Vaiṣṇavism: An Overview

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The origin of Vaiavism as a theistic sect can by no means be traced back to the gvedic god Viu. In fact, Vaiavism is in no sense Vedic in origin. Indology has now outgrown its older tendency to derive all the religious ideologies and practices of classical Indiaindeed, all aspects of classical Indian thought and culturefrom the Veda. It must be remembered that when the Vedic Aryans migrated into India, they did not step into a religious vacuum. On the strength of newly available evidence, it is possible to identify at least two pre-Vedic non-Aryan cults. One was the muni-yati cult, which must be distinguished from the exotic Vedic Aryan i cult. The muni-yati cult, with its characteristic features such as yoga, tapas, and sanyāsa, was an intrinsic component of both the Śiva religion, which had been deeply rooted and widely spread in pre-Vedic India, and the ancient Magadhan religiophilosophical complex, which later served as the fountainhead of such heterodox religions as Jainism and Buddhism. The second cult, that of bhakti, is more pertinent to our present purpose. The autochthonous character of bhakti in the sense of exclusive devotion to a personal divinity, as evidenced by several aboriginal Indian religions, is now generally accepted. These two cults can be seen to have influenced the hieratic Vedic cult to a certain extent both positively and negatively. Positively, the Vedic religion adopted into its pantheon the pre-Vedic non-Aryan Śiva in the form of Rudra. Similarly, there is every reason to assume that some of Vasiha's hymns to Varuna in the seventh book of the gveda reflect certain essential traits of bhakti. Negatively, the hieratic Vedic religion clearly betrays its aversion to such adjuncts of the Śiva religion as yati s, śiśnadeva s, and mūradevas.

Once established, the Vedic religion succeeded in keeping the indigenous religious cults of India suppressed for a fairly long time. When, however, about the end of the period of the major Upaniads (eighth to sixth centuries bce), the authority of Vedism began to decline, the non-Vedic religious cults again came into their own. Whereas some of them, like the ones that later developed into Jainism and Buddhism, refused to accept Vedic authority, the theistic cults sought its blessing and sanction.


The theistic cult centered on bhakti for the deified Vi hero Vāsudeva, who is not mentioned in any early text. With the decline of Vedism, the cult emerged as a significant force. Strangely, the available evidence shows that the worship of Vāsudeva, and not that of Viu, marks the beginning of what we today understand by Vaiavism. This Vāsudevism, which represents the earliest known phase of Vaiavism, must already have become stabilized in the days of Pāini (sixth to fifth centuries bce), for Pāini was required in his Aadhyāyī to enunciate a special rule (4.3.98) to explain the formation of the word vāsudevaka in the sense of a "bhakta or devotee of the preeminently venerable god Vāsudeva."

The tradition of the Vāsudeva religion continued almost uninterrupted since that time. Megasthenes (fourth century bce) must be referring to this religion when he speaks of the Sourasenoi (people of the Śūrasena or Mathura region) and their veneration of Herakles. A passage in the Buddhist Niddesa also points to the prevalence of Vāsudeva worship in the fourth century bce. The Bhagavadgītā (third century bce) eulogizes the man of knowledge, who, at the end of many births, betakes himself unto the god in the conviction that "Vāsudeva is All" (7.19). According to the Besnagar inscription (last quarter of the second century bce), the Garua column of Vāsudeva, the "god of gods," was erected by Heliodoros, the Bhāgavata, of Takaśilā. The historical tradition that Vāsudeva originally belonged to the tribe of the Vis is also well attested. In the Bhagavadgītā (10.37) Lord Ka declares that of the Vis he is Vāsudeva. The Mahābhāya of Patañjali (150 bce) also clearly speaks of Vāsudeva as belonging to the Vi tribe (vārttika 7 of 4.1.114). The inscriptions of Ghosundi and Nanaghat (both of the first century bce) and the grammatical work Kāśāika, all of which associate Vāsudeva with Sakaraa (another deified Vi hero), further confirm the Vi lineage of Vāsudeva.

