Sribhashya: An Introduction

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Sri Ramanuja’s Commentary on the Brahma-Sutras

July 14, 1977

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1.  Brahma-Sutra

The text attributed to Badarayana designated Brahma-Sutra or Sariraka-Sutra occupies the foremost position of authority in the system of Vedanta. That there were commentaries on it even before Sri Sankara we learn explicitly from Sri Sankara himself, whose commentary is the earliest available now. Its central status in Vedanta is thus very well established. This is understandable as it explicitly endeavours to formulate, elaborate, and defend the philosophy of the Upanisads in the full-fledged darsana style. The Bhagavad Gita seems to accord to it this pivotal status in the one significant reference we have in it.1

All the commentators seem to identify the author Badarayana with Veda Vyasa. The Advaitic tradition handed down both by Vacaspati and Prakasatman is unanimous on the point.

The Sutras fall into a magnificent pattern. The first chapter brings out the coherent import of the Upanisads by elucidating the apparently doubtful import of certain pronouncements. The second chapter works out a philosophical defence of the Vedantic standpoint in the context of adverse systems of thought. The third chapter outlines the spiritual pathway to the supreme Goal of life, while the fourth chapter discusses the nature of that goal itself.

2.  Pre-Ramanuja Position

In spite of the greatness of the design, the Sutras offer insuperable difficulties. Excepting a few, the Sutras in general do not indicate the theme of discussion or the particular line of thought adopted. They definitely require an interpretative tradition to convey their import. Hence authoritative commentaries utilizing such tradition or traditions were supplied from time to time. Sri Sankara refers to a vrttikara in the context and Sri Ramanuja refers to an extensive vrtti by Bodhayana. Sri Sankara’s commentary is the earliest and a very substantial work of elucidation. He propounds a specific school of philosophy as sponsored by the Sutras. Its distinctive features are that it asserts the sole reality of the Absolute Spirit, named Brahman in the Upanisads, regards the external world as only phenomenally real, and identifies the essential Self in man with Brahman. Man’s supreme perfection lies in apprehension of this identity through the realization of the import of the fundamental propositions of the Upanisads.

It appears, as is evident in the next significant commentary of Bhaskara, that this formulation of the philosophy of the Sutras was found to be unacceptable to a considerable section of Vedantic philosophers. They seem to have felt that the Brahma-Sutra, while affirming Brahman, does not negate the reality of the world, nor identify the individual spirit with the absolute so wholly, and the way to blessedness is knowledge that springs from Karma-yoga and matures into upasana or devotional meditation. There was a strong current of the mysticism of love or bhakti, standardized by the greater Puranas, the Bhagavad Gita, the Agamas, and the experience of high-ranking and God-intoxicated saints. Sri Yamunacarya seems to have yearned for a competent and adequate commentary on the Sutras integrating all these doctrinal and spiritual points of view. He was convinced that the truth promulgated by Badarayana lay in this direction but could not himself produce the much needed work of interpretation.

3.  Sri-Bhashya

The prayers of the saintly Yamuna were to be fulfilled by his grand-disciple, Sri Ramanuja. Providence destined Sri Ramanuja to accomplish the great task of elucidating the Sutras in a theistic style, asserting the metaphysical eminence of Brahman without the supplementary thesis of world-denial and the denial of the individuality of the finite selves, and promulgating knowledge of Brahman as arising from Karma-yoga and maturing in bhakti.

Sri Ramanuja has bequeathed three works on the Brahma-Sutra: the Vedanta-Sara, Vedanta-Dipa, and the Sri-Bhashya. The first work merely enunciates the meaning of the Sutras. The second goes beyond this summary of conclusions and indicates cates the dialectical framework. The third is the fullest and all-sufficient commentary. Pious tradition records that the Goddess Sarasvati was so charmed by it that she blessed it with the prefix ‘Sri’.

