The core concept of Vaisnavism is the worship of Visnu as the supreme deity of the Vedic pantheon and ultimate reality in a panentheistic sense. This essential idea appears in one way or another in most Vaisnava sects today, however not all groups practice the religion the same way nor do they point to the same literature as the most important source material (Chari 31-34). The actual period during which Vaisnavism arose is unclear, however there is inscriptional evidence of a Vaisnava sect as early as the 2nd century B.C. (Chari 21) and there was certainly a well-established tradition by the 6th century A.D. (Jash 933). To understand Vaisnavism and its many faces it is necessary to understand its history, including what texts it derives its theology from.
A monotheistic approach centring on a single god within the Hindu multiplicity can be traced all the way back to the Rg Veda (Chari 4). Although this text praises many deities – recognizing the individuality of them all – there are a few verses which have been pointed out as evidence for a monotheistic take on the pantheon, such as the much-quoted line “There is one Being (sat) but wise men call it by different names (ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti)” (Chari 5). The Upanisads offer an even clearer description of this idea in the form of Brahman and Narayana, which constitute the Supreme Reality that Visnu is associated with (Chari 4). Narayana specifically refers to a very panentheistic concept of ultimate reality as apart from and a part of creation (Chari 13-14). This concept gives a solid Vedic base for the later vision of Visnu; in fact, the Ramayana directly associates him with Narayana: “Rama, you who have truth as your valour. You are the god Narayana…. Sita is Laksmi and you are Visnu” (Doniger 202-203). Because of these monotheistic readings of the Vedas, Vaisnavas often retrospectively cite them as a true source of Vaisnava doctrine (Chari 13), however in reality Visnu is a very minor character until later in Hinduism (Jash 933). After the Vedas, the Agamas – religious treatises surrounding proper modes of religious worship – realize Vaisnavism in full, elaborating on concepts of the Supreme Deity found in the Vedas. The Vaisnava Agamas emphasized exclusive worship of Visnu and introduced practices of arca (worshipping the god in an image form), the consecration of icons, the building of temples, and prescription of daily rituals, all in a specific Vaisnava style (Chari 15).
It is after the Agamas, however, that perhaps the biggest development occurs. That is with the two great epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, both of which feature Visnu as their hero. In the Ramayana, dharma is of key importance but in terms of Vaisnava doctrine the most valuable concept in this story is self-surrender or prapatti (Chari 263). An example of this tenet is the episode wherein Vibhisana deserts his worldly life for the refuge of Rama, visualizing the spiritual process of total surrender to God. This epic is also a great celebration of Laksmi. In most sects of Vaisnavism Laksmi, or Sri, is inseparable from Visnu, so the celebration of her firm dharmic character in the Ramayana is as much a testament to her as it is to Srivisnu (Chari 17). In the Mahabharata, Vaisnava doctrine is broadly consolidated, and this is particularly compelling evidence for Vaisnavites as Visnu himself in the guise of Krnsa is expounding much of these beliefs. The Bhagavad Gita especially reads almost like an encyclopedia of Vaisnava doctrine when read from that perspective; it points out three different potential paths of worshipping Visnu (jnana, karma, bhakti), it describes the essence of his endlessness, it lays out the state of complete focus on Visnu that is necessary to be a Vaisnavite, and it contextualizes many of the existing forms of Hindu worship in a Visnu-centric way (Chari 123-138).
Visnu directly associates himself with Narayana and the Bhagavan (the ultimate soul that is one with Brahma), and heavily endorses bhakti–yoga – an essential element of Vaisnavism – in this text. Bhakti worship is a huge development not just in Vaisnavism but in all of Hinduism. Although there is evidence of a concept like bhakti worship in older sources, it is not until the Bhagavad Gita that bhakti is focused explicitly on (Prentiss 17). As well, this text is the very first to prescribe the practice as a direct path to moksa. Bhakti gained popularity and was transfused into many different sects due to its ability to satisfy multiple spiritual goals at once, and appeal to most people:
“…bhakti presented an alternative to dominant forms of religiosity, both the asocial sannyasin [renouncer] and the temporally defined practice of ritual. In the former, religious experience was engendered by physical separation from society; in the latter, time was the mechanism by which religious experience was set apart from social formations. In contrast, bhakti represented the possibility of religious experience anywhere, anytime” (Prentiss 20).
