Viṣṇu's Children: Prenatal Life-cycle Rituals in South India

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Otto Harrassowitz Verlag, 2009 - Social Science - 322 pages
The Vaikhanasas, a group of Brahmanic priests in the Visnu temples of south India, can look back on a long and turbulent history, that is characterized by the effort of claiming their status against rivaling priests. Central to this monograph is a controversy, ongoing for centuries, as to what makes a person eligible to perform the rituals in Visnu temples: does birth or an initiation create the ideal intermediary between the god and humans? Since the 14th century CE the discussion in the relevant Sanskrit texs centers around the question of whether the Vaikhanasas priests must undergo an initiation including a branding on the upper arms, or whether their particular prenatal life-cycle ritual visnubali makes them eligible to perform temple ritual. As hereditary temple priests the Vaikhanasas' own stance is explicit: they are Visnu's own children, preordained for temple service already before birth. In addition to the textual perspective, three instances of local conflicts from the 19th/20th centuries about the question of whether the Vaikhanasas require an initiation are analysed in their contexts. Furthermore, three examples of present day performances of the crucial ritual visnubali are presented and interpreted in the light of the relation between text and performance and from the perspective of the acting priests' ritual competence. The book also contains a DVD with some of the video-coverage of the three visnubali performances.

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Vaikhanasa sampradaaya is a very ancient practice of worshipping Vishnu right from vedic age. In Saamaveda and Rgveda , we have the 100 vaikhaanasa Rishis singing hymns in praise of Vishnu. And many commentators have opined that Vaikhanasa Rishis are the women sages , the mothers who have been the loving devotees of Vishnu . The Vaikhanasa sects are prevalent in South India only and they are related to Boudhayana (the author of Dharmasuthra) as the authors have pointed out . Dharmasuthra of Boudhayana says the custom of marrying the uncle's daughet and adopting a matrilinear system is specific for South Indians and this custom is depicted in the Vaishnava and Saiva traditions when Vishnu"s siater is Shiva's wife and their son (Kumaara) becomes the next Vishnu . Though this part of the tradition is not mentioned in the 72 pages shown online (may be it is mentioned elsewhere) I thought it will be better for us to start with this, since what differentiates the Vaikhanasa from othe rsects like Pancharathrins is the presence of 18 prenatal rites ( the two which are specific being nishekam and rithusamgamam which are not for the child but for the mother ).The other sects have only 16 samskara (shodasa) just as a temple deity has .The fact that extensive ethnological research has been done to study the rites is commendable.The heart of the text is the reference to the sanskrittext dasavidhahethuniroopana which speaks of why the vaikhaanasas are superior to others. The method used by the author is Exegetical experimentation on ethnological study .
The vyuha concept of Vaishnavas is followed by Vaikhanasa sect but the names are different from other texts. They are purusha ,sathya ,achyutha and Aniruddha of which only Aniruddha comes in other sects.The others being Vasudeva,samkarshana and pradyumna. The 10 reasons the author of Dasavidhahethuniroopana gives for Vaikhanasa being superior to other sects are :
1 They are direct descendents of the causal purusha of entire universe , the vikhaanas.
2 The oldest of the sects mentioned in veda
3.Famous in sruthi texts
4 Their samskara or life cycle rituals start from Nisheka while others start it from garbhaadhaana only.
5.Their customs contain the totality of the ritual as well as its components in detail
6.Has 18 steps for it instead of 16
7.Accepted by the lawgiver Manu
9 Because of the supremacy of Narayana
10 Their dharma is from the Adinarayana , and is dearest to the God.
They are the Vishnu's children by birth (by maternal lineage) while others are only adopted children .
The name Devalaka and its implications are discussed in detail.The downgrading of status happen when a Brahmin does work for money, is greedy, and is employed by a village, town or by multiple people.Otherwise , originally the term Devalaka has a divine being who is in love with Vishnu just as the term Devadasi. The love has to be unconditional , to one purusha (God) and not for money , and not for many. This is the reason why temple priests were having a divine high status and degraded when they started to receive money from rich for their services. It is sad that I could read only 72 pages of this book. Being an author on Vishnubhakthisampradaaya myself , I would have loved to read the entire bok and write a good review on the entire text. Congratulations for the authors for their good work and research.
Dr Suvarna Nalapat


The Daśavidhahetunirūpana
Rituals in the Daśavidhahetunirūpana
Branding for Vaikhānasas in the 19th and 20th centuries
Samskāra performance in the early 21 century
Variation in lifecycle rituals and the stability of tradition
Sanskrit texts
Secondary literature
Tabular view of six Guruparamparās
Text of the DVD booklet
Text of the Introduction to the DVD

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