The Sri Vaishnava poet Vedanta Deshika (1268-1387)
The year was 1315 and Vedanta Deshika, the great Sri Vaishnava poet, was writing a book about the transmission of spiritual knowledge. He was trying to think of an analogy for the importance of devotion to the acarya, the foremost spiritual preceptor, when he remembered something his nephew, Mutaliyantan, had said to him:
“When a lion leaps from one hill to another, the little ants on its body are transported with him. Similarly, when Ramanujacarya leaped over this world of repeated birth and death, we were saved because of our connection with him.”
The saving grace of the guru and the reciprocal devotion of the disciple has always been an essential feature of Vaishnavism, particularly when the guru is a powerful and revolutionary teacher such as Ramanujacarya, who left such a tremendous impact upon the entire tradition.
Yet although he was such a unifying force for generations of Sri Vaishnavas, who numbered in their tens of thousands, discussions on the precise position of Ramanujacarya also became the cause of divergence within the community over the ensuing centuries. It was Ramanuja who claimed that he was the link with God for all who followed him, and yet to continue the parampara he had also empowered seventy-four of his senior disciples as simhasanadhipatis, or ‘throne-holders’ who would conduct initiations after his demise.
As the centuries passed, various theological differences arose between the followers of the acarya, very gradually creating rifts in the community. Some Sri Vaishnavas stressed that the causeless grace of God was the all-important factor in spiritual emancipation, and that there was no independent means by which this grace could be achieved. Only God has the power and the free will to award it. Others argued that personal surrender to God (prapatti) was the most important consideration, since our efforts can attract God’s grace.
Another issue was the saving grace of the guru. Was it the grace of the acarya, Ramanuja, coming down to the disciple that was the most important factor for spiritual emancipation, or was it the guru who was instructing and guiding the disciple within the world? Who was the greatest conduit of divine grace? On the one hand, Ramanujacarya had promised that he would personally intercede with God for his followers, and seems not to have put time limits on this promise; on the other, he installed 74 gurus for all practical educational, training and sacramental purposes.
When considering these and other questions in the 14th century it might have been reasoned, by those in favour of causeless grace, that the redeeming power of the acarya – himself so close to God – was the uppermost guru in the life of the disciple. Those who regarded personal efforts as a prerequisite to grace might have deemed contemporary tuition and guidance as most important. These divergent ideas, it should be noted, were not distinctly different philosophies creeping into the sampradaya, merely differences in emphasis of parts of the same philosophy.
Gradually these differences of opinion resulted in two distinct schools, one in the north known as the Vadagalai, who tended towards regarding the acarya as more important than the guru, and the southern community known as the Tenkalai, who stressed the guru as the focal point of one’s surrender and therefore as more directly relevant than the acarya. I should remind readers at this point, since the parallels with our modern-day ISKCON will not have escaped them, that it does not appear – at least in my limited reading – that the southern Vaishnavas disregarded their acarya because they accepted their contemporary guru as their point of surrender. Neither did those of the northern school become dismissive of initiation because they had accepted the grace previously offered by their acarya. Rather, everyone worshipped Ramanujacarya and everyone became initiated by one of the contemporary lineage holders. That was, and still is, Vaishnava culture.
Everyone understood the necessity of having a guru so that they could learn proper pronunciation of the Vedas, the correct understanding of Vaishnava doctrine free from the beginner’s tendency to speculate, and the daily practises and rituals of sadhana-bhakti. They also understood the obvious principle that the student needed to have a relationship of friendship and service with that guru so that the guru would bless the student.
A thousand years later, when we can have apparent relationships with remote others through technology that removes true human understanding, where we can learn from recordings and writings yet fail to really grasp a subject; and in an age where the service offered to the teacher is simply the money charged, and where even money itself can be simply blips on an electronic screen; perhaps, in such a depersonalised, dehumanised age we have lost something.
Perhaps it is only us, stuck in the darkness of an advancing Kali-yuga, where non-teacher teachers and non-serving students are commonplace; perhaps it is only us who feel the need to have protracted discussions on the possible need for ‘a living guru’ or a ‘physical guru.’ In another age and climate such bizarre notions would have had the Vaishnavas crying for us faithless souls in pity.