Śrī Vaiṣṇavas

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ŚRĪ VAIAVAS . The Śrī Vaiava Sampradāya, one of six major Hindu denominations devoted to Viu, is the community of those who worship Viu (also called Nārāyaa) in conjunction with his consort Śrī (Lakmī), the goddess of auspiciousness and prosperity, along with Bhūdevī, the goddess of the earth, and Nīlā, more generally known by her Tamil name of Nappinai, the human wife of the young Ka. The community is strongest in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu, but it also has many adherents in the three other South Indian states and some in other parts of India. Brahmans are strongly represented and have most positions of leadership.

Śrī Vaiavas are adherents of the philosophy of Rāmānuja and describe their theological position as Ubhaya Vedānta, "dual theology" or "theology of the two scriptures," for, in addition to regarding as authoritative the Vedas (including the Upaniads) and other scriptures written in Sanskrit, the Śrī Vaiavas consider sacred the Tamil hymns of the poet-saints called the vārs (those "immersed" in God) and treat the long poem called the Tiruvāymoi as equal in value to the Upaniads. Both divisions of the present community trace their spiritual lineage back to still earlier ācārya s (teachers), and then through Nammāvār, the author of the Tiruvāymoi, to the Goddess, Śrī, and Viu-Nārāyaa himself.

The Sanskrit canon of the community includes, in addition to the Vedas, the two great epics, the treatises on social morality and ritual, and the summary of the Upaniadic teaching called the Vedānta Sūtra. These scriptures are themselves interpreted by a host of commentaries and didactic treatises in Sanskrit, and there is a corresponding, though much smaller, group of commentaries and treatises in Tamil. In both languages there are also a number of hagiographies of the vārs and ācārya s; greatest attention is given to Rāmānuja (traditional dates 10171137), who wrote only in Sanskrit but who is represented in the biographies as commenting on the Tiruvāymoi in Tamil and assigning his cousin and disciple Piān the task of producing a written commentary on this long poem. It was Piān who first called the members of the community "Śrī Vaiavas" and demonstrated the confluence of the Sanskrit and Tamil "Vedāntas." Three later commentaries are also considered authoritative.

By the end of the twelfth century there was an increasing shift in emphasis on works of a different kind, treatises on the secret meanings (rahasya s) of the three central mantras (ritual formulas) that specified the spiritual path and more fully discussed the doctrine of divine grace. These treatises stressed the indispensable role of Śrī as mediatrix (puruakāra ). Since she is always full of maternal love, her favor should be sought first; she can persuade the Lord, who as a father must balance justice and mercy, to the side of mercy. Similarly one first humbly petitions one's own gurū, who is already connected with the chain of grace, for his recommendation in approaching the Lord.

The various stories about the twelve vārs assign them very ancient dates. Nammāvār, for example, is said to have lived some five thousand years ago, at the very beginning of the present, evil age, the kaliyuga. Modern historical scholarship places them from the sixth to ninth centuries ce. In contrast, the ācārya s are assigned dates that are accurate within one or two generations. The first ācārya, Nāthamuni (late ninth or early tenth century), received from Nammāvār in a yogic trance the entire corpus of hymns; he then arranged them to accompany Sanskrit verses in the temple liturgies. Still more stories are told about Nāthamuni's brilliant grandson Yāmuna (9161036), but the largest part of the hagiographies focuses on the life of Rāmānuja.

The gradual splitting of the community into the Vaakalai ("northern culture") and Tekalai ("southern culture") subsects is only in part related to the relative emphasis on the Sanskrit and Tamil scriptures; the two groups understand differently the relation of divine grace to human response. Both groups affirm the primacy of divine grace in rescuing souls from their bondage in the world and maintain that all seekers of salvation should solemnly surrender, first to the goddess Śrī and then to Lord Viu. The great Vaakalai teacher Vedānta Deśika believed that the act of surrender gives the Lord a pretext or occasion (vyāja ) for saving the soul, so that grace is not arbitrary. His contemporary, the Tekalai teacher Piai Lokācārya, on the other hand, considered it presumptuous for human beings to think they could make any contribution whatsoever to their salvation. Even "surrender," he taught, is not to be regarded as such an act; it is merely the acknowledgement of what the Lord has already done. The nicknames "monkey-hold" and "cat-hold" applied to the two groups come from a Tekalai source. The Tekalai claim that the Vaakalai theology likens the soul's position to that of a baby monkey, which has to hang on to its mother as she swings from tree to tree, while the Tekalai's own view makes the soul resemble the kitten, whose mother picks it up by the scruff of the neck without any effort on the kitten's part.

For neither group does the doctrine of grace lead to an antinomian lifestyle. On the contrary, the lives of Śrī Vaiavas are full of ritual injunctions and social obligations, but neither their good deeds nor scholarly attainmentsnot even emotional participation in intense devotion to Godcan bring about their salvation. Their ritual act of surrender is the outward sign of a lifelong surrender of their worldly ambitionseven quite proper onesto God's disposal. Having solemnly petitioned God's mercy, and having confidently expressed total reliance on that mercy, the devotee ought not to ask for anything else. This is clearly a difficult ideal to follow, the more so since the majority of their fellow worshipers at Viu temples are not initiated "surrendered ones" (prapanna s) but Hindus from all walks of life who confidently ask the Lord and his consorts for all manner of material blessings.

Much of the spiritual leadership in the community is provided by various maha s, which are not communities of ascetics but groups of householder disciples of a gurū who becomes a sanyāsin after being chosen to head the maha. These gurū s perform the formal initiation of prapatti, bestow spiritual blessings and deliver courses of lectures on periodic tours to visit their followers, and frequently give individuals practical advice in private audiences.

The key words in Śrī Vaiava worship are darśana, the reverent beholding of the image form of the Lord; smaraa, the remembrance of the Lord's gracious deeds, and seva or kaikarya, service to the Lord and to the Lord's disciples. While in their own homes Śrī Vaiavas perform the lengthy daily worship privately, in the 108 major Śrī Vaiava temples in South India (including the all-Indian pilgrimage center of Tirupati and the central temple at Śrīragam), and in many more minor ones, they are part of a mixed company. Their joining in the Tamil and Sanskrit chanting of the liturgy is for them a confident anticipation of their participation, after this present earthly life, in the eternal chorus of praise in the Lord's heavenly home.

See Also

vārs; Kaism; Piai Lokācārya; Rāmānuja; Tamil Religions.


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New Sources

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Revised Bibliography