Bhagavad Ramanuja was born in Sriperumbudur, a small town near Chennai (Madras) in the year 1017 CE in the month of Chaitram (Chittirai in Tamil) in Ardra star(Thiruvadhirai in Tamil). His parents are Asuri Kesavacharya and Kanthimathi. Seeing the brilliance in the face of the child, his uncle, Sri Peria Thirumalai Nambi named the child after Lakshmana as Ramanuja, meaning brother of Rama.
From a young age he is reputed to have displayed intellect and liberal attitudes towards caste. He became friendly with a local, saintly Sudra by the name of Kanchipurna, who used to perform services for Varadaraja and was a staunch devotee of Vishnu. Ramanuja admired Kanchipurna's piety and devotion to Vishnu and sought Kancipurna as his guru. But Kanchipurna would not agree to that. Shortly after being married at 17 to Rakshakaambaal (Tanjammal, in Tamil), his father passed away. Ramanuja and his family moved to the neighboring city of Kanchipuram.
Ramanuja was under the advaitic sanyasi called 'Yadava prakasha' at Kanchi for training in Vedanta. His cousin Govinda also joined him in the gurukula. Yadavaprakasha followed an "advaitha" (Shanakaracharya's philosophy) based interpretation of the Upanishads. On many occasions Ramanuja would politely point out errors in Yadava prakasha's interpretation of Upanishads and the disagreements between the two on the proper interpretation increased. One day, in a discourse on 'Chaandogya upanishad' interpreting 'kapyaasam pundareekam evam akshiNI' (Chapter I:6-7), Yadavaprakasha interpreted that �the eyes of the Supreme being is red like the back part (butt) of a monkey� - kapi asam. Ramanuja was shocked at this interpretation and tears rolled out of his eyes. Yadava prakasha was astonished and asked Ramanuja, why he was crying. Ramanuja told that he couldn�t bear the cheap interpretation by his guru for the beautiful eyes of the Supreme being - Vishnu. He interpreted the meaning that ka+api = kam jalam pibati - meaning Lotus, asya= blossoms �Kapyaasam here refers to the lotus that always depend on the sun to blossom and the eyes of the Supreme being is compared to the lotus flower�. This wonderful explanation made Yadava prakasha angry and he was enraged. Yadavaprakasha found Ramanuja's skill at offering alternative interpretations threatening both to his authority and the popularity of Advaitha philosophy.
He believed that Ramanuja, will one day demolish the advaita philosophy and should be killed without wasting time. He made an evil plan to drown Ramanuja in the river Ganga and for that purpose he made a pilgrimage trip to North India. Innocent Ramanuja without knowing the guru�s evil plan joined the guru along with his cousion Govinda for a long trip to North.
Fortunately, midway during their trip somehow Govinda came to know about the evil plan of their master and alerted Ramanuja and asked him to leave the group at once and get back to Kanchipuram. It was dense forest and Ramanuja was tired by walking long distances without food and was worried if he is walking in the right direction to return to Kanchi. That night, a hunter couple appeared before Ramanuja and informed him since they are also travelling towards South, Ramanuja can join them and reach Kanchi safely. Ramanuja thanked them and all the three of them were taking rest under a tree. Next morning when Ramanuja woke up he did not see the hunter couple but saw a big temple at a distance and soon realised that he was miraculously transported from the jungle to Kanchipuram. Ramanuja knew that the hunter couple was none other than Varadaraja Swamy and Lakshmi devi. Meanwhile, Yadhavaprakasha came back from pilgrimage to Kanchi and he was surprised to see ramanuja alive. He was worried if ramanuja came to know about his evil plan and told every one about this. Ramanuja surprisingly did not make public his knowledge of the failed assassination attempt and resumed classes with Yadavaprakasha as usual when he returned to Kancipuram.
