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Relevance of Ramanuja in 21st Century

An article by Kasturi Sudhakar, Mumbai

In the Summer of 1987, I had been to Vanamamalai ( Nanguneri) for a wedding. On an impulsive decision, I had the samaasaranam done – "just for the heck of it". I remember making some gaudy comments like " If the gents are re-christened as Ramanuja Dasan, what the females would be called "Dasis?!" Not much I knew of the rituals and till date I know very less.

Later in Mumbai, where chicken and chilled beer became the staple food, once the Country Manager called me a " Fake Iyengar" and I just laughed – as the comment was from the boss. In the parlance, the boss said that Ramanuja had "converted" many non Brahmins to become Vaishnavites and that is why many Iyengars are dark complexioned My eyes were brim with beer and I mumbled "Sure, Boss is drunk". Only Bhashyam, my colleague from Chennai protested " No Sir, We don’t have any such people in our fold.." All I knew was I was Thenkalai Iyengar and some of my relatives are dark complexioned. I thought then – " If the beer talk of boss was true, then I am proud to call my self a Ramanuja Dasan". Again, I overheared once such a talk by Nambi Mama in a marriage where I came to know about the Thirukoshtiyur Sermon ( Like Jesus) and the escapade from Srirangam to Karnataka ( like Mohammed Nabi) of Ramanuja. I was curious to know more, but it was getting late for the bus to back home. I just left things as they were.

Nothing moved from there till Murali came to Mumbai. We were discussing how appropriate the religion and the rituals would be in the era of H1Bs and GRE s. Who has time? we wondered and why they should have time for this? The indifference has been excused so far. Why we call our selves "Ramanuja Dasan" when we do not know why he is the Master and we are to be the Dasans to him? – These questions probably might have been asked and smothered in the indifference and the other priorities.

With these questions , I started looking into Ramanuja’s history. The language was tough in the Naalayiram books which gave a mystical insight and just placed several eulogies to him as a "Udaiyavar". Calling Ramanuja an avataaram and printing a photograph of his statue was the maximum done in many books so far. I would have lost the curiosity to the eulogies but for the timely help of my uncle – Prof. S.Ramanujam, who sent me a book by Indira Parthasarathy on Ramanuja. Though for theatre, it had re kindled my efforts to know more of him and to take the pains to go through the old books and to look for the facts.

Well, so far it was only a narcissist description of what I had gone through to get a glimpse of the Master. What I have learned is immaterial. I am not an authority of Vaishanvaite philosophy or on Ramanuja. I just want to share my views on this revolutionary who was unfortunately given a status like any other revolutionary in the past.- Glorified , Deitified and forgotten for the ideals for what he had fought.

The similarities of Ramanuja with Jesus and Nabi are worth exploring. He had the courage to ask queries which had offended the Gurus ,to voice against the evils of the society. He had looked at the option of how religion can remedy the evils it has brought through rituals by some vested elements to the society earlier.

Vaishnavism before Ramanuja had taken the Bakthi Marg with the exceptional works by the Alwars. There were people from all communities who have contributed to the Bakthi Marg and they were accepted and subjected to Deitification. Whereas, when Ramanuja wanted to learn from Thirukachhi Nambi, he had faced resistance from his wife too. Probably, the micro level incidents in his personal life have made him to look at the larger evils of Casteism in the society. The tales of Urangavilli and Ponnaachi,varadha and Paruththikollai, Maranor Nambi are worth reading and sharing with the masses. My earnest wish is that the Vaishanvaite seers and the other spiritual guides of this country quote these incidences when they talk to the masses. A revolution started by a simple man one thousand years ago has taken ugly socio- political tone and color now. . Those who really want this country to be casteless, should first look into Ramanuja and then talk against religion. It is not the religion or the seers, but the vested interests of some groups in the society has brought the curse of casteism.

By giving simple examples, Ramanuja, had taught the followers , not just to blindly follow the Guru, but to think by themselves and act. Perhaps, he had thought that the revolution would self sustain only by the fearless thinking and practicing what people believe. For this, they have to question fearlessly what is thrust upon them, analyse , conclude and then follow. He practiced this in his life, and perhaps this is the biggest lesson he has ever taught.

The fifth class in the society was never considered human in those days. Ramanuja did not stop with the lowest class, but went one step further, in bringing the Panchamars ( the fifth class – the tribes) in to the mainstream of the society. Giving them the first rights in the Thirunarayanapuram temple, is not a stunt. It is a small example he had shown for the others to emulate in their own society – that Narayana had made everyone equal and in Vaishanvism there are no classes.

Probably he is the first Acharya in the Medieval periods to accept women equal to men . Even today, for some functions and rituals women are not allowed and in some temples they are not allowed to enter beyond a limit. It would have been outrageous to the conservatives in 11th century when Ramanuja allowed women of wise to be his disciples. History says that they had rights to argue with him on his teachings and had discussed philosophical insights.

Women liberation and casteless society were his dreams and in the process he had made people from other communities to become Vaishavaites, much against the wishes of the upper castes. We can see a lot of similarities with Mahakavi Subramania Barathi and Ramanuja.

Any violent revolution would not last in the long run. World history is full of such examples. In the long run, what started as a revolution would be accepted ,rituals would be formed around that and any further revolution in the same dimension would be resisted. Acceptance of Thirupaanalvar as an Alwar in the Medieval period, could not make it easy for Maranor Nambi or Thriukacchi Nambi to be accepted by the society. People who recited the hymns of Thirumangai Alwar could not tolerate the presence of Urangavilli next to Ramanuja . Ramanuja had understood this very well and he had given plans how to keep the revolution sustained. One was to establish a casteless society in one place with an identity to all as Vaishnavaites.

Any revolution which takes away an identity, unless replaces that with another identity cannot sustain. There is a risk involved in this too, unless the pattern of the revolution is not well planned. Mahatma Gandhi revolutionized , by calling the underprivileged as Harijans. Unfortunately, the term Harijan became a conscious identity to them and instead of their old caste name they were loathed by the name Harijan collectively. To that extent Gandhi’s revolution got limited. The success of Ramanuja was in his idea of bringing all ( not just only the underprivileged) under one umbrella and gave them all one identity. It is not very easy now for an Iyengar to find out why one cousin is dark complexioned!

Perhaps the relevance of Ramanuja can be proved like how Kant proved the relevance of religion in Germany when the skeptics ruled the roost. Kant proved that the ethics and morals mattered and the skeptics could not refute. Ramanuja proved by living the values of casteless society with no gender bias. These are the true values that no true religion would be against. He can be practiced in Cincinnati and in Chinnalampatti. I believe ,Ramanuja is not just a Guru ,but a Way of Life.

I want the readers to contribute their ideas and how they can practice Ramanuja by being true to his ideals. You are most welcome to refute whatever I have written and share your views. After all, right from Vedas through Ramanuja through Vivekananda to Bharathiyar, there is only one advice "Be Fearless".

Last Updated on 27 January 2011