Nothing strikes us so peculiar in Hindu religious life as the high pedestal on which the spiritual teacher is placed and the implicit faith which the community has in him for weal or woe. Nor is the feeling one of recent growth. The Chandogya Upanishad says: “Only when studied under a teacher does any knowledge become excellent.” Again “He who has a teacher alone knows.” The Kathopanishad proclaims: “He who loves the Lord intensely and loves his Guru as the Lord Himself, is alone fit to receive the Highest Wisdom.” And the Bhagavad Gita in Ch. XIII mentions the worship of the Acharya as an attitude worthy of attainment by the aspiring devotee. The puranic literature, as may be expected, amplifies these sentiments with exemplary stories of devotion and blind obedience on the part of the pupils. The story of Ekalavya in the Mahabharatha is frequently referred to as to the efficacy of Guru-worship even when the Guru himself is indifferent. For this Ekalavya, who was refused instruction by Dronacharya the famous teacher of the Pandus and Kurus, set up an image of Drona and, by ardent practice in the inspiring presence of that image, attained to such eminence in the use of the bow and arrow that Drona himself was staggered, and rather cruelly demanded the surrender of his thumb, which order the pupil duteously obeyed. It is, therefore, a characteristic feature of the Hindu pupil that he is brought up under a system which places the personal influence and inspiration of the teacher as a more potent factor in effective instruction than all the industry and the intelligence of the pupil himself. And great teachers, geniuses though some of them have been, have studiously refrained from asserting any doctrine as of their own invention and have always modestly and gratefully referred to their Guru as the origin of all their power and the source of their inspirations. The word ‘Upanishad’ bas been interpreted to mean ‘Secret doctrine’ or ‘Rahasya’ and the greatest caution is observed before a teacher will freely impart it to a pupil.
It appears to us moderns a mistaken policy to restrict the spread of knowledge of whatever kind, and the spirit of secrecy or disinclination to teach the greatest truths seems more worthy of the inventor of a new manufacturing process, jealous of the infringement of his rights and desirous of turning his knowledge to the best pecuniary advantage. The explanation seems to be, in part at least, that in times when manuscripts were rare or possibly writing was unknown, all knowledge was confined in the memory of a few learned men and the system continued long after the need for it ceased. But there was another factor in question which certainly helped to perpetuate the system of secret instruction. That was the necessity felt by the teacher to ascertain the fabric of the pupil’s mind and ensure its being of a sufficiently close texture for the purpose both of retaining what is imparted by him and of afterwards utilizing it for the pupil’s further spiritual advancement. It is not a proposition difficult to maintain that certain positions in philosophy appear untenable to minds constituted in one way but are lucidly self-evident to other minds that have had a different course of preparatory training. This is to some extent true of the material sciences as well: but the latter are more dependent on the conclusions of observation and experiment in the external world than the science of the soul and its relationship to the cosmos and the universal Self. Hence in spiritual matters all teachers of the world have insisted upon the necessity of a certain reserve in imparting serious instruction to pupils who are only yet feeling their way or possibly are adversely inclined. In the view of those teachers (and they are a majority) who hold that realisation of the Self is the ultimate goal of man and has to be learned by constant practice in seclusion and with the senses under control, the presence and active advice of one who has experience in the process are absolutely necessary. It is, therefore, not strange that for ages India has held the spiritual Guru to be indispensable and “Acharya Devo Bhava” the motto of every student under spiritual instruction.
We have been led to make these reflections for the purpose of explaining the system of maintaining succession lists of teachers among the followers of every sect of Hinduism and more especially the Ramanuja School. The head of this list is Saint Satakopa, the Author of the Thousand Tamil Songs, referred to already, and the next name is that of Nathamuni himself. In spite of the long interval of time between these two sages, the fact of the one being named as the other’s successor is explained by the statement made by the followers of this school that Nathamuni saw the saint in Yogic vision and, was directly instructed by him. We may, however, take it that for historical purposes the founder of both the theoretical and practical aspects of the Vishishtadvaita School in its outline is Nathamuni himself and that this great teacher had a respectable following of pupils imbued with his views and of sufficient learning to maintain them in controversy. Sage Nathamuni is said to have had eight pupils, of whom Pundarikaksha was the most important and is recognised as having continued the spiritual teachings of his preceptor. He is said to have been born about 826 A.D. at Thiruvellarai, North of Srirangam, in the chozhiya* caste of Brahmins. It is said of Pundarikaksha that on one occasion he was deputed by sage Nathamuni to escort his wife Aravindappavai to the residence of her father Vangippurathachi as he was called. While there, Pundarikaksha, who was of inferior caste, was served with stale food, regardless of being an honoured guest from the residence of Nathamuni. The latter on hearing of this fact and that the pupil himself never resented the apparent indignity but accepted it cheerfully as a favour; was greatly pleased with Pundarikaksha’s indifference to honour, and, noting it as a mark of high spiritual advancement, called him by the name of “Uyyakkondar” or “Saviour of the new Dispensation”, a name by which he is now usually known.
