Śrī Rāmānuja’s Vedāntic Harmony samanvaya as a Paradigm for Social Harmony
Śrī Rāmānuja’s Vedāntic Harmony: Samanvaya as a Paradigm for Social Harmony

During his time there were several schools of Vedānta, with each school interpreting the Vedic texts in its own way and spreading a sort of religious disharmony. Rāmānuja felt a need for the samanvaya or synthesis of these different interpretations.

Śrī Rāmānuja was a philosopher par excellence and the famous proponent of the philosophy called Viśiṣṭādvaita. The religious side of that philosophy is called Śrīvaiṣṇavism. It is often said that philosophy without religion is lame and religion without philosophy is blind. Hence philosophy and religion should go hand in hand for their survival. On the one hand, the religious aspects needed for spiritual progress are strengthened by theoretical foundations and, on the other hand, philosophy finds purpose in the practice of religion. In Śrīvaiṣṇavism both religious practices and theories are inseparably associated as it can be witnessed in the several rituals that are performed by the Śrīvaiṣṇavas.

Rāmānuja thought of bringing social harmony in India by solidly depending upon the Sanātana Dharma as enunciated in the Vedic texts. There was a need for Rāmānuja to expound the Sanātana Dharma on the base of the Vedic texts since Vedas were accepted as authority during his time. Yet, even during his time there were several schools of Vedānta, with each school interpreting the Vedic texts in its own way and spreading a sort of religious disharmony. Rāmānuja felt a need for the samanvaya or synthesis of these different interpretations. Since he achieved that samanvaya, some also call him a ‘samanvaya ācārya’. During his time there were three important schools, namely (1) the Abheda school, teaching the theory of illusory reality of everything but the Brahman, advocated by Śrī Śankarācārya[1], (2) the Bheda school[2], teaching the completely separate existence of Brahman and the universe, advocated by forerunners of Śrī Madhvācārya, and (3) the Bhedābheda school, teaching that both the above positions are valid depending on the state of the universe or the individual soul, advocated by Śrī Bhāskaracārya and Śrī Yādavaprakāśa, and (4) several other schools taking various positions in between the above. When Indian society was torn asunder by the various interpretations of various ācāryas, it was left for the genius and benevolence of Śrī Rāmānuja to unite it in a way acceptable to all. Hence, Rāmānuja thought of finding a solution in the Upaniṣats themselves to effect a harmony in Vedāntic thought, which will then fructify into social harmony. A tiny excerpt from his outstanding work, Vedārthasaṁgraha, which deals with the method of interpretation of the Upaniṣats, offers a taste of how he accomplished Vedāntic harmony. Midway through this work, he raises a question: “… abhedo vā bhedo vā dvyātmakatā vā ko’yam arthaḥ samarthitaḥ? …” meaning, what is the reality endorsed by the scriptures – non-duality, or duality, or simultaneous duality and non-duality? He then answers it himself as: “… sarvasyāpi veda-vedyatvāt sarvaṁ samarthitam …” meaning, all of them are endorsed as all of them are known from the Vedas.

With this perspective Rāmānuja interpreted the Upaniṣat passages, which were seemingly contradictory. As said above, there were passages delaring the identity of reality, others declaring the duality of reality, and yet others declaring simultaneous duality and non-duality. Śaṁkarācārya’s solution was the negation of the passages declaring duality in the ultimate, while Madhvācārya’s solution was the negation of the passages declaring non-duality. In other words, these ācāryas attempted to end the conflict by claiming victory for one part of the Upaniṣats at the expense of the rest. In contrast, Rāmānuja’s solution was to resolve the conflict, in that he took the position that the entire body of the Upaniṣats present a coherent view of the reality and, therefore, when seen in the whole, there cannot be any conflict in the enunciation of truth. With this perspective, he tried to find the solutions to resolve the conflicts in the Upaniṣats themselves. As it turns out, Rāmānuja did find the clue for the religious harmony in the Upaniṣats themselves. No doubt there were several hard-to-resolve conflicts in some passages in the Upaniṣats but on contextual studying of the conflicting passages, and with the emphasis he placed on the reconciliatory passages (ghaṭakaśruti)[3], he could demonstrate how the knots untie themselves. This is how Rāmānuja’s Vedāntic samanvaya goes in general.

