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Ramayana Exegesis in Tenkalai Srivaisnavism

Patricia Y. Mumme

In Indian religious traditions and philosophical schools (darsanas ), the fund of scriptural texts is ever expanding. There is hardly any genre of literature that has not been used as scripture by some group of religious scholars somewhere in India. Folklore, epic, drama, aesthetic theory, treatises on grammar, love poetry—all have joined ranks with the more obviously "sacred" genres of myth, hagiography, and liturgy to become the scripture of religious communities and grist for their theological mills. This phenomenon extends to both classical and popular variations of the Rama story, which continue to be plumbed by widely diverse religious communities in India for messages they can relate to their own systems of meaning, often in very creative ways.

The Srivaisnava tradition in Tamilnadu, especially the Tenkalai subsect, has made ample use of epic and puranic scripture in general, and the Ramayana in particular, in their theological discourse. A brief outline of the developmerit of Srivaisnava theology will show how the authors of the Tenkalai school came to use passages from the Ramayana to explicate some of their distinctive theological claims.

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.[1]

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.

Tenkalai Exegesis of Ramayana Incidents

The Tenkalai teachers, by their own claim, see the Ramayana as a work of utmost authority and doctrinal importance. Pillai Lokacarya begins his major theological treatise, the SrivacanaBhusana , by explaining the relationship between the Veda and the dharmasastras , itihasas , and puranas . Whereas the earlier, ritual portions of the Veda are explained by the dharmasastras , the more important Vedanta or Upanisads, which comprise the latter portion of the Veda, are explicated primarily by the itihasas and secondarily by the puranas , Of the two principal itihasas , the Mahabharata explains the greatness of the Lord Krsna, while "the more excellent itihasa , the Ramayana , proclaims the greatness of the one who was imprisoned [Sita]" (SVB 1-5).[2] Sita, who is the incarnation of the Goddess Sri, has a dual importance for the Tenkalai school. First, as the Lord's beloved wife and the mother of all souls, she is the merciful mediator (purusakara ) between the soul in need of salvation and the omnipotent Lord. As we will see, the Tenkalai theologians interpret numerous Ramayana incidents as revealing the power and salvific importance of her mediation. But according to the Tenkalai school, Sita is also a separate soul (cetana or jiva ) like us, dependent and perfectly submissive to the Lord, who is her master and protector. As such, Sita in the Ramayana exemplifies the ideal relationship between the soul and the Lord, and Rama's rescue of Sita from Lanka can be seen as an allegory for the process of salvation. Just as Rama rescued Sita from Lanka and brought her back to Ayodhya to attend him, the Lord rescues the soul from the throes of samsara and takes it after death to Vaikuntha, Visnu's heavenly abode, where the soul can fully realize its subservient nature by serving the Lord directly.[3]

The Tenkalai authors appeal to several Ramayana passages in which Sita's behavior can be held up as a model for the soul's passive dependence on the Lord for its salvation. "With regard to the upaya " or means of salvation, says Pillai Lokacarya, "one must be like Piratti [Sita]" (SVB 80), meaning that to be saved one must entirely relinquish one's own power and effort (SVB 85). Manavalamamuni explains that Sita "had the power to reduce the host of enemies to ashes and save herself" by the power of her chaste virtue; but she refused to do so, saying, "Since Rama has not so commanded, and because I must guard my ascetic restraint (tapas ), I will not reduce you to ashes by the fiery power of my chastity, O ten-necked one."[4] Rather, she said, "If Rama were to assault Lanka with his arrows, defeat it, and take me away, that would be fitting of him" (Ram . V.39.29). Why, if Sita was fully capable of saving herself at any point during her captivity, did she not do so? "Piratti refused to do anything by her own power, thinking that to save herself by her


own efforts—rather than letting Rama, her hero, protect her—would destroy her dependence (paratantrya )" (SVB 82). Manavalamamuni explains that, like Sita, we should not try to save ourselves by pursuing some particular means to salvation but should preserve our dependent nature and wait in faith for the Lord to save us.

