When we say ārya-dharma, we should understand that this does not only refer to Vedic dharma. Buddhism, Jainism etc. and many others are not Vedic dharmas, yet they belong to ārya-dharma, since there can be no doubt that the propounders of those dharmas were all of Aryan descent.
Now, it seems, we like to say ‘Hindu dharma,’ although undoubtedly we do not find the name ‘Hindu’ within Vedic dharma, yet we claim that it is Vedic dharma.
That dharma which has the Vedas as its foundational śāstra is Vedic. Many dharmas such as Śaiva Śākta, Saura, Gaṇapatya etc. are called Vedic, and a number of these dharmas are respectable; however, with some intelligence we can categorise all these Vedic sampradāyas into two divisions. Thus, according to our consideration, there are two Vedic schools of thought, namely the brāhmaṇa school and the Vaiṣṇava school. Both these schools are founded on the Vedas and are spread throughout India.
Firstly, let us concisely define the brāhmaṇa school. It is not clear what the philosophy of the brāhmaṇa school was in ancient times. I am writing whatever has been the opinion of that class since the time of Śrī Śaṅkarācārya.
Generally, brāhmaṇas are Advaitavādīs. There is a small number of brāhmaṇas that follow pure Vaiṣṇava philosophy. Therefore their philosophy cannot be said to be like that of ordinary brāhmaṇas. Brāhmaṇas believe in one formless and attributeless Brahman. According to their philosophy, there is nothing except for Brahman. The jīva is substantially Brahman. Through bewilderment, the jīva has accepted avidyā (ignorance). Once complete realisation of brahma-jñāna arises, the jīva attains sāyujya (amalgamation) with Brahman. The material world is substantially unreal and māyā is imaginary. When knowledge arises in the jīva, māyā disappears. In order for the jīva to become eligible for knowledge, he must purify his consciousness and meditate upon Brahman. To this end, the guru instructs one to meditate upon a particular form amongst various imaginary gods and goddesses with bhakti, and eventually one achieves brahma-samādhi (union with Brahman).
If one obtains brahma-jñāna, then at the end of life one will achieve jīva-mukti (liberation), then brahma-nirvāna (merging into Brahman) will be attained. According to the brāhmaṇas, it is their strict duty to follow varṇāśrama-dharma, engage in nitya and naimittika-karma (daily and occasional ritual observances) and worship the forms of fierce deities until they attain knowledge. According to their philosophy, no one is able to achieve mukti without being a brāhmaṇa.
Now we will speak about the Vaiṣṇava school. There are many Vaiṣṇavas amongst the brāhmaṇas, so we cannot say that Vaiṣṇavas belongs to the brāhmaṇa school, because it is observed that the two schools are fundamentally opposed to each other. Amongst the brāhmaṇas, those who are Vaiṣṇavas are considered to be brāhmaṇas by varṇa, but by philosophical considerations, they are Vaiṣṇava.
Vaiṣṇavas believe that Bhagavān is only one, He is eternal and sacchidānanda (comprised of eternity, knowledge and bliss). He possesses potencies. By His svarūpa-śakti, He naturally establishes Vaikuṇṭha and all its eternal attributes. The second effect of His svarūpa-śakti is that it produces the jīva-śakti which generates unlimited jīvas, that are eternally different to Bhagavān. This potency’s third effect is that it produces the māyā-śakti which produces unlimited material universes, and generates both the gross and subtle bodies of the bound jīvas. Even though they are inferior to Bhagavāṇ, they are inherently real. The jīva’s eternal dharma is bhagavad-dāsya (servitorship to the Lord), and bhagavad–prema is the supreme objective for the bound jīva. Gradually, through sādhana–bhakti, the ātmā transcends māyā and attains transcendental prema. Merging with Brahman is an unfortunate situation. Brahman is merely Bhagavān’s impersonal appearance, thus it is not an independent benefactor. The eternal form of the Deity is real. True reality cannot be achieved by meditating upon an imaginary form. Bhakti is the only means of sādhana. As far as life is concerned, varṇāśrama-dharma and daily and occasional observances are acceptable, as long they do not hinder Vaiṣṇava principles. Divisions amongst varṇas, as well as higher and lower varṇas may be there while living in the material world, but all human beings are equally entitled to spiritual endeavors. Engaging in work which is favourable is duty, and engaging in work which is useless is not duty – this is obligatory in order to increase kindness to all jīvas and bhagavad-bhakti.
