Today is the appearance day of Sri Ramanujacarya (1017-1137) the great Vaishnava teacher and saint. Having recently been to southern India where his influence is all pervasive, I wanted to share some of my thoughts on his distant yet very real contribution to ourselves.
Firstly, as modern day Vaishnavas within ISKCON, we have a great deal for which to be thankful to Ramanuja. Although our spiritual lineage is traced through Madhva of the Brahma sampradaya who came into the world a century later (1238-1317) we should appreciate that much of the ground work for the spreading of Vaishnavism had been enacted previously.
Ramanuja worked tirelessly for decades, taking the timeless message of a Sentient Absolute to thousands of locations in south India. He wrote at least six very important books, defeated in public debate the greatest philosophers of the day, influenced kings, established or improved deity worship in thousands of temples, and left behind him an enormous and geographically widespread fellowship of Vaishnavas.
It is said that Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the incarnation of Radha and Krishna, came to harmonise all the four sampradayas, or disciplic successions, into one single lineage for the Kali Yuga. Accordingly he took elements of each and incorporated them into his teachings. Ramanuja comes in the disciplic succession from Sri, or Lakshmi, the eternal consort of Lord Narayana. The acarya particularly emphasised the ceremonial worship of the archa-avatara, the murti of the Supreme within the temple or the home. He also gave great importance to the service of the Vaishnavas, who themselves carry the knowledge and compassion of the Lord and who are therefore His divine instruments upon the surface of the Earth.
Sri Chaitanya’s desire for the harmony of the sampradayas resulted in one of Ramanuja’s disciplic descendants from Sri Rangam becoming his confidential follower. His name was Gopala Bhatta Das Goswami, one of the Six Goswamis of Vrindavan. He compiled a textbook of deity worship, now followed by present day Vaishnavas around the world.
Ramanuja saw no caste or gender distinction for Vaishnavas and upheldthe tradition that anyone can act as guru who knows the science of Krishna. Indeed, much of Ramanuja’s life, teachings and mission are revealing for us since nearly a millenium ago he faced and dealt with similar predicaments to ourselves.
Ramanuja had five major acaryas who taught and moulded him as a disciple. We in modern times also have multiple spiritual influences upon us, serving as we do in a movement where there are numerous elevated devotees, each of whom may present the philosophical conclusions in a slightly different way.
Ramanuja was bitterly disappointed with his first guru (not one of the five) whose followers even conspired to harm him. Perhaps some latter day Vaishnavas have also encountered such disappointment along the path of bhakti. He often had to preach in unfavourable circumstances during reigns of repressive rulers. He was dealing with a public under the sway of impersonalism and atheism. Part of his mission was to raise funds for temple construction or repair, and for the accommodation of new followers. Finally, in order to ensure his lasting contribution to the world, he developed a highly organised mission structure, leaving behind him a select number of initiating gurus (74) who could continue the disciplic lineage on his behalf.