Vishnuism or Vaishnavism (from Sanskrit वैष्णव Vaiṣṇava [ˈʋaiʂɳʌʋʌ] "belonging to Vishnu") is a branch of Hinduism that accepts Vishnu as the supreme being. To him all other gods are here subordinated or emanate from him. Vishnuism is one of the three most important directions of Hinduism, along with Shivaism and Shaktism.

Vishnuism contains several religious currents of different origins. The three main currents refer to Vishnu, Vasudeva Krishna and Rama, the heroic prince in the epic Ramayana. According to their self-understanding, some vishnuitic currents are monotheistic, since they worship Vishnu, the "One without a Second", respectively his incarnations, the Avataras. Other deities, such as Shiva and Brahma, are considered subordinate to Vishnu and understood as his servants. Except for Shiva, these devas are considered demigods or ordinary souls. According to Vishnuit teachings, Vishnu can multiply himself into innumerable spiritual forms, all of which are identical with him. This is seen as an expression of his unlimited power, rather than the manifestation of different deities in competition. To distinguish this attitude from traditional Abrahamic monotheism, the Indologist Friedrich Max Müller called it henotheism. Today's religious studies literature, on the other hand, often regards Vishnuism as monotheism.

Closely linked to Vishnuism is the doctrine of the Avatara: according to this, Vishnu returns to the world in countless incarnations when the Dharma, law and order, fade away. Best known are the "Ten Avataras" of which the last one, Kalki, is supposed to appear only in the Kali-Yuga, the end of the present age. The other "descended ones" are Matsya, the fish, Kurma, the tortoise, Varaha, the boar, the lion-man Narasimha, Vamana, the dwarf, Parashurama, Rama, Krishna and Buddha, whom some traditions replace by Balarama, the elder brother of Krishna. The idea of a multiplicity of incarnations is hinted at in the Bhagavad Gita and detailed in the Bhagavatapurana.

Vishnu (miniature from 1730)Zoom
Vishnu (miniature from 1730)


The worship of Vasudeva Krishna was probably widespread by the end of the 2nd century BC, as evidenced by the Garuda pillar of Heliodorus (Heliodorus as Envoy). Vishnu himself was mentioned as early as the Rigveda, and a monotheistic theology is thought to have developed around him in the 9th to 6th centuries BC. Rama and Krishna were taken to be incarnations of Vishnu. The term Vaishnava (Vishnuites) was used for these movements from about the 4th/5th century, but the origins go back much further.

With Vishnuism developed a royal, rule-oriented Vishnu mythology committed to the Kshatriya ethos, which is most visible in the form of the incarnation of Rama, in the great epic of the King of Ayodhya.

What was new about Vishnuism at that time was the conception of this god as the highest and only true real god, who carries and brings forth the world and all beings including the other gods. Also new was the path to salvation: on the one hand, dutiful and above all selfless action in society, karma yoga, and on the other hand, bhakti, the unconditional, loving devotion to Vishnu. Bhakti, especially to the incarnations of Krishna or Rama, became an important part of religious practice. Bhakti marks the new relationship between man and deity, which supersedes the Vedic sacrifice and at the same time embeds the intellectual search for redemptive knowledge, jnana-yoga, in a strong emotional relationship. Especially in the Bhagavad Gita, bhakti-yoga is portrayed as one of the paths to salvation. Also new was a far-reaching rejection of the traditional caste system. Already with the Alvars, influential Vishnuit poets in South India, who were active in the 8th century, it had no meaning; among the twelve recognized saints there were some Shudras, members of the lowest caste. Later exponents of Vishnuism such as Ramananda (13th century), Kabir (15th century) and Chaitanya (15th/16th century) also made no distinction among their followers on the basis of caste; they resolutely rejected inequality. While not attacking the system as such, they saw all men as equal in the sight of God.

Traditional schools

Vishnuism consists of several directions that have developed divergent philosophies. These are handed down through various traditional schools, the Guru Sampradayas with numerous branches often perceived as separate Sampradayas. Most of today's teachings derive from one of these philosophers. In all of them, bhakti, loving devotion to Vishnu-Narayana, the avataras Krishna and Rama is central to their worship and teachings.

