Sri Ramanuja Mission (USA)
The History and Events of the First Ashramam Outside India
(Sri Nadadur Mathavan)
With the blessings of HH Sri Ranga Ramanuja Mahadesikan, Sri Ramanuja Mission, Inc. of Srirangam Srimath Andavan Periashramam (SRI) became established as the first ashramam outside of India in 1998. We are extremely fortunate and blessed to have witnessed one of the most joyous moments in SRI’s history – the recent inauguration of the initial temple (balalayam) and Prana Prathishtapana of archa moorthis at SRI New Jersey Ashramam. This is SRI’s first step in fulfilling the great vision of our reverential Acharyan. With great pride and humility, I am privileged and honored to summarize SRI’s activities prior to its inception in March 1998 through the inauguration of the balalayam on May 27, 2016.
Emergence of SRI and its Objectives
In the 1992-93 timeframe, Sri Kannan mama (F/O of Sri Kesavan Kannan) was proactively reaching out to families in Maryland and Virginia (after his retirement in India) with a desire to impart Vedic knowledge and provide guidance in sustaining rich Vedic traditions. I was fortunate to meet him at a Pooja function in Virginia. Kannan mama was a devout sishya of Srimath Andavan Ashramam and had performed numerous Kalakshepams at the lotus feet of HH Thirukudandai Andavan. Smt. Janaki Kannan, Sri Kesavan Kannan, Smt. Mythili Kannan, Sri Bharadwaj Jagannathan, Sri Varadharajan and I used to attend mama’s Kalakshepams on Sri Rahasya Traya Saram at his Maryland home. During 1996-97, Kannan mama was serving as a priest at Sri Ranganatha Temple in New York where we met Sri Poondi Vijayaraghavan mama along with brothers Sri Shyamsundar and Sri Venkat Sreenivasan.
Poondi mama recalled that when he went to Chennai several years ago in 1994 for his son’s poonal ceremony he visited Srimath Andavan Ashramam to pay his respects to HH Sri Mushnam Andavan. HH asked Poondi mama to come after one week and when he went back HH blessed Poondi mama with a complete set of 11 Purvacharya’s padukas! Poondi mama never expected this and just brought them to New Jersey. It was Sri Parthasarathy Sreenivasan mama of Besant Nagar (F/O Shyam and Venkat) who trained New Jersey bhagavathas in performing Paduka and Perumal Thiruvaradhanam, as and when he visited New Jersey from Chennai. Padukas began gracing bhagavatha’s homes in and around New Jersey on the weekends. Sreenivasan mama’s handwritten Acharya Thanians were laminated and used for many years while performing Paduka Thiruvaradhanam.
Time and again, Sri Kannan mama used to share with us his desire to start a branch of Srimath Andavan Ashramam in the U.S. and he was passionate about naming it Sri Ramanuja Mission. In April 1997, Kannan mama reached out to HH Sri Mushnam Andavan and sought his blessings to start an official branch of the Ashramam and name it Sri Ramanuja Mission [HH Sri Mukham 1]. An Executive Committee (consisting of Sri Kannan mama as President, Sri Poondi Vijayaraghavan as Vice President, Sri Kesavan Kannan as Treasurer and me as Secretary) was formed and the organization was registered as a non-profit organization in the state of Maryland on March 2, 1998. The committee, after due diligence, drafted the charter and the bylaws of the organization.
According to the charter, SRI has four stated objectives. It is important to restate these objectives here verbatim, as the rest of this article will focus on how these objectives have been comprehensively and meticulously followed and implemented throughout the organization’s history.
- In furtherance of the mission of the Acharyas (spiritual leaders) Sri Ramanuja (1017-1137 CE), Sri Vedanta Desika (1268-1369 CE) and Srirangam Srimath Andavan Periashramam (India) of the Sri Vaishnavite religious tradition, to promote the awareness and understanding of Sri Vishistadvaitha or Sri Ramanuja philosophy in the USA, India, and around the world.
- To serve the community at large, in a unified way, by disseminating knowledge about the several aspects of Sri Vaishnavism through discourses, training, and other means.
