Ramanuja (traditional dates 1017-1137, according to Romila Thapar) is the last of the titans after Shankaracharya and Udayana who occupied the centre stage of Indian philosophical and religious thought in the medieval age. Born at Tirupati in a Tamil brahman family, he was a teacher in the reputed temple at Srirangam for a considerable period. Ramanuja’s path to God was close to the common people’s ideal, it was the path of pure and unalloyed devotion of a Vaishnavite.
Unlike Shankara, who stressed that knowledge was the only way to salvation, Ramanuja said that knowledge was one of the means but not as effective as devotion when the devotee is entirely lost in God. Ramanuja’s God is almost a personal one, establishing a relationship with the devotee through love and forgiveness. His standpoint is midway between the devotional cults and Hindu theology, bringing together these two divergent trends.
Like Shankaracharya’s teachings earlier, Ramanuja’s ideas were also transmitted to centres of Hindu learning and philosophy and were debated and discussed. His idea of God’s forgiveness also gave rise to two schools of thought.
One group, known as the Northern School held the view that this forgiveness is what man should strive for and through this eventually attain salvation. The other group, the Southern School believed that it is upto God to chose the people who would attain salvation. This concept was further elaborated upon by Madhava, a thirteenth century Vaishnavite theologian.
The distinguishing feature of Ramanuja’s doctrine is that it attempts to integrate personal theism with the philosophy of the Absolute. Two currents of thought, traceable far back into antiquity, combine here, which explains its acceptance among the masses, the intellectuals as well as the commoners.
The theism is of the Bhagavata kind; a benevolent, merciful God who bestows his favours on those who want him whole-heartedly, single-mindedly (ekantin). The philosophical component is close to Brahma- parinama-vada of the Upanishads.
The synthesis of theism with the philosophy of the Absolute is also old and can be traced even in parts of the Veda itself. Ramanuja attempted to formulate this old synthesis against Sankaracharya’s absolutist philosophy and its apparent negations; his attempt was to give the Hindus their souls back, in the words of Max Mueller.
Visistadvaita, the doctrine of Ramanuja is also called Ubhaya-Vedanta, having regard to its twin sources of authority. The first is the Veda including the Upanishads and the Puranas. The second is the literature of the South in Tamil which contained Vedic as well as non-Vedic thoughts. Nathamuni (ad 1000) was a famous name in this work of synthesis, but none of his writings have been discovered.
His grandson Alavandar or Yamunacharya (1050) wrote some texts on Visistadvaita as it was before Ramanuja took up its systematisation. These are Agama-pramanya, Mahapurusa-Nirnaya (a Tract on Vishnu’s supremacy over Siva) Gitartha-Sangraha, Siddhi-Traya and two hymns, Sri Stuti and Vishnu-stuti}. Ramanuja, also known as Yati-Raj (Prince of Ascetics) was believed to be Alavandar’s pupil’s pupil.
The Sri-Bhasya was Ramanuja’s commentary on the Vedanta-Sutra, and Vedartha-samagraha was his treatise of the principles of his doctrine. These two texts along with his commentary on the Bhagavad- Gita form the scriptural base of Visistadvaita.
Ramanuja’s other works include Vedanta-sara, Vedanta- dipa, Gadya-traya and Nitya-grantha\ the last one is a manual on forms of worship. Various authors after him continued writing on Visistadvaita, some as late as ad 1700 (Yatindra-mata-dipika by Srimvasacharya).
Ramanuja maintains along with others that knowledge implies both a subject and an object but differs when he says that discrimination is essential to all knowledge. Visistadvaita says that all perceptual experience involves some kind of judgement, Furthermore, in addition to judgement, recognition takes into account the factor of time and place.
A unique feature of Ramanuja’s doctrine is his classification of ultimate objects. He adds jnana to chetana (spirit) and jada (matter) and says it can only show, but cannot know. It is like a ray of light which can show an object as also itself but cannot know either.
The process of knowing, as described by Ramanuja consists of a beginning from the soul, then reaching the manas, emerging through the senses and finally meeting the object, when it takes the form of that object (akara) and thus reveals it to the subject in question. This dharma-bhuta-jnana conception is similar to the Antah-Karana in Advaita which also goes out to objects and assumes their forms before giving rise to knowledge.
