Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Ramanuja is a history -1 (Modern vs Traditional research methods)

Inquiry into History is the catchword these days. Be it Rama or Ramanuja, they can’t escape scrutiny by our historical researchers! More often than not these researches are aimed at exposing the ‘myths’ around them than resolving the inconsistencies if any. The growing tendency to see the events around the historical figures of the past as myths was witnessed in the open when the congress politician and the then Union Minister Mr Jairam Ramesh expressed that Indians are keen on spinning myths around Sri Tyagaraja Swamy while the westerners are inclined to record the true events. This was told by him while inaugurating the Tyagaraja Swamy Aradhana at Tiruvaiyaru in 2011 to highlight that a westerner had written the biography of Tyagaraja Swamy. This is nothing but a colonial mentality to downplay native narratives.

The growing cynicism about the sense of history of Indians becomes more acute when it comes to iconic figures. In this piece of write-up, a former Professor of History of JNU wonders why a king like Rama with ruler ship over a small area called Ayodhya had made pervasive presence while the kings of the huge empires of Gupta and Maurya could hardly come near him. The reason according to him is the power of myths that converted a mythical Rama into a historical one. The aura of a cultural icon developed through mythical narrations around Rama had caused this transformation!

The more iconic is a figure of the Indian past, the more are the doubts raised about his/ her narrated-story. This mentality was palpable in the narration of Andal’s story by a Tamil lyricist recently[i]. This is also becoming the order of the day in the case Ramanujacharya, the doyen of Vaishnavism. A few years ago a renowned archaeologist of Tamilnadu dismissed the well chronicled events of Ramanuja’s life as myths[ii], paving scope for multiplier effect to be picked up by similar ‘inquiring minds’ in all days to come.

Their research is based on methodology developed in the 19th century whereas the chroniclers of Rama or Ramanuja were the contemporaries of those historical figures. The contemporary status of chroniclers is suspect in the eyes of these modern historians who are conditioned by the Western thinking that history is written by conquerors. This may be true of conquerors and invaders, but Rama and Ramanuja do not fall into that category. They conquered minds and that is why they continue to exist powerfully as ever. The contemporary chroniclers of both Rama and Ramanuja wrote down the history of their heroes on their own volition and not at the behest of the heroes. This is in contrast to, say, Kulothunga-I’s chronicler Jayamkonda, who wrote Kalingathu Parani as a war song on Kulothunga-I’s victory over Kalinga. He has been apparently benefited by the king[iii]

The iconic status that Ramanuja had attained seemed to have rattled certain people. They dismiss Ramanuja’s history as recorded by his disciples as “concocted stories propagated by the Pauranikas- myth makers”[iv]. Like iconic heroes, the iconic writers too get rooted in the psych of the people. The trails they leave behind are always there to be picked up by those looking for sources to support similar theories. In the name of research they end up doing only review of literature by selectively copy-pasting the available literature that concur with their ideas than about producing a historical account gleaned from the evidences around.

The counter version to the ‘concocted story’ theory on Ramanuja that was immediately published by a Vaishnavite scholar of repute[v] unfortunately did not reach the table of many. Titled as “Ramanuja A Reality Not a Myth” this book demolishes the so-called myths in the life of Ramanuja. However two issues keep popping up every now and then of which the first one was explained long ago by PBA Swamy in his Magazine, ‘Sri Ramanujan’[vi].

The two issues are

1. Recovery of Utsava murthy of Melkote from a Delhi Sultan by Ramanuja is a myth as there was no Muslim presence in India during the times of Ramanuja. (Ramanuja’s time was 1017 – 1137 CE)

2. Persecution of Ramanuja by the Chola King is doubtful and therefore his migration could not have been caused by any adverse decree of the king. This is based on the assumption that Kulothunga I was supposed to have persecuted Ramanuja. Epigraphic evidences show that he didn’t harbour religious bigotry. 

In addition to these there are doubts raised about (1) Ramanuja’s life span of 120 years and more or less the same duration of life for his acharyas (2) duration of his stay in exile and (3) the authenticity of the Vaishnavite chronicles as historical documents. Opinion is being spread out that Ramanuja’s life does not stand scrutiny of modern historical methods. In this background this monograph is being written addressing the above mentioned issues to set them at rest once forever.

Historical research.

