Vaishnavism | Introduction


1. Overview

Vaishnavism is the name given to the faith and practices of those Hindus who hold Vishnu (Viṣṇu) (“the all-pervasive one”) and the goddess Lakṣmī (Lakṣmī) as supreme deities.

The Sanskrit term Vaishnava (Vaiṣṇava) means “follower of Vishnu.”

Devotion to Vishnu seen in the Vedas and later Sanskrit literature, amalgamated with the worship of many local deities and texts, eventually gave rise to the Vaiṣṇava faith.

Vaiṣṇavas also worship Vishnu’s many incarnations, especially his appearances as Rāma and as Krishna, as well as his manifestations in iconic form in several temples. These manifestations in temples are considered to be actual incarnations of Vishnu in a worshipable form.

In addition, many Vaiṣṇavas also revere various poet-saints and theologians whom they consider to be paradigmatic devotees.

There are several traditions of Vaiṣṇava theologies, but a Vaiṣṇava does not have to be affiliated with any one of them. It is thus difficult to determine the exact number of Hindus who practice Vaiṣṇavism.

2. History

While the deity Vishnu appears in the Vedas, the earliest Sanskrit sacred compositions in India (c. 1500 B.C.E.), it is believed he became a mighty and supreme deity a millennium later.

The distinctive characteristics of Vaiṣṇava faith, which upholds Vishnu as the Supreme Being who alone can grant salvation, seem to have gathered force with the compositions of the epics Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata around 500 B.C.E. and particularly with the Bhagavad Gītā, a section of the Mahābhārata that may have been composed around the 2nd century B.C.E.

Vishnu also became identified with the deities Nārāyaṇa and Vāsudeva sometime in the first millennium B.C.E.

Nārāyaṇa is a supreme deity eulogized in several texts, including the Mahābhārata, as well as in books associated with goddess traditions that are called Āgamas.

Archaeological evidence from the 2nd century B.C.E. suggests that Vāsudeva was worshiped in both north-western as well as central India.

During the reign of the Gupta dynasty (c. 4-5th centuries C.E.) in the north and the Chalukya dynasty in the Deccan Plateau of south central India (after the 6th century C.E.), royal patronage and increased temple building gave rise to the devotional fervour of Vaiṣṇava devotees.

It was about this time, the first half of the first millennium C.E., that the major Purāṇas, texts that praise the deities in the Hindu tradition, were compiled in their present forms.

Perhaps the greatest stimulus to the Vaiṣṇava tradition came through the composition of vernacular hymns, which first appeared in the 7th century C.E.

Tamil-speaking devotees from the south of India composed these songs in praise of Vishnu-Nārāyaṇa, especially in the form in which he was enshrined in the many temples of southern India.

It is believed that these devotees made pilgrimages, visiting sacred sites in various parts of India.

Twelve poet-saints (men and women distinguished by their devotion to Vishnu) came to be called Āḻvārs, or those immersed deeply in the love of God.

It was the first time that devotional poetry was composed in a local, but classical, language, and by the 10th and 11th centuries the Vaiṣṇava community that revered these poems, known as Śrī Vaiṣṇavas, came to regard them as equivalent to the Sanskrit Vedas.

Devotion to Vishnu and Vaiṣṇava traditions can be found in almost every part of India.
Vaiṣṇava texts and practices, however, have not been confined to India.

By the 5th century C.E. devotees worshiped Vishnu in Cambodia, and Vishnu temples flourished in that country. Icons of Vishnu are found all the way from Thailand to Japan, where some of his manifestations are subsumed in Buddhist lore.

The popularity of Vaiṣṇavism can be attributed to many factors:

Sanskrit texts were known all over India, from possibly as early as several centuries before the Common Era, and formed a common substratum for the Vaiṣṇavas;

however, it was the local vernacular texts of passionate devotion that led to the rapid spread and sustenance of the many Vaiṣṇava traditions.

