Deconstructing Brahmn Through Devotion


Pranav Khullar

Within you is the power that can heal any internal disease. And within you is the treasure that can deliver you from any financial crisis. Within you is a tremendous power. Trust it … it can never fail in delivering you.

Sadhu TL Vaswani

Ramanuja’s position in Vedantic metaphysics is unique in its attempt to resolve the nature of reality, the ontological paradox of reality as ‘one and many’ by seeing the two not as opposites, but as being complementary to each other. His Vishishtadvaita philosophy presents a world in which the ‘one’ unity expresses itself in and through a multiplicity of forms, the ‘many’. Both are held together in an organic whole, the Absolute expressing itself through multiple finite beings, immanent in them, yet transcending them. Both the Absolute and the plural world are real, and both realise their value in and through the other.

Having addressed the core metaphysical issue, Ramanuja then applies this principle to map out and define Brahmn as Parama Purusha, not an abstract principle, but as “God qualified by individual selves and matter”. The philosophical concept of Brahmn, the Absolute, gets merged with the religious concept of Ishwara, God, and reality is now realisable through devotional experience. The earlier Vaishnava mystic devotional tradition of the Alwars gets merged in the metaphysics of Vishishtadvaita, where the empirical world is controlled and supported by a Saguna, personal god, and the relation between God and the plural world is described as the sarira-sariri-bhava, that is, the connect between body and soul.

Ramanuja’s ‘Sri Bhasya’, a commentary on the Brahma Sutras, presents a theological framework to metaphysics by establishing Supreme Brahmn as Vishnu, Narayana or Srinivasa. He states that liberation for human beings consists in surrendering to Him, in the spirit of saranagati, seeking refuge in Him. This philosophy was later elaborated upon by Vallabha and Chaitanya.

Shankara’s Advaita philosophy that the world is unreal, that the individual soul and Brahmn are one, that only Brahmn is knowledge-bliss and not the one who possesses these attributes, are all countered by Ramanuja in the Sri Bhasya. Vedanta Desika was to later define Ramanuja. His position as reflected in Vishishtadvaita, qualified monism, as opposed to Shankara’s Advaita, absolute monism, says he comes closer to the original intent of the Brahma Sutras than Shankara does.

This metaphysical position of holding the phenomenal world and the Absolute as both being real worlds, also acted as the trigger for major social reform which Ramanuja pioneered in his time. His philosophy of synthesis allowed him to view the world with a very large heart, and gave him the conviction that there can be no caste, community or gender restrictions in the eyes of God. All are equal in the opportunity to serve and realise God.

Ramanuja threw open temple entry to the so-called untouchables of his day. He personally supervised their entry into the temple of Lord Thirunarayana at Melkote, in Karnataka, giving them a new, ennobling name, Thiru-Kulattar, as belonging to the family of Lakshmi, the Divine Mother.

Ramanuja publicly shared the Ashtakshari Mantra – Aum Namo Narayana – with one and all, to the dismay of his guru. Later, seeing his compassion for people, his guru exclaimed that Ramanuja had truly imbibed the spirit of the mantra.

As one stands before the figure of Ramanuja inside the sanctum complex of the Srirangam temple, his real nature as a bhakta strikes on, a devotee who deconstructed the abstract notion of Brahmn and turned it into a vision of a personal God who can be reached and realised through devotion.