Vaishnavism : Aryan Religion

Vaishnavism, the religion of the Aryans of nortern India, is one of the most important religions of the world. The concept of incarnation led to the most widely encompassing religion the world has seen; with the number of such avatars being infinite. Among the generally recognized incarnations are:

One-fourth of the population of Hindustan (North India) is Aryan-Vaishnavite, three-fourths in the Deccan and 3% in Dravidia. Smaller communities of Vaishnavites exist throughout the world.

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Aryan Vaishnavism

Table of Contents

1. General Nature

Vaishnavism is the direct descendant of the Vedic religion, also known as Brahmanism. It is especially widespread in Middle India (the Deccan) where three-fourths of the population is Vaishnavite, and in Hindustan (India north of the Deccan) where one-fourth is Vaishnavite. In Shaivite-dominated Dravidia, only 3% are Aryan Vaishnavite.

2. Theology

2.1 Scripture

The scriptures of Vaishnavites include in order of descending importance, the Vedas (including the Brahmanas and Upanishads), the Smrtis and Dharma Shastras, and the Bhagavat Gita, Ramayana and Mahabharat.

2.2 Infinite Incarnations : Vaishnavism the All-Encompassing Religion

Vaishnavite theology developed the concept of avatar (incarnation). The number of past incarnations in infinite [ Bhag.Pur. I.3 ] [ Agni P. II-XVI] [ Varaha P. XXXIX-XLVIII ] [ Sircar 130 ff ].

Included in these infinite incarnations are the following gods:

Later Vaishnava literature recognizes 3 kinds of avatars: complete, partial and partial and temporary. Some regard Krishna as a partial incarnation only eg. in the Belava inscription (Dacca distt., E. Bengal 1125 AD ) [ Sircar 135 ]. This is perhaps because of his immoral behaviour with the married gopis, an act severely censored in Vaishnavite eyes.

3. History of Aryan Vaishnavism

3.1 Vedic Brahmanism

The original religion of the Aryans when they entered India is generally denoted Vedism or Brahmanism (after Brahma or the Brahmin caste), or Vedic Brahmanism. Vaishnavism is the only direct descendant of this religion. In the earliest Aryan texts we find Vishnu already rising to the status of the supreme Aryan god. The following is a summary of the evidence that the origins of Vaishnavism lie deep in early Indo-Aryan history, as well as being a proof that Vaishnavism is the direct descendant of the ancient Vedic-Brahmanic religion :

3.2 Aryan Vaishnavism

Aryan Vaishnavism is the term given to the Vedic religion after the incorporation of the cults of Buddha and the Jains. These were considered incarnations of Vishnu, and were soon absorbed into the mainstream Vaishnavite fold.

Vaishnavism was, with the exception of Shaivite-dominated South India, the most important religion of the Indian contitent prior to the Islamic conquest. Following the Islamic invasions, the Vaishnavites were oppressed and Vishnu temples were demolished, while heretical doctrines were encouraged. Many of these heretics supported the Islamist destruction of Aryan temples, thus Shaivite-Dravidian Kannada warriors fought in the armies of Mahmud of Ghazni. While Aurangzeb demolished scores of Arya Vishnu temples, he gave large tracts of land to the Jains.

4. Vaishnavite Society

4.1 Vegetarianism and Ahimsa

Vegetarianism is a characteristic of Vaishnavism, arising from the concept of non-violence or ahimsa. The use of Sanskrit is another feature of Vaishnavite society.

4.2 Caste

To uphold moral standard of society, Vaishnavism in its orthodox form upholds caste. Some minor heterodox sects of Vaishnavism at times attempted to oppose this custom (eg. Buddhists, Jains, Pancaratra Vaishnavites), but these were only temporary phases. Eventually, on their incorporation into the mainstream Vaishnavite fold, they also adopted caste.

4.3 Women and Sati

Vaishnavite women are expected to uphold a very high moral standard. Thus they observe seclusion and sati (widow-burning). To preserve the virtue of women, they undergo the noble practice of sati (immolation) on the funeral pyre of their husbands.

4.4 Other Religions and Vaishnavism

The influence of Vishnusim on other reilgions has been considrable. The 24 incarnations of Vishnu inspired the concept of 24 Jain tirthankaras; Vishnu's sudarshan chakra was the model for the Buddhist Dharmachakra; and the notion of Vishnu's pada led to Buddha's footprint [ Sircar 130 ].

In general the relation of Islam and Vaishnavism was one of hostility. THe Muslim rulers encouraged heterodox sects (Jainism, Shaivism) while at the same time demolishing Vaishnavite temples. Vaishnavism was dominant in India up to the time of the Muslims, and the entrance of Islam changed the balance in favour of the heretics.

