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Vaishnavism (वैष्णव धर्म) is a tradition of Hinduism, distinguished from other schools by its worship of Vishnu or his associated avatars, principally as Rama and Krishna, as the original and supreme God. This worship in different perspectives or historical traditions addresses God under the names of Narayana, Krishna, Vāsudeva or more often "Vishnu", and their associated avatars. It echoes monotheism in its devotion, but, as still under the pantheistic umbrella of Hinduism, makes reference to other Hindu deities, such as that Shiva - the god principally worshipped by many Hindus - as the greatest devotee of their god Vishnu. It must be stressed, however, that Hindus believe that all gods are avatars or manifestations of Brahman, the supreme being. But as per "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."

The followers of Vaishnavism are referred to as Vaishnava(s) or Vaishnavites. A large percentage of Hindus are Vaishnavas, with the vast majority living in Indiamarker. Awareness, recognition, and growth of the belief has significantly increased outside of India in recent years. The Gaudiya Vaishnava branch of the tradition has significantly increased the awareness of Vaishnavism internationally, since the mid-1900s, largely through the activities and geographical expansion of the Hare Krishna movement, primarily through ISKCON and more recently, through several other Vaishnava organizations conducting preaching activities in the West.


The term Vaishnavism entered the English language in the 19th century. It was formed by attaching the suffix -ism to Sanskrit Vaishnava (IAST: ), which is the vriddhi form of Vishnu meaning "relating, belonging, or sacred to Vishnu" or "a worshipper or follower of Vishnu".

Principal historic branches

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. 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 avataras, 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, Nimbaraka and Vallabhacharya traditions, devotees worship Krishna as the supreme form of God, Svayam Bhagavan, in contrast to the belief of the devotees of the Vishnu tradition.

Principal beliefs

Supreme God

Vishnu, as commonly depicted in his four-armed form
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 Sampradaya and Gaudiya Vaishnavas, in which Krishna is considered to be the supreme god and the source of all avataras. 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 Ganesh, Surya or Durga. The latter are instead classified as demi-gods or devas. Vaishnavites consider Shiva, one of the Hindu Trimurti (Trinity) as subservient to Vishnu, and a Vaishnava himself.Swaminarayan, founder of the Swaminarayan faith, differs with this view and holds that Vishnu and Shiva are different aspects of the same God. Notably, the Swaminarayan view is a minority view among Vaishnavites.

A few Vaishnava schools also identify the God of the Abrahamic religions with Vishnu, which is however problematic, since Yhwh/Allah is viewed through a monotheistic lens: ie a single eternal being, outside, beyond and separate from his creation; whereas Vishnu is viewed through the panentheistic lens of Hinduism: ie. where all existence is a part of God, and God includes all existence. Another distinguishing feature of the Vaishnava teachings, is that God (Vishnu and/or Krishna) "is a real person and His variegated creation is also real".


Vaishnava theology includes the central beliefs of Hinduism such as pantheism, reincarnation, samsara, karma, and the various Yoga systems, but with a particular emphasis on devotion (bhakti) to Vishnu through the process of Bhakti yoga, often including singing Vishnu's name's (bhajan), meditating upon his form (dharana) and performing deity worship (puja). The practices of deity worship are primarily based on texts such as Pañcaratra and various Samhitas.

Within their worship Vaishnava devotees consider that Vishnu is within them, as the Antaryami or the God within and as the foundation of their being; which is a part of the definition of the name Narayana. Unlike other schools of Hinduism whose goal is liberation (moksha), or union with the Supreme Brahman, the ultimate goal of Vaishnava practice is an eternal life of bliss (ananda) in service to Vishnu, or one of his many avatars, in the spiritual realm of 'Vaikuntha', which lies beyond the temporary world of illusion (maya). The three features of the Supreme as described in the Bhagavata Purana--Brahman, Paramatma and Bhagavan--are viewed as the Universal Vishnu, Vishnu within the heart, and Vishnu the personality respectively.


