By Swami Purnanda
The term Vaiśnav refers to devotees of Brahm (God) in general as well as to devotees of Vishnu in particular and is derived from the Lord's name, Vishnu. The sect or worship is known as Vaiśnavam (Vaiśnavism) or Bhāgavata-dharma. Vaishnava is normally practiced in the Pāñcharātra sense wherein Narayan may be worshipped alongside his incarnations, and sects adhering to this include the Hare Krishna, Pushtimarg, and Swaminarayan. In one sense, Vishnu denotes the omnipresent, all-pervading Being, while in another, it represents one of the Holy triad, viz. Brahmā, Vishnu and Mahesh. Lord Vishnu is known as the preserver of creation. In one of his forms, he has four arms - one holding a conch (Pāñcajanya), another a discus (Sudarśana), another a mace (Kaumudakī), and the fourth one a lotus. This concept of Vishnu is Puranic, but it has a very ancient origin. The name Vishnu appears in the Rig Veda thus: ‘Idam vishnur-vi cakrame tredhā nidadhe padam, samūhlam-asya pāmsure; Vishnu traversed this world: thrice he planted his foot and the whole (world) was gathered in the dust of his footsteps’. Elsewhere he has been conceived as a personification of light and of the sun. He is called Śipivista, clothed in rays of light. The wise ever contemplate the supreme station (paramam padam) of Vishnu as the eye ranging over the sky . The idea of the Vedic Vishnu is abstract, whereas that of Puranic Vishnu is anthropomorphic. He is the unconquerable Preserver who lives in Vaikuntha or Goloka. During the period of dissolution, he rests on the great serpent Ananta or Śesa in the midst of the ocean of causal waters (kārana salila). Many Puranas describe him as the Supreme God. Nevertheless, even the Puranic idea of Vishnu has its source in the Vedas.
Sometimes transliterated as: Vaisnava, VaiZnava, Vaishnava
Nārāyan, Bhāgvata, Krishna Vāsudeva, and Vishnu are the main epithets of Brahm in Vaiśnavam. Krishna is the primary object of devotion in the Bhāgavata and Gaudīya traditions. He is worshiped in several forms: as Vāsudeva Krishna (the Supreme Being), as Gopāl Krishna (baby Krishna), as Vanamālī Krishna (the young cowherd), and as the king of Dwāraka.
| O mind, meditate on Mura’s adversary;
O hands, be clasped in the worship of Sridhara;
O ears, hear the great deeds of Achyuta;
O eyes, be fixed on Krishna;
O feet, go to the temple of Hari;
O nose, smell the tulsi at the feet of Mukunda;
O head, bow down to Adhokshaja.
—Kulashekhara Alvar, Mukundamala
- 1 Scriptures
- 2 Sectarian Development
- 3 Other Vaishnav Traditions
- 4 The Common Contemplative Tradition of Vaiśnavism
- 5 Spirit of Renunciation in Vaiśnavism
- 6 Sannyasins and Householders and their Sacraments
- 7 Worship Customs
- 8 Rāgānugā or Premā Bhakti
- 9 Most Important Devotees
- 10 External Resources
- 11 References
- See also: Vishnu's Relation to Krishna
Vaiśnavs typically reference the Vedic suktams as the first compiled scriptural basis for Vaiśnavam. Vaiśnav Āgama is an umbrella term for the entire Vaiśnav corpus. The Alvars of southern India had also referred to it as the Vaiśnav Veda. The complete spiritual wisdom any human should have is said to be the word of God or Ekāyana Veda which has been synonymously been called Mulaveda ("The Root Veda.") Ekāyana Veda has been a term used by both the Vaikhānas and Pāñcharātra sampradays. Ekāyana Veda was also briefly mentioned in the Chandogya Upanishad but without much description. Apart from the Bhagavad Gita, which is considered the literal 'word of God' or Brahmshabd, the Mukhya Upanishads (primarily the Vaiśnava ones) and Brahm Sutras are usually given precedence over other text, thus constituting the Prasthanatrayi ("Three Sources.")
Five suktas of the Vedas are believed by many Vaiśnavs to support Vaishnavism in particular:
- The Purush Sukta (Rig Veda)
- The Narayan Sukta (Yajur Veda)
- The Nila Sukta (Taittiriya Samhita)
- The Sri Sukta (Rig Veda)
- The Bhu Sukta (Taittiriya Brahmana)
The Āgamas are the secondary scriptures, derived from the Veda. Although they have many divisions, the primary Āgamas are five in number: Saura, Śākta, Gānapatya, Vaishnav, and Shaiv or Pāśupatya. The Vaiśnav Āgama shastra or corpus has two main subdivisions: the Vaikhānasa Āgama and the Pāñcharātra Āgama. As all these Āgamas are said to have been derived from the Veda, they are also called Śrauta Āgamas. God Almighty, according to Vaiśnavism is determined based on shad-gunyavigraham devam (6 qualities of godliness.)
