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Vaishnavism (Vaisnava dharma) is one of the major branches of Hinduism along with Shaivism, Smartism, and Shaktism. It is focused on the veneration of Vishnu. Vaishnavites, or the followers of the Vishnu, lead a way of life promoting differentiated monotheism (henotheism), which gives importance to Vishnu and his ten incarnations.
Followers worship Vishnu, the preserver god of the Hindu Trimurti ('three images', the Trinity), and his ten incarnations, and many other deities, including Ram and Krishna, both thought to be incarnations of Vishnu. The adherents of this sect are generally non-ascetic, monastic and devoted to meditative practice and ecstatic chanting.  Vaishnavites are mainly dualistic. They are deeply devotional. Their religion is rich in saints, temples and scriptures.
Its beliefs and practices, especially the concepts of Bhakti and Bhakti Yoga, are based largely on the Upanishads, and associated with the Vedas and Puranic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, and the Padma Purana, Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana.
The followers of Vaishnavism are referred to as Vaishnava(s) or Vaishnavites. Awareness, recognition, and growth of the belief has significantly increased outside of India (see: ISKCON) in recent years. The Gaudiya Vaishnava branch of the tradition has significantly increased the awareness of Vaishnavism internationally, since the mid-1900s, largely through the activities and geographical expansion of the Hare Krishna movement founded by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in New York City in 1966, and more recently, through several other Vaishnava organizations such as Pure Bhakti Yoga Society of Srila Bhaktivedanta Narayan Maharaj, conducting preaching activities in the West.
Principal historic branches
Bhagavatism, early Ramaism and Krishnaism, merged in historical Vishnuism, a tradition of Historical Vedic religion, distinguished from other traditions by its primary worship of Vishnu. Vaishnavism, is historically the first structured Vaishnava religion as "Vishnuism, in a word, is the only cultivated native sectarian native religion of India." Although it is usual to speak of Vishnu as the source of the Avatar, this is only one of the names by which the god of Vaishnavism is known. The other names include Narayana, Vasudeva and Krishna; each the name of a divine figure with attributed supremacy, which each associated tradition of Vaishnavism believes to be distinct. For example, in the Krishnaism branch of Vaishnavism, such as the Gaudiya Vaishnava, Nimbarka and Vallabhacharya traditions, devotees worship Krishna as the One Supreme form of God, and source of all avatars, Svayam Bhagavan, in contrast to the belief of the devotees of the Sri Sampradaya.
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The principal belief of Vishnu-centered sects is the identification of Vishnu or Narayana as the one supreme God. This belief contrasts with the Krishna-centered traditions, such as Vallabha, Nimbaraka and Vallbha, in which Krishna is considered as the Supreme Lord Vishnu. The belief in the supremacy of Vishnu is based upon the many Avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu listed in the Puranic texts, which differs from other Hindu deities such as Ganesha, Surya or Durga. According to many Vaishnavites, the latter are instead classified as demi-gods or devas. According to Ramayana, Rama, the seventh incarnation of God Vishnu, is believed to have prayed to Shiva in Rameshwaram to absolve any sins that he might have committed during his war against the demon king Ravana in Sri Lanka. To worship Shiva, Rama wanted to have the largest lingam. He directed Hanuman, the monkey lietunant in his army to bring the lingam from Himalayas. Since it took longer to bring the lingam, Sita (the wife of Rama) built a small lingam, which is believed to be the lingam in the sanctum. The primary deity of the temple is Ramanathaswamy (Shiva) in the form of lingam. There are two lingams inside the sanctum - one built by Sita residing as the main deity called Ramalingam and the one brought by Hanuman from Kailash called Vishwalingam. Rama instructed that Vishwalingam should be worshipped first since it was brought by Hanuman - the tradition continues even today. However, Vaishnavites reject such claims quoting reasons from Valmiki Ramayan itself and also from other Vedic texts.
Vaishnavas although follow a process of initiation (diksha), given by a guru, under whom they are trained to understand Vaishnava practices gives more importance to the acceptance of the Supremacy of Lord Vishnu by men and women. At the time of initiation, the disciple is traditionally given a specific mantra, which the disciple will repeat, either out loud or within the mind, as an act of worship to Vishnu or one of his avatars. The practice of repetitive prayer is known as japa. The system of receiving initiation and training from a guru is based on injunctions throughout the scriptures held as sacred within the Vaishnava traditions but is not mandatory:
- "Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth."(Bhagavad Gita)
- "One who is initiated into the Vaishnava mantra and who is devoted to worshiping Lord Vishnu is a Vaishnava. One who is devoid of these practices is not a Vaishnava."(Padma Purana)
The scriptures specific to the Gaudiya Vaishnava group also state that one who performs an act of worship as simple as chanting the name of Vishnu or Krishna can be considered a Vaishnava by practice:
- "Who chants the holy name of Krishna just once may be considered a Vaishnava. Such a person is worship-able and is the topmost human being."(Chaitanya Charitamrita)
Attitude toward scriptures
Vaishnava traditions refer to the writings of previous acharyas in their respective lineage or sampradya (see below) as authoritative interpretations of scripture. While many schools like Smartism and Advaitism encourage interpretation of scriptures philosophically and metaphorically and not too literally, Vaishnavism stresses the literal meaning (mukhya vṛitti) as primary and indirect meaning (gauṇa vṛitti) as secondary: sākṣhād upadesas tu shrutih - "The instructions of the shruti-shāstra should be accepted literally, without fanciful or allegorical interpretations."
