Founders and Theologians
When exploring “key figures,” Hinduism poses a particular challenge for several reasons. Firstly, it is impossible to trace the exact beginning – if indeed it had one! It has no single founder, but contains many leaders who reformed and revived existing traditions, either breaking them into innumerable sub-groups or consolidating them. The rather vague boundary between man and the immortal makes the subject even more complex. Almost universally, God is considered the ultimate Father of religion, and many of thesampradayas consider their founder an avatar.
Tradition holds that in ancient times there were seven great rishis (poet-sages) born from the mind of Brahma.They are often associated with the seven stars of the Big Dipper constellation. Hindu families claim to trace their dynasty (gotra) to one of them. They are Bhrigu, Gautama, Bharadvaja, Vishvamitra, Vashishta, Atri, and Angira. Though lists given by various sources vary, the names of these and other rishis appear repeatedly in the stories of the Puranas, Epics, and other texts. Despite their inconceivable age, living from the time of creation, some are reputed to still be alive.
Much current Hindu thought is based on theological foundations laid down by prominent scholars from the medieval period. Most important are those who established the ten main branches of Vedanta and corresponding sampradayas (disciplic successions). They are often awarded the suffix “acharya,” “one who teaches by example.” Here we outline some important acharyas.
A great Hindu reformer, Shankara was born in Kerala and took sannyasa as a youth. He travelled widely defeating Buddhists and other members of the nastika movements, thus re-establishing the authority of Vedic texts throughout India. He founded the advaita school of Vedanta, ten orders of sannyasa, and monastic centres in four strategic locations. He is often called Adi Shankara, to differentiate him from the later pontiffs, who to this day are also called “the Shankaracharya.” Adi Shankara is often considered an incarnation of Shiva. His contemporary followers in the UK include the Ramakrishna Mission.
Abhinavagupta (c. 960–1020)
A representative of Kashmiri Shaivism and is perhaps its most prolific writer. He propounded a form ofAdvaita Vedanta and wrote the multi-volume Tantraloka. Further Shaivite theologians were Shrikantha (13th century) and Shripati (1350–1410).
The most important acharya amongst the Shri Vaishnavas, and the founder of the Vishishtadvaita school, which qualified Shankara’s monistic doctrine. Ramanuja taught devotion to a personal God, Vishnu, and proposed that the universe is the Lord’s body. Salvation is earned largely by grace and entails entering Vishnu’s abode (Vaikunthaloka) where one receives a body almost identical to the Lord. Tirupati and Shri Rangam, important centres of Sri Vaishnavism, are headquarters of the two main branches, the northern and southern schools. Sahajanand Swami, founder of the Swami Narayana Mission, came in Ramanuja’s line and modified his Vishishtadvaita doctrine. Madhva (1238–1317), another important Vaishnava scholar, opposed Shankara’s Advaita doctrine far more vehemently than Ramanuja, founding the Shuddha-dvaita (pure dualism) school of Vedanta. Chaitanya (1486–1534) claimed to come in Madhva’s line, and his teachings were consolidated by Baladeva (1600–1768).