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[Excerpts from a paper presented by a disciple of Srimad Andavan at the Fifth Annual Vaishnava-Christian Dialogue, Chennai, 17 December 2019]
Srivaishnavism is a monotheistic doctrine within the Vedic tradition that accepts a single and personal God, whose grace and love nurture the souls living in His creation on their journey towards salvation. It is only by the compassionate grace of the personal God known by various names such as Narayana or Vishnu, and His mediatrix Sri or Lakshmi, that the helpless soul is redeemed from calamitous and cyclical suffering.
The roots of the Srivaishnava tradition can be traced back to the ancient Sanskrit texts of the Vedas and the Pancharatras. The simplified essence of the Vedas was revealed later in Tamil by twelve vaishnavite saints, the alwars, through their compositions called the Divya-prabandhams.
The syncretic fusion of these two traditions from the Sanskrit Veda and the Tamil Divya-prabandham are often referred to as ubhaya-vedanta, or the dual vedanta. Tradition attributes the revival of Srivaishnavism to Nathamuni in the 9th century CE, while Ramanuja structured the core philosophy of Vishishtadvaita or qualified monism by writing elaborate commentaries on the Brahma-sutras and the Bhagavad-gita in the 11th century CE.
The philosophical construct of Srivaishnavism was further embellished in the post-Ramanuja period by the teachings and writings of Embaar, Sri Parashara Bhattar, Nadadoor Ammal, Pillai Lokacharya, Vedanta Desika, Manavala Mamunigal, Brahma Tantra Svatantra Jeeyar, Gopalarya Mahadesikan, Rangaramanuja Muni and several others.
The unique contribution of Srivaishnavism is the exposition of the doctrine of loving self-surrender to the one Supreme Being, who is the only object worthy of worship, and the only source of shelter to the exclusion of every other being. This doctrine of loving self-surrender is called by different names in Sanskrit such as prapatti, sharanagati, nyasavidya, bharanyasa, atmanikshepa and atmasamarpana.
Trilateral doctrine in Vishistadvaita
Kant structured the central problems of philosophy by coining three questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope for?
Vishistadvaita deals with these problems through a trilateral doctrine called: tattva, hita and purushartha. Tattva refers to the absolute truth or reality, hita is the means for salvation, and purushartha points to the ultimate goal.
Tattva is further categorised as the three-fold reality or tattva-traya. In his work the Siddhitraya, Yamunacharya clearly articulates the three-fold reality as: ishvara or the one Supreme Being; chetana or the sentient beings, namely the souls who are characterised by consciousness; and the achetana or the non-sentient matter of the created universe, which is bereft of consciousness.
Srivaishnavism declares emphatically that there is only one God, the Supreme Ruler, while all that is sentient and insentient – the chetana and the achetana – are his vibhutis or his glories. Unlike advaita, the doctrine of vishishtadvaita unequivocally asserts that soul or the jiva and the Supreme Being or ishvara are different, and this difference is never transcended. God or Narayana alone is independent; all other beings are dependent on Him. Ramanuja asserts that souls share the same essential nature of brahman or the Supreme Being, but the intrinsic nature of the soul is “qualitative monism and quantitative pluralism.”
The triad of ishvara along with the chetana and the achetana, who are wholly dependent on ishvara, is brahman, and this is the completeness of existence. Thus, ishvara is the substantive part of brahman, while jivas or the souls, and jagat or the material universe, are its secondary attributes. Ishvara does however possess His primary attributes too, which are called nitya-kalyana gunas, or those inherent auspicious qualities that He possesses limitlessly and eternally.
In the Sharanagati-gadya, Ramanuja has described several nitya-kalyana-gunas of God.
He compares the Lord to an ocean into which rivers of boundless virtues flow. He qualifies these virtues as being natural to the Lord and used for protecting His devotee. Ramanuja explains that the Lord possesses supreme knowledge, is the mighty ruler of all the worlds, has untiring virility, and has the power to act with full independence without any outside help.
Ramanuja further states that no one can be as supremely kind, affectionate tender and gentle like the Lord, who is always friendly, equally disposed to all, most merciful, possesses limitless sweetness, nobility and generosity. The Lord is quick to respond to the miseries of his devotees, is totally firm in his resolve to protect them, and undaunted in his courage to fight for them. His will is always done, his commands are always irresistible, and His deeds are always fully executed. He always remembers even the smallest of services or worship offered to him with gratitude and love.