- To translate, publish, and distribute the ancient scriptures and holy literature that form the spiritual basis of Sri Vishistadvaitha or Sri Ramanuja philosophy.
- To encourage and maintain, in USA, India and around the world, for the members of this organization and society at large, holy places of worship temples dedicated to the Supreme Lord Sri Lakshmi Narayana (Lord Sri Vishnu).
SRI’s timeline interwoven with these objectives, people, places and events is summarized in the following sections. These historical events are deeply connected with numerous bhagavathas who were the building blocks of SRI’s expanding activities throughout the U.S.
In the initial years of its formation, SRI focused on bringing Acharya sookthis for wider distribution and in a better format. In collaboration with Sri Ahobila Muth, USA, SRI pioneered the effort of compiling, editing and providing brief Tamil commentaries for each of the 19 Tamil Prabandhams (Sri Desikaprabandham) of Sri Swamy Desikan rendered by Sevillimedu Srinivasachariar. Three 90-minute cassettes were produced with high quality recording instruments and the tapes were released on the auspicious occasion of Sri Desikar Thirunakshatram on October 23, 1997. Over 250 sets were distributed throughout the U.S.
SRI’s second project involved creating recordings of Sri Chatusloki, Sthothrarathnam, and Gadyatrayam. SRI took up the primary responsibility for these recordings, which were done in Virginia. Sri Saranatha Bhattar chanted the slokas and appropriate English commentaries were added. A 90-minute tape was released on the auspicious occasion of Sri Ramanuja Jayanthi on May 1, 1998. Sri Ahobila Muth donated the proceeds of this sale for the construction of Sri Ranganatha Temple in New York.
SRI’s crown jewel project was recording the entire Sri Desika Sthothramala (28 titles and over 800 slokas) with English commentaries using local talents Sri Shyamsundar and Sri Venkat Sreenivasan, which was started in October 1997. Six volumes of CDs were released in two sets: the first 3 volumes in August 1999 and the second 3 volumes in April 2001. Over 500 copies of the 6-volume CD sets were distributed across the U.S.
HH Sri Ranga Ramanuja Mahadesikan upanyasams via tele-bridge commenced in 1998. The New Jersey sathsangam grew in numbers and Srimans Shyamsundar Sreenivasan, Venkat Sreenivasan, Murali Thirumalai, and Narayanan Veeraraghavan volunteered to conduct Prabandha and Desika Sthothramala classes through the tele-bridge. A similar sathsangam grew in the Washington D.C. metro area where Vedas, Prabandhams and Sri Desika Sthothrams were taught to local bhagavathas on the weekends. Veda classes were taught by Sri Rajeev Karamchedu, Prabandham classes by myself and Sri Desika Sthothram classes by Sri Anand Iyengar. This sathsangam sustained for over five years (2001-2006) with more than 20 bhagavathas attending classes in person and supporting religious and social activities in and around the D.C. metro area
SRI also took active part in sathsangams organized by other associations (such as NAMA and Sri Ahobila Muth) and SRI’s members presented papers and extended support to these associations serving the cause of Sri Vaishnavism.
It was very unfortunate and a great loss to SRI as Sri Kannan mama attained Acharya thiruvadi in March 1999. As my mentor and teacher in the U.S., he was one of the founding members of SRI with a clear vision to build a temple in the U.S. He personally engraved this thought in SRI’s charter as objective #4. While discussing this objective with us he said, “It may be difficult and too ambitious to include such a goal in our charter” and added after a pause, “but with bhagavath sankalpam it may happen.” 18 years later, as we are inaugurating the balalayam, Kannan mama’s vision has come true through his Acharya bhakthi and unconditional faith.