Appendix I - Vaishnavite-Shaivite Conflict

The conflict of Siva with Vishnu assumed deadly proportions. Siava texts say Siva's demon killed Vishnu, Vaishnava texts claim that Vishnu wounded Shiva. In fact this is the reason why Vashnavas, so tolerant otherwise, are so hostile to anything Saivite:

` [The] conflict described between Virabhadra [a giant created by Siva to destroy his father-in-law's sacrifice] and Vishnu [ is narrated in many texts]. In the Linga Purana, the latter [Vishnu] is beheaded [by Virabhadra], and [Vishnu's head] is blown by the wind into the fire. The [Saivite] Kasi Khanda of the Skanda Purana, describes Vishnu as defeated and at the mercy of Virabhadra, who is prohibited by a voice from heaven fro destroying his antagonist. [ In the Vaishnava] Hari Vamsa, Vishnu compels Siva to fly, after taking him by the throat and nearly strangling him. The blackness of Siva's neck arose from this throttling, and not, as elsewhere described, from his drinking the poison produced at the churning of the ocean... The Kurma, although a Saiva Purana, is less reverent to wards Vishnu, and after descibing a contest in which bothparties occasionally prevail, makes Brahma interpose. and separate the combatants.'
-- [V.P. ftnote 8,p.59 ]

Thus Shiva was never even attempted to be absorbed as an incarnation; his practices were against everything Vaishnava, in fact it is difficult to imagine two world-views more different than Vaishnava and Shaivite. One is the opposite of the other. All the other gods are also mutilated by Siva's demons:

` Their exploits [ ie. those of Virabhadra and his demons ] are ... specified in the Linga, Kurma and Bhagavata Puranas. Indra is knocked down and trampled on; Yama has his staff broken; Sarasvati and the Matrs have thier noses cut off; Mitra or Bhaga has his eyes pulled out; Pusha has his teeth knocked down hos throat; Chandra is pummelled, Vahni's hands are cut off; Bhrgu loses his beard; the Brahmans are pelted with stones; the Prajapatis are beaten; and the gods and deim-gods are run through with swords or struck with arrows.'
-- [ V.P. ftnote 6 p.59 ]

In the Vaishnava Bhagavata, Siva is described as present at his father-in-law's (ie. Daksha's) assembly, where Daksha censured him before the guests, and in consequence Sivs departed in rage. His follower Nandi curses the company, and Bhrgu retorts:

"May all those who adopt the worship of Bhava (Shiva), all those who follow the practices of his worshippers, become heretics, and oppugners of holy doctrines; may they neglect the observanes of purification; may they be of infirm intellects, wearing clotted hair, and ornamenting themselves with ashes and bones; and may they enter the Saiva initiation, in which spiritous liquor is the libation"
-- [V.P. ftnote3, p.56]

`The sacrifice of Daksha in legend ... is obviously intended to intimate a struggle between the worshippers of Siva and Vishnu, in which at first the latter, but finally the fromer, gain the ascendancy, It is also a favourite subject of ... [especially ] Saivite sculpture.'
-- [V.P. ftnote 1, p.53]

Appendix II - Incarnations of Vishnu

Vaishnavite theology developed the concept of avatar (incarnation). It appears that the number of incarnations increased, till finally an infinite number of incarnations was accepted. The Agni Purana states that the incarnations past and present are innumerable, and describes 10 avatars including Buddha and Kalkin [ Agni P. II-XVI] [ Varaha P. XXXIX-XLVIII ] [ Sircar 130 ff ].

Vishnu 3 steps taken for Manu or `man in distress' [ RV VI.49.13 ]. In the Satapatha Brah. I.2.5 the dwarf, fish and tortoise incanaations of Brahma are maentioned [ cf SB.XIV.1.2, Taittriya Samh. VII.1.5; Taitt. Brha.I.1.3 ], but these were not yet assoc with Vishnu but with Brahma [ Sircar 132 ].

The late Narayaniya section of the Mahabharata mentions 4 avatars : Boar, dwarf, man-lion and man ( Vasudeva-Krishna ) [ MBh. XII.349.37 ] [ Sircar 133 ]. The MBh [ XII.339.77-99 ] adds deified heroes Rama-Bhargava and Rama Dasharathi to bring a total of 6 incarnations [ Sir 133 ]. In another place there are mentioned 10 incarnations of Vishnu adding Hamsa, Kurma Matsya and Kalkin [ MBh.XII.339.104 ].

In the Satapatha Brahmana XIV.1.1 Vishnu's head is severed from body to give rise to the Sun aditya.