Sri Ramanuja lived a long and full life. He seems to have spent nearly half of it in equipping himself for the creation of this masterpiece. He did advance his special philosophical point of view in his early work, the Vedarthasangraha in a brilliant and spirited manner. But he acquired devoutly all that Sri Yamuna’s tradition could give him on the Sutras, studied ancient documents on the Sutras such as the works of Bodhayana, Tanka, and Dramida, mastered the current schools of philosophy to perfection, soaked himself in the Vedic literature, particularly the Upanisads, acquired an authentic understanding of the commentaries of Sri Sankara, Bhaskara, and Yadava-prakasa, got the core of the Advaitic classics of the masters such as Mandana, Padmapada, Suresvara, Vacaspati-misra, Vimuktatman, and Prakasatman, and shaped his own vision of Vedanta and an appropriate style before he addressed himself to the literary mission of his life.

No wonder the Sri-Bhashya is a stupendous and masterly work, its style matching its substance. Sri Ramanuja chooses the hard way on every issue, that of thoroughness, and he is massive in the statement of prima facie views and also in his vindication of his own findings. The language of exposition is lucid as well as grand. Vedanta Desika, himself a great master of style, acknowledges that his own style acquired grace through a devout application to the writings of Sri Ramanuja. In the compass of vision, fullness of execution, and splendour of style the Sri-Bhashya reaches heights of excellence.

4.  The Sequel

The great commentary evoked a great many sub-commentaries in its turn. It is a pity that Vedanta Desika’s Tattva Tika is available only in its introductory portion. His verse condensation of the Sri-Bhashya, the Adhikarana Saravali, is happily available completely. But Vedanta Desika’s greatest service to the Sri-Bhashya is his preservation, under hard circumstances, of the Srutaprakasika of Sudarsana Suri, an elder contemporary of his, and his propagation of it. This work is a monument of devotion, thorough elucidation and brilliant amplification. As a sub-commentary it set standards unsurpassed in Vedantic literature.

The Ramanuja tradition of Vedanta thus consolidated has influenced all subsequent writings on the Brahma-Sutra, not excluding the commentaries adverse to Sri Ramanuja’s school of Vedanta 2. The Vaisnava schools of Vedanta in general have utilized kindred elements profusely. It is in the fitness of things that Jiva Gosvamin, the celebrated Vedantin of the Caitanya school says of Sri Ramanuja, “Pramita mahimnaam”, 3 “as one whose glory is established.” The great Appayya-diksita used the Sri-Bhashya considerably in his Sivarka-Mani-dipika and also wrote a condensation of it called Naya-mayukha-malika.

Thus the Sri-Bhashya is a major work in the history of Vedanta, propounding a powerful theistic version of it, and is also great in its subsequent influence.

5.  Architectonics of the Work

The Sri-Bhashya expounds the philosophy of Sri Ramanuja in all its essentials. The structure of the work following the structure of the Sutras is laid down well. The first four Sutras concern themselves with four considerations of an introductory character. The rest of the first chapter elucidates the crucial passages of the Upanisads that appear to be ambiguous, and the result is a formulation of the philosophy of the Upanisads in a coherent and decisive manner. The second chapter deals with the possible exegetical and philosophical objections to the standpoint. It incidentally examines rival philosophical systems. These two chapters present the metaphysics of Vedanta. The third chapter propounds the sadhana or the pathway to the attainment of the supreme Goal of life. The fourth chapter delineates that goal with all its implications. The last two chapters, thus relate to the ideals to be achieved. In traditional language the first two chapters formulate the Tattva or the nature of Reality and the third deals with the Hita or sadhana, and the fourth brings out the Purusartha or the supreme ideal of life.

6.  Introductory Matter

The first aphorism of the Brahma-Sutra is very important as it initiates the inquiry into Brahman. It lays down the precondition into the inquiry and also the reason for it. The precondition is the inquiry into the nature, limitations, and value of karma as elucidated in the Karma-Mimamsa of Jaimini.

