RAMANUJA'S STUDENT LIFE
One of Yamunacarya’s chief sannyasi disciples was Sri Sailapurna. He had two sisters, the elder named Kantimati and the younger named Diptimati. Kantimati was married to a very pious brahmana known as Asuri Kesavacarya. Because of his expertise in the performance of all five kinds of fire sacrifice, he was also known as Sarvakratu.
Years passed by, and the couple lived happily in the village of Bhutapuri, but, because they still had no children, Kesavacarya became disturbed at heart. He decided to perform a fire sacrifice to please the Lord and thus beg Him for the gift of a son. For this purpose he journeyed with his wife to the temple of Sri Partha-sarathi on the shores of the ocean, in what is now the city of Madras. There they performed sacrifices together, begging the Lord to be merciful to them and grant them the benediction of a son.
Certainly Lord Visnu was pleased by their prayers, for about one year later Kantimati gave birth to a baby boy, who bore all auspicious marks on his body. This was in the year AD 1017, and it was this child who grew up to be renowned all over the world as Sri Ramanujacarya, the great devotee of Lord Narayana.
At about the same time, Kantimati's younger sister, Diptimati, also gave birth to a son. On hearing the news of the births of his two nephews, Saila-purna, the intimate disciple of Yamunacarya, came to visit them. He was astonished to see all the auspicious marks on the body of Kantimati's son, and he gave him the name Ramanuja, a name of Laksmana which means the younger brother of Rama. To Diptimati's son he gave the name Govinda.
MEETING WITH KANCIPURNA
As Ramanuja grew, the brilliance of his intellect soon became apparent. When he began to attend school, he could easily remember anything he was taught, even after hearing it only once. All the teachers in the school loved the boy, not only because he was a brilliant scholar, but also because of his gentle, courteous nature.
At that time there was a famous devotee of the Lord named Kancipurna, who lived in the nearby city of Kancipuram. He was a disciple of Yamunacarya, and, although he was born in a sudra family, his intense devotion to the Lord was so apparent that even strict brahmanas would offer him all respect. Every day he would travel from the city of Kanci to the village of Poonamalle to worship the Deity there. As Bhutapuri was midway between the two places, he would daily pass by Ramanuja's house.
One evening as Ramanuja was returning home from school, he met Kancipurna face to face and was immediately attracted by the demeanor of this holy man. With great humility Ramanuja invited Kancipurna to come to his house for a meal, and the great devotee readily agreed, being very much attracted to this gentle brahmana boy.
After his guest had finished his meal, Ramanuja began to massage his feet. At this Kancipurna protested, "I am nothing but a low-born sudra and am thus your servant. It is not proper for a brahmana like you to deal with me in such a way."
Ramanuja replied, "If my position as a brahmana prevents me from worshipping a great soul such as yourself, then I consider my birth to be the most inauspicious. Is it just the wearing of a cheap thread that makes one a brahmana? Only that person who is fully devoted to Lord Visnu is a real brahmana, no one else."
Kancipurna was filled with wonder and delight to hear the boy's firm faith in devotional service. Long into the night the two of them sat up discussing topics about the Lord and the ways of devotion. That night Kancipurna stayed at Ramanuja's house and proceeded on his journey the next morning. From that day forth both of these great devotees were bound together by the love that each bore for the other.
MOVING TO KANCIPURAM
When Ramanuja was only sixteen years old, his father, Asuri Kesavacarya, wanted to get him married. Accordingly, he selected a beautiful young girl to be his son's bride and made all the arrangements for the wedding celebration. The festivities lasted for an entire week and all the poor people of the neighborhood were satisfied by the distribution of large amounts of prasadam. After the couple had been married for only one month, however, tragedy struck the family – Kesavacarya left this world. Kantimati was afflicted with terrible grief, and for Ramanuja also it was a time of great sorrow. Now that Kesavacarya had left them, Bhutapuri was no longer a happy place for the family, and they decided to move to the city of Kanci. Ramanuja went first to construct a residence for them, and when it was completed they all moved there.
AT THE SCHOOL OF YADAVAPRAKASA
At that time a very learned scholar was living at Kanci. His name was Yadavaprakasa, and the fame of scholarship had attracted a large group of disciples to him. Being desirous of understanding the Vedic literatures, Ramanuja also became his student, and his pleasant nature and quick intelligence soon endeared him to the great pandita. However, this relationship did not last for very long, for despite his learning and knowledge of the scriptures, Yadavaprakasa was a firm adherent of the mayavada philosophy of absolute oneness. He taught that the all-pervading Brahman was the Absolute Truth and that the personal God, Lord Visnu, was illusory. Ramanuja was a pure devotee of the Lord, and so he was pained to hear the statements of Yadavaprakasa, that denied the supremacy of his beloved Lord. Out of humility and respect for his guru, Ramanuja would not point out the defects in these impersonalist teachings, but the situation gradually became impossible to tolerate.
