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Vaishnava FAQ

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Vaishnava FAQ

This is largely the same as the FAQ document that used to belong to the now-defunct soc.religion.vaishnava newsgroup, and will help place the Dvaita FAQ in context.   Both documents have the same author.

Table of Contents

  1. What is a Vaishnava?
  2. What/who is Vishnu?
  3. Why is Vaishnavism relevant in today's world?
  4. How many Vaishnavas are there, worldwide?
  5. Are there different types of Vaishnava?
  6. Who is the founder of Vaishnavism?
  7. Do Vaishnavas worship other gods? Why/why not?
  8. Do Vaishnavas worship images of Vishnu?
  9. Do Vaishnavas believe in rebirth?
  10. Are all Vaishnavas vegetarian?
  11. Is it necessary to be vegetarian, to be Vaishnava?
  12. Does one have to be born a Vaishnava?
  13. Does Vaishnavism condemn critics and opponents to hell?
  14. Do Vaishnavas practice dowry/bride-burning/untouchability/etc.?
  15. Do Vaishnavas have gurus?
  16. Are Vaishnavas a cult or sect?
  17. What are Vaishnava scriptures?
  18. Are there many Vaishnavas on the Internet?

What is a Vaishnava?

A Vaishnava is a devotee of Vishnu.

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What/who is Vishnu?

Vishnu is the Deity worshipped in the Vedas and their scriptural adjuncts; according to Vaishnavas, He is the Supreme Lord, and is the only entity primarily praised in all true scriptures. Vishnu is the Lord, is the Cause, the Protector, and the Destroyer of all Creation known and unknown, and is responsible for all bondage and liberation. He is beyond the scope of all that is destructible and indestructible, and His worship is the purpose of one's existence; He is free of all flaw, and has an infinite number of good attributes.

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Why is Vaishnavism relevant in today's world?

An understanding of the higher purpose of one's life—if any—has always been sought by many seekers through the ages; scientific progress has not nullified or altered this basic fact. While advances in technology have tended to encourage purely materialistic and sensual pursuits, such have also helped many seekers share their common interest and enthusiasm in new ways.

Thus, as with other seekers, the Vaishnavas of today seek to learn the higher spiritual truths much the same way as did their forebears of previous centuries, but have access to some of the tools provided by modern society to aid their efforts.

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How many Vaishnavas are there, worldwide?

As nearly as we can tell, no one has conducted an official or other census; however, the number of those who are Vaishnavas by birth is likely to be very large, perhaps hundreds of millions, most of whom happen to be in India. However, most such people are not practicing Vaishnavas, and have no reason to be called so except by accident of birth.

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Are there different types of Vaishnava?

Yes, there are. Some of the more important traditions or sampradâya-s are:

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Who is the founder of Vaishnavism?

There is no single founder, and the worship of Vishnu cannot be reliably shown to have begun at any fixed date in the past. However, specific schools of Vaishnavism have been propounded by great teachers or Âchâya-s—even so, those schools are not said to have been created by them, and in many cases pre-date them; i.e., these teachers began traditions of belief in certain doctrines that persist upto the present day, but they did not create the doctrines as such—they either revived them, or built upon an existing but not-widely-known school to form a vigorous one.

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Do Vaishnavas worship other gods? Why/why not?

Homage is sometimes paid to other deities, but these deities are never considered the equals of Vishnu, nor are they worshipped in the same spirit. Vaishnavas can be said to be monotheists, since they believe that there is only one Supreme Lord or Infinite Being—Lord Vishnu. Therefore, Vaishnavas always keep the worship of Vishnu and His attendants at the forefront of their religious practice.

Some Advaitins consider all deities including Vishnu to be forms of the Saguna Brahman (the Brahman with attributes), but this belief is not universal to all Advaitins, whether or not they be Vaishnavas.

The question of why Vaishnavas worship other deities is answered differently by Vaishnavas of different schools, but generally speaking, such other deities are worshipped as conduits to Vishnu, or as His representatives. As noted above, certain forms of worship under Advaita are an exception.

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Do Vaishnavas worship images of Vishnu?

Yes, but the specific images worshipped, and the forms and rules of worship, vary greatly by different traditions.

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Do Vaishnavas believe in rebirth?

As a general rule, Vaishnavas do not "believe" things in the same way as someone from a Semitic faith would, though some sampradâya-s accept certain matters on faith. Rebirth until liberation is one of the fundamental tenets of Vaishnava doctrine. Vaishnavas aim to break free of the cycle of repeated births and deaths through devotional service to Vishnu.