While Ramanuja was studying under Yadhava prakasha, once Sri Yamunacharya (Alavandar) came to Kanchipuram for darshanam of Varadaraja swamy and saw Ramanuja from a distance. Seeing the brilliance of Ramanuja, he enquired about him and blessed him in his mind that he should succeed him as Srivaishnava acharya and propagate Srivaishnava sampradayam. But was sorry that Ramanuja is a shishya of an Advaita guru. Alavandar prayed to Sri Varadaraja for Ramanuja. Somehow, Alavandar could not meet ramanuja in person during his lifetime.
Not too long afterwards, Yadavaprakasha ordered Ramanuja to leave his school, after a final disagreement on the interpretation of scripture occurred. (Yadava prakash eventually became the disciple of Ramanuja)
Without a Guru, Ramanuja returned to his childhood mentor, Kanchipurna, who assured him that a teacher would come his way. At the request of Ramanuja, Kanchipurna asked him to help in his service to Varadaraja. Sri Ramanuja performed tirtha kaimkaryam at this temple.
At the same time Yamunacharya, was near the end of his life and in search of a successor. Upon finding out that Ramanuja had been freed from Yadavaprakasha, and had returned to the company of Kanchipurna, Yamunacharya was overjoyed and sent Sri Peria nambi, one of the Alavandar�s sishya to Kanchi and asked to bring Ramanuja with him to Srirangam. Yamunacharya however passed away just before Ramanuja could reach him, and once again Ramanuja found himself without the guru he had been searching for.
Ramanuja was extremely sad. He noted that three of Yamunacharya's fingers were remained folded. He asked Alavandar�s disciples, about this and they told that Alavandar had three unfulfilled wishes and he was talking about them just before he passed away. The wishes were
--> he would write a commentary on Veda Vyasa's Brahma Sutra
--> he would perpetuate the memory of Veda Vyasa and Parashara and
--> he would strive to propagate Visishtadvaita according to Nalayira divya prabandham (the 4000 holy verses of Alwars)
Ramanuja swore that he will fullfill these three wishes. Dramatically, the folded fingers of alavandar stretched out to normal position. The gathered devotees were surprised at this and understood the greatness of ramanuja. He returned to kanchipuram without even taking darshanam of Sri Ranganatha in Srirangam. He was vexed at Sri Ranganatha for not even allowing him a brief meeting with Yamunacharya.
During that time at Kanchi Thirukkachchi nambi used to perform vinjamara (fanning) service to Lord Varada. The Lord used to speak to Thirukkachchi nambi everyday. Ramanuja requested him to ask the Lord on his behalf, what Ramanuja should do next. Lord has ordered Ramanuja to meet Sri Peria nambi and become his sishya. Lord cleared six doubts or Ramanuja about Sri Vaishnavam
1. aham Eva paratatvam
2. darshanam bhEda Eva ca
3. upAyEsh prapatti syAt
4. antima smrti varjanam
5. dEhAvasAnE mukti syAt
through the mediation of ThirukkachchiNambi. Periya Nambi (Mahapurna) pleaded the Lord to send Sri Ramanuja to SriRangam and the Lord accepted Periya Nambi�s request and expressed his approval through Thirukkachchi Nambi.
As per the order of Sri Varada Sri Ramanuja wanted to meet Sri Peria nambi to take him as his guru. He started his journey towards Srirangam immediately. At the same time, Sri Peria Nambi was also travelling from Srirangam to Kanchi to meet Ramanuja. Both met at Madurantakam, where under the shade of Vakula tree Periya Nambi performed Pancha Samskara to him. As he was initiated into the Dvaya Mantra at Madurantakam, the place came to be known as "Dvayam Vilaindha Tiruppathi" Both returned to Srirangam and did Kalakshepams on Brahma Sutra etc. for sometime. It was at this time that Lord Ranganatha called him "Udaiyavar" (He is ours).
