A Brief History of Vaishnavism Part II

Vaishnavism is one of the oldest religions of India and it is a monotheistic system which upholds Vishnu as the ultimate Reality (para tattva). It believes that the exclusive and devoted worship of Vishnu leads to the realization of the highest spiritual goal and for this purpose, it has laid down an ethical and religious discipline.1

Main features of Vaishnavism

The most important characteristic of Vaishnavism is its adoption of bhakti (devotion) as a way to attain salvation.2 God cannot be apprehended by the senses and is attained only through whole-hearted devotion.3 In Bhagavad Gita (xii.8) Krishna ask his devotees to fix their mind and intellect on him alone so that they can dwell on him alone.4 Knowledge and action are motivated by egoism and pride. So, knowledge and action cannot excite God’s compassion. But devotion is meek and humble and also the easiest and superior of all kinds of worship. Therefore, those who seek liberation should adopt the path of devotion alone.5

Prapatti or Sharanagati or complete surrendering to God is another important feature of Vaishnavism. In Bhagavad Gita (xviii.66) it is said relinquishing all religious rites and actions (yielding merits and demerits) take refuge in God alone and He shall deliver men from all sins. Taking refuge in God is the highest good of men.6

Yet another feature of Vaishnavism is the belief in the Grace of God. God can be attained only by his grace. He cannot be brought for any price or gift. No human attainments, physical, intellectual, moral or spiritual are adequate for the attainment of God. It is God who awakens in us the desire to undergo penances, grants us wisdom and gives us enlightenment. Liberation depends entirely upon the grace of God.7

An important feature of Vaishnavism is that the path of devotional love to God and through it, of obtaining salvation is opened to all irrespective of caste, character and gender. An outcast who possesses sincere faith and devotion is considered dearer to God than a Brahmin lacking in faith and devotion.8

Vaishnavas believe in the concept of Avataras. The word Avatara mean descent. It signifies that in order to present men a higher ideal of life God brings himself down. He appears in a tangible form so that the world may be saved and helped to move higher in its spiritual evolution.9 Traditions as to the number of Avataras varied and the later lists of the Avataras, though usually ten is generally adhered to, very often offer different names. But the pauranic verse enumerating Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Narasimha, Vamana, Parashurama, Dasharatha Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki as the ten avataras almost universally recognized since the medieval period is found in a Mamallapuram inscription of about 8th century A.D. The Avatara theory which must have undergone several stages of evolution appears to be based on old tales about strange animals exhibiting mysterious powers of helpfulness. Some of them however had originally little to do with Vishnu. Though it is said that the Buddhist conception of the former Buddhas may have influenced the development of the avatara concept, the origin of the avatara concept may be traced in the later Vedic literature.10

Vaishnavism lays stress on ahimsa or non-violence and discarded animal sacrifices evincing there by its antagonism to what was a conspicuous feature of the Vedic religion. It may be noted that a section of the Mahabharata speaking of the glory of Vaishnavism refers to the performance of Ashvamedha sacrifice in which no animal was slaughtered. If God is truth, non-violence is the supreme and the sole way to realize Him.11

Main tenets of Vaishnavism

The Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana contains the main tenets of Vaishnavism.

The Bhagavad Gita contains 18 chapters and 700 shlokas and forms a part of the Bhishmaparva of Mahabharata.12 The main spirit of the Bhagavad Gita is that of the Upanishad but there is a greater emphasis on the religious side.13 The tradition account of the relation between the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads is contained in the famous quotation the “the Upanishads are the cows, Krishna is the milker, Arjuna the calf and nectar-like Gita is the excellent milk”.14

According to the Bhagavad Gita, the Soul is the master of the body and is indestructible. The Soul does not cease to exist when the body dies and hence grief over death is foolish. It is the body that is cast off in death just like we cast off old cloths.15 Bhagavad Gita teaches us that with equanimity we should welcome pain and pleasure, joy and sorrow and success and failures.16 It urges that work should be done in a spirit of duty done and result should not be permitted to agitate the mind. This unselfish and detached attitude can and should be cultivated even while we are engaged in normal activities.17 The Gita says that none need despair and even those who have sinned, if they surrender and worship me (Sri Krishna) with devotion and repentance will be absolved of sins.18

The Bhagavata Purana shares with Bhagavad Gita a unique position in the devotional literature of India. According to S.N.Dasgupta the Bhagavata Purana was probably composed after 10th century A.D. by a south Indian as it makes references to the Alvars who have probably never been referred to by any writers in north India.19 The Bhagavata Purana emphasis on the worship of God without any ulterior motive- a worship performed with a perfect sincerity of heart by men who are kindly disposed towards all, and who have freed themselves from all feelings of jealousy.20 According to Bhagavata Purana neither Yoga, nor knowledge, or performance of duties, neither study of Vedas, nor austerities, or charities propitiates God so well as unswerving devotion to him.21

Popularity of the Vaishnava Dharma

The Pancharatra Agama considered as the religious/ritualistic text of the Vaishnavas emphasized the worship of God as Narayana with faith and surrender. It made worship easier and simpler. It inculcated the spirit of self-surrender to the will of God and thereby extolled nishkama karma, duty for duty’s sake, in fact, every act of for God’s sake. In the process it removed all the barbed fringes of Vedic rituals and sacrifices such as caste distinctions, animal sacrifices, elaborate rituals and also the stigma of mercenary motives in the acts of worship. Above all it made worship of God individualistic and personal. Everyone has his own freedom to seek God and has direct access and is in need of no permit.22 The shifting of emphasis from costly rituals to simple japa or repeated recitation of sacred syllables, formulae or names of the deity contributed a great deal to the popularization of the Vaishnava dharma. The Vishnu Smrti states that japa yagna is ten times more meritorious than ritualistic sacrifices (vidhi yajna).23

Growth of Bhagavata religion

The Bhagavata religion which originated with the Yadava-Satvata-Vrishni people of the Mathura area, appears to have spread to western Indian and the northern Deccan with the migration of the numerous Yadava tribes. Vasudeva was probably deified and worshipped by his own people as early as the age of Panini.24 The Besnagar inscription, the Ghosundi stone inscription, the Nanaghat cave inscription and Panani, Patanjali, Kautilya and Megasthenes in their works testify to the early spread and popularity of Vaishnavas in the per-Christian era.25

The Gupta rulers bearing the title ‘Parama Bhagavata’ championed Vaishnavism. Under their patronage Vaishnavism spread to a great extent not only in India but also in Indian colonies of South-East Asia, Indo-China, Combodia, Malaya and Indonesia.26 It was in the Gupta age that Vasudeva’s identity with Vishnu became an accomplished fact and the great mantra ‘Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya’ came to be regarded as the best mantra for worshipping Vishnu as well and this mantra became the mantra par excellence of all the Vaishnava sub-sects.27

Vaishnavism in South India

With the fall of Guptas, the Bhagavata religion lost its supremacy in north India. But the centre of gravity shifted to the south where it flourished under the patronage of the Alvars, the Tamil saints who mainly preached Krishna worship and Bhakti.28 The Alvars who lived roughly between seventh to ninth century A.D. were drawn from various classes of men and women. They were God-intoxicated and recorded their experience of the fellowship with the Lord in their songs which are about 400 and goes by the name Prabandham. The Alvars were poet-philosophers who were inspired by their mystic experience to sing the glory of the Lord.29

The Bhagavata religion as preached by the Alvars was accessible to the people of high and low castes, men and women, wise and ignorant. The only thing necessary according to the Alvars was prapatti or self-surrender. Dhyana and Yoga were neither necessary.30

After the Alvars came the Acharyas, a group of teachers who represented the intellectual side of Tamilian Vaishnavism. They supplemented the doctrine of bhakti with jnana and karma and reconciled the Prabandham with the Vedas, the Upanishads and the Gita. The first Acharya was Nathamuni or Ranganatha Muni who lived in Srirangam.31 Among the acharyas, the most significant contribution to the development and propagation of the vishistadvaita philosophy and the Vaishnava religion has been made by Ramanuja.32 Under his influence the Hoysala ruler Vishnuvardhana and the Ganga ruler of Kalinga, Ananta Varman Chodaganga embraced Vaishnavism.

Vaishnavism in North India

Ramananda (1299 A.D. – 1410 A.D.) was the fifth in apostolic succession to Sri Ramanuja and was born in Prayag. He went to Benaras for education where he met Raghavananda a prominent teacher of the Sri Vaishnava school founded by Sri Ramanuja. Raghavananda admitted Ramananda to his school and initiated him. After serving his guru for some time, Ramananda went on a pilgrimage. When he returned back Ramananda was not accepted by his guru for an imaginary impurity. This incident transformed Ramananda and he became imbued with a feeling of spiritual humility and began to recognize the equality of all men whatever their caste, colour or creed in the eyes of God. In one of his sayings Ramananda declared – “Let no one ask a man’s caste or with whom he eats. If a man is devoted to Hari, he becomes Hari’s own”. Ramananda substituted the worship of Rama and Seetha in place of Narayana and Lakshmi and admitted all high and low alike into his fold and made spiritual knowledge accessible even to the degraded castes. He had twelve disciples and these included besides Brahmans, a Muslim weaver, a Rajput, a Jat, a barber, two women and Ravi Das a leather worker. This act of Ramananda rendered the Hindu religion all-embracing in its sympathy and catholic in its outlook. This new ethical outlook was developed in various direction by Ramananda’s successor’s and through all their teachings we find emphasis laid upon two great principles- 1. That perfect bhakti consists in perfect love directed to God and 2. That all servants of God are brothers. Ramananda taught in the vernacular and his followers composed their hymns in one or the other of the various dialects of Hindi. Of Ramananda’s twelve disciples, three, Kabir, Sena and Ravi Das founded branch sects of their own.33

Vaishnavism in Western India

Among the several sects that arose in Medieval India, none has spread more widely or attracted more popular attention both in India and outside than the one connected with the name and teachings of Vallabhacharya.34

Vallabhacharya (born in 1479 A.D.) was the founder of the great Vaishnavite church of Rajasthan and Gujarat. A native of Telugu country, a great Sanskrit scholar, Vallabhacharya first settled in Mathura and then at Benaras and preached with great ardour and learning the Vaishnavite cult and philosophy. He made a tour through the whole of India and won fame and following in several disputation in various cities.35 In Brindavan near Govardhana hills Vallabhacharya found an image of Devadamana or Shri Nathji and duly constructed a temple and installed the image there probably in 1520 A.D.36 (the image was later shifted to Nathdwara in Rajashtan). After Vallabhacharya’s death his son Vittalnath(1516-1576) travelled widely and made numerous converts who belonged to different strata of the society especially in Rajasthan and Gujarat.37 Vittalnath had seven sons who upon his death established their own seat of teachings and brought more adherents to the Vaishnava fold. Of these seven sons, Gokulnathji (1552-1610) became the most celebrated. Gokulnath converted nobles and soldiers and the former build shrines and mathas to Krishna and their guru and endowed them with lands and revenue.38

Vaishnavism in Eastern India

Before the advent of Chaitanya, the religious condition of Bengal was far from satisfactory. The worship of Mangala Candi and Manasa was what the masses did in the name of religion and even the Brahmanas cared very little for religious devotion and were fully immersed in worldly affairs.39

