|Doctrines|| ||Vaishnavas worship Vishnu in his various forms and are one of the three major groups of Hinduism, the others being Shaivas and Shaktas.|
In the trinity of Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma, Vishnu is the sattva quality of a centripetal tendency towards light and truth, which holds the universe together by pervading all existence. Vishnu comes from a root meaning "to pervade," and he is known as the Pervader. Thus Vishnu dwells in everything and defeats the power of destruction. Shiva is the centrifugal tendency of destruction and as life depends on death so Vishnu and Shiva are interdependent. As Vishnu pervades the universe, he is the aim and hope of all beings that must die. Vishnu is the source of life and is identified with the world of dream, where prototypes are conceived.
The Vaishnavas distinguish five forms of God: in his transcendent form; the avataras, which are incarnations of God sent to save the dharma, cosmic law, and mankind, with Vishnu as an essentially human character; the vyuha, emanations of his power, as Vasudeva-Krishna, Samkarsana, Pradyumna, and Aniruddha, who play a part in Vishnu's creation, preservation, and absorption of the universe; the immanent God; and the image or statue.
The Bhagavad Gita is the main religious text of the Vaishnavas and the source of many of their beliefs. This text is set in the Mahabharata and tells of Krishna explaining a real life dilemma for Arjuna. It is in the form of a conversation on the battlefield of Kuruksetra before the start of the war. This popularises Upanisadic teachings and yoga, holding out the hope of spiritual progress to those involved in the affairs of the world. By fulfilling one's duty through disinterested action, the path of salvation is open. The doctrine of the avataras comes for the first time in the Bhagavad Gita.
Six of the eighteen Puranas are traditionally considered as Vaishnava. Of these the Vishnu Purana is one of the oldest (c. fifth century CE) and most important and the Bhagavata Purana (c. ninth century CE) is an authoritative scripture of Vaishnavism. Seventeen of the Upanishads are regarded as Vaishnava, and there are large numbers of prayers and hymns of great literary and religious appeal that are addressed to Vishnu in his different forms.
|History|| ||Vishnu is a solar deity in the Vedas, but the origin of Vaishnavism is not Vedic. It comes more from the pre-Vedic, non-Aryan bhakti, devotional cult. As Vedism declined, this cult emerged strongly, and was centred on Vasudeva, the deified Vrsni hero. There is evidence that worship of Vasudeva and not Vishnu came at the beginning of Vaishnavism. This earliest phase was established from the sixth to the fifth centuries BCE at the time of Panini, who in his Astadhyayi explained the word vasudevaka as a bhakta, devotee, of Vasudeva. Another cult which flourished with the decline of Vedism was centred on Krishna, the deified tribal hero and religious leader of the Yadavas. The Vrsnis and Yadavas came closer together, resulting in the merging of Vasudeva and Krishna, This was as early as the fourth century BCE according to evidence in Megasthenes and in the Arthasastra of Kautilya. Vasudeva-Krishna liberates the throne of Mathura from his evil kinsman Kamsa, travels to the city of Dvaraka on the Arabian Sea to establish a dynasty, and in the Mahabharata he counsels his cousins the Pandavas in their battle with the Kauravas. This then took sectarian form as the Pancaratra or Bhagavata religion. A tribe of ksatriyas, warriors, called the Satvata, were bhagavatas and were seen by the Greek writer Megasthenes at the end of the fourth century BCE. This sect then combined with the cult of Narayana, a demiurge god-creator who later became one of the names of Vishnu.|
Soon after the start of the Common Era, the Abhiras or cowherds of a foreign tribe, contributed Gopala Krishna, the young Krishna, who was adopted by the Abhiras and worked as a cowherd and flirted with the cowherdesses. Only as a mature young man did he return to Mathura and slay Kamsa.
The Vasudeva, Krishna, and Gopala cults became integrated through new legends into Greater Krishnaism, the second and most outstanding phase of Vaishnavism.
Being non-Vedic, Krishnaism then started to affiliate with Vedism so that the orthodox would find it acceptable. Vishnu of the Rg Veda was assimilated into Krishnaism and became the supreme God who incarnates whenever necessary to save the world. Krishna became one of the avataras of Vishnu.
In the eighth century CE the bhakti of Vaishnavism came into contact with Shankara's Advaita doctrine of spiritual monism and world-illusion. This philosophy was considered destructive of bhakti and important opposition in South India came from Ramanuja in the eleventh century and Madhva in the fifteenth century. Ramanuja stressed Vishnu as Narayana and built on the bhakti tradition of the Alvars, poet-saints of South India from the sixth to the ninth centuries (see Shri Vaishnavas).
