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Shrinathji (at center) with Ashtasakhis

The Puṣṭimārga or Pushtimarg (lit.'Path of Nourishing, Flourishing'), also known as Vallabha Sampradāya, is a sect of Vaishnavism. It was founded in the early 16th century by Vallabha (1479–1531) and was later expanded by his descendants, particularly Viṭṭhalanātha. Pushtimarg adherents worship Kr̥ṣṇa, and tradition follows universal-love-themed devotional practices of youthful Krishna which are found in the Bhagavata Purana and those related to pastimes of Govardhana Hill.[1][2][3]

The Puṣṭimārga sampradāya subscribes to the Śuddhadvaita philosophy of Vallabha. According to this philosophy, Krishna is considered to be the supreme being, the source of everything that exists and the human soul is imbued with Krishna's divine light and spiritual liberation results from Krishna's grace.[4] Kr̥ṣṇa is worshipped in the sect through sevā, whose svarūpas or idols are meticulously and lavishly served and entertained with food, drink, music, and art in which his daily routine as a youth in Braj is recreated.

The followers of this tradition are called Pushtimargis[5] or Pushtimargiya Vaishnavas.[6] It has significant following in Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, as well as its regional diaspora around the world.[1][7] The followers in Gujarat tend to be of the Bhāṭiā, Luhānā, Baniā, Māravāḍī, and Kaṇabī Paṭela castes.[8] The Shrinathji Temple in Nathdwara is the main shrine of Pushtimarg, which traces its origin back to 1669.[7][9]



Main article: Vallabhacharya

Vallabha was born into a Telugu Brahmin family in South India.[10] He received a traditional education in Sanskrit scriptures and was precocious student.[11][12][13] In 1494 he had a vision in which he acquired the Brahmasambandha mantra from Kr̥ṣṇa which was to be used to clean the faults of a human soul. He first bestowed the mantra on Dāmodardās Harsānī who would become the first member of the Puṣṭimārga.[11][14] When he went to Govardhan Hill he declared that the stone being worshipped as Devadamana was actually the svarūpa of Śrī Nāṭhajī and instituted the formal sevā of the deity.[11][14] He adopted the houshoulder form of life and had two sons, Gopīnātha and Viṭṭhalanātha.[11][15] In Vijayanagara he won a religious debate and was awarded the title ācārya of the Viṣṇusvāmi sampradāya.[11][16] Throughout his life he made three pilgrimage tours of India where he won converts mainly from the Gangetic plain and Gujarat, with converts mainly belonging to mercantile or agricultural castes to whom the ideals of purity were appealing.[17] He died in 1530 designating his elder son Gopīnātha as his successor.[11]

Vallabhacharya discovers Sri Nathji, at Mount Govardhan


Main article: Vitthalanatha

Viṭṭhalanātha and his seven sons

In 1540 the Gauḍiya priests of Śrī Nāthajī who were hired by Vallabha were expelled from Govardhan Hill giving the Puṣṭimārga sole control over the deity's worship.[18][19] In 1542 Gopīnātha died with his son soon following him, thus leaving Viṭṭhalanāṭha as the leader of the Puṣṭimārga.[20][21] From 1543 to 1581 Viṭṭhalanāṭha went on fundraising tours to Gujarat where he converted many merchants, agriculturalists, and artisans. He was also very successful in obtaining royal Hindu and Mughal patronage for the sect.[22][23][24] He heavily transformed the simple sevā of his father's time into a deeply aesthetic experience that sought to recreate the daily life of Kr̥ṣṇa in which he was offered expensive clothing, jewelry, perfumes, and sumptuous meals. The art of paintings and poetry were also added to rituals in order to enhance their appeal.[25] Among his seven sons he distributed major svarūpas of Kr̥ṣṇa.[26][27][28] Upon Viṭṭhalanātha's death the spiritual leadership of the sect was divided among his seven sons among whom he distributed major svarūpas of Kr̥ṣṇa and granted the sole right to bestow the brahmasambandha mantra, that is, initiate new members. Thus the Puṣṭimārga was divided into Seven Houses (Sāt Ghar) or Seven Seats (Sāt Gaddī), with all patrilineal male descendants of Vallabhācārya having these rights. These descendants have the titles "mahārājā" (Great King) or "gosvāmi" (Lord of Cows), and the chief mahārāja of the first house has the title of tilkāyat and is primus inter pares.[26][27][28][29]

