Interpretation as a Means of Understanding Tradition

A Srivaisnava Perspective

Mudumby Narasimhachary

Do different interpretations of a common scripture necessitate schism within a tradition? To what extent do these differences of interpretation really matter to the practitioner? Can the pursuit of philosophical detail obscure the message of the wider philosophy? In this article Prof. Narasimhachary examines the division of the Srivaisnava tradition into different schools according to their interpretation of scripture. He considers to what extent such division can be avoided by allowing that each side of a philosophical argument has its merits. Are there lessons for ISKCON in this topic?


Interpretation (vyakhyana) based on proper methodology and backed by analytical skills is undoubtedly a means of arriving at truth. All religious and philosophical systems, theological or otherwise, invariably depend upon interpretation for their own stability and credibility. Sri Sankara, the celebrated exponent of Advaita, states that logic is welcome in understanding scripture so long as it does not transgress its own limits.[1] In other words, logical and interpretational skills, however useful they may otherwise be, cannot and should not be allowed to function independently. Logic has its own soundness and its own position in the scheme of epistemology, but beyond a reasonable state it tends to become cumbersome and unacceptable. That is precisely why the Vedantins do not accept the claim of the Tarkikas that the syllogistic method of logic can establish the existence of God. For them, it is only the Scripture (sruti) that can prove this beyond any speck of doubt. Badarayana, the celebrated author of the Brahma-sutra, has stated the same truth in the aphorism 'tarkapratisthanadapi ... '(Brahma-sutra 2.1.2).


We find in the Rg Veda polytheism, monotheism, monism and a host of other concepts existing side by side. Western scholars, wishing to find a developmental pattern in the profusion of concepts, consider that hymns showing monotheistic tendencies occur later than hymns showing polytheistic tendencies because this accords with their own theory of the development of ideas from many to one, monotheism being higher than polytheism. (Bowes, p. 201) But Hindus do not believe in this, for in their tradition, these two are not opposites - they are not mutually exclusive, nor is monotheism necessarily better than polytheism, as each represents a different attitude toward the same reality. They can occur together at the same time and can continue to exist together. Yajnavalkya in the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad was asked how many gods there were. He gave at the same time the following numbers: 3003, 303, 33, 6, 3, 2, 1, 1� and 1. The question could therefore be answered in all these ways at the same time, not over a time sequence during which man's ideas about God developed from 3003 to 1. (Bowes, p. 201)


Hindus, being inclined toward the universal, are predisposed to see what is common among things, while the Western intellectual, inclined toward the particular, is predisposed to see what is different; when different things are said to be the same, the Western intellectual takes this as a sign of total lack of critical ability. To the Hindu mind, the ultimate in its timeless dimension is beyond characterisation, and so far as its temporal manifestation is concerned, it is not confined to any particular personage or happening. (Bowes, p. 101)


The value of interpretation cannot be underestimated in understanding the subtleties of a given system of thought. For example, the Brahma-sutra, which comprises about five hundred and forty-five aphorisms, has been interpreted by almost all the philosopher-�preceptors of India in totally different ways. Thus we have the commentaries of Sankara (Advaita), Bhaskara (Bhedabheda), Yadavaprakasa (another kind of Bhedabheda), �Nimbarka �(Dvaitadvaita), Ramanuja (Visistadvaita), Madhva (Dvaita), Vallabha (Suddhadvaita) and Sri Krsna Caitanya (Acintya Bhedabheda as interpreted by Baladeva Vidyabhusana) and so on. This list, of course, does not include many earlier writers such as Guhadeva, Kapardin, Bharuci, Bhartrmitra, Bhartrprapanca and others. How could so many interpretations be given to a single text as the Brahma-sutra? Yamuna asks: 'kim asya sutrasya hrdayam?'[2(What exactly is the 'heart' or import of this aphorism?) Badarayana himself records the views of philosophers like ssmarathya, Audulomin and Kasakrtsna regarding the nature of God and man in his Brahma-sutra (1.4.20-2). What of a simple text like the Gita? How many acaryas have not interpreted it in the light of their own philosophical tradition. What can a layman who has no expertise in interpreting the scriptures do? He has to follow one particular preceptor, stick to one particular tradition and try to understand the truth. There is no other way. There is, of course, the danger of the wrong people giving the wrong interpretations to texts to make gullible people believe their own doctrine to be right and all others wrong.


