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Among the various non-Absolutist conceptions of God Sri Ramanuja’s Vaishnavism is the most well known, has the largest following and has the claim to the longest tradition. The basis of this culture, called Sri Vaishnava culture, goes back to the Panca-ratra Agama. and the Vaikhanasa Agama. The origin of this again goes back to the famous purusha-sukta of the rig veda. It was during the time of the Alvars however, that it crystallised as the spiritual way of life.

The one held in greatest esteem among the Alvars is Nammalvar. He is the 'soul' of the twelve Alvars. Tradition dates him at 3102 B.C.E. but scholars ascribe him to the seventh century C.E. He sang of God and trumpeted about Him because he simply could not resist that urge in him. He poured the cream of the vedas into his songs. His contribution to the 4000 prabandhams (Sacred Vaishnava hymns of the twelve Alwars in Tamil) is as many as 1352.This collection of his, known as Tiruvai-mozhi, is considered the essence of the vedas in Tamil. It represents the cream of Sri Vaishnava philosophy.

Next in line is Perialvar who delighted in worshipping the Lord as mother, nurse, devotee and lady love.

To Andal, the divine gift to Perialwar in the form of a daughter is attributed the Tiruppavai, a most beautiful string of 30 verses giving expression to the purest love of God - equivalent to the love of the cowherdesses of Brindavan for Lord Krishna in mythological times. Andal became miraculously enamoured of the Lord, on whom she set her heart, and ultimately merged in Him. In every Vaishnava temple one will find a separate altar, almost a small temple, devoted to Andal. Every year in December-January, the 30 songs from Tiruppavai will be sung, played, expounded, re-created, on all the days in every Vishnu temple (and also in Siva Temples, in modern times) and in other public forums.

Tirumangai-alwar, who lived in the 8th century, C.E., was a highway robber who was lured away from his lucrative calling by the Lord Himself. He spent sixty years of his life building the vast and lofty temple complex of Sri Ranganatha in Srirngam. He was the one Alwar who had travelled over the entire length and breadth of India. He was also a great poet and his prabandhams number around 1100 among the 4000.

The last of the Alwars was Tondar-adippodi-alwar who had earlier been infatuated with a temple danceuse and then, by Lord Ranganatha's grace, was redeemed to a spiritual life of devotion.

Ramanuja (1017 -1137 C.E.) was the first propagator of Sri Vaishnava philosophy on a national scale. He was the third major Acharya (Master, Teacher, Guru, Guide - all in one) in the succession of Sri Vaishnava Acharyas beginning from Nathamuni of the 9th century C.E. While the Alwars represent the emotional side of Vaishnava thinking, the Acharyas represent the intellectual side. Nathamuni is said to have received by his yogic powers the divine Prabandhams straight from Nammalwar who lived centuries before him. He travelled the entire Tamil country to identify the Prabandhams. He collected them, classified them, made the redaction, set the hymns to music and spread them everywhere. The torch of the spiritual leadership of the Vaishnavites, thus lighted by Natha-muni was taken up by his grandson Yamunacharya, after a little gap.

Yamunacharya could have been a king of the Pandya kingdom otherwise. But he renounced this kingship and spent his last days in the service of the Lord at Srirangam and in laying the fundamentals of the Vaishnava philosophy by writing four basic works on the subject. Ramanuja was the nephew of his grandson and disciple. This grandson was engaged in religious service at Tirupati. When Yamunacharya died, he had the divine inspiration to call for Ramanuj and decree that the latter should fulfill his mission and write a famous commentary on the Brahma-sutras. The story of Ramanuja's arrival after the death of the Acharya to see his body is full of miracles by which three tasks were transferred to the successor Ramanuja. In fact the latter's most important mission, among other things was the fulfillment of these three tasks - which he indeed did.

In the beginning Ramanuja spent two years in studying the teachings of Yamunacharya from the specialists who had been trained by him. Once when he was initiated into the most sacred eight-syllabled mantra (Om namo narayanaya) by a scholar, he disclosed it publicly to a large mass of people, in spite of the Guru's injunctions of secrecy and punishment of Hell for violation. Ramanuja's defence was that if the knowledge of that mantra would help all those people to go the abode of Lord Vishnu after death then he, as a single person, would rather go to Hell for disclosing it to them. Whether it is a question of interpretation of caste rules or a question of the relationship between husband and wife, father and son, teacher and disciple, the choice between what is dharma and what is not should be made, he would say, only on the basis of an absence or presence of an internal selfishness, and of the presence or absence of a deep devotion to the Lord, irrespective of what the secondary scriptures like Manu smriti might say. He carried on this war against intellectual and religious arrogance and snobbery unceasingly throughout his life.