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Are all Vaishnavas vegetarian?

Most are, but depending on how (un)orthodox a Vaishnava is, (s)he may digress from the prescribed standard of culinary morality to a greater or lesser extent. Vaishnava norms require a standard somewhat beyond what is commonly considered vegetarian. While Vaishnavas are not vegans, for the most part -- they consider milk and milk products acceptable -- most reject eggs, and certain plant products grown under the soil, like onions, garlic, etc.

Some Vaishnavas also do not consider certain vegetables like okra, eggplant, broccoli, tomatoes, etc., as acceptable diet items, but relatively fewer Vaishnavas observe the latter kind of restrictions. In general, the Vaishnava approach to food is to ask if something can be offered to Vishnu, as part of prescribed forms of worship; if yes, then that something is thought acceptable, otherwise not. Thus, the system excludes all but a certain number of food items considered acceptable. While the exact details of what are acceptable and what not vary between different schools of Vaishnavism, and even between different institutions within the same school, most practicing Vaishnavas reject such stimulants as coffee, cocoa, tea, tobacco, alcohol, and any items including these, from their diets and habits.

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Is it necessary to be vegetarian, to be Vaishnava?

All traditional Vaishnava cooking is totally vegetarian, and it is possible that someone who insists on keeping non-vegetarian eating habits will have difficulty assimilating within a Vaishnava community.

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Does one have to be born a Vaishnava?

No. Some Westerners have wholeheartedly taken up Vaishnavism. Historically, great Vaishnavas like Kanakadâsa are known to have run afoul of caste-conscious pretenders because anyone can be a Vaishnava, even those who are considered outcaste. Prescriptions of Vaishnava morality, such as the requirement of observing the ekâdashî fast, apply to all, not just those of high caste.

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Does Vaishnavism condemn critics and opponents to hell?

As different schools of thought all claim to be Vaishnava, but as Vaishnavism in any flavor does not derive from prophets as do some other religions, it has never had a history of Crusades, fatwas, Inquisitions, et cetera. That said, however, many Vaishnava scriptures do seem to indicate that purely mundane forms of existence, and the worship of other deities or non-deities as the Supreme, lead to ignorance and misery.

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Do Vaishnavas practice dowry/bride-burning/untouchability/etc.?

While specific individuals or groups may practice such and also claim to be Vaishnavas, such practices have no backing from Vaishnava scriptures or Âchârya-s, and are frowned upon by the sensible elements of society, including all practicing Vaishnavas.

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How is a Vaishnava different from a Hindu?

Many Vaishnavas are also Hindus, but the two terms are not directly related as such. A Vaishnava is a worshipper of Vishnu, while a Hindu need not worship anyone at all, and merely comes from a specific socio-cultural background. Not all Hindus are Vaishnava, and not all Vaishnavas are Hindu.

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Do Vaishnavas have gurus?

A definition of 'guru' is: "One who removes doubts in others, without any doubt within himself." Many Vaishnavas consider one of the great saints or Âchârya-s as their primary guru (mûla-guru), and some also have gurus among scholars and saints of the present day.

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Are Vaishnavas a cult or sect?

In a fair world, perhaps it would not be inappropriate to call them so; however, in reality, most times words like 'cult' are used in a totally derogatory sense, and when applied to Vaishnavas, are used due to a misunderstanding or lack of understanding of Vaishnavism—or due to an incorrect generalization drawn from the mala-fide actions of certain specific persons or small groups.

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What are Vaishnava scriptures?

Vaishnavas consider the triad of the Vedas and Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Brahma-Suutra, which are traditionally referred to as the prasthaana-traya, as authoritative scripture. These canonical scriptures have been commented upon by the leading Aachaaryas of each Vaishnava school. Besides these texts, Vaishnavas also consider the Mahaabhaarata (of which the Bhagavad Gita is a part), the Bhaagavata-PuraaNa, etc., as scripture, but the relative values placed upon them by the various sampradaayas are not exactly the same.

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Are there many Vaishnavas on the Internet?

Again, we don't know because no one has, to our knowledge, conducted a census. However, from experience on the newsgroups, mailing lists, and with the relevant web pages that are maintained by various individuals, it can be safely estimated that there are at least several thousand individuals who use the Internet in one way or another, in pursuance of their Vaishnava interests, and all indications are that this number is growing and will continue to grow in the foreseeable future.

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