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.