Shri Ramanuja-AcArya (1017C.E. - 1137C.E.) was the first propagator of viSishTAdvaita philosophy on a national scale. His followers are known as Shri vaishNavas. He was the third AcArya (= Master, Teacher, Guru, Guide) in the succession of Shri vaishNava AcAryas beginning from nAtha-muni. While the AlvArs (See 9.6.9) represented the emotional side of Vaishnavism, the AcAryas who followed them represented the intellectual side. Natha-muni (825 –918 C.E.) was the foremost AcArya of the Vaishnavas. He is said to have received by his yogic powers the divine prabandhams straight from Nammalvar who lived centuries before him. He set the hymns to music wherever necessary and popularized them in private and public worship everywhere. After Natha-muni the responsibility of the spiritual leadership of the Shri vaishNavas fell on his grandson YamunAcArya, after a little gap. This YamunAcArya had renounced a kingship of the Pandya kingdom which came his way because of his scholarship and was spending his last days in the service of the lord Deity Shri Ranganatha at Shrirangam. He wrote four basic works on viSishTAdvaita way of life. The teachings and vision of this AcArya greatly influenced his successors, particularly Ramanuja, the immediate successor whose ascent to the leadership is itself a miraculous story of the lineage.
Before YamunAcArya died he had the divine inspiration to call for Ramanuja and decree that the latter should fulfill his mission. By the time Ramanuja arrived on the scene the elder AcArya had already died. Ramanuja went near the dead body of the great preceptor and found that three fingers of the dead saint’s right hand were folded and clenched; nobody around could explain the phenomenon. Ramanuja guessed by intuition that the clenched fingers represented his three aspirations and his message to himself (Ramanuja). He then gave out one after another three declarations as if, it were a telepathic reading of the dead saint's wishes. It was nothing but spiritual telepathy! As he gave out these three declarations, the fingers of the dead saint relaxed and got straightened one by one! The declarations are:
1. Remaining in the Shri vaishNava fold I shall arrange for a commentary of Nammalvar’s tiru-vai-mozhi and then preach the doctrine of prapatti (self-surrender). (Ramanuja later fulfilled this by reading with his own disciples the dravida-prabandha-mala and giving them the dravida-veda which made it equal in rank with the vedas).
2. I shall write an elaborate commentary on the Br.S.s and reveal the saving knowledge to posterity. (Ramanuja finished this great task around 1100 C.E. The work, called Shri BhAshya is a monumental work. It proves that Lord Narayana with all auspicious attributes is the ultimate Brahman, and it is He who gives salvation to devotees in reward to their devotion, preserving their individuality even after salvation).
3. In honour and memory of the renowned ParASara who produced the Vishnu-PurANa, I shall leave behind a great VaishNava by that name. (This vow was fulfilled when Ramanuja gave that name Parašara to the son of Kuresa his foremost disciple and later installed him as his successor to the leadership of the Vaishnava community).
Thus was the torch of Vaishnavism passed on through the greatest telepathic miracle of all time!
Ramanuja was not only a great thinker but an equally great organizer. Before he embraced sannyasa and took the headship of the Vaishnavas at Shrirangam he was a householder devotee but his wife's inability to tune herself to the spirit of his spiritual leanings made him renounce that life. He spent two years in studying the teachings of Yamunacharya from the specialists who had been trained by him. Once when he learnt the most sacred ashTAksharI (=the eight-lettered) mantra from a scholar at Tirukkoshtiyur, he disclosed it to a large mass of people, inspite of the Guru's injunctions of secrecy and punishment of Hell for violation. Ramanuja's defence was that if the knowledge of that mantra would help all those people go to the abode of Lord Vishnu after death he would welcome going to hell for disclosing it to them. He carried on this war against intellectual, religious, or snobbish arrogance unceasingly throughout his life.
Ramanuja toured the whole country to popularize his teachings. Wherever he went he won over the controversialists there and established his own monasteries. He divided the Vaishnava world into several subdivisions and appointed spiritual leaders for each one of them from among the householder devotees who flocked to him. He arranged for the central apostolic succession of the spiritual leadership at the temple of Shrirangam, which from now on became the headquarters of the Vaishnava world. He displayed towards all, and in particular, towards the lower class, a unique compassion and sympathy and gave everybody a place in the Vaishnavite world by allowing them to wear the caste marks of Vaishnavism, to follow the Vaishnava customs and habits and to recite the Prabandhams.
The message that Ramanuja left for posterity and the world went home not only in his home, the heartland of South India, but in the entire country upto distant Kashmir. Many of the great medieval reformers of India drew inspiration from his teachings. He was the first to synthesize the teachings of the Vedas, Brahma-Sutras and the Gîtâ with those of the divine Prabandhams in Tamil. That the Lord is both the goal and the path was convincingly established by him as the core of the teaching in the vedanta of both Sanskrit and Tamil. He revolutionized the thought processes of tradition-bound brahmins by preaching mantras and their meanings to seekers and devotees, irrespective of their caste. He was the foremost maker of modern Vaishnavism. His innovations in the rituals, practices, ideals and the norms of society were successful because, in the tradition of his two great predecessor-AcAryas, he combined the management of the Shrirangam temple with the duties of the apostolic head of Vaishnavism. It is no wonder that today no Vaishnavite temple is considered complete without an image of his as the prince of devotees ever facing the Lord in His contemplation. Factions will forget their differences just at the mention of his name. His influence over all alike, brahmin or non-brahmin, southerner or northerner, poor or rich, the protagonist of Sanskrit or of Tamil, is remarkable. It does not matter whether they adhere to his school of philosophy or not. Throughout the Hindu world, the attitude of a religious worship of a divinity or a Guru is in essence the one taught and followed by Ramanuja, namely the attitude of a servant to the master. -–of one of insignificance to one of infinite compassion, knowledge, power and grace.