Vaish Intro

Vaishnavism is the largest of all the Hindu denominations, with around 560 million adherents across the globe. Members of Vaishnavism are called Vaishnavites or Vaishnavas (adjective: Vaishnava).
In the Hindu Trimurti (trinity), Vishnu is known as the preserver. However, as Vaishnavas regard him as the supreme god, in Vaishnavism he is given many attributes. Important among these are his omniscience, strength, a capacity to make impossible possible, sovereignty, valour and resplendence. In his manifestation as Krishna he was a great warrior and learned man whose discourse on Hindu philosophy forms the primary Hindu religious text, the Bhagvad Gita. As Rama he was manifest as a man who adhered perfectly to Dharma (natural law) despite numerous harsh trials and tribulations. His wife, Lakshmi the goddess of wealth, is also worshipped, and may be referred to as Sri (pronounced Shree), which means auspicious.

Doctrine

Like other aspects of Hinduism, no denomination is monolithic and hegemonic. Vaishnavism is divided into many smaller divisions, often focussing on one form/incarnation or avatar of Vishnu or the other. The two main deities worshipped are Krishna and Rama, both incarnation of Vishnu, and are considered supreme gods, with other deities as subordinate manifestations. Vaishnavite Hindus also worship the abstract form of Vishnu in the saligrama stone. The stones are shaped similar to an ammonite fossil, and worshipping it is considered the worship of god himself.

The six schools of Vaishnavism are called: Vishishtadvaita, Dvaita, Achintya Bheda-Abheda, Shuddhaadvaita, Dvaitaadvaita and Ek Saran Naam Dharma. Whilst most of the other Hindu denominations stress the hidden meaning of the scriptures, Vaishnavism stresses the literal meaning of the Vedas, and treats the subtext and allegory as secondary concerns. In addition to the Vedas, Vaishnavites especially revere the Bhagavad Gita, the Bhagavata Purana, the Vishnu Samhita and the Gita Govinda, among others. These texts focus especially on Vishnu or his incarnations Krishna and Rama.

The distinctive religious belief of Vaishnavism is its emphasis on God as a personal being; i.e., someone you can know and have a relationship with. Vaishnavas often identify six qualities of God: all knowledge, all power, supreme majesty, supreme strength, unlimited energy and total self-sufficiency. One popular name for God among Vaishnavites is an ancient name from the Vedas: Purushottama, "the Supreme Person."

Vaishnavas often recount the love story between Rama and Sita and contemplate Krishna’s physical and spiritual features and amorous antics. Religious ecstasy and feelings of companionship with Vishnu are the main goals of Vaishnava religious ritual. Consequently, Vaishnavas tend to be associated with the bhakti traditions of Hinduism, believing that salvation (moksha) can be attained through a deep personal devotion to god. Whilst meditation is an important part of Vaishnavite religious practice, religious ecstasy and morality rather than contemplation, are the focus. 

Another distinctive aspect of Vaishnavism is the admiration of numerous Vaishnava saints. One important group of such saints is the 12 Alvars who lived in South India in the 8th and 9th centuries. They wrote hymns that expressed the strongest love and passion for Vishnu and longing for His presence.

Vaishnava Today

One group of modern Vaishnava saints are the Bauls, who live in Bengal. They call themselves "madmen for God" and sing and dance throughout the countryside. Many other historical Vaishnavites are admired for their devotion to Vishnu as well. Some of the most beloved Vaishnava saints are Antal, Mira Bai, Tulsi Das, Jnanadeva, Chaitanya and Tukaram.

Some Vaishnavas wear the mark of Vishnu upon their foreheads or bodies, which may be a Y, U or T shape drawn in white. Alongside this is a red circle, representative of Lakshmi.

There are no accurate figures for Vaishnavas living in Britain. However, 75% of the British Hindu population is Gujarati, an area of India strongly associated with Vaishnavism. It is therefore likely that the majority of Britain’s Hindus are Vaishnavas.

 The Hare Krishnas are an example of a Vaishnavite group. As with other Hindu denominations, they celebrate all the Hindu festivals during the year. Of particular importance to the Vaishnavas are the festivals of Ramnavmi, celebrating Lord Rama’s birthday (usually in April), and Janmashtmi, celebrating Lord Krishna’s birthday (usually in August).


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