Hinduism: Vaishnavism

Vasudha Narayanan. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.


Vaishnavism is the name given to the faith and practices of those Hindus who hold Vishnu (“the all pervasive one”) and the goddess Lakshmi as supreme deities. The Sanskrit term Vaishnava means “follower of Vishnu.”

Devotion to Vishnu seen in the Vedas and later Sanskrit literature, amalgamated with the worship of many local deities and texts, eventually gave rise to the Vaishnava faith. Vaishnavas also worship Vishnu’s many incarnations, especially his appearances as Rama and as Krishna, as well as his manifestations in iconic form in several temples. These manifestations in temples are considered to be actual incarnations of Vishnu in a worshipable form. In addition, many Vaishnavas also revere various poet-saints and theologians whom they consider to be paradigmatic devotees. There are several traditions of Vaishnava theologies, but a Vaishnava does not have to be affiliated with any one of them. It is thus difficult to determine the exact number of Hindus who practice Vaishnavism.


While the deity Vishnu appears in the Vedas, the earliest Sanskrit sacred compositions in India (c. 1500 B.C.E.), it is believed he became a mighty and supreme deity a millennium later. The distinctive characteristics of Vaishnava faith, which upholds Vishnu as the supreme being who alone can grant salvation, seem to have gathered force with the compositions of the epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata around 500 B.C.E. and particularly with the Bhagavad Gita, a section of the Mahabharata that may have been composed around the second century B.C.E.

Vishnu also became identified with the deities Narayana and Vasudeva sometime in the first millennium B.C.E.Narayana is a supreme deity eulogized in several texts, including the Mahabharata, as well as in books associated with goddess traditions that are called agamas. Archaeological evidence from the second century B.C.E. suggests that Vasudeva was worshiped in both north-western as well as central India.

The deity Mal in the Tamil-speaking lands of South India was also first venerated in the early centuries of the Common Era. He is identified with Vishnu, and some of the stories connected with Mal, such as the churning of the mythical ocean of milk, are attributed to him. In this story divine beings (devas) and demonic beings (asuras) churn the ocean of milk for the elixir of immortality. When the enterprise seems to fail, Mal-Vishnu incarnates himself in several forms, including that of a tortoise, to help them.

During the reign of the Gupta dynasty (c. fourth-fifth centuries C.E.) in the north and the Chalukyas dynasty in the Deccan Plateau of south central India (after the sixth century C.E.), royal patronage and increased temple building gave rise to the devotional fervor of Vaishnava devotees. It was about this time, the first half of the first millennium C.E., that the major Puranas, texts that praise the deities in the Hindu tradition, were compiled in their present forms.

Perhaps the greatest stimulus to the Vaishnava tradition came through the composition of vernacular hymns, which first appeared in the seventh century C.E. Tamil-speaking devotees from the south of India composed these songs in praise of Vishnu-Narayana, especially in the form in which he was enshrined in the many temples of southern India. It is believed that these devotees made pilgrimages, visiting sacred sites in various parts of India. Twelve poet-saints (men and women distinguished by their devotion to Vishnu) came to be called Alvars, or those immersed deeply in the love of God. It was the first time that devotional poetry was composed in a local, but classical, language, and by the tenth and eleventh centuries the Vaishnava community that revered these poems, known as Sri Vaishnavas, came to regard them as equivalent to the Sanskrit Vedas.

Devotion to Vishnu and Vaishnava traditions can be found in almost every part of India. Vaishnava texts and practices, however, have not been confined to India. By the fifth century C.E. devotees worshiped Vishnu in Cambodia, and Vishnu temples flourished in that country. Icons of Vishnu are found all the way from Thailand to Japan, where some of his manifestations are subsumed in Buddhist lore.

The popularity of Vaishnavism can be attributed to many factors. Sanskrit texts were known all over India, from possibly as early as several centuries before the Common Era, and formed a common substratum for the Vaishnavas; however, it was the local vernacular texts of passionate devotion that led to the rapid spread and sustenance of the many Vaishnava traditions. Philosophical texts by the major theologians gave it orthodoxy; hagiographical texts entertained and educated the masses. Many of the texts were told and retold in local languages, and some were expressed through performing arts. The songs of the Alvars, for instance, were sung and acted out in temples. In later centuries religious leader Chaitanya (1485-1533) took his emotional worship of Lord Krishna and devotional singing to the streets, a practice that was adopted by the members of International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISK-CON), or the Hare Krishna movement, in the twentieth century. The emphasis on devotion also led to the softening of gender roles and the roles incumbent upon one by way of caste; people from all castes of society could be considered to be Vaishnava.

