In the days of yore, Hinduism was subjected to severe attacks by other religions. Whenever there was a religious degeneration, a spiritual personality appeared to revitalise Hinduism.
Among such eminent religious leaders was Saint Ramanuja, whose 1,000th birth anniversary is being celebrated all over the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a commemorative stamp. A Rs 1,000-crore ‘Statue of Equality’ with 1,140 tonnes of pancha loha and a 120-kg gold deity of Ramanuja, representing the number of years he lived, is being constructed as a mark of respect for the icon of Equality adjacent to Jiva Ashramam of Chinna Jeeyar Swami in Sriramnagar, Shamshabad, Hyderabad.
Ramanuja, a Hindu theologian, philosopher, social reformer, altruist, great integrator and the most important exponent of Sri Vaishnavism was born in 1017 in Sriperumbudur near Chennai.
While going around various sacred shrines, Saint Ramanuja confronted an untouchable girl coming from the opposite direction. ‘Hey! Stop! Do not come near – go away and stand aloof from my way” was the saint’s order. The untouchable girl listened patiently and said, ‘Oh’ revered Sir! Which side to go? Whichever side I go, I see the Lord’s abode and his presence – the omnipresent and the omnipotent”.
The saint was taken aback by the words of the girl. He was ashamed of himself and realised his folly of caste arrogance, unworthy of his stature. The untouchable girl was equally moved with the self-realisation of the saint and became an ardent disciple of Ramanuja. This was a turning point in the life of Ramanuja who developed his own philosophy – Vishistadwaita. Ramanuja was also influenced by the Bhakti Movement of medieval India, which believed that the only way to reach God was to love him with perfect devotion irrespective of caste or creed.
Owing to the influence of Buddhism, a need then arose for a reform in the Vedic religion. It was during this period in the 11th century that Ramanuja evolved ‘Visishtadwaita’ — Vaishnavism based on the philosophical content of the Vedas. ‘Visishtadwaitam’ according to a few scholars was a reformation over Aadi Sankara’s ‘Advaita’. Ramanuja expounded his philosophy in three fundamental notions. The first affirms the ‘Tattva’ or the nature of the reality; the second declares ‘Hita’ Sadhan or the means and the third states the ‘Purushartha’ or the ideal of human. Ramanuja gave prominence to ‘Kainkarya’ or the service of God and man – ‘Manava Seva Madhava Seva’
When Ramanuja visited Srirangam, he went to see Thirukottiyur Nambi, a distinguished scholar. At the request of Ramanuja, Nambi gave him an all-powerful mahamantra ‘Om Namo Narayana’ with two conditions: if the mantra is chanted by himself he would go to heaven; otherwise he would go to hell.
Instead of keeping the mantra to himself as a secret, Ramanuja climbed atop the Vishnu temple at Srirangam and gathered a big congregation of common people and initiated the mantra in a trumpet voice for the common people, who repeated the mantra and felt happy. It was a rare technique adopted by Ramanuja to educate people, which became popular as ‘Ramanuja Darshan Communication’ or the ‘Lord of Open Communication Mantra’ and marked the end of traditional secret mantra as well.
Nambi was astounded at Ramanuja’s behaviour and scolded him for a breach of promise. Ramanuja with all humanity replied, “As I have helped many people to go to heaven, I do not care if I myself go to hell”. Tirukottiyur Nambi was touched and blessed Ramanuja.
Ramanuja’s important technique was to create a set of disciples, who in turn could propagate his philosophy. His 74 principal disciples spread his philosophy in different corners of the country. In his last days, Ramanuja made all of them ‘Simhasana-Adhipatis’, the rulers of the Vaishnavite hierarchy. Ramanuja believed in action, love and service to God and human beings, which made him popular.
The Chola king in Gangaikonda Cholapuram, an ardent Shiva devotee, started harassing Vaishnavites. Ramanuja left for Mysore to meet the king. He and his disciples had to walk through forests and wade through rivers. They suffered and starved. At a small hamlet –Thonnor – local hunters and untouchables took pity on Ramanuja and his disciples and gave them fresh clothes, fruits and water.
Ramanuja who was moved by their warmth and generosity, allowed these untouchables to enter the temple and gave them ‘Ashtakshari Mantra’. He also threw open the doors of the temple of Cheluvanarayana Swami to all sections of society – something unheard of in those days.
The Muslim ruler of Delhi had taken away the ‘Utsava Vigraha’ of Yadavagiri temple to Delhi. Ramanuja went all the way to Delhi and recovered the vigrah from the Sultan of Delhi.
Bibi Nachiar, the daughter of the king, was a great devotee of that vigrah. She and her bodyguards accosted Ramanuja and expressed her agony at the separation of vigrah from her. She then accompanied Ramanuja along with the vigrah as his disciple. Bibi Nachiar was allowed to enter the temple and worship the Lord. Allowing untouchables and Muslims into temples attracted the imagination of low caste Hindus and Muslims towards the philosophy of equality of Ramanuja.
The Statue of Equality at Hyderabad depicting the inspiring incidents from the life of Ramanuja, with 108 models of Divya Pilgrim Centres like the Statue of Liberty in America will attract pilgrims and tourists. It is likely to be completed by the end of this year.
(The author is Editor, Public Relations Voice; and former director, I&PR Department)