The great ancient systems of Hindu Religion have been the subject of a close and minute study in recent years, and modern scholarship and research have lighted up many a dark spot in their ritual and form, doctrine and belief. But they have given rise to many hasty generalizations too, especially in regard to origins. Where a scholar is unable to reconcile the conflicting forms and doctrines of a religion associated with a particular founder or deity, instead of examining the problem more carefully, he comes to the easy conclusion that they were invented to suit the requirements of the time or the people at different levels of culture and civilization.
This is particularly the case with regard to the different forms of Siva religion, the Tantra, and the Mahayana school of Buddhism. The Linga or the phallic emblem of Siva is regarded as a relic of dark and barbarous times; Kali worship as having been introduced to suit the aboriginal tribes, the natives of the soil before the Aryans came; the Tantra is the religion of the libertine; and the Mahayana school of Buddhism a compromise with the grosser, but more powerful, forms of Hinduism prevalent at the time. The modern scholar, having failed to understand the basic theory of the different systems of Hindu Religion or their symbolical forms forgotten and abused through the long lapse of years has come to these hasty conclusions.
But no great system of thought, no great system of Religion, can live or retain the homage of a large number of civilized people as the systems of Hindu Philosophy and Religion do to the present day without a great and permanent theory of life and such, as we shall presently see, is the case with the different systems of Hindu Religion as they were originally conceived. They have undoubtedly lost their ancient character through the passage of time, but that may still be recognized through their existing forms; and so far as the Sacred Books of the Hindus are concerned, there cannot be the slightest doubt that they were conceived and understood as pictures of the great systems of Philosophy from Sankhya to Vedanta.
The range of Vishnu Religion: We have observed that the range of the religion of Vishnu extends from the character of the Soul to that of Buddhi and Mind; and corresponding to this we have Monism, qualified Monism, and Dualism as three forms of religious belief. According to the first God is conceived of as the sole supreme creator of the universe; according to the second Prakrti exists, but either as a spectator of the work of God or with a small share in it; and according to the third Prakrti is given a larger place in the work of creation, but still less than that of God.
Advaita, Visistadvaita, and Dvaita: Corresponding to this threefold range of Vaishnavism we have three forms of Vaisnava worship and belief Advaita or Monism, Visistadvaita or qualified Monism, and Dvaita or Dualism. The followers of the first worship Vishnu as the sole supreme creator of the universe, one without a second; those of the second associate him with his consort or Prakrti, but do not give her an important place; while those of the third regard her as second only to him.
Vaisnavism and Individual Soul: We have explained that the idea of the individual Soul always corresponds to that of the supreme Soul in each system of thought. In the light of Advaita or the first point of view, the individual Soul understands itself in its own true character, is identified with the supreme Soul or God, and is able to say "Aham Brahma asmi" I am God for there is nothing but God in the universe and all things are of him. According to the second, Prakrti exists but occupies a small place, and so there is someone else besides God in the universe. Corresponding to this there should be someone else too besides the individual Soul, and so it cannot identify itself with the God of Advaita and say "I am God". The Soul in this system, however, understands itself in the light of Buddhi which may, for practical purposes, be identified with the Soul, or understood in its own special character. This is qualified Monism or Visistadvaita in its two forms; and here the Soul may, for practical purposes, identify itself with the God of Advaita and say "I am God"; or it may be understood in the light of the special character of Buddhi, in which case it cannot identify itself with the God of Advaita. It has a separate existence from God even as the latter is conceived of as something separate from Prakrti. But as God is regarded as the chief creator of life, so is the individual Soul. According to the third point of view Prakti has a much larger share in the work of creation, though still less than that of God; and so the individual Soul, understood in the light of the Mind which is analogous but inferior to the Heart, can only be regarded as similar in character to the God of Advaita but not equal to or identified with him. This is Dualism or Dvaita where the Soul, like Prakrti, has a separate existence from God.
The Three Acharyas: These three forms of Vishnu religion are still prevalent in India, and are commonly associated with the names of three great Acharyas or religious teachers Sankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, and Madhavacharya. They taught the great doctrines of Monism, qualified Monism, and Dualism respectively, and wrote great commentaries on the Sacred Books of the Hindus in their light. But they did not invent these points of view, which were inherent in the ancient systems of thought and had their roots in the literature of the Vedas; and there must have been great schools of thought relating to these systems long before the time of these teachers. They lived and taught in comparatively recent times, and so have come to be associated with these systems in the popular mind and their doctrines correspond to the theory of Monism, qualified Monism and Dualism as we have explained.
The Character of Vishnu Religion: The main character of Vishnu religion may, as we have pointed out, be examined from three points of view, in connection with the energy of the Soul, Buddhi, and Mind a comprehensive description of Vishnu is given in a number of Sacred Books, specially the Puranas; and in the Anusasana Parva of the Mahabharata we get, in his one thousand names, a description of all that relates to him; and the different forms of his religion, still prevalent in India, correspond to this ancient idea of the deity. We shall refer only to the Mahabharata here.
