Vaishnavism Beliefs, Traditions, and Practices

Vaishnavism (वैष्णवसम्प्रदाय) is one of the major Hindu denominations along with ShaivismShaktism, and Smartism. According to a 2010 estimate by Johnson and Grim, Vaishnavism is the largest Hindu sect, constituting about 641 million or 67.6% of Hindus. It is also called Vishnuism since it considers Vishnu as the sole supreme being leading all other Hindu deities, i.e. Mahavishnu. Its followers are called Vaishnavites or Vaishnavas (Vaiṣṇava), and it includes sub-sects like Krishnaism and Ramaism, which consider Krishna and Rama as supreme beings respectively. Key texts in Vaishnavism include the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Pancaratra (Agama) texts, Naalayira Divya Prabhandham, and the Bhagavata Purana.

What is Vaishnavism?

Vaishnavism is the name given to the faith and practices of those Hindus who hold Vishnu (“the all-pervasive one”) and the goddess Lakshmi as supreme deities. The Sanskrit term Vaishnava means “follower of Vishnu.”

Beautiful Lord Vishnu Images - Narayan Lord Vishnu Image
Lord Vishnu in Vaishnavism

What is sacred?

Vishnu is also seen as abiding by a fossil called a Salagrama, which is found in lakes in the Himalayan region. The Salagrama fossil is believed to have a complete presence of Vishnu, and when the Salagrama is present at home, it is treated like a temple deity. Ordinarily only men handle a Salagrama.

History of Vaishnavism


Northern India

The ancient emergence of Vaishnavism is unclear, the evidence inconsistent and scanty. Syncretism of various traditions resulted in Vaishnavism. Although Vishnu was a Vedic solar deity, he is mentioned less often compared to Agni, Indra, and other Vedic deities, thereby suggesting that he had a minor position in the Vedic religion.

This complex history is reflected in the two main historical denominations of Vaishnavism. The Bhagavata, worship Vāsudeva-Krishna, and are followers of Brahmanic Vaishnavism, while the Pacaratrins regard Narayana as their founder, and are followers of Tantric Vaishnavism.

Southern India

S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar states that the lifetime of the Vaishnava Alvars was during the first half of the 12th century, their works flourishing about the time of the revival of Brahminism and Hinduism in the north, speculating that Vaishnavism might have penetrated to the south as early as about the first century CE. 

Srirangam, the site of the largest functioning temple in the world at 600 acres, is devoted to Ranganathaswamy, a form of Vishnu. The legend goes that King Vibhishana, who was carrying the idol of Ranganatha on his way to Lanka, took a rest for a while by placing the statue on the ground. When he prepared to depart, he realized that the idol was stuck to the ground. So, he built a small shrine, which became a popular abode for the deity Ranganatha on the banks of the river Kaveri. The entire temple campus with great walls, mandapas, and halls with 1000 pillars was constructed over a period of 300 years from the 14th to 17th century CE.

Gupta era

Most of the Gupta kings, beginning with Chandragupta II (Vikramaditya) (375-413 CE) were known as Parama Bhagavatas or Bhagavata Vaishnavas. But following the Huna invasions, especially those of the Alchon Huns circa 500 CE, the Gupta Empire declined and fragmented, ultimately collapsing completely, with the effect of discrediting Vaishnavism, the religion it had been so ardently promoting.

The newly arising regional powers in central and northern India, such as the Aulikaras, the Maukharis, the Maitrakas, the Kalacuris, or the Vardhanas preferred adopting Saivism instead, giving a strong impetus to the development of the worship of Shiva, and its ideology of power. Vaisnavism remained strong mainly in the territories which had not been affected by these events: South India and Kashmir.

Early medieval period

After the Gupta age, Krishnaism rose to a major current of Vaishnavism, and Vaishnavism developed into various sects and subsects, most of them emphasizing bhakti, which was strongly influenced by south Indian religiosity. Modern scholarship posit Nimbarkacharya (c.7th century CE) to this period who propounded Radha Krishna worship and his doctrine came to be known as (dvaita-advaita).

