Ramanuja’s Brahman—A Personal God With Attributes
According to Ramanuja, whatever is, is Brahman; but, Brahman is not of a homogeneous nature. It contains within Itself elements of plurality on account of which It truly manifests Itself in a diversified world. Ramanuja’s Brahman is essentially a Personal God, the all-powerful and all-wise Ruler of a real world, permeated and animated by His spirit. There is thus no room for the distinction between Param Nirguna and an Aparam Saguna Brahman, between Brahman and Isvara. Ramanuja’s Brahman is Savisesha Brahman, i.e., Brahman with attributes.
Ramanuja’s Brahman is not the Impersonal Absolute, but He is a Personal God, with the qualities of omnipotence, omniscience and infinite love. God is Saguna. When the Vedic texts declare that He is Nirguna, it means that there are no base or lower qualities such as sorrow, pain, mortality, change and old age in Him.
The Lord is interpenetrating everything. He is the essence of the soul. He is the Antaryamin or the Inner Ruler. He is one with the soul. He is all-pervading (Vibhu). He is the Supreme Being. He is full of auspicious attributes. He is of the nature of Satya (Truth), Jnana (Intelligence) and Ananda (Bliss). Matter and soul depend on Him. He is the Adhara or support for this world and all souls. God is the Governor or Controller (Niyanta or Seshin) of the world. Jiva or soul is Niyama or Sesha (one who is being controlled).
The Lord is immanent. He is also transcendent. He is unchanging. The entire universe is latent in Him during Pralaya. The world is projected during creation, but this does not touch His essence. Ramanuja’s Brahman has internal difference (Svagata Bheda). It is a synthetic whole, with souls and matter as Its modes (Chit-Achit-Visishta). Para, Vyuha, Vibhava, Archa and Antaryamin, i.e., the transcendent, the group, the incarnation, the image and the immanent are the five forms of the Lord.
Ramanuja identifies God with Narayana who dwells in Vaikuntha with His Sakti or consort, Lakshmi. Lakshmi is the Goddess of Prosperity. She is the Divine Mother. She pleads with Her husband on behalf of man. She introduces the devotee to Her Lord and obtains for him salvation. Lakshmi occupies a pre-eminent place in Vaishnavism.
The World—A Real Part Of Brahman’s Nature
The world, with its variety of material forms of existence and individual souls, is not an unreal Maya, but a real part of Brahman’s nature. It is the body of the Lord. Matter is real. It is Achit or non-conscious substance. It undergoes a real Parinama or evolution. Matter exists in a subtle state as the Prakara of God during Pralaya. Hence it is eternal, but ever dependent. It is controlled by the will of God. It is neither good nor bad. It becomes a source of pleasure or of pain according to the nature of the Karma of souls. It forms the object of experience for the souls.
Prakriti has three Gunas: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas; but, Suddha-Tattva has only Sattva. It is pure matter. Suddha-Tattva is the substance which constitutes the body of God and is called His Nitya-Vibhuti. The manifested world is His Lila-Vibhuti.
The Soul—A Distinct Individual Entity
The soul is a higher Prakara of God than matter, because it is a conscious entity. It is of the essence of God. According to Ramanuja, God, soul and Nature are three eternal entities. The soul is self-conscious, unchanging, partless and atomic (Anu). The souls are infinite in number. The individual soul of Ramanuja is really individual. It is absolutely real and eternally distinct from God. It has indeed, sprung from Brahman, and is never outside Brahman; nevertheless, it enjoys a separate personal existence and will remain a personality forever.
Three Classes of Souls
According to Ramanuja, there are three classes of souls, viz., Nitya (eternal), Mukta (free) and Baddha (bound). The eternal souls have never been in bondage. They are eternally free. They live with God in Vaikuntha. The freed souls were once subject to Samsara, but have attained salvation now and live with God. The bound souls are caught up in the meshes of Samsara and are striving to be released. They wander from life to life till they are redeemed.
Man or the individual soul is a particle of which God is the whole. The individual soul is like a spark of that mass of fire. The whole pomegranate fruit represents the Brahman of Ramanuja, each seed corresponding to the individual soul.
The Evolution Of The Soul And Its Final Emancipation
When the individual soul is immersed in worldliness or Samsara, its knowledge is contracted. It gets its body according to its past Karma, and goes from birth to death and from death to birth, till it attains Moksha or the final emancipation. When it attains Moksha, its knowledge expands. It knows everything. “Every action that contracts the heart of the soul is bad, and every action that expands the heart of the soul is good”—this is the statement of Ramanuja. The soul is marching on in this Samsara, expanding or contracting through its good and evil actions, till it attains the final emancipation through the grace of Lord Narayana. The grace descends on those souls who are pure and struggling for the divine grace.
Emancipation or Passing into Paradise
According to Ramanuja, Moksha means the soul’s passing from the troubles of mundane life into a kind of heaven or paradise (Vaikuntha) where it will remain forever in undisturbed personal bliss in the presence of God. The liberated soul attains to the nature of God. It never becomes identical with Him. It lives in fellowship with the Lord, either serving Him or meditating on Him. It never loses its individuality. There is no such thing as Jivanmukti, according to Ramanuja. Salvation comes when the soul leaves the body.
Bhakti—The Means to Emancipation
The final emancipation can be obtained only through Bhakti and the grace of the Lord. The grace of the Lord comes through devotion and Prapatti or absolute self-surrender. Karma and Jnana are only means to Bhakti.
- from "All About Hinduism" by Swami Sivananda