I was told twice that Hinduism is divided in four traditions: Shaivism, Sakthism, Vaishnavism, Smarthism. The philosophy of Advaita Vedanta comes from which tradition? Another way to ask the question could be: Shankaracharya was from Shaivism, Sakthism, Vaishnavism or Smarthism ? – Sylvain Lavoie, Feb 28, 2004
Hinduism, as practiced today is a potpourri of many subsets of the religion. The four groups you mentioned choose their personal images of God to worship - as Shiva in Shaivites, Vishnu in Vaishnavites or Shakti in Shaktas and the six main images as worshipped by the Smarthas – most Hindus belonging to one group willingly cross over and worship other images with equal reverence. Thus a Vaishnavite will also worship Shiva or Shakti and vice versa. Most Hindus will go to temples that house many different deities, even though they may be classified as belonging to one tradition or another. The divisions are not all that strict or important.
Hinduism is philosophically monistic but many forms of the religion are practiced in the current day, and the divisions are more and more blurred. Hinduism also has tolerance built into its philosophy. Thus it is clearly mentioned in the Vedas that the paths to Salvation are many. Hinduism encourages people of other faiths to continue in the faiths of their births and seek the Truth within the confines of their own religion. The religion only asks them to follow the codes of good conduct and morals (e.g. the Ten Commandments for Christians or the Eight Noble Paths for Buddhists are both acceptable). No attempt is made to convince or convert people of other faiths to Hindu faith. One of the most famous Sanskrit sayings from the Vedas says that, “The Truth is one, but the priests call it by different names.”
Hinduism makes a clear distinction between the un-manifest Reality and the manifested forms of God. The former is the Nirguna Brahman, a tremendously powerful energy in perfect balance with itself, which is without attributes and character or shape, and is responsible for the creation of the Universe. The manifested form of this energy called Saguna Brahman is the God with all the characters and shapes and attributes. Most commonly the manifested form is in the form of a human, either man or woman. Humans are created with the highest state of consciousness and hence it is only natural that the manifested form is in the shape of human. (Though the earlier avatars of Vishnu include animals in the more primitive form, this is only considered as an allegory of the process of evolution and symbolic in nature). Symbols being very common in Hinduism, Saguna Brahman represents every function of the Universe in many forms. The mysticism and its occultism are interpreted in every detail of the idol. The smile on the face, the stance, the way the hands are held (usually more than two to represent many symbols emanating from the idol) and the objects held in the hands represent a function or reflect on its power. To the uninitiated, the idols may appear primitive and even grotesque if the symbols they represent are not understood. The power of an idol is not in the idol itself but in what it represents. At a glance, there may even appear to be a disconnect between the theosophy and the practices of worship in Hinduism.
Shankara was a Vedanta scholar, who had mastered the Vedas and the Upanishads at an early age. This scholar went on to interpret Vedas in such a way that the common man could comprehend its philosophy and meaning. Shankara believed in strict monism (Advaita), and that the human soul is indistinguishable from that of God. And this God is the universal, impersonal, characterless, all-pervading, formless Brahman. He believed that the path to realizing the Truth (salvation) is through knowledge of the scriptures. (jnana yoga). He also realized that a common man needed a figure-head to concentrate and meditate on. Thus he described Truth at two levels. The higher level is one every human being should aspire to reach and understand. At a higher intellectual level, it is possible to realize the Truth by the study of the scriptures and yoga. At the lower level, the world is an illusion (maya) and life is nothing but a puppetry of God (lila). People will choose their beloved form of the many manifested forms of Saguna Brahman (ishtadevata), and go through the chores of life with faith invested in their chosen god. But it is only possible to attain salvation if one reaches for the higher level of Truth. That should be the goal of all human beings.
There is little evidence to say that Shankara was a Shaivite (misunderstanding probably comes from the fact that Shankara is another name of Shiva, though there is a legend that claims that Shankara was an avatar of Shiva). Shankara was the author of many bhajans (prayer songs or hymns), worshipping and praising Lord Vishnu as well as Shiva (he was the author of the famous Bhaja Govindam.) He was a reformer who streamlined the practice of Hindu worship thus paving the way for a harmonious co-existence of different belief systems. He was responsible for bringing all the factions of Hinduism under its big tent. Shankara, like most Hindus believed and worshipped most of the manifested forms of God.
So, one can be a Hindu by embracing Advaita philosophy (strict monism of Shankara), or a qualified monist (Vishistadvaita philosophy) as proposed by Ramanuja, or even a dualist (Dvaita philosophy) as a follower of Madhva. Under any of these basic philosophies, a Hindu is free to choose a personal image of God as his favorite deity – like Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Ganesha etc. A Hindu is also free to choose all these deities or none at all. As long as he follows Dharma (codes of conduct and one’s duty) and a set of moral ethics, there are no compulsions on him to lead his life a certain way to please the Almighty. The differences between the philosophies one follows and the subset one belongs to are ambiguous. Most of today’s Smarthas follow the monistic Advaita philosophy but still are free to worship many deities. Shankara was responsible for organizing the worship (panchayatana) of five deities, which is followed even today by different traditions (sampradayas).
The Three Paths to Salvation
Knowing that there is diversity in life and no single way of life as prescribed or ordained by God will be followed by everyone, the wise thinkers have put forward three different paths (marga) for achieving salvation. The first is the jnana marga,mostly for the intellectuals who are able to study and comprehend scriptures. The second is the bhakti marga, wherein meditation on a personal image of God will lead one to realizing the Truth. The third involves social service. Work in the field of uplifting humanity and performance of duty without expecting anything in return is called the karma marga. Renunciation of all worldly possessions and pleasures and continuous meditation is the fourth alternative, which perhaps is beyond the scope of most human beings today.
On the surface Hinduism certainly looks like a confused, directionless religion to an outsider. But the inclusiveness of Hinduism with its doctrine of tolerance makes it universally appealing. It is not an organized religion and the method of practice is entirely left to the individual, who will take full responsibility of his or her conduct. Superficially, it is a hodgepodge of beliefs and practices, but its core belief of ONE GOD, universal, omniscient and omnipotent has stood the test of time.