In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rāmānandī Sampradāya

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Rāmānanda
  • Hindi and Sanskrit Production Attributed to Rāmānanda
  • The Spread of Rāmānandī Sādhus
  • Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Rāmānandī History
  • Twentieth-Century History
  • The Rāmjanmabhūmi Movement
  • Rāmānandī Theology
  • Rāmānandī Bhakti
  • Rāmānandī and the Caste Issue
  • Festivals and Pilgrimages

Hinduism Rāmānandī Sampradāya
Daniela Bevilacqua
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0197


The Rāmānandī sampradāya is a Vaiṣṇava ascetic order composed of sādhus that follow various sādhanās (religious disciplines), devoting themselves to the bhakti (devotion) of Rām, avatār of the god Viṣṇu, in order to obtain mokṣa (freedom) or to remain in the state of bhakti itself. The order was supposedly established by Rāmānanda, possibly in the late 15th century, although it is also possible that Rāmānanda instead established a new branch of the Śrī Vaiṣṇava sampradāya. In effect, according to the Rāmānandī tradition, Rāmānanda was a follower of the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta of Rāmānūja, but he addressed his devotionalism toward Rām. Rāmānanda is said to have opened the bhakti path to everyone, irrespective of gender, caste, or religious belonging, since he was a supporter of prapatti (surrender), a form of religious path that completely relied on the grace of God. Teaching to ascetics and householders, his approach was characterized by yogic practices and devotion, both nirguṇa (without form) and saguṇa (with form), according to the devotee’s needs. His liberal approach for recruitment led to a widespread diffusion of the order among the grass roots of the Indian population, and various bhakti panths (cult) have been established by low-caste individuals that claim a certain legacy from him. Rāmānanda’s disciples (and subsequently their own disciples) likely followed these mixed teachings and, while passing them on, incorporated new theories or developed new interpretations. These traits resulted in a sampradāya highly differentiated in branches and sub-branches concerned with Rām bhakti. Within the sampradāya there are three different types of ascetics: tyāgī, rasik, and nāgā. Tyāgīs and nāgās perform practices of extreme physical austerity and wandering, while many Rāmānandī rasiks are more focused on the devotional cult of the image. However, all Rāmānandīs have a common theoretical substratum based on Rām bhakti and Rām mantra, prapatti, sevā (service), and vairāgya (detachment), although the ways in which these are achieved vary according to the particular religious discipline followed. With the construction of formal centers (around the 17th century), and thanks to the support of royals and locals alike, the sampradāya became organized. Historical centers (gaddī)—such as Galtā jī, Bālānanda Maṭh (both in Jaipur), Piṇḍorī Dham (Punjab), Hanumān Gaṛhī (Ayodhyā), and so on—witnessed the development of the order and are still central to its activities. Because of the internal distinctions and the presence of various important centers, Rāmānandīs have never had a single representative leader, and they were associated with the Śrī Vaiṣṇava sampradāya, though in a subordinate and sometimes vilified position. To change this condition and erase Rāmānūja’s legacy, at the beginning of the 20th century a Rāmānandī reformist group led by Swāmī Bhagavadācārya was created. The main concrete outcome of Bhagavadācārya’s activity was a general recognition of the independence of the Rāmānandī sampradāya, a more precise portrait of Rāmānanda as founder of the sampradāya, and the bestowing of title of Jagadguru Rāmānandācārya to an ascetic meant to become the leader of the sampradāya representing it on a national level.

General Overviews

To situate the Rāmānandī sampradāya in the Indian ascetic frame, Olivelle 2011 is necessary reading to appreciate the representation of standardized Brahmanic asceticism (saṃnyāsa), keeping in mind that renunciation has multifarious manifestations. In effect, unlike saṃnyāsīns, Rāmānandīs do not renounce the sacred thread (many sādhus change it with another one), for reasons that are pointed out in Michaels 2004. Works on Rāmānandī ascetics have stimulated new interpretations of the ascetic role in Indian society, including Burghart 1983, which reflects on the role of the ascetic and on the ascetic identity from an inner/emic point of view. General information on the Rāmānandī sampradāya is found in scholarship that analyzes and confronts Vaiṣṇavism and Śaivism, such as Bhandarkar 1913, or presents a general overview on sectarian ascetic organizations, such as Wilson 1846, Bhattacharya 1995, Ghurye 1964, and Tripathi 1978. Siddhantashastree 1985 focuses entirely on the historical development of Vaiṣṇava orders. A closer look, although still general, is provided by Sinha and Saraswati 1978, which presents an ethnographic exploration of ascetics in Varanasi, providing some historical and ethnographic data on Rāmānandīs living there.

