Talk:The vaishnava contemplative tradition

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By Swami Purnanda

The term Vaisnava refers to devotees of God in general as well as to devotees of Vishnu in particular. As is evident, the word has been derived from Vishnu. In one sense, Vishnu denotes the omnipresent, all-pervading Being, while in another, it represents one of the famous triad of deities of the Hindu faith, the preserver of creation. He has four arms, holding a conch (Pāñcajanya), a discus (Sudarśana), a mace (Kaumudakī), and a lotus. This concept of Vishnu is Puranic. But it has a very ancient origin. The name Vishnu appears in the Rig Veda: ‘Idam visnur-vi cakrame tredhā nidadhe padam, samūhlam-asya pāmsure; Vishnu traversed this world: thrice he planted his foot and the whole (world) was gathered in the dust of his footsteps.’[1] Elsewhere he has been conceived as a personifcation of light and of the sun(1.155). He is called Śipivista, clothed in rays of light. The wise ever contemplate the supreme station (paramam padam) of Vishnu as the eye ranging over the sky (1.22.20). The idea of the Vedic Vishnu is abstract, whereas that of Puranic Vishnu is anthropomorphic. He is the unconquerable Preserver who lives in Vaikuntha or Goloka, and during the period of dissolution he rests on the great serpent Ananta or Śesa in the midst of the ocean of causal waters (kārana salila). Many Puranas describe him as the Supreme God. Nevertheless, even the Puranic idea of Vishnu has its source in the Vedas.

Vāsudeva, Nārāyana, and Krsna are the main epithets of Vishnu. Krishna is the primary object of devotion in the Bhāgavata and Gaudīya traditions. He is worshipped in several forms: as Vāsudeva Krishna (the Supreme Being), as Gopāla Krishna (baby Krishna), as Vanamālī Krishna (the young cowherd), and as the king of Dwāraka.

Vaisnava Āgama

The Āgamas are the secondary scriptures of Hinduism, derived from the Vedas. Though they have many divisions, the primary Āgamas are five in number: Saura, Śākta, Gānapatya, Vaisnava, and Śaiva or Pāśupatya. The Vaisnava Āgama has two main subdivisions: the Vaikhānasa Āgama and the Pāñcarātra Āgama. As all these Āgamas are said to have been derived from the Vedas, they are called Śrauta Āgamas.

The Vaisnava tradition is primarily a tradition of bhakti, devotion to God. Nārada defines bhakti as being of the nature of intense love for God: Sā tvasmin parama premarūpā.[2] The sage Śāndilya defines it as supreme attachment to God: sā parānuraktir-īśvare.[3] Two types of bhakti have been described by the teachers of bhakti: vaidhī and rāgānugā. Vaidhī bhakti involves worship and other rituals as instructed by the scriptures, whereas in rāgānugā bhakti intense love for God is fundamental, and rituals and worship become secondary. The Vaikhānasa Āgama deals primarily with vaidhī bhakti, while Pāñcarātra Āgama teaches both vaidhī and rāgānugā bhakti.

Vaikhānasa Āgama

The Vaikhānasa school of Vaisnavism claims its origin from the sage Vikhanas or Brahma, the Creator himself. The Vaikhānasas are primarily a community of temple priests, and the mode of their worship is essentially oriented towards Vishnu. The Vaikhānasa Grhya Sūtras prescribe for the householders a daily worship involving the fabrication of an image of Vishnu. All gods and goddesses are supposed to be worshipped in Vishnu.[4] To the Vaikhānasas, Vishnu is the Supreme Being, the highest principle. He has two aspects: sakala (with form) and niskala (without form). The niskala aspect is his essence as all-pervasive Being, while his conditioned presence (the sakala aspect) gracefully responds to devotional intent and meditation. Moksha is release into Vishnu’s abode, called Vaikuntha. It can be attained by the practice of japa (devoted repetition of a mantra or prayer), hūta (sacrifce), archanā (service to the image), and dhyana (meditation conforming to a yogic regimen). Four types of moksha have been described: sālokya (to live in the abode of God), sāmīpya (to live near God), sārūpya (to have a form akin to that of God), and sāyujya (being united with or merged in God). The last one is considered the ultimate moksha. The Vaikhānasa treatises speak of four abodes of Vishnu: Āmoda, Pramoda, Sammoda, and Vaikuntha, where Visnu, Mahā Visnu, Sadā Visnu, and Nārāyana respectively preside. Among the four sadhanas, archanā has been declared the highest by Marichi Samhita. By means of archanā one can enter Vaikuntha, the abode of Narayana, and enjoy eternal bliss.