Pillai Lokacarya and Manavalamamuni also cite other Ramayana incidents, though not involving Sita, to prove that resorting to means other than the Lord himself can actually hinder salvation. Once, in the midst of battle, Ravana was shaken by a thunderous blow from Rama's lance. Despite this, he continued to cling to his bow. But when struck by Rama's arrow, Ravana dropped his bow; only then did Rama allow him to withdraw from the battlefield (Ram . VI.59.135). Manavalamamuni explains how this incident relates to the process of salvation:

Ravana, overwhelmed by Rama's archery, became agitated and tried to escape. But as long as he held the bow, Rama did not allow him to leave. The bow, which he eventually dropped, was not an effective means (sadhana ) for conquering his enemy while he was holding it. Not only that, but the permission Rama later gave him, saying "I will let you go," was not given during the time he was holding the bow. Thus [the bow] can be said to be an impediment that kept him from leaving. In the same way, if there remains even the slightest involvement in these other means, they will not only fail to be effective means (upaya ) to the goal [of salvation], but will actually turn out to be obstructions to the ultimate attainment. (Mumu 203)

Ravana expected the bow to help him have his way with his enemy, but the bow only prevented him from saving himself by escaping. Like Ravana's bow, the apparent means to salvation, including the path of devotion and ritual works, will not help us and must actually be dropped in order for salvation to occur. Pillai Lokacarya underscores this point by citing the example of Dasaratha, Rama's father, who had to banish Rama in order to remain true to a promise he had made to one of his wives (Mumu 204). Manavalamamuni explains:

The great king [Dasaratha] lost the fortune he had—namely, living with Rama, who is said to be the dharma incarnate—by clinging to the dharma of truthfulness, which was merely a semblance [of dharma], thinking that he could not refuse to honor a boon he had previously granted. In the same way, remaining engaged in the other illusory means [such as bhaktiyoga ] will certainly make for loss of the great fortune of living with the divine being himself, [the Lord who is] the eternal dharma. (Mumu 204)

Thus, according to the Tenkalai authors, even the means to salvation enjoined as dharma in authoritative scripture (sastra ) can obstruct salvation if one clings to them rather than to the Lord himself as one's savior.

Both Tenkalai and Vatakalai authors also frequently refer to the Brah-


mastra incident in the Rama story to illustrate an important point on which both schools agree: surrender to the Lord himself must be carried out in complete faith that he alone will be one's means to salvation. In other words, surrender cannot be combined with any other means for salvation, or it will not be effective. The significance of the Brahmastra incident is fully explained in Arulala Perumal Emperumanar's Jnanasara , an early Tamil text on which Manavalamamuni commented. However, to my knowledge, no such incident appears in Valmiki's Ramayana .[5] The story has it that Ravana's demon army of raksasas used the Brahmastra, a divine weapon which binds its enemies and thus renders them helpless, against the monkey Hanuman, who was acting as Rama's emissary. But the Brahmastra only works if the user has complete faith in it. When the raksasas decided to bring in a jute cord to further secure the bound Hanuman, just to be on the safe side, the Brahmastra slipped off. Manavalamamuni explains: "The Brahmastra that had tied him slipped off by itself at the moment another cord was tied on. In the same way, if one who has resorted to this upaya [the Lord himself] engages in another upaya , [the first] will leave him" (JS 28). For the Tenkalai acaryas , the analogy between the Brahmastra and prapatti (surrender) is instructive: one might think that means such as devotion and ritual action will enhance the efficacy of one's surrender to the Lord, but in fact these will cause one to lose the Lord. The path of surrender demands complete cessation of one's own efforts and faith in the capacity of the Lord alone to bring about salvation.