It may be noted that the Pāinian sūtra which establishes the Vāsudeva religion also suggests the existence of an independent religious sect, with Arjuna as its chief god. It would seem, however, that even in the initial stages of its development the Arjuna religion was subsumed by the Vāsudeva religion and thus disappeared completely from literature and history. The religion of Sakaraa also seems to have arisen independently of the Vāsudeva religion. In the Mahābhārata, Sakaraa (or Balarāma) is represented as the elder brother of Vāsudeva, but there is no indication in the epic of any religious sect having developed around him. However, the Arthaśāstra of Kauilya (fourth century bce) refers to spies disguised as the ascetic worshipers of Sakaraa (13.3.67). The Mathura sculpture (second century bce) which depicts Sakaraa by himself is also highly suggestive in this context. The evidence of the Niddesa, the Mahābhāya of Patañjali, and the Ghosundi and Nanaghat inscriptions, on the other hand, shows that, presumably on account of their original Vi affiliations, the Sakaraa and Vāsudeva religions had come to be closely allied. With the development of the doctrine of the vyūhas, whereby Sakaraa came to be regarded as one of the vyūhas (standing for the individual self) subordinate to Vāsudeva (standing for the Highest Self), the Sakaraa religion lost its independent existence.


Another theistic cult which gathered strength with the decline of Vedism centered on Ka, the deified tribal hero and religious leader of the Yādavas. There is sufficient evidence to show that Vāsudeva and Ka were originally two distinct personalities. The Yādava Ka may as well have been the same as Devakīputra Ka, who is represented in the Chāndogya Upaniad (3.17.1) as a pupil of Ghora Āgirasa and who is said to have learned from his teacher the doctrine that human life is a kind of sacrifice. Ka seems to have developed this doctrine in his own teaching, which was later incorporated in the Bhagavadgītā. In time, the Vis and the Yādavas, who were already related to each other, came closer together, presumably under political pressure. This resulted in the merging of the divine personalities of Vāsudeva and Ka to form a new supreme god, Bhagavān Vāsudeva-Ka. Evidence in Megasthenes and in Kauilya's Arthaśāstra indicates that this new divinity was established as early as the fourth century bce. Indeed, the names Vāsudeva and Ka began thereafter to be used indiscriminately to denote the same divine personality.

A third current was soon added to this swelling religious stream, in the form of the cult of Gopāla-Ka, which had originated among the nomadic cowherd community of the Ābhīras. Suggestions that the Gopāla-Ka cult shows traces of Christian influence or that it developed from Vedic sources are unacceptable. On the contrary, the religion of Gopāla-Ka seems to have spurned the Indra-dominated Vedic religion (as is evidenced by the Govardhana episode) and to have promoted religious sublimation of sensuous love (as represented by Ka's relationship with the gopīs ). The amalgamation of the Vāsudeva cult of the Vis, the Ka cult of the Yādavas, and the Gopāla cult of the Ābhīras gave rise to what may be called Greater Kaism. New legends came to be invented whereby Vāsudeva, Ka, and Gopāla were integrated into a single homogeneous mythological pattern. If Vāsudevism represented the first phase of Vaiavism, Greater Kaism represented its second (and perhaps most outstanding) phase.


The seventh to fourth centuries bce were a period of great philosophical ferment in India. Vedism was on the decline, and non-Vedic religions such as Jainism and Buddhism were gradually gaining ascendancy. That period also saw vigorous attempts by the vanguards of Vedism to resuscitate the Vedic way of life and thought through the Sūtra-Vedāga movement. Kaism followed an eminently practical course with a view to consolidating its position in the face of the expanding heterodoxy on the one hand, and the resurgence of Vedism on the other. The amalgamation of the three theistic cults was an important step in the direction of such consolidation.

The other line of action adopted by Kaism was of a more vital character. Non-Vedic in origin and development, Kaism now sought affiliation with Vedism so that it could become acceptable to the still not inconsiderable orthodox elements among the people. That is how Viu of the gveda came to be assimilatedmore or less superficiallyinto Kaism. Viu had already been elevated from the subordinate position that he had occupied in Rgvedic mythology to the position of supreme godhead (Aitareya Brāhmaa 1.1). Further, the belief had already become well established that whenever dharma (righteousness) languishes and adharma (nonrighteousness) thrives, Viu, the supreme God, incarnates in order to save the world. Ka accordingly came to be regarded as an incarnation (avatāra ) of Viu. Kaism thus grew in its mythological and practical scope so that in some ways it became a form of Vaiavism. One of the classic works of Kaism, the Bhagavadgītā, reflects the syncretic use of Vedic as well as Vāsudeva traditions in such a way that Ka himself is said to be the supreme Lord.