  • Bhandarkar, Gopal R. Vaiṣṇavism, Śaivism and Minor Religious Systems. Varanasi, India: Indological Book House, 1913.

    Explores the origins of Śaivism and Vaiṣṇavism. Taking into account the latter, it provides a helpful chronological analysis of Vaiṣṇava religious currents starting from the Mahābhārata. Bhandarkar introduces the figures of Rāmānanda, Kabīr, other Rāmānandīs, and Tulsīdās (pp. 66–76).

  • Bhattacharya, Nāth J. Hindu Castes and Sects: An Exposition of the Origin of the Hindu Caste System and the Bearing of the Sects towards Each Other and towards Other Religious Systems. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1995.

    Although written from a biased Orientalist perspective, this study is useful for its section on Vaiṣṇava sects and Rāmānandīs’ classification. First published 1896.

  • Burghart, Richard. “Renunciation in the Religious Traditions of South Asia.” Man, n.s., 18.4 (December 1983): 635–653.

    DOI: 10.2307/2801900

    Criticizes Dumont’s theory of Hindu social hierarchy, based on the fact that the perspective of Brahman householders is not suitable to describe the complex Hindu ascetic world, where the concept of asceticism and the meaning of who is an ascetic changes according to the inner rule present in each religious order.

  • Ghurye, Sadashiv G. Indian Sadhu. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1964.

    An excellent sociography of the various sects and religious centers in India. After describing the principal traits of asceticism and Śaiva main orders, in chapter 9 it focuses on Vairāgīs, or Vaiṣṇava ascetics. It does not provide particular information on Rāmānanda himself, but rather on Rāmānandī centers and the sect’s characteristics and organization.

  • Michaels, Axel. Hinduism: Past and Present. Translated by Barbara Harshav. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004.

    In seven chapters this book gives a thorough presentation of Hinduism. Chapter 7 explores asceticism, providing a good introduction to the major concepts and traditions that characterize it in India.

  • Olivelle, Patrick. Ascetics and Brahmins: Studies in Ideologies and Institutions. London and New York: Anthem, 2011.

    A collection of the main articles produced by Olivelle on asceticism, covering the Brahmanic texts about asceticism, theorizations of the relationship between ascetics and Brahmins, ascetics and householders in general, and more specific issues on the ascetic world and some of its representatives.

  • Siddhantashastree, Kumar R. Vaiṣṇavism through the Ages. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1985.

    A valuable study that offers a comprehensive and critical survey of Vaiṣṇavism, including its Vedic origin, medieval evolutions, and modern trends. It brings to light the philosophies of the main Vaiṣṇava thinkers, and in chapter 9, “Vaiṣṇavism in North India,” it briefly introduces the figure of Rāmānanda.

  • Sinha, Surajit, and Saraswati, Baidyanath. Ascetics of Kashi: An Anthropological Exploration. Varanasi, India: N. K. Bose Memorial Foundation, 1978.

    An ethnographic report on the ascetic orders present in the city of Varanasi. Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava orders are described, with attention to smaller and mixed groups. It shows the interaction between ascetics and householders and provides a map of the location of the main religious centers in the city.

  • Tripathi, Dhar B. Sadhus of India. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1978.

    A detailed study on the different ascetic orders present in Uttar Pradesh, with the aim of evaluating the role and status of sādhus in modern Indian society. After brief descriptions of almost all existing Vaiṣṇava, Śaiva, and miscellaneous sects, the author approaches sādhus’ beliefs, attitudes, socioeconomic background, and sociopolitical status. He provides general scattered information in chapter 3 about the Rāmānandī sampradāya and its structure.

  • Wilson, Horace H. Sketch of the Religious Sects of the Hindus. Calcutta: Bishop College, 1846.

    Pioneering study about various religious orders, taking into account Hindi sources, especially the Bhaktamāla. Wilson gives a space of fourteen pages to Rāmānanda and the Rāmānandī sampradāya, describing its social compositions, its religious centers, and its practices. Includes a list of Rāmānanda’s disciples, plus important Rāmānandīs and their works.

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