If the Tenkalai and the Vatakalai concur in their interpretation of the Brahmastra incident, the Tenkalai teachers also use examples from the Ramayana to support one of their more controversial claims: that the Lord can save whomever he chooses, without waiting for that soul to surrender to him and thus request acceptance. Nor is the Lord obligated to save one who surrenders to him, even if such surrender is performed perfectly. The Tenkalai hold that, because of the Lord's unconstrained sovereignty (nirankusasvatantrya ), he need pay attention neither to the individual's desire or lack thereof nor to the soul's merits or sins when deciding whether or not to grant salvation. As Pillai Lokacarya says: "When the soul thinks to obtain the Lord, this surrender is not a means. When the Lord decides to obtain the soul, not even sins can stand in the way. Both are seen in the case of Bharata and Guha" (SVB 142-144). Manavalamamuni begins by explaining how it is the Lord's initiative which has the salvific power, not our surrender to him:

It is the owner who comes and takes possession of his property. In the same way, it is the Lord alone—the soul's master and owner—who approaches, while the dependent soul must wait to be accepted. If one thinks to attain the autonomous (svatantra ) Lord by one's own act of acceptance, this intention will fail. Any surrender so conceived will not be a means to attain the Lord. . . . But when the sovereign Lord and master himself decides by his own will to obtain


the soul who is his dependent property, even the worst sins will not be obstacles. These [first] two [sentences] show that the acceptance on the part of the soul (svagatasvikara ) is not realy the means (upaya ) for salvation; rather, the acceptance on the part of the Lord (paragatasvikara ) is the means. (SVB142-143 )

Manavalamamuni then explains how the differing fates of Bharata, Rama's devoted brother, and Guha, a lowly hunter who accompanied Rama to the forest, affirm this crucial theological point:

These [truths] are illustrated by [the examples of] Bharata and Guha. Bharata wanted to bring Rama back [to Ayodhya], crown him, and live by serving him, in accord with [Bharata's] true nature [as a soul subservient to the Lord]. With this in mind, Bharata—in the company of his ministers—approached Rama and sought refuge, surrendering at his holy feet. But for Bharata, the good deed of surrender performed in this manner—since it was not what the Lord and savior had in mind—became an evil. But for Guha, Rama himself came forward and accepted him. Indeed, Guha's very faults were accepted as an offering; thus the evilness of his offenses became merits. For isn't the very definition of merit and sin said to be "merit is whatever pleases him; sin is the opposite"? (SVB 145)

The Tenkalai authors further point out that neither Guha nor even Hanuman had any desire to be accepted as Rama's companions. "But even without any desire on their part, acceptance by the Lord (paragatasvikara ) occurred to Hanuman on the banks of the Pamba and to Guha on the banks of the Ganga"; they were accepted when the Lord himself took the initiative and approached them (Manavalamamuni on SVB 150). If surrender, signifying one's acceptance of the Lord, were a prerequisite for that acceptance, then the sincere surrender of the virtuous Bharata would have been effective and his request fulfilled. Conversely, the sinful hunter Guha and the lowly monkey Hanuman—neither of whom expressed a desire for the Lord's acceptance—would not have become Rama's close companions. But such was not the case. These examples, the Tenkalai argue, demonstrate that the soul's surrender to the Lord cannot be considered an effective means to salvation, and that the Lord's freedom to accept whomever he wants is completely unconstrained.

The Tenkalai authors go on to cite two Ramayana incidents featuring Sita as evidence for their radical claim that efforts to accumulate merit or remove sin, aimed at earning the Lord's favor, instead insult the Lord's sovereign power and run contrary to the soul's dependent nature. When Rama and Sita were dwelling in the forest, Rama declared that he would not allow Sita to be adorned with even a necklace during their lovemaking, for fear that it would interfere with their intimate union (SVB 162).[6] Manavalamamuni explains that even though one may expect merits to enhance the Lord's plea-


sure when he communes with the soul, they end up obstructing his pleasure, just like clothes and jewelry interfere with the intimacy desired by a lover.

