Doctrines Vallabha's philosophy is known as Shuddhadvaita Vedanta and the path he teaches is the Pushti-maarga (the root "push" expresses the action of being "well-fed, nourished, healthy, prospering"). This means (i) that it claims to be securely rooted in the teachings of the Veda, and in particular on the Upanishads, the last part of the Veda (the Vedanta): all the points mentioned in the summary which follows are related to scriptural statements in the texts themselves. The name of the system means (ii) that the Ultimate Reality about which it teaches is "non-dual" (a-dvaita) - see under Shankara for these points; and (iii) that this non-dual Real is "pure" (shuddha) - no possible second is allowed. It is a bhakti philosophy, as is, for instance, Vishishtadvaita (see under Ramanuja), and rejects the jnana marga (the way of knowledge, as represented by , for example, Shankara) as being unable to lead to the Truth.
There is an absolute distinction between the worldly, common, profane, false (laukika) and the extraordinary, supernatural, sacred, true (alaukika): Vallabha revealed the pushti-marga in order to help human beings to progress from the one to the other. In its embodied state, the soul (jiva, see below) is defiled and impure (dushta), and progress must be made towards its real and original state of clean purity (shuddha).
There are three levels of reality, and Vallabha uses an image of three possible human attitudes in order to explain them. A person who goes to the banks of the Ganges may see before him/her merely water in movement; or he/she may see a holy river which is to be revered as able to purify from sin; or he/she may simply recognize and praise a divine reality with no thought of any spiritual benefit. These responses are analogie for three levels of reality. The first is the material (adhibautika); the second is the spiritual (adhyatmika); the third, in which the true form of the river is recognized and responded to selflessly, is the divine (adhidaivika).
Similarly, there are three ways of seeing Shri Krishna, three levels of spiritual vision: to see only the physical world is to see Krishna's adhibhautika form; to see, through reasoning, meditation and concentration, the impersonal entity underlying the physical world is to see Krishna's adhyatmika form. Only through the grace (anugraha) of Shri Krishna can realization of the complete, adhidaivika form be attained.
These three levels/attitudes relate to the distinction between the worldly (laukika) and the unworldly (alaukika).The path of spiritual development is from the laukika level, where a person holds the adhibhautika view, to the alaukika: first there will be the development of the adhyatmika attitude (certainly alaukika but not yet perfect), and finally the fully alaukika state and the adhidaivika point of view. This - the constant, loving devotion to Shri Krishna, devoid of all self-interest - is the goal of the Pushti-maarga. The first step is initiation into the sampradaya (as it were, the adhibhautika level of Vallabha's teaching); the second, which develops the adhyatmika understanding, is the study of the philosophical foundations of shuddhadvaita (see below); the third and final is the perfection and practice of seva (see below).
There is one existent Being only - Shri Krishna Parabrahman, called also Purushottam ("highest Person", in the Gita), Bhagavan ("lord", in the Bhagavata Purana), or Brahman (in the Upanishads); that only Parabrahman exists is uncompromisingly asserted. To Vallabha, the way in which Shankara and Advaita brought in maya as the explanation for the origin of the physical universe allowed in a second entity alongside Brahman, a possibility to be rejected outright.
Brahman is sat (pure existence), chit (pure consciousness, awareness), and ananda (pure bliss; this involves the capacity to take pleasure, otherwise the divine lila - play - would be impossible). These are not qualities which Brahman possesses; Brahman simply is unlimited sat, chit and ananda; Vallabha also speaks of Brahman as being omnipresent, eternal, omnipotent, self-dependent, all-knowing, and devoid of worldly qualities. This last is important, because (in contrast to Advaita) Brahman is characterized as saguna - having qualities - but these are non-material qualities.
By his own desire and for his own pleasure, Brahman spins out his play (lila), and He does so by concealing a part of Himself; this self-concealment is effected through maya, which is one of the powers (shaktis) possessed by Brahman. The world is created by the simultaneous concealment, on the one hand, of the chit and the ananda, and the manifestation, on the other hand, of the sat (the existence) of Brahman, both processes being through mayashakti. The world, therefore, is fully real and is the apparent, visible, manifest sat of Brahman. More specifically, Brahman manifests out of Himself a limited foundation or "abode" so that His lila can be played out; this akshara Brahman is Brahman with sat and a part of the anada manifested. (It is also devoid of all qualities, both material and non-material: it thus corresponds to Shankara's nirguna Brahman, but here it is lower than Parabrahman Shri Krishna). It is from this "imperishable Brahman" that the world (jagat) is created, "creation" here being "manifestation" (see satkaryavada, under Samkhya).
