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acharyas and their hagiologies (aitihyam)

mani_at_alum.calberkeley.org
Date: Fri Nov 30 2001 - 12:45:20 PST

Dear Members,

I am afraid this discussion about such-and-such an
acharya being an avatAra of some other divine being
is getting out of hand.  The problem in insisting that
these stories of, say, Swami Manavala Mamunigal being
the reincarnation of Sri Ramanuja (or Adisesha) or
Swami Desika being the incarnation of the bell of
Lord Srinivasa (or Lord Srinivasa Himself) is that 
*none* of these things (a) can be historically verified
(b) has any *real* value in philosophical discourse,
other than to increase devotionalism, and that too,
only in a minor, secondary manner.

I would *strongly* urge the members of our list to
keep these opinions and emotions to themselves and not
make them points of argument.  The problems caused by
such insistence are immense. For, let us accept 
both of the above mentioned legends as fact, ignoring
all historical problems -- that Desika is in fact the 
'ghaNTAvatAra' and that Maamunigal is indeed Ramanuja reborn.  
There were *definite* differences of opinion between 
Swami Desika and Swami Maamunigal. Are we now saying that 
the ghaNTA of the Lord and the Lord's primary servant 
(Adisesha) are at odds with one another?! What is an 
objective observer (as I hope each one of us is) to make of this? 
What's more, why not we believe that Sri Madhvacharya was the 
veritable incarnation of Vayu and that Sri Chaitanya was 
Radha-Krishna personified? Their followers have as much
evidence as we do. Where does it end?

I must confess that I often find it troubling when praise
goes to this extent.  There have been statements here
that because the boy who recited 'SrI-Sailesha-dayA-pAtram'
was considered Lord Ranganatha that Maamunigal was
even greater than Sri Ramanuja -- not *equal* to Ramanuja,
but *greater* than Ramanuja. Need we go to this extent
to laud our acharya, such that the bhAshyakAra himself is
placed at a lower pedestal? Let there be absolutely no doubt
that Swami Manavala Mamunigal was in fact one of the 
greatest acharyas of our tradition -- his kAruNya, his
bhagavad-anubhava, and his clarity of writing are 
of a supreme order.  His ability to reestablish the kainkarya
in so many temples and preseve and propagate the bhagavad-vishaya 
can only be called superhuman. There is no doubt about this. But
why not we focus on *these real kalyANa-guNas* of the
revered acharya, and not stray stories, none of which
truly and objectively add to our appreciation of the
acharya?

For, no matter how many times one simply declares (no
matter what Pillai Lokam Jiyar wrote) that Manavala Maamunigal
was the veritable reincarnation of Sri Ramanuja, or that
Swami Desika was the ghaNTA incarnated, these contribute
*nothing* to our understanding of either acharya's *true*
contribution to our tradition.  Neither can we say that
either statement is anything more than partisan rhetoric.
For neither Maamunigal nor Desika urged others to believe
in their own divinity, nor did they wish to be elevated to
the status of even Sri Ramanuja, not to speak of nitya-sUris
like the ghaNTA or Adisesha.  It does not help us in understanding
the clarity and contribution of, say, Maamunigal's 'tattva-traya
vyAkhyAnam', or, say, Swami Desika's 'tAtparya-candrikA'. Only
by using our minds and eyes and delving into these treasures
of thought and insight can we really appreciate these
mahAtmas. 

Recently Mukundan has written a pained note expressing dismay
that someone has tried to challenge that the Lord himself learnt
from Maamunigal. I really do not think anyone wishes to "disprove" 
Maamunigal's acharya-ship to the Lord. For that matter, it is not 
provable either, and it carries no water with me. (What would it
mean for the sarvajna, the mass of knowledge Himself, to "learn"
from Maamunigal? In what way was he a sishya?) It is, however,
valuable in estimating the *respect* with which contemporaries
held Maamunigal.  

To explain, we may examine a similar debate which was carried
on by the early acharyas concerning the apparent divinity of
the Alvars.  This debate can be found in the introduction to
the commentaries on the Tiruviruttam.  Some acharyas felt that
the Lord Himself came as Nammalvar. Others felt that a nitya-sUri
had taken descent as the saint. Yet others felt that he was
a samsArin like the rest of the jIvas.  The commentator (Nampillai
in this case) concludes that the earlier opinions about the
divinity of Nammalvar are statements made to express their
appreciationh of the incomprehensible greatness (prabhAva) of the 
saint. Nampillai
concludes, on the basis of the Alvar's own statements, that 
Nammalvar was a jIva stuck in samsAra rescued by the grace of
the Lord.

Without entering the debate over whether the Alvars were 
nitya-sUris or not, I would like to propose the idea that 
we may view these stories of our acharyas in the same light.
These stories mentioned in the traditional biographies and
hagiologies seek to impress upon us the incomprehensible
contribution of these scholar-saints. But they should be taken
*no further*. They should not be made points of argument,
or take any independent philosophical significance of their
own. They should also not be used to declare emotionally
that one acharya is "the greatest", without providing solid
supporting material in terms of actual contributions.  For,
what good is it to declare such things? Only to make others
feel bad? Or to beat one's chest to express one's own devotion
to one's acharya? I don't think any of our acharyas, particularly
Maamunigal, Desika, or Sri Ramanuja, would want this of us.

All in all, I hope our community as a whole, and at least the
membership of this list, can move past the miracle-mongering
and fanciful stories that constitute the bulk of what passes
as biographies of our acharyas and Alvars. There is *so much
more* we can learn from what they *actually said* that we are
wasting far too much time on these trivialities.  Honestly,
I am rather disappointed so far that the series on Swami Manavaala
Maamunigal's vaibhavam has concentrated more on these hagiological
details rather than his actual, concrete contributions. When
I open up Maamunigal's 'SrI-vacana-bhUshaNa' vyAkhyAnam, even
to my untutored eye I find so many insights written in the 
simplest of maNipravALa. Can we not get *someone* to elaborate
on any of these great thoughts?

aDiyEn rAmAnuja dAsan,
Mani



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