila Purna in some accounts, was Yamunacarya's favorite follower. Under the guidance of Yamunacarya, he accepted the renounced order of life and lived with his guru, serving him to the very end. Nambi had two sisters, named Bhudevi and Sridevi, after the two consorts of Lord Sri Venkatesvara. Bhudevi married a pious brahmana named Asuri Kesavacarya. Kesavacarya lived in Sri Perumudura, about twenty-six miles from Madras. After some time, a child was born to them. He was named Laksmana by Nambi, after Laksmana, the brother of Sri Ramacandra. According to Sri Vaisnavas, Ramanuja was an incarnation of Laksmana himself.  Since Laksman had been a great devotee of Rama the boy soon became known as Rama-anuja, or “follower of Rama.”


     According to Sri Vaisnava tradition, Ramanuja was born on the fifth day of the full moon in the month of Caitra in 1017 A.D. Ramanuja's family belonged to the caste of Vadama smarta-brahmanas, who were formal Vedic scholars.  Ramanuja's father Kesavacarya was very much attached to the performance of Vedic sacrifices or yajnas. For this reason he became famous as Sarvakratu or the performer of all kinds of sacrifices.  When the boy came of age, Kesavacarya immersed him in Sanskrit education, teaching him grammar, logic, and the Vedas. Although Ramanuja was well-schooled in brahminical learning, however, he had not yet been exposed to the deeply devotional Tamil hymns glorifying Sri Visnu.  Still, his natural devotion had already been awakened by association with a non-brahmana disciple of Sri Yamunacarya named Kancipurna, and Ramanuja demonstrated a saintly nature even from his early childhood.  As time passed he underwent all the purificatory rites of a pious Hindu, including the sacred thread ceremony and was married, at the age of sixteen.   

     Only a month after the wedding, Ramanuja's father became gravely ill and passed away.  After the passing of his father, Ramanuja moved along with his family to Kancipuram, where he entered the academy of Yadava Prakasa, a Vedantist of the impersonalist Sankarite school.  According to some commentators, the decision to enroll Ramanuja in the school of a non-Vaisnava is evidence that his family was not strictly devoted to Visnu but were merely caste brahmanas interested in insuring that their son would become a good scholar.  Others are convinced that this was merely Ramanuja's strategy  to become well-versed in the arguments of Sankaracarya before thoroughly refuting them in his own commentaries.

     Ramanuja soon excelled among the students of Yadava Prakasa and became his teacher's  favorite student.  Yadava Prakasa preached the theory of nondualism, and stressed the illusion of all form, including the form of Sri Visnu.  As Ramanuja's devotion to Visnu blossomed, his disgust with this philosophy grew. Still, out of respect for his teacher he avoided conflict.

     Soon, however, the day arrived when he could no longer tolerate the impersonalism of Yadava Prakasa. One day Ramanuja was massaging his guru's back as Yadava Prakasa explained a verse from the Candogya Upanisad.  The verse contained the words kapyasam pundarikam evam aksini.  Following the interpretation of Sankaracarya, Yadava Prakasa explained that kapy means “monkey”  and asanam means “ass.” The verse therefore, as interpreted by Yadava Prakasa was translated to mean, “Lord Visnu's lotus eyes are as red as a monkey's ass.”

     Ramanuja was enraged at this blasphemy, and the hot tears flowed from his eyes in anguish which fell upon his guru's back. Yadava Prakasa could understand that his disciple was disturbed, and inquired as to what the problem was. When Ramanuja took issue with his guru's interpretation, Yadava Prakasa was astonished. He demanded Ramanuja's interpretation.  Ramanauja explained that kapyasam means “that which sits upon the water and flourishes by drinking,”—in other words, a lotus.  So the meaning of the verse is that the lotus eyes of Visnu are as beautiful as the red lotus which blossoms in the water.”

     When Yadava Prakasa saw his disciple's expertise in defeating his argument, he knew that he had a powerful rival in his midst.  From that day on, he began plotting Ramanuja's murder.  He conspired with his disciples to go on pilgrimage to the Ganges and kill Ramanuja in a secluded place.  After killing Ramanuja, they would bathe in the Ganges to expiate the sin.  Fortunately, Ramanuja's cousin learned of the murder plot and warned Ramanuja, who managed to escape unharmed. After some time Yadava Prakasa returned to Kancipurnam, and Ramanuja continued going to his lectures, although inwardly he was looking for another path.