Central Doctrines

Like almost all other practitioners of schools of Hindu thought and practice, Vaishnavas believe in the immortality of the soul and a supreme being. They also take for granted that the soul is caught in a cycle of life and death. Unlike other forms of Hinduism, however, Vaishnavas believe that it is devotion to Vishnu that will save them from endless rebirth. In practice this monotheism is rather elastic. Worship also includes devotion to the Goddess Sri, or Lakshmi, the many incarnations of Vishnu, his manifestations in local temples in southern India, his emanations in a theological framework called vyuha, the paradigmatic celestial devotees Hanuman and Garuda, and the Alvars, the exalted human devotees. Many of these celestial and mortal beings are seen in icons that have been consecrated in temples and are part of the ritual universe of the Vaishnavas.

The theology of the various schools of Vaishnavism is significantly different from each other. While all the schools have distinctive features that describe the relationship between the human being, the created universe, and the supreme being, all believe that it is devotion to Vishnu and Lakshmi as well as Vishnu’s salvific grace that will grant liberation from the cycle of life and death for the human devotee.

In all Vaishnava contexts the object of devotion is Vishnu, who is also known as Narayana. In the Rigveda, Vishnu-Narayana is seen as having paced the universe in giant strides. The two epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata portray Rama and Krishna, who ultimately are considered the most important incarnations of Vishnu. Eventually various stories about Vishnu, Narayana, and Vasudeva come together into a cohesive theory of the descent (avatarana) of the supreme being to earth in one of many incarnations. While the early Puranas composed in the beginning of the Common Era speak of as many as 24 incarnations, a later version includes 10 incarnations.

The Bhagavad Gita, a section of the epic Mahabharata, and one of the most important texts in Hindu literature, gives a clear reason for Vishnu’s multiple incarnations. Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu, says in this text that whenever dharma (righteousness) falters on earth, Vishnu comes down to destroy evil and protect the good people.

While Vishnu’s many incarnations, especially those of Rama and Krishna, serve as the focal point of devotion, some Vaishnava texts known as the Pancharatra agama, which is held as authoritative by the Sri Vaishnava community, describe various emanations of Vishnu. In the Pancharatra agama, as well as other Puranas, Vishnu is portrayed lying down in an ocean, and a fourfold manifestation called vyuha appears from him to take care of various cosmogonic functions, such as the creation and destruction of the universe. The Sri Vaishnava community believes that Vishnu has five forms, all of which exist simultaneously and completely. Vishnu abides in heaven, or Vaikuntha; he appears on the ocean of milk, the locus from which the emanations as the vyuha originate to perform the cosmogonic functions; he descends to earth periodically as the avatara, or incarnation, assuming a form appropriate for the purpose and for the time; he resides in a ritually consecrated icon in a temple; and, finally, he is all pervasive and abides in every soul. Some Vaishnava communities also believe that Vishnu incarnates himself in temples in a form that can be worshiped so as to be accessible to human beings. This iconic form in a temple is held, therefore, to be an actual manifestation of Vishnu, not just a symbol or a focal point of concentration as some other Hindus may believe.

Vaishnavas also venerate Lakshmi, who is considered to be inseparable from Vishnu. She has her own shrine in many South Indian temples. In icons she is portrayed as abiding on a lotus, a symbol of auspiciousness, and also as residing on Vishnu’s chest, as an articulation of divine grace.

Devotion (bhakti) to Krishna and Vishnu is the distinguishing characteristic of Vaishnavism. In some discussions several kinds of devotion are highlighted: One may pray to Vishnu with the attitude of a servant, a parent, a lover, or a friend. While all forms of devotion are considered valid in the Sri Vaishnava tradition, Chaitanya’s school privileges devotion that is colored with the passion of romantic or sometimes erotic love. The love of Radha—the consort, or in some Vaishnava traditions the girlfriend, of Krishna—becomes paradigmatic of the love that should be obtained between the devotee and the supreme being. In these theologies the role of the cowherd girl Radha is ambiguous; some devotees think of her as the ideal devotee, and others as a goddess-consort of Krishna.

