Ramanuja (c.1056-1137) was the founder of Visishtadvaita Vedanta (qualified non-dualism). Vedanta philosophy is based on the teachings of the Upanishads. Visishtadvaita Vedanta teaches that Atman (the individual Self) is part of the unity of Brahman (the universal Self), but that Brahman has other differentiating qualities. This viewpoint is in contrast to Advaita Vedanta (non-dualism), which teaches that Atman is the same as Brahman, and that Brahman is undifferentiated.
Ramanuja’s most important writings include his commentary on the Vedanta Sutras (the Sri Bhasya, or "True Commentary"), and his commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita (the Gitabhasya, or "Commentary on the Gita"). His other writings include the Vedartha Samgraha ("Summary of the Meaning of the Veda"), the Vedantasara ("Essence of Vedanta"), and Vedantadipa ("Lamp of Vedanta").
The Vedanta Sutras (or Brahma Sutras) are aphorisms concerning the nature of Brahman, based on teachings of the Upanishads. They were written in Sanskrit by Badarayana or Vyasa, sometime between 400 B.C.E. and 200 C.E. They are fragmentary in nature, and thus many authors have written commentaries about them.
The Sri Bhasya of Ramanuja is divided into four adhyayas (or chapters). Each adhyaya is divided into four padas (or parts). Ramanuja interprets Badarayana’s Aphorisms of the Brahman, making extensive references to the Upanishads, the Vedas, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Vishnu Purana, and other scriptures. The first two adhyayas discuss how the term "Brahman" is to be defined, while the second two adhyayas discuss how knowledge of Brahman is attained.
According to Ramanuja, Brahman is ultimate reality. Brahman is infinite and eternal. Brahman is pure Being (sat), pure Consciousness (chit), and pure Bliss (ananda). Brahman is the essence of Selfhood. Brahman is the inner Self of the world and of all individual souls. Brahman has a divine form as the highest Self or supreme Person. Thus, Brahman is the highest aim of humankind.
Ramanuja says that Brahman is qualified by its attributes, which include intelligence, knowledge, and blessedness. Brahman is the source of all reality, and is knowable by means of its attributes. Brahman is the source of the individual Self, and is qualified by Atman. Atman can attain Self-knowledge by attaining knowledge of Brahman. The appearance of any essential difference between Atman and Brahman is a result of nescience (i.e. ignorance, avidya). Atman is not essentially different from Brahman. Nescience (or false knowledge) regarding Atman can be sublated or corrected by true knowledge of Brahman. The released Atman is a Self which has freed itself from the false perception that it is essentially different from Brahman.
Ramanuja maintains that Brahman is the supreme Person who is free of any imperfection, who is free of any evil, who has created the world, who governs and sustains the world, who is all-knowing, whose will is perfect, and who is the source of all truths. Thus, Brahman is the same as God.
For Ramanuja, Brahman is also the highest Self, which is the inner being of the world and of all individual souls. The material world and all individual souls are the embodiment of Brahman. All conscious and non-conscious beings constitute the body of the highest Self. Brahman is the highest principle of being, and is both the material and operative cause of the universe.
Ramanuja rejects the doctrine that moksha (i.e. release, the cessation of avidya) can only arise from knowledge of a non-qualified Brahman. A non-qualified Brahman is a Brahman without any qualities or attributes. Ramanuja argues that Brahman can only be known by means of its attributes.
According to Ramanuja, knowledge may come from three sources: 1) perception (pratyaksa), 2) inference (anumana), and 3) scripture (sruti). Scripture is a document of verbal testimony (shabda). Brahman cannot be known by perception or by inference, but only through the teachings of the scriptures. The cessation of avidya does not depend merely upon an act by which the individual Self recognizes Brahman as the universal Self. The cessation of avidya also depends on the grace which is given to the individual Self by Brahman.
Ramanuja says that in pure knowledge there is no distinction between the knowing subject and the known object. For the universal Self, there is no distinction between the knower and the known. For the individual Self, however, the "I" or ego cannot be obliterated without obliterating the essential nature of the Self. The individual Self must have an I-consciousness which persists even in the state of ultimate release. The "I" or ego is not merely an attribute of the individual Self, but constitutes the nature of the individual Self. Thus, the I-consciousness is not obliterated by knowledge of Brahman.
