Philosophy of Rāmānujācārya
1. The Term ‘Viśiṣṭādvaita’ Explained.
The Viśiṣṭādvaita is so called because it inculcates the Advaita or oneness of God, with viśeṣa or attributes.
It is, therefore, “qualified non dualism.” God alone exists; all else that is seen is His manifestation, attribute, or Śakti.
Such attributes are Cit or the individual souls and Acit or matter.
The Advaita position is also that God alone exists and all else is manifestation.
Herein is the, common element between the two views, but the Advaita regards the manifestation as unreal and temporary, and as a result of Avidya or Nescience. In consequence, the one Brahman is without any attribute, in his view.
Rāmānuja and his school regard the attributes as real and permanent, but subject to the control of the one Brahman in all their modifications and evolutions.
The oneness of God is compatible with the existence of attributes, as the latter are incapable of existing alone, and so do not constitute independent things:
They are called the Prakāras or the modes, Śeṣa or the accessories, and Niyamya or the controlled, of the one Brahman.
The word Brahman is thus used either to denote the central unity, when it becomes possible to speak of the souls and matter, as its attributes, or to denote the combined trinity when the whole universe may properly be described as consisting of Brahman and Brahman alone.
The Viśiṣṭādvaita does not make the non- philosophical statement that the souls are absolutely independent entities, endowed with the capacity of separate existence and activity, apart from Brahman.
2. The Fundamental Attributes.
The Brahman (we use the word in the first of the above senses) is Intelligence. It is something more— it is the Knower.
Where attributes are denied, and all that exists is homogenous intelligence, as in the Advaita, there can be no knower; for there is nothing to know.
But for the Viśiṣṭādvaitin, Brahman is a knower, and the variety, philosophically essential for knowledge, is furnished by the attributes.
Brahman is Bliss, i.e. He is Blissful; for a mixture of the opposite, pain, is unimaginable in his case.
It will thus be seen that besides the attributes of souls and matter, which may be called “the defined attributes” if such a phrase may be used, Brahman has various abstract attributes, qualities strictly so-called, denoting his perfection from various points of view.
The Viśiṣṭādvaita considers ‘Intelligence’ as partaking of the dual character of an abstract and a defined attribute; and he instances ‘light’ as an example of the possibility of such an attribute.
Intelligence is of the essence of Brahman; it is an attribute as well, in its nature of universal pervasion.
Again Brahman is real, Satya. By this is understood that he is without vikāra or modifications of any kind.
The souls and matter are A-Satya or unreal, which again means that they are subject to modification, which is necessarily an element of impurity.
In the case of souls, this modification takes the form of expansion or contraction of Intelligence.
In mineral, plant, or animal life, the soul, under karmic control, is dull or of suppressed Intelligence.
The modifications of matter are of a more serious kind:
In the creation and expansion of the universe, matter undergoes a real modification of its nature. Such change is called pariṇāma or evolution as contrasted with vivarta or apparent variation, which is the view of the Advaita.
The Viśiṣṭādvaita holds that, in spite of the souls and matter being pervaded by Brahman, any modification of them, though under Brahman's control, do not touch His essence; just as the Advaita maintains that the operations of Avidya do not affect the one Reality.
The “unreality” of the cosmos is thus another point of agreement between the Advaita and the Viśiṣṭādvaita; but this, it must be admitted, is merely a nominal agreement, considering the important diversity in their conceptions of the unreality.
The Viśiṣṭādvaita would thus call Brahman – Sat; and the rest – A-Sat; in a narrower sense he reserves the epithet A-Sat to Matter, which undergoes change in its essence, unlike the souls whose essence is like to the Brahman's and never changes.
3. Two States of Brahman.
There are two states of existence for the Brahman:
One is absolute quiescence or Pralaya, when all the Souls and Matter exist in Him in deep sleep as it were:
No differentiation is possible in that stage between the Souls and Matter; these are then, as it were, non-existent. “Sat alone exists, one without a second.”
Existence is the only phrase that can be applied to the Brahman then, as volition, not to speak of creation, is potential or has not commenced to work.
Then begins the second stage, Creation:
In the Advaita, Creation is a negative, an unreal, act. It is the clouding of the pure Intelligence of Brahman by the inexplicable Avidya, which produces the manifestation of apparent diversity.
The Viśiṣṭādvaita considers creation as a positive volitional effort of the Brahman to display real diversity, by actualising the energy for change which is innate in both the souls and matter:
“He thought, may I become many, may I grow forth.”
The antaḥ praveṣa – “entry within” which the Upanishads speak of as taking place at creation is not strictly true:
To the Viśiṣṭādvaita, it means only the Brahman's willing to develop his inseparable attributes, souls and matter; for Brahman was “within” even before creation.
