Some notes from SM Srinivasa Chari’s Vaishnavism: Its Philosophy, Theology and Religious Discipline.



In Vaishnavism, kaiṅkarya is a service (seva) rendered to others. It is laid down as an obligatory duty for a Vaishnava. The performance of religious duties as laid down by sacred texts takes the form of kaiṅkarya, if these duties are carried out without any selfish motive, purely for the pleasure of God (bhagavat-priti). In the same way, social and ethical duties performed in the spirit of Nishkama karma as advocated by Bhagavad Gita would fall under kaiṅkarya. Some Vaishnava acharyas extoll the kaiṅkarya done in the physical world to God manifested in the archaa form as beautiful idols in the temples. The spiritual delight and inner joy derived from such services is compared to the experience of God by mystics.

In addition to the sankalpa, the orthodox Vaishnavas say at the commencement of a karma with sincere faith that the very Supreme Being caused it (svayameva karayati). Similarly, at the conclusion of the karma, they repeat that it was got accomplished with the grace of God (svayameva karitavan). The implication of it is that the individual is a tool in the hands of the Almighty and whatever he does is not for his selfish purpose but for the pleasure of God. This is the height of renouncement of the ego (ahamkara) and the notion of mine (mamakara). A service done in this spirit removes the sins by earning the grace of God and thereby gradually leads one to the attainment of God which is the highest goal of human life.

Under Ramanuja, kaiṅkarya changed its form a little, with an emphasis on service in the temples. The three major and oldest Vaishnava temples at Srirangam, Kanchipuram and Melkote follow to this day the mode of worship introduced by Ramanuja in the eleventh century. Any service done in a temple ranging from the simplest act of bringing flowers to the highest task of construction of a temple, is a kaiṅkarya for God. There are a variety of such services that one can render in a temple. To name a few, lighting the oil lamp, offering flowers, waving the fan before the deity, bringing water from the river or pond for Lord’s worship, arranging food offering for God, taking out the deity in procession, recitation of songs or hymns about God, prostration before God, going round the temples, cleaning of the floor of the temples and many such acts. All these are regarded as kaiṅkarya. According to one’s capacity and choice any one of these acts performed with devotion is bound to earn the grace of God. Irrespective of one’s caste or social status, everyone can easily participate in such activities.

Ramanuja has recommended five kinds of services which can be brought under the category of kainkriyas. According to tradition, these were the last words uttered by Ramanuja for the benefit of his pupils at the time of his death. According to him, a Vaisnava should not worry about his afterlife since he has been assured of moksa with the performance of self-surrender to God. Nor should he worry about his present life since that will go on in accordance with his past karma. He should, therefore, engage himself to the extent possible in one of the five services. The first and the most important one in the opinion of Ramanuja, is to study the Sri-bhäsya, the learned commentary on the Vedänta-sütra and propagate the teachings contained therein. Secondly, if a person is not competent to do the first task, he should engage himself in listening to the teachings contained in the Tamil hymns of the Alvars and impart the same to others. Thirdly, if a person is not able to do it, he can undertake the services at the holy temples in the form of arranging for the offer of food stuffs, flowers, lighting of lamps etc. If a person cannot perform any of these services for the temples, it is suggested that as a fourth type of kaiṅkarya, he may chant the sacred secret mantra (dvaya1) along with contemplation on its inner philosophic meaning2. Even if this cannot be done, it is advised, as the fifth easy type of service, that one should spend the time in the company of a devout Vaisnava.




  1. “śrīman nārayaṇa caraṇau śaraṇam prapadye; śrīmate nārayaṇāya namo namaḥ”. An exploration of this mantram by Fracis X Clooney is here. Francis X Clooney translates it as thus: “I approach for refuge the feet of Narayana with Sri; praise to Narayana with Sri”. He also says, echoing Natatoor Ammal, “Although its utterane is precious to the orthodox tradition and expresses the truth of aum, it is not exclusive to makes or certain castes but is common to all.” 

  2. Parasara Bhattar’s Asthaloki lists the ten key truths learned from the ten component parts of the mantra: “This mantra of six words and two clauses, learned in the Veda, protects the person who meditates on its ten meanings: [Sri’s] leading the way [Sri]; [their] eternal union [mar]: the class of appropriate qualities [narayana]; reference to [Narāyana’s] body [caranau]; the means [Saranam]: the part to be done [by the individual, prapadye]; the supreme couple as the well-known goal [Srimate nararayandya]; lordship [narayana]; the prayer [for protection, expressed in - aya]: the destruction of the greater obstacles (namah).”