Later history in Braj

Viṭṭhalanātha's sons continued to be successful in obtaining patronage of the sect from Mughal emperors. Viṭṭhalanāṭha's son Gokulanātha authored many texts in Sanskrit and particularly in Braj Bhasha which reemphasized the themes of Vallabha's works in a more accessible language.[30] Gokulanātha is considered the most prominent Puṣṭimārga figure of the era, and according to sectarian sources defended the sect's right to wear their sectarian tilaks and tulsi malas from a Shaiva-Tantric ascetic named Jadrup who exerted great influence over the emperor Jahangir.[31]

In the early 1600s the houses were disputing over the rights to perform worship to Śrī Nāthajī, and the emperor Shāh Jahān sided with the tilkāyat Viṭṭhalarāy that the First House held precedence over the others.[32] The Third and Sixth Houses also disputed over the course of the century over the worship of the deity Bālakr̥ṣṇa, resulting the exodus of both Houses out of Braj to Surat, Gujarat.[33][34] The Third House eventually moved to the region of Mewar in Rajasthan due to the invasion of the Marāṭhās where they were welcomed by the kings and granted refuge. In Braj, the Jāṭ rebellion under the reign of emperor Aurangzeb cause many religious communities including the remaining houses of the Puṣṭimārga to flee to Rajasthan where they received protection. The First House who were the custodians of Śrī Nāthajī settled in a village in Mewar that would become Nāthadvārā.[35][36]

Nandmahotsava pichvai from c. 1900 with āratī performed by Govardhanalāl.

19th century

According to Pocock, the Pushtimarg was at its height in the late 19th century.[37]

The Maharaj Libel Case, in which a mahārājā from Surat named Jadunath Brizratanji sued the journalist Karsandas Mulji on the charges of libel in the Supreme Court of Bombay, was widely publicized. In the paper Satya Prakāśa Mulji had called the Vallabha Sampradāya a degenerate sect with false doctrines, and accused its mahārājās (naming Jadunath Brizratanji) of forcing female devotees to have sexual relations with them. The British judges sided with Mulji, and the Puṣṭimārga's reputation was tainted, and the sect viewed negatively by Western scholars until the late 20th century.[11]

The tenure of tilakāyat Govardhanalāl (tilkāyat from 1876 to 1934) is often described as the "golden age" of both Nathdwara and the Puṣṭimārga.[38]

20th century

In the 20th century, the Pushtimarg prospered thanks to the acquired affluence of some of its members, primarily Gujarati merchants. The Gujarati diaspora led to the foundation of important Pushtimarg centers in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.[39] However, the sect generally not very well known even in India itself. The mahārājās themselves no longer have the same level of religious and secular authority over their followers, and are much more restrained in terms of their public presence.[11][40]

Key Tenets


Main article: Shuddhadvaita

According to Vallabha, the society of his time was ridden with ills such as bloodshed, barbarians, foreigners, the departing of gods from temples, an impure Ganges river, the presence of heterodox communities, ineffective religious rites, disappearance of the caste system, and the prevalence of greed, hypocrisy, and impurity. In response Vallabha formulated the philosophy of Śuddhādvaita, in opposition to the Ādvaita Vedānta of Śaṅkara, which he called Maryādā Mārga or Path of Limitations. Vallabha rejected the concept of Māyā, stating that the world was a manifestation of the Supreme Absolute and could not be tainted, nor could it change.[41] According to Vallabha, Brahman consists of existence (sat), consciousness (cit), and bliss (ānanda), and manifests completely as Kr̥ṣṇa himself.[3] In this philosophy Kr̥ṣṇa as Brahman is considered the supreme and sole being, and that Brahma, Śiva, and Viṣṇu are his limited avatāras.[42]

If someone forgot this truth about Kr̥ṣṇa and his nature, it was due to ignorance derived from material attachments. However, for certain select individuals this ignorance could be removed through divine grace (puṣṭi) that would move one to a path of devotion where one would rely on Kr̥ṣṇa's grace alone. Such people who were admitted into the Path of Grace or Puṣṭi Mārga.[43]

