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An Historical Sketch

Part 2

The beginning of the sixteenth century was a time of religious upheaval in India for it witnessed the careers not only of Vallabhâcârya and Caitanya, but also of Nânak, the founder of the Sikhs. In the west it was the epoch of Luther and as in Europe so in India no great religious movement has taken place since that time. The sects then founded have swollen into extravagance and been reformed: other sects have arisen from a mixture of Hinduism with Moslem and Christian elements, but no new and original current of thought or devotion has been started.

Though the two great sects associated with the names of Caitanya and Vallabhâcârya have different geographical spheres and also present some differences in doctrinal details, both are emotional and even erotic and both adore Kṛishṇa as a child or young man. Their almost simultaneous appearance in eastern and western India and their rapid growth show that they represent an unusually potent current of ideas and sentiments.

But the worship of Kṛishṇa was, as we have seen, nothing new in northern India. Even that relatively late phase in which the sports of the divine herdsman are made to typify the love of God for human souls is at least as early as the Gîtâ-govinda written about 1170. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the history of Kṛishṇa worship is not clear,[1] but it persisted and about 1400 found speech in Bengal and in Rajputâna.

According to Vaishṇava theologians the followers of Vallabhâcârya[2] are a section of the Rudra-sampradâya founded in the early part of the fifteenth century by Vishṇusvâmi, an emigrant from southern India, who preached chiefly in Gujarat. The doctrines of the sect are supposed to have been delivered by the Almighty to Śiva from whom Vishṇusvâmi was fifteenth in spiritual descent, and are known by the name of Śuddhâdvaita or pure non-duality. They teach that God has three attributes—sac-cid-ânanda—existence, consciousness and bliss.

In the human or animal soul bliss is suppressed and in matter consciousness is suppressed too. But when the soul attains release it recovers bliss and becomes identical in nature with God. For practical purposes the Vallabhâcâris may be regarded as a sect founded by Vallabha, said to have been born in 1470. He was the son of a Telinga Brahman, who had migrated with Vishṇusvâmi to the north.

Such was the pious precocity of Vallabha that at the age of twelve he had already discovered a new religion and started on a pilgrimage to preach it. He was well received at the Court of Vijayanagar, and was so successful in disputation that he was recognized as chief doctor of the Vaishṇava school. He subsequently spent nine years in travelling twice round India and at Brindaban received a visit from Kṛishṇa in person, who bade him promulgate his worship in the form of the divine child known as Bâla Gopâla.

Vallabha settled in Benares and is said to have composed a number of works which are still extant.[3] He gained further victories as a successful disputant and also married and became the father of two sons. At the age of fifty-two he took to the life of a Sannyâsi, but died forty-two days afterwards.

Though Vallabha died as an ascetic, his doctrines are currently known as the Pushṭi Mârga, the road of well-being or comfort. His philosophy was more decidedly monistic than is usual among Vishnuites, and Indian monism has generally taught that, as the soul and God are one in essence, the soul should realize this identity and renounce the pleasures of the senses. But with Vallabhâcârya it may be said that the vision which is generally directed godwards and forgets the flesh, turned earthwards and forgot God, for his teaching is that since the individual and the deity are one, the body should be reverenced and indulged.

Pushṭi[4] or well-being is the special grace of God and the elect are called Pushṭi-jîva. They depend entirely on God's grace and are contrasted with Maryâdâ-jîvas, or those who submit to moral discipline. The highest felicity is not mukti or liberation but the eternal service of Kṛishṇa and eternal participation in his sports.

These doctrines have led to deplorable results, but so strong is the Indian instinct towards self-denial and asceticism that it is the priests rather than the worshippers who profit by this permission to indulge the body, and the chief feature of the sect is the extravagant respect paid to the descendants of Vallabhâcârya. They are known as Maharajas or Great Kings and their followers, especially women, dedicate to them tan, dhan, man: body, purse and spirit, for it is a condition of the road of well-being that before the devotee enjoys anything himself he must dedicate it to the deity and the Maharaj represents the deity.