Once the inert matter of the world is apparent, (through the concealing-manifesting power of mayashakti), then the actual evolution of the world-order takes place through maya operating as a power which proceeds from the sat of akshara Brahman, prakritishakti. The process of the evolution of the tattvas is in the same order and according to the same gunas as it is in Samkhya. That prakriti is here not an independent principle, but a power of Parabrahman, exemplifies again the absolute and uncompromising non-dualism of Vallabha. Moreover, no change has taken place in Brahman: the world has been manifested out of His desire and through His maya, so that His divine lila can be played out; He is thus present in all beings though untouched by them.
The world being the manifestation of the sat (with chit and ananda concealed), each individual human soul (jiva) is the infinitesimal manifestation of the sat and the chit of Brahman, with the ananda concealed (souls being unable to feel Brahman's divine joy). The image, from the Upanishads, of sparks from a fire is used. How does it come to be that souls are entangled in the process of rebirth, and are subject to the pain and misery of life?
Parabrahman Shri Krishna is nirguna only in the sense that He is devoid of material qualities (see above), but He is essentially saguna in that He has six non-material "virtuous qualities" (dharmas) - among these are knowledge (jnaana) and freedom from attachment (vairagya). Before the souls were manifested they also enjoyed these qualities, but when Brahman chose to indulge in lila and so concealed his ananda and manifested the jivas, these qualities were also concealed. Moreover, and also at the desire of Brahman, souls became filled with non-knowledge (avidya), and subject to misery; avidya is another form of maya, and therefore a power of Brahman.
("Within" the jiva, Krishna Himself is present, since otherwise He could not enjoy the lila for the purpose of which both the world and jivas were manifested. He is present as the "inner controller" (antaryamin), manifesting as such his divine ananda, and untouched both by the delusion of samsara and by the actions of the embodied soul).
Avidya makes the soul forget its nature and also the duties incumbent upon it as a part of a greater Whole; it egotistically imagines itself as an independent entity, and it is this egoism which is at the root of all the impurities which separate souls from the purity of Brahman. The round of birth-and-death-and-rebirth (samsara) is unreal, the product of the imagination of the soul under the influence of avidya. It can be stopped - because it is not real - but only at the desire of Bhagavan Shri Krishna; the "lifting out" of the jiva from ignorance is the result of the grace of Krishna. The soul must have right understanding in place of ignorance, there must be a non-worldly (alaukika) attitude in place of a worldly (laukika).
Bhagavan Shri Krishna has created (that is, manifested) all souls, but, in order that the lila can continue, He has not manifested the same potential in all; there are different classes or categories of jiva, and the best are the pushtijivas ("well-nourished", "complete"). It was for the lifting out of these that Vallabhaachaarya and his son appeared on earth. That there are some souls who are "demonic" and apparently unlikely to escape from the delusion of samsara is balanced by the all-embracing and omnipotent grace (anugraha) of the Lord.
The impurities of the soul are removed by initiation into the sampradaya; implicit in the mantra ("Shri Krishna is my refuge") is the dedication of all to the Lord and the abandonment of all that has not been dedicated to Him. Vallabha's teachings here echo Bhagavad Gita 18.56ff. Thereafter the devotee must practise the nine steps of bhakti, which are widely accepted within the Vaishnava tradition (e.g., by Chaitanya). These are
(i) shravana, hearing accounts of the life of Krishna;
(ii) kirtana, singing aloud the details of the lila of Krishna;
(iii) smarana, remembering God continually, and at the moment of death;
(iv) pada-sevana, honouring the feet of the svarupa;
(v) and (vi), arcana, worship of the svarupa, and vandana, respectful paying of homage (e.g., by prayer) are usually carried out together;
(vii) dasya, servitude, the giving of all that one has to Krishna;
(viii) sakhya, companionship, considering oneself as a companion of Krishna, and treating Him as such;
(ix) atmanivedana, utter self-dedication to Krishna.
For Vallabha, the ninth (the last for other Vaishnava bhaktas) is the first step on the Pushti-marga, the other eight being included in it; in fact the final initiation into the sampradaya involves the handing of a tulsi leaf to the candidate by a male descendant of Vallabha, and the repetition of the atmanivedana mantra, promising the dedication of everything to Shri Krishna.
