[March 26, 2023 is the appearance day of Śrī Rāmānujācārya, in Vṛndāvana India. The following is an excerpt of a bhāva anuvāda of the kathā given by Śrīla Bhakti Vijñāna Bhāratī Gosvāmī Mahārāja on the disappearance day of Śrī Rāmānujācārya, on February 6, 2017 and February 9, 2014. Editors’ input: Additional text has been included in square brackets to facilitate flow of content.]
Today is the disappearance day of Śrīla Rāmānujācārya. It also happens to be the annual festival of Śrī Caitanya Gauḍīya Maṭha, Goalpārā (Assam) where the Deities of Śrī Śrī Rādhā Dāmodara were installed. Our Guru Mahārāja installed various Deities in such a way that the respective annual festivals of the different branches of Śrī Caitanya Gauḍīya Maṭha did not coincide with each other.
BIRTH AND EARLY PASTIMES
Rāmānujācārya was born in 1017 A.D., on the 12th day of Caitra (Mar-Apr), on pañcamī tithi. His father was Asurī Sarvakṛtu Keśava Deśika and his mother was Kāntimatī Devī. His father Sarvakṛtu was expert in performing all varieties of yajñas; he performed a yajña at the Pārthasārathi temple situated in Chennai with a desire to have a son and Rāmānuja was born as a result. Being born on the same tithi as Lord Lakṣmaṇa, he was named Lakṣmaṇa Deśika. Later he received the name Rāmānuja.
The birth place of Rāmānuja is Śrīperambudur, in Tamil Nadu, which is just 32 kilometers away from Kāncipuram. When he was just a small boy, his father left this world. Rāmānuja was also married off at an early age. His mother sent him to study under the tutelage of Yādava Prakāśa, a preacher of the Advaita Vedānta philosophy. [Rāmānuja and his guru frequently disagreed in interpreting Vedic texts.]
Once while Rāmānuja was giving an oil massage to Yādava Prakāśa, he began explaining the meaning of [a particular passage from the Candogya Upaniṣada, tasya yatha kapyasam puṇḍarikam eva akṣini]. Yādava Prakāśa interpreted the word ‘kapyasam’, as the lotus eyes of the Lord are red just like a monkey’s posterior. As soon as Rāmānuja heard this, tears began to flow from his eyes and fell onto Yādava Prakāśa’s body. Yādava Prakāśa inquired, "Lakṣmaṇa, did you receive some inauspicious news from your home? What is the reason behind your crying?" Rāmānuja submitted, "Your blasphemous interpretation is the cause behind my weeping." Yādava Prakāśa asked, "What was so vulgar about my interpretation?" Then Rāmānuja pronounced, "The interpretation of the word kapyasam could also be ‘kam pibati iti kapi’ - referring to the sun which evaporates moisture. Just as the rising sun is crimson, so are the lotus eyes of the Lord." Yādava Prakāśa said, "Indeed, your meaning is correct and so is mine. But I referred to the ‘abhidā’ (direct or literal) meaning of the term while your reference was to the ‘lakṣaṇa’ (symbolic or metaphoric) meaning of the term." Although externally Yādava Prakāśa downplayed the situation, internally he pondered, ‘This boy is indeed very sharp, therefore, in the future he will challenge my interpretations.’ Thenceforth, he became wary of Rāmānuja and, eventually, he resolved to somehow eliminate him. Thus, Yādava Prakāśa and his son conspired.
ESCAPING A MURDEROUS PLOT BY HIS GURU
As few days passed, Yādava Prakāśa made an announcement to all his disciples, “It takes three months to scrutinizingly study the Vedānta and thus we shall set out to Kāśī. Interested candidates should ready themselves for the departure. We shall return after three months.”
Rāmānuja asked for his mother’s opinion who said, “There is no need to go.” However his aunt, Diptimatī Devī, approached his mother and affirmed, "Dear sister, you have to tolerate the separation from your son for the sake of his progress. I am too sending my son Govinda to Kāśī." Then Kāntimatī Devī gave her consent. Govinda and Rāmānuja along with the other students proceeded for Kāśī. Upon reaching the Vṛndācala forest, which was very dense and beautiful, they camped for the night near a fresh water facility.
Rāmānuja woke up early the following morning and went for his bath. Upon his return, Govinda revealed, "Look, today is supposed be the last day of your life, because the conspiracy to eliminate you has already been hatched. So if you desire to live longer, you must escape." Rāmānuja grabbed his wet clothes and immediately fled from that place, however, he encountered unending dense forest in every direction he proceeded and the sun was about to set.