     Yamunacarya himself went to vist Ramanuja, but when he came to Kanci he saw that Ramanuja was still a follower of Yadava Prakasa and so Yamunacarya did not approach him.  It is said that Yamunacarya watched him from a distance and prayed for Ramanuja to become the darsana-pravartaka, or philosophical preceptor of the Sri Vaisnava Sampradaya.

     About this time, the king of Kancipuram called for Yadava Prakasa.  His daughter was possessed by a brahma-raksasa, a brahmana ghost.  Yadava Prakasa was called as an exorcist, and when he arrived with his disciples, he was brought before the king's daughter and asked to relieve her of the influence of the ghost.  Speaking through the girl's mouth, the ghost insulted Yadava Prakasa and laughed at him. Ramanuja was asked to try, and when he came before the girl, the brahmana ghost said, “If Ramanuja blesses me with the dust of his lotus feet, I shall leave this girl.” Ramanuja did so upon which the girl was cured, and the king was deeply indebted to him. 

     After this humiliation before Ramanuja, it was not long before Yadava Prakasa told Ramanuja to leave his  asrama. The final split between them came when Yadava Prakasa was discussing the meaning of two Upanisadic texts: saravam khalv idam brahma (Candogya Upanisad 3.1, “everything is Brahman”) and neha nanasti kincana (Katha Upanisad 4.11, “there is no distinction”).  Yadava Prakasa discussed these verses at length while explaining the theory of oneness promoted by Sankaracarya with great eloquence.  After Yadava Prakasa was finished speaking, Ramanuja gave his own interpretation.

       Ramanuja explained that sarvam khalv idam brahman would mean “the whole universe is Brahman, if it were not for the word tajjalan in the next part of the verse, which qualifies the meaning.  Ramanujacarya held that it means not that the universe is Brahman, but that it is pervaded by Brahman. From Brahman the universe  comes, by Brahman it is sustained, and into Brahman it ultimately enters, just as a fish is born in water, lives in water, and is ultimately dissolved into water.  Still a fish is not water, but a separate entity entirely.  In the same way  the universe, although existing within Brahman is different from Brahman. Just as a fish can never be water, so the universe can never be Brahman.  As to the second verse, neha nanasti kincana, according to Ramanuja it does not mean “No distinction exists,” but rather that things are not distinct in that they are are all interconnected, just as pearls are strung on a thread.  Since all things are inter-related and inter-connected, in a certain sense it may be said that there is no distinction to be made between them.  All things are related to Brahman and as such do not have any existence which is distinct from Brahman.  Still, while a certain unity can be seen in the inter-relatedness of all things, everything within the universe has its own distinct reality. Pearls strung on a thread have unity; collectively they form an organic whole, a necklace.  Still, each individual pearl has its own unique qualities.  While spirit, matter, and God may be seen as one organic whole, still all of them have their unique qualities.  Therefore, Ramanuja argued,  the principle of absolute oneness as argued by Sankaracarya cannot stand; rather the principle of unity characterized by different qualities must be accepted.

     After leaving Yadava Prakasa, Ramanuja was advised by his mother to take guidance from Kancipurna, the non-brahmana Vaisnava whose devotion Ramanuja greatly revered. Kancipurna advised him to serve the Visnu diety in the temple of Lord Varadraja by carrying water every day to the temple.  He began serving Kancipurna with great devotion, and soon was accepted as his disciple.  Although Kancipurna was by birth a member of the sudra caste and  Ramanujacarya was a brahmana, this never influenced  Ramanujacarya's devotion for him.  He accepted Kancipurna as his guru without reservation.   Ramanujacarya's wife, however, could not tolerate her husband's acceptance of a sudra as a guru, and did her best to discourage  Ramanujacarya from remaining in his company.

