Modern day Hinduism has evolved from thousands of years of gnosis, discursions and revisions of Vedic thought. As seen earlier many different paths to the realization of Brahman had been carved with the intense and often confrontational philosophical discussions as to what is the best path that can lead one to the Supreme Being. Modern Hinduism eventually settled on four principal sects that are practiced in the current Hindu society. Though it is a mosaic of ten thousand paths, these four sects are like the branches of a large banyan tree with many roots but a single trunk.
The four sects of modern day Hinduism are:
Worship of Shiva, the compassionate One, is the oldest form of Hinduism that is still practiced. Shaivism is ageless and has no beginning, probably preceding the Vedic times. More than 8000 years old, it is traced to the Indus Valley civilization. The male genitalia was worshipped in the prehistoric times in the form of Linga that later came to be identified with god of fertility, Shiva.
There are mainly six sub-sects of Shaivism as seen in the modern times. They are:
- Shaiva Siddhanta,
- Kashmir Shaivism or Trika,
- Vira Shaivism or Lingayats,
- Siddha Shaivism and
- Shiva Advaitism.
A profound system of temple mysticism and an enlightened view of man's place in the universe as well as Siddha yoga form the basis of Shaivism. The final goal of Shaivism is realizing one's identity with Shiva in perfect union and non-differentiation (monism). Om Namah Shivaya.
Smarth-ism is an ancient Brahminical tradition reformed by Shankara in the ninth century. Smarthas follow the Smriti literature, particularly Dharma Shastra, Puranas and the Ithihasas. They worship six forms of God and also revere the Vedas and the Agamas. Shankara reformed the sect and today the sect is synonymous with Adi Shankara's monistic, meditative and philosophical theories. The six-sect system of Smartras is that in which the deities can be chosen as one's own personal and preferred deity (Ishta Devata). The six deities are Ganapati, Surya, Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti and Kumara (added by Shankara's reform). Smartha sect is the liberal branch of current day Hinduism that believes in attainment of salvation through mainly Jnana yoga. However other Yogas like Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Raja Yoga are also believed to bring enlightenment. Jnana Yoga involves the study of scriptures (shravana), reflection (manana) and sustained meditation (dhyana). Om Namah Shivaya.
The worship of Mother Goddess in her fierce or gentle form is the basis of Shaktism. Shaktas use mantra, tantra, yantra, yoga and puja to invoke cosmic forces and awaken the Kundalini Power. Worship of Mother Goddess is perhaps as old as the worship of Shiva. However it was more organized in the fifth century. Today it has four different expressions i.e.
- Yogic and lastly
The devotional Shaktas' puja rites invoke Sri Chakra Yantra to establish intimacy with the Goddess. The Shamanic Shaktas - usually with the help of a medium - use magic, tantra and trance as well as fire walking and animal sacrifice for healing, fertility and power. The Shakta yogis seek to awaken the sleeping Goddess Kundalini and unite her with Lord Shiva in the Sahasrara Chakra. The Universalists follow the reformed Vedantic teachings and traditions. The Shakti sect worships Kali, Durga, Pravathi, Devi, Ambika, Chandi and the sexual aspect called Yoni (female genitalia). Shakti worshippers consider the Goddess as the manifested form of the deity, the worship of who leads to the masculine un-manifested form or Shiva, thus attaining salvation. Om Chandikayai Namah.
Worship of Vishnu and his various avatars especially Rama and Krishna in a profoundly devotional form is the basis of Vaishnavism. Vasudeva mentioned in the Vedic literature, later is recognized as Vishnu whose name means 'pervader'. Pancharatra (Five nights, of unclear significance) Vaishnavism and Bhagavata Vaishnavism were popular prior to 300 B.C.E. and are responsible for bhakti or devotion to Vasudeva-Krishna out of love and respect. God was like an emperor in his glory, condescending on his subjects in a stern manner (similar to Bodhisattva, looking down in love and pity, with the intent of helping all creation). Though the Pancharatra system called Shankarashana, first developed in Kashmir, it took a firm foothold and developed in Tamilnadu. While Krishna and his brother, Balrama, represented Prakriti or primal matter, Krishna's son Pradyumna was identified withMana or mind. Krishna's grandson was seen as ahankara or self-consciousness. Only after these creations did the three gunas evolve followed by Brahma, the demiurge. This was followed by all creation. In the middle ages five different forms of Vaishnavism emerged that are still practiced today. They are
- Vishishtadvaita of Ramanuja (Srivaishnavism),
- Dvaita of Madhva (Sadvaishnavism),
- Dvaitadvaita of Nimbarka,
- Shuddha-advaita of Vallabha and
- Achintya Bhedabheda of Chaitanya (also known as Gaudiya).
Intense devotion to a personal god, Vishnu through Bhakti yoga is the path to salvation. The important scriptures are the Vedas, Vaishnava Agamas, Ithihasasa and Puranas. The philosophy of Vaishnavism has a wide range from Ramanuja's qualified-monism to Madhva's emphatic dualism. Nimbarka identified the couple Radhakrishna as divine for the first time and took a position between that of Shankara's monism without a recognizable deity and that of Madhva's radical dualism. Vallabha's of Shuddhadvaita is pure monism but with a Brahman with character and attributes, namely Krishna, and hence called Saguna Brahman. This is the exact opposite of Shankara's Nirguna Brahman. Chaitanya espoused that everything in the world is simultaneously same and yet different. Though this is inconceivable it is possible only because of the mystical powers of God. Thus Vaishnavism is a big tent under which contradictory philosophies of different sampradayas seem to rest comfortably, only because of the recognition of Vishnu as the Supreme Being. Om Namo Narayanaya.
Hinduism developed its own flavor in various parts of the world. The epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana were retained in some form or the other especially among the Hindus of Bali, Indonesia and the Caribbean Hindus from Jaimaica to Guyana. The scriptures are also followed in their modified versions though the fundamentals of the doctrines are preserved. The Hare-Krishnas of North America (ISCON) are Krishna worshippers, who consider Bhagavad-Gita as their holy scriptures and have contributed significantly to the propagation of Hindu religion and Vedanta. Currently, Hinduism is in a stage of international development as the migrants from India are busy building temples and studying the Vedanta as evidenced in North America, Europe and Australia.
Thus modern Hinduism has maintained its broad view of religion and accepts all possibilities and discounts none. It teaches that there is no eternal hell or damnation and every soul has the capacity to realize the Truth. It encourages each soul to find its own way and path whether through devotion, austerity, meditation or selfless service. Good conduct, love of all living and inanimate things, non-violence and law of Dharma define the Hindu path to salvation. Stress is placed on worship, be it at home or in a temple. Festivals, pilgrimages and chanting of hymns are the dynamic practices of Hinduism. Tolerance of all other religions is a corner stone of the Hindu religion. Acquiring knowledge from scriptures and the guru-disciple tradition are encouraged. The soul incarnates many times until all the karma is resolved and the God is realized. Hinduism is a mystical religion, leading a follower to personally experience the Truth within, helping every soul to reach the pinnacle of consciousness where man and God are one and the same. No one can be denied of this opportunity.