However, his learning under Mahapurna came to an abrupt end when Ramanuja's wife had differences with Mahapurna�s wife, on the premise that the latter was a member of a lower Brahmana subcaste. Upon hearing this, the hurt Mahapurna and his wife departed from Ramanuja's company without notice. Ramanuja, once again lost his teacher. But this was not the first time that Ramanuja's wife had interfered with his spiritual development. Earlier, Ramanuja had invited his childhood mentor, Kanchipurna, for a meal. Ramanuja had hoped to partake of Kancipurna's leavings as a sacrament. However, Kanchipurna arrived early in absence of Ramanuja. Ramanuja's wife fed Kanchipurna, sent him off, and ritually purified the dining area, including discarding Kancipurna's leftovers.
Having lost the benefits of a teacher twice over as a result of his wife's caste-pretensions, Ramanuja was incensed. He thus sent his wife back to her parents, and promptly took Sanyas (at about 30 years of age) with the name 'Ramanuja muni'. He earned the title "king of ascetics" (yatiraja) from Lord Varada raja.
The seat of Acharya at Srirangam was lying vacant without a successor after the death of Alavandar to take over. Ramanuja was requested to assume charge. But, before doing so, he wanted to learn the secrets of the great Mantras. For this purpose, he approached an acharya "Tiruk Koshtiyur Nambi" (Goshti purn) who made Ramanuja visit him 17 times from Srirangam to Thirukkoshtiyur before actually instructing him. He cautioned Ramanuja that he should not give out the secrets to anyone with out his permission and if he did so, would go to hell.
*Immediately on receiving the instructions, Ramanuja climbed up to the top of the temple tower and proclaimed the Manthra to the large gathering of his disciples assembled there. Tirukkoshtiyur Nambi came to know about this and was so enraged and demanded an explanation. Ramanuja replied that he himself would go to hell for not obeying his guru's order but the gathered people that listened to his upadesam would be saved and they will attain salvation due to the blessings of Thirukkoshtiyur Nambi. The Guru was overwhelmed by this reply. Embracing Ramanuja appreciating his broad mindedness, he called him 'Emperumanar'- "Oh! My lord" and declared that Srivaishnavism would thenceforward be known as " Ramanuja Darsanam"- ' the light of Ramanuja'
(*Another version is that he did not give out Mantras. What he actually gave out was that he had found out the way to attain Moksha through the three great Mantras and invited those who sincerely wished to follow him and get initiated. Also, he did not advise all and sundry as assumed by some. By the time of this episode, he had already gathered a huge following of disciples who congregated at the main entrance to the temple and he was thus addressing his own disciples. Acharya Tirukkoshtiyur Nambi was so enraged and demanded an explanation. Ramanuja replied that he did not give out the secrets and even if he had ignored the specific warning of the Guru, only he himself would go to hell but the multitude of humanity that listened to his clarion 'wake - up' call would be saved! The Guru was overwhelmed by this reply. Embracing Ramanuja appreciating his broad mindedness, he called him 'Emperumanar'- "Oh! My lord" and declared that Srivaishnavism would thence forward be known as "Ramanuja Darshanam"- 'the light of Ramanuja')
Ramanuja used to go round the streets for his Bhiksha (Uncha vrutti). One day, an evil minded person had mixed poison in the Bhiksha. His wife while serving the bhiksha fell at Ramanujas feet with tears in her eyes. Ramanuja understood that there was something wrong. When the Sishyas sorted out the bhiksha for cooking, they found out that it was mixed with poison. Ramanuja went on a fast with a view to cleanse the mind of the evil-doer.
On hearing this, Tirukkoshtiyur Nambi rushed to Srirangam. When Ramanuja heard of this, he rushed to the banks of River Kaveri to receive his guru. It was the height of summer. Ramanuja ran towards him in the hot Sun to receive him and fell at his feet on the burning sands on the banks of river Kaveri. When Nambi did not ask him to get up, Kidambi Achan - a disciple of Ramanuja, who was nearby exclaimed "Your action (in not asking Ramanuja to get up) is worse than the poison mixed in the bhiksha". Tirukkoshtiyur Nambi replied, "After all, now I can leave my physical body since I have found one who would take the greatest care of Ramanuja". He ordered that Sri Ramanuja will not go for bhiksha henceforth and it is the duty of Kidambi achan to cook and serve food for Ramanuja.