Philosophical texts by the major theologians gave it orthodoxy;
hagiographical texts entertained and educated the masses.

Many of the texts were told and retold in local languages, and some were expressed through performing arts. The songs of the Āḻvārs, for instance, were sung and acted out in temples.

In later centuries religious leader Chaitanya (1485–1533) took his emotional worship of Lord Krishna and devotional singing to the streets,

a practice that was adopted by the members of International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), or the Hare Krishna movement, in the 20th century.

The emphasis on devotion also led to the softening of gender roles and the roles incumbent upon one by way of caste; people from all castes of society could be considered to be Vaiṣṇava.

3. Central Doctrines

Like almost all other practitioners of schools of Hindu thought and practice, Vaiṣṇavas believe in the immortality of the soul and a Supreme Being.

They also take for granted that the soul is caught in a cycle of life and death.

Unlike other forms of Hinduism, however, Vaiṣṇavas believe that it is devotion to Vishnu that will save them from endless rebirth. In practice this monotheism is rather elastic:

Worship also includes devotion to the Goddess Śrī, or Lakṣmī, the many incarnations of Vishnu, his manifestations in local temples in southern India,

his emanations in a theological framework called Vyūha, the paradigmatic celestial devotees Hanuman and Garuda, and the Āḻvārs, the exalted human devotees.

Many of these celestial and mortal beings are seen in icons that have been consecrated in temples and are part of the ritual universe of the Vaiṣṇavas.

The theology of the various schools of Vaiṣṇavism is significantly different from each other:

While all the schools have distinctive features that describe the relationship between the human being, the created universe, and the Supreme Being,

all believe that it is devotion to Vishnu and Lakṣmī as well as Vishnu’s salvific grace that will grant liberation from the cycle of life and death for the human devotee.

In all Vaiṣṇava contexts the object of devotion is Vishnu, who is also known as Nārāyaṇa. In the Rigveda, Vishnu-Nārāyaṇa is seen as having paced the universe in giant strides.

The two epics Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata portray Rāma and Krishna, who ultimately are considered the most important incarnations of Vishnu.

Eventually various stories about Vishnu, Nārāyaṇa, and Vāsudeva come together into a cohesive theory of the descent (avatāra) of the supreme being to earth in one of many incarnations.

While the early Purāṇas composed in the beginning of the Common Era speak of as many as 24 incarnations, a later version includes 10 incarnations.

The Bhāgavad Gītā, a section of the epic Mahābhārata, and one of the most important texts in Hindu literature, gives a clear reason for Vishnu’s multiple incarnations:

Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, says in this text that whenever dharma (righteousness) falters on earth, Vishnu comes down to destroy evil and protect the good people.

While Vishnu’s many incarnations, especially those of Rāma and Krishna, serve as the focal point of devotion, some Vaiṣṇava texts known as the Pāñcharātra Āgama, which is held as authoritative by the Śrī Vaiṣṇava community, describe various emanations of Vishnu.

In the Pāñcharātra Āgama, as well as other Purāṇas, Vishnu is portrayed lying down in an ocean, and a 4-fold manifestation called Vyūha appears from him to take care of various cosmogonic functions, such as the creation and destruction of the universe.

The Śrī Vaiṣṇava community believes that Vishnu has 5 forms, all of which exist simultaneously and completely:

Vishnu abides in heaven, or Vaikuṇṭha;

he appears on the ocean of milk, the locus from which the emanations as the Vyūha originate to perform the cosmogonic functions;

he descends to earth periodically as the Avatāra, or Incarnation, assuming a form appropriate for the purpose and for the time;

he resides in a ritually consecrated icon in a temple;
and, finally, he is all pervasive and abides in every soul.

Some Vaiṣṇava communities also believe that Vishnu incarnates himself in temples in a form that can be worshiped so as to be accessible to human beings.

This iconic form in a temple is held, therefore, to be an actual manifestation of Vishnu, not just a symbol or a focal point of concentration as some other Hindus may believe.