Inquiry into karma and Brahman constitutes one organic unity of Vedic philosophy. In the earlier inquiry into karma, the purport of the earlier portion of the Vedas centred in religious activity is discussed. Being dissatisfied with the objectives of karma, the inquiry into Brahman is undertaken as the knowledge of Brahman is said to bring about the eternal and infinite good of man in the later portion of the Vedas, namely, the Upanisads.

In this context the Sri-Bhashya discusses elaborately the role of karma, as it leads to minor objectives when performed in an ego-centric way and also as it conduces to the understanding of Brahman when performed in a disinterested spirit of worship and dedication. Such a discrimination is the antecedent to the inquiry into Brahman. The reason for the inquiry is the unsatisfactory character of the ends procured by religious life devoid of knowledge. The inquiry is for purposes of gaining knowledge of Brahman; which knowledge is said to bring about the summum bonum. The knowledge that could accomplish such a supreme consummation is no mere intellectual and mediate understanding, but a devout and intense meditation on Brahman. It is, in short, bhakti.

In this context the Sri-Bhashya under takes a complete examination of Advaita in its longest discussion, opposing the concept of nirguna Brahman and the supplementary postulate of Avidya or Maya. Brahman is significantly described: “The term ‘Brahman’ signifies the supreme Person (Purusottama) who transcends all imperfections and abounds in infinite classes of auspicious qualities of unsurpassed excellence.” 4

The Purva-Mimamsa writers attempted to interpret the whole of the Vedas as just inculcating imperatives and denounced the metaphysical purport of Brahman. That position is rejected after considerable discussion.

The second aphorism offers a definition of Brahman to focus further elucidation and Sri Ramanuja defends the definition as perfectly legitimate. The definition according to him means:

That supreme Person who is the ruler of all; whose nature is antagonistic to all evil; whose purposes come true; who possesses infinite auspicious qualities such as knowledge, bliss and so on; who is omniscient, omnipotent, supremely merciful; from whom the creation, subsistence, and re-absorption of this world — with its manifold wonderful arrangements, not to be comprehended by thought, and comprising within itself the aggregate of souls from Brahma down to blades of grass, all of which experience the fruits (of their previous deeds) in definite points of space and time — proceed is Brahman: such is the meaning of the Sutra. 5

The third aphorism concerns itself with the source of our knowledge of Brahman. It declares the ‘shastra’ as our only source of knowledge. This involves the entire epistemology of Visistadvaita. The school recognizes the validity of perception and inference in their respective spheres. It does not subscribe to the thesis that they are infected with an error or nescience at their very root. In the matter of proving the existence of the supreme Being, it does not accept the efficacy of inference, as was done in the Nyaya-Vaisesika system. It discovers flaws in that theistic argument somewhat on the lines of Purva-Mimamsa writers. But it does not agree with the latter in interpreting the Vedic scriptures as bereft of metaphysical import. Nor does it question the veridical character of the shastra which is our only source of knowledge concerning the transcendent ultimate, Brahman.

The supreme shastra in the context is the concluding portion of the Vedas, the Upanisads. Sri Ramanuja describes Brahman as Sruti-Sirasi vidIpte, meaning that, that supreme Reality is specifically and pre-eminently revealed in the Upanisads. In the interpretation of these texts and in the defence of their philosophy, reason is to be fully utilized. Hence Vedanta is no mere cult based on mere faith, but a philosophical inquiry employing methods of logical investigation. Reason is also of value in the examination of schools of thought opposed to the philosophy of the Upanisads. The primary scripture of Vedanta is to be supplemented and augmented by the secondary scriptures such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Puranas such as the Visnupurana, the Agamas such as the Pancaratra, and Smrti texts such as that of Manu.

