Shankara, Ramanuja and Madhvacharya represent three fundamental speculative positions of Vedantic thought. Their paths to the Absolute reflect the dialectic between being and becoming in Vedanta. Shankara’s monistic Advaita points to a final, single, higher reality, in which the entire material dimension of life is subsumed – the being aspect of existence which one aspires to experience. Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita holds that this sensory-material dimension of higher reality is equally valid and serves its purpose through adoration of the Absolute, this existential journey of becoming to be enjoyed as much as the state of being.
Madhvacharya represents the third fundamental position of Vedanta. He says in his Tattvavada that metaphysical reality is plural; that the world of duality is independently real of the Absolute and it is real and not just an illusion. Shankara and Ramanuja differ only in assigning weightage to the world of plurality, while contending that this materiality is only a projection of the Absolute. Madhvacharya proposed the empirical world as one of two independent entities along with the Absolute.
All three essentially wrote treatises on the Brahma Sutras of Vyasa – 555 sutras, aphorisms containing the quintessence of Upanishadic-Vedantic thought.
Their deliberations are triggered by the great call of the first sutra itself: ‘Athato Brahmn jignasa’ – ‘Now, therefore, the inquiry into Brahmn’, a call to free inquiry which sets the tone for all speculation.
All three based their deliberations on the same text, branching out in different interpretations, Shankara upholding an uncompromising monistic view; Ramanuja posing a theistic-existential formulation of reality and Madhvacharya holding that the world
of plurality in which we live is real and not just an
Shankara lived for barely 30 years, yet he set ablaze the intellectual world of his time, redefining and revitalising old Upanishadic concepts not only with great rigour but with humility, too. From the backwaters of Kalady to the snowy crests of Kedarnath, he took on scholars, sages and savants, in what he believed to be his spiritual mission, engaging them in scholarly debates to establish his viewpoint.
Ramanujacharya, on the contrary, believed it was his mission to deconstruct the notion of the Absolute as a personal god, which differed fundamentally with the monistic position of Shankara. Ramanuja was deeply rooted in theological traditions, and sought inspiration in Vaishnavite theology as well as in the mystical fervour of the 12 Alvar poet-saints of South India.
Tradition has it that Ramanuja was inspired to write his theistic interpretation on the Brahma Sutras at the time of his guru’s death when his attention was drawn to the three
folded fingers of his guru’s right hand.
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