Vaiṣṇavas also venerate Lakṣmī, who is considered to be inseparable from Vishnu:

She has her own shrine in many South Indian temples. In icons she is portrayed as abiding on a lotus, a symbol of auspiciousness, and also as residing on Vishnu’s chest, as an articulation of divine grace.

Devotion (bhakti) to Krishna and Vishnu is the distinguishing characteristic of Vaiṣṇavism.
In some discussions several kinds of devotion are highlighted:

One may pray to Vishnu with the attitude of a servant, a parent, a lover, or a friend.

While all forms of devotion are considered valid in the Śrī Vaiṣṇava tradition, Chaitanya’s school privileges devotion that is coloured with the passion of romantic or sometimes erotic love.

The love of Rādhā—the consort, or in some Vaiṣṇava traditions the girlfriend, of Krishna—becomes paradigmatic of the love that should be obtained between the devotee and the Supreme Being.

In these theologies the role of the cowherd girl Rādhā is ambiguous; some devotees think of her as the ideal devotee, and others as a goddess-consort of Krishna.

4. Code of Conduct

Most Vaiṣṇava schools accept the Epics and the Dharma Śāstras (texts of dharma or righteousness) as important sources of moral conduct, but like most Hindus, Vaiṣṇavas would not be familiar with the content of these texts.

The main teachings of the Bhagavad Gītā would be known in some form to most devotees.

For example, adherents hold devotion to Krishna paramount, and all action should be done in the name of Krishna/Vishnu-Nārāyaṇa.

The Bhagavad Gītā enjoins devotees to act in a detached manner without being focused on the results of one’s actions.

The moral code incumbent upon men and women, which varies from region to region, is also applicable to Vaiṣṇavas.

As in other devotional movements, however, devotion trumps all textual and practiced notions of dharma. Devotion to Vishnu and the quest for liberation wins over the codes for conduct in everyday life.

Virtues associated with the Vaiṣṇava faith, and spoken of in the texts of dharma known as Sāmānya Dharma, or the code of conduct applicable to all human beings,

include compassion, purity, humility, and the notion of ahimsa, or non-violence.

Attitudes toward caste issues have evolved and those issues continue to be reinvented within the devotional Vaiṣṇava contexts:

By the 11th century C.E., when the poetry of the Āḻvārs was anthologized, it was clear that some of the paradigmatic devotees were, in fact, of the so-called lower castes and in some cases even an outcaste.

While some Hindu texts have spoken of caste as a matter of individual potential and behaviour, the practice over the millennia has overwhelmingly been to think of it as fixed by birth into a particular family and community.

In the late 20th century C.E. Bhaktivedanta (also known as Swami) Prabhupāda (1886– 1977), the founder of ISKCON, addressed the issue of caste:

Prabhupāda spoke about a simpler version of caste to the new Euro-American Vaiṣṇava devotees he had converted:

Instead of the complex caste system, Prabhupāda described a 4-fold division originally mentioned in the Vedas, but the idea was not followed in its entirety.

A few male members of the ISKCON movement wear a sacred thread, an emblem of the upper castes in India. No specific caste name is given to most devotees.

5. Sacred Books

Almost every Vaiṣṇava school has its own set of books that it considers canonical; however, almost all Vaiṣṇava traditions hold sacred the Vedas (as in many other Hindu communities), the two epics of Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, and the Vaiṣṇava Purāṇas.

Among the Purāṇas, the Vishnu Purāṇa and in later traditions the Bhāgavata Purāṇa are considered to be significant.

In addition to these texts, every Vaiṣṇava tradition has several genres of works both in Sanskrit and in the local vernacular. The vernacular languages, in many cases, are also classical languages.

- There are philosophical treatises written by the major theologians;
- there are devotional panegyrics;
- there is hagiographical literature;
- and there are texts and narratives transmitted through song and dance.

