Intro to Satsang - Aachaaryas of the Vaishnav Tradition

  • ADI ACHARYA: VYASJI
  • ADVAIT: SHANKARACHARYA
  • VISHISHTH-ADVAIT: RAMANUJACHARYA
  • DVAIT-ADVAIT: NIMBARKACHARYA
  • DVAIT: MADHVACHARYA
  • SHUDDH-ADVAIT: VALLABHACHARYA
  • ACHINTYA-DVAIT-ADVAIT: CHAITANYA MAHAPRABHU

  • ADI ACHARYA: VYASJI

    Lord Swaminarayan gives the importance of Vyasji in Vachanamrut Vadtal 18. He explains, "Of all the acharyas that have lived, Vyasji is the greatest...this is due to the fact that only if [the other] acharyas accept the authority of Vyasji's words, will the words of those acharyas be accepted as authoritative in the world, but not otherwise." Further, "Vyasji himself does not need to rely upon anyone else to be authoritative...because Vyasji is the acharya of the Vedas and is an avatar (incarnation) of God."

    Born on Ashadh poornima (called Guru Poornima) over 5000 years ago to Parashar Rishi and Satyavati, Vyasji is called Krishna, Dvaipayan, or Badarayan, and is one of the 7 immortals. He studied under Parashar Rishi, Vasudev, and the Sanakadik. His aashram (hermitage) is in the recess of the Himalayas near Shamyapras (in divine Badrikashram). There, he taught the Vedas to 4 pupils: Paila, Vaishampayan, Jaimini, and Sumantu. His 4 sons are Pandu, Dhritashtra, Vidurji, and Shukdevji.

    He is called Veda Vyas for separating the Vedas into 4 parts. He also wrote the 17 Purans and the Mahabharat. He finally found peace when Naradji told him to write the 18th Puran, the Shrimad Bhagavat. Of the 6 Darshan Shastras, Vyasji composed the Vedanta-Sutra (of Uttar Mimamsa).

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    ADVAIT: SHANKARACHARYA

    In the advait (monism or non-dual) school founded by Shankaracharya (788-820), an elevated devotee sees Brahm or divinity in everything. [In Vachanamrut Gadhada First 39, Lord Swaminarayan calls this the nirvikalp state.] However, many who falsely claimed that "I am Brahm" would transgress religious codes (by for example, drinking liquor) by saying, "All is Brahm." To teach such disciples the true meaning of the statement, Shankaracharya once had them walk continuously for some days in the hot sun. When they complained of thirst, he took them to an area where workers were pouring hot lead. Shankaracharya instructed them that since "all is Brahm" they should have no problem drinking this to quench their thirst. When Shankaracharya was able to actually drink the hot lead, the disciples realized their mistake.

    Lord Swaminarayan discusses forgoing morality under the pretense of such knowledge in Vachanamrut Gadhada First 42 [and Gadhada Last 32, amongst others]. Lord Swaminarayan states, "it was because of the apprehension that such a atheist nature may creep into people's hearts that Shankaracharya composed 'Bhaja govindam...moodha-mate' ('Worship God...oh fools') and many other verses in praise of Vishnu." Given in 31 verses, the famous devotional song, is also called Mohamudgara or Charpat-panjari.

    Lord Swaminarayan, however, disagreed with certain aspects of Shankaracharya's doctrine. In Vachanamrut Loya 14, He says, "I do not agree with the way in which Shankar Swami has propagated advait Brahm. Ramanuj Swami has described Purushottam Bhagwan as transcending kshar (the perishable) and akshar (the imperishable), and I worship that Purushottam Bhagwan."
    In Vachanamrut Gadhada First 71, Lord Swaminarayan mentions that Shankaracharya propounded that God is niraakaar (formless), whereas Ramanujcharya and the other acharyas propounded that God is saakaar (with a form). Throughout His teachings, Lord Swaminarayan very strongly emphasizes that God has a form. In fact, in Vachanamrut Gadhada First 40 (and many others), Lord Swaminarayan states, "Upaasana can be defined as having a firm conviction that God eternally possesses a form."
    In Vachanamrut Gadhada First 41, Lord Swaminarayan explains that "There is only one Purushottam Bhagwan, and it is He who enters all and resides in them as antaryaami. But He does not Himself become the jivas and ishvars by assuming many forms." And in Gadhada Middle 38, Lord Swaminarayan explains that when it is said that one 'merges' into God, "this 'merging' is not like that of water merging with water or like fire merging with fire."

    [To help understand different aspects of God, Lord Swaminarayan explains the anvay (not separate or immanent) and vyatirek (separate or transcendent) forms of God in Gadhada First 7, Sarangpur 5, and Vadtal 7; and the saguna ('with gunas,' extremely vast) and nirguna ('without gunas,' extremely subtle) powers of God in Kariyani 8 and Gadhada Middle 42.]