Overcome with intense thirst, Rāmānuja thought, "Now there is no way of escaping and soon the wild beasts will devour me". Just then he noticed a hunter and his wife seated underneath a tree. He approached them and asked, "Where are you heading?" They replied, “Kāncipuram.” Rāmānuja pleaded to accompany them and they agreed. That hunter’s wife, realizing that Rāmānuja was thirsty requested her husband to give him some water to drink. The hunter inquired, "Will you drink water?" Rāmānuja considered, ‘How can I drink his water? I am a brāhmaṇa, and this person is a hunter. Therefore, I should not accept water from him.’
Rāmānuja remembered how once a person [from a higher caste] had accepted boiled urad dahl from a mahout, just to save his life. Later, after the mahout thoroughly cleansed his drinking container and offered him water, he had refused, “I cannot accept water from you.” Bewildered, the simple-hearted mahout, indicated, “Even the urad dahl was cooked with the same water.” He replied, “True. However, I accepted your offering only to save my life, therefore, now that my life has been saved, I no longer need any water.”
Following this precedent, Rāmānuja accepted a palm full of water thrice. After drinking it, he felt drowsy so he laid down a short distance away from the hunter and his wife. When he awoke the next morning, he saw a colossal banyan tree beside a bouri (a large well where water is fetched by going down the steps, instead of using a pulley, and which is also used for swimming). Rāmānuja began to wonder, “Where am I?” Upon inquiring from the passers-by about the location, they responded, “This is a forest.” "Is there any settlement nearby?", he asked further. They said, "Yes, Kāncipuram is nearby" So he headed for Kāncipuram and upon arriving there, took his bath in the Vaikuṇṭha Sarovara (lake). After bathing, while meditating on his worshipable Lord, Sri Lakṣmī-Nārāyaṇa, he realized that the hunter and his wife were none other than Them.
Later he proceeded for Śrīperambudur. When he reached his residence, his aunt, who was also present, asked, "The study time was supposed to be three months, so what made you return so quickly, before everyone else." Then Rāmānuja related to them everything about the conspiracy plotted against him and requested that they remain tight-lipped about it.
LIBERATING A GHOST
When Yādava Prakāśa returned, he found Rāmānuja at home. Since his plot to kill Rāmānuja was seemingly unbeknown, he confidently sent an envoy requesting Rāmānuja to resume his studies. This time around Yādava Prakāśa was giving his interpretation on the Māhāvākya of Upanishad, ‘satyam jñānam anantam brahma’– ‘Everything is Brahma, there is nothing other than Brahma. Jīva is also Brahma.’ The trend continued. Rāmānuja again challenged Yādava Prakāśa's statement, affirming that, ‘satyam, jñānam and anantam are in fact adjectives attributed to the Lord. The Lord is endowed with the quality of supreme truth, intelligence and infinitude". Yādava Prakāśa now understood how severe of a threat Rāmānuja posed to his reputation and returned to the idea of finishing him.
Around that time, the king of the Chola dynasty sent a palanquin for Yādava Prakāśa petitioning him to come and exorcise a ghost possessing his daughter. Yādava Prakāśa requested Rāmānuja to accompany him, as an excuse to flaunt his reputation as an accomplished tāntrika. Once they arrived at the palace, Yādava Prakāśa began by chanting the mantras, however the [ghost within the] princess only laughingly ridiculed him, "Your efforts will be futile. Don't waste your time here." Enraged, Yādava Prakāśa shouted, "How dare you!” The ghost in possession of the princess, demanded, "I will leave immediately only if your disciple Rāmānuja keeps both his feet on my head." Seeing no other alternative, Yādava Prakāśa inevitably requested Rāmānuja to honor the ghost's demand. As soon as Rāmānuja placed his feet on her head, the princess fell unconscious and the ghost left her. After this incident Yādava Prakāśa's envy toward Rāmānuja increased exponentially. He worried, “This way, I will never become famous. Instead I will only invite infamy! The girl got delivered merely by the touch of Rāmānuja’s feet on her head, but I could not deliver her even by chanting powerful mantras.” As a result of his growing spite, Yādava Prakāśa demanded that Rāmānuja forsake his company.