PĀÑcarĀtra; BhĀgavata

The inclusion of the Nārāyaa cult into Kaism is generally regarded as the second major factor in the process of the so-called brahmanization of Kaism. However, the Nara-Nārāyaa cult itself seems to have originated in Badari (the northern ridge of the great Hindu Kush arch) independently of the Veda. Indeed, tradition assigns great antiquity to that cult (Mahābhārata 7.172.51). It is not unlikely that the ancient non-Vedic concept of Nara-Nārāyaa was absorbed into the Vedic ideology in the form of Purua Nārāyaa of the Śatapatha Brāhmaa (12.3.4). The latter, in its turn, was perhaps later transformed into the pair Arjuna (Nara-Purua) and Ka (Nārāyaa) of Kaism. Nārāyaa is represented as the founder of one of the two early sects of Vaiavism, namely, Pāñcarātra, as distinguished from the other early sect, namely, Bhāgavata. The distinction between these two sects is emphasized if we consider that the Pāñcarātrins were the worshipers of Nārāyaa, whereas the Bhāgavatas were the worshipers of Vāsudeva-Ka; that the Pāñcarātrins were the followers of Tantric Vaiavism, whereas the Bhāgavatas were the followers of brahmanic Vaiavism; an Vaiavism d that the Pāñcarātrins accepted the doctrine of vyūhas (according to which Vāsudeva, Sakaraa, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha were the four "emanations" [vyūhas ] of God, standing respectively for the Highest Self, the individual self, mind, and egoism), whereas the Bhāgavatas accepted the doctrine of avatāra s (ten incarnations of Viu).

Vaiavism in History

Vaiavism has generally enjoyed the patronage of various ruling dynasties, although foreign tribes like those of the Śakas and the Kushans (first centuries before and after the beginning of the common era) do not seem to have been favorably inclined toward that religion. Similar was the attitude of the early Vākāakas and the Bhāraśivas (second and third centuries ce). On the other hand, epigraphic and numismatic evidence shows that most of the Gupta sovereigns (who reigned from the fourth to the seventh century ce) were devout Vaiavas or Bhāgavatas, although their overall religious policy was remarkably liberal and tolerant. It was also during the age of the Guptas that most of the Vaiava Purāas and the Sahitās of Tantric Vaiavism took final shape. In the course of the post-Gupta millennium (7001700 ce), Vaiavism, like Hinduism in general, came to be fragmented into further sects and subsects. The emergence of these sects and subsects usually followed a certain set pattern: some particular religious leader would start a movement either to reform the existing vulgarized religious practices of the parent sect or to widen the appeal of that sect by abjuring social inequalities. The main purpose of these new sects and subsects was not so much to sponsor any specific philosophical or theistic tenets as to establish and popularize certain distinct kinds of bhakti. This renewal of bhakti is known to have received its main impulse from South India. It is, indeed, striking that Nakkirār (late first century ce) should mention in one of his poems "the blue one with the eagle flag" (i. e., Ka) and "the white one of the plowshare and the palmyra flag" (i. e., Baladeva). But it was the Āvārs (sixth to ninth centuries ce) who denounced all social distinctions and expressed in their Tamil songs a deeply emotional and intensely personal devotion for Viu. The bhakti tradition of the Āvārs was given a Vedantic foundation by the ācāryas of the Śrī Vaiava school, such as Nāthamuni, Yāmunācārya, and Rāmānuja. Two subschools evolved out of the Vaiava theology of Rāmānuja: the southern school (the Tekalai) insisted that prapatti, or complete surrender to God, was the only way to obtain God's grace, whereas the northern school (the Vaakalai) required the devotee to resort also to other ways of salvation prescribed by the scriptures.