With this background, let me now demonstrate how textual interpretation has led to endless debates and dialogues, claims and counterclaims, in a single tradition, viz., the Srisampradaya of Sri Ramanuja (1017-1137 AD). There are two important and powerful post-Ramanuja Srivaisnava sects in Tamil Nadu (South India) called the 'Tenkalai' (Southern) and the 'Vadakalai' (Northern) which govern almost all the activities of a Srivaisnava living there. The heads of these two sects are known as Pillai Lokacarya and Venkatanatha (popularly known as Vedanta Desika), respectively. They were contemporaries who lived in the thirteenth century. Although they were on friendly terms during their lifetime, their followers in succeeding centuries became bitter critics of each other's tradition. Through study and research, scholars have identified eighteen doctrinal differences in the writings of these two stalwarts.[3Separate works were written highlighting these differences. (Gupta, p. 93) For an impartial observer, however, the acrimonious debates and criticisms that are extending even now are out of place and unwarranted since, after all, they both represent the same sampradaya of Ramanuja. What we now have is the small Srivaisnava community raising narrow domestic walls that are, in fact, doing great injustice to the spirit of Ramanuja, who strove all his life to bring harmony (samanvaya) among several sections of society.


Let us now take up a few of these eighteen doctrinal differences many of which are of pure academic interest and which, for some, make no sense at all.


Doctrinal differences in Srivaisnavism


(1) The nature of God's grace


According to the Southern sect, God's grace is voluntary and unstrained. It comes to a person without being sought. It comes to a person even if he or she is unwilling to welcome it. But one has to remain 'passive'. The analogy is that of a mother cat and her kitten, called the marjarakisora-nyaya. The kitten does not do anything to be taken by its mother from place to place. The mother grabs the kitten by its neck and takes it to different places. Likewise, a devotee will also be taken care of by God even if there is no conscious effort on the part of the former.


According to the Northern sect, God will not help a person unless he does his little bit to deserve or earn His grace. The analogy is that of a mother monkey and her young one, called the markata-kisora-nyaya. The mother monkey hops from one tree to another while her baby clings tightly to her. Unless the baby monkey does its own part, the mother will not bother to protect it.


Now let us see how interpretation plays its own role here. For an impartial seeker after truth, both these viewpoints appear reasonably sound. It is true that one has to do his bit of work to earn the grace of God, otherwise the world becomes an asylum of lazy people. Once a devotee went to a spiritual master who could perform miracles and asked him: 'Svamin! I am very poor. I want to become a millionaire through the lottery. Kindly bless me so that I will be the lucky winner.' The Svami said: 'All right. Have you bought a lottery ticket?' 'No, I have not bought one,' replied the devotee. The Svami said, smiling: 'See, you have not done the minimum expected of you. What can I do?'


The message is clear. According to even the Southern sect, when the mother cat takes the kitten in her mouth, a kind of co-operation on the part of the kitten is required. If the kitten refuses to be taken by its mother, what can the poor mother do? Or, to put it a different way, if a devotee can remain as helpless, innocent and passive as the kitten, then God will take personal care of that devotee. Remaining in such an utter passive and helpless state, totally believing in the saving grace of God, is indeed the most important characteristic of a genuine prapanna. To be a prapanna means to have unassailable faith (mahavisvasa) in the saviourship of God. Having such a faith is in itself active involvement, however unconscious it may be, on the part of the devotee. An act is an act, whether one is aware of it or not. What is important is that the devotee has trust in God, which serves the purpose.


(2) The position of Sri


Another issue on which debates have been continuing unabated among the Srivaisnavas of South India is whether Sri (Laksmi), who is the mother of the creation and the inseparable Consort of Lord Visnu, forms part of the category of the living beings (jivakoti) or is of the category of the Lord Himself (isvarakoti). For the Southern sect, She belongs to the category of the individual souls, although She is superior to them by virtue of the special status conferred upon Her by the Lord by taking Her as His wife and thereby making Her the Mistress of the Universe. She is 'anu' (atomic), like the jivas themselves. By virtue of Her special status, She shares with God all His glories, such as the eternal abode (Vaikuntha), where She is attended by liberated souls like Ananta and Garuda.


