A worshipper of Vishnu is called a Vaishnava, and the preference given to the adoration of any of the forms of Vishnu is called Vaishnavism. Among Hindus today, Vaishnavism is the predominant tradition with an estimated following of more than 600 million, or about 68 percent of the total Hindu population. The most remarkable fact in the history of the interaction between Brahmanism and Buddhism was the resolution of Buddhist teaching into Saivism and Vaishnavism - worshippers of Siva or Vishnu. Vaishnavism, considering that God pervades everything, has recognised him specially in the heroes of the nation. Vaishnava worship is the "way of devotion." As he is the sovereign source of power, his worshippers need only to acknowledge this. They go to his temples and make a presentation of "body, soul, and wealth"; but this with the majority is a mere form; it does not imply the renunciation of any gain, pleasure, or sin.
The main idea seems to be paying to the idol the same respect as they would pay to the god if he were still incarnate as a prince on earth, and the temple were his palace. They therefore go every morning to the temple of the idol to pay their respects to him as they would to their rajahs or thakurs. In fact, the popular name for an image of Vishnu is Thakurji. They believe that as a prince is pleased with the appearance of his subjects at court, and will be ready then to grant their petitions; so is the idol pleased with the appearance of his worshippers in his temple, and is ready to grant their prayers. And as a subject, when he wants any great boon from his rajah, must make him and his ministers large presents; so, too, must they occasionally make large gifts to the idol and to its priests.
Some of the major Vaishnava groups include the Shrivaishnavas (also known as Vishishtadvaitins) and Madhvas (also known as Dvaitins) of South India; the followers of the teachings of Vallabha in western India; and several Vaishnava groups in Bengal in eastern India, who follow teachings derived from those of the saint Caitanya. Most Vaishnava believers, however, draw from various traditions and blend worship of Vishnu with local practices.
The Vallabhacharyas are a sect originating with Vallabhachari, who lived in the fifteenth century, and claimed to be an incarnation of Krishna. They teach that the god is not present in the idol, but is incarnate in the priest or maharaja, and that it is to him that the consecration of body, soul, and wealth must be made. As the worshippers throng into the temple where the maharaja sits enthroned, guards stationed at the gates scourged with whips all who enter, that they may experience something of the anger of their god; and this is considered part of the consecration of the body.
Much of Vaishnava faith is monotheistic, whether the object of adoration be Vishnu Narayana or one of his avatars. Preference for any one of these manifestations is largely a matter of tradition. Thus, most South Indian Shrivaishnavas worship Vishnu in one of his many local manifestations; the North Indian groups prefer Krishna.
The Vaishnavas produced many reformers, both philosophical and religious. Foremost among these was Ramanuja, who lived early in the twelfth century, and to whose influence subsequent reformers owe most of their impulse. He held the theistic doctrine of the personality of God, and of his distinction from the universe and from the human soul. He attacked the pantheism of the Vedanta with a dialectic power and moral tone such as few controversialists have attained. He denounced as blasphemous the doctrine of God's being active only when conditioned by maya, and maintained that all the conditions of sovereignty and activity were eternally God's. But he did not get quite clear of all pantheistic ideas. He maintained that at the final liberation souls were absorbed in God, but not unified with Him. His idea differs from that of the Vedantists as mechanical mixture differs from chemical mixture. His simile is, as milk, though mingled with water, does not become water, so neither do human souls, though absorbed in the Supreme by virtue of meditation, obtain identity with Him.
One of his successors, Ramananda, modified this, and maintained that the Supreme Spirit might be both conditioned [and unconditioned, becoming the latter out of love to his worshippers. The concrete form which this assumed was that God out of love to man became incarnate; and the incarnation to which he and his followers the Eamanandis or Ramawats attached themselves was that of Rama Chandra. The most popular writer of his school, Tulsidas, author of a popular version of the Ramayana, expresses this in language that a Christian might almost use. The philosophical reform of this sect was accompanied with practical reform, which sought, among other things, loosening the restraints of caste, and spreading sacred knowledge in the vernacular, instead of the obsolete Sanscrit.
Hinduism knows three classical deities in the trimurti (“Hindiu triad” or “great trinity”), Vishnu is, in the view of Hinduism, the preserver, while Brahma is the creator and Shiva is the destroyer of ignorance. Vaishnava or Vishnuite Sect is the name given to Hindus whose special deity is the god Vishnu, and to a number of sects which have adopted various special doctrines based on the worship of Vishnu or of one of his two great incarnations, Rama and Krishna.
