Vaishnavism is a tradition of Hinduism, distinguished from other schools by its worship of Vishnu or its associated avatars, principally as Rama and Krishna, as the original and supreme God.cite book
author = Goswami, B.K.
year = 1965
title = The Bhakti Cult in Ancient India
publisher = Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office
isbn =
] This worship in different perspectives or historical traditions addresses monotheistic God under the names of Narayana, Krishna, Vāsudeva or more often "Vishnu", and their associated avatars.cite book
author=Matchett, Freda
title=Krsna, Lord or Avatara? the relationship between Krsna and Visnu: in the context of the Avatara myth as presented by the Harivamsa, the Visnupurana and the Bhagavatapurana
p. 4] [ [ Page 1–Ramanuja and Sri Vaisnavism] "In general, the Vaisnava Agamas describe Visnu is the Supreme Being and the foundation of all existence."Verify source|date=August 2008] It is principally monotheistic in its philosophy, but not exclusive.cite journal
author = Mahony, W.K.
year = 1987
title = Perspectives on Krsna's Various Personalities
journal = History of Religions
volume = 26
issue = 3
pages = 333-335
url =
accessdate = 2008-04-12
] 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, Vishnu and Bhagavata Puranas.cite book
author = Elkman, S.M.
coauthors = Gosvami, J.
year = 1986
title = Jiva Gosvamin's Tattvasandarbha: A Study on the Philosophical and Sectarian Development of the Gaudiya Vaisnava Movement
publisher = Motilal Banarsidass Pub
isbn =
] [ [ Heart of Hinduism - Vaishnavism] ] [ [ Explanation of different scriptural texts within Hinduism] ]

The followers of Vaishnavism are referred to as "Vaishnava(s)" or "Vaishnavites". According to recent statistics, a majority of Hindus are Vaishnavas, [ [ Major Branches - Hinduism] from ] with the vast majority living in India. Awareness, recognition, and growth of the belief has significantly increased outside of India in recent years. The Gaudiya Vaishnava branchcite journal
author = Dimock Jr, E.C.
year = 1963
title = Doctrine and Practice among the Vaisnavas of Bengal
journal = History of Religions
volume = 3
issue = 1
pages = 106-127
url =
accessdate = 2008-04-12
] 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, primarily through ISKCON and more recently, through several other Vaishnava organizations conducting preaching activities in the West. [ 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." ]


The term "Vaishnavism" entered the English language in the 19th century. It was formed by attaching the suffix "-ism" to Sanskrit "Vaishnava" (IAST: IAST|vaiṣṇava), which is the "vriddhi" form of "Vishnu" meaning "relating, belonging, or sacred to Vishnu" or "a worshipper or follower of Vishnu". ["Vaishnavism" in cite book |last= Simpson|first= John (Ed)| authorlink = John Simpson (lexicographer)| coauthors= Weiner, Edmund (Ed.)|title= Oxford English Dictionary |edition= Second edition|year=1989 |publisher=Oxford University Press |location= USA |isbn= 0198611862]

Principal historic branches

Bhagavatism, early Ramaism and Krishnaism, merged in historical Vishnuism,cite book
author = Gonda, J.
year = 1993
title = Aspects of Early Visnuism
publisher = Motilal Banarsidass Publ.
url =,M1
pages = p.163
] a tradition of Historical Vedic religion, distinguished from other traditions by its primary worship of Vishnu.cite book
author = Goswami, B.K.
year = 1965
title = The Bhakti Cult in Ancient India
publisher = Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office
isbn =
] Vaishnavism, is historically the first structured Vaishnava religion as "Vishnuism, in a word, is the only cultivated native sectarian native religion of India." [Hopkins,"The Religions of India", p.690] Although it is usual to speak of Vishnu as the source of the avataras, 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.cite book
author=Matchett, Freda
title=Krsna, Lord or Avatara? the relationship between Krsna and Visnu: in the context of the Avatara myth as presented by the Harivamsa, the Visnupurana and the Bhagavatapurana
p. 4] For example, in the Krishnaism branch of Vaishnavism, [ [ Review: by Kenneth Scott Latourette] India and Christendom: The Historical Connections between Their Religions. by Richard Garbe; Lydia Gillingham Robinson Pacific Affairs, Vol. 34, No. 3 (Autumn, 1961), pp. 317-318.] such as the Gaudiya Vaishnava, Nimbaraka and Vallabhacharya traditions, devotees worship Krishna as the supreme form of God, Svayam Bhagavan, in contrast to the belief of the devotees of the Vishnu tradition. [ [ Page 1–Ramanuja and Sri Vaisnavism] "In general, the Vaisnava Agamas describe Visnu is the Supreme Being and the foundation of all existence."]

