By Swami Harshananda
Whether Viṣṇu is one of the deity amongst Trinity entrusted with the task of sustenance of the world or an aspect of Āditya or the all-pervading cosmic deity, he is undoubtedly one of the most popular and widely worshiped gods of the people. Though he is often associated closely with Indra in the Ṛgveda, he never loses his prominence. His immense power to occupy and transcend the three worlds as Urukrama, his supreme unconquerable strength, his limitless compassion towards his devotees, his being the protector of all and his supremely sweet abode have been described in several mantras. The best way to please him is through sacrificial offerings and hymns of praise.
Provenance of Vaiṣṇavism
However, by the time of the epics and the purāṇas, he grows in a stature occupying the highest position among the gods of the religious pantheon. ‘Nārāyaṇa’ is another name by which he is known in the Vedic literature, the epics and the purāṇas. Being the deity responsible for the sthiti or protection of the created world, he is often obliged to come down as an avatāra or incarnation. Though the number of such avatāras can be limitless and sometimes they can be even 23, somehow the ten known as the Daśāvatāras have attained a traditional sanction and a religious status. Gradually over the centuries, a philosophy and a religion centered around Viṣṇu evolved into a regular system now called Vaiṣṇavism. Bhāgavatamāta is the another name by which this system has been known.
Sources of Vaiṣṇavism
- Vaikhānasa Āgamas
- Bhaktisutras of Nārada
Growth of Vaiṣṇavism Through Kṛṣṇa
Attention has to be drawn to another development in the evolution of Vaiṣṇavism. Though Krsṇa was listed as the ninth avatāra in the list of Daśāvatāras, he was gradually elevated and made identical with Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa, the ten avatāras being considered his avatāras. Thus the Kṛṣṇa sect got merged with the Bhāgavatamata. Since Kṛṣṇa or Kṛṣṇa-Vāsudeva, belonged to the Sātvata clan of the Yadu race, Sātvatamata is another name by which it came to be known.
The basic structure of Vaiṣṇavism as revealed in some of the earliest sources like the Nārāyaṇiya advocated the supremacy of Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa as God and bhakti or devotion to him as the chief means of moksa or liberation. However, different ways of expounding it by the various ācāryas gave rise to different sects and sub-sects of Vaiṣṇavism in course of time. The more prominent ones among them may now be described briefly.
They were the earliest Vaiṣṇava teachers known to history. They belonged to Tamil Nadu and lived probably during the period 2nd to the 8th century A. D. Among them were the saints from all castes and included a woman named Godādevī also. They taught that Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa was the Supreme God and bhakti or devotion to him was the means of liberation. They accepted the avatāras of Viṣṇu such as Rāma and Kṛṣṇa and advocated the importance of arcā or ritualistic worship with the strong faith that God descends into the icon in a subtle form during the worship.
He lived in A. D. 1017-1137. To Rāmānuja, the Brahman or Iśvara of Vedānta is actually Nārāyaṇa or Viṣṇu inseparably associated with Śrī or Lakṣmī. Nārāyaṇa creates the world with the following:
- Twofold prakṛti - basic nature
- Acit - insentient matter
- Cit - sentient beings, the jīvas or individual souls
He sustains it and at the end of a cycle, he withdraws it. Śrī or Lakṣmī is his divine consort, the personification of his compassion. She intervenes with Nārāyaṇa on behalf of the jīvas and gets them what they want, including liberation. Bhakti or devotion to both of them is the chief means of liberation. Since Rāmānuja gives equal importance to Śrī or Lakṣmī along with Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa, his system is known as Śrivaiṣṇavism.
He lived in A. D. 1238-1317. The credit for establishing Vaiṣṇavism on a firm foundation and making it popular among the masses should go to Madhva or Madhvācārya. His philosophy, known as Dvaita Vedānta, can be summed up as follows:
‘Śrīhari is the highest truth who can be known only through the Vedas. The created world is real. The jīvas are all different from one another and are dependent on Śrīhari. From this philosophy of devotion towards Viṣṇu, evolved the various corollaries such as ritualistic worship and devotional singing giving rise to a regular movement of saints of devotion. Among them also, there are differences of quality and status. Mukti or liberation is actually the experiencing of one’s real nature as ānanda or bliss. This can be got through pure devotion to Śrīhari.’
He lived in 12th century A. D. Nimbārka’s philosophy is known as Dvaitādvaita. Parabrahman or God is Kṛṣṇa. He is the supreme independent reality. The jīvātmas are infinite in number and are atomic in size. Prakṛti is insentient nature out of which the world is made. The jīvas and prakṛti are dependent realities ever inseparable from Parabrahman. The relationship between them is like that of the sea and the waves or the sun and its rays. Chief means of liberation are:
- Bhakti or devotion to Kṛṣna along with Rādhā
- Surrender to them
- Obedience to the guru or spiritual teacher
He lived in A. D. 1400-1470. Though ordained by a monk of the Rāmānuja sect of Vaiṣṇavism, Rāmānanda deviated from it in advocating devotion to Rāma as the best means of liberation and initiated persons of all castes into his cult. His group of disciples include the following:
- Barber Senā of Maharashtra
- Padmāvatī, a woman
He lived in A. D. 1440-1518. Prominent among the leaders of the Bhakti movement of the Middle-Ages, Kabīr was a disciple of Rāmānanda. Devotion to Rāma, ignoring many social conventions, was the path he accepted and preached. In course of time his followers formed a separate sect in his name and came to be known as Kabīrpanthis.
