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Ramanuja ( , , Devanagari: रामानुज) ; traditionally 1017–1137, also known as Ramanujacharya, Ethirajar, Emperumannar, was a theologian, philosopher, and scriptural exegete. He is seen by as the third and most important teacher (ācārya) of their tradition (after Nathamuni and Yamunacharya), and by Hindus in general as the leading expounder of , one of the classical interpretations of the dominant Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy.

Establishing dates

The traditional biographies of Ramanuja place his life in the period of 1017–1137, yielding a lifespan of 120 years. However, the unusual length and roundness of this lifetime has led scholars to propose that Ramanuja was born 20–60 years later, and died as many as 20 years earlier than the traditional dates. Any chronology depends crucially on the major historical event mentioned in the traditional biographies: the persecution of Vaishnavas under the Chola king Kulothunga and Ramanuja's subsequent 12-year exile in Melkotemarker, in Karnatakamarker.

In 1917, T. A. Gopinatha Rao proposed a chronology based on the traditional lifetime of 1017–1137. He identified the Chola king with Kulothunga Chola I (reigned 1070-1120), and dated the exile to Melkote from 1079 to 1126 CE ( cited in ). However, this would extend the period of exile to 47 years, and in any case, Kulothunga I was not known for being an intolerate Shaivite.

A different chronology was proposed by T. N. Subramanian, an official in the Madras government ( cited in ). This chronology identifies the Chola King with Kulothunga Chola II, who reigned from 1133–50 and was known for his persecution of Vaisnavites. It puts Ramanuja's exile from c. 1137 to 1148. Subramanian's hypothesis is aided by a fragment from the late Tamil biography Rāmānujārya Divya Caritai, which states that Ramanuja completed his most important work, the , in 1155–56. Nevertheless, temple inscriptions in Karnataka indicate the presence of Ramanuja and his disciples before 1137. hypothesizes that the traditional biographers conflated two different visits to Mysore into one. This later chronology has been accepted by several scholars, yielding a tentative lifetime of 1077–1157.

Whatever the precise dates of Ramanuja's lifetime, it seems clear that all three of the great ācāryas lived under the relatively stable and ecumenical climate of the Chola empire, before its decline in the late 12th and 13th centuries .

Historical background

By the 5th century, the South Indian religious scene was diverse, with popular religion existing alongside Vedic sacrifice and non-Vedic traditions like Buddhism and Jainism. Indeed, the title character of the sixth century Tamil Buddhist epic Manimekalai is advised at one point to study the various Hindu schools of philosophy, such as Sankhya and Vaisheshika as well as Buddhism, Ajivika, Cārvāka, and Jainism. It was in this context that fears of a Buddhist or Jain takeover spurred a large Hindu revival that reached its peak in the 7th century and continued nearly into the 2nd millennium.

The popular aspects of this revival took the shape of several mystical and passionate bhakti movements, represented on the Vaishnavite side by the twelve alvars. The alvars came from a variety of social strata; their ranks include shudras and one woman. The intense devotionalism of their poetry and insistence that caste and sex are no barrier to a relationship with the Divine is uncharacteristic of classical Vedic thought, which laid a strong emphasis on the performance of the social and religious duties proper to one's place in the social structure. Some of these were collected into a definitive canon known as the Nālāyira Divya Prabandha ("divine composition of 4000 verses"), by Nathamuni in the 10th century, and came to be seen as a source of revelation equal in authority to the Vedas in the community.

On the philosophical side, this period saw the rise of the Vedanta school of philosophy, which focused on the elucidation and exegesis of the speculative and philosophical Vedic commentaries known as the Upanishads. The Advaita, or non-dualist interpretation of Vedanta was developed in this time by Adi Shankara and later by Maṇḍana Miśra. It argued that the Brahman presented in the Upanishads is the static and undifferentiated absolute reality, and that the ultimately false perception of difference is due to avidyā, or ignorance.

The goal of proving the Vedantic legitimacy of the popular conception of a personal deity and a genuine personal identity essentially characterizes Ramanuja's project, and the Advaitin school presents a natural object for his polemics. It is this synthesis between the classical Sanskrit writings and the popular Tamil poetry that is the source of one of the names of Ramanuja's system: Ubhaya Vedānta, or "Vedanta of both kinds."