The first official Paduka Thiruvaradhanam was conducted in April 1999 when the Virginia and Maryland committee members along with Sri Balaji Ramanujam made a trip to Smt Shyamala and Sri Murali Thirumalai’s home in New Jersey to celebrate HH Thirukudandai Andavan’s TN [Photos 1-3]. This grand event was followed by the arrival of Sri Ramanujar archa moorthy in June 1999. This archa moorthy of Sri Ramanujar came from Velamur (the birth place of HH) Temple and was worshipped by HH Sri Mushnam Andavan in his purvashrama days. At the directions of HH, the archa moorthy was handed over to SRI by HH purvashrama thirukumarars (Sri Sriman Narayanan and Sri Yamunachar) at Sri Velamur Temple (Dashopanishad Bhashyakarar Sannidhi) and the Prana Prathishtai was performed in the U.S. in May 2000 [Photos 4-5]. This great aradhana moorthy was initially brought to the U.S. for establishment in an existing temple. However, Sri Ramanujar chose to stay with SRI to bless the organization and its devotees in the years to come. No wonder abhimanis in the U.S. refer to this archa moorthy of Sri Ramanujar as “Than Nigar Illa Thirumeni” (“second to none”), following the three traditional archa thirumeni of Sri Ramanujar in South India.
SRI’s two major events outside New Jersey happened during the summer of 2000 when HH Sri Mushnam Andavan Thirunakshathram celebration was conducted in Boston through many volunteers, including Sri Sumanth Kaushik, Sri Sunder Kidambi, Sri A.S. Rajagopalan, Sri Muralidhar Rangaswamy and Sri Kannapiran. This was followed by another celebration in Maryland in June 2000 when HH Tridandi Srimannarayana Ramanuja Chinna Jeeyar offered his mangalasasanam [Photo 6].
SRI also spearheaded efforts in celebrating Sri Nigamantha Mahadesikan & Sri Manavala Maamunigal Thirunakshatram at Aurora Temple in Chicago, Illinois through the efforts of Vaikuntavasi Sri Krishnamachari and Smt Kalyani Krishnamachari. Krishnamachari’s reverberating chanting of Sri Paduka Sahasram during Paduka Thiruvaradhanam is still ringing in my ears!
Sri Ramanuja Jayanthi celebrations in 2001 at Bridgewater temple in New Jersey marked yet another milestone for SRI in terms of expanding the sathsangam. The celebration was organized in association with Jeeyar Educational Trust (JET) of HH Tridandi Srimannarayana Ramanuja Chinna Jeeyar and Sri Ahobila Muth. Many Srivaishnava organizations like NAMA, VEDICS, Sri Vedantha Desika Sabha and Sri Desika Darsana Sabha participated in the celebrations. The social and cultural programs included a scintillating upanyasam by U. Ve. Sri Velukkudi Krishnan swami on Ramanuja Vaibhavam. The final set of Desika Sthothramala CDs (volumes 4- 6) was released during the celebrations.
2001 also marked another expansion of Sri Ramanuja sancharam to Cincinnati, Ohio in May through coordination from Smt Radha and Sri Poondi Ramanujam and family (Sri Sriram, Smt Preethi, Sri Balaji and Smt Rohini). Since then, Udayavar has been on sancharam to this city year after year over 15 years. This is one of the states that Sri Ramanujar has visited most frequently. In the same year, SRI’s coordination and sancharam activities expanded to Hindu Cultural Society in Buffalo, New York.
In July 2002, for the first time, Sri Ramanujar and Padukas took their longest sancharam to the Midwest in Iowa City, Iowa. Sri Aravamudhan, Sri Ganesh Rajagopalan and Sri Mukund Nadipuram coordinated the sancharam and Sri Kesavan Kannan participated in the whole trip. Incidentally, the Bhoomi Pooja of the IOWA Hindu temple was blessed by and performed in the holy presence of Sri Ramanujar [Photos 7-8].
2004 marked the arrival of Sri Rukmini Sathyabhama Sametha Sri Venugopala Perumal in a beautiful silver dolai that was specially designed by HH for ease of transportation, assembly, and operations within the U.S. It was a blissful coincidence for SRI that Perumal chose to arrive here in the U.S. on July 21, 2004, the day of Andal Thirunakshathram (thiruvadipuram). We were enthralled to imagine how Sri Ramanujar (Thiruppavai Jeeyar and older brother of Andal) would have cherished the coincidence of Perumal’s arrival on Andal’s thirunakshatram day! SRI held a 10-day Veda and Prabandha parayanam and performed a grand Prana Prathishtapana on September 11, 2004 in New Jersey in the holy presence of Sri Ramanujar. 108 Kalyana Utsavams were performed on this day and attendance was overwhelming as hall capacity was exceeded and bhagavathas stood in line to enter and have darshan of Perumal and Udayavar [Photos 9-11].
