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Ramanuja – Hindu sage likened to St. Thomas Aquinas

English: sage Ramanujacharya's statue

Ramanujacharya’s statue – Wikipedia

Ramanuja (1017-1137 CE) was a leading Hindu philosopher born in the Brahmin caste. Legend has it that he learned the Vedas when he was a baby, only eight days old.¹

Ramanuja was influential to the Bhakti movement, which favors devotion over dry, conceptual philosophy.

Apparently Ramanuja hoped to visit another prominent Hindu philosopher, Yamunacharya, but the latter died before they could compare notes.²

Ramanuja sees the Vedas as authoritative. If you believe in one part, you have to believe in all of the Veda. In other words, he is a religious fundamentalist who accepts the social stratification and misogyny spelled out and reinforced by the Veda.³

Believing that Vishnu is supreme, as a Vaishnavite (follower of Vishnu)  Ramanuja challenges the views of Sankara and the Saivites (followers of Siva). Wikipedia suggests that their respective positions on the soul in relation to ultimate reality are the same.

Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita school and Shankara’s Advaita school are both nondualism Vedanta schools,[19][46] both are premised on the assumption that all souls can hope for and achieve the state of blissful liberation; in contrast, Madhvacharya believed that some souls are eternally doomed and damned.4

Contrary to what Wikipedia says, Ramanuja develops a form of monism that differs from Shankara’s. Ramanuja’s system of Visistadvaita is widely recognized as qualified monism. Specifically, Ramanuja challenges Sankara’s claim that only the Brahman is real and individuality is illusory (maya). For Ramanuja, the Brahman is real and beyond pain and suffering. However, individual souls (jivas) emerging from and ultimately resting within the Brahman are also real.

English: Statue of Adi Shankara at his Samadhi...

Statue of Adi Shankara at his Samadhi Mandir in Kedarnath, India. Photo taken by Priyanath – Wikipedia

For Ramanuja the Brahman is beyond the law of karma but the individual soul (jiva) is not and must answer to the wheel of rebirth. Accordingly, the jiva experiences the pleasure and pain of earthly life. And liberation from samsara, the round of rebirth due to karma, is gained through individual effort as well as from the grace of Vishnu.

Ultimately, the individual soul rests within but does not become absorbed by the Brahman or, for that matter, simply disappear.

As a consequence of his religious and philosophical innovations, Ramanuja was persecuted by a rival Hindu who happened to be a Saivite ruler.

The prominent Indologist Wendy Doniger calls Ramanuja “probably the single most influential thinker of devotional Hinduism.”5

Others have likened Ramanuja to the 13th-century Christian thinker, St. Thomas Aquinas. These two thinkers may appear similar on an abstract, intellectual level but any similarity after that becomes problematic. First of all, the alleged truths of Christ and the Veda at many points are incompatible.

Second, from my perspective the religious experiences respectively offered by Hinduism and Christianity (Catholicism specifically) differ.6

Instead of yielding to the pressure of political correctness and glossing over perceived differences, it is far more fruitful to talk about religion and religious experience as we really see and feel it.

Otherwise, sugar-coated religious dialog and ostentatious conferences are a huge waste of time and money. They may help to connect a circle of established or trending pundits. But backslapping, mutual admiration, fancy hotels and superficial proclamations will never replace any kind of true understanding.

STATIONTOSTATION lp album cover by David Bowie – Wikipedia

¹ This seems pretty far fetched. It reminds me of stories about Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, emerging from the womb playing air piano with his baby fingers.

² If both were so spiritually achieved, you’d think that earthly death wouldn’t matter and they could communicate directly, soul to soul.

³ For those claiming that the Vedas do not advocate caste, I urge you to look at the Vedic creation myth.


5 Ibid.

6 Perhaps only those who cannot discern a difference in numinosity between these two paths would believe they are phenomenologically equivalent. Some may see this as a biased or backward statement but if a person, like myself, experiences real differences among different religious paths, another’s inexperience, insensitivity or preference for political correctness will not change that fact. This issue has recently appeared in relation to some Catholics’ view of yoga.

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English: sage Ramanujacharya's statue

Ramanujacharya’s statue (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Monotheists, especially fundamentalist Christians, sometimes criticize Hinduism by saying it’s polytheistic. This kind of critique, however, doesn’t necessarily hold up. The actual picture in Indian philosophy is far more complicated than the one painted by some Christian fundamentalists.¹ So a critique of Hinduism based on the idea of monotheism can – and should be – further examined.²

A good example of the complexity of Hinduism can be found in the difference between two leading Indian sages and philosophers, Sankara (788-820) and Ramanuja (1017–1137).

Ramanuja founded the Visistadvaita school of philosophy. Ramanuja’s school challenged Sankara’s belief that only the Brahman is real and individuality is illusory (maya).

For Ramanuja, the Brahman is real and beyond pain and suffering. But individual souls (jivas) emerging from and ultimately resting within the Brahman are also real. While the Brahman is beyond the law of karma, the individual soul (jiva) is not. As a result, the jiva experiences the pleasure and pain of earthly life.

Liberation from samsara, the round of rebirth due to karma, is gained through individual effort as well as the grace of God (Vishnu).

