Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part XI

Sects and Denominations: Part-A

Continued from Part X

In one of the earlier parts of the current series on Hinduism, the author had explained how the Sanatana Dharma represents the culture and religion of the original inhabitants of the Indian sub-continent since ancient ages. The author had also referred to the culture of open debate and dissent along with the freedom of choice and expression in the Sanatana Dharma since Vedic age that led to evolve it into a complex and composite religion instead of just taking the shape of a syncretic or codified religion like those of the Abrahamic religions. There is no exact corresponding term in English dictionary to synonymise the Sanatana Dharma but the term “eternal faith” could be best illustrated as carrying nearly similar meaning.

In the modern age, the Sanatana Dharma is more commonly known as ‘Hinduism’ comprising of over one billion adherents worldwide, the majority of them living in India and Nepal. After Muslim invaders of the Arab and Turkish origin started invading Bhratavarsha (India) around 11th Century, some of them stayed back and established Muslim dynasties centred around Delhi. Their rule extended to large parts of the country for more than six hundred years, greatly influenced as also supressed its culture and religion through persuasion and coercion and started calling the land as Hindustan (in Persian/Arabic language) after the Sindhu (Indus) river. Perhaps few people know that the Mughals had even adopted Persian as the official language during their regime. The nomenclature ‘Hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ are, in fact, product of the same legacy.

The two words of Sanatana Dharma are derived from the Sanskrit language; of this ‘Sanatana’ means Anadi (without beginning) and Ananta (without end) i.e. eternal and everlasting. Similarly, Dharma connotes the sustenance and holding together the principles of reality which are inherent by nature and design of the universe. Actually, the Sanatana Dharama is a code of ethics for the universal living through which one may attain Jnan (enlightenment) and Nirvana (liberation). Now it is also an established fact that the Sanatana Dharma aka Hinduism represents the world's oldest surviving culture, spiritual, religious and social tradition.

Among the chief reasons for its survival and continuance through times has been its adherents’ quest for the knowledge and application of the contemporary realities and universal truths. It did not have any single founder as in the case of the simple syncretic or codified religions like Christianity or Islam; it did not mandate or force its adherents to accept any single idea or concept; and it did not prohibit questioning, debate, discussion and reasoning, rather encouraged it among adherents. Besides, its scriptures are not just limited to the spirituality, instead they carry rich heritage and legacy of the other secular and cosmopolitan pursuits like economics, science, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, engineering, and so on so forth. Thus, it became more cultural than remaining simply creedal assimilating and evolving ethos in terms of the beliefs, customs and practices of every contemporary group or society since Vedic age. In essence, some of these features put it at disadvantage with other prominent religions of the world but at the same time also provided necessary strength and value to evolve and sustain with the time.

The Sanatana Dharma is God (Brahman) centric instead of being prophet centred as in the case of Abrahamic religions. Consequently, it has no single founder and the earliest reference is found as Rigveda, the oldest known Hindu scripture, as a recorded synthesis of ancient sages in the quest for the cosmic truth by learning about the universe and humans’ place in cosmos. Subsequent constant enrichment of the Sanatana Dharma continued through scholarly works of sages and rishis through three more Vedas namely Atharvaveda, Yajurveda, Samveda, and a number of early Upanishads, followed by other scriptures and texts. Scholars define it as a religion which is ingrained and transcendent, inherent and inclusive of all, from within the world and above the world, and a system of faith that has love and compassion for every living being, excluding none.

The Sanatana Dharma believes in the existence of Brahman (God) as the Supreme Soul or the Universal Consciousness, commonly known as Ishvara or Parameshvara or Bhagwan or Sachchidananda who is eternal, indescribable, inexhaustible, incorporeal, omniscient, omnipresent, original, both transcendent and immanent, absolute with infinite existence in the universe. The famous Trimurti (Tritini) i.e. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva represent three chief manifestations of Brahman, each with a specific set of cosmic functions. Lord Brahma relates to the creation of the universe; Lord Vishnu acts as the preserver and protector by ensuring the order and regularity of the world thus created; and Lord Shiva destroys and withdraws everything into himself paving way for re-creation.

Although metaphysically the three deities appear to be different but in reality each of them is Brahman only in their highest respective aspect and worshipped as such by the Sanatana Dharmis. Besides, the Sanatana Dharmis (Hindus) also consider other cosmic objects serving specific purpose too as manifestations of Brahman itself. For illustration, the Sun and Varuna represent light/heat energy and water so vital for the existence of cosmos and the sustenance of life; and they are other manifestations of Brahman only. As the Sanatana Dharma teaches love and respect for the entire mankind and for every creation of Brahman, the adherents collectively and/or individually worship various manifestations of God giving an impression outsiders (other religions) that Hinduism is a polytheistic religion.