A dispute once arose among the sages which of the three gods was greatest. These three gods differ from, and are superior to, all other divine and human organisms, in that they are not subject to transmigrations. They are beings who have attained the highest condition possible, short of absorption into Brahma. They applied to the greatest of all sages — Bhrigu — to determine the point. He undertook to put all three gods to a severe test. He went first to Brahma, and omitted all obeisance. The god's anger blazed forth, but he was at length pacified. Next he went to the abode of Siva, and omitted to return the god's salutation. The irascible god was enraged, his eyes flashed fire, and he raised his Trident weapon to destroy the sage. But the god's wife, Parvati, interceded for him.
Lastly, Bhrigu went to the heaven of Vishnu, whom he found asleep. To try his forbearance, he gave the god a good kick on his breast, which awoke him. Instead of showing anger, Vishnu asked Bhrigu's pardon for not having greeted him on his first arrival. Then he declared he was highly honored by the sage's blow. It had imprinted an indelible mark of good fortune on his breast. He trusted the sage's foot was not hurt, and began to rub it gently. 'This,' said Bhrigu, 'is the mightiest god; he overpowers his enemies by the most potent of all weapons—gentleness and generosity.'
And of the three, Vishnu, the Pervader and Preserver of all nature, is the most human, as he is also the most humane, in his character, attributes, and sympathies, and therefore the most popular. He has four arms, symbolical of the power he exerts in the deliverance of his worshippers. Portions of his divine nature have descended in earthly incarnations to deliver the earth in times of danger and emergency. They are still continually descending in good men and living teachers.
As one of the most important gods in the Hindu pantheon, Vishnu is surrounded by a number of extremely popular and well-known stories and is the focus of a number of sects devoted entirely to his worship. Vishnu contains a number of personalities, often represented as ten major descents (avatars) in which the god has taken on physical forms in order to save earthly creatures from destruction. In one story, the earth was drowning in a huge flood, so to save it Vishnu took on the body of a giant turtle and lifted the earth on his back out of the waters. A tale found in the Vedas describes a demon who could not be conquered. Responding to the pleas of the gods, Vishnu appeared before the demon as a dwarf. The demon, in a classic instance of pride, underestimated this dwarf and granted him as much of the world as he could tread in three steps. Vishnu then assumed his universal form and in three strides spanned the entire universe and beyond, crushing the demon in the process.
The incarnation of Vishnu known to almost everyone in India is his life as Ram (Rama in Sanskrit), a prince from the ancient north Indian kingdom of Ayodhya, in the cycle of stories known as the Ramayana (The Travels of Ram). On one level, this is a classic adventure story, as Ram is exiled from the kingdom and has to wander in the forests of southern India with his beautiful wife Sita and his loyal younger brother Lakshman. After many adventures, during which Ram befriends the king of the monkey kingdom and joins forces with the great monkey hero Hanuman, the demon king Ravana kidnaps Sita and takes her to his fortress on the island of Lanka (modern Sri Lanka). A huge war then ensues, as Ram with his animal allies attacks the demons, destroys them all, and returns in triumph to North India to occupy his lawful throne.
Another widely known incarnation is Krishna. In the Mahabharata (Great Battle of the Descendants of Bharata), the gigantic, multivolume epic of ancient North Indian kingdoms, Krishna appears as the ruler of one of the many states allied either with the heroic Pandava brothers or with their treacherous cousins, the Kauravas. Bharata was an ancient king whose achievements are celebrated in the Mahabharata and from whose name derives one of the names for modern India, that is Bharat. During the final battle, Krishna serves as charioteer for the hero Arjuna, and before the fighting starts he bolsters Arjuna's faltering will to fight against his kin. Krishna reveals himself as Vishnu, the supreme godhead, who has set up the entire conflict to cleanse the earth of evildoers according to his inscrutable will. This section of the epic, the Bhagavad Gita, or Song of the Lord, is one of the great jewels of world religious literature and of central importance in modern Hinduism. One of its main themes is karma-yoga , or selfless discipline in offering all of one's allotted tasks in life as a devotion to God and without attachment to consequences. The true reality is the soul that neither slays nor is slain and that can rejoin God through selfless dedication and through Krishna's saving grace.
In iconography Vishnu may appear as any of his ten incarnations but often stands in sculpture as a princely male with four arms that bear a club, discus, conch, and lotus flower. He may also appear lying on his back on the thousand-headed king of the serpents, Shesha-Naga, in the milk ocean at the center of time, with his feet massaged by Lakshmi, and with a lotus growing from his navel giving birth to the god Brahma, a four-headed representation of the creative principle. Vishnu in this representation is the ultimate source of the universe that he causes to expand and contract at regular cosmic intervals measuring millions of years. On a more concrete level, Vishnu may become incarnate at any moment on earth in order to continue to bring sentient creatures back to himself, and a number of great religious teachers (including, for example, Chaitanya in Bengal) are identified by their followers as incarnations of Vishnu.
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