There are four main sects of Vaisnavism. A good bit of what I covered in my recent “Vaisnavaganza” series related to the Gaudiya Vaisnavism of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, which is an off-shoot of the Brahma Sampradaya of Madhva. I’d like to discuss all of them. This is not intended to be a manifesto about why I’ve chosen to follow one over the others, though I will comment on this. I respect each path, and have leaned on all of them in one way or another from time to time. This is an overview. A springboard for deeper consideration which I will do alone and not subject you to it’s results, dear reader. Well…not all of it.
Since Gaudiya is just a branch of Brahma Sampradaya, I’ll say that Brahma Sampradaya sect was founded by Sampradaya in the 13th Century. It is pure dualism. Often Gaudiya Vaisnavs (who brought the world the International Society of Krishna Consciousness) are considered to be quite dualistic, as their particular form of bhakti tends to lean toward the awareness of separation from (Krishna).
Sri Vaisnav Sampradaya was developed in the 10th Century by Ramanuja. It is also known as Lakshmi Vaisnavism. It is
“qualified non-dualism” or “Vishishtadvaita.”
After Sri Vaisnavism, the other three major sects of Vaisnavism all seem to have come to be in the 13th century or thereabouts, with various off-shoots following. Sometimes the argument that that which came first must be the most true is implemented in order to make a case for one’s religion. Those who subscribe to the teachings of the Old Testament will often use a similar argument. This is not necessarily a valid argument, so Sri Vaisnavism is not necessarily the most pure form of Vaisnavism. And there are complications with this line of thought in terms of the four sects of Vaisnavism anyway, as you will soon read.
I have long been most attracted to Sri Vaisnavism for one reason or another. I think I have just been attracted to devotion to Narayana. Though this “qualified non-dualism” business does demand some discussion/analysis, I think.
Qualified non-dualism: “propounds that the world is non-dualism of the qualified whole, in which the first cause alone is characterized by multiplicity.” (Source: http://EzineArticles.com/3408544).
This kind of puts common Hindu wisdom on its head, and says that the world is characterized by non-dualism, and the only multiplicity coming in Brahman. Generally Hindus would say that the material world is where all the duality is apparent, and there is none in Brahman, which is why Brahman is our one goal. One could say that the only reason multiplicity in the world exists is because of its Maya-born comparison/contradiction to Brahman.
Rudra Sampradaya, the sect of Visnuswami was purely non-dualist, in fact monist in the eyes of many. It gets its name from a rift between devotees of Rudra and Vishnu. Andhra Visnuswami lived in the 13th century, but proponents of this sect say he is one of a lineage of three Visnuswamis going back to the 3rd century B.C.E. with Adi Visnuswami This lineage unfortunately has a history of anti-Buddhist, and eventually anti-anything-non-Vaisnav, really, with the first Visnuswami. It was a heavily monastic sect. Not monist. Monastic, many sannayasi practices coming from the time of Adi Visnuswami.
Raja Gopala Visnuswami advocated pro-Vaisnav propoganda, and converted many followers of Shankara’s version of Advaita Vedanta. After his death, apparently a rift occurred over whether Rudra was a deity in His own right, or merely an associate of Lord Vishnu. This rift sent many Vaisnavs to Shaivism.
Andhra Visnuswami promoted a “theology” which was very similar to that proposed by the Sri Vaisnav “qualified non-dualism I wrote of above. For instance Vishnu is Brahman, but the contradictory qualities exist in this Brahman alone, not in the material world. The concept of “lila” or “God’s cosmic play” comes from this sect as well. A sub-sect formed by Vallabha followed in the 16th century, C.E. called Shuddhadvaita.
Nimbarka Sampradaya, or Kumara Sampradaya, again came in the 13th century, though the philosophy behind it go as far back as the time of Vyasa. Nimbarka Sampradaya advocated a worldview of “duality in unity”, or dualistic monism. This one is the most complicated one for me to fathom. Nimbarka gets into the contradictory philosophies that all Hindus must to some degree become familiar with. For instance, this is the philosophy that tells us that the individual, and the world at large are “endowed with qualities different from God.” But God’s omnipresence qualifies us as “not-different” from God at the same time. It also has to do with dependence on God, which again confirms the dualist leaning, which is not for me. My writings often lean into dualism, but this philosophy makes us “partial manifestations” of God, saving us from becoming a “second” as it has already stated God is “without second. Though I will admit that the jiva is limited while Brahman is infinite, I qualify this by saying the limitation is a function of maya and therefore not a true limit.
Nimbarka says that Krishna is identifiable with/as Brahman. Any avatar is an observable manifestation of Ishwara, which is for all intents and purposes Brahman, so therefore this is true. Yet I shy away from the sects which might identify Krishna as higher than Vishnu and that seems to be the case with Nimbarka’s philosophy.
One thing I like about Nimbarka is that he attributes Brahman with matching up the jiva with results of its particular individual karmas, i.e. thrusting an individual soul into the body which which will give it the karmic experiences it needs for growth. Though I don’t see Brahman as so involved, I like it that this function of God is addressed this way.
Again, I say, I take and learn from all of these four forms of Vaisnavism.