Incidentally, these inherent features and liberty granted to the adherents, have made the Hinduism very complex and versatile through the course of evolution giving a lot of variation in scope and choice to devotees. This has also led to formation of many sects and denominations within the Sanatana Dharma. However, this diversity in manifestations of God and devotees has not given rise to any serious inherent conflicts as is often seen in Abrahamic religions. For instance, a Hindu devotee may be a devout follower of Vishnu but he (or she) may not have any reservation in worshipping Shiva and vice versa as also visiting their temples.

Sects and Denominations in Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) are basically traditions within Hinduism centred on one or more gods or goddesses, such as Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti (Durga). The majority Hindus commonly used the alternate term ‘Sampradaya’ for the sects and denominations, often led by a particular guru (eminent guide) or scholar professing a particular philosophy. Among the many Sects and Denominations, the author intends to focus on four major sects of the Sanatana Dharma in the current write up inter alia including their salient features, spread and following in the length and width of the country. The author wish to keep the scope and details limited to current status and more popular belief and interpretation of the related aspects rather than emphasising its evolutionary history and philosophical concepts through different ages along with the scholarly interpretations.

Major Sects of Sanatana Dharma

What has been explained in the preceding paragraphs, contrary to common misconceptions, all Sanatana Dharmi Hindus worship one Supreme Being i.e. Brahman or Ishwara, though in different manifestations or forms. The Sanatana Dharma has four principal Sects namely Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Smartism. The Vaishnavas essentially worship Lord Vishnu as Supreme God while Shaivites treat Lord Shiva in the same way. Similarly, Goddess Shakti (Durga) is supreme for Shaktas while among Smartas, considered as liberal Hindus, the choice of the Deity(ies) is completely with the devotees.

Every Sect has a guru parampara or lineage, concept of priesthood, religious leaders and scholars, sacred literature, monastic communities, pilgrimage places, and numerous temples and schools. As they have continuity from the thousands of years, each of them also have their theological history, heritage sites, invaluable wealth of art and architecture, philosophical concepts and scholarship. Each of the four Sects have so much divergence in terms of heritage, pedigree, beliefs and followings that, in a way, each of them is a complete and independent religion in itself yet the common characteristics of shared heritage of culture and belief in karma, dharma, reincarnation, all-pervasive Divinity, temple worship, sacraments, manifold Deities, the guru-shishya parampara and the scriptural authority in the form of Vedas keeps them united. A brief analysis of each of the four sects is given in the following lines.


Vaishnavism is the most popular and widespread Sect among the Hindus and the adherents have a tradition of worshipping God under the name of Lord Vishnu. Vaishnavas are divided into many smaller sub-sects, often focussing on one form or avatar of Lord Vishnu who is believed to have Dashavtara (ten incarnations). The Sect is also characterised by a number of theologians establishing their own sampradayas (sub-sect or preceptoral succession) teaching different forms of Vedanta, four of them being more prominent and popular among the followers.

It is estimated that this Sect has the maximum number of followers worldwide among Hindus. Also the Vaishnavas prefer to worship Lord Vishnu not just because He is the preserver God but also because of the belief that He represents beginning as well as end of everything in the universe. Among them, the common belief is that Lord Brahma, the Hindu creator God, was actually born from Vishnu's navel, coming out of a magnificent lotus, which implies that Lord Vishnu had also created the creator of world. Lord Vishnu is believed to have manifested himself in many forms in the world every time to serve a specific purpose, more common and widespread incarnations being that of Maryada Purushottam Lord Rama of the Ramayana epic fame and the omni-potent and ever-popular Lord Krishna, a blue-skinned God associated with love, compassion, knowledge, skill, wisdom and arts.

Lord Vishnu’s consort, Lakshmi, is equally venerated and worshipped by the adherents. The couple is often depicted sitting or lying on a giant Seshanaga (multi-headed serpent ) floating on the ocean of the universe (Ksheer Sagar). While Vishnu is all pervasive God, Lakshmi is considered the Goddess of fortune, wealth and happiness. The four main sampradayas of Vaishnavism and various other small sampradayas have followings in various parts of the world but two chief forms of worship are Krishna and Rama, considered incarnations of Lord Vishnu, while other deities stand relatively lower in hierarchy.

