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Biographies of Sri Ramanuja

From: Vasudha Narayanan (vasu_at_religion.ufl.edu)
Date: Mon Apr 29 1996 - 09:57:52 PDT

Recently there was a question raised about the "authenticity" of an episode
in Sri Ramanuja's life.  The particular incident under consideration deals
with caste issues, and as Sri K. Srinivasan points out clearly, Ramanuja has
shown himself to be against discrimination based on caste in devotional
matters.  Hence, this episode is puzzling and does seem admittedly against
Sri Ramanuja's usual code of behaviour.  However, since I am not an
authority on all biographies of Ramanuja -- and there are several of them --
and also because P. Sri and C.R. Srinivasa Iyengar have mentioned it, I
would be more inclined to research the origins of the story than to dismiss
it immediately.  The other prominent biographies of Sri Ramanuja include
(apart from those listed by Sri K. Srinivasan) Sri Ramanuja Vaibhavam by
Vadivazhagiya Nambi Dasan (possibly 15th cent ; he also composed Alvargal
Vaibhavam); Andhra Purna's Yatiraja Vaibhavam; Desika's Yatiraja Saptati;
Prapannaamritam (1st part, Ramanuja Charitram) etc.  One must also list two
Guruparamparaa prabhaavams.  *This story, as far as I remember, is not in
any of these biographies *( I could be wrong; both Ramanuja Vaibhavam in
Tamil verses and Prapannamritam in Sanskrit verse are very long pieces).
Episodes from Sri Ramanuja's life are also found in the Tiruvaymoli and
other commentaries.  In some places, his opinion is quoted (nirvahangal),
and in others a particular incident (aitiham) is narrated.  I have listed
the Bhagavad Vishayam passages where these are found in an appendix to my
book The way and the goal (1987); if there is any interest, I can quickly
cite the verse numbers in a later posting.  Other incidents from the
acharyas lives are narrated in Vaarta maalai.  This book is just a set of
unrelated anecdotes, most of them not more than a paragraph long.  I will
try to check this in the next few days to see if the incident is there.  We
must also remember that some sthala puranams may bear testimony to some
incidents in Sri Ramanuja's life; the incident under question may well be
from that source.  In any case, the point is that we have several narrations
within our sampradaya on Sri Ramanuja's life and the audiences and times for
all of these have been varied.  Some may expand on some incidents; for
instance, the Prapannamritam is fairly long on the Ramapriya/ Tulukka
nacchiyar/Melkote story.   Similarly, the Divya Suri Caritam gives unusual
stories in the lives of the alvars which I have not found elsewhere--
Nammalvar is posited as Andal's uncle, and one of the longest svayamvara
scenes with descriptions of the lords (different manifestations of Visnu)
from almost all the divya desas are given. Without having a command on all
of these resources, I would hesitate to pass judgment on the authenticity of
the story, although, as I said before, it does seem highly unlike Ramanuja. 
I am also conscious that many of our sampradayas have some similar
narratives with congruent themes.  Sri K. Srinivasan points out that this
incident may be from Sri Sankara's life, and certainly we have heard it in
his biography. One may also point out the similarity in the contexts of the
compositions of a hymn attributed to Sankara (Kanakadhara stotram) and the
Sri Stuti of Vedanta Desika.  There are other similar stories.  Thus, given
the puzzling fact that the story does not seem to fit in with the rest of
Sri Ramanuja's life, it is worth looking at further.  I will try to check
Vaarta maalai (I'm almost definite it is not in the other texts) and write
soon.  
Vasudha Narayanan, University of Florida