The knowing subject is the "I" or ego, which is a consciousness of the inward Self. The "I" or ego is a form of knowledge, constituting the essential nature of the Self. Thus, the released Self knows the essential nature of the inward Self.
Atman may take three forms: 1) it may be bound to the material world, 2) it may be released from the material world, and 3) it may be eternal in its unity with Brahman. The bound Self identifies itself with the material world. The released Self is freed from attachment to the material world, and is aware of itself as a spiritual reality. Release from samsara (cyclic, worldly existence) is a state of non-difference from the highest Self. The released Self is aware of the unity of Brahman.
Ramanuja rejects the doctrine that the phenomenal world is illusory and unreal. According to Ramanuja, the phenomenal world is not unreal unless it is viewed as distinct from Brahman. The phenomenal world is not simply a realm of false and illusory appearances. The phenomenal world includes primordial matter (prakriti), which is part of the body of Brahman.
Prakriti has three qualities (or gunas): 1) clarity (sattva), 2) activity (passion, rajas), and 3) inactivity (darkness, tamas). The interaction of these changing qualities may be reflected by changes in the nature of the material world. Brahman is the inner Self or spirit (purusha) which may determine the gunas of prakriti. Thus, reality is both material and spiritual. Purusha is an unchanging spiritual reality, while prakriti is a changing material reality. Plurality is not unreal unless it is seen as replacing the unity of Brahman.
Ramanuja’s Visishtadvaita Vedanta (or philosophy of qualified non-dualism) has some important differences from Shankara’s Advaita Vedanta (or philosophy of non-dualism). For Shankara, undifferentiated Brahman is ultimate realty. For Ramanuja, differentiated Brahman is ultimate reality. For Shankara, undifferentiated Brahman can be known and experienced intuitively. For Ramanuja, Brahman can only be known through its attributes, and since Brahman has attributes which can be known and experienced intuitively, it must be differentiated.
For Shankara, maya is an illusory appearance of reality, occurring when the plurality of the phenomenal world is superimposed on the unity of Brahman. For Ramanuja, however, maya is real and is the plurality of attributes which are manifested by Brahman. Maya is the way in which Brahman is manifested in the phenomenal world.
According to Shankara, there are two kinds of knowledge: lower knowledge (aparavidya) which is knowledge of the empirical world, and higher knowledge (paravidya) which is intuitive knowledge of Brahman. Lower knowledge implies the duality of the knower and the known, while higher knowledge transcends the duality of the knower and the known. According to Ramanuja, however, there can be no knowledge without a knowing subject, and thus knowledge implies that there is always a duality of the knower and the known. The released Self is not dissolved into an undifferentiated unity, but is aware of itself as part of a differentiated unity.
According to Shankara, the individual soul (jiva) or ego is only real insofar as it is an appearance of Atman. The ego-sense (ahamkara) of the individual soul is the same as its I-consciousness (ahambdi). Both the ego-sense and the I-consciousness are different from the pure consciousness of Atman. However, Ramanuja says that the ego-sense is different from the I-consciousness. The ego-sense is the product of prakriti, but the pure I-consciousness is the same as Atman.1
According to Shankara, God is Saguna-Brahman (Brahman with attributes) as distinguished from Nirguna-Brahman (Brahman without attributes). According to Ramanuja, however, there is no distinction between God and Brahman. In Ramanuja's view, Brahman is differentiated, and is the same as God.
According to Shankara, the phenomenal world is real only insofar as it is an appearance of Brahman. According to Ramanuja, however, the phenomenal world is as real as Brahman, and constitutes part of the reality of Brahman.
Ramanuja also differs from Shankara in emphasizing bhakti (devotion to God) as more important than jnana (knowledge) in defining the path to spiritual reality. According to Ramanuja, spiritual release is obtained by bhakti yoga (the path of loving devotion). Ramanuja also emphasizes the personal relationship between the individual soul and God.
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The Vedanta Sutras with the Commentary of Ramanuja. Translated by George Thibaut. The Sacred Books of the East, Vol. XLVIII. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904.