Moral Code of Conduct

Most Vaishnava schools accept the epics and the dharmasastras (texts of dharma or righteousness) as important sources of moral conduct, but like most Hindus, Vaishnavas would not be familiar with the content of these texts. The main teachings of the Bhagavad Gita would be known in some form to most devotees. For example, adherents hold devotion to Krishna paramount, and all action should be done in the name of Krishna/Vishnu-Narayana. The Bhagavad Gita enjoins devotees to act in a detached manner without being focused on the results of one’s actions. The moral code incumbent upon men and women, which varies from region to region, is also applicable to Vaishnavas. As in other devotional movements, however, devotion trumps all textual and practiced notions of dharma. Devotion to Vishnu and the quest for liberation wins over the codes for conduct in everyday life.

Virtues associated with the Vaishnava faith, and spoken of in the texts of dharma known as samanya dharma, or the code of conduct applicable to all human beings, include compassion, purity, humility, and the notion of ahimsa, or nonviolence.

Attitudes toward caste issues have evolved and those issues continue to be reinvented within the devotional Vaishnava contexts. By the eleventh century C.E., when the poetry of the Alvars was anthologized, it was clear that some of the paradigmatic devotees were, in fact, of the so-called lower castes and in some cases even an outcaste. While some Hindu texts have spoken of caste as a matter of individual potential and behavior, the practice over the millennia has overwhelmingly been to think of it as fixed by birth into a particular family and community. In the late twentieth century C.E. Bhaktivedanta (also known as Swami) Prabhupada (1886-1977), the founder of ISKCON, addressed the issue of caste. Prabhupada spoke about a simpler version of caste to the new Euro-American Vaishnava devotees he had converted. Instead of the complex caste system, Prabhupada described a fourfold division originally mentioned in the Vedas, but the idea was not followed in its entirety. A few male members of the ISKCON movement wear a sacred thread, an emblem of the upper castes in India. No specific caste name is given to most devotees.

Sacred Books

Almost every Vaishnava school has its own set of books that it considers canonical; however, almost all Vaishnava traditions hold sacred the Vedas (as in many other Hindu communities), the two epics of Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and the Vaishnava Puranas. Among the Puranas, the Vishnu Purana and in later traditions the Bhagavata Purana are considered to be significant. In addition to these texts, every Vaishnava tradition has several genres of works both in Sanskrit and in the local vernacular. The vernacular languages, in many cases, are also classical languages. There are philosophical treatises written by the major theologians; there are devotional panegyrics; there is hagiographical literature; and there are texts and narratives transmitted through song and dance.

Sacred Symbols

Vishnu is said to hold several weapons in his hands to destroy evil, and among these the conch and the discus are considered to be most important. The conch is blown before a battle; the discus is hurled to slice and destroy anything evil. Many Vaishnavas etch these sacred symbols on wedding necklaces. These marks are also used during initiation into some communities. In the Sri Vaishnava community, for instance, the spiritual teacher brands these marks on the shoulders or upper arms of the devotee who seeks initiation.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous body marking in India is that worn by men and women on their foreheads, a mark that is both secular and sectarian. Many of the marks, especially those worn for ritual occasions, indicate the sectarian community to which a Hindu may belong. Many Vaishnavas are known by U-or Y-shaped forehead marks. These marks, made with white clay from a sacred place, usually symbolize the foot of Vishnu. The red line or red dot in the middle indicates the inseparability of the Goddess Sri from Vishnu. In some Vaishnava communities the forehead marks may indicate Rama, his wife Sita, and his brother Lakshmana; in others the marks represent the reality of a supreme being who is without qualities and simultaneously has all good attributes.

Early and Modern Leaders

There have been many important Vaishnava leaders and teachers, as well as leaders who happen to be Vaishnavas. Many musical composers are particularly well known and admired in India. The compositions of the late fifteenth-century composers Annamacharya and Purandara dasa are still sung by exponents of Carnatic music in South India. Perhaps the best-known Vaishnava musician is Tyagaraja (1767-1847), whose compositions to Rama are honored every year in India and in the diaspora with the annual Tyagaraja Festival. Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi (1869-1948) was born into a Vaishnava family. Vaishnava texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, and Vaishnava codes of conduct, such as the emphasis on nonviolence, were significant in his life.