THE FIRST CONFRONTATION
One day when the other students had gone home to take lunch, Yadavaprakasa asked Ramanuja to massage his body with oil. At that time one of the other students returned to the school to discuss with his teacher a passage from the Chandogya Upanisad they had been studying that morning. In particular he inquired about the word kapyasam, which occurs in the first chapter, part six, verse seven. Therein it is stated, kapyasam pundarikam evam aksini.
Following Sankaracarya's interpretation, Yadavaprakasa began to explain that kapyasam referred to the rear-end of a monkey and that the whole passage meant that the Supreme Lord had eyes like lotuses as red as a monkey's rear-end.
On hearing this horrible explanation of the appearance of his beloved Lord, Ramanuja, who was still massaging his guru, was filled with such intense grief that hot tears immediately began to pour from his eyes. When Yadavaprakasa felt the touch of these tears, he looked up in surprise. Seeing Ramanuja's distress, he asked what was causing him such pain. To this inquiry Ramanuja replied, "0 master, it causes me such suffering to hear this terrible explanation from a great soul like yourself. How sinful it is to compare the beautiful lotus eyes of the Lord to the posterior of a monkey. I never expected to hear such a thing from my teacher."
Yadavaprakasa was angered by this challenge from one of his own students, and he replied sharply, "I also am very aggrieved. Impudent words from an inferior are never praiseworthy. If you have become so proud that you think yourself a better teacher than me, then let us hear your explanation of the passage."
"By your mercy everything is possible" replied Ramanuja.
Yadavaprakasa smiled derisively. "Now we are going to see this boy outdo the great Sankaracarya," he said.
Ramanuja remained peaceful, and when he spoke it was in a very humble way. "Instead of understanding the posterior of a monkey from the word kapyasam, " he said, "another meaning is possible. Ka-pi can be taken as kam jalam pibati, that which drinks up the water, or, in other words, the sun. The word asam also means to blossom, so the whole word kapi-asam can be understood as that which blossoms under the sun, or, in other words, the lotus flower. Thus we can understand the mantra of the Upanisad to mean that the Lord has eyes as beautiful as the lotus flower."
Yadavaprakasa was very surprised to hear such a clever explanation from one of his own students and he realized that Ramanuja was a staunch adherent of the devotional philosophy of dualism. The devotees understand that the perfection of life is to worship Lord Visnu without any personal desire, and so they never aspire for oneness as the mayavadis do. This philosophy was directly opposed to the teachings of Yadavaprakasa and after this incident his affection for Ramanuja began to wane.
MORE CONFLICTS AT SCHOOL
A few days later when Yadavaprakasa was instructing his students from the Taittiriya Upanisad, he made the statement that the Supreme Brahman is Truth, Knowledge, and Infinity. On hearing this impersonal idea of God, Ramanuja could not contain himself. He immediately objected to his teacher’s explanation, saying, "No, this verse means that the Supreme possesses Truth, Knowledge, and Infinity, but still He has His own existence beyond these attributes."
Angered by this unexpected interruption, Yadavaprakasa replied, "You presumptuous child, if you won't accept my explanations, then why do you come here? Why not go home and start a school of your own?" When he had composed himself somewhat, he went on more quietly, "Your explanation is not in accordance with Sankaracarya or any of the previous acaryas, so kindly keep your impertinence to yourself."
By nature Ramanuja was humble and meek, and so he tried to avoid such confrontations with his teacher. However, he was also absolutely devoted to knowledge of the truth: thus, when he heard the misleading monist interpretations being put forward by Yadavaprakasa, he was sometimes unable to contain himself. In the presence of the other students Yadavaprakasa used to make light of these challenges, but in his heart there began to arise a growing fear and hatred for the boy. "As he grows older," he contemplated, "this boy will strongly establish the dualistic philosophy of devotion. This must not be allowed to happen. I will do whatever is necessary to protect the doctrine of monism, even if it means that I have to kill him."
Actually, Yadavaprakasa was very envious of Ramanuja, seeing in him both a purer heart and a greater intellect than his own. One day, therefore, he called all his other students to a secret meeting. There he addressed them, "My dear children, none of you has ever found fault with my teachings, but this impudent Ramanuja has repeatedly challenged my explanations. He may be an intelligent boy, but all his ideas are based on the false doctrine of dualism, seeing a difference between the self and God. He is a complete heretic who will cause havoc in society through his teachings. We must find some way to be rid of him."
"Sir, surely you could just forbid him from coming to the school," suggested one student.
"But then our master's worst fears would be realized," responded another, "for he would open his own school and go on propagating his falsehoods all the more. Already he has written a commentary on the mantra: satyam jnanam anantam brahma, which contradicts everything we have learned from our teacher." This was true, for Ramanuja had effectively refuted Sankara's explanations: and his writing had been widely read and appreciated by Vaisnavas in south India, including Yamunacarya at Rangaksetra.
After discussing the matter for some time, they all agreed the only way to stop Ramanuja was to kill him. They then began to consider how this could be done secretly without anyone discovering their crime. Eventually Yadavaprakasa made a proposal, "Let us all go on pilgrimage to bathe in the Ganges. On the way there are many remote areas, where we can put an end to this heretic without anyone knowing anything about it. By bathing in the sacred Ganges we will free ourselves from the sin of killing a brahmana and when we return we will simply say he felt sick and died on the journey."
