Category Archives: Vaisnava Schools

The Vaisnava Samhitas

The Vaisnava Samhitas are a genre of scriptures that revolve around the god Visnu.  Historians are unable to determine the exact age of the Samhitas because not all of the texts have been published (Matsubara 16). It is said that these texts emerged after the popularity of the Puranas grew, and devotional Hinduism became more attractive to the masses (Matsubara viii). Those who worship Visnu and have read the Vaisnava Samhitas are referred to as Bhagavatas, or vaisnavas (Matsubara 20). The Vaisnava Samhitas are known for being the canonical scriptures for the Bhagavatas (Matsubara 15). Followers of Visnu have a specific sect mark they wear to express to others that they are a Vaisnava. In Ritual Art of India by Mookerjee (1998), the sect mark is described as “perpendicular, and includes a center line with a stroke on either side, sometimes a dot in the middle, denoting the footprint of Visnu” (p 108). Vaisnavas are very close to their god Visnu, and this could be another reason why they carry this sect mark.

Another name for the Vaisnava Samhitas is Pancaratra Samhitas. The origin of the word ‘Pancaratra’ is unknown. No one has been able to provide a convincing explanation for the original meaning of the word (Matsubara 4). The only conclusion historians are able to agree on is that the word ‘Pancaratra’ is a compound. This means that the word ‘Pancaratra’ alone does not represent a group of people who worship the Pancaratra Samhitas. Visnu, who is referred to as the Supreme God in the Vaisnava Samhitas (Matsubara 86), also carries more than one name. In fact, there are multiple divine and cosmic forms the god takes in his transcendent spiritual realms (Vapey 16). Within the Vaisnava Samihitas, Visnu is also referred to as Hari, Narayana, and Vasudeva (Matsubara 80). Other names such as Adhoksaja and Janardana are found in the Samhitas, but are usually the names given to Krsna (Matsubara 80). Krsna is the human incarnation of the god Visnu. It is said in the Vaisnava Samhitas that Visnu performs Sattra, which is a five successive day sacrificial ritual (Matsubara 2). Before Visnu performed this ritual he appears in the Satapatha Brahmana as a student of Prajapati (Matsubara 117) Performing this ritual meant that Visnu had surpassed all beings (atyatisthat sarvani bhutani) and becomes the entire universe (idam sarvam abhavat) (Matsubara 2). Those who devote themselves to the worship of Visnu agree that he is the universe, but as a being who has surpassed all, he simultaneously exists far beyond it.

Visnu is the main god in the Samhitas, but he is not the only important figure. The Vaisnava Samhitas have a very unique cosmology that describes the opening stage of the creation of this world (Matsubara 119). Theologians base this creation of the world, known as the Vyuha Theory, on the self-sacrifice of Purusa. In the early Vaisnava Samhitas there is a text named Ahirbudhnya. In this text, the Purusa self-sacrifice is viewed as the creation of this world (Matsubara 119). The hymn in the Ahirbudhnya that describes Purusa’s self-sacrifice has sixteen stanzas, and describes not only the greatness of Purusa, but how one fourth of him was able to manifest the entire universe (Matsubara 118). This is the earliest expression of the idea of self-immolation. This idea of self-immolation is believed to be the influence for the Pancaratrikas creating the Vyuha theory (Matsubara 119).

The Pancaratrikas, who teach the Pancaratra Samhitas, hold Brahman as their supreme reality, but this differs from the actual Samhitas (Matsubara 67). In Matsubara’s (1994) book, he says that “Brahman seems rather to represent the transcendent or nonpersonal aspect of the supreme God and reveals its borrowed metaphysical character in the Pancaratra theology” (67-68). Detailed explanations are scarce in the texts of the Vaisnava Samhitas, as well as Brahman does not appear on the list of God’s epithets in the Samhitas (Matsubara 68). In addition to this, transcendent and personal features are thought of as interchangeable. In the text Jayakhya, the characterizations of Brahman and God are interlaced (Matsubara 68). Matsubara (1994) concludes this to mean that Brahman cannot be viewed as a nonpersonal principle separate from God (pg 68). In the Vaisnava Samhitas, Brahman is stated to be man’s pure intellect (Matsubara 75). This contributes to the contrast Brahman has with God because a man’s intellect is limited, but God is not.

