Who is right, Sankaracharya or Ramanuja?

Vedanta, the most popular school in Hinduism, has many schools. The principal two schools are Advaita Vedanta of Sankaracharya and Vishishtadvaita of Ramanujacharya. Their interpretations are significantly different. Advaita Vedanta says that Brahman is all and that the universe and its living beings are ultimately unreal, i.e., they are also Brahman. Vishishtadvaita Vedanta  on the other hand says that Brahman is all means that the combination of Sri Narayana, the Universe and its living beings are all and not that the universe and its living beings are actually Brahman. This raises the question as to which one of this interpretation is true. Sri Ramakrishna says both are true!

MASTER: “Again, I cannot utter a word unless I come down at least two steps from the plane of samadhi. Sankara’s Non-dualistic explanation of Vedanta is true, and so is the Qualified Non-dualistic interpretation of Ramanuja.”
NARENDRA: “What is Qualified Non-dualism?”
MASTER: “It is the theory of Ramanuja. According to this theory, Brahman, or the Absolute, is qualified by the universe and its living beings. These three — Brahman, the world, and living beings — together constitute One. Take the instance of a bel-fruit. A man wanted to know the weight of the fruit. He separated the shell, the flesh, and the seeds. But can a man get the weight by weighing only the flesh? He must weigh flesh, shell, and seeds together. At first it appears that the real thing in the fruit is the flesh, and not its seeds or shell. Then by reasoning you find that the shell, seeds, and flesh all belong to the fruit; the shell and seeds belong to the same thing that the flesh belongs to. Likewise, in spiritual discrimination one must first reason, following the method of ‘Not this, not this’: God is not the universe; God is not the living beings; Brahman alone is real and all else is unreal. Then one realizes, as with the bel-fruit, that the Reality from which we derive the notion of Brahman is the very Reality that evolves the idea of living beings and the universe. The Nitya and the Lila are the two aspects of one and the same Reality; therefore, according to Ramanuja, Brahman is qualified by the universe and the living beings. This is the theory of Qualified Non-dualism.
(To M.) “I do see God directly. What shall I reason about? I clearly see that He Himself has become everything; that He Himself has become the universe and all living beings.
“But without awakening one’s own inner consciousness one cannot realize the All-pervading Consciousness. How long does a man reason? So long as he has not realized God. But mere words will not do. As for myself, I clearly see that He Himself has become everything. The inner consciousness must be awakened through the grace of God. Through this awakening a man goes into samadhi. He often forgets that he has a body. He gets rid of his attachment to ‘woman and gold’ and does not enjoy any talk unless it is about God. Worldly talk gives him pain. Through the awakening of the inner consciousness one realizes the All-pervading Consciousness.”


The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna March 11, 1885

Puzzle

This is puzzling on many counts. How can one reconcile the many differences between these two schools. For example, Sankara speaks of the non-duality state as moksha while Ramanuja considers staying with Sri Narayana as the supreme goal. Can both these claims be true? Does a devotee need to experience non-duality. Again Sri Ramakrishna says no.

Mahima:”I have a question to ask sir. A lover of God needs Nirvana (total annihilation of ego — the ideal of the jnani) some time or other, doesn’t he?
Sri Ramakrishna:”It can’t be said that bhaktas need Nirvana. According to some schools there is an eternal Krishna and there are His eternal devotees. Krishna is spirit embodied, and His abode is also spirit embodied. Krishna is eternal and His devotees are also eternal.”


The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna

How can one resolve the puzzle?

Solution

To understand why both systems are true one needs to know the aphorism, ‘One wants to taste sugar not become sugar’. Tasting the divine bliss needs one to maintain a purified ego that separates one from Brahman (sugar). If such separation is not maintained then one would become Brahman.

Sankara’s interpretation is meant for those who wants to become sugar. If you follow this path then you will become Brahman and will at least in Samadhi not experience either the universe and its living beings and Ishvara. Hence in this interpretation the universe and its living beings become illusory.

Ramanuja’s interpretation is for those who wants to taste sugar. In this path you will always see God and the universe as separate from yourself. So naturally the universe and its living beings will be real for you.

God is not a tyrant. He understands that some people want to be with Him maintaining a separation while others want to become Brahman. Hence both these schools are necessary.

It is true that according to Advaita Vedanta the Vishishtadvaita experience is a stepping stone to the Advaita experience. The truth is that just as a devotee can have the Advaita experience if he wants it (he usually does not want it) similary an Advaitist can also have the Vishistadvaita experience.

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2 Replies to “Who is right, Sankaracharya or Ramanuja?”

  1. Dear Pradip da,

    How beautifully the Masterr has explained and you have articulated in this article how to reconcile Sankara and Ramanuja’s teachings.

    In my own humble experience, one day during after practice, I was sitting and listening to music. As the music pulled me deeper into a meditative state, I felt deep love, joy and bliss. The beauty of the music evoked great Bhakti in me as it was filled with Bhakti rasa. With tears streaming down my cheeks, I thought, “how can I give up this beautiful relationship with God? If I give up my separateness, I will not be able to experience this exquisite bliss,joy and love!”

    The very next day, I got the answer in form of the Isha Upanishad, by the grace of the Lord. It was in the form of the verse “ishavasyam idam sarvam”…

    The joy and bliss and love is our true nature. Why “experience” in separation when we can BE that? And my sadness at the thought of “giving up” the role of the Bhakta was assuaged instantly.

  2. Dear Pradip,
    The freedom of the realized soul must be so complete that its relation to the Absolute can really be any way it likes, totally without a separate identity or with recall of any identity that it had assumed during its sojourn away from the absolute. When our puranas refer to human beings being visited by their ancestors of long ago or by puranapurushas, we do not need to worry whether the visitors had become muktas or not.
    It is this unlimited freedom which gives the vishishtadvaiti the option to prefer the eternal closeness to his ishtadevata then the oneness with Nirgunabrahman.
    Thanks for an absolutely clear presentation of Master's thesis on the compatibility of Advaita with Bhakti yoga.
    The famous author of Advaita Siddhi, Acharya Madhusudan Saraswati was an exemplary Krishna Bhakta was he not?

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