The principle of this supplementation is stated by Sri Ramanuja clearly:

By this “supplementation” we have to understand the elucidation of the sense of the Vedic texts studied by us through the words of men who had mastered the entire Veda and its contents, and by the strength of their devotion had gained full realization of Vedic truth. This needs to be done, since the import of the entire Veda with all its sakhas cannot be fathomed by one who has studied a small part only, and since with out knowing that purport we cannot arrive at certitude.6

It is to be understood that Sri Ramanuja included in the category of secondary scriptures, the body of inspired mystical poetry, collectively named Divya Prabandha, composed and sung by the Alvars, but he does not use this source in the Sri-Bhashya by direct statement for the understandable reason that it was not acknowledged as authoritative by the other schools of Vedanta. This was a case of personal inspiration and not probative evidence.

The fourth aphorism attempts to demonstrate the supreme value of the knowledge of Brahman. The ignorance of Brahman is the very essence of human bondage and to know Brahman even mediately is a source of joy. Impelled by this joy, the seeker pursues further knowledge by way of direct apprehension through the comprehensive discipline of bhakti. In the end his effort is crowned through the grace of God with the joyous triumph of the full attainment.

Thus the four Sutras establish the necessity and possibility of the inquiry into Brahman, the definition of It, the sources of knowledge concerning It, and the supreme value of the pursuit of the knowledge in question. An old verse sums up the work of the four Sutras:

The four Sutras eliminate any objection to the commencement of the inquiry into Brahman on four prima facie suppositions:
a. the Vedic words cannot signify Brahman (an accomplished reality),
b. the Brahman cannot be defined,
c. It is revealed by other means of knowledge, and
d. the inquiry is of no value.7

7.  Tattva

Brahman is the supreme Tattva or Reality. The function of Vedanta is the discernment of its nature. It does it in hundreds of ways but there is a fundamental concord running through all of them. The Sutras review almost all the central Upanisads and discuss their import. The one persistent misunderstanding they succeed in removing is, that the Upanisads, in their major metaphysical dialogues, raise to ultimacy either the category of Prakrti (nature) or the individual self. They all affirm the transcendent Brahman, of the nature of absoluteness of Being, Consciousness, and Bliss, and that nature and the finite sell come in as its vehicles of self-manifestation.

The Sri-Bhashya regards the Sutras as a single document with no internal stratification in terms of authenticity. There is no lower and higher Brahman, and there is no lower and higher knowledge. It is the same logic of indivisible truth that is discerned in the Upanisads. When Brahman is spoken of as attributeless, the motive is to deny of It imperfections characteristic of the finite existents. When attributes like omniscience are ascribed, they are to be taken in metaphysical seriousness. When Brahman is exhibited as other than matter and finite spirits, the truth of transcendence is being proclaimed. When Brahman is spoken of as one without a second, the significance is that Brahman is the central substantive reality to which the finite realities belong in the relation of predicates or subsidiary associates. The full truth is conveyed without any chance of misconception when Brahman is described as the Atman, and the world of matter and individual selves are said to constitute its ‘Body’. This is a monism that does not involve any illusionism.

Sri Ramanuja opposes illusionistic monism, the grosser forms of Bheda-abheda and also dualism. He says:

Apart from the consideration of Brahman as the Soul of all, the meditation of Brahman as the jiva or the jiva as Brahman cannot be true. On the theory of difference-cum-identity, as the limiting adjuncts condition Brahman itself, all the consequent flaws will contaminate It itself. On the theory of absolute difference between Brahman and the jiva, the teaching of Brahman as the Atman of all would be impossible and thus the entire Vedanta gets rejected. 8

The external world of insentient existence and the finite selves is real, however much they may be subject to mutation. They have existence in all their states as permeated and sustained by the supreme Spirit.

In this concept of the totality of existences as constituted of Brahman and the realm of finites, we have the justification of the designation of Visistadvaita that has come to be applied to Sri Ramanuja’s school of Vedanta. He himself does not use the term but his authoritative commentators, Sudarsana Suri and Vedanta Desika employ it. (Vide Tatparya-dipika, p. 48, Tirupati edition; and Pancaratra-raksa, p. 121, Kanchi edition). It signifies that Reality is one, in so far as there the one central substantive principle, Brahman, and the totality of finites characterizes It as inseparable qualifications.

