Equality is a major topic of discussion in today’s society. Equality is sought to be achieved on individual, social, organizational, cultural and spiritual levels. This document discusses equality on a spiritual level, as per the eternal Vedic religion called Śrīvaishṇavam.
Veda/Vedanta defines 3 entities, chit (sentient entities or living beings called jīvas), achit (non-sentient matter called prakṛiti) and Īśvara (God, Śrīman Nārāyaṇa). The existence of chit and achit is supported by God who indwells them and for whom the former two (chit and achit) form inseparable attributes/modes.
In regard to the concept of equality, there are 2 sides to look at and understand in Śrīvaishṇavam. One from God’s side and the other from the jīva‘s (living being’s) side.
God’s grace (kripa) for living entities is non-discriminatory. Lord Kṛishṇa (God-incarnate that appeared on earth about 5000 years ago) says in Śrī Bhagavad Gīta (Song of God) 9.29:
‘To all beings I am the same; to Me is there neither foe nor friend. But whoso worship Me in love, they are indeed in Me, and I also (am) in them.’
Śrī Rāmānujāchārya‘s Gītābhāshya commentary for the above verse:
Be it the divine, the human, the animal, or the stationary, kingdoms; be they high or low, in point of kind (or caste), in point of look, (color etc.,) in point of nature (character etc.,) or in point of enlightenment, as Refuge to all, independent of such distinctions, I am equal. Inferiority as regards kind, look, nature, or understanding in any person does not, because of it, warrant that he is hateful to me or fit to be rejected as unworthy to come to Me as his Refuge. No one on the other hand claiming superiority of caste etc., is, because of it, specially entitled to claim Me as his Refuge, or has warrant to be particularly dear to Me. Save the ground that he elects Me as his Refuge, not any qualification (as caste, color etc.,) will constitute a claim for My acceptance of Him.
But whoso, of whichever description he be, worship Me as the Object of the most endearing love, worship Me with a fervour as that, without it, their very being would be imperilled, worship Me as that worship alone were their sole end and aim, they,—without regard to their superiority or inferiority as regards caste etc.—would dwell in Me in such a state of blessedness, as compare only with the blessedness of Myself.
I also dwell in them. i.e., dwell in them as if they were My betters [i.e., superiors].
Thus God, being the Refuge to all living entities, is equal to all. Similarly, Śrī Rāmānujāchārya, being a savior deputed for that purpose by God, is equal to all those that take refuge at His lotus feet.
People regardless of caste, creed, color and gender took refuge at Śrī Rāmānujāchāryā‘s (and other Srivaishnava Āchāryās’ (Gurus’)) lotus feet and they were all duly initiated to become Śrīvaishṇavās and delivered from the birth-death cycle to the eternal spiritual universe called Vaikuntha for eternal loving service to God. Śishyas (disciples) like Dhanurdasa come to mind. Often, Sri Ramanujacharya used to return from His river-bath leaning on the shoulders of Dhanurdāsa, though when he went to the bath he leaned on Dāsarathi, a Brāhmaṇa, solely based on the great piety/devotion of Dhanurdāsa. Maraneri Nambi was a devoted sishya of Śrī Yāmunācharya. Many of the Alvars appeared in non-Brāhmaṇa (non-priest class) families/castes.
Jīva’s (Living Entity’s) side
According to Śrī Bhagavad Gīta, verses 7.16 and 7.28, jīvas are broadly classified into those that desire material opulence (aiśvaryārthi), those that seek to enjoy the self/ātma (kaivalyārthi) and those that seek to eternally enjoy God Himself via eternal loving service to God (Mokshārthi).
A soul-seeker (called kaivalyarthi) is one that seeks to realize and enjoy the self (soul/ātma) following release from the birth/death cycle. An important part of achieving kaivalya-moksham (release from the birth-death cycle followed by eternal enjoyment of the self) is achieving equal-seeing of jīvas as explained in the below verses of Śrī Bhagavad Gīta.
Lord Śrī Kṛishṇa says in Śrī Bhagavad Gīta 5.18:
‘The wise equally regard the brāhmaṇa, or one of culture and conduct, or the cow, or the elephant, or even the dog or even the abject outcaste.’