The Vaishnav tradition is primarily a tradition of bhakti, or devotion to God. Nārada defines bhakti as being of the nature of intense love for God: Sā tvasmin parama premarūpā. The sage Śāndilya defines it as supreme attachment to God: sā parānuraktir-īśvare. Two types of bhakti have been described by the teachers of bhakti: vaidhī and rāgānugā. Vaidhī bhakti involves worship and other rituals as instructed by the scriptures, whereas in rāgānugā bhakti, intense love for God is fundamental, and rituals and worship become secondary. The Vaikhānasa Āgama deals primarily with vaidhī bhakti, while Pāñcharātra Āgama teaches both vaidhī and rāgānugā bhakti.
The complete spiritual wisdom any human should have is said to be the word of God or Ekāyana Veda which has been synonymously been called Mulaveda ("The Root Veda"), Pāñcharātra, Sātvat, Tantra, and Āgama. Just before listing 108 shastras, Padma Samhita narrator Samvarta declares, "Narayan himself is the proclaimer of all the tantras." Ekayana Veda was revealed to a select few who were deserving of it; Sanat Kumars (Sanatan, Sujat, Sanak, Sananand) and Kapila. Later sages such as Atri , Angirasa , Pulastya , Pulaha , Kratu , Vasista and Svayambhuva learnt the Ekayana Veda from Narayan too.
|Having spoken thus, he (Narayan) taught the Veda called Ekayana, which is the main root of the great Veda-tree.|
—Parmeshvar Samhita 1.32c-33b
It is said that from this Ekāyana Veda from which other scriptures, Vaiśnav and certain non-Vaiśnav ones, emerged. They are of 3 munibhashita shastra (scriptures compiled by human sages) classes - Sattvik (shastras composed by Narayan himself or ones whom he instructed), Rajas (shastras by persons influenced by Narayan but also ideas from other seers), and Tamas (shastras written by seers with no direct guidance from Narayan or persons that do.)
|Chief Scriptural Source||Ekāyana Veda (Bhagavad Gita is a part of it)|
|Satvik||Four Vedas, Ahirbudhnya Samhita, Aniruddha Samhita, Sanat Kumar Samahita, Narada Pāñcharātra, Hamsa Gita|
|Rajasik||Satvat Shastra, Mahabharata, Valmiki Ramayana|
Darshan shastras: Brahm Sutras, Sarvamūla Granthas
The theological traditions of the other Vaishnav sects have resemblance to the one developed by Rāmānuja, albeit with noteworthy variations. Teachers like Madhva, Vallabha, Nimbārka, and others also incorporated Rāmānuja’s ideas in their philosophies.
This sampraday traces its foundation by Brahmā (someone of that gotra.)
The Bhagavata Purana confirms that instructions were imparted to someone of the Brahmā gotra, which then passed through the latter.
|Text 17: The infallible Supreme Personality of Godhead, Viṣṇu, has descended into this world by His various partial incarnations such as Lord Haṁsa [the swan], Dattātreya, the four Kumāras and our own father, the mighty Ṛṣabhadeva.|
According to the Bhagavata Purana, Hamsa was a Prajapati, confirming he was of the Brahmā gotra. The scripture continues to say that Hamsa imparted spiritual knowledge to Sanaka the Sanat Kumar. Hamsa's spiritual instructions are preserved in the Hamsa Gita. This Hamsa may be the same Brahmā as Vaikhānasa.
The Vaikhānasa school of Vaisnavism claims its origin from the sage Vikhanas or Brahmā, meaning it was someone of the Brahmā or Prajapati gotra. Vaikhanasas claim to be a surviving school of Vedic agnihotra (fire ceremonialism) called the Taittiriya school of the Krishna Yajur Veda. Vaikhanasa tradition says that Vikhanas rishi composed the Vaikhanasa Kalpasutra and taught four disciples, Atri, Bhrigu, Kashyapa, and Marichi, the procedures of samurtarchana (devotional service to Vishnu in images.) Most Vaikhanasa literature is mainly involved with ritual, prescribing the ceremonies and their rules of performance. The Vaikhānasas are primarily a community of temple priests, and their mode of worship is essentially oriented towards Vishnu. The Vaikhānasa Grhya Sūtras prescribe for the householders a daily worship involving the fabrication of an image of Vishnu. All gods and goddesses are supposed to be worshiped in Vishnu. To the Vaikhānasas, Vishnu is the Supreme Being, the highest principle. He has two aspects: sakala (with form) and niskala (without form). The niskala aspect is his essence as all-pervasive Being, while his conditioned presence (the sakala aspect) gracefully responds to devotional intent and meditation. Vaikhanasa ritual theory is based on the fivefold conception of Vishnu; as Brahm, Purush, Satya, Achyuta (the immutable), and Aniruddha (the irreducible aspect.) Worship entails venerating Vishnu, and many times his 4 attendants; Achuta, Satya, Purusha, Aniruddha.
