Bhakti in Rāmānuja: Continuities and changes of perspective

(The following is my attempt to make sense of Rāmānuja’s conceptions of bhakti. Comments and criticisms are welcome!)

To Rāmānuja (traditional dates 1017–1137) are attributed, with more or less certainty, a series of Vedāntic works, namely the Śrī Bhāṣya (henceforth ŚrīBh) commentary on the Brahma Sūtra (henceforth UMS), which is his philosophical opus magnum, both in length and philosophical depth, the Gītabhāṣya on the Bhagavadgītā (henceforth BhG), a compendium of his philosophy, the Vedārthasaṅgraha, and two shorter commentaries on the UMS, namely the Vedāntadīpa and the Vedāntasāra.
Beside these works, the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta school, at least since the time of Sudarśana Sūri and Veṅkaṭanātha (also called Vedānta Deśika, traditional dates 1269–1370), recognised Rāmānuja as the author of also three extremely short works (about 3–4 pages each), namely the Śaraṇāgatigadya, the Śrīraṅgagadya and the Vaikuṇṭhagadya, and of a manual of daily worship called Nityagrantha.

The terms bhakti `devotional love’ and bhakta `devotee’ are not very frequent in the ŚrīBh, where they are mentioned slightly more than ten times, a portion of which in quotes (some of which from the BhG). By contrast, the Śaraṇāgatigadya mentions bhakti 19 times in its only 23 sentences, and adds further elements to it (such as Nārāyaṇa instead of Kṛṣṇa as the object of devotion, and the role of prapatti ‘self-surrender’, see immediately below). Does this mean that the Śaraṇāgatigadya is not by Rāmānuja and represents a further stage in the theological thought of Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta? Alternatively, one might suggest that Rāmānuja addressed different audiences in his philosophical and in his religious works. In other words, the difference between the position of the ŚrīBh and that of the Śaraṇāgatigadya could be only due to the fact that the first develops a philosophical discourse about God, whereas the latter enacts the author’s relationship with Him.

In the ŚrīBh, bhakti is the (only) way to make sense of the previous obligations taught in the karma- and in the jñānamārga, which it therefore subsumes. For instance, the next two passages show how bhakti leads to the cessation of nescience and results in the attainment of brahman/God.

hṛdayaguhāyām upāsanaprakāram, upāsanasya ca parabhaktirūpatvam, upāsīnasya avidyā-vimokapūrvakaṃ brahmasamaṃ brahmānubhavaphalaṃ ca upadiśya upasaṃhṛtam | (ad 1.2.23)

I have taught and now sum up the modality of contemplation in the cave of one’s heart, the fact that veneration has the form of supreme bhakti, and the result, being the experience of brahman, which is tantamount to the brahman and is caused by the cessation of nescience in the one who venerates.

The word upāsana is even more clearly connected with the jñānamārga, insofar as Rāmānuja shows how the salvific knowledge which can defeat nescience must consist of upāsana, since a sheer cognition would not be enough (see Marlewicz 2010):

atrocyate – yad uktam – avidyānivṛttir eva mokṣaḥ, sā ca brahmavijñānād eva bhavati iti, tad abhyupagamyate. avidyānivṛttaye vedāntavākyair vidhitsitaṃ jñānaṃ kiṃrūpam iti vivecanīyam – kiṃ vākyād vākyārthajñānamātram, uta tanmūlam upāsanātmakaṃ jñānam iti. na tāvat vākyajanyaṃ jñānam […] ato vākyārthajñānād anyad eva dhyānopāsanādiśabdavācyaṃ jñānaṃ vedāntavākyair vidhitsatam (ŚrīBh ad 1.1.1)

In this regard we need to answer [to the Advaitins]: We accept what you said, namely that salvation consists just in the cessation of nescience and that this occurs due to the cognition of the brahman.
It is to be discussed what this knowledge intended to be enjoined by means of the statements of the Upaniṣads for the purpose of ceasing the nescience is like? Is it only the knowledge of the sentence-meaning [arising] from the sentence? Or else the knowledge which has the nature of the devout contemplation (upāsana), based on this (sentence-meaning)? Regarding the first alternative — this knowledge is not originating [merely] from the sentence [\dots] Therefore, the Upaniṣadic sentences enjoin something different than the knowledge of the sentence-meaning, namely a cognition expressed by words such as meditation and devout contemplation.

In the Gītābhāṣya, prapatti is introduced as a preliminary step before bhakti, but so powerful that it can substitute karma- and jñānamārga completely. This move could be due at least also to the second person perspective of the Arjuna-Kṛṣṇa dialogue, which could have oriented Rāmānuja’s understanding of bhakti and prapatti as soteriological means: Arjuna’s desperation makes Kṛṣṇa soothe him by suggesting him an immediate path.