Sri Ramanujacharya’s Gītābhāshya commentary for the above verse:
Brāhmāṇa (by mere birth) or brāhmaṇa (the spiritual class in India; any spiritual men generally) possessed of learning and conduct. Cow, elephant, dog, an abject outcaste and so on, are examples by which to illustrate the great differences between one another, in which (embodied) ātmas seemingly so appear.
The equal-seeing (or regarding), for the knowers of ātma-nature, consists in the regarding of all ātmas (residing in those bodies) as equal, by reason of their essential characteristic, viz., intelligence (jñāna) being a common property. The varied appearances are due to (prakṛiti) matter; not to (ātma) spirit.
The wise see that all ātmas (in whatever bodies they may chance to dwell) are equal, viewed by the standard of the attribute of intelligence being shared by them all in common.
Lord Śrī Kṛishṇa further says in Śrī Bhagavad Gīta 6.29:
‘The meditation-absorbed equal-seer everywhere, perceives ātma abiding in all beings and all beings abiding in ātma.’
Gītābhāshya commentary for the above verse:
‘Equal-seeing everywhere’ (= sarvatra sama-darśana) means the realizing, that ātma, wherever it do abide in oneself or in other beings, is of the self-same essence, looked at from the point of ‘intelligence’ or ‘consciousness’ (jñāna) which is an attribute, equal or common to all ātmas. This is equality, sameness, or agreement which is perceived when ātma-nature is divested of its matter-connection (i.e., ātma in its disembodied condition).
Inequality or difference comes from viewing ātma in its matter-conditioned states.
The yogi or he who is ripe in meditation does not see the differences produced by matter-environments, but perceives the sameness of ātma-nature, wherever it do abide, by its essential or inherent common attribute or property of ‘intelligence’ or ‘consciousness’. This is equal-seeing.
Thus the equal-seer is he who perceives the ātma in him to be the same or of the same character, as the ātmas which abide in other creatures, and that other creatures are equal to himself in this respect. (In other words, he sees ātmas in all beings as like his own ātma, and sees his ātma as like ātmas of other beings).
The conclusion is that all ātmas being of one essential nature, when one ātma’s nature is known or seen, the nature of all ātmas are become known or seen. This sense is expressed by the sentence:—
‘He is a seer of sameness everywhere’ (VI-29). Referred to again in:
‘What this, sameness-seeing meditation (yoga) is, that Thou hast declared’. (yo-yam yogah &c). VI-33.
This sameness was what was again alluded to in:— nirdosham &c:—‘Verily is brahma (ātma) stainless and the same’ (V-19).
Sarvatra sama-buddhayaḥ=equal-minded everywhere, means that the understanding is brought to cognize the fact that soul is everywhere the same by reason of its specific attribute of consciousness (jñāna)—wherever it may happen to dwell for the time being, under cover of the diverse (body-) forms of deva etc.
For this reason, sarva-bhūta-hite ratāh=well-disposed towards all beings, or well-removed from wishing ill to any creature; for ill-wishing is indeed a product engendered by the egoity (or personal selfish loves) due to the differences created by the being a deva etc.
Whoso devotes himself thus to akshara-contemplation (=soul-contemplation) ‘reach Myself,’ meaning that they will realize ātma unconditioned of samsāra, —ātma in essence like unto My own essence. So it is declared further on in Stanza:
‘They will have arrived at an equal status to Mine’ (Gi: XIV-2). Also Śruti says:—
‘Washed of stains, he reaches sublime equality’ etc1. [i.e., kaivalyam desired by kaivalyārthis]
These three qualities Satvam etc., are born of the matter-stuff symbolized by ‘body’. When the embodied (entity) overcrosses these and cognizes that which is different from them, viz: ātma, which is essentially of the nature of intelligence, he becomes relieved from birth, death, dotage and other such sorrows and attains to ātma-enjoyment [i.e., kaivalyam desired by kaivalyārthis]. This is (akin to) My state.