The purpose of this tradition is to perform sevā (selfless service) out of love for Kr̥ṣṇa. According to Saha, Vallabhācārya states through single minded religiosity, a devotee would achieve awareness that there is nothing in the word that is not Kr̥ṣṇa.[43] According to Barz, in Śuddhādvaita the concept of uddhāra or lifting a jīva out of ignorance is granted soley through the grace of Kr̥ṣṇa who may have seemingly unknowlable reasoning. He states in Śuddhādvaita philosophy uddhāra may be granted to any jīva regardless of sectarian membership in the Puṣṭimārga or conduction of sevā, as it is granted rather solely through Kr̥ṣṇa's independent will.[44]

Vallabha stated that religious disciplines that focused on Vedic sacrifices, temple rituals, puja, meditation, and yoga had limited value. The school rejects ascetic lifestyle and cherishes householder lifestyle, wherein the followers see themselves as participants and companions of Krishna, and their daily life as an ongoing raslila.[4]


Vallabha acception four prior works as the major bases for his doctrines: the Vedas, the Bhagavad Gītā, the Brahma Sūtra, and the Bhāgavata Purāṇa.[45] However in practice the Vedas are not studied, whereas the Bhagavad Gītā and Bhāgavata Purāṇa are.[46] Vallabha composed many philosophical and devotional books during his lifetime which includes:[47]

  1. Subhodinī, a partial commentary on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa
  2. Aṇubhāṣya, a partial commentary on the Brahmasūtra of Bādarāyaṇa
  3. Tattvārthadīpanibandha, a text interpreting existing Hindu scriptures through Vallabha's philosophy of Śuddhādvaita
  4. Tattvārthadīpanibandhaprakāśa, a commentary on the Tattvārthadīpanibandha
  5. Ṣoḍaśagrantha, sixteen treatises on important facets of Śuddhādvaita and theology of the Puṣṭimārga

Later figures author prose texts in Braj Bhasha, most notably the Caurāsī Vaiṣṇavan kī Vārtā by Vallabhācārya's grandson Gokulnāth (1552-1641) and Gokulnāth's grandnephew Harirāy (1590-1715). The Caurāsī Vaiṣṇavan kī Vārtā details accounts of 84 Vaiṣṇava devotees of the Puṣṭimārga who were the disciples of Vallabhācārya. Complementing the text is the Do Sau Bāvan Vaiṣṇavan kī Vārtā by the same authors detailing the lives of 252 disciples of Viṭṭhalanātha. Gokulnāth is attributed to be the original collector of these accounts but they were likely not written down but rather collections of his discourses. His grandnephew Harirāy is attributed to be the final editor of the two texts. The Caurāsī Vaiṣṇavan kī Vārtā exists in two recensions, one without commentary and one with commentary written by Harirāy. The recension with commentary is called the Tīn Janma kī Līlā version and generally contains more episodes but is more concise than the recension without commentary.[11][48]

Harirāy is also the author of the Braj Bhasha text Śrī Nāthajī Prākaṭya kī Vārtā which recounts the history of Śrīnāthajī from the svarūpa's appearance on Govardhan hill until the removal to Nathadwara in 1672.[11][48] The Nijavārta and Śrī Ācāryajī ke Prākaṭya Vārta describe the life of Vallabha, while the Baiṭhaka Caritra describes Vallabha's travels around India. The Bhāvasindhu recounts information about the followers of Vallabha and Viṭṭhalanātha, and Viṭṭhalanātha has his own Nijavārta and Baiṭhaka Caritra.[49]

Another important text is the Vallabhākhyān, a Gujarati poem by Gopāḷdās (a devotee of Viṭṭhalanātha) composed before 1577 that praises the family of Vallabha, and was one of the earliest to establish the divinity of Vallabha, Viṭṭhalanātha, and their descendants.[50]


Brahmsambandha and Initiation

Vallabhachari tilak

The formal initiation into the Pushtimarg is through the administration of the Brahmasambandha mantra. The absolute and exclusive rights to grant this mantra, in order to remove the doṣas (faults) of a jīva (soul) lie only with the direct male descendants of Vallabhācārya. According to Vallabha, he received the Brahmasambandha mantra from Kr̥ṣṇa one night in Gokula. The next morning Vallabha administered the mantra to Damodaradāsa Harasānī, who would become the first member of the sampradāya.[11][51]