8.  Hita or Means

The question of sadhana naturally pertains to the individual soul or jiva. The Sri-Bhashya expounds the nature of the jiva in the course of the second chapter. It is uncreated, is of the nature of a conscious principle, and enjoys powers of free volition conferred by God. The plurality of the individuals is real and eternal. Uniqueness and self-consciousness are fundamental in its nature. The jiva is neither separate from God nor wholly identical with Him. It is an ‘Amsa’ or part in the sense of forming an adjectival mode.

The third chapter reviews the life of the jiva and comes to the conclusion that in all its mundane states it is infected with evil of the nature of suffering brought about by ignorance and evil-doing. Hence a spirit of renunciation is called for. When it looks to its inward Soul, the Paramatman, it sees in Him infinite perfections in spite of His immanence. Seeking Him is the road to its own perfection. He is its final goal and also the power that could effectuate its final blessedness. The third quarter of the third chapter determines the exact nature of the various types of ‘Vidya’ or meditation to be practised in order to win the grace of the supreme Being. The fourth quarter elucidates the supremacy of know ledgeand the pathway to perfection and determines the accessories of this knowledge. This knowledge is of the nature of bhakti or loving meditation, cultivated in ever-increasing intensity.

9.  Purusartha

The fourth chapter is devoted to working out the notion of moksha. The Sri-Bhashya states the nature of moksha in the first chapter itself and the final chapter is an elaboration thereof:

But those who are established in the Vedanta — holding (as they do) that the supreme Brahman is the sole cause of the entire universe, and of the nature of infinite bliss antagonistic to all evil, an ocean of count less auspicious qualities of natural and unsurpassed excellence, transcending all else and constituting the Self of all; and also that the jiva, of the nature of boundless knowledge, is of the nature of a mode of Brahman, being Its body, and of such a nature that it can get joy in the experience of Brahman, this nature, however, being concealed by beginningless ignorance of the nature of karma — affirm that moksha is the direct experience of Brahman, in accordance with its fundamental nature after the destruction of its ignorance. 9

The three implications of moksha are that it is a release from all the binding karma of the past, it is a release of the soul into the abundance of its innate nature, and the fulfilment of this nature in the blissful experience of Brahman, its own inmost soul. This unimpeded joy of existence is the eternal destiny of the jiva.

10.  Conclusion

The substance of the Sri-Bhashya may be stated in four synoptic propositions.

  1. It is a reasoned and critical reconstruction of the philosophy of the Upanisads with due appropriation of other sources of knowledge such as perception and inference and the supplementary scriptures.
  2. The reconstruction presents ultimate Reality, Brahman, the supreme Spirit, as the transcendent repository of all perfections and as holding as it’s own embodiment the totality of finite existence, sentient and insentient.
  3. The pathway to the final good of life is the blissful communion with Brahman by way of devout and loving contemplation named bhakti, facilitated by a life of virtue and founded on assured philosophical understanding.
  4. The end attained through that means is the eternal experience of Brahman, with all the plenitude and eternity which only that experience can bring to the individual personality. It is the supreme ecstasy of life in God.

The importance of the Sri-Bhashya lies in the amplitude of its substantiation of these fundamentals.

14 July 1977 

11.  Footnotes

1 ब्रह्मसूत्रपदैश्चैव हेतुमद्भिर्विनिश्चितैः । (Gita XIII.4) (↑)

2 See Candrika which is a commentary of Vyasa-tirtha on Tattvaprakasika of Jaya-tirtha on Sri Madhva's Sutra-Bhasya wherein the Sri-Bhashya is criticised. And also see Siddhantasiddhanjana of Krsnananda-yati on Sri Sankara's Sutra-bhasya wherein the Sri-Bhashya is criticised. The Sivarka-manidipika also contains considerable criticism of the Sri-Bhashya. (↑)

