Arthi Prabandham is said to be Manavala Mamunigal’s swansong before he attained Srivaikuntam. He authored this prabandham solely for salvation-seekers, who, when caught in the quagmire of samsaric afflictions, find themselves unsuitable for performing any of jnana yoga, karma yoga, bhakti or sharanagati. This work comprises verses that are in the form of dialogues, instructions and informational content. In some verses, we see Mamunigal talking to his own mind and in other verses, experiencing alternating fits of love and pain, he seems to be engaging in a conversation with Ramanuja.
The relationship between the individual souls and the Supreme Lord continues from time immemorial. It is for the souls to realize the everlasting continuity of this relationship with the Supreme Self. Subsequent to the initiation ritual (pancha samskara), the soul gets to know of the nature of this relationship in the form of spiritual instructions from one’s immediate preceptor. However, the theoretical knowledge of this relationship alone doesn’t suffice to gain the candidacy required for performing unconditional surrender. The pulls of bondage, which are a result of our previous deeds, can at some times be too strong for us to condition and discipline our mind to practically realize the truth learnt through instructions. It is here that we need the grace of our preceptor to cross the river of bondage.
By projecting himself as a mortal caught in the web of earthly afflictions, Mamunigal, throughout this prabandham, immediately strikes a chord with his audience. He prescribes to them the secret (i.e. singing the holy names of Ramanujacharya) that will help them sever connections with bondage and attain an everlasting place in Srivaikuntam. But why did Mamunigal appeal to Ramanuja instead of seeking the grace of Namperumal (the processional deity of Srirangam) or his immediate preceptor Tiruvaimolippillai? While Mamunigal eulogizes his immediate preceptor in two verses (21, 22), he answers the question of Ramanuja’s primacy subsequently. In order to receive the grace of Namperumal, one needs to obtain the qualifications required of a spiritual seeker. On the other hand, Ramanuja, as a sincere father and a care-taking mother will be tolerant of our inadequacies for we are ultimately his kin. Hence, access to his grace, by means of meditating upon him, and by chanting his holy names in the form of Ramanusa Nutrandadi (also called Prapanna Gayatri), is recommended as the sole means that will elevate us to the Lord’s divine abode, Srivaikuntam. It is this devotion of Mamunigal to the holy feet of Ramanuja that is beautifully captured in the invocatory verse to this prabandham:
ten payilum taran etirasan sevadi mel
tan parambatti talai eduttu – mandarkku
unavaga arthiyudan ontamilgal seidan
manavala mamunivan vandu
“By virtue of the immense devotion he had towards the lotus red feet of Ramanuja (who adorns a flower garland flowing with honey), Manavala Mamunigal, experiencing alternating fits of love and pain, put together the collective wisdom of instructions in Tamil language for the consumption of the inhabitants of this world steeped in nescience.”
In addition to glorifying Ramanuja, Mamunigal extols the glory of three types of people in the initial verses of this work. First, he refers to Ramanuja Adiyars – those who sing the glory of Ramanuja all the time and serve his lotus feet. Second, he refers to the well-wishers who sing the glory of “Ramanuja Adiyars”. Third, he refers to those people who sing the glory of the well-wishers of Ramanuja Adiyars. According to Mamunigal, all these three categories of people occupy an exalted status when compared to the celestials. That is, even the celestials will worship the feet of these three categories of people. Thus, through these initial verses, Mamunigal drives home the greatness of affiliation to Ramanuja’s tradition which liberates people from bondage. By chanting the glory of Ramanuja and by serving the feet of the servants of Ramanuja, one can exalt himself to the eternal abode of the Supreme Lord Sriman Narayana, where the celestials will worship our feet and welcome us with a warm reception.
In an extraordinary display of modesty, Mamunigal chastises himself for lurking in bondage in four verses (16-19). This indestructible atma, by virtue of being entrapped in the darkness of ignorance, suffers an everlasting night of bondage. He entreats the solar rays of Ramanuja’s grace to dispel the darkness of his ignorance (18). He goads Ramanuja to come to his rescue by pointing out the duty the latter has to rescue his subjects before disaster strikes. He even goes to the extent of suggesting that his remorseless existence would be a blemish to a person of Ramanuja’s stature, who he refers to as his parent (7, 8, 9, 19).