Now, let us look at a specific and central aspect of Rāmānuja’s harmonization. Śri P.M. Śrinivasācāry, a great professor of philosophy, figures that Rāmānuja interprets the Upaniṣats more liberally than literally. To resolve the conflict between duality and non-duality, Rāmānuja stressed upon one interesting concept, namely, the śarīra-śarīri-bhāva (the body-soul-relationship), as taught in the passages such as “yasya ātmā śarīram… yasya pṛthivī śarīram… ”, meaning “… one who’s body is the individual soul, … one whose body is the earth…”. Recognizing the harmonizing power of this concept, Rāmānuja declared that both the insentient and sentient objects form the body of the Supreme Brahman. They are in fact part and parcel of the Supreme Brahman. When you think of the body and the soul, they can be differentiated mentally but not physically and, in the same way, the identity (non-duality) of Brahman can be understood taking the body and soul together, while duality too can be accepted differentiating by seeing the body as different from the soul.

One more dimension of this śarīra-śaīiri-bhāva considers this entire universe consisting of sentient and insentient beings and forming the body of the Supreme Brahman. In other words, the universe pervaded by the Supreme Being could be considered as a super system. In this whole system, there are certain subsystems, sub- subsystems and so on. Let us take the example of a human being. A human being is a physical system plus consciousness. In the body of a human being there are so many bacterias and cells which are functioning with a sort of limited freedom. These subsystems function in such a way that they will not harm or destroy the main system itself. If there is conflict between the subsystems of a human being his body collapses, therefore the subsystems in the body should function in an harmonious way to allow the main system to function. Similarly if the whole system, that is the universe, which is a combination of three great realities namely matter, individual souls and the Supreme Brahman has to function properly, each subsystem, like the system of the human being, should function in an harmonious way in order to allow the main system, the universe, to function. This concept of śariraśariribhava, a discovery of Rāmānuja in the Upaniṣats, is sure to bring harmony among the people in all walks of life. In fact, the subsystems, like the system of the human being or of an animal, is said to be the microcosm while the universe pervaded by the Supreme Brahman is the macrocosm. There should not be any conflict between the macrocosm and microcosm, they should function in unison with each other. At the ethical level, we must think that every being should be thought of as the body of the Supreme Brahman, therefore there is no question of hating anybody, killing anybody or destroying any system in this world.

Another dimension of this śarīra-śarīri-bhāva is that any name or word referring to any object must and does ultimately connote the Supreme Brahman Himself. Most of the times, religious fundamentalists claim that their God is superior to the Gods of others. Nothing is more evident than the social disharmony caused by this idea. Religious unrests, terrorism, etc are taking place only on account on this fundamentalism. Rāmānuja says that any word uttered here referring to any object ultimately refers to the Supreme Being who is enshrined in all these physical objects. For instance, the word ‘book’ refers to the specific object and, further, refers to the conscious principle present in it and, further yet, refers to the Supreme Brahman who has pervaded that conscious principle as its inner reality. Similarly, a name like Gopal, referring to a human being, refers first to his physical body, then to the individual soul of that body, and finally to the inner soul present in that body as antaryāmī. If ordinary words referring to different objects ultimately connote the Supreme Brahman, where is the question of the words like Allah or Jesus not connoting the Supreme Brahman? Hence the proclamation by Rāmānuja that ‘sarve śabdāḥ paramātmanaḥ eva vācakāḥ’, meaning that all words ultimately refer to that Supreme Brahman only. This unique theory is most useful in bringing spiritual and philosophical harmony.