The earliest texts in the Vaisnava Samhitas are known as the extant Pancaratra Samhitas. The Sasvatasamhita, Ahirbudhnya Samhita, and the Isvara Samhita are the texts that make up the extant Pancaratra Samhitas (Quinn 322). These beginning texts primarily deal with the worshipping rituals. Matsubara (1994) adds Pauskara to the list of texts in the extant Pancaratra Samhitas. The printed Pauskara begins abruptly, which has lead theologians to believe that a part of the theology is missing from the text (Matsubara 38). It is also said that Srivaisnava theology was supposed to be the primary influence for the theology of the Vaisnava Samhitas, but it was eventually deemed inessential. This Srivaisnava influence was consequently lost as the Pancaratra Samhitas were established (Matsubara 40).

The extant Pancaratra Samhitas are divided into two kandas. The two kandas are jnana and kriya. Within the first kanda, the summary of its contents uses fourteen slokas. In the second kanda though, there are only four slokas (Matsubara 37). An important characteristic of the earliest Vaisnava Samhitas is the lengthy explanation of the mantras (Matsubara 36). These earlier Samhitas put an emphasis on the disciplined practice of mantra meditation and recitation (Valpey 47-48). The later texts did not put as much focus on the mantras though. Later texts had the tendency to focus on rituals, and the addition of extra rituals and ceremonies. These texts may have been referred to for instruction on the practice of rituals, especially for the more recent vaisnavas (Matsubara 36).

In the book Pancaratra Samhitas: Early Vaisnava Theology, Matsubara (1994) says that when it comes to the theology of the Pancaratra, there are eight critical subjects according to Paramesvara: 1) Essential Nature (sva-rupa) of God; 2) His six supreme qualities (sadgunya); 3) The first Vyuha, Vasudeva, and the other three, which are Sankarsana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha; 4) Creation, the preservation and destruction of the worlds; 5) Sub-Vyuhas; 6) The Vibhavas and secondary manifestations; 7) Essential form of Laksmi and Pusti; 8) Essential form of jivatman, divided into mukta, amukta, and ubhaya, and the goal (gati) of each state. You can find traces of these subjects in the earlier Vaisnava Samhitas, though a more detailed written description of these subjects can be found in the Ahirbudhnya (Matsubara 39).

When other names are used to refer to Visnu, it is usually because he is the object of worship. In the Vaisnava Samhitas, Visnu is known for being the best recipient of offerings. Visnu is also frequently compared to parents, and is known as a welcome guest (Matsubara 80). This comparison to parents and being welcomed into worshipper’s home suggests a personal aspect to Visnu. This personal relatability is also referenced in the worship of him. Those who worship Visnu seek to attain a closeness to him, a type of union (Valpey 47). Worshippers achieve this closeness with repeated disciplined practice of mantra meditation. Matsubara (1994) calls the Pancaratra Samhitas a “devotional lingurical school”, and discusses the numerous times worship and meditation are mentioned in them (p 81). One of the most important rituals in the Vaisnava Samhitas is puja (Matsubara 81). The reason puja is one of the most important is because it is a foundation for all other ceremonies. From the daily routine worship that vaisnavas do, to the occasional initiation ceremonies, as well as abhiseka, puja is a part of it all (Matsubara 81). Puja is described as beginning with invocation (avahana), concludes with dismissal (visarjana), and normally includes sixteen services which are known as upacara (Matsubara 81). In puja, God is seen as a physical being who presents himself before the worshipper. This form of worship and meditation, therefore, provides access to God when done correctly. In the Vaisnava Samhitas, God in this form is accessible to all people, including lay people (Matsubara 82). It seems that one of the main purposes of the Vaisnava Samhitas is to provide an easier access to a personal God (Matsubara 88) through meditation and recitation.