Later Vaishnava literature recognizes 3 kinds of avatars: complete, partial and partial and temporary. Some regard Krishna as a partial incarnation only eg. in the Belava inscription, (Dacca distt., E. Bengal 1125 AD ) [ Sircar 135 ]

The Bhagavata Purana I.3 admits that Vishnu's incarnations are innumerable but metnions : Brahma, Varaha, Nanda, Nara and Narayana, the philosopher Kapila, Dattareya, Yajna, the Jaina Tirthankara Rsabha, the ancient king Prthu, Matsya, Kurma, the physicin Dhanvantari, Mohini, Narasimha, Vamana, Rama- Jamadagnya ( Parsurama ), Veda-Vyasa, Rama-Dasaratha, Rama Haladhara, Krishna, Buddha and Kalkin [ Bhagavata Purana I.3, also II.7,VI.8,XI.4 for differing lists] [ Sir 134].

The Garuda P. I.202 mentions 19 avatars ( or murtis ): Matsya, Trivikrama, Vamana, Narasimha, Rama, Varaha, Narayana, Kaplia, Datta, Hayagriva, Mahradhvaja, Narada, Kurmi, Dhanvantari, Sesha, Yajna, Vyasa, Buddha and Kalkin

Visvaksena Samhita ( a Pancaratra work ) includes Buddha and Arjuna in the list of secondary avatars of Vishnu [ Sir 135 ]. The Ahirbudhnya Samhita ( a Pancaratra wok ) composed before 8 C AD mentions 39 vibhavas or manifestations of supreme spirit and these include the well known avatars of Visnu [ Sir 134 ].

The concept of incarnation is the most important characteristic of Vasinavite theology. Buddha and Mahavir Jina (the founder of Jainism) were eventually considered incarnations of Vishnu, and hence Vaishnavas consider Buddhism and Jainism as subsects of the Vaishnava religion.

` It is enough to say in a word, that of gods, animals and men, Hari is all that is male; Laksmi is all that is female; there is nothing else than they.'
-- [Visnu Purana Bk I Ch 8 (p.53)]

` The delusion of the false teacher paused not with the conversion of the Daityas to the Jaina and Bauddha heresies, but with various erroneous tenets he prevailed upon them to apostatize, until the whole were led astray, and deserted the doctrines and observances inculculated bythe 3 Vedas. [The teacher was an illusory form of Vishnu, while the Daityas could not be destroyed whilst they performed the sacred rites adn were slain b the gods]'
-- [V.P. Bk III Ch XVIII p. 271]

` Having thus, by their unequalled valour and might, rescued the whole world from the dominion of malignant fiends, Rama . Lakshmana, Bharata, and Satrughna reascended to heaven, and were followed by those of the people of Koshala who were fervently devoted to these incarnate portions of the supreme Vishnu.'
-- [V.P. Book IV Ch.4 (p.308)]

Even Indra and Yama are considered an incarnations of Vishnu, Lakshmi is considered his spouse:

` Lakshmi is the consort of Indra (Indrani) ... The holder of the discus (Vishnu) is Yama (the regent of Tartarus); the lotus-throned goddess is his dusky spouse (Dhumorna) '
-- [ V.P. Bk I Ch 8 (p.53)]

Brahma himself is considered to be Vishnu:

` The supreme condition of Brahma, which is meditaited by the Yogis in the commencement of their abstraction, as invested with form, is Vishnu, composed of all the divine energies, and [is] the essence of Brahma, with whom the mystic union is sought ... This Hari, who is the most immediate of all the energies of Brahma, is his embodied shape; and in him is therofre the whole world inerwoven; and from him, and in him, is the universe; and he, the supreme lord of all, comprising all that is perishable and non-perishable, bears upon him all material and spiritual existence.'
-- [ V.P. Bk I Ch XXI p.129]

`The supreme, eternal Hari is time, with its division of seconds, minutes, months, seasons and years.' ` The Vedas, and their divisions; the institutes of Manu and ohter lawgivers; traditional scriptures, and religious manuals; poems and all that is said and sung; are the body of the mighty Vishnu, assuming the shape of sound.'
--[ V.P.Bk I Ch XXII (p.130)]

Appendix III - Vaishnavite Dynasties

Vaishnavism is recorded in the 6/7th century BC where the Bhagavata cult was propagated by Vasudeva Vishnu. By the 2century AD it had reached A.P.