The essential practice of bhakti is characterized by devotion and love for God for no other purpose than to the loving itself. The philosophy of bhakti is fundamentally simple: “…those who honour me [Visnu] with devotion, are within me, and I am also in them.” (Patton 109). A devotee must be entirely committed to and entrenched in thoughts of Visnu and in doing so they will become one with Visnu as the absolute reality. But within this simplicity, there is much room for debate regarding what constitutes such a state of focus, what is or is not devotion, and many other aspects of the practice (Prentiss 9). However, despite the uncertainty surrounding much of it, the essential goal of bhakti is always the same, and that is to be united with God in a loving union – not just to enter into the Supreme Reality that is him through moksa, but also to culminate a relationship of mutual love during ones human life.
Somewhat contemporary to the epics are the Puranas, companion literature for the Vedas that contain stories of the conception of the universe and the lives of important Hindu figures, such as Krsna. The oldest Purana is the visnupurana which provides precedents for all the basic Vaisnava doctrines. Some of these important precedents include explicitly titling Visnu as the Godhead – that which all emanates through – and associating him with Brahman of the Upanisads (Chari 18-19). The six attributes of Visnu are also introduced in this text. These attributes are not the only in Visnu’s possession, as the Bhagavan he has an unlimited amount of attributes but they are simply seen as the six most important qualities. The first is jnana, which here means omniscience, then sakti meaning power, bala meaning strength, aisarya meaning lordship, virya meaning energy, and tejas meaning splendour (Chari 188-190). Another key contribution of the Puranas is affirmation of the inseparability of Sri and Visnu, although Sri provides different skills and qualities apparently, Sri and Visnu are one so they actually share all their traits (Chari 19).
A key figure in the development of Vaisnavism is the acarya Ramanuja. He was a major contributor to Vaisnava literature, propagating Vaisnava cult through the written forms and apostles (Chari 23). Much of his works owes its basis to his predecessors, Nathamuni and Yamuna. Nathamuni rediscovered the hymns of Alvars, composers of Tamil verses dedicated to Visnu, and arranged them into four parts. He also introduced recitation of Vaisnava hymns as part of worship and advocated for self-surrender as the more important aspect of devotion to God as opposed to rigid bhakti-worship(Chari 23). Yamuna expanded on some of this, especially the concept of self-surrender which he wrote a concrete doctrine for (Chari 23-22). From this, Ramanuja ventured to carve out a solid space for Vaisnava worship in the orthodox schools of Hinduism which were evolving simultaneously. He criticized the advaita vedanta, which was popular at the time, especially because it did not recognize bhakti as a legitimate way to moksa. He worked to establish Visnu as the supreme Ultimate Reality, and the worship of Visnu for the sake of a blissful divine experience as the best goal for humankind. His discussions and doctrines also elaborated on a key aspect of Vaisnavism, the organic relationship between God, the soul, and cosmic order in the “body-soul” (Chari 25). In addition, he also described moksa and bhakti in explicit terms, especially how combining jnana, karma, and bhakti creates the most effective path to moksa (Chari 24-26).
After Ramanuja propagates Vaisnavism throughout India there is a blossoming of distinctive sects with unique beliefs and practices. Madhvacarya began the Dvaita school which is dualistic and supports bhakti as means to moksa; it also promoted the Dasa-kuta devotional movement that saw bands of saintly persons singing devotional songs (Chari 32). Ramananda instigated a school in Northern India that saw Rama especially to be Brahman. He did not believe in the caste system and instead supported universal brotherhood (Chari 32-33). Nimbarka started the Dvaita-dvaita school which maintained that Brahman was Radha-Krnsa and did not advocate temple worship; he saw self-surrender more than bhakti as means to moksa (Chari 33).