Later medieval period

The Bhakti movement of late medieval Hinduism started in the 7th century but rapidly expanded after the 12th century. It was supported by the Puranic literature such as the Bhagavata Purana, poetic works, as well as many scholarly bhasyas and Samhitas.

In North and Eastern India, Vaishnavism gave rise to various late Medieval movements Ramananda in the 14th century, Sankaradeva in the 15th, and Vallabha and Chaitanya in the 16th century. Historically, it was Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who founded congregational chanting of the holy names of Krishna in the early 16th century after becoming a sannyasi.

Modern times Vaishnavism

During the 20th century, Vaishnavism spread from India and is now practiced in many places around the globe, including North America, Europe, Africa, Russia, and South America. A pioneer of Vaishnavite mission to the West has become sannyasi Baba Premananda Bharati (1858–1914), an author of the first full-length treatment of Bengali Vaishnavism in English Sree Krishna—the Lord of Love and founder in 1902 the “Krishna Samaj” society in New York City and a temple in Los Angeles. The global status of Vaishnavism is largely due to the growth of the ISKCON movement, founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1966.

Vaishnavism Beliefs

Theism with many varieties

Vaishnavism is centered on the devotion of Vishnu and his avatars. According to Schweig, it is a “polymorphic monotheism, i.e. a theology that recognizes many forms (Ananta rupa) of the one, single unitary divinity,” since there are many forms of one original deity, with Vishnu taking many forms. Okita, in contrast, states that the different denominations within Vaishnavism are best described as theism, pantheism, and panentheism.

Vaishnavism precepts include the avatar (incarnation) doctrine, wherein Vishnu incarnates numerous times, in different forms, to set things right and bring back the balance in the universe. These avatars include:

  • Narayana,
  • Vasudeva,
  • Rama, and
  • Krishna.

Vishnuism and Krishnaism

The term “Krishnaism” (Kṛṣṇaism) has been used to describe a large group of independent traditions-sampradayas within Vaishnavism regarded Krishna as the Supreme God, while “Vishnuism” may be used for sects focusing on Vishnu in which Krishna is an Avatar, rather than a transcended Supreme Being.

Vishnuism believes in Vishnu as the supreme being. When all other Vaishnavas recognize Krishna as one of Vishnu’s avatars, though only the Krishnites identify the Supreme Being (Svayam Bhagavan, Brahman, a source of the Tridev) with Lord Krishna and his forms (Radha Krishna, Vithoba, and others), those manifested themselves as Vishnu. 


In Vishnu-centered sects, Vishnu or Narayana is the one supreme God. The belief in the supremacy of Vishnu is based upon the many avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu listed in the Puranic texts, which differs from other Hindu deities such as:

  • Ganesha,
  • Surya, or
  • Durga.

To the devotees of the Srivaishnava Sampradaya, “Lord Vishnu is the Supreme Being and the foundation of all existence.”


In the Krishnaism group of independent traditions of Vaishnavism, such as the Nimbarka Sampradaya (the first Krishnaite Sampradaya developed by Nimbarka c. 7th century CE), Ekasarana Dharma, Gaudiya Vaishnavism, Mahanubhava, Rudra Sampradaya (Pushtimarg), Vaishnava-Sahajiya and Warkari, devotees worship Krishna as the One Supreme form of God, and source of all avatars, Svayam Bhagavan.

Radha Krishna

Radha Krishna is the combination of both the feminine as well as masculine aspects of God. Krishna is often referred to as Svayam Bhagavan in Gaudiya Vaishnavism theology and Radha is Krishna’s internal potency and supreme beloved. With Krishna, Radha is acknowledged as the supreme goddess, for it is said that she controls Krishna with her love. It is believed that Krishna enchants the world, but Radha enchants even him. Therefore, she is the supreme goddess of all Radha and Krishna are avatars of Lakshmi and Vishnu respectively.


According to The Bhagavata Purana, there are twenty-two avatars of Vishnu, including Rama and Krishna. The Dashavatara is a later concept.


