Vaishnavism: An overview

Vaishnavism (Sanskrit: वैष्णव धर्म, [Vəishnavə d̪hərma]) is one of the major branches of Hinduism along with Shaivism, Smartism, and Shaktism. It is focused on the veneration of Supreme Lord Vishnu. Vaishnavites, or the followers of the Supreme Lord Vishnu, lead a way of life promoting differentiated monotheism (henotheism), which gives importance to Lord Vishnu and his ten incarnations. The oldest religious Vedic text the Rigveda, describes Lord Vishnu as the Supreme Deity in Vishnu Sooktham (1.22.20):
“om tad visnoh paramam padam sada pasyanti surayah— diviva caksur atatam” (“Just as the sun’s rays in the sky are extended to the mundane vision, so in the same way the wise and learned devotees always see the supreme abode of Lord Vishnu.”) “tad vipraso vipanyavo jagrvam sah samindhate
— visnor yat paramam padam” (“Because those highly praiseworthy and spiritually awake devotees are able to see the spiritual world, they are also able to reveal that supreme abode of Lord Vishnu.”)
In general, the Vaishnava Agamas describe Lord Vishnu as the “supreme being and the foundation of all existence.” This is explained in Katha Upanishad 2.2.13: nityo nityanam cetanas cetananam/ eko bahunam yo vidadhati kaman, “the Supreme Being, the Personality of Godhead, is the chief living being amongst all living beings and grants the desires of all other eternal sentient beings”
Its beliefs and practices, especially the concepts of Bhakti and Bhakti Yoga, are based largely on the Upanishads, and associated with the Vedas and Puranic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, and the Padma, Vishnu and Bhagavata Puranas.
Bhagavatism, early Ramaism and Krishnaism, merged in historical Vishnuism, a tradition of Historical Vedic religion, distinguished from other traditions by its primary worship of Vishnu.

Historical Vishnuism
The worship of Vishnu was already well developed in the period of the Itihasas. Vaishnavism is expounded in a part of the Mahabharata known as the Bhagavad Gita. Many of the ancient kings, beginning with Chandragupta II (Vikramaditya) (375-413 CE) were known as Parama Bhagavatas, or Bhagavata Vaishnavas. Vaishnavism flourished in predominantly Shaivite South India during the seventh to tenth centuries CE, and is still commonplace, especially in Tamil Nadu, as a result of the twelve Alvars, saints who spread the sect to the common people with their devotional hymns. The temples which the Alvars visited or founded are now known as Divya Desams. Their poems in praise of Vishnu and Krishna in Tamil language are collectively known as Naalayira (Divya Prabandha). In later years Vaishnava practices increased in popularity due to the influence of sages like Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, Nimbarkacharya, Vallabhacharya, Vedanta Desika, Manavala Mamunigal, Surdas, Tulsidas, eknath, Tyagaraja, and many others. In his The Religions of India, Edward Washburn Hopkins presents an accepted distinction as to the assumption that Vishnuism is associated with Vedic brahmanism, and was part of brahmanism. Krishnaism was adopted much later.Vaishnavism, is historically the first structured Vaishnava religion as “Vishnuism, in a word, is the only cultivated native sectarian native religion of India.”
Although it is usual to speak of Vishnu as the source of the Avatar, this is only one of the names by which the god of Vaishnavism is known. The other names include Narayana, Vasudeva and Krishna; each the name of a divine figure with attributed supremacy, which each associated tradition of Vaishnavism believes to be distinct. For example, in the Krishnaism branch of Vaishnavism, such as the Gaudiya Vaishnava, Nimbarka and Vallabhacharya traditions, devotees worship Krishna as the One Supreme form of God, and source of all avatars, Svayam Bhagavan, in contrast to the belief of the devotees of the Sri Sampradaya.

Principal beliefs

Supreme God
The principal belief of Vishnu-centered sects is the identification of Vishnu or Narayana as the one supreme God. This belief contrasts with the Krishna-centered traditions, such as Vallabha, Nimbaraka and Vallbha, in which Krishna is considered as the Supreme Lord Vishnu. The belief in the supremacy of Vishnu is based upon the many Avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu listed in the Puranic texts, which differs from other Hindu deities such as Ganesha, Surya or Durga. According to many Vaishnavites, the latter are instead classified as demi-gods or devas.
According to Ramayana, Rama, the seventh incarnation of God Vishnu, is believed to have prayed to Shiva in Rameshwaram. The primary deity of the temple is Ramanathaswamy (Shiva) in the form of lingam. However, Vaishnavites reject such claims quoting reasons from Valmiki Ramayan itself and also from other Vedic texts.
Lord Swaminarayan, founder of the Swaminarayan faith, differs with this view and holds that Vishnu and Shiva are different aspects of the same God.

