The largest community within the family of religions called Hinduism worships God under the name of Vishnu (“one who is all-pervading”). Vaishnavas are divided into many smaller divisions, often focussing on one form or avatar (descent) of Vishnu.There are also a number of prominent theologians, who established their own sampradayas(preceptoral successions) teaching different forms of Vedanta and contesting the purely monistic doctrine of Shankara.
There are four main branches of Vaishnavism and the various sampradayas often claim orthodoxy on the basis of belonging to one of these. The two main focuses of veneration are Krishna and Rama, who are usually considered God, with other deities in relatively subordinate positions. Vaishnavas tend to be personalists, associated with the devotional,bhakti traditions.
Vaishnavism claims to go back millions of years (in keeping with its own historical worldview). Worship of Krishna dates back at least 5,000 years, though Western scholars suggest it emerged more recently. Between the 6th and 9th centuries, the twelve Alvars (poet-mystics) laid the foundations for the Shri Vaishnavas based in Shri Rangam, South India. Their founder-theologian is Ramanuja (1017–1137). After him emerged three other sampradayas headed by Nimbarka (1125–1162), Vishnuswami (1200–1250) and Madhva (1238–1317).
From the twelfth century onwards a bhakti renaissance swept across India, bringing waves of devotional sentiment. Centres of devotion were rediscovered and revived in places such as Ayodhya and Vrindavana. The bhakti traditions broke through caste barriers and attracted millions of followers. Among the many bhakti saints are a number of notable women such as Andal and Mirabai. Vaishnavas remain the largest Hindu community, both within India and the UK. The four sampradayas, each named after a specific deity shown below.
- Bhagavat Purana
- Vishnu Purana
- Hymns of the Alvars (Tamil poet-mystics)
- Vedanta Sutras
- Those of Krishna
- The Ramayan
- The Ten Incarnations
- Pandhapur (Maharastra)
- Shri Rangam
- Theologian/Founder: Ramanuja
- Other prominent Leaders: Twelve Alvars
- Broad traditions: Shri Vaishnavas (Southern India)
- Modern movements in Britain: Swami Narayana Mission
- Theologian/Founder: Madhva
- Other prominent leaders: Caitanya (Bengal)
- Broad traditions: Gaudiya (Bengali) Vaishnavas Madhavites (S. India)
- Modern movements in Britain: ISKCON
- Theologian/Founder: Nimbarka
- Broad traditions: Hamsa sampradaya (mainly Vrindavana)
- Modern movements in Britain: none of prominence
- Theologian/Founder: Vishnuswami
- Other prominent leaders: Vallabha
- Broad traditions: Pushti Marg (Gujarat)
- Modern movements in Britain: Shree Vallabha Nidhi