The Pancaratrins follow the vyuhas doctrine, which says that God has four manifestations (vyuhas), namely:

  • Vasudeva,
  • Samkarsana,
  • Pradyumna, and
  • Aniruddha.

These four manifestations represent “the Highest Self, the individual self, mind, and egoism.”

Restoration of dharma

Vaishnavism theology has developed the concept of avatar (incarnation) around Vishnu as the preserver or sustainer. His avatars assert Vaishnavism, descend to empower the good and fight evil, thereby restoring Dharma. This is reflected in the passages of the ancient Bhagavad Gita:

Whenever righteousness wanes and unrighteousness increases I send myself forth. For the protection of the good and for the destruction of evil, and for the establishment of righteousness, I come into being age after age.   — Bhagavad Gita 4.7–8

In Vaishnava theology, such as is presented in the Bhagavata Purana and the Pancaratra, whenever the cosmos is in crisis, typically because the evil has grown stronger and has thrown the cosmos out of its balance, an avatar of Vishnu appears in a material form, to destroy evil and its sources, and restore the cosmic balance between the everpresent forces of good and evil. 

Dietary Practices of Vaishnavism

The Vaishnava calendar is marked with days of feasting and fasting. Ekadashi, or the eleventh day after the new moon or full moon, is ordinarily a day of fasting when the grain is not consumed, and a diet of fruits and dairy products is recommended. There are other days of complete fastings, such as the hours just before the birthday of Krishna or during eclipses.

Vaishnavas are said to prescribe to the Sanskrit dictum “ahimsa paramo dharma” (nonviolence is the highest virtue) and tend to be vegetarians. Several Vaishnava theologians have written extensively on dietary regulations; this is, in fact, one of the most important aspects of premodern Vaishnavism. While many if not most of these regulations are not followed now, Vaishnavas had strict rules on what, when, and with whom they ate, as well as who cooked the food. Generally, the food had to be cooked by a Vaishnava of the same caste; orthoprax pilgrims still take a cook with them on their tours to be sure their diet is not compromised.

Dashavatar – The ten mighty incarnations of Lord Vishnu
Purna Avatar of Lord Vishnu as per Vaishnavism

Vaishnavism Texts

The Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Agamas are the scriptural sources of Vaishnavism, while the Bhagavata Purana is a revered and celebrated popular text, parts of which a few scholars such as Dominic Goodall include as a scripture. Other important texts in the tradition include the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as texts by various sampradayas (denominations within Vaishnavism). In many Vaishnava traditions, Krishna is accepted as a teacher, whose teachings are in the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana.


Vedas and Upanishads

Vaishnavism, just like all Hindu traditions, considers the Vedas as the scriptural authority. All traditions within Vaishnavism consider the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas, and the Upanishads embedded within the four Vedas as Sruti, while Smritis, which includes all the epics, the Puranas, and its Samhitas, states Mariasusai Dhavamony, are considered as “exegetical or expository literature” of the Vedic texts.

The Vedanta schools of Hindu philosophy, which interpreted the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra, provided the philosophical foundations of Vaishnavism. Given the ancient archaic language of the Vedic texts, each school’s interpretation varied, and this has been the source of differences between the sampradayas (denominations) of Vaishnavism. These interpretations have created different traditions within Vaishnavism, from dualistic (Dvaita) Vedanta of Madhvacharya to nondualistic (Advaita) Vedanta of Madhusudana Sarasvati.

Vaishnava Upanishads

Along with the reverence and exegetical analysis of the ancient Principal Upanishads, Vaishnava-inspired scholars authored 14 Vishnu avatar-focussed Upanishads that are called the Vaishnava Upanishads. These are considered part of 95 minor Upanishads in the Muktikā Upanishadic corpus of Hindu literature. The earliest among these were likely composed in the 1st millennium BCE, while the last ones were in the late medieval era.

The Vaishnava Upanishads present diverse ideas, ranging from bhakti-style theistic themes to a synthesis of Vaishnava ideas with Advaitic, Yoga, Shaiva, and Shakti themes.

Vaishnava Upanishads
Vaishnava Upanishad Vishnu Avatar Composition date Topics
Mahanarayana Upanishad Narayana 6AD – 100 CE Narayana, Atman, Brahman, Rudra, Sannyasa
Narayana Upanishad Narayana Medieval Mantra, Narayana is one without a second, eternal, same as all gods and the universe
Rama Rahasya Upanishad Rama ~17th century CE Rama, Sita, Hanuman, Atman, Brahman, mantra
Rama tapaniya Upanishad Rama ~11th to 16th century Rama, Sita, Atman, Brahman, mantra, sannyasa
Kali-Santarana Upanishad Rama, Krishna ~14th century Hare Rama Hare Krishna mantra
Gopala Tapani Upanishad Krishna before the 14th century Krishna, Radha, Atman, Brahman, mantra, bhakti
Krishna Upanishad Krishna ~12th-16th century Rama predicted Krishna’s birth, symbolism, bhakti
Vasudeva Upanishad Krishna, Vasudeva ~2nd millennium Brahman, Atman, Vasudeva, Krishna, Urdhva Pundra, Yoga
Garuda Upanishad Vishnu Medieval The kite-like bird vahana (vehicle) of Vishnu
Hayagriva Upanishad Hayagriva Medieval, after the 10th century CE Mahavakya of Principal Upanishads, Pancaratra, Tantra
Dattatreya Upanishad Narayana, Dattatreya 14th to 15th century Tantra, yoga, Brahman, Atman, Shaivism, Shaktism
Tarasara Upanishad Rama, Narayana ~11th to 16th century Om, Atman, Brahman, Narayana, Rama, Ramayana
Avyakta Upanishad Narasimha Before the 7th century Primordial nature, cosmology, Ardhanarishvara, Brahman, Atman
Nrisimha Tapaniya Upanishad Narasimha Before the 7th century CE Atman, Brahman, Advaita, Shaivism, Avatars of Vishnu, Om

Bhagavad Gita

The Bhagavad Gita is a central text in Vaishnavism, especially in the context of Krishna. The Bhagavad Gita is an important scripture not only within Vaishnavism but also in other traditions of Hinduism. It is one of three important texts of the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy and has been central to all Vaishnavism sampradayas.

The Bhagavad Gita is a summary of the classical Upanishads and Vedic philosophy and is closely associated with the Bhagavata and related traditions of Vaishnavism. The text has been commented upon and integrated into diverse Vaishnava denominations, such as by the medieval era Madhvacharya’s Dvaita Vedanta school and Ramanuja’s Vishishtadvaita Vedanta school, as well as 20th century Vaishnava movements such as the Hare Krishna movement by His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

Vaishnava Agamas

The Pancaratra Samhitas (literally, five nights) is a genre of texts where Vishnu is presented as Narayana and Vasudeva, and this genre of Vaishnava texts is also known as the Vaishnava Agamas. Its doctrines are found embedded in the stories within the Narayaniya section of the Mahabharata. Narayana is presented as the ultimate unchanging truth and reality (Brahman), who pervades the entirety of the universe and is asserted to be the preceptor of all religions.

The three most studied texts of this genre of Vaishnava religious texts are Paushkara SamhitaSattvata Samhita, and Jayakhya Samhita. The other important Pancaratra texts include the Lakshmi Tantra and Ahirbudhnya Samhita. Scholars place the start of this genre of texts in about the 7th or 8th century CE, and later.

Other important texts in Vaishnavism

Mahabharata and Ramayana

The two Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana present Vaishnava philosophy and culture embedded in legends and dialogues. The epics are considered the fifth Veda in Hindu 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, with his devotee and 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 are presented as an epitome of adharma, playing the opposite role of how not to behave.

The Mahabharata is centered around Krishna, presenting him as the avatar of a transcendental supreme being. The epic details the story of a war between good and evil, each side represented by two families of cousins with wealth and power, one depicted as driven by virtues and values while the other by vice and deception, with Krishna playing a pivotal role in the drama. The philosophical highlight of the work is the Bhagavad Gita.


The Puranas are an important source of entertaining narratives and histories, states Mahony, that are embedded with “philosophical, theological and mystical modes of experience and expression” as well as reflective “moral and soteriological instructions”.

More broadly, the Puranic literature is encyclopedic, and it includes diverse topics such as cosmogony, cosmology, genealogies of gods, goddesses, kings, heroes, sages, and demigods, folk tales, travel guides and pilgrimages, temples, medicine, astronomy, grammar, mineralogy, humor, love stories, as well as theology and philosophy. 

Sectarian texts

In the Warkari movement the following scriptures are considered sacred in addition to the general body of the common writing:

  • Dnyaneshwari,
  • Tukaram-Gatha,
  • Sopandevi,
  • Namdev-Gatha, and
  • Eknath-Bhagwat.

The Chaitanya movement has the following texts along with other theological sources:

  • Sat Sandarbhas, and
  • Brahma Samhita.

Attitude toward scriptures

Chaitanya Vaishnava traditions refer to the writings of previous acharyas in their respective lineage or sampradaya as authoritative interpretations of scripture. While many schools like Smartism and Advaitism encourage interpretation of scriptures philosophically and metaphorically and not too literally, Chaitanya Vaishnavism stresses the literal meaning (mukhya vṛitti) as primary and indirect meaning (gauṇa vṛitti) as secondary: sākṣhād upadesas tu shrutih – “The instructions of the shruti-shāstra should be accepted literally, without fanciful or allegorical interpretations.”

Ancient Texts in Hinduism - DNA Of Hinduism
Important Sacred Texts of Vaishnavism

Vaishnavism Practices

Bhakti’s importance in Vaishnavism

The Bhakti movement originated among Vaishnavas of South India during the 7th century CE, spread northwards from Tamil Nadu through Karnataka and Maharashtra towards the end of 13th-century, and gained wide acceptance by the fifteenth century throughout India during an era of political uncertainty and Hindu-Islam conflicts.

Vaishnava bhakti practices involve loving devotion to a Vishnu avatar (often Krishna), an emotional connection, and a longing and continuous feeling of presence. All aspects of life and living is not only a divine order but divinity itself in Vaishnava bhakti. Community practices such as singing songs together (kirtan or bhajan ), praising or ecstatically celebrating the presence of god together, usually inside temples, but sometimes in open public are part of varying Vaishnava practices. These help Vaishnavas socialize and form a community identity.

Tilaka’s importance in Vaishnavism

Vaishnavas mark their foreheads with tilaka made up of Chandana, either as a daily ritual or on special occasions. The different Vaishnava sampradayas each have their own distinctive style of tilaka, which depicts the Siddhanta of their particular lineage. The general tilaka pattern is of a parabolic shape resembling the letter U or two or more connected vertical lines and another optional line on the nose resembling the letter Y, in which the two parallel lines represent the Lotus feet of Krishna and the bottom part on the nose represents the Tulasi leaf.


In tantric traditions of Vaishnavism, during the initiation (Diksha) given by a guru under whom they are trained to understand Vaishnava practices, the initiates accept Vishnu as supreme. 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.

In the Gaudiya Vaishnava group, one who performs an act of worship with 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.”

Pilgrimage sites of Vaishnavas

Important sites of pilgrimage for Vaishnavas include:

  • Srirangam,
  • Kanchipuram,
  • Vrindavan,
  • Mathura,
  • Ayodhya,
  • Tirupati,
  • Pandharpur (Vitthal),
  • Puri (Jagannath),
  • Nira Narsingpur (Narasimha),
  • Mayapur,
  • Nathdwara,
  • Dwarka,
  • Udipi (Karnataka),
  • Shree Govindajee Temple (Imphal),
  • Govind Dev Ji Temple (Jaipur), and
  • Muktinath.

Holy places

Vrindavana is considered to be a holy place by several traditions of Krishnaism. It is a center of Krishna worship and the area includes places like Govardhana and Gokula associated with Krishna from time immemorial. Many millions of bhaktas or devotees of Krishna visit these places of pilgrimage every year and participate in a number of festivals that relate to the scenes from Krishna’s life on Earth.