    Considered to be an incarnation of Lord Shiva, Shankaracharya was born as Bhagvadpad Shankar in a small village in Kerala on Vaishakh sud 5 in 788. (In a Shiva temple in Tirucchur, Lord Shiva blessed Shankar's parents, Shivaguru, a Nambudri Brahmin, and his wife Aryamba.) By the age of eight, the brilliant boy had studied the Vedas and told his mother his desire to renounce. One morning, when both went to bathe in the nearby Churna River, a crocodile grabbed his leg. Shankar told his mother that the crocodile would let go only if she allowed him to leave home. Looking for a spiritual master, at the banks of the Narmada River, he came to the cave of Bhagvadpad Govind. Govind instructed Shankar, who was only 16 years old, to go to Kashi and write commentaries on the Prasthanatrayi (Brahm Sutras, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita). His commentary on the Brahm Sutras is called the Sariraka-bhaashya. Shankaracharya's four main disciples were: Sanand or Padmapad, Totakacharya, Hastamalak, and Mandanmishra or Sureshwar. He established four monastic orders: Jyotir Math of North in Badrinath-Kedarnath, Govardhan Pith of East in Jagannath Puri, Shrungeri Math of South in Shrungeri, and Sharda Pith of West in Dwarka. The heads of the orders are also known as Shankaracharya. Though Adi Shankaracharya lived only 32 years, he traveled throughout India, upholding the glory of the Hindu Vedic scriptures.

    NOTE: Major branches of Hinduism include Vaishnavism (worship to Lord Vishnu), Shaivism (worship to Lord Shiva), and Shaktism (worship to Shakti). Shankaracharya is usually associated with the Smartism branch, where a devotee worships a preferred deity or ishtadev (among the 5 common Hindu deities): Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva, Ganapati, Parvati, and Surya. [In Shikshapatri verse 84, Lord Swaminarayan tells devotees to respectfully believe in the 5 deities.]

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    VISHISHTH-ADVAIT: RAMANUJACHARYA

    Ramanujacharya (1017-1137) emphasized devotion to Lord Vishnu who resides in Vaikunth with Lakshmi (as Lakshmi-Narayan). His doctrine known as vishishth-advait (special non-dual), encompassed the best of both advait and dvait thoughts. The mature devotee acquires divine qualities, and then offers devotion to God who is distinct, supreme, and eternally possesses a form. His school is also called the Shri Vaishnav sampraday (sect).

    In Vachanamrut Vadtal 18, Lord Swaminarayan explains that Guru Ramanand Swami was initiated by Ramanujacharya in a dream. In Shikshapatri verse 100, Lord Swaminarayan states, "The commentary on the Vyas-Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita by Ramanujacharya is the center of My spirituality." Lord Swaminarayan clarified the 5 eternal entities, and held that the supreme God's supreme Abode is Akshardham. In Swami Ni Vato chapter 8, number 34 and chapter 10, number 3, Gunatitanand Swami further explains Lord Swaminarayan's unique philosophy as "akshar mat."

    Considered an incarnation of Lakshman (Lord Rama's younger brother), Ramanujacharya was born on Vaishakh sud 5, 1017 in Sriperumbuder (near Chennai in South India). At the age of 16, Ramanujacharya's parents arranged his marriage and sent him to Kanchi. There, he had advait schooling under Yadavprakash. Because Yadavprakash believed in a formless God, Ramanujacharya found flaws with his interpretations of the Vedas. Soon Yadavprakash planned to kill Ramanujacharya - Ramanujacharya however escaped thanks to the help of Govind Bhatt, a student of Yadavprakash and a cousin of Ramanujacharya. Yamunacharya, who was on his deathbed at his aashram (hermitage) in Srirangam, asked a devotee by the name Mahapurna to call Ramanujacharya to be the next head. When Ramanujacharya arrived however, Yamunacharya had already passed away. Ramanujacharya thus vowed to fulfill Yamunacharya's three wishes: to propagate the Vaishnav tradition; to pay tribute to Vyasji, Parashar, and Nammalwar; and to write a commentary on the Brahm Sutras explaining the vishishth-advait doctrine. At the age of 32, Ramanujacharya renounced family life. Ramanujacharya was also blessed by Gosti Purna, another disciple of Yamunacharya. Soon, Yadavprakash, now 80 years old, accepted Ramanujacharya as his guru (and was instructed to write a Vaishnav text). To fulfill Yamunacharya's wish, Ramanujacharya first went to study an old commentary by Bodhyana on the Brahm Sutras in Kashmir. When scholars refused to part with it, Ramanujacharya was helped by the king. On the way to Srirangam however, the manuscript was stolen. Kuresh, a disciple of Ramanujacharya, fortunately spent the previous night memorizing it and wrote it out. At Srirangam, Ramanujacharya studied the manuscript and then made his own commentary on the Brahm Sutras called the Shri-bhaashya (refuting Bodhyana's advait doctrine).