However, the Northern sect believes that Sri is not a jiva. She belongs to the category of the Lord Himself (isvarakoti) and is coeval with Him in all aspects. She is all-pervasive (vibhu) and all-powerful like Him. If He can confer liberation, so too can She, although She never uses that power. Like the Lord, She is also capable of punishing the wicked and evil-minded. However, being the mother benign, She does not take that extreme step. The expression ivarim sarvabhutanam (Srisukta) is taken in the literal sense, by which She is stated to be the ruler of the universe. Can there be two rulers for a single universe? The interpretation is that, although Laksmi can rule over the world Herself, on the analogy of the laukikadampati (a couple living in this world), with a perfect understanding with the Lord, Her Husband, She prefers to have Him rule over the world. By mutual agreement and identity of thought, the couple exert helpful influence and rule over the universe.


Whatever the doctrinal differences are, both the Southern and Northern sects accept Laksmi as the mother of all the creatures and that She mediates between the Lord, who is the strict disciplinarian, on the one hand and the erring human on the other. In this role she is technically called the Purusakara. For a layperson, it matters little whether Laksmi is as pervasive as the Lord Himself or is only an individual soul raised to the level of Supremacy.


(3) God's pervasion of the souls, which are atomic in size (anuvyapti)


According to the Southern sect, God has infinite powers and can therefore literally enter into the atomic souls. Since He is all-pervasive (vibhu), He can be present simultaneously in every particle of matter. Thus His presence in the souls is a real and indwelling pervasion.


However, according to the Northern sect, God, being infinite, cannot pervade or penetrate into the atomic souls. His infinite magnitude does not allow Him to dwell within the atomic soul. He pervades the jivatmans from outside and not from inside. His presence in souls is to be understood as co-existence, but not pervasion. (Srinivasachari, p. 535)


This point is also of academic interest. The Tengalai view is based on the scriptural statement: antar bahisca tat sarvan vyapya narayanah sthitah (Narayananuvaka) ('Narayana pervades everything in the universe from within and without'.) However, the view held by the Vadagalais is based purely on the question of possibility. Once we have committed ourselves to the vyapitva (all pervasiveness) of the Lord, it must be taken in its fullest sense of possibility. We should not compromise with any kind of diminution on the part of the Lord's svarupa. Further, if the svarupa of the individual soul is really atomic (anu), then it cannot and should not have any room for the presence of any entity there, including that of the Lord. However, one should not jump to the conclusion that the Northern sect does not accept the immanence of the Lord; it does. The Southern sect postulates an indwelling immanence, the Northern sect a co-dwelling immanence. The former states that God dwells in matter and souls; the latter, that He dwells on matter and souls.


(4) Nature of God's parental love (vatsalya)


Differences arise between the two sects as to the nature of God's vatsalya (the love that a parent has for a child). The Southern school believes that God's love for His children is so wonderful that He not only winks at their faults but also actually enjoys them. The dirtier the child is, the dearer he becomes to the doting mother. It is to the sinners and erring beings that God can pour out His love and grace in full and render real help. A highly meritorious person will automatically become acceptable to the Lord. But what glory is there in such acceptability? Just as a poor man alone is in real need of money and a sick person alone requires medicine, only one who is utterly worthless and defective requires God's love and help. Yamuna in his Stotraratna (v. 51) says:


tadaham tvadrte na nathavan
madrte tvam dayaniyavan na ca
vidhinirmitam etam anvayam
krpaya palaya ma sma jihapah

O Lord! Therefore it all means this: Without you I am utterly without a master. Without me, you will not have a proper recipient for your grace. This is our relation brought about by Fate. Kindly honour it. Don't break it.


This particular taste that the erring human invokes or generates in the Lord is called dosabhogyatva.


The Northern school, however, argues that this is a horrible doctrine because it encourages one who is already a sinner to become a horrendous criminal since he would then become more acceptable to God. But God, being a strict disciplinarian, will not ignore the sins and faults of the living beings. He is the dharmadhyaksa (the one who supervises and ensures the proper function of the Law of Justice without any fear or favour). Does He not declare in the Gita that He is equanimous towards all the living beings and that there is none who is either detestable or dear to Him?[4The Brahma-sutra (2.1.34) also states the same truth: vaisamya-nairghrnye na sapeksatvat (The Lord is neither partial to some nor cruel to others. The suffering of the living beings is dependent [on their past acts].) Ignoring the faults and sins of living beings means ignoring moral values and sacrificing justice and truth. According to this school, the Lord may be said to wink at the faults of the devotee (dosadarsitva). He may be said to pardon the sins of the devotee. This implies that the Lord takes note of the sins but will not punish them as a consequence. The concept of non-observance of the sins exalts the uniqueness of God's love more than the doctrine of pardon without at the same time discounting moral values or making sin respectful and acceptable.


