Saturday, April 21, 2012

My journey to Sri Vaishnavism - Part 1(The beginning)

(Note: The 'I' s in the post mean adiyen and not the ego-centric I. Due to limitations of the English language it is best to write it as 'I')

The Soul(Jivatma) and the mind are two entities which travel in their own ways. While the jivatma transmigrates in these created worlds from beginningless time depending on where it is thrusted by its karma, the mind is a super-expert in travelling to places far removed, at any instant of time. A combination of these journeys give us our present state. My Journey into Sri Vaishnava philosophy and theology is also a combination  of these factors and probably a lot more. This essay is intended to give an idea of what thought processes I underwent to become a prapanna (A surrendered soul) being born into a family that follows Adi Shankara's philosophy of Advaitam**. 

My father is a fan of Ramakrishna mutt publications. He has significant shelf-space dedicated to works of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda and their disciples. Vedanta kesari, the annual magazine of the mission also finds a place. There are upanishads with commentary by Swami Sivananda, Swami Ranganathananda and Swami Krishnananda. He is also a voracious reader of theosophical society publications, works of Aurobindo, Swami Chinmayananda, Ramana maharishi, Swami Dayananda (not the founder of Arya Samaj) and other Neo-advaitic writers. (J.Krishnamurthy, though was a rebel in terms of tradition can also be included in this list). He does not read many original works in Sanskrit but has stacked up books that are more inclined towards psychology and spirituality. He is less interested in puranas and itihasas. Arguably, this is exactly what we expect from a person with an advaitic worldview. He also dislikes the "narrow-mindedness" of Iyengars. I come from this background. 

He had a small book of Bhagavad Gita and encouraged me to memorise verses starting from 2.11 since it was Lord Krishna's Upadesham from that verse. I was about eleven or twelve years old then. I knew it was an important scripture but did not know anything else at that time. I memorized about 5 or 6 verses and then followed the very natural human tendency to give up.

Then with time, I started reading philosophical tracts that dealt with the problem of the world, nature of reality etc. to the extent I could understand. I certainly had the (usual) question "what is the purpose of existence?" all along in my mind and was looking for answers. I also had reverence for the scriptures. These two, I suppose are due to my karma vaasanas. I more or less came to accept Advaitam as my philosophy. On the theological front, I naturally went along with the popular neo-Hindu view of equality of all Hindu Gods. The turn around was yet to come.

I can say with confidence that my years from 2004 to 2007 in BITS, Pilani was a very active period in this journey. In 2005, I got introduced to Dushyanth Sridhar, who was an avid listener of Swamy Velukkudi Krishnan's discourses. He had a tape-recorder and listened to his discourses in casettes (Many in the new audience group might have never seen a casette recording of Swami's discourse). The first discourses I listened to were about Divyadesams, their sthala puranams and azhwars' experiences regarding them. I instantly liked them for their clarity and interesting way of presentation. 

Dushyanth also had a book of Desika stotramala with meaning and used to refer to it often. He once recited a part of Raghuveera gadyam(an Eulogy on Lord Rama) from it. It runs as follows:

jaDa-kiraNa shakala-dhara jaTila naTa pati-makuTa taTa naTana-paTu 
vibudha-sarid.h-ati-bahula madhu-galana lalita-pada 
nalina-raja-upa-mRidita nija-vRijina jahadupala-tanu-ruchira 
parama-muni vara-yuvati nuta !   


I was enamored by the play of words here and wanted to memorize the whole Gadyam. (I am yet to do it). I however, read the whole work, with the meaning. I had a great reverence for Swamy Desikan from that point onwards. I wanted to know more about this personality and his works and that is when my eyes landed on a work called Satadushani. This is a polemical work which has 66 (34 of the original 100 have been lost) detailed arguments against advaitam of Adi Shankara. This, he had built upon the basic seven untenables of Swami Ramanuja in his Sri Bhashyam(commentary on Badarayana's Brahmasutram). Since, this work is in highly technical sanskrit, I got an idea of its content from an online forum that discussed the first fifteen or so points from this work in English. I still had faith in Advaitam and thought that these arguments would have been answered by scholars of the Advaita tradition. However, an important change in my view here was that there existed many other interpretations of Vedanta. I had never given a thought about this before. Determining the right philosophy was an important exercise for me because the goal of life and sadhana (tattvam, hitam and  purushartham to use technical language) depended on it. These philosophies were radically different in their views and methods. I became preoccupied with this. 