All the disciples readily accepted their teacher's suggestion and set out to induce Ramanuja to accompany them on their journey. Ramanuja was delighted at the idea of bathing in the Ganges and happily accepted their invitation. Govinda, Ramanuja's cousin, was living with his aunt in Kancipuram at this time, and he also studied at the school of Yadavaprakasa. When Ramanuja announced that he was going on pilgrimage to North India, Govinda immediately decided to go with his beloved friend and relative.
DANGER IN THE FOREST
Kantimati was unhappy at the prospect of being separated from her son for so many months, but, understanding the meritorious nature of such a venture, she gave him her permission to go. So it was that, at an auspicious moment, the band of disciples, headed by Yadavaprakasa, started out on the pilgrimage. After a few days traveling they came to a desolate region near the Vindhya Hills. Yadavaprakasa considered that this would be a suitable place to put his evil plan into operation, and he told his disciples to prepare themselves. However, while they were discussing the final preparations, Govinda was in the forest nearby, and he heard everything they said. As soon as he had the opportunity, he informed Ramanuja of the great danger he was in.
When he understood the wicked intentions of his teacher and fellow students, Ramanuja left the party and fled into the forest. When his absence was noticed, Yadavaprakasa sent some of the boys into the forest to search for him, but when no one replied to their calls, they concluded that Ramanuja must have been killed by some wild beast. Although secretly very pleased by this apparent turn of events, because of Govinda's presence, they all pretended to be very much aggrieved. Yadavaprakasa spoke to Govinda, instructing him about the temporary nature of the body and bodily relationships, thus revealing his cunning and treacherous nature.
MEETING WITH THE HUNTER
When Ramanuja heard from Govinda of the plot that was threatening his life, he was at first stunned and completely bewildered, it was just half an hour before nightfall: he was a young man of only eighteen years, alone and friendless in a land far from his home. Then suddenly he felt great strength and courage enter his body. "Why should I be afraid?" he considered, "Is Lord Narayana not the protector of His devotees? Therefore what have I to fear from the darkness of the forest?" Thinking like this, he turned his face resolutely towards the south and began walking quickly through the forest. Sometimes he thought he could hear faint voices calling him in the distance, but he never hesitated and continued on his course.
He travelled for most of the night, until eventually, exhausted by hunger and fatigue, he rested beneath a large tree. He awoke the following day, refreshed and vigorous once more. Already it was afternoon, and so he prepared to continue on his journey. While he was considering which direction he should take, he saw a fowler couple approaching him. The hunter's wife said to him, "Is it because you have lost your way that you are sitting here alone in the forest? You look like the son of a brahmana. Where is your home?"
"My home is far from here," replied Ramanuja, "way to the south. Have you heard of a place called Kancipuram?"
"How is it that you are so bold as to journey alone through this dense forest, which is infested with robbers and wild animals?" asked the hunter. "I know Kancipuram very well, and, as it happens, we are also going in that direction" Ramanuja was very surprised to hear this, and so he asked, "Where are you from and for what reason are you going to Kanci?"
"We are forest dwellers," came the reply, "and live in a small village near the Vindhya Mountains. Because we have made our livelihood by catching birds, we are now going on pilgrimage to Ramesvaram and Kancipuram to free ourselves from the reactions to so many sinful activities. It seems that the Supreme Lord, who gives shelter to everyone, has brought you to us for protection."
At first Ramanuja was a little afraid of the tall, dark-skinned stranger, but there was something about the affection in his face and the sweetness of his words that quickly dispelled all the misgivings from the young brahmanas mind. As it was by now almost evening time, the fowler said, "Let us go quickly through this forest region, and then we can camp for the night near an underground river that is not too far from here"
They set off at once and about an hour later came to the banks of the river. The fowler collected some pieces of wood and lit a fire. Then he prepared a camp site, so that they could spend the night there. Just before he fell asleep, Ramanuja heard the fowler's wife say to her husband, "My dear, I am feeling very thirsty. Can you look for some water for me?"
"Now the night has come," said the fowler, "and it would be foolish to leave the shelter of the firelight. Tomorrow you will be able to quench your thirst with the cool waters of a well that is just near here."
THE LORD PROTECTS HIS DEVOTEE
Early the next morning they rose and continued on their journey. Soon they came to the well the fowler had spoken of, and Ramanuja went down the steps to collect water for the wife of the fowler. Three times he brought water to her, but still her thirst was not satisfied. When he came back for the fourth time, there was no trace of the couple to be seen. They had completely disappeared. It was only then he realized They were in fact Laksmi and Narayana, who had taken the forms of a fowler and his wife just to protect Their devotee and guide him through the dangerous forest.
Seeing the towers of temples and a cluster of houses nearby, Ramanuja asked a passerby, "Sir, what is the name of this town?"