So is there any controversy in this matter? Seemingly yes, but really no. The defects of the devotee will be enjoyable to the Lord provided the devotee is genuine, believing in none but the Lord as his saviour, father and mother. In his childlike innocence, even if a mistake or two is committed, the Lord would not mind. He feels happy that the mistakes really speak about the absolute abandon of the devotee. The devotee is in such a state of total absorption that he is unaware of the mistakes committed, and with that free and innocent state of mind, he approaches God. But the real position is that such a devotee will not normally go wrong. If a mistake or two should creep in, he will atone for them in the prescribed way. So even on this issue there need be no controversy. In fact, the following verse from Vedanta Desika's Dayasataka (v. 97) seems to come closer to the view of the Southern school:


autsukhyapurvamupahrtya mahaparadhan
matah! prasadayitumicchati me manastvam
alihya tan niravasesam alabdhatrptih
tamyasyaho! vrsagirisadhrta daye! tvam


Mother Daya! My mind, with great enthusiasm, wishes to please you by offering all my horrible sins [as a present to you]. But being supported by the Lord of the Vrsagiri and even after having licked clean all of them without any leftovers, You are not satiated at all. What a wonder!


(5) Nature of God's mercy (daya)


According to the Southern school, God, out of His unbounded compassion, actually suffers whenever His devotees suffer (paraduhkha-duhkhitvam). This should not, however, be construed as a defect or imperfection. He shares in their sufferings even as He participates in their happiness. This only indicates His infinite compassion. Rama, as Valmiki depicts, used to suffer greatly when his subjects were in difficulties. When they had occasion to be happy, he would join them and celebrate the event like their father.


vyasanesu manusyanam bhrsam bhavati duhkhitah
utsavesu ca sarvesu piteva paritusyati


So suffering on the part of God when His children suffer is not a blot on the nature of God. Rather, it enhances His quality of compassion. However, the Northern school contends that although God will show His compassion to living beings when they suffer, He Himself will not suffer. He is perfect in all respects and is an abode of innumerable auspicious qualities. Suffering is a defect, and it cannot be presumed to be present in Him. How then should one explain the Ramayana verse quoted above? It can only mean that Rama did all in his power to alleviate the suffering of His people. Further, since Rama was behaving as an ordinary mortal, he may have enacted suffering along with His subjects. Being the Supreme Being, He is really above all misery and suffering.


Again, this is a point of academic interest that can be interpreted and understood in ways acceptable to both schools of thought. God in his human form may appear to have suffered, but in His supreme state He is always blissful, detached from everyone. The following verse from the Brahmanda Purana reveals the true nature of the Lord:


jnanam apratigham tasya vairagyam ca jajatpateh
aisvaryam caiva dharmasca sahasiddham catustayam


Unimpeded knowledge, detachment, absolute suzerainty and righteousness are the four natural traits of the Lord of the Universe.


(6) Nature of the means of liberation


According to the followers of Vedanta Desika, all three yogas mentioned in the Gita - karma (work), jnana (knowledge), and bhakti (devotion) have their own role in effecting salvation. Of these, bhakti is the direct means of liberation; the others are indirect. Karma leads to jnanajnana to bhakti and bhakti to prapatti (surrender). Salvation is mainly the result of self-effort.


The followers of Pillai Lokacarya hold that karmajnana and bhakti have no value compared to prapatti yoga, since the Lord Himself declared so in the caramasloka (�Bhagavad-gita 18.66)


sarva-dharman parityajya
mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo
moksayisyami ma sucah


Renounce all dharmas and seek refuge in me alone. I shall set you free from all sins; grieve not.


Once more, this is a point of interpretation. The word sarva-dharman is taken literally by the Southern sect. According to this view, all other yogas should be completely abandoned. Further, this school contends that the path of bhakti is very difficult to follow. One in thousands may be successful in bhakti yoga, which has to be performed repeatedly. In contrast, �prapatti need only be done once, and is considered to be the easiest of all the yoga disciplines, including bhakti. Therefore, whatever is the easiest is also the best and only way open to ordinary people. It is, more or less, the only way for salvation, the essence of prapatti being the abandonment of self-effort.


