Vaishnavas is the name of one of the three great divisions of Hindu sects, designating the worshippers of Vishnu from which the word is derived. The common link of all the sects comprised, under this name is their belief in the supremacy of Vishnu over the gods Brahma and Siva. Their difference consists in the character which they assign to this supremacy, and to the god Vishnu himself, in their religious and other practices, and in their sectarian marks. The following are some of the principal sects of the Vaishnavas:
1. The Ramanujas,or Sri Vaishnavas or Sri Sampradayins, who derive their origin from Ramainuja, a celebrated reformer native of Perumbur, in the south of India. He was born about the middle of the 12th century, and is considered by his followers as an incarnation of Sesha, the serpent of Vishnu. The most striking peculiarity of this sect is the preparation as well as the scrupulous privacy of their meals; for should the meal, during its preparation, or while they are eating, attract even the looks of a stranger, the operation is instantly stopped, and the viands buried in the ground. The marks by which they are, distinguished from other sects are two perpendicular lines drawn with white earth from the root of the hair to the commencement of each eyebrow, and a transverse streak connecting them across the root of the nose; in the center is a perpendicular streak of red, made with red sanders, besides other marks painted on the breast and arms.
2. The Ramanandas, or Ramavats, who derive their name from Ramananda, a descendant by discipleship from Ramanua, who probably lived about the close of the 14th century. They are by far the most numerous class of sectaries in Gangetic India, especially in the district of Agra, where they constitute seven tenths of the ascetic population. They belong chiefly to the poorer and inferior classes, with the exception of the Rajputs and military Brahmins... The most important difference between them and the Ramanujas consists of the fact that Ramananda abolished the distinction of caste among the religious orders, and taught that one who quitted the ties of nature and religion shook off all personal distinction.
3. The Kabir Panthis, founded by Kabir, the most celebrated of the twelve disciples of Ramananda, belonging, therefore, to the end of the 14th century. They believe in one God, the creator of the world, but in opt position to the Vedanta (q.v.), they assert that he has a body formed of the five elements of matter, and a mind endowed with the three guhias, or qualities; he is eternal and free from the defects of human nature, but in other respects does not differ from man. The pure man is his living resemblance, and after death becomes his equal and associate. They have no peculiar mode of dress, and the sectarian marks are not considered important, though worn by some.
4. The Vallabhacharyas, or Rudra Sampradayins, founded by Vallabha Swamin, or Vallabha Acharya, born in 1479. The principles of the sect, as laid down by Vallabha, are as follows:
(1) To secure the firm support of Vallabhacharya; (2) To exercise chiefly the worship of Krishna (incarnation of Vishnu); (3) To forsake the sense of Vaidik opinion, and be a suppliant to Krishna; (4) To sing praises: with feelings of humility; (5) To believe that Vallabha is a Gopi, or mistress of Krishna (6) To swell the heart with the name Krishna; (7) To forsake his commands not for a moment; (8) To put faith in his words and doings; (9) To adopt the society of the good, knowing them divine and
(10) To see, not the faults, but speak the truth. They are very ignorant and superstitious.
5. The Madhwachasyas, or Brahma Sampradayns founded by a Brahmin named Madhwacharya, who was born in 1199. The distinguishing doctrine of this sect is the identification of Vishnnu with the Supreme Soul as the pre-existent cause of the universe; and this primeval Vishnu they affirm to be endowed with real attributes, and, although indefinable, to be most excellent and independent. There is also a dependent principle, a living soul dependent on the Supreme. They deny the absorption of the human soul into the universal spirit, and the loss of independent existence after death.
6. The Vaishnavas of Bengal, founded by Chaitanya, who was born, at Nadiya in 1485. The most important innovation of this sect, in respect to doctrine, is the dogma of bhakti, or faith, which they declare to be infinitely more efficacious, than, abstraction than knowledge of the Divine nature, than the subjugation of the passions, or anything deemed most meritorious. The bhakti, or faith, comprehends, five stages quietism, as that of sages; servitude, which every votary takes upon himself; friendship for the Deity tender, affection for the Deity, of the same nature as love of parents for their children and the highest degree of affection, such passionate attachment as the Gopis felt for their beloved Krishna.
Besides these, there are many other sects of less importance. Those enumerated above are divided into smaller sects or divisions. See Wilson, Sketch of the Relig. Sects of the Hindus, in Works (Lond. 1862), vol. 1; Karsandas Mulji, History of the Sect of the Mahaajas (ibid. 1865).