Vaiṣṇavism is commonly regarded as the worship of Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa as the Supreme Being. We would do well to invert this understanding and consider that the Supreme Being is identified correctly and worshipped as Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa.
Most Vaiṣṇava systems strongly advocate the exclusive worship of Nārāyaṇa and do not encourage the worship of other deities. This insistence is most profound in the Śrīvaiṣṇava system. Such insistence is perceived by some to be narrow-minded and as lacking in modern liberal outlook. In this article, we will dispel this misunderstanding and eliminate needless confusion.
1. Get your priorities straight
The worship of God is a spiritual practice. God is not looking for favors from humans and asking them to worship Him in all the different forms equally. Even within 'Hinduism', we find that Hindus only worship a set of Hindu gods and not Greek gods. We do not find Hindus discovering the Brahman in the form of an ancient Egyptian God. What is relevant is the spiritual discipline of the individual and not how broad-minded one is towards different deities. There is absolutely no Vedic injunction to worship all deities. A careful study of the philosophical works of Śrī Śaṅkara, Bhagavad Rāmānuja, Ānanda Tīrtha and other saints of Vedānta would clearly reveal that they favor only the worship of Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa for sound reasons. They would be appalled by the intellectually lazy broad-mindedness of today's spiritual businessmen.
2. The form of the deity matters
The form of the deity matters in spiritual discipline. For those yearning for liberation, this is a point of utmost seriousness. How God is meditated upon and understood has direct implications for one's spiritual practice. Any form is NOT ok. The fruit of meditation will be directly in accordance with the content of meditation - this fact is taught by the Vedas. Viṣṇu is meditated upon as blissful, beautiful, resplendent, auspicious, divine, transcendent, powerful and as the abode of all desirable qualities. Only meditation upon Viṣṇu can bring peace and delight to the heart, and imbibe positive spiritual qualities. Other meditations can take the practitioner only to some distance. Liberation and the highest joy are possible only through meditation on Viṣṇu. Such is the unanimous verdict of all Sātvika-s. Viṣṇu is acknowledged by all saints as the form of pure and highest sattva (truth) that is free of all Rājasika and Tāmasika constructs. The avatāra-s and deeds of Viṣṇu directly speak to the practitioner and cultivate interest and delight. The deeds of Viṣṇu are not performed simply to showcase His power but are relevant to devotees spiritually. Pleasing Viṣṇu is the easiest and does not require any physical suffering. Devotion is more important than any physical gymnastics because Viṣṇu is the true form of the Brahman.
3. Beware of mischief in spirituality
The so-called broad-minded spiritual doctors would not display their broad-mindedness in philosophical matters. They know it is absurd. For example, the so-called non-sectarian Ramakrishna Mission would go to great lengths in discrediting the greatness of Viṣṇu by calling Sātvika texts as sectarian works even while writing about those texts. But, in the same breath, they would declare that Dvaita is the initial spiritual stage which leads to Viśiṣṭādvaita and finally culminates in Advaita - an utterly confounding stance even to Saṅkarācārya. This is because they realize it would be absurd to be broad-minded and declare that all philosophies are equally valid. But, when it comes to meditation/worship, they suddenly feel the urge to become broad-minded and lose track of the philosophical background & purpose of meditation. Even in their exposition of their neo-Vedānta, they would be befuddled by the ancient texts which are acknowledged by all teachers since they are not suitable to their views. They would invent new sources like Yoga Vāśiṣṭa which are untouched by any Advaita teacher from Saṅkarācārya to Madhusūdana Sarasvatī. In general, most of the broad-mindedness can be easily be seen to be a consequence of Viṣṇu-Vaiṣṇava-dveṣa than due to any serious philosophical position. Such attempts have been made since the times of Appayya Dīkṣita to discredit the worship of Viṣṇu by hook or by crook, and confuse people. There seems to be an urge deep within to somehow deny the greatness of Viṣṇu even if the text or teacher explicitly teaches it. This urge sometimes takes the form of outspoken hatred where the great activities of Viṣṇu, which must be understood from the perspective of Vedānta, are distorted to spew abuse. By doing such things, no harm is caused to Viṣṇu who is the true representation of the Brahman. Instead, such abusers fall from their own spiritual practice. When Ramaṇa Maharṣi, a teacher of neo-Advaita, was approached with the question on which deity to worship, he responded that one must pick only one deity and worship exclusively. Though he did not speak of the greatness of Viṣṇu, he was clear that devotion can only be exclusive. This is a point sadly lost to the broad-minded spiritual heroes who count Ramaṇa Maharṣi as one of their masters. Likewise, a story (authorized) about Śrī Candraśekarendra Sarasvatī of Kāñcī finds him chiding a Vaiṣṇava woman for violating her dharma and worshipping Śiva. He advises her to find redemption for her problems within her own dharma. However, these inconvenient messages are carefully glossed over by broad-minded teachers.
4. Over-simplification leads to disaster
Most critics of Vaiṣṇavism try to over-simplify it. The worship of Viṣṇu must be understood in light of the entire spiritual system and not by the narrow-minded ignorance informed by unexamined spiritual positions. The position of Śrīvaiṣṇavism will be explained below very briefly.
It is blatantly clear in both normal experience and in meditation that conscious experiences differ from person to person. This proves the Vedic message that there are several individual souls, not just one. Experience can only belong to a conscious entity. The non-sentient universe is, by definition, devoid of consciousness. How can it superimpose on a single conscious entity and lead to multiple disconnected, unique experiences? There is no evidence for unity of consciousness nor is such a unity necessary.
