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  Gur Panth Parkash
Gur Panth Parkash
by Rattan Singh Bhangoo
Translated by
Prof Kulwant Singh







Vaisnavism has an extremely chequred history. The ancient systems of India were either dualistic, involving a multiplicity of Purusas without the concept of God in the theistic sense, or were ritualistic (Vedic), without the concept of a Commander issuing the Vedic commands. In the Upanisadic system Brahman was conceived primarily in the monistic or in the pantheistic sense. The predominant view which was Vedantic (Advaita of Sankara) envisaged that the world was not real. In this system naturally there was no place for devotion or a system of love as contemplated in atheism with a God of Attributes. As against it, in the Vedic system every thing including heaven could be obtained by the performance of rituals and sacrifices. In such a climate and age, the growth of a system of worship and devotion could come only by the flow of a side stream and not as indigenous to the Vedic system itself. As an independent mystic system, with doctrines and a philosophy of its own, it crystallised mainly in the post Sankara period, especially when the Alvar saints in the south and other Vaisnava saints came up in the north, the east and the west of India. In order to understand the content and import of the Vaisnava system, it is necessary briefly to trace its long history.

It is now commonly believed that originally four streams of thought joined to form the early Vaisnava system of the pre-Christian era. Probably, the oldest of them was the worship of Vasudeva who was the god of a tribe called Vrsni. As would be expected from the author of an opposing creed, the Buddhistic text referring to the worship of Vasudeva mentions it along with over half a dozen other minor systems of worship, including the worship of a cow, a horse, an elephant, a crow, etc. Vasudeva was a member of the Vrsni race or Satvatas. This system with other accretions was called the Bhagavata system.

The second stream of thought was connected with the name of Narayana, who is mentioned as a god in the Vedic system. Nara, Narayana, Hari, sons of Dharma, are referred to as forms of the Supreme. But, apart from reference to them as gods and the ritualistic use of the related hymns, there was no system of their separate worship in the period of Vedas and Brahmanas when ritualism was supreme. This system was extremely meticulous and elaborate and required the services of priests to perform the rituals. It is later that the worship of Narayana appeared, presumably from the lore of the Vedic gods. Later still arose the worship of Hari as a side or subsidiary growth. Originally, this worship had not emancipated itself from the religion of sacrifices. In course of time both these streams, of the worship of Vasudeva and of Narayana and Hari, appear to have joined and mingled, to an extent, with each other, though their complete identification with each other had not taken place even upto the time of the Bhagavad Gita.

The third stream of thought arose from the Upanisads themselves. The Rig-Veda, the Upanisads, and the Bhagavad Gita are believed to be mere compilations of variant and unreconciled religious thoughts, as these occured to different sages from time to time.1 These were handed down orally. Later, these were incorporated into books for the use of the individual Vedic schools. Thus, even in the Upanisads, e.g. in the Chandogya Upanisad, occurs the name of Krishna, which name was later associated with Vasudeva as Krishna Vasudeva. In the Upanisads, especially the later Upanisads, the idea of a Controller of the universe had also appeared. But, as seen already, it is there entirely in the context of the monistic or pantheistic Brahman, the Vedic ritualism, and the caste system, which had been accepted by the Upanisadic thought as a part of their overall system. This is the third source of there being a Supreme deity that is incharge of the world. Though Visnu was also a Vedic deity, the theory of his incarnation had not been advanced in the Vedic times. All the same, his worship constituted the fourth stream that formed the system of Vaisnavism. Simultaneously, started forming its omnibus doctrine of incarnation to include and absorb every old or new religious development in the country. These four streams contributed to the thought of the Bhagavad Gita, which, being an eclectic compilation,2 drew heavily on the religious systems of Sankhya Yoga, Vedic Ritualism, Bhagavatism, the Upanisads, and the worship of Narayana and Visnu that had been in vogue then. Till then neither the identification of Vasudeva and Narayana had taken place, nor had his being the incarnation  of Visnu been accepted. Pancaratra or Bhagavata school is the original source of Vaisnavism. It espouses the cause of devotion to Vasudeva and his several forms. The Gita has no rganic connection with this system which had been there since the fourth century B.C. It is the chief source of Vaisnavism, being prior to the Gita.

It is practica!ly a settled view that the Gita is of composite origin. Admittedly, it suggests different doctrines. The path of Jnana or knowledge, the path of ritualism or Karman and he path of modified Sankhya are recommended as a means to the achievement of the goal. In addition, the path of worship is suggested as an alternative method of Moksha. It is not he type of worship or Bhakti which we find in the Bhagavata Puran, or as described and defined by Sandilya more than ten centuries later. 3 While formal worship of the deity is suggested, the metaphysical position is somewhat puzzling, as both pantheistic and dualistic iews are indicated. As also stated in some of the Upanisads, God divides himself and forms the various beings of the world. In this sense, souls are considered identical with God. At the same time, the dualism of Sankhya and co-eternal Prakriti are recognized.4 The goal is an ternal life of bliss, a sort of Nirvana in Brahman.5

It has often been asserted that the Bhagavad Gita gave rise to theistic thought. The issue needs to be examined. In the Gita, Arjuna is asked to fight on without regard to the fruit as his was the caste duty of Kshatriya.6 These thoughts about disinterested action appear in the SankhyaYoga system, as also in the Katha and Brahadaranyaka panisads, where it is stated that, when all desires are uprooted, one attains to Brahman. In the Sankhya system, the Purusa must dissociate itself from the motivated activities of the co-eternal Prakriti. Thus, arising both from the Upanisadic idea of Brahman and the system of dualistic Sankhya, all motivation for any action has to be eliminated. While the strength of will and the power of the mind follow from Yoga, the caste duty to fight in war follows the command of the Rig- Vedic religion. The path of knowledge is from the Sankhya and of Karma (Yajnas) from the Rig Veda. In the Sankhya, all desires and action are the activities of Prakriti. Hence the way to liberation is a realisation by the ‘Purusa’ that no activity is his. To dissociate oneself from that activity, is the aim of life. The so-called method of unattached action is, thus, simply another way of expressing, in a new phrase, the same idea of disentaglement of Purusa from Prakriti. Man should not be attached to actions in the world. He should, instead, withdraw himself (the Purusa) from all activities, which are only the phases and forms of Prakriti with which Purusa should not concern himself.