Vishnu and Heart Energy: We have explained that, in the light of Heart energy or the Soul, Vishnu is conceived of as the sole, supreme creator of the universe and so he is said to be without beginning and without end, the receptacle of all causes, the creator of all, the original cause of the birth of all creatures. He is self-create; he is the source of the universe, he agitates Prakrti (Nature) for evolving the universe out of it; he is the material cause of the world; all created beings live in him; and he overwhelms the world with his Maya. He is Varuwa, the son of Varuna he dwells in the lotus of the Heart, and creates, preserves, and destroys by his will. He is the receptacle of all Waters in the universe, he has the Waters for his home, and he lies on the Waters after the dissolution of the world. He is without Gunas, he causes the actions of creatures to fructify, and he ordains all desires and their fruit. He is the divine Architect, he urges all creatures to their acts, and he is at one with all deeds that are done. He is the accomplisher of all functions in the universe, he assumes the form of the Wind for causing all creatures to act, and he lives in the form of Sacrifice in all. He is the Soul of the universe, he merges his life-breath in the Soul, he assumes the form of the embodied Soul, and he dwells in the Heart. He is both manifest and unmanifest, he has a yousand forms, yet he is like a cipher, and he wields the sword of both knowledge and Maya.
Vishnu and Buddhi: In connection with Buddhi, Vishnu is associated only nominally with Prakrti, and is conceived of as practically the sole creator of the universe. Again, Buddhi is symbolized as Gold or the Sun; and so Vishnu is spoken of as the presiding genius in the midst of the Solar disc, as being at one with the Sun, existing in the form of the Sun, and the centre of innumerable rays of light. He has seven tongues and seven flames, and we have explained that the number seven refers to Buddhi. Then he is described as being of golden hue; his limbs are said to be like gold; he is Hiranyagarbha or the Golden Egg, and his vital seed is gold. As the Yoga system has Buddhi for its basis, he is said to be engaged in Yoga; he is the lord of all Yogins, and fills all Yogins with joy. As Buddhi is characterised by, knowledge, he is approachable by knowledge alone. But, as Buddhi or the Yoga system is characterised by action too, he not only exists in the form of renunciation, and has ordained the life of renunciation, but is himself the foremost of all sacrificers, performs all actions, and causes all creatures to act.
Vishnu and Mind: Vishnu, in relation to the Mind, is more closely associated with Prakrti; and so we should find a more direct reference to his consort in this case. Again, the Mind is symbolized as the Moon, characterised by Desire or Kama, and represented by Soma. Hence we are told that the Moon has originated from Vishnu's Mind, and that he is the father of Kama or Desire. He is said to drink Soma in every sacrifice; he is fleet like the Mind; his Mind lives in all things; and he enjoys Prakrti (Nature) in the form of the Mind.
The Consort of Vishnu: We have observed that in sacred literature Prakrti is represented as a Woman and Purusha as a Man; and explained that Prakrti has three aspects, and is personified as Sarasvati, Ida and Bharati in the Vedas, and under different names in later literature. These three refer to Heart-energy, Mind, and the senses of action respectively, corresponding to which we have super-electric energy of the Heart, electric energy of the Mind, and magnetic energy of Ether each of which has a dual aspect, positive and negative in electricity, and north and south poles in magnetism. Buddhi, corresponding to the Sun, and characterised by Heat, is, on the other hand, without this duality. Now Vishnu primarily refers to the Heart or Soul, Buddhi, and Mind; and so his Prakrti or Consort must in each case refer to Heart-energy, Mind, and the senses of action respectively. In this connection we have explained that the incest of Prajapati with his daughter is really intended to express the idea of pure Vedanta that Prakrti is created by the supreme Purusha himself, and then in union with her he creates the universe. Thus Vac, the goddess of Speech, is said to be the daughter as well as the wife of Prajapati, and Vac is identified with Sarasvati, the Prakrti of the Heart and the consort of Vishnu. This gives us the character of Sarasvati, the consort of Vishnu, when he represents the energy of the Heart.
We have pointed out that when Vishnu refers to Buddhi, his consort should refer to the Mind; and when he refers to the Mind, she should refer to the senses of action. Corresponding to this we have Sri and Laksmi, the names of the consorts of Vishnu, who, as we have explained, refer to the Mind and the senses of action respectively.
The Doctrine of Bhakti: We have explained the connection between Bhakti and Knowledge, and observed that the former should be specially associated with the Advaita school and that aspect of the qualified Monistic school where the individual Soul for practical purposes, identified with God and we find that this is really so in the most important forms of Vaisnava faith. The religion of Vishnu lays particular stress on Bhakti or devotion to God, and we are asked to perform all actions in his name and for his sake. This, as we have explained, is the original idea of Sacrifice or creative and selfless action specially associated with the system of Vedanta.
The Incarnations of Vishnu: We have already explained the idea of incarnation and the incarnations of Vishnu, and pointed out how they personify the great creative energies of the universe made manifest in the world in different forms. Vishnu, in the light of Advaita, is the sole supreme creator of the universe, and all creative energies of life arise from him; and so he becomes incarnate from time to time in different forms. This is the original idea of the incarnations of Vishnu in which many devout Hindus believe to this day.