In Orissa, indications that Vaishnavism existed from ancient times exist in the shape of:
- The Rig Veda, Ramayana, Mahabharat and Puranas include refernces to the God Purusottoma Jagannath at Puri.
- Ashoka's edicts of Dhauli mention Brahmans, who were in all likelihood Vaishnavas. [Patel]

In Orissa, the Matharas, closely linked culturally to the Guptas of North Koshala, patronized Vaishnavism in Kalinga and Koshala and supported the Brahmans. However, Vaishbnavism received a setback under the East Gangas, Sailodbhavas (Kongoda), SOmavamsis (Koshala and Utkala) as these patronized Shaivism, and the Bhaumakaras of Toshali supported Buddhism. Chodaganga revived Vaishnavism because he followed Ramanuja, but after him different faiths were patronized by different kings. Vaishnavism rose to its pinnalce of glory in Orissa under the Suryavamsi Gajapatis in the form of Jagannathism [Patel].

The Sungod was not adored by Vaishnavites in 5 C AAD as evdienced by the degradation of Samba, a champion of Surya cult and sometimes indentified with the Sun-God, in the estimation of Vaishnavas, and also the Gangdha inscription AD 423 verse 21-22 [ Sir 140 ].

Shri - Laxmi worship may be equivalent to the cult of Indo-Greek goddesses, eg. Pallas Athene, introduced by the Indo-Greeks as seen on their coins 2 C AD [ Sir 139 ].

The early Chalukyas of Badami had the boar as family emblem, obtained by the grace of Narayana. Most of their inscriptions and subordinates begin with stanzas in praise of the boar form of Vishnu [ Sir 137 ]. The early Chalukya emperors bore the title Shri-Prthiv-Vallabha ( Lord of Shri and Prithvi) apparently claiming to be incernations of Vishnu 139

Ikshavaku kings used to worship Vishnu in the 6th century [ Sir 136 ].

The Vakataka queen Prabhavati ( 5th century ), dauthter of Chandargupta II, was devoted to Ramagiriswamin (lord of Ramagiri=Ramtok, near Nagpur) [ Sir 135 ].

Appendix IV - Vaishnavism and Society

High morality is a concept of the Vaishnavite religion. The incident of Indra's adultery with the sage Gautama's wife was also severely punished:

`Indra slept with Ahalya, sage Gautama's wife. He came to the hermitage in the disguise of Gautama and slept with Ahalya during the sage's absence. On [discovery Gautama cursed] Indra to be a `Sahasraksa' for his abominable act, [as well as Ahalya] although she was very devoted to her husband and she had no knowledge of Indra's fraud.'
-- [Br.P.87.32-47 quoted in Sheth 83]

Brahma was almost killed for committing incest with his daughter by Pasupati. Kartikeya was also reprimanded for his conduct:

` After Kartikeya slew the demon Taraka, Parvati permitted him all types of pleasures. Transgressing the limits of enjoyment, he compelled the wife of any god he desired to submit to him against her wishes. The opposition of the wives of the gods to sexual laxity may be noted here. The wives of the gods complained to Parvati and when in spote of parvati's objection, Kartikeya didi not improve his conduct, Parvati took the form of the wife of every god and when Kartikeya saw hi mother in all the female forms, he took a vow to regard all females as his mother. We may [hence] infer that incest with the mother was unimaginable.'
-- [Sheth- p.84]


  1. [RgV.] = Rig Veda
  2. [AthV.] - Atharva Veda
  3. [Bh.P.] = The Bhagavata Purana
  4. [Agni P.] = Agni Purana
  5. [Garud.P.] = Garuda Purana
  6. [Var.P.] = Varaha Purana
  7. [MBh.] = The Mahabharata
  8. [Sat.Br.] = Satapatha Brahamana
  9. [Panc.Brah.] = Pancavimsa Brahmana
  10. [Taitt.Samh.] = Taittriya Samhita
  11. [Taitt.Aran.] = Taitttriya Aranyaka
  12. [Gita] = Bhagavata Gita
  13. [Ramy.] = The Ramayana
  14. [Visv.Sam] = Visvaksena Samhiita
  15. [Vis.P.] = `The Vishnu Purana' transl. by H.H.Wilson, 1 ed. London 1840
  16. [Sheth] = `Religion and Society in The Brahma Purana' - Surabhi Sheth Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi 1979
  17. [Sircar] = `Early History of Vaishnavism' D.C.Sircar in `The Cultural Heritage of India' Vol. IV 1956 The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture Calcutta ed. H. Bhattacharyya p. 108-145; p.132 ff The Avatars of Vishnu
  18. [Patel] = `Vaishnavism in Orissa' by S.K.Patel in `Comprehensive History and Culture of Orissa' ed. P.K.Mishra I Part 2 p.510 ff

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