The man looked at him in amazement. "Can't you recognize the reputed city of Kancipuram?" he replied. "Why are you speaking like a stranger? I know that you are one of Yadavaprakasa's students, and I have seen you many times in the city."
Saying this the man continued on his way without waiting for a reply. At first Ramanuja was taken completely by surprise at this unbelievable news, but gradually he began to realize how Laksmidevi and Lord Narayana had bestowed their mercy upon him. Then his heart became filled with the ecstasy of divine love, and with tears rolling down his cheeks he began to offer prayers:
go-brahmana hitaya ca
govindaya namo namah
For over an hour Ramanuja remained at the well, rapt in ecstasy, reciting Queen Kunti's prayers from the Srimad-Bhagavatam in glorification of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Eventually three women carrying water pitchers approached the well, and, upon seeing them, Ramanuja controlled his emotions and proceeded on towards Kancipuram.
Ever since her son had set off on the pilgrimage to northern India, Ramanuja's mother, Kantimati, had been in a state of constant lamentation, shedding tears of separation. Thus, when he suddenly appeared at the doorway of the house, she could not at first believe it was actually him. Only when he paid obeisances and spoke to her was she fully convinced. Then she was filled with happiness and began to inquire from him, "My dear child, how is it that you have returned so soon? Where is Govinda? I thought that it would be at least six months before you returned from your pilgrimage to the holy Ganges"
When the whole story had been related to her, Kantimati was horrified by the evil intentions of Yadavaprakasa, but also delighted to hear of the great mercy the Lord had shown her son. At that moment Ramanuja's aunt, Diptimati, the mother of Govinda, came to the house along with Ramanuja's young wife. They were also overjoyed to see he had returned safely. They then began to cook offerings for Lord Narayana, and, just as they were serving prasadam, Kancipurna, who had heard of Ramanuja's arrival, came there. The two devotees warmly embraced one another, and Ramanuja invited Kancipurna to take prasadam as their honored guest. That night the feelings of joy in that small house were practically unlimited.
Ramanuja continued to study the scriptures at home, and he asked his mother and aunt to tell no one about Yadavaprakasa’s treacherous dealings. Some months later the acarya returned to Kancipuram along with all his disciples, except for Govinda. When Diptimati asked Yadavaprakasa about her son, he told her that after Ramanuja's disappearance they had journeyed to Benares, where they took darsana of Lord Visvanatha and bathed in the Ganges. They had stayed there for two weeks. One day whilst taking bath in the river, Govinda had discovered a Siva linga in the water. Seeing this as the will of the Lord, Govinda had immediately begun to worship Lord Siva in this form.
As he continued his worship, day by day his devotion to Lord Siva had become more and more fixed. Thus, when they arrived at Kalahasti on the return journey, he told his teacher and the other students that he no longer wanted to return to Kancipuram. He had decided to stay in that holy shrine of the Saivites and dedicate his life to the worship of Lord Sankara.
Diptimati was not an ordinary woman, and, rather than feeling distress at hearing this news, she became completely joyful, considering herself blessed to have such a saintly son. Soon after this she went to Kalahasti to visit Govinda, and, on seeing how he was completely absorbed in worship of Lord Siva and freed from material hankering, her happiness increased many times over.
At first Yadavaprakasa was fearful when he saw that Ramanuja was still living, but he thought the young man must be unaware of the plot he had made to kill him. In the presence of Kantimati he pretended to be overwhelmed with joy at finding her son safe and sound. "You cannot imagine," he told her, "the suffering and anguish all of us underwent when we were unable to find him in the forest."
In actuality the teacher was feeling very ashamed of his wickedness now that he saw Ramanuja's humble behavior. Turning to the young man, he spoke affectionately, "My child, from this day you should come once more to study with me. May the Lord continue to shower His blessings upon you." From that day on Ramanuja resumed his studies with Yadavaprakasa.
YAMUNACARYA'S PRAYERS FOR RAMANUJA
A few days later the venerable Alabandara, accompanied by many disciples, came to Kancipuram to see Lord Varadaraja. While he was returning from the temple, Yamunacarya saw Yadavaprakasa walking with his disciples, his hand resting on Ramanuja's shoulder. Seeing this handsome, effulgent young man, the Vaisnava saint became curious and inquired from his followers as to his identity. When he learned this was the same Ramanuja who had written the wonderful commentary on the Upanisadic mantra, satyam jnanam anantam brahma, he was very pleased. But at the same time he was disturbed to see him under the guidance of such an ardent mayavadi as Yadavaprakasa. He then prayed to Lord Varadaraja for Ramanuja's deliverance from such unfortunate association:
"I take shelter of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, by whose mercy the deaf may hear, the lame may arise and walk, the dumb may speak, the blind may see, and barren women may bring forth children.
"0 lotus-eyed one, husband of Laksmi, please bestow your full mercy upon Ramanuja, so that he will be able to worship you fully, without any hindrance."
Yamunacarya longed to approach Ramanuja and converse with him, but he was unwilling to associate with a nondevotee like Yadavaprakasa. At this time Alabandara was over one hundred years old and was the leading acarya among all the Vaisnavas in south India. He realized that, if Krsna desired it, he would one day have the chance to meet with Ramanuja alone. Thinking like this, he returned to Sri Rangam.