On the other hand, Goloka is considered the eternal abode of Krishna, Svayam Bhagavan according to some Vaishnava schools, including Gaudiya Vaishnavism and the Swaminarayan Sampradaya. The scriptural basis for this is taken from Brahma Samhita and Bhagavata Purana.

Why is Kirtan and Bhajan so important in Hinduism? - Quora
Practices in Vaishnavism: Bhajan – Kirtan

Vaishnavism Traditions

Four sampradayas and other traditions

The Vaishnavism traditions may be grouped within four sampradayas, each exemplified by a specific Vedic personality. They have been associated with a specific founder, providing the following scheme:

  • Sri Sampradaya (Ramanuja),
  • Brahma Sampradaya (Madhvacharya), 
  • Rudra Sampradaya (Vishnuswami, and
  • Vallabhacharya) Kumaras Sampradaya (Nimbarka).

These four sampradayas emerged in the early centuries of the 2nd millennium CE, by the 14th century, influencing and sanctioning the Bhakti movement.

Early traditions of Vaishnavism


The Bhagavat was the early worshippers of Krishna, the followers of Bhagavat, the Lord, in the person of Krishna, Vasudeva, Vishnu, or Bhagavan. The term Bhagavat may have denoted a general religious tradition or attitude of theistic worship which prevailed until the 11th century, and not a specific sect, and is best known as a designation for Vishnu-devotees. The earliest scriptural evidence of Vaishnava Bhagavat is an inscription from 115 BCE, in which Heliodoros, ambassador of the Greco-Bactrian king Amtalikita, says that he is a Bhagavata of Vasudeva. It was supported by the Guptas, suggesting a widespread appeal, in contrast to specific sects.


The Pāñcarātra is the tradition of Narayana worship. The term pāñcarātra means “five nights,” from pañca, “five,” and rātra, “nights”, and may be derived from the “five-night sacrifice” as described in the Satapatha Brahmana, which narrates how Purusa-Narayana intends to become the highest being by performing a sacrifice which lasts five nights.

Although the Pāñcarātra originated in north India, it had a strong influence on south India, where it is closely related to the Sri Vaishnava tradition. According to Welbon, “Pāñcarātra cosmological and ritual theory and practice combine with the unique vernacular devotional poetry of the Alvars, and Ramanuja, a founder of the Sri Vaishnava tradition, propagated Pāñcarātra ideas.” Ramananda was also influenced by Pāñcarātra ideas through the influence of Sri Vaishnavism, whereby Pāñcarātra re-entered north India.


The Vaikhanasas are associated with the Pāñcarātra, but regard themselves as a Vedic orthodox sect. Modern Vaikhanasas reject elements of the Pāñcarātra and Sri Vaishnava tradition, but the historical relationship with the orthodox Vaikhanasa in south India is unclear. The Vaikhanasas may have resisted the incorporation of the devotic elements of the Alvar tradition, while the Pāñcarātras were open to this incorporation.

Vaikhanasas have their own foundational text, the Vaikhanasasmarta Sutra, which describes a mixture of Vedic and non-Vedic ritual worship. The Vaikhanasas became chief priests in a lot of south Indian temples, where they still remain influential.

Early medieval traditions


The Smarta tradition developed during the (early) Classical Period of Hinduism around the beginning of the Common Era, when Hinduism emerged from the interaction between Brahmanism and local traditions. According to Flood, Smartism developed and expanded with the Puranas genre of literature. By the time of Adi Shankara, it had developed the pancayatanapuja, the worship of five shrines with five deities, all treated as equal, namely Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, Surya, and Devi (Shakti), “as a solution to varied and conflicting devotional practices.”

Traditionally, Sri Adi Shankaracharya (8th century) is regarded as the greatest teacher and reformer of the Smarta. According to Hiltebeitel, Adi Shankara Acharya established the nondualist interpretation of the Upanishads as the touchstone of a revived smarta tradition.


