RAMANUJA'S PHILOSOPHY OF VISISTADVAITA
Ramanuja is well-known as the great philosopher and acarya of the Sri Vaisnava sampradaya. However, it should not be misunderstood that he was the founder of the Sri Vaisnavas. Originally started by Laksmidevi Herself, the Sri sampradaya contained many exalted devotees prior to Ramanuja's appearance to whom he admits his debt in his writings. In their expressions of devotion to the Supreme Lord, all South Indian devotees were influenced by the nine Alvars, who lived several hundred years before the birth of Ramanuja. Despite some minor philosophical differences, it is plain that the themes of devotion and surrender to God, which are essential to Ramanuja's teachings, are based to a large extent on the writings of the Alvars.
In terms of philosophy also Ramanuja was undoubtedly influenced by the teachings of previous Vaisnava acaryas, most notably Yamunacarya and Bodhayana, the commentator on the Vedanta sutras. In many ways the major achievement of Ramanuja as an acarya was to establish a solid philosophical basis for the devotional sentiments that had been expressed in the hymns of the Alvars. In order to do this it was first essential that he refute the impersonalist teachings of Sankara's advaita-vada and large sections of his philosophical writings are dedicated to this task. To combat the teachings of the nondevotional monists, Ramanuja attacked them on their own ground, rarely expressing devotional sentiment and for the most part citing the Upanisads and Vedanta-sutras as scriptural evidence, rather than the overtly Vaisnava sastras. It is for this reason that Ramanuja, unlike Madhva, does not use the Srimad-Bhagavatam to support his teachings. The main philosophical works of Ramanuja are his commentary on Vedanta-sutra (Sri Bhasya), the Vedartha-samgraha, the Vedanta-sara and his commentary on the Bhagavad-gita.
Three hundred years before Ramanuja, Sankaracarya had attempted to establish his doctrine of absolute oneness, a concept bearing many similarities to the Buddhist philosophy. According to Sankara, nothing exists anywhere except Brahman, which is formless, changeless, eternal, and devoid of all attributes. Therefore the variety that we perceive in this world is simply an illusion and does not in reality have any existence. Because the living being is covered by ignorance (avidya or maya) he perceives variety and changes; but when enlightened by pure knowledge, he will realize that everything is in fact Brahman and that his previous perceptions were simply illusion. Obviously, in such a philosophy devotion is also ultimately meaningless because the distinction between God and His devotee is also illusory.
In his commentary on Vedanta-sutra, Ramanuja strongly attacks Sankara's ideas. He states that the concept of Brahman as being indeterminate, without qualities or changes, is meaningless. Any reality that cannot be perceived, known, thought of, or even spoken about is simply fiction. The cosmic manifestation with all of its varieties may be temporary, but that does not mean it is unreal. Illusion is to perceive something as different from its real nature and not, as Sankara states, to perceive something that does not in fact exist. When one mistakes a shell for silver, both the silver and the shell are real, but the illusion is mistaking one thing for the other. Therefore the universe is real, but the illusion is to accept it as the all in all, and not consider the underlying basis of existence, which is God.
In commenting on the the second aphorism of the Vedanta-sutra, janmady asya yatah, Ramanuja establishes that all manifestations from the Supreme Reality must also be real. The sutra states that Brahman is that from which everything else has come into being. Because it does not state that Brahman is that from which the illusion of manifestation arises, it must be accepted that the manifestation are not illusory.
The philosophy Ramanuja presented as a logical alternative to that of Sankara is called Visistadvaita-vada, or qualified oneness. It is accepted that there is an underlying unity to all existence, but this oneness of Brahman is qualified by variety. Three categories are recognized , which are distinct from one another , but together comprise a unity. These are cit , the individual living beings, acit, inert matter and Isvara, the controller-God. Cit and acit are seen as the body of God and thus are dependent upon Him, just as the body is dependent on the soul and cannot exist without it. This idea of matter and living beings comprising the body of God is essential for understanding the relationship between them. There is unity between the body and soul, yet a real distinction is recognized.
Transformation takes place within the world, and this cannot be dismissed as illusion. Sankara tried to established that nothing exists except for the one undifferentiated, changeless Brahman. Transformation is real, but it pertains only to the cit and acit; Isvara remains eternally changeless. Just as transformation affects the body although the soul is unaffected, so the universe and the living beings, the body of God, are subject to various transformations; He remains eternally changeless. The distinctions between the three categories are real; but, because the cit and acit are dependent on Isvara, they cannot be looked upon as being separate from Him. The living beings are inseparable from Brahman, though they are substantive realities and thus qualify Brahman as the body qualifies the soul. This is the meaning of Visistadvaita, or qualified oneness.