Taking up the last mentioned issue first, a criticism often comes up that the narration of Ramanuja’s life given in Vaishnavite texts does not constitute history as it cannot stand the scrutiny of modern historical research. Accordingly whatever event or narration that is not tested by this historical method stands to lose validity and gets rejected as unreliable or imaginary. Therefore we wish to take a look at the historical research conducted these days. 

One should know that the historical methodology of research currently in vogue is handed down by Western historians since 19th century CE. This gives an impression as though the Indians lacked their own historical methods. Let us check if this is true.
In his analysis of methods of research in history and social studies, Mark Newman[vii] identifies primary and secondary sources as ‘vital witnesses’ or valid materials to substantiate history. Quoting from the website of the Library of Congress he says the following:

This is nothing but “Pratyaksha” of the methodology of our ancient Darshanas and also the one used by Ramanuja in his inquiries. It is known as ‘perception’ and it can be direct or indirect. Applying it in the modern parlance of historical research, the original documents refer to direct perception. But what comes under indirect perception are best understood from the words of Anthony Brundage in his Guide to historical research and writing[viii]. His Primary sources contain objects of the past as pointing to the historical event. They come under the category of Indirect Perception in Indian tradition.

Any written document or manuscript of the contemporary time period of the historical figure under research constitutes Primary evidence, which in traditional Indian research was known as direct perception. Inscriptions are also valued as primary evidence. The artifacts and objects of the same time period come under indirect perception in traditional Indian parlance. We deduce the history of the person from them also.

The limitation of the modern historical methodology is that it stops with primary and secondary sources. There may be times that certain evidences are hidden from direct and indirect perception and one may have to look circumstantially to identify them. Another limitation is that many documents and inscriptions still lay un-discovered. Many archaeological discoveries are yet to happen. Modern history relies on what is available as of today and constructs history based on that. When a new discovery comes to light, the previous theory is needed to be revised and / or discarded at times.
For example, the discovery of sub-terranean imprints of a 10,000 year old sub-Himalayan river draining into Rann of Kutch[ix] corresponding to river Saraswathi had just toppled the until-now-held historical theories on river Saraswathi as a myth. Similarly the discovery of 6000 years old sites at Rakhigarhi pre-dating the Indus civilization has established a continuing civilization in India since at least 6000 years before present. How to know what happened at such a distant past?

It is here that traditional Indian methodology of research comes to our rescue. There are two unique techniques of research among a group of six[x] that have guided our seers in understanding the unknown. One is Shabda and the other is Anupalabdhi. These two are relevant for modern historical research also.

Shabda refers to verbal testimony in vedantic and philosophical research. As words of ācharyas, the written works by ācharyas are also pramāna texts. In the sample cases quoted above on sub-terranean Saraswathi and Rakhigarhi, the two Itihāsas and Vedic references are to be treated as pramāna texts. They give the background information on such an ancient past and help in re-constructing the history from their own testimony and supported by the discoveries of modern research.

In the historical research on Ramanuja the pramāna texts are those composed by ancient ācharyas on the life history of Ramanuja. As said earlier, the contemporary text of Ramanuja’s times constitutes the primary source, but the texts that appeared later cannot be summarily rejected as invalid. Due to long gap of time and loss of original works, discrepancies might have crept in. But a historian must pick out the unanimous ideas spread across all or most of those texts as valid pramāna. For example the recovery of Utsava Murthy of Melkote by Ramanuja from Delhi appears in all texts and folk songs and even in the songs of Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa. The event is also celebrated as "Delhi Utsava" every year in the temple. Therefore a judicious historian must apply his mind before choosing to reject other sources. 

The 2nd technique of traditional research methodology is Anupalabdhi. It will be discussed at a relevant context in the course of this monograph.

Primary source of evidence for Ramanuja’s history.

A manuscript on the life of a person written by a contemporary of the person can be considered as a primary source of evidence. An objection may be raised that this need not reflect true history of the person as an element of exaggeration may creep in due to over enthusiasm of the biographer. This is quite possible and exaggeration may be there in describing the event but no biographer can be expected to insert an event that didn’t happen barring perhaps in the case of conqueror-motivated biographers. 