From this point on, things got a little complicated because I was caught in a cobweb of ideas and opinions. Visishtadvaitam (VA) piled a lot of criticisms on Advaita and Advaitins seemed to be responding to them but then again pat came a reply from the VAs. In the history of this dispute itself we find a thread of works. First Swamy Ramanuja attacked the Advaitins(AV) in his works. This was criticised by AVs after his period. Swamy Desikan wrote the Satadushani  and paramatha bhangam against these replies. A Scholar named Ananthakrishna Sastry wrote a work called Satabhushanam in reply to Swamy Desikan's criticisms. However, Swami Uttamur Veeraraghavacharya wrote Paramartha bhushanam from VA point of view refuting Satabhushanam.  I was stranded in the middle.

Similarly, Sri Vaishnavas as well as other Vaishnavas emphasised that only Lord Vishnu/Narayana was the highest deity, paramathma and others including Shiva, Brahma, Parvathi were jivatmas/created beings. I found it very difficult to accommodate this idea initially. However, since no one spoke without reference to shruti and smriti , I was entangled in this front also. The numerous stories from the itihasa puranas as well as sthala puranams  of the Hindu pantheon in Tamizh magazines like Shakti Vikatan and Kumudam Bhakti did not help in the least, to resolve this confusion. It in fact added fuel to the fire.
                                                                                                                       ( be continued)
** For readers who are not familiar with Advaitam and Visishtadvaitam, here is a quick summary -

Advaitam - It is an interpretation of Vedanta( contained in Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahmasutram or 'prasthana trayam' as they are collectively called) by Adi Shankara who lived in the 8th century. According to him only Brahmam(crudely translated as God) is the reality. The world we see around us is an illusion caused by Maya that engulfs Brahmam. Yet somehow Brahmam is pure knowledge. The Jivatmas are also illusions and once this illusion is removed by right knowledge the Jivatma realises that it is itself Brahmam. Since, only one real entity is admitted, it is called as advaitam or non-dualism.

Visishtadvaitam - This interpretation of Vedanta has been given to us By Sri Ramanuja who lived in the 11th century. According to him, there are three eternal realities, namely , Brahmam, Jivatma and the world of insentient matter. These are termed Isvara, chit and achit. Chit and achit form the body of Brahmam. Hence Brahmam is their soul and inner controller. The relationship between Brahman and chit, achit is also described as the relationship between a substance and its attribute, Eg, Flower and its colour. Since these relationships signify an oneness, albeit qualified, the philosophy is roughly translated as qualified non-dualism. By adopting Surrender(Prapatti) or Bhakti (devotion) , the Jivatma has to reach Vaikuntam, the eternal abode of Lord Sriman Narayana and be in eternal devotional service to him simultaneously enjoying his infinite attributes with its infinitely expanded knowledge. 

There are many more interpreters of Vedanta (especially Brahmasutram) like Srimad Anandatirtha/ Madhvacharya, Vallabhacharya, Nimbarka, Srikanta, Srikara, Bhaskara, Yadavaprakasha, Vijnanabhikshu, Baladeva Vidyabhushana. However, for sake of brevity, I will stick to the two schools that I have stated above.


  1. Well, this post personally brings back a lot of memories. I used to say good night and go to my room only to realize later next morning that you guys ended up talking about scriptures till dawn. The verse is irrevocably present in all of Dushy's discourses. Nice post and hey! way to go for splitting it up otherwise I would have taken forever to read it :)

  2. Good introduction; can't wait to read the next part!