Śrīḥ Śrīmathē Śatakōpāya namaḥ Śrīmathē Rāmānujāya namaḥ Śrīmath Varavaramunayē namaḥ
This article is part of the newcomer series, a set of brief articles which give an outline of our sampradaya for people with no previous exposure to our tradition.
Many spiritual teachers and groups active around the world put a lot of emphasis on meditation. In many Buddhist traditions, meditation is even at the very core. The Hare Krishna movement requires its devotees to chant the Hare Krishna mantra 16 x 108 times each day as a meditation.
In contrast, our tradition puts a lot of emphasis on the worship of deities, both at home and in the temple, and engaging in services in association with devotees.
Deity worship is probably the most misunderstood practice of Santana Dharma (Hinduism). People from Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions reject this practice as idol worship. Atheistic intellectuals view our deities generally as images of human subconsciousness processes and structures.
Both views are equally mistaken. The general notion of idol worship is that the idol worshipper is declaring some material object as God and worships it. If this would be the case, we would reject it too! In actuality, the best analogy of a deity in Santana Dharma is probably that of a portal.
By simple logic we can see that God, the source of the totality of existence, must be at least as complex as the latter. No means, neither words nor images nor sculptures can describe God fully. Because of this, our Āchāryas argue, God makes himself available in specific ways to us, the deity being one of them. Each way appears to be a subset, giving us a specific aspect of God. Yet, as an arbitrary subset of a full infinity (like the realm of real numbers in Mathematics) is still infinite, God can be experienced fully through each specific way.
The deities we worship are by no means arbitrary creations of the human mind, merely showing us our subconsciousness. Their geometry, ornaments, positions of arms, legs, their material and many other things are predefined in the revealed scriptures and relate in complex ways to the geometry and shape of temples they are installed in, as well as position and context of the whole divine place in the landscape. If a deity is installed with the proper mantras and rituals and worshipped in proper ways, it is akin to a vortex or portal, where the omnipresent God makes himself especially available to his devotees.
A more simple kind of deity worshipped at many Śrī Vaiṣṇavas homes are Salagrams. At the surface, these are fossils / fossilized stones found in a very specific region in Nepal. Esoterically, these are self manifested aniconic representations of God, as they naturally posses the symbols of God (conch, chakra etc). Because of this, Salagrams do not need an installation with mantras and rituals, they are worshipped as deities right away. Depending on their physical features, they are linked to a specific aspect of God.
Our tradition emphasizes emphatically that the process of worship must not be a mere formal process, a ritual. Rather, it is a meditation in action where the worshipper recites and acts with absolute focus and dedication knowing that he is in direct contact with God.
Another important practice is the learning and recitation of the divine literature of the Āḻvārs and hymns composed by our Āchāryas. Such literatures should be recited in the language the composition was made (Sanskrit or Tamil), having in mind the deep esoteric meanings of the literature. These meanings are taught in confidential lectures of the Āchāryas, whose attendance / study is yet another important aspect of our practice. Closely related to this is the service to and great reverence for our Āchāryas. Āchāryas are honored even more than one’s own parents, as the grace and knowledge channeled trough them is of immeasurable value to us.
An activity which is inseparably linked to our worship of deities is the preparation of pure lacto vegetarian food which is offered to the deity in the process of worship. After offering, this food has become what is called Prasadam in Sanskrit, which literally means grace or mercy. Śrī Vaiṣṇavas seek to consume only Prasadam. Traditionally, Śrī Vaiṣṇavas also keep orchards, where flowers to prepare garlands and other flower offerings are grown.
Association with other devotees
As other Vaiṣṇava traditions, our tradition puts great emphasis on “Sādhu Sanga”, the association with saintly persons / devotees from the tradition. In practise, there are two services performed by Śrī Vaiṣṇavas which are usually done in Sangam, i.e. in association with others:
- The learning and recitiation of the aforementioned divine literature of the Āḻvārs, which is done in temples on a daily basis by groups of Śrī Vaiṣṇavas. Also, the hymns of the Āchāryas are learned and recited together.
- Performing physical services in the temple, in processions and the like.
So we see that the path of Śrī Vaiṣṇavam is a very active one. It involves activities from growing flowers to learning confidential esoteric knowledge. All these activities are seen as complementing parts in the practice of a Śrī Vaiṣṇavam. Thus, Śrī Vaiṣṇavam is a holistic path that involves a gradual purification and God-centering of all aspects of the seeker’s life and activities.
Based on the long history of our tradition, it is not surprising that there have been many different moods behind the activities in our tradition. Here is some further reading on exalted personalities and their “anubhavam”, which means means “experience of” or “appearance” – http://ponnadi.blogspot.de/p/archavathara-anubhavam.html .
On divya prabandhams, the divine literature of the Āḻvārs:
Recordings of divya prabandham classes:
A brief but very deep and beautiful hymn of Yāmunāchārya, a very important Āchārya
Adiyen Mādhava Rāmānuja Dasan
archived in http://pillai.koyil.org