Ramanuja and social justice

Lyrics and recital of Alwars

Alwars of Tamil Nadu wrote and recited devotional songs in Tamil. Their mystical experiences made them weep, dance and sing in praise of God. They were poets, musicians and saints renowned for their piety. They propagated Srivaishnavism through their songs. Prominently sung by them was Nalayira Prabandham, the rare poetic beauty written in a simple language to convey the high philosophical tenets of Srivaishnavism.

The first of the Srivaishnava Acharyas was Natha Muni. He was a great scholar, a yogi and a devotee. He produced musical tunes to Tamil Prabandhams of Alwars, and gave them equal status to that of Vedas. They were sung in temple along with Vedas. Nammalwar’s Tiruvaimoli is famous among such songs sung in temples. Natha Muni brought about many reforms in temple festivals and religious worship. He was asked to look after the management of Srirangam temple. His services to the temple, coupled with revolutionary practices of Srivaishnavism, made Srirangam temple one of the most important shrines of Vishnu.

Natha Muni was succeeded by Pundarikaksha and Ramamishra for two short periods. Then came Yamunacharya, grand son of Natha Muni. He was a great scholar endowed with insight. He wrote many scholarly works on Vishistadvaitha. He died before he could fulfill his desire of writing commentary on Brahma Sutra, according to Vishisadvaitha.

Currently followed practices of Srivaishnavism is the structure established by Ramanujacharya, whose journey till the ultimate narration of commentary on Brahma Sutra, is systematically analysed by Varaaha as follows (artwork relevant to the story is also by Varaaha):

Second among the Traycharyas

Bhoodevi, the daughter of Srisailapurna and a student of Yamunacharya, was married to Asoorikeshava Perumal of Sriperambadur. They had a child with impressive facial appearance. Thirumalai Nambi, another student of Yamunaacharya, suggested that the child be named Ramanuja (brother of Sri Rama – Lakshmana).

Ramanuja grew up to be bright boy. He completed study of Vedas and Vedangas, married and went in search of a teacher who could teach him Vedantha. He became a student of Sri Yadava Prakasha. There were many other students of this Guru. One day, when young Ramanuja did not agree with the teacher’s interpretation of Brahma, the teacher asked him to give his conviction about the subject. Ramanuja said, ‘Truth, Knowledge and Infinite’ is Brahma. The teacher could not disagree, but was angry with the young man for having argued against his interpretation. On another occasion, Ramanuja pointed out an ugly comment made by the teacher on a beautiful sentence from Veda. The teacher Yadava Prakash was so angry that he asked Ramanuja to quit his school. Ramanuja quietly left the place.

Yamunacharya came to know about the scholarly knowledge and intuition of Ramanuja. He even came across an occasion to see the young man placing his view, in Kanchipuram shrine. He was impressed by the appearance of Ramanuja. He prayed God to make the young man an elucidator of his faith. There was a call from Srirangam and Yamunacharya left Kanchipuram for Srirangam.

At Srirangam he projected his philosophy into his discourse on Prabandhams of Alwars. He guided his students to follow the ways of Tiruppanalwar – the low born saint – who pleased god with meditation and love. Yamunacharya grew old and unwell. He felt that his last days were fast approaching. He sent Mahapoorna to Kanchi to bring Ramanuja. But before the arrival of Ramanuja, Yamunacharya breathed his last. Mahapoorna guided Ramanuja to the holy remains of the Acharya.

Ramanuja noticed, that three fingers of Yamunacharya’s dead body were folded. He visualized that the Acharya had three unfulfilled desires. He spoke to the students around and came to know that the Acharya had desired:

1) To express his gratitude to Krishna Vyasa and Parashara,

2) To render affectionate offerings to Nammalwar, and

3) To write commentary on Brahma Sutra to publicize Srivaishanava philosophy.

Ramanuja said, ‘Oh my revered master, I promise to fulfill your three wishes’. Immediately all the three folded fingers opened.

Ramanuja returned to Kanchi with heavy heart. There he met Kancipurna, a student of Yamunacharya, and explained all that he saw in Srirangam. He requested Kanhcipurana to educate him about the inference of Bharadvaja Samhithe. Kanchipoorna agreed and taught him the ideology of the Samhita, ‘Yogis and practitioners of spiritual discipline are born in every religion or caste. It is not right to discriminate them on thier birth’.

Overwhelmed by the ideology, Ramanuja invited Kanchipoorna for lunch in his house, though Kanchipporna was not a Brahmin. Ramanuja wanted to feed him first and then take his food as a respect towards the great attainments of the Yogi. When he came to know that his wife had cleaned the place where she had served him food (took bath and cleaned the kitchen for having served a non – Brahmin), Ramanuja was deeply hurt at his wife’s action.

One day a few hungry people came to his door and begged for food. His wife said, ‘There is nothing in the kitchen to offer you’. After some time Ramanuja found food kept hidden in the kitchen. He was very sorry that the poor people had to go without getting food from his house.

Ramanuja wanted to study books on Dravida tradition and Krishna philosophy. He brought Mahapoorna and his wife to his house and made all arrangements for their comfortable stay. For six months he studied under Mahapoorna. One day he had gone out on some work. When he retuned home, he found that the Guru and his wife had left his house. He came to know that his wife had boasted of the purity of her vessel when compared to that of Mahapoorna’s wife when they met near the well. Mahapoorna, sensing further disputes, had left the place. These three painful mistakes of his wife has forced Ramanuja be a Sanayasi (an ascetic).