Thereafter the devotee surrenders him/herself entirely to the grace (anugraha) of Krishna: just as it is Krishna's will that the soul becomes affected by avidya, so is it His grace which alone chooses and draws the soul, preserves, supports it and makes it grow. The soul can do nothing to attract grace. The word for "preserves, supports, makes grow" is poshana, from the same root as pushti. The way is the goal, the means is the end: the pushti-marga is the way to the grace of Krishna, but grace and pushti are the means to obtain the grace. The sure sign of having received the grace of Krishna is the ability to perform seva ("service") wholeheartedly. Seva is crucial to the process of the transformation of the laukika into the alaukika, and is of two types. The first follows Shri Krishna through a typical cowherd's day in Braj, and takes place in the temple.
Here three distinctively pushti-marga terms must be mentioned.
  1. The sampradaya does not speak of the mandir, the usual term for "temple", but instead uses haveli ("house", "mansion"), because the temple is the private dwelling of Shri Krishna, and one may enter it only at times of darshana, contrary to the usual practice in Hindu temples.
  2. The term svarupa is used instead of the common term murti, "image"; svarupa means "divine entity", and the haveli is the dwelling of the svarupa - only Hindus are admitted to the darshana.
  3. The term seva is used rather than the usual puja: for Vallabha, puja is generally, though not necessarily, a selfish action, carried out in the hope of a reward. It is not generally carried out with the comfort of the deity as the prime consideration, and furthermore is usually offered on an individual basis. Seva, on the contrary, is unselfish love and service, carried out merely out of the desire to serve Krishna, and carried out in the company of other pushti-margis.
The first type of seva, following the daily pattern of Shri Krishna as a cowherd, involves eight darshanas, and was laid down by Vitthalanathaji. Beginning with the mangala darshana in the early morning, it ends with the shayana darshana at the close of the day; the svarupa is awakened, dressed in clothes appropriate to the season, and ceremonially fed. Darshana periods are marked by an alaukika atmosphere, and kirtanas (see above) are sung as part of the seva; the hymns which are sung are usually those of a group of poets (the "eight companions", ashta sakhas, the most famous of whom is Sur Das). It is the kirtanas of these poets which are most effective for the heightening of emotion (bhava, see below). Their companionship with Shri Krishna is believed to be eternal, and, in addition, they have a dual identity: during the daytime they retain their male form as sakhas, accompanying Shri Krishna as He plays out his lilaa; at night they assume female form (sakhi) and witness the night lila of Krishna and Radha (Shri Svaminiji).
The second type of seva follows the annual cycle of festivals and holidays, and centres on Holi (March-April), Krishna's birthday (August-September), Naga-panchami ( July-August, when the svarupa first appeared), and Annakuta (October-November).
The soul is purified through the nine types of bhakti, and the actual practice is seva. In accordance with ancient Hindu theories of aesthetics, the emotion (bhava) of bhakti is analysed and classified according to the various possible attitudes which may be adopted by the devotee towards Shri Krishna. Devotional expression (that is, seva) may be in the manner of
  1. a servant to a master (dasya-bhava);
  2. a companion to a fellow-companion (sakhya-bhava)
  3. a parent to a child (vaatsalya-bhaava); or
  4. a lover to a beloved (madhura-bhava); it may also be
  5. tranquil (shanta), contemplative, without emotion and free from all personal relationships.
Vallabha did not favour the coolness of (v), and the eight companions sang only infrequently in (i) - its humility is present in all bhavas, but its coolness and distance has not endeared it to the tradition as a separate bhava.
The experience of Sakhya-bhava, in which Shri Krishna and the devotee are absolutely equal, is confined to the most advanced of devotees, and is a sign of Shri Krishna's special favour. The lila of Krishna with His devotee is alaukika and not be sensed by the laukika.
Vallabha cultivated and encouraged the spread of vatsalya-bhava; Krishna's grace may allow a devotee to feel the joy of caring for him as if he were a child. However, the most effective is madhura-bhava, in which the devotee thinks him/herself as one of the cowgirls (gopis) who loved Shri Krishna and enjoyed night-lilaa with Him. The gopis are accepted as gurus in the sampradaya; they are divided into three types, in accordance with their connection with (i) Krishna's childhood (ii) his time as a young unmarried man, Radha (Shri Swaminiji) being one of these, or (iii) his married state. The last group of gopis demonstrate the highest level of alaukika devotion, since theirs was a love which ran counter to all social conventions.