To the Advaita, the Antaḥ praveṣa is entirely metaphorical. The language of the Pariṇāma Vāda is used in this view merely for facility of comprehension.
4. The Purpose of Creation.
The ethical justification for creation is Justice.
The fruits of actions (karma) have to be bestowed, equally and impartially, and Brahman does this
by endowing souls with appropriate bodies of various kinds and giving room for further functioning and display of Free Will within limits; the further evolution depends on the manner in which the individual uses his opportunities.
As karma is, in the Hindu view, beginningless, it becomes unnecessary to account for its origin.
To the objection that Brahman could have no purpose, being without wants, in engaging itself in creation, the reply is, in the words of the author of the Vedānta Sūtras:
lokavat tu lila kaivalyam (II. 1.32), it is mere recreation, as in ordinary life.
In other words, as no compulsion can be predicated of the Brahman to evolve the universe, the Viśiṣṭādvaita accounts for it by the only other possible alternative, that it is mere recreation for the Brahman, but the strictest justice for the souls concerned.
Śankara adds the explanation that His innate nature (svabhāva) is to create. which does not carry us much further, and then reminds us that the whole discussion is unreal, as Brahman is never the agent of creation.
5. The Authority of Revelation
To the Viśiṣṭādvaita, as to the Advaita, the Vedas and Smṛiti are the sole and independent authority for the knowledge of Brahman.
Reason has no operation except in matters perceptible by the senses.
Transcendental notions as those with respect to the nature and attributes of Brahman and the souls, can only be received from Revelation.
This position appears illogical, dethroning, as it does, Reason, the accepted instrument of correct conclusion in all processes of thought.
To explain this anomaly, we have to dwell a little on the exact place assigned to reason by Śankara as well as Rāmānuja:
Reason is an indefinite word. It depends for its correctness, on the intellectual capacity of the person arguing, the extent of his information and other circumstances.
Until a fallacy is exposed, an argument is apparently sound. Then it is upset and the conclusion is to be reached by other reasoning.
This want of finality in mere reason is preferred to in the Vedanta Sutras (II-1-11) and is the cause of the Vedāntic systems rejecting it as a sufficient authority in the knowledge of Brahman as the Nyāya did.
The argument from design may at best establish a highly endowed intelligent first cause or causes, but could not lead to the conception of a perfect Brahman as first cause.
And so the help of mere reason as a sufficiently competent determining factor in the establishment of Brahman, as first cause, is rejected.
This must not be taken to mean that the Hindu Vedāṅtins reject argumentation in their philosophy:
Every page of their writings is a standing monument of their skill in the subtlest reasoning. According to them the purpose of reasoning is Two-fold:
It has, in the first place, full scope in matters which do not transcend the senses.
In the second place, it is a valuable adjunct in ontology, where the texts of the Vedas are to be construed:
As it so happens that most important texts are liable to be disputed as to their meanings, it goes without saying that there is full room for logical interpretation with respect to them.
To say that explicit Vedic texts are unquestionable authorities means one of two things:
either that we take them as the conclusions of great minds reached after acute reasoning, on matters which our feeble Intellects could not sufficiently comprehend,
or we consider them to be the records of unique direct experiences of men who had trained their powers of mental perception by methods to which we have no access.
Neither position is inconceivable or necessarily absurd:
So many scientific positions are accepted by the general body of educated men all over the world on the faith of representations that those positions have been verified by someone by actual experiments.
There may be danger of incorrect propositions in either case; but those like Śankara and Rāmānuja who do not feel the position of an Agnostic satisfactory, or comfortable,
have preferred to base their ontological position on revelation, while fully trusting to their capacity for ratiocination to meet objections on the part of those who do not subscribe to the authority of the Vedas.
Between these two, there is, however, a difference:
Śankara includes the Śrutis and Smṛiti among ephemeral things whose purpose is served when once Oneness is realised.
Rāmānuja considers them as always authoritative and as expressive of the eternal commands of the deity whose breath they are said to be.
An important difference arises between these two thinkers, based on this distinction.
In Śankara’s view the compulsory nature of ordained duties lasts only till an individual has realised by thinking his unity with God.
Rāmānuja considers the performance of such duties obligatory as long as life and physical power endure. (See Vedanta Sutras III. 4.32-35.)
There are also certain assertions in Rāmānuja’s religious tenets which must be unacceptable to those who do not believe in revelation or adopt his interpretation:
Such are his eternally free Souls (Nityās), Heaven conceived as a distinct place apart from and outside the changeable universe (though not outside Brahman), the existence of the Deity in physical forms of various kinds, the peculiar path of souls on their release from the body, and so on.
Belief in these is based on express texts and no reasoning can be called to prove them:
It is Rāmānuja’s contention that reasoning is equally powerless to disprove them.