     Yamunacarya by this time was very old.  Wracked by illness, he was on the verge of passing from this world when he heard that  Ramanujacarya had left the school of Yadava Prakasa and had begun serving the humble Kancipurna, who was famous as a great devotee of Visnu. He sent some disciples to bring  Ramanujacarya.  When  Ramanujacarya heard the news, he immediately set out for Sri Rangam, the headquarters of the Sri Vaisnavas, where Yamunacarya lay dying.  But by the time he arrived at the side of Yamunacarya it was too late.  The master had passed from this world, entering Vaikuntha and the eternal service of Sri Visnu.    

     At that time,  Ramanujacarya noticed that three fingers on the right hand of the master were closed.  He asked the disciples of Yamunacarya if he had been accustomed to hold his hand in such a way, and they replied that it was highly unusual.  Sripad Ramanuja could understand that this unusual gesture of the three clenched fingers represented the three unfulfilled wishes of Yamunacarya. He then vowed to fulfill these three wishes.  He promised to teach the people in general the religion of surrender to Visnu, training them in the five samskaras, or purificatory processes. As he did so, one of Yamunacarya's fingers relaxed.   Ramanujacarya then vowed to comment on the hymns of the Alvars, the South Indian saints, and with this the second finger relaxed.  Finally Ramanujacarya promised to write a scholarly commentary on the Vedanta-sutras expounding the principles of Sri Vaisnavism as the ultimate truth of the Vedas. With this the last clenched finger was relaxed.  A look of spiritual peace came over the lotus face of  Ramanujacarya's divine master, Sri Yamunacarya, as if to say that he could now depart peacefully, knowing that his mission was in good hands.

     Upon his return to Kancipurna,  Ramanujacarya gradually became completely disinterested in his family life, his beautiful wife and home, and absorbed himself deeply in the service of his guru Kancipurna with whom he began spending most of his time.  As  Ramanujacarya spent more time at the temple, his wife became unhappy that her husband was ignoring her.  She was further humiliated by the fact that he was neglecting her to serve a low-born sudra.

     One day,  Ramanujacarya invited Kancipurna for dinner, thinking that by so doing he would be able to take the remnants of his guru's  prasada, and so become blessed. Kancipurna, being very humble arrived early, before Ramanuja returned home.  Kanipurna explained to Ramanuja's wife Kambalaksa that he had  service to do in the temple and could not stay for long.  With this, Kambalaksa quickly fed him and sent him away.  After Kancipurna had left, she took a long stick and carefully picked up the banana leaf upon which he had dined, so as not to soil her hands with what she thought to be the contaminated remnants of an untouchable.  After ordering her maidservant to clean the room carefully, she bathed in order to purify herself. When Ramanuja returned and heard of the insult to his guru, he was enraged.

     One day, while drawing water from a well,  Ramanujacarya's wife met the wife of his guru, Kancipurna. When the water from their waterpots accidentally became mixed,  Ramanujacarya's wife cursed Kancipurna's wife, thinking that her waterpot had become contaminated by the water of an outcaste. When Ramanujacarya came to know of this insult, he was furious.  He sent his wife home to her parents and left to take sannyasa.

     After leaving home, he went to the temple of Varadraja to see the beloved deity of Visnu whom he had served for so long. After obtaining saffron cloth and all the necessary paraphernalia of the renounced order, he accepted the triple staff (tridanda) of the Vaisnava sannyasi, symbolizing the complete surrender of mind, body, and words to Visnu.  With this, he became known as Yatiraja, “the king of the renounced order.”

     Soon after taking sannyasa,  Ramanujacarya established his own monastery or asrama, where he began training disciples in his systematic Vaisnava interpretation of Vedanta as well as  in the path of devotion to Visnu. His asrama was established near the temple in Kanci. His first disciple was his older sister's son, his nephew Mudaliandan, also known as Dasarathi.  His second disciple was a learned and wealthy brahmana named Kurattalvan, also known as Kuresa, who was renowned for his photographic memory.

     One day the mother of Yadava Prakasa saw  Ramanujacarya teaching his disciples and was impressed by his saintly qualities.  She was a great devotee of Visnu and was somewhat unhappy that her son, Yadava Prakasa had become a follower of Sankaracarya's impersonal monism. She encouraged Yadava Prakasa to visit  Ramanujacarya.  That night Yadava Prakasa had a dream in which a divine voice instructed him to become  Ramanujacarya's disciple. The next day,  upon visiting  Ramanujacarya, Yadava Prakasa found him wearing the dress of a Vaisnava.  He asked him, “Why have you rejected the school of Sankaracarya? Why have you adopted this Vaisnava dress? Where is this sanctioned in the scriptures? Can you show any scriptural evidence supporting your behavior?”

