The Visishtadvaita is so called because it inculcates the Advaita or oneness of God, with Visesha or attributes. It is, therefore, qualified monism. God alone exists. All else that is seen are His manifestations or attributes. God or Lord Narayana of Sri Ramanuja is a complex organic whole—Visishta—though it is one. Hence the name Visishtadvaita.
According to Sri Sankara, all qualities or manifestations are unreal and temporary. They are a result of Avidya or ignorance. According to Sri Ramanuja, the attributes are real and permanent. But, they are subject to the control of the one Brahman. God can be one despite the existence of attributes, because they cannot exist alone; they are not independent entities. They are Prakaras or the modes, Sesha or the accessories, and Niyama or the controlled aspects, of the one Brahman.
Ramanuja’s celebrated system of philosophy known as Visishtadvaita or qualified monism is Advaita or non-dualism with a qualification or Visesha. It admits plurality. Sri Ramanuja’s Brahman or Lord Narayana subsists in a plurality of forms as souls (Chit) and matter (Achit). Hence it is called Visishtadvaita or qualified non-dualism. Visishtadvaita philosophy is Vaishnavism. The Sampradaya of Ramanuja’s cult or creed is known as Sri Sampradaya. His followers are Vaishnavas. Ramanuja systematised the philosophy of Vaishnavism. Ramanuja’s religion is called Sri Vaishnavism because ‘Sri’ or the Goddess Lakshmi is made to have an important function to perform in the salvation of the soul.
Sri Sankara’s philosophy is too high, subtle and abstruse for the vast majority of persons. But Sri Ramanuja’s philosophy is suitable for those in whom the devotional element preponderates. In Sri Ramanuja’s system of philosophy, the Lord (Narayana) has two inseparable Prakaras or modes, viz., the world and the souls. These are related to Him as the body is related to the soul. They have no existence apart from Him. They inhere in Him as attributes in a substance. Matter and souls constitute the body of the Lord. The Lord is their indweller. He is the controlling Reality. Matter and souls are the subordinate elements. They are termed Viseshanas, attributes. God is the Viseshya or that which is qualified.
The Visishtadvaita System—The Story Of Its Evolution
The Visishtadvaita system is an ancient one. It was originally expounded by Bodhayana in his Vritti, written about 400 B.C. It is the same as that is expounded by Ramanuja. Ramanuja followed Bodhayana in his interpretation of the Brahma Sutras.
The Bhakti school worships a personal God. The devotees develop devotion to Vasudeva or Narayana. Those who worship the personal God are called Bhagavatas. They have their own scriptures, called the Pancharatra Agamas which are regarded by them as equal to the Upanishads. The Bhakti movement was further strengthened in South India by the work of the twelve Alvar saints. The hymns composed by the Alvar saints were called collectively by the name Nalayira-Prabandham, a series of four thousand poems.
Afterwards came the Vaishnava Acharyas—Natha Muni, Yamunacharya and Ramanujacharya. They were great scholars. They gave a philosophical basis and colouring to their beliefs and practices. The Alvars solely relied on Bhakti, but these Acharyas combined Jnana and Karma with it for the realisation of God. They regarded Jnana and Karma as means for realising God. Their object was to reconcile the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita with the Tamil Prabandha. They interpreted the Tamil Prabandha in terms of the Upanishads and the Gita. Therefore, they were called by the name Ubhaya-Vedantins. Ramanuja accepts the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Tamil works of the Alvars also as the source of authority for his philosophy. Therefore, his system is known as Ubhaya-Vedanta.
Natha Muni raised the Prabandha to the level of the Vedas. Yamunacharya laid the foundations on which Ramanuja, his successor, built his philosophy. Ramanuja wrote the commentaries on the Brahma Sutras known as the Sri Bhashya. He wrote a commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita also. He wrote also three other books—Vedanta Sara, Vedartha Sangraha and Vedanta Dipa. These are the chief texts of the Visishtadvaita system of philosophy.
Ramanuja accepts perception, inference and scripture as valid sources of knowledge. The Vedas and the Smritis are the sole and independent authority for the knowledge of Brahman. He adopts the theories of Satkarya-Vada and Parinama-Vada, i.e., the doctrine of a real effect proceeding from a cause.
Ramanuja’s Brahman—A Personal God With Attributes
According to Ramanuja, whatever is, is Brahman; but, Brahman is not of a homogeneous nature. It contains within Itself elements of plurality on account of which It truly manifests Itself in a diversified world. Ramanuja’s Brahman is essentially a Personal God, the all-powerful and all-wise Ruler of a real world, permeated and animated by His spirit. There is thus no room for the distinction between Param Nirguna and an Aparam Saguna Brahman, between Brahman and Isvara. Ramanuja’s Brahman is Savisesha Brahman, i.e., Brahman with attributes.