Vaishnavism conceives of a Personal God with infinite divine attributes and infinite varieties of auspicious forms. He, however, is the single Conscious Entity that has all matter and all the souls as His body. He has infinite compassion for the souls and so He is greatly concerned about their salvation. The soul has to comprehend this Inner Reality, rid itself of the three-fold miseries of life and merge in the infinite bliss of the eternal sanctity of God. This is moksha. This is a communion with God, not a realization of complete identity. Those who desire this, should practise a seven-fold discipline – namely, the discretion of consuming only the right type of pure food; dispassion; the attitude of living in the presence of the Absolute; the action of the five daily rituals (yajnas), the ethics of a dhArmic life, absence of frustration and, finally, the absence of delusion caused by affluence and material happiness. Such a one does his duties as the dictates of the Lord and in total dedication to Him. This leads first to internal purity and in due time blesses one with the insight of Yoga wherein one can visualise the Spirit. That leads to the awareness of the Soul of all Souls. Love of God pours forth spontaneously now. It is a self-forgetting Love that continues uninterruptedly like the pouring out of oil. This is the bhakti. The Lord may be conceived of as your guide, your master, your friend, your child, your beloved. Each one of these perfects the devotional attitude and ends up by creating the irresistible urge to see Him in person. That is the stage of bhakti par excellence. And when that vision of the Supreme Person sparks then is the stage of Supreme Enlightenment. Thereafter there is no return to the mundane living. The Lord then frees you from the bodily prison and takes you to His abode to live in fellowship with Him.. The thing that makes this happen is only the Grace of the Lord and nothing else. That is why the Lord is said to be both the ultimate goal (upeyaM) as well as the path (upAya) to that goal . Such a faith ends up in the action of surrender to the Lord. Desika lists eight kinds of devotion which epitomise this concept of spiritual love in a masterly fashion:

Feeling at home in the company of devotees;

Enjoying the worship of the Lord;

An unsatiated eagerness to listen to the stories of God;

Horripilation and choking of voice when hearing about Him, talking to Him and remembering Him;

Performing of ritual pujA to the deities;

Not showing off in one’s service to God;

Meditation of Him and Him only; and

Praying to Him, never for mundane trivialities.

The tenets of the Vaishnava way of life may be summarised as follows. The Supreme may be reached by any seeker who worships Him in self-forgetting love, or what is the same thing, by any seeker who worships His devotees in the same manner. Moksha can be had only by His Grace responding to the call of Devotion and Surrender. A distinguishing feature of Vaishnavism is the importance given to the temple images. These are called archas. It is one of the five levels of manifestation of the Supreme. But it is the worship of the archa manifestation that is the easiest way to attain the Grace of God. Because of His love to every human being like a father or mother He is easily accessible . This accessibility (saulabhyam) is particularly exhibited in his avatar as Krishna. The stories of Krishna's youth, his pranks, amusements and frolics all show how he jumped, ran, played, danced and enjoyed like every other human being. Thus was bridged the gulf between God and Man. The supreme object of life is to cross that bridge and be at the feet of that Lord, to serve Him eternally in blissful love, in the divine world of Vaikuntha, not for one's own pleasure, but for the pleasure of the Lord! The accessibility of the Lord Vishnu is spoken highly in Vaishnavite works, but it is further accentuated by another concept which is peculiar to Vaishnavism. It is the concept of Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu, being the great mediatrix for all of us. Besides being the harbinger of wealth, prosperity and auspiciousness, Goddess Lakshmi always intervenes and pleads for the devotee. It is a great blessing that she bestows on a devotee of Vishnu. She almost compels the Lord to forgive man's foibles and to bestow on him His Grace. She is always residing in the Lord's chest, for this purpose, as it were. So a visit to a Vishnu temple is never complete until we have paid our respects and prostrations to the temple of Lakshmi which must always be there in the same complex.

Ramanuja was not only a great thinker but a great organizer. He toured the whole country to popularize his teachings. Wherever he went he won over the controversialists there and established his own monasteries. He divided the Vaishnava world into several subdivisions and appointed spiritual leaders for each one of them from among the householder devotees who flocked to him. He arranged for the central apostolic succession of the spiritual leadership at the temple of Srirangam, which from now on became the headquarters of the Vaishnava world. He displayed towards all, and, in particular, towards the lower class, a unique compassion and sympathy and gave everybody a place in the Vaishnavite world by allowing them to wear the caste marks of Vaishnavism, to follow the Vaishnava customs and habits and to recite the Prabandhams.

The message that Ramanuja left for posterity and the world went home not only in his home, the heartland of South India, but in the entire country upto distant Kashmir. Many of the great medieval reformers of India drew inspiration from his teachings. He was the first to synthesize the teachings of the Vedas, Brahma-sutras and the Gita with those of the divine Prabandhams in Tamil. He revolutionized the thought-processes of tradition-bound brahmins by preaching mantras and their meanings to seekers and devotees, irrespective of their caste. He was the foremost maker of modern Vaishnavism. His innovations in the rituals, practices, ideals and the norms of society were successful because, he combined the management of the Srirangam temple with the duties of the apostolic head of Vishnavism. It is no wonder that today no Vaishnavite temple is considered complete without an image of his as the prince of devotees ever facing the Lord in His contemplation. Factions will forget their differences just at the mention of his name. His influence over all alike, brahmin or non-brahmin, southerner or northerner, poor or rich, the protagonist of Sanskrit or of Tamil is remarkable. It does not matter whether they adhere to his school of philosophy or not. Throughout the Hindu world, the attitude of religious worship of a divinity or a Guru is in essence the one taught and followed by Ramanuja, namely, the attitude of a servant to the Master, of one of insignificance to one of Infinite Compassion, Knowledge, Power and Grace.

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 Ó Copyright. V. Krishnamurthy October 12, 2000