Now, let us try to address some of the aspects of religion which were developed by Rāmānuja to bring in religious harmony. Among the Śrīvaiṣṇava saints, Nammāļvār is considered to be an outstanding mystic. He was born in the fourth varṇa, and as soon as he was born he was not overpowered by the śaṭhavāyu, as is the case with everything born. When the child is in the womb, it is capable of remembering all its previous births so much that it thinks: “Let me not undergo the pain of being born again and again in this cycle of birth and death”. This feeling of the child completely disappears as soon as it is born because of being overpowered by the śaṭhavāyu. The result is that it forgets all its previous births and thoughts. In the case of Nammāļvār, however, this did not happen as he was born a siddhayogin. Nammāļvār, as a baby, was left under a tamarind tree by his parents as he was quiet abnormal, not doing anything a baby would do. It is said that for 16 years, Nammāļvār was in yoga-samādhi and, in his samādhi state, he was able to visualize the deities of the various holy shrines and sing the glory of these in the form of mystic poetry, as a spontaneous outflow of his experience. Among the Śrīvaiṣṇavas, Nammāļvār is respected as the greatest mystic of all ages and he has been given by the Śrīvaiṣṇavas the highest position in the hierarchy of the Śrīvaiṣṇava ācāryas. In fact, Rāmānuja himself is said to be a great philosopher because he has taken refuge under the lotus feet of Nammāļvār. The mystic poetry which emerged from Nammāļvār is given the highest status in the literary works of Śrīvaiṣṇavism called the Drāviḍa Veda. This canonization of literature that came out of a mystic born in the fourth class is itself a revolutionary act of Rāmānuja, doing a great deal to the cause of religious harmony. The Drāvida Veda, also called the Divyaprabandhams, are routinely sung in chorus in front of the deity in the Śrīvaiṣṇava temples. Notably, during processions of the deity these are sung in front of Him, whereas the Saṁskṛta Veda is chanted in chorus behind Him. This is the primary position given to the literature through which Rāmānuja could bring people belonging to different classes under the umbrella of bhakti and prapatti. For the very same reason, Rāmānuja is designated as ‘māřaň aḍi paṇindu uyndavaň’. Rāmānuja and his predecessor ācāryas were of the opinion that in the spiritual field there should not be any distinction of caste, creed or sex. According to this view, any living being is entitled to get liberation irrespective of its physical state. It is difficult to bring equality among men belonging to different caste and creeds. Note that in spite of the strenuous efforts of the government, the caste distinctions still persist in India. Rāmānuja went a step ahead and felt that in the spiritual field no such distinction should be allowed. According to him, everyone in this world is entitled to get liberation and reach the celestial world. Some other systems of Vedānta advocate that there should be an evolution in the human beings, and people belonging to other castes should slowly evolve until they will born as brahmins, and thus entitle themselves for liberation. But Śrīvaiṣṇavism does not prescribe such limitations, and anybody who aspires for liberation will be blessed by God, and will finally get salvation.

Two important anecdotes may be mentioned here to highlight how this was really practiced in Śrīvaiṣṇavism. The first is the story of Māraňer Nambi. Māraňer Nambi was a dedicated disciple of Yāmunācārya, the grand teacher of Rāmānuja. Though Māraňer Nambi was born in a family of harijans, he was a pious man practicing total renunciation. He led such a simple life without even eating food like other men do. In fact, after ploughing his wet lands, he used to drink two handfuls of that turbid water and this was his only sustenance. When Yāmunācārya, his spiritual guru, was affected by carbuncle, a serious disease, Māraňer Nambi persisted that the disease be transferred to him in order to free his guru of suffering. After a lot of sustained denial, Yāmunācārya yielded and Nambi began to suffer in his place. At that time, Mahāpūrṇa, who was Nambi’s classmate and a devout brahmin, used to nurse him continuously, but in spite of the tender care of Mahāpūrṇa, Nambi died at last. Mahāpūrṇa performed his obsequies in the same manner as would be performed to a highest brahmin. When the brahma-medha-saṁskāra was performed to Māraňer Nambi, many fundamentalists of that time objected to the fact that Mahāpūrṇa was performing such a saṁskāra for a harijan. Mahāpūrṇa brushed them aside citing God Rāma’s act of performing the brahma-medha-saṁskāra to the eagle, Jaṭāyu, and arguing that he was not greater than Rāma and nor was Māraňer Nambi less than Jaṭāyu. This shows the catholicity of the outlook of Śrīvaiṣṇava ācāryas. The second episode refers to Rāmānuja himself. Rāmānuja was very eager to learn the secret teaching of the eight-syllabled mahāmantra from a great ācārya known as Goṣṭhīpūrṇa. Goṣṭhīpūrṇa was a very tough ācārya and it was not easy to convince him to reveal the secret. For this purpose, Rāmānuja actually walked from Śrirangam to Goṣṭhīpuram 18 times and only on the 18th time, being convinced of the seriousness and sincerity of Rāmānuja, the great ācārya agreed to convey the secret to him, but with some conditions. He required that the mantra be not revealed to any undeserving or untested person, which Rāmānuja agreed to. But as soon as he received the secret mantra, Rāmānuja climbed the dome of the Tirukkoṭṭiyūr temple and announced that any person who had the desire of attaining salvation may assemble there as he was telling the secret teaching of the ācārya to everyone, irrespective of caste, creed or sex. To facilitate them to get liberation he shared the secret teaching with the thousands of people who assembled there, without observing any of the formalities or procedures. When Goṣṭhīpūrṇa heard about this indiscriminate and adventitious act of Rāmānuja, he could not control his anger. He instantly approached Rāmānuja and asked him whether he knew what would be the result of his sinful act. Reminded of the promise he had made, Rāmānuja replied: “Revered Ācārya, I know it quite well. A person who has disobeyed the orders of his ācārya is consigned to the most atrocious hell called Raurava”. When the teacher asked him why he indulged in this act, Rāmānuja replied: “Ācārya, you have told me that anybody who receives this secret teaching will go to the celestial abode of God, Vaikuṇṭha. If thousands of people, by this secret teaching, will be able to reach Vaikuṇṭha and I alone will be consigned to hell, I am prepared to do that. Goṣṭhīpūrṇa immediately realized the broadmindedness and the matchless compassion of Rāmānuja for the souls struggling in the bondage of saṁsāra. At once he embraced him saying: “Oh Rāmānuja, you are my master (Êmpêrumāňār)”. This episode clearly shows how deeply Rāmānuja was concerned about the spiritual emancipation of each and every human being in this world.