The official religion of the Pala rulers of Bengal was Buddhism and that of the Senas was Shaivism with the exception of Lakshmana Sena who’s contemporary Jayadeva wrote the Gita Govinda, the most important devotional work and which inspired the Vaishnavas through the ages.40

Chaitanya (1486-1533 A.D.) born at Navadvipa was initiated into the bhakti cult by Ishvara Puri a Vaishnava savant at Gaya. This initiation had a marvelous effect on Chaitanya and revealed a new phase of life and brought home to his heart the most fascinating charms of Sri Krishna. Chaitanya organized sankirtana, that is saying the names of God in chorus with the accompaniment of musical instrument. This novel way of uttering the names of Hari caught the fancy of people, who shook off their indifference to spiritual matters and began to flock under his banner in hundreds and thousands. After touring several parts of India, Chaitanya spent his last days at Puri.41

An outstanding feature of modern Vaishnavism particularly in Bengal, Assam and Orissa is the worship of Radha along with Krishna. There are sects outside this area such as Vishnusvamins (this sect does not exist at present) and the Nimbarkar who also worship Radha, but to the Nimbarkars, Radha is the wife of Krishna and occupied the same place of Rukmini, but in Bengal she is the mistress of Krishna. This phase of Radha-Krishna cult has had a long development and became the accepted dogma of a religious sect only after Chaitanya accepted it as part of his creed.42

From historical point of view, it appears that Chaitanya took the detailed idea of Radha-Krishna cult from Raya Ramananda and transmitted it to his disciples, Rupa Gosvami at Prayag and to Sanatana Gosvami at Kashi. These two Gosvamis and their nephew Jiva Gosvami elaborated this idea and placed it on a philosophical basis in their numerous works. All of them lived at Brindavan and reclaimed the village and many other places connected with the sacred memory of Krishna, transformed them into places of pilgrimage and established a number of temples dedicated to Krishna. Since then, Brindavan has become a great centre of Bengal Vaishnavism in north India.43

In Bengal Vaishnavism, Sri Krishna is considered as the ultimate reality and not an incarnation of the Lord, but the very Lord himself. The Chaitanya Charitamrita which is regarded as the special scripture of the Bengal school of Vaishnavism says that Sri Krishna is avataree or That from which all avataras or incarnations proceed or emanate. The Sri Krishna of Bengal Vaishnavism is different from Sri Krishna of the Yadus or Sri Krishna of Mahabharata epic. The Sri Krishna whom the Bengal Vaishnavas worship never moves from Brindavana.44

Chaitanya believed in the reality of the world and viewed the relationship between the soul and the Lord as one of identity-in-difference. The relationship is indescribable and is called achintyabhedabheda. He preached prema-bhakti and condemned rituals and caste-distinctions.45 In 1966 Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, a follower of the Chaitanya school of Vaishnavism founded the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) which has been propagating and popularizing Vaishnavism across the globe and attracting adherents from all over the world.

In Assam, a strong centre of Tantricism, Shankaradeva introduced and popularized Vaishnavism. He was born in 1449 at Alipukhuri a place 16 miles from the town of Nowgong.46 At the age of 37 he undertook a pilgrimage and visited important sacred places all over India. It is in the course of this pilgrimage Shankaradeva came into contact with Vaishnavism practiced in different regions. At those holy places he also entered into religious controversies with Vaishnava pundits of various schools and the consequent discussions must have prompted Shankaradeva to inaugurate the neo-Vaishnavite movement in Assam.47

Another turn in his spiritual life was his meeting with a learned pundit Jagadis Misra who explained to him the holy Bhagavata Purana. This had an impact on Shankaradeva and he took up the work of translating the Bhagavata Purana. These verses were sung accompanied with music and attracted people.48

Shankaradeva simplified religion to such an extent that even the most ignorant, the humblest and the poorest of all could join in religious worship.49

Sects of Vaishnavism

There are four Vaishnavas sects or schools of thought. Sri-sampradaya expounding the Vishishtadvaita philosophy and established by Sri Ramanujacharya, Sanakadi or Hamsa sampradaya expounding the Dwaitaadvaita or Bhedabheda philosophy and established by Nimbarkacharya, Brahma sampradaya expounding the Dwaita philosophy and established by Madhvacharya and Rudra sampradaya expounding the Shuddadvaita philosophy and established by Vallabhacharya.50

It is a sort of convention that even such great thinkers like Ramanuja and others feel hesitation in having full confidence of people accepting their teachings and therefore they always try to trace the origin of their thought from God himself or any other similar reliable authority like the Veda. Hence it is said that the teachings of Nimbarkacharya was first taught to Sanaka, Sanatana, Sanandana and Sanat Kumara, the four sons of the creator through his mental creation by God himself appearing before them in the form of a swan. It is due to this very belief that this school of philosophy is known as Sanakari sampradaya or Hamsa sampradaya. Similar is the case of Madhvacharya and Vallabhacharya who trace the origin of their thoughts to Brahma and Rudra respectively.51

Philosophy of Visishtadvaita

Shankaracharya stressed the reality of the one Brahman and explained the many as the illusory manifestation of the One, due to the functioning of maya. Ramanuja stressed the reality of the many as well as the One. According to Ramanujacharya the many are not the illusory manifestations of the One but are an inseparable relation of dependence on the One. The world of souls and matter are attributes of Brahman who is a supra-personality (Purushottama).52 For Ramanuja the relation between Brahman on the one side and Atman and the material world on the other is that of the atman-body relationship (shariraatmasambandha). And although the atma constitute the body of the Brahman they are yet different from it. Atma and the material world stick to Brahman in their subtle form before creation and assume gross forms after creation. Creation is therefore the change (parinama) of the subtle into the gross. Maya is the energy of the Brahman by which he creates the world. The world is real and Ramanuja calls it prakriti which is a unconscious matter.53

Philosophy of Dwaitaadvaita or Bhedabheda

Nimbarkacharya the founder of the Bhedabheda system of philosophy opined that Brahman who is the cause of the world is not merely the efficient cause but also the material cause. The relation between cause and effect is both identity and difference. For instance, the clay which is the material cause of the pot is identical with the pot. But if it is merely identical with the pot, then there will be no difference between the lump of clay and the pot. Hence there is difference also. Similarly, there is many similarities and differences between the Brahman and Atman and Brahman and the material world. By nature, both Brahman and Atman are identical and different. They are identical because Atman is a part (amsa) of Brahman and is conscious like it. But they are different because part and whole are not equal to each other. The Brahman is supreme and omnipotent and is the creator of the world whereas the Atman is only a part, finite and cannot be the creator. Similarly, the material world also has both identity and difference with Brahman.54

Philosophy of Dwaita

Madhvacharya the founder of Dwaita system of philosophy was a pluralist. According to him there is Brahman and an infinite number of Atmas and an infinite number of material entities. According to Madhvacharya the world is real and has no beginning and will have no end. He accepts five kinds of difference as absolutely real. They are

    • The difference between Brahman and Atman
    • The difference between Brahman and matter
    • The difference between one Atma and the another
    • The difference between Atmas and matter and
    • The difference between one material entity and another

According to Madhvacharya Brahman alone is independent and has control over everything else which is subordinate to it.55

Philosophy of Shuddadvaita

According to Vallabhacharya, the propounder of Shuddadvaita, Brahman is an independent reality and his nature is Sat (existence), Cit (knowledge) and Ananda (bliss). All the things in the world are his real manifestations. This Brahman is not nirguna Brahman of Shankaracharya but the most perfect person, Lord Krishna. The entire creation of the world is his real manifestation. While the Lord undergoes all the transformations he is not affected. It is similar to the spider and its self-drawing web and the blazing fire and the multitude of sparks which springs from it. The universe and the souls are the real manifestation of the Lord and not the products of ignorance or maya as in Shankara’s philosophy.56

While to Ramanujacharya and Madhva Brahman is Narayana or Vishnu, to Nimbarka and Vallabha, Brahman is Gopala Krishna accompanied by Radha.57

Folk deities brought under Vaishnava fold

The Avatara theory (incarnation) led to the absorption of different creeds by Vaishnavism by explaining the gods worshiped in them as nothing but the manifestations of one Supreme Being.58 For instance the famous deity of Tirupati, Balaji, the cult of Vithoba (Pandharpur in Maharashtra) and Jagannath (Puri in Odisha) were absorbed into the Vaishnava fold over a period of time.

For centuries up to the present day there has been an endless controversy on the subject of the real nature of the God of Tirupati. Is he a form of Vishnu or a form of Shiva? According to Vaishnavites he is Vishnu. But Shaivites retort that it was Shankaracharya himself who gave the god his name after a crystal Linga was set up by him at that place. The very fact of the existence of that controversy shows that Venkateshwara was originally a (folk) God who was probably integrated in the Hindu pantheon either in a form of Shiva or Vishnu. Venkateshwara was probably a (folk) God, one of the forms of the child God worshipped in Tamil country under the various names of Subramanya, Muruga, Skanda, Kumara, etc.59

Similarly, G.A.Deleury has hypothesized that Lord Vithoba, now recognized as a special avatara of Vishnu was a holy man belonging to Jaina religion. Accordingly, Viththala died by fasting up to death that is by performing the jaina ritual Sallekanavrata. His disciple and also son called Pundalika erected a stone to commemorate this event. Pundalika also became an ascetic of great repute. At that time Jainism was giving place to a revival of Hinduism based on the teachings of Bhagavata Purana and Bhagavad Gita and the disciples of Pundalika adopted the doctrines of Vaishnavism and Vithoba was recognized as an avatara of Vishnu. This fame of Viththala spread during 13th century A.D. first in Karnataka as before 13th century no records concerning Vithobha are available. Towards the end of 13th century, Jnanadeva born in a family devoted to Viththala and his teachings and writings became the foundation of Varkari Panth.60

Another important folk deity incorporated into the Vaishnava fold was the present famous god of Puri, Jagannath. Accordingly, the Jagannath figure was the result of a process of Hinduisation where a tribal deity represented by a wooden post was later identified with Narasimha with an attempt to represent a lion head; the round eyes being typical features of Narasimha’s fury. At present the Jagannath figure displays what seems to be a ‘tribal look’. The wooden figures may be called crude and certainly differ considerably from the images worshiped in other great Hindu temples which correspond exactly to the described iconographical canons. Even today a special group of priests Daityas who are thought to be the descendants of the original tribal worshipers are specially entrusted with dressing or moving the deities.61

Impact of Vaishnavism on Indian culture and society

Pancaratra the text of the Vaishnavas has done the greatest service to Hinduism. It strongly reacted against the polytheism and speculative pantheism of the Vedas and emphasized monotheism in the form and person of a Supreme deity namely Narayana as the Ultimate Reality. Pancaratra not only divested the Vedas of innumerable gods, it has provided an effective check against enormous proliferations of the Vedic rituals. The Pancaratra agama picked up the concepts of bhakti in the Vedas, enlarged them and made them the universal means of worshiping a monotheistic God. The average Hindu could be without the Vedas and its ritualistic and sacrificial lore. But he could not be without a God to be worshiped and adored.62

Unlike the earlier Vedic ritual of sacrifices, Vaishnavism not only safe guarded the interests of the priestly and the ruling classes but also catered to the needs of the lower varnas by allowing them to worship Vishnu with the rituals prescribed for them. It did no damage to any religious beliefs or superstition but merely assimilated and fitted it into a Vedic framework without creating any antagonism. It could successfully Sanskritize the numerous tribal and local cults and became popular among all classes and varnas.63 That a large number of Buddhists were admitted into the fold of the Vaishnavas is suggested by the inclusion of Buddha in the list of Vishnu’s avataras.