The daily prayer of the sect is

"Om. Kṛishṇa is my refuge. I who suffer the infinite pain and torment of enduring for a thousand years separation from Kṛishṇa, consecrate to Kṛishṇa my body, senses, life, heart and faculties, my wife, house, family, property and my own self. I am thy slave, O Kṛishṇa."[5]

This formula is recited to the Maharaj with peculiar solemnity by each male as he comes of age and is admitted as a full member of the sect. The words in which this dedication of self and family is made are not in themselves open to criticism and a parallel may be found in Christian hymns. But the literature of the Vallabhis unequivocally states that the Guru is the same as the deity[6] and there can be little doubt that even now the Maharajas are adored by their followers, especially by the women, as representatives of Kṛishṇa in his character of the lover of the Gopis and that the worship is often licentious. [7]

Many Hindus denounce the sect and in 1862 one of the Maharajas brought an action for libel in the supreme court of Bombay on account of the serious charges of immorality brought against him in the native press. The trial became a cause célèbre. Judgment was delivered against the Maharaj, the Judge declaring the charges to be fully substantiated. Yet in spite of these proceedings the sect still flourishes, apparently unchanged in doctrine and practice, and has a large following among the mercantile castes of western India.

The Râdhâ-Vallabhis, an analogous sect founded by Harivaṃsa in the sixteenth century, give the pre-eminence to Râdhâ, the wife of Kṛishṇa, and in their secret ceremonies are said to dress as women. The worship of Râdhâ is a late phase of Vishnuism and is not known even to the Bhâgavata Purâṇa.[8]

Vallabhism owes much of its success to the family of the founder. They had evidently a strong dynastic sentiment as well as a love of missionary conquest—a powerful combination. Vallabhâcârya left behind him eighty-four principal disciples whose lives are recorded in the work called the Stories of the Eighty-four Vaishṇavas, and his authority descended to his son Vithalnath. Like his father, Vithalnath was active as a proselytizer and pilgrim and propagated his doctrines extensively in many parts of western India such as Cutch, Malwa, and Bijapur.

His converts came chiefly from the mercantile classes but also included some Brahmans and Mussulmans. He is said to have abolished caste distinctions but the sect has not preserved this feature. In his later years he resided at Muttra or the neighbouring town of Gokul, whence he is known as Gokul Gosainji. This title of Gosain, which is still borne by his male descendants, is derived from Kṛishṇa's name Gosvâmin, the lord of cattle.[9]

He had seven sons, in each of whom Kṛishṇa is said to have been incarnate for five years. They exercised spiritual authority in separate districts—as we might say in different dioceses—but the fourth son, Gokulnathji and his descendants claimed and still claim a special pre-eminence. The family is at present represented by about a hundred males who are accepted as incarnations and receive the title of Maharaja.

About twenty reside at Gokul[10] or near Muttra: there are a few in Bombay and in all the great cities of western India, but the Maharaj of Nath Dwara in Rajputâna is esteemed the chief. This place is not an ancient seat of Kṛishṇa worship, but during the persecution of Aurungzeb a peculiarly holy image was brought thither from Muttra and placed in the shrine where it still remains.

A protest against the immorality of the Vallabhi sect was made by Swâminârâyaṇa, a Brahman who was born in the district of Lucknow about 1780.[11] He settled in Ahmedabad and gained so large a following that the authorities became alarmed and imprisoned him. But his popularity only increased: he became the centre of a great religious movement: hymns descriptive of his virtues and sufferings were sung by his followers and when he was released he found himself at the head of a band which was almost an army.

He erected a temple in the village of Wartal in Baroda, which he made the centre of his sect, and recruited followers by means of periodical tours throughout Gujarat. His doctrines are embodied in an anthology called the Śikshâpatrî consisting of 212 precepts, some borrowed from accepted Hindu scriptures and some original and in a catechism called Vacanâmritam.