As a group, the gopis may be seen as symbols of the human soul or as fragments of the divine shakti, but their reaal importance is as practitioners of madhura bhava. However, Radha is never seen in these ways; She is the shakti of Shri Krishna, deserving of direct worship. Sometimes She is said to be maya, the shakti by means of which the world is manifested for the performance of lila; in the earthly lila she appears in Braj as Radha, and then in Dwaraka as Krishna's wife Rukmini.
The gopis also express the grief of separation (viraha), above all when Krishna left Braj in order to take up his duties as prince. This pain of separation is for Vallabha a proof of sincere devotion - indeed the devotee is drawn from the laukika to the alaukika plane through the alternation of periods of union and separation.
The pinnacle of bhakti- experience is the state of being totally detached from worldly feelings (asakti), of being totally absorbed in Krishna. This state is also called vyasana, a term which in the laukika sense means being addicted to a vicious habit, but which in the alaukika sense denotes an equally all-consuming love (prema). Shri Krishna rewards such love by granting either (i) eternal experience as a sakha of His lilaa in Goloka, or (ii) union with His divine Being in Goloka, to be manifested in lila, or (iii) existence as a non-participant, or as some non-human or inanimate entity in Goloka, so as to witness the lila.
"Goloka" means "cow-world". In His partial self-manifestation as the world (see above), Shri Krishna is gocara, literally a "pasture for cattle", but signifying the objects (the "field") of sense-perception, in which the senses move. Souls are not left to wander alone in anarchy, because Krishna is "Gopala", the "protector of cattle" (the senses); the senses are finally subdued and transformed into the alaukika in Goloka, and the sakhaas/sakhis are those who have their senses under control, i.e., the "cowherds" and "cowgirls". Thus it is that the bhava of these (the madhura-bhava) is the highest emotion that a soul can feel.

History Vallabha was born in what is now Andhra Pradesh, into a family to which an avatara of Krishna had been promised: the time of his birth - April-May 1479 C.E.- precisely coincided with the appearance of a divine svarupa ("form") out of the top of Mt Govardhana, near Mathura in Braj, a hill which was the site of a particularly important saving act of Shri Krishna in the Bhagavata Purana.
Whilst on pilgrimage to the sacred places of North India, his parents were forced to flee from Varanasi on account of the unsettled political situation, and their son was born in the forest near a village in what is now Madhya Pradesh. The time and the circumstances of his birth (apparently stillborn, left for dead under a particular species of tree, miraculously protected by fire until the return of his parents) are the subject of theological interpretation: all spots associated with important events of his life are pilgrimage places.
Vallabha was taken to Vaaraanasi, where he received an orthodox Vedic education, and was invested with the sacred thread at the age of eight: a prodigy of learning, he defeated the Advaita philosophers (see under Advaita) at Puri in 1489 whilst the family was on pilgrimage to the south. After the death of his father in 1490, he lived with his mother at Vijayanagara (she being the daughter of a family priest to the ruling house). From there he undertook three extended pilgrimages, during the course of which he articulated his complex philosophical system and gave public readings of the Bhagavata Purana.
Vallabha received two crucially-important revelations from Shri Krishna in 1494: in the first place Vallabha was instructed to go north and reveal the true identity (Shri Govardhananathaji, shortened to Shri Nathaji) of the divine svarupa which had appeared out of Govardhan hill. The second took place at Gokula, at the spot where Vasudeva stepped out of the river bearing the baby Krishna to safety: though Vallabha's companion heard the divine voice but was unable to understand it, Vallabha himself received the revelation of the means by which souls might be cleansed of their impurities, and the divine Brahmasambhandha mantra. With this mantra, Vallabha initiated his companion, Damodaradasa Harasani, and the sampradaya came into existence
Between 1501 and 1503, whilst visiting the shrine of Shri Vitthalanaathaji ( a form of Shri Krishna) in Pandharpur (Maharashtra), Vallabha was instructed by the deity to marry: since Vallabha's example is of divine significance, this served as a model for the movement as a whole, so that both the laity and gurus marry. Vallabha never taught world-renunciation as part of the way to the final spiritual goal - asceticism and isolation from others bring with them delusive and self-destructive pride. (Of course (see above) the supplanting of the laukika by the alaukika results in nothing else than a complete rejection of the world and its values). According to some authorities, the deity gave as His reason for the revelation His desire to take incarnation in one of Vallabha's sons according to others, it was in order that Vallabha could produce descendants who would preserve and pass on his bhakti- teaching. In either case it is crucial since it expresses Krishna's intention to extend to Vallabha's children the supernatural status necessary for the administration of the initiating mantra: up to this time only Vallabha could give Brahmasambandha initiation.