3 Tattva-sandarbha: इत्यनेन प्रमितमहिम्नां साक्षात् श्रीप्रभृतितः प्रवृत्तसम्प्रदायानां श्रीवैष्णवाभिधानां श्रीरामानुजभगवत्पादविरचित श्रीभाष्यादिदृष्टमतप्रामाण्येन मूलग्रन्थस्वारस्येन चान्यथा च । — अच्युतग्रन्थमाला-कार्यालयः, Page 74-75. (↑)

4 ब्रह्मशब्देन स्वभावतः निरस्तनिखिलदोषः अनवधिकातिशयासङ्ख्येयकल्याणगुणगण: पुरुषोत्तमोऽभिधीयते । (↑)

5 अस्य — अचिन्त्यविविधरचनस्य नियतदेशकालफलभोग-ब्रह्मादिस्तम्ब-पर्यन्तक्षेत्रज्ञ-मिश्रस्य जगतः, यतः — यस्मात् सर्वेश्वरात् निखिलहेयप्रत्यनीकस्वरूपात् सत्यसङ्कल्पात् ज्ञान-आनन्दाद्यनन्तकल्याणगुणात् सर्वज्ञात् सर्वशक्तेः परमकारुणिकात् परस्मात् पुंस: सृष्टिस्थितिप्रलयाः प्रवर्तन्ते तत् ब्रह्मेति सूत्रार्थः । (↑)

6 उपबृह्मणं नाम विदितसकलवेदतदर्थानां स्वयोगमहिमसाक्षात्कृत- वेदतत्वार्थानां वाक्यैः स्वावगतवेद वाक्यार्थव्यक्तीकरणम् । सकलशाखागतस्य वाक्यार्थस्य अल्पभागश्रवणात् दुःखगमत्वेन तेन विना निश्चयायोगात् उपबृम्हणम् हि कार्यम् एव । — I Adhikarana (↑)

7 व्युत्पत्त्यभावः प्रतिपत्तिदौष्थ्यम् अन्येनसिद्धत्वम् अथाफलत्वम् । एतानि वै सूत्रचतुष्टयेन आनारम्भमूलानि निराकृतानि । — Tattva-tika, Kanchi Edition, p.9 (↑)

8 न च सर्वात्मत्वानुसन्धानातिरेकेण परस्मिन् ब्रह्मणि जीवत्वानुसन्धानम्, जीवे च परब्रह्मत्वानुसन्धानं तथ्यं सम्भवति । — Sri-Bhashya: 3.3.37
भेदाभेदवादे तु ब्रह्मण्येव उपाधिसम्सर्गात् तत्प्रयुक्ताः जीवगताः दोषाः ब्रह्मण्येव प्रादुःष्युः इति ॥। केवल भेदवादिनां च अत्यन्त- भिन्नयोः केनापि प्रकारेणैक्यासम्भवाद् एव ब्रह्मात्मभावोपदेशा न सम्भवन्तीति सर्ववेदान्तपरित्यागः स्यात् । — Sri-Bhashya: Maha Siddhanta (↑)

9 त्रय्यन्तनिष्नातास् तु निखिलजगदेककारणस्य अशेषहेयप्रत्यनीकानन्त- ज्ञानान्दैकस्वरूपस्य स्वाभाविकानवधिकातिशय-असङ्ख्येय-कल्याणगुणकरस्य सकलेतरविलक्षणस्य सर्वात्मभूतस्य परस्य ब्रह्मणः शरीरतया प्रकारभूतस्य अनुकूलापरिच्छिन्नज्ञानस्वरूपस्य परमात्मानुभवैकरसस्य जीवस्य अनादिकर्मरूपाविधातिरोहितस्वरूपस्य अविधोच्छेदपूर्वकस्वाभाविक परमात्मानुभवम् एव मोक्षम् आचक्षते । — Sri Bhashya 1.2.12 (↑)