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Re: SDDS panel discussion

From: M K Sudarshan (
Date: Tue Aug 19 1997 - 09:46:06 PDT

Dear Sri.Mohan Sagar,
I learn that you will be moderating one of the group discussions at the
forthcoming SDDS conference. I also learn that you are presently seeking
feedback from interested members on how the discussion panel should (in your
own words):
">address a topic that is of concern to many of us, how to inculcate knowledge
>and appreciation of our rich heritage in our western raised youth."  

and also, how to 

">to>maintain their spiritual inclinations towards Him in this demanding secular

In response to your following appeal :
>I would also like to ask the fellow members of the panel to provide me with
>input as to what specific topics should be addressed during the panel

Although I have bid farewell to this forum, I have still not entirely
departed and I take pleasure in sharing a small thought with you which you
might like to read to/share with/ and/or expand on in your group/panel
discussions. Here it is:

Most young people outside India who are desirous of learning about
SriVaishnavism begin with the premise that it is all about a branch of
philosophy called "VisishtAdvaitam" (did you know that not once has
SriRamanuja used this phrase in any of his works!). The second premise is
that the philosophy, and its attendent theology, by itself will provide for
us simple and easy-to-digest answers for all the problems we face, or are
likely to face, in the world and in our day-to-lives. 

Nothing could be further from truth. SriVaishnavism is not a quick-fix
solution to the problems of the present times. It was not propounded 1000
years ago by Sri Ramanuja to help people fix their personal, family and
professional problems. 

SriVaishnavism is primarily a human world-view. It offers a means for
ordinary minds to gain an extraordinary insight into eternal questions of
the spirit:
Who am I ? Where do I come from ? and Where am I going ?

At a purely philosophical level, SriVaishnavism thus can only offer us
insights into "bhAgavath-dharma" a subject which only minds of a deeply
spiritual or philosophical bent can understand and relish.

Now, most of us tire easily in our pursuit of such deep philosphical quests
because we are mentally ill-equipped for it. SriVaishnavism can then be a
total "turn-off" and sound to us like a lot of mystic clap-trap.

We must be therefore honest with ourselves. We must first accept within
ourselves that what we are really interested in are not the eternal
questions SriVaishnavism seeks to address but only its "prescriptions" for
practical day-to-day living. We MUST admit that all we are really curious to
know is if SriVaishnavism recommends an "alternate life-style" that is
different from several of those that we have been forced to adopt in our
lives by social compulsion and personal circumstance.

Now if you think deeply about it, on this "alternate life-style" which we
romantically fantasize SriVaishnavism can offer us, we often begin to make
unreasonable demands. We begin wanting it to be not only as "noble" as it
seems it certainly was in the times of SriRamanuja but we also want it to be
eminently "practical and workable" for the present times in which we live
and work.

In our search into SriVaishnavism for one such magical "life-style", where
the "gentle nobleness" of our "purvAchAryA-s" co-exists with the frantic,
workaday pragmatism of American/Arabian Gulf life CIRCA 1997, we find to our
terrible disappointment that often the "ideal" gets confused with the
"wishful", romanticism with realism, "bhAgavatha-dharma" with "lOka-dharma",
10th-century "value-systems" with 21st-century "life-styles" !

It is then that SriVaishnavism begins to lose its lustre for us. We begin to
feel that it is nothing but "man-made mumbo-jumbo"; that it is not really
"relevant" for our "present-day reality"; it has no appeal to "youthful"
minds; it needs to be drastically "simplified", "modified" and
"re-interpreted" to suit modern circumstances!

When we begin to talk or think like that about matters of Faith we always
begin to use the citric language of "disillusionment". Once we are in that
kind of mood we like to think that we are making an impassioned and sensible
plea for the "re-engineering" or re-furbishing of an old faith to make it
look attractive and acceptable to present times. But little do we realise
that in talking like that we are fooling nobody but ourselves.

We make fools of ourselves then because :

-- in the first place, it was our fault, and not that of SriVaishnavism --
that we began to search in it for an alternate "life-style" when all it ever
promised to deliver was an eternal "world-view" for man

-- it was our fault -- and not that of SriVaishnavism -- that we began to
"romanticise" its tenets, turning them into some kind of Universal and
All-time "quick-fix" for all our secular problems, when all it ever promised
its adherents was means to go and look beyond the secular world into a
higher order of reality.

-- it was our fault -- and not that of SriVashnavism -- that we began to
search into it for "lOka-dharma" when it all it remains primarily concerned
about, even today, is "bhAgavatha-dharmA".

The question next is "Okay, granted that we are not interested in the more
philosophical pursuits of SriVaishnavism, and granted we are really only
looking for an "alternate life-style", where do we find one ? If not in
SriVaishnavism, then where else ?

The answer to that question is : you find it in our "itihAsA-s" and "purANa-s" !

The answers to our mundane questions of "life-styles", "values-systems",
prescriptions for day-to-day living, "quick-fix" tips, "100 ways to win
lovers and friends!", and so on an so forth --- all that which we seek, all
that which can be called "lOka-dharma", cannot be found in SriVaishnavism
proper but only in the body of our great "itihAsA-s" and "purANa-s" like the
Mahabharatha and Ramayana. 

Ramanuja's SriVaishnavism was not meant for "lOka-dharmA" but for
"bhAgavata-dharmA" -- the "dharma" of those who have ceased to search for
such things in life as "life-style", "1000 ways to win friends", "how to be
a productive manager or great husband" etc. Ramanuja's Vaishnavism was meant
for those who have learnt to look beyond the "practicality" of life and have
instead begun the long search for the "Life they have all lost in living" !

