Understanding a Sampradaya

You can never understand a particular sampradaya of Hinduism based only on text; there are too many dimensions to consider. A sampradaya should be approached from various points of view. Yet, even these perspectives might create contradictions and won’t give a clear picture.

For example, the Srivaishnava tradition continuously claims that its origin is from Narayana itself. It went to his consort Sri, then to Senaimudali (Vishvassenar), Nammazhvar, and down through various acharyas. However, the sthala-purana of each temple will talk about the intricacies of Srivaishnava in its own way.

According to Dr. Anandapadbanacharya, the presiding deity of Srikurungudi in Tirunellveli becomes a ‘Sri Vaishnava’ only after being duly initiated in that tradition. This means that the very deity who is the origin of Srivaishnava needs to be further re-initiated to become an adherent of the same sampradaya. This is the story about it as explained by Anandabadbanacharya:

One day the presiding deity of Thirukurungudi (Nambi) asked Ramanuja how he can manage to win so many people to the sampradaya by correcting their wrong ways by taking only one ‘avatara’ (birth) as Ramanuja, whereas he failed to win so many people to this sampradaya in spite of taking so many avataras.  In response Ramanuja said, ‘if you ask according to due procedure, the response will be given’.

As a digression, Anandabadbanacharya said (Podigai, 2411-15, Sri Ramanuja Vaibhavam, 6.45 to 7.00 am), “This clearly shows how one can be initiated in Sri Vaishnava by approaching an acharya with due processes.” Then he refuted the counter-claim by so many (liberal or corrupt proponents) that at Tirukkottiyur, Ramanuja claimed to the ‘gopuram’ of the temple to proclaim the guru mantra that he received from his guru so that many people can be saved.1  Then he said, “This is completely denied by our guru parampara (tradition)2 and no one accepts such a wrong view propagated by many. Only by seeking an acharya with due process and humility, an aspirant seeker will be initiated with the guru mantra. This is clearly demonstrated by the very deity of Thirukkurungudi.”

Accordingly, Nambi, coming down from his ‘archavatara’ (idol) approached Ramanuja. Being a humble person, Ramanuja, instead of occupying the seat of the acharya, had his guru Periya Tirumalai Nambi (who is also his maternal uncle) initiate the deity of Thirukkurungudi in the Sri Vaishnava tradition. Then the presiding deity of that temple became ‘Sri Vaishnava Nambi’ or, the Nambi belongs to Sri Vaishnava.

Now if the Sri Vaishnava tradition originated from Narayana himself, how is it possible for him to become a Sri Vaishnava only after receiving deeksha later? This is the true nature of various Indian sampradayas. When we read any sthalapurana of a sampradaya, we should leave it there and should not take it further to compare or contrast with the rest of the other precepts of the tradition. In order to glorify a particular temple, place (sthala), deity, acharya or saint belonging to that particular place, there will be a story.

As a devotee leaves the temple after the darshna only taking with him the grace of god, we too should leave the particular story that belongs to that temple or place. If we began to analyse it by comparing it with the overall claims of the basic tenants of that sampradaya, we will end seeing nothing but contradictions.




Post Script

After writing this, I wondered whether there is another story of Vishnu receiving the ‘mudra’ (seal) of both ‘Sangu and Chakara’ (conch and wheel), as it is imperative for every Sri Vaishnava follower to receive them on the shoulders from an acharya as a part of the initiation. Then, one night, while I was listening to a religious discourse at our ashram, I heard this topic being discussed. I didn’t hear it from the beginning and cannot give the details, but here is the story as best as I can remember:

There was a dispute about the identity of the deity at Tirupaty, as Shaivites claimed that it was not the murthy (idol) of Vishnu but actually Siva, and the followers of Skanda as their deity Shanmuga (Skanda). So the matter reached the king. He asked the followers of each sampradaya to bring the symbols of their respective sect (flag, weapons, etc.): Sangu and Chakra for Vaishnavies; Thrishul and Damaru for Shiva; Spear and peacock flag for Skanda. Then the king sealed the door and put security around it. It was unanimously decided that the next day whichever symbols the deity accepted, the murthy would belong to that sampradaya. So the followers of the three sects waited outside the sanctuary singing bhajans and praying whole night.