After parting ways with Yādava Prakāśa, Rāmānuja met Kāncipūrṇa, a disciple of Yamunācārya. Kāncipūrṇa addressed Rāmānuja as Acārya, because by consideration of birth, he was born in a lower caste. Rāmānuja used to daily visit the Varadarāja temple in Kāncipuram and there he discovered Kāncipūrṇa reading the Alabandaru Stotra everyday. One day Rāmānuja invited Kāncipūrṇa to his home for food. In Vaiṣṇava parlance -- Vaiṣṇavas do not say, “Please come and take prasāda”, instead they say, “Please come and give prasāda.” Because only when any Vaiṣṇava guest comes and accepts food will it become prasāda. So Rāmānuja requested Kāncipūrṇa to come and give prasāda to him.
Kāncipūrṇa was on his way to honour the invitation, when Rāmānuja left his house to receive Kāncipūrṇa. However since Kāncipūrṇa had taken another route, they did not intercept. Once Kāncipūrṇa arrived at Rāmānuja's residence, he explained to Rāmānuja's wife that ācārya had invited him but he was also pressed for time, as he had stuti pātha sevā (glorifying the Lord with select hymns and prayers) to perform in the temple of Varadarāja. Therefore he requested, "If the prasāda is ready now, please allow me to honour it." His wife offered Kāncipūrṇa the prasāda on a leaf plate and after he had honoured it, she immediately discarded his plate and carefully purified the house by smearing cow dung, thinking that a person belonging to a lower caste partook food in a brāhmaṇa's house. After Kāncipūrṇa left, Rāmānuja's wife took a bath to purify herself and began cooking again in wet clothes. She disposed off the leftovers considering them remnants of a śūdra, and carefully washed all the vessels again. When Rāmānuja arrived he inquired, "I have invited Kāncipūrṇa and still you have not cooked? What if he arrives now? I will feel so embarrassed!" His wife replied, "He already came, honoured prasāda and left". Rāmānuja became very dejected with his wife, thinking, ‘I wanted to take his mahāprasāda remnants, but my wife has thrown away the leaf plate and now cleansed the place with cow dung.’
On another occasion, one sādhu setting out for a distant journey 3 kosas (1 kosa is 2.25 miles) away into a desolate area with no other villages heard the glories of Rāmānuja's atithi-sevā (the honouring of guests), and decided to pay his home a visit. Rāmānuja’s wife, however, dismissed that sādhu and refused to feed him. After leaving Rāmānuja's home, he encountered Rāmānuja on the path. Rāmānuja inquired from him where he was set out for in so much heat. He said, "I had heard Ācārya’s name, and thus I enquired from the locals and went to his house, but he was not present and his wife would not provide anything." Rāmānuja was extremely distressed to hear this. Thus, he wrote a letter to his wife posing as her father, informing her to come home immediately as her younger sister was getting married and her mother could not make all the requisite arrangements by herself; please inform Ācārya and come home quickly. Then Rāmānuja requested that same person who was previously denied any hospitality, to return to his home and deliver this message to his wife. This time, once Rāmānuja's wife realized that he was a messenger sent by her father, she treated him with great respect, fed him and showed him great hospitality. Later she presented that same letter to Rāmānuja, who promptly organized a chest (trunk) and filled it with all her jewels and clothes. Then he sent two men and one woman to accompany his wife to her father's place.
The wife did not even read that letter. Just by hearing that this person had come carrying some message from her father, she treated him so affectionately. Rāmānuja read her the letter aloud (which he had drafted himself). When she inquired why so many clothes were being packed, Rāmānuja asserted, "Why should you waste time washing clothes there? You can bring the used clothes here for the servants to wash.” Upon being asked why so many jewels were needed, Rāmānuja assured, "If you take only the jewels I gave you, people will suspect I have sold the jewels that your father offered you, and if you were to take only those jewels given by your father, then people would presume that your in-laws did not give you any jewels. So take them all and go". The person who brought the letter accompanied her and once they arrived near her father’s home, that sādhu took permission to leave and went. As soon as his wife departed for her parents’ home, Rāmānuja abandoned his house.
Śrīla Prabhupāda accepted so many teachings from Rāmānujācārya. Though Rāmānujācārya was born in a brāhmaṇa family, he had so much respect for Vaiṣṇavas. He always accepted Vaiṣṇavas as worshipable beyond their caste, creed or bodily designations.
ACCEPTING DĪKṢĀ AND SANNYĀSA
After leaving home, he accepted dīkṣā from Goṣṭīpūrṇa. Later he inquired from Kāncipūrṇa, "Who has composed this Alabandaru stotra?" "Yamunācārya", Kāncipūrṇa replied. Yamunācārya had four prominent disciples: Śailapūrṇa, Goṣṭīpūrṇa, Māhāpūrṇa and Kāncipūrṇa. Śailapūrṇa was Rāmānuja's uncle (mother's brother) so he took Rāmānuja to Yamunācārya. By the time they reached Śrīraṅga-kṣetra, Yamunācārya had already left his body, yet they noticed that three of Yamunācārya's fingers were curiously folded.
