History & Culture

Sri Ramanuja: The great integrator

Sri Ramanujar at Sri Aadhikesaperumal and Bashyakarar Temple, Sriperumbudur Photo: K.V. Srinivasan  

One thousand years have gone by. Ten centuries. In India alone, so many kingdoms which would do their best to put an end to the religious and cultural traditions that had flourished from time immemorial. The Delhi Sultanate, the five Sultanates of the South - Berar, Bidar, Golkonda, Bijapur and Ahmednagar. Sher Shah and the Suri interregnum. The Moghuls. The British Empire. In spite of all that, Vedic culture not only survived but also gained new spaces. For, the adherents of the culture have had the benefit of leadership by spiritual personalities from time to time, re-formatting the culture in a positive manner without losing any of its seminal strengths. Of such great men, Sri Ramanuja, who was born in the 11 century, takes the pride of place as he remains relevant even today.

How shall we crown Sri Ramanuja? Is he a fine-tuned philosopher or a poet? Does his sociological thinking exceed the commentator? Does he loom large as a temple-builder or as a management expert? Does his concern for helping the common man out-top his blazing spirituality? Is he greater as a student or as a teacher? A deeper and wider engagement in his life and ministry makes it very, very difficult to decide. But one thing is clear. His virtue was compassion: his means, integration. The two main reasons why Sri Ramanuja remains perfectly relevant even today.

Sister Nivedita said that the history of India is the land itself. Applied to Sri Ramanuja, we can read his life in the temples, the rituals he set up, in his philosophy and poetry, and his untiring and patient moves to bring down man-made differences and integrate the society by applying the ideal of compassion. Since he did all this by his personal example and involvement, and remained active throughout his life, he became the progenitor of the Neo-Vedantists of modern Indian renaissance. Hadn’t he opened the doors of spirituality for one and all, as Swami Vivekananda had pointed out in his lecture on ‘The Sages of India’?

“He (Ramanuja) felt for the downtrodden, he sympathised with them. He took up the ceremonies, the accretions that had gathered, made them pure so far as they could be, and instituted new ceremonies, new methods of worship, for the people who absolutely required them. At the same time he opened the door to the highest; spiritual worship from the Brahmin to the Pariah. That was Ramanuja's work. That work rolled on, invaded the North, was taken up by some great leaders there; but that was much later, during the Mohammedan rule; and the brightest of these prophets of comparatively modern times in the North was Chaitanya.”

Though there are several documentations of the Acharya’s life, the main events can be summarised easily. Forty-five kilometres west of Chennai is the village of Sriperumbudur. Here lived a Vedic scholar, Kesava Somayaji and his wife Kantimati. By the grace of Lord Parthasarathi, the presiding deity of Tiruvallikeni temple, a son was born to them in the Pingala year, Chitra month, under the asterisk of Tiruvadirai (April 4, 1017). Immediately a message was sent to his maternal uncle, Tirumalai Nambi who named the baby Ramanuja. As a pious Srivaishnava, he considered kainkarya (service to the Lord) as very important, since Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana is known as Kainkarya Sriman. The name turned out to be very apt for Ramanuja’s life was spent in serving God and serving humanity. Which is why he remains relevant even in the millennium of his birth.

An apt pupil for his scholarly father, Ramanuja grew up to be an erudite scholar and was married to Thanjamambal at the appropriate age. But the father’s sudden passing was a great blow indeed. He continued his studies under the scholar Yadavaprakasa. Since he was not very happy with the ways of the teacher, he turned to Tirukachchi Nambi for further studies.

Meanwhile Sri Yamunacharya who headed the community of Srivaishnavas in Srirangam expressed his wish to have Ramanuja succeed him, before he passed away. Sri Ramanuja consciously prepared himself for the onerous duties of becoming a religious-spiritual head by undergoing studies in the scriptures, vedanta as also the hymns of the Alvars. His teachers were all great eminences like Peria Nambi, Tirukoshtiyur Nambi, Maladhara and Vararanga. Soon he was in demand as a teacher too.

But now a big change occurred in his family life. Sri Ramanuja’s liberal ways and avoidance of caste-born arrogance, and readiness to help others even if it cost his own peace of mind was not relished by Thanjamambal, who had been brought up in strict orthodoxy. After sending his wife to her natal home, he renounced the world. Soon he went to Srirangam assumed his duties as the head of the Srivaishnava community.

In Srirangam, he was also entrusted with the management of the famous temple of Sri Ranganatha. The temple needed a thorough overhauling and flushing out the innumerable ‘old bandicoots’ turned out to be a thorny exercise. However, the Acharya was no confrontationist. He simply withdrew to the nearby hillock of Tiruvellarai for a couple of years. He returned to Srirangam after the poison had drained away. His management of the temple involving all sections of the society and introducing several socially relevant schemes like plentiful ‘annadaana’ have endured till this day as we see the innumerable Ramanuja Koots spread all over India.

Aural and visual feast

From May 10 to 13, Chennai city will be stage for the grand run-up to Sri Ramanujar Sahasrabdi, the seer’s 1000th birth anniversary celebrations. Jointly organised by Kaustubha Media Works and Bhakthisagaram.com,

‘Sri Ramanujar Dharisanam,’ four-day fete (6-8p.m.) at the Narada Gana Sabha, TTK Road, will touch the highlights in the life of the saint through music, dance and discourses.

Sri Dhamal Ramakrishnan will deliver the discourse on May 10. Sri Velukkudi Krishnan (May 11), Karunakarachariar (May 12) and Sri Anantha Padmanabhan (May 13) will complete the discourse map.

Visual feast will come in the form of natya presentations - ‘Tirupati Miracle,’ ‘Lord Who Showed the Way,’ ‘Sriranga Gadhyam,’ and ‘Sri Vaikunta Gadhyam,’ with the temples of Sriperumbudur, Triplicane (Sri Parthasarathy), Kanchipuram, Srirangam and Melkote forming the backdrop.

Music has been composed by A.S. Ram.

According to Kaustubha Mediaworks, the festival has been planned after consulting eminent scholars. Some of the seer’s works have been translated into Tamil in order to reach out to people, especially the youth. “The guidance from Ramanuja dispels the ill-effects of Kaliyuga, makes him relevant even after 1,000 years and will remain so for ever,” says Velukkudi Krishnan. ‘

Abhang rendition by Spoorthi and Pragati, Namasankeertanam by Udalayur Kalyanaraman, Sattanatha Bhagavathar and Kadayanallur Bhagavathar are also scheduled for spiritual and aural delight.

The show each day will be anchored by Revathy Sankaran, who has also penned the lyrics for the natya presentations.

The show will be available on bhakthisagaram.com from May 22 onwards.

Passes for the event are available on eventjini.com.

The celebration is being held in association with The Hindu Friday Review.

(To be concluded)

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2021 5:38:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/sri-ramanuja-the-great-integrator/article8560934.ece

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