Pāñcarātra Āgama

Pāñcarātra Āgama prescribes worship of Narayana. The Pāñcarātra tradition follows both vaidhī and rāgānugā bhakti. The term Pāñcarātra can be traced to the Pāñcarātra yajna (a sacrifice spread over five nights) described in the Shatapatha Brahmana.[5] The Ahirbudhnya Samhita says that Narayana himself composed the Pāñcarātra Tantra and there explained the secret of his five forms: Para (the transcendent), Vyūha (the primary emanation), Vibhabha (subsequent manifestation—as avataras), Antaryāmin (the indweller within individuals) and Arcā (the divine manifestation within consecrated images).

The Pāñcarātra tradition of Vaisnavism and the Nārāyanīya section in the Śāntiparvan of the Mahabharata have great similarity. The primary aim of the Pāñcarātra tradition is prapatti or śaranāgati (self-surrender), and the path is therefore called ekāntika (with but one aim). According to Pāñcarātrikas, śaranāgati or total resignation is the main method of contemplation.

The Common Contemplative Tradition of Vaisnavism

Vaisnavism is in the main a tradition of bhakti. This bhakti has been defined and explained in different ways by different teachers. Unmotivated devotion (ahaitukī bhakti) to God is preached in the Bhagavata: ‘Sa vai pumsām paro dharmo yato bhaktir-adhoksaje, ahaituky-apratihatā yayā’’tmā samprasīdati;That is the highest religion of humanity from which arises motiveless and uninterrupted devotion to God that fills the soul with bliss.’[6] The Narada Pancharatra defines bhakti as the realization that God alone is ‘mine’ (truly one’s own), accompanied by divine love (preman) and devoid of attachment to any worldly object. In later Vaisnava tradition a distinction is drawn between bhakti and preman. Bhakti is spontaneous attachment for God, being entirely possessed by and absorbed in him. Preman is the most concentrated form of this love, characterized by that intense attachment to God which purifes the heart completely. Preman is the culmination and fulflment of bhakti, its utmost perfection. This is also the basis of the two divisions: vaidhī or sādhana bhakti (ritual devotion) and rāgānugā or premā bhakti (the devotion consequent upon intense attachment).

Spirit of Renunciation in Vaisnavism

Although there are exceptions, formal renunciation is not an important component of the Vaisnava tradition. The renunciation practised by its adherents manifests more as an indiferent attitude towards worldly objects that are obstacles to one-pointed or single-minded love for God. This is called yukta vairāgya (detachment proper): ‘Anāsaktasya visayān yathārham-upayuñjatah, nirbandhah krsna-sambandhe yuktam vairāgyam-ucyate; That detachment which is characterized by acceptance of only those objects that are not detrimental to devotion and which is accompanied by a desire to associate with Krishna is termed yukta vairāgya.’[7] This is in contrast to phalgu vairāgya (feeble detachment) ‘Prāpañcikatayā buddhyā hari-sambandhi-vastunah mumuksubhih parityāgo vairāgyam phalgu kathyate; Renunciation of all objects—even those related to Krishna himself, knowing them to be worldly—by seekers of salvation is termed phalgu vairāgya’ (1.2.254 ). This is the spirit of renunciation of those who tread on the path of knowledge. Vaisnava devotees generally practise yukta vairāgya. Sri Caitanya Mahāprabhu exemplifed an uncompromising spirit of renunciation, and so did his direct disciples like Rūpa, Sanātana, and Jīva Gosvāmi.

