Upadesa Ratnamalai or ‘Jewel-studded Garland of Instructions’ is a work authored by Manavala Mamunigal in a classical Tamil form of poetry called venpa. A venpa is a metric prosody that ranges anywhere from two to twelve lines. This work appears to be an attempt by the author to educate the Srivaishnava community about: (i) The Glory of Alvars and Purvacharyas representing the tradition of Srivaishnavism; (ii) The commentaries authored by his earlier preceptors on the Divya Prabandham, (iii) The Greatness of the Tiruvaimoli and its commentaries, (iv) The tradition of Eedu Commentary of the Tiruvaimoli from Vadakku Tiruveedhi Pillai to Mamunigal himself, (v) The glory of Pillai Lokacharya’s srivachanabhushanam, (vi) Some instructions to Srivaishnavites on how to conduct themselves as worthy seekers of salvation and finally (vii) The revelation of ultimate means, Charamopayam.
The context of this work is nicely captured in the invocatory verse (taniyan) that Kovil Kanthadai Annan, one of the eight principal disciples of Manavala Mamunigal, has composed for this work:
munnan tiruvaimolippillai tam upadesitta
ner tannin padiyaith tanavada sol manavala muni
tan anbudan sei upadesa rattinamalai tannai
tan nenju tanil tarippavar talgal saran namakke
“Their feet are our sole refuge; who, register in their respective hearts, the inner truths conveyed in Upadesa Ratnamalai, a work authored by Manavala Mamunigal by virtue of the spiritual education he received under the tutelage of his preceptor Tiruvaimolippillai (Srisailesa), which he in turn offered to the world out of his love for people’s spiritual upliftment.
Judging by the invocatory verse, it is clear that this work is primarily a collection of instructions that is intended to help Srivaishnavites know about the rich tradition of the Dravida Vedanta, gain knowledge about the salient aspects of the works produced by this tradition of scholarship, understand their inner meanings and conduct one’s life according to the instructions in these works.
Mamunigal opines that those who are well-trained in the scriptures will acknowledge the greatness of these instructions and those interested in acquiring true knowledge of the self will gladly receive these instructions and put them to practice. Judging by the tone employed by the author in some of the verses, it occurs to the reader that there was once a time when the epistemological status of the Alvar compositions was questioned by a section within the Srivaishnava community. Mamunigal puts such doubts to rest by establishing (through arguments) the unquestionable status of the Alvar compositions vide verses 3, 34, 35 and 36 of this work. He asserts that the preceptors of Srivaishnavism from Nathamuni through Srisailesa had apprehended the glory of the spotless Alvar compositions and patronized them as the panacea for the ills of bondage.
Contributions of the work to Sri Vaishnavism:
As a true embodiment of idealized disciplic conduct, Mamunigal begins this work by attributing his knowledge to the grace of his preceptor Srisailesa, whose instructions, by virtue of the latter’s scholarly standing, can be assured of trustworthiness. The author further corroborates through the terms ‘Upadesa Margam’ that the instructions are not his’ but of his earlier preceptors, whom he succeeds in the Guru-disciplic tradition (1).
The first section of this work (verses 6 to 26, verses 30 to 33) is dedicated to explaining the profiles of the Alvars who graced the Southern Country. Mamunigal describes in considerable detail the birth months and asterisms of the Alvars, their places of birth, the context and glory associated with their births and the divya prabandhas they left behind. In the process, he hails the unique contributions of each Alvar to Srivaishnavism. The author praises the first three Alvars — Poigai (Sarayogi), Bhuta and Pey (Bhrantayogi) for dispelling the darkness of ignorance through their compositions (7). He hails Nammalvar as the preceptor of Dravida Veda, who through his works Tiruviruttam, Tiruvasiriyam, Tiruvaimoli and Periya Tiruvandadi captured the essence of Rig, Yajur, Sama and Atharvana Vedas in beautiful Tamil language. He then praises Tirumangai Alvar for composing six works, which are considered auxiliaries (vedangas) to the Dravida Vedas of Nammalvar. Further, the author hails the divya prabandhas of other Alvars as forming the supplementaries (upangas) to the Dravida Veda.
