Vaishnavism
Overview
 
Vaishnavism is a tradition of Hinduism
Hinduism
Hinduism is the predominant and indigenous religious tradition of the Indian Subcontinent. Hinduism is known to its followers as , amongst many other expressions...

, distinguished from other schools by its worship of Vishnu
Vishnu
Vishnu is the Supreme god in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism. Smarta followers of Adi Shankara, among others, venerate Vishnu as one of the five primary forms of God....

, or his associated Avatar
Avatar
In Hinduism, an avatar is a deliberate descent of a deity to earth, or a descent of the Supreme Being and is mostly translated into English as "incarnation," but more accurately as "appearance" or "manifestation"....

s such as Rama
Rama
Rama or full name Ramachandra is considered to be the seventh avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism, and a king of Ayodhya in ancient Indian...

 and Krishna
Krishna
Krishna is a central figure of Hinduism and is traditionally attributed the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita. He is the supreme Being and considered in some monotheistic traditions as an Avatar of Vishnu...

, as the original and supreme God
God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

.

This worship in different perspectives or historical traditions addresses God under the names of Narayana
Narayana
Narayana or Narayan or Naraina is an important Sanskrit name for Vishnu, and in many contemporary vernaculars a common Indian name. Narayana is also identified as the original man, Purusha. The Puranas present divergent views on Narayana...

, Krishna
Krishna
Krishna is a central figure of Hinduism and is traditionally attributed the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita. He is the supreme Being and considered in some monotheistic traditions as an Avatar of Vishnu...

, Vāsudeva
Vasudeva
In Hindu itihasa , Vasudeva is the father of Krishna, the son of Shoorsen, of the Yadu and Vrishni dynasties. His sister Kunti was married to Pandu. He was a partial incarnation of Rishi Kashyap....

 or more often "Vishnu", and their associated avatars. Its beliefs and practices, especially the concepts of Bhakti
Bhakti
In Hinduism Bhakti is religious devotion in the form of active involvement of a devotee in worship of the divine.Within monotheistic Hinduism, it is the love felt by the worshipper towards the personal God, a concept expressed in Hindu theology as Svayam Bhagavan.Bhakti can be used of either...

 and Bhakti Yoga
Bhakti yoga
Bhakti yoga is one of the types of yoga mentioned in Hindu philosophies which denotes the spiritual practice of fostering loving devotion to a personal form of God....

, are based largely on the Upanishad
Upanishad
The Upanishads are philosophical texts considered to be an early source of Hindu religion. More than 200 are known, of which the first dozen or so, the oldest and most important, are variously referred to as the principal, main or old Upanishads...

s, and associated with the Vedas
Vedas
The Vedas are a large body of texts originating in ancient India. Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the texts constitute the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism....

 and Puranic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita
Bhagavad Gita
The ' , also more simply known as Gita, is a 700-verse Hindu scripture that is part of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, but is frequently treated as a freestanding text, and in particular, as an Upanishad in its own right, one of the several books that constitute general Vedic tradition...

, and the Padma
Padma Purana
Padma Purana , one of the major eighteen Puranas, a Hindu religious text, is divided into five parts.In the first part of the text, sage Pulastya explains to Bhishma about religion and the essence of the religion. The second part describes in detail Prithvi...

, Vishnu
Vishnu Purana
The Vishnu Purana is a religious Hindu text and one of the eighteen Mahapuranas. It is considered one of the most important Puranas and has been given the name Puranaratna...

 and Bhagavata
Bhagavata purana
The Bhāgavata Purāṇa is one of the "Maha" Puranic texts of Hindu literature, with its primary focus on bhakti to the incarnations of Vishnu, particularly Krishna...

 Puranas.

The followers of Vaishnavism are referred to as Vaishnava(s) or Vaishnavites.
Encyclopedia
Vaishnavism is a tradition of Hinduism
Hinduism
Hinduism is the predominant and indigenous religious tradition of the Indian Subcontinent. Hinduism is known to its followers as , amongst many other expressions...

, distinguished from other schools by its worship of Vishnu
Vishnu
Vishnu is the Supreme god in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism. Smarta followers of Adi Shankara, among others, venerate Vishnu as one of the five primary forms of God....

, or his associated Avatar
Avatar
In Hinduism, an avatar is a deliberate descent of a deity to earth, or a descent of the Supreme Being and is mostly translated into English as "incarnation," but more accurately as "appearance" or "manifestation"....

s such as Rama
Rama
Rama or full name Ramachandra is considered to be the seventh avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism, and a king of Ayodhya in ancient Indian...

 and Krishna
Krishna
Krishna is a central figure of Hinduism and is traditionally attributed the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita. He is the supreme Being and considered in some monotheistic traditions as an Avatar of Vishnu...

, as the original and supreme God
God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

.

This worship in different perspectives or historical traditions addresses God under the names of Narayana
Narayana
Narayana or Narayan or Naraina is an important Sanskrit name for Vishnu, and in many contemporary vernaculars a common Indian name. Narayana is also identified as the original man, Purusha. The Puranas present divergent views on Narayana...

, Krishna
Krishna
Krishna is a central figure of Hinduism and is traditionally attributed the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita. He is the supreme Being and considered in some monotheistic traditions as an Avatar of Vishnu...

, Vāsudeva
Vasudeva
In Hindu itihasa , Vasudeva is the father of Krishna, the son of Shoorsen, of the Yadu and Vrishni dynasties. His sister Kunti was married to Pandu. He was a partial incarnation of Rishi Kashyap....

 or more often "Vishnu", and their associated avatars. Its beliefs and practices, especially the concepts of Bhakti
Bhakti
In Hinduism Bhakti is religious devotion in the form of active involvement of a devotee in worship of the divine.Within monotheistic Hinduism, it is the love felt by the worshipper towards the personal God, a concept expressed in Hindu theology as Svayam Bhagavan.Bhakti can be used of either...

 and Bhakti Yoga
Bhakti yoga
Bhakti yoga is one of the types of yoga mentioned in Hindu philosophies which denotes the spiritual practice of fostering loving devotion to a personal form of God....

, are based largely on the Upanishad
Upanishad
The Upanishads are philosophical texts considered to be an early source of Hindu religion. More than 200 are known, of which the first dozen or so, the oldest and most important, are variously referred to as the principal, main or old Upanishads...

s, and associated with the Vedas
Vedas
The Vedas are a large body of texts originating in ancient India. Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the texts constitute the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism....

 and Puranic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita
Bhagavad Gita
The ' , also more simply known as Gita, is a 700-verse Hindu scripture that is part of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, but is frequently treated as a freestanding text, and in particular, as an Upanishad in its own right, one of the several books that constitute general Vedic tradition...

, and the Padma
Padma Purana
Padma Purana , one of the major eighteen Puranas, a Hindu religious text, is divided into five parts.In the first part of the text, sage Pulastya explains to Bhishma about religion and the essence of the religion. The second part describes in detail Prithvi...