In fact, says Pillai Lokacarya, "while ornaments are not desired, dirt is desired" (SVB 165), alluding to an incident after the victory over Lanka. Ravana vanquished, Rama ordered Vibhisana to fetch Sita. "Have Sita, the divine-limbed Vaidehi, brought here before me quickly, adorned with sacred ornaments, her hair washed," he instructed (Ram . VI.117.6-7). When Vibhisana reported this to Sita, she at first protested, claiming that she wanted to see her husband at once, before bathing. By Vibhisana insisted, so she did as she was told. When she appeared before Rama freshly bathed and adorned, however, Rama became angry and greeted her with harsh words: "Like a lamp to one with a diseased eye, you are not a welcome sight for me" (Ram . VI.118.17-18). Why was he angry? Hadn't Sita done as she was told? Manavalamamuni claims that Rama really desired to see her body with all its dirt, "unadorned, like a lotus plant without the lotus" (Ram . V.15.21). He didn't mean what he told Vibhisana, and he expected Sita to know his mind. Manavalamamuni explains that "Vibhisana did not know Rama's true intention but only relayed the words he spoke. But even so, Sita should have refused to bathe and just gone to see him in the state she was in while imprisoned in Ravana's house. But she didn't do this. She quickly bathed and came, which made him angry, for he wanted to see her in her [dirty] state" (SVB 166). The interpretation of this incident hinges on an implied analogy between scriptural commandments and Rama's command to Vibhisana. Even though the sastras declare that the Lord hates sins and even prescribe methods to expiate them, these statements do not reflect the Lord's true intention. He wants to commune with the soul in its sinful state and will be angered if one tries to win his favor by purifying oneself. His desire for the soul cannot be obstructed by sins, but it can be thwarted by attempts to remove them.

However, the Tenkalai authors do not simply leave the individual who desires salvation with no recourse but to wait patiently for the Lord to approach. This is where the Tenkalai doctrine of the necessity of Sri as mediator assumes importance. Sri, the Lord's beloved wife and consort, is ever willing to act as purusakara or mediator, to intercede with the Lord on behalf of the soul who seeks salvation. Thus one should approach her first and request her intercession, rather than risk rejection by going directly to the Lord and requesting salvation. Pillai Lokacarya views the entire Ramayana as testimony to the power and necessity of the mediation of the merciful Goddess, incarnate as Sita (SVB 5-6). He claims the Rama story shows that the Lord never saved or accepted anyone without some form of intercession on the part of Sita. On every such occasion, the Tenkalai authors find some symbolic evidence of the Goddess's mediation. When Rama accepted Hanuman and Sugriva, it was because they carried the jewels Sita


dropped as she was abducted by Ravana. Vibhisana approached Rama and surrendered to him directly, but this surrender was effective only because he had been instructed by Sita before he left Lanka. When Guha was accepted, Rama made reference to Sita (SVB 151). Thus, Pillai Lokacarya claims, salvation is gained only through the Goddess (Mumu 118-19).

According to the Tenkalai school, the efficacy of the Goddess's mediation is based on her merciful nature and her special relationship with the Lord, both of which are demonstrated in the Ramayana . She is the very embodiment of the Lord's mercy, and yet she is without his sovereign power to punish; therefore she will always be tenderhearted toward sinful souls, whom she sees as her children. Because the Lord loves her dearly and always does what she says, he will never reject one who approaches him with the recommendation of the Goddess. Doesn't the Ramayana show that the Lord always follows his wife's command, even when it brings peril? At Sita's urging, Rama left the hermitage to pursue the magic deer, which brought about Sita's capture. Surely the omniscient Lord knew what would happen, but he went after the deer anyway, out of his love and desire to please her. So, Manavalamamuni asks, is there any doubt that she can make the Lord overlook the soul's faults and accept it when she so requests? (Mumu 129). Pillai Lokacarya says, "Need we point out that the one who made Hanuman forgive can also make the one who follows her words forgive?" (Mumu 129). Manavalamamuni then explains this allusion to an incident that emphasizes the tenderhearted mercy of Sita, who could not be angry even at the demonesses (raksasis ) who had tormented her while she was imprisoned in Lanka:

Hanuman had taken full account of the sins of the raksasis who had threatened and chided Sita for ten months; he was eager to inflict severe punishment. But it was she who made the strong-willed Hanuman relent and forgive them by means of her instruction, saying such things as "Who has committed any sin?" [Ram . VI.116.38] and "No one has done anything wrong at all" [Ram . VI.116.43]. (Mumu 129)

Because Sita was there to plead with Hanuman not to destroy the demonesses, they were spared. Similarly, when the crow Kakasura attacked her breast, Rama was eager to punish it. But when the crow fell at Rama's feet, begging for mercy, Sita was moved, so for her sake Rama spared it (Ram . V.38.34-35). Pillai Lokacarya says, "Because of her presence, the crow was saved. Because of her absence, Ravana was destroyed" (Mumu 135-36). Manavalamamuni clarifies:

It was because of the presence of the lady who subdues the autonomy of the sovereign Lord and arouses his compassion that the crow who had committed a heinous crime was mercifully spared. . . . Ravana was helplessly trapped in a similar way, even though he had not committed the extreme offense of the crow [for he had not physically attacked Sita]. But she was not present, and as a result Ravana perished, the target of Rama's arrows. (Mumu 135-36)


Thus, according to the Tenkalai acaryas , the Ramayana proves that when one invokes the merciful Goddess as mediator before approaching the Lord for salvation, one need not fear rejection by the Lord on account of his unbridled autonomy or one's own sins.

Ramayana Incidents As Parables

The Tenkalai school's reading of Ramayana incidents is unique, yet their methods of structuring and interpreting these incidents have parallels in other scriptural traditions. What is immediately striking is that the Tenkalai school is not very interested in the main plot, the didactic portions of the epic, or even the literal meaning of statements made by Rama or Sita. Rather, they focus on a few relatively obscure events in the Rama story, which, when interpreted allegorically, lend support to their soteriological doctrines. It is not that the Ramayana as a whole is an allegory to the Tenkalai, at least not in the manner of a work like Pilgrim's Progress . In Bunyan's book each character is univalent, representing a single concept. But in the Tenkalai reading of the Ramayana , different characters symbolize different theological realities at different moments. For example, Sita can represent the soul waiting to be saved or Sri, the mediator. Thus the soul and the goal of salvation can be represented by almost any character and the goal he or she is seeking. Sita seeking to escape from Lanka, the raksasas seeking to bind Hanuman, Ravana seeking to vanquish Rama—all become allegories for the soul seeking salvation. The Tenkalai teachers seem to select these isolated incidents on the basis of a perceived parallel between the relation of the actors in the narrative and the relation of the theological concepts they wish to illustrate.[7] The allegorical identification is sometimes fully spelled out, and sometimes merely hinted at, so that listeners are encouraged to extend the metaphor, to fill in the blanks and draw the theological conclusion themselves.

All this brings the Srivaisnava reading of Ramayana incidents very close to the genre of parable. Parables are also brief narratives or stories that are akin to metaphors and are often interpreted analogically or allegorically. The allegorical meaning of parables, especially those in religious scriptures, is sometimes fully explained, and sometimes only hinted at. However, the relation between parable and allegory is a bone of scholarly contention in the field of religious studies. Traditionally, the parable has been seen as closely akin to metaphor, analogy, example-story, and allegory. In this view, a parable is defined as an extended metaphor built around a narrative structure; though often interpreted analogically, parables are generally too brief and unsystematic to be considered full-fledged allegories. However, some recent scholars, such as John Dominic Crossan, have tended to emphasize the distinction in both form and function between parables and allegories. Crossan and others would argue that parables are not intended to be interpreted allegor-


ically, even though theologians have often co-opted (and perhaps misused) scriptural parables by reading them allegorically in order to support their own metaphysical or ethical viewpoints. Though we cannot go into the details of this argument here, some ideas gleaned from this scholarly dispute on the structure, interpretation, and theological significance of parables can both illuminate and be illuminated by the Srivaisnava use of Ramayana incidents.