Although the Northern school admits that prapatti looks comparatively easier than bhakti, they hold that it is even more difficult than bhakti to practice. The main auxiliary of prapatti is mahavisvasa (unassailable faith in the saviourship of God). If this particular anga is wanting, then prapatti becomes diluted and will not attain the desired end. The illustration cited is that of the brahmastra used by Ravana's son Indrajit to arrest Hanuman as he was destroying the prestigious Asoka garden and the city of Lanka. Hanuman was actually arrested by that powerful weapon. However, Indrajit had a lurking doubt in his mind as to whether the weapon really had any power against the formidable monkey. The moment this doubt arose, the brahmastra lost its control over Hanuman. Added to this, Indrajit had brought other materials such as ropes and chains to bind Hanuman, which made the �brahmastra virtually powerless. Such will be the case if mahavisvasa is lacking in a person who is undertaking prapatti.


When we examine both these views, we see that both are right in their own way. It is true that bhakti is more difficult than prapatti because of the problems involved; bhakti needs repeated practice. The Brahma-sutra says that one-pointed meditation, which is bhakti according to Ramanuja, has to be practised as long as a person lives in this world (Cf. 4.1.12: a prayanat tatrapi hi drstam). The aphorism avrttir asakrdupadesat (Brahma-sutra 4.1.1) also stresses the same point. However, prapatti is equally difficult. In the absence of mahavisvasa, it becomes a wasted exercise. Likewise, the seeker of prapatti must employ some self-effort, however small, in order to attain prapatti. However, if the seeker is aware that he or she is making this effort, then it will entail egotism and a sense of independence, which are against the nature of the individual soul. Therefore, the satisfactory solution to this problem is that one should eschew even the idea of self-effort, while at the same time effort should be maintained.


(8) The cause of prapatti


Another point of difference between the Northern and Southern schools is the factor that forms the cause of prapatti. According to the Northern sect, acts of merit performed by living beings in the previous birth are the cause of prapatti, not the mere performance of prapatti in this life. However, the Southern school believes that God's free and spontaneous grace alone is the cause of prapatti.


Here again, the difference of opinion between these two sects is not so serious. The Lord's grace alone is the cause of prapatti, but the present life of a person is an extension and continuation of his or her previous births. Ramanuja, while explaining the scripture yamevaisa vrnute tena labhyah (Mundaka Upanisad 3.2.3), states that God loves a man because the man loves Him. It is mutual and reciprocal. This means that the good done by a man in his previous birth makes him virtuous and a devotee in his next life. This naturally earns the grace of the Lord. Thus the arguments of both sects find a common ground.


(9) Abandonment of dharma


The caramasloka (Bhagavad-gita 18.66), beginning with sarva-dharman partityajya, has been interpreted differently by these two schools. According to the Northern school, abandonment of the dharmas does not mean giving up all the duties ordained in the karma-kanda portion of the Vedas. It means abandoning the desire for the fruits of those actions and abandoning the idea that those deeds can yield fruits independent of the grace of God. Even one who surrenders to the Lord (prapanna) cannot therefore abandon the duties enjoined by the scriptures, since they are the commandments of God. So says the Lord Himself:


srutismrti mamaivajne yastamullanghya vartate
ajnacchedi mama drohi madbhakto 'pi na vaisnavah


The srutis and the smrtis constitute My own command. He who violates them will be going against My commandment. I consider him as a traitor against Me. Although he may call Himself My devotee, he is not a Vaisnava. (Visnudharma 76.31)


The Southern school contends that since the Lord Himself asked Arjuna to give up all dharmas and surrender to Him, it is imperative that a prapanna be exempt from doing any kind of dharma. The word sarva-dharman as it appears in the caramasloka must therefore be taken in its full force and significance. They cite the example of Draupadi in support of this conclusion. As long as Draupadi tried to defend herself while being disrobed by Duhsasana in the open court, Lord Krsna did not interfere. But as soon as she threw up her hands in despair, gave up all effort (dharma) and made the following appeal, He sprang into action:


sankhacaragadapane! dvarakanilayacyuta!
govinda pundarikaksa! raksa mam saranagatam

O wielder of the conch, discus and club! O denizen of Dvaraka! O unfailing One! Govinda! Lotus-eyed One! Save me as I have surrendered to you![5]

Likewise, the story of the Elephant King (Srimad-Bhagavatam, Eighth Canto) is a saga of the efficacy of wholehearted surrender. As long as the elephant was fighting with the crocodile for survival, he did not succeed. The moment he gave up all effort (sarva-dharma) and surrendered to the Lord wholeheartedly, He appeared on the scene. Therefore, sarvadharma-parityaga is the essence of prapatti.