In the Mahabharata the prominent gods are Siva and Visnu. It would be relevant to record briefly the contents of the Gita and the systems it suggests, it being also the first formal exposition of the Ekantika or Bhakti Dharma. It is stated in Chapter IV of the Gita that those who know the incarnations and the celestial deeds of Bhagavata are released from the body and are not born again’; that ‘Yajna of knowledge is the best’ since by it one sees all things in one self and God.’ As was also done by the Upanisads, the system of Yajnas or sacrifices is rationalised. Restraint, discipline and knowledge are all deemed to be Yajnas, or acrifices. Sankhya and Yoga are linked with Sanyasa and Karam Yoga or meditational ritualism. By following either, one gets the fruits of both. All worship and austerities should be devoted to God. This knowledge leads to peace. By the Yoga practices one gets anquility in Bhagavata; The devotees of Lord are of four kinds. Of these, the Jnani is the best. He who dies while remembering Lord Krishna attains to his condition. By the Yoga practices, concentration and meditation, and by uttering ‘Om’ and remembering Krishna, one gets Moksha. There is no return from that stage. Those who die while the sun is in the northern course go to Brahman. Those who die while the sun is in the southern course go to the moon from which the soul returns. By Yoga practices one reaches Aksara (Brahman), the highest goal. By the meditation of syllable Om, the soul hits the target of Brahman. The system is made theistic by Brahman being called Bhagavata. The whole world is described as n Bhagvat. Those who perform sacrifices and rituals attain heaven thereby, i.e. the value of rituals is granted. The actions dedicated to God do not bind one. By this one becomes a Sanyasin and goes to Bhagavata. One who adores Krishna single-mindedly becomes holy, even if one were wicked before. Even the Vaisyas, the Sudras and women can worship Bhagavata. From heaven reached by rituals one returns. But there is no return by full devotion to Bhagvata. Those who meditate on Bhagavata reach him quickly. Those who meditate on Brahman reach there but with difficulty. If one cannot meditate and concentrate on Bhagavata, nor can remember him, one should do disinterested deeds. But, to this method the third place is given in the order of preference as a mode of salvation.

The dualism of Sankhya is virtually accepted. It is admitted that Prakriti and Purusa are co-eternal. All changes, qualities and actions belong to Prakriti, which is the cause of all of them, while Purusa, who is inactive, suffers. In this body is ‘Purusa’, the Supreme Soul. By meditation one can see it and withdraw Purusa. One can attain to the final stage by Sankhya-Yoga, and also by Karam Yoga. Others can do so by meditation. Though the Sankhya system and all the details of the working of Prakriti and the inactivity of Purusa are accepted in entirety, the antheism of Sankhya is avoided from being mentioned. It is also accepted by implication that since Purusa does not take part in the activities of Prakriti, man is absolved of all moral responsibility. Hence the emphasis is on concentration, meditation, mechanical remembering, withdrawal, ritualism and knowledge, but not on ethical conduct as the foremost and the only way of salvation.

Two classes of men, bad and good, are mentioned. Among the first category are included men who do not care for God or morality, or those who follow other religions or philosophical systems. The diet taken and the modes of worship sacrifices and austerities practised by one differ according to one’s faith and nature, which are of three kinds, featured by goodness, activity and ignorance. It is laid down that the duties of a man vary according to his caste. The doing of the caste duties of another caste, howsoever well done, is not as good as the doing of one’s own caste duties, even though without quality and worth.7 Anyone who surrenders himself to Him would be freed of all sin.

It has been felt that the idea of action, without regard to its fruit, is prior to the Gita. The idea has been found, in one form or the other, in the Chandogya, the Brhadaranyaka, the Maitri and the Isa Upanisads. It is there even in the Sankhya. On the side of all phenomenal change, the Sankhya system and its twenty-four principles of change are accepted; so are Yoga principles and its meditation. “The idea of love for God does not show itself in any prominent way in the early Sanskrit literature except in the Pancaratra literature.” “It is the contemplative union with God that we find in the Gita, and the transition to it from the state of Yoga concentration is not difficult to understand.”8 In Yoga liberation is sought by the destruction of mind through psychical exercises. Later the devotee seeks to attain liberation through the special grace of God, which he can hope to acquire by contemplative union. In the Vishnu purana the only case of devotion is of Prahlad’s love for God.9 The earlier literature does not emphasize the feeling element in devotion. The kind of Bhakti or love, which appeared in the post Sankara-Ramanuj period, is not there. In the times of the Upanisads and the Gita, and even of Ramanuj all that is meant by Bhakti or devotion is ‘upasana’, or meditation and concentration on God.10

The ideas of the worship and the grace of God are there. But the same were present, though in a faint form, even in the Upanisads like the Brhadaranyaka, the Katha and the Manduka. The first of them calls Him the ruler of all, His presence being inside everyone. By doing good or bad, He does not become better or worse. By knowing him one becomes a sage. He is known through the Vedas, worship and austerities. In the other Upanisads, the idea of soul being the doer of every thing is there. Only he does good deeds whom He favours and wants to elevate, Le. the dependence of man on God is expressed.

 It is necessary here to indicate the mode of worship of the Bhagavata system which became, in conjunction with streams from the other schools of thought, the chief base of worship of the Supreme One. Pancaratra Samhita is the book on which is based the method of worship. The system is somewhat ritualistic and prescribes ‘Mantras’ variously arranged. Many rites are also indicated in the Satvata Samhita. Sankaracharya refers to the system of worship as follows: (1) Going to the temple with mind fixed on the deity, (2) collecting materials for worship, (3) actual worship, (4) the muttering of ‘Mantras’ and (5) Yoga or meditation. By worship in this manner for a hundred years all sins are destroyed. As to the method of worship of Hari, six steps have been indicated: (1) Remembering him, (2) the uttering of his name, (3) salutation, (4) resorting to his feet, (5) constant worship with devotion and (6) the surrender of the soul. In the later period of Bhagavata Purana three more modes are mentioned: (1) Hearing His praise, (2) servitude and (3) companionship.

It is significant that all modes of worship are devotional ritualistic and formal without any reference to social and moral conduct.

From the above analysis by Bhandarkar, it is clear that the Bhagavad Gita gave few new religious ideas. In fact, it records all kinds of divergent systems within one compilation. The overall system and approach remain, by and large, orthodox and traditional. The duality and co-eternal character of Purusa and Prakriti are accepted, as also the priority of the system of meditation, Yoga and concentration. Generally, the system is conservative, and it is clearly mentioned that the Lord came to fulfil the law and not to supplant it. The rigidity and the immobility of the caste system are sanctified and stressed, in so far as one must do one’s own caste duties and not those of other castes. “Of Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras, O Parantapa, the duties have been distributed according to qualities born of their own natures.” “Ploughing, protection of kine, and trade are the Vaishya duty, born of his own nature. Action of the nature of service is the Sudra duty born of his own nature.” “Better is ones’ own duty though destitute of merits than the well-executed duty of another. He who doeth the duty laid down by his own nature incurreth not sin.” “Congenital duty, O son of Kunti, though defective, ought not to be abandoned.”11 Further, the sacrificial system is also regarded as a valid path. Religions like Buddhism, Jainism, etc. are, by implication, deprecated as bad. What is suggested is the worship of Bhagavata. This system had existed already. Except for the purposes of worship, the status of Sudras and women, put in the same class, is kept where it was in the Brahmanical system. The worship recommended is also of a formal nature in the sense that even remembrance at the time of death absolved one of all sins and brought salvation. The utility of the ritualistic system and the idea of the isolation of Purusa from the activity of the co-eternal Prakriti having been accepted, these are tagged to the existing system of worship of Vasudeva Krishna. There is one distinct advancement from the Brahmanical system. Women and Sudras are admitted to the path of worship of Vasudeva, though not in other fields where the rigidity of the caste system is confirmed. Modern research, however, indicates that this concession was the result of Buddhist influence since Buddhist monastries had been opened for women and Sudras.12 Ramanuja defines devotion (Bhakti) as “un-broken contemplation of God, as smooth and ceaseless as the flow of oil.” It is this contemplative union with God that we find in the Gita. “Even Prahlada’s devotion was a concentration on God and a serene contemplation forming union with God. “13 In fact, the word Bhakti, as in the system of the Upanisads or of Ramanuja, only means mere meditation (Upasana) and not the loving devotion or love, which idea is simply not there. Self-surrender in the Gita does not mean an ideal of love or personal relationship. It is the ideal of contentment, nonattachment and self-control. It is the idea of the old Yoga of Patanjali, where also this discipline of selfsurrender is known.14

It is, therefore, important to understand that the mystic system of love, as in the case of Mahayana or of Sufism or of the Bhakti saints like Kabir, Namdev and others, is simply not there in the Gita, either as an idea or as a base for future development. It is much later in the Bhagavat Purana that the different forms of emotional Bhakti are mentioned. In fact, as we also know from the Sutras of Sandilya, the Bhakti system of love or mystic intuition through love did not exist before Sandilya. The Gita sought to introduce nothing radical or heterdox. It tended only to consolidate and bring in one compilation variant (and on points even mutually opposing) systems like the worship of Bhagvata; the ritualism and caste duties of the Vedic religion, the dualism of Sankhya Yoga and its mode of isolation of Purusa from the activities of the Prakriti; the meditation of Yoga, and the monism and pantheism of the Upanisads. According to Dasgupta, “the great solution of the Gita is the compromise it advances between the worldly life of allotted duties and the hermit’s life of absolute renouncement.” “On the one hand we purify our minds by non-attachment, and yet, on the other hand, we continue to perform all the ritualistic and other duties belonging to our particular caste or stage of life, Le. the prescribed stages of four ashrams.”15 The Gita laid down different paths of Moksha. But they were all old systems. While it gave priority to the path of ]nana and the meditational processes of Yoga, and accepted the ritualistic mysticism of the Vedas, it also approved of the meditational devotion of the Bhagavata system.

Before we deal with further developments in Vaisnavism and indicate the chief Vaisnava schools of Bhakti that arose upto the time of the radical Bhakti of Kabir, it will be useful, briefly, to state the chieffeatures ofVaisnavism as it emerged from the period of the Gita. The biggest contribution of the great Gita is that it gave formal sanction to the path of worship as a means of salvation and admitted women and Sudras to it. But, it was only an alternative path to Moksha. The other paths recognised by the Gita had their. own priorities. The ideal, by the very nature of things, was merger or salvation from the empirical world with the object of never returning to it. In life all one had to do was to perform one’s caste duties that had been assigned under the Vedic and orthodox scriptures. Their authority was fully recognized as also of the overall social structure it prescribed. In the due course, the identity between the cult of worship of Narayana and Vasudeva was established. In the Upanisad period Visnu rose to a senior position from being a junior god in the Rig Vedic period. Even in some parts of Mahabharata, the divinity of Vasudeva Krishna had not been generally accepted. In the course of time, the four streams of Vasudeva (the historic god), Visnu (the Vedic God), Narayana (the cosmic god), and the Upanisad idea of a supreme Soul combined to form one religion. To this was added the fifth stream of Gopala Krishna from the Ahir race. Till about the Christian era, the story of the boyhood of Gokula Krishna was not known. But later on, Gopala Krishna was also identified with Vasudeva Krishna. It has been seen that the Gita, which introduced the idea of God, was not organically connected with the worship of Vasudeva and his forms.

By this time, however, the doctrine of incarnation of Visnu had also been formed. This gave an impetus to the attempt at the integration, with one system, of the various religious systems and modes of worship, even though very divergent in their historical origin creeds or aims. The only thing common among them was the general acceptance of the Vedic scriptures and the status quo in the old social order. In fact, the object of the theory of incarnation was to absorb and assimilate, within the old system, all new religious doctrines and developments, even though heterodox. It is in the post Vedic period that the theory of incarnation of Visnu came to be formed. The idea is that God takes the human form in order to save man. All ‘avatars’ are supposed to be the different forms of Visnu. The theory is a note-worthy feature of Hinduism. It enables it to absorb other creeds by declaring their gods or prophets as the manifestation of the Supreme the God or Visnu.16 In the Gita Lord Krishna says that those who worship other gods also worship me, though imperfectly. The number of avataras of Visnu, rose from time to time, including the boar, the manlion, the dwarf, Rama, swan, tortoise, and Vasudeva-Krishna. In the Bhagvat- Purana this number rose to twenty three. The mythical Kapila, the author of the dualistic Sankhya system without a God, is included as an Avatara, as also the Rsabha, the first Tirthankra of the Jainas; By the eighth century A.D., Buddha is also accepted in the list of Avataras. It appears that in Vaisnavism or the Bhagavata religion, the purity of the monotheistic doctrine was hardly the concern of any one. Similarly, in the apparently synthetic attempt of the Bhagavad Gita, the elements of the dualistic systems like the Sankhya and Yoga were included both for meditational purposes and for explaining changes in life as the activity of the co-eternal Prakriti. Among the Avataras, authors of the non-theistic systems of Buddhism, ]ainism and Sankhya were also included. Evidently, to the authors of Vaisnavism, the only concern was to accept and to show Visnu or Vasudeva as the supreme god. They were unconcerned with the unity or purity of doctrine and theology, or with the modes of worship and the prescribed religious practices. In fact, heterogeneous doctrines and. authors of heterodox, non-theistic and dualistic systems were owned. It is important to understand that, as against the equality and unity of man before God almost inherent in any monotheistic system, the grading of the caste system and the social and religious segregation of the Sudras were kept intact duly sanctioned and approved. In addition, Vedic ritualism and the authority of the Vedas were accepted. All this was maintained not only in the earlier Vaisnava systems, but also in the Vashist Advaita of Ramanuj and the later Vaisnavism.

Lord Rama was taken to be an Avatara probably in the early centuries of the Christian era, though there was then no separate cult in his name. It was later, near the 11th Century A.D. that the cult of Lord Rama actually came in existence. Here, too, there are manuals giving the mode of worship of the deity, by means of Mantras, formulae and magic circles, quite like those prescribed in the SatvataSamhita for the worship of Vasudeva.

Next we come to the period of Sandilya and Bhagavata Purana in the eleventh Century A.D. The Bhakti these two describe is not the worship of or meditation on God as in the Gita. Nor is it a formal singing. It is a deep affection for God. Even His Maya cannot bind man to the world.

According to Vallabha, God invokes love in man. It is a favour bestowed by Him (pusti). In the emotional type of Bhakti, the devotee in heart and soul feels a spiritual intoxication and joy. As in the case of Chaitanya, he ‘sings, laughs, dances and weeps.’ He is no longer a person of the world.17

It is in the Bhagavata Purana that we first find the idea of devotion as the supreme source of bliss. It becomes the highest goal. So it substitutes the place of wisdom or philosophical knowledge. Bhakti is believed to destroy all the past sins. Thus, Bhakti also becomes a Mantra, a magic. But no moral action is stressed. The Bhakti of Bhagavata Purana is not the old contemplative meditation of God. It is the upsurge of feelings and emotions of love of God.18 The Bhagavata Purana mentions nine modes of worship. Each of these can lead to Moksha.19 These include listening to the praise of God, the reading of the sacred books, the repeating of God’s name, remembering him, etc. The repeating of God’s name can bring deliverance. These modes are ritualistic and magical and no moral action is stressed. Idol worship is accepted. Sandilya’s definition of Bhakti not only prescribes it as the only mode of worship, but also distinguishes it from the types of worship prevalent earlier than his period and from Bhakti as indicated in the Gita. These old modes of worship, like the offering of flowers (as mentioned in the Gita), indicate only ‘Sraddha’ or faith. Bhakti is a loving affection. It is neither knowledge nor action. Sandilya and his commenmtor, Svapnesvara, attack the Vedanta doctrine that liberation or salvation arises from knowledge of the Soul. “The true method is ‘bhakti’, or devotional faith, directed to the Lord. This is the immediate cause of salvation. Knowledge is an auxiliary to bhakti, and may become useful by washing away the filth of unbelief. But it will not itself abolish the viel which exists between the soul and the Supreme.” “In the highest form it Cbhakti) is affection fixed upon the Lord. It is an affection directed to a person, not mere belief in a system. Affection is its essence. It is not mere knowledge of God, for it is possible that even those who hate Him may have knowledge of Him. Nor is it knowing the Lord as an object of worship, etc., for these are outward acts, and bhakti is not necessarily present to them. It is simply an affection. It follows knowledge of the greatness and other attributes of the Adorable One, but is not that knowledge. The particular knowledge which it follows is that there is a promise of immortality to him who abides (i.e. has bhakti) in Him. ‘Abiding’ is something more than mere knowledge. Moreover, affection is unselfish. It is not a wish. It is expressed by the phrase “I love, I have an affection for, and yet I do not wish for”, since wish refers only to what one has not obtained, but affection refers equally to what is obtained and what is not obtained.”

“Bhakti is not an action (a ‘work’). It does not depend, as knowledge does, upon an effort of the will. Hence, as it is not an action, its fruit (beautitude) is endless. Every action, on the other hand, ultimately comes to an end, so that everything gained by works ultimately perishes.” “The means are knowledge, concentration, etc. The end is Bhakti. “

“Knowledge is subsidiary to bhkati.” “Moreover, knowledge is, not essential, though a means, and an important one. Affection occurs even in the absence of knowledge.”

“Bhakti (or faith) is not ‘sraddha’ (or belief). Belief may be merely subsidiary to ceremonial works, not so faith. Belief is a preliminary subsidiary to faith, but is not faith.”20 This is Sandilya’s definition of Bhakti.

Even the Bhagavata Purana is aware of the three methods of knowledge, works and devotion, and accepts their validity, as also of the Vedic scriptures and the prescribed social system.21 The goal of life and the role of Jiwan-mukta remain, as before, otherworldly. It is also significant to mention that the Sankhya idea of Prakriti was so much owned by Vaisnavism that later Sita, as the consort of Lord Rama, who is the inactive soul, has been deemed to be responsible for the entire activity. The same acceptance is also evident from the emergence of the entire world from Shakti, the consort of Siva in Saivism.

Further development of Vaisnavism started in the South, far away from the earlier centres. Dr. Tara Chand feels that this took place under the impact of Islam. But, this issue is not relevant to our purpose since we are mainly concerned with the nature and content of this development. A chain of Alwar saints appeared, extending over a long period. It is claimed that they arose both before and after Sankara. The favourite deity of Kullasekhara, an historically known Alwar saint of the twelfth century, is Lord Rama. and not Lord Krishna. This new growth spread to the north, the east and the west. In the following pages, starting with Ramanuja we shall briefly indicate the systems and the views of all the chief exponents and saints of this new Vaisnava ‘ Bhakti movement. The radical system of saints like Kabir, Namdev and others, is entirely different and is, thus, outside the scope of this essay.

Ramanuja: Among the Alwars were two classes, the saints, who composed the devotional songs, and the Acharyas, who were the philosophers and teachers of the doctrine. May be, the challenge came from the success of the Advaita of Sankara. This eliminated the need and importance of all devotional worship. He deemed the world to be illusory. For him Brahman alone was real. In the face of it, the basis for the cult of idol and devotional worship was being eroded. Ramanuja therefore, in pursuance of the direction of his guru, took upon himself this task of tracing from the scriptures, the Upanisads and the Brahma Sutras, the justification and basis for this religion of worship prevalent in his time. In his system the world is real and there are three eternal principles of Brahman of God Oshvara), individual souls and the world (Prakriti). The individual soul and the insensate world are deemed to be the attributes or body of Brahman, just as the soul has a human body. The three elements are different but the embodied parts, though different, are one. These three parts are inseparable and eternal. Before creation the body of the Supreme Soul is in a subtle form, but with creation it develops. At that time matter and souls are in Him, in an unmanifest form. It is something like a Platonic idea. Later, He has them in His body in a manifest form.22 Thus Brahman or God is both the material and the efficient cause of the world and controls it from within. The entire development is from the mundane egg. The soul and the world are a mode of the Supreme, eternal but dependent on Him. Man is identical with the All-embracing God. The system of changes of Prakriti for the creation of Ahankara, activity, etc., is the same as in Sankhya, except that God is there to guide it. Ishvara has a wonderful celestial body with Lakshmi as His consort. Ishvara appears in five forms: (1) as Narayana or Para-Vasudeva, he lives, adorned with ornaments and gems, in Vaikuntha on a throne surrounded by Sesa (serpent), Garuda and other delivered souls; (2) as his four forms in the world, including that of Vasudeva to enable men to worship him; (3) as the ten Avataras, fish, tortoise and others, (4) as present in each being even when one goes to heaven or hell; and (5) as in the idols kept in the houses. Unlike Sankara, Ramanuja takes the ritualism of the Vedas and the Brahma Vidya of the Upanisada as equally important. Rituals are not for a lower class of people nor do they express a lower truth. He thinks that rituals prescribe the method of worship. These he accepts fully, as also the caste system. The doctrine relating to Brahman shows the nature of God, and both together (rituals and Brahma Vidya) form one doctrine. They are not addressed to different persons as is believed by Sankara. Karma Marga for Ramanuja includes the Vedic rituals, the worship of idols, as given in the Agamas, and the repeating of Mantras.23

Souls are of three kinds: (1) the bound ones, (2) the delivered ones, and (3) the eternal souls like Garuda. Of the bound ones, some seek wealth and others seek heaven.

They perform all rites, sacrifices and pilgrimages. Some of them are devotees of Bhagavat and some worship other gods and Avataras. Of those who desire deliverance, some seek the consciousness of the pure soul only (Kevalin) and others eternal bliss. Of the latter, some seek God through Bhakti. They first study the Vedic mysticism. And the philosophy of sacrifices and rites. But, this Bhakti is open to the three higher castes only and not to Sadhus. The caste system is maintained intact.

Those who cannot do the Bhakti of the type mentioned above, can resort to ‘Prapatti’, or surrender to God, after renouncing the world. This system is open to all classes. For the efficacy of Bhakti, ‘Karm yoga’ and ‘Jnana yoga’ are essential. The first is the performance of all prescribed acts, rituals, sacrifices, ceremonies, pilgrimages and the worship of idols. Jnana yoga is the gaining of cognitive knowledge of one’s being separate from Prakriti and being an Attribute of God. These two preparatory steps lead to Bhakti which consists in meditations, accompanied by the Yoga practices of Yama, Niyama, etc. These methods include: (1) the use of un-polluted and unprohibited food, (2) chastity, (3) constant practice, (4) performing the rites and sacrifices according to one’s means, (5) virtuous acts of truth, compassion, Ahimsa, uprightness, (6) hopefulness and (7) absence of datedness. Bhakti, as done by these seven means, leads to one’s seeing God. As against it, ‘Prapatti’ involves complete self- surrender. In the Padma-Purana seven other modes of worship are also suggested. They are all ritualistic and formal, e.g. (1) the imprinting of marks on the body and the forehead, (2) the repeating of Mantras (3) the drinking of water used for washing the feet of the idol of Hari, (4) the eating of the cooked food offered to the idol, (5) the service of devotees, (6) the observing of fasts on the fixed days of the lunar month, (7) the laying of Tulsi leaves on the idol; etc.
This Bhakti has no ethical bias or emphasis. It is a Bhakti of a formal and emotional nature without the kind of love that fructifies into a moral life for the service of man. On the basis of the study of Alwar saints, Hooper asserts that there is no necessary connection between Bhakti and character. In this regard, he particularly cites the example of one Alwar saint, Tirumangai.24 Maitra who has discussed the problem of Hindu ethics and the problem of ideal life in all Hindu schools of orthodox philosophy, including that of the Vaishesika, the Purva Mimansa, Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhava and Vallabhacharya, comes to the conclusion that a common feature of all these doctrines of ideal life or Moksha is “the conception of the ideal as a negation, or atleast as a transcendence, of the empirical life proper, and that this state is thus a super-moral spiritual ideal rather than a strictly moral ideal.” And after achieving the state of Moksha, there is hardly anything to be done. It is a negative and quietist ideal without any activity, except that in the case of Ramanuja’s system one has to do unconditional scriptural works like the daily rituals, bathing in the Ganges on the day of lunar or solar eclipse, etc. As such, in the orthodox Hindu systems, the negative ideal or goal has been accepted. It is a transcendental state of deliverance from all the struggles of life. It is generally and essentially a state of quiescence.25 In all these systems including that of the Vishnu Purana, release from the bondage of the world is sought.

Ramanuja’s Bhakti does not mean boundless love; it only involves Upasanas or meditations. The goal is attainable in this life. The actual goal is achieved after death and the soul then has a direct vision of Truth as its own essence. It is a doctrine of identity. Upto the end one must carry on ritualistic duties and duties of one’s station in life; i.e. the caste duties.26

We have detailed Ramanuja’s system, since it is one of oldest and the most typical of the theistic schools that emerged after the onslaughts of the Vedantic school of Sankara. Like the Bhagavad Gita, its theism, if at all it may be so called, is seemingly synthetic and incorporates practically all the chief elements of the Sankhya, the Yoga and the Vedic ritualism. The world and souls are the body of Brahman both in their manifest and unmanifest forms. On the metaphysical side, the system is broadly pantheistic, God being the material cause of the world, and Ishvara, the souls and the material world being the constituents of Brahman. In a way, the system is also pluralistic, as souls and Prakriti are eternal. In addition, the socio-religious sanctity of the caste system is accepted. It makes no departure from the earlier socio-religious systems. Rather, a justification is afforded for the continuance of the Brahmanical system for the worship of images. For purposes of Bhakti the world has virtually to be given up and celibacy maintained. Full sanction is given to faith in the Vedic scriptures and the observance of Vedic rites and other prescribed pilgrimages and fasts. The world activity, including all moral life, is virtually a movement of the eternal Prakriti, from the bondage of which release is sought by resort to Yoga and meditational methods. The cultivation of virtues has no social content. As in all the Yogic systems, virtues are practised entirely with a view to preparation and personal discipline for meditation. Virtuous acts, as such, have no social ends or validity. They serve purely as aids to meditation. In the social fields one has to do one’s caste duties, and the word ‘Karma’ includes all Vedic rituals, idol worship, and other ceremonies.

The ideal is the attainment of Narayana, the enjoyment of bliss and deliverance from the world. As indicated already, the system of training is the Karma Yoga, the Jnana Yoga and Bhakti Yoga (meditations). Though the householder could follow the path of salvation, the Sanyas Ashram prescribed in the Upanisads leads to speedy salvation. The person who has made the final achievement, is also obliged to perform all the rituals (Karma) like fasting and baths prescribed in the Vedas for a normal being.

Madhva : In Madhva’s system the separate existence of God, souls and the material world is assumed. And though God is the efficient cause of the world, the same is due to the movement of eternal Prakriti which is its material cause. The system is thus dualistic with a plural number of souls. In substance, the Sankhya system is accepted, except for the addition of a Personal God. In the system of Madhava, God is a substance, and the doctrine of incarnation is believed. In his qualities and actions, the A vatara is identical with God. Lakshmi is distinct from God but is dependent upon Him. She is co-extensive or co-eternal with God. Souls are of three kinds: (a) those fit for attaining bliss, (b) those eternally undergoing transmigration, (c) those fit for darkness only. Creation begins when god disturbs the equilibrium of Prakriti. As for the world activity, the Sankhya system is virtually accepted. Moksha can be attained through service but only by a soul fit for it.

There are eighteen methods that help salvation, including (1) Vairgya or renunciation of the world and its pleasures, (2) self control, (3) self-surrender, (4) acquaintance with the lore, (S) attendance on the guru, (6) knowledge got from the guru or a Vaisnava and reflection on it, (7) devotion to God, (8) sympathy for inferiors and love for equals, (9) the performance of Vedic rites without the desire for fruit, (10) the avoidance of prohibited acts or sins, (11) the knowledge of Visnu being the highest, and of the distinctions between God and the world, Prakriti and Purusas, God and individuals, etc., (12) worship or Upasana, the hearing of Sastras, meditation, etc. These steps lead to the direct knowledge of God which is cognitive. The followers of Madhava use special marks, created sometimes even by heated metal, leaving permanent scars on the body.

In this system God cannot be exhaustively known even by revelation. He is apprehensible by the mind but is not fully comprehensible. The presence of the last two classes of souls, that are not redeemable and are doomed to misery and darkness, is something extremely incongruous in a theistic system. For it virtually limits the scope of human freedom and divine grace.27 As no progress is envisaged for these souls, the system is rather deterministic. The distinction of one soul from the other remains even after Moksha. The ideal is the attainment of bliss. For release, the knowledge of God is more essential than self-knowledge. Both are obtained through the study of the scriptures. For the knowledge of God, meditation and reflection under a guru are necessary. The realisation of God’s greatness and goodness is the means to salvation. Like Ramanuja, Madhava rejects the ideal of Jivan- ukta, and feels that scriptural duties and those of one’s station in life should be done throughout life.28 As in the case of Sankara, performance of any worldly duties or moral acts by the spiritually enlightened person is unnecessary. In short, here too the ideal of salvation is other-worldly. One has no socio-political role. The caste and ritual duties are accepted and the ritual system is adhered to till the end of one’s life. Madhava and Ramanuja, in a way, reject the idea of Jivanmukta. For, they feel that complete knowledge and bliss are realized more after death than in life.29 The goal is achieved by doing scriptural duties, the study of scriptures and meditation.

Nimbarka: Nimbarka’s system is monistic and also, in a way pluralistic. He feels that the world, souls and God are both distinct and identical (Bheda-Abheda). The first two have no independent existence, but are dependent on God. His recommendations for the modes of Bhakti are practically the same as of Ramanuja. He believes that Brahman had in it the rudiments of the world. By manifestation Brahman becomes the material cause of the world. The souls are numberless. Soul’s knowledge depends on God. But, by Contact. with Maya or Prakriti, its form is distorted. Prakriti is eternal. The nature of soul can be known by the grace Incarnation, the caste system and Sankhya are accepted. The approach is other worldly. The object is for the soul to know, by dissociation from Prakriti and by the grace of God its Own nature. The worship recommended is that of RadhaKrishna. This worship is more devotional than that in the case of Ramanuja, but the other worldly approach remains. Since the individual soul is distorted by its contact with Prakriti, naturally the mystic way is that of ascetic withdrawal from life.

Ramananda : All systems prior to Ramananda, including that of Sankara, excluded the Sudras from their fold. They had to do the duties prescribed for their low castes and rise in status so as to be born as Brahmins. Then alone they could tread the path of the Vaisnava Bhakti. Ramananda’s reform extended to the effect that lower castes, if admitted to the Vaisnava fold and if devotees of Visnu, could dine with the other disciples. For the rest, the system is the same as of Ramanuja and his deity was Rama with Sita as his consort. Tulsidas: Though a disciple of Ramananda, Tulsidas’s philosophy leans towards spiritual monism. Like other saints of Vaisnavism, he accepts the rigidity of the caste system, even though his guru Ramananda had to an extent relaxed it for admitted Vaisnavas. He is conservative and otherworldly. In his system there is no emphasis on socio-moral conduct. God’s grace is the main instrument to bring about Moksha and the destruction of all sins.

Vallabha: In Vallabha’s system the devotee can continue to be a householder. God has Himself become the world and the individual souls, because the Supreme Soul was not happy while all alone. He decided to become many. In all these cases the world view is pantheistic. The world is real, but salvation is only through Bhakti. Though one need not give up the house-holder’s life, the method of worship is entirely ritualistic and ceremonial. Apart from the devotion of singing and praising God, the conductor of worship should rise early, drink the washings of the feet of the idol, utter the names of Govardhana and others, remember the river Yamuna, etc. Similarly, at other times of the day, there should be image worship and the feeding of the deity, accompanied by other ceremonies, like Arti, the ringing of bells, the blowing of the conch shell, bathing, dressing and the feeding of the idol.

There are no public temples, but each guru, who is a householder, maintains a private temple at his own house. At eight fixed intervals during the day the devotee should visit the temple of the guru. The best stage of salvation is that of joining the sport of Krishna and Radha in the highest place of heaven, called Golaka. Vallabha’s system is not known for any new ideas except that he has excessively ritualized Bhakti and made it open to householders. Bhandarkar believes that Vallabha’s devotion appears more dramatic than real. Ultimately, such forms of Vaisnavism gained unsavoury reputation, especially the systems where Krishna and his consort were worshipped.

Chaitanya: Born in Bengal, Chaitanya was a devotee of Radha and Krishna. He developed the emotional side of the Bhakti of Krishna and his consort. He composed songs, did fervent singing and ecstatic dancing. This was his method of approach to God. His disciples included persons of all castes and even Muslims. For him the deeply emotional singing of the praises of God (Radha-Krishna) was the only method of Bhakti and salvation. While singing, the devotees would laugh, weep, jump and embrace each other in a state of emotional outburst. Chaitanya became an ascetic and a Sanyasi. His loud singing became so charged with feeling that he even swooned under the intensity of his emotion. For Chaitanya, Krishna is the highest god who is so beautiful that he excites love in the hearts of all. The Vedantic theory of Chaitanya is that of Nimbarka, or of identity with a difference between the soul and God (Bheda-Abheda). God Krishna, can be approached by love alone. When, through continuous love, the soul becomes one with God, it becomes unconscious of its individual existence, and becomes as it were, absorbed in Him. In spirit the soul is one with God. God appears in finite spirits. Thus, the soul is identical with God. The goal of life is the bliss of union in which the soul loses its consciousness. But actually they remain distinct. Most of ‘Advaitas’, followers of Chaitanya, observe caste distinctions’; but those who are recluses or Bairagis do not do so. The teachers of this system are all celibates. The type of Bhakti the Bhagavat Purana preaches, is illustrated by the life of Chaitanya. Chaitanya mentions different kinds of love; (a) love with awe and reverence for his greatness, it is the peaceful, calm and tender love (Shanta); Cb) love with the submission of the heart like that of a servant’s (Dasya) for his master; (c) the love of God as a friend (Sakhya); and (d) the deepest love as of the wife for her husband (Madhura). The last kind is the sweetest and the deepest as for a beloved. Love is God’s very nature. He loves man.30