DELIVERANCE OF THE PRINCESS
Apart from his great learning in the science of Vedanta, Yadavaprakasa was also expert in magical arts, particularly in driving out ghosts and evil spirits. Once it so happened that the princess of Kancipuram came to be possessed by a fearful brahma-raksasa ghost. As Yadavaprakasa's expertise in dealing with such situations was widely known, he was at once summoned to the palace.
However, despite all his mantras, the ghost that was possessing the girl remained completely unmoved. Laughing in a hideous shrill voice, the ghost within the princess called out, "Yadavaprakasa, of what use are all your mantras You are wasting your time. Go back home" Determined not to be defeated, Yadavaprakasa continued with his attempts to exorcise the evil spirit, but to no avail. Again the brahma-raksasa spoke. ‘Why do you waste your strength in vain? Your power is much inferior to mine. The only way that you will be able to force me to leave the body of this beautiful princess is by bringing here your youngest disciple, the devoted Ramanuja. His purity is the only force that can overcome my potency".
Yadavaprakasa then sent word for Ramanuja to come to the palace without delay. When that great devotee of Lord Visnu arrived there and understood the situation, he spoke to the evil spirit, asking it to leave the body of the princess. The brahma-raksasa replied, speaking through the girl, "I will leave this body if you kindly place your lotus feet on my head." Such was the purity of Ramanuja's devotion that even this evil fiend could understand the benefit of taking shelter of such a great soul.
With the permission of his teacher, Ramanuja placed both of his feet on the girl's head, saying, "Now leave this place at once and give us some sign by which we may know in truth that you have departed."
The ghost replied, "Look now, I am leaving this beautiful body, and as a sign I shall break the topmost branch of the nearest banyan tree." At once the highest branch of the banyan tree cracked and felt to the ground, while the princess began to look around her in amazement, like one who has just awakened from sleep. When she was informed by her maidservant of all that had taken place, she hung her head in shame and hurried away to the inner apartments of the palace.
When the King of Kanci heard of his daughter's complete recovery, he hurried to worship the lotus feet of Ramanuja and express his gratitude. From that day on Ramanuja's fame spread throughout the kingdom, and his name was on everyone's lips. Yadavaprakasa, however, was not at all pleased by the turn of events, seeing that his position had been minimized by one of his own students. Now everyone was aware that Ramanuja was far greater in spiritual potency than Yadavaprakasa, and this was not at all to the liking of the proud mayavadi.
In addition, Ramanuja's intense devotion to Lord Visnu was completely incompatible with the dry monistic doctrines expounded by his teacher. Therefore, it seemed that conflict between the two was inevitable.
RAMANUJA'S EXPULSION FROM SCHOOL
The final confrontation was not long in coming. Only a few weeks after Ramanuja's deliverance of the princess, all the students were assembled to hear Yadavaprakasa lecture on the mantras, sarvam khalv idam brahma – 'everything is brahman' and, neha nanasti kincana-'there is nothing else in this world'. He was presenting the impersonalist philosophy in such an expert way that all his students were captivated by his explanations of the oneness of the jiva soul and the Supreme Brahman. Only Ramanuja showed any signs of unhappiness at the acaryas statements.
At the end of the class he spoke up, saying, "The words sarvam khalv idam brahma do not mean that the Supreme Absolute Truth is nothing but the sum total of all creation. Rather, it is seen that the universe comes from the Supreme as His energy, is maintained by Him and, in the end it dissolves back into Him. He maintains His own separate identity, although everything is indeed a part of His expanded energy. The words neha nanasti kincana do not mean that there is no variety at all in this world. Rather, we should understand that all the varieties of creation are held as one, just as separate pearls are held on one thread, although they are still individual entities. Thus, we can see how everything is both one and separate at the same time."
On hearing his teachings nullified by Ramanuja in this way, Yadavaprakasa became very angry and he spoke harshly, "If you do not like my explanations of the scriptures, then do not come to me any more".
"As you wish, sir" Ramanuja replied. He then worshipped the feet of his teacher and left the school, never to return again.
The next day as Ramanuja was sitting at home studying the scriptures by himself, Kancipurna came to visit him. As we have heard before, Kancipurna was a pure devotee of the Lord, who was respected by the most aristocratic brahmanas, though he himself took birth in a sudra family. From his very childhood he had absorbed himself in devotional service to the Deity of Sri Varadaraja. On hot summer days he would serve the Lord by providing cooling breezes with fans dipped in water, and he was always anxious to obtain the very best fruits and flowers to offer to the Lord.
All the people of Kanci loved him for his simple devotion and gentle behavior. Wherever he went all bad feelings and misunderstandings seemed to vanish. Sometimes he would stop in the middle of the road as if stunned, staring into the distance with an expression of great happiness on his face. It was said that he conversed with Lord Varadaraja Himself and that the Lord made His intentions known through the words of Kancipurna. Despite his birth in a sudra family, most of the brahmanas in Kancipuram recognized his exalted devotional qualities and offered him all respects. Only a few, who were very proud of their high birth and knowledge of the scriptures, said he was insane or an imposter. One of these, as you might imagine, was Yadavaprakasa.