Both these views can be justified. The Northern sect's belief that one has to perform one's ordained duties is quite sustainable. For example, the nitya and naimittika-karmas, such as performing the sandhya and rituals for the departed manes (sraddha), should never be given up even by a prapanna. Cf, deva-pitr-karyabhyam na pramaditavya (Siksavalli). It is said that Sri Ramanuja, who lived to the ripe old age of one hundred and twenty, used to stand up with great difficulty and offer sandhyavandhana every day. The view of the Southern school that a prapanna should not do any other ritual can also be conceded from a different standpoint. It would be more logical to think that a prapanna cannot do any other ritual because he is fully saturated with thoughts of God. Such a person would not be able to do anything at all on his own. He would have to depend upon others even for his day-to-day physical requirements such as bathing, dressing and eating. Such a prapanna would become an introvert and would be totally unaware of what is going on outside. Would such a person really be expected to perform the normal dharmas meant for others? The following verse of Lilasuka (Srikrsnakarnamrta 2.106) may be noted in this connection:

sandhyavandana! bhadramastu bhavate, bho snana! tubhyam namah
bho devah! pitarasca! tarpanavidhau naham ksamah ksamyatam
yatra kvapi nisidya yadavakulottamsasya kamsadvisah
smaram smaram agham harami tadalam manye kimanyena me?


Sandhyvandana, may you keep well! O ablutions, salutations to you! O Gods and Manes, forgive me since I am incapable of propitiating and pleasing you. I will sit somewhere and remove my sins by repeatedly recollecting the Enemy of Kamsa [Krsna] who is the Jewel of the Yadava clan. I think that is enough for me. Of what avail are other things?


Another point concerns the actual interpretation of the sentence, sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja (Bhagavad-gita 18.66). Has one to give up all dharmas to become a prapanna, or does one become a prapanna and then give up all dharmas? The words of the text seem to suggest that giving up all dharmas is a preparatory stage to becoming a �prapanna. In actual fact, however, all duties are given up only when one becomes a �prapanna. The solution to the puzzle lies in the sentence's interpretation. This same problem can be found in Sanksrit grammar - which act precedes which in sentences such as mukham vyadaya svapiti (He opens his mouth and sleeps)? Does one open the mouth first and then sleep, or does one fall asleep and then open the mouth? The latter is the correct answer, but the former is used in everyday speech.


There need also be no doubt as to whether Arjuna was a prapanna because in the second canto of the Gita itself we have evidence to the effect that Arjuna did surrender to the Lord: sisyate 'ham sadhi mam tvam prapannan (I am your disciple and have surrendered to you. Kindly instruct me). It is thus clear that both sects are right, in their own way, in understanding the need or otherwise to perform dharmas in the case of prapannas. There is therefore no controversy.




Thus far we have examined nine of the eighteen doctrinal differences between the two prominent Srivaisnava sects of South India in an effort to demonstrate that these so-called differences are merely the result of variations in the interpretation of the authoritative texts such as the srutis and smrtis. It must be borne in mind that as far as the philosophy is concerned, it is known as Sri Ramanuja Darsana or Sri-sampradaya only, both sects owing their allegiance to it. The vast and wonderful literature that has been generated by the advocates of their two sects is quite valuable, scholarly, amazing and inspiring. However, their real merit lies in strengthening the Sri-sampradaya from all external criticism and attack. Even today, enormous harm is being done to the tradition by the petty skirmishes indulged in by the advocates of these schools over issues which are relatively minor and trivial and which, for the most part, are more of an academic nature than of any substantial value to the ordinary practitioner.


To conclude, I would like to briefly consider a different issue, which has also become very important in the post-Ramanuja period: that is the position of Sri Krsna. 'Is He one of the avataras of Lord Visnu or is He the (avatarin) Supreme Being Himself?' is the question we might ask. The Bhagavata-Purana has glorified Sri Krsna as the Supreme Being, declaring: ete camsakalah pumsah krsnastu bhagavan svayam (Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.3.28). 'All others [i.e. other incarnations] are only fractions of partial manifestations of the Supreme Being. Krsna is the Supreme Being Himself.'