Moksha is release into Vishnu’s abode, called Vaikuntha. It can be attained by the practice of japa (devoted repetition of a mantra or prayer), hūta (sacrifice), archanā (service to the image), and dhyana (meditation conforming to a yogic regimen). Four types of moksha have been described: sālokya (to live in the abode of God), sāmīpya (to live near God), sārūpya (to have a form akin to that of God), and sāyujya (being united with or merged in God). The last one is considered the ultimate moksha. The Vaikhānasa treatises speak of four abodes of Vishnu: Āmoda, Pramoda, Sammoda, and Vaikuntha, where Vishnu, Mahā Vishnu, Sadā Vishnu, and Nārāyan respectively preside. Among the four sadhanas, archanā has been declared the highest by Marichi Samhita. By means of archanā',' one can enter Vaikuntha, the abode of Narayan, and enjoy eternal bliss.
Vaikhānasas tended to live in the forest, and their diet consisted mainly of wild rice and grains.
The Madhva Tradition
Madhvācharya did not accept the Advaitic concept of jīvanmukti or nirvāna mukti. According to him, mukti is the attainment of Vaikuntha, the abode of Vishnu (sālokya), and attainment of a form similar to the Deity (sārūpya). Mukti or salvation is attained only by the grace of Vishnu, and even after mukti, the jiva remains the servant of the Lord. Ishvara and jiva are distinct entities. Bhakti, the only means of salvation, leads to the direct perception of the Deity. By performing proper worship, a person becomes competent for bhakti. This worship includes :ankana (marking the body with holy symbols), nāmakarana (naming children and other objects of love with holy names),and bhajana (service). Bhajana again is of three types: kāyika (physical), vācika (verbal), and mānasika (mental). Kāyika bhajana includes dāna (charity), paritrāna (acts of deliverance), and pariraksana (acts of protection). Vācika bhajana includes satyakathana (speaking the truth), hitavākya kathana (beneficial counsel), priyavākya kathana (sweet and gentle speech), and svādhyāya (study of scriptures). Mānasika bhajana comprises dayā (compassion), sprhā (desire for service to God), and śraddhā (faith in the guru and scriptures). Through these devotional practices, mediate knowledge is gained; this helps the growth of bhakti, which in turn results in enlightenment. This leads to a very ripe devotion which, in turn, leads to liberation—eternal servitude to God.
This tradition traces its foundation to a Sanat Kumar (4 sons of Brahmā.) Sanaka was the specific of the 4 who founded and preached it, as [according to the Parama Samhita] he was taught the Pāñcharātra by Vishnu himself. It is recorded that Sanak was trained in spiritual knowledge by Hamsa (usually identified as an avatara of Vishnu.) As a result, this path is also referred to as Sanakandi Sampraday.
Its 2 major sects are the original Pāñcharātra (whose tradition is traced thousands of years ago) and Nimbarka Sampradaya (whose tradition was founded by Nimbarka Acharya of the 7th century.)
- See also: Vishnu's Relation to Krishna
The Pāñcharātra Āgama prescribes worship of Narayan. It is so-called because Vishnu taught this doctrine in five nights to Anant, Garuda, Vishwaksena, Brahmā, and Rudra. The Pāñcharātra tradition follows both vaidhī and rāgānugā bhakti. The term Pāñcharātra can be traced to the Pāñcharātra yajna (a sacrifice spread over five nights) described in the scriptures. The term is first used in the Taittiriya Samhita wherein a man named Babara Pravahini used the Pāñcharātra sacrifice to gain rhetorical power. The Shatapatha Brahmana.. The Ahirbudhnya Samhita says that Narayan himself composed the Pāñcharātra Tantra and therein explained the secret of his five forms: Para (the transcendent), Vyūha (heavenly avataras), Vibhabha (Earthly avataras), Antaryāmin (the in-dweller within individuals) and Arcā (as consecrated images.) Pāñcharātra may [also] be so-called because it adheres to panchakala or 5 daily observances; abhigamana or prayers, upadana or collecting materials for worship (i.e., incense sticks, lotus flowers), ijya or sacrifice (i.e., worship, fasting), swadhyaya or self-study, and yoga or meditation.
Vaishnavam has also been known as Bhagavatam, Ekantika Dharm, Pāñcharātra, Satvat Vidhi, and Narayaniya. Bhagavatam refers to the Krishna the Bhagavat. Ekantika Dharm refers to Vasudeva as well, but according to the Narada Pāñcharātra, there were 2 kinds of Ekantins - pure (Vasudevaikayajina or "worshiping only Vasudeva") and mixed (who worshiped other forms of Vasudeva.) The "Mokshadharmaparvan" section of the Mahabharata states that the worship of Vasudeva evolved from ekavyuha (only Krishna), to dvivyuha (him and Sankarshan), then trivyuha (the prior 2 and Pradyumna), and chaturvyuha (the 3 plus Aniruddha.) Later, Sambha too was added to the regular pantheon.