Rāmānuja inquired to know whether those fingers were previously in that position and the response was, "No". Rāmānuja immediately understood that some desire of this mahāpuruṣa had not yet been fulfilled. So he took three vows:
1) I will write a commentary on the Vedānta Sutra (later known as Śrī Bhāṣya); 2) I will deliver the fallen souls by giving them harināma;
3) I will preach all over India and establish bhakti śāstra.
As he took each of those three vows, each of Yamunācārya's three fingers unfolded in sequence.
Then people proposed, “You have come so far, you should take darśana of Śrī Raṅganātha.” Rāmānuja replied, "No, I will not see that cruel Lord. He did not allow me to have darśana of my Guru; nothing can happen without His wish. So, I will not see Him either." Afterwards, he accepted sannyāsa in front of Yamunācārya’s portrait. For this reason people consider him the disciple of Yamunācārya, because nāma, vigraha and svarūpa are one and the same. Then he was given the name Rāmānuja. Yamunācārya left his body before Rāmānuja could meet him in person. And in spite of this, Rāmānuja understood his guru's instruction. What lesson do we learn from this? That Guru reveals himself to a person who is surrendered.
FASTING WITHOUT DARŚANA OF THE LORD
Once while Rāmānuja was in Purī, he found some discrepancy with one of the sevakas of Lord Jagannātha. So, the same night, Lord Jagannātha, transported him to Kūrma-kṣetra in a palanquin. However, seeing no Viṣṇu deity there, he fasted for 3 days, thinking, 'How can I accept prasāda without taking darśana of Viṣṇu?' At that time, Kūrma, who was covered with sandalwood paste (it is a rule in South India that the deity is covered with sandalwood paste), was mistaken by Rāmānuja for a Śiva-liṅga, and for this reason he was not accepting any prasāda. Finally, the Lord revealed to him, "I am not a Śiva-liṅga, I am Kūrma!" Afterwards, Rāmānuja happily worshiped the Lord and honoured prasāda.
KŪREŚA – A SAD-ŚIṢYA
In due course of time, Rāmānuja began attracting many disciples. At one point, he was awarding dīkṣā to hundreds. At that time, only brāhmaṇas were accepted as disciples, but Rāmānuja initiated, accepting all, regardless of caste.
Rāmānuja propounded, "It is better to be consumed by a tiger than to visit a temple of Lord Śiva. [The mood of worshipping Śiva, considering him as Supreme, even higher than Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa is rejected here by Rāmānuja. Vaiṣṇavas worship Lord Śiva as the foremost Vaiṣṇava, the greatest devotee of the Lord. Such worship of Lord Śiva is not prohibited.]
There was a disciple of Rāmānuja named Kūreśa. When the Śaivaites observed that many other Śaivaites were converting to Vaiṣṇavism, they thought, Rāmānuja is spoiling all of them, so the Chola king who was also a Śaivaite invited Rāmānuja to his palace for a debate. Knowing that his guru’s life was in danger, Kūreśa requested Rāmānuja to change into ordinary clothes, and go to Śrirangapatnam and he went to the king’s palace in his stead.
When Kūreśa arrived, the Chola king asked him, “Do you believe that there is no other supreme truth beyond Śiva (śivāt parataro nāsti)?” Kūreśa replied, "Yes, there is (asti). Droṇam asti tatah param (Droṇa, a unit of calculation, is greater than Śiva)".
This statement infuriated the Chola king, who thus ordered his men to kill Kūreśa, [who he assumed was Rāmānuja]. But remembering that Rāmānuja previously saved his daughter, he spared his life but ordered his men to pluck the very eyes with which he had read the śāstras. Afterwards, he was sent back to Raṅga-kṣetra (Śrīraṅgam), where he was left to maintain himself by begging for the remainder of his life. When Rāmānuja came to know of this, he ordered Kūreśa to go to Lord Varadarāja to ask for a boon. Kūreśa went to Varadarāja and asked that nothing inauspicious should happen to the Chola King and all the citizens of his country, who were at fault for not having opposed the king. After he returned, Rāmānuja sent him back saying, "You did not ask anything for me! Please, I still require you for more service". So, by the mercy of Lord Varadarāja, Kūreśa got his eyes back.