Thus we understand the importance of ‘Equal-seeing everywhere’ (= sarvatra sama-darśana) for kaivalyārthis.
However, Śrīvaishṇavas are God-seekers (Mokshārthis). For a Śrīvaishṇava, a jīva is more than a mere conscious living entity having jñāna (intelligence). Rather a jīva is one that is an eternal loving servant of God having nava-vidha sambandham (9 fundamental relationships of loving service) with God. This is called Bhagavad-seshatvam (loving servant of God).
Loving-servant of God (Bhagavad-seshatvam)
Lord Śrī Kṛishṇa describes the God-lover in Śrī Bhagavad Gīta 6.47:
‘Even more beyond the yogis and of all, is he said to be the most superior who, in faith, and with his inmost manas immersed in Me, worshippeth Me.’
To a Srivaishnava, the self as well as other living entities are loving servants of God.
Gitabhashya for 7.19:
It takes not a few births of meritorious works, for one to ripen into that consummate wisdom that the soul is by nature the servant of the Lord. It takes many births of a meritorious kind, at the end of which one will know: ‘I am essentially liege (Śesha) to Vāsudeva; my doings, my (nature) and my very being, dependent on Him. As for Him, He is most Superior by His countless Glorious Attributes.’ Then is he jñānavān, the sage or the wise or illuminated person.
Gitabhashya for 9.27:
The import is this: ‘In all acts constituting yāgas (sacrifices) and dānas (gifts), the devas (or lesser gods) are resorted to as objects of worship; and thou art the performer of the act and the enjoyer. But both the devas and thyself are Mine; and depend on Me alone as your Prop, and for all your impulses and very being. In Me, therefore, Who am the Absolute Lord (śeshi), the Paramount Agent or Actor, offer up (1) thyself, the actor, the enjoyer, the worshipper, (2) the hosts of devas, the worshipped; and (3) the sum of acts constituting worship. Let thy mode of contemplation united with rapt love be of the manner that thou art My ruled, deriving thy chief characteristic of liegeship (or vassalage) relatively to such (God-)rule, and that the worshipped devas are of similar nature.
Gitabhashya for 9.28:
Thus, pondering on the ātma as solely My vassal, as solely under My rule, and calculating all act as My worship) do thou perform all acts, secular and scriptural. And thou shalt thus be freed from the fetters of all the deeds of the measureless past embodying good and evil fruits, barricading thy passage to Me. So rescued from them, thou shalt attain to Me.
Further in Sri Ramanujacharya’s Gitabhashya for Śrī Bhagavad Gīta 10.3:
Asammūdhaḥ=the non-ignorant, or the wise; wisdom consisting in being destitute of the hallucination in that I am equal to, or I compare with, other things, or not identifying Me with, or conceiving Me as like unto, other things.
Further in Śrī Bhagavad Gīta 18.54:
‘Become Brahm-like and clear-souled, he laments not and longs not; equal towards all beings, he doth attain to My love supreme.’
Sri Ramanujacharya’s Gitabhashya for the above:
Laments not= Save Myself, he has no grief as in relation to any other being. (His only grief is God-grief); nor has he love for anything else. (His only love is God-love).
Same or equal to all beings=An attitude of indifference towards every creature, save Myself; and thus not caring a straw for anything. Supreme (=para-) bhakti for Me is attained.
Loving-servant of God’s devotees (Bhāgavata-śeshatvam)
Srīvaishṇava Acharyas (Gurus) have not only explained that servitude to God also extends to God’s devotees (per Srivachana Bhushanam), but have emphasized the importance of a Srivaishṇava’s servitude to other Srivaishṇavas without regard to caste/creed/color that may have originally pertained to the bodies of those Srivaishṇavas (per Srivachana Bhushanam). This is called Bhāgavata-śeshatvam and a most important principle in Śrīvaishṇavam.