We had occasion to mention in a previous post that Sage Nathamuni made a visit to the banks of the river Yamuna in the north and had a son, born to Ishwara Muni, his son, named Yamunacharya after the God of that place. We are assured that Nathamuni foresaw the birth of the child some years before the event and commissioned his pupil Pundarikaksha to be the spiritual guardian of the boy and instruct him in the ways of the new faith. Nathamuni, in his later life, was frequently subject to spiritual trance, an ecstatic state known as Samadhi, when the subject sees nothing but God and is practically lost to the external world. Nathamuni was, we are told, in this Samadhi state for long periods at a time before his final end and in consequence had entrusted to Pundarikaksha the duty of instructing his grandson whose arrival he had fondly been watching. Pundarikaksha in his turn commissioned his senior pupil Ramamisra, a native of Manakkal, also near Srirangam, to perform the office of Guru to the long-expected grandson. Ramamisra (also called as Manakkal Nambi) is the next in spiritual succession after Pundarikaksha and is chiefly remembered as the spiritual instructor of the great Yamunacharya, of whom we shall see more of in the next post. Neither Pundarikaksha nor Ramamisra is known to have left any literary work behind them. We may suppose that their time was chiefly taken up with teaching and consolidating the doctrines of the New School of Sri Vaishnavas which had their origin with Sage Nathamuni as we have seen already. The saintly and exemplary lives of these men and their adoption of the Pancharatra cult must have contributed to their being respected by the community in general and followed by an ever-increasing group of ardent followers. A new religious creed usually courts strong opposition by adopting an aggressive attitude, but the early Vaishnavas of whom we are writing, seem to have been very mild and non-aggressive in their ways and to have been treated by the surrounding community with kindliness and respect.
The truth is that both the Advaita and the Vishishtadvaita Schools were the simultaneous expressions of a natural reaction from the sacrifice-ridden “Purva Mimansa” schools of Guru and Kumarila, which held the field in philosophical speculation during the centuries immediately preceding the times of Sankara, and were in their turn the outcome of the disgust at the development of philosophical Buddhism and its levelling and atheistic tendencies. The Vaishnava School, instead of starting with a daring new philosophy, collected the forces of conservatism by accentuating a life of purity and high morality, and gave the death-blow to sacrificialism, which had out-grown its original purpose and begun to deny God; while the Monism of Sankara won the sympathy of the intellectual among the community by its all-embracing subtlety and covert denunciation of mere Karma and Vedic ceremonial under the guise of the doctrine of illusion. It is difficult historically to say whether the subordinate place assigned to Karma-kanda in the two new phases of Hinduism was the result of an unconscious adjustment to the state of things that had resulted from the sustained attack of Buddhism on the sacrificial system generally, or, whether the original founders of these systems perceived the philosophical absurdity of inculcating the worship of various powers of the Earth and the Heavens simultaneously with the doctrine of Unity of God which was the corner-stone of each of the systems. Whatever the reason may be, the fact is clear that sacrificial observances were relegated to an inferior place in both these systems, though not boldly rejected as injurious or degrading. To the school of Sankara, the performance of ritualistic karma is a hindrance to true spiritual progress. It may be tolerated till the true vision of unity arises, but is afterwards of no further use. The Vishishtadvaita School disapproves of all karma which is done for worldly or transient results and considers that the best antidote to its evil effects is the renunciation of all attachment to the fruits thereof. While theoretically therefore the Karma Kanda is valid and binding in the view of both systems, the practical effect is, as indicated above, that it stands neglected by Vedantins throughout, except for purposes of deriving exegetical rules for application in the later Mimansa.
It is for this purpose rather than as a help to the performance of sacrifices – that the Purva Mimansa has been studied in the ages after Sankara. The study has been a matter of mere academic interest and the maxims evolved from the various sections of the old Sutras were applied to the interpretation of the Upanishads and of the Smrithis, sometimes relevantly, sometimes as the fancy of the author suggested. The latest and the best exposition of the subject, in the “Bhatta Dipika” of Khandadeva, of about the eighteenth century A. D., learned as it is by the profuse admixture of the terminology of modern Sanskrit logic, makes no attempt to explain the modes of the rituals, but, taking it always for granted, discusses the rationale of the decision, so to speak, of each topic, with a subtlety, and power of expression which only those trained in the logic school can appreciate. We mention these matters to show that neither the fact of the continuous study of the Mimansa in later times nor the performance of occasional sacrifices by Brahmins under the patronage of petty rulers of various States, need blind us to the fact that the sacrificial system lost its real hold on Brahminic India several centuries back, and that the main cause was the effect of covert antagonism towards that system of both the Sankara and the Ramanuja Schools.