At midnight, Vishnu appeared to Ramanuja and asked him to come inside and help him put the wheel and conch as he cannot bend to take them. But Ramanuja asked, “How is it possible since the king closed and sealed the door and put security?” Then Vishnu instructed Ramanuja to take the form of a snake and come through the gap by the door. Accordingly, being himself an avatara of Adhi Shesha (snake and also the bed of Vishnu), and leaving his human body where it was, he took the ‘avatara’ of snake and went inside and put the wheel and conch on the shoulders of Vishnu.

Pleased with this, Vishnu said, “Now I have received the mudra according to your tradition. As you gave me this deeksha of Sangu and Chakra, you will become my acharya (preceptor) and I will honour you by giving your dhakshina (honorarium). You may ask for anything you like.” Always thinking about the mukti of his followers, Ramanuja said, “Assure me that you will give mukti not only to my immediate disciples, but all those who will follow them in all future generations” Accordingly Balaji (Vishnu) gave that dhakshina to Ramanuja.

Then the speaker concluded by saying, “That is why mukti is assured to the followers of Sri Ramanuja Sampradaya. So they need not worry about their mukti but only to think about other needs to lead the life on this earth.”

Then on January 1st and 4th, Dr. Anandapadbanacharya repeated the same story in his program in Podigai, ‘Sri Ramanuja Vaibhavam’. But there were lots of variations. He didn’t mention Ramanuja taking the avatara of a snake and going inside the sanctuary to put the conch and wheel on the shoulders of Balaji. But said that Ramanuja continued to stay outside and prayed to Vishnu to establish himself to prove that He is the deity that dwells inside in this kali yuga.

There was another slight but significant variation. According to the first speaker, it was Ramanuja and others who sought the interference of the king to decide the matter. Whereas according to Dr. Anandapadbanacharya, as the king failed to convince the followers of other faiths (that the deity is Balaji), he sought the help of Ramanuja to resolve the crisis. Accordingly Ramanuja is the one who gave the idea of the trial of keeping the symbols of each deity. This shows how Ramanuja has more authority to make a decision. Giving this kind of importance to the guru or acharya of one’s sampradaya over a king is quite common, whereas the king has real authority to decide on any religious dispute among the sampradayas. Whatever might be the variations in these stories, this shows the complexity of understanding the sampradayas based either on the text or on the tradition.

Both these narratives help us understand the complexity of understanding the various sampradayas in Hinduism. As I pointed out, each sthala purana (local story) is complete in itself and written to glorify that place or deity or a particular saint or event, which may or may not have any compatibility with the core tenants of that Sampradaya. This we should keep in our mind in our approach Understanding Hinduism.



  1. …the famous moment when Ramanuja mounted one of the gopuram towers at Tirukkottiyur —such a prominent part of the architecture of that temple—and shouted to all within earshot the secret initiatory mantra that had been vouchsafed to him by his guru….— John Stratton Hawley, A STORM OF SONGS: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement, London, Harvard University Press, 2015.p. 144
  2. Interestingly, in two of the hagiographies, viz., the Divyasuricaritam, which has two long chapters on Ramanuja, and the Yatiraja Vaibhavam, which deals exclusively with Ramanuja’s life, it is not the Dvaya {dvya} mantra, but the Carama sloka that Ramanuja learnt from his guru and revealed to everybody. Further, the stotras dedicated to him and the Ramanuja Nurrandadi, a hymnal composition that (p.15) forms a part of theNalayira Divya Prabandham, do not mention this famous incident. —Ranjeeta Dutta, From Hagiographies to Biographies, Ramanuna in Traditionand History, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 15-16