Kūreśa had a photographic memory. Once he accompanied Rāmānuja to Kashmir, where they visited a Vaiṣṇodevī temple, in Śakti Pīṭha. The library there contained the Bodhāyana Vṛttī. When Kūreśa inquired if he could read the vṛttī, the response was, "No, the worms have eaten it.” But Sarasvatī Devī presented the book to Rāmānuja. Kūreśa read it day and night until he memorized it completely. Later when the Kashmiris discovered that Rāmānuja and Kūreśa were in possession of that book, they sent some men on horses to confiscate it. After they seized the book, Rāmānuja became dejected. However, Kūreśa, having memorized the whole book, reproduced it exactly from memory and offered it to Rāmānuja. Later the reproduced version was compared with the original book housed in the library, and it matched perfectly. On the basis of this Bodhāyana Vṛttī, Rāmānuja went on to write the Śrī Bhāṣya, his commentary on the Vedānta Sutra.
GURU BECOMES A DISCIPLE
Yādava Prakāśa, the former preceptor of Rāmānuja who had once plotted to kill him eventually accepted initiation from Rāmānuja following the instruction of a dream his mother had prophesying that adversity would befall her son Yādava Prakāśa lest he accept Rāmānuja as his Guru. In doing so would be his saving grace.
“I HAVE SOLD MYSELF FOR GURU-SEVĀ”
Rāmānuja had a disciple named Varadarāja and his wife's name was Lakṣmī. There was another wealthy disciple, Yogesh, in the same town. Once while Rāmānuja was visiting that town, he did not go to the residence of Yogesh, instead he went to Varadarāja's residence. Varadarāja used to maintain himself by begging and serving the Lord. When Rāmānuja approached his residence, Varadarāja's wife, Lakṣmī, did not step out to greet her Guru. Rāmānuja understood this was due to the fact that she did not even have proper clothes to cover herself. So Rāmānuja tossed her two bed sheets with which she could use to wrap around herself and step outside to offer praṇāms.
Lakṣmī was very beautiful and a local businessman was attracted to her beauty. Realizing that there were no items in the house to serve her guru and the accompanying guests, she approached that businessman and requested from him some items for her home. Lakṣmī promised, “First I will render sevā to my guru and later I will fulfill your desire.” The businessman became very excited, and sent more than what she had asked for. Using these resources, Lakṣmī served her guru and all his disciples very well. When Varadarāja returned home from begging, he saw that his guru had already arrived with so many disciples. He asked his wife how she had arranged for the feast when he was not able to collect a single item that day. She told him, "First honour prasāda, then I will explain", but Varadarāja insisted. Lakṣmī said, "You often quote, that we should render guru sevā even by sacrificing our whole wealth. I am your property. So today I have sold myself for the sake of rendering guru sevā". When Rāmānuja realized what had transpired, he instructed Varadarāja and Lakṣmī to go and offer the businessman some of his mahāprasāda remnants. Sure enough, after the businessman honoured them, his heart completely changed, so much so that he offered his daṇḍavat praṇāms to Lakṣmī. She told the businessman, "This is not my glory, it is the glory of my Gurudeva." Overwhelmed, the businessman became a disciple of Rāmānuja and served him throughout his life. From this incident we can understand the greatness of Rāmānuja.
“I CAN GO TO HELL TO SERVE MY GURU”
Once while Rāmānuja was residing at Śailapūrṇa’s āśrama for four months, he noticed that Śailapūrṇa’s servant, Govinda, would roll about on his Gurudeva’s bed, after the bed was already made.
Unable to fathom this conduct and hence considering Govinda a hypocrite, Rāmānuja warned him, "You will have to go to hell if you don't respect your guru. You are tossing around on your guru's bed. What kind of a disciple are you?" Śailapūrṇa heard this and realized that Rāmānuja did not understand Govinda’s heart. To resolve the misunderstanding, he summoned Govinda and asked, "Are you lying in my bed and tossing around?" Govinda said, "Yes Gurujī". Śailapūrṇa enquired, "Don't you know that just by crossing over the shadow of one’s spiritual master [not to speak of lying on his bed], one will go to hell?" Govinda said, "Yes, you have made me aware of this long ago". Then Śailapūrṇa asked, "Then, do you have so much interest to go to hell?" Govinda replied, "I don't mind going to hell. I do so to examine the bed thoroughly to ensure that there are no rough, knotty spots or other elements on the bed that might disturb your sleep. It doesn’t matter if I have to go to hell for this."
Rāmānuja was delighted to hear this explanation.