An especially distinct sect of Vaisnavism was founded by Sri Krsna Caitanya (Chari 33-34). The unique element of this sect is the concept of a devotees relationship to God, which is framed as bhakti but in a particularly loving and somewhat romantic-erotic in nature. The pivotal imagery for this concept comes from the tales of Krsna as a boy playing with the gopis as they are found in the Bhagavata Purana. The central allegory made in these stories is that the gopis long for Krnsa as an image of the devotee longing for their god, the erotic themes of the stories accentuate the metaphysical overtones implied beneath the descriptions (Doniger 228). The intimacy between lovers is seen as a parallel for the ideal closeness between one and one’s God: as such the use of sexual imagery visualizes this nebulous concept. When Krnsa steals the gopis clothes and forces them to stand before him naked there are obvious erotic themes playing out involving submission and vulnerability. These exact same concepts can are mirrored in the implied spiritual counterpart of the scene where a devotee is stripped of their concealing features to reveal their fundamental self in the face of God. “Though they were greatly deceived and robbed of their modesty, though they were mocked and treated like toys and stripped of their clothes… they were happy to be together with their beloved” (Doniger 230). The gopis are perfect devotees, even after having their identity and pride taken away by God – in other words, after having performed self-surrender – they find joy in the presence of God. This heightened emotional attitude towards Vaisnavism began a large movement, associated with Radha-Krsna, that affected multiple sects, but is perhaps most prevalent still in Caitanya Vaisnavism (Chari 34).
Despite the differences in all these different sects and schools of Vaisnavism, there are still overarching themes. Bhakti and self-surrender are always prevalent concepts, urging devotees to give up the cemented concepts of the self in favour of love for Visnu in hopes of joining with him eventually. The basic metaphysical concept of Visnu’s absolute presence and being is always involved. Krsna describes himself as: “… whatever powerful being there is – be it splendid or filled with vigour, it comes to be from only a small part of my brilliance,” (Patton 122). Indeed this is essentially the belief of Vaisnava philosophy and theology. The human being is just a small aspect of the indescribable enormity of Visnu, and so to pay reverence to him and to love him is to accept the truth of existence. Only through reflection on Visnu in this insurmountable way can one become joined with him spiritually and when one is properly joined with him it becomes clear that there truly is nothing else but Visnu. “Joined in this way, with me as the highest goal – you will come to me alone.” (Patton 110).
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Chari, S.M. Srinivasa (1994) Vaisnavism: Its Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Discipline. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.
Patton, Laurie L. (trans.) (2008) The Bhagavad Gita. London: Penguin.
Prentiss, Karen (2000) The Embodiment of Bhakti.Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Doniger, Wendy (1994) Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook Translated from the Sanskrit. New Delhi: Penguin.
Sarbadhikary, Sukanya (2015) Place of Devotion: Siting and Experiencing Divinity in Bengal-Vaishnavism. Oakland: University of California Press.
Jash, Pranabananda, and Prabananda Jash (1979) “Vaisnavism in Ancient Southeast Asia” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 40: 932-942
Sircar, Mahendranath, and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2000) Studies in Vaisnavism and Tantricism. New Delhi: Bharatiya Kala Prakashan.
Mishra, Kishore Chandra (2002) “The History of Vaisnavism in Western Orissa” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 63: 181–190.
Toffin, Gerard (2012) “A Vaishnava Theatrical Performance in Nepal: The Katti-pyakhã of Lalitpur City” Asian Theatre Journal 29:126-163.
Glucklich, Ariel (2008) The Strides of Vishnu: Hindu Culture in Historical Perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.
Related Topics for Further Investigation
Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic
Article written by: Margaret Kieper (November 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.