INSTRUCTIONS FROM KANCIPURNA
Thus, it was with great happiness that Ramanuja received this wonderful devotee as a guest in his house. Offering him a nice sitting place, he said, "Your coming here is my great good fortune and can only be seen as part of the limitless mercy of Lord Varadaraja, who has sent you here to guide me. You must have heard of my expulsion from the school of Yadavaprakasa. Now I can see that this is not to be regretted, for I will accept you as my guru and teacher."
"Ramanuja, this cannot be," replied Kancipurna gently, "for I am a sudra and an ignorant man, with no knowledge of the scriptures. I simply pass my life rendering a little service to Lord Varadaraja. As a brahmana you are my master, and I am your servant".
"Sir, you are the wisest man I have ever known," said Ramanuja, "and if knowledge of the scriptures brings only pride instead of devotion, then what is its value? By your humble service to the Lord, I can see that you know perfectly the conclusions of all the scriptures."
On saying this Ramanuja fell down to pay his obeisances at the feet of the devoted Kancipurna. That saintly person instantly raised Ramanuja to his feet and told him, "I feel blessed to have seen your deep devotion for the Lord. Every day you should bring a jar of water to the temple for the service of Sri Varadaraja. In this way you will quickly receive His mercy, and all of your desires will be fulfilled."
Having given this advice to the young devotee, Kancipurna left to go and worship Lord Varadaraja. Ramanuja, accepting his instruction, engaged in the service of the Lord by bringing water to the temple of Lord Varadaraja from the sacred well where he had seen the Lord in the form of a fowler.
Ever since the day he had seen Ramanuja in Kancipuram, the aged Yamunacarya had been thinking of him and praying to Lord Visnu for his deliverance. He longed for the day on which Ramanuja would give up the association of Yadavaprakasa and take full shelter of the Vaisnavas. It was with this hope in mind that he composed his wonderful prayer known as the Stotra-ratna, which is adored by devotees even to this day.
A few days after the composition of the Stotra-ratna, Yamunacarya fell gravely ill and was unable to rise from his bed. However, even in this precarious position, hovering between life and death, he continued to preach the glories of the Lord. Fearing the imminent departure of their guru, various disciples put questions before him. Tiruvaranga asked, "If Lord Narayana is beyond mind and speech, how is it possible to serve Him?"
Yamunacarya replied, "The best way to serve Lord Narayana is to serve His pure devotees. In addition you should serve the Deity form of the Lord, even as the blessed Kancipurna serves Lord Varadaraja. All problems are resolved by the statement of the Mahabharata, mahajano yena gatah sa panthah -'Just follow the example set by the great devotees'." Looking into the eyes of his dear disciple, Alabandara continued, "For myself, my only refuge now is the lotus feet of Tirumangai, that noble mahatma who served Lord Ranganatha so perfectly in ancient times."
On hearing these words from his guru, Tiruvaranga's eyes filled with tears and he spoke again in a voice choked with grief, "Have you decided without doubt to leave this world now?"
Alabandara smiled slightly and replied softly, "How is it that such a wise man as yourself is to be seen lamenting for that which is inevitable? Do you not yet understand that everything happens only by the will of Lord Narayana. Our position is to simply accept whatever mercy He bestows upon us, giving up the dualities of happiness and distress."
At that moment two other disciples decided they would commit suicide as soon as Yamunacarya left this world. These two were Mahapurna and Tirukkotiyurpurna.
Another disciple came forward shedding tears and crying out, "Where will any of us go for shelter after your disappearance? Whose sweet words will inspire us to acts of greater devotion?"
Yamunacarya placed his hand on the disciple's head, saying, "My child, there is no need for anxiety, for Lord Ranganatha is there. He has given you shelter in the past, He is giving you shelter now and will continue to protect you in the future. Always go and pray before Lord Ranganatha and sometimes go to see Venkatesa at Tirupati and Varadaraja at Kanci. In this way how will you be without shelter?"
When Tiruvaranga asked whether the body should be buried or cremated, Alabandara gave no reply, for his mind was fixed on the lotus feet of Lord Narayana.
LORD RANGANATHA SAVES HIS DEVOTEES
The next day there was a special procession in Rangaksetra, and the Deity of Lord Ranganatha was carried from the temple on a palanquin. Huge crowds of people had gathered from all the surrounding villages to see the Lord as He passed along the road. The disciples of Yamunacarya were also in attendance. Suddenly one of the pujaris serving the Lord seemed to go into a trance, as if possessed. He spoke out, clearly addressing Mahapurna and Tirukkotiyurpurna, "Give up your resolution to commit suicide. It is not approved by Me."