Vaishnavas commonly follow a process of initiation (diksha), given by a guru, under whom they are trained to understand Vaishnava practices. 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 spiritual master is based on injunctions throughout the scriptures held as sacred within the Vaishnava traditions:

"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 worshipable 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 v itti) as primary and indirect meaning ( ) as secondary: - "The instructions of the shruti-sh stra should be accepted literally, without fanciful or allegorical interpretations."

Vaishnava sampradayas

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.

Philosophy: Vishishtadvaita ("qualified dualism"), espoused by Ramanujacharya
See Sri Vaishnavism.

Brahma sampradaya
Philosophies: Dvaita ("dualism"), espoused by Madhvacharya, and Achintya Bheda Abheda (literally "inconceivable difference and non-difference"), espoused by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (see Gaudiya Vaishnavism).

Rudra sampradaya
Philosophy: Shuddhadvaita ("pure nondualism"), espoused by Vishnuswami and Vallabhacharya.

Philosophy: Dvaitadvaita ("duality in unity"), espoused by Nimbarka.

Other Branches and sects

Tilak 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 tilak, which depicts the siddhanta of their particular lineage. The general tilak pattern is of two or more connected vertical lines on and another line on the nose resembling the letter Y, which usually represents the foot of Vishnu and the lotus flower.


The worship of Vishnu was already well developed in the period of the Itihasas. Hopkins says "Vishnuism, in a word, is the only cultivated native sectarian native religion of India." Vaishnavism is expounded in a part of the Mahabharata known as the Bhagavad Gita, which contains a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna. Krishna is one of the avatars of Vishnu. In this dialogue, Krishna plays the role of Arjuna's charioteer.

Many of the ancient kings, beginning with Chandragupta II (Vikramaditya) 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 Nadumarker, 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 sage like Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, Manavala Mamunigal, Vedanta Desika, Surdas, Tulsidas, 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, and it is for this reason, amongst others, that despite its modern iniquities Shiva has appealed more to the brahmans than Krishna. It's only later that Vishnuism merged with Krishnaism.

Large Vaishnava communities now exist throughout India, and particularly in Western Indian states, such as western Madhya Pradeshmarker, Rajasthanmarker and Gujaratmarker. Important sites of pilgrimage for Vaishnavs include: Guruvayur Templemarker, Sri Rangammarker, Vrindavanmarker, Mathuramarker, Ayodhyamarker, Tirupati, Purimarker, Mayapurmarker and Dwarkamarker.
Since the 1900s Vaishnavism has spread from within India and is now practiced in many places around the globe, including America, Europe, Africa, Russiamarker and South America. This is largely due to the growth of the ISKCON movement, founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1966.

Puranic Epics

Two great Indian epic, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are an important part of Vaishnava philosophy, theology, and culture.

The Ramayana describes the story of Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, and is taken as a history of the 'ideal king', based on the principles of dharma, morality and ethics. Rama's wife Sita, his brother Lakshman and his devotee/follower Hanuman all play key roles within the Vaishnava tradition as examples of Vaishnava etiquette and behaviour. Ravana, the evil king and villain of the epic, plays the opposite role of how not to behave.

The Mahabharata is centered around Krishna, another avatar of Vishnu, and details the story of a dynastic war between two families of cousins, with Krishna and the Pandavas, five brothers, playing pivotal roles in the drama. The philosophical highlight of the work is the chapter covering a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna prior to the final battle, individually known as the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita, though influential in most philosophies of Hinduism, is of particular importance to Vaishnavas because it is believed to be an accurate record of the very words spoken by Krishna himself. Depending on the Sampradaya or Vaishnava group one follows, Krishna is regarded either as a full avatar of Vishnu, non-different from him, or as the source of all avatars including Vishnu himself, a notion held only within the Gaudiya and Nimbarka branches of Vaishnavism.

Both works are often reenacted in part as dramas by followers of Vaishnavism, especially on festival days concerning each of the specific avatars. The Bhagavad Gita is widely studied as a theological textbook and is rendered in numerous English translations and world languages.