    At the age of 78, Ramanujacharya fled to Mysore, Karnataka to escape King Koluttunga I or Ranedra Chola who was sentencing all non-Shaivites in Tamil Nadu to death. Many became Vaishnav due to Ramunajacharya's efforts, including King Bittideva, who was renamed Vishnuvardhan and built a temple of Keshav at Belur. Ramanujacharya also built a temple in 1099 dedicated to Narayan in Melkote, near Mysore, and formed the Yatiraja Math there. He finally returned to Srirangam in 1118, composing Sanskrit texts and establishing 74 piths (groups) in different parts of the country to propagate the vishishth-advait doctrine. In 1137, at the age of 120, Ramanujacharya passed away.

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    DVAIT-ADVAIT: NIMBARKACHARYA

    In Vachanamrut Gadhada Middle 43, Lord Swaminarayan discusses the brahmasvaroopa love described by Madhvacharya, Nimbarkacharya, and Vallabhacharya.

    Considered the incarnation of Lord Vishnu's sudarshan chakra (disc weapon) or Suryadev, Nimbarkacharya founded the dvait-advait or bhed-abhed school. He was born as Niyamanand to Telugu Brahmin parents, Arunmuni and Jayantidevi, in the village of Nimba (or Nimbpura) in the Bellary district of Karnataka on Kartik sud 15, somewhere between 1028 and 1125 [also cited is 3096 BC]. In Vrundavan near the Govardhan Mountain, Niyamanand was blessed by Naradji and given a shaligram called Shri Sarveshwara Bhagwan. In the 14th century, Harivyasa Devacharya established 12 branches called dvaras with 12 guru heads - one respected as leading the sampradaya. Nimbarkacharya's commentary on the Brahm Sutras is known as Vedant-parijat-saurabh. Another famous work of his is titled Guruparampara. In Nimbarkacharya's maadhurya bhakti (and sakhibhaav) the emphasis is on an intimate relationship of love and friendship with God. Nimbarkacharya was the first to place Radhikaji with Krishna Bhagwan in temples.

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    DVAIT: MADHVACHARYA

    The dvait (dual) school (also known as tattvavaad) founded by Madhvacharya (1238-1317) teaches that remaining distinct from God, devotees continually offer devotion to God. Madhvacharya explained Lord Vishnu's eternal, supreme devotee is Lakshmi, who are together in Vaikunth.

    Considered the third incarnation of Vayudev or the wind-god (after Hanuman and Bhim), Madhvacharya was born as Vasudev on Aso sud 10 (Vijay Dashmi) in 1238, in Pajak (near Udipi, Karnataka) to Madhyageha Bhatta and Vedavati. After renouncing home, Vasudev accepted initiation from Achyutpreksh and was named Purnapragna and Anandtirth, which is synonymous with Madhva. (Later, Achyutpreksh accepted Madhva as his teacher.)

    When Madhva visited Badrinath, after many days of fasting and prayer, an inner voice lead him to a Vyasji aashram (hermitage) further north. Madhva returned after some months and with Vyasji's inspiration wrote a commentary on the Brahm Sutras.

    Notably, the scholars Shyam Shastri and Shobhan Bhatta, both accepted initiation from Madhvacharya. In Udipi, Madhvacharya consecrated a special idol of Lord Krishna. Around the temple, he founded eight maths (groups), consecrating Sita-Rama, and others. Each math offers worship to the main temple in rotation. Ascetics of Madhvacharya have names ending in Tirth, Bharati, or Puri.

    Madhva also wrote commentaries on the 10 major Upanishads, the Mahabharat, and the Shrimad Bhagavat. His 37 works in Sanskrit are called Sarvamul. After Trivikram Pandit, an advait scholar, accepted initiation from Madhvacharya, Madhvacharya asked him to write a commentary on the Brahm Sutras commentary, titled Tattvapradip. Trivikram's son, Narayan Panditacharya, wrote a biography on Madhvacharya, titled Madhvavijay, after he passed away on Magh sud 9 in 1317.

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    SHUDDH-ADVAIT: VALLABHACHARYA

    With the blessings of Lord Krishna, Vallabhacharya (also known as Mahaprabhuji) was born on Chaitra vad 11, 1479, in Madhya Pradesh (in the Champaranya forest near Raipur) in the Telugu Brahmin family of Lakshman Bhatt and Illamagaru. At a young age he wrote a commentary on the Shrimad Bhagavat titled Subodhini. His commentary on the Brahm Sutras called Anu-bhaashya upholds the shuddh-advait (pure non-dual) doctrine. The movement he established is also called pushti marg ("path of grace"). Vallabhacharya accepted the acharya seat from Bilvamangal, the acharya of Vishnu Swami's sampraday (sect).