It was Perumal and Udayavar’s presence that gave us the courage and strength to start a traditional 21-day adyayana utsavam in Virginia that was tailored for practice in the U.S. during weekends (3 to 5 pm) and weekdays (7:30 to 9 pm). This adyayana utsavam format was initially developed by Kannan mama in 1997 (to include Sri Desika Prabandha Parayana Kramam) and implemented in 2004 with help, guidance, and participation from the Sri Ramanujam family, Sri Srinivasa Gopalan (Upilli) and Sri A.M.R. Kannan. Since 2004, the adyayana utsavam is part of SRI’s routine annual activity with overwhelming bhagavatha participation both in person and via telebridge.
During Sri Ramanuja Jayanthi celebrations (in 2004 and 2005), the “D.C. Ghoshti” enacted two popular dramas on the life and works of Sri Koorathalwan and Sri Alavandar in the D.C. Metro Area and New Jersey. In 2004, SRI also sponsored and facilitated a dance drama on Sri Godha by Smt Jothi Raghavan to raise funds for the Kinchitkaram Trust.
As HH was constantly thinking about an ashramam outside India, he gifted an archa moorthy of Dwadasa Nama Chakrathalwar and Nrusimhar to SRI. HH blessed SRI that Chakrathalwar would speed up the Ashramam establishment activities. Sri Madhu Rangarajan was fortunate to bring this archa moorthy from Chennai to the U.S. Following a grand 10-day Veda and Prabandha parayana in Virginia, the Prana Prathishtapana was completed in New Jersey on September 4, 2006 [Photos 12-13].
In May 2006, HH Thirukudandai Andavan’s Upanyasam Golden Collection CDs were released by U. Ve. Sri H. R. Krishnaswamy Iyengar, Bangalore (son-in-law of Dr. N.S. Anantharangachar).
In May 2007, SRI added Detroit, Michigan to its annual sancharam list during the Memorial Day weekend through Sri Raman Ranganathan’s efforts and coordination. In addition to Dolai, special Kalyana Utsavams at bhagavathas’ residences were introduced for Sri Venugopala Perumal.
In September 2007, Atlanta, Georgia joined SRI’s annual sancharam list during Labor Day weekend due to the efforts and coordination of Sri Padmanabhan Raman. Since 2009, Atlanta bhagavathas have turned this sancharam into a special “Krishna Utsav” with a variety of annual themes, including Kalyana Utsavam, Garuda Vahanam, Deepa Alankaram, Kannadi Sevai, and Kalpa Vruksham.
An animated DVD entitled “Acharya Ramanuja” was released under the auspices of SRI in English, Kannada, and Tamil (sponsored by Sri Mukund and Smt. Nagarathna Nadipuram of Iowa).
Following HH instructions and blessings to start an Ashramam in the U.S., SRI started an active fundraising campaign through bhoomi dhanam and began looking for suitable land in New Jersey [HH Sri Mukham 2]. During 2008-2010, SRI focused its efforts on finding property in South Brunswick, New Jersey.
By the end of 2010, SRI’s sancharam and outreach activities had expanded to many other places including North Carolina (Theppothsavam through Sri Thiruvenkatachari Rajagopalan and Sri Melpakkam Srinivasan), Indianapolis (Sri Vijay Pattangi), Texas (Sri Veeraraghavan), Philadelphia, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York (Sri Srini Rajagopalan), Akron, Ohio (Sri A.S. Rajagopalan), Vermont (Sri Jagannathan), Arkansas (Sri Rajesh Veliyanallore), Oklahoma (Sri Sundar), St. Louis, Tennessee (Sri Jagan Yamuna), Minnesota (Sri Lakshmikumar Vadula) and Kansas (Sri Aravind Sairam).
