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.


(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

  • 1. Regarding Lord's mercy. Next to the Caste mark, this probably is the only other difference most people are aware of

    Vadakalai View

    Some positive gesture is necessary on the part of the jeevatma to deserve the grace of God, because He can be deemed partial if He grants Moksha to all both deserving and undeserving.

    Tenkalai View

    Lord's grace is spontaneous. He can grant Moksha to anyone he likes.

  • 2. Regarding the status of Lakshmi (i) as to her being the means (ii) as to her being infinite (iii) as to her being Paramatma

    Vadakalai View

    • (i) She is the means for attaining salvation as much as the Lord Himself and also has the role of a mediator ( Purushakara)
    • (ii) She is infinite in nature (Vibhu) like the Lord Himself
    • (iii) She is also Paramatma as much as the Lord Himself

    Tenkalai View

    • (i) Do not accept this position though they accept her recommendatory role as held by Vadakalais
    • (ii) She is atomic in nature like other Jeevatmas
    • (iii) She is a Jeevatma like any of us.

  • 3. Regarding Kaivalya

    Vadakalai View

    • (i) Kaivalya is inferior to Paramapada
    • (ii) Kaivalya is not eternal
    • (iii) Kaivalya is situated Outside Paramapada

    Tenkalai View

    • (i) Accepted
    • (ii) Kaivalya is eternal
    • (iii) Kaivalya is within Paramapada but in its outermost parts.

  • 4. Regarding the means of Bhakti and Prapatti

    Vadakalai View

    Accept both as the direct means but Bhakti is more difficult and dilatory while Prapatti is easy and immediate

    Tenkalai View

    Do not accept any means because Jeevatma is so utterly dependent as to be incapable of adopting either Bhakti or Prapatti as a means.

  • 5. Regarding Prapatti

    Vadakalai View

    Prapatti has to be a positive specific act of surrender by the jeevatma to the Paramatma

    Tenkalai View

    No positive, specific act is necessary. All that is required is

    • (i) the knowledge of the Svarupa of the Jeevatma and
    • (ii) mental acceptance of the Lord's grace in granting salvation

  • 6. Regarding sins

    Vadakalai View

    When a jeeva surrenders, the Lord forgives the sins committed by the jeevatma and grants Moksha.

    Tenkalai View

    The sins of a jeevatma is a source of joy for the Lord who relishes the same like a cow licking off the dirt on the body of its calf

  • 7. Regarding performance of Compulsory duties like Sandhyavandanam

    Vadakalai View

    As compulsory duties are laid down by the Sastras which are the Lord's commandments, non- performance will tantamount to transgression of His commands (Ajna adhilangana) and will render the Prapanna liable for punishment

    Tenkalai View

    To a highly evolved soul, non- performance of the compulsory duties is not an offence. But, they should continue to do them more for setting an example to the less evolved souls.

  • 8. Regarding the interpretation of the words "Sarva Dharman Parityajya' occurring in the Charama sloka

    Vadakalai View

    The Dharmas actually refer to the 32 Vidyas attaching to Bhaktiyoga which had already been given up by the jeeva due to incapacity and delay involved in observing them and the Lord offers to stand in their place

    Tenkalai View

    This is literally interpreted to mean ' First, give up your duties and then take refuge in the Lord'

  • 9. Regarding the Lord's grief at the suffering of the souls

    Vadakalai View

    One can have grief only when one cannot remove suffering of another. But, the Lord is capable of removing suffering. So, there is no need for Him to grieve. As Sri Rama , He shows to the World how a human would feel and how one should react on seeing the misery of others.

    Tenkalai View

    They hold that the Lord actually feels sorry on seeing the sufferings of souls and cite examples from Srimad Ramayana where Sri Rama is depicted as grieving over the misery of others.

  • 10. Regarding the Lord's being also atomic as well as gigantic in size as mentioned in the Vedas.

    Vadakalai View

    He is smaller than the atom in beings that are atomic in size. This is called 'Antar Vyapti' ( Immanence). He is also greater than the greatest in the sense He pervades and surrounds everything. This is called ' Bahir Vyapti'. ( Transcendence)

    Tenkalai View

    His being atomic in atoms and enveloping even the biggest are all

    done by what is known as 'Agatitha Ghatana Saamartya'- Special powers enabling accomplishment of even the impossible.