After this wonderful event, all the disciples quickly returned to the bedside of Yamunacarya to tell him what had happened. He then gave them further instructions. "To commit suicide is a great sin, and to save you from such an act Lord Ranganatha Himself has spoken to you. Such is His boundless mercy." Alabandara then fell silent, and his eyes closed as he seemed to go deep into meditation. After a while he spoke again. "This is my final instruction to all of you. Offer flowers at the lotus feet of the Lord and always try to follow your gurus order. Destroy all false ego by serving the Vaisnavas". Then he gave all his disciples over to the care of Tiruvaranga and fell silent once more.
MAHAPURNA IS SENT TO KANCI
However, Yamunacarya did not depart from the world at this time, and a few days later, to everyone's surprise, he seemed to recover from his illness. He left his asrama and took darsana of Lord Ranganatha, just as he had done previously. Everyone was inspired to hear him talk again about the glories of Lord Visnu.
One day two brahmanas from Kancipuram arrived to see Yamunacarya, having heard of his imminent departure from the world. They were surprised to find the great acarya sitting up and discussing the scriptures, apparently fully recovered from his sickness. When Yamunacarya learned the two brahmanas were from Kancipuram, he immediately inquired from them about the welfare of Ramanuja. They told him he had now given up hearing from Yadavaprakasa and was studying the scriptures alone. Yamunacarya was very pleased to hear that the young devotee was now freed from the dangers of hearing mayavada philosophy, and there and then he composed eight verses glorifying the mercy of the Lord upon His devotees.
He then instructed Mahapurna, one of his senior disciples, "Please go to Kanci and bring Ramanuja here, for I long to see him in the midst of our company of Vaisnavas." Mahapurna offered obeisances at the feet of his guru, and that same day he departed to carry out his order.
DISAPPEARANCE OF YAMUNACARYA
A few days after the departure of Mahapurna, Alabandara's body was afflicted with sickness once more. Despite the intence pain he had to undergo, he still took his bath and went to the temple to see Lord Ranganatha, the Lord of his heart. He took a little maha-prasada and then returned to the asrama, where he called for all of his householder disciples to come to him.
First of all, in a mood of great humility, he begged them to forgive any offense that he might have made towards them. He then asked them to take care of the brahmacari and sannyasi disciples who were living at the asrama. Finally, Yamunacarya gave his last instruction to his householder disciples. "Every day you should rise early and go to the temple to worship Lord Ranganatha, smelling the flowers that have been offered to His lotus feet. In this way your mind and intelligence will become purified, and you will become fixed in your devotion to Lord Narayana. In addition you should always be devoted to your spiritual master and be attentive in serving guests."
When the householder disciples had left, Alabandara sat in a lotus position and concentrated his mind on the feet of Lord Hari. The remaining disciples began to chant the holy name of Lord Narayana in congregation, accompanied by the sweet sounds of the flute and other instruments. As Yamunacarya became even more deeply immersed in thoughts of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, tears of ecstasy ran down his cheeks and his body began to tremble. In this ecstatic state of devotional love the great acarya gave up his body and returned to the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord, his eternal, beloved master.
Immediately the kirtana stopped, and many of the disciples began to cry aloud in lamentation, while others fainted and fell unconscious to the ground. After some time the sannyasis and Yamunacarya’s son, Purna, collected themselves and began to make preparations for the funeral ceremony. The body was washed and dressed in new clothes before being placed on a decorated palanquin. Then, in slow procession, they carried the palanquin down to the banks of the Kaveri River, followed by almost all the inhabitants of Sri Rangam. There, amidst great lamentation, the body of the pure devotee was buried, as is the custom for those who have achieved the perfectional stage of devotional service.
MEETING WITH MAHAPURNA
Meanwhile, on the order of his guru, Mahapurna journeyed to Kancipuram and arrived there after travelling steadily for four days. He immediately went to the temple to see Lord Varadaraja, and as he was leaving he happened to meet Kancipurna, who invited him to spend the night at his asrama. The two devotees passed the evening in discussing topics about the Lord.
Early the next morning they set out together for the holy well and, as they approached, saw Ramanuja coming with a water jug on his shoulder to perform his daily service for Lord Varadaraja. Kancipurrna said, "I must leave you now to worship the Lord in the temple. Here is Ramanuja; go and tell him of your intentions."
Mahapurna was very happy to see the effulgent young devotee coming towards him, appearing so pure and free from the vices of this world. Instinctively he began to chant prayers from Yamunacarya’s Stotra-ratna. Hearing these beautiful hymns in praise of Lord Narayana being sung in such a sweet voice, Ramanuja stood silently, listening intently to the verses. Then he approached Mahapurna and inquired, "Sir, who has composed these wonderful verses, that so sweetly praise the qualities of the Supreme Lord? Just by your singing this morning my heart has been uplifted."
"These hymns were composed by my spiritual master, the venerable Yamunacarya," Mahapurna replied.
Ramanuja was very pleased to hear the name of the famous devotee, but he inquired in a concerned voice, "I had heard that the great Alabandara was afflicted by illness. Is he now recovered? How long is it since you were in his presence?"
"It is but five days since I left the side of my guru-maharaja," replied Mahapurna, "and at that time he had just recovered from his sickness."