Evaluating sources

In dealing with the lives of the Vedantic teachers, there is little in the way of actual history, and it is thus necessary to make reference to the many hagiographical works—both in verse and prose—that form a major genre in both Sanskrit and South Indian vernaculars.

The earliest such hagiographies in prose is the (the "six thousand" splendour of the succession of teachers) (not to be confused with the well-known commentary on the Divya Prabandha of the same length, also commonly referred to as the "Six Thousand"). This was written by in the 13th century in a highly Sanskritized dialect of Tamil known as . Perhaps earlier was a Sanskrit work of poetry, the Divya Sūri Carita or Acts of the Divine Sages, probably written in the 12th century by , a contemporary disciple of Ramanuja's.

In later times, a number of traditional biographies proliferated, such as the 16th or 17th century Sanskrit work and, following the split of the community into the and , various sectarian works. The or the "Three Thousand" Splendor of the Succession of Teachers by Brahmatantra Svatantra Jīyar represents the earliest biography, and reflects the view of the succession following Ramanuja. , or "Six Thousand" Splendor of the Succession of Teachers referred in the previous paragraph represents the Tenkalai biography.

The various biographies differ in emphasis, facts, and sometimes even entire episodes. In general, the later biographies tend to be more fanciful and elaborate, and the and biographies reflect their sectarian outlook: for instance, the biographies tend to emphasize episodes that reflect more liberal attitudes toward caste on Ramanuja's part, while the biographies generally minimize them. These generalizations are often inaccurate, but the differences in the biographies do at any rate reflect the difficulty of coming up with a single historical narrative. Nonetheless, the traditional biographies agree in most of the facts of Ramanuja's life, and thus an outline of Ramanuja's life and achievements can be sketched.

Formative years

Ramanuja was born Ilaya Perumal in a Brahmin family in the village of Perumbudurmarker, Tamil Nadumarker, India in 1017 CE. His father was Asuri Keshava Somayaji Deekshitar and mother was Kanthimathi in sect of Vadama. To quote from Shyam Ranganathan's article on Ramanuja at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "From a young age he is reputed to have displayed a prodigious intellect and liberal attitudes towards caste. At this time he became friendly with a local, saintly Sudra (member of the servile caste) by the name of Kancipurna, whose occupation was to perform services for the local temple idol of the Hindu deity Vishnu. Ramanuja admired Kancipurna's piety and devotion to Vishnu and sought Kancipurna as his guru-much to the horror of Kancipurna who regarded Ramanuja's humility before him as an affront to caste propriety."

Shortly after being married in his teenage years, and after his father died, Ramanuja and his family moved to the neighboring city of Kancipuram. There Ramanuja found his first formal teacher, Yadavaprakasha, who was an accomplished professor of the form of the Vedanta philosophy that was in vogue at the time-a form of Vedanta that has strong affinities to Shankara's Absolute Idealistic Monism (Advaita Vedanta) but was also close to the Difference-and-non-difference view (Bhedabheda Vedanta). ("Vedanta" means the 'end of the Vedas' and refers to the philosophy expressed in the end portion of the Vedas, also known as the Upanishads, and encoded in the cryptic summary by Badharayana called the Vedanta Sutra or Brahma Sutra. The perennial questions of Vedanta are: what is the nature of Brahman, or the Ultimate, and what is the relationship between the multiplicity of individuals to this Ultimate. Vedanta comprises one of the six orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy.) "

