In the most general sense, to be Vai‚~ava means simply to worship the deity Vi‚~u or oneof his many alternate forms, such as Råma or K®‚~a. In the early centuries prior to the common era, Vi‚~u, who was often recognized by the epithets Nåråya~a and in other associations such as Våsudeva-K®‚~a and Saµkar‚a~a-Balaråma, became refuge for increasing numbers. Sometime during the early centuries of the millennium, he began to be attended by a consort, the goddess Lak‚m⁄ or Çr⁄, an association that has continued to the present.1 Evidence is textual from a variety of sources stretching back to the Vedas and their commentaries and the Upani‚ads, but, by the Gupta period, the most compelling citations are plastic, sculpture, and architecture ranging from one end of the Indian subcontinent to the other. By the early centuries of the Common Era, sedentary ruling clans departed from the more mobile worship afforded in traditional Vedic ritual by patronizing temples in honor of Vi‚~u, structures that were made of durable, permanent materials. Appropriate to this permanent setting, Vi‚~u was from the earliest times associated with protection and sustenance, while his consort Çr⁄ complemented this strength by nurturing the general weal, from hearth and health to the creation of wealth. This temple-based worship of images of Vi‚~u suggested the first stirrings of a “cult,” what tradition would call by the general name of Bhågavata, but in the early stages by the more specific name of Påñcaråtra. Their texts were Ågamas, that is, dealing with rituals of serving the image, their titles often bearing the name and classification of Tantra; they were esoteric practical manuals and, much like their Vedic forebears, of limited access to an increasingly specialized and hereditary group of Bråhma~ priests. Systematic theological speculation would come a little later. Today there are South Indian priests, called Vaikhånasa, who still carry out these rituals that derive from the oldest Vai‚~ava texts, the Vaikhånasas¨tra that predate Baudhåyana, rituals that appear in form and function to be consistent with the fundamentals first formulated in the ancient texts of the Påñcaråtra Ågama. Followers are certain, and scholars seem generally to concur, that the Vaikhånasa practices represent the contemporary mode of an unbroken tradition. Its singular endurance stretches over several millennia and testifies to the centrality of Vai‚~ava practice in the religious life of South Asia, its basic features continually revalorized, speaking to the needs of each new generation with a direct and immediate relevance. Some of that immediacy
can be traced to two distinctive characteristics: the individual’s unique participation in the reality understood to have been generated and organized by Vi‚~u, and the ability of the tradition to accommodate change by a system of constant renewal that reorders the world according to contemporary exigencies. Other Hindu traditions have demonstrated much this same ability to absorb and incorporate local traditions, but part of what demarcates the Vai‚~ava approach is a unique rational justification. While somewhat vague, indeed inconsistent in its articulation at first, this justification is eventually consolidated in the form of a widely generalized avatåra theory, the theology of divine descent, an umbrella concept that eventually accounts for all the myriad manifestations of Vi‚~u.