The role of bhakti in the Śaraṇāgatigadya is in harmony with its role in the Gītābhāṣya, namely a preliminary step before undertaking bhaktiyoga. However, the Śaraṇāgatigadya has been traditionally interpreted as a narrative about Rāmānuja’s own act of śaraṇāgati and as enjoining primarily śaraṇāgati. Why?

In fact, the Śaraṇāgatigadya presents an interesting conundrum: It contains most of the themes which will later become standard in the later treatments of bhakti and prapatti, but in a poetic form.
The elements which are deemed to influence for a long time the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta school, in particular, are:

  • The presence of different ways of addressing God, as attested by the endless series of attributes in vv. 1, 5 etc. and explicitly thematised in v. 7 (as against the Northern Indian way to venerate God under one aspect, e.g., as child or as spouse)
  • The role of Śrī as mediator: the author does not address directly Nārāyaṇa, but first her and only once her intermediation has taken place does he address Nārāyaṇa.
  • The localisation of God, in this case in Śrīraṅga (see v. 19).
  • The connection of kaiṅkarya `servitude’ and rati `love’ as opposed to a pure ritualistic servitude or to a differently flavoured love (vātsalya `tender love towards one’s child’, etc.).
  • The reuse (non literal in the case of the Śaraṇāgatigadya, literal in later texts) of BhG 18.66 (later known as the caramaśloka `the final verse’) in the context of taking refuge.
  • The reuse of other verses of the BhG (see vv. 13–15).
  • Prapatti that appears to be performed as a speech act (performed in vv. 1–2 in regard to Śrī and then in v. 5 in regard to Nārāyaṇa) which is not repeatable (v. 6 in fact speaks of it in the past and v. 16 displays what was wished for in v. 1 as already accomplished).
  • The author’s feeling the need to ask God to be forgiven for his endless shortcomings (in a way which reminds one of Yāmuna’s Stotraratna and of the Āḻvārs.
  • The seeming predominance of prapatti over bhakti (partly against Rāmānuja’s other works, see above and below).
  • The fact that nothing is needed to perform prapatti apart from the awareness of not having any other way left. One must feel desperate and derelict, with no other possible way left. In the terminology of the Śaraṇāgatigadya one needs to be ananyaśaraṇa `with no other refuge’.

The last element, namely the awareness of one’s wreckedness, was already present in the Āḻvārs’ poems and, more interestingly, also in Yāmuna’s Stotraratna. This brings one back to the complex relation between Rāmānuja and Yāmuna. The latter is addressed with respect twice (once in the maṅgala) in the former’s Vedārthasaṅgraha, but is not mentioned at all in Rāmānuja’s opus magnum, his ŚrīBh, which seems to focus only on inner-Vedānta issues (more on the “isolation” of the ŚrīBh below).

The most significant element to be discussed in regard to the role of the Śaraṇāgatigadya within Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta is the second to last one. Prapatti is clearly omnipresent in the Śaraṇāgatigadya, but nowhere is it said that it is a different path as bhakti (in fact, the sequence from v. 6 to vv. 13 to 15 appears to imply that bhakti must be accomplished once one has done prapatti). Thus, prapatti remains a preliminary element providing an easy entrance into bhakti, which remains the only salvific path. The later and typically Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta idea of prapatti as an independent path and as the only feasible one, alternative to the unrealistic path of bhakti, appears not to be there yet.

The first person perspective in the Śaraṇāgatigadya
Yāmuna’s Stotraratna is a hymn to God written from the first-person perspective and including the literary persona of its author as a deeply troubled devout, who needs help from God. Probably elaborating on this motif, the Śaraṇāgatigadya presents itself as an invocation to God by a similar kind of believer. The interesting innovation in this case is the fact that the author speaks first to Śrī and then to Nārāyaṇa and, more importantly, that both answer him. Śrī is addressed with many attributes, elaborating on her various aspects (v. 1). The author asks her to let him take refuge (v.2). Śrī accords that with only a few words (vv. 3–4). Next come long invocations (vv. 5–17, especially v. 5) to Nārāyaṇa, containing the request to take refuge in God and then to become a bhakta. In v. 5, God is addressed with a seemingly endless series of attributes, covering approximately 20 lines of Sanskrit, before the crisp request of taking refuge. Similarly, the author describes at length his inadequateness (v. 16). Are all these words just ornamental? Probably not. The long process of uttering God’s attributes and one’s shortcomings might be itself part of the salvific process of becoming aware of His greatness and of one’s inadequacy. In other words, by painfully listing one’s shortcomings the author (and, perhaps, his ideal audience) becomes aware of their all-pervasive nature, and of the fact that they are not emendable. The author says, in fact, that he will continue performing evil acts even in the future (v. 10) and that he therefore absolutely needs God’s help. Nārāyaṇa, unlike Śrī, answers at length (vv. 17–24). The answer is ultimately positive: the author’s desire will be fulfilled (v. 21). He should not doubt it (v. 22–23). Still, Nārāyaṇa comes to this positive result after having Himself enumerated the author’s shortcomings (in a list longer than the author’s one). That is, the wish is ultimately fulfilled, but not automatically and as the result of a compassion that Nārāyaṇa shows to be even more necessary than the author had thought. The narrative and dialogical structure of the text appear, therefore, to have a profound impact on the doctrine propounded, namely, prapatti. Without this structure, the text would occupy only a few lines, stating that once one has obtained prapatti through God’s mercy, one can become a bhakta. Within the structure, however, the same content gets a different connotation, insofar as both the request(s) and the response are delayed enough to show the difficulty of what has just been requested and the wondrous nature of God’s compassion.

