Hindu Gods And Heroes, Studies in the History of the Religion of India
Lionel D. Barnett author
CHAPTER III - III
Some Later Preachers
With all its attractions and success, the new Krishnaism did not everywhere overgrow the older stock upon which it had been engrafted. There were many places in which the early worship of Vishnu and Vasudeva remained almost unchanged. The new legends of Krishna's childhood might indeed be accepted in these centres of conservatism, but they made little difference in the spirit and form of the worship, which continued to follow the ancient order. In some of them the Bhagavad-gita, Narayaniya, and other epic doctrinals still remained the standard texts, which theologians connected with the ancient Upanishads and the Brahma-sutra summarising the latter; in other centres there arose, beginning perhaps about the seventh century a.d., a series of Samhitas, or manuals of doctrine and practice for the Pañcharatra sect, which, though in essentials agreeing with the Narayaniya, taught a different theory of cosmogony and introduced the worship of the goddess Sri or Lakshmi, the consort of Vishnu, as the agency or energy through which the Supreme Being becomes active in finite existence; and in yet other places other texts were followed, such as those of the Vaikhanasa school. This worship of Vishnu-Vasudeva on the ancient lines was peculiarly vigorous among the representatives of Aryan culture in the South, who had introduced the cults of Vishnu and Siva with the rest of the Aryan pantheon into the midst of Dravidian animism. Hinduism, transplanted into the Dravidian area, has there remained more conservative than anywhere else, and has clung firmly to its ancient traditions. There is nothing of Dravidian origin in the South Indian worship of Vishnu and Siva; they are entirely Aryan importations. But they have become thoroughly assimilated in their southern home, and each of them has produced a huge mass of fine devotional literature in the vernaculars. In the Tamil country the church of Vishnu boasts of the Nal-ayira-prabandham, a collection of Tamil psalms numbering about 4,000 stanzas composed by twelve poets called Alvars, which were collected about 1000 a.d.; and the worship of 'Siva is equally well expressed in the Tiru-murai, compiled about the twelfth century, of which one section, the Devaram, was put together about the same time as the Nal-ayira-prabandham. Both the Tiru-murai and the Nal-ayira-prabandham breathe the same spirit of ecstatic devotion as the Bhagavata-purana; they are the utterances of wandering votaries who travelled from temple to temple and poured forth the passionate raptures of their souls in lyrical praise of their deities. Through these three main channels the stream of devotion spread far and wide through the land. Like most currents of what we call "revivalism," it usually had an erotic side; and the larger temples frequently have attached to them female staffs of attendant votaries and corps de ballet of very easy virtue. But this aspect was far more marked in neo-Krishnaism, which often tends to intense pruriency, than in the other two cults. The Alvars pay little regard to the legends of Krishna, and concentrate their energies upon the worship of Vishnu as he is represented in the great temples of Srirangam, Conjevaram, Tirupati, and similar sanctuaries.
About the beginning of the ninth century the peaceful course of Vaishnava religion was rudely disturbed by the preaching of Samkara Acharya. Samkara, one of the greatest intellects that India has ever produced, was a Brahman of Malabar, and was born about the year 788. Taking his stand upon the Upanishads, Brahma-sutra, and Bhagavad-gita, upon which he wrote commentaries, he interpreted them as teaching the doctrine of Advaita, thorough monistic idealism, teaching that the universal Soul, Brahma, is absolutely identical with the individual Soul, the atma or Self, that all being is only one, that salvation consists in the identification of these two, and is attained by knowledge, the intuition of their identity, and that the phenomenal universe or manifold of experience is simply an illusion (maya) conjured up in Brahma by his congenital nature, but really alien to him—in fact, a kind of disease in Brahma. This was not new: it had been taught by some ancient schools of Aupanishadas, and was very like the doctrine of some of the Buddhist idealists; but the vigour and skill with which Samkara propagated his doctrines threatened ruin to orthodox Vaishnava theologians, and roused them to counter-campaigns. Among the Vaishnava Brahmans of the South who won laurels in this field was Yamunacharya, who lived about 1050, and was the grandson of Natha Muni, who collected the hymns of the Alvars in the Nal-ayira-prabandham and founded the great school of Vaishnava theology at Srirangam. In opposition to Samkara's monism, Yamunacharya propounded the doctrine of his school, the so-called Visishtadvaita, which was preached with still greater skill and success by his famous successor Ramanuja, who died in 1137. Ramanuja's greatest works are his commentaries