His teaching was summed up in the phrase

"Devotion to Kṛishṇa with observance of duty and purity of life"

and in practice took the form of a laudable polemic against the licentiousness of the Vallabhis. As in most of the purer sects of Vishnuism, Kṛishṇa is regarded merely as a name of the Supreme Deity.

Thus the Śikshâpatrî says

"Nârâyaṇa and Śiva should be equally recognized as parts of one and the same supreme spirit, since both have been declared in the Vedas to be forms of Brahma. On no account let it be thought that difference in form or name makes any difference in the identity of the deity."

The followers of Swâminârâyaṇa still number about 200,000 in western India and are divided into the laity and a body of celibate clergy. I have visited their religious establishments in Ahmedabad. It consists of a temple with a large and well-kept monastery in which are housed about 300 monks who wear costumes of reddish grey. Except in Assam I have not seen in India any parallel to this monastery either in size or discipline. It is provided with a library and hospital. In the temple are images of Nara and Nârâyaṇa (explained as Kṛishṇa and Arjuna), Kṛishṇa and Râdhâ, Gaṇeśa and Hanuman.[12]

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- Footnotes:


The Vishnuite sect called Nimâvat is said to have been exterminated by Jains (Grierson in E.R.E. sub. V. Bhakti-mârga, p. 545). This may point to persecution during this period.


For Vallabhâcârya and his sect, see especially Growse, Mathurâ, a district memoir, 1874; History of the sect of the Mahârâjas in western India (anonymous), 1865. Also Bhandarkar, Vaishṇ. and Saivism, pp. 76-82 and Farquhar, Outlines of Relig. Lit. of India, pp. 312-317.


The principal of them are the Siddhânta-Rahasya and the Bhâgavata-Tîka-Subodhini, a commentary on the Bhâgavata Purâṇa. This is a short poem of only seventeen lines printed in Growse's Mathurâ, p. 156. It professes to be a revelation from the deity to the effect that sin can be done away with by union with Brahma (Brahma-sambandha-karaṇât). Other authoritative works of the sect are the Śuddhâdvaita mârtaṇḍa, Sakalâcâryamatasangraha and Prameyaratnârṇava, all edited in the Chowkhamba Sanskrit series.


Cf. the use of the word poshaṇam in the Bhâgavata Purâṇa, II. x.


Growse, Mathurâ, p. 157, says this formula is based on the Nâradapancarâtra. It is called Samarpana, dedication, or Brahma-sambandha, connecting oneself with the Supreme Being.


For instance "Whoever holds his Guru and Kṛishṇa to be distinct and different shall be born again as a bird." Harirayaji 32. Quoted in History of the Sect of the Mahârâjas, p. 82.


In the ordinary ceremonial the Maharaj stands beside the image of Kṛishṇa and acknowledges the worship offered. Sometimes he is swung in a swing with or without the image. The hymns sung on these occasions are frequently immoral. Even more licentious are the meetings or dances known as Ras Mandali and Ras Lîlâ. A meal of hot food seasoned with aphrodisiacs is also said to be provided in the temples. The water in which the Maharaj's linen or feet have been washed is sold for a high price and actually drunk by devotees.


Strictly speaking the Râdhâ-Vallabhis are not an offshoot of Vallabha's school, but of the Nimâvats or of the Mâdhva-sampradâya. The theory underlying their strange practices seems to be that Kṛishṇa is the only male and that all mankind should cultivate sentiments of female love for him. See Macnicol, Indian Theism, p. 134.


But other explanations are current such as Lord of the senses or Lord of the Vedas.


See Growse, Mathurâ, p. 153. I can entirely confirm what he says. This mean, inartistic, dirty place certainly suggests moral depravity.


His real name was Sahajânanda.


Caran Das (1703-1782) founded a somewhat similar sect which professed to abolish idolatry and laid great stress on ethics. See Grierson's article Caran Das in E.R.E.

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