In the 20th verse of this work, Mamunigal explains the journey that the soul undertakes to reach the Lord’s Divine World by explaining the pit stops it encounters enroute. This description is mostly in line with Archiradi, one of Pillai Lokacharya’s 18 secret doctrines. Having departed from the gross body, the soul travels via the “archiradi” nerve (nadi) to reach Srivaikuntam. On its way, the soul takes a dip in the viraja river to quench itself from the heat of samsara (tapa traya) and to wash off other impurities of its material existence. The purity of the soul (i.e. its original nature) now shines through the new supernal (sattvic) body that it assumes for itself. As the soul leads its way to the palace of Vaikuntanatha where the Lord is seated along with His consort Mahalakshmi, it is welcomed by celestials who give it a divine decoration. Afterwards, the Lord, Sri Vaikuntanatha, accepts the individual soul, places it on His lap and caresses it to give it unparalleled, eternal bliss. Having explained the secret of this everlasting happiness, Mamunigal concludes the verse by saying that Ramanuja alone can lead us to such eternal joy.
Mamunigal continues his description of Srivaikuntam in the 23rd verse of this work where he explains to us its structural arrangement. In this verse, he explains how the eternals (nityamuktas) like Adisesa, Garuda, Visvaksena are seated in paramapadham, with their collective seating arrangement resembling glittering beads and pearls. He also describes the Tirumamani Mandapa, at the centre of which, the ruler of Srivaikuntam, Sri Vaikuntanatha, is seated on Adisesa, accompanied by His consorts Mahalakshmi to His right and Bhu/Nila devis to His left. Mamunigal compares the Lord’s position in the centre of the Tirumamani Mandapa to that of a lotus flower with three shoots from where He manages the affairs of all the worlds. Having described the setting in Srivaikuntam, Mamunigal appeals to the grace of Ramanuja to enable him worship the form of the Lord as described above.
Contributions of the work to Visistadvaita:
Mamunigal hints at the nature of the soul by referring to it as indestructible (durasaya) and permanent (nitya). Bound by karma from previous births, the soul suffers in bondage as it erroneously identifies itself with the body (18, 51).
The author explains the nature of salvation and the journey of the soul as it exits the body through the archiradi nerve (20). The underlying premise in this explanation is the Supreme Lord’s transcendental opulence that earns him the title ubhaya vibhuti natha- the Lord of Nitya and Lila Vibhutis.
The author further delineates the structural arrangements in Nitya Vibhuti by describing how the Lord and His consort are seated in the tirumamani mandapa and how they are surrounded by the army of eternals and souls delivered from bondage. Mamunigal further explains how the material body, with its early constituents in samsara makes way for one composed of suddha satva as a soul crosses the viraja river (24).
In addition, the author alludes to the objectors (purvapakshis) whose ontological and epistemological positions were disproved by Sri Ramanuja (29, 32). Mamunigal extols the scholarship of Ramanuja who, through his works like the Sri Bhashya, defeated the Caravakas whose epistemology only considered direct perception (pratyaksa) as a valid knowledge-generating tool. The author credits Ramanuja for: (i) incinerating the philosophical foundations of the jainas, (ii) being instrumental in the evaporation of an entire ocean called Buddhist Philosophy, (iii) decimating the mountain called Sankhya philosophy and grinding it to dust, (iv) defeating the kanadavadins through the power of his speech and (v) driving away the invading pasupatas through his arguments (by comparing it with the incident in which Rudra hid his way to safety from the arrows of Banasura). In addition, the author also sings paeans to Ramanuja’s triumph over the prabhakaras, the bhattas, the mayavadins and finally, Ramanuja’s first teacher Yadavaprakasa. In the process, the author glorifies the scholarly genius of Ramanuja which was instrumental in the rooting these philosophical schools out of existence and enabling the establishment of Visitadvaita as the true exposition of Vedantic philosophy.