on the Brahma-sutra and Bhagavad-gita. In them he expounds with great ability the principles of his school, namely, that God, sentient beings or souls, and insentient matter form three essentially distinct classes of being; that God, who is the same as Brahma, Vishnu, Narayana, or Krishna, is omnipotent, omnipresent, and possessed of all good qualities; that matter forms the body of souls, and souls form the body of God; that the soul attains salvation as a result of devout and loving meditation upon God, worship of him, and study of the scriptures; and that salvation consists in eternal union of the soul with God, but not in identity with him, as Samkara taught. The scriptures on which Ramanuja took his stand were mainly the Upanishads, Brahma-sutra, and Bhagavad-gita; but he also acknowledged as authoritative the Pañcharatra Samhitas, in spite of their divergences in details of doctrine, and it is from them that his church has derived the worship of Sri or Lakshmi as consort of Vishnu, which is a very marked feature of their community and has gained for them the title of Sri-vaishnavas. But Ramanuja was much more than a scholar and a writer of books; he was also a man of action, a "practical mystic." Like Samkara, he organised a body of sannyasis or ascetic votaries, into which, however, he admitted only Brahmans, whereas Samkara opened some of the sections of his devotees to non-Brahmans; but on the other hand he was far more liberal than Samkara in the choice of his congregations, for he endeavoured to bring men of the lowest castes, Sudras and even Pariahs, within the influence of his church, though he kept up the social barrier between them and the higher castes, and he firmly upheld the principle of the Bhagavad-gita that it is by the performance of religious and social duties of caste, and not by knowledge alone, that salvation is most surely to be won. He established schools and monasteries, reorganised the worship of the temples, usually in accordance with the Pañcharatra rules, and thus placed his church in a position of such strength in Southern India that its only serious rival is the church of Siva.
Nimbarka, who probably flourished about the first half of the twelfth century, preached for the cult of Krishna a doctrine combining monism with dualism, which is followed by a small sect in Northern India. Ananda-tirtha or Madhva, in the first three quarters of the thirteenth century, propounded for the same church a theory of thorough dualism, which has found many admirers, chiefly in the Dekkan. Vallabhacharya, born in 1479, founded a school of Krishna-worshippers which claims a "pure monism" without the aid of the theory of maya, or illusion, which is a characteristic of Samkara's monism. This community has become very influential, chiefly in Bombay Presidency; but in recent times it has been under a cloud owing to the scandals arising from a tendency to practise immoral orgies and from the claims of its priesthood, as representing the god, to enjoy the persons and property of their congregations.
Besides these and other schools which were founded on a basis of Sanskrit scholastic philosophy, there have been many popular religious movements, which from the first appealed directly to the heart of the people in their own tongues.
The first place in which we see this current in movement is the Maratha country. Here, about 1290, Jñanesvara or Jñanadeva, popularly known as Jñanoba, composed his Jñanesvari, a paraphrase of the Bhagavad-gita in about 10,000 Marathi verses, as well as a number of hymns to Krishna and a poem on the worship of Siva. To the same period belonged Namadeva, who was born at Pandharpur, according to some in 1270 and according to others about a century later. Then came Ekanatha, who is said to have died in 1608, and composed some hymns and Marathi verse-translations from the Bhagavata. The greatest of all was Tukaram, who was born about 1608. In the verses of these poets the worship of Krishna is raised to a level of high spirituality. Ramananda, who apparently lived between 1400 and 1470 and was somehow connected with the school of Ramanuja, preached salvation through Rama to all castes and classes of Northern India, with immense and enduring success. To his spiritual lineage belongs Tulsi Das (1532-1623), whose Rama-charita-manasa, a poem in Eastern Hindi on the story of Valmiki's Ramayana, has become the Bible of the North. The same influences are visible in the poems of Kabir, a Moslem by birth, who combined Hindu and Muhammadan doctrines into an eclectic monotheism, and is worshipped as an incarnation of God by his sect. He died in 1518. A kindred spirit was Nanak, the founder of the Sikh church (1469-1538).
By the side of these upward movements there have been many which have remained on the older level of the Bhagavata. The most important is that of Visvambhara Misra, who is better known by his titles of Chaitanya and Gauranga (1485-1533); he carried on a "revival" of volcanic intensity in Bengal and Orissa, and the church founded by him is still powerful, and worships him as an incarnation of Krishna.