It is also seen in the experiences of meditation that in the purest state of the soul, one is an observer to the modifications of one's consciousness by karma. This simple spiritual experience refutes the claim that the knower and the known become one in meditation. Rather, only judgment, which distances the observer from the observed, is removed and proximity is attained, not identity which would be absurd to explain. The fall of mind-body ego does not strip one of individuality and uniqueness of personal experience. This establishes that the soul is the knower and that there are several souls. No religious text can invalidate such clear perception. The presence of the knowing soul that is cognizant of the kārmic modifications establishes the presence of a core consciousness which is beyond all change, and an attributive consciousness that is subject to modifications due to karma.
Śrīvaiṣṇavism would gladly accept these conclusions of Advaita that the soul, in its purest state, is beyond all such modifications and is nirguṇa in the sense that it transcends the three guṇa-s of prakṛti. However, it would disagree that there is only one soul or that this soul is the final end of spiritual practice for the below reasons.
Once one has transcended the effects of matter and identification with mind-senses-body, one still finds that one's karma-s continue their dynamics and cause modifications of conscious experience. Though one may learn not to react emotionally to these things, they are still there to be observed. One has not truly become free but only learned to remain in equanimity. One has become free of the psychological trauma but not of the conditions that can produce it. This is because of a very simple truth: even if you reach the greatest height of spirituality, you cannot become God. God is the ultimate cause due to whom the universe of sentient souls and non-sentient entities operate. Karma operates under the watch of, and with the energy of God. The laws of the universe are God's laws and owe their existence & operation to Him.
God, who is understood as Viṣṇu or Nārāyaṇa, is the basis of all reality. He is the only independent Real. Everything is else is only conditional real, dependent on God. This provides the basis for religion. Śrīvaiṣṇavas determine that Śiva as a Yogī and as being worshipped in the form of void is a true representative of a jīva (soul), who through the practice of Aṣtāṅga Yoga dispels oneself from the modifications of matter. Śakti is representative of the forces of nature - matter, energy and time - and is the emblem of Prakṛti. Other deities are representative of more limited functions: Agni, only of fire, Sūrya only of suns, etc. Viṣṇu is seen to be explicitly transcendent of all this, and representative of the true form of God or Brahman and is the abode of all perfections. This is how the gods introduced in the Vedas can be resolved and understood meaningfully.
All sentient and non-sentient entities are the body of God. This is the meaning of understanding the Viśvarūpa of Kṛṣṇa - that the whole universe is the form of Viṣṇu. Viṣṇu, by the meaning of His name, is omnipresent and pervades everything from within to control & support them as Antaryāmī.
For Śrīvaiṣṇavas, this deep realization of Viṣṇu within oneself leads to surrender to God and a life dedicated to Viṣṇu which constitutes the Bhāgavata dharma. One realizes that one lives in Viṣṇu, for Viṣṇu, as a form or instrument of Viṣṇu. At this stage, one does not even have to seek liberation because Viṣṇu, the savior, is always within. We all belong to Viṣṇu and are inseparably related to Him. Since we belong to Him, it is His imperative to save us. Living life with this understanding is realized to be the highest maturity of spirituality.
Unlike other Vaiṣṇava paths, Śrīvaiṣṇavas find God not only without but also within. They are trained to constantly remember the true intimate relationship of the finite infinitesimal soul to the infinite God. Due to this, they do not strive particularly after specific spiritual disciplines that are taught by sages or by demigods, and hence do not worship those those sages/demigods for teaching them that discipline. They find faith only in the saving grace of God. They do not deny the Vedic path or the teachings of sages/demigods, but they reconcile them in the larger teaching of the inseparability of God and soul, and the knowledge that we all belong to God. They worship God with love and practice all disciplines as service to God. This is the life of Brahman-hood, of abiding in the Brahman and of complete dedication to God. They do not go around worshipping a hundred gods simply because there is no reason to do so. They find fullness of satisfaction in worshipping Viṣṇu who is the complete truth (sattva), and attain spiritual maturity through the same. They have no obligation to run around from god to god to showcase some unexplained broad-mindedness. Even those gods who are worshipped by these broad-minded folk would be smiling with pity at their lack of spiritual seriousness.
Śrīvaiṣṇavas fully understand that each person is entitled to one's own spiritual practice and different practices have their own value. The Āzvar-s clearly state that different methods are created for different spiritual practitioners. By practising valid methods, one can mature spiritually. Since God is the highest, no human law can bind God, and He is free to accept and redeem souls through any method. However, it is only emphasized that Śrīvaiṣṇavism is an excellent way to spiritual redemption. It is a safe and sure approach if followed correctly by submitting to the grace of God. However, it is possible that those without clear understanding can falter even in this system and will have to wait out their spiritual redemption. The purpose of this article is to show that having clear spiritual vision is not narrow-mindedness but only firm spiritual focus. The defects attributed to Śrīvaiṣṇavism as being too narrow are born out of ignorance or an incomplete understanding of its architecture. In fact, they are born from the narrow-mindedness that forces one to discredit another system simply because one is not practising it. If Śrīvaiṣṇavism is sectarian, the view of broad-minded teachers is also equally sectarian because it wouldn't admit of any other view than their own. They just manage to package it with a misleading label.
Tolerance & mutual respect are the need of the hour, not the empty pride in affirming a non-existent equality. The purpose of religion is spiritual success, not the display of magic or ego-boosting broad-mindedness.