The reconciliatory attitude of Vaishnavism gave the country a kind of cultural unity and succeeded in establishing the same kind of social structure all over India. It also fostered hero-worship and kings, nobles and celebrated personages were often described an incarnation of the god Hari.64

The Bhagavatas or the Pancharatrins seem to be mainly responsible for the dissemination of the practice of image worship among the higher section of the orthodox Indian people. To them Archaa or Sri Vigraha (auspicious body of the Lord) was the God Himself in one of His aspects and was thus the object of the greatest veneration as the ‘God manifest’ (pratyaksha devata). Epigraphic data of the pre-Christian and early post-Christian periods prove that there were Vaishnava shrines in various parts of India such as Besnagar (ancient Vidhisha), Mathura, etc.65

Vaishnavism gave birth to devotional literature in various Indian languages. For instance, the Prabandham in Tamil, Dasa sahitya in Kannada, the devotional songs in Marathi by Namadeva and Tukaram, Suradas work in Braja bhasha, Tulasidas, Rama Charita Manasa, Kabir’s couplets in Hindi, Mira Bai’s poems in Rajasthani, etc. Also, biographies of reformers and saints, works on philosophy, commentaries on Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, etc. in Sanskrit and vernaculars have enriched the Indian literature.

The doctrines and teachings of great reformers like Guru Nanak and Kabir were chiefly derived from the contemporary Vaishnava schools of thought and during the period when north India came under the rule of the Turks, the Vaishnavite creed became the basis of a new religion of love and faith. It gave rise to a system of ethics at once deep and exalted, that inspired ideals of social and political freedom such as no previous faiths of India had done. In the darkness and terror of the Middle Ages, it helped to shed a ray of light and faith on the homes and hearts of the people. In the age of oppression and foreign rule, it helped to draw men together and form them into political federation which ultimately grew into empires and republics.66


  1. S.M Srinivasa Chari – Vaishnavism, Its Philosophy, Theology & Religious discipline, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Pvt Ltd, Delhi, 2000, p.3
  2. H.V.Sreenivasa Murthy – Vaishnavism of Sankaradeva and Ramanuja, Motilal Banarsidass, 1973 p.12
  3. Haridas Bhattacharyya – (Editor) – The Cultural Heritage of India, vol – IV, Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1956, p.146
  4. Ibid, p. 147
  5. Ibid, p. 158
  6. Ibid, p. 147
  7. Ibid, pp: 147,148
  8. Ibid, p. 158
  9. H.V.Sreenivasa Murthy – Op.cit, p.11
  10. Haridas Bhattacharyya – Op.cit, pp:132,133
  11. H.V.Sreenivasa Murthy – Op.cit, p.13
  12. S.Radhakrishnan – Indian Philosophy, vol I, p.519; C.Rajagopalachari – The Bhagavad Gita, Madras, 1935, p.5
  13. S.Radhakrishnan – Op.cit, p.522
  14. Ibid, p.526
  15. C.Rajagopalachari – Op.cit, pp:13,14
  16. Ibid, 56
  17. Ibid, p.35
  18. Ibid, p.73
  19. S.N.Dasgupta – History of Indian Philosophy, vol-4, p.1
  20. Ibid, p.10
  21. Haridas Bhattacharyya – Op.cit, p.158
  22. S.Rangachar – Philosophy of Pancaratras,Sridevi Prakashana, Mandya, 1991 p.61
  23. Mrs. Suvira Jaiswal – The Origin and development of Vaishnavism from 200 B.C. to A.D.500, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1967, pp:144,145
  24. R.C.Majumdar (Editor) – History and Culture of the Indian People, vol -II, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1960, p.437
  25. R.C.Hazra – Pre Puranic Hindu Society before 200 A.D., Indian Historical Quarterly, vol – 15, pp:412,413
  26. Mrs. Suvira Jaiswal – Op.cit, p.210
  27. Sudhakar Chattopadhyaya – The Evolution of Theistic Sects in Ancient India, p.142O.B.O.Kapoor – The Philosophy and Religion of Sri Chaitanya
  28. O.B.L.Kapoor – The Philosophy and Religion of Sri Chaitanya, p.6,7
  29. P.Nagaraja Rao – The Schools of Vedanta, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1943, p.69
  30. O.B.L.Kapoor – Op.cit, pp:6,7
  31. Ibid
  32. S.M Srinivasa Chari – Op.cit, p.24
  33. Ramanand to Ram Tirath – Lives of the Saints of Northern India including the Sikh Gurus, 2nd edition, G.A.Natesan & Co, Madras, pp: 2,3,4
  34. Ibid, p.72
  35. Ibid, pp: 72,73
  36. Ibid, p.78
  37. Ibid, pp: 81,82
  38. Ibid, pp: 72,83
  39. Haridas Bhattacharyya – Op.cit, p.186
  40. Suniti Kumar Chatterji (Editor) – The Cultural Heritage of India, vol- V, The Ramakrishna Mission, Calcutta, 1978, p.113
  41. Haridas Bhattacharyya – Op.cit, pp: 186,187,188
  42. Asoke Kumar Majumdar – A Note on the development of Radha Cult, ABORI, vol 36 no3-4, July/October 1955, p.231
  43. Haridas Bhattacharyya – Op.cit, pp: 188,189
  44. Bipin Chandra Pal – Bengal Vaishnavism, Calcutta, 1933, p.40
  45. P.Nagaraja Rao – Introduction to Vedanta, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1958, pp:170,171
  46. H.V.Sreenivasa Murthy – Op.cit, pp: 45,46
  47. Ibid, pp:50,51
  48. Haridas Bhattacharyya – Op.cit, p.202
  49. H.V.Sreenivasa Murthy – Op.cit, p.204
  50. Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Op.cit, p.120
  51. Umesha Mishra – Nimbarka School of Vedanta, Tirabhukti Publications, Allahabad, 1966, p.3
  52. P.Nagaraja Rao – The Schools of Vedanta, Op.cit, pp:72,73
  53. P.T.Raju – Philosophical Traditions of India, pp: 188,189,190,191
  54. Ibid, pp:198,199
  55. Ibid, pp:197,198
  56. P.Nagaraja Rao – The Schools of Vedanta, Op.cit, pp: 161,162,164
  57. Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Op.cit, p.126
  58. H.V.Sreenivasa Murthy – Op.cit, p.12
  59. G.A.Deleury – The Cult of Vithoba, Deccan College, Poona, 1960, p.185
  60. Ibid, pp:190,191
  61. Anncharlott Eschmann, Hermann Kulke, Gaya Charan Tripathi (Edited) –The Cult of Jagannath and the Regional Tradition of Orissa, Manohar, 1986, pp:99,100,116
  62. S.Rangachar – Op.cit, p61
  63. Mrs. Suvira Jaiswal – Op.cit, p.167
  64. Ibid, p.132
  65. R.C.Majumdar (Editor) – Op.cit, p.452
  66. Ramanand to Ram Tirath – Op.cit, pp:45,47

A Brief History of Vaishnavism, Part I

Hinduism comprises of various religious sects of which Vaishnavism and Shaivism are most popular and prominent in present day India.

The Vaishnava religion was also known by different names like Suri, Suhrit, Bhagavata, Sattvata, Panchakalavit, Ekantika, Tanmaya and Pancharatrika.1 The word Vaishnava is used in the literal sense of ‘belonging to Vishnu’ in the Vajasaneyi Samhita, Taittiriya Samhita, Aitareya Brahmana, Shatapatha Brahmana, etc. But the use of the word in the sense of a sect of religion is not found anywhere in the earlier literature. Even the Bhagavad Gita does not use the word and it is not found in any of the earlier Upanishads and can be traced only in the later parts of the Mahabharata.2

Vaishnavism is the name given to the bhakti religion which recognises Vishnu also called Bhagavat, Narayana, Hari as the sole God.3 Vaishnavism has a philosophy and religion of its own. As a philosophy it bases itself upon the Upanishads and as a religion it reaches its roots into the Tantra. Its religious ritual therefore is of the Agamic or tantric character in general.4 According to R.C.Hazra the term Vaishnavism is very comprehensive in its denotation and the modern Vaishnavas consists generally of the Pancharatras and the Bhagavatas. These two sections, though originally different, are designated by the generic term Vaishnava on account of the identification of their respective sectarian deities with Vishnu.5

Causes for the rise of Vaishnavism

The elaborate and mechanical system of sacrifice offered to gods by the Vedic religion did not satisfy the religious spirit of all sections of the people. This led to religious speculations of a different type and thinkers like the author of the Mundaka Upanishad began to question the value and efficacy of sacrifice. It also gave rise to religious sects like Buddhism, Jainism and Vasudevism.6

Genesis of the concept of Bhakti

According to Akshaya Kumar Banerjea, the seeds of bhakti can be found in the Vedic religion which was interpreted from different viewpoints like Karma, Jnana and bhakti.

Those who interpreted the Vedas from the Karma point of view laid special emphasis upon the practical aspect of the teachings of the Vedas and held that all the Vedic revelations were chiefly concerned with the regulation of the practical behaviour of men in the path of righteousness (dharma). According to this school every Vedic instruction enjoins upon men either to do something right or to refrain from doing something wrong. This school was not interested in moksha and for them moksha meant the perfect fullness of life in the highest swarga. This school advocated the karma kanda of the Vedas.7

Those who interpreted the Vedas from the Jnana point of view attached the utmost importance to the metaphysical and transcendental truths revealed in the Vedas (Upanishads). This school strongly advocated the ascetic view of life and renunciation of the active domestic and social life, suppression of passions and desires and attachments and systematic practice of concentrated reflection and meditation. This school gradually divided into two sections, one section attached greater importance to metaphysical reflection and intellectual refinement and the other to the practical discipline of the body, senses, the vital system, mind and regular practice of concentration and deep meditation. The former was known as Jnani and the latter Yogi. Both advocated the nivritti marga and the Jnana kanda of the Vedas. For them moksha was the ultimate goal.8

Those who interpreted the Vedas from the bhakti point of view, the supreme ideal of moksha and tattwa jnana (absolute liberation and truth realization) is a gift of Divine mercy and the highest reward for wholehearted devotion to the Supreme Spirit. According to them the teaching of devotion or bhakti was the centre of all Vedic revelation.9

Seeds of Bhakti in Upanishads

R.G.Bhandarkar thinks that the origin of the bhakti doctrine may be traced to the Upanishadic idea of upasana or fervent meditation, which magnifies what is meditated upon and represents it in a glorious form in order to excite admiration and love.10