The Brahmanical Indians cherish four values, Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksha. The final goal is Moksha. The other three are the lower ideals. Of course, Dharma is a preparatory ideal and it means nothing beyond doing the duties of the station of one’s life or caste duties. Since the Upanisads, Moksha has been the final ideal. At the time of the Upanisads the concept of Jivan-mukta emerged. It was felt that the evil of Samsara carries with it the seeds of destruction. In any case, this ideal of renunciation, leading to Moksha or liberation, ultimately came to be the accepted ideal. Though Jiwan-mukta was also assumed, he too in that state completely cuts himself off from all worldly life. This is the view according to Yajnavalkya and Sankara. In the other group of Ramanuja and Madhava, the scriptural and ritualistic duties have to be carried out by everyone to the end of one’s days. The highest bliss and union are reached only after death. Bhakti being only an alternative method of Moksha, it has been felt that Bhakti Marga, or the devotional method of Moksha, is only for those for whom the idea of a Personal God has a special appeal. We have had brief picture of various Vaisnava developments and different schools of its thought. Let us indicate briefly the chief features of this mystic system.


 (1) The overall world view is either pantheistic or dualistic, where the co-eternal Parkriti is assumed. In the former case the world and souls are the body or qualities of Brahman. Brahman is both the material and the efficient cause of the world. In the latter case, it is virtually the Sankhya-Yoga system with the addition of Ishvara as a God of Attributes. Generally speaking, the soul forms a part of Brahman. Even if the ideas of worship between man and God, and the creature and the Creator, are mentioned, there is basic identity between the soul and Brahman, the former being a part of the latter. In theism the world is the creation of God. It is different from God, nor is the world co-eternal with Him. Hence, whatever name one may give to the Vaisnava system, it is not theistic in the normal sense of the word.
(2) There is belief in the Vedas and their ritualistic mysticism. The social order and other practices enjoined by them, are accepted. While each sect puts its own interpretation on the Vedas, including the Upanisads, there is implicit faith in their scriptural sanctity and all that they stand for.

(3) The caste system and its social prohibitions are strictly adhered to. Ramanand was the only person who made some marginal relaxation but that too was only in regard to those who had been admitted to his Vaisnava faith as the disciples of Visnu. Socially the caste system was accepted.

(4) The world is deemed to be real. But, in view of the Sankhya- Yoga background and the ideal of Moksha or liberation from Samsara, the entire approach and the attitude are other worldly.

(5) The goal is of Moksha. It means the return of the soul for merger in Brahman, or to its original state of purity, bliss and union with God, without involvement in the world of man. The aim is not the service of God or man, nor is it the carrying out of His will in the world. None of these matters receives any priority, the ideal being that of salvation (Moksha) from the tangles of the world.

(6) As such, there is no stress on the moral life except for purposes of personal purity and aid to meditation.

(7) In some cases the final achievement is made after death. In life, the Jiwan-mukta has no social role to play, except that he is still obliged to follow all the prescribed ritualistic duties.

(8) The theory of A vatarhood is accepted and idol worship is practised.

(9) During the earlier period of Vaisnavism, the parth of worship was only an alternative way of deliverance from the world. This path was not even the first in the order of priority. Later, when it was recognised as the chief mode of salvation, the worship contemplated was only meditational, formal or ritualistic. In the case of Chaitanya the worship became extremely emotional in character.

The above in brief are the history and content of the Vaisnava system. It has four fundamentals. Its basic scriptures are the Vedas and the Upanisads which are also the foundations of the extreme ritualism of the original Vedic system (Purva Mimansa). The monism of Sankara, downgrading the world as illusory, and the otherworldly meditational mysticism of the Upanisads were virtually maintained in so far as social activity in the world never had any value or validity. For the first time the Gita included the heterodox Bhagvatism in the Hindu fold and linked its system of worship to the scriptural authority of the Vedas. Another result was that the Vedic Caste system was wholly accepted by this system of Bhakti and became the second fundamental of Vaisnavism to which it adhered completely. Ramanand’s modifications in the dietary regulations were made only as a personal reaction to his own conduct having been subjected to severe criticism by his colleagues and Guru for his having violated some caste rules. This slight change in the rules about eating, only involved a virtual post-facto justification of his own conduct, without in the least affecting the basis or the rigidity of the caste system. This is also clear from the fact that Tulsidas, the .chief disciple of Ramanand strictly believed in the sanctity and the rigid observance of the caste system. The theory of Avatarhood, the third fundamental of Vaisnavism, was as we have seen, only an omniverous method of absorbing all kinds of divergent and heterodox system in the Hindu fold. The ritualism of the Vedic religion became its fourth fundamental. In fact, Bhakti itself was completely formalised and ritualised. The methods of worship almost became a system of Mantras. This devotion towards the deity never turned towards love of one’s fellow beings. In fact, the fundamental acceptance of the inequity of the Caste system and the formalism of Bhakti stood as a complete bar to any transformation of the love of God into the service or love of man and suffering humanity. That is also the reason that good conduct never involved any act of social morality or any activity to solve the difficulties and problems of man or his social life. Moral life, at best, meant only a sense of ritualistic or formal piety without the least reaction to any social evil, injustice or cruelty much less to any political oppression or tyranny. Accordingly, as was observed by Hooper, Vaisnava Bhakti never involved any change in the socio-moral approach, character or values of the devotee.





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