    In 1493, Lord Krishna appeared to Vallabhacharya and told him to go to Vraj and establish the svaroop (form) of Govardhannathji (Lord Krishna that lifted the Govardhan Mountain, popularly known as Shrinathji). Vallabhacharya uncovered the image and made a shelter over it at Govardhan Mountain. (At this time, he also received the blessings of Yamunaji, the form of Yamuna River, the divine place of Lord Krishna's childhood.) In Gokul in Shravan sud 11, 1494, Lord Krishna appeared to Vallabhacharya and told him to initiate devotees with the Shri Krishna sharanam mama (Shri Krishna is my shelter) mantra - known as "brahm-sambandh" (divine association).

    In 1501, Vallabhacharya married Mahalakshmi. They had two sons, Gopinathji and Vitthalnathji (also known as Gosaiji). In 1520 Vallabhacharya consecrated a temple for Govardhannathji. (In the 17th century, so that the image would be protected during Aurangzeb's rule, the image was moved to Nathdwara in modern Rajasthan, popularly known as Shrinathji.) In 1532, Vallabhacharya renounced family life and went to Kashi, where he entered the Ganga River (and passed away) on Ashadh sud 7, 1587.

    Vallabhacharya gave importance to premlakshana-bhakti (loving devotion like the Gopis) and emphasized seva (worshipful service) of Lord Krishna by following the daily activities of, most popularly in the sect, Krishna Gopal (the baal svaroop or child form of Lord Krishna) at 8 periods (from early morning to evening during the day, and across the 6 seasons of the year). The kirtans (devotional songs) sung during the periods are called astachhap or asthasakhas. (Vallabhacharya initiated 4 poets, Kumbhandas, Surdas, Parmananddas, and Krishnadas. Surdas was the great blind poet devotee. Vitthalnathji initiated 4 poets as well, Govindswami, Chitswami, Chaturbhujdas, and Nanddas.)

    84 shrines (called "baithaks") have been established where Vallabhacharya rested during his three pilgrimages across India. Devotees also read what is called "84 Vaishnavs," which gives the story of 84 disciples of Vallabhacharya.

    When Vallabhacharya passed away, young Gopinathji was to head the movement. He soon passed away (Gopinathji's young son also soon passed away) so Vallabhacharya's younger son, Vitthalnathji was appointed as the head. Vitthalnathji, who performed seva of the Govardhannathji image, completed Vallabhacharya's Anu-bhaashya and gave details on seva, pooja, and utsavs (celebrations). [In Shikshapatri verses 81-82, Lord Swaminarayan instructs devotees to follow the vrats and utsavs detailed by Vitthalnathji.] "252 Vaishnavs" accounts the stories of 252 disciples with Vitthalnathji. Vitthalnathji also introduced devotion to Krishna along with Radha (called Swaminiji). Vitthalnathji visited Gujarat six times, and passed away at the age of 70, leaving behind seven sons (setting up separate havelis in Gokul for them). The seven sons, Giridharji, Govindraiji, Balkrishnaji, Gokulnathji, Raghunathji, Yadunathji, and Ghanshyamji, were each given svaroops (also called nidhi svaroops) by Vitthalnathji to serve and carry the divine lineage which exists today.

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    ACHINTYA-DVAIT-ADVAIT: CHAITANYA MAHAPRABHU

    Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was born in Mayapur (West Bengal) on February 18 (Fagun sud 15), 1486 to Jagannath Misra and Sachidevi, as Vishvambhara or Nimai. He later came in contact with Advaitanand and Ishwar Puri, devotees of Madhavendra Puri (of the Madhvacharya sect) who acquainted Chaitanya Mahaprabhu with the Vaishnav tradition. At the age of 24, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu renounced family life and obtained initiation from Keshav Bharati, who named him Krishna Chaitanya. Krishna Chaitanya toured throughout South India (meeting Vallabhacharya) and spent the last years of his life in Jagannath Puri, passing away at the age of 48. Six main disciples, called goswamis, Roop, Sanatan, Gopal Bhatt, Raghunath Bhatt, Raghunath Das, and Jeev, spread the glory of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu left his devotional teachings in the form of 8 verses, called the Sikshastak. He emphasized the importance of the Shrimad Bhagavat and devotion to Radha-Krishna by sankirtan (singing-chanting). The tradition is also referred to as Gaudiya Vaishnav (due to its roots in Bengal). In the 17th century, Baladeva Vidyabhushan set down Chaitanya Mahaprabhu's teachings as the doctrine of achintya-dvait-advait (achintya refers to unimaginable), or achintya-bhed-abhed-tattva.

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