The Srivaisnava Tradition In South India
Yamuna (fl. 11th C.) and Ramanuja (fl. 12th C.), the founders of the Visistadvaita school of Vedantic philosophy and the Srivaisnava religious tradition, make no appeal to the Ramayana in their written works, and little to other epic or puranic literature. But they were faced with the task of trying to legitimate their school's qualified nondualistic interpretation of Hindu scripture for a potentially hostile audience. Thus they not only wrote in Sanskrit but appealed mostly to the more authoritative Upanisads, the BhagavadGita , and the sastras . As the Srivaisnava tradition became more popular over the
next few generations, however, many of Ramanuja's successors started writing works intended to make Srivaisnava teaching accessible to a wider audience than intellectual philosophers.
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries some of Ramanuja's successors—especially those in Kanchipuram—continued the exposition of Visistadvaita Vedanta in Sanskrit. At the same time, others—notably a circle in Srirangam—developed a large body of commentatorial literature in Tamil Manipravala, a form of Sanskritized Tamil understandable to the larger Srivaisnava community, even women and non-Brahmins. In this literature, well-known stories from the epics and puranas , as well as passages from the beloved hymns of the Alvars, are frequently cited to support and illustrate Srivaisnava teaching. By the thirteenth century the different specializations of the Kanchi and Srirangam schools were evident in the kinds of literature they were producing. It is not surprising, given the different audiences and intentions of these two schools, that doctrinal differences between them also began to develop.
The doctrinal rift first surfaced when Vedanta Desika (1269-1370) criticized many of the claims of the Srirangam school. About a century later, Manavalamamuni (d. 1443) reaffirmed the teachings of his Srirangam predecessors, especially Pillai Lokacarya (d. 1310?), by writing commentaries on their most important works. Thus Vedanta Desika and Manavalamamuni came to be revered as the founders and foremost teachers (acaryas ) of the two main Srivaisnava subsects: the Vatakalai (literally "northern school," referring to Kanchi) and the Tenkalai (literally "southern school," referring to Srirangam). The central issue in the Tenkalai-Vatakalai dispute is soteriological, focusing on how best to understand the path of simple surrender to the Lord (prapatti ) and its relation to the path of devotion, or bhaktiyoga , which—as expounded by Yamuna and Ramanuja—must be accompanied by Vedic ritual practice. To understand the thrust of the Tenkalai use of Ramayana incidents, one must first contrast their view of surrender to the Lord with that of their Vatakalai counterparts.
The more conservative Vatakalai school, in its understanding of surrender, is driven by its concern to preserve the validity of bhaktiyoga , Vedic ritual, and the Sanskrit scriptures which teach them. At the same time, they do not want to compromise two important principles of Visistadvaita philosophy: that the Lord is egalitarian as well as merciful, and that the soul—although dependent on the Lord—has the God-given ability to act (jivakartrtva ). Vedanta Desika's writings repeatedly affirm that the paths of surrender and devotion are enjoined in scripture as two equally effective means (upaya ) to moksa (spiritual liberation). However, these alternatives are not a matter of choice, for an individual will be qualified for only one of them. The path of devotion (bhaktiyoga ) is an arduous means to salvation that demands performance of Vedic rituals (karmayoga ) as an ancillary duty; thus it is restricted
to twice-born males (who alone are qualified to perform Vedic rites) endowed with a good education, patience, and physical stamina. Only those who lack one of the qualifications for the path of devotion are allowed to follow the easier and quicker path of surrender (prapatti ), which does not involve any Vedic rituals. Vedanta Desika emphasizes that the Lord is ever willing to save all souls but, out of respect for the soul's desire, he will not do so until he receives a sign that indicates one's acceptance of the salvation the Lord offers. The adoption of either of these two means constitutes such a sign. But salvation is not something one earns, for neither surrender to the Lord nor devotion would be effective without the Lord's grace. Nonetheless, the Vatakalai see no harm in calling them means (upaya ) to moksa and subsidiary causes of salvation: both surrender and devotion are performed with the soul's God-given ability to act, and one or the other is absolutely necessary before salvation by the Lord's grace can be effected.
The Tenkalai authors have a much more radical understanding of surrender to the Lord. To them, surrender is a passive, loving response to the Lord's active, saving grace. It is merely a mental phenomenon—a particular change of attitude in which one recognizes one's utter dependence on the Lord—rather than an act performed by the individual soul. Though the Tenkalai teachers do not deny that the Lord has given the soul the ability to act, they claim it is contrary to the soul's nature of subservience (sesatva ) to the Lord and dependence (paratantrya ) on him for one to use that ability to try to save oneself. Any active attempt to save oneself by any means (upaya )— including engaging in the devotional or ritual means taught in scripture— will thus violate the soul's inherent dependence on the Lord and obstruct the Lord's saving grace. The Tenkalai go so far as to claim that, despite what the sastras may teach, neither the path of devotion nor the path of surrender are really means to moksa. The only true means, according to the Tenkalai, is the Lord himself—the soul's rightful master and protector. True, surrender normally involves mutual acceptance: the Lord accepts the soul as an object of his grace (paragatasvikara ) and the soul accepts the Lord as savior (svagatasvikara ). However, the Lord's acceptance of the soul is the sole cause of salvation and hence the true means; the individual's acceptance of the Lord is neither sufficient nor necessary for salvation. The Tenkalai school affirms the Lord's sovereign freedom to choose whom he wants to save—or to refuse salvation to someone for no reason. (This the Vatakalai consider an affront to the Lord's egalitarian mercy.) Because of the Lord's autonomous will, the Tenkalai argue, all who seek salvation must approach the Lord through the Goddess Sri, his beloved and merciful consort, who will see to it that the Lord's compassionate desire to save is aroused.
With this overview of the central doctrinal differences between the two schools, we can proceed first to show how the Tenkalai theologians have used incidents from the Ramayana as scriptural support for their distinctive claims
regarding the nature of surrender to the Lord and then to analyze their method of selecting and interpreting these incidents.