Membership, Community, Diversity

Who are the Vaishnavites?

About half the world’s Hindus belong to the various sub-denominations of Vaishnavism. In general, northern Vaishnavas understand Vishnu as a form of Krishna, while most southerners think of either Rama or Krishna as forms of Vishnu. Five major Vaishnava schools trace their origins to famous founders who lived between about 1000 and 1500 C.E. Different ways of describing the divine-human relationship mark the principal distinctions among the five denominations and the various sectarian divisions that have arisen from them. Ramanuja (1017-1137) was a major figure in a predominantly southern school called Shrivaishnavism, so called because of the centrality of Vishnu’s consort Shri. Ramanuja taught a modified form of non-dualism (called Vishisht-advaita) according to which individual souls are aspects of the divine, part of God, but retain their individuality and do not lose their identity in their union with the divine.

Madhva (1197-1278) disagreed, insisting on a fuller distinction between the human and the divine. His teaching is a type of pure theism in which God freely chooses to reach with love and grace across an infinite and otherwise unbridgeable chasm. Madhva’s dualist (Dvaita) branch is also primarily a southern tradition, while the remaining three are more popular in the north. Nimbarka (1125-1162) focused on the role of the guru as the central means of grace in his Minandi school. Vallabha (1475-1530) taught a form of “pure non-dualism,” also called “panentheism” (God in all things). His commentaries on the Bhagavata Purana detail his mystical interpretation of the so-called “Love Games of Krishna,” in which the Lord’s romance with the gopis becomes a model of the human quest for the divine beloved—and vice versa. Chaitanya (1485-1534) preached devotion to Krishna and Radha through communal dance and song. Of the several contemporary subsects of his Gaudiya Vaishnava group perhaps the best known is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.


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