Vaisnavite Movements


Hari Sankirtan
F. B. Solvyns, Calcutta c. 1799

Dec 09, CANADA (SUN) — Today we begin a four-part series entitled 'Vaisnavite Movements', which comprises a section of curriculum currently being presented by the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in New Delhi. The subject of Vaisnavism is divided up into four main sections: Vaishnavism in Southern India, in Eastern India, in Western India, and in Northern India.

This material is representative of the presentations currently being made by Indian educators as to the philosophical foundation of Vaisnavism, and how it spread throughout India. The syllabus introduces students to broad regional trends identified in the manifestation of Vaisnavism and the Bhakti cult, in which the Supreme Lord is known as Sri Krsna, Visnu, Bhagavat, Narayana, and Hari.

The academic authors of this material take the typical Indian slant, introducing the topic by saying that in Bhagavad-gita, Sri Krsna is introduced as an incarnation of Visnu, but fails to explain that Sri Krsna is the Supreme Personality, the Primeval Lord and Cause of all causes. In this and the four segments to follow, the reader will find various philosophical aspects of the presentation that need to be adjusted and refined in order to present a more proper education in Vaisnavism. This will hopefully serve as a preaching tool for those preaching in the field of education both in India, and elsewhere in the world.

The philosophical basis of Vaishnavism is introduced as follows:

    'Neither Yoga nor Samkhya nor dharma nor the study of the Vedas, nor religious austerity or abandonment captivates He (so thoroughly) as intense devotion. I, the beloved Self of the righteous, can be captured (only) through exclusive devotion with reverence. Devotion concentrated on He absolves even the Svapakas (who cook and eat the flesh of dogs) from stigma attaching to their birth’.
    (Bhagavata Purana,XI.14).

"To protect Hinduism from baneful effects of ritualism different Acharyas gave new interpretations of Upanishadic doctrines. Acharyas like Ramanuja, Nimbarka, Madhva and Vallabha emphasized on devotion to a personal god as the way of liberation. Personal god in the form of Vishnu or Krishna or Rama is regarded as being responsible for the creation, preservation and destruction of the universe. It is not the number of religious observances nor the richness of materials used for worship but the sincerity, the faith and the sense of complete surrender to one’s personal god is the essence of bhakti. Age, sex, caste or any other social identity does not come in between a true devotee and his god. In contrast to Sankara’s purely monistic teachings of non-duality and his emphasis of jnana (knowledge), Ramanuja, Nimbarka, Madhva and Vallabha provided new interpretations of Vedantic philosophy suggesting the means of realizing the absolute truth. Let us have brief discussion on religious philosophy of these Acharyas.

Ramanuja (Eleventh century A.D.)

Reference to Sankara’s philosophy is essential to understand the philosophy of Vaishnava Acharyas. Sankara who belonged to the eighth century A.D. was the exponent of the Advaita philosophy (doctrine of monism). According to him Brahman the Absolute is homogenous — the one without a second. The world is the product of maya (illusion) or avidya (ignorance). The jiva or individual soul is not different from Brahman but because of ignorance the soul identifies itself with the body, mind and senses. Only when knowledge is acquired through annihilation of ignorance the individual soul becomes one with Brahman. Sankara advocated that this world is relatively real. When ignorance is destroyed through knowledge of the Eternal one does not get affected by forms of this world. This philosophy of Sankara was considered as direct threat to the basic tenets of the bhakti doctrine.

Ramanuja confronted Sankara’s Advaita philosophy and tried to place the religion of bhakti on sound philosophical basis. Ramanuja’s system of philosophy is known as Visishtadvaita or qualified monism. He said that Brahman contains within itself elements of plurality owing to which it truly manifests itself in a diversified world. In Ramanuja’s philosophy Brahman who is identified with Narayana has two inseparable Prakaras or modes, viz., the world and the souls. Matters and souls are considered as attributes and they have no meaning without Brahman. Ramanuja’s god is a Personal god with the qualities of omnipotence, omniscience and infinite love. Lakshmi, the Divine Mother, consort of Narayana, occupies an important place in Ramanuja’s philosophy. Lakshmi helps the devotees to reach Narayana.