     With this,  Ramanujacarya instructed his foremost disciple, Kuresa, to enlighten Yadava Prakasa with the scriptural evidence in support of Vaisnava dress. He quoted extensively from the Sruti, saying, “Sruti is the best evidence. Therefore I shall cite some references from the Sruti.[1]

     In the Sruti it is said:

 sa te visnorabja-cakre pavitre[2]

 janmambodhim tartave carnaninra

mule bahvordadhate'nye purana

 linganyamge tavakanyarpayanti

     “To free themselves from the ocean of repeated birth and death, the best of men decorate their bodies with the symbols of the lotus and cakra of Visnu.

aibhirbayamurukramasya cihnai rahnkita loke subhaga bhavamah

tad visno paramam padam ye'dhigaccanti lacchata[3]

     “Just as those who go to the holy abode of Visnu are decorated with the conch, lotus, disc, and club, so shall we also wear these marks and thus attain that divine abode.

 upavit-adi-baddharyah sanka-cakradayas tatha[4]

brahmanasya visesena vaisnavasya visesatah

     “Brahmanas should not only wear the sacred thread, but they should also decorate their bodies with the conch, lotus, cakra, and club of Visnu, thus identifying themselves as  Vaisnavas.

hare padakrtim atmano hitaya madhye cchidram-urdhva-purndram[5]

yo dharayati sa parasya priyo bhavati sa punyavan bhavati sa muktiman bhavati.

     “One who decorates himself with the tilaka markings resembling the lotus feet of Visnu with a space in the middle becomes dear to the Paramatma, becomes pious,  and attains liberation.”

     After hearing Kuresa expound so perfectly the scriptural evidence for adopting the dress of a Vaisnava, Yadava Prakasa asked him, “Why do you say that Brahman has qualities ?  This view (visistadvaita-vada) is not supported by Sankaracarya.  Where is the scriptural evidence for your position?

     Again Kuresa replied, citing the Sruti: yah sarvajnah sarvavit[6]

     “‘[The qualities of the Supreme Absolute Truth are that] He is all-wise and omniscient.’ His qualities are further described in the Upanisads as follows:

na tasya karyam karanans ca vidyate[7]

na tat samas cabhyadhikas ca drsyateæ

parasya saktir-vividhaive-sruyate

svabhaviki jnana-bala-kriya ca

     “He does not possess bodily form like that of an ordinary living entity: He has a transcendental form of bliss and knowledge, and thus there is no difference between His body and His soul.  All His senses are transcendentally divine. He is absolute substance. Any one of His senses can perform the action of any other sense. Nothing is greater than Him or equal to Him. His potencies are multifarious, and thus His deeds are automatically performed as a natural consequence of His divine will. In other words , whatever He wills immediately becomes reality.  His divine energies are threefold: His knowledge (jnana-sakti) energy (also known as cit-sakti or samvit-sakti), His strength energy (bala-sakti, also known as the Lord's existence energy, sat, or sandhini-sakti), and his pastime (kriya-sakti) energy (also known as his ecstasy energy, ananda or hladini-sakti).

narayanah param brahma tattvam narayanah parah[8]: “Narayana is the Supreme Absolute Truth, Brahman.  He is the Ultimate Reality.

harih parayanam param harih parayanam param[9]

punah punarvadamyaham harih parayanam param

     “The Supreme Personality of Godhead is Sri Hari.  He alone is the ultimate shelter, the supreme refuge, the final resting place. Again and again I proclaim this fact: Sri Hari is the Supreme Personality of Godhead.“

     In this way, Kuresa went on and on, citing one scriptural evidence after the next to establish the principles of Sri Vaisnavism. Yadava Prakasa was astounded at the profound scholarship of this disciple of  Ramanujacarya.  Remembering his mother's advice to take shelter of Ramanuja, remembering the divine voice in the dream that told him to surrender to  Ramanuja, and remembering all the offenses he had committed at the holy feet of that great saint, Yadava Prakasa could contain himself no longer.  He fell at the feet of  Ramanujacarya and prayed for his blessings. He submitted himself as a disciple of Ramanuja, who immediately accepted him, giving him the name Govinda Jiyar.