The Srivaisnava system, perpetuated by the mystic saints, slvars and acaryas accepts Sri Krsna as the most affable and perfect incarnation of Visnu. He is the purnavatara. However, it does not accord to Krsna the status of being the source of all other incarnations. Sri Krsna is therefore considered to be an avatara of Visnu, not the avatarin Himself. However, theological schools such as the Suddhadvaita of Sri Vallabhacarya and the Acintyabhedabheda of Sri Krsna Caitanya declare that even Visnu is an amsa of Lord Sri Krsna. The Gitagovinda[6] of Jayadeva is perhaps the most eloquent literary poem that proclaims in lilting songs the supremacy of Lord Krsna. The Bhagavata-Purana, to which all these songs attach the greatest importance, declares this fact, they argue. Brahma-Samhita is another scripture revered by the followers of Sri Krsna Caitanya Mahaprabhu. According to this tradition, He acquired the fifth chapter of this important text from the sdikesava temple in Tamil Nadu, South India, during His visit there. The opening verse of this text declares Sri Krsna as the Supreme Godhead, the prime cause of all causes:


isvarah paramah krsnah sac-cid-ananda-vigrahah
anadir adir govindah sarva-karana-karanam


Why should there be this difference in the standpoints of Ramanuja and those of other acaryas, although they are all Vaisnavas? The cause can be traced to the importance given to the Bhagavata and Brahma-samhita in ancient times and the interpretation of the crucial verses mentioned above. While the followers of Ramanuja see the Astaksari-mantra, centering around Sriman-Narayana, as the mulamantra (being the vyapaka mantra),[7the other Vaisnava schools have formed their own mulamantras, which centre around Lord Krsna,[8] for sacred chanting and meditation.


However, this does not, and need not, bring in any controversy between the various theology schools that have developed after Ramanuja. Interpretation of the texts and the traditional beliefs and practices over the centuries have paved the way for the various sects and schools. The strength of the Vedanta system lies in its mosaic and the capacity to accommodate different points of view which, of course, do not lead to any serious area of dissent and discord among the votaries. Samanvaya, or synthesis, is the genius of the Indian mind. The Rg Veda declares with a trumpet voice that 'what exists is one, although wise men call it by different names'.[9] While variety is the art of nature, unity is the heart of God.




1 Vide Brahmasutrabhasya 1.1.1.


2 Agamapramanya (GOS), p. 66.


3 Cf. bhedah svamikrpa phala-anyagatisu srivyatyupayatvayoh"tadvatsalya-daya-niruktivacasoh nyase e tatkartari "dharmatyaga-virodhayoh svavihitake nyasanga hetutvayoh"prayascittavidhau tadiyabhajane 'nuvyapti-kaivalyayoh


4 Cf. 9.29: samo'ham sarvabhutesu na me dvesyo 'sti na priyah


5 Vide Mahabharata, Sabha.


6 Cf. dasakrtikrte krsnaya tubhyam namah (1.1.12).


7 The mantra that speaks about the all-pervasiveness (vyapti) of Lord Narayana (who is vyapaka). According to the tradition, Narayana is the 'one who is the ultimate goal and abiding place of all the living beings' (narah ayanam yasya sah) and also the 'one in whom all the living beings abide' (naranam ayanam).

8 For the followers of Sri Vallabhacarya, who advocated the Suddhadvaita system, srikrsnah saranam mama is the chief mantra.


9 Cf 1.164.46: ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti.




Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Goswami Thakura (trans). Sri Brahma-samhita. Bombay: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1994.


Bowes, Prathima. Between Cultures. New Delhi: Allied Publishers Private Limited, 1976.


Das Gupta, Dr. S. N. History of Indian Philosophy (Vol. III). New Delhi: Motilal �Banarsidass, 1991.


Gambhirananda, Swami (trans.). Brahmasutra of Badarayana with Sankara's Commentary. Calcutta: Advaita Ashram, 1993.


Narasimhachary, Dr. M. 'sgamapramanya of Yamunacarya (Critical Edition and Study)' in Gaekwad Oriental Series 160. Baroda, 1976.


Tapasyananda, Swami. Bhakti Schools of Vedanta. Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1990 (Second edition).


Varadachari, Dr. V. Two Great Acaryas: Vedanta Desika and Manavala Mamuni. Madras: Prof. M. Rangacharya Memorial Trust, 1983.