Sri Ramanuja's works include:
Sri BhAshyam, VedAntha Deepam, VedAntha SAram, VedArtha Sangraham, Geetha Bhashyam,
SaranAgathi Gadyam, Sri Ranga Gadyam, Sri Vaikunta Gadyam and Sri Nithya Grantham.
He did Prapatti before the Lord and submitted his famous Gadyatrayam (Saranagathi Gadyam, Sriranga Gadyam and Sri Vaikuntha Gadyam)
While he was on his Sancharam, Lord himself appeared before him at Tiruk Kurum Kudi as a Srivaishnava got Samasrayanam from him.
When he visited Saraswati Peetham in Kashmir, Goddess Saraswati was so impressed with his commentary on Brahma Sutram that she named it "Sri Bhashyam" and conferred on him the title of "Bhashyakaara". It must be noted that while the other commentaries are known by the names of their authors like 'Sankara Bhashyam' written by Aadi Sankara, the commentary of Ramanuja is always referred to with the honorific 'Sri' denoting its unsurpassed quality and clarity and known as 'Sri Bhashyam'. By writing wonderful commentary on Vedavyasa's Brahma Sutram and a simpler commentary thereon called Vedanta Saram, he fulfilled his FIRST PROMISE to Alavandar.
He asked one of his close disciples Kuresh (Kurataalvar) to name his two sons after Veda Vyasa and Parasara and thus fulfilled his SECOND PROMISE to Alavandar. It was this Parasara Bhattar who subsequently wrote the famous commentary on Vishnu Sahasra Nama - Bhagawad Guna darpana, as ordered by Ramanuja.
Another disciple of Ramanuja was Pillaan. Once, when Ramanuja was alone mentally reciting one hymn of Tiruvaimozhi and doing abhinayam for the pasuram. Pillaan entered his room and inquired if he was meditating on the same hymn. And, it was indeed the one Ramanuja was actually meditating on! Ramanuja decided that Pillaan was the person best suited to write a commentary on Tiruvaimozhi. As ordered, he wrote the famous 'AARAAYIRAPPADI' (the commentary known as the 6000 Padi also known as Bhagavad Vishayam) and called Pillaan as 'Tirukkurugai Piraan" after the name of Nammalwar.Thus, he fulfilled his THIRD PROMISE to Alavandar.
When he visited Tirumala, a miracle happened. Some argued that the deity at Tirumala was Saiva deity. This was because the Lord had earlier entrusted His Sanku and Chakra to a King called Thondamaan. Sri Ramanuja placed Sankhu, Chakram (the weapons of Sri Vishnu) and Shoolam, Dhamarukam (the weapons of Siva) in the Sannidhi the previous night. Next day when the doors were opened, the Lord gave Darshan adorning Sanku and Chakra, proving that He is the icon of Sri Vishnu only. Ramanuja was hailed as " Appanukku Sangaazhi Alittha Perumaal" .
During that time Kulothunga Chola was ruling the Chola nadu and he was a staunch devotee of Siva. He commanded Ramanuja to come to his court with a view to get his support to establish the superiority of Siva over all other deities. (including Vishnu). If the support was not forthcoming, the king was planning to kill Ramanuja. Sensing the danger, Kuresha went to the court disguised as Ramanuja along with Periya Nambi. The king ordered him to sign a document to the effect that 'Siva is the greatest'. Kuresa added that 'Sivam was no doubt great but Dronam was greater than Sivam'- both expressions referring to units of measurement. The enraged king ordered both of them to be blinded when he came to know that he was Kuresa who was impersonating Ramanuja. Periya Nambi was tortured to death while Kuresa survived. Kuresa, though he himself was blinded, was happy that he had saved Ramanuja.