, Vishnu
Vishnu Purana
The Vishnu Purana is a religious Hindu text and one of the eighteen Mahapuranas. It is considered one of the most important Puranas and has been given the name Puranaratna...

 and Bhagavata
Bhagavata purana
The Bhāgavata Purāṇa is one of the "Maha" Puranic texts of Hindu literature, with its primary focus on bhakti to the incarnations of Vishnu, particularly Krishna...

 Puranas.

The followers of Vaishnavism are referred to as Vaishnava(s) or Vaishnavites. The majority of Hindu
Hindu
Hindu refers to an identity associated with the philosophical, religious and cultural systems that are indigenous to the Indian subcontinent. As used in the Constitution of India, the word "Hindu" is also attributed to all persons professing any Indian religion...

s are Vaishnavas, with the vast majority living in India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

. Awareness, recognition, and growth of the belief has significantly increased outside of India in recent years. The Gaudiya Vaishnava branch of the tradition has significantly increased the awareness of Vaishnavism internationally, since the mid-1900s, largely through the activities and geographical expansion of the Hare Krishna
International Society for Krishna Consciousness
The International Society for Krishna Consciousness , known colloquially as the Hare Krishna movement, is a Gaudiya Vaishnava religious organization. It was founded in 1966 in New York City by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada...

 movement and more recently, through several other Vaishnava organizations such as Pure Bhakti Yoga Society of Bhaktivedanta Swami Narayana Maharaj, conducting preaching activities in the West.

Vaishnavism is, along with Shaivism
Shaivism
Shaivism is one of the four major sects of Hinduism, the others being Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Smartism. Followers of Shaivism, called "Shaivas," and also "Saivas" or "Saivites," revere Shiva as the Supreme Being. Shaivas believe that Shiva is All and in all, the creator, preserver, destroyer,...

, Shaktism
Shaktism
Shaktism is a denomination of Hinduism that focuses worship upon Shakti or Devi – the Hindu Divine Mother – as the absolute, ultimate Godhead...

 and Smartism
Smartism
Smarta Sampradaya is a liberal or nonsectarian denomination of the Vedic Hindu religion which accept all the major Hindu deities as forms of the one Brahman, in contrast to Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism, the other three major Hindu sects, which revere Vishnu, Shiva, and Shakti,...

, one of the four primary schools of devotional Hinduism.

Etymology

The term Vaishnavism entered the English language in the 19th century. It was formed by attaching the suffix -ism to Sanskrit
Sanskrit
Sanskrit , is a historical Indo-Aryan language and the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.Buddhism: besides Pali, see Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Today, it is listed as one of the 22 scheduled languages of India and is an official language of the state of Uttarakhand...

 Vaishnava (IAST
IAST
The International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration is a transliteration scheme that allows a lossless romanization of Indic scripts as employed by the Sanskrit language.-Popularity:...

: ), which is the vriddhi form of Vishnu meaning "relating, belonging, or sacred to Vishnu" or "a worshipper or follower of Vishnu".

Principal historic branches

Bhagavatism, early Ramaism and Krishnaism
Krishnaism
Krishnaism is a group of Hindu denominations within Vaishnavism, centered on devotion to Radha Krishna or other forms of Krishna, identified with Vishnu.The central text of Krishnaism is the Bhagavad Gita....

, merged in historical Vishnuism
Historical Vishnuism
Historical Vishnuism as early worship of the deity Vishnu is one of the historical components, branches or origins of the contemporary and early Vaishnavism, which was subject of considerable study, and often showing that Vishnuism is a distinctive worship — a sect...

, a tradition of Historical Vedic religion
Historical Vedic religion
The religion of the Vedic period is a historical predecessor of Hinduism. Its liturgy is reflected in the mantra portion of the four Vedas, which are compiled in Sanskrit. The religious practices centered on a clergy administering rites...

, distinguished from other traditions by its primary worship of Vishnu
Vishnu
Vishnu is the Supreme god in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism. Smarta followers of Adi Shankara, among others, venerate Vishnu as one of the five primary forms of God....

. Vaishnavism, is historically the first structured Vaishnava religion as "Vishnuism, in a word, is the only cultivated native sectarian native religion of India." Although it is usual to speak of Vishnu as the source of the Avatar
Avatar
In Hinduism, an avatar is a deliberate descent of a deity to earth, or a descent of the Supreme Being and is mostly translated into English as "incarnation," but more accurately as "appearance" or "manifestation"....

, this is only one of the names by which the god of Vaishnavism is known. The other names include Narayana, Vasudeva and Krishna; each the name of a divine figure with attributed supremacy, which each associated tradition of Vaishnavism believes to be distinct. For example, in the Krishnaism
Krishnaism
Krishnaism is a group of Hindu denominations within Vaishnavism, centered on devotion to Radha Krishna or other forms of Krishna, identified with Vishnu.The central text of Krishnaism is the Bhagavad Gita....

 branch of Vaishnavism, such as the Gaudiya Vaishnava, Nimbarka
Nimbarka
Nimbarka , is known for propagating the Vaishnava Theology of Dvaitadvaita, duality in unity. According to scholars headed by Prof. Roma Bose, he lived in the 13th Century, on the assumption that Śrī Nimbārkācārya was the author of the work Madhvamukhamardana...

 and Vallabhacharya traditions, devotees worship Krishna
Krishna
Krishna is a central figure of Hinduism and is traditionally attributed the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita. He is the supreme Being and considered in some monotheistic traditions as an Avatar of Vishnu...

 as the One Supreme form of God
God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

, and source of all avatars, Svayam Bhagavan
Svayam Bhagavan
Svayam Bhagavan , "The Lord" or Lord Himself, is a Sanskrit theological term. The term refers to the concept of absolute representation of the monotheistic God as Bhagavan within Hinduism....

, in contrast to the belief of the devotees of the Sri Sampradaya
Sri Sampradaya
Sri Sampradaya or Sri Vaishnavism is a Vaishnava sect within Hinduism. Its origin and codification is generally traced back to Sri, Mahalakshmi eternal consort of Lord Vishnu. Around the 10th century when a collection of the devotional hymns and songs by Alvars was organized by Sri Nathamuni, who...

.

Supreme God

The principal belief of Vishnu-centered sects is the identification of Vishnu
Vishnu
Vishnu is the Supreme god in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism. Smarta followers of Adi Shankara, among others, venerate Vishnu as one of the five primary forms of God....

 or Narayana
Narayana
Narayana or Narayan or Naraina is an important Sanskrit name for Vishnu, and in many contemporary vernaculars a common Indian name. Narayana is also identified as the original man, Purusha. The Puranas present divergent views on Narayana...

 as the one supreme God. This belief contrasts with the Krishna-centered
Krishnaism
Krishnaism is a group of Hindu denominations within Vaishnavism, centered on devotion to Radha Krishna or other forms of Krishna, identified with Vishnu.The central text of Krishnaism is the Bhagavad Gita....

 traditions, such as Vallabha, Nimbaraka and Gaudiya, in which Krishna
Krishna
Krishna is a central figure of Hinduism and is traditionally attributed the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita. He is the supreme Being and considered in some monotheistic traditions as an Avatar of Vishnu...

 is considered to be the One and only Supreme God and the source of all avataras
Svayam Bhagavan
Svayam Bhagavan , "The Lord" or Lord Himself, is a Sanskrit theological term. The term refers to the concept of absolute representation of the monotheistic God as Bhagavan within Hinduism....

. The belief in the supremacy of Vishnu is based upon the many Avatar
Avatar
In Hinduism, an avatar is a deliberate descent of a deity to earth, or a descent of the Supreme Being and is mostly translated into English as "incarnation," but more accurately as "appearance" or "manifestation"....

s (incarnations) of Vishnu listed in the Puranic texts, which differs from other Hindu deities such as Ganesha
Ganesha
Ganesha , also spelled Ganesa or Ganesh, also known as Ganapati , Vinayaka , and Pillaiyar , is one of the deities best-known and most widely worshipped in the Hindu pantheon. His image is found throughout India and Nepal. Hindu sects worship him regardless of affiliations...

, Surya
Surya
Surya Suraya or Phra Athit is the chief solar deity in Hinduism, one of the Adityas, son of Kasyapa and one of his wives, Aditi; of Indra; or of Dyaus Pitar . The term Surya also refers to the Sun, in general. Surya has hair and arms of gold...

 or Durga
Durga
For the 1985 Hindi Film of Rajesh Khanna see DurgaaIn Hinduism, Durga ; ; meaning "the inaccessible" or "the invincible"; , durga) or Maa Durga "one who can redeem in situations of utmost distress" is a form of Devi, the supremely radiant goddess, depicted as having eighteen arms, riding a lion...

. The latter are instead classified as demi-gods or devas
Deva (Hinduism)
' is the Sanskrit word for god or deity, its related feminine term is devi. In modern Hinduism, it can be loosely interpreted as any benevolent supernatural beings. The devs in Hinduism, also called Suras, are often juxtaposed to the Asuras, their half brothers. Devs are also the maintainers of...

. Vaishnavites consider Shiva
Shiva
Shiva is a major Hindu deity, and is the destroyer god or transformer among the Trimurti, the Hindu Trinity of the primary aspects of the divine. God Shiva is a yogi who has notice of everything that happens in the world and is the main aspect of life. Yet one with great power lives a life of a...

, one of the Hindu Trimurti
Trimurti
The Trimurti is a concept in Hinduism "in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahmā the creator, Vishnu the maintainer or preserver, and Śhiva the destroyer or transformer," These three deities have been called "the Hindu triad" or...

 (Trinity) as subservient to Vishnu, and a Vaishnava himself.
Lord Swaminarayan, founder of the Swaminarayan faith
Swaminarayan Faith
Swaminarayan Hinduism, also known as the Swaminarayan faith or the Swaminarayan sect, is a modern tradition in the Vaishnava denomination of Hinduism, in which followers offer devotion to and worship Swaminarayan as the final manifestation of God....

, differs with this view and holds that Vishnu and Shiva are different aspects of the same God. Notably, the Swaminarayan view is a minority view among Vaishnavites.

Worship

Vaishnava theology includes the central beliefs of Hinduism such as monotheism
Monotheism
Monotheism is the belief in the existence of one and only one god. Monotheism is characteristic of the Baha'i Faith, Christianity, Druzism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Samaritanism, Sikhism and Zoroastrianism.While they profess the existence of only one deity, monotheistic religions may still...

, reincarnation
Reincarnation
Reincarnation best describes the concept where the soul or spirit, after the death of the body, is believed to return to live in a new human body, or, in some traditions, either as a human being, animal or plant...

, samsara
Samsara
thumb|right|200px|Traditional Tibetan painting or [[Thanka]] showing the [[wheel of life]] and realms of saṃsāraSaṅsāra or Saṃsāra , , literally meaning "continuous flow", is the cycle of birth, life, death, rebirth or reincarnation within Hinduism, Buddhism, Bön, Jainism, Sikhism, and other...

, karma
Karma
Karma in Indian religions is the concept of "action" or "deed", understood as that which causes the entire cycle of cause and effect originating in ancient India and treated in Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh philosophies....

, and the various Yoga
Yoga
Yoga is a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline, originating in ancient India. The goal of yoga, or of the person practicing yoga, is the attainment of a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility while meditating on Supersoul...

 systems, but with a particular emphasis on devotion (bhakti
Bhakti
In Hinduism Bhakti is religious devotion in the form of active involvement of a devotee in worship of the divine.Within monotheistic Hinduism, it is the love felt by the worshipper towards the personal God, a concept expressed in Hindu theology as Svayam Bhagavan.Bhakti can be used of either...

) to Vishnu through the process of Bhakti yoga
Bhakti yoga
Bhakti yoga is one of the types of yoga mentioned in Hindu philosophies which denotes the spiritual practice of fostering loving devotion to a personal form of God....

, often including singing Vishnu's name's (bhajan
Bhajan
A Bhajan is any type of Indian devotional song. It has no fixed form: it may be as simple as a mantra or kirtan or as sophisticated as the dhrupad or kriti with music based on classical ragas and talas. It is normally lyrical, expressing love for the Divine...

), meditating upon his form (dharana
Dharana
Dhāraṇā is translated as "collection or concentration of the mind ", or "the act of holding, bearing, wearing, supporting, maintaining, retaining, keeping back , a good memory", or "firmness, steadfastness, ... , certainty"...

) and performing deity
Deity
A deity is a recognized preternatural or supernatural immortal being, who may be thought of as holy, divine, or sacred, held in high regard, and respected by believers....

 worship (puja). The practices of deity worship are primarily based on texts such as Pañcaratra
Pañcaratra
Pāñcarātra are the Vaishnava Sanskrit texts dedicated to worship of Narayana and form part of the Agamas.Unlike Vaikhanasa tradition, the Pancaratric tradition of Agamas prescribe image worship in the place of rituals like Yajnas, mentioned in the Vedas...

 and various Samhita
Samhita
Samhita may refer to"*the basic metrical text of each of the Vedas**specifically, these texts with sandhi applied *post-Vedic texts known as Samhitas:** Ashtavakra Gita...

s. Central to vaishnavism is the value it gives to worshiping God's closest devotees, such as the ancestral acharya, or spiritual learned religious figurehead for a family, more than God itself.

Within their worship Vaishnava devotees consider that Vishnu is within them, as the Antaryami or the God within and as the foundation of their being; which is a part of the definition of the name Narayana
Narayana
Narayana or Narayan or Naraina is an important Sanskrit name for Vishnu, and in many contemporary vernaculars a common Indian name. Narayana is also identified as the original man, Purusha. The Puranas present divergent views on Narayana...

. The difference between Vaishnavism and schools of Hinduism whose goal is liberation (moksha
Moksha
Within Indian religions, moksha or mukti , literally "release" , is the liberation from samsara and the concomitant suffering involved in being subject to the cycle of repeated death and reincarnation or rebirth.-Origins:It is highly probable that the concept of moksha was first developed in...

