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On the nature of our faith...

From: Srinath Chakravarty (
Date: Fri Jan 15 1999 - 20:37:09 PST

Dear bhaktas:
      There was a certain amount of discussion regarding the two
kalais of Srivaishnavism, i.e. thenkalai and vadakalai, recently, and
it got me thinking about a few things.  I apologize in advance if my
chain of thought appears discontinuous, or if I end up restating the 
obvious, but then, where else [other than in the presence of bhakti list 
members as yourselves] could I freely voice my thoughts about 
      A few members were not entirely aware of the differences between 
the two kalais, and furthermore, almost everyone wanted to forget about 
them with the integrity of Srivaishnavism in mind.  Differences are not 
always bad though, and diversity is nature's way.  Most of the major 
sects in hindUism have sub-sects, and it is not in the least surprising 
that ours would also have them.  When I first learnt about the kalai 
split in Srivaishnavism as a child, I was very upset since I knew that 
our community was small in number to begin with, and here we were 
dividing that up even further.  I recall my grandmother trying to tell 
me then, "ippodhellAm ovvoththanum swajAthi"... [Read: Today each one is 
his own sect].  And she went on to say that the kalai split represented 
disagreements between scholars, which did not surprise her at all since 
she didn't know of a single vAdhyAr or vaidEkan who saw eye to eye with 
another of his kind.  The kalai split according to me, is a function of 
human behavior manifesting itself in our AchAryas, because the 
fundamental difference between kalais is after all, the allegiance to 
separate guru-paramparAs.
     There was more to this split in the ranks, than what meets the eye 
today.  We speculate about doing away with the external differences in 
thirumaN, in the performance of thiru[v]ArAdhanai, and in the chanting 
of AchArya thaniyangaL; all these are very desirable and I hope to see 
them occur in my own lifetime.  But the fundamental divide really, is 
the age-old issue of prefering samskRit vs. Tamil, or vice-versa.  This 
preference for language of composition resulted in rivalry between 
piLLai lOkAchArya and vedAntha deSikan.  Little wonder then, that the 
vadakalais are looked upon as preferential to samskRit [vada=north] and 
the thenkalais towards Tamil [then=south]; for samskRit IS northern [and 
of Indo-European origin] while Tamil is distinctively southern to the 
Indian subcontinent.  Could it have been that rAmanujar perceived this 
tendency amongst his disciples [to prefer one language over another] 
during his own lifetime, and hence declared both the "mozhis" to be of 
equal importance?  I realize that ubHaya vedAnta encompasses more than 
this, but it is just a thought.
   The book "Srivaishnavism through the ages" by swAmi harsHAnanda of 
the rAmakRisHna AsHrama describes the kalai differences in some detail.  
Altogether there appear to be eighteen major differences between the 
kalais which permeate all levels of the faith ranging from day-to-day 
lifestyle to scholasticism.  It doesn't do any good to harp on such 
differences in today's age, when there are concerted efforts to bridge 
the divide.  But it is part of Srivaishnava tradition, and this is a 
discussion group where we can peruse and ponder over these things in a 
mature, academic manner.  Divisions and differences are a fact of human 
History.  The vishishTAdivaita school itself is one view of vedAnta, and 
the veda is but one of the paths towards salvation in a religion which 
itself is one of the many religions in human society. 
Perhaps we may learn valuable lessons from these divisions, and be able 
to overcome them eventually.  
    There are other things about Srivaishnavism that I often think 
about, and I will greatly appreciate input from fellow bhaktas on any of 
these matters.  Firstly, is this or has this [Srivaishnavism] faith 
always been a non-proselytizing one, open only to the ranks of the 
Brahmin community?  It brings to my mind the much-debated gopuram 
episode in rAmAnujar's life, when he supposedly uttered the sacred 
asHTAksHara mantra in public.  Some Kannada-speaking Srivaishnavas are 
believed to be descendants of Jain scholars who were converted to 
Srivaishnavism by rAmAnujar.  Is there any truth to this?  It is a fact 
of history, that the hoysaLa king bittideva was made a vaishnavan by 
rAmAnujar, and subsequently given the new name visHNuvardHan.  But were 
there any converts to Srivaishnavism?  I say this specifically because 
such a "conversion" [perhaps facilitated by the administration of 
pancha-samskAra by an AchAryan] would entail becoming a bRAhmana which 
was traditionally not possible for a non-bRAhmana.  If this is the case 
[i.e., that cross-varNa conversion to Srivaishnavism is not possible by 
definition of varNa] then does that make Srivaishnavism a faith that one 
may only be born into?  This would be analogous to the predicament faced 
by members of the ZoroaSTrian faith world-wide, where their declining 
numbers and cultural assimilation with the outside world threaten the 
very future of their religion.  Certainly though, the analogy does not 
apply completely since the number of Srivaishnavas is far greater than a 
hundred thousand [which is purported to be strength of the ZoroaSTrian 
community today].  But then, how many are we [Srivaishnavas]?  I don't 
have an estimate and I wonder if any of you could enlighten me, in 
addition to, of course, enlightening me with regard to my other 
   Thank you for your patience and I appreciate the opportunity to share 
my thoughts with you all.


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