It is the desire of all teachers working in our gurukulas to give the children an acute awareness of the great Vaisnava tradition that they will inherit when initiated into our sampradaya. We hear frequently that the Krsna Consciousness movement is propounding the highest form of religion found anywhere in the world, but, living in the western culture, we sometimes find it hard to be constantly aware of the true position of Vaisnavism. In the West Vaisnavas are frequently looked upon as strange fanatics enacting bizarre rituals or some residual leftover from the hippy days of the sixties and early seventies. Therefore it is very important that all devotees, and the children in particular, become conversant with the centuries old religious tradition that our movement today represents.
It was for these reasons I felt it imperative to start a course on the history of Vaisnavism when I began teaching a class of older boys at the Bhaktivedanta Village Gurukula in California. From studying Srila Prabhupada's books I was aware that Ramanuja was one of the great Vaisnava acaryas, but I knew little of his life and teachings. Therefore I set about researching the subject, using various books that I was able to obtain from India and the university libraries in Los Angeles. At this point I began to learn the wonderfully instructive stories contained in this book. As I recounted them to my students, 'History of Vaisnavism' quickly came to be our most popular class.
From this point, with the encouragement of other devotees working in gurukula, it seemed natural to begin writing down the subject matter as I was teaching it. There is, of course, a great need at the present time to provide suitable reading material for the hungry young minds eager to employ the reading skills we have taught them in their early years in gurukula. It is therefore my hope and expectation that this book will be the first of many as we build up a full library of books for our older students, in addition to the publications for younger children that have been provided by Bala Books.
Although this book was originally written for our older gurukula students-and for this reason the emphasis is on pastimes rather than philosophy – I am confident that all devotees will like to read about the life of this great acarya and gain inspiration from the wonderful example he set. In addition, I think that parents of younger children, for whom the style of writing may be too advanced, will find that their sons and daughters will relish these stories if they are read aloud to them.
The main source for the life of Ramanuja is a book called the Prapannamrta, written in Sanskrit by Anantacarya, a descendant of Andhrapurna. There is some controversy about the date of this work. Some scholars have tried to show that it was written as late as the seventeenth century, but most authorities agree the author was a junior contemporary of Ramanuja's and therefore able to compile the material from first-hand sources. There are 126 chapters in the Prapannamrta, the first 68 of which describe the life of Yamunacarya. The remaining 58 chapters deal with the lives of Yamunacarya, Nathamuni, and other south Indian Vaisnavas. It is this book to which Srila Prabhupada refers when he mentions the life of Ramanuja in his purports to the Caitanya Caritamrta.
Another important work on the life of Ramanuja is the Divya-suri-charitai, a book written in Tamil by Garudavaha, who was also probably a contemporary of Ramanuja, although again this fact is disputed by some authorities. In addition, there is the Guru-parampara-prabhavam by Perumal Jiyar, written in the early part of the fourteenth century and Lokam Jiyar's Ramananujacarya-divya-charitai.
The main pastimes are the same in all these works, but it is frequently found that they vary quite considerably in the detail. For this reason I have occasionally had to use my own discretion in choosing between the different versions. The names of the various characters described also vary, depending mainly on whether they are given in Tamil or the Sanskrit equivalent. By and large I have used the Sanskrit form of the names where I could find them, as I considered that these might sound more familiar to the reader.
One further point that I feel should be mentioned at this stage is the debt that all Vaisnavas owe to Ramanujacarya, whether they be within or outside of his direct disciplic succession. As Gaudiya Vaisnavas, most of our philosophical doctrines come from the writings of the six gosvamis of Vrindavana, in which they transcribed the teachings that had been given orally by Caitanya Mahaprabhu Himself. However, any devotee who studies the philosophical teachings of Ramanuja, and Yamunacarya also, will quickly realize how much we have inherited from him in our basic philosophical conclusions. Particularly in the refutation of the mayavada ideas of Sankara, the works of Ramanuja play a key role. As Srila Prabhupada explains: "The statements of the Sankara philosophy, which are the teeth of the mayavadi philosopher, are always broken by the strong arguments of the Vaisnava philosophers such as the great acaryas, especially Ramanujacarya."
Finally I would tike to offer my most humble obeisances at the feet of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, without whose mercy the glories of the Vaisnava acaryas would still be a closed subject to the Western world. I would also like to thank all the devotees who have helped and encouraged me in devotional service over the years. I am well aware that there are many discrepancies and shortcomings in this presentation, but I am praying that all the Vaisnavas will display their characteristic generosity towards me and try to overlook these deficiencies.