“When we speak of Vishnu, we also refer to that which relates to Vishnu. In the Shiva Purana, Lord Shiva recommends Vishnu worship to be the topmost worship, and better than Vishnu worship is worship of the Vaishnava or anything that is related to Vishnu.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 4.23.31 Purport)
In academic circles, Vaishnavism is a branch of Hinduism. Hinduism is a style of religion practiced principally in India, and within that religion there are different beliefs, including a variety of worshipable figures. The term “Vaishnava” is referenced by the Vaishnavas themselves and the meaning may not be clear to one not familiar with the Vedic tradition.
What exactly makes a Vaishnava? Why use this term instead of something else? Why not just say “someone who believes in God”? Would that not suffice?
The introductory teaching in Vedic philosophy is “aham brahmasmi,” which means “I am Brahman.” The Vedas are the works of knowledge that form the origin of Hinduism. Indeed, to one who accepts this knowledge and lives their life accordingly, Hinduism is an invalid term; not proper for identification.
The reason is that Vedic teachings are scientifically based. Just as one wouldn’t say they believe in gravity, a person who accepts the existence of the core animating object within living beings doesn’t consider themselves to be part of a faith. “Sanatana-dharma” is a more appropriate equivalent for Hinduism, as it indicates the eternal engagement of the individual, who is a spirit soul.
Still, the term “Vaishnava” is there and it exists to distinguish exactly how the individual who accepts the existence of the soul acts. It also explains how they view that individual soul with respect to other souls.
1. They believe in God the person.
Brahman is our real identity. We are not male, female, American, Indian, white or Hispanic. These things may be used as identification on official forms, but they reflect attributes belonging to the temporary body only. Brahman is the spiritual identity. Yet Brahman is not everything. There is a source of the spiritual energy, and that source is known by various names across the many spiritual traditions of the world.
The Vaishnava accepts that the source of Brahman is a person. Not an ordinary person who undergoes birth and death in the material world, but an individual nonetheless. Just as a person has a form with accompanying hands and legs, so too God can be realized through His transcendental features.
2. They know about both advaita and dvaita.
There is more to the worship of the Vaishnava than just faith. There is intelligence with respect to both the material and the spiritual. Not only does the Vaishnava know Brahman and the source of Brahman, but they also know the scientific relationship between the two. One is small and susceptible to falling into the material ocean of ignorance. The other is supreme and all-pervading, expanding into every single living thing.
The philosophy of advaita says that there is no difference between the individual soul and the Supreme Soul, or God. The Vaishnava acknowledges this philosophy. They know that since the many sparks of Brahman come from God, there is always a link. We living creatures are part of the overall definition of God the person.
The philosophy of dvaita says that there is duality, a difference between the individual souls and God. The Vaishnava accepts this philosophy too, since God can do things that we can’t. We are eternal, knowledgeable and blissful and so is He. The difference is that His attributes are of a higher quantitative potency. His knowledge is perfect, while ours is limited. His blissfulness remains at all times, while we fluctuate between happiness and sadness.
3. They know about Godhead.
The literal definition of the word Vaishnava is “worshiper of Vishnu.” Vishnu is God the person, a distinct personality. The Vaishnava knows that God expands into different personal forms as well, like the candle that can alight other identical candles. Vishnu is also Rama, Narasimha, Krishna and Varaha. The personal expansions are known as vishnu-tattva, which is a complex subject nicely explained by Lord Chaitanya.
The respect for Godhead means that the Vaishnava is very liberal with regards to worship. They don’t insist that everyone worship only a particular form like Vishnu. They know that God the person can expand and thus delight different people with His form and pastimes. The Vaishnava also knows that not all divine figures are the same. Not just any godly personality is equal to Vishnu. The identification of vishnu-tattva comes from authorized works like the Mahabharata, Shrimad Bhagavatam and Ramayana.
4. They know that God is Bhagavan, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
The Vaishnava worships God as the supreme person. They identify Him as Bhagavan, which means one who possesses all opulences in full. This gives more clarity to the point that the Vaishnava knows of God as a person. What kind of person is Vishnu? He is all-pervading, the great maintainer, and full of opulences. The Vaishnava accepts their Vishnu form of choice as the Supreme Godhead. In the Bhagavad-gita, the supreme Vishnu reveals Himself to Arjuna through His form of Krishna. Krishna has two hands, plays a flute and is always enjoying. All Vaishnavas accept Krishna as supreme, even if their worshipable deity of choice may be Vishnu or Rama.
5. They worship without motives.
Aside from the different Vishnu forms and the philosophical foundation, there is one aspect to the worship that really makes the Vaishnava unique. They don’t ask anything from God. Their only desire is to keep serving. This service, known as bhakti-yoga, flows through any of nine different principal methods, the most effective of which are hearing and chanting. Both are accomplished through the chanting of the holy names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
The Vaishnava may have motives in the beginning. They may want a new car. They may beg to do well on an important exam. They may pray for the health of a family member. Yet since they are approaching Vishnu, or God the person, they become purified through their worship. They may not get what they want. Vishnu is the lone god who might intentionally disappoint you. This is one way to tell that He is supreme. He is the detail behind the abstract conception we have of the Divine. He is a loving deity, and those who give love to Him without motivation and without interruption are known as Vaishnavas.
From certain qualities to detect,
The Vaishnava, of Hinduism a sect.
Knowledge of identity as Brahman to own,
And its relationship to Supreme is known.
One God for everyone’s delight,
Into other forms like candle can alight.
Eventually in worship lacking motivation,
And in service never to see interruption.