In Crossan's view, a parable is defined by certain structural characteristics:

There is in every parabolic situation a battle of basic structures. There is the structure of expectation on the part of the hearer and there is the structure of expression on the part of the speaker. These structures are in diametrical opposition, and this opposition is the heart of the parabolic event. . . . What actually happens in the parable is the reverse of what the hearer expects.[8]

Crossan uses this structural model to analyze biblical parables in both the Old and New Testaments. For example, he points out that in Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-35) the hearer expects the priest and Levite to help the victim and the Samaritan to refuse assistance, but the story shows exactly the opposite (107). In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18:10-13) one expects God to hear and accept the prayer of the righteous Pharisee and reject the prayer of the sinful publican, but just the opposite happens (102).

This conflict between the reader's expectations and the narrative outcome seems to be the central dynamic of the Tenkalai telling of Ramayana incidents no less than of biblical parables. Indeed, in recounting the Ramayana incidents they select, the Tenkalai acaryas deliberately highlight the paradoxical nature of the outcomes. One would expect Sita, as an incarnation of the Goddess Sri, to use her power to save herself and escape Lanka. Why did she not do so? One would expect Ravana's bow to help him achieve his aim. Why did Rama let him escape only after he dropped it? One would expect the addition of a jute cord to reinforce the efficacy of the Brahmastra. Why did it fail? One would expect the merciful Rama to honor the request of his own virtuous brother, Bharata, who humbly surrendered to him with the request that he return to Ayodhya and allow Bharata to serve him. Why did Rama refuse him and yet actively seek the companionship of the lowly Guha and Hanuman, who had not even expressed a desire for this companionship, much less surrendered to him? One would expect Rama to be pleased when Sita appeared before him bathed and adorned as he had requested. Why did he get angry?

The Tenkalai versions of Ramayana incidents thus seem to have the paradoxical structure of parables. They do not, however, fully confirm Crossan's


theory about the function and meaning of parables. He claims that the intent of parable, as a genre, is diametrically opposed to that of allegory and example-story. The parable's central paradox is designed to attack the hearer's culturally conditioned standards of expectation, to subvert all theology (or "myth," as he calls it)—meaning all received views of reality and ethical standards. Allegories and example-stories, on the other hand, serve to explain and support a given worldview. He claims that the New Testament redactors turned Jesus' parables—which were genuine parables intended to confront the hearer with an authentic religious experience transcending all conceptualization—into allegories and example-stories that supported the eschatology and moral teachings of the early church. Thus in the context of the Gospel of Luke, the parable of the good Samaritan becomes an example-story teaching love for one's neighbor, while the parable of the Pharisee and publican teaches that the honest humility of a sinner is better in God's eyes than the self-righteousness of the holy. Crossan suggests that the central dynamic of reversed expectations in the parable runs counter to the theological aims of example-stories and allegories; therefore, he claims, Jesus' parables often end up as rather poor examples of the latter (120). Crossan thus questions whether one "could ever succeed in making a smooth change from parable to example and allegory" (123).

Crossan has been criticized for drawing too sharp a distinction between theology ("mythical religion," as he calls it) and the parabolic religion of transcendence, which is anti-theology.[9] Isn't it possible that parables—even with their characteristic paradoxical structure—not only seek to subvert a prevailing worldview but also to establish a new one? Can the paradoxicality at the heart of the parable actually serve the allegorical meaning and theological aims of their interpreters, rather than acting as obstacle to them?

