Vaiṣṇavism: An Overview
VAIṢṆAVISM: AN OVERVIEW
The origin of Vaiṣṇavism as a theistic sect can by no means be traced back to the Ṛgvedic god Viṣṇu. In fact, Vaiṣṇavism is in no sense Vedic in origin. Indology has now outgrown its older tendency to derive all the religious ideologies and practices of classical India—indeed, all aspects of classical Indian thought and culture—from 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 ṛṣi cult. The muni-yati cult, with its characteristic features such as yoga, tapas, and saṃnyāsa, 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 Vasiṣṭha's hymns to Varuna in the seventh book of the Ṛgveda 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 Upaniṣads (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 Vṛṣṇi 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 Viṣṇu, marks the beginning of what we today understand by Vaiṣṇavism. This Vāsudevism, which represents the earliest known phase of Vaiṣṇavism, must already have become stabilized in the days of Pāṇini (sixth to fifth centuries bce), for Pāṇini was required in his Aṣṭadhyāyī 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 Garuḍa column of Vāsudeva, the "god of gods," was erected by Heliodoros, the Bhāgavata, of Takṣaśilā. The historical tradition that Vāsudeva originally belonged to the tribe of the Vṛṣṇis is also well attested. In the Bhagavadgītā (10.37) Lord Kṛṣṇa declares that of the Vṛṣṇis he is Vāsudeva. The Mahābhāṣya of Patañjali (150 bce) also clearly speaks of Vāsudeva as belonging to the Vṛṣṇi 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 Saṃkarṣaṇa (another deified Vṛṣṇi hero), further confirm the Vṛṣṇi lineage of Vāsudeva.
It may be noted that the Pāṇinian 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 Saṃkarṣaṇa also seems to have arisen independently of the Vāsudeva religion. In the Mahābhārata, Saṃkarṣaṇa (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 Kauṭilya (fourth century bce) refers to spies disguised as the ascetic worshipers of Saṃkarṣaṇa (13.3.67). The Mathura sculpture (second century bce) which depicts Saṃkarṣaṇa by himself is also highly suggestive in this context. The evidence of the Niddesa, the Mahābhāṣya of Patañjali, and the Ghosundi and Nanaghat inscriptions, on the other hand, shows that, presumably on account of their original Vṛṣṇi affiliations, the Saṃkarṣaṇa and Vāsudeva religions had come to be closely allied. With the development of the doctrine of the vyūhas, whereby Saṃkarṣaṇa came to be regarded as one of the vyūhas (standing for the individual self) subordinate to Vāsudeva (standing for the Highest Self), the Saṃkarṣaṇa religion lost its independent existence.
Another theistic cult which gathered strength with the decline of Vedism centered on Kṛṣṇa, the deified tribal hero and religious leader of the Yādavas. There is sufficient evidence to show that Vāsudeva and Kṛṣṇa were originally two distinct personalities. The Yādava Kṛṣṇa may as well have been the same as Devakīputra Kṛṣṇa, who is represented in the Chāndogya Upaniṣad (3.17.1) as a pupil of Ghora Āṅgirasa and who is said to have learned from his teacher the doctrine that human life is a kind of sacrifice. Kṛṣṇa seems to have developed this doctrine in his own teaching, which was later incorporated in the Bhagavadgītā. In time, the Vṛṣṇis 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 Kṛṣṇa to form a new supreme god, Bhagavān Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa. Evidence in Megasthenes and in Kauṭilya's Arthaśāstra indicates that this new divinity was established as early as the fourth century bce. Indeed, the names Vāsudeva and Kṛṣṇa 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-Kṛṣṇa, which had originated among the nomadic cowherd community of the Ābhīras. Suggestions that the Gopāla-Kṛṣṇa cult shows traces of Christian influence or that it developed from Vedic sources are unacceptable. On the contrary, the religion of Gopāla-Kṛṣṇa 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 Kṛṣṇa's relationship with the gopīs ). The amalgamation of the Vāsudeva cult of the Vṛṣṇis, the Kṛṣṇa cult of the Yādavas, and the Gopāla cult of the Ābhīras gave rise to what may be called Greater Kṛṣṇaism. New legends came to be invented whereby Vāsudeva, Kṛṣṇa, and Gopāla were integrated into a single homogeneous mythological pattern. If Vāsudevism represented the first phase of Vaiṣṇavism, Greater Kṛṣṇaism 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-Vedāṅga movement. Kṛṣṇaism 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 Kṛṣṇaism was of a more vital character. Non-Vedic in origin and development, Kṛṣṇaism now sought affiliation with Vedism so that it could become acceptable to the still not inconsiderable orthodox elements among the people. That is how Viṣṇu of the Ṛgveda came to be assimilated—more or less superficially—into Kṛṣṇaism. Viṣṇu had already been elevated from the subordinate position that he had occupied in Rgvedic mythology to the position of supreme godhead (Aitareya Brāhmaṇa 1.1). Further, the belief had already become well established that whenever dharma (righteousness) languishes and adharma (nonrighteousness) thrives, Viṣṇu, the supreme God, incarnates in order to save the world. Kṛṣṇa accordingly came to be regarded as an incarnation (avatāra ) of Viṣṇu. Kṛṣṇaism thus grew in its mythological and practical scope so that in some ways it became a form of Vaiṣṇavism. One of the classic works of Kṛṣṇaism, the Bhagavadgītā, reflects the syncretic use of Vedic as well as Vāsudeva traditions in such a way that Kṛṣṇa himself is said to be the supreme Lord.