Initiation
Vaishnavas although follow a process of initiation (diksha), given by a guru, under whom they are trained to understand Vaishnava practices gives more importance to the acceptance of the Supremacy of Lord Vishnu by men and women. At the time of initiation, the disciple is traditionally given a specific mantra, which the disciple will repeat, either out loud or within the mind, as an act of worship to Vishnu or one of his avatars. The practice of repetitive prayer is known as japa. The system of receiving initiation and training from a guru is based on injunctions throughout the scriptures held as sacred within the Vaishnava traditions but is not mandatory:
“Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth.”(Bhagavad Gita)
“One who is initiated into the Vaishnava mantra and who is devoted to worshiping Lord Vishnu is a Vaishnava. One who is devoid of these practices is not a Vaishnava.”(Padma Purana)
The scriptures specific to the Gaudiya Vaishnava group also state that one who performs an act of worship as simple as chanting the name of Vishnu or Krishna can be considered a Vaishnava by practice: “Who chants the holy name of Krishna just once may be considered a Vaishnava. Such a person is worship-able and is the topmost human being.”(Chaitanya Charitamrita)

Attitude toward scriptures
Vaishnava traditions refer to the writings of previous acharyas in their respective lineage or sampradya (see below) as authoritative interpretations of scripture.
While many schools like Smartism and Advaitism encourage interpretation of scriptures philosophically and metaphorically and not too literally, Vaishnavism stresses the literal meaning (mukhya vritti) as primary and indirect meaning (gauda vritti) as secondary: sākshād upadesas tu shrutih – “The instructions of the shruti-shāstra should be accepted literally, without fanciful or allegorical interpretations.”

Vaishnava sampradayas (sects)
(Vaishnavite Brahmin students at a theological seminary in Tanjore. Source:The National Geographic Magazine, Nov 1909)
Within Vaishnavism there are four main disciplic lineages (sampradayas), each exemplified by a specific Vedic personality. The four sampradayas follow subtly different philosophical systems regarding the relationship between the soul (jiva) and God (Vishnu or Krishna), although the majority of other core beliefs are identical. 1. Lakshmi-sampradaya
Philosophy: Vishishtadvaita (“Qualified Monoism”), espoused by Chidachida Visishtam Ramanujacharya (See Sri Vaishnavism, Vaikhanasa, Ramanandi Sect, Swaminarayan. 2. Brahma sampradaya
Philosophies: Dvaita (“dualism”), espoused by Madhvacharya, and Achintya Bheda Abheda (literally “inconceivable difference and non-difference”). 3. Rudra sampradaya
Philosophy: Shuddhadvaita (“pure nondualism”), espoused by Vishnuswami and Vallabhacharya. 4. Kumara-sampradaya
Philosophy: Dvaitadvaita (“duality in unity”), espoused by Nimbarka.

Vaishnavism in South India
Broadly, Vaishnavas in South India can be classified as Brahmins and non-Brahmins.
Among the Brahmins the main groups are: 1.‬The Iyengars, who follow the Sri Vaishnava Vishistadvaita philosophy of Asuri Ramanujacharya. The Iyengars are further divided into the Vadakalai-i.e. the northern school, and Thenkalai or southern school. Both these sects adhere to the Pañcaratra agama, in temples. These two sects evolved about 200 years after Ramanuja and differ on 18 points of doctrine. The founder of the Vadagalai sect is Swami Vedanta Desika, and the Tengalai sect is Manavala Mamuni. But both schools have a common Guru Parampara prior to the division.
The Sri Vaishnavas use both the Sanskrit veda as well as the Tamil divyaprabandham in temple worship. ‪1.‬The Madhvas, who follow the Sadvaishnava Dvaita philosophy of Madhvacharya. ‪2.‬The Vaikhanasas, who are primarily an ancient community of temple priests, who use the Vaikhanasa Agama in temple worship. They use Sanskrit exclusively in temple worship.
Among the non-Brahmins, sections of various communities like the Chettiars and Mudaliars (Thuluva Vellalars)in Tamil Nadu and sections of the Kammas, Padmashalis, Reddys, Rajus and Haridasus in Andhra Pradesh and so on in other states are known as Vaishnavites. Some groups tend to be vegetarians like the Brahmins. In temple worship, a Vaikhanasa temple (like Tirumala), a Madhva temple (like Udupi), a Tengalai temple (like Melukote) and a Vadagalai temple (like Kanchipuram ) all have distinctly different rituals and customs with priests of that particular denomination who perform the worship. However all temples are popularly visited by all Vaishnavas as lay worshippers, as also members of various other denominations.
In Kerala, some communities call themselves Vaishnavas, especially the pisharodies and Gauda Saraswatha Brahmins and Embranthiries who settled in Kerala at a later phase of Brahmin Settlement. The Sagara Brahmins in and around Thiruvalla Sree Vallabha Vishnu Temple are also referred to as Vaisnavas accepting the Supremacy of Lord Vishnu.

Other branches and sects
Vaishnava Saint Kabir: On my tongue Vishnu, in my eyes Narayana, in my heart dwells Govinda.—Adi Granth, IV.XXV. Charan Dasi, founded by Charan Das a Dhusar of Dehra
Lalpanthi Sampradaya or Lal Dasi sect, founded by Laldas a Meo of Dhaoli Dub Madhwachari sect Mahapuruxiya Dharma, espoused by Sankardeva Mohan Panth
Nimbhawat sect
Pranami sect
The Ramanandi movement, begun by Ramananda
Ramawat sect
Vaisnava-Sahajiya, a tantric school

Tilaka styles
Vaishnavas mark their foreheads with tilaka, either as a daily ritual, or on special occasions. The different Vaishnava sampradayas each have their own distinctive style of tilaka, which depicts the siddhanta of their particular lineage. The general tilaka pattern is of a parabolic shape resembling the letter U or two or more connected vertical lines on and another optional line on the nose resembling the letter Y, which usually represents the foot of Vishnu and the lotus flower.

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