In North India there were new Vaishnava movements: Nimbarka in the fourteenth century with the cult of Radha, Krishna's favourite cowgirl (see Nimavats); Ramananda and the cult of Rama in the same century (see Ramanandis); Kabir in the fifteenth century, whose god is Rama (see Kabirpanthis); Vallabha in the sixteenth century with the worship of the boy Krishna and Radha (see Vallabhas); and Caitanya in the same century with his worship of the grown-up Krishna and Radha (see Gaudiya Vaishnavas). In the Maratha country poet-saints such as Namdev and Tukaram from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries worshipped Vishnu in the form of Vithoba of Pandharpur (see Vitthalas).
|Symbols|| ||In Vaishnavism there is extensive and minutely regulated worship of images together with intense bhakti, devotion. There are two main forms of Vishnu, a standing figure and a sleeping figure.|
Vishnu is represented as a black or dark blue young man, though his avataras are in different colours depending on the ages of the world and the qualities of the ages. In the first golden sattvic age Vishnu is white, in the second rajasic age he is red, in the third rajasic-tamasic age he is yellow, and in the fourth dark tamasic age he is black. He has four arms, four being the number of earth and the four directions of space and therefore absolute power. In his hands he holds a white conch, symbol of the origin of existence; a golden discus with six spokes, symbolising a six-petalled lotus and representative of universal mind; a bow, symbolic of the destructive aspect of individual existence, and a white lotus, symbolising the universe; and a black mace, symbol of the power of knowledge and identified with the goddess Kali, the power of time. On his chest is a jewel called Kaustubha, Treasure-of-the-Ocean, representing the total consciousness of all living beings, and on his left breast is a lock of golden hair, Shri-vatsa, favourite of the goddess Shri, symbolising the source of the natural world. He wears a garland of the forest around his neck, for the visuddha cakra of yoga is located in the throat and is the centre of extreme purity. The garland is of five rows of fragrant flowers or jewels and symbolises primeval unborn energy surrounding the throat as qualityless immensity. Other symbols associated with Vishnu are earrings (Sankhya and Yoga), armlets (three aims of life), crown (unknowable reality), yellow veil (the Vedas), sacred thread (om), chariot (the mind with its power of action), whisk (dharma), fan (yajna, ritual sacrifice), flag (sun and moon), parasol (heaven of Vishnu with Mount Meru, axis of the world, as the golden pole of the parasol), sword (destroyer of ignorance), and sheath (darkness which is also the form of divinity).
Vishnu rides on Garuda, meaning "Wings of Speech," a half-bird, half-human mythological creature, who symbolises the magic words of the Vedas on whose wings man can be transported from world to world with the speed of light. His wife is Laksmi and on occasion Sarasvati also.
Vishnu has a thousand names and the different aspects of his divinity are expressed in twenty-four images, each holding the lotus, conch, discus, and mace in their four hands, but in its own arrangement.
As the highest deity to the Vaishnavas, Vishnu is expressed symbolically in his mythological form as Anantasayin, reclining on the serpent of eternity called Ananta or Sesha. He is floating on the cosmic waters from which reality is manifested. A lotus grows from his navel, symbolising his creative potential, and on the lotus sits Brahma ready to bring about creation at Vishnu's command. After his active phase, Vishnu returns to his snake bed and is united with Yoganidra, the goddess of sleep, and the process of creation starts again.
There are twenty-two avataras of Vishnu, of which the most important are the seventh, Rama, and the eighth, Krishna. Rama is depicted with Nature as Sita by his side. He is dark with his hair in a knot and he wears a yellow veil, large earrings and a necklace. He has two arms and holds a bow. The most prevalent image of Krishna is as the divine lover, a dark or blue young man with neck tilted, waist bent, and ankles crossed as he plays his flute to attract the gopis, cowherdesses. Another important form is Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana to protect the people of Mathura from the torrents unleashed by Indra. In Puri, Krishna appears as Lord Jagganath, a grotesque image shaped from a log with staring eyes.
|Adherents|| ||Vishnu is the most universally worshipped Hindu deity. Of his different forms, that of Krishna has been and still is one of the most popular figures in Hinduism. Hundreds of millions of Hindus can be described as Vaishnavas, though divided into the many sects.|
| ||Vaishnavism is exceedingly complex and diverse with no central organisation. Each of the sects has its own main centre.|