Sannyasins and Householders and their Sacraments

The Vaisnava movement comprises both sannyasin and householder traditions. Each has a tradition of teacher-pupil succession (paramparā), maintained by the process of dīksā (initiation with a mantra). On being initiated into the sect (sampradāya) the disciple undertakes to abide by the values of the tradition and the community. He or she receives a mantra of Vishnu or Krishna (and in case of renunciants a new name) in accordance with the traditional ista (Chosen Deity) of the particular sampradāya. All Vaisnavas must mark their fore-head with sandalwood tilaka (a holy mark in the form of an extended ‘U’) and other sacred marks—signs of Vishnu’s insignia—on diferent parts of the body: arms, nose, chest, and the like. A body without these marks is considered ‘as inauspicious as a carcass’. All initiated Vaisnavas are also expected to wear a string of beads made from the stem of tulsi (the holy basil) around their necks, have a rosary for japa (repeating the divine name), and wear a śikhā (a knotted tuf of hair on the back of the head).

The Marks of Vaidhī Bhakti

Vaidhī bhakti has nine aspects (navalaksanā or navadhā): listening to the name and glories of the Lord, chanting his holy name, constant remembrance, service, worship, salutation, servitude, friendship, and self-surrender—all directed to Vishnu: ‘Śravanam kīrtanam vishnoh smaranam pādasevanam, arcanam vandanam dāsyam sakhyam-ātmanivedanam.’[8] These nine ways of worshipping Vishnu are followed by all the Vaisnava schools as vaidhī bhakti. Each school has its own approach, emphasizing one or more of these aspects. According to Nārada, dedication of all actions to the Lord and extreme yearning on forgetting him are marks of devotion. The lineage of Parāśara holds that attachment to worship and other rituals is the mark of bhakti. Garga maintains that speaking of His glories is the sign of devotion. Śāndilya holds that love for the Self is bhakti. Another aspect of devotion especially stressed in the Vaisnava tradition is association with and service to devotees of the Lord. The Gaudīya Vaisnavas hold that to have utmost taste for taking the Lord’s name, compassion towards all jivas (living beings), and service to devotees (initiated Vaisnavas) are the means to as well as marks of devotion. But it is śaranāgati that is most important for a Vaisnava spiritual aspirant. This śaranāgati has six aspects: (i) resolve to subordinate one’s will to the divine will, (ii) avoidance of all that is contrary to His will, (iii) firm faith that the Lord is the saviour of all, (iv) acceptance of the protective grace of the Lord, (v) total surrender to Him, and (vi) awareness of one’s poverty (of spirit): ‘Ānukūlyasya samkalpah prātikūlyasya varjanam, raksisyatīti viśvāsa goptrtvavaranam tathā; ātmaniksepakārpanye sadvidhā śaranāgatih.’ Vaidhī bhakti is further categorized into three groups according to the three gunas: sāttvika, rājasika, and tāmasika.

Rāgānugā or Premā Bhakti

The highest form of devotion is that which transcends all the three gunas. It is love for love’s sake alone. It is a spontaneous and uninterrupted inclination of the mind towards the Lord without even the desire for liberation (mukti). It is supreme bhakti, or preman—intense, uninterrupted, unalloyed, and motiveless love towards God, which leads to God-realization.

This preman surpasses all other types of bhakti. Sri Ramakrishna says, ‘The mature stage of bhakti is bhāva. When one attains it one remains speechless, thinking of Satchidānanda. The feeling of an ordinary man can go only that far. When bhāva ripens it becomes mahābhāva. Prema is the last.’[9] When love towards God is intensifed, a sweet relationship is established between God and the devotee. This rāgātmikā or rāgānugā bhakti manifests in five different attitudes (bhāvas): śānta (calm), dāsya (serviceful), sakhya (friendly), vātsalya (parental), and madhura (amorous). Several sentiments go to make each attitude, and each bhāva subsumes the sentiments inherent in the preceding attitude. For instance, in śānta bhāva the devotees enjoy divine bliss through meditation on the transcendental beauty of the Deity and adore him with all their hearts’ devotion. When this love matures into a personal or relational love, the devotees serve the Deity much like a servant serves the master. This stage of love includes sneha (affection), pranaya (friendship), māna (pique), and rāga (attachment). A servant enjoys both the wealth (aiśvarya) and sweet affection (mādhurya) of the Lord. Next the devotee approaches even nearer and loves the Deity as a friend (sakhā). This type of love includes anurāga (love as a constant freshness) in addition to the sentiments mentioned earlier. When love rises to a still higher level it manifests as parental affection (vātsalya) for the beloved. All the qualities inherent in friendly love are further intensifed and awareness of aiśvarya is dispelled; only mādhurya prevails. Up to this stage of parental love, the bhakti is relational (sambandhātmikā). When the last vestige of remoteness of the Deity vanishes from the mind of the devotee, two more mental states become manifest: bhāva (intoxication) and mahābhāva (supreme love-intoxication). The personality of the lover merges with the Beloved. The lover concentrates his or her whole being on the Beloved and becomes united with the Deity in spirit. This is the highest consummation of love for God. This has been described as amorous love (kāmātmikā), which is considered the highest form of contemplation in the Vaisnava tradition. The devotees of this grade do not want liberation or anything other than divine communion—enjoying the absolute sweetness (mādhurya) of the Lord. This is the culmination of preman, the purest love for the beloved. The state where separation is overcome and total union between the devotee and the Beloved takes place is mahābhāva. The deep impact of this experience affects the entire being—the mind, body, and soul of the devotee. It manifests externally as the sāttvika vikāras (unaffected emotions), which are recognized to be eight in number: sveda (perspiration), stambha (stupor), romāñca (horripilation), svara-bhanga (broken voice), vaivarnya (pallor), aśru (tears), vepathu (tremor), and pralaya (loss of consciousness). These manifestations take place only when the mind becomes extremely pure and totally free from all worldliness. Sri Ramakrishna has pointed out that ‘the ordinary jīva does not experience mahābhāva or prema. He goes only as far as bhāva’ (255).

There are many sects among the Vaisnavas. We shall now take a brief look at some of them and see how they have adapted and developed these general ideas on contemplation.

Śrīvaisnavism and Rāmānuja

Nāthamuni is traditionally considered the founder of the Śrisampradāya (that is how this school is referred to in North India), and Yāmunācharya the first ācārya. But it was Rāmānuja who established this school on a firm footing.

Sri Ramanujacharya.jpg

Bhakti: According to the Śrīvaisnava tradition, bhakti is realizing one’s ultimate relationship with the Lord as his eternal servant. This relationship generates love for and attachment to him. Rāmānuja also equates bhakti with dhyana and upāsanā. Dhyana is the concentration of the mind on the Deity, and upāsanā, continuous thought of Him or Her. Bhakti has two stages: sādhana-bhakti (bhakti as means, i.e. ritual devotion) and phala-bhakti or sādhya-bhakti (bhakti as fruit). Sādhana-bhakti aims to inculcate strong faith in the Deity as the highest value and a sense of the utter transitoriness of worldly achievements. Sādhya-bhakti is being established in love for God, as a servant loves the master. This is the means to mukti. To achieve sādhya-bhakti, one must go through a seven-fold culture (sādhana saptaka): (i) viveka, discrimination regarding what ought to be accepted and what to be given up, especially in relation to food; (ii) vimoka, control of passions like anger, jealously, and lust; (iii) abhyāsa, practice of disciplines like worship, japa, chanting the names of God, and pilgrimage, in order to maintain a constant memory of God as the indwelling principle (śesin) within oneself as well as in the whole universe; (iv) kriya, the five-fold works or sacrifices—to gods and goddesses through agnihotra (fire sacrifce) and other rituals, to the rishis through scriptural study, to one’s ancestors, to human beings, and to other living beings (bhūtas) through appropriate oferings; (v) kalyāna, virtuous conduct, consisting in practising virtues like satya (truth), ārjava (straightforwardness), dayā (compassion), dāna (charity), and ahimsā (non-injury); (vi) anavasāda, freedom from despair, dejection, pessimism, and the like, and maintenance of a cheerful and positive attitude of mind; and (vii) anuddharsa, absence of exultation or excitement, maintaining an even temperament in all situations.

Prapatti: By long and continued practice of these disciplines, one is established on the plane of vaidhī bhakti consisting of dhyana and upāsanā. Thereafer the aspirant ascends to the plane of paramā bhakti (supreme devotion), maintaining in oneself the knowledge that one is merely a śesa (a minute part of the whole, which is the Deity) and that the Deity is the śesin (the whole). Paramā bhakti is identical with prapatti (resignation). This state of being an eternal servant of the Lord is itself the highest goal. The idea of identifcation with the Supreme Being is not acceptable to the Śrīvaisnava. According to this tradition the Supreme Being or Purusottama is by nature devoid of all blemish and is full of limitless, unsurpassable, and countless auspicious qualities: ‘nirasta-nikhiladoso-’nava-dhikātiśayāsankhyeya-kalyānagunaganah’.[10]

Other Vaisnava Traditions

Sri Madhavacharya.jpg

The theological traditions of the other Vaisnava sects in South India have resemblance to the one developed by Rāmānuja, albeit with noteworthy variations. Teachers like Madhva, Vallabha, Nimbārka, and others also incorporated Rāmānuja’s ideas in their philosophies. Madhva too did not accept the Advaitic concept of jīvanmukti or nirvāna mukti. According to him, mukti is the attainment of Vaikuntha, the abode of Vishnu (sālokya), and attainment of a form similar to the Deity (sārūpya). Mukti or salvation is attained only by the grace of Vishnu, and even after mukti the jiva remains the servant of the Lord. Ishvara and jiva are distinct entities. Bhakti, the only means of salvation, leads to the direct perception of the Deity. By performing proper worship a person becomes competent for bhakti. This worship includes :ankana (marking the body with holy symbols), nāmakarana (naming children and other objects of love with holy names),and bhajana (service). Bhajana again is of three types: kāyika (physical), vācika (verbal), and mānasika (mental). Kāyika bhajana includes dāna (charity), paritrāna (acts of deliverance), and pariraksana (acts of protection). Vācika bhajana includes satyakathana (speaking the truth), hitavākya kathana (beneficial counsel), priyavākya kathana (sweet and gentle speech), and svādhyāya (study of scriptures). Mānasika bhajana comprises dayā (compassion),sprhā (desire for service to God), and śraddhā(faith in the guru and scriptures). Through these devotional practices mediate knowledge is gained; this helps the growth of bhakti, which in turn results in enlightenment. This leads to a very ripe devotion which, in turn, leads to liberation—eternal servitude to God.

The Vāllabha Tradition

Sri Vallabhacharya.jpg

Although the school founded by Vallabhācharya accepts the Vedas, the Bhagavadgita, and the Narada Pancharatra as scripture, its primary authority is the Bhagavata Purana, because this text is directly related to Krishna. For Vallabha, Sri Krishna is the Sat-cid-ananda Parabrahman, also called Purusottama, even when present in his pastoral aspect as the cowherd boy of Vraja. Vallabha, however, does not accept the reality of Rādhā as in the Vrindavan Vaisnava tradition and the Gaudīya tradition. According to Vallabha the highest type of jiva is pusti jīva, the spiritually nourished jiva. This concept of pusti is derived from the Bhagavata: ‘posanam tadanugrahah; posana is his grace.’[11] This is why Vallabha’s system of philosophy is called Pusti Mārga. One may practise bhakti rigorously, but divine grace is nonetheless the last word and the summum bonum of life. A pusti jīva prefers to serve the Lord, even eschewing mukti. Bhajanānanda (the joy of devotional adoration) is infnitely superior to brahmānanda (the bliss of Brahman), and this can be had through service to Krishna, the Pūrna Purusottama (the Supreme Being totally manifest). To attain this privilege, the disciplines of nine-fold bhakti mentioned earlier have been prescribed. When this bhakti matures, the devotee enters into a transcendental state in this very life and gets a spiritual body in the life beyond, in order to be perpetually engaged in the divine service of the Lord.

Early Medieval Vaisnava Schools


Many other Vaisnava devotees called sants preached the doctrine of love throughout India. Several sects have preserved the traditions they founded. These include the sects of Nimbārka, Rāmānanda, and Samartha Rāmdās, the Vārkarīpantha (worshippers of Vitthala or Vithobā of Pandharpur, including Nāmadeva, Eknāth, Tukārām, and Janābai among others); and smaller sects associated with Haridās and Dādu. Jñāneśvara blended bhakti with Advaita Vedanta in Jnaneshvari, his commentary on the Bhagavadgita. The other sants have stressed bhakti as the path to God realization and advocated singing the name of the Lord and chanting his praise. These sants accepted and preached the path of pure devotion (premā bhakti), considering God a loving parent or master rather than as the divine lover of the Bhāgavata or Gaudīya tradition. An exception was Mīrābāi; she practised and preached rāgānugā bhakti (passionate love) towards the Lord, viewing him as lover.

Gaudīya and Bhāgavata Tradition

The Gaudīya tradition of bhakti is based on the theology of the Bhagavata and the Narada Pancharatra. The Gaudīya Vaisnavas are worshippers of Rādhā and Krishna. The person of Rādhā does not fnd mention in the Bhagavata. This concept is derived from the Narada Pancharatra, where Pārvati, the divine consort of Shiva, says: ‘Tadrāse dhāranādrādhā vidvadbhih parikīrtitā; I held you in rāsa (divine play), that is why I am known as Rādhā by those in the know.’[12] Gopīs, the milkmaids of Vraja, are the embodiments of amorous love. The aggregate of this love of the gopīs is Rādhā, the embodiment of mahābhāva, the manifestation of hlādinī (the power of divine beatitude), which is one of the components of God’s svarūpa śakti (intrinsic powers).

Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu.jpg

This concept of Rādhā is a dominant theme in Vrindavan. The highest aspect of mahābhāva, known as mādana or maddening delight, is possessed only by Rādhā and none else, not even by Krishna.[13] The delight Rādhā derives thereby is so immensely superior to what Krishna enjoys as the object of her love and is so irresistibly tempting, that Krishna cannot suppress his eagerness to taste his own charms and sweetness as Rādhā does. Accordingly, there is an aspect of Krishna in which all the attributes of the Krishna of Vrindavan as well as those of Rādhā coexist.[14] In this aspect, Krishna, as the subject of mādana, relishes his own charms and sweetness. Caitanya Mahāprabhu (or Śri Gaurānga), is considered to be this dual form—Krishna and Rādhā embodied in one frame—by the Gaudīya Vaisnavas. So it is their custom to worship Gaurānga and his companions before worshipping Krishna.

The highest privilege for a jiva is to serve the Lord with madhura rati (amorous attachment) and be united with him, while maintaining one’s indi-viduality, or while maintaining an idea of separation of Purusa and Prakrti (in Vaisnava theological terms). To attain this state one needs to practise thinking of oneself as a young gopī, beautifully dressed, attending on Rādhā in her love-pastimes with Krishna, being the principal subordinate to Rūpamañjarī, the chief among Rādhā’s attendants (known as mañjarīs). Similar is the mode of meditation for devotees with other ratis (2.22.91).

I will build a funeral pyre of sandalwood
   and aloe;
   light it by Your own hand.
When I am burned away to cinders,
   smear this ash upon Your limbs.
   …let flame be lost in flame. —Mirabai

But this is not possible for novices. So they are to prepare themselves by following the disciplines of vaidhī bhakti and navadhā bhakti mentioned earlier. Thereafer, the aspirant is expected to develop the sentiments inherent in the śānta, dāsya, sakhya, and vātsalya attitudes (sneha, pranaya, and the like). When the aspirant feels a deep attraction for and cannot bear separation from Krishna, he or she is established in bhāva. When this too ripens, the aspirant is established in the attitude of a gopī (gopī bhāva siddha), which, in select aspirants, culminates in mahābhāva. In this state separation is removed and total union prevails; the aspirant enters into the supreme state of divine ecstasy and becomes one with the beloved enjoying the absolute mādhurya of Krishna. In this state Krishna is looked upon as the nearest and dearest, nay—the person of the devotee is totally merged into that of Krishna, who is Narayana of Goloka, the advaya jñāna-tattva vastuthe unique or non-dual essence of knowledge.

Sahajiyā and Śankaradeva Traditions

The Sahajiyā sect developed in the train of the Caitanya movement, though it is virtually extinct at present. Its practice involved madhura bhāva asparakiyā sādhana, having a person of the opposite sex, other than one’s spouse, as companion for one’s sadhana. An aspirant practises looking upon his or her paramour as an embodiment of Rādhā or Krishna to foster divine love.

Sri Shankaradeva.jpg

Important exponents of the Gaudīya tradition include Rūpa, Sanātana, and Jīva Gosvāmi. Among more recent traditions, the Svāmīnārāyana group bears resemblance to the South Indian traditionof Vaisnavism, while ISKCON, the Hare Krishna school, follows the Gaudīya tradition. The ISKCON followers emphasize keeping count on the rosary( japa mālā) while repeating the holy name, and consider the Bhagavata, the Gita, and the Chaitanya Charitamrita their main scriptures. In Northeast India, Śankaradeva has a large Vaisnnava following. This group considers the Bhagavata as the embodiment of Krishna, and worships it as such. They usually do not worship images, but otherwise follow Gaudīya theology. They follow the teachings of the Bhagavata, which prescribes the Kaliyuga method of worshipping the Supreme Being through kīrtana, identifying him with Krishna and Rama and addressing him as Mahāpurusa.[15] Thus the Purusottama of the Gita is the Mahāpurusa of the Bhagavata, and the theology of Śankaradeva is known as Mahāpurusiyā Dharma. Kīrtana, the main method of worship, is also called nāma-dharma. Just as the Gita enjoins giving up all duties and the practice of implicit resignation to the Lord,[16] Śankaradeva also lays great stress on eka śarana (surrender to the one Lord), which gives the school its other epithet eka śaraniyā. The concept of mukti is not given much importance by this sect, and it does not accept madhura bhāva or the Rādhā and gopī concepts of Caitanya and the Bhāgavata school.

Sri Ramakrishna on Vaisnava Bhakti

According to Sri Ramakrishna, in this Kaliyuga devotion as prescribed by Nārada is the way to God-realization. Tihs involves intense love for God and total indifference towards everything contrary to God; and this is developed by singing the names and glories of God. Ramakrishna says that two things are essential to realize God: simplicity and yearning. It is necessary to establish a close relationship with God and impress deeply on the mind the idea that God is one’s very own. Knowing this, one must take refuge in God and develop an intense attachment for him/her. He says, ‘God reveals Himself to a devotee who feels drawn to Him by the combined force of these three attractions: the attractions of worldly possessions for the worldly man, the child’s attraction for its mother, and the husband’s attraction for the chaste wife.’[17] He prescribes four aids to contemplation: (i) association with holy persons, (ii) solitude, (iii) discrimination (between the real and the unreal, to develop the conviction that God alone is real and all else unreal), and (iv) prayer for genuine faith and love for God. He declares that God realization is the sole aim of human life, and that a still higher aim is to love God with all one’s heart and soul but without any ulterior motive. Mukti is a secondary matter for Ramakrishna, and is inferior to bhakti. The culmination of all knowledge is the realization that the same (and one) God has become the jivas, the universe, and all its components; it is to experience God in every thing and in every being. This is also the highest state of bhakti according to Vaisnava theology. Hari Om.

The image of Madhvacharya is courtesy of Rama-krishna Mission, Chengalpattu; other images in this article are courtesy of Ramakrishna Math, Hyderabad.


  1. Rig Veda, 1.22.17.
  2. Narada Bhakti Sutra, 2.
  3. Shandilya Bhakti Sutra, 2.
  4. Vaikhanasa Grihya Sutra, 4.10.12.
  5. Shatapatha Brahmana, 13.6.1.
  6. Bhagavata, 1.2.6.
  7. Rupa Gosvami, Bhakti-rasamrita-sindhu, 1.2.253.
  8. Bhagavata, 7.5.22.
  9. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nihilananda (Chennai,Ramakrishna Math, 2002),502–3.
  10. Ramanujacharya, Brahma Sutra Sri Bhashya, 1.1.1.
  11. Bhagavata, 2.10.4.
  12. Narada Pancharatra, 1.2.62.
  13. Rupa Gosvami, Ujjvala-nilamani, ‘Sthayibhava Prakarana’, 172 et seq.
  14. Krishnadas Kaviraj, Chaitanya Charitamrita, 1.4.109, 115–16; 2.8.239.
  15. Bhagavata, 11.5.32–34.
  16. Bhagavadgita, 18.66.
  17. Gospel, 83.

O mind, meditate on Mura’s adversary;
O hands, be clasped in the worship of Sridhara; 
O ears, hear the great deeds of Achyuta;
O eyes, be fixed on Krishna;
O feet, go to the temple of Hari;
O nose, smell the tulsi at the feet of Mukunda;
O head, bow down to Adhokshaja. 
    —Kulashekhara Alvar, Mukundamala
  • Originally published as "The Vaisnava Contemplative Tradition" by Prabhuddha Bharata January 2007 edition. Reprinted with permission.