In describing the individual soul, Ramanuja followed closely the teachings given by Yamunacarya in the Siddhi-traya. Although atomic in size, the soul spreads the consciousness throughout the body, like the rays coming from the lamp. As the body of God, the individual living beings are totally dependent on Him, but He allows them the free will to act as they desire. In fact He creates the facility that enables them to enact their various desires. Thus complete dependence on God does not interfere with the free will of the individual. The only exception to this general rule are with regard to those who are particularly devoted to God and those particularly inimical towards Him. For the devotees, Hi manifests His grace by generating within them such desires that they adopt actions by which they may easily win Him. Within those who are particularly opposed to Him, He generates desires that lead to actions that take the individual further away from Him. Though originally pure, the self becomes afflicted with worldly desires through contact with matter. Ignorance of one's real nature, which gives rise to so many material desires, is a result of association with matter. When this ignorance is removed, then the soul can be liberated from the bondage of material existence.
Sankara had contended that all religious duties are dependent upon a perception of variety and, therefore, ultimately illusory. Ramanuja refuted this argument by stressing that devotion is the only true path to liberation. All religious duties should be seen as a means to increase one's devotion to God; they are never to be given up. In the state of liberation, the individuality of the self is not negated as Sankara had contended. What is negated is the false sense of independence from God, which is the essence of the individual's illusion. This can be achieved only by the grace of God, which is realized by the practice of bhakti, or devotion. Knowledge alone, without devotion, is insufficient to free the soul from material bondage. The state of pure devotion is one in which the mind is fixed constantly on the Lord in a mood of profound love. Surrender to the will of God (prapatti) is essential for the achievement of His grace. In the context of devotion and surrender to the will of God, considerations of caste and social status are irrelevant; devotion is enacted from the platform of the soul.
Ramanuja differed from Yamunacarya by stating that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated by inference in observing the cosmic manifestation. Although the universe must certainly have a cause, it cannot be presumed that the cause is God. It could equally be accepted that the universe was created in different parts at different times by different personalities. When we see a large number of pots, it is certain they have a creator; it cannot be presumed they were generated simultaneously by a single personality. From observing the universe one can conclude it is a product of intelligence, but there is nothing to show whether it was brought about by one creator or many. As God is by nature transcendent and beyond the range of the senses, it is impossible to find proof of His existence through the method of observation.
Having thus disposed of the ascending processes of acquiring knowledge of God, Ramanuja concludes that the existence of God can be known by the testimony of the scriptures alone. All other proofs of the existence of God may be countered by opposing logical arguments. Because the scriptures are of divine origin, their version must be accepted as absolute. On this basis Ramanuja states that Isvara is Lord Visnu, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, as is revealed in the Vedic scriptures. The descriptions of God contained therein are factual and authentic and must be accepted as being beyond the range of mundane argument.
Anyone who is familiar with the Gaudiya-Vaisnava tradition will surely recognize the vast amount of common ground that exists between visistadvaita and the acintya-bhedabheda philosophy of simultaneous, inconceivable oneness and difference expounded by Caitanya Mahaprabhu. In fact it has been pointed out by some commentators that acintya-bhedabheda is the natural conclusion that resolves the difficulties inherent in some of the ideas of visistadvaita.
The major problem with Ramanuja's philosophy arises when he attempts to define the exact relationship between the living beings, the universe, and God. The idea of qualified oneness gives only a vague explanation how the unity of all beings with God is reconciled with the eternal differences between them. The concept of oneness also leads one to question how God remains changeless and free from the contamination that affects His integral elements in the form of the individual souls.
To overcome this difficulty Ramanuja uses the soul/body analogy to explain the relationship of qualified oneness. However, there are shortcomings in this analogy, for the body is completely inert and is controlled absolutely by the soul. Therefore, just as the soul is responsible for the actions of the body-if the analogy were followed to its logical conclusion – it would appear that God would be held responsible for the actions of all beings, who would be completely devoid of free will.
Philosophically, the relationship between the living entities and God is indescribable. This understanding is signified in the Gaudiya Vaisnava philosophy by the word acintya, inconceivable. From certain of his statements it would appear that Ramanuja accepts the idea of oneness and difference, while at the same time stating that he feels it to be inadequate as an explanation of the relationship between God and the individual souls. Because it is impossible to define the idea of oneness and difference in terms of pure logic, Ramanuja attempted to employ the soul/body analogy to more accurately explain this relationship. However, because of the difficulties we have noted in completely accepting this definition, a study of the philosophy of Ramanuja inevitably draws one to the conclusion of inconceivable oneness and difference – acintya-bhedabheda-tattva.