Bhakti, a pre-Vedic cult

Contradicting the claim of R.G.Bhandarkar, R.N.Dandekar feels that the learned scholar’s opinion is similar to the characteristics of the early Indology which has a tendency to trace all religious ideologies and the entire Indian culture back to the Vedas. According to Dandekar there is sufficient evidence to show that different religious sects prevailed in different regions of India prior to the Vedic cult of which the important were the Muni-Yati cult and the Bhakti cult.11

The Muni-Yati cult with its emphasis on Yoga-Tapas-Sanyasa was a characteristic feature of the pre-Vedic Shiva religion, while the the Bhakti cult was connected with the worship of the Mother-Goddess and the Naga and the Yaksa cult and its vegetal and fertility symbolism.12 According to Dandekar, the cult of bhakti which had become dormant on account of the influence of the Vedic religion became re-animated as the vitality of the Vedic religion began to diminish and emerged in the form of Vasudevism which became a dominant force during the time of Panini.13 The doctrine of Bhakti may be said to constitute perhaps the most significant feature of what we today understand by Vaishnavism.14

Vaishnavism, an amalgamation of different streams of thought

According to M. Hiriyanna, altogether three streams of thought combined to form Vaishnavism. The first is the worship of Vishnu who is represented in the Vedic mantras as one of the solar deities and as such is associated with light and life. There was also an allied conception, that of Narayana, whose origin may be traced in the Rigveda and referred in the epic as the son of Dharma. There is a third element also which goes to form Vaishnavism derived from a non-Vedic source. Krishna, a religious reformer who preached a theistic faith. It soon assumed a sectarian complexion in the form of Bhagavata religion. This monotheistic creed came in course of time to be combined with the Vedic cult of Vishnu-Narayana and Krishna was later deified and identified with Vishnu-Narayana as an incarnation of him.15

Similarly, Dandekar considers the classical Vaishnavism an amalgamation of four originally independent religious elements respectively embodied in the personalities of four divinities namely Vasudeva, Krishna, Vishnu and Narayana.16 According to him Vasudeva was different from Krishna and was a Vrsni prince who had come to be regarded as a god earlier than Krishna who was the religious leader of the Yadavas and who was the pupil of Ghora Angirasa. Later when the Vrsnis and the Yadavas who were related to each other came closer presumably for political reasons, the personalities of Vrsni Vasudeva and Yadava Krishna were merged into each other so as to give rise to the new supreme god Bhagavan Vasudeva Krishna.17

R.G.Bhandarkar also opines that Vasudeva and Krishna were originally names of distinct individuals. Vasudeva was a kshatriya belonging to the Yadava-Vrishni-Satvata race who founded a theistic system and later he was identified with Krishna, a holy seer. But H.C.Rayachaudhuri refutes this argument and says that on the basis of all available evidence, Hindu, Buddhist and Greek, it is impossible to justify the separation of Vasudeva and Krishna as two entities.18

D.C.Sircar opines that the success of Vasudevism (which later became Vaishnavism) was principally due to the identification of Vasudeva with the Vedic god Vishnu, with an ancient deified sage named Narayana, with a number of tribal deities as well as with Parabrahman (the Supreme Spirit) conceived by the Upanishads.19

Emergence of Vishnu as the Supreme God

A Solar deity

In the Vedic hymns Vishnu is represented as a solar deity and his essential feature as depicted in the hymns is his taking three strides which in all probability refers to the rising, culmination and setting of the sun. It was this worship of the sun, “the swift moving luminary” that gradually transformed itself into the worship of Vishnu as the Supreme God.20 Vishnu also figures in the Veda as a leader in battle. He is specially praised with Indra, the two being looked upon as masters of the world. Vishnu is revered under the title ‘Shipivishta’ meaning ‘clothed with rays of light’.21 In the later Vedic literature, the position of Vishnu becomes more prominent. The Shatapatha Brahmana relates with great fullness of detail the legend regarding the ‘three strides’. It further represents Vishnu as the personification of sacrifice. Earlier he was called the ‘germ of sacrifice’.22 In Aitareya Brahmana, Vishnu is said to occupy the highest place among gods. But at the same time in a passage of Aitareya Brahmana, he is called the door-keeper of the gods, not a very complimentary epithet for the highest among the gods.23

Non-Vedic popular god of the masses

From being occupied in a comparatively subordinate position in the pantheon of Vedic gods, R.N.Dandekar analyses how Vishnu was able to rise more or less suddenly to supreme eminence in Hindu mythology.24

In the view of Dandekar, Vishnu must have been regarded as a bird, at least among certain cultural groups among the Vedic people. In that form he was very closely connected with the vegetation ritual. He was indeed the god of fertility and productivity and as such he must have been regarded as most eminent in the popular religion of the masses. It was however on account of the aversion on the part of the Vedic priestly intellectuals and the conquering higher classes, for this popular fertility god and his uncouth, frivolous and to a certain extent obscene fertility rituals, that Vishnu was not easily admitted to the pantheon of the Vedic gods. The Vedic poets could not however completely ignore him. They therefore sought to transform the basic character of Vishnu. This attempt of theirs was greatly facilitated by the original bird-form of that god. The hieratic Vedic poets understood the bird-form of Vishnu as indicating not the fertility-God but the sun-God. They thus tried to suppress as far as possible the true nature of this god of the people. But those culture groups among whom Vishnu was a prominent god must have persisted in forcing him upon the official Vedic religion which was dominated by the Indra mythology.25

Vishnu incorporated into Vedic pantheon

If religious dignity and recognition had to be specially granted to any particular god, it was the practice of the Vedic poets to do so by associating that god with Indra and his fight with Vrtra. That made the god a legitimate member of the Vedic pantheon. Hence several hymns were composed wherein Vishnu rendered help to Indra in his fight with Vrtra.26 In post Vedic times when the popular religion again came into prominence, Vishnu became the supreme god.27

According to H.C.Rayachoudhuri we have no evidence of the existence of a Vaishnava sect in these early times. The sectarian name Vaishnava is met only in the latest portion of the Mahabharata. Also, there is very little inner connection between Vedic and Brahmanic Vishnu worship and the bhakti religion we call Vaishnavism. The idea of a God of grace, the doctrine of bhakti- these are the fundamental tenets of the religion termed Vaishnavism. But they are not very conspicuous in Vedic and Brahmanic Vishnu worship. Vishnu in the Brahmanic texts is more intimately connected with yajna (sacrifice) than with bhakti or prasada.28

Vishnu identified with Krishna

The exact period when Krishna was first identified with Vishnu cannot be ascertained. As Vishnu is one of the solar deities, it is not altogether improbable that he had from the first some connection with the religious movement associated with the name of Krishna who was himself a disciple of a priest of the sun. But there is no direct evidence to show that Vishnu occupied a prominent place in the early Bhagavata pantheon. Vishnu worship may have been a rival Brahmanical cult. There is a clear indication of the identification of Vasudeva with Vishnu found in Taittiriya Aranyaka.29

The identification of Vasudeva-Krishna with the Vedic deity Vishnu was the first step in the evolution of Vaishnavism. This was accomplished by the time the Bhagavad Gita was composed and henceforth the Vasudeva cult or Bhagavata religion was known also as Vaishnava dharma. It has been suggested with great plausibility that this identification was prompted by a desire on the part of the Brahmanas to bring this new and powerful religious sect within the pale of orthodox Vedic faith.30

Why was Krishna identified with Vishnu and not with any other Vedic god? Probably as Vishnu was from the earliest Vedic times connected with a work of deliverance for mankind in distress. He is always lauded as a great benefactor of mankind and known for his benevolence. He is the unconquerable preserver who maintained Dharma. He is a great helper of the gods against the Asuras. He assumed forms of a dwarf in order to recover the earth for the gods from the Asuras. All these characteristics of Vishnu eminently fitted him to be the centre of the Avatara theory propounded in the Bhagavad Gita.31

Evolution of Bhagavatism

In the Rigveda and Atharva Vedas, the word Bhagavat conveys the meaning of blissful and happy one. In several places of the Upanishads, the term Bhagavat is used to denote Lord Rudra-Shiva. In later works the term is used exclusively in connection with Vaishnavas though Patanjali once refers to the Shiva-Bhagavatas.32 Though Vaishnavism as its name implies is the religion in which Vishnu is the supreme object of worship, in the period just preceding the Christian era, the highest deity was the human hero Vasudeva. It is difficult to determine exactly how and when this Vasudeva sect originated and came to the forefront. Its earliest reference is to be found in the Astadhyayi of Panani, where the worship of Vasudeva and Arjuna are mentioned.33 In the epic Mahabharata, Arjuna is always associated with Vasudeva-Krishna; also, in the Shatapatha Brahmana, Arjuna is one of the secret names of Indra and thus at the root of the close connection between Vasudeva-Krishna and Arjuna we may makeout the relationship between Vishnu and Indra in the Rigveda. In Mahabharata Arjuna has been described as the son of Indra.34 The next stage in the evolution of the Vasudeva cult is marked by the dropping of Arjuna and Vasudeva being worshipped alone as the Supreme God as proved by the evidence of the Besnagar inscription.35

Vasudeva’s associated with Samkarsana

In the next centuries we find Vasudeva associated with Samkarsana or Baladeva, who is regarded in the epic as his elder brother. The Ghosundi stone inscription records that in the second half of the first century B.C. king Sarvatata performed a horse sacrifice and constructed a stone enclosure for the place of worship of the gods, Samkarsana and Vasudeva and it was called Narayana Vataka or house of Narayana.36

Samkarsana was originally a non-Vedic agricultural divinity with an influential following among the masses. The cult also reveals many features of snake worship and Samkarsana is regarded as an incarnation of Sheshanaga. The worship of Samkarsana appears to have been quite popular in the fourth century B.C. and Megasthenes seems to refer to him.37

One of the prominent characteristics of Samkarsana is his association with agriculture and he invariably figures as holding the two characteristically agricultural weapons, the pestle and the plough. He was identified with Baladeva, the elder brother of Vasudeva-Krishna and this identification took place prior to the second century B.C. The alliance of the cult of Samkarsana with Vasudeva-Krishna must have promoted the cause of Vaishnavism by winning over a large number of agricultural populations to its fold.38

Vasudeva and Krishna, One and the same

A reference to the founder of Vasudeva sect has been traced in the Chhandogya Upanishad which refers to sage Krishna, son of Devaki as a disciple of the rishi Ghora of the Angirasa family. The Chhandogya Upanishad inculcates tapas (asceticism) dana (charity) arjava (simplicity or piety), ahimsa (non-injury) and sathyavahana (truthfulness), the same virtues are extolled by Krishna in Gita.39

As both in the Chhandogya Upanishad and the Gita essentially the same doctrines are associated with one and the same person called Krishna -Achyuta, son of Devaki, it is very probable that they were originally learnt by Krishna from Ghora and were later taught by him to his own disciples and the teachings of Ghora Angirasa to Krishna formed the kernel of the Gita.40 The age when Vasudeva-Krishna flourished cannot be determined with certainty. The reference to Chhandogya Upanishad seems to point to a date in the 6th or 7th century B.C.41

The Bhagavata religion propounded by Vasudeva was the parent of later Vaishnavism and it was probably the development of sun worship. According to the Shantiparva of Mahabharata, the Satvata vidhi, another name for the Bhagavata doctrine after the tribe responsible for its introduction, was laid down in the old times by the sun.42

Bhagavatism, a religion based on God’s grace

The cult of Bhagavatism was eminently a religion based upon God’s grace to humanity. It emphasized and developed for this purpose the doctrine of Avatara or the divine incarnation. The Arcavatara (the theory of the presence of God in images) was also elaborated in order to illustrate his easy accessibility.43

Derided by the Vedicists

The Bhagavata system was not favourably inclined towards the varnashrama dharma and the Brahmins and the Vrsnis among whom Krishna was born was noted for their irreverent attitude towards Brahmins and they freely admitted the casteless foreigners into the Bhagavata fold. The Besnagar inscription of the 2nd century B.C. mentions Heliodorus, an ambassador of the Greek king Antialkidas as a Bhagavata. Women and shudras were also given initiation and allowed to worship Vishnu themselves.44

The Vedic Brahmins had contempt towards the Bhagavatas as they worshiped images and lived upon the offerings for initiation and those made to temple gods. They did not perform the Vedic duties and had no relationship with the Brahmins and so they (Bhagavatas) were not regarded as Brahmins by the Vedic Brahmins. It was considered that even by the sight of a man who takes to worship as a means to livelihood is polluted and should be purified by proper purificatory ceremonies. The Vedic Brahmins also regarded the Pancharatra texts adopted by the Bhagavatas as invalid and non-Vedic.45

Medhatithi, the commentator on Manu Smriti discards not only Buddhism and Jainism as being outside the true Vedic dharma but also the followers of Pancaratra (Bhagavatas) and the Pasupatas as well. He held that their (Bhagavatas) teachings are directly contrary to the mandates of the Vedas and as an illustration he points out that the Bhagavatas considered all kinds of injury to living beings to be sinful, which directly contradicts the Vedic sanctions to sacrifice animals at particular sacrifices. According to him injury to living beings is not itself sinful but only such injury is sinful as is prohibited by the Vedic injunctions. So, the customs and practices of all systems of religion which are not based on the teaching of the Vedas are to be discarded as not conforming to dharma.46

Was Vedicist alliance with Bhagavatas, a tactical alliance?

The Mahabharata contains indications that it was with great difficulty that the orthodox Brahmanists could be prevailed upon to recognise Krishna-Vasudeva as the God Narayana himself. Hence H.C.Rayachoudhuri opines that it was probably due the active propaganda of Ashoka (who propagated Buddhism) that led the Vedic priests to identify Vasudeva with Vishnu for the purpose of winning over the Bhagavata as their allies.47

Narayana cult assimilated into the Bhagavata fold

The next step in the evolution of Vaishnavism was the identification of Vasudeva-Krishna-Vishnu with a deified sage or hero named Narayana. According to Shatapata Brahmana, Purusha Narayana thrice offered sacrifice at the instance of Prajapati. Narayana is said to have performed a pancharatra sacrifice (sacrifice continued for five days) and thereby obtained superiority over all beings and became all beings. The earliest identification of Narayana with Vishnu is probably to be traced in the Baudhayana Dharma Sutra. The Taittiriya Aranyaka regards Narayana, Vasudeva and Vishnu as one and the same deity. Narayana also appears as Hari. Some passages of the Mahabharata call Narayana an ancient rishi who was the son of Dharma and was associated with another rishi named Nara. Narayana is said to have undergone austerities in the Himalayas (Badri).48

It seems more reasonable to think that Narayana was an ancient leader of thought born in a family of another sage called Nara, that both of them probably advocated solar worship and this ultimately led to the identification, especially of the former with the solar deity Vishnu. The Narayana cult originated in some part of the Himalayan region or its neighbourhood. It is difficult to determine whether the family of Narayana had anything to do with the Yadavas. The followers of Narayana were originally called Pancaratrika and were later merged into the worshippers of Vasudeva-Krishna.49

Once Narayana was assimilated into Bhagavatism, he came to be represented as the propounder of a specific aspect of Vaishnavism namely the Pancaratra. This was presumably due to the reference in the Shatapata Brahmana to the Pancaratra Sattra which Purusha Narayana is said to have performed.50

The assimilation of the Narayana element into Bhagavatism probably took place after the final revision of the Bhagavad Gita as neither the name of Narayana nor the doctrines of the Vyuhas are found in the Bhagavad Gita.51

The Pancaratra Shastra

The Pancaratra Shastra or doctrine is said to have been promulgated by Shandilya as he did not find a sure basis for the highest welfare of man in the Veda and its auxiliary disciplines.52 The basic doctrines of the Sattvata (Bhagavata) religion were probably first reduced to a system by Shandilya Kashyapa. In the Pancaratra text name Ishvara Samhita (I. 39-41) the initiation of Shandilya to Bhagavatism is described. It says that after many years of severe austerities, Shandilya obtained from Samkarsana, the Veda by name Ekayana and taught them to Sumantu, Jaimini, Bhrgu, Aupagayana and Maunjayana. The Vrddha-Harita Samhita contains this legend about un-Vedic Vaishnavism originally taught by Shandilya who promulgated a religious code (Dharma Samhita) for the worship of Vishnu drawn up in un-Vedic spirit. Adopting his system some great sages worshipped Keshava in un-Vedic manner. Men performed religious rites in a way not ordained in the shastra (Veda) and the earth was deprived of svahak svadha and Vasatkara. Angered at this, Vishnu condemned Shandilya to live in hell. After Shandilya expressed his regrets, Vishnu modified his curse and blessed Shandilya to be born again as a human after 100 years in hell and advised him to worship Him (Vishnu) according to rules laid down in the Vedas. Shandilya followed his advice and entered the world of Hari.53

What was the un-Vedic method of worshipping Vishnu originally taught by Shandilya we are not told in the Vrddha-Harita-Samhita. The Narayaniya section of the Shantiparva of the Mahabharata contains the earliest exposition of the Pancaratra in its Sanskritised form. About the origin of Pancaratra we are told that this supreme scripture was compiled and uttered by the seven Citra shikandin Rishis- Marici, Atri, Angiras, Pulastya, Pulaha, Kratu and Vasishta and Manu Svayambhuva after worshipping Hari Narayana for thousand years. They then read it to Narayana who praised it and certified it to be in complete accord with the four Vedas. Shandilya Kashyapa is not recognized as a teacher here.54

Resentment against the Pancharatra

In chapter 15 of the Kurma Purana it is said that the Pancharatrins were produced as a result of killing cows in some other birth, that they are absolutely non-Vedic and that the literatures of the Shaktas, Shaivas and the Pancharatras are for the delusion of mankind. The Pancharatras are strongly denounced in Parashara Purana, Shamba Purana, Vasishta Samhita and the Suta Samhita as great sinners and as absolutely non-Vedic. The reason for this type of denouncement was that the Pancharatras initiated and admitted within their sect even women and sudras.55

Yet another reason for the resentment against the Pancharatra from the custodians of the Vedas was for the simple reason that the Pancharatra easily displaced many of the elaborate Vedic sacrifices and rituals by idol worship and that they promoted universality and a common approach and helped in making God more easily accessible to the worshippers. Reluctantly the orthodox gave the Pancharatras a status and standing. But the Pancharatras never accused the Vedas nor belittled their followers and even called the Vedas as their source, guardian and friend.56

Pancharatra Agama superior to the Vedas

The term Agama is the counterpart of mantra or Veda and denotes a popular cult wherein practical religious formularies and offerings, in the form of fruits, flowers, food and drinks, etc, made with devotion take the place of incantations and sacrifices in fire.57 By the second century A.D. Bhagavatism came to be generally known by the name of the Pancharatra Agama and the Pancharatra Agama was regarded by the Bhagavatas as superior to the Vedas and called it Mulaveda; the holy teaching from Narayana himself to Nara and a succession of teachers like Shandilya, Prahalada, Sugriva and others till it was taught to mankind in order to save it.58

Meaning of Pancharatra

One of the Samhitas says that it is called pancharatra because it consists of five lectures delivered by God Narayana to five deities- Ananta, Garuda, Visvaksena, Brahma and Rudra respectively during five nights (pancharatra).59

Another Samhita indicates that it is called pancharatra because by it five other systems of thought namely Samkhya, Yoga, Pasupata, Bouddha and Jaina are obscured, that is made nights (darkened).60

A third derivation to the term Ratra is said to mean knowledge and pancharatra is said to delineate five kinds of knowledge, tattva-truth, mukti-liberation, bhakti-devotion, Yoga-concentration and vishaya-material things.61

The word pancharatra is also interpreted as the five forms of Narayana namely- Para, Vyuha, Vibhava, Harda and Arca. In Purushasukta and Narayanoparishad it is expressed that Narayana desired to be worshipped in the above mentioned five forms.62

The Pancharatra Samhitas are in fact numerous and said to number over 200. Of these Sattvata, Paushkara and Jayakhya are considered by the orthodox as the three jewels of the Pancharatra agama.63

The doctrine of the four Vyuha

Although Vasudeva-Krishna alone figures as the founder of the new religious movement, several other members of his family originally shared the honour of deification with him. The five Vrshni heroes referred to in the inscription of the first century A.D. at Mora near Mathura are enumerated in the Vayu Purana as Sankarshana (son of Vasudeva by Rohini), Pradyumna (son of Vasudeva-Krishna by Rukmini), Samba (son of Vasudeva-Krishna by Jambavati) and Aniruddha (son of Pradyumna).64

The Vyuha doctrine is one of the principal tenets of the old Pancharatra system, which was absorbed in the Bhagavata religion as well as the later Vaishnava philosophy. According to the Vyuha doctrine, Bhagavat Vasudeva created from himself the Vyuha (phase of conditioned Spirit) Sankarshana and prakriti (matter) and from them Pradyumna and manas (buddhi or intelligent) and from them Aniruddha and ahamkara and from them the Mahabhutas (elements with their qualities and Brahman who created the earth.65

As there is no reference to Vyuhas in the Bhagavad Gita, the earliest religious text of the Bhagavatas, it is clear that this philosophical interpretation of the relation of Vasudeva with the other deified Vrshni heroes is a later development.66

Bhagavata dharma, a modification of Nivritti dharma

According to P.C.Divanji, the Bhagavata religion founded by Sri Krishna, was not a new religion but a modification of the old nivritti marga started by Rishi Narayana, the Vedic sage. Sri Krishna modified the way of adoration of Narayana by propounding the view that a kshatriya need not renounce the world in order to be able to realise the identity of the individual soul with the supreme soul and that he can realise it by leading a life of a kshatriya in the true sense of it, that is to say by continuing to discharge his duties as laid down in the Dharmashastras without allowing his mind to be swayed by the emotions promoted by self-interest and a desire to enjoy the fruits of the efforts involved in the discharge of such duties.67

Divanaji also opines that the doctrine of Samkhya which is interwoven with the doctrine of the Bhagavata could be due to the intervention of Veda Vyasa who brought about a reconciliation between the Samkhya doctrine and the old nivritti dharma on acknowledging the propounder of the former as an avatara of Vishnu or Narayana and the theory of Avataras as a whole too was a product of his imagination.68

Were Bhagavatas and Pancaratrikas one and the same?