Out of the four Vaisnava sampradayas (sub-sects or systems) of disciple succession, one sampradaya comes from Lord Brahma, the second from the Goddess of Fortune i.e. Lakshmi, the third from the Kumaras and the fourth from Lord Siva. These four systems of disciple succession are considered valid among Vaishnavas and it is of common practice that one who is serious about receiving transcendental Vedic knowledge must accept a guru or spiritual master from one of these four disciple successions. It is of common belief that unless a Vaishnava accepts a mantra from one of these sampradayas, the mantra will not carry the desired effect. A true Vaisnava must read and imbibe the commentaries on the Vedanta-sutra written by the four sampradaya-acharyas, namely Sri Ramanuja Acharya, Madhva Acharya, Visnu Swami Acharya and Nimbarka Acharya.

The four Vaishnava sampradayas and the sampradaya Acharya are as under:

(1) The Sri Brahma Sampradaya whose Sampradaya Acharya is Sri Madhva.
(2) The Sri Laksmi Sampradaya whose Sampradaya Acharya is Sri Ramanuja.
(3) The Sri Kumara Sampradaya whose Sampradaya Acharya is Sri Nimbarka.
(4) The Sri Rudra (Shiva) Sampradaya whose Sampradaya Acharya is Sri Visnu Swami.

Four great acharyas Madhva, Ramanuja, Nimbarka and Visnu Swami have given scholarly comments on the Vedanta Sutra and Vaishnava philosophy, and every Vaishnava is expected to follow at least one of the great acharyas of the four sampradayas or disciple successions. The Vayu Purana defines an acharya as one who knows the importance of all Vedic literature, is able to explain the purpose of the Vedas, abides by the Vedic philosophy and respective rules and regulations, and is also able to guide his disciples to conduct in the same manner.

Historically, though some adherents claim the Sect to be about 5000 years old but according to many western and Indian scholars, the twelve Alwars were the precursors of Vaishnavism between the sixth to ninth centuries in Sri Rangam, South India. Alwars were actually Tamil poet-saints who dedicated their work to Lord Vishnu through their songs of love, longing, ecstasy and devotion to deity. Following the beginning of the invasion of Arabs and Turks, a bhakti renaissance swept across India from the twelfth century onwards giving rise to several centres of devotion such as Ayodhya and Vrindavana breaking the traditional caste barriers attracting millions of followers.

Consequently, among the many bhakti saints the Vaishnavas remained the largest Hindu community, both within India as also abroad mainly in UK. Among them, Madhva Acharya was a Hindu philosopher and the chief proponent of the Dvaita school of Vedanta in thirteenth century. Ramanuja Acharya was a Hindu theologian and philosopher of the Vaishnavism tradition, and among the most important exponents of the Vishishtadvaita school of Vedanta during the eleventh and twelfth century. Nimbarka Acharya is known for propagating the Dvaitadvaita or “dualistic non-dualism”, another strong proponent of the Vaishnava theology in twelth and thirteenth century. The exact period of Vishnu Swami Acharya and his work is disputed. Some scholars date him to early fifteenth century while other believe he worked and formed Sri Rudra Sampradaya in the 13th century, while some followers of the Sampradaya also claim that Vishnu Swami was born about 4500 years ago.

The most relevant and common holy literature and stories for the Vaishnavas are Bhagavad-Gita, Bhagavat Purana, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Vishnu Purana, Hymns of the Alvars , Vedanta Sutras, stories of Krishna, Rama and ten incarnations. Among the important religious places are Ayodhya, Mathura, Vrindavana, Nathdvar, Udupi, Jagannath Puri, Kanchipuram, Sri Rangam, Pandhapur, Guruvayor, Tirupati, Dwarka and Mayapur.


Shaivism is the second largest and widespread sect among the Hindus and the adherents worship God under the name of Lord Shiva. He is often depicted as a mahayogi sitting in meditation posture in Himalayas. Shaivism is not averse to the idea of the incarnation of God but the concept is not so pronounced as in Vaishnavism. Conspicuous forms of Shiva are Rudra characterised with a fierce and angry mood, Nataraja, in dancing attire, Yogeshwar, symbolic to a great yogi and ascetic and the Linga, the symbol of energy and potential of Shiva. Adherents of Shaivism consider Shiva as the Supreme deity. Shaivism too has several important branches and is commonly associated with the asceticism.

It is often said what we know about Shiva is far less than what we do not know. Lord Shiva’s worship most probably dates back to the prehistoric times. While the Vedic civilization is considered as the mainstay of the Hinduism even by majority historians and educated Hindus, the roots of Shaivism are found even in pre-historic India. Evidence of the worship of Lord Shiva has been found in ancient archaeological sites like Harappa and Mohenjo Daro. In the Rig Veda too, the oldest known scripture, Shiva finds a reference as Rudra in several hymns (Ex. Chaper 2, Hymn 33 and Chapter 1, Hymn 43), and several spiritual, ascetic, tantric and ritual traditions of Hinduism are sourced from it. Rudra also finds references in Yajur Veda and early Upanishads.