During his tenure as President of SRI, Sri Raman Ranganathan signed the contract for the purchase of the current 6-acre property for SRI NJ Ashramam on August 16, 2012.
On March 18, 2013, the purchase was completed. HH was presented with a copy of the sale deed in May 2014 (Vaikasi, Thiruvadirai) month and the beginning of the Sathabhisheka Thirunakshathram (80th birthday) celebration of HH Sri Mushnam Andavan. This coincidence brought so much joy to all the sishyas and abhimanis that it was decided that SRI should celebrate HH Sathabhisheka Mahotsavam in a grand manner across the U.S. Since Udayavar and HH Thirunakshathrams are just one month apart with the same birth star (Chithirai/Vaikasi Thiruvadirai), a great garland yatra was planned and coordinated by Sri Aravind Sairam to take Udayavar and HH Sri Mushnam Andavan Paduka across the U.S. in the following year. It is a great joy for us to note that this Udayavar sancharam would become a prelude to the Millennial Thirunakshathram celebrations planned for 2017!
On April 14, 2013, the balalayam’s gruhapravesam was celebrated in a grand manner. SRI was fortunate to get the voluntary services of Sri Vijay Krishna as a priest. He is the grandson of our Ashramam Aradhakar Sri Krishnamurthy mama who performs the daily nithyapadi at the Chennai Ashramam. Vijay works full-time in the IT sector and his knowledge, love and devotion (not to mention his beautiful alankarams for Sri Venugopalan) are a gift to SRI from our beloved Acharyan. None of us had met him until he walked in to the SRI NJ Ashramam! Sri Bhargavan is the young and resourceful “first appointed” priest also serving the lord.
On June 4, 2013, SRI received all archa moorthis for the balalayam – Sri Srinivasar, Sri Devi, Sri Bhoo Devi, Sri Padmavathy Thayar, Sri Andal, Bhoga Srinivasar and Sri Sathyanarayana Sanchara Perumal. Sathyanarayana Perumal Prana Prathishtai was done in 2013.
On May 2014, with HH anugraham, the previously-planned great garland tour started from NJ Ashramam and continued for one full year before returning to New Jersey in time for the balalayam. With this tour, perumal sancharam covered the entire U.S. and extended to many places not covered earlier – Denver, Colorado (through Sri Chatari Ramesh), Phoenix, Arizona (Smt Vasumathi and Sri Narayanan Ramabadhran), Idaho and Utah (Sri Arun), Las Vegas, Nevada (Sri Srinivasan), Oregon and Washington (Sri Krishnakumar Parthasarathy), and California (Sri Balaji Kannan and Sri Rajagopalan Srinivasan).
In October 2014, the Bhoomi Pooja for the balalayam was performed and in May 2015 Sri Balaji moolavar from the hills of Thirupathi arrived in New Jersey. After completing Phase 1 of the construction, SRI NJ Ashramam balalayam was open to the public on March 5, 2016. The grand inauguration and Prana Prathishtapana Mahothsavam occurred on May 27, 2016. Two priests were brought from India for the special occasion: Sri U. Ve. Nelvoy Varadhachar (deekshithar, Sri Devaraja Perumal Koil, Kancheepuram, priest of Sri Vedantha Desikar Devasthanam, Mylapore and Veda Vidwan) and Sri U. Ve. T.S. Sriraman Swamy (Veda Vidwan and first priest for Sri Ranganatha Temple in Pomona). With the conclusion of the Prana Prathishtapana, SRI has come to acquire a variety of archa moorthis over the years. A list of each of the primordial deities of SRI is included in Table 1.
None of the above would have been possible without the devotion and effort of all of our bhagavathas across each of these states, as well as the SRI officers who showed unwavering commitment to fulfilling HH’s vision. Three dedicated volunteers (Srimans Poondi Vijayaraghavan, Venkat Sreenivasan and Raman Ranganathan) have served and led SRI as Presidents. A list of all SRI officers over the years is included in Table 2.