Within Vaishnavism there are four main disciplic lineages (sampradayas), each exemplified by a specific Vedic personality. The four sampradayas follow subtly different philosophical systems regarding the relationship between the soul (jiva) and God (Vishnu or Krishna), although the majority of other core beliefs are identical.
- Philosophy: Vishishtadvaita ("Qualified Monoism"), espoused by Chidachida Visishtam Ramanujacharya
- See Sri Vaishnavism, Vaikhanasa, Ramanandi Sect, Swaminarayan.
- Brahma sampradaya
- Philosophies: Dvaita ("dualism"), espoused by Madhvacharya, and Achintya Bheda Abheda (literally "inconceivable difference and non-difference").
- Rudra sampradaya
- Philosophy: Shuddhadvaita ("pure nondualism"), espoused by Vishnuswami and Vallabhacharya.
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Broadly, Vaishnavas in South India can be classified as Brahmins and non-Brahmins.
Among the Brahmins the main groups are:
- The Iyengars, who follow the Sri Vaishnava Vishistadvaita philosophy of Asuri Ramanujacharya. The Iyengars are further divided into the Vadakalai-i.e. the northern school, and Thenkalai or southern school. Both these sects adhere to the Pañcaratra agama, in temples.
These two sects evolved about 200 years after Ramanuja and differ on 18 points of doctrine. The founder of the Vadagalai sect is Swami Vedanta Desika, and the Tengalai sect is Manavala Mamuni. But both schools have a common Guru Parampara prior to the division. The Sri Vaishnavas use both the Sanskrit veda as well as the Tamil divyaprabandham in temple worship.
- The Madhvas, who follow the Sadvaishnava Dvaita philosophy of Madhvacharya.
- The Vaikhanasas, who are primarily an ancient community of temple priests, who use the Vaikhanasa Agama in temple worship. They use Sanskrit exclusively in temple worship.
Among the non-Brahmins, sections of various communities like the Chettiars and Mudaliars (Thuluva Vellalars)in Tamil Nadu and sections of the Kammas, Padmashalis, Reddys, Rajus and Haridasus in Andhra Pradesh and so on in other states are known as Vaishnavites. Some groups tend to be vegetarians like the Brahmins.
In temple worship, a Vaikhanasa temple (like Tirumala), a Madhva temple (like Udupi), a Tengalai temple (like Melukote) and a Vadagalai temple (like Kanchipuram ) all have distinctly different rituals and customs with priests of that particular denomination who perform the worship. However all temples are popularly visited by all Vaishnavas as lay worshippers, as also members of various other denominations.
In Kerala, some communities call themselves Vaishnavas, especially the pisharodies and Gauda Saraswatha Brahmins and Embranthiries who settled in Kerala at a later phase of Brahmin Settlement. The Sagara Brahmins in and around Thiruvalla Sree Vallabha Vishnu Temple are also referred to as Vaisnavas accepting the Supremacy of Lord Vishnu.
Other branches and sects
On my tongue Vishnu, in my eyes Narayana, in my heart dwells Govinda.—Adi Granth, IV.XXV.I
- Charan Dasi, founded by Charan Das a Dhusar of Dehra
- Lalpanthi Sampradaya or Lal Dasi sect, founded by Laldas a Meo of Dhaoli Dub
- Madhwachari sect
- Mahapuruxiya Dharma, espoused by Sankardeva
- Mohan Panth
- Nimbhawat sect
- Pranami sect
- The Ramanandi movement, begun by Ramananda
- Ramawat sect
- Vaisnava-Sahajiya, a tantric school
Vaishnavas mark their foreheads with tilaka, either as a daily ritual, or on special occasions. The different Vaishnava sampradayas each have their own distinctive style of tilaka, which depicts the siddhanta of their particular lineage. The general tilaka pattern is of a parabolic shape resembling the letter U or two or more connected vertical lines on and another optional line on the nose resembling the letter Y, which usually represents the foot of Vishnu and the lotus flower.
The worship of Vishnu was already well developed in the period of the Itihasas. Hopkins says "Vishnuism, in a word, is the only cultivated native sectarian native religion of India." Vaishnavism is expounded in a part of the Mahabharata known as the Bhagavad Gita, which contains a dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna. In this dialogue, Krishna plays the role of Arjuna's charioteer.