     Yadava Prakasa later became a famous disciple of  Ramanujacarya.  He freed himself from his attachment to the impersonal monism of Sankaracarya. After taking sannyasa, he used his great powers of scholarship to promote the cause of  Ramanujacarya and Sri Vaisnavism. He was no longer a proud scholar; now he was a humble devotee. In his final years,  he was ordered by Ramanuja to write a book on the proper religious conduct to be followed by Vaisnava sannyasis of the Sri Vaisnava line.  This book is called Yati-dharma-sammuccaya, and is still studied and followed by the sannyasis of  the Sri sampradaya.

     As Ramanuja's fame spread, the disciples of Yamunacarya in Sri Rangam begged Ramanuja to come and lead them.  Finally, after taking permission from his beloved deity Lord Varada, Ramanuja left Kancipuram for Sri Rangam, to begin his new life.

     After arriving in Sri Rangam,  Ramanujacarya immersed himself in studying the scriptures under the guidance of Mahapurna, a prominent disciple of Yamunacarya. With the help of Mahapurna,  Ramanujacarya became expert in many scriptures, including the Nyasatattva, the Gitartha-sangraha, the Siddhitraya, the Brahma-Sutra, and the Pancaratras. After some time Mahapurna advised  Ramanujacarya to go to the great Goshtipurna and accept initiation in the Vaisnava mantra from him.

     At the behest of Mahapurna, Ramanuja approached Goshtipurna for the mantra, but was refused, for Goshtipurna was reluctant to give such a confidential mantra to a relative newcomer.   Ramanujacarya approached Goshtipurna 18 times with great humility, finally breaking into tears and pleading for his mercy.  At last Goshtipurna gave him the mantra, after first swearing him to absolute secrecy.  When Ramanuja had vowed never to repeat the mantra to anyone else, Goshtipurna whispered the mantra in his ear saying, “This mantra is most powerful. Whoever chants it will attain liberation; he will return to the spiritual Vaikuntha planets where he will achieve the personal service of the Lord.”

     As he left the temple and proceeded towards Sri Rangam, a crowd gathered around  Ramanujacarya. They had heard that he was to receive the mantra from Goshtipurna, and begged to know its secret. Inspired to distribute the magic of the mantra that could free anyone who chants it from material existence, Ramanuja announced to the crowd: “Please chant this mantra: Om namo narayanaya.”

     The crowd was overjoyed, and felt that they had been truly blessed, but when the news reached Goshtipurna, he called for Ramanuja.  Outraged that his new disciple would disobey his order so quickly, he demanded an explanation.  “I told you to keep this mantra a secret.  Why have you so quickly revealed it to the masses? Do you know the penalty for such behavior?”

     Ramanuja replied, “Yes, gurudeva,  I may go to hell for disobeying your order.“

     “Then why have you done such a thing?”

     “ My beloved teacher,  I realized that the power of the mantra given by you could deliver everyone who hears it.  When I saw the earnest desire of these people to be saved from material life, I could not contain myself.  I felt some divine inspiration to distribute your mercy to all of them.  If this is a great sin, then I must be punished by your holiness. Condemn me to hell, then, if my sin warrants it. But please do not show your wrath to these simple people who begged me for the mantra.”

     When Goshtipurna saw the earnest sincerity of his disciple, his heart was moved.  After all, what greater principle can there be than the distribution of the Lord's mercy. Although Ramanuja had disobeyed the letter of his instructions about the mantra,  he had understood the real spirit of the mantra itself.  He would make a great preacher of the Sri sampradaya, and had shown that he had the capacity to instill devotion in the hearts of the people in general.  How could he then be condemned?

     Goshtipurna fell at Ramanuja's feet, saying, “Forgive me, my child.  It is you who are my master, and I the disciple. Who am I to take the role of your guru? How could I know your greatness? Accept me as your disciple.”

