Srirangam being a Vishnu temple is venerated by all the Vaishnavas, but it has special significance to a group which is known as Srivaishnavas. Badri Seshadri gives us a brief account of the various well known schools of Vaishnavism in India.
Vishnu worship is very old. Vedas talk about Vishnu and so does the early Sangam Tamil works, in particular Paripadal. Srirangam, being a Vishnu temple is venerated by all the Vaishnavas, but it has special significance to a group which is known as Srivaishnavas.
Let me give a brief account of the various well known schools of Vaishnavism in India, based on chronology. All these sects are based on the Vedanta philosophy, which take as their core, three texts namely: the Upanishads, Brahma Sutra and Bhagavat Gita. All these schools also make use of select Puranas and the two Itihasas – Srimad Ramayana and Sri Mahabharata. Over time, many of the branches of Vaishnavism also started using Bhagavata Purana as one of the important texts, and in one case as the primary text over and above Vedas and Upanishads.
Sankara’s various commentaries, in particular to Bhagavat Gita and Vishnu Sahasranama is shown to say that he was basically establishing the primacy of Narayana over other Gods. I will skip this argument here to avoid being a sectarian. The others in the list above were unquivocal in saying Vishnu-Narayana is the ultimate Brahman. In case of Ramananda, it was Rama and in case of the triad Krishna Chaitanya, Vallabhacharya and Sankaradeva, it was Krishna.
The Visistadvaitic school set up by Ramanuja is seen to have its origins in the works of Aazhvars. That is the view of the later Acharyas, though we do not see Ramanuja himself categorically writing anywhere in this manner. This branch of Vaishnavism is known as Srivaishnavism. Here the prefix ‘Sri’ refers to Lakshmi. In Srivaishnava tradition, Sri or Lakshmi is known as ‘Purushakaara’. She is the one who recommends to the ultimate Brahman to give moksha to the Jeevatma. Narayana is both the Upaya and Upeya – that is, the method and also the reward. Here the goal itself is the reward; the reward being the right to serve Narayana in Paramapada.
How does He then become the method? Here, Ramanuja quotes the Charama Sloka from Bhagavat Gita:
sarva-dharman parityajya mam ekam saranam vraja
aham tvam sarva-papebhyo moksayisyami ma sucah
After explaining Karma Yoga, Gnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga to Arjuna, Krishna still finds him completely perplexed as to what to do. It is at this point that Krishna says, ‘just give up on everything – that is even the Karma, Gnana, Bhakti yogas. Just surrender to me, only. I will ensure that your bad karma is destroyed. Do not worry.’
This is the essence of Srivaishnavism, which says while it is possible to attain mukti by following the other methods described in sastras such as Karma, Gnana, Bhakti yoga, an easier and better method is Saranagati or Prapatti or total surrender to Narayana.
Then comes the next aspect, the role of Sri or Lakshmi. Ramanuja is of the view that Sri is never separate from Narayana. She is always with him. Not only that, like a mother, she intervenes on behalf of the Jeevatmas to convince Narayana to give them Moksha.
These aspects are captured in the Gadyatrayam of Ramanuja and subsequently elaborated in detail on various Srivaishnava works, known as ‘Rahasya Literature’. As is always with our tradition, it is not Ramanuja who is said to have discovered all this. He merely provided the framework for this. He learnt all these from his earlier Acharyas, and they learnt this from their Acharyas and so on.
The Srivaishnava tradition considers the first Acharya to be Narayana Himself. His first desciple was Sri or Lakshmi; from there on to Vishvaksena, and from there to Nammazhvar or Satakopan. From Nammazhvar the knowledge is transferred to Nadamuni; from Nadamuni to his grandson Alavandar not directly but via two Acharyas namely Uyyakkondar and Manakkal Nambi. Alavandar heard about Ramanuja and realised immediately that it was going to be Ramanuja who will be providing the basic framework for Srivaishnavism. In his old age, he sent his students to fetch Ramanuja to Srirangam, but before Ramanuja could come to Srirangam, Alavandar died.
The students of Alavandar then taught Ramanuja all that they learnt from Alavandar. However, only one of them, Periya Nambi, is considered to be Acharya of Ramanuja.
Until Ramanuja’s time, the only Vedantic philosophy extant was Advaita of Sankara. Ramanuja also trained himself in Advaita through his first teacher Yadavaprakasa, but Ramanuja is said to have had serious differences of opinion with his teacher on certain finer points.
When Ramanuja reached Srirangam and saw the body of Alavandar, he found three of Alavandar’s fingers folded inwards. Then he investigated and found that Alavandar had three unfinished businesses: writing a Srivaishnava commentary for Brahma sutra, establishing the name of Parasara, author of Vishnu Purana and finally writing a commentary for Nammazhvar’s works.
