Ramanuja was born on Vaishakh Shukla Paksha, Shashthi, 1074, Vikram Samvat corresponding to 1017 A.D of Gregorian calendar in Shriperumbudur of Tamilnadu province of Bharat. According to astrological calculations, the sun was in the zodiacal sign of Cancer. His parents were Asuri Keshava and Kantimati, both from aristocratic Brahmin families. Ramanuja passed his childhood days in Shriperumbudur, the village of his birth. At the age of 16, he was married to Rakshakambal.
Only four months after his wedding, Ramanuja’s father was struck with a severe illness and died. Upon his father’s death, Ramanuja became head of the household and decided to move to Kanchi, a holy city famed for its scholars and magnificent Temples.
Shortly after that, Ramanuja opened a small school at his home, and in no time, many people began to come to him to hear his devotional discourses. The living entity, Ramanuja taught, is a particle of Godhead, and as such, his position is to serve the complete whole. He said that as the hand is part of the body and thus a servant of the body, similarly, the living entity is part of the Supreme, and thus his constitutional position is to serve the Supreme.
Ramanuja’s philosophy became known as vishishtadwaita or qualified non-dualism. Accordingly, the living entities are believed to be qualitatively one with the Supreme and, at the same time, quantitatively different. Ramanuja asserted that the quantitative difference means that the fragmentary parts of the Supreme are dependent on the Supreme, but they cannot become the Supreme.
His philosophy stated that there could never be knowledge of an unqualified object; knowledge necessarily points to an object as characterized in some way. Ramanuja never admitted to an attributeless, undifferentiated Brahman, but rather a Brahman, which is an attribute of a greater reality: Godhead Himself. He reasoned that as the living entities are individual personalities, so too is the Supreme a personality-the Ultimate Personality.
Ramanuja further reasoned that if illusion could cover the identity of the Supreme, then illusion was greater than Godhead. Therefore he asserted that we are eternally individual personalities, and the Supreme is eternally the Supreme Personality, but we are sometimes subject to illusion due to our finite nature.
Ramanuja also accepted the theory of transformation. Neither the material world nor the living entities are conceived of as being independent of the Supreme Personality in the system of vishishtadwaita philosophy. The living entities are a different manifestation of the Supreme due to their being endowed with free will, whereas the material energy is manifest directly under the will of the Supreme. The free will of the living entity is an all-important factor since that free will is considered to be the basic principle of reciprocal relations between Godhead and the living entity.
Ramanuja presented the living entities’ relationship with Godhead as being one of eternal service. According to Ramanuja, when the living entities are freed from the illusions produced by the material energy by the method of devotion and natural love of God, like the dealings between an affectionate servant and his master, then the soul enters the spiritual sky known as Vaikuntha. Once having reached the Vaikuntha world, the soul engages in eternal service to the Supreme Person, Narayana (Vishnu). Ramanuja daily imparted this sublime message to his listeners.
The fame of Ramanuja continued to spread far and wide. One day as Ramanuja sat in the solitude of his study, a venerable saint named Yamunacharya came to his door for alms. Extending his full courtesy, Ramanuja welcomed the saint into his home. Ramanuja learned that the Yamuna was from Shri Rangam, the famous Temple of Vishnu. In the course of their discussion, Ramanuja soon realized that Yamunacharya was a qualified spiritual master of the science of devotion. Overwhelmed with ecstasy and jubilation, Ramanuja fell at his feet and asked to be accepted as his disciple.
Yamuna instantly raised Ramanuja up from the floor and, embracing him with deep love, said, “My child, I am blessed today by seeing your devotion to God. May you live a long and fruitful life, always being intent on the service of Narayana, the Personality of Godhead.”
Ramanuja then circumambulated his guru to invoke auspiciousness, and Yamuna left for Shri Rangam.
Now more than ever, Ramanuja preached the doctrine of devotion with strength and conviction. Then one day, a messenger came from Shri Rangam and informed Ramanuja that his guru was ill and on the verge of death.
Ramanuja immediately departed for Shri Rangam but was not able to reach there in time. Shortly before Ramanuja arrived, Yamuna left his body and entered the blissful realm of Vaikuntha.