Vaiava Bhakti Cult

It is in northern and central India that one sees a truly exuberant ramification of the Vaiava bhakti cult (thirteenth to seventeenth centuries ce). Two main currents of devotional worship can be distinguished in this connection, one relating to Rāma and the other to Ka. In the case of the latter, again, there are two distinct lines of development, one centering on Ka and his spouse Rukmiī (as generally sponsored by the saints of Maharashtra) and the other centering on Ka and Rādhā (as popularized by, among others, Nimbārka, Caitanya, and Jayadeva). One of the most remarkable Vaiava saints of India, Kabīr (fifteenth century), was born to the family of a Muslim weaver of Banaras. Early in life he became influenced by the Hindu ascetic Rāmānanda (the fifth in descent from Rāmānuja), who symbolized for the young aspirant the spirit of revolt against religious exclusivism and abstruse philosophizing. Kabīr taught Sahaja-Yoga, which aimed at an emotional integration of the soul with God. The Kabīr sect extended to Kathiawar and Gujarat but in the process split up into twelve different Kabīrpanthas. Dādū (sixteenth century ce, Gujarat-Rajasthan), for instance, was a follower of Kabīr, but he founded his own Brahma-Sapradāya with a view to uniting the divergent faiths of India into a single religious system. Another outstanding Vaiava saint, Caitanya (or Gaurāga, 14861533), though not the founder of Bengal Vaiavism, left the indelible mark of his personality on that religious movement. He initiated a new mode of congregational worship, called kīrtana, which consisted of choral singing of the name and deeds of God, accompanied by drums and cymbals and synchronized with rhythmic bodily movements, all this culminating in ecstasy. Among other typical teachers and saints who fostered Vaiava bhakti each in his or her own waymay be mentioned Jñāneśvara (thirteenth century, Maharashtra), Narsī Mehtā (fifteenth century, Gujarat), Śrīpādarāja and Purandaradāsa (both fifteenth century, Karnataka), Śakaradeva (c. fifteenth-sixteenth century, Assam), Mīrā Bāī (sixteenth century, Rajasthan), Tulsīdās (sixteenth century, Uttar Pradesh), and Tukārām (seventeenth century, Maharashtra).


In the literature of Vaiavism, the first placein time as in importancehas to be conceded to the Mahābhārata. Notwithstanding its ultimate encyclopedic character, there is no doubt that the Mahābhārata was, at an earlier stage, redacted in favor of Kaism, Ka having been represented almost as its prime mover. The inclusion in the Great Epic of such Vaiava religious tracts as the Bhagavadgītā and the Nārāyaīya and of the Harivaśa (as an appendix) confirms its basic Vaiava orientation. The Rāmāyaa, on the other hand, can hardly be called sectarian.

Among the eighteen Purāas, sixthe Viu, Nārada, Bhāgavata, Garua, Padma, and Vārāha are traditionally regarded as Vaiava or sāttvika. Out of these, the Bhāgavata Purāa has all along been looked upon as an authoritative scripture of Vaiavism. From among the sectarian Upaniads, which, incidentally, are fairly late (second to fifteenth centuries ce), seventeen are said to be Vaiava. Several of them are of the nature of Tantras. However, the principal Tantric Vaiava sect is the Pāñcarātra. Traditionally, 108 Sahitās of the Pāñcarātra are mentioned, although their number is sometimes given as 215 or even 290. Among the Pāñcarātra Sahitās, which are variously referred to as Ekāyanaveda, Mūlaveda, or Mahopaniad, the Sāttvata, the Paukara, and the Jayākhya are said to constitute the "jewel triad" (ratnatrayī ). The more commonly known Ahirbudhnya Sahitā is believed to have been produced in Kashmir in the early fifth century. The four main Tantric topics dealt with in the Sahitās are jñāna (soteriological theology), yoga (psychophysical discipline), kriyā (cultic practices), and caryā (personal and social behavior). Side by side with the Pāñcarātra, there also developed a Tantric Vaiava cult known as Vaikhānasa. It may be noted that specific Sahitās govern the religious practices at specific Vaiava temples. Profuse philosophical literature has originated in the four major schools of Vaiava Vedanta. Reference may also be made to the various manuals dealing with bhakti, such as the Bhaktisūtra s of Śāilya and Nārada (tenth century).

There are also quite a large number of prayers and hymns of praise (stotras ), known for their great literary and religious appeal, which are addressed to Viu in his various forms. All this literature is in Sanskrit. However, many of the newly arisen sects and subsects of Vaiavism adopted as their gospels the sayings and sermons of their promoters (or of the immediate disciples of those promoters), which were usually delivered not in Sanskrit but in the vernaculars of the people for whom they were meant, and these were preserved in oral or written form.


Bhandarkar, R. G. Vaiavism, Śaivism and Minor Religious Systems (1913). Reprint, Poona, 1982.

Bhattacharyya, Haridas, ed. The Religions, vol. 4, The Cultural Heritage of India. Calcutta, 1956.

Dandekar, R. N. Some Aspects of the History of Hinduism. Poona, 1967.

Dandekar, R. N. Insights into Hinduism. Delhi, 1979.

Gonda, Jan. Aspects of Early Viuism. Utrecht, 1954.

Gonda, Jan. Viuism and Śivaism, a Comparison. London, 1970.

Jaiswal, Suvira. The Origin and Development of Vaiavism. Delhi, 1967.

Schrader, F. Otto. Introduction to the Pāñcarātra and the Ahirbudhnya Sahitā. Madras, 1916.

R. N. Dandekar (1987)