When Ramanuja promised that he will fulfil these wishes, Alavandar’s fingers straightened. Then Alavandar was laid to rest. Ramanuja then had to learn many things. Periya Nambi was his main Acharya, but he also sent Ramanuja to learn many different things from other students of Alavandar such as Thirukoshtiyur Nambi, Periya Thirumalai Nambi, Thirumaalai Andan, Thiruvaranga Perumal Arayar.
Ramanuja then wrote Sri Bhashya, his version of commentary on Brahma sutras, and also wrote Gita Bhashya. He didn;t write individual commentaries on important Upanishads like Sankara (or Madhva who was to come later), but wrote few notes on various Upanishads as Vedartha Sangraha.
Finding his Sri Bhashya to be quite terse, he wrote two appendices to it, called Vedanta Saara and Vedanta Deepa, explaining some aspects in more detail.
All of Ramanuja’s works are only in Sanskrit. However the tradition claims that he was well versed in the works of Aazhvars and gave fine explanation of various nuances. Though Ramanuja had promised Alavandar that he will fulfil his three vows, he had not started on Nammazhvar’s work. That was left to his students.
When it was time for him to leave this world, he had eight main students. One of them was Thirukkurukai Piran Pillan. Pillan reminded Ramanuja the need to write his commentary on Thiruvaymozhi of Nammazhvar. But at that time, Ramanuja had just completed his Sri Bhashya commentary and he was 99 years old then! Ramanuja then asked Pillan himself to write the commentary. Pillan wrote the first commentary on Thiruvaymozhi, and it is called 6000 padi.
Kooraththazvar, another important student of Ramanuja had two sons. They were named Parasara Bhatta and Vedavyasa Bhatta.
Parasara Bhatta wrote a commentary on Vishnu Sahasranama. His important student was Nanjiyar. He wrote the 9000 padi commentary on Thiruvaymozhi. His student Nampillai then wrote his commentary on Thiruvaymozhi. Rather, Vadakku Thiruvitippillai put to writing what Nampillai recited. This commentary is considered the ultimate commentary and is known in Tamil as ‘eedu’. It is also known as 36,000 padi. After Nampillai’s time, his students Periya Vachchan Pillai wrote his 24,000 padi commentray on Nammazhvar’s works. He also went on to write commentaries for the complete 4,000 prabandhams. Today, his is the only full set commentary for 4000 prabandham.
Vadakku Thiruvitippillai had two sons, Pillai Lokacharya and Azhagiya Manavala Perumal Nayanar. Their time is the beginning of writing commentaries and explanatory texts on Rahasya Mantras. By this time Azhavar works were well explained through multiple commentaries and Ramanuja had already taken care of Upanishads, Brahma sutra and Bhagavat Gita.
The next important Acharya is Vedanta Desika, who was co-eval with Pillai Lokacharya. This was a turbulent time. The Muslim invasion of Srirangam happens during this phase. Srivaishnavism was also going to split soon after Desika and Pillai Lokacharya’s time into Vadakalai and Thenkalai. Vedanta Desika was the most prolific of the Srivaishnava Acharyas. He wrote in Tamil, Sanskrit, Prakrit and Manipravalam. He produced many stotras and rahasya granthas, besides even secular kavyas.
Manavala Mamuni is the last of the famous Acharyas. He moved to Srirangam when order had been restored by the Vijayanagara forces. After an advice from his teacher Thiruvaymozi Pillai, subsequently he started writing only in Tamil. He is seen as the main preceptor of the Thenkalai sect. He took it as his life’s mission to propagate the commentaries on Aazhvar’s works. He took up republishing the various commentaries and found that some were already destroyed in his time.
Wherever he found things missing, he added his own commentary. Since his time, Srirangam temple is firmly in the control of Thenkalai vaishnavism.
Vadakalai and Thenkalai Srivaishnava Mutts are either based out of Sriraangam or at least have a branch in Srirangam. Besides that, almost all the important Vaishnava sects have their Mutts in Srirangam and own large property here.
Besides Srivaishnava Acharyas, some important historical figures have visited Srirangam, for which there are reasonable records.
Purandara Dasa (1484-1564 CE) had visited Srirangam many times and has sung many Keerthanais on Ranganatha.
Krishna Chaitanya (1486-1534), who started his own Vaishnava sect known as Gaudiya Vaishnavam visited Srirangam in 1510 CE and stayed here for four months. The place where he stayed is now known as Sri Jagannath Mutt in North Chitra Street.
Thyagabrahmam (1767-1847), has visited and sung songs on Ranganatha.