Ramanuja went to Thiru narayana puram (Yadavadri or Melkote, Mysore district, Karnataka) following this incident at the age of about 80. Legend has it that this image of Vishnu was held in worship by Brahma. Brahma gifted these precious idols to Lord Rama. Lord Rama was greately attached and deeply devoted to these idols, Thiru Narayana's idol hece gained the name "Ramapriya".
Kusha, Lord Rama�s son inherited Ramapriya�s idol which he gifted to his daughter Kanakamalini during her wedding to a Yadava king. Sri Krishna and Balarama of the Yadava family, inherited this idol in Dwapara Yuga. This place was particularly dear to Ramanuja. He placed his very spirit in his image that bears an exact likeness to him, and instructed all of his disciples to make an effort to reside here. In his last message before attaining paramapadam, he instructed his devotees to live in Melkote for some period of time in their lives.The Lord also showed Sri Ramanuja through a vision, the place where the holy white (tiru-maN) soil (which his devotees could use for the holy emblems on their fore heads) could be excavated. This soil is being used by millions of devotees even today.
During that time, the utsava murthy of the temple there had been taken away by the muslim invaders. Lord informed in a dream that the temple�s utsavamurthy was available in Delhi in the palace of the king. In spite of his old age, Ramanuja immediately travelled to Delhi and approached the king and requested the king to return the idol of his dreams. The muslim king, who was highly impressed by Ramanuja�s power and devotion agreed to return the idol. The idol however was in possession of the young princess who was deeply attached to its beauty. When Ramanuja endearingly called 'Come on! My dear child 'Selva Pillaiye Varum', the idol miraculously came onto his lap! Ramanuja thus bacame father of the divine child Sampath Kumaran (Chelva Pillai-the dear darling child)! The princess agreed to hand over the idol to Ramanuja with great difficulty. Ramanuja accepted the idol and started on his return journey to Melkote and reinstalled it in the temple. The princess who could not bear the separation followed the idol with Ramanuja to Melkote. Even today, there is a small idol of the princess at the feet of Ramapriya in her memory and is identified as "Bibi Nacchiar" or "Bibi Lachhimar". Ramanuja resided in Melkote for 12 years.
Ramanuja lived for 120 years and had numerous disciples. His prime sishyas were Kurataazhvan, Mudhaliyaandan, Embar and Vaduka nambi. Ramanuja attained paramapadam, with his head on the lap of Embar and his feet on the lap of Vaduga Nambi, in the year 1137 CE at Srirangam listening to the recitation of the Divya Prabandam and Upanishads. His archa vigraham at Melkote, Sriperumpudur and Srirangam are of great importance.
The Five Acharyas of Sri Ramanuja:
Five great disciples of Alavandar following the command of their AchArya instructed RamanujA on the essentials of Sri Vaishnavam.
-Periya nambi or Maha Purna performed not only Samashrayanam for RamanujA but also taught him the Brahma SutrAs , the Bhagavadgita and the esoteric meanings (rahasyarthams) of the Sri Vaishnavite rahasyams.
-Goshti Purna or Thirukkottiyur nambi tested the readiness of RamanujA many times and finally trained him in the observance of Sri Vaishnavite religious practices as per the three Rahasyas.
-Maaladhara or Thirumaalai Andaan taught Ramanuja Bhagavad Vishayam or the subtle meanings of Swami Nammalwar's Thiruvaimozhi Pasurams.
-Thiruvarangapperumal or aalavandar Aalwaan instructed Ramanuja on the comprehensive text of Thiruvaimozhi, the Sri Sookthis of Aalavandhar and some auspicious sayings (SubhAshithams).
-Srisaila Poorna or Thirumalai nambi, the uncle of Ramanuja taught the inner meanings of Srimad Ramayana Slokams.