It is commonly believed that Ramanujacharya was born in the small township of Shri Perumbudur, located on the outskirts of modern day Chennai, in 1017 AD. His Brahmin parents were known for their scholarship and learning. The family might have been bilingual, fluent in both the local vernaculars, which is Tamil, and the language of scholars, Sanskrit. Ramanujacharya displayed prodigious intellect from a young age. He was still in his teenage years when his family moved to the city of Kancheepuram, where he started studying Vedas under Yadavaprakasha.
At first Yadavaprakasha appeared pleased to have a student as brilliant and dedicated as Ramanujacharya, but disagreements on the issue of proper interpretation of the Upanishads soon drove a wedge between them. With his convincing style, Ramanujacharya was able to convince many of his fellow students about the correctness of his religious philosophy. Instead of being pleased at the brilliance of his student, Yadavaprakasha became jealous. Eventually Ramanujacharya had to leave the school and he became engaged in manual service at a temple of Lord Vishnu.
Around this time, the great sage Yamunacharya had been looking for a successor to take his place as the head of the Mutt at Srirangam, as he himself was very old and close to the end of his life. Having already heard of Ramanujacharya through his disciples, he made up his mind to install Ramanujacharya in his place. Yamunacharya’s trusted disciple left to fetch Ramanujacharya to Srirangam. However, by the time Ramanujacharya arrived, Yamunacharya had already died. Ramanujacharya was saddened by the death of Yamunacharya, as he had been questing for a teacher for all his life.
According to traditional accounts, when Ramanujacharya was taken to the body of Yamunacharya, he noticed that the teacher’s three fingers were folded into the palm of his right hand. When he inquired from his disciples, he was told that the three folded fingers symbolised the three unfulfilled wishes that the teacher had. One of the three wishes was that a commentary on the Brahma Sutra should be written. When Ramanujacharya pledged that he would devote his life in fulfilling the teacher’s last three wishes, the three fingers uncurled one after the other.
The crowd at the cremation ground took this as a sign of Ramanujacharya being the true heir to Yamunacharya. Mahapurna, who was the senior most disciple of Yamunacharya, supervised Ramanujacharya’s initiation into the Shri Vaishnava fold. For sometime, Mahapurna served as a teacher to Ramanujacharya, who soon mastered verses of the Tamil Vaishnava saints. Once the period of his training was over, Ramanujacharya began his life as an independent and self-assured philosopher. He travelled across different parts of the country, and participated in debates on religious philosophy. Many philosophers, from rival schools of thought, whom he defeated in debates, became the followers of his school.
As his fame spread far and wide, Ramanujacharya gained control over many Vaishnava temples, whose rituals he standardised and reformed. To this day, the instructions that he once laid down are considered to be the norm for Vaishnava temples in all parts of the world. According to the Shri Vaishnava tradition, Ramanujacharya authored nine books, all of them in Sanskrit. We learn from the works of his disciples that he used to lecture in Tamil on the verses of the Tamil Vaishnava saints.
He accepts as the word of God, not only the Vedas, but also the Pancaratra, which are the Vaishnava Sanskrit texts dedicated to worship of Vishnu. He also places a similar spiritual importance to the utterances of the Alvars, the Tamil saints of that era who have played central role in the Shri Vaishnava tradition. Ramanujacharya was of the view that truth can only be found if the Vedas are taken as one unified corpus, whose aim is to express a singular doctrine. He felt that the mistake that his opponents were making is that they made interpretations based on isolated portions of the Vedas.
Vishistadvaita recognises the verifiability of the Vedic truth in spiritual experience. It relies on the knowledge that can be gained through sense perception, inference and revelation, while affirming that Lord Vishnu is first and the final cause of everything in the universe. Ramanujacharya has served as in inspiration for the great teachers of Vedanta who followed him – Madhavacharya, Nimbarka, Vallabhacharya and others. Today the Vishishtadvaita philosophy has maximum number of adherents in India, even though a large number of these devotees might be referring to their belief system by a different name.
Ramanujacharya is believed to have died in 1137 AD.