Please consider the following words of the great Gaudiya Vaishnava Acharyas Srila Thakura Bhaktivinoda and Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Saraswati Thakura from their book Vaishnavism and Nam-Bhajan.
‘Vaishnavism and Nam-Bhajan’ excerpts
On pages 2-3, these two illustrious Chaitanyaite Vaishnava Saints give the following astounding definition of “Vaishnava.”
Real Vaishnavism: The word ‘Vaishnavism’ indicates the normal, eternal and natural condition, functions and devotional characteristics of all individual souls in relation to Vishnu, the Supreme, the All-pervading Soul. But an unnatural, unpleasant and regrettable sense has been attributed to the word making one understand by the word Vaishnava (literally a pure and selfless worshipper of Vishnu) a human form with twelve peculiar signs (Tilak) and dress on, worshipping many gods under the garb of a particular God and hating any other human form who marks himself with different signs, puts on a different dress and worships a different God in a different way and designated by the words ‘Shaiva,’ ‘Shakta,’ ’Ganapatya,’ ‘Jaina,’ ‘Buddhist,’ ‘Mahomedan,’ ‘Christian,’ etc.
This is the most unnatural, unpleasant and regrettable sense of the word ‘Vaishnava,’ which literally and naturally means one who worships Vishnu out of pure love expecting nothing from Him in return.
Vishnu, the Supreme, All-pervading Soul, gives life and meaning to all that is. He is the highest unchallengeable Truth devoid of illusion everywhere and existing through eternity. He is Sat, ever existing, Chit, all-knowing, Ananda, ever-blissful and fully free. He is in jivas and jivas are in Him, as are the rays in the glowing sun and the particles of water in the vast rolling ocean. As nothing but heat and light of the sun, and coldness and liquidity,etc. of the sea is found in the constituents of the rays and the particles of water respectively, so nothing but Sat, Chit or free will and Ananda is found in the jiva. The ingredients and attributes of the whole must remain in the part in a smaller degree. So the part is identical with the whole when taken qualitatively and different when taken quantitatively. This is the true and eternal relation between jiva and Vishnu. So He always prevails over jiva who is ever subject to Him. As the service of the master is the fundamental function of the servant, so the service of Vishnu is natural and inherent in jiva and it is called Vaishnavata or Vaishnavism and every jiva is a Vaishnava. As a person possessing immense riches is called a miser if he does not display and make proper use of them, so jivas when they do not display Vaishnavata are called Non-Vaishnavas or Avaishnavas though in reality they are so.
And from The Bhagavata we read on page 18:
The superiority of Bhagavan consists in the uniting of all sorts of theistical worship into one excellent principle in human nature which passes by the name ‘bhakti.’ This word has no equivalent in the English Language. Piety, devotion, resignation, and spiritual love unalloyed with any sort of petition except in the way of repentance, compose the highest principle of bhakti. The Bhagavata tells us to worship God in that great and invaluable principle which is infinitely superior to human knowledge and the principle of yoga.
Our short compass will not admit of an explanation of the principle of bhakti beautifully rising from its first stage of application in the form of brahmic worship in the shape of admiration which is styled the shanta-rasa, to the fifth or the highest stage of absolute union in Love with God, sweetly styled the madhurya-rasa of prema-bhakti. A full explanation will take a big volume which is not our objective here to compose. Suffice it to say that the principle of bhakti passes five distinct stages in the course of its development into its highest and purest form. Then again when it reaches the last form, it is susceptible of further progress from the stage of prema (Love) to that of mahabhava which is in fact a complete transition into the spiritual universe where God alone is the Bridegroom of our soul.
And on page 32:
The Bhagavata, therefore, allows us to call Vyasa and Narada as shaktyavesha avataras of the infinite energy of God, and the spirit of the text goes far to honor all great reformers and teachers who lived and will live in other countries. The Vaishnava is ready to honor all great men without distinction of caste, because they are filled with the energy of God. See how universal is the religion of the Bhagavata. It is not intended for a certain class of Hindus alone, but it is a gift to man at large, in whatever country he is born and in whatever society he is bred. In short, Vaishnavism is the Absolute Love binding all men together into the infinite unconditioned and absolute God. May it, peace, reign forever in the whole universe in the continual development of its purity by the exertion of the future heroes, who will be blessed according to the promise of the Bhagavata with powers from the Almighty Father, the Creator, Preserver and the Annihilator of all things in Heaven and Earth.
Srila Bhaktivinoda, born in 1838, also said (page 32):
Plato looked at the peak of the Spiritual question from the West and Vyasa made the observation from the East.
