ŚRĪ VAIṢṆAVAS . The Śrī Vaiṣṇava Sampradāya, one of six major Hindu denominations devoted to Viṣṇu, is the community of those who worship Viṣṇu (also called Nārāyaṇa) in conjunction with his consort Śrī (Lakṣmī), 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 Kṛṣṇa. 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 Vaiṣṇavas 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 Upaniṣads) and other scriptures written in Sanskrit, the Śrī Vaiṣṇavas consider sacred the Tamil hymns of the poet-saints called the Ᾱḻvārs (those "immersed" in God) and treat the long poem called the Tiruvāymoḻi as equal in value to the Upaniṣads. Both divisions of the present community trace their spiritual lineage back to still earlier ācārya s (teachers), and then through Nammāḻvār, the author of the Tiruvāymoḻi, to the Goddess, Śrī, and Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa 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 Upaniṣadic 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 Ᾱḻvārs and ācārya s; greatest attention is given to Rāmānuja (traditional dates 1017–1137), who wrote only in Sanskrit but who is represented in the biographies as commenting on the Tiruvāymoḻi in Tamil and assigning his cousin and disciple Piḷḷān the task of producing a written commentary on this long poem. It was Piḷḷān who first called the members of the community "Śrī Vaiṣṇavas" 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 (puruṣakāra ). 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 Ᾱḻvārs assign them very ancient dates. Nammāḻvār, 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 Nammāḻvār 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 (916–1036), but the largest part of the hagiographies focuses on the life of Rāmānuja.
The gradual splitting of the community into the Vaṭakalai ("northern culture") and Teṅkalai ("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 Viṣṇu. The great Vaṭakalai 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 Teṅkalai teacher Piḻḻai 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 Teṅkalai source. The Teṅkalai claim that the Vaṭakalai 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 Teṅkalai'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 Vaiṣṇavas are full of ritual injunctions and social obligations, but neither their good deeds nor scholarly attainments—not even emotional participation in intense devotion to God—can bring about their salvation. Their ritual act of surrender is the outward sign of a lifelong surrender of their worldly ambitions—even quite proper ones—to 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 Viṣṇu 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 maṭha s, which are not communities of ascetics but groups of householder disciples of a gurū who becomes a saṃnyāsin after being chosen to head the maṭha. 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 Vaiṣṇava worship are darśana, the reverent beholding of the image form of the Lord; smaraṇa, the remembrance of the Lord's gracious deeds, and seva or kaiṅkarya, service to the Lord and to the Lord's disciples. While in their own homes Śrī Vaiṣṇavas perform the lengthy daily worship privately, in the 108 major Śrī Vaiṣṇava temples in South India (including the all-Indian pilgrimage center of Tirupati and the central temple at Śrīraṅgam), 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.
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