Major Theologians and Authors

Ramanuja (c. 1017-1137) is probably one of the best-known exponents of the Vaishnava tradition. He expressed his philosophy of qualified nondualism in his commentaries and texts, especially the Sri Bhashya and the Gitabhashya. Madhvacarya (1296-1386), a major theologian in the Kannada-speaking area of southern India, preached a philosophy called dualism, or dvaita, in which the soul is seen as distinct from the supreme deity Vishnu.

Madhva’s followers have a philosophically and socially distinct form of Vaishnava tradition. While the Sri Vaishnava and Madhva schools of philosophical Vaishnavism flourished in southern India, the followers of Vallabhacharya (b. 1479) and Chaitanya (1485- 1533) were primarily from the northern and northeastern parts of India. These theologians significantly increased the number of Vaishnava devotees through the devotional schools of philosophy and practice that they espoused. Chaitanya and his followers, who eventually came to be called Gaudiya Vaishnavas or Vaishnavas from the land of Bengal, conceptualized the supreme reality as Krishna, which is distinct from the belief of many other Hindus who think of Krishna as one of the many incarnations of Vishnu. Several traditions also came to think of Rama as the supreme being, and over the centuries those who think of Rama or Krishna as the primordial deity have come to be called Vaishnava. Ghanshyam (better known as Swaminarayan; b. 1781) established one of the most influential schools of Vaishnavism in the western state of Gujarat. The Swaminarayan movement is a socially engaged form of Vaishnavism with several forms of outreach activities. No list of Vaishnava theologians would be complete without the profound influence of Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, the founder of ISKCON, better known as the Hare Krishna movement. It was largely through his teaching and practices that Vaishnavism came to be adopted by a number of Euro-Americans.

Organizational Structure

The many Vaishnava traditions have distinctive organizational structures. It is important, however, to recognize that one can be a Vaishnava without ever belonging to an institution or to a philosophical tradition. Many of the Vaishnava singers and poets were not affiliated with specific schools of thought.

Although most Vaishnavas are lay people, leadership is frequently held by a small number of sannyasins, or renunciants. In the Swaminarayan, Sri Vaishnava, and Pushti marg (Vallabha) communities, some of the initiating teachers (acharyas) are householders who have descended from those men appointed by the original founding teacher of each sect.

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

India abounds with sacred places connected with the Vaishnava faith. Pilgrimage traditions have been religiously, socially, culturally, and economically significant in the last two millennia. Of the thousands of such places, a few cities and towns are strikingly important. While many of the northern Indian traditions consider places connected with Krishna—such as Govardhana, Gokula, and Mathura—as the most significant, southern Indian Sri Vaishnavas may deem the many temple towns such as Srirangam and Tirumala-Tirupati as the most important sites. People from the state of Kerala consider the Krishna Temple at Guruvayur to be the most significant pilgrimage site. Vaishnava devotees from Maharashtra make annual pilgrimages to see Vithoba in Pandaripur. Puri, on the east coast of India, in the state of Orissa, has been one of the most important pilgrimage centers for at least the last millennium. The tenth-century Prasat Kravan Temple and the twelfth-century Angkor Wat Temple, both near Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia, were built through the patronage of noble and royal Cambodian families. Angkor Wat is one of the biggest Vishnu temples in the world, and it has the largest bas-relief ever completed on any work of architecture.

The iconic manifestation of Vishnu in all these temples is considered by most Vaishnavas to be a revelation in action. Devotees think of the enshrined icon as a continuous revelation of the supreme being, not as an idol made of material substance. Vaishnavas consider this icon to be God—on earth as He is in heaven.

While the temple is extremely holy and significant in Vaishnava faith, the home and the human body are also considered to be sacred. Icons and pictures of Vishnu are kept in home altars, and daily worship at such household altars signifies that the deity is treated as an honored guest. He is woken up, bathed, offered food, and made to sleep at night. One can be a good Vaishnava without ever having to set foot outside the home.

The human body is also a container of the divine. In daily exercises, when Vaishnava symbols are anointed on different parts of one’s body, the various names of Vishnu are recited. One is therefore enjoined to keep one’s body physically and mentally pure. This deity in one’s heart is not different from or lesser than the deity in the temple or the one in heaven.

What is Sacred?

Vishnu is also seen as abiding in a fossil called a salagrama, which is found in lakes in the Himalayan region. The salagrama fossil is believed to have a complete presence of Vishnu, and when the salagrama is present at home, it is treated like a temple deity. Ordinarily only men handle a salagrama.