Crossing-the river Kaveri, Ramanuja reached the island on which the Temple of Shri Rangam was located and went directly to the place where his guru was lying. Surrounded by a group of his disciples, Yamuna lay on a bed with his eyes closed, arms outstretched at his sides, and his face shining as if immersed in thoughts of infinite beauty.
Momentarily, everyone’s attention focused on Ramanuja as he entered the room and came to sit by the side of his guru. Tears of love filled his eyes, and he wept, his heart feeling great separation from his master. The left hand of Yamuna was poised in the yoga posture for peace, with three fingers extended and the thumb and forefinger joined together at the tips. However, his right hand was at his side but clenched into a fist. All the disciples were struck with wonder about their guru’s right-hand position. And none of them could understand the meaning. As everyone looked on in wonder, Ramanuja broke the silence by declaring, “Our guru-the revered Yamunacharya, has three desires that he wishes to be fulfilled. I will protect the people in general who was deluded by impersonalism by bestowing upon them the nectar of surrender at the lotus feet of Narayana.”
As Ramanuja spoke, one of the fingers on Yamuna’s right hand extended outward. Then Ramanuja said, “For the well-being of the people of the world, I will prepare a commentary on the Vedanta sutra that will establish the Supreme Person as the ultimate reality.” At this, a second finger extended, and Ramanuja continued speaking. “And in order to honour Parashara Muni, who in ancient times established the relation between jivas, living entities, and ishwara-the Supreme Person, I shall name one of my disciples who is greatly learned and devoted after him.”
Ramanuja then became silent, and the third finger on the right hand of Yamuna extended. Everyone present was amazed to see this miracle, and from that day on, they all accepted Ramanuja as their leader and guide. Ramanuja continued to live at Shri Rangam for the remainder of his life, and, in due course, all three vows were fulfilled by him.
Although he lived for many years as a successful householder, Ramanuja was destined to accept the path of renunciation. Eventually, he took up the renounced order of life, sannyasa, by going before the Deity in the Temple and praying to be exclusively engaged in the service of Godhead. From that day forward, Ramanuja always wore the symbol of Narayana on his forehead, dressed in saffron cloth, and carried the renunciate’s three-sectioned staff, which signified service to God by body, mind, and words.
Ramanuja established the tenets of devotion so firmly that none could oppose him. Many great and learned scholars came to hear him speak and became his disciples.
Ramanuja continued living at Shri Rangam, serving the Deity of Narayana and imparting enlightenment to whoever came to him until he was 120 years old. One day while worshipping the Deity, he prayed, “Dear God, whatever I could do to preserve the Vedas’ essence, uplift the fallen souls, and establish the shelter of Your lotus feet as the supreme goal in life, I have done. Now my body has grown tired after many years in this world. Kindly allow me to depart from this mortal world and enter Your supreme abode.”
With this prayer, Ramanuja returned to the assembly of his disciples and announced his desire to depart from this world. Thrown into an ocean of grief, the disciples clasped the feet of their guru and petitioned him to remain with them. It is unbearable for us to conceive of the disappearance of your divine form, which is the supreme purifier, the abode of all that is good, the destroyer of all afflictions, and the fountain of unlimited joy. Out of pity for your children, please stay with us for some time longer.
Ramanuja remained on Earth for three more days. To appease their afflicted hearts. Ramanuja spoke his last instructions to those who were most near and dear to him: “Always remain in the company of and serve those souls devoted to Godhead just as you would serve your own spiritual preceptor. Have faith in the teachings of the Vedas and in the words of the great saints. Never become the slave of your senses: always strive to conquer the three great enemies of self-realization: lust, anger, and greed. Worship Narayana and take pleasure in uttering the Holy Names of God as your only refuge. Sincerely serve the Devotees of Godhead: the highest service is done by service to the great Devotees, and one quickly gains the supreme mercy. Remembering these things, you should live happily in this world for the attainment of the next.”
With these departing words, Ramanuja, keeping his head on the lap of Govinda and his mind fixed in a spiritual trance, relinquished his mortal body and entered the realm of Vaikuntha.
Ramanuja was indeed a great theologian and saint whose life and teachings have had a lasting influence on India’s development of theistic thought. Ramanuja’s introduction of the Godhead as the absolute entity with super subjective characteristics and his having pioneered the dawning of devotion to Godhead opened the door for future theistic reformers who would, in due course, fully reveal the highest potential of the soul in a loving relationship with God and His eternal servants.