The Alvars, “those immersed in God,” were twelve Tamil poet-saints of South India who espoused bhakti (devotion) to the Hindu god Vishnu or his avatar Krishna in their songs of longing, ecstasy, and service. The Alvars appeared between the 5th century to the 10th century CE, though the Vaishnava tradition regards the Alvars to have lived between 4200 BCE – 2700 BCE.

The devotional writings of Alvars, composed during the early medieval period of Tamil history, are key texts in the bhakti movement. They praised the Divya Desams, 108 “abodes” (temples) of the Vaishnava deities. The collection of their hymns is known as the Divya Prabandha. Their Bhakti poems have contributed to the establishment and sustenance of a culture that opposed the ritual-oriented Vedic religion and rooted itself in devotion as the only path to salvation.

Contemporary traditions of Vaishnavism

Gavin Flood mentions the five most important contemporary Vaishnava orders.

Sri Vaishnavism

Sri Vaishnavism is a major denomination within Vaishnavism that originated in South India, adopting the prefix Sri as an homage to Vishnu’s consort, Lakshmi. The Sri Vaishnava community consists of both Brahmans and non-Brahmans. It existed along with larger Purana-based Brahamanical worshippers of Vishnu, and non-Brahmanical groups who worshipped and also adhered to non-Vishnu village deities. The Sri Vaishnavism movement grew with its social inclusiveness, where emotional devotion to the personal god (Vishnu) has been open without limitation to gender or caste.

Gaudiya Vaishnavism

It is also known as Chaitanya Vaishnavism and Hare Krishna, was founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (1486–1533) in India. “Gaudiya” refers to the Gauḍa region (present-day Bengal/Bangladesh) with Vaishnavism meaning “the worship of Vishnu or Krishna”. Its philosophical basis is primarily that of the Bhagavad Gita and Bhagavata Purana.

The focus of Gaudiya Vaishnavism is the devotional worship (bhakti) of Radha and Krishna, and their many divine incarnations as the supreme forms of God, Svayam Bhagavan. Most popularly, this worship takes the form of singing Radha and Krishna’s holy names, such as “Hare”, “Krishna” and “Rama”, most commonly in the form of the Hare Krishna (mantra), also known as Kirtan. It sees the many forms of Vishnu or Krishna as expansions or incarnations of the one Supreme God, Adi Purusha.

Warkari tradition of Vaishnavism

The Warkari sampradaya is a non-Brahamanical bhakti tradition that worships Vithoba, also known as Vitthal, which is regarded as a form of Krishna/Vishnu. Vithoba is often depicted as a dark young boy, standing arms akimbo on a brick, sometimes accompanied by his main consort Rakhumai (a regional name of Krishna’s wife Rukmini). The Warkari-tradition is geographically associated with the Indian state of Maharashtra.

The Warkari movement includes a duty-based approach towards life, emphasizing moral behavior and strict avoidance of alcohol and tobacco, the adoption of a strict Lacto-vegetarian diet and fasting on Ekadashi day (twice a month), self-restraint (brahmacharya) during student life, equality and humanity for all rejecting discrimination based on the caste system or wealth, the reading of Hindu texts, the recitation of the Haripath every day and the regular practice of bhajan and kirtan. The most important festivals of Vithoba are held on the eleventh (Ekadashi) day of the lunar months” Shayani Ekadashi in the month of Ashadha, and Prabodhini Ekadashi in the month of Kartik.

The Warkari poet-saints are known for their devotional lyrics, the abhang, dedicated to Vithoba and composed in Marathi. Other devotional literature includes the Kannada hymns of the Haridasa and Marathi versions of the generic aarti songs associated with rituals of offering light to the deity. Notable saints and gurus of the Warkaris include Jñāneśvar, Namdev, Chokhamela, Eknath, and Tukaram, all of whom are accorded the title of Sant.

Though the origins of both his cult and his main temple are debated, there is clear evidence that they already existed by the 13th century. Various Indologists have proposed a prehistory for Vithoba worship where he was previously a hero stone, a pastoral deity, a manifestation of Shiva, a Jain saint, or even all of these at various times for various devotees.