Principal beliefs

upreme God

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 Sampradaya and Gaudiya Vaishnavas, in which Krishna is considered to be the Supreme God and the source of all avataras.cite book
author = Gupta, Ravi M.
coauthors = Edited by "Gavin Flood", University of Stirling
year = 2007
title = Caitanya Vaisnava Vedanta of Jiva Gosvami: When knowledge meets devotion
publisher = Routledge
isbn = 0415405483
] The belief in the supremecy of Vishnu is based upon the many avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu listed in the Puranic texts, which differs from other Hindu deities such as Ganesh, Surya or Durga. The latter are instead classified as demi-gods or devas. Some Vaishnavites consider Shiva, one of the Hindu Trimurti (Trinity) as subservient to Vishnu, and thus not really different from Vishnu. [ [ Brahma-Samhita 5.45] "The supremacy of Sambhu [Shiva] is subservient to that of Govinda [Vishnu] ; hence they are not really different from each other... He is the lord of jiva but yet partakes of the nature of a separated portion of Govinda." ]
Swaminarayan, founder of the Swaminarayan sects (including BAPS), differs with this view and holds that Vishnu and Shiva are different aspects of the same God. [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.] Notably, the Swaminarayan view is a minority view among Vaishnavites.

A few Vaishnava schools also identify the God of the Abrahamic religions with Vishnu. [ [] "The names can be generic terms, such as “God” or “the Absolute Truth.” They can be in Sanskrit, such as Govinda, Gopala, or Shyamasundara. They can be in other languages, such as Yahweh and Allah."] Another distinguishing feature of the Vaishnava teachings, is that God (Vishnu and/or Krishna) "is a real person and His variegated creation is also real". cite journal
author = Richard Thompson, Ph. D.
year = December 1994
title = Reflections on the Relation Between Religion and Modern Rationalism
url =
accessdate = 2008-04-12


Vaishnava theology includes the central beliefs of Hinduism such as reincarnation, samsara, karma, and the various Yoga systems, but with a particular emphasis on devotion (bhakti) to Vishnu through the process of Bhakti yoga, often including singing Vishnu's name's (bhajan), meditating upon his form (dharana) and performing deity worship (puja). The practices of deity worship are primarily based on texts such as Pañcaratra and various Samhitas. [ [ Tantric Literature And Gaudiya Vaishnavism] ]

Within their worship Vaishnava devotees consider that Vishnu is within them, as the Antaryami or the God within and as the foundation of their being; which is a part of the definition of the name Narayana. Unlike other schools of Hinduism whose goal is liberation (moksha), or union with the Supreme Brahman, the ultimate goal of Vaishnava practice is an eternal life of bliss (ananda) in service to Vishnu, or one of his many avatars, in the spiritual realm of 'Vaikuntha', which lies beyond the temporary world of illusion (maya). The three features of the Supreme as described in the Bhagavata Purana--Brahman, Paramatma and Bhagavan--are viewed as the "Universal Vishnu", "Vishnu within the heart", and "Vishnu the personality" respectively. [ [ Bhag-P 1.2.11] "Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this nondual substance Brahman, Paramatma or Bhagavan." ]


Vaishnavas commonly follow a process of initiation (diksha), given by a guru, under whom they are trained to understand Vaishnava practices. 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 spiritual master is based on injunctions throughout the scriptures held as sacred within the Vaishnava traditions:

:"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) [ [ Bhag Gita 4:34] ]

:"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) [ [ Caitanya Caritamrta: Madhya-lila, 15.106, 16.72, 16.74] ]

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 worshipable and is the topmost human being."(Chaitanya Charitamrita) [ [ Chaitanya Charitamrita: Madhya-lila, 15.106] ]

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 vUnicode|ṛitti") as primary and indirect meaning ("Unicode|gauṇa vṛitti") as secondary: "Unicode|sākṣhād upadesas tu shrutih" - "The instructions of the shruti-shUnicode|āstra should be accepted literally, without "fanciful or allegorical interpretations"." [Jiva Goswami, "Unicode|Kṛiṣhna Sandarbha" 29.26-27 ]

The Four Vaishnava sampradayas

Within Vaishnavism there are four main disciplic lineages (sampradayas), [ [ 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." ] 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.cite journal
author = Guy L. Beck
year = 2005
title = Krishna as Loving Husband of God
journal = Alternative Krishnas: Regional and Vernacular Variations on a Hindu Deity
url =
accessdate = 2008-04-12

;Lakshmi-sampradaya:Philosophy: Vishishtadvaita ("qualified nondualism"), espoused by Ramanujacharya :See Sri Vaishnavism.

;Brahma sampradaya:Philosophies: Dvaita ("dualism"), espoused by Madhvacharya, and Achintya Bheda Abheda ("inconceivable oneness and difference"), espoused by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (see Gaudiya Vaishnavism).

;Rudra sampradaya:Philosophy: Shuddhadvaita ("pure nondualism"), espoused by Vishnuswami and Vallabhacharya.

;Kumara-sampradaya:Philosophy: Dvaitadvaita ("duality in unity"), espoused by Nimbarka.cite book
author = Klostermaier, K.K.
year = 1998
title = A concise encyclopedia of Hinduism
publisher = Oneworld
isbn =
Vaisnavism and the founders of the four Vaishnava sampradayas are presented in separate entries. The Encyclopedia gives explanations about "Gaudiya Vaisnavism", Caitanya Mahaprabhu, "bhakti" and "bhakti-marga".]

Other Branches and sects

* The Ramanandi movement, begun by Ramananda.
* Mahapuruxiya Dharma, espoused by Sankardeva.
* Vaisnava-Sahajiya, a tantric school

Tilak styles

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 tilak, which depicts the siddhanta of their particular lineage. The general tilak pattern is of two or more connected vertical lines resembling the letter U, which usually represents the foot of Vishnu. [ [ - Vaishnavism] ]


The monotheistic 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." [Hopkins,"The Religions of India", p.690] Vaishnavism is expounded in a part of the Mahabharata known as the Bhagavad Gita, which contains the words of Krishna, one the avatars of Vishnu.

Many of the ancient kings, beginning with Chandragupta II (Vikramaditya) were known as Parama Bhagavatas, or Bhagavata Vaishnavas.cite book
author = Kalyan Kumar Ganguli:
year = 1988
title = Sraddh njali, Studies in Ancient Indian History: D.C. Sircar Commemoration: Puranic tradition of Krishna
publisher = Sundeep Prakashan
isbn = 8185067104

Vaishnavism flourished in 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).cite book
author = Annangaracariyar, P.B.
year = 1971
title = Nalayira tivviyap pirapantam
publisher = Kanci: VN Tevanatan
isbn =
] cite journal
author = Seth, K.P.
year = 1962
title = Bhakti in Alvar Saints
journal = The University Journal of Philosophy

In later years Vaishnava practices increased in popularity due to the influence of sages like Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, Manavala Mamunigal, Vedanta Desika, Surdas, Tulsidas, Tyagaraja, and many others.cite journal
author = Jackson, W.J.
year = 1992
title = A Life Becomes a

journal = Journal of the American Academy of Religion
volume = 60
issue = 4
pages = 717-736
url =
accessdate = 2008-04-12
] cite book
author = Jackson, W.J.
year = 1991
title = Tyagaraja: Life and Lyrics
publisher = Oxford University Press, USA
isbn =
] cite book
author = Ayyappapanicker, K.
coauthors = Akademi, S.
year = 2000
title = Medieval Indian Literature: An Anthology
publisher = Sahitya Akademi
isbn =
] cite journal
author = Roy Chaudhury, H.C.
coauthors = Prajnananda, S.
year = 2002
title = Further Reading
journal = Encyclopedia of Modern Asia

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. Its only later that Vishnuism merged with Krishnaism. [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?"]

Large Vaishnava communities now exist throughout India, and particularly in Western Indian states, such as Rajasthan and Gujarat. Important sites of pilgrimage for Vaishnavs include: Guruvayur Temple, Sri Rangam, Vrindavan, Mathura, Ayodhya, Tirupati, Puri, Mayapur and Dwarka. [Citation
first = Klaus K.| last = Klostermaier
author-link = Oxford University
title = Hinduism: A Short History
place = Oxford
publisher = Oneworld Publications
year = 2000
isbn = 1-85168-213-9
] cite book
author = Valpey, K.R.
year = 2004
title = The Grammar and Poetics of Murti-Seva: Caitanya Vaisnava Image Worship as Discourse, Ritual, and Narrative
publisher = University of Oxford
isbn =
] Bhaktivedanta Manor, Watford, England] 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.cite journal
author = Snell, M.M.
year = 1895
title = Evangelical Hinduism
journal = The Biblical World
volume = 6
issue = 4
pages = 270-277
url =
accessdate = 2008-04-12
] This is largely due to the growth of the ISKCON movement, founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1966. [ citation |last = Selengut |first= Charles| title = Charisma and Religious Innovation:Prabhupada and the Founding of ISKCON| journal = ISKCON Communications Journal| volume= 4| issue = 2|year = 1996|url=] cite journal
author = Herzig, T.
coauthors = Valpey, K.
year = 2004
title = Re—visioning Iskcon
journal = The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant
url =
accessdate = 2008-01-10
] [ "Prabhupada - He Built a House, Satsvarupa dasa Goswami, Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983, ISBN 0-89213-133-0" p. xv]

Puranic Epics

Two great Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, are an important part of Vaishnava philosophy, theology, and culture.

The Ramayana describes the story of Rama, an avatar 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 and his devotee/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, another avatar of Vishnu, 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. Depending on the Sampradaya or Vaishnava group one follows, Krishna is regarded either as a full avatar of Vishnu, non-different from him, or as the source of all avatars including Vishnu himself, [ [ Bhag-P 1.3.28] "krishnas tu bhagavan svayam" ] a notion held only within the Gaudiya and Nimbarka branches of Vaishnavism.

Both works are often reenacted 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.

Western Academic study

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 and Bhaktivedanta College. The Vaishnava scholars instrumental in this western discourse include Tamala Krishna Goswami, Hridayananda dasa Goswami, Graham Schweig, Kenneth R. Valpey, Guy Beck and Steven J. Rosen among others.

In 1992 Steven Rosen founded "The Journal of Vaishnava Studies" [ [ Journal of Vaishnava studies] - note, contains commercial link, better ref required ] as an academic journal of Hindu studies, and of Vaishnava, and Gaudiya Vaishnava studies in particular.

ee also

* Vaikhanasas
* Krishnaism
* Shaivism
* Shaktism


External links

* [ Vaishnavism] (Heart of Hinduism)
* [ Who is Vishnu? Vaishnava FAQ] (

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