And a disapproval of these in no way affects Rāmānuja’s conclusions, as regards the nature of Brahman and its relation to souls and matter, as philosophical positions consonant to abstract reasoning.
6. Mode of Reconciliation.
We now come to Rāmānuja's mode of reconciling Vedic texts:
Western scholars have tried to arrange chronologically the principal Upanishads and to discern, in some of them, partial truths; in others, crude statements; in others again, the completest insight into things transcendental that may be given to man.
How far this discussion is convincing we shall not stop to examine:
Where passages in the same Upanishads appear to conflict, as in the Chāṇḍogya, the Brihadāraṇyaka, or the Īśāvāsya, it is evident that the ordinary rules of interpretation must be resorted to, to arrive at a consistent meaning.
The respect which Hindus have entertained for the Upanishads on account of their antiquity has prevented them from considering any of them as of inferior authority to the rest.
It follows that a consistent doctrine has to be attempted out of at least the principal Upanishads:
This is what Śankara and Rāmānuja have attempted to do, each in his own way. And this is indeed what Bādarāyaṇa, the first interpreter of the Upanishads known to us, has himself done in the Vedānta Sūtras.
Several researchers have conjectured that Bādarāyaṇa had a partiality for the Chāṇḍogya and hence the frequent reference to it in the topics discussed,
have ascertained that, in the two Mimāṁsas, the passages discussed in each Adhikaraṇa are only typical and not exhaustive and that the order of exposition is mainly based on logical sequence.
It follows that there is justification for the view that one or two Upanishads are specially intended as the repository of philosophical truths to the exclusion of other Upanishads.
The texts of the Upanishads referring to the supreme Self are of two kinds:
Some speak of Him as Nirguṇa, attributeless. Others describe him as having attributes or qualities like wisdom, power, etc.
As truth can be only one, the natural question arises whether these texts can be reconciled in any manner.
Śankara’s view is that predominance must be given to the Nirguṇa texts, as the others have the effect of limiting the Infinite, which should not be done:
Hence texts like “Ekam eva Advaitiyam” one only, without a second, “neha nana Asti,” there is here no diversity, etc., are interpreted by him, without much straining, as establishing the absolute One-ness of the Brahman.
And the other texts are relegated to an inferior position and made to refer to an imaginary and inferior Brahman called aparā or kārya Brahman, i.e. the Brahman in conjunction with its creative power called Māyā.
Rāmānuja’s difficulty seems to be that this sharp division of the passages into those referring to the higher and those referring to the lower Brahman are not easily and directly inferable from the texts themselves.
On the other hand, the passages are so mixed up that it is impossible to say that this distinction, if true, was ever prominently kept up.
His reconciliation is therefore as follows:
The texts of the Upaniṣads do not inculcate an attributeless Brahman:
The attributes are real and not the result of Avidya; the texts referring to these attributes expound the Brahman as He is, with the souls and matter as His inseparable modes.
Brahman is One only in His compound nature, as described already.
The texts denying any attributes for Him are to be taken as meaning that He has no low or inauspicious attributes, such as liability to changes, death, sorrow, etc.
The texts as to creation, as mentioned already, mean a real modification of the attributes, souls and matter of the Brahman and do not mean that Brahman becomes suffused with Nescience and imagines a variety.
The souls are many and God is immanent, both in them and in matter. The texts which speak of unity and deny variety do so of the totality of the Brahman with his attributes.
Texts, which deny a second to Brahman, mean that there is no other controlling power in the universe apart from Him.
Texts which deny the possibility of knowing Brahman do not mean that he cannot be the object of thought, as there is no thinker; they mean only that His wonderful and priceless excellences or qualities could not be adequately described.
Else, according to Rāmānuja, they would conflict with hosts of passages which prescribe knowledge of Brahman and ascribe qualities to Him.
The text of the Brihadāraṇyaka II. 3. 6. which contains the famous words “neti neti” - “not so, not so” and is taken by Śankara to teach the negation of all attributes,
is interpreted by Rāmānuja(Vedanta Sūtras. III. 22.1) as merely denying the possibility of adequate knowledge of Brahman.
“This interpretation," says he, “is confirmed by the fact that after the negative phrase come an epithet of Brahman as “the True of the True, for the Prāṇas are the True.””
Rāmānuja interprets this text to mean that the Prāṇas or the individual souls are Satya or “true” i.e. not subject to change in their essence, while the supreme Self is altogether Real or unchangeable:
“He is, therefore, more eminently True than they (the Souls) are.”
7. The Theory of Causation.
The theory of causation has profoundly exercised the minds of all Hindu philosophers;
the Vedāṅtins, like the Sānkhyas, maintain the oneness of cause and effect in essence, as opposed to the logicians who maintain that they are different.
