(Last Updated on : 23/02/2011)
Vaishnavism emphasises the need to cultivate certain ethical virtues, known as Vaishnava Dharma, to be a true Vaishnava. The Mahabharata
states that philosophic knowledge would be useful only if it helps an individual to develop good character (sila) which is exemplified in his daily conduct (vritta). The word sila or character implies cultivation of ethical virtues (atmaguna) and the term vritta or conduct means religious mode of life (sadachara). Knowledge which does not lead to good conduct is futile. These general observations hold good even for religion. A mere formal observance of certain religious duties without developing good character is not of any significance. The philosophic knowledge is an essential requirement for developing a desire to seek liberation from bondage. But such knowledge, acquired either from the study of the sacred texts or from hearing the essentials of the Vedanta from a qualified preceptor, should lead to the religious pursuit which should, at the same time, reflect itself in one's character and conduct.
Every religion emphasises the importance of leading a moral life. A religious person is expected to develop ethical virtues such as faith in God, honesty, integrity, compassion towards others and proper social behaviour. Satya or truth-speaking and ahimhsa or non-injury to other living beings are the fundamental ethical concepts of Hinduism
and all other religions. These are all common dharmas (samanya-dharma) accepted by Vaishnavism too. But there are other special values - social, ethical and spiritual which have been advocated by Vaishnavism and the cultivation of these values gives a distinctive character to a Vaishnava.
From the point of view of religion, the most important Vaishnava Dharma is the development of an unshakable faith that only Lord Vishnu
as the Supreme Being (paratattva) is the saviour (raksaka). This would imply that as a true Vaishnava, he should not worship any deity other than Vishnu. The Vaishnava treatises, particularly the hymns of Alvars and the elaborate commentaries thereon, repeatedly emphasise this principle. Tirumangai Alvar goes to the extent of saying that he would not associate himself with those who worship other deities.
It may be noted here that the emphasis laid on the exclusive devotion to Vishnu does not mean a condemnation of other deities such as Lord Shiva
. According to an ancient saying mentioned in the Matsya Purana, the Sun-God is to be worshipped for health, the fire-God (Agni) for wealth, Shiva for knowledge and Vishnu for moksha
. As moksha is the supreme human goal, greater importance is given to the worship of Vishnu. However, a Vaishnava should show veneration to other deities too since they constitute the vibhutis or glory of Vishnu. Vishnu as all-pervasive (yibhu) and inner controller of all that exists in the universe is the antaratma of other deities also as stated in the Mahabharata
The Bhagavad Gita
also reiterates that the worshippers of other deities with devotion only worship the Supreme Being (Vishnu). A true Vaishnava should understand this philosophic truth and accordingly, he should develop the spirit of tolerance for other religious faiths and respect the deities of other cults. A true spirit of toleration is the greatest virtue of a religious minded Vaishnava.
The adoration of Vishnu also implies the need of showing utmost respect to God's devotees (bhagavatas). The devotees of Vishnu are dearest to God and any kind of service or worship offered to them amounts to the worship of Vishnu Himself. An offence committed towards them is most sinful and causes extreme displeasure to God. A Vaishnava should refrain from committing sins in respect of both bhagavda (bhagavad apachara) and bhagavatas (bhagavad apachara).
A true Vaishnava should also develop a sense of fearlessness. The greatest fear of a human being is death. The Vaishnava philosophy upholds that God is the saviour of mankind (sarvaraksaka) and one, who has surrendered himself at His feet, is sure to be protected by Him. According to the doctrine of prapatti an individual who has observed self-surrender as a means to moksha is assured of salvation soon after death. If one develops a deep faith in this philosophy, there is no need to fear death.
Another important virtue to be cultivated by a Vaishnava is mental equanimity. The worry over the means of livelihood such as food and shelter generally causes mental disturbance. A Vaishnava should avoid it and this is possible for him if he realized the truth that fortune or misfortune comes to one in accordance with one's past karma. If one is not destined to get something, he will not have it despite his efforts. According to Vaishnava philosophy everything happens in accordance with God's will on the basis of past karma. There is no need for one to worry about his livelihood because it is already ordained to him at the time of birth. It is advocated that one should endeavour to obtain one's needs without undue worry within the framework of moral codes and enjoy life with self-contentment. As Gita advocates, a person with equanimity of mind neither grieves over the suffering caused to him nor does he delight over the happiness that comes to him. It is expected of a devoted Vaishnava that the only thing he will fear is the possibility of committing a sin either to God or the bhagavatas. He should live in peace unmindful of happiness and suffering and perform the divine service to the extent possible with the conviction that he is a servant of Vishnu (Vishnu dasa).
A Vaishnava is expected to treat all members of the society as equal. Apart from this, a Vaishnava has a special role to perform. According to Vedanta Desika, the members of a society are classified on the basis of their attitude towards religion. There are held to be three categories of people- those who have faith in Vaishnavism, those who hate Vaishnavism and those who are indifferent towards Vaishnavism. The first category of people are said to be most favourable to a Vaishnava and he is expected to cultivate friendly associations with them. The second category is seen as the enemies of God, and a Vaishnava should try and avoid them. The third category comprises the common folks who are caught up bondage (samsari). The Vaishnava should either remain indifferent towards them or try to uplift them by offering suitable guidance. If they do not respond, he should express pity on them rather than condemn them.
If a Vaishnava transgresses this code of conduct, he would be not only failing in his duty but also will incur the displeasure of God. That is, if a Vaishnava disregards the devotees of God, he will incur the wrath of the Supreme Being for whom they are the dearest. Similarly, if he cultivates friendly contacts with the enemies of God instead of avoiding their company for money or satisfaction of sensual pleasures, he would be causing displeasure to God. The cultivation of friendship with the common folks who are indifferent to religion is also a reflection on the character of a Vaishnava. An individual who is wedded to Vishnu and in whom he has sought refuge should not care for material gains or sensual pleasures which are against Vaishnava dharma.
The Sandilya Smriti asserts, "One should not under any circumstances and even in critical times, accept any gifts, not even a penny, from an unchaste woman, a eunuch, an outcaste or an enemy." The Vishnu dharmottara says, "Those who remain blind to the defects of others, who act as eunuch in respect of the wives of others, who behave like dumbs in the matter of accusations of others, are very dear to God." Such a code of conduct which may sound rigid is intended to guide a Vaishnava to live a pious life.