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Rāmānuja Biography | Part 1

RĀMĀNUJA’S EARLY LIFE

One of Yamunacharya’s chief sannyāsi disciples was Śrī Sailapurna. He had two sisters, the elder named Kantimati and the younger named Diptimati.

Kantimati was married to a very pious brāhmaṇa known as Asuri Kesavacarya. Because of his expertise in the performance of all five kinds of fire sacrifice, he was also known as Sarvakratu.

Years passed by, and the couple lived happily in the village of Bhutapuri, but, because they still had no children, Kesavacarya became disturbed at heart.

He decided to perform a fire sacrifice to please the Lord and thus beg Him for the gift of a son. For this purpose he journeyed with his wife to the temple of Śrī Partha-sarathi on the shores of the ocean, in what is now the city of Madras. There they performed sacrifices together, begging the Lord to be merciful to them and grant them the benediction of a son.

Certainly Lord Viṣṇu was pleased by their prayers, for about one year later Kantimati gave birth to a baby boy, who bore all auspicious marks on his body.

This was in the year AD 1017, and it was this child who grew up to be renowned all over the world as Śrī Rāmānujācārya, the great devotee of Lord Nārāyaṇa.

At about the same time, Kantimati's younger sister, Diptimati, also gave birth to a son.

On hearing the news of the births of his two nephews, Saila-purna, the intimate disciple of Yamunacharya, came to visit them.

He was astonished to see all the auspicious marks on the body of Kantimati's son, and he gave him the name Rāmānuja, a name of Lakṣmaṇa which means the younger brother of Rāma.

To Diptimati's son he gave the name Govinda.

MEETING WITH KĀNCHĪPURNA

As Rāmānuja grew, the brilliance of his intellect soon became apparent. When he began to attend school, he could easily remember anything he was taught, even after hearing it only once. All the teachers in the school loved the boy, not only because he was a brilliant scholar, but also because of his gentle, courteous nature.

At that time there was a famous devotee of the Lord named Kānchīpurna, who lived in the nearby city of Kānchīpuram. He was a disciple of Yamunacharya, and, although he was born in a śūdra family, his intense devotion to the Lord was so apparent that even strict brāhmaṇas would offer him all respect.

Every day he would travel from the city of Kānchī to the village of Poonamalle to worship the Deity there. As Bhutapuri was midway between the two places, he would daily pass by Rāmānuja's house.

One evening as Rāmānuja was returning home from school, he met Kānchīpurna face to face and was immediately attracted by the demeanor of this holy man.

With great humility Rāmānuja invited Kānchīpurna to come to his house for a meal, and the great devotee readily agreed, being very much attracted to this gentle brāhmaṇa boy.

After his guest had finished his meal, Rāmānuja began to massage his feet.

At this Kānchīpurna protested, "I am nothing but a low-born sudra and am thus your servant. It is not proper for a brāhmaṇa like you to deal with me in such a way."

Rāmānuja replied, "If my position as a brāhmaṇa prevents me from worshipping a great soul such as yourself, then I consider my birth to be the most inauspicious.

Is it just the wearing of a cheap thread that makes one a brāhmaṇa? Only that person who is fully devoted to Lord Viṣṇu is a real brāhmaṇa, no one else."

Kānchīpurna was filled with wonder and delight to hear the boy's firm faith in devotional service. Long into the night the two of them sat up discussing topics about the Lord and the ways of devotion.  From that day forth both of these great devotees were bound together by the love that each bore for the other.

MOVING TO KĀNCHĪPURAM

When Rāmānuja was only sixteen years old, his father, Asuri Kesavacarya, wanted to get him married. Accordingly, he selected a beautiful young girl to be his son's bride and made all the arrangements for the wedding celebration.

The festivities lasted for an entire week and all the poor people of the neighborhood were satisfied by the distribution of large amounts of prasādam.

After the couple had been married for only one month, however, tragedy struck the family - Kesavacarya left this world. Kantimati was afflicted with terrible grief, and for Rāmānuja also it was a time of great sorrow.

Now that Kesavacarya had left them, Bhutapuri was no longer a happy place for the family, and they decided to move to the city of Kānchī. Rāmānuja went first to construct a residence for them, and when it was completed they all moved there.

AT THE SCHOOL OF YADAVAPRAKASA

At that time a very learned scholar was living at Kānchī. His name was Yadavaprakasa, and the fame of scholarship had attracted a large group of disciples to him.

Being desirous of understanding the Vedic literatures, Rāmānuja also became his student, and his pleasant nature and quick intelligence soon endeared him to the great paṇḍita.