Vaishnavism flourished in predominantly Shaivite South India during the seventh to tenth centuries CE, and is still commonplace, especially in Tamil Nadu, as a result of the twelve Alvars, saints who spread the sect to the common people with their devotional hymns. The temples which the Alvars visited or founded are now known as Divya Desams. Their poems in praise of Vishnu and Krishna in Tamil language are collectively known as Naalayira (Divya Prabandha).
In later years Vaishnava practices increased in popularity due to the influence of sages like Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, Nimbarkacharya, Vallabhacharya, Vedanta Desika, Manavala Mamunigal, Surdas, Tulsidas, eknath, Tyagaraja, and many others.
In his The Religions of India, Edward Washburn Hopkins presents an accepted distinction as to the assumption that Vishnuism is associated with Vedic brahmanism, and was part of brahmanism. Krishnaism was adopted much later, and it is for this reason, amongst others, that despite its modern iniquities Shiva has appealed more to the brahmans than Krishna. It's only later that Vishnuism merged with Krishnaism.
Large Vaishnava communities now exist throughout India, and particularly in Western Indian states, such as western Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan Maharashtra and Gujarat. Important sites of pilgrimage for Vaishnavs include: Guruvayur Temple, Sri Rangam, Vrindavan, Mathura, Ayodhya, Tirupati, Pandharpur (Vitthal), Puri (Jaggannath), Mayapur, Nathdwara and Dwarka.
Since the 1900s Vaishnavism has spread from within India and is now practiced in many places around the globe, including America, Europe, Africa, Russia and South America. This is largely due to the growth of the ISKCON movement, founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1966.
The Ramayana describes the story of Rama, an avatara of Vishnu, and is taken as a history of the 'ideal king', based on the principles of dharma, morality and ethics. Rama's wife Sita, his brother Lakshman with his devotee and follower Hanuman all play key roles within the Vaishnava tradition as examples of Vaishnava etiquette and behaviour. Ravana, the evil king and villain of the epic, plays the opposite role of how not to behave.
The Mahabharata is centered around Krishna and details the story of a dynastic war between two families of cousins, with Krishna and the Pandavas, five brothers, playing pivotal roles in the drama. The philosophical highlight of the work is the chapter covering a conversation between Arjuna and Krishna prior to the final battle, individually known as the Bhagavad Gita. The Bhagavad Gita, though influential in most philosophies of Hinduism, is of particular importance to Vaishnavas because it is believed to be an accurate record of the very words spoken by Krishna himself. Both works are often re-enacted in part as dramas by followers of Vaishnavism, especially on festival days concerning each of the specific avatars. The Bhagavad Gita is widely studied as a theological textbook and is rendered in numerous English translations and world languages.
Vaishnava theology has been a subject of study and debate for many devotees, philosophers and scholars within India for centuries. In recent decades this study has also been pursued in a number of academic institutions in Europe, such as the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, Bhaktivedanta College and Syanandura Vaishnava Sabha, a moderate and progressive Vaishnava body headed by Gautham Padmanabhan in Trivandrum which intends to bring about a single and precise book called Hari-grantha to include all Vaishnava philosophies.
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- Contemporary Theological Trends in the Hare Krishna Movement "Until the last fifteen years or so, there had been a lack of scholarship in the West on Vaishnavism, and this was seen by Hare Krishna devotees as a situation which must be changed."
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- There was a Vaishnavite scholar cum researcher named Puthur Krishnaswamy (Pen name-Sudarsanar) who rejected this idea in his book titled "Ramalinga prathistai".
- According to this site, , verses 47, 84, of their scripture, Shikshapatri, states, "And the oneness of Narayana and Shiva should be understood, as the Vedas have described both to be brahmaroopa, or form of Brahman, i.e., Saguna Brahman, indicating that Vishnu and Shiva are different forms of the one and same God.
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- The Sampradaya of Sri Caitanya, by Steven Rosen and William Deadwyler III "the word sampradaya literally means 'a community'. A text from the Padma Purana quoted widely in Vaisnava writings speaks directly about these authorised communities. It says that 'Those mantras which are not received within a sampradaya are fruitless; they have no potency'. The text then specifically names the sampradayas. 'In the Kali-yuga, there will be four sampradayas.' ― we are talking about Vaisnava sampradayas ― 'They are the Brahma Sampradaya, originating with Brahma; Sri Sampradaya, starting with Laksmi; Rudra Sampradaya, starting with Siva; there's another one starting from Sanaka and the others, the Kumaras'. Those are the four recognised Vaisnava sampradayas."
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- Hopkins,The Religions of India, p.530 "When, however, pantheism, nay, even Vishnuism, or still more, Krishnaism, was an accepted fact upon what, then, was the wisdom of the priest expended?"
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-  Sudarsanar refutes the idea of Ramalingam