However, Antah-Karana needs the saksin to transform it into jnana, here jnana is in itself. In this process, objects are viewed as existing before they are known and as they are independent of the self or knowledge which brings them in relation with it, their reality is absolute. This realistic position is brought forth by the Vedantic doctrine of quintuplication or panchi-karan, in which objects of the material world are composed of the five Bhutas.
It would be, therefore, apparent that for all practical purposes a thorough knowledge of the surroundings is not necessary for the living. Knowledge, according to Ramanuja, not only has to expose reality but also to serve the practical purposes of life. If a choice is to be made, Ramanuja’s preference is for the first. He values knowledge ‘more for the light it brings than for the fruit it bears’. In sansara, jnana operates under constraints because defects of one kind or the other prevent it from becoming fully active.
So common knowledge does not reveal reality. Only in moksha, when all the shortcomings are removed and chances of error are eliminated, full revelation becomes possible. With regard to pramana, Ramanuja accepts three: perception, inference and verbal testimony. Upto this point, he is in agreement with Shankara’s views, but he differs while explaining the seemingly antithetical nature of the two parts of the Vedas.
Shankara’s position is that the antithesis is entirely in keeping with the form of Advaitic teaching where learners are graded. The Purva [Karma) Kanda is meant for the starters, the freshers who are still under the spell of Avidya, while the Uttara (Jnana) Kanda is for the seniors who having realized the hollowness of it all are striving to transcend them.
Ramanuja sees no antithesis at all and says that both the sections are meant for the same class of persons because the Uttara-Kanda reveals the nature of God while the Purva Kanda gives the methods of worshipping Him. In this he not only differs from Shankara but also from the Mimamsaks. Another point of departure is Ramanuja’s stress on the Pancharatragama, which establishes the supremacy of Vishnu over Siva.
The Ultimate and Real to Ramanuja are the tattva-traya of achit (matter), chit (soul) and Isvara, the first two being dependent on the last like the body being dependent on soul. This is Aprithak-Siddhi, the pivot on which his whole philosophy rests. An example of this is a blue lotus, where blueness is quite distinct from the lotus because quality cannot be the same as substance. But blueness is not external to the lotus, because the two terms ‘blue’ and ‘lotus’ although having different meanings, refer to Prakaryadvaita (the same substance).
This identity is found not only in substance and its attributes, but also in substance and its modes, e.g., clay and pot. The major member of such entities is prakarin, the minor prakara. This is the cardinal point of the teaching of the Upanishads according to Ramanuja. The other premise of his is that just as all prakaras (forms) lead to God, similarly all names are His names, every word becomes a symbol of Him and finally leads to Him (Vedanta Vyutpatti).
At the time of Ramanuja, Vaishnavism was fully developed, and having within its fold quite a number of saintly people with renowned mystic power. What it lacked was Upanishadic support, a deficiency acutely felt after Shankara’s precise exposition of Advaita. Visistadvaita provided the needed support, the synthesis in it was the result of practical exigency.
Moksha in Visistadvaita is a release from mundane existence. At this stage, the prakritic body of the jiva is replaced by a perfect one and it is all joy and bliss. Unfortunately, those who belong to one of. the three higher castes of the society are eligible to receive instructions in the Veda and the Upanishads and this restricts the number of entrants who can follow the course. Visistadvaita therefore has another way which can be followed by anyone irrespective of caste or rank. That is known as praptti.
The word is derived from pra-pad, meaning to take refuge with or ‘to piously resign’, and points to a belief that salvation is obtained through free grace. It is described as flinging oneself on God’s compassion. It consists in absolute self-surrender, and signifies a resolve to follow the will of God, not to cross His purposes, to believe that He will save, to seek help from Him and Him alone and to yield up one’s spirit to Him in all meekness. “
A single moment of seriousness and sincerity is considered enough. “The inclusion by Ramanuja in his doctrine of a means to salvation which is accessible to all, explains the wide popularity it has always commanded”, and the social uplift of the lower classes to which it has led is of great value in the history of India”, says M. Hiriyanna.