The Pāñcharātra tradition of Vaisnavism and the Nārāyanīya section in the Śāntiparvan of the Mahabharata have great similarity. The primary aim of the Pāñcharātra tradition is prapatti or śaranāgati (self-surrender), and the path is therefore called ekāntika (with but one aim). According to Pāñcharātrikas, śaranāgati or total resignation is the main method of contemplation.
The Satvata and Ahirbudhnya samhitas list 39 avatars of Vishnu:
- Narayan (the rishi and brother or Nara)
- Rama Dhanurdhara
The main deities of this sect are Vasudeva himself, and his expansions of Sankarsana, Pradyumna, Aniruddha, and Samba.
Gaudīya and Bhāgavata Tradition
The Gaudīya tradition of bhakti is based on the theology of the Bhagavata and the Narada Pāñcharātra. The Gaudīya Vaishnavs are worshippers of Rādhā and Krishna. The person of Rādhā does not find mention in the Bhagavata. This concept is derived from the Narada Pāñcharātra, where Pārvati, the divine consort of Shiva, says: ‘Tadrāse dhāranādrādhā vidvadbhih parikīrtitā; I held you in rāsa (divine play), that is why I am known as Rādhā by those in the know.’ Gopīs, the milkmaids of Vraja, are the embodiments of amorous love. The aggregate of this love of the gopīs is Rādhā, the embodiment of mahābhāva, the manifestation of hlādinī (the power of divine beatitude), which is one of the components of God’s svarūpa śakti (intrinsic powers).
This concept of Rādhā is a dominant theme in Vrindavan. The highest aspect of mahābhāva, known as mādana or maddening delight, is possessed only by Rādhā and no one else, not even by Krishna. The delight Rādhā derives thereby is so immensely superior to what Krishna enjoys as the object of her love and is so irresistibly tempting that Krishna cannot suppress his eagerness to taste his own charms and sweetness as Rādhā does. Accordingly, there is an aspect of Krishna in which all the attributes of the Krishna of Vrindavan as well as those of Rādhā coexist. In this aspect, Krishna, as the subject of mādana, relishes his own charms and sweetness. Caitanya Mahāprabhu (or Śri Gaurānga), is considered to be this dual form—Krishna and Rādhā embodied in one frame—by the Gaudīya Vaishnavs. So it is their custom to worship Gaurānga and his companions before worshipping Krishna.
The highest privilege for a jiva is to serve the Lord with madhura rati (amorous attachment) and be united with him, while maintaining one’s individuality, or while maintaining an idea of separation of Purusa and Prakrti (in Vaishnav theological terms). To attain this state one needs to practise thinking of oneself as a young gopī, beautifully dressed, attending on Rādhā in her love-pastimes with Krishna, being the principal subordinate to Rūpamañjarī, the chief among Rādhā’s attendants (known as mañjarīs). Similar is the mode of meditation for devotees with other ratis .
|I will build a funeral pyre of sandalwood and aloe; light it by Your own hand. When I am burned away to cinders, smear this ash upon Your limbs. …let flame be lost in flame.|
But this is not possible for novices. So they are to prepare themselves by following the disciplines of vaidhī bhakti and navadhā bhakti. Thereafter the aspirant is expected to develop the sentiments inherent in the śānta, dāsya, sakhya, and vātsalya attitudes (sneha, pranaya, and the like). When the aspirant feels a deep attraction for and cannot bear separation from Krishna, he or she is established in bhāva. When this too ripens, the aspirant is established in the attitude of a gopī (gopī bhāva siddha), which, in select aspirants, culminates in mahābhāva. In this state, separation is removed and total union prevails; the aspirant enters into the supreme state of divine ecstasy and becomes one with the beloved enjoying the absolute mādhurya of Krishna. In this state, Krishna is looked upon as the nearest and dearest, nay—the person of the devotee is totally merged into that of Krishna, who is Narayan of Goloka, the advaya jñāna-tattva vastu the unique or non-dual essence of knowledge.
Important exponents of the Gaudīya tradition include Rūpa, Sanātana, and Jīva Gosvāmi. Among more recent traditions, ISKCON, the Hare Krishna school, follows the Gaudīya tradition.The ISKCON followers emphasize keeping count on the rosary ( japa mālā) while repeating the holy name, and consider the Bhagavata, the Gita, and the Chaitanya Charitamrita their main scriptures.