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Further reading:

  • P. D. Devanandan, The Concept of Maya, London: Lutterworth Press, 1950.

On the Web:

¹ This is not to say that Christianity and Hinduism are necessarily the same. I don’t believe they are. But my reasons for saying this are mostly phenomenological. Unfortunately, I can’t share my personal experience with others, so I usually don’t say too much about this. I don’t want any “all religions are the same” people getting upset and judgmental over my simply stating what I’ve experienced. If they can’t see a difference, it’s usually not worth the hassle.

² Similarly, one can critique an argument about the existence of God while still believing in God.

³ JSTOR may be accessed from university and many public libraries. It’s also an app at Facebook.

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A water drop

A water drop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For Hindus Brahman is a concept that describes an eternal and entirely impersonal Ultimate Reality. In the Sanksrit, Brahman is the neuter form of Brahma. Many believe this Hindu idea is equivalent to the Jewish, Islamic and Christian conception of an absolute, single God. And the many gods and goddesses of Hinduism are said to be different manifestations of the one, all-pervading ground of Brahman.

The equivalency of the Hindu Brahman with the Middle Eastern monotheistic view of God may seem valid, especially when viewed from the surface. But a closer look reveals that, in some schools of Hinduism, the Brahman differs from the idea of God as depicted in other monotheistic religions. Sankara, for instance, believed the individual soul can merge and become one with the Brahman. Ramanuja, on the other hand, believed in the permanence of individual souls. Somewhat like Ramanuja’s interpretation, in orthodox Middle Eastern religions one doesn’t merge with but engages in a reverential “I-thou” relationship with God.

But the line between these two ways of understanding the individual and God is often blurred. Unorthodox Middle Eastern religions, for instance, exhibit beliefs similar to Sankara’s idea of the Brahman (e.g. Sufism). And the language used by Catholic saints such as St. Faustina Kowalska often approaches the idea of absolute unity, where a saint tries to be totally immersed in the Godhead.

English: Ramakrishna Paramhansacommons:Image:R...

English: Ramakrishna Paramhansacommons:Image:Ramakrishna.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the same time, Catholic saints differ from some Hindu saints on one very important point. Catholics reflect and participate in the Divine glory without claiming to be identical to God’s all-pervading power and wisdom. This particular kind of humility is not found in some branches of Hinduism. For example, Hindu holy men like Sri Ramakrishna claim they are avatars, which is something very different from being a mere saint. Even the highest saint in Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, the Virgin Mary, is said to have been born without taint of original sin and, as such, reflects the Holy Trinity. But, contrary to the Hindu avatar, she does not claim to be identical to God

This much being said, many believe that Jesus Christ was a man who believed he was equal to God. But this claim differs from other religions in that Christians – that is, followers of Christ – do not believe that this kind of ultimate identity with God is possible for themselves. For Christians, Christ is unique. The one and only Son. All Christians (except for the Virgin Mary) are born with the taint of original sin. So they generally see themselves as works in progress instead of liberated, enlightened or incarnated super-beings.

In short, the Christian loves and has an ongoing relationship with God, but doesn’t believe him or herself to be God.

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Created with images found in Wikipedia. All of...

Image via Wikipedia

The term mysticism has a wide variety of meanings.

In ancient Greece an initiate (mystes) was lead into a mystery, a highly esoteric process where initiates swore to secrecy.

Today mysticism generally refers to surpassing worldly sensations, thoughts and desires, which are temporarily replaced or infused with otherworldly experiences, knowledge or graces.

However, this kind of definition falls short because we also have romantic or nature mysticism.

Perhaps at its highest level mysticism refers to an intimate spiritual relationship – others say union – with God or the divine.

Although not appearing in the Bible or in the writings of the Church Fathers, the related terms “mystical,” “mystagogy” and “mystagogue” explain one’s initiation into the essentially mysterious sacraments of the Christian Church.

It’s often said that Christian mysticism differs from Eastern mysticism in that Christianity emphasizes a relationship between the individual and God, rather than a loss of individuality and absorption into, or total identification with, the divine.

But this difference, in practice, is likely one of degree, character, or perhaps a developmental difference.

There seem to be exceptions, at least on the conceptual level, to a general distinction between the ideas of Christian relationship and Eastern absorption.  For example, some Christian saints request in their prayers to be entirely immersed in Jesus’ divine glory. This idea of immersion sounds very Eastern.

And the Hindu school of Visistadvaita (founded by Ramanuja) maintains that a sense of individuality rests within the ultimate and eternal, and idea which sounds very Christian.

To further complicate matters, , even within a given tradition mystics talk of a diversity of realms and numinous experiences. So it seems unlikely that the experiences accessed by mystics within different traditions are identical.

Some writers and pop gurus try to condense different kinds of mysticism into a simple formula, such as “union with the divine.”

In fact, most spiritual seekers usually try to fit very different ideas about mysticism into their own particular belief system.

Filipmoroz adds:

In my opinion mystics, who always need the adjective of religion they came from while described, did achieved such level of union with divine that does not need religion anymore. Religion needs words meanwhile their level of union does not. » Source

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