From a young age, his intelligence and ability to comprehend highly abstract philosophical points were legendary. He took initiation from Yadavaprakasa, a renowned Advaitic scholar. Though his new guru was highly impressed with his analytical ability, he was quite concerned by how much emphasis Ramanuja placed on bhakti. After frequent clashes over interpretation, Yadavaprakasa decided the young Ramanuja was becoming too much of a threat and plotted a way to kill him. However, Ramanuja's cousin Govinda Bhatta (a favourite of Yadavaprakasa) discovered the plot and helped him escape. An alternative version is that one of Yadavaprakasa's students plotted to kill Ramanuja as a means of pleasing their teacher, but Sri Ramanuja escaped in the afore-mentioned manner. Yadavaprakasa was horrified when learnt about the conspiracy. Ramanuja returned to Yadavaprakasa's tutelage but after another disagreement, Yadavaprakasa asked him to leave. Ramanuja's childhood mentor, Kancipurna, suggested he meet with Kancipurna's own guru, Yamunacharya. After renouncing the life of a house-holder, Ramanuja travelled to Srirangammarker to meet an aging Yamunacharya, a philosopher of the remergent Vishishtadvaita school of thought. Yamunacharya had died prior to Ramanuja's arrival. Followers of Ramanuja relate the legend that three fingers of Yamunacharya's corpse were curled. Ramanuja saw this and understood that Yamunacharya was concerned about three tasks. Ramanuja vowed to complete these--
  • Teach the doctrine of Saranagati (surrender) to God as the means to moksha.
  • Write a Visishtadvaita Bhashya for the Brahma Sutras of Vyasa which had previously been taught orally to the disciples of the Visishtadvaita philosophy.
  • That the names of Paraśara, the author of Vishnu Purana, and saint Śaţhakopa should be perpetuated.
Legend goes that on hearing the vow, the three fingers on the corpse straightened.Ramanuja accepted Yamunacharya as his Manasika Acharya and spent 6 months being introduced to Yamunacharya's philosophy by his disciple, Mahapurna although he did notformally join the community for another year. Ramanuja's wife followed very strict brahminical rules of the time and disparaged Mahapurna's wife as being of lower subcaste. Mahapurna and his wife left Srirangam. Ramanuja realized that his life as a householder was interfering with his philosophical pursuit as he and his wife had differing views. He sent her to her parent's house and renounced family and became a sanyasin.Ramanuja started travelling the land, having philosophical debates with the custodians of various Vishnu temples. Many of them, after losing the debates, became his disciples. Ramanuja standardized the liturgy at these temples and increased the standing and the membership of the srivaishnava school of thought. He wrote his books during this time.Ramanuja, who was a Vaishnavite, might have faced threats from some Shaivite Chola rulers who were religiously intolerant . Ramanuja and a few of his followers moved to the Hoysala kingdom of Jain king Bittideva and queen Shantala Devi in Karnataka. Bittideva converted to Srivaishanavism, in some legends after Ramanuja cured his daughter of evil spirits, and took the name Vishnuvardhana meaning "one who grows the sect of Vishnu". However, the queen and many of the ministers remained Jain and the kingdom was known for its tolerance. Ramanuja re-established the liturgy in the Cheluvanarayana temple in Melukotemarker In Mandya District and Vishnuvardhana re-built it and also built other Vishnu temples like Chennakesava Temple and Hoysaleswara Temple.

Five acharyas

Swami Ramanuja incorporated teachings from 5 different people who he considered to be his acharyas

  1. Peria Nambigal who performed his samasrayana
  2. Thirukkotiyur Nambigal : who revealed the meaning of Charama slokam to swami on his 18th trip
  3. Periya Thirumalai Nambigal : Ramayana
  4. Tirumalai Aandaan : Bhagavad Vishayam
  5. Azhwar Thiruvaranga Perumal Arayar

Thirukachchi Nambigal : The 6 sentences or PErarulAlan, and many others

Visishtadvaita philosophy

Ramanuja's philosophy is referred to as Vishishtadvaita because it combines Advaita (oneness of God) with Vishesha (attributes).

Differences with Shankara

Adi Shankara had argued that all qualities or manifestations that can be perceived are unreal and temporary. Ramanuja believed them to be real and permanent and under the control of the Brahman. God can be one despite the existence of attributes, because they cannot exist alone; they are not independent entities. They are Prakaras or the modes, Sesha or the accessories, and Niyama or the controlled aspects, of the one Brahman.

In Ramanuja’s system of philosophy, the Lord (Narayana) has two inseparable Prakaras or modes, namely, the world and the souls. These are related to Him as the body is related to the soul. They have no existence apart from Him. They inhere in Him as attributes in a substance. Matter and souls constitute the body of the Lord. The Lord is their indweller. He is the controlling Reality. Matter and souls are the subordinate elements. They are termed Viseshanas, attributes. God is the Viseshya or that which is qualified.