The Śankaradeva Tradition
Śankaradeva considers the Bhagavata as the embodiment of Krishna, and worships it as such. His followers usually do not worship images, but otherwise follow Gaudīya theology. They follow the teachings of the Bhagavata, which prescribes the Kaliyuga method of worshipping the Supreme Being through kīrtana, identifying him with Krishna and Rama and addressing him as Mahāpurusa. Thus the Purusottama of the Gita is the Mahāpurusa of the Bhagavata, and the theology of Śankaradeva is known as Mahāpurusiyā Dharma. Kīrtana, the main method of worship, is also called nāma-dharma. Just as the Gita enjoins giving up all duties and the practice of implicit resignation to the Lord, Śankaradeva also lays great stress on eka śarana (surrender to the one Lord), which gives the school its other epithet eka śaraniyā. The concept of mukti is not given much importance by this sect, and it does not accept madhura bhāva or the Rādhā and gopī concepts of Caitanya and the Bhāgavata school.
This tradition was preached first by someone of the Rudra gotra. 'Shiva', besides being the name of an ancient rishi of this gotra, has also tended to be used as anyone who came after from this gotra after Shiva's lifetime.
This sampraday has 2 sects; Vishnuswami (whose tradition is traced thousands of years ago) and Pushtimarg (whose tradition was founded by Vallabha Acharya of the 15th century.)
The darshan it prescribes to is Shuddhadvaita (pure monism.)
The Vāllabha Tradition
Although the school founded by Vallabha Acharya accepts the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Narada Pāñcharātra as scripture, its primary authority is the Bhagavata Purana, because this text is directly related to Krishna. For Vallabha, Sri Krishna is the Sat-cid-ananda Parabrahman, also called Purusottama, even when present in his pastoral aspect as the cowherd boy of Vraja. Vallabha, however, does not accept the reality of Rādhā as in the Vrindavan Vaishnav tradition and the Gaudīya tradition. According to Vallabha, the highest type of jiva is pusti jīva, the spiritually nourished jiva. This concept of pusti is derived from the Bhagavata: ‘posanam tadanugrahah; posana is his grace.’ This is why Vallabha’s system of philosophy is called Pusti Mārga. One may practice bhakti rigorously, but divine grace is nonetheless the last word and the summum bonum of life. A pusti jīva prefers to serve the Lord, even eschewing Mukti. Bhajanānanda (the joy of devotional adoration) is infinitely superior to brahmānanda (the bliss of Brahman), and this can be had through service to Krishna, the Pūrna Purusottama (the Supreme Being totally manifest). To attain this privilege, the disciplines of nine-fold bhakti mentioned earlier have been prescribed. When this bhakti matures, the devotee enters into a transcendental state in this very life and gets a spiritual body in the life beyond, in order to be perpetually engaged in the divine service of the Lord.
It is uncertain how old this sampraday is (with adherents claiming it traces back to Vishnu and Laxmi themselves) but this tradition was made more popular by Tamil Saint Nathmuni. It was then popularized by Ramanuja, who connected Vaishnavism with other Vedic persons, including Indra and Varuna. Later in the 14th century, Bhakti Era patriarch Ramananda Swami preached Sri Sampraday in northern India after settling there. Today the sect also worships Vishnu's avatars (Rama, Krishna, as well as Hanuman.)
The darshan it prescribes to is Vishishtadvaita.
Nāthamuni is traditionally considered the founder of the Śri Sampradāy. Yāmuna Acharya was the first āchārya of this sampradāy. However, it was Rāmānuja who established this school on a firm footing.
Bhakti: According to the Śrīvaishnav tradition, bhakti is realizing one’s ultimate relationship with the Lord as his eternal servant. This relationship generates love for and attachment to him. Rāmānuja also equates bhakti with dhyana and upāsanā. Dhyana is the concentration of the mind on the Deity, and upāsanā, continuous thought of Him or Her. Bhakti has two stages: sādhana-bhakti (bhakti as means, i.e. ritual devotion) and phala-bhakti or sādhya-bhakti (bhakti as fruit). Sādhana-bhakti aims to inculcate strong faith in the Deity as the highest value and a sense of the utter transitoriness of worldly achievements. Sādhya-bhakti is being established in love for God, as a servant loves the master. This is the means to mukti. To achieve sādhya-bhakti, one must go through a seven-fold culture (sādhana saptaka):
- viveka, discrimination regarding what ought to be accepted and what to be given up, especially in relation to food;
- vimoka, control of passions like anger, jealously, and lust;
- abhyāsa, practice of disciplines like worship, japa, chanting the names of God, and pilgrimage, in order to maintain a constant memory of God as the indwelling principle (śesin) within oneself as well as in the whole universe;
- kriya, the five-fold works or sacrifices—to gods and goddesses through agnihotra (fire sacrifice) and other rituals, to the rishis through scriptural study, to one’s ancestors, to human beings, and to other living beings (bhūtas) through appropriate offerings;
- kalyāna, virtuous conduct, consisting in practicing virtues like satya (truth), ārjava (straightforwardness), dayā (compassion), dāna (charity), and ahimsā (non-injury);
- anavasāda, freedom from despair, dejection, pessimism, and the like, and maintenance of a cheerful and positive attitude of mind; and
- anuddharsa, absence of exultation or excitement, maintaining an even temperament in all situations.