The Vaisnava Samhitas hold a high importance to all vaisnavas who continually seek a personal connection and union with their god, Visnu. The Samhitas are accessible by people of all classes, and God presents Himself to those who worship him. This genre of scriptures is used to form a connection with Visnu, achieve Brahman, and eventually reach Moksa using meditation and the recitation mantras. The mantras within the Samhitas are expected to be followed precisely and practiced with discipline in order to reach these goals. Those who become vaisnavas, follow the teaching of Pancaratrikas, and recite and meditate following the Vaisnava Samhitas, will achieve everything they wish to achieve.



Matsubara, Mitssunori (1994) Pancaratra Samhitas And Early Vaisnava Theology. Dehli: Motilal Banarsidass.

Mookerjee, Ajit (1998) Ritual Art Of India. Vermont: Inner Traditions Inc.

Quinn, Edward (2014) Critical Companion to George Orwell: A Literary Reference To His Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, Inc.

Valpey, Kenneth (2013) The Hare Krishna Movement: The Post Charismatic Fate Of A Religious Transplant. New York: Columbia University Press.


Related Research Topics




Shatapatha Brahmana
















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Article written by: Ronai Schafer (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Swaminarayan Movement

The Swaminarayan religion was founded by Sahajanand Swami in the 19th century. Though two hundred years old the Swaminarayan religion is still considered new, “a modern development in Hinduism” (Williams 1984:xi), for the Hindu religions of India are very old, reaching back as far as 1500 BCE in the case of the Vedic religions. The faith took form in India’s western most state of Gujarat during a time when the British still held control. As the British developed political supremacy Sahajanand also spread forth his movement in the area. Sahajanand Swami’s movement was one of reform that came about when Gujarat was in the midst of rebellion, famine, social and political change. During this time Sir John Malcolm, the British governor of Bombay, also sought out similar reforms and looked for aid from respected Indian leaders such as Sahajanand Swami to help institute these reforms. The meeting between the two figures is today displayed in pictures in many Swaminarayan temples showing that two men of very different worlds both strived for the common goals of social order and harmony. In 1830 Sahajanand Swami died and left his disciples the teachings and ideas that he had tried to pass onto to others. The Swaminarayan faith is called a sampradaya, “a tradition which has been handed down from a founder through successive religious teachers and which shapes the followers into a distinct fellowship with institutional forms” (Williams 1984:xii).

The Swaminarayan religion is categorized as one that follows Vaishnaivism. This is to say that the followers are worshippers of the Hindu God Visnu and the avatars associated with him such as Rama or Krsna. During the beginning of the 19th century the Indian state of Gujarat was experiencing civil war, famine, and disaster. It was also going through political and social change under the influence of the British who had established control in the area. Followers of the Swaminarayan faith believe that these times coincide perfectly with the rise of Sahajanand Swami his movement. As Vaishnavites it is traditionally believed that “such periods of decay and despair call forth a great religious teacher, a manifestation of god, to bring peace and order” (Williams 2001:8). Sahajanand Swami was born in a village outside of Gujarat called Chhapia. Chhapia is located near Ayodhya, the birth place of Rama in the Hindu epic Ramayana. His day of birth falls upon the day of the festival that celebrates the birth of Rama. His birth name, Ghanashyam, is also known as one of the childhood names of Krsna who in the Hindu epic Mahabharata is an avatar of Visnu. All this reaffirms the belief of Swaminarayan followers that Sahajanand Swami, also called Swaminarayan, was an incarnation of Visnu manifested on Earth to bring balance. It was during this time of depression and plight that the Swami took stage and developed a following of people, guided by the ideas of reform that he brought into action in the state of Gujarat.