Ramanuja opines, wrong is the position of the Advaitins that understanding the Upanishads without knowing and practicing dharma can result in Brahman knowledge. The knowledge of Brahman that ends spiritual ignorance is meditational, not testimonial or verbal.

In contrast to Shankara, Ramanuja holds that there is no knowledge source in support of the claim that there is a distinctionless (homogeneous) Brahman. All knowledge sources reveal objects as distinct from other objects. All experience reveals an object known in some way or other beyond mere existence. Testimony depends on the operation of distinct sentence parts (words with distinct meanings). Thus the claim that testimony makes known that reality is distinctionless is contradicted by the very nature of testimony as a knowledge means. Even the simplest perceptual cognition reveals something (Bessie) as qualified by something else (a broken hoof, “Bessie has a broken hoof,” as known perceptually). Inference depends on perception and makes the same distinct things known as does perception.

He also holds that the Advaitin argument about prior absences and no prior absence of consciousness is wrong. Similarly the Advaitin understanding of a-vidya (not-Knowledge), which is the absence of spiritual knowledge, is incorrect. “If the distinction between spiritual knowledge and spiritual ignorance is unreal, then spiritual ignorance and the self are one.”

The Seven objections to Shankara's Advaita

Ramanuja picks out what he sees as seven fundamental flaws in the Advaita philosophy to revise them. He argues:

I. The nature of Avidya. Avidya must be either real or unreal; there is no other possibility. But neither of these is possible. If Avidya is real, non-dualism collapses into dualism. If it is unreal, we are driven to self-contradiction or infinite regress.

II. The incomprehensibility of Avidya. Advaitins claim that Avidya is neither real nor unreal but incomprehensible, {anirvachaniya.} All cognition is either of the real or the unreal: the Advaitin claim flies in the face of experience, and accepting it would call into question all cognition and render it unsafe.

III. The grounds of knowledge of Avidya. No pramana can establish Avidya in the sense the Advaitin requires. Advaita philosophy presents Avidya not as a mere lack of knowledge, as something purely negative, but as an obscuring layer which covers Brahman and is removed by true Brahma-vidya. Avidya is positive nescience not mere ignorance. Ramanuja argues that positive nescience is established neither by perception, nor by inference, nor by scriptural testimony. On the contrary, Ramanuja argues, all cognition is of the real.

IV. The locus of Avidya. Where is the Avidya that gives rise to the (false) impression of the reality of the perceived world? There are two possibilities; it could be Brahman's Avidya or the individual soul's {jiva.} Neither is possible. Brahman is knowledge; Avidya cannot co-exist as an attribute with a nature utterly incompatible with it. Nor can the individual soul be the locus of Avidya: the existence of the individual soul is due to Avidya; this would lead to a vicious circle.

V. Avidya's obscuration of the nature of Brahman. Sankara would have us believe that the true nature of Brahman is somehow covered-over or obscured by Avidya. Ramanuja regards this as an absurdity: given that Advaita claims that Brahman is pure self-luminous consciousness, obscuration must mean either preventing the origination of this (impossible since Brahman is eternal) or the destruction of it - equally absurd.

VI. The removal of Avidya by Brahma-vidya. Advaita claims that Avidya has no beginning, but it is terminated and removed by Brahma-vidya, the intuition of the reality of Brahman as pure, undifferentiated consciousness. But Ramanuja denies the existence of undifferentiated {nirguna} Brahman, arguing that whatever exists has attributes: Brahman has infinite auspicious attributes. Liberation is a matter of Divine Grace: no amount of learning or wisdom will deliver us.

VII. The removal of Avidya. For the Advaitin, the bondage in which we dwell before the attainment of Moksa is caused by Maya and Avidya; knowledge of reality (Brahma-vidya) releases us. Ramanuja, however, asserts that bondage is real. No kind of knowledge can remove what is real. On the contrary, knowledge discloses the real; it does not destroy it. And what exactly is the saving knowledge that delivers us from bondage to Maya? If it is real then non-duality collapses into duality; if it is unreal, then we face an utter absurdity.

Bhagavad Ramanuja taught his followers to highly respect all Sri Vaishnavas irrespective of caste.