Ramanuja was relieved to hear this news, and, being anxious to associate further with the saintly Mahapurna, he invited him to stay at his house. Then Mahapurna explained the purpose of his coming to Kancipuram. "I have come to this holy city at the request of the great soul Yamunacarya, simply to meet with you and invite you, on his behalf, to come to Rangaksetra, so that we may have your association."
Ramanuja could hardly believe such an exalted devotee was even aware of his existence, let alone being desirous of his association. However, Mahapurna reassured him by saying, "My master wishes to see you, and it is for this purpose alone that I have come here. His health has been much impaired by repeated illness, and, although he now seems a little better, I think that we should start immediately if you wish to fulfill his desire."
Ramanuja was so pleased by this unexpected news that he could only ascribe his good fortune to the mercy of Lord Varadaraja. Excitedly he said to Mahapurna, "Please wait here for a short while until I have delivered this water to the temple and taken the Lord's permission to leave."
Saying this he hurried off towards the temple. Just a short time later he returned, all ready to start on the journey. Mahapurna asked, "What about your family? Should you not first inform them of your intentions?"
"Obedience to the order of the guru is more important than any considerations of household life," replied Ramanuja. "Let us depart at once, for I am eager to see Sri Yamunacarya."
ARRIVAL IN SRI RANGAM
Thus, they set out on their journey southwards towards the holy city of Sri Rangam. Each evening they would stop for the night at the home of some pious brahmana devotee, and during the day they would travel with all possible haste. In this way they arrived at the banks of the Kaveri River in four days and immediately crossed over to Sri Rangam. They had intended to go straight away to the asrama of Yamunacarya, which was close to the temple of Lord Ranganatha, but they found the road blocked by a large crowd of people. When Mahapurna asked the reason for this great assembly, one man replied, "Sir, what can I say? The earth is now bereft of its most beautiful gem, for Mahatma Alabandara has returned to the abode of the Lord."
When he heard these words, Ramanuja immediately fainted and fell to the ground unconscious, while Mahapurna cried aloud in anguish, beating his forehead with the palms of his hands. After some time, Mahapurna composed himself, and, seeing Ramanuja still lying unconscious on the ground, he fetched some water and sprinkled it over the young man's face. When Ramanuja slowly opened his eyes, he heard these words of consolation, "Do not be overwhelmed by grief, for we can be sure that everything is taking place by the will of Lord Narayana. Now let us go and see that pure form before it is interred."
RAMANUJA'S THREE VOWS
Ramanuja followed Mahapurna to the banks of the Kaveri. When they saw the body of Yamunacarya, Mahapurna fell at his feet, bathing them with tears, while Ramanuja stood still, looking at the great Vaisnava. Although the life air had passed from the body, Alabandara's face was still serene and untouched by the shadow of death. Ramanuja stood there transfixed, just gazing, as if in a trance, at the face of that great devotee. Suddenly the crowds fell silent and turned to look at Ramanuja, for it seemed that somehow he was able to transcend the barrier of death and be fully in the presence of Sri Yamunacarya.
After a while Ramanuja said, "I see that three fingers of Alabandara's right hand are folded and clenched tight. Were they like that during his lifetime?"
The disciples who were close by replied, "No, his fingers used to remain straight. We cannot guess why they are like this now."
Ramanuja then declared aloud, "Remaining fixed in devotion to Lord Visnu, I shall free the people from illusion by spreading the glories of the Lord throughout the land" As these words were spoken, one of the fingers relaxed and became straight.
Ramanuja spoke again, saying, "To establish that there is no truth beyond Lord Visnu, I shall write the Sri-bhasya commentary on the Vedanta-sutra." At this the second of Yamunacarya's fingers became straight.
Ramanuja declared again, "In order to show respect to the sage Parasara, who has so wonderfully described the glories of the Lord in the Visnu Purana, I shall name one learned Vaisnava after him." With this final statement, the last of Alabandara's fingers relaxed and became straight.
When they saw this wonderful occurrence, everyone there was filled with amazement. They could now understand that Yamunacarya's three tightly held fingers represented his three unfulfilled desires, namely, to preach the glories of the Lord all over India, to compile a complete Vaisnava commentary on the Vedanta-sutra, which would nullify the atheistic doctrines of the impersonalists, and to honor the sage Parasara by naming a disciple after him. Now, Ramanuja's statements confirmed that he would complete the work Alabandara had begun.
RETURN TO KANCI
Before the body was buried in the samadhi tomb on the banks of the Kaveri, Ramanuja had left Sri Rangam to return to Kancipuram. Yamunacarya’s disciples had asked him to take darsan of Lord Ranganatha, but he had refused, saying, "I do not wish to see this cruel form of the Lord, who would not grant my most cherished desire and who has taken away the lord of my heart." Then, he had departed without speaking another word to anyone.
From that day on Ramanuja's personality changed and he became much more grave and serious. He was now even more reluctant to spend time in the company of nondevotees. For long periods he would remain alone, studying the scriptures, and he found true happiness only in the company of Kancipurna.