Ramavats (Ramanandis)

Doctrines Though the fifth successive leader and teacher of the Visista Advaita school founded by Ramanuja, Ramananda is not associated with any particular doctrines. With the exception of some bhajans, devotional hymns, Ramananda left no written works. However, he did start a popular religious movement in northern India using the vernacular for teaching rather than Sanskrit. This was reinforced by considering all devotees as equal, thus ignoring caste. Traditionally, Ramanandi's closest followers were a brahman, a barber, a leather-worker, a Rajput, and a woman.
The supreme deity of the sect is Rama and Sita as a combined deity. Rama is the visible form of the supreme deity, Isvara, together with Sita as his maya, power and creative activity.
The main source of doctrine is Valmiki's Ramayana. The story is of Rama's birth, his marriage to Sita, his exile, the abduction of Sita by Ravana the demon king, the battle leading to the killing of Ravana, and the recovery of Sita. Rama is a man upholding dharma, cosmic order. He is a supreme example of dharma, following this all through his life whatever the cost. To Rama "Dharma is the highest truth in the world, and is said to be the root of heaven." In the Ramayana there is hardly any mention of moksha, salvation. Dharma is the most important doctrine and is the means of obtaining heaven, Rama showing the way through his life.
Rama is seen as the ideal man and an example of ideal human relationships. He was the ideal son, an ideal husband and Sita was an ideal wife. Rama and Sita represent the Indian ideal of marriage. He is also an example of brotherly love with Laksmana and Bharata and is an ideal helper of the oppressed. All through the Ramayana, Rama is portrayed as a hero who fights only for dharma. When he breaks the mighty bow of Shiva, he shows he is not only the strongest of men, he is more powerful than the gods. Rama is the ideal king and is destined to rule over Ramarajya as the ideal kingdom on earth. When he is fifteen he kills Tataka, a female raksasa, demon, in accordance with rajadharma, the dharma of the kingdom, and in the climax of the Ramayana he kills Ravana. In the first and sixth books of the Ramayana, Rama is depicted as an avatara, incarnation, of Vishnu who comes to earth as a human warrior to kill the demon Ravana.
The Adhyatma Ramayana, a late fourteenth century text, is in the narrative form of a conversation between Shiva and Parvati to provide an advaita, nondualistic, philosophical orientation to the teachings of the Rama cult. Rama is Brahman, the Absolute, who takes human form to accomplish his divine purposes. The text stresses bhakti, devotion, towards Rama. This is a central scripture to the Ramavats.
Tulsidas's Ramcaritmanas, written about 1574, is the most popular book ever in northern India, and sees Rama as nirguna Brahman, Absolute Reality, and also stresses the primacy of bhakti, loving devotion to Rama as a personal God. In the Ramcaritmanas all the characters of the Ramayana are devotees of Rama, including Ravana and the demons. This devotional theory says that even an enmity to God is one of the means of reaching God.
Devotees believe that chanting Rama's name and meditating on the main happenings in his life will lead them to God. They also worship Hanuman, the monkey god, as a great follower of Rama and a great magician. Parts of stories about Krishna's life are borrowed to describe Rama as a child.

History Ramananda is a mysterious figure from northern India. One text says he was born in 1299 and lived in Benares.
Ramananda is an important part of the bhakti movement. After Shankara, most sectarian and revivalist movements developed interdependently in their common stance against advaita nondualism. The movement spread through Maharashtra into the Hindi-speaking areas of northern India and to Bengal. Worship in the Hindi-speaking areas was focused on Vishnu as Rama; in Bengal it was focused on Vishnu as Krishna. Different sects emerged and the main sect of Rama in the Hindi-speaking areas was the Ramavats founded by Ramananda.
In the language of the sants, holy men such as Kabir, and other poet-saints, the god Rama became less an avatara of Vishnu, more the totality of the divine presence. Tradition maintains links between the poet-saints of the different sects. Ramananda is said to have been the guru of Kabir and one hagiology, the Bhaktamal of Nabhadas (c. 1625), describes Ramananda as the guru of Kabir, Ravidas, and Pipa.
The line of descent from Ramanuja and the Shri Vaishnavas may not be as close as claimed but might be an attempt to compensate for the lack of written works by Ramanuja. However, it seems that Ramananda did derive inspiration from South India. In northern India, he and his guru were influenced by tantric practices through contact with the Nath cult.
Rama, the god of the Ramavats, is traced back into Aryan tradition. Indian tradition accepts that Rama belonged to an ancient Indian dynasty. But it is not possible to prove Rama's historicity by Western objective historical methods. Some scholars believe that the later events in the Ramayana may have been historical, involving the Aryanisation of South India, and the story of Rama is an allegorical portrayal of those events.

Symbols An important work by Whaling analyses Rama in terms of "symbolic development." In the Ramayana Rama already fuctions as a symbol and as the Rama tradition develops, different levels of meaning are opened up in the Rama symbol. At the outer level, he is an example of kingship and ethical purpose and an avatara of Vishnu, while at a deeper level he is the devotional Lord, the object of bhakti. "Rama continues to function as a symbol, but ever-deeper levels of meaning are opened up in the Rama symbol so that He is realised to be the Lord, the Ultimate, the Foundation of everything that is." The Rama symbol functions at different levels of meaning, remaining an outward symbol for most Indians but having a deeper meaning for some and "at the deepest level of all Rama ceases to be an objective cognitive symbol and becomes a non-cognitive, non-objective symbol that is 'real' for the devotee, and the context in which life and action finally have meaning" (Whaling 1980, 6).
In the autumn at the time of the festival of Dasahra or Vijayamadasami, held to celebrate Rama's victory over Ravana, Tulsidas's Ramcaritmanas is the basis for Ramalilas, dramas on the life of Rama. The best known Ramalila is in the grounds of the palace of the maharajah of Benares and lasts thirty-one days, with pilgrims coming from far away. There are other equally well-attended Ramalilas in many Hindi-speaking towns and cities. The Ramcaritmanas is also the focus of private devotion all through the year. Individuals and religious associations employ brahmans to chant it continually from start to finish or they do this themselves.
Renouncers have a sacred fire and apply ash from this twice a day on their bodies.

Adherents This is the largest Vaishnava ascetic sampradaya, order. It competes with the Dashanamis, its Shaiva rivals, for the best place at pilgrimage sites such as the Kumbha Mela. Ramavats are divided into renouncers, non-renouncers, and householders. The householders provide financial support for the other two groups. Non-renouncers live in monasteries and hermitages, found in large numbers throughout western and central India, the Ganges basin, the Himalayan foothills, and Nepal. Renouncers are the most revered Ramavats and they travel in small groups which are termed a khalsa, an itinerant monastery. They follow an annual cycle to visit all the major Vaishnava pilgrimage sites at the astrologically correct time (Harris in Longman 1994, 194).
Rama is a popular god throughout the Hindu world. Gandhi died with an invocation to Rama on his lips. A recent television series of the Ramayana was an astounding success all over India.

Main Centre
 Ayodhya, northern India, the birth-place of Rama. The actual site of Rama's birth was occupied by a mosque, recently demolished by non-renouncer Ramavats and other militant Hindus. A temple of Rama is to be built there.