Ramanandi tradition

The Ramanandi Sampradaya, also known as the Ramayats or the Ramavats, is one of the largest and most egalitarian Hindu sects in India, around the Ganges Plain, and Nepal today. It mainly emphasizes the worship of Rama, as well as Vishnu directly and other incarnations. Most Ramanandis consider themselves to be the followers of Ramananda, a Vaishnava saint in medieval India. Philosophically, they are in the Vishishtadvaita (IAST Viśiṣṭādvaita) tradition.

Its ascetic wing constitutes the largest Vaishnava monastic order and may possibly be the largest monastic order in all of India. Rāmānandī ascetics rely upon meditation and strict ascetic practices, but also believe that the grace of god is required for them to achieve liberation.

Northern Sant tradition

Kabir was a 15th-century Indian mystic poet and sant, whose writings influenced the Bhakti movement, but whose verses are also found in Sikhism’s scripture Adi Granth. His early life was in a Muslim family, but he was strongly influenced by his teacher, the Hindu bhakti leader Ramananda, he becomes a Vaishnavite with universalist leanings. His followers formed the Kabir panth.

Dadu Dayal (1544—1603) was a poet-sant from Gujarat, a religious reformer who spoke against formalism and priestcraft. A group of his followers near Jaipur, Rajasthan, formed a Vaishnavite denomination that became known as the Dadu Panth.

Minor traditions

Odia Vaishnavism

The Odia Vaishnavism (a.k.a. Jagannathism)—the particular cult of the god Jagannath (lit. ”Lord of the Universe”) as the supreme deity, an abstract form of Krishna, the Purushottama, and Para Brahman—was originated in the Early Middle Ages. Jagannathism was a regional state temple-centered version of Krishnaism, but can also be regarded as a non-sectarian syncretic Vaishnavite and all-Hindu cult. The notable Jagannath temple in Puri, Odisha became particularly significant within the tradition in about 800 CE.

Madhva Sampradaya

The Lord Vishnu/Hari-centered Madhva Tradition, also known as Brahma Sampradaya, with a consistently Dvaitin philosophy was founded by Madhvacharya in the 13th century. Due to the multiplicity of lineages, it is sometimes difficult to determine who now represents this tradition, and who are the Madhvas. Thus there are twenty-four separate Madhva Brahmins’ institutions of Sadh Vaishnavism. In addition, there is the Haridasas, a bhakti movement from Karnataka.

Mahanubhava Sampradaya

The Mahanubhava Sampradaya/Pantha was founded in Maharashtra during the period of the 12-13th century. Sarvajna Chakradhar Swami a Gujarati acharya was the main propagator of this Sampradaya. The Mahanubhavas Venere Pancha-Krishna (“five Krishnas”). Mahanubhava Pantha played an essential role in the growth of Marathi literature.

Sahajiya and Baul tradition

Since the 15th century in Bengal and Assam flourished Tantric Vaishnava-Sahajiya inspired by Bengali poet Chandidas, as well as related to it Baul groups, where Krishna is the inner divine aspect of man and Radha is the aspect of a woman.

Ekasarana Dharma

The Ekasarana Dharma was propagated by Srimanta Sankardev in the Assam region of India. It considers Krishna as the only God. Satras are institutional centers associated with the Ekasarana dharma.

Radha-vallabha Sampradaya

The Radha-centered Radha Vallabh Sampradaya founded by the Mathura bhakti poet-saint Hith Harivansh Mahaprabhu in the 16th century occupies a unique place among other traditions. In its theology, Radha is worshiped as the supreme deity, and Krishna is in a subordinate position.

Pranami Sampradaya

The Pranami Sampradaya (Pranami Panth) emerged in the 17th century in Gujarat, based on the Radha-Krishna-focussed syncretic Hindu-Islamic teachings of Devchandra Maharaj and his famous successor, Mahamati Prannath.

Swaminarayan Sampradaya

The Swaminarayan Sampradaya was founded in 1801 in Gujarat by Sahajanand Swami from Uttar Pradesh, who is worshipped as Swaminarayan, the supreme manifestation of God, by his followers. The first temple was built in Ahmedabad in 1822.


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