He lived in A. D. 1473-1531. Originally hailing from the Telugu country Vallabha settled down in Vṛndāban. He was not only a great scholar but also a great devotee. He further strengthened the movement of Kṛṣṇabhakti. Himself remaining a householder he preached an easy path of worship of and total surrender to Kṛṣṇa. Like Rāmānanda he also accepted disciples from all the castes and even from other religions. His disciples were responsible for building temples of Kṛṣṇa and spreading the sect. Puṣṭimārga which advocates the path of total self-surrender to God receiving proper initiation from a qualified guru is Vallabha’s special contribution.
He lived in A. D. 1486-1533. Caitanya or Śrīkṛṣna Caitanya, who hailed from Bengal, is another bright jewel shining brilliantly among the leaders of Vaiṣṇavism. Though an unrivaled scholar, especially in logic, he was totally transformed into an equally unrivaled devotee of Kṛṣṇa, by Īśvarapurī, a sanyāsin of the Mādhva Order. Group-singing of devotional songs on Kṛṣṇa and dancing in his name, generally called Saṅkīrtan, are his contributions. He propagated a philosophy known as Acintyabhedābheda and tried to wipe off caste distinctions in the name of Kṛṣṇa. His followers consider him a combined incarnation of Rādhā and Kṛṣṇa.
Vaiṣṇavism, as an important aspect of the Bhakti Movement, has spread all over the country from the 13th century up to the 18th. Broadly speaking, there were two important streams centered around Rāma and Kṛṣṇa, the latter being much more popular. The Rāma sect which was ushered in by Rāmānanda and Kabīr was sustained and developed by the following legion disciples:
- Gosvāmi Tulasīdās - He lived in A. D. 1532-1623
- Samartha Rāmadās - He lived in A. D. 1608-1681
- Bhadrācala Rāmadās - He lived in A. D. 1630-1687
- The great musician-saint Tyāgarāja - He lived in A. D. 1767-1847.
- Their disciples
The saints of Maharashtra, led by Sant Jñāneśvar and followed by other saintly devotees such as Nāmdev, Eknāth and Tukārām revolutionized the way of life of the common folk with the Pāṇḍuraṅga-Viṭṭhala sect. Closely akin to it and on almost parallel lines was the Kṛṣṇabhakti movement of the Haridāsas of Karnataka like Purandaradāsa, Kanakadāsa and Vijayadāsa.
In the belt of North India, it was left to the blind saint Surdās and the queen-saint Mīrā to popularize devotion to Kṛṣṇa. Even Narasī Mehtā of Gujarat and Śaṅkaradeva of Assam who spread the Kṛṣṇa sect in their regions. The Bhakti Movement of these musician-saints made religion simple and practical for the common people. It also successfully reclaimed many of them who had gone outside the religious fold.
Vaiṣṇavism, like Śaivism, is an important aspect of religion. Though rooted in the Vedic concept of dedication to Viṣṇu, it has expanded enormously both in depth and width, fulfilling a great psychological need of the society. That is why it is a formidable force to reckon with tilll today as reflected in the spate of Vaiṣṇava temples and festivals.
- The root-verb of this word is viṣl which means to pervade.
- Āditya means the Sun-god.
- Urukrams means Vāmana.
- Sweet abode means the paramapada.
- Ṛgveda 1.155.5
- Ṛgveda 6.69.8
- Ṛgveda 7.25.12
- Ṛgveda 3.55.10
- Ṛgveda 1.154.5
- Ṛgveda 7.40.5
- Ṛgveda 1.156.3
- Śāntiparva, Chapters 334-351
- Ācāryas means religious teachers.
- Avatāras means incarnations.
- Śrīhari is the name of Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa.
- Jīvātmas means individual souls.
- Kabir lived in A. D. 1440-1518.
- He lived in A. D. 1532-1623.
- Kabīr is supposed to be a Muslim.
- It is the present Andhra Pradesh.
- Puṣṭimārga means ‘path of spiritual nourishment’.
- He lived in the end of the 13th century A. D.
- He lived in A. D. 1270-1350.
- He lived in A. D. 1533-1606.
- He lived in A. D. 1607-1694.
- He lived in A. D. 1484-1564.
- He lived in 15th century A. D.
- He lived in 1687-1755.
- He lived in A. D. 1478-1583.
- He lived in A. D. 1450-1547.
- He lived in A. D. 1415-1481.
- He lived in A. D. 1449-1569.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore