- Vaishavism is the name for the group of traditions that adhere to the worship of VISHNU. An adher-ent of Vaishnavism is a Vaishnavite, “One who belongs to Vishnu.”Vishnu can be worshipped alone as Mahav-ishnu or “Supreme Vishnu,” but Vaishnavites more commonly worship one of the two most prominent AVATARS or manifestations of the god-head, RAMA or KRISHNA, along with their respec-tive consorts, SITA or RADHA. To be sure, every Vaishnavite reveres all 10 of Vishnu’s avatars. As all Hindu traditions do, Vaishnavism traces itself back to the VEDAS and honors them as the ultimate authority. Vishnu, “The All-Pervad-ing,” is only a minor divinity in the Vedas, but the roots of a devotional cult that can be called Vaishnavite had been established by the later Vedic period in the sixth or fifth century B.C.E. The MAHABHARATA and RAMAYANA epics are both primarily Vaishnavite documents, highlighting the stories of Krishna and Rama, respectively.The BHAGAVAD GITA within the Mahabharata is a sophisticated philosophical text that outlines the Vaishnavite path of devotion in the context of Vedic and UPANISHADic visions of the divinity. The later temple-oriented Vaishnavism is based largely on the ancient PANCHARATRA tradition.The followers of Vaishnavism are many fewer than those of Shaivism, numbering perhaps 200 million. If there is a distinctive character to Vaish-navism, aside from its doctrine of the avatar, it is in its commitment to the life of a householder. There are far fewer renunciants in the Vaishnavite sect than among the Shaivites. (Vishnu, after all, is the “preserver” of the world, whereas Shiva himself is a naked renunciant who is the world destroyer.)Six sects of the Vaishnavites are prominent: the Shrivaishnavas founded in SHRIRANGAM in Tamil Nadu, best known for their great 12th-cen-tury teacher RAMANUJA; the Gaudiya Vaishnavites of Bengal, founded by the great 15th-century devotional mystic CHAITANYA; the Vallabhas or Rudrasampradaya founded at BRINDAVAN in the north by the great teacher VALLABHA around the 15th century; the MADHVA sect founded in the state of Karnataka at Udipi in the 13th century; the NIMBARKA, or Nimbarki sect, based in Govard-hana and founded by the 15th-century Vedantin philosopher Nimbarka; and the Sri sect founded by Ramananda, who was strongly influenced by the Ramanuja lineage, at AYODHYA.Textually, Vaishnavites revere, in addition to the Vedas and Upanishads, the epics, the BHAGA-VA D GITA, the Vishnu Purana, the BHAGAVATA PURANA, and the hymns of the ALVARS or other poet-saints of Vaishnavism. They focus, as does Shaivism, on temple worship, with, of course, their own distinctive ritual elements. PRASADA in the form of “blessed food” is typically dis-tributed at Vaishnavite temples and shrines and festivals after being offered to the divinity. This giving of blessed food is less common in Shaivite contexts.Further reading: R. G. Bhandarkar, Vaishnavism, Saivism and Minor Religious Systems (Varanasi: Indological Book House, 1965); Manju Dube, Conceptions of God in Vaishnava Philosophical Systems (Varanasi: Sanjay Book Centre, 1984); Jan Gonda, Aspects of Early Vishnuism (Utrecht: A. Oosthoek, 1954); ———, Vishnuism and Sivaism: A Comparison. Jordan Lectures in Comparative Religion, no. 9 (London: Athlone Press, 1970); T. Ren-garajan, Dictionary of Vaishnavism (Delhi: Eastern Book Linkers, 2004).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.