), or union with the Supreme Brahman
Brahman
In Hinduism, Brahman is the one supreme, universal Spirit that is the origin and support of the phenomenal universe. Brahman is sometimes referred to as the Absolute or Godhead which is the Divine Ground of all being...

, is that the ultimate goal of Vaishnava practice is an eternal life of bliss (ananda
Ananda
Ānanda was one of the principal disciples and a devout attendant of the Buddha. Amongst the Buddha's many disciples, Ānanda had the most retentive memory and most of the suttas in the Sutta Pitaka are attributed to his recollection of the Buddha's teachings during the First Buddhist Council...

) in service to Vishnu, or one of his many avatars, in the spiritual realm of 'Vaikuntha', which lies beyond the temporary world of illusion (maya
Maya (illusion)
Maya , in Indian religions, has multiple meanings, usually quoted as "illusion", centered on the fact that we do not experience the environment itself but rather a projection of it, created by us. Maya is the principal deity that manifests, perpetuates and governs the illusion and dream of duality...

). The three features of the Supreme as described in the Bhagavata Purana
Bhagavata purana
The Bhāgavata Purāṇa is one of the "Maha" Puranic texts of Hindu literature, with its primary focus on bhakti to the incarnations of Vishnu, particularly Krishna...

--Brahman
Brahman
In Hinduism, Brahman is the one supreme, universal Spirit that is the origin and support of the phenomenal universe. Brahman is sometimes referred to as the Absolute or Godhead which is the Divine Ground of all being...

, Paramatma and Bhagavan
Bhagavan
Bhagavan, also written Bhagwan or Bhagawan, from the Sanskrit nt-stem literally means "possessing fortune, blessed, prosperous" , and hence "illustrious, divine, venerable, holy", etc.In some traditions of Hinduism it is used to...

.Vaishnavis worship Lord Vishnu and His Incarnations.

Initiation

Vaishnavas commonly follow a process of initiation (diksha
Diksha
Diksa also spelled deeksha or deeksa in common usage, translated as a "preparation or consecration for a religious ceremony", is giving of a mantra or an initiation by the guru in Indian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism...

), given by a guru
Guru
A guru is one who is regarded as having great knowledge, wisdom, and authority in a certain area, and who uses it to guide others . Other forms of manifestation of this principle can include parents, school teachers, non-human objects and even one's own intellectual discipline, if the...

, under whom they are trained to understand Vaishnava practices. At the time of initiation, the disciple is traditionally given a specific mantra
Mantra
A mantra is a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of "creating transformation"...

, 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
Japa
Japa is a spiritual discipline involving the meditative repetition of a mantra or name of a divine power. The mantra or name may be spoken softly, enough for the practitioner to hear it, or it may be spoken purely within the recitor's mind...

. The system of receiving initiation and training from a guru
Guru
A guru is one who is regarded as having great knowledge, wisdom, and authority in a certain area, and who uses it to guide others . Other forms of manifestation of this principle can include parents, school teachers, non-human objects and even one's own intellectual discipline, if the...

 is based on injunctions throughout the scriptures held as sacred within the Vaishnava traditions but is not mandatory:
"Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth."(Bhagavad Gita
Bhagavad Gita
The ' , also more simply known as Gita, is a 700-verse Hindu scripture that is part of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, but is frequently treated as a freestanding text, and in particular, as an Upanishad in its own right, one of the several books that constitute general Vedic tradition...

)

"One who is initiated into the Vaishnava mantra and who is devoted to worshiping Lord Vishnu is a Vaishnava. One who is devoid of these practices is not a Vaishnava."(Padma Purana
Padma Purana
Padma Purana , one of the major eighteen Puranas, a Hindu religious text, is divided into five parts.In the first part of the text, sage Pulastya explains to Bhishma about religion and the essence of the religion. The second part describes in detail Prithvi...

)


The scriptures specific to the Gaudiya Vaishnava group also state that one who performs an act of worship as simple as chanting the name of Vishnu
Vishnu
Vishnu is the Supreme god in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism. Smarta followers of Adi Shankara, among others, venerate Vishnu as one of the five primary forms of God....

 or Krishna
Krishna
Krishna is a central figure of Hinduism and is traditionally attributed the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita. He is the supreme Being and considered in some monotheistic traditions as an Avatar of Vishnu...

 can be considered a Vaishnava by practice:
"Who chants the holy name of Krishna just once may be considered a Vaishnava. Such a person is worshipable and is the topmost human being."(Chaitanya Charitamrita
Chaitanya Charitamrita
The Chaitanya Charitamrita is one of the primary biographies detailing the life and teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu , a Vaisnava saint and founder of the Gaudiya Vaishnava Sampradaya. It was written by Krishna Das Kaviraja , primarily in the Bengali language, but also including a great number of...

)

Attitude toward scriptures

Vaishnava traditions refer to the writings of previous acharya
Acharya
In Indian religions and society, an acharya is a guide or instructor in religious matters; founder, or leader of a sect; or a highly learned man or a title affixed to the names of learned men...

s in their respective lineage or sampradya (see below) as authoritative interpretations of scripture. While many schools like Smartism
Smartism
Smarta Sampradaya is a liberal or nonsectarian denomination of the Vedic Hindu religion which accept all the major Hindu deities as forms of the one Brahman, in contrast to Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism, the other three major Hindu sects, which revere Vishnu, Shiva, and Shakti,...

 and Advaitism encourage interpretation of scriptures
Hindu scripture
The Literature regarded as central to the Vedic and Hindu literary tradition was originally predominantly composed in Sanskrit. Indeed, much of the morphology inherent in the learning of Sanskrit is inextricably linked to study of the Vedas and other early texts....

 philosophically and metaphorically and not too literally, Vaishnavism stresses the literal meaning () as primary and indirect meaning () as secondary: - "The instructions of the should be accepted literally, without fanciful or allegorical interpretations."

Vaishnava sampradayas

Within Vaishnavism there are four main disciplic lineages (sampradaya
Sampradaya
In Hinduism, a sampradaya can be translated as ‘tradition’ or a ‘religious system’, although the word commands much more respect and power in the Indian context than its translations in English does...

s), each exemplified by a specific Vedic personality. The four sampradayas follow subtly different philosophical systems regarding the relationship between the soul (jiva
Jiva
In Hinduism and Jainism, a jiva is a living being, or more specifically, the immortal essence of a living organism which survives physical death. It has a very similar usage to atma, but whereas atma refers to "the cosmic self", jiva is used to denote an individual 'living entity' or 'living...

) and God (Vishnu
Vishnu
Vishnu is the Supreme god in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism. Smarta followers of Adi Shankara, among others, venerate Vishnu as one of the five primary forms of God....

 or Krishna
Krishna
Krishna is a central figure of Hinduism and is traditionally attributed the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita. He is the supreme Being and considered in some monotheistic traditions as an Avatar of Vishnu...

), although the majority of other core beliefs are identical.

Lakshmi-sampradaya
Sri Sampradaya
Sri Sampradaya or Sri Vaishnavism is a Vaishnava sect within Hinduism. Its origin and codification is generally traced back to Sri, Mahalakshmi eternal consort of Lord Vishnu. Around the 10th century when a collection of the devotional hymns and songs by Alvars was organized by Sri Nathamuni, who...

Philosophy: Vishishtadvaita
Vishishtadvaita
Vishishtadvaita Vedanta is a sub-school of the Vedānta school of Hindu philosophy, the other major sub-schools of Vedānta being Advaita, Dvaita, and Achintya-Bheda-Abheda. VishishtAdvaita is a non-dualistic school of Vedanta philosophy...

 ("special-dualism"), espoused by Ramanujacharya
See Sri Vaishnavism, Vaikhanasa, Ramanandi Sect
Ramanandi sect
The Ramanandi sect is also called RAMAVAT sect and SHRI sect. This Vaishnava denomination has played an important role in shaping the social and spiritual climate of the populous Ganges valley. The Ramanandi movement owes its popularity to the saint Ramananda who lived in Varanasi in the 14th...

, Swaminarayan .


Brahma sampradaya
Brahma Sampradaya
The Brahma Sampradaya refers to the disciplic succession of gurus starting with Brahma in Hinduism. The term is most often used to refer to the beliefs and teachings of Madhvacharya and his Dvaita philosophy. Sometimes it may also refer to the teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and his Gaudiya...

Philosophies: Dvaita
Dvaita
Dvaita is a school of Vedanta founded by Shri Madhvacharya....

 ("dualism"), espoused by Madhvacharya
Madhvacharya
Madhvācārya was the chief proponent of Tattvavāda "Philosophy of Reality", popularly known as the Dvaita school of Hindu philosophy. It is one of the three most influential Vedānta philosophies. Madhvācārya was one of the important philosophers during the Bhakti movement. He was a pioneer in...

, and Achintya Bheda Abheda
Achintya Bheda Abheda
Achintya-Bheda-Abheda is a school of Vedanta representing the philosophy of inconceivable one-ness and difference, in relation to the power creation and creator, , svayam bhagavan. and also between God and his energies within the Gaudiya Vaishnava religious tradition...

 (literally "inconceivable difference and non-difference"), espoused by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu
Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was a Vaishnava saint and social reformer in eastern India in the 16th century, believed by followers of Gaudiya Vaishnavism to be the full incarnation of Lord Krishna...

 (see Gaudiya Vaishnavism
Gaudiya Vaishnavism
Gaudiya Vaishnavism is a Vaishnava religious movement founded by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in India in the 16th century. "Gaudiya" refers to the Gauḍa region with Vaishnavism meaning "the worship of Vishnu"...

).


Rudra sampradaya
Rudra Sampradaya
In Hinduism, the Rudra Sampradaya is one of four Vaishnava sampradayas, a tradition of disciplic succession in the religion. Vaishnavism is distinguished from other schools of Hinduism by its primary worship of deities Vishnu and/or Krishna and their Avatars as the Supreme forms of God...

Philosophy: Shuddhadvaita
Shuddhadvaita
Shuddadvaita is the "purely non-dual" philosophy propounded by Vallabhacharya , the founding philosopher and guru of the or , a Hindu Vaishnava tradition focused on the worship of Krishna. Vallabhacharya's pure form philosophy is different from Advaita...

 ("pure nondualism"), espoused by Vishnuswami
Vishnuswami
Vishnuswami was a Hindu religious leader. He is primarily known for having started the Rudra sampradaya....

 and Vallabhacharya
Vallabha Acharya
Vallabhacharya was a devotional philosopher, who founded the Pushti sect in India, following the philosophy of Shuddha advaita ....

.


Kumara-sampradaya
Nimbarka Sampradaya
The Nimbarka Sampradaya , also known as the Hamsa Sampradāya, Kumāra Sampradāya, ' and Sanakādi Sampradāya, is one of the four authorised Sampradāyas as according to the Padma , one of the eighteen main...

Philosophy: Dvaitadvaita
Dvaitadvaita
Dvaitadvaita was proposed by Nimbarka, a Vaishnava Philosopher who hailed from Andhra Region. Nimbarka’s philosophical position is known as Dvaitadvaita . The categories of existence, according to him, are three, i.e., Chit, acit, and Isvara...

 ("duality in unity"), espoused by Nimbarka
Nimbarka
Nimbarka , is known for propagating the Vaishnava Theology of Dvaitadvaita, duality in unity. According to scholars headed by Prof. Roma Bose, he lived in the 13th Century, on the assumption that Śrī Nimbārkācārya was the author of the work Madhvamukhamardana...

.

Vaishnavism in South India

Broadly, Vaishnavas in South India can be classified as Brahmins and non-Brahmins.

Among the Brahmins the main groups are
  1. The Iyengars, who follow the Sri Vaishnava Vishistadvaita philosophy of Asuri Ramanujacharya. The Iyengars are further divided into the Vadakalai
    Vadakalai
    Vadakalai , meaning Northern branch are a subsect of the Vaishnavite Iyengar community of Hindu Brahmins. In Sanskrit the Vadakalai are referred to as Uttara Kalārya . Vadakalais are followers of Ramanuja and Vedanta Desika....

     (who adhere to the Sanskrit
    Sanskrit
    Sanskrit , is a historical Indo-Aryan language and the primary liturgical language of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.Buddhism: besides Pali, see Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Today, it is listed as one of the 22 scheduled languages of India and is an official language of the state of Uttarakhand...

     Vedas
    Vedas
    The Vedas are a large body of texts originating in ancient India. Composed in Vedic Sanskrit, the texts constitute the oldest layer of Sanskrit literature and the oldest scriptures of Hinduism....

    ) and Thenkalai
    Thenkalai
    Thenkalai are a subsect of the Vaishnavite Iyengar community of Hindu Brahmins. Thenkalais are followers of Ramanuja, Pillai Lokacharya and Manavala Mamuni.-Differences with Vadakalai Srivaishnavas:...

     (who asseverate primacy to Tamil prabhandams). Both these sects either adhere to the Pañcaratra
    Pañcaratra
    Pāñcarātra are the Vaishnava Sanskrit texts dedicated to worship of Narayana and form part of the Agamas.Unlike Vaikhanasa tradition, the Pancaratric tradition of Agamas prescribe image worship in the place of rituals like Yajnas, mentioned in the Vedas...

     agama, or Vaikhanasa agama in temples.
  2. The Madhvas, who follow the Sadvaishnava Dvaita
    Dvaita
    Dvaita is a school of Vedanta founded by Shri Madhvacharya....

     philosophy of Madhvacharya
    Madhvacharya
    Madhvācārya was the chief proponent of Tattvavāda "Philosophy of Reality", popularly known as the Dvaita school of Hindu philosophy. It is one of the three most influential Vedānta philosophies. Madhvācārya was one of the important philosophers during the Bhakti movement. He was a pioneer in...

    .
  3. The Vaikhanasas, who are primarily an ancient community of temple priests, who use the Vaikhanasa Agama in temple worship.


Among the non-Brahmins, sections of various communities like the Kammavar (Kamma),Chettiars and Mudaliars in Tamil Nadu and Kamma (Kammavar) in Andhra Pradesh,Kaarnataka and sections of the Settys, Reddys, Rajus and Haridasu's in Andhra Pradesh and so on in other states are known as and describe themselves as Vaishnava. Some groups tend to be vegetarian like the Brahmins.

The Iyengars are further divided by philosophy into the Vadagalai and Tengalai branches.

In temple worship, a Vaikhanasa temple (like Tirumala), a Madhva temple (like Udupi), a Tengalai Iyengar temple (like Melukote) and a Vadagalai Iyengar temple (like Ahobilam) all have distinctly different rituals and customs with priests of that particular denomination who perform the worship. However all temples are popularly visited by all Vaishnavas as lay worshippers, as also members of various other denominations.

In Kerala, some communities call themselves Vaishnava and use sandal paste for the forehead tilaks. Kerala Vaishnava temples have their own traditions with the worship being done by Brahmin Namboodiris with Vaishnava leanings.

Other branches and sects

  • The Ramanandi movement
    Ramanandi sect
    The Ramanandi sect is also called RAMAVAT sect and SHRI sect. This Vaishnava denomination has played an important role in shaping the social and spiritual climate of the populous Ganges valley. The Ramanandi movement owes its popularity to the saint Ramananda who lived in Varanasi in the 14th...

    , begun by Ramananda
    Ramananda
    Ramananda , also referred to as Sant Ramanand or Swami Ramanand, was a Vaishnava sant. He is considered to be the reviver of the Ramanandi sect. Ramananda for the most part of his life lived in the holy city of Varanasi, and was a pioneer of the Bhakti movement, as well as a social reformer in...

    .
  • Mahapuruxiya Dharma
    Mahapuruxiya dharma
    Ekasarana Dharma is a monotheistic religion founded and propagated by Srimanta Sankardeva in the 15th century. Most of the adherents of this religion today live in the Indian state of Assam...

    , espoused by Sankardeva
    Srimanta Sankardeva
    Mahapurusha Srimanta Shankardeva , was the greatest Assamese saint-scholar, playwright, social-religious reformer and a colossal figure in the cultural and religious history of Assam, India...

    .
  • Vaisnava-Sahajiya, a tantric
    Tantra
    Tantra , anglicised tantricism or tantrism or tantram, is the name scholars give to an inter-religious spiritual movement that arose in medieval India, expressed in scriptures ....

     school.

Tilaka styles

Vaishnavas mark their foreheads with tilaka
Tilaka
200px|thumb|right|Indian woman with tilaka and [[Bindi |bindi]]In Hinduism, the tilaka or tika or tilak is a mark worn on the forehead and other parts of the body...

, either as a daily ritual, or on special occasions. The different Vaishnava sampradayas each have their own distinctive style of tilaka
Tilak (Vaishnava)
Followers of Vaishnavism mark their foreheads with different styles of tilak to show that they are servants of Vishnu. The markings are made either as a daily ritual, or on special occasions, and denote which particular lineage, or sampradaya the devotee belongs to...

, which depicts the siddhanta
Siddhanta
Siddhanta, a Sanskrit term, roughly translates as the Doctrine or the Tradition. It denotes the established and accepted view of a particular school within Indian philosophy.-Hindu philosophy:...

 of their particular lineage. The general tilaka pattern is of two or more connected vertical lines on and another line on the nose resembling the letter Y, which usually represents the foot of Vishnu and the lotus flower.

History

The worship of Vishnu was already well developed in the period of the Itihasa
Itihasa
Itihasa as defined by Amarakosha refers to purvavritta, i.e. events of the past. In the Vedic age, those portions of the Brahmanas which narrated events of bygone days were known as itihasa and had some ritualistic importance...

s. Hopkins says "Vishnuism, in a word, is the only cultivated native sectarian native religion of India." Vaishnavism is expounded in a part of the Mahabharata
Mahabharata
The Mahabharata is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India and Nepal, the other being the Ramayana. The epic is part of itihasa....

 known as the Bhagavad Gita
Bhagavad Gita
The ' , also more simply known as Gita, is a 700-verse Hindu scripture that is part of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, but is frequently treated as a freestanding text, and in particular, as an Upanishad in its own right, one of the several books that constitute general Vedic tradition...

, which contains a dialogue between Krishna
Krishna
Krishna is a central figure of Hinduism and is traditionally attributed the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita. He is the supreme Being and considered in some monotheistic traditions as an Avatar of Vishnu...

 and Arjuna
Arjuna
Arjuna in Indian mythology is the greatest warrior on earth and is one of the Pandavas, the heroes of the Hindu epic Mahābhārata. Arjuna, whose name means 'bright', 'shining', 'white' or 'silver' Arjuna (Devanagari: अर्जुन, Thai: อรชุน, Orachun, Tamil: Arjunan, Indonesian and Javanese: Harjuna,...

. In this dialogue, Krishna plays the role of Arjuna's charioteer.

Many of the ancient kings, beginning with Chandragupta II
Chandragupta II
Chandragupta II the Great, very often referred to as Vikramaditya or Chandragupta Vikramaditya in Sanskrit; was one of the most powerful emperors of the Gupta empire in northern India. His rule spanned c...

 (Vikramaditya) (375-413 CE) were known as Parama Bhagavatas, or Bhagavata
Bhagavata
Bhagavata signifies in the context of Hinduism. In this context bhakti has the primary meaning of 'adoration', while Bhagavat means 'the Adorable One', and Bhagavata is a worshiper of the Adorable One...

 Vaishnavas.

Vaishnavism flourished in predominantly Shaivite South India
South India
South India is the area encompassing India's states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu as well as the union territories of Lakshadweep and Pondicherry, occupying 19.31% of India's area...

 during the seventh to tenth centuries CE, and is still commonplace, especially in Tamil Nadu
Tamil Nadu
Tamil Nadu is one of the 28 states of India. Its capital and largest city is Chennai. Tamil Nadu lies in the southernmost part of the Indian Peninsula and is bordered by the union territory of Pondicherry, and the states of Kerala, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh...

, as a result of the twelve Alvars
Alvars
The alwar or azhwars were Tamil poet saints of south India who lived between the sixth and ninth centuries A.D. and espoused ‘emotional devotion’ or bhakti to Visnu-Krishna in their songs of longing, ecstasy and service. Sri Vaishnava orthodoxy posits the number of alvars as ten, though there are...

, saints who spread the sect to the common people with their devotional hymn
Hymn
A hymn is a type of song, usually religious, specifically written for the purpose of praise, adoration or prayer, and typically addressed to a deity or deities, or to a prominent figure or personification...

s. The temples which the Alvars visited or founded are now known as Divya Desams
Divya Desams
Divya Desams refer to 108 Vishnu temples that are mentioned in the works of the Tamil Azhvars . 105 of these are located in India, 1 in Nepal, while 2 are located outside of the Earthly realms. 'Divya' in Tamil language indicates premium and 'Desam' indicates place or temple.The two major deities...

. Their poems in praise of Vishnu
Vishnu
Vishnu is the Supreme god in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism. Smarta followers of Adi Shankara, among others, venerate Vishnu as one of the five primary forms of God....

 and Krishna
Krishna
Krishna is a central figure of Hinduism and is traditionally attributed the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita. He is the supreme Being and considered in some monotheistic traditions as an Avatar of Vishnu...

 in Tamil language
Tamil language
Tamil is a Dravidian language spoken predominantly by Tamil people of the Indian subcontinent. It has official status in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and in the Indian union territory of Pondicherry. Tamil is also an official language of Sri Lanka and Singapore...

 are collectively known as Naalayira (Divya Prabandha).

In later years Vaishnava practices increased in popularity due to the influence of sage
Acharya
In Indian religions and society, an acharya is a guide or instructor in religious matters; founder, or leader of a sect; or a highly learned man or a title affixed to the names of learned men...

s like Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya
Madhvacharya
Madhvācārya was the chief proponent of Tattvavāda "Philosophy of Reality", popularly known as the Dvaita school of Hindu philosophy. It is one of the three most influential Vedānta philosophies. Madhvācārya was one of the important philosophers during the Bhakti movement. He was a pioneer in...

, Nimbarkacharya, Vallabhacharya, Manavala Mamunigal
Manavala Mamunigal
Manavala Mamunigal was a Hindu religious leader, who during the 15th century in Tamil Nadu, with the help of his eight disciples helped spread Vaishnavism...

, Vedanta Desika
Vedanta Desika
Vedanta Desika was a Sri Vaishnava Guru. He was a poet, devotee, philosopher and master-teacher...

, Surdas
Surdas
Surdas, the 15th century sightless saint, poet and musician, is known for his devotional songs dedicated to Lord Krishna. Surdas is said to have written and composed a hundred thousand songs in his magnum opus the 'Sur Sagar' , out of which only about 8,000 are extant...

, Tulsidas
Tulsidas
Tulsidas , was a Hindu poet-saint, reformer and philosopher renowned for his devotion for the god Rama...

, Tyagaraja
Tyagaraja
Kakarla Tyagabrahmam , colloquially known as Tyāgarājar and Tyagayya was one of the greatest composers of Carnatic music or classical South Indian music. He, along with his contemporaries Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastry, forms the Trinity of Carnatic music...

, and many others.

In his The Religions of India, Edward Washburn Hopkins presents an accepted distinction as to the assumption that Vishnuism is associated with Vedic brahmanism, and was part of brahmanism. Krishnaism
Krishnaism
Krishnaism is a group of Hindu denominations within Vaishnavism, centered on devotion to Radha Krishna or other forms of Krishna, identified with Vishnu.The central text of Krishnaism is the Bhagavad Gita....

 was adopted much later, and it is for this reason, amongst others, that despite its modern iniquities Shiva
Shiva
Shiva is a major Hindu deity, and is the destroyer god or transformer among the Trimurti, the Hindu Trinity of the primary aspects of the divine. God Shiva is a yogi who has notice of everything that happens in the world and is the main aspect of life. Yet one with great power lives a life of a...

 has appealed more to the brahman
Brahman
In Hinduism, Brahman is the one supreme, universal Spirit that is the origin and support of the phenomenal universe. Brahman is sometimes referred to as the Absolute or Godhead which is the Divine Ground of all being...

s than Krishna. It's only later that Vishnuism merged with Krishnaism.

Large Vaishnava communities now exist throughout India, and particularly in Western Indian states, such as western Madhya Pradesh
Madhya Pradesh
Madhya Pradesh , often called the Heart of India, is a state in central India. Its capital is Bhopal and Indore is the largest city....

, Rajasthan
Rajasthan
Rājasthān the land of Rajasthanis, , is the largest state of the Republic of India by area. It is located in the northwest of India. It encompasses most of the area of the large, inhospitable Great Indian Desert , which has an edge paralleling the Sutlej-Indus river valley along its border with...

 and Gujarat. Important sites of pilgrimage for Vaishnavs include: Guruvayur Temple
Guruvayur Temple
Guruvayur Sree Krishna Temple is a Hindu temple dedicated to Krishna, located in the town of Guruvayur in Kerala, India. It is one of the most important places of worship for Hindus and is often referred to as "Bhooloka Vaikuntam" which translates to the holy abode of Vishnu on Earth...

, Sri Rangam, Vrindavan
Vrindavan
Vrindavan also known as Vraj is a town in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh, India...

, Mathura, Ayodhya, Tirupati, Puri
Puri
Puri is district headquarter, a city situated about south of state capital Bhubaneswar, on the eastern coast of the Bay of Bengal in the Indian state of Orissa. It is also known as Jagannath Puri after the Jagannath Temple . It is a holy city of the Hindus as a part of the Char Dham pilgrimages...

, Mayapur
Mayapur
Mayapur is located on the banks of the Ganges river, at the point of its confluence with the Jalangi, near Navadvip, West Bengal, India, 130 km north of Kolkata...

, Nathdwara
Nathdwara
Nathdwara is a town in Rajasthan state of western India. It is located in the Aravalli hills, on the banks of the Banas River in Rajsamand District, 48 kilometers north-east of Udaipur. This town is famous for its temple of Krishna which houses the idol of Shrinathji, a 14th century, 7-year old...

 and Dwarka
Dwarka
Dwarka also spelled Dvarka, Dwaraka, and Dvaraka, is a city and a municipality of Jamnagar district in the Gujarat state in India. Dwarka , also known as Dwarawati in Sanskrit literature is rated as one of the seven most ancient cities in the country...

.
Since the 1900s Vaishnavism has spread from within India and is now practiced in many places around the globe, including America
Americas
The Americas, or America , are lands in the Western hemisphere, also known as the New World. In English, the plural form the Americas is often used to refer to the landmasses of North America and South America with their associated islands and regions, while the singular form America is primarily...

, Europe
Europe
Europe is, by convention, one of the world's seven continents. Comprising the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia, Europe is generally 'divided' from Asia to its east by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas, and the waterways connecting...

, Africa
Africa
Africa is the world's second largest and second most populous continent, after Asia. At about 30.2 million km² including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of the Earth's total surface area and 20.4% of the total land area...

, Russia
Russia
Russia or , officially known as both Russia and the Russian Federation , is a country in northern Eurasia. It is a federal semi-presidential republic, comprising 83 federal subjects...

 and South America
South America
South America is a continent situated in the Western Hemisphere, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, with a relatively small portion in the Northern Hemisphere. The continent is also considered a subcontinent of the Americas. It is bordered on the west by the Pacific Ocean and on the north and east...

. This is largely due to the growth of the ISKCON movement, founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1966.

Puranic epics

Two great Indian
Indian epic poetry
Indian epic poetry is the epic poetry written in the Indian subcontinent, traditionally called Kavya . The Ramayana and Mahabharata, originally composed in Sanskrit and translated thereafter into many other Indian languages, are some of the oldest surviving epic poems on earth and form part of...

 epic
Epic poetry
An epic is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation. Oral poetry may qualify as an epic, and Albert Lord and Milman Parry have argued that classical epics were fundamentally an oral poetic form...

s, Ramayana
Ramayana
The Ramayana is an ancient Sanskrit epic. It is ascribed to the Hindu sage Valmiki and forms an important part of the Hindu canon , considered to be itihāsa. The Ramayana is one of the two great epics of India and Nepal, the other being the Mahabharata...

 and Mahabharata
Mahabharata
The Mahabharata is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India and Nepal, the other being the Ramayana. The epic is part of itihasa....

, are an important part of Vaishnava philosophy, theology, and culture.

The Ramayana describes the story of Rama
Rama
Rama or full name Ramachandra is considered to be the seventh avatar of Vishnu in Hinduism, and a king of Ayodhya in ancient Indian...

, an avatara of Vishnu
Vishnu
Vishnu is the Supreme god in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism. Smarta followers of Adi Shankara, among others, venerate Vishnu as one of the five primary forms of God....

, and is taken as a history of the 'ideal king', based on the principles of dharma
Dharma
Dharma means Law or Natural Law and is a concept of central importance in Indian philosophy and religion. In the context of Hinduism, it refers to one's personal obligations, calling and duties, and a Hindu's dharma is affected by the person's age, caste, class, occupation, and gender...

, morality and ethics. Rama's wife Sita
SITA
SITA is a multinational information technology company specialising in providing IT and telecommunication services to the air transport industry...

, his brother Lakshman
Lakshmana
Lakshmana was the brother and close companion of Rama, and himself a hero in the famous epic Ramayana...

 and his devotee/follower Hanuman
Hanuman
Hanuman , is a Hindu deity, who is an ardent devotee of Rama, a central character in the Indian epic Ramayana and one of the dearest devotees of lord Rama. A general among the vanaras, an ape-like race of forest-dwellers, Hanuman is an incarnation of the divine and a disciple of Lord Rama in the...

 all play key roles within the Vaishnava tradition as examples of Vaishnava etiquette and behaviour. Ravana
Ravana
' is the primary antagonist character of the Hindu legend, the Ramayana; who is the great king of Lanka. In the classic text, he is mainly depicted negatively, kidnapping Rama's wife Sita, to claim vengeance on Rama and his brother Lakshmana for having cut off the nose of his sister...

, the evil king and villain of the epic, plays the opposite role of how not to behave.

The Mahabharata is centered around Krishna
Krishna
Krishna is a central figure of Hinduism and is traditionally attributed the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita. He is the supreme Being and considered in some monotheistic traditions as an Avatar of Vishnu...

 and details the story of a dynastic war between two families of cousins, with Krishna and the Pandavas, five brothers, playing pivotal roles in the drama. The philosophical highlight of the work is the chapter covering a conversation between Arjuna
Arjuna
Arjuna in Indian mythology is the greatest warrior on earth and is one of the Pandavas, the heroes of the Hindu epic Mahābhārata. Arjuna, whose name means 'bright', 'shining', 'white' or 'silver' Arjuna (Devanagari: अर्जुन, Thai: อรชุน, Orachun, Tamil: Arjunan, Indonesian and Javanese: Harjuna,...

 and Krishna prior to the final battle, individually known as the Bhagavad Gita
Bhagavad Gita
The ' , also more simply known as Gita, is a 700-verse Hindu scripture that is part of the ancient Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, but is frequently treated as a freestanding text, and in particular, as an Upanishad in its own right, one of the several books that constitute general Vedic tradition...

. The Bhagavad Gita, though influential in most philosophies of Hinduism, is of particular importance to Vaishnavas because it is believed to be an accurate record of the very words spoken by Krishna himself.
Both works are often re-enacted in part as dramas by followers of Vaishnavism, especially on festival days concerning each of the specific avatars. The Bhagavad Gita is widely studied as a theological textbook and is rendered in numerous English translations and world languages.

Western academic study

Vaishnava theology has been a subject of study and debate for many devotees, philosophers and scholars within India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

 for centuries. In recent decades this study has also been pursued in a number of academic institutions in Europe, such as the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies
Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies
The Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, founded in 1997, is a Recognised Independent Centre of Oxford University. The Centre is engaged in developing academic programmes of education, research and publishing in the field of Hindu studies...

 and Bhaktivedanta College
Bhaktivedanta College
Bhaktivedanta College, located in the rural Ardennes region of Belgium, is a Vaishnava college administered by ISKCON. The programme at Bhaktivedanta College is the study of Vaishnavism. -History:...

. The Vaishnava scholars instrumental in this western discourse include Tamala Krishna Goswami
Tamala Krishna Goswami
Tamal Krishna Goswami , born as Thomas G. Herzig in New York City, NY United States served on International Society for Krishna Consciousness's Governing Body Commission since its inception in 1970. In January 1972, he accepted the renounced order of life sannyasa in Jaipur...

, Hridayananda dasa Goswami
Hridayananda Dasa Goswami
Hridayananda Dasa Goswami is a senior religious leader of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and one of the most prominent disciples of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Hridayananda Goswami is an initiating guru within ISKCON and has served as a member of the Governing Body...

, Graham Schweig
Graham Schweig
Graham M. Schweig is Professor of Religious Studies and Director of the Asian Studies program at Christopher Newport University. He is a regularly invited lecturer at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC., and was Visiting Associate Professor of Sanskrit at the University of Virginia...

, Kenneth R. Valpey
Kenneth R. Valpey
Kenneth R. Valpey is a Gaudiya Vaishnava Theologian who studied at Oxford University, St Cross College . While there, he conducted his research at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. He has a D.Phil. from Oxford University, where his dissertation was on Chaitanya Vaishnava murti-seva...

, Guy Beck
Guy Beck
Dr. Guy L. Beck is a scholar, author, historian of religions, musicologist, and musician. He is presently Lecturer in Religious Studies in the School of Continuing Studies at Tulane University, and Instructor in the Philosophy Department at the University of New Orleans. He has a Ph.D...

, and Steven J. Rosen
Satyaraja Dasa
Steven J. Rosen, also known as Satyaraja Dasa , is an American author. He is the founding editor of The Journal of Vaishnava Studies and an associate editor of Back to Godhead, the magazine of the Hare Krishna Movement. He authored more than 20 books on Vaishnavism and related subjects...

 among others.

In 1992 Steven Rosen founded The Journal of Vaishnava Studies
The Journal of Vaishnava Studies
The Journal of Vaishnava Studies is an academic journal that was founded in 1992 by Steven J. Rosen , a member of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness. It is dedicated to scholarly research associated with Vishnu-related traditions. In 2002, the journal affiliated with Christopher...

as an academic journal of Hindu studies, and of Vaishnava, and Gaudiya Vaishnava studies in particular.

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