The spiritual way of life offered by Śrīvaiṣṇavism is to be embraced by all irrespective of caste, creed, or any other considerations of one’s body. It should also be noted that Rāmānuja was the first person to give entry to the temple to the harijans during the 12th century. According to the history of Melkote, my native place, Rāmānuja had gone to retrieve the procession deity, God Celuvarāya, who was in the custody of a nawab in Delhi. As Rāmānuja was bringing the deity back with great difficulty, he received support in various places from harijans and tribals. Moved by their devotion and as a sign of his gratitude, he not only opened the gates of the Melkote temple to them but also allowed them to carry God Celuvarāya during Brahmotsava. Even today, on the 8th day of Brahmotsava, harijans of Karnataka celebrate this utsava with great devotion and dedication. Such was the catholicity of Rāmānuja. Many of the ideas advocated and propagated by Rāmānuja, if adopted in the modern society, would take away any room for terrorism or fundamentalism. Rather, his ideas will pave the way for a peaceful, harmonious society.

[1] Vedic passages that propound the theory that the Individual Soul (Jivatma) and the Supreme Soul (Paramatma) are one and the same:

  • तत् त्वं असि (छान्दोग्योपनिषद्)
  • अयमात्मा ब्रह्म (माण्डूक्योपनिषद्)
  • सर्वं खल्विदं ब्रह्म
  • अहं ब्रह्मास्मि

[2] Vedic passages that propound the theory that the Individual Soul (Jivatma) and the Supreme Soul (Paramatma) are different from each other:

  • नित्यो नित्यानां चेतनश्चेतनानां …
  • ज्ञाज्ञौ द्वौ द्वावजानीशनीशौ… …
  • द्वा सुपर्णौ सयौजौ सखायौ

[3] All the passages that propound the relationship of “Sharira-shariri-bhava” / ‘Upadana Upadeya Bhava’ between the Supreme Brahman (Paramatma) and Jivatma and the are known as ‘Ghataka-shruti-s’.

These passages ensure that there can be both identicalness and distinction between the Paramatma) and Jivatma without mutual contradiction

For example:

  1. यः पृथिव्यां तिष्ठन् पृथिव्या अन्तरः ______यस्य पृथिवी शरिरं ____________एष ते आत्मा अन्तर्याम्यमृतः ।
  2. यस्यात्मा शरीरम् ।
  • तदात्मानं स्वयमकुरुत ।

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