However, this relationship did not last for very long, for despite his learning and knowledge of the scriptures, Yadavaprakasa was a firm adherent of the mayavada philosophy of absolute oneness:

He taught that the all-pervading Brahman was the Absolute Truth and that the personal God, Lord Viṣṇu, was illusory.

Rāmānuja was a pure devotee of the Lord, and so he was pained to hear the statements of Yadavaprakasa, that denied the supremacy of his beloved Lord.

Out of humility and respect for his guru, Rāmānuja would not point out the defects in these impersonalist teachings, but the situation gradually became impossible to tolerate.

THE FIRST CONFRONTATION

One day when the other students had gone home to take lunch, Yadavaprakasa asked Rāmānuja to massage his body with oil.

At that time one of the other students returned to the school to discuss with his teacher a passage from the Chāṇḍogya Upaniṣad they had been studying that morning. In particular he inquired about the word kapyasam, which occurs in the first chapter, part six, verse seven.

Therein it is stated:—

“kapyasam pundarikam evam aksini.”

Following Śaṅkarācārya’s interpretation, Yadavaprakasa began to explain that kapyasam referred to the rear-end of a monkey and that the whole passage meant that the Supreme Lord had eyes like lotuses as red as a monkey's bum.

On hearing this horrible explanation of the appearance of his beloved Lord, Rāmānuja, who was still massaging his guru, was filled with such intense grief that hot tears immediately began to pour from his eyes.

When Yadavaprakasa felt the touch of these tears, he looked up in surprise. Seeing Rāmānuja's distress, he asked what was causing him such pain.

To this inquiry Rāmānuja replied:

"O master, it causes me such suffering to hear this terrible explanation from a great soul like yourself. How sinful it is to compare the beautiful lotus eyes of the Lord to the posterior of a monkey. I never expected to hear such a thing from my teacher."

Yadavaprakasa was angered by this challenge from one of his own students, and he replied sharply:

"I also am very aggrieved. Impudent words from an inferior are never praiseworthy. If you have become so proud that you think yourself a better teacher than me, then let us hear your explanation of the passage."

"By your mercy everything is possible" replied Rāmānuja.

Yadavaprakasa smiled derisively. "Now we are going to see this boy outdo the great Śaṅkarācārya," he said.

Rāmānuja remained peaceful, and when he spoke it was in a very humble way:

"Instead of understanding the posterior of a monkey from the word kapyasam , " he said, "another meaning is possible:

Ka-pi can be taken as kam jalam pibati, that which drinks up the water, or, in other words, the sun. The word asam also means to blossom, so the whole word kapi-asam can be understood as that which blossoms under the sun, or, in other words, the lotus flower. Thus we can understand the mantra of the Upaniṣad to mean that the Lord has eyes as beautiful as the lotus flower."

Yadavaprakasa was very surprised to hear such a clever explanation from one of his own students and he realized that Rāmānuja was a staunch adherent of the devotional philosophy of dualism.

The devotees understand that the perfection of life is to worship Lord Viṣṇu without any personal desire, and so they never aspire for oneness as the mayavadis do.

This philosophy was directly opposed to the teachings of Yadavaprakasa and after this incident his affection for Rāmānuja began to wane.

MORE CONFLICTS AT SCHOOL

A few days later when Yadavaprakasa was instructing his students from the Taittirīya Upaniṣad, he made the statement that the Supreme Brahman is Truth, Knowledge, and Infinity.

On hearing this impersonal idea of God, Rāmānuja could not contain himself.

He immediately objected to his teacher’s explanation, saying, "No, this verse means that the Supreme possesses Truth, Knowledge, and Infinity, but still He has His own existence beyond these attributes."

Angered by this unexpected interruption, Yadavaprakasa replied, "You presumptuous child, if you won't accept my explanations, then why do you come here? Why not go home and start a school of your own?"

When he had composed himself somewhat, he went on more quietly, "Your explanation is not in accordance with Śaṅkarācārya or any of the previous ācāryas, so kindly keep your impertinence to yourself."

By nature Rāmānuja was humble and meek, and so he tried to avoid such confrontations with his teacher.

However, he was also absolutely devoted to knowledge of the truth: thus, when he heard the misleading monist interpretations being put forward by Yadavaprakasa, he was sometimes unable to contain himself.

In the presence of the other students Yadavaprakasa used to make light of these challenges, but in his heart there began to arise a growing fear and hatred for the boy:

"As he grows older," he contemplated, "this boy will strongly establish the dualistic philosophy of devotion. This must not be allowed to happen. I will do whatever is necessary to protect the doctrine of monism, even if it means that I have to kill him."