To become a Sanyasi, it was required that one should be initiated by a mendicant devotee or by God. Ramanuja became an ascetic at the feet of Lord Varadaraja Swamy. As a Sanyasi, Ramanuja could devote his whole time in fulfilling his promise to Yamunacharya. All the students of Yamunacharya promised their whole hearted support in this great work. Kooresha and Dasharathi became the most devoted students of Ramanuja. Ramanuja now approached his Guru Mahapoorna and requested him to teach all the aspects of Srivaishnavism. Mahapoorna explained the details of the philosophy and asked him to go to Goshtipurna for further knowledge of the subject. Goshtipoorna was a very poor man living in a hut at Thirukolliyur near Pudukote. Ramanuja touched his feet and requested him to teach him the lofty aspects of Srivaishnavism. Goshtipoorna wanted to test his resoluteness and said, “what is there for me to teach!” and left. Ramanuja returned to Srirangam.

Ramanuja went to Thirukottiyur eighteen times. At last Goshtipurna explained the inner meanings of Ashtakshari Manthra ‘Aum Namo Narayanaya’ and asked Ramanuja to keep it for himself. Next day Ramanuja climbed the temple tower, asked people to assemble, and in violation of his promise to keep it for himself, openly taught the masses what he had learnt from Goshtipoorna. The Guru was wild with anger and said, ‘You are bound to go to hell as you have broken the promise given to me’. Ramanuja touched his feet and said, ‘when so many people can go to heaven by reciting the Mantra you taught me, a single soul that is me do not mind going to hell’. Goshtipoorna was stunned to find such a deep love for humanity in Ramanuja. He embraced the young Sanyasi and said, ‘The tenet I taught you was the most secret principle of Vedanta. Hereafter let it be known as your principle’.

Ramanuja returned to Srirangam with the blessing of his Guru. The two students Dasharathi and Kooresha accompanied him. He wrote three books:

(1) Gadyathraya, (2) Nithya and (3) Geetha Bhashya.

Once he addressed a gathering of learned people and asked if any one of them was prepared to go to Tirupathi and maintain a flower garden to serve Srinivasa. Anantha Soori volunteered himself for the task. When Ramanuja visited Tirupathi, he found Anantha Soori in the beautiful garden.

Many people became followers of Ramanuja. The story of each person who surrendered to Ramanuja is magnanimous. Ramanuja toured all over India, and visited holy places. Once he had the same kind of encounter as that of Shankaracharya. He encountered a chandala woman near the temple at the birthplace of Thirumangai Alwar. He asked her to move aside. She did not move, but asked the acharya, where she could go as the whole surrounding was sanctified and she was born an untouchable. Ramanuja asked her with folded hands to excuse him for his ignorance, and said you are more holy than I am.

Dhanurdasa was one of the most important followers of Ramunaja. He was not a Brahmin. Ramanuja after bathing in Kaveri every day, used to throw his arms around Dhanurdasa’s shoulders and walk to reach the river bank. This enraged the Brahmin followers. They demanded Ramanuja’s clarification. Ramanuja said, ‘Dear Vaishanavas, you know that scholarship, wealth and high birth make man arrogant. Dhanurdasa is free from all the three kinds of arrogance. River kaveri can clean our body. But man’s mind can be cleaned by the touch of a great devotee’. The Brahmin followers fully agreed with their master’s views.

Ramanuja’s teachings attracted masses. The Chola king of those days was a Shaiva. He could not tolerate Ramanuja’s Srivaishnavism. The king wanted to force Ramanuja to accept Shiva as the supreme power and not Vishnu. He ordered Ramanuja to be brought to the court. When the king’s men came, Ramanuja had gone out. Kooresha, the trusted student, could guess king’s evil intention. He dressed himself with the clothes of Ramanuja, and went with the soldiers posing himself as Ramanuja. The king believing him to be Ramanuja ordered him to openly declare that Shiva alone was the supreme power. Kuresha (in the garb of Ramanuja) said, ‘Aum Namo Narayanayana’. The king was very angry and ordered his eyes to be plucked out.

When Ramanuja returned home, he came to know about Kuresha’s plight. The other students forced Ramanuja to wear plain clothes and leave the state. Ramanuja with a few followers left Tamil Nadu and came to Melukote, in Karnataka State, India. He lived and worked in Melukote for 14 years. The Hoysala king Vittala Deva Raya and his wife Shanthala Devi, who were Jains, accepted Srivaishavism. Ramanuja named the king Vishnuvardhana. As the mark of his conversion, the king built Chennakeshava temple at Belur.

The pageant idol of the deity Cheluvaraya Swami of melukote was carried away by a Muslim invader from Delhi. Ramanuja made an expedition to Delhi to get back the idol. Untouchables helped the expedition to make way through forest, towards Delhi. At Delhi, the daughter of the Muslim warrior refused to part with the idol. But when her father handed over the idol to Ramanuja, she decided to go to Melukote with the idol. Today one can see an image named Bebbi Nachiyar at the foot of the idol of Narayana Swamy. Ramanuja was highly thankful to the untouchables, who helped them in their expedition. He embraced their leader and said, ‘You are not untouchables. You belong to a noble clan’. He permitted them to enter the temple.

Long before Gandhiji’s movement to eradicate social injustice, Ramanuja had succeeded in bringing about a change.

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