ŚrīVaiṣṇavam for Newcomers – Who is Rāmānuja?

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.

Rāmānuja (Rāmānujāchārya) is a pivotal Āchārya (teacher) in our tradition. He war born in the year 1017 in Sriperumbudur, a town near Chennai (formerly Madras), south India. He was at the same time a first-class philosopher and theologian who dominated the intellectual landscape of his time, a very humble devotee of God and a devoted servant of his godbrothers and sisters as well as humanity as a whole.

Rāmānuja fought excesses of the caste system by allowing people of all castes and groups into temples and was open to accepting them as his disciples – more than 950 years ago. He implemented a strong sense of mutual respect and service amongst his followers, which crosses all boundaries of society and is very much alive until today.

Rāmānuja corrected misinterpretations of the Vedic literature and proved that every letter of Veda is authentic and authoritative, there no need to create secondary meanings in order to solve seeming contradictions. This was common practice before him. The philosopher Shankara (Śankarāchārya), who lived about 150 years before Rāmānuja, had classified the Veda into significant and less significant parts, claiming that some verses mean something very different from what they say in the Word. This was based on very complicated grammatical arguments, which were however widely accepted by intellectuals before Rāmānuja.

The correction was made possible by Rāmānuja’s refinement and systematization of the Vishishtadvaita philosophy. Our tradition and academic researchers agree that Vishishtadvaita existed long before Rāmānuja, but in a less organized form. Vishishtadvaita perfectly reconciles the testimony of an impersonal-monistic God with the testimony of a personal-dualistic God we both find in the Veda.

In spite of his great merit, Rāmānuja is hardly known to the western world in general and is unknown even to most sincere spiritual seekers in the western world. This is in stark contrast to the interest of the indological research. Amongst others, the Austrian Academy of Sciences has issued a seven volume series of academic books centered around Rāmānuja and his tradition.

Academic research has clearly shown that Rāmānuja’s philosophical / theological work is of the highest intellectual quality and has been an important factor in shaping the debates of Indian scholars over the centuries. One can imagine Rāmānuja’s position in the Indian intellectual history as a pivot, maybe similar to Kant in the European intellectual history. He has laid the intellectual foundations for the so called Bhakti movement, which proposed a very personal, intimate and relatively informal relation to God. Note that the direct followers of Rāmānuja do not see themselves as Bhaktas (people practicing Bhakti). The Bhakti movement was a major factor that shaped modern Hinduism, it produced dozens of offshoots over the centuries all over India. The Hare Krishna movement is probably the most prominent Bhakti group in the west.

But in contrast to European philosophers like Kant, Rāmānuja was an Āchārya, i.e. a teacher who lived what he taught at the highest standards. For while in our modern culture it is quite conceivable that someone holds lectures on ethics and at the same time deceives his wife, this would be inconceivable for an Āchārya.

Thus, Rāmānuja is an embodiment of perfection, somebody who was perfected not only in his intellect but also in all aspects of his practice. In today’s time, when so many people are spiritually searching and sadly so often filled with spiritual junk food or barely digestible fragments, perhaps even deceived or exploited, the living tradition of Rāmānuja represents a lighthouse in the fog of commerce and confusion. Rāmānuja and his successors pursue philosophy and theology at the highest intellectual level, at the same time living practice, both spiritually and in social cohesion. They are willing to hand down invaluable treasures of knowledge and practice to everybody who sincerely seeks to be a follower of Rāmānuja.

Further Reading:

Adiyen Mādhava Rāmānuja Dasan

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