According to the prevalent view of the scholars, the worshippers of the deified sage Narayana called Pancaratras merged with the Bhagavata sect who were the worshippers of the Vrshni hero Vasudeva-Krishna.

While the Pancaratras had accepted the doctrines of Vyuhas and were the followers of tantric Vaishnavism the Bhagavatas had accepted the doctrines of avataras and were followers of Vedic Vaishnavism.69 But Mrs Suvira Jaiswal says that the difference between the Bhagavatas and the Pancaratras does not lie in the fact that they were originally devoted to two different gods or two different groups of divinities, but in their social base. The main difference between them seems to lie in the fact that whereas the Bhagavata devotees of Narayana had accepted the brahmanical social order, the Pancaratras were indifferent to and were perhaps against it. The Pancharatras had prominent tantric leanings while Bhagavatas gained support of the ruling class and championed the varna system. It was only gradually that varna distinction crept into the Pancaratra rituals.70

To be continued


  1. J.N.Banerjea – Pauranic and Tantric Religion (Early Phase), 1966, p.18
  2. S.N.Dasgupta – History of Indian Philosophy, vol-2, p.536
  3. H.C.Rayachaudhuri – Materials for the Study of the Early History of the Vaishnava Sect, p.10
  4. S.Krishnaswami Aiyangar – Early History of Vaishnavism in South India, Madras University, 1920, p.1
  5. R.C.Hazra – Pre Puranic Hindu Society before 200 A.D., Indian Historical Quarterly, vol – 15, pp:410,411
  6. Haridas Bhattacharyya – (Editor) – The Cultural Heritage of India, vol – IV, Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, Calcutta, 1956, p113
  7. Akshaya Kumar Banerjea – Philosophy of Gorakhnath, Mahant Digvijainath Trust, Gorakhpur, pp:266,267
  8. Ibid, pp:266-269
  9. Ibid, pp:269-270
  10. Haridas Bhattacharyya – Op.cit, p.112
  11. R.N.Dandekar – Op.cit, pp:233-234
  12. Ibid
  13. Ibid, p.210
  14. Ibid, p.205
  15. M.Hiriyanna – Essentials of Indian Philosophy, pp:33,34
  16. R.N.Dandekar – Op.cit, p.215
  17. Ibid, pp:217,218
  18. H.C.Rayachaudhuri –Op.cit, pp:35,36
  19. Haridas Bhattacharyya – Op.cit, p.114
  20. M.Hiriyanna – Op.cit, pp:34,35
  21. H.C.Rayachaudhuri –Op.cit, p.13
  22. Ibid, p.15
  23. Ibid,pp:16,17
  24. R.N.Dandekar – Vedic Mythological Tracts, p.68
  25. Ibid, pp:88,89
  26. Ibid, p.71
  27. Ibid, p.89
  28. H.C.Rayachaudhuri –Op.cit, pp:17,18
  29. Ibid, pp:106,107
  30. R.C.Majumdar (Editor) – History and Culture of the Indian People, vol -II, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1960, p.235
  31. H.C.Rayachaudhuri –Op.cit, pp:108,109
  32. Sudhakar Chattopadhyaya – The Evolution of Theistic Sects in Ancient India, p.18
  33. Ibid, pp:24,25
  34. Ibid, p.27
  35. Ibid, p.33
  36. Ibid, pp:33,34
  37. Mrs. Suvira Jaiswal – The Origin and development of Vaishnavism from 200 B.C. to A.D.500, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, 1967, pp:52,53,55,58,60
  38. Ibid
  39. R.C.Majumdar- Op.cit, p.433
  40. Ibid
  41. Ibid, p.434
  42. Ibid, p.433
  43. Haridas Bhattacharyya – Op.cit, p.164
  44. R.C.Hazra – Op.cit,pp:412,413
  45. S.N.Dasgupta – History of Indian Philosophy, vol-3, p.15
  46. S.N.Dasgupta – History of Indian Philosophy, vol-4, p.7
  47. H.C.Rayachaudhuri –Op.cit, pp:106,107
  48. R.C.Majumdar- Op.cit, pp:435,436
  49. Haridas Bhattacharyya – Op.cit, p.120
  50. R.N.Dandekar – Insights into Hinduism, pp:259,260
  51. Ibid, p.256
  52. Rama Prasad Chanda – The Indo-Aryan Races, A Study of the origin of Indo-Aryan People and Institutes, part I, Rajshahi, 1916, p.99
  53. Ibid, pp:105,106
  54. Ibid, pp:108,109
  55. S.N.Dasgupta – History of Indian Philosophy, vol-3, pp:19,20
  56. S.Rangachar – Philosophy of Pancaratras, p.36
  57. Haridas Bhattacharyya – Op.cit, p.164 (in footnotes)
  58. Ibid, p.164
  59. S.Rangachar – Op.cit, p.48
  60. Ibid
  61. Ibid, pp:48,49
  62. Ibid, pp:49,50
  63. Ibid, p.65
  64. R.C.Majumdar- Op.cit, p.447
  65. Ibid
  66. Ibid
  67. P.C.Divanji – Origin fo the Bhagavata and Jaina Religions, ABORI, vol – xxiii, Bhandarkar, Oriental Research Institute, 1943, p.114
  68. Ibid, p.112
  69. R.N.Dandekar – Insights into Hinduism, p.261
  70. Mrs. Suvira Jaiswal – Op.cit, p.45

The relevance of Upanayana in Modern times

The ideal set before the Brahmins in the Dharmasastras was one of poverty, simple living and high thinking, of forsaking the active pursuit of riches and cherishing cultural preservation and advancement. Manu lays down the general rule that when not in distress a Brahmin should acquire wealth only just sufficient to maintain himself and his family.1 The Mahabhasya of Pantanjali quotes as an agama (Vedic passage) the words ‘a Brahmana should study and understand without any motive (of profit) dharma, the Veda with its six subsidiary lores. According to Manu, a Brahmana should always and assiduously study the Veda alone; that (Veda study) is his highest dharma; everything else is inferior dharma (4.147).2 In another verse Manu says that the study of Vedas is the highest tapasya of a Brahmin (2.166) and a dvija (twice born) who not having studied the Vedas, tries to acquire other forms of learning is degraded to the status of Shudra with all his progeny, even in his life. (Manu Smriti 2.168).3 These statements in the Dharmasastras shows that study of the Vedas was the summum bonum for a Brahmin and this began after he underwent the samskara (sacrament) of Upanayana.

Meaning of Upanayana

The literally word of Upanayana means ‘leading or taking near and originally meant taking near the acharya for instruction.4 In the Atharva Veda the word Upanayana is used in the sense of “taking charge of a student. Here it is meant the initiation of a child by a teacher into sacred lore. Even in the Sutra period the proposal of the student for studentship and its acceptance by the teacher is the central point in the Upanayana samskara. But later on, when the mystic significance of the Upanayana increased, the idea of the second birth through the Gayatri mantra overshadowed the original idea of initiation for education.5

Main purpose of Upanayana

The commencement of Vedic studies was the original purpose of undergoing the Upanayana samskara. In the most ancient times, it was probable that the father himself always taught his son but later the student went to a guru and stayed in his house for studies. Accordingly , the would-be student would go to a teacher with a samidh (fuel stick) in his hand and tell that he desired to enter the stage of studenthood and begged to be allowed to be a brahmachari living with the teacher. The teacher who accepted the pupil instructed him the Savitri (Gayatri) mantra and started teaching him the Vedas. The student had certain duties to perform like tending his guru’s cattle, refraining himself from singing and dancing, sleeping on a cot, consuming honey, etc. He was supposed to earn his food through begging. For undergoing the Upanayana, there was no elaborate ceremonies like those described in Grhya Sutras.6

Originally education was the main purpose of undergoing the Upanayana samskara and ritual or ceremoniously taking the initiate to the teacher an ancillary item. It was not only at the first initiation of a boy but at the beginning of every branch of the Veda, that Upanayana was performed. In the Upanishads we come across a number of cases where a person underwent the rite of Upanayana when approaching a guru for learning a new branch of philosophy.7

Yajnopavita reduced to cord of threads

Today the person who undergoes the Upanayana ceremony starts wearing a sacred thread called janivara or janeoo consisting of three or six threads across his left shoulders and under his right arm. The sacred thread as such is not mentioned in the Grhyasutras. It was a later substitute for the upper garment called yajnopavita, which was put on at the time of a sacrifice.

The root meaning of the word yajnopavita implies that it is a covering for the body (upaviti) to be donned during the ceremonies (yajna). A deer skin served as a covering (upaviti) for the body of the twice born during his prayer hours as a protection against cold.8

The earliest reference to Yajnopavita is found in Taittiriyaranyaka (2.1) where it is described as consisting of the skin or the cloth worn in a certain manner. However during the time of Manu it seems to have become a mere thread twisted in a particular manner. According to Medhatithi it is called Yajnopavita because it is connected with sacrificial performances. The Grhyasutras also do not seem to speak of habitual wearing (of sacred thread). Apastamba has declared that it should be worn while saluting teachers, old men and guests and also when doing homa, japa, meals, achamana and recitation of the Vedas.9

According to P.V.Kane, from the fact that many of the Gryasutras are entirely silent about the giving or wearing of the sacred thread in Upanayana and from the fact that no mantra is cited from the Vedic literature for the act of giving the yajnopavita (which is now the centre of the Upanayana rites), while scores of Vedic mantras are cited for the several component parts of the ceremony of Upanayana, it is most probable, if not certain that the sacred thread was not invariably used in the old times. Originally the upper garment was used in various positions for certain acts and the cords of threads came to be used first as an option and later on exclusively for the upper garment.10

Upaakarma, new session for Vedic studies

Dharmashastras refer to a rite called Upaakarma or Upaakarana which means opening, starting or beginning. In several sutras, Upaakarma is spoken as adhyaayopakarma or adhyaayopakarana and adhyaaya means the study of the Vedas. This rite was performed as a beginning of the session in the year for Vedic study.11 In modern times without knowing the significance of this rite, Brahmins change their sacred thread on the day of Upaakarma.

Sacred thread, a decorative badge

Earlier Upanayana was a voluntary ceremony. Whoever desired to learn approached his guru and performed the initiation ceremony and Upanayana was confined to literary and priestly families only.12 Later as new branches of learning evolved, it was felt that to preserve the sacred literature the service of the entire community had to be utilized and hence Upanayana was made a compulsory samskara. Also, it was believed that Upanayana possessed sanctifying power.13 But when Upanayana became a compulsory samskara people gradually forget its real purpose and in the words of Raj Bali Pandey, the Upananaya became a ceremonial farce and the sacred thread an insignificant decorative badge.14


  1. P.V.Kane – History of Dharmasastra, vol 2, part I, 1941, p.110
  2. Ibid, p.107
  3. Rabindra Kumar Pana – Manusmrti (II & III chapters), Edited and translated, Paramamitra Prakashana, New Delhi, 1999
  4. P.V.Kane – Op.Cit, p.268
  5. Raj Bali Pandey – Hindu Samskaras, A Socio-religious study of the Hindu Sacraments, Vikrama Publications, Banaras, 1949, pp:194-95
  6. P.V.Kane – Op.Cit, pp:271-283
  7. Raj Bali Pandey – Op.Cit, pp:196-198
  8. V.Raghavendra Rao – Evolution of the Yajnopavita, Quarterly Journal of Mythic Society, vol 39, no 1, July 1948, p.49
  9. Mahamahopadhaya Ganganatha Jha – Yajnopavita, Sir Asutosh Memorial Volume, p.62
  10. P.V.Kane – Op.Cit, p.291
  11. P.V.Kane – History of Dharmasastra, vol 2, part II, 1941, p.807
  12. Raj Bali Pandey – Op.Cit, p.207
  13. Ibid, p.209
  14. Ibid, p.196

Is Shraddha rites in concurrence with Hindu philosophy and Reason?

Shraaddha is a ceremony performed by a son for the gratification of his departed father, paternal grandfather and paternal great grandfather who are identified with the three orders of superintending pitr deities namely Vasus, Rudras and Adityas and combines three aspects –

  • homa or food oblation into the sacred fire by uttering mantras
  • feeding of Brahmins
  • the offering of pindas (rice balls)1

Genesis Shraaddha rite

According to Raj Bali Pandey, during ancient times survivors cherished mixed sentiments towards the dead whom they believed proceed to the realm of dead after their earthly life ended. First there was the sentiment of dread. It was believed that the deceased had still some kind of interest in his family property and relatives whom he would not like to quit and therefore was lingering about the house. It was also supposed that because he was alienated from the survivors by death, he might cause injury to the family and so attempts were made to avoid his presence and contact. The next sentiment was of love and affection towards the deceased. The survivors thought that it was their duty to help the dead in reaching his destination after death and hence provided him with food and other articles necessary for a traveller so that he should resume his journey to the next world. The next world was believed to be a replica of this world and every thing necessary for starting a new life was presented to him. For example, food was offered and also an old cow or a goat to serve as a guide in his journey to the world of the dead. Earlier these things were consumed in fire with the dead but later presented to Brahmins who were supposed to send them in the realm of the dead through some mysterious agency.2

The seed of the shraaddha rite can be probably attributed to the Atharva Veda which tells us that the dead man is conducted upward by the Maruts and meet the fathers who reside in the company of Yama. The idea that the dead in heaven are nourished by the piety of the relatives on earth is also found in the Atharva Veda. Accordingly, such nourishments may either be buried with the dead so that the grains of corn and sesame, so buried may turn into wish-cows in heaven, or the nourishment may be conveyed through subsequent offerings.3

Ignorance of basic science and devoid of rational thinking

The performance of shraaddha rite in modern times even by highly educated Hindus points to their ignorance of basic science which they had read in high school and their lack of rational thinking. Today it has been proved by science that the only habitable place for human beings in the solar system is the earth and to believe in pitr loka will be sheer stupidity.

According to Matsya Purana and Agni Purana being gratified by rice balls offered by their descendants these pitrs bestow them with long life, learning, progeny, wealth, happiness, kingdom, heaven and moksha.4 No sane person can believe that offering made here can reach persons living in another world. These claims was derided by the philosophers of the Charvaka system who used to say that if men in heaven are gratified by our offerings the shraddha here, they why not give the food down below to those who are standing on the house top5 or the need to give food packets for travellers as someone else in the house could eat on their behalf during lunch time.6 Also it looks strange that these pitrs who are capable of giving various boons to their descendants are eager for these rice balls to satisfy their hunger.

The proponents of shraddha say that it is the duty of a son to perform shraddha. Yes, a son has obligations towards his parents, but when they are alive. Saying that we have duties towards the dead is like saying that we have duties towards the unborn and that the unborn are to be fed, clothed and educated and provided with recreation. Will it not sound absurd? If at all a son has a duty after the death of his father it is to take care of his mother and other siblings if they were dependent upon the deceased father. Also, to repay any debt his father had occurred, that too if the son is able to do so.

Shraaddha contradictory to Hindu philosophy

Shraaddha is contradictory to the sayings of Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and the philosophy of Advaita. According to P.V.Kane a firm believer in the doctrines of karma and punarjanma may find it difficult to reconcile that doctrine with the belief that by offering rice balls to his three deceased paternal ancestors a man brings gratification to the souls of the latter. In Bhagavad Gita chapter two, verse 22 and Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.4.4, it is said that the spirit leaving the body enters into another and a new one. But the doctrine of offering rice balls to ancestors requires that the spirit of the three ancestors even after a lapse of 50 or 100 years are still capable of enjoying in an ethereal body.7 Hence according to the learned scholar the worship of ancestors by means of shraddha was probably a very ancient institution and the doctrine of punarjanma and karma were comparatively later ones and that Hinduism being all embracing retained the institution of shraddha while also adopting the doctrines of metempsychosis.8

Adi Shankaracharya in his Advaita philosophy propounds that Brahman is the only reality and declares the whole world to be an imposition of avidya. Ultimate reality is one and without any relation and so all the smacks of multiplicity must be due to the influence of avidya and the Vedas and sastras which deal with multiplicity of the world, however full of wisdom must be stigmatised as such. They lose their validity and authoritativeness when true knowledge springs.9

Contradictory injunction in texts

The texts which give information about Shraaddha is full of contradictory injunctions. For instance, Gobhila Smriti says that the husband should not offer pinda to his wife even if she dies sonless, nor a father to his son and an elder brother to a younger brother. But Baudhayana and Brddhasatatapa allow a shraddha to be performed by anyone for any relative with affection particularly at Gaya.10

Shraaddha for the sake of livelihood

Haradatta commentator of Apastambha Dharma Sutra holds that feeding to the Brahmins is the principle act of shraddha.11 Shraaddha according to Brahmapurana is “whatever given with faith to Brahmanas intending it to be for the benefit of pitr at a proper time, in a proper place, to deserving persons and in accordance with the prescribed procedure”.12 According to Vayu Purana, at the time of Shraaddha the ancestors enter the invited Brahmanas after assuming an aerial form and that when the best of Brahmanas are honoured with clothes, food, gifts, eatables, liquid, cows, horses and villages, pitrs become pleased.13 Similarly Manu prescribed the shraddha rite (ancestor worship) for the good of mankind wherein the objects of worship are the fathers, while the Brahmans who are fed on their behalf are for the purpose of ahavaniya that is the Brahmanas are as if they are the sacred fire into which oblations are made.14 All these statements contained in the dharma sutras shows that the importance given to shraaddha rite was to provide a livelihood to a particular community though the rites went against the tenets of Hindu philosophy.

A Primitive Belief

According to Raj Bali Pandey in no other field of Hinduism the primitive beliefs regarding life and death survive so insistently as in the naive funeral operations. The next world is nothing but the replica of this earth and the needs of the dead are the same as those of the living. Throughout the ceremonies the prayers are offered for sensuous enjoyments and ease of the dead. We do not find any indication of the desire for his or her spiritual benefit, salvation or beatitude. The prayer for freedom from the cycles of birth and death is very casual and could be discovered only in the latest phase of the ritual. The whole performance is of the most primitive kind and speaks of a period of remote antiquity.15

Alternative to Shraaddha

P.V.Kane says that it is a good practice to set apart at least one day in a year for the remembrance of one’s near and dear relatives that are no more, to invite relatives, friends and learned people to a dinner in memory of the dead and to make monetary gifts on poor but learned persons of character and devoted to the practice of plain living and high thinking. This will be in keeping with our past traditions and will also give a new orientation to and infuse new life into practices and usages that have become lifeless and meaningless to many people.16

Many texts describe the procedure of Jivat Shraaddha or Jiva Shraaddha which a man was allowed to perform for the benefit of his own soul while he was himself alive.17 As usual the rite consists of offering oblation to fire and feeding of Brahmins. As an alternate, children could celebrate the birthdays of their aged parents by inviting friends and relatives and if financially stable donate money to orphanages or old age homes on behalf of their parents. Today most parents suffer the pangs of separation and loneliness. Instead of performing shraaddha after death, children could spend quality time with their parents when they are still alive and assist them in their mundane activities.


  1. P.V.Kane – History of Dharmasastra, vol IV, 1953, pp:334-35 and B.Narayan Aiyangar – Sraddha (Brahman Ancestor Worship), Quarterly Journal of Mythic Society, vol III, no 3, 1911-12, p.80
  2. Raj Bali Pandey – Hindu Samskaras, A Socio-religious study of the Hindu Sacraments, Vikrama Publications, Banaras, 1949, pp:409-12
  3. R.C.Majumdar Edited, The History and Culture of the Indian People, The Vedic Age, 1952, p.445
  4. P.V.Kane – Op.Cit, p.335
  5. S.Radhakrishnan – Indian Philosophy, vol I, 1923, p.283
  6. Ibid, p.282
  7. P.V.Kane – Op.Cit, p.335
  8. Ibid, p.339
  9. Satindra Kumar Mukerjee – Sankara on the relation between the Vedas and Reason, The Indian Historical Quarterly, vol 6, Calcutta, 1930,p.113
  10. P.V.Kane – Op.Cit, pp:364-65
  11. Ibid, p.349
  12. Ibid, p.334
  13. Ibid, pp:339-40
  14. B.Narayan Aiyangar – Op.Cit, p.80
  15. Raj Bali Pandey – Op.Cit, pp:479-80
  16. P.V.Kane – Op.Cit, p.550
  17. Ibid, p.542

Hemu, the ephemeral Hindu Sultan of medieval India

From about 1193 A.D. onwards Delhi was ruled by Turks belonging to various dynasties till 1451 when the Afghans under Bahlul Khan Lodi captured Delhi. In 1526 Babur defeated the Afghans in the first battle of Panipat and commenced the Moghul rule in India. His son Humayun was overthrown by Sher Shah Sur in 1540 and he re-established the Afghan rule over Delhi. But within ten years of Sher Shah’s death his descendants lost their empire through family quarrels and rebellion by nobles. The last Sur ruler Adil Shah was entirely devoid of energy or capacity and devoted himself solely to the pursuit of pleasure and handed over the responsibility of governance to his prime minister, Hemu.

From Hawker to Diwan

Hemachandra or Hemu Bhargav was born in a poor family in Machheri in Alwar (Rajasthan) and later shifted to Rewari (Haryana). His father Puran Das was a man with religious bent of mind who left his home to Mathura when Hemu was still in his teens. Hence Hemu had to sell salt in the streets of Rewari to support his family. Later he went to Delhi and became a weighman and in due course a government contractor. In his new capacity he came in contact with the highest officials of the state and also Islam Shah, the successor of Sher Shah; who impressed by Hemu’s intelligence and sincerity appointed him as superintendent of markets (shahana-i bazar). It was an important post and Hemu used to inspect and examine all the important commodities. He also prepared rate lists and inspected weights, etc. Beside he got an opportunity to pay frequent visits to the king in order to apprise him of the trade and commerce situation in the country. The king sought his advice not only in matters relative to trade and commerce but also in those pertaining to diplomacy and statesmanship. Later Islam Shah appointed him as the head of the department of intelligence and post (daroga-i-dakchouki). Adil Shah, the successor of Islam Shah was a weak, indolent, pleasure seeking and sensual king. He handed over the responsibility of governance to Hemu by appointing him as Diwan (Prime Minister). Taking advantage of the incompetency of Adil Shah a number of Afghan chiefs revolted against him. Punjab became independent under Sikandar Shah, Delhi and Agra under Ibrahim Shah and Bengal under Muhammad Shah. Only the region from Agra to Bihar remained in the hands of Adil Shah. Each of these four rulers were anxious to establish his supremacy over the others. Sikandar Shah marched against Ibrahim Shah and after defeating him took control over Delhi and Agra. Hemu had to fight constantly in order to put the rebel chiefs and always won victories sometimes against heavy odds.