Holidays and Festivals

The Vaishnava traditions share many holidays and festivals with other Hindus, and these vary by region and by community. Like most other Hindus, the Vaishnavas celebrate Deepavali, the Festival of Lights, on the new moon or the day before that comes between 15 October and 15 November. The festival is celebrated for various reasons. Vaishnavas in northern India celebrate this as the day Rama returned from Lanka after defeating the demon Ravana, whereas devotees in the south believe that on dawn that day Krishna and his wife, Satyabhama, together defeated Narakasura, the demon of Hell.

Southern Indian Vaishnavas, along with other Tamil-speaking people from Tamil-Nadu, celebrate Pongal, a festival of harvest and thanksgiving. Although celebrated in mid-January, this three-day festival marks the winter solstice in the Hindu calendar. It is called the beginning of the uttarayana punya kala, the blessed time when the sun travels north. The Sri Vaishnava community also celebrates the songs of the Alvars in a festival of recitation in the month of Margasirsa (mid-December to mid-January). The songs are recited and sung, and in some holy temples like Srirangam and Srivilliputtur, men from families who have the hereditary right to do so act out some of the poems.

Vaishnavas tend to celebrate the birthdays of their spiritual teachers as well as the birthdays of Rama and Krishna. The birthdays of the deities—the astrological date on which they are said to have incarnated themselves—are days of considerable celebration with the preparation and consumption of many sweets and dishes.

Mode of Dress

Vaishnava garb for men and women varies depending on the region. On ritual occasions in southern India, men wear aveshti, a piece of white cotton cloth that is twirled around the legs. Also on ritual occasions both priests and Brahman men in southern India do not ordinarily wear a shirt. The sacred thread that they wear over their shoulders announces their caste. At one time many men in all parts of India, especially the Brahmans, tended to shave their heads except for a tuft of hair that resembles a ponytail on the top of their heads, but this custom is seldom followed now. Orthoprax (“correct practice”) Brahman women belonging to the Sri Vaishnava community wear a special, nine-yard sari on ritual occasions, especially weddings. Men and women in the north tend to cover themselves more fully. In general, women from the north tend to veil their heads or drape their saris lightly over their heads in modesty; whereas women from the south do not follow this custom. In the past only widows covered their heads in southern India.

Dietary Practices

The Vaishnava calendar is marked with days of feasting and fasting. Ekadashi, or the eleventh day after the new moon or full moon, is ordinarily a day of fasting when grain is not consumed, and a diet of fruits and dairy products is recommended. There are other days of complete fasting, such as the hours just before the birthday of Krishna or during eclipses.

Vaishnavas are said to prescribe to the Sanskrit dictum “ahimsa paramo dharmah” (nonviolence is the highest virtue) and tend to be vegetarians. Several Vaishnava theologians have written extensively on dietary regulations; this is, in fact, one of the most important aspects of premodern Vaishnavism. While many if not most of these regulations are not followed now, Vaishnavas had strict rules on what, when, and with whom they ate, as well as who cooked the food. Generally the food had to be cooked by a Vaishnava of the same caste; orthoprax pilgrims still take a cook with them on their tours to be sure their diet is not compromised.


Daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly, and annual rituals are celebrated at Vaishnava homes and temples. In temples the deities are “woken” up from their sleep with special prayers and bathed and adorned before formal worship. Every temple has its own schedule. In Nathdwara, Rajasthan, for instance, Krishna is worshiped in the form of a baby. The understanding is that a baby needs to sleep, and, therefore, the times opened for devotee worship (darshan, literally “viewing”) are very limited. As in most Hindu temples, worship in Vaishnava temples is ordinarily not congregational, though that can be found in a few communities. Devotees take fruits and flowers, and the Brahman priest performs apuja (worship) on behalf of the worshiper to the enshrined deity. While most Vaishnava priests in India are male and belong to the Brahman caste, women in the ISKCON tradition have an active role in the bathing and adorning of the deities.

Domestic rituals vary by caste and gender. There is daily worship at the home altar that may be done by any member of the family and may range from simply lighting a lamp to more elaborate rituals. Singing classical and popular songs to the various manifestations of Vishnu, and reciting the 108 or 1,008 names of Vishnu, Lakshmi, or any one of their many manifestations is also considered to be meritorious.