Western Academic study

Vaishnava theology has been a subject of study and debate for many devotees, philosophers and scholars within Indiamarker for centuries. In recent decades this study has also been pursued in a number of academic institutions in Europe, such as the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and Bhaktivedanta College. The Vaishnava scholars instrumental in this western discourse include Tamala Krishna Goswami, Hridayananda dasa Goswami, Graham Schweig, Kenneth R. Valpey, Guy Beck and Steven J. Rosen among others.

In 1992 Steven Rosen founded The Journal of Vaishnava Studies as an academic journal of Hindu studies, and of Vaishnava, and Gaudiya Vaishnava studies in particular.

See also


  1. p. 4
  2. Page 1–Ramanuja and Sri Vaisnavism "In general, the Vaisnava Agamas describe Visnu is the Supreme Being and the foundation of all existence."
  4. Heart of Hinduism - Vaishnavism
  5. Explanation of different scriptural texts within Hinduism
  6. Major Branches - Hinduism from
  7. Contemporary Theological Trends in the Hare Krishna Movement "Until the last fifteen years or so, there had been a lack of scholarship in the West on Vaishnavism, and this was seen by Hare Krishna devotees as a situation which must be changed."
  8. Vaishnavism in
  9. Hopkins,The Religions of India, p.690
  10. Review: by Kenneth Scott Latourette India and Christendom: The Historical Connections between Their Religions. by Richard Garbe; Lydia Gillingham Robinson Pacific Affairs, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Autumn, 1961), pp. 317-318.
  11. Page 1–Ramanuja and Sri Vaisnavism "In general, the Vaisnava Agamas describe Visnu is the Supreme Being and the foundation of all existence."
  12. Brahma-Samhita 5.45 "The supremacy of Sambhu [Shiva] is subservient to that of Govinda [Vishnu]; hence they are not really different from each other... He is the lord of jiva but yet partakes of the nature of a separated portion of Govinda."
  13. According to this site,], verses 47, 84, of their scripture, Shikshapatri, [1] states, "And the oneness of Narayana and Shiva should be understood, as the Vedas have described both to be brahmaroopa, or form of Brahman, i.e., Saguna Brahman, indicating that Vishnu and Shiva are different forms of the one and same God.
  14. "The names can be generic terms, such as “God” or “the Absolute Truth.” They can be in Sanskrit, such as Govinda, Gopala, or Shyamasundara.
  15. Tantric Literature And Gaudiya Vaishnavism
  16. Bhag-P 1.2.11 "Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this nondual substance Brahman, Paramatma or Bhagavan."
  17. Bhag Gita 4:34
  18. Caitanya Caritamrta: Madhya-lila, 15.106, 16.72, 16.74
  19. Chaitanya Charitamrita: Madhya-lila, 15.106
  20. Jiva Goswami, Sandarbha 29.26-27
  21. The Sampradaya of Sri Caitanya, by Steven Rosen and William Deadwyler III "the word sampradaya literally means 'a community'. A text from the Padma Purana quoted widely in Vaisnava writings speaks directly about these authorised communities. It says that 'Those mantras which are not received within a sampradaya are fruitless; they have no potency'. The text then specifically names the sampradayas. 'In the Kali-yuga, there will be four sampradayas.' ― we are talking about Vaisnava sampradayas­ ― 'They are the Brahma Sampradaya, originating with Brahma; Sri Sampradaya, starting with Laksmi; Rudra Sampradaya, starting with Siva; there's another one starting from Sanaka and the others, the Kumaras'. Those are the four recognised Vaisnava sampradayas."
  22. Vaisnavism and the founders of the four Vaishnava sampradayas are presented in separate entries. The Encyclopedia gives explanations about Gaudiya Vaisnavism, Caitanya Mahaprabhu, bhakti and bhakti-marga.
  23. - Vaishnavism
  25. p.36
  26. Hopkins,The Religions of India, p.530 "When, however, pantheism, nay, even Vishnuism, or still more, Krishnaism, was an accepted fact upon what, then, was the wisdom of the priest expended?"
  27. Prabhupada - He Built a House, Satsvarupa dasa Goswami, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983, ISBN 0-89213-133-0 p. xv
  28. Bhag-P 1.3.28 "krishnas tu bhagavan svayam"
  29. Journal of Vaishnava studies - note, contains commercial link, better ref required

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