The presiding deity of this group is Vishnu (the sustainer), who is said to maintain and uphold the universe. Vishnu is said to appear in incarnation whenever mankind is in spiritual and material need. So far, nine incarnations (avataras) have come, including Rama and Krishna. The tenth and last, it is believed, will come in the future. He is Kalki, and it is believed he will bring the present Kali age to an end and bring the new golden age. The wife of Vishnu is Lakshmi, who represents prosperity in all spheres. This group includes vast numbers of people in India today, though very few would admit to following the path of tantra. In fact, they would probably be offended if you made such a suggestion, for much abuse has been heaped on tantra through misunderstanding. This sect of tantra has been absorbed into the main stream of Hinduism, of which it is probably the most popular and most widely practised path. It is mainly a path of devotion (bhakti) and thousands of beautiful stirring songs have been composed and are sung as an expression of this devotion.
The two most popular avataras of Vishnu are Rama and Krishna. Rama is the main figure of the mythological masterpiece called the Ramayana, in which his wife is Sita. This wonderful epic tells the universal story, in allegorical form, of the battle each person must pass through to know higher consciousness. Krishna is the subject of many books and the central figure of the world famous masterpiece, the Bhagavad Gita. His consort is usually known as Radha.
The literature of the vaishnavites is commonly called the Pancharatra (five nights). It is so called because this sect is associated with five special nights of worship and ritual during the year. These five nights are said to be very auspicious on the spiritual path. In the Mahabharata, an immense Indian epic, it is said that the sage Narada acquired the knowledge contained within the Pancharatra from Rishi Narayana (Vishnu). Narayana acted as the guru and taught his consort Lakshmi (the deity of prosperity).
Pancharatra literature is said to consist of 108 agamas, but in fact the actual number is not certain. According to the Sammohanan Tantra, vaishnava literature consists of 75 tantras, 205 upatantras, as well as various yamalas and damaras. In this context, the tantras and the upatantras are intended for people who are receptive to spiritual experiences (sattwa), the yamalas for those people who are more active in nature (rajas), and the damaras are intended for those who lack any spiritual aspiration whatsoever (tamas). Most of the Pancharatra texts have been lost or destroyed. Among the texts that are still available are the Vishnu Rahasya and the Mahasanatkumar Samhitas.
The vaishnava sect has spread beyond the shores of India. It is very popular in many parts of Southeast Asia, especially in Bali, Cambodia, Thailand, Java, etc. In all these places, many temples have been erected for the worship of Vishnu.