This does not apply to the biography of Ramanauja. Nor were the Srivaishnavites of the times of Ramanuja known for having said anything that is not true. They did not hide the unpleasant episodes in the lives of Alvars like Tondaradip-podi Alvar. The famous episode of Kulasekara Alvar putting his hand in to a pot of snakes with a declaration that he may be bitten by the snakes if Srivaishnavites had erred is the test of honesty and truthfulness of the Srivaishnavites of those times. Anymore proof needed to say about the integrity of those in the status of acharyas?

There does exist a text written by a contemporary of Ramanuja. Though written after his departure, this can be taken as a valid primary source owing to the fact that the writer was a close associate of Ramanuja right from the time Ramanuja had entered Karnataka. He was Vaduga Nambi also known as Andhra Purna. He met Ramanuja for the first time when Ramanuja was moving around Karnataka-regions before settling down at Thondanur. Vaduga Nambi belonged to a place called Saligrama, then known as “Vahini Pushkarini”. He became Ramanuja’s disciple and also his personal assistant. Right from the time he met Ramanuja at Saligrama until Ramananuja’s end at Srirangam, Vaduga Nambi was continuously accompanying him.

There is a Pushkarini at Saligrama even today.

He returned to Saligrama after Ramanuja’s exit from the world and continued the works of Ramanuja. It was at that time he had composed Yatiraja Vaibhava[xi], a biography on Ramanuja. Vaduga Nambi is also credited with a work of Nāmāvali on Ramanuja consisting of 108 names of Ramanuja each one related to an incident in Ramanuja's life! Therefore nothing given in these texts can be ignored as imaginary or mythical.

There are other texts too like 6000 Padi Guruparampara Prabhavam which are equally authentic due to authorship by acharyas, but we are not bringing them within the purview as they were written after the exit of Ramanuja. As a contemporary manuscript Yatiraja Vaibhavam is a primary source - a direct evidence of Ramanuja’s life. Anyway let us subject it to the test of modern research.  

Test for the Primary source on Ramanuja’s history.

Yatiraja Vaibhavam gives the events in the life of Ramanuja right from the time of his birth. The birth details given in the text can be tested scientifically to check the reliability of the events in general. This is not new as modern researchers use astronomy software to test an event for its historicity or to find out the date of an event. They do it with the minimal inputs such as the position of a few planets found in the texts.

This approach is unscientific for the traditional Hindu methodology of time keeping. According to the traditional approach the sun and the moon are the time keepers. The location of the sun in a particular part of the sky (month), the location of the moon in a particular stellar constellation, the distance between the sun and the moon on a day (tithi) must exactly align with a particular day (week-day / vāra) in a particular year in the 60 year calibration of the movement of the sun around the zodiac. A particular configuration of these doesn’t repeat anytime and therefore are the best means of expressing or identifying an event. All these are incorporated in Panchanga, the traditional Hindu calendar.

Almost all the inscriptions mention all or few of these factors to identify the time for a work that is done. Planets are of course moving through time, but one doesn’t always come across the location of all the nine planets (of the traditional system) in the texts to find out the correct time. A change in the location of even one planet can upset the configuration and the result will be a faulty finding. In the complete absence of any of the panchanga features, one might rely on planetary positions, but that is not fool-proof. One or two panchanga features are needed to get the correct or closer to correct time.

Coming in the traditional way, the author of Yatiraja Vaibhava had written the panchanga details of the birth time of Ramanuja in 6th and 7th verse. Let us check if they all fall in line together. This also helps in arriving at the exact date of his birth.

(Yathiraja Vaibhavam)

This says that Ramanuja was born in the year Pingala, in the month of Chitra, in the 5th day (Panchami) of the waxing phase of the moon when the moon was in the star Arudra. It was Thursday and the birth time lagna was Simha (leo). By bringing in the basic 3 features, Pingala (year), Chitra month (sun’s position) and Arudra (moon’s position) we get a configuration as follows:

Pingala, sun in Chitra (Aries), moon in Arudra, Thursday and Sukla paksha have tallied. But the tithi is shashti that follows Panchami. When we check the details we find that Panchami was running at sun rise. The common practice is to recognise the tithi at sun rise. So this cannot be treated as false information. That is the way the people had recorded the tithi at birth and the author had repeated it. The birth details given in Yatiraja Vaibhavam are accurate and the date in the Gregorian calendar is April 10, 1017. The accuracy of the birth details as tested from the astrology software is proof of reliability of Yatiraja Vaibhavam as the prime source to know about Ramanuja’s life.

