ŚrīVaiṣṇavam for Newcomers – Our Philosophy

Śrīḥ  Śrīmathē Śatakōpāya namaḥ  Śrīmathē Rāmānujāya namaḥ  Śrīmath Varavaramunayē namaḥ

ŚrīVaiṣṇavam for Newcomers

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This article is part of the newcomer series, a set of brief articles which give an outline of our sampradaya for people with no previous exposure to our tradition.

Emergence and relation to other vedic philosophies

Our philosophy is called Vishishtadvaitam, which is commonly translated as “qualified monism”. In the testimony of the Veda and more generally in the testimony of true mystics and seers of all religions, we find both the experience of unity with God, one-ness, and the experience of duality, other-ness, in relation to God.

These seemingly contradictory testimonies have been a source of long standing debate within the Vedic tradition and too often violent persecution of “heresy” in the Abrahamic religions. Over the millennia, there have been many attempts to reconcile the two testimonies within the Vedic tradition. Unfortunately, many treatises which could shed light on the development of thought on these issues have been lost during the Muslim invasion of India, where many universities and libraries were destroyed. From the few sources that survived the destruction, we can infer that India had a very rich spiritual landscape in the first millennium C.E., with many teachers and traditions of thinking that were in constant debate and exchange of ideas.

Rāmānuja made his first appearance in this landscape with a text named Vedārtha Saṅgrahaḥ, which means “Summary of the meaning of Vedas”. The text debates the standpoints of rival schools of thinking in a very sophisticated way and, by doing this, gives a precise description of Vishishtadvaitam philosophy.

The starting point of Rāmānuja and his contemporaries is a very interesting philosophical problem: All scriptures state that God has infinite perfections. But the world we see is not perfect. So how does it relate to God? Philosophers before Rāmānuja have solved this problem either with the philosophy of Advaitam (non duality) or early variants of the Dvaitam (duality) philosphoy. The Advaitam philosophers argued that God is a monolithic entity of knowledge and perfection, but his perfection is covered by ignorance. The goal of spiritual seekers is thus to remove this ignorance in order to see that they are this monolithic entity, that they are non different from God. Dvaitam philosophers argued that the world and the living entities are strictly distinct from God, so their imperfections are nothing surprising.

Rāmānuja points out several logical inconsistencies in Advaitam philosophy, amongst others the issue that this ignorance must then be stronger than God’s perfection and knowledge, i.e. the most powerful entity in reality is not God but ignorance. If this would be really what Advaitam means, it would be both conflicting with many statements in the Veda and would produce a myriad of logical problems – like, if ignorance is so strong, how can a simple human being break it by gaining knowledge?

But also the early forms of Dvaitam were criticised by Rāmānuja as this philosophy implies irreconcilable logical problems if one also accepts God omnipresence and omniscience – which is emphasized by the Vedic scriptures.

Outline of the philosophy

Vishishtadvaitam solves the philosophical problem with the argument that God has modifications. These modifications are matter and spiritual entities, i.e the individual souls. Modification is meant in a grammatical sense. In Sanskrit, the standard language for philosophical research and debate in India for millennia, words are constructed from a root that is modified. With these modifications, a single root can create a vast number of different words and meanings. In the same way, God is the root and with modifications, he constitutes the vastness and diversity of the world as we perceive it.

The problem with this analogy from Sanskrit grammar is that, even though it is the most perfect, it is not entirely accessible to the common man of modern days. A modern but less perfect analogy is that of a computer: A computer can run a near infinite variety of computer programs. While each program seems distinct and can create certain pictures and sounds on the machine, all programs have a common base, which is the operating system in combination with the physical machine. So our relation to God is roughly comparable to the relation a computer program has to the operating system plus physical machine. We are in a certain sense distinct from God, as a computer program is distinct from the operating system and the machine, but in another sense also not distinct and totally dependent on God, as a computer program can only exist and function if operating system and machine are present. This analogy even helps to understand the role of an Āchārya. The operating system and the components of the machine offer various tools and interfaces to access its possibilities. Similarly, God’s grace and power can be accessed trough an Āchārya.

The philosophy of Vishishtadvaitam is thus perfectly able to reconcile the conflict between the two testimonies we mentioned in the beginning. Rāmānuja explained that the relation of the soul (jīvāthmā) to God is similar to the relation our body has to the jīvāthmā. So the innermost core of our jīvāthmā, our existence, is none other than God, which can produce the mystical experience of oneness. On the other hand, a jīvāthmā has “layers”, which are modifications and thus distinct from God.

The totality of existence that is unfolded by this is structured into three ontological categories (the three reals):

  • Chit – conscious entities, i.e. the jīvāthmās.
  • Achit – unconscious entities, i.e. the material of which the physical world is made of.
  • Īśvara, God – the owner and controller of Chit an Achit

Our Āchāryas have spend quite a bit of effort to analyze the relation between these entities, as this is the very basis for all practical applications of our philosophy.

So Vishishtadvaitam is philosophically sound, absolutely consistent with both the testimony of the Veda and of mystics from within and outside our religion and is applicable in daily life. We are eternally indebted to the unbroken line of our Āchāryas who formulated, refined and preserved this treasure of knowledge and insight for more than thousand years.

Further Reading:

Adiyen Mādhava Rāmānuja Dasan

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