This section is from the book "Some Contributions Of South India To Indian Culture", by S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar. Also available from Amazon: Some Contributions of South India to Indian Culture.
Ramanuja was the son of a grand-daughter of Alavandar. One of the grandsons of Alavandar obtained his permission to go and live at Tirupati, and took along with him his father and two sisters, who were in course of time married by him to two eligible young men. The elder of these had married a Kesava Somayaji belonging to Perumbudur. In course of time Ramanuja was born of this marriage. After undergoing the recognised early education in his own native village, he went to Conjeevaram to complete it by a course of instruction in philosophy under the famous "Vedanta " teacher Yadavaprakasa in Kanchi. It was while under this professor that Alavandar caught a glimpse of the young man and was impressed with his appearance as a fit person for ultimate succession to his position. In course of time Alavandar was drawing near his end, and sent people to fetch Ramanuja from Conjeevaram. Before Ramanuja could reach Srirangam, however, Alavandar had breathed his last. It was miraculously indicated however to Ramanuja that Alavandar had left three things undone, and designed Ramanuja as the chosen one to discharge the responsibility of fulfilling these cherished wishes. These were, a commentary, according to the Vaishnava teaching, on the Brahmasutras, a similar commentary upon the Sahasranama by one bearing the name Para-sara, and a similar commentary upon the Tiruvaymoli of Nam-Alvar. This was the mission to which Ramanuja had become heir on the death of Alvandar. He had ultimately to settle down in Srirangam to fulfil this mission and all that was involved in it by way of getting the Vaishnavas together, providing them an organisation with sufficient vitality to continue, overcome controversies and meet the needs of the times by putting the teachings of this form of religion in shape to continue from generation to generation unimpaired. Ramanuja himself performed the first, commissioned the son of his chief disciple Kurattalvan to do the second, and got his uncle's son, who was adopted by him as his successor, to write out the commentary on the Tiruvaymoli. After a varied life, he succeeded ultimately in making Srl-rangam the headquarters of the Vaishnavas, and providing for the permanent continuance of the teachings of these commentaries and various other works. He also provided for the propagation of this teaching by the recognition of seventy-four persons as "occupants of the apostolic throne" of the teachers of Vaishnavism. He had to carry on controversies with the advaitins, generally called Mayavadins, with the Jains, and with others even including the Saivas. He succeeded in his mission so far as to put Vaishnavism on a permanent footing.
As it came to Ramanuja, several problems of religio-secular character confronted him. Of these, two features deserve special mention. It was already pointed out that the teaching of the Alvars might be regarded as an adaptation merely of Pauranic Hinduism; there was a rival popular creed in the agamaic, form of worship, of which two sections at least, Pancharatra and Vaikhanasa Agama, are recognised as Vaishna-vaic. The former of these two seems the more important, from the point of view of the community as a whole. This Pancharatra was regarded as unvedic by Kumarila Bhatta.1
It is similarly regarded to be outside of the fold of the Vedic religion by Sankara in his commentary on the 2nd of the Brahmasutras. Even the Saiva works on their Siddhanta, view Pancharatra as a separate religion, and controvert it in the recognised text-book Sivajnana Siddhi. The Vaishnavas of the Ramanuja Sect, at least the great bulk of them now-a-days, are Pancharatrins. The establishment of the teaching of the Pancharatra as Vedic in character and as one form of Vaishnavism was one of the achievements of Ramanuja.
The next item has reference to the needs of the community composed of classes of varying grades of intelligence and mental outlook. It was one of the items of Ramanuja's teaching, which in this particular case, happened to be merely laying an additional emphasis upon the teachings of the Alvars generally, that salvation was attainable alike by all, whatever their earthly position. Here again Ramanuja effected a compromise as in the case of the Pancharatra. Ramanuja's position amounts to this. "Whatever be the position of a man or woman in society, one stood as near to God as anyone else, provided one kept to the high requirements of godly life. What this amounts to, as a measure of social reform, has since become a moot point and there has been considerable division of opinion on the question.
1 Tantravarttika, translation by Ganganath Jha, p. 165. Also Mr. Rama Prasad Chanda's Indo-Aryan Race, p. 99.
Riimanuja lived in the age of the great Cholas having been a contemporary of the great Chola Kulottunga. It was already stated that the period of the Chola ascendency began about the end of the ninth century and lasted till about the middle of the thirteenth century. During this age, it was already pointed out Saivism came in for a cosiderable amount of patronage under some of the Cholas, of whom Rajendra, the Gangaigondachola, stands out prominent. It was under the first of these that the Saiva works of the Adiyars were collected and put in the form in which they have come down to us. It was also the age when Sekkilar wrote the lives of the Saiva saints in his great work Periyapuranam; and Sekkilar lived either as a contemporary of Rama-nuja or slightly later. The four later teachers of the Saivas also belonged to this age and the various Mutts (relgious houses) of the Saivas were founded at this period. Similarly though the Vaismaava organisation began with Natha-muni practically at the commencement of this age of the Chola ascendency, it received full shape and final form of its teaching under Ramanuja early in the twelfth century. From
Ramanuja onwards, as in fact from Nathamuni, the succession of gurus continued unbroken, and the Vaishnava temples became the attractive centres of propagation of this teaching. Among these Srirangam and Conjeevaram constituted the two principal centres. The religious literature of this age both of the Saivas and Vaishnavas are thrown into a controversial form clearly indicating that it was an age of great controversy in matters religious. The religious ferment of which religious controversy is merely the outward expression, became a prominent feature, as soon as the Chola ascendency gave to the country the requisite degree of peace.