 Later texts of Guru Parampara identify his lagna as Kataka (Cancer). (Lagna refers to every 2 –hour duration in a day. It is the rising sign in the eastern sky when a person is born). Astrologically speaking, the planetary configuration at the time of his birth favours a life of Yati or an ascetic if his lagna is Kataka. So it appears that there is a slight discrepancy in the record of his exact time of birth. The reason could be attributed to lack of facilities in recording the exact time of delivery, isolation at the time of child birth and scope for delay in reporting birth to others in the household due to taking care of after-delivery issues. This could have resulted in assigning the next lagna (leo) for birth. Later on when people had started analysing the life of Ramanuja posthumously, they would have realised that he could have born in Kataka lagna.

Like this the later day acharyas could have made changes in their understanding of the life of Ramanuja. More details in Ramanuja’s life could have surfaced from different sources and they could have added them in their compositions. At times even hearsay material also could have gone into their works. Anyway Yatiraja Vaibhavam stands as a solid source of evidence for firsthand information on the life of Ramanuja.  

Vaduga Nambi came to be associated with Ramanuja after Ramanuja moved to Karnataka. The record of events in Ramanuja’s life after his association started, could never be faulty. Whatever had happened before that was from what he heard from others or even from Ramanuja himself. So they also cannot be dismissed as fictitious.

In this backdrop we are taking up the first of the two issues stated in the beginning of this write-up that Ramanuja could not have got back the Utsava murthy of Melkote from the Sultan of Delhi because there was no Muslim presence in India at the time Ramanuja lived.

As a close associate of Ramanuja who took care of his personal needs and ‘boiled milk’[xii] for him, Vaduga Nambi had been with him in Melkote. He tells about Ramanuja’s visit to Delhi in two verses and refers to ‘Dilleesha’ – the Lord / ruler of Delhi as one from whom he got the Utsava murthy of Melkote.

Dilleesha is referred as ‘Turushka’ – a reference to Turks in the texts that came up after Ramanuja’s times. Who was he? Were there Turks or people of Islamic faith living in Delhi at that time? How did the murthy get over there? Did any Turkish ruler come up to Melkote and take away the riches of the temple including the Murthy? But there are no records of a southern raid in the period before Ramanuja’s arrival to Melkote. Should we then say that the Vaishnavite texts have spun the myth of Melkote?

Let us search for the truth in the next part from the available evidences.

[ii] Dr R.Nagaswamy (2008) “Ramanuja Myth and Reality – a critical study of Ramanuja’s Life and Works”, Tamil Arts Academy, Chennai

[iii] Mu.Raghava Iyengar “Kalingathu Parani Araich.i” (Tamil), Sarada Padhippagam, Chennai, Page 1.

[iv] Dr R.Nagaswamy (2008), Preface

[v] Garudaswamy aka A.Krishnamachari (2009) “Ramanuja A Reality Not a Myth”, Sri Vaishnava Sri Publications, Chennai

[vi] “Sri Ramanuja” edited by PBA Swamy, June-July 1958, 114-115th Issue, Pages 15-16

[vii] Mark Newman (2014) “Vital Witnesses: Using Primary Sources in History and Social Studies”, Rowman & Littlefield

[viii] Anthony Brundage (2017), “Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing”, John Wiley & Sons

[ix] Khonde, Nitesh., Singh, Sunil Kumar., Mauryal, D. M., Rai, Vinai K., Chamyal, L. S., Giosan, Liviu (2017). “Tracing the Vedic Saraswati River in the Great Rann of Kachchh” Scientific Reports 7, Article number: 5476 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41598-017-05745-8  

[x] (1) Perception (direct & indirect) or prathyaksha, (2) Inference (anumana), (3) Analogy or comparison (upamana), (4) Testimony (sruti texts), (5) Circumstantial presumption (arthapatti), (6) Negative proof of non-cognition or non apprehension (anupalabdhi)

[xi] “Yatiraja Vaibhava” By Andhrapurna aka Vaduga Nambi. English translation by Dr V.Varadachariar, published by M.C.Krishnan, Madras, 1st edition 1978

[xii] Yatiraja Vaibhavam, verse 113.