Vaishnavas are worshipers of the Hindu god Vishnu, and different subgroups worship him in his various forms and incarnations (avatars). Often these forms are associated with places—he is worshiped as Jagannath at Puri, as Rama at Ayodhya, and as Vithoba at Pandarpur. In West Bengal, he is worshiped as Krishna.
Bengali Vaishnavism, or Gaudiya Vaishnavism (after Bengal's older name, "Gaur"), is unique in India in several ways. It claims that Krishna is the supreme deity, rather than an incarnation of Vishnu, and that he is in eternal play (lila ) with his beloved consort Radha. The major human focus is the fifteenth-century saint/avatar Caitanya, who is believed to be a joint incarnation of Krishna and Radha (they were born together in a single body, in order to share each other's experiences intimately). Caitanya is himself worshiped as a form of the deity. There is also an emphasis upon the role of aesthetics and the belief that the divine is best understood through emotional and erotic (though sublimated) Experience. Krishna's consort Radha and her friends the gopis (milkmaids who loved Krishna during his rural childhood) are believed to be the ideal devotees, and worshipers seek to feel the intensity of love that the milkmaids felt for Krishna. After death, the devotee hopes to enter Krishna's paradise, to participate forever in his adventures.
The geographic focus of Bengali Vaishnavism is Nadiya District, especially the town of Navadvipa, held as sacred because it was Caitanya's birthplace. While there are Vaishnava groups throughout West Bengal, the Navadvipa area has some of the largest and best-known communities.
Vaishnavas generally live according to three major lifestyles. One style is that of laypeople, who hold Krishna as their god and worship him (usually with his consort Radha) at the household altar and participate at temple festivals. Another approach is that of the monastic devotee, an initiate who lives in community in a math or monastery (which is vegetarian and usually follows strict purity rules). A third option is for the Vaishnava ascetic to live separately, in a meditation hut (bhajan-kutir ) or in the woods. Devotees or bhaktas, whether monk or ascetic, are usually initiated into a guru lineage (a line of religious leaders or teachers) and vow to lead a religious life. They may rise at 4 A.M. to begin chanting the day's several lakhs of mantras (one lakh is 100,000 repetitions), eating little, with shaven head, saffron or white robes, and the tilaka marks of white clay on the face and body. There are fewer women Vaishnava ascetics, and these are most frequently widows. They dress in white or saffron saris, keep their heads and faces covered, and spend the day in prayer and chanting.
Vaishnava religious activity revolves around the forms and images of Krishna. There are temple gatherings, festivals, worship ceremonies (pujas ), and processions for chanting (kirtan ). Devotees dance, sing, play music, chant, and recite the stories of Krishna's exploits. These celebrations differ from more traditional Hindu ceremonies (both Vedic and dharmic) in which there are strict ritual requirements, and participation is restricted by caste and status. For Bengali Vaishnavas, spontaneous love (prema ) is most important, and Krishna's perfect milkmaid devotees were neither Brahmans (the priestly caste) nor ritual specialists. The god may be loved as a young child, a divine lover, a master, or a friend, residing in the statue or within the teacher or guru. More private ritual activity can involve visualization of Krishna or Caitanya and their associates (lila smarana ) and inner or mental worship of the deity.
The Vaishnavite movement arose in the eleventh and twelfth centuries a.d. in Bengal, though it existed earlier in south India (where many scholars believe that the sacred text for all Vaishnavas, the Bhagavata Purana, originated). The greatest Bengali exponent of Vaishnavite bhakti was Caitanya, who would go into frenzies of joy and sorrow when thinking of Krishna. He was not a theologian but rather a person in the throes of divine madness. His associates and later followers wrote the theologies for Bengali Vaishnavism, which became the basis for later factional splits within the group. The major tension was between adaptation to orthodox Vedic Hinduism and the devotional (bhakti) enthusiasm and nonconformity. One group of Caitanya's followers, the Gosvamins of Vrindavana, were scholars who wrote in Sanskrit and emphasized the more conservative aspects of Vaishnavism. Other of Caitanya's associates emphasized his more radical side, especially his joint incarnation and the ways he broke barriers of caste and tradition to express his passionate love, as the milkmaids left their husbands to follow Krishna. This is the aspect of bhakti devotion that emphasizes the radical equality of all people before Krishna, regardless of law and custom, caste and status. The more conservative approach tends to be found in the monasteries and among Vaishnava scholars (pandits), while the more radical approach tends to be found among the forest dwellers and wanderers.
There are two offshoots of Gaudiya Vaishnavism that are worth mentioning. One is Sahajiya or Tantric Vaishnavism, in which sexuality comes to play a major role in both belief and practice. The other is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), better known as Hare Krishnas, whose members have carried and adapted Bengali Vaishnava beliefs to the Western world.
See also Baul, Bengali Shakta
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McDaniel, June (1989). The Madness of the Saints: Ecstatic Religion in Bengal. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Singer, Milton, ed. (1971). Krishna: Myths, Rites, and Attitudes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.