The members of the Sri Vaishnava sect of Hinduism (of which I'm a member), especially the Iyengars (Sri Vaishnavas who are Brahmanas), are divided into two sub-sects, Thenkalais and Vadakalais. These sub-sects both agree on the Visishtadvaita philosophy of Ramanujacharya that characterizes the Sri Vaishnava belief system, but they have several fine-grained but important doctrinal differences; this web page does a good job of laying out the points of dispute. (See my answer here for more details.) In any case, these differences don't have much impact on the day-to-day religious practices of Iyengars, but they do have some: for instance, Vadakalais wear a U-shaped namam on their foreheads while Thenkalais wear a Y-shaped namam, Vadakalais bow down twice while Thenkalais only bow once, etc.

But my question is about another such difference, concerning the words used in the Sankalpam. Before you do any Hindu ritual, you are supposed to begin by saying the Sankalpam, a formulaic utterance where you tell the gods where you're located in the universe, the time and date you're performing the ritual, what ritual you'd like to do, etc. Hindus of all sects say the Sankalpam in almost identical fashion, except for a single line. (See page 2 of this PDF). The line begins with the words "Sri Bhagavat Aagjna", meaning you are doing this ritual with the blessings/approval of Bhagavan or God (similar to the Latin expression Annuit Coeptis). But how the line is continued depends on what sect you belong to.

If you're a Shaiva or Smartha, you would continue the line by saying something like "Parvati Parameshwara Preethiyartham" or just "Parameshwara Preethiyartham", meaning that you are doing the ritual for the sake of Parameshwara (a name of Shiva). But if you're a Sri Vaishnava, what you say next depends on what sub-sect you belong to. Vadakalai Iyengars say something similar to the Shaivites: "Sriman Narayana Preethiyartham", meaning that you are doing the ritual for the sake of Sriman Narayana (a name of Vishnu). Thenkalai Iyengars, on the other hand, say "Bhagavat Kainkarya Rupam", meaning that your performance of the ritual is a form of service to Bhagavan (God).

My question is, what is the philosophical difference between Thenkalais and Vadakalais that could possibly lead to such a small change in wording? Thenkalais and Vadakalais are all Vaishnavas, so presumably they'd all agree that Vishnu can rightly be called Bhagavan, the supreme being. So what's the difference they're quarreling about? Doing something for the sake of a god vs doing something as a form of service to a god seems like splitting hairs to me. Could it be that I'm mistranslating the Sanskrit words Preethiyartha and/or Kainkarya? Or am I missing some subtle philosophical distinction here?

On a side note, I just noticed that the preamble of the Vishnu Sahasranamam contains the phrase "Sri Mahavishnu Preethyarthe". Could that be related to the Vadakalai practice of saying "Sriman Narayana Preethyartham"? If so, why would they substitute the name "Mahavishnu" with the name "Sriman Narayana"?

  • 1
    Thanks for your questions & answers on Vaishnavam. I was born as a Tamil Vaishnavite but grew up as an agnostic and in later stages as Advaitin. Now eager to learn about the philosophy followed by my jati.
    – Bharat
    Aug 7, 2014 at 14:10

2 Answers 2


The Vadakalai Sankalpam:

Sri Bhavatagya sriman Narayana preethiyartham ~ "By the command of Bhagavat, (I do this act) for the pleasure of Lord Narayana". [Prītyā=sans. joy, pleasure]

Since the Vadakalai Sankalpam is practically identical to the smarta in construction, we'll take that as the standard, and let's consider why the tenkalai sankalpam is different.

The Tenkalai Sankalpam:

Sri Bhavatagya bhagavat kainkarya rUpam ~ "By the command of Bhagavat, (I do this) in the form of servitude to the Lord". [Kaiṅkarya=sans. servitude, the job of a slave]

The Tenkalai philosophy emphasises that the jiva is in a perpetual state of bondage to the Lord. Unlike in the Vadakalai worldview, the soul cannot act on its own volition, even to surrender (prapatti), ie, the infamous Marjala Nyaya. For the most hilarious explanation of this theological argument, see here. To perform any act explicitly for pleasing the Lord was amaryaada, (disrespectful), since:- -the soul was offering itself when it in actuality eternally belonged to the Paramaatma, and -not even the physical act of surrendering can force the Lord to save the soul

So instead of pleasing the Lord, you must simply serve, ie, kainkarya. Rather than the standard 'सेवा', which implies voluntary service, this is ' कैङ्कर्य', 'servitude', the involuntary act of a slave. For a more exhaustive explanation of the concept of kainkarya, see here.

As for Mahavishnu prityartham in the Vishnu Sahasranama, this is in the Purvanyasa section, and are the words of Sri Vyasa himself, and therefore, cannot be changed by Thankalais or Vadakalais. This is not to emphasise Mahavishnu over Narayana. Just a few lines before, Sri Vyasa declares that:

श्री वेदव्यासो भगवान ऋषिः। अनुष्टुप् छन्दः। श्रीमहाविष्णुः परमात्मा श्रीमन्नारायणो देवता।

-Sri Vedvyasa is the author of this text, which is composed in the Anushtup metre, the presiding diety of which is "Sri Mahavishnu paramatma Sriman Narayana".

The version of the Sahasranama in the Garuda Purana doesn't have Mahavishnu prityartham.

  • I understand the differences in the Thenkalai-Vadagali views of Prapatti, but I don't understand the distinction between preethiyartham and kainkaryam. Isn't the definition of servitude work done for the will, i.e. the desire or pleasure, of someone else? And the article you linked to says "It should be done in a manner that pleases the Lord (“SEshi uganda kainkaryam”)". So what's the difference between servitude that should be done in a manner that pleases the Lord on the one hand, and something that's done to please the Lord on the other hand? Jul 8, 2014 at 0:49
  • And your answer seems to just be speculation. Do you have any sources that discuss how historically Thenkalais started using "Bhagavat Kainkarya Rupam" in the Sankalpam? Perhaps it was a change started by Pillai Lokacharya or Manavala Mamuniga? Jul 8, 2014 at 6:34
  • As far as the Sahasranamam goes, I wasn't asking why Vadagalais don't change Vyasa's words in the Sahasranamam. I was asking why Vadagalais don't adopt the same "Mahavishnu apreethiyartham" that Vyasa's uses. Jul 8, 2014 at 6:36
  • Your question was "what is the philosophical difference...", and I think my answer adequately addresses that, based in Sri Vaishnava philosophy and Sanskrit vocabulary. What you're asking now is "how & when", which is a different question.
    – Valarauko
    Jul 8, 2014 at 9:27
  • The Kainkarya source is Tenkalai, and uses that word exclusively. Where other traditions would use 'seva', they use 'anugnya kainkarya', ie, 'not ordered servitude'. It's not ordered by lord, but still must be done in the mode of servitude. This understanding of every act as a "kainkarya rupam" is laid out in the link.
    – Valarauko
    Jul 8, 2014 at 9:33

As a practicing Tenkalai studying under an Acharya, I can point out that the Tenkalais view the nature of the jeeva as being paritantriyam, wholly dependent upon the mercy of the Supreme Being.

The Smartha/Vadakalai term preethyartham suggests we out of our own volition perform this action to please Him such that He will grant us some Palam (Moksham in the case of a prapanna).

The use of Kainkaryam implies the cause and effect relationship is moot, our actions simply responses to His Mercy in a spirit of adimai.

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