Prapatti: By long and continued practice of these disciplines, one is established on the plane of vaidhī bhakti consisting of dhyana and upāsanā. Thereafter the aspirant ascends to the plane of paramā bhakti (supreme devotion), maintaining in oneself the knowledge that one is merely a śesa (a minute part of the whole, which is the Deity) and that the Deity is the śesin (the whole). Paramā bhakti is identical with prapatti (resignation). This state of being an eternal servant of the Lord is itself the highest goal. The idea of identifcation with the Supreme Being is not acceptable to the Śrīvaishnav. According to this tradition, the Supreme Being or Purusottama is by nature devoid of all blemish and is full of limitless, unsurpassable, and countless auspicious qualities: ‘nirasta-nikhiladoso-’nava-dhikātiśayāsankhyeya-kalyānagunaganah’.
Many other Vaishnav devotees called sants preached the doctrine of love throughout India. Several sects have preserved the traditions they founded. These include the sects of Nimbārka, Rāmānanda, and Samartha Rāmdās, the Vārkarīpantha (worshippers of Vitthala or Vithobā of Pandharpur, including Nāmadeva, Eknāth, Tukārām, and Janābai among others); and smaller sects associated with Haridās and Dādu. Jñāneśvara blended bhakti with Advaita Vedanta in Jnaneshvari, his commentary on the Bhagavadgita. The other sants have stressed bhakti as the path to God realization and advocated singing the name of the Lord and chanting his praise. These sants accepted and preached the path of pure devotion (premā bhakti), considering God a loving parent or master rather than as the divine lover of the Bhāgavata or Gaudīya tradition. An exception was Mīrābāi; she practiced and preached rāgānugā bhakti (passionate love) towards the Lord, viewing him as lover.
According to Sri Ramakrishna, in the present-day age of Kaliyuga, devotion as prescribed by Nārada is the way to God-realization. This involves intense love for God and total indifference towards everything contrary to God; and this is developed by singing the names and glories of God. Ramakrishna says that two things are essential to realize God: simplicity and yearning. It is necessary to establish a close relationship with God and impress deeply on the mind the idea that God is one’s very own. Knowing this, one must take refuge in God and develop an intense attachment for Him. He says, ‘God reveals Himself to a devotee who feels drawn to Him by the combined force of these three attractions: the attractions of worldly possessions for the worldly man, the child’s attraction for its mother, and the husband’s attraction for the chaste wife.’’ He prescribes four aids to contemplation:
- association with holy persons,
- discrimination (between the real and the unreal, to develop the conviction that God alone is real and all else unreal), and
- prayer for genuine faith and love for God.
He declares that God realization is the sole aim of human life, and that a still higher aim is to love God with all one’s heart and soul but without any ulterior motive. Mukti is a secondary matter for Ramakrishna, and is inferior to bhakti. The culmination of all knowledge is the realization that the same (and one) God has become the jivas, the universe, and all its components; it is to experience God in every thing and in every being.
Vaisnavism is mainly a tradition of bhakti. This bhakti has been defined and explained in different ways by different teachers. Unmotivated devotion (ahaitukī bhakti) to God is preached in the Bhagavata Purana: ‘Sa vai pumsām paro dharmo yato bhaktir-adhoksaje, ahaituky-apratihatā yayā’’tmā samprasīdati;That is the highest religion of humanity from which arises motiveless and uninterrupted devotion to God that fills the soul with bliss.’ The Narada Pancharatra defines bhakti as the realization that God alone is ‘mine’ (truly one’s own), accompanied by divine love (preman) and devoid of attachment to any worldly object. In later Vaishnav tradition, a distinction is drawn between bhakti and preman. Bhakti is spontaneous attachment for God, being entirely possessed by and absorbed in him. Preman is the most concentrated form of this love, characterized by that intense attachment to God which purifies the heart completely. Preman is the culmination and fulflment of bhakti, its utmost perfection. This is also the basis of the two divisions: vaidhī or sādhana bhakti (ritual devotion) and rāgānugā or premā bhakti (the devotion consequent upon intense attachment).
Although there are exceptions, formal renunciation is not an important component of the Vaishnav tradition. The renunciation practiced by its adherents manifests more as an indifferent attitude towards worldly objects that are obstacles to one-pointed or single-minded love for God. This is called yukta vairāgya (detachment proper): ‘Anāsaktasya visayān yathārham-upayuñjatah, nirbandhah krsna-sambandhe yuktam vairāgyam-ucyate; That detachment which is characterized by acceptance of only those objects that are not detrimental to devotion and which is accompanied by a desire to associate with Krishna is termed yukta vairāgya.’ This is in contrast to phalgu vairāgya (feeble detachment) ‘Prāpañcikatayā buddhyā hari-sambandhi-vastunah mumuksubhih parityāgo vairāgyam phalgu kathyate; Renunciation of all objects—even those related to Krishna himself, knowing them to be worldly—by seekers of salvation is termed phalgu vairāgya’ . This is the spirit of renunciation of those who tread on the path of knowledge. Vaishnav devotees generally practice yukta vairāgya. Sri Caitanya Mahāprabhu exemplified an uncompromising spirit of renunciation, and so did his direct disciples like Rūpa, Sanātana, and Jīva Gosvāmi.
