India’s philosophical nuances know no equal, and among them the Vedantic interpretations of Ramanuja stand tall and proud
BY PROFESSOR ARVIND SHARMA
THE PHILOSOPHY OF RAMANUJA IS KNOWN AS Vishishtadvaita Vedanta. Like other systems of Vedanta, it is based on the Upanishads, which are also called the Vedanta, because they constitute the end-portion of the Vedas.
Anyone who wants to evolve a system of thought based on the Upanishads faces a problem. The problem is that these culminatory books of the Veda contain two kinds of statements which, on the face of it, are contradictory. One set of statements identifies the universe (jagat) and the individual souls (jiva) found within it with the ultimate reality, called Brahman. Another set of statements, however, also found in the Upanishads, distinguishes clearly between these three—jagat, jiva and Brahman. This triad of Brahman, jiva and jagat—the ultimate reality, the individual beings and the universe—is central to Vedantic thought. Indeed, it is central to the metaphysical dimension of all religions.
The first task anyone faces when formulating a consistent philosophy based on the Upanishads is to reconcile these two sets of statements. It might be helpful here to recall how Shankara—to whom Advaita Vedanta owes its classical formulation—reconciles the two, the more clearly to see the uniqueness of Ramanuja’s resolution of the problem. Shankara admits that both kinds of statements are found in the Upanishads, but argues that those statements which distinguish jagat and jiva from Brahman are preliminary and tentative in nature, and are superseded by statements that identify those two with Brahman. Thus non-duality (advaita), according to Shankara, is the final message of the Upanishads.
Ramanuja, taking a very different approach to the issue, starts out by examining the manner in which different items are related in the world. He finds that sometimes we speak of things as separable, and sometimes as inseparable. For instance, we say that some objects, such as a coat, belongs to one by stating, “I have a coat.” In this statement, the person and the coat are separable. By way of contrast, we also say, “I am tall.” Here we do not distinguish between ourselves and tallness; although tallness is an attribute of the body, and though we usually say, “I have a body,” we say “I am tall.” We refer to our tallness in a more intimate way than to the coat, as something inseparable from us.
Pursuing this point further, Ramanuja points out that while we refer to most things separable from us as separate from us, as when we say, “This is my coat” or “This is my house,” there are two types of cases in which we refer to things as inseparable that are separable in principle. These are those which relate to (1) substance and attributes, and (2) body and soul. An example of the first would be our tendency to refer to a flower as a “red rose.” Redness is an attribute, while roseness is a substance. They are therefore, in principle, separable but are referred to inseparably in the expression “red rose” (or “blue lotus”). An example of the second would be our tendency to refer to ourselves by such expressions as “I am a man” or “I am a woman.” If we accept that the soul and the body are separate entities, then our sense of “I” can only come from the soul, as the body without it is a piece of inert matter. The distinction between a man and a woman is a matter of physical features and belongs to the body. But we identify the soul with it when we say “I am a man” or “I am a woman.” Ramanuja pays special attention to these relationships and refers to them by the term aprithak-siddhi, or inseparability.
Ramanuja then goes on to extend the body-soul mode of relationship of Brahman, jagat and jiva. According to him, the jagat and the jivas constitute the body of Brahman, who represents their soul. He then argues that when the Upanishads describe jagat and jiva as different from Brahman, they are merely referring to an observable empirical fact. And when the Upanishads describe Brahman as identical with jagat and jiva, they are referring to their inseparability (and not identity, as Shankara would have us believe). This explains the term Vishishtadvaita as well, which stands for the non-dualism or inseparability of the qualified, or the embodied, as one. It is difficult not to be impressed by the originality and ingenuity of the resolution of the Upanishadic dilemma proposed by Ramanuja.
Another paradox in the Upanishads pertains to Brahman itself, which is sometimes described as nirguna, without distinguishing qualities or attributes, and sometimes as saguna, as possessing them. In Advaita Vedanta, this nirguna Brahman is identified with pure—that is objectless—consciousness. Ramanuja argues that objectless consciousness is a pure abstraction, as such consciousness as we possess is always consciousness of something. Therefore he opts for saguna as the ultimate form of Brahman, interpreting any reference to it as nirguna as meaning that it has “no evil qualities.” The ultimate reality is not like an abstract principle but more like a concrete person. It is not an Absolute; it is God, who loves the devotees and whom the devotees love.
Ramanuja thus clarified the relationship of the triad of Brahman, jagat and jiva—and the nature of Brahman—in a new way. Small wonder, therefore, that Ramanuja’s philosophy played a major role in the further evolution of the Bhakti movement.
WIKIMEDIA: 1920S ART BY UNKNOWN ARTIST
An innovative thinker: Ramanuja, in formal acharya attire, sits in his monastery worshiping Vishnu’s golden sandals, wearing the orange sannyasin vestments and white sacred thread, holding the danda, his body marked with the distinctive insignia of Shri Vaishnavism.
Ramanuja also made an original contribution to the textual basis of Vedanta. As mentioned earlier, the Upanishads are fundamental to any structure of Vedantic thought. By the time of Ramanuja (1017–1137), however, the devotional hymns of the twelve alvars, the poet-saints devoted to Vishnu, had been compiled by Nathamuni into the text known as Nalayira Prabandham or Divya-Prabandham. These were, and are, considered deeply sacred by the devotees of Vishnu.
So, the question arose: how was this body of sacred literature to be related to the sacred body of literature known as the Upanishads? Ramanuja placed the two scriptures on par with one another and thus developing the doctrine of Ubhaya-Vedanta, or dual Vedanta. This was nothing less than remarkable and provides a contemporary model for how the various religious scriptures of the world may be ideally viewed in relation to each other.
The far-reaching implication of Ramanuja’s move can be seen by placing it in a comparative context. Let us first carry out such an exercise in the limited context of the Bhakti Movement. One famous figure of this movement, Kabir, in his effort to harmonize two traditions, rejected the sacred texts of the two traditions involved, in his case the scriptures of Hinduism and Islam, an approach radically different from Ramanuja’s, who accepted both the bodies of literature involved. In the broader context of the Hindu religious tradition as a whole, another body of sacred literature was often called the “fifth Veda,” or described as, for instance, the Tamil Veda or the Sikh Veda. This approach is no doubt inclusive, but is still open to criticism as involving an element of residual condescension, for the Veda is still held up as the prototype in a sense. The parity established by Ramanuja is hardly open to this criticism. The comparison becomes even more stark when we take the Abrahamic traditions into account. Christianity accepts the Judaic scripture but subordinates it to its own final message; and Islam, while accepting the previous revelations of Judaism and Christianity, also alleges, even as it does so, that they have become corrupted over time.
By logically interpreting the Upanishads in light of an existing, but not so subtly evolved, Vishishtadvaita, and by placing the devotional literature of the alvar saints on equal status with the holy Vedas, Ramanuja gave Hindu thought a viable alternative to the dominant Vedanta views of Shankara and left his mark on Indian philosophy for all time. To this day his Vedantic reflections stand among the most respected, a contribution which no subsequent school could afford to ignore.
Arvind Sharma is Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and author of Visistadvaita Vedanta: A Study (New Delhi: Heritage Publishers, 1978).