The inclusion of the Nārāyaṇa cult into Kṛṣṇaism is generally regarded as the second major factor in the process of the so-called brahmanization of Kṛṣṇaism. However, the Nara-Nārāyaṇa 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-Nārāyaṇa was absorbed into the Vedic ideology in the form of Puruṣa Nārāyaṇa of the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa (12.3.4). The latter, in its turn, was perhaps later transformed into the pair Arjuna (Nara-Puruṣa) and Kṛṣṇa (Nārāyaṇa) of Kṛṣṇaism. Nārāyaṇa is represented as the founder of one of the two early sects of Vaiṣṇavism, 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 Nārāyaṇa, whereas the Bhāgavatas were the worshipers of Vāsudeva-Kṛṣṇa; that the Pāñcarātrins were the followers of Tantric Vaiṣṇavism, whereas the Bhāgavatas were the followers of brahmanic Vaiṣṇavism; an Vaiṣṇavism d that the Pāñcarātrins accepted the doctrine of vyūhas (according to which Vāsudeva, Saṃkarṣaṇa, 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 Viṣṇu).
VaiṢṆavism in History
Vaiṣṇavism 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 Vākāṭakas 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 Vaiṣṇavas 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 Vaiṣṇava Purāṇas and the Saṃhitās of Tantric Vaiṣṇavism took final shape. In the course of the post-Gupta millennium (700–1700 ce), Vaiṣṇavism, 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., Kṛṣṇa) and "the white one of the plowshare and the palmyra flag" (i. e., Baladeva). But it was the Āḻvārs (sixth to ninth centuries ce) who denounced all social distinctions and expressed in their Tamil songs a deeply emotional and intensely personal devotion for Viṣṇu. The bhakti tradition of the Āḻvārs was given a Vedantic foundation by the ācāryas of the Śrī Vaiṣṇava school, such as Nāthamuni, Yāmunācārya, and Rāmānuja. Two subschools evolved out of the Vaiṣṇava theology of Rāmānuja: the southern school (the Teṅkalai) insisted that prapatti, or complete surrender to God, was the only way to obtain God's grace, whereas the northern school (the Vaṯakalai) required the devotee to resort also to other ways of salvation prescribed by the scriptures.
VaiṢṆava Bhakti Cult
It is in northern and central India that one sees a truly exuberant ramification of the Vaiṣṇava 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 Kṛṣṇa. In the case of the latter, again, there are two distinct lines of development, one centering on Kṛṣṇa and his spouse Rukmiṇī (as generally sponsored by the saints of Maharashtra) and the other centering on Kṛṣṇa and Rādhā (as popularized by, among others, Nimbārka, Caitanya, and Jayadeva). One of the most remarkable Vaiṣṇava 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-Saṃpradāya with a view to uniting the divergent faiths of India into a single religious system. Another outstanding Vaiṣṇava saint, Caitanya (or Gaurāṅga, 1486–1533), though not the founder of Bengal Vaiṣṇavism, 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 Vaiṣṇava bhakti —each in his or her own way—may be mentioned Jñāneśvara (thirteenth century, Maharashtra), Narsī Mehtā (fifteenth century, Gujarat), Śrīpādarāja and Purandaradāsa (both fifteenth century, Karnataka), Śaṃkaradeva (c. fifteenth-sixteenth century, Assam), Mīrā Bāī (sixteenth century, Rajasthan), Tulsīdās (sixteenth century, Uttar Pradesh), and Tukārām (seventeenth century, Maharashtra).
In the literature of Vaiṣṇavism, the first place—in time as in importance—has 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 Kṛṣṇaism, Kṛṣṇa having been represented almost as its prime mover. The inclusion in the Great Epic of such Vaiṣṇava religious tracts as the Bhagavadgītā and the Nārāyaṇīya and of the Harivaṃśa (as an appendix) confirms its basic Vaiṣṇava orientation. The Rāmāyaṇa, on the other hand, can hardly be called sectarian.
Among the eighteen Purāṇas, six—the Viṣṇu, Nārada, Bhāgavata, Garuḍa, Padma, and Vārāha —are traditionally regarded as Vaiṣṇava or sāttvika. Out of these, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa has all along been looked upon as an authoritative scripture of Vaiṣṇavism. From among the sectarian Upaniṣads, which, incidentally, are fairly late (second to fifteenth centuries ce), seventeen are said to be Vaiṣṇava. Several of them are of the nature of Tantras. However, the principal Tantric Vaiṣṇava sect is the Pāñcarātra. Traditionally, 108 Saṃhitās of the Pāñcarātra are mentioned, although their number is sometimes given as 215 or even 290. Among the Pāñcarātra Saṃhitās, which are variously referred to as Ekāyanaveda, Mūlaveda, or Mahopaniṣad, the Sāttvata, the Pauṣkara, and the Jayākhya are said to constitute the "jewel triad" (ratnatrayī ). The more commonly known Ahirbudhnya Saṃhitā is believed to have been produced in Kashmir in the early fifth century. The four main Tantric topics dealt with in the Saṃhitās 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 Vaiṣṇava cult known as Vaikhānasa. It may be noted that specific Saṃhitās govern the religious practices at specific Vaiṣṇava temples. Profuse philosophical literature has originated in the four major schools of Vaiṣṇava Vedanta. Reference may also be made to the various manuals dealing with bhakti, such as the Bhaktisūtra s of Śāṉḍilya 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 Viṣṇu in his various forms. All this literature is in Sanskrit. However, many of the newly arisen sects and subsects of Vaiṣṇavism 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.
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