Sannyasins and Householders and their Sacraments
The Vaishnav movement comprises both sannyasin and householder traditions. Each has a tradition of teacher-pupil succession (paramparā), maintained by the process of dīksā (initiation with a mantra). On being initiated into the sect (sampradāya) the disciple undertakes to abide by the values of the tradition and the community. He or she receives a mantra of Vishnu or Krishna (and in case of renunciants a new name) in accordance with the traditional ista (Chosen Deity) of the particular sampradāya. All Vaishnavs must mark their fore-head with sandalwood tilaka (a holy mark in the form of an extended ‘U’) and other sacred marks—signs of Vishnu’s insignia—on different parts of the body: arms, nose, chest, and the like. A body without these marks is considered ‘as inauspicious as a carcass’. All initiated Vaishnavs are also expected to wear a string of beads made from the stem of tulsi (the holy basil) around their necks, have a rosary for japa (repeating the divine name), and wear a śikhā (a knotted tuf of hair on the back of the head).
The Marks of Vaidhī Bhakti
Vaidhī bhakti has nine aspects (navalaksanā or navadhā)--all directed to Vishnu: ‘Śravanam kīrtanam vishnoh smaranam pādasevanam, arcanam vandanam dāsyam sakhyam-ātmanivedanam.’
- listening to the name and glories of the Lord
- chanting his holy name
- constant remembrance
- friendship, and
These nine ways of worshiping Vishnu are followed by all the Vaishnav schools as vaidhī bhakti. Each school has its own approach, emphasizing one or more of these aspects. According to Nārada, dedication of all actions to the Lord and extreme yearning on forgetting him are marks of devotion. The lineage of Parāśara holds that attachment to worship and other rituals is the mark of bhakti. Garga maintains that speaking of His glories is the sign of devotion. Śāndilya holds that love for the Self is bhakti. Another aspect of devotion especially stressed in the Vaishnav tradition is association with and service to devotees of the Lord. The Gaudīya Vaishnavs hold that to have utmost taste for taking the Lord’s name, compassion towards all jivas (living beings), and service to devotees (initiated Vaishnavs) are the means to as well as marks of devotion. But it is śaranāgati that is most important for a Vaishnav spiritual aspirant. This śaranāgati has six aspects ‘Ānukūlyasya samkalpah prātikūlyasya varjanam, raksisyatīti viśvāsa goptrtvavaranam tathā; ātmaniksepakārpanye sadvidhā śaranāgatih.’ :
- resolve to subordinate one’s will to the divine will,
- avoidance of all that is contrary to His will,
- firm faith that the Lord is the saviour of all,
- acceptance of the protective grace of the Lord,
- total surrender to Him, and
- awareness of one’s poverty (of spirit)
Vaidhī bhakti is further categorized into three groups according to the three gunas: sāttvika, rājasika, and tāmasika.
Most Important Worship Methods
No other Hindu tradition (or any tradition in general) encourages the chanting of God's names more than Vaiśnavam, which teachers that because we live in the Kali Yuga, the easiest yajna (sacrifice) is Sankirtan or Nam Dharm ("Spiritual Duty of the Name.")
- Most Important Mantras
- Hari Aum
- Hari Nam
- Hari Sharanam
- Aum Namo Nārayaya
- Aum Namo Vāsudevāya Nama
- Aum Dev Devāya Namo Namā
- Most Important Consecrated Pujas
- Satyanarayan Puja
- Pāñcharātra Puja
Rāgānugā or Premā Bhakti
The highest form of devotion is that which transcends all the three gunas. It is love for love’s sake alone. It is a spontaneous and uninterrupted inclination of the mind towards the Lord without even the desire for liberation (mukti). It is supreme bhakti, or preman—intense, uninterrupted, unalloyed, and motiveless love towards God, which leads to God-realization.
