VADAKALAI-THENKALAI Doctrinal Differences(by Sri Mani Varadarajan, USA)
Historians say that the deep division that you've witnessed is a product of lesser minds a century or two after Manavala Mamuni's death. Certainly, there were differences in emphasis on grace, karma, etc., and surrender (prapatti), but the greatest teachers on either side had no intention of causing a split. In fact Vedanta Desika says in one of his works that "In the tradition of Yatiraja (Ramanuja), there is no division; there is only a small difference in opinion." Similarly, Manavala Mamuni (the main post-Ramanuja acharya for Thengalais, who lived a century after Desika) quotes Desika in his works and refers to him very respectably as "abhiyuktar". I believe this term was used only for respected members of one's own community.
As for the differences themselves:
First, let me go into the origin of the doctrinal differences, and then I'll deal briefly with the differences themselves. One recent author, instead of using the words "Thengalai" and "Vadagalai", used the terms "Srirangam Acharyas" and "Kanchi Acharyas", since a difference in opinion existed long before the "---galai" words came to prominence.
There are several reasons for this difference. First, Ramanuja never definitely put down his words on the nature of SaraNaagati. Since Ramanuja's words were always final, it may have been part of his genius to leave this unresolved since it was such an intensely personal matter. At any rate, there were two sets of Srivaishnava scholars left after Ramanuja passed on. One group, located in Kanchi (where Desikar later grew up), became known for its vast Sanskrit scholarship, probably because Kanchi was a great center of Sanskrit learning of all sorts. People of all religious traditions lived there, and debate between Srivaishnava and non-Srivaishnava was probably very active and prominent. Hence, the greater of use of Sanskrit and Sanskrit ideas by the "Kanchi Acharyas", the Northerners, and eventually the "Vadagalai".
The other group was located in Srirangam, essentially a purely Vaishnava center. Here, popular Vaishnavism was more prominent than Sanskrit-oriented debate with other schools. Hence, there must have been great occasion for public lecture (Katha Kaalakshepam, Upanyaasam, etc) of the Prabandhams and general bhakti literature, as opposed to the abstruse Sanskrit Vedanta. Therefore, there was greater usage of the Tamil Prabandham, language and more radical metaphors (when viewed from a Sanskrit perspective), as befits expositions of the Azhvar literature, which are more 'anubhavam' (experience) than doctrine. This is probably also why there are more Thengalais (of all castes) than Vadagalais.
Naturally, with this difference in geography, intellectual climate, and language came some differences in emphasis. The Kanchi Acharyas, carefully guarding the doctrine of karma, etc., emphasized the need of the individual soul to actually perform the act of surrender to the Lord, with its associated attitudes, etc. The Srirangam Acharyas, taking many of the words of the Azhvars and the stotra literature to heart, emphasized the greatness and overwhelming grace of the Lord to "save His own", and therefore spoke more of the *attitude* than the act. The Srirangam acharyas felt that *performing an act* of surrender was an act of self-exertion, which was not in line with the individual soul's svaroopa as being completely dependent on the Lord. Furthermore, they felt that such an *act* was 'amaryaada', i.e., was disrespectful, since (i) the soul was offering itself when it in actuality eternally belonged to the Paramaatma, and (ii) not even the physical act of surrendering can force the Lord to save the soul. He saves the soul on His own initiative; rest assured that He *will* save you, but don't try to force Him.
Therefore, there is no separate 'prapatti' or 'SaraNaagati' for Thengalais, like there is for Vadagalais. Thengalais also do not admit bhakti-yoga as a separate means, with the idea that it is only prapatti (which is essentially realizing the nature of one's soul) that "achieves" moksha. (Thengalai Acharyas would probably even object to my usage of the word "achieve".)
So this is the distinction. Naturally, many other beliefs follow
from this difference, but what is outlined above is primary. The
concept of caste, etc., was much more liberally interpreted in
the Thengalai acharyas' works in consequence, but it appears that
such doctrines did not have a lasting impact on the
community. Orthodox Thengalai Brahmins are as staunchly casteist
as any Vadagalai that I know.
VADAKALAI AND TENKALAI DISTINCTIONS(by Sri U Ve Anbil Ramaswamy, USA)
In Srivaishnava school itself, two branches of thought had emerged between the time of Sri Ramanuja and that of Sri Vedanta Desika whose contemporary was Pillai Lokacharya. They are called Vadakalai ( Northern ) and Tenkalai ( Southern) though in reality there is NO GEOGRAPHICAL POLARIZATION to justify their nomenclature.
Possibly, this is due to greater importance ascribed by the former to the Vedas which were in Sanskrit, a language prevalent in the Northern part of India, while the latter stressed the importance of the Divya Prabandams of Alwars which were in Tamil, the language prevalent in Southern part of India. This distinction has, in fact, no meaning since both in temple worship and in the hearths and homes the two streams have been so integrated and observed by both the branches.
Swami Sri Vedanta Desika is generally regarded as representing the so called ' Vadakalai' sect. But, since he has produced monumental works in both the ' Northern Sanskrit' and the ' Southern Tamil', he and his followers could more appropriately be called ' Ubhaya Kalai' ( both Kalais) rather than mere ' Vadakalai'.
Also, their differences are not on fundamentals but on certain aspects of the Srivaishnava philosophy which one branch emphasises with greater force than the other. It is unfortunate that some later day enthusiasts of the two branches went to stupid lengths ( e.g. ) putting alternatively their respective ThirumaN on the forehead of the poor temple elephant and taking the dispute right upto the privy council.
In fact, most people know only this difference regarding the application of the white clay caste marks in the form of 'U' by the northern and 'Y' by the Southern sects. It would appear that when an Acharya observed that the base of the castemark should touch the TIP of the nose. one set took it to mean the TOP-TIP where to link the eyebrows with a U shaped curve while the other took it to mean the TOE-TIP, with a spear- point -like stroke riding on the back of the nose reaching up to the nostrils. We do not know whether the Acharya did not explain what he meant or the Sishyas did not seek a clarification or the Acharya had become unavailable for an explanation. Be that as it may, the practices had come to stay and stay with such disastrous consequences. This is an example of how over- enthusiastic fanatics could blow up even insignificant and inconsequential distinctions to abnormal proportions.
There are about 18 such points of differences with varying degrees of insignificance as not to deserve a discussion at all. Still, being on the subject, we shall briefly allude to a few of them by way of illustration and without comment