Rites of Passage

Vaishnavas, like other Hindus, follow sacraments that are common all over India, as well as those that may be specific to their community or their local areas. Thus, all children go through rites of passage in which they are named and given the first solid food. In addition, one’s first birthday and sometimes the formal starting of education are marked with rituals. Boys of the upper castes also go through the upanayana ceremony in which they are invested with a sacred thread that marks a young man’s spiritual birth.

The wedding is frequently the most important sacrament in a Vaishnava’s life. Sixtieth and eightieth birthdays are marked with religious rituals that include propitiatory rites to various deities for peace in one’s life. In death the body is cremated, and the ashes immersed in a holy river. Local or community Vaishnava rites of passage may include celebrations to mark menarche and prenatal rituals for pregnant mothers.


One may be born into a Vaishnava family or become a Vaishnava by choice. Most frequently the person who becomes a Vaishnava does so by simply accepting Vishnu as the supreme being and perhaps by following some of the dietary and ritual practices. On the other hand, those who formally want to become Vaishnavas may get initiated into a particular Vaishnava tradition by one of the many spiritual teachers. The initiation ceremony may involve the giving of a mantra, a name that now articulates the devotee’s new status, and perhaps the marking of the upper arms with the signs of Vishnu—the conch and the discus.

Hundreds of websites cater to the Vaishnava subgroups, creating transnational communities. While some communities have had periods of active proselytizing, in general, Vaishnava traditions do not focus on new recruitment; rather, the websites as well as the individual teachers try to get the existing Vaishnavas to be better devotees.

Religious Tolerance

While there is no persecution against Vaishnavas today, there have been occasional historical cases of struggle between Vaishnavas, Shaivites, and Jains in southern India. In general, a sense of religious pluralism among Hindus has prevailed in most communities in India and elsewhere at most times.

Social Justice

Many of the Vaishnava traditions highlight the importance of faith and devotion and place these traditions as more important than social class or caste. Thus, there are many narratives that speak about how religious leaders befriended those of the “lower” castes. There have also been several Vaishnava movements to include members of the outcaste groups into the social fabric. In this logic of devotion (which may be different from the rules of ethics that apply in a day-to-day situation), women, too, are considered to be qualified for salvation. In practice, however, women and those who belong to the “lower” castes have not had priestly roles in temples.

Social Aspects

Vaishnava traditions celebrate the importance of community. Devotees frequently sing or compose poems longing to live with other devotees. Such a life with other devotees is considered to be the “real” society (sat sangh)—that is, the ideal society in which one should aspire to live. There is much reverence given to devotees of Vishnu, and frequently more respect is given to such devotion than to age, caste, or gender. In spite of these concepts, the caste system that exists in Hinduism is present in the Vaishnava traditions as well.

Controversial Issues

Many Vaishnava groups have internal tensions over succession issues, and after the death of a charismatic leader, these groups frequently splinter over issues of philosophical interpretation and social practices. Controversies over the authority of certain castes to have sacerdotal functions or the authority of women to do certain rituals and recite certain mantras or prayers also exist. In general, the Vaishnava leaders, like most Hindu leaders of other traditions, do not speak out publicly on such issues as birth control, abortion, and gay marriages.

Cultural Impact

Vaishnava traditions are perhaps best appreciated in the arts, and for centuries Vaishnavism tenets have been transmitted through the performing arts rather than through books or sermons. Whether it is a simple bhajan(devotional song) or a complex dance performance, the power of the narratives is brought out through articulating the emotion with performing arts. The glory of the various incarnations of Vishnu as well as the soul’s longing for union with the divine is frequently portrayed in classical dances. The dancer takes on the role of a young woman pining for her lover in an allegory for the soul’s search for God. Folk songs and dances, such as the ras in Gujarat, also reenact incidents from the life of Krishna.

The various hand gestures adopted by dancers are also seen in iconography. Vishnu icons abound in South and Southeast Asia, with some spectacular ones seen in southern India and in Cambodia. Vishnu can be portrayed as standing, sitting, reclining, or striding; and there are hundreds of ways in which Rama, Krishna, or the other incarnations can be portrayed.

Vaishnava themes, especially stories relating to the life of Krishna, have been the focus of miniature painting for the last four centuries in northern India. Some incidents depicted in the paintings are seen as expressive of particular modes of music (ragas) and are projected as the visual dimension of aural aesthetics.