In Vallabhācārya's time, an (adult) to-be devotee would ask Vallabha to admit him, and if Vallabha was willing to take the potential devotee, he would ask him to bathe and return. Vallabha would then administer the mantra, asking the devotee to use Kr̥ṣṇa's name and to devotee everything he had to Kr̥ṣṇa, after which Vallabha would begin the spiritual education on doctrines and texts.[11][51]

In modern times the majority of members of the sect are born into Pushtimarg families, with the administering of the mantra being split in two ceremonies. The first when the children are about five years old, is when the first part of the mantra: "śrī kr̥ṣṇaḥ śaraṇam mama" and a tulasī necklace is given. When the boys turn twelve or before girl's marriage, a day-long fast occurs. The devotee to be then is asked to devote his or her mind, body, wealth, wife, household, senses, and everything else to Kr̥ṣṇa, after which he or she is considered a proper member of the sampradāya. The mantra and initiation is always and may only be performed by the direct male descendants of Vallabha.[11][51]

Houses and Svarūpas in the Puṣtimārga

19th century print of almost all major svarūpas (missing Bālakr̥ṣṇa)

Viṭṭhalanātha had seven sons among whom he distributed nine major svarūpas of Kr̥ṣṇa that were worshipped by the Puṣṭimārga. Each son founded a lineage that served as leaders of each house or seat of the sampradāya. Here are the sons of Viṭṭhalanātha, the svarūpas and where they currently reside.[26][27][28][29][52][53]

  1. Giridhara, whose descendants hold Śrī Nāthajī (Nāthadvāra, Rajasthan), Śrī Navanītapriyajī (Nāthadvāra, Rajasthan), and Śrī Mathureśajī, (Koṭā, Rajasthan)
  2. Govindarāya, whose descendants hold Śrī Viṭṭhalanāthajī (Nāthadvāra, Rajasthan)
  3. Bālakr̥ṣṇa, who descendants hold Śrī Dvārakānāthajī (Kāṁkarolī, Rajasthan)
  4. Gokulanātha, whose descendants hold Śrī Gokulanāthajī (Gokula, Uttar Pradesh)
  5. Raghunātha, whose descendants hold Śrī Gokulacandramājī (Kāmabana, Rajasthan)
  6. Yadunātha, whose descendants hold Śrī Bālakr̥ṣṇajī (Sūrata, Gujarat)[note 1]
  7. Ghanaśyāma, whose descendants hold Śrī Madanamohanajī (Kāmabana, Rajasthan)

The nine listed svarūpas in Puṣṭimārga theology are considered svayambhu (self-born), sevya-svarūpa (having been offered sevā by Vallabha and Viṭṭhalanātha), and nava-nīdhi (nine receptacles of treasure).[54]

They eldest gosvāmi of the First House (descendants of Giridhara) holds the title of tilakāyat, and are the custodians of Śrī Nāthajī. The tilakāyat is considered the highest authority in the Puṣṭimārga.[55][56][57]

Other svarūpas and the eighth house

Yadunātha's descendants also hold Śrī Kalyāṇarāijī (Baroda, Gujarat) and Śrī Mukundarāyajī (Vārāṇasī, Uttar Pradesh).[52][58]

The eighth house was founded by Tulasīdāsa aka Lālajī, whose descendants hold Śrī Gopināthajī (Br̥ndābana, Uttar Pradesh, until 1947 at Ḍerāgāzīkhāṁ, Sindh). Tulasīdāsa was an adopted son of Viṭṭhalanātha, and the svarūpa in his descendants' possession is of less significance than the other svarūpas. The eight house also holds Nāgarajī (Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, until 1947 at Dera Ismail Khan, Northwest Frontier Province) and Giridharajī (Rajpura, Punjab, until 1947 at Bahawalpur, Punjab).[52][59]


19th century photograph of a group of Vallabhacharya maharajas

The daily sevā and darśana periods are meant to portray a day in the life of Kr̥ṣṇa Gopāla, or Kr̥ṣṇa as Cow-protector. In the Pushtimarg, sevā is the unselfish worship of a svarūpa, under the doctrine that the svarūpa is senient and appreciates refined food, clothing, and the arts. The themes of the sevā are based on the līlās ("pastimes" or "play") of Kr̥ṣṇa as depicted in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Based on the līlā, appropriate pure and high quality food and clothing are offered to the svarūpa. The svarūpa is entertained by singers and poets, with paintings called pichvaīs being placed in the background to enhance the bhāva ("emotion") of the sevā.[11]