     After this incident,  Ramanujacarya's reputation spread far and wide.  He was regarded as an incarnation of Laksmana himself. He began training more and more disciples, and his camp grew.  He engaged many scholars in debate and defeated them by propounded his systematic view of Vedanta, known as Visistadvaita-vada, or qualified monism.  One such scholar was Yajnamurti.

     Yajnamurti was a famous pandita who had defeated many scholars in argument and had written many commentaries on the scriptures. He challenged Ramanuja to a debate saying that if he lost, he would carry Ramanuja's shoes and become his disicple. Ramanuja, for his part, declared that if he was defeated, he would give up books and arguments forever. The debate began and went on for 17 days.  Ramanuja was discouraged.  He prayed fervently to Lord Varada, his beloved Deity, for help.  That night he had a dream in which the Deity assured him of victory, advising him to follow the line of reasoning given by Yamunacarya.  Uplifted by his divine vision, Ramanuja appeared in the arena of debate with renewed confidence.  Before the debate began, however, Yajnamurti surrendered himself to the holy feet of  Ramanujacarya, saying, “You are my master. You are glowing with the confidence of one who is in connection with divinity.  I realize now that it is futile to argue with you.  Please accept me.”

     From that day on, Ramanuja's reputation increased. During this time, he toured India with his disciples, traveling as far north as Kashmir, where he consulted the commentary of Bodhayana on the Vedanta Sutras.  Ramanuja was also a great advocate of proper Deity worship and had a habit of reforming the system of worship wherever he went.  In this way, he standardized the system of worship throughout the Vaisnava temples of India, eliminating many of the practices of nonVaisnavas that had become traditional.  His system was not, however, greeted with much enthusiasm in Jagannatha Puri, where worship is performed according to the system of raga-marga, or spontaneous devotion. It is said that after he attempted to reform the system of Deity worship there, Lord Jagannatha became disturbed.  One night, as Ramanuja slept, he was transported by the power of Jagannatha to Kurmasthan.  When he awoke, he thought he had committed a great offense to Visnu.  Mistaking the deity of Kurma for a Siva-lingam, he thought that Visnu had thrown him into a Siva temple.  When at last he realized that it was a temple of Lord Kurma, Ramanuja set about reforming the deity worship there.

      After this, Ramanuja wrote the Sri-Bhasya, his commentary on Vedanta, and his fame spread still further.  The king of Chola, who was a great follower of Siva, sent a petition to all the famous scholars of South India, demanding their signature.  The petition declared Siva to be the supreme.  Many scholars signed, but Ramanuja refused.  When this came to the king's attention, he arranged to abduct Ramanuja, who managed to escape with the help of his devoted follower, Kuresa.  They exchanged garments, and Ramanuja, disguised as a householder, slipped through the guards that surrounded his camp. Meanwhile the king's soldiers arrested Kuresa, who had put on the sannyasa dress of Ramanuja.  This king was the same king whose daughter was saved from a ghost by Ramanuja.  When Kuresa was dragged before the king in the dress of Ramanuja, the king demanded that he glorify Siva as the supreme.  Kuresa refused.  Because Ramanuja had helped the king's daughter, the king  decided to be lenient.  He told his servants not to kill their prisoner, but merely to put his eyes out for refusing to see the superior position of Siva.  After Kuresa was released, his eyesight was restored by a miracle. The king however, did not fare so well.  He developed a black boil on his neck and died. Henceforth that king became famous as “Krmi-kantha,” or worm-throat, because of the infection that killed him.

     Meanwhile, Ramanuja delivered many thousands of people to the cause of Sri Vaisnavism and established many temples. He traveled through what is now Madurai and Mysore, converting many Jains on his way.  At one point he defeated one thousand Jains in argument, after which they committed suicide rather than become Vaisnavas.

     Ramanuja was merciful not only to those in the renounced order, but also to those surrendered grhasthas who had given their lives to his mission. One such grhastha was Dhanurdasa. When he met Ramanuja, Dhanurdasa was very much attached to his beautiful wife.  One day, Ramanuja asked him if he wanted to see a real beauty, and out of curiosity, Dharnurdasa agreed.  Ramanuja took him to the temple of Narayana and made him behold the beauty of the deity.  Upon realizing that the Lord's beauty eclipses all beauties of this world, Dhanurdasa became a great devotee and follower of Ramanuja.