Unlike Sankara, Ramanuja advocated that the world is not an unreal illusion but a real part of Brahman’s nature. God, Soul and Nature are three eternal entities. It is past actions which determine the body of the soul and the soul remains in the cycle of birth and death till it attains moksha (final emancipation). The way to salvation lies in the grace of God and the grace of God can be obtained through devotion and prapatti or absolute surrender. Karma and jnana are the means to bhakti. Thus Ramanuja was able to synthesize jnana, karman and bhakti which is in fact the essence of the teachings of the Bhagavad-gita. In Ramanuja’s formulation absolute self-surrender known as prapatti to one’s personal God is the easiest way of reaching the Lord.

Madhva (thirteenth century A.D.)

Madhvacarya made an absolute distinction between Fod and animate and inanimate objects. He was the founder of the Dvaita school of Vedanta. He summarized his main doctrinal principles in 10 very brief treatises called the Dasaprakaranas. He talked of five types of differences, viz., difference between god and the individual soul, difference between god and matter, difference between the individual soul and matter, difference between souls, difference between matters. According to Madhva Reality is of two kinds independent and dependent. God is the only independent Reality.

The soul and the world are dependent Realities. The Supreme Being is Vishnu who controls souls and the world. Lakshmi, His consort, is the creative energy and all-pervading. The world is not the body of god nor it is an illusion. The entire universe is full of individual souls and not two souls are alike. They are different from god and matter. It is because of Karma soul suffers and can not free itself from the cycle of birth and death because of impurities. Devotion to god helps in getting His grace and through the grace of god salvation comes.

Thus while acknowledging plurality of things and aspects Madhva divided them into two categories: independent and dependent. Brahman is the only independent reality, all other realities are dependent.


Nimbarka’s philosophy is known as Dvaitadvaita or Bhedabheda. Nimbarka (probably belonged to twelfth century A.D.) believed that the soul and the world are different from God in the sense that they have attributes which are different from god. God is independent and exists by Himself while soul and world have existence dependent upon Him. According to Nimbarka the relation between Brahman and the soul and the world is natural and is neither of absolute non-difference, since they are distinct by nature, nor of absolute difference, because the soul and the world are inseparable from the Brahman. To Nimbarka Krishna and His escort Radha represent the Personal god who is the Lord of all. The purity of soul is obscured by its karma which is the result of ignorance and the way to liberation lies in the grace of god. Devotion which consists of prapatti or self-surrender to god helps in attaining the grace of god. The liberated soul becomes an inseparable part of Brahman.


Vallabha’s philosophy is known as Suddhadvaita. Unlike Madhva and Nimbarka, Vallabha (sixteenth century A.D.) advocated for monism rather than dualism. Both Sankara and Vallabha were of the opinion that nothing is real except Brahman. But to Sankara the world is nothing but illusion, whereas Vallabha said that the world is not illusory. It is real. Vallabha made a distinction between jagat and samsara, between the real world created by god and the mental world in which individual souls lie imprisoned. Samsara, the world of false relations created by the soul alone is illusory. The individual soul can attain emancipation only through the grace of god. Devotion is the means of attaining the grace of god and knowledge is essential to realize the true self. Vallabha explained the various stages through which the feeling of bhakti or devotion develops.

The above discussion on the philosophical foundation of bhakti suggests that the modes in which bhakti is experienced are endless and the ways in which bhakti finds expression are also different. The great Acharyas have interpreted bhakti by using different metaphysics and theology. Bhakti is at the core of Vaishnavism which emphasizes worshipping of the god Vishnu or of His incarnations like Krishna and Rama. Medieval India witnessed strong waves of Vaishnavite movements throughout the country. Different explanations are given for the growth and development of Vaishnavism during this period.

Some suggest that the coming of Islamic religious philosophy and Christianity in India influenced the development of Vaishnavism. People are also of the opinion that the prevailing feudal social culture in India which was based on personal loyalty promoted the philosophy of bhakti. Whereas many believe that Vaishnavism was a strong reaction to social inequality which was perpetuated in the name of religion. We are not going into the socio-historical perspective to find the various possibilities of the growing popularity of Vaishnavite movement. Our focus here will be primarily to introduce you to the spread of this movement in different parts of India and the role played by some illustrious religious leaders in popularizing Vaishnavism."

Tomorrow we will present IGNOU's curriculum material on Vaishnavism in Southern India.


The Sun News Editorials Features Sun Blogs Classifieds Events Recipes PodCasts

About Submit an Article Contact Us Advertise

Copyright 2005, All rights reserved.