Bhakti plays in the ŚrīBh an exclusive role and śaraṇāgati is not even mentioned. Apart from this fundamental difference, many elements in the Śaraṇāgatigadya are altogether absent in the ŚrīBh. These differences have been until now interpreted (see Lester and, for a different and more cautious opinion, Raman) as evidences against Rāmānuja’s authorship of the Śaraṇāgatigadya. At the same time, the Śaraṇāgatigadya is perfectly integrated in the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta thought, both insofar as it summarises the key elements in its doctrine of prapatti and insofar as it contains several elements already evoked in the Āḻvārs’ hymns and even in Yāmuna’s ones. It is, in this sense, not surprising that Sudarśana Sūri and even more Veṅkaṭanātha saw in the Śaraṇāgatigadya a key text within their tradition (Veṅkaṭanātha’s commentary on the Śaraṇāgatigadya covers 50 pages, whereas the ones on the other gadyas only a few pages each). The case of the Śaraṇāgatigadya, in the sense, rather shows the relative isolation of the ŚrīBh from Śrī Vaiṣṇavism. This text lays the metaphysical foundations of the Viśiṣṭādvaita school, but remained distant from its devotional aspects (for instance, unlike the Gītābhāṣya and the Vedārthasaṅgraha, it does not salute Yāmuna in the initial maṅgala and rather evokes previous Vedānta teachers). Bhakti is discussed within the ŚrīBh as the only way to reach God, but from a detached, third-person perspective. The existential dimension of the difficulties hidden in this ideal picture start coming to the foreground in the Gītabhāṣya (still written from a third person perspective, but incorporating also the second-person perspective of Arjuna’s and Kṛṣṇa’s dialogue) and then more incisively so in the first person perspective of the Śaraṇāgatigadya.

Comments and discussions are welcome. Be sure you are making a point and contributing to the discussion.

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2 thoughts on “Bhakti in Rāmānuja: Continuities and changes of perspective

  1. Hi Elisa,
    This is very interesting! Thank you for posting this and I agree with you that prapatti as an alternative to bhakti is not there yet in the Gadyatraya. In the opening of the Vaikunthagadya, Ramanuja praises Yamuna and says that he, Ramanuja, presents in the Gadyatraya the gem called bhaktiyoga from Yamuna’s teaching. Desika tries to account for this by arguing that bhaktiyoga here is the result of prapatti that Ramanuja teaches in the whole Gadyatraya.
    Your observation on the first person perspective is also very thought-provoking. I think Tiruvaymoli 6.10.10 shows parallel elements: the idea of Sri as mediator, the hopelessness of the speaker, the localization of the Lord, and so on. These elements are further emphasized in commentaries on the TVM.
    Moreover, the poetic literature in this tradition seems to have its own stream of development, one separate from that of Visistadvaita Vedanta philosophy.
    I am looking forward to seeing more what your thoughts on bhakti and prapatti are.
    Best wishes,

    • Dear Manasicha, thanks for these interesting comments. I will copy here Ayyangar’s translation of TVM 6.10.10 for the benefit of other readers:

      Oh, Resident of Tiruveṅkaṭam, reverently sought by the peerless Amarars
      And sages in their bunches, on Your winsome chest inheres
      The Divine Mother who from a flower emerged, ever saying that
      From You she shall not for a moment be apart;
      Of incomparable glory; You are the Lord of all the three worlds,
      And at Your feet lovely, this vassal squarely takes refuge, with no other hold.

      I have emphasised the three elements you aptly pointed out. As you also pointed out, Piḷḷāṉ’s commentary makes explicit what was perhaps only a poetic move in the verses, namely God’s residing on that place, the mediator’s role of Śrī and the poet’s lack of other options (see pp. 280–281 in Carman and Narayanan).
      I will certainly post again here and on Academia about bhakti, and I very much look forward for your own results about prapatti! Thanks again!