Srimad Acharya Ramanuja
1000 jeyanti mahotsav: 2016-17
Worshipping in temples and with flowers seem to be a singular gift from South India to the Vedic culture. The famous litterateur Suniti Kumar Chatterjee in the Cultural Heritage of India writes that there is a considerable Dravidian component in today’s temple worship. According to him, “The word puja and the ritual it denotes are both peculiar to India. They are not found among the kinsmen of the Indian Aryans outside India.” He believes that the Dravidian or non-Aryan ritual of puja can be related to a more intimate kinship with the Divine than can be suggested through the Aryan homam; especially the fact that while the homam is largely one of the ‘take and give in return’ one, in puja there is an attendant spirit of “abandon through devotion.” At some later date, the two seem to have been combined.
Ancient Tamil works such as Madurai-k-kanji and Paripadal speak of temple worship, the playing of musical instruments and worshipping with flowers, while the Vedic homam too was popular. Soon the great royal dynasties such as the Cholas, the Pandyas, the Cheras and the Pallavas were building massive temple structures. The first millennium was not only rich in such temple-building activities but also in the rise of the Azhwars and Nayanmars who were inspired to sing about these structures which were the house of God.
When Sri Ramanuja appeared on the scene, South India had temples even in the remotest villages and already towns like Srirangam and Kanchipuram were expanding their temple areas. Sri Ramanuja wondered if all these activities were directed only for attaining the Divine. How about helping making them help establish the life divine for man in those consecrated places?
Sri Ramanuja got a wonderful chance to put into effect his dream when he took over the management of the Srirangam temple. The first act after taking over the administration was to appoint Akalanganattalvan, a non-brahmin, as the supervisor of the temple activities. Ten groups of servitors were formed to be in direct charge of different activities.
For instance there were Sthanathar (hereditary servitors) and Aryabhataal (securitymen). Sri Ramanuja showed the way by personally overseeing the work throughout the day. He set up another group of ten that included tailors, pipers, temple dancers, farmers, sculptors, goldsmiths, bell-metal workers, washermen, potters, boatmen and musicians. This was masterly planning:
“Thus the ten groups of Srivaishnavas, Ekangis, Sattadamudalis, the Kulasekhara Tiraivanigar (the business class which travels overseas to acquire wealth), the miscellaneous temple servants and the ten groups of the non-brahmin parijanas, doing their sacred duties in the Temple were created and their duties were fixed by Udayavar.”
Since feeding the pilgrims was high on the agenda, food supply was given top priority and even today one can see the massive storage bins at the Srirangam temple and the varieties of prasadams that are available. The Dhanvantari sannidhi, with a herbal garden, was inaugurated with Garuda vahana Pandithar in charge. Building of halls (Karuthurai Mandapam, for instance) was encouraged as places to impart education. The famous Manipravala commentaries were the result of the great scholars educating their audiences in these halls. The Acharya involved people from all stratum to work for the temple and arranged for their being honoured accordingly, and these customs continue to be in force.
Prasada had to be prepared daily by Brahmin cooks in the temple kitchens; expert horticulturists from other castes were in charge of maintaining gardens and bringing garlands daily for the Lord; Washermen had to keep ready the garments for draping the deities; cooking vessels were supplied by potters, tree-climbers used to bring tender coconuts for the deity; the Yadava clan were involved in maintaining the ‘go’ shalas and for procuring milk, curd and ghee for the temple.
Later on Sri Ramanuja had opportunities to help in the management of Tirumala and Melkote temples. Tirumalai Olugu (Tirumala) and Udayavar Niyamanappadi (Melkote) give us plenty of information on how Sri Ramanuja helped the common man draw close to the Divine. Sri Ramanuja was instrumental in formulating regulations for the ritual worship of Lord Venkateswara in Tirumala. He planned for the laying of roads around the temple to ease the procession of the deities during temple festivals. He encouraged floriculture atop the hill by asking his disciple Ananthalvan to create a garden and dig a well.
Even at Melkote, he paid special attention to water sources and encouraged the locals to dig tanks and store water for all seasons. The temple work was divided into various services with workers to bring flowers, cook prasada and look after the rituals of worship. There were persons who took direct responsibility for the various mounts of the deity and the temple treasury. And Sri Ramanuja also created a mutt for the Jeeyar in charge of the temple properties (the owner being Lord Tirunarayana himself). The temple activities were carefully monitored by a Vicaranakarta (Executive Officer) and Sri Ramanuja has set a perfect example in this respect.
Smt. Dr. Prema Nandakumar is a notable Tamil Scholar and Writer.