SRI has established a tradition of honoring bhagavathas for their contributions in sustaining Sri Ramanuja philosophy outside India. One category honors lifetime achievements (Kaimkarya Rathnam) and the other category honors significant contributions (Kaimkarya Thilakam). A citation plaque with blessings from HH were presented to the following individuals:
Kaimkarya Rathnam Awards:
2005 Sri Anbil Ramaswamy
2006 Sri Oppiliappan Koil Varadhachari Sadagopan
2007 Sri Venkat Kanumalla
Kaimkarya Thilakam Awards:
2000 – Sri Shyamsundar Sreenivasan and Sri Venkat Sreenivasan 2001 – Sri Narayanan Veeraraghavan, Sri Srikanth Raghavan, SVT Solutions, NJ, Swagath, NJ 2002 – Sri Sunder Kidambi and Smt. & Sri Deepak Raghavan 2005 – Sri Venkat Ramanuja Dasan, Dubai 2006 – Sri Srinivasa Gopalan (Uppili) 2007 – Sri Madhava Kannan, Singapore and Sri Muralidhar Rangaswamy
SRI closely coordinates with various members of the Chennai Ashramam to facilitate its operations, including:
- Sri Vasudevachari for the submission of Acharya Sambhavana,
- Eyetex Sri Rajagopalan for support for Veda Pada Sala, Science and Arts College, policy and guidance regarding international financial contributions and special English/Tamil publications, and
- Sri Srinivasan Rangaswamy for overseas subscriptions for Sri Ranganatha Paduka (through Sri Raman Aravamudhan of SRI).
In addition, Sri Natteri Rajagopalan swamy has been giving weekly discourses via tele-bridge since 2011 (over 250 weeks) through the efforts and coordination of brothers Sri Sriram and Sri Balaji Ramanujam.
In 2010, HH clarified and provided detailed guidance that women with reverential interest can perform daily Thiruvaradhanam (Sri Ranganatha Paduka, November 2010). Accordingly, Smt. Kalyani Krishnamachari and I coordinated with the Chennai Ashramam in the publication of a book in both Tamil and English titled “Lagu Thiruvaradhana Kramam” (Srirangam Srimath Andavan Ashramam 2014).
Looking to the Future
As I was trying to summarize SRI’s activities over the years, it was overwhelming to realize that HH had the thiru ullam to bless us with a complete set of 11 padukas as early as 1994, four years ahead of the actual incorporation of SRI in 1998! Sri Ramanujar, Padukas, Sri Venugopalan, and Sri Chakrathalwar have travelled throughout the U.S. gracing the homes of thousands of devout bhagavathas of Sri Ramanuja. None of us could envision such outreach in the U.S. in the 1990s and it is now a reality! And though Vaikuntavasi Sri Kannan mama was skeptical when he included an objective in the SRI charter to build a temple, his dreams have now come true by the grace of HH. As SRI is taking its first step in establishing the balalayam, Sri Ramanujar is starting another great garland yatra across the U.S. (Udayavar Ayiram as ordained by HH) to commemorate his Millennial Thirunakshathram celebrations! HH in his Sri Mukham has indicated that it is a primary responsibility of SRI to facilitate this garland yatra for our beloved Udayavar [HH Sri Mukham 3].
We have enjoyed overwhelming participation and growth over these years and will continue to cherish the bliss of HH, Padukas, Udayavar, Perumal and bhagavathas. The next generation in the U.S. will have an authentic place of worship in New Jersey that truly reflects the deep Vedic roots established by purvacharyas and munithraya sampradhaya pravarthakars (Sriman Natha Muni, Sri Yamuna Muni and Sri Ramanuja Muni) reestablished by Sri Srinivasa Mahadesikan (Periandavan) of Srirangam Srimath Andavan Ashramam. As a branch of Srirangam Srimath Andavan Ashramam, SRI will continue to sustain these traditions with full reverence, devotion and sincerity.
Srimathe Ranga Ramanuja Mahadesikaya Namaha
Poliga! Poliga! Poliga!
Sarvam Sri Krishnarpanamasthu!!
Sri Ranga Ramanuja Muni Adipodi
On behalf of all the bhagavathothamas who served tirelessly in fulfilling the vision of HH