Regarding divisive sectarianism or the ‘party spirit’ he also wrote in The Bhagavata:
The true critic is a generous judge, void of prejudices and party spirit. One who is at heart the follower of Mohammed will certainly find the doctrines of the New Testament to be a forgery by the fallen angel. A Trinitarian Christian, on the other hand, will denounce the precepts of Mohammed as those of an ambitious reformer. The reason is simply that the critic should be of the same disposition of mind as the author whose merits he is required to judge. Thoughts have different ways. One who is trained up in the thoughts of the Unitarian Society or of the Vedanta of the Benares school, will scarcely find any piety in the faith of the Vaishnavas. An ignorant Vaishnava, on the other hand, whose business it is to beg from door to door in the name of Nityananda, will find no piety in the Christians. This is because the Vaishnava does not think in the way in which the Christian thinks of his own religion. It may be that both the Christian and the Vaishnava will utter the same sentiment, but they will never stop their fight with each other only because they have arrived at their common conclusion by different ways of thought. Thus it is that a great deal of ungenerousness enters into the arguments of the pious Christians when they pass their imperfect opinion on the religion of the Vaishnavas.
And finally Srila Bhaktivinoda has lamented:
Oh! What a trouble it is to get rid of prejudices gathered in unripe years!
So in the above few carefully chosen words of two of our great Vaishnava Acharyas, we see a concise description of the prejudice that continues to divide us as jivas and vaishnavas, and of the transcendent love that can unite us as jivas and vaishnavas in a generous spirit of non-sectarian pure bhakti.
External matters of race, class, dress, lineage markings, language, ritual differences, etc. are not significant when compared to the fact that we are all jiva ‘children’ of the same God. What is spiritually significant however, is our fundamental difference in devotion as a matter of rasa, or our natural taste for specific flavors (rasas) of Divine Love, in our personal relationships with God. While these various flavors (shanta, dasa, sakhya, vatsalya, madhurya) and their tasteful combinations may predominate in various religions, and even in different lineages of the same religion, they should never be a cause of the sins of so-called ‘spiritual pride’ or prejudice, and hostility towards other devotees of our One Lord. Our differences in devotional rasas are in fact a cause for celebration! Such variegatedness in Divine Love accommodates the unique capacity to love-and-be-loved of every being ! We exist as unique persons of free-will for no other reason than to express this God-given capacity !
So let us celebrate our tasteful diversity in the all-inclusive unity of non-sectarian Divine Love. The Charismatic Sankirtan Movement of Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai was not meant to be a sectarian campaign restricted to those who worshipped Sri Chaitanya or Sri Sri Radha-Krishna in a single lineage. Nor was it meant to simply unite the various factions of Madhva-related Vaishnavas, or even only the ‘Hindu’ Vaishnavas! The non-sectarian Sankirtan Movement of Sri Sri Gaura-Nitai’s time embraced, and was embraced by even Shaivites, Muslims and Buddhists ! This is because it was truly non-sectarian and universal in its appeal to the very heart of peoples’ divinely inherent desire and ability to love and be loved! If we study global religious history, we can see that NAM-BHAJAN or the simplest form of the heart-felt invocation of God by His Holy Name (which is infinite) is common to all the great bhakti traditions. Vaishnavas, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Pure Land Buddhists, Shaivites, members of many Indigenous Traditions and other devotees of the Supreme Lord, since ancient times and to the present, practiced and still practice nam-bhajan. Our Acharyas have emphasized that The Absolute, Sri Krishna-Vishnu-Paramatma has hundreds and millions of Holy Names and there are NO hard-as-fast rules for invoking Him by any of them! As our loving Most Significant Other (King, Model Citizen, Master, Servant, Friend, Parent, Child, or Lover) God delights to hear His Name from our lips and to know that we desire His company within our hearts! To invoke God by His Name is to acknowledge His Being and to re-establish our (forgotten) unique personal relationship with Him. The pleasure that the Absolute experiences, when the finite jiva acknowledges Him, is gifted back to the jiva unlimitedly as the jiva hears God’s own loving reply in the depths of their soul !
Before nama (the name), there is certainly sat and chit, but with the dawn of God’s holy name alone, comes the personal revelation of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, with His bhakti and ananda of love and bliss. Thus it is the mission of the non-sectarian Bhakti Sankirtan Movement to revive the love affair of all jivas / Vaishnavas with their Lord, through promotion of the simplest and most sublime practice of nam-bhajan, or invocation of the Lord through His infinite Holy Name. In solitary prayer (japa), or in communal prayer through sankirtan, the heart-felt invocation of the holy name, nam bhajan, God’s logos (Greek Catholic) or Hashem (Hebrew Jewish), etc., reunites the soul and souls with Godhead. Thus God’s Self-introduction or Self-revelation to humanity in His Holy Name is humanity’s invitation to awaken from mere Being (Sat) and Consciousness (Chit) to the Bliss (Ananda) of God’s Love Divine.
May it, peace, reign forever in the whole universe in the continual development of its purity by the exertion of the future heroes, who will be blessed according to the promise of the Bhagavata with powers from the Almighty Father, the Creator, Preserver and the Annihilator of all things in Heaven and Earth.
AMEN ! AUM ! and HARE KRISHNA !