     Dhanurdasa was an example of detachment.  To teach detachment to one of his disciples, Ramanuja once staged the following demonstration. He had one of his disciples go to the place where the sannyasis bathed to switch their clothes, so that after bathing there would be some confusion.  When the sannyasis,  who were all renowned scholars and renunciants, were finished bathing, they found that their clothes had been exchanged.   One swami was wearing the cloth of another, and so an argument ensued. As one after another finished his bath and went to find his clothes, the argument grew more heated.  In this way, these great scholars of renunciation were seen to be attached to some simple pieces of cloth.

     Then Ramanuja sent his disciple to the home of Dhanurdasa, after first arranging for Dhanurdasa to serve in the temple, thus making sure that he would not be at home. The disciple went to the home of Dhanurdasa in the evening, and, following Ramanuja's orders began stealing the jewelry from the body of Dhanurdasa's wife. After stripping the ornaments from one side of her body, the disciple was about  to go when suddenly she turned over in her sleep.  The disciple was shocked and left through the window immediately.  Ramanuja had instructed him to wait outside the window for the return of Dhanurdasa, to record his reaction.  After some time, Dhanurdasa returned home. At that time, Dhanurdasa's wife asked him, “Dhanurdasa, is there something wrong at the temple?”

     “No, my dear. Why?”

     “I am worried that they are in need of money, but ashamed to ask for it.  We must do something to help them.”

     “What makes you say that?”

     “Because one of the devotees from the temple snuck in through the window and began taking the jewelry from my body.  I think those poor saints must desperately need our help to do something like that.”

     “What did you do?”

     “I turned over, but he fled through the window.”

     “Why did you do that?  You scared him away! Now what will we do?”

     “I didn't mean to scare him.  I only turned over so that he could take the ornaments from the other side of my body as well.”

     Dhanurdasa chastised her saying, “If you were not so affected by false ego, you would have given him all your jewels.  Now what will we do? We have failed miserably!”

     With this, his wife began to lament saying, “You are right. It is only my pride that kept me from surrendering everything.  How will we ever make any advancement?”

     From his hiding place Ramanuja's disciple was astonished at the humility and surrender of Dhanurdasa and his chaste wife. When the disciple returned to his guru, he reported everything that had taken place.  Ramanuja then explained to him the meaning of  both these events—the garments of the sannyasis and the jewels of Dhanurdasa's wife:  in this case, the sannyasis were so attached to some ragged bits of cloth that they were fighting over them, whereas Dhanurdasa and his wife, although grhasthas, were so free from attachment to material things that they were ready to have their jewels stolen by the devotees if they were needed for the service of the Lord.

     In this way, Ramanuja continued to instruct his disciples both by example and by precept. His influence on Vaisnavism is powerfully felt to this day.  His commentary on Vedanta, the Sri Bhasya  is still considered to be the most formidable challenge to the commentary of Sankaracarya.  It is the most famous of  the Vaisnava commentaries. Apart from the Sri Bhasya, the most important of  Ramanujacarya's works are his commentary on Bhagavad-gita and his Vedartha-samgraha, which summarizes the essential Vedic principles. According to tradition, Sripad  Ramanujacarya lived to be 100 years old.  His disciplic succession continues to this day in maintaining the traditions of Sri Vaisnava practice, deity worship and philosophy that he systemized in his lifetime.  Ramanujacarya passed away on the tenth day of the waning moon in the  month of Phalguna, which corresponds to the month of January February on the Christian calendar.

horizontal rule

[1] The following verses from ßruti are quoted by VedÅnta DeÍika, the next important acÅrya after RÅmanuja in his biography called Sac-caritra-rak›a.

[2] From the ®k-Ba›kala-sakha

[3] From Atharva-Veda

[4] From the Vayavya Upa-purÅna, a section of the BrahmaˆÎa-sa˜hita.

[5] From the Atharva-Veda.

[6] MuˆÎaka Upani›ad

[7] ßvetÅÍvatara Upani›ad 6.8

[8] Taittiriya NÅrÅyaˆopani›ad 93.

[9] Hari-bhakti-sudhodaya 3.52

[This article and more information at  www.stephen-knapp.com]

horizontal rule

[Home page] [Back to Biographies of Saints and Sages list]