In what sense, then, is the world which is an effect, one with its cause?
Bādarāyaṇa has a topic discussing this point. (Sutras, I. IV. 23 etc.):
Here he maintains that the Brahman is not merely the instrumental cause, but also the material cause of the universe:
He is, in the position, not merely of the potter but also of the mud, to give an illustration familiar to Indian philosophers.
A succeeding Sutra, (l, 4. 27.) refers to the way in which Brahman as the cause becomes the effect. It is by Pariṇāma or owing to modification.
In Rāmānuja’s view the oneness of cause and effect arises from the fact that the cause is the Brahman in the Sūkṣma or subtle state, when the souls and matter are undeveloped
and the effect is Brahman also, now comprised of the Supreme Self and the souls and matter, the latter in a fully developed state.
Śankara, practically admitting the interpretation of the Sūtras given above, would, however, explain the modification as Vivarta really i.e., phenomenal creation by Brahman as influenced Avidya or Māyā.
That the two philosophers are entirely at variance in their view of this Oneness is also clear from their respective commentaries on the important Sūtra II. I.15, (14 in Śankara’s numbering) a discussion of which would be out of place in this brief exposition.
We would only draw attention to an important and suggestive statement of Śankarāchārya, at the close of his commentary of the above Sūtra that
Bādarāyaṇa, in his view, omits to contradict the reality of the manifested world and adopts the language of the Pariṇāma Vāda, for the purpose of facilitating the exposition of the saguṇa meditations later on in the work.
8. The Doctrine of Nescience
Rāmānuja’s Śrī Bhāshya is remarkable for the lengthy disquisition on various topics by which his actual commentary on the Sutras is preceded.
In this disquisition, he treats of various controversial points and expounds fully his differences of views from those of Śankara.
One of the most important of these is his statement of objections to the theory of Māyā or Avidya, which is a fundamental one in Śankara’s philosophy and is, at the same time, the most vulnerable point in it.
Is this Avidya different from or identical with Brahman? The former view would seem to undermine Śankara’s doctrine of oneness and the latter is equally untenable.
Śankara cuts the Gordian knot, by boldly declaring that it (the Avidya) is Sada-sada-nir-vāchaniya, i.e., it is indescribable as either existing or non-existing.
Rāmānuja expounds at great length his difficulties as to the tenability of the Māyā theory, under seven heads. Rāmānuja’s objections are of this sort:
The Avidya cannot operate on the Brahman, directly, for His nature is Intelligence and this would repel Nescience by its intrinsic merit.
Nor can it operate on the individual souls, for these are the outcome of the action of Avidya and cannot, therefore, be acted upon in anticipation.
Again, to state that Nescience clouds the Brahman is impossible, for that would mean that Brahman’s luminous nature is thereby destroyed; a position which is not admissible.
Avidya, again, as defined by Śankara, is in Rāmānuja's view, inconceivable, as the simultaneous possession of two opposite characters as existence and non-existence, cannot be predicted of anything in human conception.
Rāmānuja, further, does not think that to describe Avidya as indescribable really strengthens the position of Śankara; for if a thing is absolutely indescribable, it must be non-existent as an entity.
Then Rāmānuja points out that such an Avidya cannot be proved to exist by any known means of proof including Vedic or Smriti texts;
if such an Avidya should exist, it is irremovable says Rāmānuja, for the knowledge of attributeless Brahman required to remove it, is according to him an impossible thing, such a Brahman not being provable.
Lastly, such an Avidya is irremovable for another reason:
In Rāmānuja’s view the ignorance, being the result of Karma can be removed only by enjoined action and meditation. Mere knowledge of Brahman cannot remove it.
For all these reasons, Rāmānuja concludes that the theory or Māyā is untenable and opposed to the tenor of the Vedic texts.
It is not the purpose of this sketch to explain all Rāmānuja’s objections to Śaṅkarācārya’s views:
What has been attempted is only the setting forth of Rāmānuja’s views on important points with just so much reference to the doctrines of Śaṅkara, as is necessary to understand Rāmānuja.
To really grasp the vital differences between these two eminent philosophers, and to arrive at a proper estimate of their relative merits would mean a thorough discussion of three important questions, namely,
(1) who is the better interpreter of the Upanishads,
(2) who has more accurately represented the views of the Vedanta Sūtras, and
(3) who is entitled to greater respect as a philosophical thinker.
These are questions of so difficult nature that they are entirely beyond our scope and capacity.
Enough has, however, been said to show that Rāmānuja, when he becomes better known, would most certainly be deemed entitled to a high place among the world’s philosophers
and his system, though not possessing the, simplicity or universality of Śaṅkarācārya’s, is yet an eminently sound one, compatible with an admission of the reality of the cosmos and a high conception of the nature and attributes of the Deity.