An efficient administrator and general

Hemu was a highly efficient civil administrator and possessed much more intelligence than the average administrators of the martial races. He was also a military genius and wielded the sword better than the Rajputs and Turks. Far sighted in his strategic plans, keen-eyed and quick in his tactical decisions, cool in holding his strength in reserve and fearless of danger in encouraging his troops by his personal example, he fought 22 battles on behalf of his master and was victorious in all of them. Among those defeated by Hemu was Ibrahim Sur who after being driven out of Delhi and Agra by Sikandar Sur challenged Adil Shah who sent Hemu to face him. Hemu defeated him twice; once near Kalpi and again near Khanua and compelled Ibrahim Sur to seek refuge in the fort of Bayana which was also besieged by Hemu. But as Muhammad Sur of Bengal marched against Adil Shah, Hemu was recalled to face the former. Hemu defeated Muhammad Sur at Chhapparghatta twenty miles from Kalpi and Muhammad Sur fled. Others defeated by Hemu include chiefs like Taj Kararani and Rukn Khan Nuhani.

Humayun returns back

The rivalry and hostility among the Afghans afforded Humayun who was living in exile a good opportunity to recover his throne. From Kabul he started his Indian expedition in November 1554 and occupied Lahore without any opposition in February 1555. He then marched towards Delhi and defeated the Afghans first at Dipalpur, then at Machiwara and finally at Sirhind and took possession of Delhi in July 1555. But in January 1556 Humayun died Akbar was formally proclaimed Padshah at Kalanaur. Tardi Beg was appointed governor of Delhi. Adil Shah sent Hemu to reconquer Delhi and retired to Chunar. Hemu advanced by way of Gwalior and Agra to old Delhi. Iskandar Khan Uzbeg, governor of Agra took fright and retired towards Delhi without fighting and losing about 3000 of his men during the retreat. Hemu occupied Agra with its treasure and equipment’s and proceeded towards Delhi. Tardi Beg Khan, governor of Delhi offered feeble resistance at Tughlaqabad five miles east of the Qutb Minar on 7th October 1556, but was defeated. He fled with Iskandar Khan towards Sarhind. Ali Quli Khan Shaibani, governor of Sambhal also abandoned his charge and joined the fugitive.

Hemu ascend the throne of Delhi

The entire country from Gwalior to river Sutluj passed under the control of Hemu. He distributed the spoils of war among the Afghans and with their concurrence, declared his independent status in a practical manner by ascending the throne, with the imperial canopy raised over his head, issued coins in his name and assumed the historic name Vikramaditya. Hemu became the first and the only Hindu to occupy the throne of Delhi during the medieval period of our history.

According to A.L.Srivastava, European scholars along with medieval Muslim chroniclers find fault with Hemu for usurping power. But Hemu only repudiated Adil Shah’s authority, though rebellion and even use of force is legitimate against foreign rule. If foreigners like Humayun and the descendants of Sher Shah could advance claims to the sovereignty of India, Hemu who was a real native of the soil, had an equally legitimate if not better claim to rule over his ancestral land. No praise can be too great for Hemu’s bold endeavour to re-establish indigenous rule at Delhi after more than 350 years of foreign domination.

Second Battle of Panipat

The news of the fall of Delhi and Agra alarmed the Mughuls and they advised their sovereign then encamped at Jalandhar to retire immediately to Kabul as their number was not more than 20,000 while Hemu’s army was reputed to be one lakh strong and was flushed with its recent success. But Bairam Khan decided in favour of recovering Delhi and Akbar agreed. Akbar left Jalandhar on October 13th to face Hemu. At Sarhind the governor of Agra, Delhi and Sambhal joined Akbar and counselled him to retreat to Kabul. Bairam Khan however took prompt steps to silence them by putting Tardi Beg Khan to death.

Hemu sent forward his advance guard with a pack of his artillery to encounter that of Akbar’s which was proceeding rapidly under the command of Ali Quli Khan Shaibani. But Hemu’s advance guard was defeated and his artillery captured.

Within a week or so the two armies met on the historic field at Panipat on November 5th 1556. Bairam Khan commanded 10,000 strong Moghul army from a long distance in the rear and placed Ali Khan Quli in charge of the centre, Sikandar Khan Uzbeg in charge of the right wing and Abdulla Khan Uzbeg in charge of the left wing and Akbar was kept at a safe distance behind the army. Hemu’s fighting force consisted of 30,000 Rajput and Afghan cavalry and 500 war elephants which was protected by the plate armour and had musketeers and cross bowmen mounted on their back. However, he had no guns. Hemu took his position in the centre and gave charge of his right wing to Shadi Khan kakkar and left wing to Ramyya, his own sister’s son. In spite of the loss of his artillery in the preliminary engagement, Hemu boldly charged the Moghuls and overthrew their right and left wings. He then launched an attack on their centre and hurled his war elephants against them. But the defeated Moghul wings collected themselves and moving to Hemu’s flanks attacked them. Hemu’s advance was also barred by a deep ravine in front of it. Ali Quli Khan made a detour and attacked Hemu’s centre from behind. Hemu continued fighting fiercely when a stray arrow struck his eye and blood started oozing out. But Hemu pulled the arrow out, bandaged the eye with a scarf and ordered the fight to go no but later fell down into the houda unconscious. His army presuming that its leader was dead was seized with panic. An Indian army never could survive the loss of its leader on whose life its pay depended. Hence Hemu’s soldiers at once scattered in various direction and made no further attempt at resistance. Hemu’s elephant driver tried to take his unconscious master beyond the reach of the danger but was overtaken by a Moghul officer named Shah Quli Mahram who conducted Hemu to Akbar.

Akbar the ‘Ghazi’

Bairam Khan desired Akbar to earn the title of Ghazi or slayer of the infidel by flashing his sword on the captive. Akbar obeyed his guardian and struck Hemu on the neck with a short sword. The bystanders also plunged their swords into the bleeding corpse. Hemu’s head was sent to Kabul to be exposed and his trunk was hung at one of the gates of Delhi. The official story of magnanimous sentiment of unwillingness of Akbars part to strike a helpless prisoner seem to be a late invention of court flatterers. This view is also reiterated by V.A.Smith who writes that at the time of the second battle of Panipat, Akbar was a boy merely 14 years of age and that since his birth he had been reared among scenes of violence and bloodshed by Muhammadans who regarded the killing of a Hindu infidel as a highly meritorious act whether the killing took place in the heat of a battle or in cold blood. Is it possible that the boy Akbar in such a position would have felt any scruples, doubts V.A.Smith. Bairam Khan was the young prince command-in-chief, his personal guardian and the only man who could convert his potential kingdom into a reality. Is it likely that in the circumstances a boy of 14 would set up his private opinion against that of his guardian and all the bystanders, questions V.A.Smith

Hemu’s father refuse to convert to Islam

After Hemu’s death an unsuccessful attempt was made to capture his wife and she escaped to the jungle of Bejawada. Hemu’s aged father was captured and brought before Nasir-al-Mulk who asked him to convert to Islam. Hemu’s father answered that for eighty years he has been worshipping his god and why should he change it now that too merely from fear of losing life. He was immediately killed.

Greatest of the Great

Rana Pratap and Shivaji defied the Moghuls and won an everlasting fame. No doubt they were great, but Hemu was greater still as he occupied the throne of Delhi; the choicest treasure of India which is considered a rare thing achieved by a Hindu during medieval times. Also, unlike Rana Pratap and Shivaji, Hemu did not had a martial background or like Rana Pratap inherited a kingdom nor like Shivaji had a father who was a high-ranking military officer in the court of Bijapur. Hemu by sheer merit and personality without any advantage of birth or fortune dominated the political stage of north India during the heydays of Muslim rule in India. Hence Raoji Nemchand Shah opines that Hemu deserves to be remembered for all times not because he was a monarch of Delhi but because he had the courage and nobility and had set an example that Hindus are not easily threatened and that they too can conquer and defeat the Moghuls. In the words of K.R.Qanungo, no Hindu had ever been covered with so many glorious wounds on the field of battle except Maharana Sanga and no Rajput wielded the sword so bravely against foreign invaders as this humble Hindu of Rewari did on the field of Panipat. It was not easy to command the Afghans and the Turks who were religious fanatics. Moreover, the Afghan nobles were highly individualistic and fiercely loyal towards their respective tribes. If at all they worked under Hemu, it was because he was sagacious, courageous, confident and possessed administrative skills and leadership qualities. Despaired due to continuous brutal subjugation by successive Muslim rulers of Delhi, Hindus saw a silver lining in Hemu. If not for an accident in the battle which turned victory into defeat, Hemu might have founded a Hindu ruling dynasty instead of the Moghuls in Delhi. If he had succeeded, the history of India would have been different but destiny proved otherwise.

A forgotten Hero

Hemu who was born in humble life, made his way to the throne of Delhi by dint of sheer ability and military skill- a unique episode in the history of India during Muslim rule. Unfortunately, Hemu’s history has been written almost wholly by his enemies who dreaded him most and far from doing justice to his greatness, they have tarnished his name. According to Jadunath Sarkar Hemu’s honesty and devotion to the interests of the state and his strictness in putting down slack and corrupt public servants antagonised the degenerate old official nobility and his memory has been blackened by their false aspersion and the partisan writings of Akbar’s court flatterers. Hence R.C.Majumdar opines that it is time to resuscitate the memory and give a true account of the life of Hemu, really a great hero, whose dreams and achievements have been forgotten by his countrymen.


  • R.C.Majumdar- Himu: A Forgotten Hindu Hero in The History and Culture of the Indian People, The Mughul Empire, vol vii, Bharatiya Vidhya Bhavan
  • Jadunath Sarkar – Military History of India, Calcutta, 1960
  • K.R. Qanungo – Sher Shah and his Times, Orient Longmans Limited, 1965
  • Kripal Chandra Yadav – Maharaja Hema Chandra, A Profile in Haryana: Studies in History and Culture, Kurukshetra University, 1968
  • Vincent A Smith – The Death of Hemu in 1556, after the battle of Panipat, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, July, 1916
  • Raoji Nemchand Shah – Shah Hemu Vikramaditya, the Emperor of India, Bharatiya Vidya vol x, 1949
  • A.L.Srivatsava – The Mughul Empire, Shivlal Agarwal & Co, Agra, 1959
  • H.A.Phadke – Haryana: Ancient and Medieval, Harman Publishing House, New Delhi, 1990