This preman surpasses all other types of bhakti. Sri Ramakrishna says, ‘The mature stage of bhakti is bhāva. When one attains it, one remains speechless while thinking of Satchidānanda. The feeling of an ordinary man can go only that far. When bhāva ripens, it becomes mahābhāva. Prema is the last’. When love towards God is intensified, a sweet relationship is established between God and the devotee. This rāgātmikā or rāgānugā bhakti manifests in five different attitudes (bhāvas): śānta (calm), dāsya (serviceful), sakhya (friendly), vātsalya (parental), and madhura (amorous). Several sentiments go to make each attitude, and each bhāva subsumes the sentiments inherent in the preceding attitude. For instance, in śānta bhāva the devotees enjoy divine bliss through meditation on the transcendental beauty of the Deity and adore him with all their hearts’ devotion. When this love matures into a personal or relational love, the devotees serve the Deity much like a servant serves the master. This stage of love includes sneha (affection), pranaya (friendship), māna (pique), and rāga (attachment). A servant enjoys both the wealth (aiśvarya) and sweet affection (mādhurya) of the Lord. Next the devotee approaches even nearer and loves the Deity as a friend (sakhā). This type of love includes anurāga (love as a constant freshness) in addition to the sentiments mentioned earlier. When love rises to a still higher level, it manifests as parental affection (vātsalya) for the beloved. All the qualities inherent in friendly love are further intensified and awareness of aiśvarya is dispelled; only mādhurya prevails. Up to this stage of parental love, the bhakti is relational (sambandhātmikā). When the last vestige of remoteness of the Deity vanishes from the mind of the devotee, two more mental states become manifest: bhāva (intoxication) and mahābhāva (supreme love-intoxication). The personality of the lover merges with the Beloved. The lover concentrates his or her whole being on the Beloved and becomes united with the Deity in spirit. This is the highest consummation of love for God. This has been described as amorous love (kāmātmikā), which is considered the highest form of contemplation in the Vaishnav tradition. The devotees of this grade do not want liberation or anything other than divine communion—enjoying the absolute sweetness (mādhurya) of the Lord. This is the culmination of preman, the purest love for the beloved. The state where separation is overcome and total union between the devotee and the Beloved takes place is mahābhāva. The deep impact of this experience affects the entire being—the mind, body, and soul of the devotee. It manifests externally as the sāttvika vikāras (unaffected emotions), which are recognized to be eight in number: sveda (perspiration), stambha (stupor), romāñca (horripilation), svara-bhanga (broken voice), vaivarnya (pallor), aśru (tears), vepathu (tremor), and pralaya (loss of consciousness). These manifestations take place only when the mind becomes extremely pure and totally free from all worldliness. Sri Ramakrishna points out that that ‘the ordinary jīva does not experience mahābhāva or prema. He goes only as far as bhāva’ .
Most Important Devotees
Certain Vaiśnav royals since ancient times have referred to themselves as Parama-Bhāgavatas (Great Devotees), and the greatest in Vaiśnav history have been the following:
- Prahlada Daitya (worshipped Vishnu throughout his life and promulgated his worship)
- Naradas (rishis of this gotra worshipped Narayan, composed literature, and promulgated his worship)
- Vaikhānasa Brahmā (worshipped Vishnu, established the Brahmā Sampraday, composed literature, and promulgated his worship)
- Hamsa Brahmā (worshipped Vishnu, composed literature, and promulgated his worship)
- Rudra (worshipped Vishnu, established the Rudra Sampraday, composed literature, and promulgated his worship)
- Brahmā Sanat Kumars (worshipped Vishnu/Narayan/Krishna, remained celibate, composed literature, established the Kumar Sampraday, and promulgated his worship)
- Nara & Narayan (worshipped Narayan, composed literature, and promulgated his worship)
- Dvaipayana Vyasa (worshipped Krishna, composed literature, and promulgated his worship)
- Bhishma Kaurava (worshipped Krishna, preached ethics)
- Arjun Pandava (worshipped Krishna and followed his instructions)
- Ratna Valmiki (worshipped Krishna, composed a Ramayana, and promulgated his worship)
- Vibhishana Vishrava
- Prajapati (worshipped Krishna and promulgated his worship)
- Raibya (worshipped Krishna and promulgated his worship)
- Kukshi (worshipped Krishna and promulgated his worship)
- Barhishadas (worshipped Krishna and promulgated his worship)
- Vivaswan Aditya (worshipped Vishnu and promulgated his worship)
- Manu Aditya (worshipped Vishnu and promulgated his worship)
- Ikshvaku Aditya (worshipped Vishnu and promulgated his worship)
- Daksha (worshipped Vishnu and promulgated his worship)
- Suta Maharaj (worshipped Krishna, narrated literature, and promulgated Vishnu/Narayan/Krishna worship)
- Shandilya Kashyap (worshipped Krishna, better arranged the Pancaratra sect, composed literature, and promulgated Vishnu/Narayan/Krishna worship)
- Ramanuja (worshipped Vishnu, renewed Sri Vaishnavam, founded Dwaita Darshan, composed literature, and promulgated his worship)
- Ramanand (worshipped Narayan, founded Bairagi Sampraday, composed literature, and promulgated his worship by begging the Bhakti Era in northern India)
- Kabir Julaha
Ramanuja, Ramanand, and Kabir were medieval figures but nonetheless crucial for renewing Vaiśnavam by preaching bhakti to the masses in northern India. The Bhakti Era was a period of mainly-Vaiśnava popularization.
- ISKCON Educational Services
- Vrishni Heroes and Pāñcharātra
- Pāñcharātra Agams
- Mahabharata mentioning avatars of Narayan
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