Considered to be the most important philosopher-saint of India, Sri Ramanujacharya revitalised Indian philosophy so much so that every aspect of Hinduism has been influenced by his work. A philosophical saint, he was a social reformer too, and preached Bhakti [Devotional cult] in the 12th century.
His early life is said to have a lot of influence on his teachings. It is said, during the early phase of sanyasa ashram [life of austerity], when while returning back to the temple after taking bath in the nearby river, he encountered a woman scavenger sweeping the path that led to the temple, angry at her, Ramanujacharya lashed at her scornfully and said, “Move! Move away! Do not to defile the temple environment.”
Fearing his anger, the woman pleaded, “Your holiness! The environment is all-pervasively sacred; you please tell me where to move so that the atmosphere is not defiled because of my presence.” Standing with folded hands, the woman indirectly made him [Ramanuj] the advaita [Monism] realise the philosophy of oneness of Brahma and everything else the Universe is composed of.
Deeply stunned by her reply, Ramanujacharya fell flat on her feet, saying, “Devi [goddess-like woman]! You taught me today what the supreme truth of all- pervading Brahma is. You will ever dwell in my life as a Guru.”
And, then on, what Ramanuja-charya gained from his Guru, the woman scavenger, became the basis of his teachings and conduct throughout his life. In his later years, the saint who had the habit of taking bath in the river, when due to physical weakness and old age was unable to walk on his own, used to take the support of Brahmins while going to the river for bath; and, was accompanied by Shudras [low-castes] while returning from there. The disciples were quite surprised by their Gurus quaint behavior, and one day, one of the inquisitive disciples asked him, “Your holiness! What is the use of taking such bath, when you finally get defiled by coming in the contact with these Shudras?”
The Acharya, grinned and said, “Bathing purifies my physical body, but not mind. The thought of being superior to others is what ego is all about, and it is this ego which is the greatest obstacle in the path of progress of mankind. After cleaning the dirt of physical body by bathing, I purge the mind of ego by coming in contact with the Shudras. And reflects that, neither I am superior to anybody, nor anybody is inferior to me, and this feeling eventually fills me with the divine pleasure.’
– Rajesh Pathak