Sri Sampradaya and Ramanandi Sampradaya

Main article: Sri Vaishnava

The best known representative of the Sri-Sampradaya named after the goddess Sri Lakshmi is the philosopher Ramanuja (1017-1137). He taught vishisht-advaita, "qualified non-dualism", according to which "the all-one God Narayana is not an all-encompassing being, by itself devoid of all differences, but by nature already possesses the individual souls and the inanimate as qualities". Ramanuja represents the concept of a personal supreme being, Narayana. The unifying factor between the supreme being and the individual souls is divine love.

A branch that appears independently today is the Ramanandi Sampradaya. It traces its origin to Ramananda (13th century), who was a disciple in the line of Ramanuja, but later became independent. Ramananda placed Rama and Sita at the centre of religious worship. A large proportion of Vishnuit sadhus today are Ramanandis. The best known followers were Kabir (1440-1518), who founded his own school, and the later founder of Sikhism, Nanak. The Ramanandi Sampradaya itself has numerous sub-branches.

Brahma Sampradaya and Gaudiya Sampradaya

The best-known representatives of the Brahma-Sampradaya named after the god Brahma are Madhva (probably 13th century), also called Anandatirtha, as well as the mystic Chaitanya (1486-1533), who was mainly active in Bengal and whose lineage, the Gaudiya Sampradaya is a subgroup of the Brahma-Sampradaya. Madhva particularly emphasized dualism, dvaita, and strictly distinguished between God, the material world (prakriti), and souls. The goal was not to become one with the divine, as the followers of the Advaita doctrine, which he vehemently opposed, saw it, but bliss in Vaikuntha, Vishnu's "heaven", in the presence of the divine.

Chaitanya, on the other hand, emphasized both duality and the simultaneous unity of God, souls and the world. His philosophy is called acintya-bheda-abheda-tattva, the highest truth, God, being inconceivably simultaneously one (bheda) and yet distinct (abheda) from everything. The doctrine is provided with the addition acintya, i.e. "inconceivable", since it is not rationally comprehensible.

While Vishnuites in the sense of Madhva make up only a very small part, the many branches and twigs that emanated from Chaitanya's lineage are hardly manageable today. Outstanding is Bhaktisiddhanta Saraswati Thakura's Gaudiya-Math, from which the Hare Krishna movement known in the West emerged as a branch.


In the Rudra Sampradaya named after the god Shiva (Rudra), the best known exponent is Vallabha (1479-1531). He represents suddha advaita, "pure non-dualism". According to this, Krishna is identical with the supreme world-soul, Brahman, and includes the diversity of the world in himself. In his commentaries, Vallabha is particularly concerned to lead his followers to the "path of grace", pushiti marga.

Vallabha's teaching is said to be descended from Vishnu Swami (c. 13th century), an elderly master. He had taught advaita, pure non-duality.


After the four sons of the god Brahma, the Kumaras, the Kumara-Sampradaya, also Sanakadi-Sampradaya was named. The most important representative of this now less popular school is Nimbarka (probably 13th century). He established the philosophy of dvaita-advaita, simultaneous two-ness and non-two-ness: that God was simultaneously one and distinct from the world. According to this school, moksha, liberation, is attained through true knowledge, which in turn can be gained through true worship of God. For Nimbarka, unlike the other Vaishnuite doctrines, Krishna is not an avatar but the very essence of God and he, like Vallabha, identifies Krishna with Brahman. Nimbarka was known as a special devotee of the divine couple Radha and Krishna.

Reformed groups

In addition to the main sampradayas mentioned above, there are about twelve major reformed groups whose monks, the sadhus, sometimes engage in extraordinary practices, such as those of the Sakhi Sampradaya, who assume a female identity in their worship.

Followers of the Mahanubhoa Pantha completely reject the typical Hindu worship of the divine in effigy. Monks of the Harshachandi Pantha remain street sweepers even after their initiation, from whose caste they predominantly come.

The Kabira Pantha goes back to the poet and mystic Kabir. Kabir was initially a Muslim, but turned away from it early on. He also incorporated the teachings of Islamic mysticism, Sufism, into his philosophy. His songs are still popular throughout India.

The school of the spiritual teacher Swaminarayan, founded in the eighteenth century, is especially widespread in the Indian state of Gujarat. Members of this lineage, especially through emigrated Hindus, maintain temples and centers worldwide, such as the largest Hindu temple in Europe in London-Neasden. - 2020 / 2023 - License CC3