Vaishnavism is one of several major interpretations of Hinduism. Hinduism is an extremely broad, varied category of faith. Under that umbrella of common Hindu ideas are a vast range of applications, including some that contradict each other on fundamental ideas. Vaishnavism is among the more popular “denominations” of Hinduism, with its own distinctive ideas about spirituality and morality.
Vaishnavism is distinguished mainly for its doctrine regarding avatars. An avatar in Hinduism is a physical incarnation or form of a particular deity. In the case of Vaishnavism, the supreme deity is Vishnu, but Vishnu is believed to have taken on many forms—avatars—throughout history. These incarnations have different names, appearances, and stories, but are all believed to be expressions of the same ultimate god: Vishnu. This doctrinal approach to avatars also sets Vaishnavism apart from other forms of Hinduism in that it implies that there is ultimately a “personal” deity to whom human beings can relate.
Vaishnavism is sometimes described as “monotheistic,” since it considers Vishnu to be the supreme god. However, this sect of Hinduism generally believes there are other deities, such as Kali and Shiva. The emphasis on one main god while accepting the existence of other gods makes Vaishnavism a form of monoltary or henotheism.
Vaishnavists are known for wearing a symbol, called a tilak, painted on the forehead and bridge of the nose to form a U-shape. This sect places a strong emphasis on chanting the names of Vishnu’s various avatars. Vaishnavism also believes that the Hindu scriptures should be interpreted literally, not metaphorically, insofar as this is possible. Among the more famous of Vishnu’s avatars, in the West, is Krishna—Krishnaism is a further sub-division of Vaishnavism. Vaishnavism also reveres many historical figures within Hinduism, in a manner somewhat parallel to the Roman Catholic veneration of saints.
By some measures, Vaishnavism represents the majority of the world’s Hindus. Hinduism is a notoriously difficult religion to categorize, classify, or study, since it accepts such a vast range of conflicting views. Depending on the study, it is estimated that as many as two thirds of the world’s Hindus are part of the Vaishnavist tradition.
The main spiritual concerns with Vaishnavism are the same as those for Hinduism in general. There is no factual, logical, or historical basis for any of their beliefs, in contrast to the Bible, which is supported by both reason and history. The Hindu scriptures are blatantly self-contradictory, which is something Hinduism readily admits. This presents a problem for those attempting to understand the faith. Vaishnavism, as with all strains of Hinduism, also accepts the false ideas of karma and reincarnation, and it denies the realities of heaven and hell.