The next question is : OK, we want "lOka-dharmA" and are willing to go to
the "itihAsA-s" for it ! But there is a limit upto which one can read the
"itihAsA-s" and "purANa-s" ! They are after all only stories ! What can we
go on learning from it ? A story, even a masterpiece, does get boring after
a while!     
This is where we must learn to fall back upon the "vyAkhyAnam-s" or
commentaries of our great "purvAchAryA-s", litterateurs and poets in the
SriVaishnava tradition --- beginning from the Alwars through poets like
Swami Desikan, commentators like PeriAchAn pillai, to present day
"upanyAsa-chakravartis" like Sri.Mukkur Lakshminarasimhachariar !

We must first realise that but for the glorious poetry of the Azhwars or
Desikan and but for the eminently lucid commentaries or "vyAkhyAnam-s" of
our "pUrvAchAryA-s" and present ones, it would never be possible at all
today for us to discern, let alone realise, how skillfully indeed, many fine
but clear threads of VisishtAdvaitic-thought are woven around the dramatic
contexts of "ithihAsA-s" and "purANA-s". In their works we not get only
ideas of "bhAgavatha-dharma" but also "lOka-dharma" ! But to appreciate that
we must first be patient enough to carefully read through their works with
utmost diligence and understand their minds and intellect. 

There is no short-cut to an appreciation of the treasures of the
"itihAsa/purANa-s" without going to the literary sources of our
"pUrvAchAryA-s"; there is no short-cut to a knowledge of the "lOka-dhrma" of
SriVaishnavism without going to the "itihAsA-s/purANA-s"; and there is no
short-cut either to the profound philosophy or "bhAgavatha-dharma" of
SriVaishnavism without first going to the "itihAsA-purANa-s". We cannot
escape this path. We cannot be impatient during this long journey.

Also, while examining ancient texts as rich in the lather of ideas as the
poetry and commentaries of the old Masters really are, we cannot take the
liberty of "jumping the gun". In other words, we cannot proceed to directly
review the deep philosophical basis of the commentaries without first
closely following and properly understanding how the "AchAryA-s" skillfully
weave a web of references and allusions to incidents/episodes/situations in
"itihAsA-s" and "pUrANA-s", developing them gradually to use later in
underpinning deeply philosophical positions of theirs.

Often, as serious students of SriVaishnavism, we may find that our
respective "guru" or "teacher" to whom we have gone to learn "philosophy",
might strongly advise us that we have no choice but to first, again and
again, re-learn, re-visit "itihAsA"/"purANA" scenes; the "guru" will urge us
to re-construct and re-analyse such scenes in our minds, TIME AND AGAIN, for
MANY, MANY YEARS before we are seen to be ready to absorb the philosophical
import of those "purANi-c" or "itihAsi-c" incidents. 

The unique feature of Vedanta, and more especially VisishtAdvaita --
"AchAryA-s" themselves tell us -- is that it is in many ways deeply
inter-woven with the "pramANam" of "itihAsA"/"pUrANA". It is at the altar of
"itihAsi-c" commentary  that our great "AchAryA-s" consecrate the wedding
between the handsome groom of "philosophy" and the coy bride of "literature,
lore, history, legend and social saga". The 'grand union' thus presented is,
indeed, one HOLISTIC but magnificent mosaic of ideas that commoners amongst
ourselves, too, although unlettered in the "veda-vedantic" experience can,
nonetheless, share wholesomely in it.

However, if we were to become impatient or fretful with the texts of our
"AchAryA-s" and rashly attempt to vault over the step of "philosophy"
without first climbing the preceding one of "literature", then, we are more
than likely to not only "fall flat" on our intellectual posteriors but also
"land up" in the doubly distressful situation at the "bottom-most" levels
(pun unintended!) of human experience : the levels where we are unable to
grasp the essential beauty of "itihAsA-s"/"purANA-s" and still worse, have
the meaningful truth underlying their philosophy continue to elude us. Both
"lOka-dharmA" and "bhAgavatha-dharma" will elude us.

If that were to be the situation, we will find we are unable to relate to
our "itihAsA-s"/"purANA-s" as anything more than a pack of "grandma-yarns"
and "meaningless parables".

We will then be able to speak of our "glorious scriptures and tradition"
with neither passion nor clarity, neither certainty nor gusto, neither
imagination nor sure-footedness, neither drama nor depth.

We will then find that whenever we open our mouths and mind to begin to
extol our "great SriVaishnava "siddhAntam" ("vAyAl pAdi, mannathinAl sindikka!"
-- as per our dearest AndAl), try as hard as we might, we are never able to
do anything about the hollow ring our "wooly ideas" and "weak convictions",
sadly, will assume. 

My final submission to you and your panel members, Sri.Mohan Sagar,
therefore is this :

1) Think carefully as to what you are really looking for in SriVaishnava
faith. "Quick-fix solutions", "altenate life-style" or "answers to deep
spiritual problems" ?

2) Do not confuse your longing for a "life-style" ("lOka-dharmA") with what
you mistakenly think are your so-called "deeply spiritual" longing for
ultimate truth !

3) Begin your pursuit of SriVaishnavism not at the "deep-end of the pool" by
diving into its "philosophy" or "siddhAntam" but into its "safe end" of
"itihAsA/purANa" where you have so much to learn about rich "lOka-dharmA".

4) Study diligently the works of our great "purvAcharyA-s" --- their poetry,
commenatries and "upanyAsam" and "kalapshepam". These will give you lots and
lots of ideas on "lOka-dharmA" as well as "bhAgavatha-dharmA".

5) If you have reached a state where "itihAsa-purANa" have taught you all
that the "purvAchAryA-s" say they collectively do, then, by all means go
ahead, start getting into the mysteries and mysticism of SriRamanuja

But until then be humble for, believe me, you have no choice but to plod
along with the simple, child-like "parables" and grandma-yarns in our great
epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharatha.