|Doctrines|| ||The Shri Vaishnavas are one of the six major Hindu denominations devoted to Vishnu. Shri Vaishnavas are named after their worship of not only Vishnu-Narayana but his consort Shri or Lakshmi, goddess of auspiciousness and prosperity. Also worshipped are Bhudevi, goddess of the earth, and Nila, the human wife of young Krishna, who is commonly known by her Tamil name of Nappinai.|
The philosophical basis of Shri Vaishnava doctrine is that of Ramanuja, which is Visistadvaita ("identity within distinctions") Vedanta termed qualified non-dualism. This was the first successful attempt to join a personal theistic faith with an absolutist doctrine. Brahman is identified with Vishnu as the Supreme Spirit. For Ramanuja the world including ourselves is the body of God, so he is our support and master and the purpose of our lives is to praise him and do his work. Shri Vaishnavas call their theology Ubhaya Vedanta , theology of the two scriptures, as they follow the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Vedanta Sutra, and also the Tamil hymns of the Alvars, the poet-saints immersed in God. To the Shri Vaishnavas the long poem of Nammalvar, the Tiruvaymoli , is equal to the Upanishads.
At the end of the twelfth century worship of Shri came to the fore. Shri is to be worshipped first as purusakara, mediatrix, who can intercede with Vishnu. Treatises on this also covered secret meanings of mantras, sacred utterances, and the doctrine of divine grace. The guru can also recommend the approach to God as he is connected with the chain of grace. It was over the doctrine of grace that the Shri Vaishnavas split into the Vatakalai and Tenkalai subsects (see separate entries).
|History|| ||The spiritual lineage of the Shri Vaishnavas is traced back through acaryas, teachers, and the Alvars to Shri and Vishnu-Narayana. The Shri Vaishnavas is in fact one of the oldest of the Vaishnava sampradayas, orders. |
The poetry of the Alvars (a Tamil word meaning "saints" or "sages") is one of the great achievements of Shri Vaishnavism. This devotion to Vishnu was a South Indian religious movement starting in the tenth century and flowering in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. It was led by brahmans and thus inclined to Brahmanical values. The result of this was profound for Shri Vaishnavism, which produced an enormous literature on the Alvars and saw them as spiritual ancestors. Stories of the twelve Alvars give them very ancient dates, with Nammalvar living five thousand years ago at the beginning of Kali Yuga, the present corrupt age. The Alvars are dated by scholars from the sixth to ninth centuries CE.
The Shri Vaishnavas, however, give dates for the acaryas that are accurate to one or two generations. Nathamuni was the first acarya, living in the late ninth or early tenth century. He was given the corpus of hymns by Nammalvar while in a yogic meditation. Another acarya of which there are stories is Nathamuni's grandson Yamuna (916-1036), who was known as Alavander in Tamil. Yamuna was fourth of the acaryas who led the Shri Vaishnavas and the first with surviving texts, the longest being the Agamapramanya. Yamuna's thought inspired Ramanuja to join the Shri Vaishnavas and he based his work on Yamuna.
There are more stories and hagiographies of Ramanuja (1017-1137) than even the Alvars. Though Ramanuja just missed meeting Yamuna before he died, he became the third of the great acaryas and the leader of the Shri Vaishnavas, carrying out Yamuna's wishes to firmly establish the community. Ramanuja renounced his wife over caste - his teacher was lower caste - and became an ascetic. His act of surrender assured his followers of divine grace for subsequent generations. During Ramanuja's leadership the Shri Vaishnava community brought together Tamil devotion and Sanskrit philosophy and ritual, inspiring other groups to do likewise. Later in his life Ramanuja fled from Srirangam to escape the persecution of the Shaiva Cola king and lived in the Hoysala kingdom further north. Ramanuja's cousin and disciple Pillan was the first to use the name Shri Vaishnavas.
Born in the sixth generation of disciples of Ramanuja was Pillai Lokacarya (1264-1369), a great Shri Vaishnava scholar who wrote eighteen treatises. His Mumaksuppati, The Means for Those Who Desire Freedom, Tattvatrayam, The Three Realities, and Shri Vacana Bhusanam, The Auspicious Ornament of Instruction, are highly important for Shri Vaishnavas.
The division of the Shri Vaishnavas into the Vatakalai, "northern culture," and Tenkalai, "southern culture," took place gradually.
|Symbols|| ||Of central importance in Shri Vaishnava worship is darsan, seeing the images of Vishnu, Shri, and the other goddesses. From this comes smarana, remembering the good deeds of Vishnu, and seva or kainkarya, service to Vishnu and his disciples.|
Worship can take place at a small shrine in the home or in the one hundred and eight Shri Vaishnava temples. The most important of these are the Venkatesvara temple at Tirupati in northern Tamil Nadu, which is a great all-India pilgrimage temple and the richest in India, the Venkatesvara temple at Kanci, and Srirangam in southern Tamil Nadu, a vast temple complex needing days to explore and filled with rich symbolism. The writer has been granted darsan at the inner shrine of Srirangam Temple, where a golden Vishnu is protected by a multi-headed gold cobra that is glimpsed for an instant in the light of a burning torch held in the hand of the brahman attending the shrine.
Ritual is thus important and Sanskrit treatises on ritual are followed. Sanskrit is used exclusively as the ritual language. Complex visualisation of Vishnu described in extraordinarily rich symbolic language by Ramanuja is a contemplative worship that can be like seeing God.
|Adherents|| ||Shri Vaishnavas are numerous in all South Indian states, with Tamil Nadu having the main concentration. There are several million adherents in all. The community includes many brahmans, who are the leaders of the Shri Vaishnavas.|
| ||Tirupati, the all-India pilgrimage centre in Andhra Pradesh, and Srirangam Temple, Tamil Nadu, South India.|