The author dedicates a total of five verses to honor Saint Ramanuja in the second section. The first three verses (27 to 29) hail the glory associated with the birth month and asterism of Ramanuja. In verse 37, the author hails the limitless compassion of Ramanuja for breaking the tradition of expounding the teachings of the scriptures to one person at a time. By enjoining seventy four disciples to propagate the dispensation of the Alvars, Ramanuja broke the age-old tradition and ensured that the esoteric teachings of the Vedas and Alvar compositions reached everyone interested in perusing them. He then hails this dispensation as the ‘Religion of Ramanuja’ (Emperumanar Darisanam) — a sobriquet that is said to have been offered to this tradition by the Lord of Srirangam (Namperumal) Himself.
The third section (verses 39 to 47) is dedicated to extolling the glories of the preceptors who have written commentaries on the Divya Prabandham. The author owes a debt of gratitude to Tirukkurugai Piran Pillan, Nanjiyar, Periyavachan Pillai, Vadakku Tiruveedhi Pillai and Vadikesari Alagiya Manavala Jiyar in this section. These five preceptors occupy an important place in Srivaishnava history for having written commentaries on the Tiruvaimoli and safeguarding its meanings for posterity. The author goes on to emphatically state that the inner meanings of the Tiruvaimoli could not have reached us if the abovementioned preceptors had not commented upon the verses.
The fourth section (verses 48 and 49) describes the tradition through which the Eedu commentary of Tiruvaimoli reached Mamunigal from Vadakku Tiruveedhi Pillai. The discourses of Nampillai on the Tiruvaimoli were recorded ‘as is’ by his disciple Vadakku Tiruveedhi Pillai. When the latter submitted this commentary at the feet of his preceptor, Nampillai took possession of it as it was written without his permission. He then gave this commentary to another of his disciples by the name Eyunni Madhava Perumal at a later date. Eyunni Madhava Perumal taught this Eedu commentary (which is also called the celebrated thirty-six thousand or Muppathu Arayirappadi) to this son Padmanabha Perumal. Padmanabha Perumal taught this to Nalur Pillai, who in turn taught his son Nalur Achan Pillai. The commentary finally reached Mamunigal’s preceptor Srisailesa through divine intervention in Lord Devaraja temple, Kanchipuram. Thus, Mamunigal highlights the glory of this commentary which survived through the Muslim invasion of Srirangam and other vicissitudes of time and finally reached him through his preceptor.
The fifth section (verses 53 to 59) is dedicated to extolling the glory of Pillai Lokacharya and his magnum opus, the Sri Vachana Bhushanam. The author lavishly showers his encomiums on Pillai Lokacharya for authoring a work as comprehensive as Sri Vachana Bhushanam. This work is a compilation of instructions received by Lokacharya from his preceptors and encapsulates the deeper spiritual meanings of Tiruvaimoli and the other divine outpourings of the Alvars. The author recommends that the teachings of this masterly work are worth fixating upon in mediatation and conduct. However, the author also considers this work idealistic, making it possible for a very few people to put its prescriptions to practice.
The sixth section (verses 60 to 73) discusses at length the code of conduct for a disciple interested in salvation. Mamunigal opines that the prima facie requirement for salvation is to have a deep love and attachment to the feet of one’s preceptor, one’s devotion to the Lord and His consort notwithstanding. A true disciple is duty-bound to attend to the bodily needs of his preceptor throughout the latter’s lifetime. A preceptor is one who oversees the spiritual needs of his protégé. The author defines two requirements that characterize a worthy preceptor – a good knowledge of the scriptures (jnana) and the demonstration of this knowledge through conduct (anushtana). Seeking refuge under a preceptor entails the knowledge that a disciple has to regard his preceptor as his means to salvation and that the preceptor plays the role of a mediator in leading him to the Lord’s abode. Drawing upon the traditional history of Srivaishnavism, Mamunigal cites the example of Pinpalagaram Perumal Jiyar, whose life personified a disciple’s conduct (66). In the concluding verses, the author emphasizes the importance of the company of the righteous and the need to follow the words of the wise to achieve the spiritual discipline necessary for salvation.