Through sevā, members of the sampradāya are meant to experience bhāva in order to understand the rasa ("essence") of Kr̥ṣṇa's līlās, through which a devotee experiences the unselfish love for Kr̥ṣṇa. Sevā occurs privately at the home, but also an important aspect is communal sevā in a havelī.[11] In the Puṣṭimārga the icons of Kr̥ṣṇa are installed not in temples (mandir) but in mansions (havelī). The havelī is considered to be the private dwelling of Kr̥ṣṇa and entrance is only granted at appointed darśana times.[60]

Daily Darśanas

  1. Maṅgalā, the awakening of the svarūpa in the morning and serving of light breakfast
  2. Śr̥ṅgāra, the adornment of apprioriate attire for the day
  3. Gvāla, the grazing of cows in pasture
  4. Rājabhōga, the main meal of the day, with the svarūpa being put to sleep afterwards
  5. Utthāpan, the awakening from the afternoon nap
  6. Bhoga, the light afternoon dinner
  7. Sandhyārati, the evening worship with lighted lamps
  8. Śayana, the putting to sleep of the svarūpa and closing of the havelī

There are four main types of bhāva: dāsya, sakhya, madhura, and most imortantly vātsalya. Vātsalya bhāva treats Kr̥ṣṇa as if he were a child and the devotee his caring mother or father. Madhura bhāva places the devotee in the role of a gopī (cowherd-girl of Braj) who take part in the love-play of Kr̥ṣṇa's līlās in the nighttime. Sakhya bhāva places the devotee in the role of gopa (cowherd) as a friend of Kr̥ṣṇa's games and cowherding activites in the daytime. Dāsya bhāva treats the devotee as a humble servant of Kr̥ṣṇa as a king who praises his master while demeaning himself. This bhāva is of less presence in the Puṣṭimārga as Vallabha put a greater emphasis on the personal and emotional relationship on the first three bhāvas.[61]


Birthplace of Vallabhacharya, Prakatya Baithak, Champaran

Main article: Pushtimarg Baithak

Baithak, literally "seat", is the site considered sacred by the followers of the Pushtimarg for performing devotional rituals. These sites are spread across India and are chiefly concentrated in Braj region in Uttar Pradesh and in western state of Gujarat. Total 142 Baithaks are considered sacred; 84 of Vallabhacharya, 28 of his son Viththalanath Gusainji and 30 of his seven grandsons. They mark public events in their lives.[62]


Gouache painting on paper from Nathdwara representing the autumn Annakuta Festival. This annual festival is observed by donating a mountain of food, usually rice, to the temple to symbolise the moment Krishna lifted Mount Govardhan to protect his villagers. In Nathdwara the food is then given to the Bhils, the tribal peoples living in Mewar. The left arm of the god Srinathji, a form of Krishna, is raised and the murti (idol) is positioned in front of a picchvai decorated with a stylised floral pattern. Two priests attend the god, positioned on either side of the offering.

In the Puṣṭimārga, several festivals are celebrated including Holī, Kr̥ṣṇa Janmāṣṭamī, Nāgapañcamī, and Annakūṭa. On the festival days the sevā is designed to match with the bhāva of the holiday.[11]


Main articles: Haveli Sangeet and Aṣṭachāp

Music plays a key role in sevā in the form of kīrtans. The aṣṭachāp, or group of eight poets who composed Braj Bhasha devotional poetry and kīrtans are revered in the sect. According to sectarian sources the eight poets were Kumbhanadāsa, Sūradāsa, Nandadāsa, Paramānandadāsa, Kr̥ṣṇadāsa, Caturbhujadāsa, Govindasvāmī, and Chītasvāmī.[11][63] The most famous of the eight is Sūradāsa, whose relationship with the Puṣṭimārga is most tenuous, and some of the members also have historically unclear relations to the sect.[64]

In modern times, the musical liturgy contains nearly ten thousand padas by thirty-forty poets including the aṣṭachāp. The kīrtans are categorized in to five major groups: Nitya (daily), Utsav (festival), Baddhāī (good wishes [used for birthdays]), Malhār (rainy season), and Dhamār (spring).[65]


  1. ^ There is a succession dispute among the descendants of Yadunātha over the primacy of their svarūpas.


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Further reading