The special influence of Vaishnavism on the South Indian people, an influence which had its origin in the times now discussed, and has continued its action down to the present day, is of a two-fold character. In the first place, it loosened the hold of its followers on the various minor gods and goddesses who were generally propitiated with a view to the attainment of various worldly objects. An early Smrithi work like the voluminous digest of Hemadri, or the Madhaviya, shows the vast number of puranic ceremonies, vratas, fasts, and feasts which were observed by the Hindus generally in honour of various deities like the sun, the moon, the planets, etc., on almost every imaginable day on which a particular thithi or nakshatra or a stellar or lunar conjunction happened to fall. Some of these ceremonies were considered Nitya or compulsory and some were Kamya or optional. But it became the fashion to resort to them largely and no doubt the main motive-power in keeping up the system was the full employment it furnished, and the remuneration it offered, to the Brahmin class, especially when the sacrifices fell into comparative disuse. Now Vaishnavism checked this elaborate ceremonial by interdicting its votaries from the worship of any deities except the highest known to it, who was the God Narayana of the Upanishads, the primal cause of all things. The stringent, if somewhat illiberal observance of the Sri Vaishnavites in not recognising, as objects of worship, deities other than Narayana, had its origin in the desire to carry to its logical conclusion the principle of the Unity of the Godhead and the undesirability of praying for any worldly benefits in the presence of the deity. The cosmopolitanism of the Advaitin to whom one personal God was as good as another and both were simply of ‘phenomenal’ importance, is not open to the Vaishnavite to adopt. While it appears that the exclusiveness of the Vaishnavite in the choice of a name to his one Deity is apparently of questionable merit at the present day (and has sufficed to dub him as sectarian and bigoted), his attempt to free Hinduism of an but the purest form of worship of a single Deity appears to be his single major contribution#. Dr. Thibaut, an eminent Indian historian, overcomes this doubt by pointing out that there is nothing sectarian in the philosophy of the Ramanuja School. In practical religion, devotion to one Deity was the teaching of this school, and the object was to elevate Hinduism to its pristine purity before non-Aryan influences had played upon it and instilled into it tantric rituals and diversity of divinity.
Again, the rapid conversion to Vaishnavism of large numbers of the masses of the people who were beyond the influence of Brahmanism and mere philosophy is another notable feature of this school, the germs of which we perceive even in the earliest times. While the Vedic Hindu strove to brand the non-Aryans as ‘Dasyus‘ or ‘thieves’ and kept them at a distance, early Brahmanism improved upon the treatment by making a monopoly of religious instruction and keeping sudras and the lower orders generally outside its pale. In fact both the Mimamsas (Purva & Uttara) have constructed what they call the “apa-sudra-adhikarana” wherein they demonstrate that none but those of the three higher castes are entitled to recite the Vedas or undertake the study of the Upanishads. The Smrithis have further prescribed choice punishments for the Sudra who breaks the rule or even listens to a Vedic text when being chanted. In the face of this strict monopoly, it is to the credit of Vaishnavism that it has been able to bring the lower classes into its fold and extend to them the privilege of knowing God and of attaining liberation. The agencies employed by Vaishnavism in effecting this silent revolution were two in number, referred to already in a different connection in the life of Nathamuni. One of them was the doctrine of Prapatti or surrender to God, which was conceived as demanding no caste status or educational qualification. The other was the adoption for religious purposes of the works of the Azhwars and making them the common property of all classes, Brahmins and non-Brahmins alike. The former of these matters will receive some detailed notice in another post and is only needed to be referred to at this stage.
We shall find in the succeeding articles under “Know your Acharyas” series that these special features of Vaishnavism namely, the tacit discarding of Vedic sacrificialism, the worship of a single deity, and the adaptation of the religion to the needs of non-Brahmins were constantly kept in mind by each succeeding generation of teachers and this contributed largely to the popularity and rapid spread of this form of Hinduism.
* The term Chozhiyas was a toponym used to represent the early Brahmin migrants to Chozha Nadu in the Tamil country. It is unfortunate that this name later came to be associated with caste connotations. Periyazhwar, Thondaradippodi Azhwar and some of the eminent acharyas of the Srivaishnava tradition come from these early settlers. It is high time we learn the truth and come out of the narrow confines of caste-based discrimination within our own community, a stigma which, at a societal level, Ramanuja and his followers have crusaded for to overcome.
#Contrary to the views of Rajagopalachariar, we can categorically state that the worship of Narayana was not just a choice made by the preceptors of the philosophical foundations of Srivaishnavam to establish the One-God status of Hinduism but is amply supported in the Upanishads and in the pasurams of the Azhwars.
Reference: The Vaishnavite Reformers of India by T. Rajagopalachariar, G.A. Natesan & Co., Esplanade, Madras. Emphasis added by me wherever appropriate.