History & Culture

A universal vision

Dr. M. Varadarajan

India has been a land of many religions and for centuries societies were tremendously influenced and guided by great philosophers like Sankara, Ramanuja, Vivekananda, Aurobindo and many others. Come 2017, the mankind has passed a whole of 1,000 years after Ramanuja was born. A thousand years, by the very magnitude, is substantially a great number for a Guru to have sustained relevance and reverence. The yearly and monthly festivities of Sri Ramanuja’s birth star celebrated with an unflinching fervour and spirit in all the holy shrines of Vishnu spread across the Indian subcontinent stands testimony to this.

So, what has Ramanuja done in his lifetime that stands tall even today and for the ages to come? Well, the theological acumen of Ramanuja would be of interest to the academia in particular and is not the focus of current context. Apart from the contributions in the form of esoteric religious texts and philosophy which were entirely founded on a strong footing of deeper understanding and credibility of Vedas, Ramanuja lived an exemplary life sympathising with the downtrodden and constantly endeavouring their upliftment.

Ramanuja dared to break the convention and opened the floodgates of Lord’s mercy to all the deserving. The Bhagavad Gita, as we know now, is a text freely available and known to many. But there was a time when it was secretly, safely shelved and savoured by only the select elite. The divine purport of this text was to be disseminated through the Guru – Sishya [pupil] pedagogy where in the sishya would serve the Guru with all reverence to get enlightened eternally. Gurus are known to test the pupils’ steadfastness and commitment before passing on the torch of wisdom. Ramanuja displayed these qualities as he walked 100 km one way from Srirangam to Tirukoshtiyur for 18 times before getting to know the “to be secretly guarded” purport of one Sloka in Bhagavad Gita. Notwithstanding the curse of Guru Ghostipurna that hell would befall if revealed, Ramanuja did not waste a moment in letting the secret out to the deserving masses that were curious to know.

On one occasion Ramanuja’s Guru, Mahapurna was performing last rites for a co-disciple, Maraneri Nambi, who was disadvantaged by caste. Nambi was an extremely pious disciple of his Guru Yamunacharya that he volunteered to accept his Guru’s suffering thereby extending his Guru’s lifetime. In return he wished to be cremated the religious way which was well accepted. Ramanuja, in fact, questioned this act of his Guru. Mahapurna cited that Lord Rama, a King, performed last rites of Jatayu, a bird, and Yudhistra, the eldest of Pandavas, performed the last rites of his paternal uncle Vithura, who was considered to be of an inferior lineage. Ramanuja found it convincing from his Guru which elevated the stature of Nambi further more. Ramanuja always entertained inquisitiveness to probe and get to the ultimate truth. This incident later paved way for Ramanuja to preach and practice equality.

He had a strong conviction against untouchability and wanted to display it in a befitting manner by practicing it. He would hold his nephew Dasarati for support as he approaches the banks of Cauveri for a bath, but holds Dhanurdasa on his way back after taking bath. This act of his would cast mysterious doubt among his followers and onlookers since Dhanurdasa was disadvantaged by caste and why would Ramanuja prefer to hold him after dipping in holy waters. Ramanuja would leave no stone unturned to pass on a strong message against untouchability practiced towards the devotees of Lord, irrespective of their caste.

When Ramanuja spent time in Melkote, a small hamlet near modern Mysuru, he bestowed a much respectful name of ‘Thirukkulathar’ to that segment of society who were then called pariah. Their entry into the temple was prohibited until Ramanuja made amends and granted them equal access to the temple for three days every year.

Many of such milestones may seem a hyperbole or an exaggeration to the modern reader, but we have to note that we have to flashback a whole millennium to understand the spirit and appreciate the idea of shaking the ingrained inertia and bringing change at a time when transgressions were unpardonable felony. Many wrongs were corrected and social harmony of the society was improved and sustained in Ramanuja’s lifetime. As we approach the epochal event of 1,000 years of Ramanuja, his practices are no less valid and to be valued than his preachings and texts.

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Printable version | Apr 29, 2021 7:45:47 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/A-universal-vision/article14410292.ece

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