Devotees of the Swaminarayan movement must all take vows, which Sahajanand required of all those who followed him. All followers are required not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to eat meat, not to drink intoxicants, and not to receive food from another person who belonged to a caste that was lower than their own. Those devotees who desired to become ascetics out of devotion to the Swami were required to take further vows such as the renunciation of worldly goods, abstaining from all forms of violence, and a vow of absolute celibacy. The reasoning for this high level of discipline required of the Swaminarayan followers was due to the chaotic state of Gujarat society that Sahajanand believed was the cause for the breakdown of ascetic discipline. The Swaminarayan faith sought reform and change from the disorganized and uncontrolled state that many people had fallen into, requiring committed discipline that its followers must adhere to. Some ascetics during the beginning of the movement and at the point of greatest resistance were initiated to the Swami’s highest state of asceticism. This state was known as Paramhansa, a state of “total renunciation, no rules or regulations that are prescribed in the scriptures applied to them and they had no actions to perform” (Williams 2001:22). This extreme from of asceticism was used so that the members of the Swaminarayan movement would go unnoticed by their enemies. By ridding themselves of all outwardly marks they would be invisible to those around them. Those of the Paramhansa status were characterized by ending their names in “ananda” to signify this status. These high class ascetics, however, were only temporary for the beginning of the movement. They were no longer ordained by Sahajanand after the Swaminarayan became more established and less targeted by those that did not support the movement. At this point, the movement was aided by the British who had established solid control in Gujarat during this time.

Further reform developed in the Swaminarayan works that strived to benefit the social welfare of the area. Followers of the movement helped rebuild destroyed buildings, dig new wells, and repair roads. This broke from regular custom found in Hindu society. Devotees of higher caste found themselves helping those of lower class. Ascetics who were believed to be above the station of those who did manual labor were found doing just that. All followers of the Swaminarayan movement were found working as carpenters, masons, and other professions to build homes, temples, and any other structures thought needed to construct a better society. During times of famine and plague the ascetics opened what could be called early day soup kitchens to provide aid for the sick and hungry affected by disaster. In this way the Swaminarayan faith and its followers are characterized by their project works to benefit social welfare. This particular show of compassion also resulted in converting many people to the faith once the realization was gained that even the ascetics, those who some considered a burden, were laboring just like everyone else. The people were attracted to the ideas put forth by the movement, “Sahajanand followed a strict moral code and had a profound influence for good in the lives of his followers, many of whom came from the least restrained portion of the population” (Williams 2001:69). The idea of those of higher caste giving aid in those places of lower caste was an alluring aspect.

The Swaminarayan movement experienced a lot of controversy because of its reforms. One such aspect that caused others to frown upon the movement was its attitude towards the caste system. Although prescribed in their vows not to accept food from those of lower caste, the Swaminarayan movement still acts in a manner as to help others, which includes the high class ascetic Brahmins helping those of lower classes. Being a vegetarian and being against all forms of violence were both vows that needed to be taken by all followers. With these ideals held high and strictly followed, many traditional customs and practices of regular Hindu society were considered for change. Sacrificial rituals, for instance, could not be done by the Swaminarayan. To ritually sacrifice an animal involved both the killing of an animal and an act of violence. Such actions were condemned by the faith. Sahajanand believed that rituals could be done in a different manner, “In AD 1808 he staged a large sacrifice (yajna) without animal sacrifice in Ahmedabad” (Williams 2001:24). This was not taken well by more traditional Hindus. Other large bloodless sacrifices were performed as demonstrations to others that such traditions could still be done without the need for spilled blood. Eventually it was decided upon that sacrifices would no longer be used to preach the ideals of the Swaminarayan. Instead it was decided upon that the Swaminarayan would congregate in organized meetings of members of the faith that would be held twice a year. Other ritual such as the sati, a ritual in which the wife of a dead husband burns herself on the funeral pyre along with the deceased is also condemned by the Swaminarayan sect.

