|[Life & work] | [On-line introductions]|
|LIFE & WORK|
Born near Madras in South India, and named Ilaya Perumal, Rāmānuja came (like his predecessors Nāgārjuna and Śakara) from a Brahmin family, and his father died when he was young. He started studying the Vedas with the Ved˙ntic scholar Yadava Prakasha in nearby Kanchipuram, but was a precocious student, and soon came to disagree with his teacher over the correct interpretation of the texts. They eventually parted company acrimoniously (one story has Yadava attempting to have his student murdered).
Rāmānuja married when he was quite young, but found that married life interfered with his studies, so left his wife in order to become a sannyāsin. He eventually, however, became head of the temple at Srīrangam, where he spent much of his life teaching and writing. He also travelled extensively throughout South India, teaching and proselytising. He ended his life at Srīrangam, supposedly having reached the venerable age of 120.
Rāmānuja was a member of the devotional sect, the Śrī Vaişņavas, which saw Brahman – impersonal in Śakara's non-dualist, advaita approach – as being a personal divinity, the Lord Vişņu. While accepting much of Śakara's argument against the dualist and pluralist schools of thought, Rāmānuja held the advaita position to be too extreme — too academic and cold for his taste. His solution was to argue for the division of reality into three: Brahman in personal form (as Vişņu), material things, and individual souls. The latter two can't exist without the first, but nor can it exist without them.
While accepting that there is only one reality, Rāmānuja argued that Brahman is affected – is qualified – by individuals, hence the label applied to his philosophy: viśitādvaita, usually though somewhat misleadingly translated as "qualified non-dualism" (or "qualified monism"). It's important to see that Rāmānuja isn't saying that his non-dualism is qualified, but that Brahman is. As a personal being, Brahman has qualities (as opposed to Śakara's qualityless notion), and these qualities (such as compassion, love, forgivingness) are defined in terms of (perhaps consist in) its relationship with individuals.
He rejects, therefore, Śakara's argument that Brahman is unknowable unless we lose our individuality and understand that we're simply part of Brahman, as well as the claim that all our perception of the world is illusion. Knowledge of Brahman, and mokşa, comes through bhakti (worship, or love), which we practise as individuals. Our beliefs about the world can't be illusory (whose illusions would they be? Not Brahman's, for Brahman can't go wrong, and not human beings, because they're part of the illusion).
Although Śakara's advaita vedānta remained the most influential of the vedāntic schools, the viśitādvaita vedānta school developed and consolidated by Rāmānuja attracted many of those of a more theistic disposition.
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