Cited from Sri Ramanuja, His Life, Religion, and Philosophy, published by Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India.


Ramanuja may have written 9 books. They are also referred to as the nine precious gems, the Navarathnas.
  • His most famous work is known as the Sri Bhasya or Brahma Sutra Bhasya. It is a commentary on the Brahma Sutras.
  • Gadhya Thrayam (three prose hymns). All three are important works in Vaishnava philosophy:
  • Vedartha Sangraha (a resume of Vedanta). It sets out Ramanuja’s philosophy, which is theistic (it affirms a morally perfect, omniscient and omnipotent God) and realistic (it affirms the existence and reality of a plurality of qualities, persons and objects).
  • Vedanta Saara (essence of Vedanta) an appendix to Sri Bhasya
  • Vedanta Deepa (the light of Vedanta), another appendix/commentary to Sri Bhasya.
  • Gita Bhashya ( his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita)
  • Nithya Grantham (About the day to day activities to be performed by all Sri Vaishnavas)

Samadhi mandir

Ramanuja's thiruvarasu (sacred burial shrine) is the Ramanuja shrine (sannidhi) located inside the Sri Ranganathaswamy temple (periyakoyil or simply koyil) Srirangam, Tamil Nadu within the temple complex, where he attained his Acharyan Thiruvadi (the lotus foot of his Acharya). His mortal remains (thirumeni) have been interred inside the Sri Ramanuja shrine and on top of it his wax look-alike deity has been consecrated and it is anointed with chandan (sandalwood paste) and saffron (kungumappoo).His shrine is open to the general public for darshan.

A living tradition

Ramanuja's achievements are visible to this day. Iyengar Brahmins in South India follow his philosophical tradition. The Tamil prabhandas are chanted at Vishnu temples on par with the Sanskrit vedas. Persons of all communities, and not just Brahmins, are given roles in rituals at Srirangam and other leading temples. The philosophic discources have been passed on to subseaquent generations by great successors like Pillai Lokacharya, Vedanta Desika and Manavala Mamuni who lived in the 13th and 14th centuries .Several accounts suggest that Ramanuja was an incarnation of Sri AdiSesha.

There are however stories of tragedy as well. In 1564.C.E, a pontiff of a mutt commited to Ramanuja's philosophy by name venkatacharya who was visiting puri in orissa which also had an important buddist vihara, was challenged at that place by a theravada buddist pontiff from srilanka namely sree sangabodhi dharmadasar in a polemical debate. The "vaishnavite seer" was defeated and being unable to bear the humiliation of the loss had jumped into the river mahanadi and committed suicide.

Srivaishnavas hold 108 sacred temples sung by azhwars as dhivyakshetras. In almost all the divyakshetrams, the prabhandha seva or the chanting of Tamil Vedas start with the invocation to Sri Manavala Mamuni as follows:

Srisailesa dhaya pathram dheebhakthyadhi gunarnavam Yatheendra pravanam vandhe Ramyajamataram munim.

The above sloka was first recited by none other than Swami Ranganatha of Srirangam after listening to Mamuni's rendering of the Eedu Muppatharayairam, the celebrated commentary of Nampillai on Nammazhvar's thiruvaimozhi. In this reverential verse the Lord describes Mamuni as His preceptor.

At homes and temples, the chanting concludes with

Srimathe Ramyajamamathru muneendhraya Mahathmane Sriranga vasine bhooyath nithyasri nithya mangalamThis is an auspicious verse showing special love towards Srirangam and Mamuni

Also, in the Vadakalai/Ubhayakalai sampradaya, this thaniyan is chanted at the start of the prabhandas:

Ramanuja dhaya pathram gnana vairagya bhushanam, srimath venkata natharyam vande vedanta desikam

Sri Ranganatha and Periya Piratti have also shown their love for Srimad Vedanta Desikar with Sri Ranganayaki Thayar herself proclaiming Sri Desikan as Kavitharkika Simham


  1. ,
  2. For further information on Vedantic hagiographies, see .
  3. The "Six Thousand" refers to the number of or granthas, units of 32 syllables.
  4. Some modern authors have argued for a date two centuries later, and give the actual author as a descendant of the traditional one, pointing out that is a family title. This possibility has been argued at greater length by .)


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