In the Sharanagati-gadya, Ramanuja portrayed his act of taking refuge to the Lord on the basis of his ‘helplessness’ or akinchanya, and commits himself to ananyagatitva by meditating on the Lord as the only refuge by recalling His promises and assurances of redemption.
Srivaishnavism discusses this relationship between ishvara and jiva as sharira-shariri-bhava: the understanding that the chetana and the achetana aspects of reality are part of the cosmic body of the Lord, who is the in-dweller or the cosmic soul. Sharia-shairiri-bhava is based on three components:
Adheyatva: the sharira or body is supported by the shariri or in-dweller. The jiva is fully dependent on the Lord for its existence and protection, and is supported by Him.
Niyamyatva: the sharira is controlled by the will of the shariri. The jiva thus acts as per the will or desire of the Lord
Seshatva: the sharira is the property of the shariri. Thus the jiva exists only for the pleasure of God.
It is important to note that niyamyatva does not mean that the jiva has no choice or free will at all. The jiva still possesses the qualities of being the knower (jnata) and enjoyer (bhokta) and also an agent (karta) that is capable of exercising free will. That is the Lord’s edicts and commands as made known through the shastras address the jiva and enjoin upon it to act in an informed manner thereby indicating that the jiva does have the scope to act out of his own volition. However the soul’s agency is dependent on the Lord because the Vedas declare the Lord to be the inner controller and cause of action.
The Sribhashya states that the Supreme Lord who is the eternal ruler of all, first regards apeksha the effort undertaken by the jiva; then awards anumati or permission, which actually causes pravarayati, the emergence of the action. Thus, the jiva exercises his free will by initiating an action, after which the Lord manifests his controllership by granting his co-operative permission, without which no action can proceed.
The second basic doctrine of Visishtadvaita, is hita or the means for salvation. There are two accepted means of salvation: bhakti or devotional service, and prapatti or loving self-surrender. According to Srivaishnavism, both bhakti and prapatti are equally sanctioned by the various Vedic texts of the shruti and smriti denominations. However, bhakti involves many rigorous disciplines which makes it restricted to those who are adept at following strict rules and regulatory injunctions. But the path of prapatti is a direct means or upaya to salvation that is much easier and quicker.
Prapatti is especially meant for those who are helpless and unable to undertake the rigour of bhakti-yoga, and hence it is available to everyone without any restrictions. Therefore, Srivaishnava acharyas from Nathamuni who themselves were great practitioners of bhakti-yoga, have still given preference to prapatti, and advocated it as the easier means for salvation.
The third doctrine in Srivaishnavism is called purushartha: the goal of life. In Srivaishnavaism, moksha or salvation is the attainment of nitya-kainkaryam or eternal loving service to the Lord in His spiritual kingdom after we shed our gross body and attain a spiritual body. Only nitya-kainkaryam or the state of eternal loving service will free us from bondage and illusion, and redeem us back to our original eternal state of knowledge and bliss.
Followers of Vedanta Desika’s school accept bhakti as a valid means of attaining the Lord, but they reiterate the fact that bhakti requires sattvic patience to endure any delay in attaining salvation, which is caused by the balance of prarabdha-karmas, the results of past sinful actions, which have to be exhausted. If a bhakta commits a small mistake, the whole exercise of bhakti will collapse like pack of cards. The path of devotion and love is therefore often likened to a bridge of hair built upon a river of fire.
In theory, bhakti-yoga and prapatti may thus seem like alternatives, but in practice they are not alternatives for these acharyas at all: when Nammalwar, Yamuna, Ramanuja, Nadadoor Ammal and Vedanta Desika surrender to the Lord, it is precisely because they do not see bhakti-yoga as a viable option for themselves. They regard themselves as lacking the qualifications and the adhikara to practice any upaya other than loving self-surrender, and their perceived lack of qualification becomes, in fact, their qualification for that surrender. In that sense, prapatti can be seen in two ways: either as an anga of bhakti that is meant to help the bhakta take his final step towards the ultimate goal, or as an independent upaya that stands by itself, and can be performed because the aspirant feels helpless and unable to perform bhakti.