The Tenkalai school's "parabolized" readings of Ramayana incidents suggest that the answer to both questions is yes, and that Crossan's critics are right. The Tenkalai theologians seem to use their interpretations of Ramayana incidents both to criticize the prevailing worldview and to assert their own theological claims. Furthermore, the paradoxical structure of these incidents and their allegorical interpretation do not seem to be at odds (as Crossan's analysis of New Testament parables would suggest); rather, they work together to accomplish both aims. In the Tenkalai acaryas' telling of Ramayana incidents, the paradox at the surface or narrative level of each incident serves as a hook to draw the listener toward the allegorically derived theological level of meaning. So why did Rama get angry at Sita? Why didn't Ravana's bow help him? Why did the Brahmastra slip off'? Why did Rama reject Bharata? The reader or listener, disturbed by the paradox, must "stay tuned" for its resolution. The allegorical interpretation, when disclosed as the hidden meaning of the incident, resolves the surface paradox and thereby affirms the


particular doctrinal viewpoint the author wishes to promote.[10] But this doctrinal viewpoint nevertheless subverts some of the most cherished assumptions of the Hindu worldview (many of which are staunchly defended by the Vatakalai school): that the Lord hates sins and loves virtue, and that salvation and the favor of the Lord can be achieved by means of devotion and ritual action, as taught in scripture. Against this backdrop of expectation, the Tenkalai reading of these paradoxical Ramayana incidents boldly demonstrates why these incidents do not turn out as expected: the assumptions of the underlying worldview are wrong. The Lord does not hate sin but in fact longs to commune with the soul with all its sin; scripturally enjoined means performed by one's own efforts don't help one achieve salvation but interfere with it; even surrender itself is not a fail-safe means to win the Lord's favor, and he is not bound to honor it.

In one sense, the theological function of the Tenkalai interpretation of Ramayana incidents is not so different from the aim of the New Testament interpretation of Jesus' parables. In the gospels, Jesus' parables are used to ridicule the legalism of the Pharisees and to teach a radical morality of love which cannot be reduced to a structured code of ethical principles that state precisely what God demands of human beings. Similarly, the Srivaisnava Ramayana incidents subvert and ridicule the sastric legalism that the Vatakalai defend and yet simultaneously teach a radical soteriology that cannot be reduced to a scripturally prescribed system of devotional and ritual actions; there is no surefire recipe for salvation.

The effectiveness of metaphor, parable, and allegory in oral and written discourse has been noted at least since the time of Aristotle. Religious teachers in particular have appreciated how powerfully one can bring home a theological point to an audience through the use of these techniques. One wonders whether the average Christian would truly understand (or even remember) Jesus' commandment to love one's neighbor as oneself without the parable of the good Samaritan. Similarly, although Pancaratra texts clearly teach that when one surrenders to God, one must abandon all other upayas , most Srivaisnava devotees understand this principle through the analogy their founding teachers have made with the Brahmastra incident in the Rama story. Even though the Srivaisnava use of Ramayana incidents does not support Crossan's radical distinction between the intentions of parable and theology, the value of his analysis, as I see it, is to suggest that the paradoxes at the heart of parables may be the secret to their theological vigor as well as their rhetorical impact. In Crossan's words, they "shatter the structural security of the hearer's world and render possible the kingdom of God" (123); or, as the Tenkalai theologians might prefer to say it, they shatter the structural security of the sastric worldview and render possible the soul's true subservience to the Lord.




Jnanasara of Arulala Perumal Emperumanar with Manavalamamuni's commentary. In Jnanasaram Prameyasaram , ed. Vidvan Venkatacharya and Tiruvenkatacharya. Kanchi: Srivaisnava Mudrapaka Sabha, 1916.


Mumuksuppati of Pillai Lokacarya with Manavalamamuni's commentary. Edited and published by S. Krishnaswami Iyengar. Trichy: n.d.

Ram .

SrimadValmikiRamayana , according to the Southern Readings, ed. T. Krishnacharya. 2 vols. Madras: T. K. Venkobacharya, 1930.


Srivacana Bhusana of Pillai Lokacarya with Manavalamamuni's commentary. Ed. P. Raghava Ramanuja Swami. Madras: R. Rajagopala Naidu, 1936.

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