Considering the esoteric principles of these two philosophies, no one can say they are identical. There is a fundamental differences in every issue. Although a Vaiṣṇava and a brāhmaṇa will act like brāhmaṇas at the time of worshipping the śālagrāma-śilā by possessing the same mood, to the extent that both may be considered as like-minded worshipers, the attitude in the heart of both these persons is so contrasting that they cannot be said to be the same in any way. Externally there may be unity in many things, but internally they will follow completely different paths.
The schools of Śaiva, Śākta, Saura, Gāṇapatya worshippers etc. are completely dominated by the doctrine of the brāhmaṇas, because they fully hope to gradually achieve the highest brahma-jñāna and brahma-sāyujya by worship of deities according to the instructions of their guru. While accepting many elements of the rules laid down in Smṛti, the Vaiṣṇavas are independent of the brāhmaṇas. Within the philosophy of the brāhmaṇas, the worship of Viṣṇu is the system to specifically achieve brahma-jñāna, so Vaiṣṇavas with this understanding cannot be called pure Vaiṣṇavas. They are actually brahma-jñānīs, because they have no awareness, or no desire to understand the principles of Vaiṣṇavism. Just like with Śiva and Śakti, they consider the form of Viṣṇu to be imaginary, which is worshipped for jñāna, in order to seek brahma-sāyujya.
Many will consider that the number of pure Vaiṣṇavas to be less, but it is not so. It is natural to come to such a conclusion if one only looks at the land of Bengal, since the number of preachers of the Vaiṣṇava doctrine of Śrī Śrī Mahāprabhu coming from high class families is less; however, if one looks amongst the people of ordinary castes, that number does not seem to be so small. If one looks at the whole of Bhārata, one can see that most of the people in the western Orissa and the South, especially in the provinces of Madras and Bombay, are mostly pure Vaiṣṇavas. The Vaiṣṇava philosophy of Śrī Viṣṇu Svāmī is preached in Bombay, the Vaiṣṇava teachings given by Śrī Rāmānuja are found in the Madras province, and in the region of Orissa has accepted Śrī Mahāprabhu’s Vaiṣṇava dharma and it is honoured there. For the purpose of differentiating the Vaiṣṇavas with the brāhmaṇa followers of Advaitavāda, it is written thus in Śrī Padma Purāṇa:
sampradāya-vihīnā ye mantrās te viphalā-matāḥ
ataḥ kalau bhaviṣyanti catvāraḥ sampradāyinaḥ
śrī-brahma-rudra-sanakā vaiṣṇavāḥ kṣiti-pāvanāḥ
(“Mantras received outside a sampradāya are considered useless. Thus, in the age of Kali, there will be four sampradāyas – Śrī, Brahmā, Rudra and Sanakā. Vaiṣṇavas from these sampradāyas will purify the earth.”)
A closer look reveals that half the population of Bhārata follows pure Vaiṣṇava philosophy. It cannot be expected that all like-minded people will be tattva-jñānīs (philosophers). For this reason, four sampradāyas have been formed in order to gather more people. Even ignorant persons that follow the doctrine of the brāhmaṇas, are unaware of their own philosophy, hence when we separate them, considering those that have that opinion, we are forced to say that amongst the four sampradāyas, there are some Vaiṣṇavas who are mediocre. Those that follow brāhmaṇa philosophy and accept vaiṣṇava-dīkṣā cannot be called pure Vaiṣṇavas, because their mūla-tattva (primary philosophy) and prayojana-tattva (ultimate objective) are not one with Vaiṣṇavism – it is one with Brahman.
At this point, our submission to the general public is that they especially discuss the different philosophies of the two aforementioned schools of thought. If you have more inclination towards the philosophy of the brāhmaṇas, then you should call yourself a follower of the philosophy of the brāhmaṇas. If you have more inclination towards the philosophy of the Vaiṣṇavas, then you should establish yourself as a pure Vaiṣṇava. And what is the point of remaining, wavering between two opinions, with unstable siddhānta?
Both philosophies are fully respectable and successful, thus whatever philosophy one is inclined towards, he will gradually enter that, and by doing so, there will be no reduction in Aryanism, Hinduism or Vedicism. By wavering between conclusions, there is no possibility of any worldly or spiritual gain. Especially during such times of religious strife, harmony and communal force are necessary to increase the strength of dharma. I have briefly written about the philosophy within the schools of Vaiṣṇavism and brahmanism. Readers may want to know what is the ideal character of persons from both schools of thought. On another occasion, we will write about this in detail.