This month marks the 1,000th birth anniversary of 12th-century Vaishnavite philosopher Ramanuja. His importance in the propagation of Vedanta, the philosophical ideas of the Upanishads, is well known. In terms of influence on Indian philosophy, Ramanuja is second only to Adi Sankara. He countered Sankara’s doctrine of non-dualism (advaita), which propounded the theory that the world is a mere superimposition of illusion (maya) on the supreme being (brahman) who is devoid of any attributes or form (nirguna, nirrupa), by developing visishtadvaita or qualified non-dualism. Ramanuja argued that the world was real and the supreme being was bestowed with positive attributes like omniscience and omnipresence. The entire universe, with its sentient and non-sentient units, are parts of the supreme being, who has absolute control over them.
Another significant difference between the two schools of Vedanta is their reading of the Gita and the path to realisation. Sankara’s advaita laid emphasis on the path of knowledge, or gnanamarga. Ramanuja, on the other hand, focussed on karma, or the performance of prescribed duties, an aspect of which was total surrender to god (saranagati).
But there is more to Ramanuja than philosophical musings. He is credited with ushering in significant reforms in the way religion was practised. While Sankara used non-dualism as a concept to propagate the equality of all beings at the doctrinal level, Ramanuja chose bhakti as a uniting factor. As Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam president M Karunanidhi, who wrote the script for a television series on Ramanuja in 2015, pointed out, the philosopher-saint wanted religion and temple worship to be thrown open to all people, irrespective of caste, though it is debatable whether he made any significant progress in this since conservatism made a comeback after his death.
The Union government has chosen to honour the memory of Ramanuja on his birth anniversary, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi released commemorative stamps last week to mark the occasion. But in the larger political context of the country, the question arises: Was Modi’s gesture mere symbolism to honour an icon of Hinduism? Or has he internalised Ramanuja’s teachings?
Take, for instance, the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s attempts at imposing Hindi and Sanskrit on all regions of the country. This is in direct confrontation with some of Ramanuja’s fundamental reforms that made his philosophy easier to relate to than advaita.
Tamil in temples
Sankara was a prolific writer. He commented on all three important texts of Vedanta: the Gita, the Brahmasutra and the Upanishads. This gave his philosophy a superstructure that was hard to penetrate. Such was the strength of his writings that they were considered a turning point in Hinduism’s philosophical battle with Buddhism and in the eventual decline of the latter.
Taking on an appealing philosophy like advaita required not just bare logic but some ingenious and practical strategy.
Ramanuja’s interpretation of the Brahmasutra disproved the central place Sankara had given to the illusionary nature of the world. But what tipped the scales in favour of Ramanuja, at least in South India, was his eagerness to embrace the local language – Tamil. In Vaishnavism in the south, Tamil, we can safely assert, occupies a higher position than Sanskrit. The credit for this goes to Ramanuja, who supported important changes to temple worship.
In this part of the country, the appeal of Vaishnavisim is largely fuelled by the poems of the 12 Alwars, or Tamil poet-saints who espoused bhakti and the worship of Vishnu and Krishna. The Nalayira Divyaprabandham, a collection of 4,000 poems of the Alwars that is also known as the Dravida Veda, is one of the pillars of the Bhakti movement that swept the country from the sixth century CE. In the hymns of the Alwars and Nayanmars (Shaivaite bards), Vedanta received a human face. Primarily, they emphasised that the benevolence of god was for all to enjoy and the path to salvation did not require the study of convoluted texts but could be achieved through bhakti. In other words, salvation, the ultimate objective in Hindu doctrines, became accessible to the masses and not just to scholars with the sacred thread across their shoulders.
Taking this revolutionary idea forward was the language that acted as its vehicle. Ramanuja realised that while complex debates in Sanskrit, in the form of commentaries on philosophical texts, were necessary to counter competing philosophies at the intellectual level, the tenets of such ideas could reach the common man and woman only through their mother tongue. Sanskrit, for all its grandeur, was a dead language.
To implement this idea, Ramanuja took Tamil into the greatest symbol of Hinduism – temples.
Singing the divyaprabandham (hymns) was made compulsory in all temples that followed the Vaishnavite faith. In fact, we could say the hymns of the Alwars took precedence over the Vedas in temples in South India. An example of this was the idol processions in Vishnu temples in Tamil Nadu. These would be led by a group, called goshti, singing the Tamil poems, while the group singing the Vedas would come behind the idol and virtually get no attention.
The implication of this was that bhakti as an idea became ingrained in the faithful, and it remains so today. The path of gnana, or knowledge, has for all practical reasons been confined to the precincts of scholars as it lacks the emotional drive of the local language.
BJP’s Hindi push
What lessons do Ramanuja’s teachings hold for our leaders today? The BJP government has embarked on a mission to impose Hindi across the country. In the garb of implementing the recommendations of a parliamentary panel, orders have been issued to widen the use of Hindi in all government communication. Regional languages are being replaced with Hindi in highway milestones in South India, prompting protestors to blacken the Hindi text with tar.
Such imposition will eventually lead to the alienation of a large number of people in the country whose primary identity is based on their language. It is not without reason that the Union government accepted the linguistic reorganisation of states in the 1950s.
For any idea to gain acceptance, it has to be accessible to the masses. If the idea of our rulers is to widen their appeal, it is the path of Ramanuja that they must look at and not the exclusivist ideas of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological parent, which wants to fit the entire country into its narrow frame of “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan”. While the former advocates reconciliation, the latter is all about confrontation.