The following excerpt from “Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Āl̲vārs” by Sriman S.M.Srinivasachari Swamin, explains this in detail:
IV. The Concept of Bhāgavata-śeshatva
Before we conclude we should take note of another important aspect of jiva’s relation not only to God but also to the devotee of God. In Vaisnava terminology, this is known as Bhāgavata-śeshatva, which means that an individual self is subordinate to God’s devotees. This concept which constitutes a distinctive theory of Vaisnavism finds a clear expression in the hymns of the Alvars. Though there are some references to this idea in the Mahābhārata, Rāmāyaṇa and Vaisnava Puranas, the Alvars appear to have been the forerunner of the theory. Two decads of the Tiruvaymoli (111.7 and VIII.10) are exclusively devoted to extol the greatness of bhāgavata-śeshatva. Nammalvar regards the sub-ordination to God’s devotee as an ideal to be aspired for (parama-prapya) by a Vaisnava. He says: “Whoever worships the Supreme Lord with devotion, unto him I bow with respect irrespective of his caste and social status.” Such a person is to be accepted as one’s svamin or master. Not only a Bhāgavata is respected but even his devotees up to a few generations are treated as svamin of a Vaisnava. In a characteristic way he says: “We are the subordinates to the devotees of devotees of devotees of devotees.” In the tenth decad of the eight centum to which Vaisnava Acaryas attach special importance, the worship of the Bhāgavatas (Bhāgavata-kainkarya) is considered superior to the worship of God Himself. Even the Lordship of the world, (aiśvarya), the blissful experience of the soul (kaivalya) and the experience of God in the state of moksa are not comparable to the joy derived from the worship of the true devotees of Visnu.
The Bhāgavata-kainkarya is held in such a high esteem that one of the Alvars, Vipranārayana called himself as Tondaradippodi, which literally means ‘wearer of the dust of the feet of devotees’. KulaśekharAlvar also extols the dust of the feet of the devotees (adippodi) and regards it as holy as Ganga water.’ He wishes to be born as the pathway to the Tirumalai hills and the footsteps leading to the temple so that he could have the contact with the Bhagavatas coming to worship the Lord.
Tirumangai Alvar has devoted two decads (II.6 and VII.4) to glorify the greatness of the Bhāgavatas. He considers them greater than the nitya-sūris and would ever cherish to see them, think of them and move with them. He regards them as his masters and worthy of worship. PeriyalvAr also speaks highly about the devotees of God. In one of the decads, while condemning those who do not show respect to such devotees, he goes to the extent of saying that these persons have the right even to sell him.
Thus, we find in the hymns of the Alvars a fuller presentation of the theory of Bhāgavata-śeshatva with an added emphasis. Though this concept can be traced to a few statements in the Itihasas and Vaisnava Puranas, the credit of developing it into a doctrine goes to the Alvars. The teachings of the Alvars on this subject have definitely influenced Ramanuja and the Vaisnava Acaryas of later period who have adopted it as an important theory of Vaisnavism.
Accordingly, even while understanding that all ātmās share the fundamental attribute of jñāna (intelligence), a Śri Vaishṇava is to associate with and serve Bhāgavatās (other Śrīvaishnavas, regardless of the caste(varṇa), creed or color they happen to appear in) thinking lowly of oneself (Naichyanusandhanam). This is Bhāgavata-seshatvam, which precludes feeling equal to other Bhāgavatās/Śrī Vaishṇavās.
Hence, a Śrivaishṇava must never feel equal to other Śrīvaishṇavās but rather, be humble and practice Bhāgavata-śeshatvam as mentioned above.
Śrīvaishnavas are for equality at the workplace, etc., just as God and Acharyas are equal to everyone that approach them. Organizations must make sure to treat everyone in their care equally regardless of caste, creed, color, gender, etc., just as God and Acharyas are equal to everyone in their care. However, a Śrivaishnava goes beyond equality as for his/her individual attitude and conduct towards others, constantly striving to stay humble, looking at all other Śrivaishṇavas as his masters and perform all work, both secular and religious, as kainkaryam, as service to God and Śrivaishnavas as is appropriate.
- Śrī Rāmānujāchārya’a Gītābhāshya (commentary on Śrī Bhagavad Gītā). Also available in PDF format.
- “Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Āl̲vārs” by Sriman S.M.Srinivasachari Swamin