6. Sacred Symbols

Vishnu is said to hold several weapons in his hands to destroy evil,
and among these the conch and the discus are considered to be most important.

The conch is blown before a battle; the discus is hurled to slice and destroy anything evil. Many Vaiṣṇavas etch these sacred symbols on wedding necklaces.

These marks are also used during initiation into some communities:

In the Śrī Vaiṣṇava community, for instance, the spiritual teacher brands these marks on the shoulders or upper arms of the devotee who seeks initiation.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous body marking in India is that worn by men and women on their foreheads, a mark that is both secular and sectarian. Many of the marks, especially those worn for ritual occasions, indicate the sectarian community to which a Hindu may belong.

Many Vaiṣṇavas are known by U- or Y-shaped forehead marks. These marks, made with white clay from a sacred place, usually symbolize the foot of Vishnu.

The red line or red dot in the middle indicates the inseparability of the Goddess Śrī from Vishnu.

In some Vaiṣṇava communities the forehead marks may indicate Rāma, his wife Sītā, and his brother Lakṣmaṇa; in others the marks represent the reality of a supreme being who is without qualities and simultaneously has all good attributes.

7. Leaders of Vaishnavism

There have been many important Vaiṣṇava leaders and teachers, as well as leaders who happen to be Vaiṣṇavas.

Many musical composers are particularly well known and admired in India:

The compositions of the late 15thcentury composers Taḷḷapāka Annamācārya and Purandara Dāsa are still sung by exponents of Carnatic music in South India.

Perhaps the best-known Vaiṣṇava musician is Tyagaraja (1767–1847), whose compositions to Rāma are honoured every year in India and in the diaspora with the annual Tyagaraja Festival.

Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi (1869–1948) was born into a Vaiṣṇava family:

Vaiṣṇava texts, such as the Bhāgavad Gītā, and Vaiṣṇava codes of conduct, such as the emphasis on nonviolence, were significant in his life.

8. Teachers and Authors

Rāmānuja (c. 1017–1137) is probably one of the best-known exponents of the Vaiṣṇava tradition:

He expressed his philosophy of qualified non-dualism in his commentaries and texts, especially the Śrī Bhāshya and the Gītā-bhāṣya.

Madhvācārya (1296–1386), a major theologian in the Kannada-speaking area of southern India, preached a philosophy called dualism, or dvaita, in which the soul is seen as distinct from the supreme deity Vishnu.

Madhva’s followers have a philosophically and socially distinct form of Vaiṣṇava tradition.

While the Śrī Vaiṣṇava and Madhva schools of philosophical Vaiṣṇavism flourished in South India, the followers of Vallabhācārya (b. 1479) and Chaitanya (1485–1533) were primarily from the North and North-East of India:

These theologians significantly increased the number of Vaiṣṇava devotees through the devotional schools of philosophy and practice that they espoused.

Chaitanya and his followers, who eventually came to be called Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇavas or Vaiṣṇavas from the land of Bengal, conceptualized the supreme reality as Krishna, which is distinct from the belief of many other Hindus who think of Krishna as one of the many incarnations of Vishnu.

Several traditions also came to think of Rāma as the Supreme Being, and over the centuries those who think of Rāma or Krishna as the primordial deity have come to be called Vaiṣṇava.

Ghanshyam (better known as Swaminarayan; b. 1781) established one of the most influential schools of Vaiṣṇavism in the western state of Gujarat. The Swaminarayan movement is a socially engaged form of Vaiṣṇavism with several forms of outreach activities.

No list of Vaiṣṇava theologians would be complete without the profound influence of Bhaktivedanta Prabhupāda, the founder of ISKCON, better known as the Hare Krishna movement. It was largely through his teaching and practices that Vaiṣṇavism came to be adopted by a number of Euro-Americans.

9. Structure of Organization

The many Vaiṣṇava traditions have distinctive organizational structures.

It is important, however, to recognize that one can be a Vaiṣṇava without ever belonging to an institution or to a philosophical tradition. Many of the Vaiṣṇava singers and poets were not affiliated with specific schools of thought.

Although most Vaiṣṇavas are lay people, leadership is frequently held by a small number of sannyāsins, or renunciates.

In the Swaminarayan, Śrī Vaiṣṇava, and Puṣṭī marg (Vallabha) communities, some of the initiating teachers (āchāryas) are householders who have descended from those men appointed by the original founding teacher of each sect.

10. Temples and Holy Places

India abounds with sacred places connected with the Vaiṣṇava faith. Pilgrimage traditions have been religiously, socially, culturally, and economically significant in the last two millennia.

Of the thousands of such places, a few cities and towns are strikingly important:

While many of the North Indian traditions consider places connected with Krishna — such as Govardhana, Gokula, and Mathura—as the most significant,

South Indian Śrī Vaiṣṇavas may deem the many temple towns such as Śrīraṅgam and Tirumāḷai-Tirupati as the most important sites.

People from the state of Kerala consider the Krishna Temple at Guruvāyur to be the most significant pilgrimage site.

Vaiṣṇava devotees from Maharashtra make annual pilgrimages to see Vithoba in Paṇḍharpur.

Puri, on the east coast of India, in the state of Odisha, has been one of the most important pilgrimage centres for at least the last millennium.

The 10th century Prasat Kravan Temple and the 12th century Angkor Wat Temple, both near Siem Reap in north-western Cambodia, were built through the patronage of noble and royal Cambodian families.

Angkor Wat is one of the biggest Vishnu temples in the world, and it has the largest bas-relief ever completed on any work of architecture.

The iconic manifestation of Vishnu in all these temples is considered by most Vaiṣṇavas to be a revelation in action:

Devotees think of the enshrined icon as a continuous revelation of the Supreme Being, not as an idol made of material substance. Vaiṣṇavas consider this icon to be God—on earth as He is in heaven.

While the temple is extremely holy and significant in Vaiṣṇava faith, the home and the human body are also considered to be sacred:

Icons and pictures of Vishnu are kept in home altars, and daily worship at such household altars signifies that the deity is treated as an honoured guest:

He is woken up, bathed, offered food, and made to sleep at night.
One can be a good Vaiṣṇava without ever having to set foot outside the home.

The human body is also a container of the divine:

In daily exercises, when Vaiṣṇava symbols are anointed on different parts of one’s body, the various names of Vishnu are recited.

One is therefore enjoined to keep one’s body physically and mentally pure. This deity in one’s heart is not different from or lesser than the deity in the temple or the one in heaven.

11. What is Sacred?

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

Ordinarily only men handle a Śālagrāma.

12. Vaishnava Festivals

The Vaiṣṇava traditions share many holidays and festivals with other Hindus, and these vary by region and by community:

Like most other Hindus, the Vaiṣṇavas celebrate Dīpāvalī, the Festival of Lights, on the new moon or the day before that comes between 15 October and 15 November:

The festival is celebrated for various reasons:

Vaiṣṇavas in North India celebrate this as the day Rāma returned from Laṅkā after defeating the demon Rāvaṇa, whereas devotees in the South believe that on dawn that day Krishna and his wife, Satyabhāmā, together defeated Nārakasura, the demon of Hell.

South Indian Vaiṣṇavas, along with other Tamil-speaking people from Tamil-Nadu, celebrate Pongal, a festival of harvest and thanksgiving:

Although celebrated in mid-January, this 3-day festival marks the winter solstice in the Hindu calendar. It is called the beginning of the Uttarāyaṇa puṇya kāla, the blessed time when the sun travels North.

The Śrī Vaiṣṇava community also celebrates the songs of the Āḻvārs in a festival of recitation in the month of Mārgaśīrṣa (mid-December to mid-January):

The songs are recited and sung, and in some holy temples like Śrīraṅgam and Śrīvilliputtur, men from families who have the hereditary right to do so act out some of the poems.

Vaiṣṇavas tend to celebrate the birthdays of their spiritual teachers as well as the birthdays of Rāma and Krishna.

The birthdays of the deities—the astrological date on which they are said to have incarnated themselves—are days of considerable celebration with the preparation and consumption of many sweets and dishes.

13. Dresscode

Vaiṣṇava garb for men and women varies depending on the region. On ritual occasions in southern India, men wear a veshti (dhoti), a piece of white cotton cloth that is twirled around the legs.

Also on ritual occasions both priests and Brahman men in South India do not ordinarily wear a shirt. The sacred thread that they wear over their shoulders announces their caste.

At one time many men in all parts of India, especially the Brahmans, tended to shave their heads except for a tuft of hair that resembles a ponytail on the top of their heads, but this custom is seldom followed now.

Orthodox Brahman women belonging to the Śrī Vaiṣṇava community wear a special, 9-yard sari on ritual occasions, especially weddings.

Men and women in the North tend to cover themselves more fully:

In general, women from the North tend to veil their heads or drape their saris lightly over their heads in modesty; whereas women from the South do not follow this custom.

In the past only widows covered their heads in South India.

14. Eating and Diet

The Vaiṣṇava calendar is marked with days of feasting and fasting:

Ekādaśī, or the 11th day after the new moon or full moon, is ordinarily a day of fasting when grain is not consumed, and a diet of fruits and dairy products is recommended.

There are other days of complete fasting,
such as the hours just before the birthday of Krishna or during eclipses.

Vaiṣṇavas are said to prescribe to the Sanskrit dictum “ahimsa paramo dharmaḥ” (non-violence is the highest virtue) and tend to be vegetarians.

Several Vaiṣṇava theologians have written extensively on dietary regulations; this is, in fact, one of the most important aspects of pre-modern Vaiṣṇavism.

While many if not most of these regulations are not followed now, Vaiṣṇavas 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 Vaiṣṇava of the same caste; orthodox pilgrims still take a cook with them on their tours to be sure their diet is not compromised.

15. Rituals

Daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly, and annual rituals are celebrated at Vaiṣṇava homes and temples. In temples the deities are “woken” up from their sleep with special prayers and bathed and adorned before formal worship. Every temple has its own schedule.

In Nāth Dwara, Rajasthan, for instance, Krishna is worshiped in the form of a baby:

The understanding is that a baby needs to sleep, and, therefore, the times opened for devotee worship (darśan, literally “viewing”) are very limited.

As in most Hindu temples, worship in Vaiṣṇava temples is ordinarily not congregational, though that can be found in a few communities. Devotees take fruits and flowers, and the Brahman priest performs a puja (worship) on behalf of the worshiper to the enshrined deity.

While most Vaiṣṇava priests in India are male and belong to the Brahman caste, women in the ISKCON tradition have an active role in the bathing and adorning of the deities.

Domestic rituals vary by caste and gender:

There is daily worship at the home altar that may be done by any member of the family and may range from simply lighting a lamp to more elaborate rituals.

Singing classical and popular songs to the various manifestations of Vishnu, and reciting the 108 or 1,008 names of Vishnu, Lakṣmī, or any one of their many manifestations is also considered to be meritorious.

16. Rites of Initiation

Vaiṣṇavas, like other Hindus, follow sacraments that are common all over India, as well as those that may be specific to their community or their local areas:

Thus, all children go through rites of passage in which they are named and given the first solid food. In addition, one’s first birthday and sometimes the formal starting of education are marked with rituals.

Boys of the upper castes also go through the Upanayana ceremony in which they are invested with a sacred thread that marks a young man’s spiritual birth.

The wedding is frequently the most important sacrament in a Vaiṣṇava’s life.

60th and 80th birthdays are marked with religious rituals that include propitiatory rites to various deities for peace in one’s life.

In death the body is cremated, and the ashes immersed in a holy river.

Local or community Vaiṣṇava rites of passage may include celebrations to mark menarche and prenatal rituals for pregnant mothers.

17. Membership

One may be born into a Vaiṣṇava family or become a Vaiṣṇava by choice.

Most frequently the person who becomes a Vaiṣṇava does so by simply accepting Vishnu as the Supreme Being and perhaps by following some of the dietary and ritual practices.

On the other hand, those who formally want to become Vaiṣṇavas may get initiated into a particular Vaiṣṇava tradition by one of the many spiritual teachers.

The initiation ceremony may involve the giving of a mantra, a name that now articulates the devotee’s new status, and perhaps the marking of the upper arms with the signs of Vishnu—the conch and the discus.

Hundreds of websites cater to the Vaiṣṇava subgroups, creating transnational communities.

While some communities have had periods of active proselytizing, in general, Vaiṣṇava traditions do not focus on new recruitment; rather, the websites as well as the individual teachers try to get the existing Vaiṣṇavas to be better devotees.

18. Religious Tolerance

While there is no persecution against Vaiṣṇavas today, there have been occasional historical cases of struggle between Vaiṣṇavas, Śaivites, and Jains in southern India.

In general, a sense of religious pluralism among Hindus has prevailed in most communities in India and elsewhere at most times.

19. Social Justice

Many of the Vaiṣṇava traditions highlight the importance of faith and devotion and place these traditions as more important than social class or caste.

Thus, there are many narratives that speak about how religious leaders befriended those of the “lower” castes. There have also been several Vaiṣṇava movements to include members of the outcaste groups into the social fabric.

In this logic of devotion (which may be different from the rules of ethics that apply in a day-to-day situation), women, too, are considered to be qualified for salvation. In practice, however, women and those who belong to the “lower” castes have not had priestly roles in temples.

20. Social Aspects

Vaiṣṇava traditions celebrate the importance of community.
Devotees frequently sing or compose poems longing to live with other devotees.

Such a life with other devotees is considered to be the “real” society (sat sangha)—that is, the ideal society in which one should aspire to live.

There is much reverence given to devotees of Vishnu, and frequently more respect is given to such devotion than to age, caste, or gender. In spite of these concepts, the caste system that exists in Hinduism is present in the Vaiṣṇava traditions as well.

21. Controversial Issues

Many Vaiṣṇava groups have internal tensions over succession issues, and after the death of a charismatic leader, these groups frequently splinter over issues of philosophical interpretation and social practices.

Controversies over the authority of certain castes to have sacerdotal functions or the authority of women to do certain rituals and recite certain mantras or prayers also exist.

In general, the Vaiṣṇava leaders, like most Hindu leaders of other traditions, do not speak out publicly on such issues as birth control, abortion, and gay marriages.

22. Cultural Impact

Vaiṣṇava traditions are perhaps best appreciated in the arts, and for centuries Vaiṣṇavism tenets have been transmitted through the performing arts rather than through books or sermons.

Whether it is a simple bhajan (devotional song) or a complex dance performance, the power of the narratives is brought out through articulating the emotion with performing arts.

The glory of the various incarnations of Vishnu as well as the soul’s longing for union with the divine is frequently portrayed in classical dances. The dancer takes on the role of a young woman pining for her lover in an allegory for the soul’s search for God.

Folk songs and dances re-enact incidents from the life of Krishna.
The various hand gestures adopted by dancers are also seen in iconography.

Vishnu icons abound in South and Southeast Asia, with some spectacular ones seen in southern India and in Cambodia. Vishnu can be portrayed as standing, sitting, reclining, or striding; and there are hundreds of ways in which Rāma, Krishna, or the other incarnations can be portrayed.

Vaiṣṇava themes, especially stories relating to the life of Krishna, have been the focus of miniature painting for the last 4 centuries in northern India:

Some incidents depicted in the paintings are seen as expressive of particular modes of music (rāgas) and are projected as the visual dimension of aural aesthetics.