As regards Vishnu, the epic poems, including the supplement to the Mahabharata, the Harivamsa, supply practically the entire framework of legendary matter on which the later Vaishnava creeds are based.
Though Siva, too, assumes various forms, the incarnation theory is peculiarly characteristic of Vaishnavism; and the fact that the principal hero of the Ramayana (Rama), and one of the prominent warriors of the Mahabharata (Krishna) become in this way identified with the supreme god, and remain to this day the chief objects of the adoration of Vaishnava sectaries, naturally imparts to these creeds a human interest and sympathetic aspect which is wholly wanting in the worship of Siva.
The high-caste Brahman will probably keep at his home asalagram stone, the favourite symbol of Vishnu, as well as the characteristic emblems of Siva and his consort, to both of which he will do reverence in the morning; and when he visits some holy place of pilgrimage, he will not fail to pay his homage at both the Saiva and the Vaishnava shrines there.
And accordingly it is exactly in connexion with these two incarnations of Vishnu, especially that of Krishna, that a new spirit was infused into the religious life of the people by the sentiment of fervent devotion to the deity, as it found expression in certain portions of the epic poems, especially the Bhagavadgita, and in the Bhagavatapurana (as against the more orthodox Vaishnava works of this class such as the Vishnupurana), and was formulated into a regular doctrine of faith in the Sandilya-sutra, and ultimately translated into practice by the Vaishnava reformers.
The first successful Vaishnava reaction against Sankara's reconstructed creed was led by Ramanuja, a southern Brahman of the 12th century.
Ramanuja's doctrine, which is especially directed against the Linga-worship, is essentially based on the tenets of an old Vaishnava sect, the Bhagavatas or Pancharatras, who worshipped the Supreme Being under the name of Vasudeva (subsequently identified with Krishna, as the son of Vasudeva, who indeed is credited by some scholars with the foundation of that monotheistic creed).
Madh y a Acharya, another distinguished Vedanta teacher and founder of a Vaishnava sect, born in Kanara in A.D.
1199, was less intolerant of the Linga cult than Ramanuja, but seems rather to have aimed at a reconciliation of the Saiva and Vaishnava forms of worship. The Madhvas or Madhvacharis favour Krishna and his consort as their special objects of adoration, whilst images of Siva, Parvati, and their son Ganesa are, however, likewise admitted and worshipped in some of their temples, the most important of which is at Udipi in South Kanara, with eight monasteries connected with it.
His followers, the Kabir Panthis (" those following Kabir's path "), though neither worshipping the gods of the pantheon, nor observing the rites and ceremonial of the Hindus, are nevertheless in close touch with the Vaishnava sects, especially the Ramavats, and generally worship Rama as the supreme deity, when they do not rather address their homage, in hymns and otherwise, to the founder of their creed himself.
Although the Vaishnava sects hitherto noticed, in their adoration of Vishnu and his incarnations, Krishna and Ramachandra, usually associate with these gods their Brot wives, as their saktis, or female energies, the sexual element is, as a rule, only just allowed sufficient scope to enhance the emotional character of the rites of worship. In some of the later Vaishnava creeds, on the other hand, this element is far from being kept within the bounds of moderation and decency.
In the doctrine of this Vaishnava prophet, the adualistic theory of Sankara is resorted to as justifying a joyful and voluptuous cult of the deity.
Chaitanya, the founder of the great Vaishnava sect of Bengal, was the son of a high-caste Brahman of Nadiya, the famous Bengal seat of Sanskrit learning, where he was born in 1485, two years after the birth of Martin Luther, the German reformer.
He subsequently made over to his principal disciples the task of consolidating his community, and passed the last twelve years of his life at Puri in Orissa, the great centre of the worship of Vishnu as Jagannatha, or "lord of the world," which he remodelled in accordance with his doctrine, causing the mystic songs of Jayadeva to be recited before the images in the morning and evening as part of the daily service; and, in fact, as in the other Vaishnava creeds, seeking to humanize divine adoration by bringing it into accord with the experience of human love.
As a Hindu by birth, and a Vaishnava by family religion, I have had the freest access to the innermost sanctuaries and to the most secret of scriptures.
In the Vaishnava camp, on the other hand, the cult of Krishna, and more especially that of the youthful Krishna, can scarcely fail to exert an influence which, if of a subtler and more insinuating, is not on that account of a less demoralizing kind.
Distant, in Little Conjeeveram, is the Varadaraja-swami Vaishnava temple, also containing a hall of pillars, beautifully carved, and possessing a wonderfully rich treasury of votive jewels.