The common threads in all generations of prapatti literature is that it involves a transformation of consciousness by overcoming the illusion of one’s independence, the acknowledgement of one’s true nature as a servant and the property of the Lord, the confession of one’s helplessness and inability to work towards one’s own salvation, and finally one’s total supplication, and dependence on the Lord, and the Lord alone, for his protection and grace.
A life of service: a prapanna’s engagement with himself and God
A Srivaishnava who has undertaken ritual vows of self-surrender or prapatti is called a prapanna, and must lead a life true to the values he or she espouses. Just like in other religions, a prapanna is expected to lead life of spiritual virtues such as faith in God, honesty, integrity, gentleness, kindness, compassion, truthfulness, cleanliness, simplicity, accept voluntary austerity, and non-violence. These are called samanya-dharma, and are common basic values. However, there are behavioural components or angas that are specially recommended for a prapanna, and cultivation of these angas provides a distinctive character to a Srivaishnava.
Anukulyasamkalpa and Pratikulyavarjanam
A prapanna believes that she or he lives only for the satisfaction of God, and therefore they must only do acts which are pleasing to the Lord at all times (anukula) and avoid all those acts which do not please the Lord (pratikula). Since scriptures are divine revelations of the Lord, the activities enjoined in scriptures become anukula, and those forbidden become pratikula. Scriptural injunction is therefore observed with the aim of pleasing the Supreme Lord. In this way, prapatti drives the aspirant to lead a life of high moral and ethical values.
Karpanya, which is the third anga of prapatti, otherwise called helplessness, invokes God’s mercy. In a state of utter helplessness, devoid of any ego resulting from the belief that one can help oneself, the aspirant confesses to the Lord about his incapacities and frailties. This is confessional behaviour that leads one to believe that God is the only resort and the last refuge.
Vedanta Desika says that mahavishvasa is nothing but complete and absolute faith in the saving and redemptive grace of the Lord, and only the Lord. The aspirant will not and should not seek protection and grace from any other source, because of the firm belief that the Lord alone will save them. Even the slightest doubt regarding the efficacy of prapatti will collapse the basic structure of the path to redemption. A prapanna who has mahavishvasa, thus becomes totally carefree about the future, because he feels the divine protection of the Lord constantly, and at all times.
This is the fifth required anga of prapatti, and represents a heartfelt plea filled with yearning from the aspirant to the Supreme Lord to grant protection. According to Vedanta Desika, though moksha is an ultimate goal of life, it is not easy to attain like other objects. Mere prayer alone will not fetch moksha; one should try hard and yearn for it. Without asking or repeating again and again, no good things will be given. If an aspirant cannot ask repeatedly again and again, moksha cannot be granted by God. The Lakshmi-tantra observes, “No protection would be granted when it is not sought”.
Vedanta Desika says that, the self-surrender invariably follows with supreme faith in receiving the grace of God. In the Nyasadashakam, he explains that the protection from the Lord will be extended only to those who have understood they are the property of the Lord, and have given up ownership of oneself. The handing back of the soul, which is originally the property of the Lord, to its rightful owner is called svarupa-samarpanam. In addition, the jiva must place all his responsibilities, including the act of protection, to the Lord, who is both siddha (the goal) and the sadhya (the means). This is called bhara-samarpanam. Desika further explains that the only objective of an aspirant is to serve God and have no concern of the result of his self-surrender. This surrendering of the fruits of one’s endeavours is called phala-samarpanam.
Thus prapatti involves three important aspects: svarupa-samarpanam, bhara-samarpanam and phala-samarpanam, and together, these constitute the ingredient factors of the very concept of prapatti. A prapanna therefore behaves and acts in the moods of sattvika-tyaga at all times: where all activities are done only to obey the orders of the Supreme Lord, where the fruits of all actions belong to the Supreme Lord, and are meant only for His pleasure and enjoyment.
A life of compassion: a prapanna’s engagement with society
A prapanna, is both an individual and a part of society. Thus his or her engagement with society will reflect the values enshrined in prapatti: the firm faith and conviction he or she has while taking refuge of the Lord as a result of which they feel the protection of the Lord at all times; and the compassion they feel for those who are yet to take refuge.
A prapanna engages with society to bring solace and comfort to others, to support them in their difficult times, and most importantly, to help them on their journey to salvation.