The Swaminarayan is a monotheistic group, but not in the Western religious sense. As stated the Swaminarayans are Vaishnavites or followers of Visnu. As a reformer, Sahajanand moved away from several traditional beliefs and practices that other Hindu religious sects followed. Not all people were ready to throw away such beliefs and their worship of more than one God but some were. Although the Swaminarayan devotion focused mainly on Visnu, they still gave worship to four other deities that were deemed very important “Siva, Ganapati, Parvati, and Surya, the major deities worshiped by Smarta Brahmins” (Williams 2001:25). This did not mean that they did in fact worship more than one God. In March of 1825 Sahanjanand Swami met with the Bishop Heber and discussed the Swaminarayan religion with him. The main focus that the Bishop was interested in and topic they discussed most was the monotheistic ideals that the Bishop had heard the Swaminarayan followed. In Sahajanand’s opening statements to the Bishop he said “Many names there may be, and have been, given to him who is and is the same, but whom we as well as other hindoos call brihm” (Williams 2001:70) which is to say that there are many ways to say the name God or as the Hindu people call it, Brahman. To identify God with another name such as Visnu is only to give character to one aspect of that which is Brahman. It is not to say that all deities they give worship to are called God.

Today the Swaminarayan movement is still thriving. In 2001 it was estimated that the faith was numbering upwards of five million members, the bulk of which reside in the homeland of Gujarat. However, it is important to note that there are two main divisions of the Swaminarayan movement. At the time in 2001 it was believed that “3.5 million associated with Vadtal and Ahmedabad and 1.5 million associated with the Bochasanwasi Akshar Purushattam Sanstha” (Williams 2001:68) but it is hard to tell exactly how many belong to each division and how many follow both. It is difficult to judge just how many there are but it is reasonable to believe that there may be even more devotees today. One thing that is now used to gather hundreds of thousands of people are modern mega-festivals. These festivals attract “both faithful followers and the idly curious – to religious events that concentrate the transmission of tradition in various media at a single site over a specific period of a few days or a month” (Williams 2001:176) which relates all the way back to when Sahajanand Swami decided to have large organized meetings with the members of his faith instead of non-violent sacrifices. The Swaminarayan are mostly consolidated in India but have expanded all over the world in smaller numbers.

References and further recommended readings

Williams, R. B. (1984) A New Face of Hinduism: The Swaminarayan Religion.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, R. B. (2001) An Introduction to Swaminarayan Hinduism Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press

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Bochasanwasi akshar purushottam sanstha


Smarta Brahmin





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Article written by: Kevin Storoz (March 2010) who is solely responsible for its content.

(Revised on April 10, 2010)

The Baul Religion

The Bauls of Bengal are people who practice the Baul religion. The Baul people are mostly known for singing because singing is one way in which they project their beliefs (Thielemann 1). This religion is a combination of Hindu and Islamic beliefs and is based on the Upanisads and the Vedas (Capwell 255). To be Baul requires not only studying, but an emersion in the knowledge acquired (Thielemann 20). In order for the Bauls to be consumed with this knowledge, they must learn by experience. The most important aspect is self-realization, sadhana (1). The Baul does need guidance from a spiritual master, sadguru; the only way for a person to fully achieve sadhana is by attempting it themselves, not just learning about it.

The main component of the Baul religion is that the true divinity, maner manusa (the man of the heart), dwells within the human heart (17). The Bauls believe that the human body is the temple of the gods, so they must take care of and properly cultivate their bodies. Before one can unite with the Supreme Divinity, his soul must be completely purified. A person must be purified through body and heart; means of attaining this includes having good thoughts, company, conversation, and environment. One must also completely give up his ego. The main goal for a Baul adherent is to surrender himself to the divinity within himself. Once the human and Supreme Soul has united, he or she is able to attain infinite reality; this is Baul sadhana (21).