Shortly thereafter he married, the girl being a child and remaining with her parents for eight years before coming to live with him. Two sons were born to them - Gopinatha (b.1512) and Vitthalanatha (b. 1516): the latter was seen as an incarnation of Shri Vitthalanaathaji of Pandharpur, the former as an incarnation of Krishna's elder brother Balarama. The early death of Gopinathaji's only son meant that Vitthalanaathaji alone inherited his father's divine status and powers, and these are enjoyed by his descendants to this day.
On his third and final pilgrimage tour (circa 1509, though the traditional accounts accepted within the sampradaya place the event earlier) Vallabha entered into public debate with the followers of Shankara, at the court of Krishnadeva, the ruler of Vijayanagara. He joined all the leading Vaishnavas in opposing the Advaitins, and, in view of his contribution to their victory in debate, he was dignified with the title acharya, and thereafter was a figure of major philosophical importance. As guru of his sampradaya, invested with divine authority, he lived near Ahmedabad, making periodic visits to the spiritual centre of the sampradaya at Govardhana hill. His two great commentaries are probably from this period: the Anubhashya, (on the Brahma-sutra), and the Subodhini (on the Bhagavata Purana). He also wrote the Purushottama Sahasranama, listing the thousand names of Krishna in the Bhagavata Purana, and the Tattvartha Dipa Nibandha, in which he articulates his philosophy of Shuddhadvaita. In 1531 he took vows of sannyasa, and retired to Varanasi: after a month he summoned his sons and chief followers, handed the leadership to Gopinatha, and miraculously disappeared.
Gopinatha died in 1543, leaving a twelve-year old son: a period of rancorous dispute over the leadership of the sampradaya was ended only by the death of the boy in 1550, Vitthalanaathaji assuming unquestioned headship. In 1572, the emperor Akbar granted him a tract of land near Mathura, a mark of imperial favour repeated several times thereafter. Before he died in 1586, Vitthalanaatha divided the leadership between his seven sons, giving each of them an image of Krishna: each son thereby received the right and power to administer initiation. Seven equal yet separate centres were set up, each with a guru who was the final authority for his followers; their descendants exercise this authority to this day, the eldest male descendant of Vitthalanaathaji (the owner of the original svarupa of Shri Nathaji) enjoying spiritual primacy.

Symbols The central and distinctive image is the svarupa of Shri Nathaji; in addition the eight primary svarupas (given by Vitthalanaatha to his sons) are Shri Navanitapriyaji, Shri Mathureshaji, Shri Vitthalanaathaji, Shri Dwarakanathaji, Shri Gokulanathaji, Shri Gokulachandramaji, Shri Baalakrishnaji, Shri Mukundarayaji; two further svarupas are Shri Madanamohanaji, and Shri Gopinathaji, this last not accorded equal status with the others. In addition large temple hangings (JJJJ) are a distinctive feature: these depict aspects of the divine lila.

Adherents Most Pushti-margis are from the commercial castes, and the greatest concentrations are in western India - especially Rajasthan and Gujerat. Both in India and in the diaspora, this pattern continues: in the U.K., for example, it is associated with the Lohana community.

Main Centre
 There are eight centres, located at the homes of the eldest male descendant of the sons to whom the svarupas were given by Vitthalanaatha: Nathadvara (Rajasthan, with three svarupas; temples associated with two of the sons of Vitthalanaatha); Jatipura (Braj, U.P.- the eldest son); Kankaroli (Rajasthan), Gokula (Braj, U.P.), Kamabana (Rajasthan), Surat (Gujerat), and Vaaraanasi (U.P.), all associated with sons of Vitthalanaatha; at Kaamabana and Vrindavana (U.P.) are found temples associated with rival claimants to primacy between the two sons of Vitthalanatha's youngest son.