Ramanuja’s Brahman is not the Impersonal Absolute, but He is a Personal God, with the qualities of omnipotence, omniscience and infinite love. God is Saguna. When the Vedic texts declare that He is Nirguna, it means that there are no base or lower qualities such as sorrow, pain, mortality, change and old age in Him.
The Lord is interpenetrating everything. He is the essence of the soul. He is the Antaryamin or the Inner Ruler. He is one with the soul. He is all-pervading (Vibhu). He is the Supreme Being. He is full of auspicious attributes. He is of the nature of Satya (Truth), Jnana (Intelligence) and Ananda (Bliss). Matter and soul depend on Him. He is the Adhara or support for this world and all souls. God is the Governor or Controller (Niyanta or Seshin) of the world. Jiva or soul is Niyama or Sesha (one who is being controlled).
The Lord is immanent. He is also transcendent. He is unchanging. The entire universe is latent in Him during Pralaya. The world is projected during creation, but this does not touch His essence. Ramanuja’s Brahman has internal difference (Svagata Bheda). It is a synthetic whole, with souls and matter as Its modes (Chit-Achit-Visishta). Para, Vyuha, Vibhava, Archa and Antaryamin, i.e., the transcendent, the group, the incarnation, the image and the immanent are the five forms of the Lord.
Ramanuja identifies God with Narayana who dwells in Vaikuntha with His Sakti or consort, Lakshmi. Lakshmi is the Goddess of Prosperity. She is the Divine Mother. She pleads with Her husband on behalf of man. She introduces the devotee to Her Lord and obtains for him salvation. Lakshmi occupies a pre-eminent place in Vaishnavism.
The World—A Real Part Of Brahman’s Nature
The world, with its variety of material forms of existence and individual souls, is not an unreal Maya, but a real part of Brahman’s nature. It is the body of the Lord. Matter is real. It is Achit or non-conscious substance. It undergoes a real Parinama or evolution. Matter exists in a subtle state as the Prakara of God during Pralaya. Hence it is eternal, but ever dependent. It is controlled by the will of God. It is neither good nor bad. It becomes a source of pleasure or of pain according to the nature of the Karma of souls. It forms the object of experience for the souls.
Prakriti has three Gunas: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas; but, Suddha-Tattva has only Sattva. It is pure matter. Suddha-Tattva is the substance which constitutes the body of God and is called His Nitya-Vibhuti. The manifested world is His Lila-Vibhuti.
The Soul—A Distinct Individual Entity
The soul is a higher Prakara of God than matter, because it is a conscious entity. It is of the essence of God. According to Ramanuja, God, soul and Nature are three eternal entities. The soul is self-conscious, unchanging, partless and atomic (Anu). The souls are infinite in number. The individual soul of Ramanuja is really individual. It is absolutely real and eternally distinct from God. It has indeed, sprung from Brahman, and is never outside Brahman; nevertheless, it enjoys a separate personal existence and will remain a personality forever.
Three Classes of Souls
According to Ramanuja, there are three classes of souls, viz., Nitya (eternal), Mukta (free) and Baddha (bound). The eternal souls have never been in bondage. They are eternally free. They live with God in Vaikuntha. The freed souls were once subject to Samsara, but have attained salvation now and live with God. The bound souls are caught up in the meshes of Samsara and are striving to be released. They wander from life to life till they are redeemed.
Man or the individual soul is a particle of which God is the whole. The individual soul is like a spark of that mass of fire. The whole pomegranate fruit represents the Brahman of Ramanuja, each seed corresponding to the individual soul.
The Evolution Of The Soul And Its Final Emancipation
When the individual soul is immersed in worldliness or Samsara, its knowledge is contracted. It gets its body according to its past Karma, and goes from birth to death and from death to birth, till it attains Moksha or the final emancipation. When it attains Moksha, its knowledge expands. It knows everything. “Every action that contracts the heart of the soul is bad, and every action that expands the heart of the soul is good”—this is the statement of Ramanuja. The soul is marching on in this Samsara, expanding or contracting through its good and evil actions, till it attains the final emancipation through the grace of Lord Narayana. The grace descends on those souls who are pure and struggling for the divine grace.
Emancipation or Passing into Paradise
According to Ramanuja, Moksha means the soul’s passing from the troubles of mundane life into a kind of heaven or paradise (Vaikuntha) where it will remain forever in undisturbed personal bliss in the presence of God. The liberated soul attains to the nature of God. It never becomes identical with Him. It lives in fellowship with the Lord, either serving Him or meditating on Him. It never loses its individuality. There is no such thing as Jivanmukti, according to Ramanuja. Salvation comes when the soul leaves the body.
Bhakti—The Means to Emancipation
The final emancipation can be obtained only through Bhakti and the grace of the Lord. The grace of the Lord comes through devotion and Prapatti or absolute self-surrender. Karma and Jnana are only means to Bhakti. (Excerpt from “All About Hinduism” by Yogi Sri Swami Sivananda)