The path to attaining sadhana is not easy; it takes much control and selflessness. One of the most important aspects of Baul sadhana is aropa sadhana (the fundamental process of implementation). This is achieved by mastering breath- control (38). Within this process there are three stages to perform: “drawing the breath upwards, suspending it for some time, and finally releasing it again” (39). There is a whole process on how one performs these steps which takes a great deal of strength and control. The first step is called Puraka and it consists of using one’s finger to close the right nostril and breathing through the left, then switching and breathing through the right. The next step, Kumbhaka, is when the Baul holds the breath within him by holding his nose and mouth closed with his right hand. The final step is Recaka, where the breath is released through one nostril. This is a very specific procedure but it helps the Baul gain strength to attain sadhana. The amount of time one is supposed to hold their breath is not specified but being able to train and hold it for long periods of time shows that person has full control over the vital air and their inner strength (40). Another aspect that goes along with the vital air is ajapa (the soundless incantation). After one is fully conscious of the supreme divinity within them, this incantation is automatically pronounced while that person breaths in (41). When the Bauls have achieved the highest level of control, which is done through their breathing, they are able to pursue more in their sadhana (43).

Once the Baul has found his true self, a brilliant light shines before him. This light allows him to see everything within himself by illuminating the inner self. Man’s own self is this light, it is atma (the self – illuminating human soul) (81). To attain the spiritual goal of atma the Baul must have total knowledge of their body and have achieved proper sadhana (Capwell 260). Also, for one to see their inner self they have to tune – out everything outside of their own body.

Baul philosophy is mostly known for the songs that the Baul people sing; in the Samsad Bengali – English Dictionary the definition of Baul is “one of a class of Hindu stoical devotees singing songs in a special mode illustrating their doctrine (Thielemann 1).” Although the Bail religion may be synonymous with singing, it is not the totality of the Baul religion. The reason the Bauls are known for their singing is because it is one way they are able to share and attain sadhana, which people hear and therefore relate to them. The Baul’s song comes completely from his heart. Through his song he can express his feelings and sing them to everything around him. The Baul becomes engrossed in the song he is singing and nothing else around him matters. This is because while singing he has become one with the Supreme Being within him (36). Becoming one with the maner manusa is the ultimate goal for the Bauls, which explains the prevelance of singing within the Baul religion.

While singing the Baul plays a one – stringed plucked drum called the ekatara. This instrument symbolizes union of the body (deha) and the mind (mana). The clothes worn by the Baul also symbolizes unity. Their guduri is a dress that is made of many different pieces and colors of fabric that are sewn together. Each of the pieces is supposed to represent every caste and every religion and they are being brought together in unity and equality in the dress (35 – 36).

The Baul is always trying to achieve sadhana and by singing, dancing and playing his instrument he is able to perform his sadhana. The Bauls believe that worshipping alone is a form of selfishness because it is not universally shared. Therefore, an act of devotional selflessness can be found in the Baul interaction with the surroundings and audience (102). Being unified with all is very important to the Bauls and singing is claimed to unify all individual aspects into a whole. When sound (svara brahma), rhythm (tala brahma) and speech (vakya brahma), combine to make music, it becomes the highest point of emotion and at this point it has gained full strength and that is when everything is united (112).

Although it seems that plain singing is all that is needed to reach this great height of oneness, this is not the case. It is very important that the singer be in tune and be completely focused on praising the divinity within him. If the singer fails to do either of these then negative forces are able to enter his heart (114). Done correctly though, the Baul is able to show his worship to the Supreme Divinity within himself. Samkirtana is the congregational rendition of musical worship. This brings together many like – minded people to worship, which intensify the devotion to the Supreme Divinity.

Music is a way in which the Baul people are able to worship their inner deity and move closer to their ultimate goal of sadhana. Because the Supreme Divinity dwells within the hearts of men, sadhana (self-realization) as the greatest aspiration of the Bauls, is to become completely one with The One inside of them.


Capwell, Charles H. (1974) “The Esoteric Belief of the Bauls of Bengal.” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 33, No. 2 (February): 255-264.

Thielemann, Selina (2003) Baul Philosophy. New Delhi: A.P.H. Publishing Corporation.

Related Reading

Capwell, Charles (1988) “The Popular Expression of Religious Syncretism: The Bauls of Bengal as Apostles of Brotherhood.” Popular Music, Vol. 7, No. 2, The South Asia/West Crossover (May): 123 – 132.

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Baul Music

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Written by Emily Kaun (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.