Thus since ancient times, people in the Indian sub-continent have been worshipping Lord Shiva. For many, He is considered the most important, popular and revered God of Hinduism, and if some historical evidences are to be believed, apparently he was worshipped in other parts of the world as well under different names. As per a theory, Shaivism was the first antithetical movement against ancient casteism, much before the Buddhism emerged as a formidable religion denouncing the caste system.

Apparently, in the early phases of Vedic civilization, Shaivism had a conflict with the then large prevailing influence of Brahmanism. The conflict between Daksha, a staunch follower of Brahma, and Shiva probably serves as the classic reference of the rivalry of the two traditions. One of the oldest stories of Shiva describe the destruction of the sacrificial arena of Daksha by Him after Sati (Shiva’s wife) ended her life being insulted by the father (Daksha). In the rivalry between Brahmanism and Shaivism, the latter appeared to have decisively won after this incident, their differences were reconciled and a more composite Vedic culture and tradition emerged out of them.

To illustrate the above point, it would be relevant to mention that in Vaishnavism Sect, even today only Brahmanas can function as the priest in temples and other religious occasions while the Shaivism Sect has no such restriction or condition. In a way, for the caste ridden Hindu society, Shaivism shows the right path to treat people likewise from all backgrounds. Like twelve Alwars in Vaishnavism, we find a reference of sixty-three Nayanmars (singer-poets) in Shaivism from 700 to 1000 CE who popularised Shiva worship, particularly in the Southern India, helping Shaivism to emerge as a major Sect in Hinduism.

While many devotees worship Shiva in ‘Linga’ form but His worship along with consort Parvati is also very common among Hindus. Parvati or Uma is known as the Hindu goddess of fertility, love and devotion as also of divine strength and power. Many Hindus also consider her as the gentle and nurturing aspect of the Goddess Shakti (Durga). Infact, along with Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and prosperity and Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge and learning, She forms the trinity of Hindu Goddesses (Tridevi).

Over a period of time, Shaivism too developed into many sub-sects or traditions. They are basically based on the philosophy of theistic dualism, nontheistic monism, and the one with the combined features and practices of the two. Of these five major traditions are indicated here as follows:

(1) Pasupatis: The tradition is attributed to a sage from Gujarat named Lakulisha who existed around second century CE and wrote the Pashupata sutras, a foundational text of this tradition. This Shaivite tradition is considered of the oldest heritage of the monist nature.
(2) Shaiva Siddhanta: It is considered among the earliest traditions of Tantric Shaivism, which is believed to have started around the fifth century CE. It is dualistic in nature that stresses the plurality of souls as against the advaita philosophy that all souls and Brahman are ultimately one.
(3) Kashmiri Shaivism: It was considered an influential tradition of Shaivism that originated in Kashmir in the later part of first millennium CE and thrived till early centuries of the second millennium till it nearly became defunct after Islamic invaders conquered and overwhelmed Kashmir, and some of them even systematically worked through persuasion and coercion to destroy Shaivites belief system there.
(4) Vira Shaivism: It is also known as Lingayatism and was founded by the twelfth century philosopher and statesman Basava and spread by his followers. It emphasizes monism and loving devotion to Shiva; the adherents wear an iconographic form of Ishtalinga around the neck. Large communities of Lingayats are still found settled in the Karnataka state and surrounding areas.
(5) Shaiva Asceticism: It is a more rigorous form of asceticism known for several tantric practices. The naked Nagas, Yogis, Nathapatnis and the followers of Gorakhnatha follow Shaiva Ascetism. The Aghoris who consciously contravene several moral norms also fall under this tradition.

The most relevant and common holy literature in Shaivism comprises of Svetashvatara Upanishad, Shiva Purana, various Agamas and Tiru-murai (poems). Among the important religious places are Varanasi, Somnath, Kedarnath, Rameshvaram, Amarnath, Ujjain and Chidambaram. Shaivites are known to worship Shiva as the Supreme God in the temple and many followers themselves are epitome of the self-discipline and yoga.


Shaktism is based on the devotion of the Goddess Shakti or Durga. Adherents of this sect consider Shakti as the Supreme Deity and many of them worship her as the consort of Lord Shiva. In Shakti Sect, people worship Shakti in various forms like Durga (more popular), Kali, Devi, Parvati, and a score of other names. Within Shaktism, the metaphysical reality of the universe is believed to be in the feminine form and Goddess Durga is symbolic to supreme energy and power, fierce Kali being one of her many manifestation in a destructive mood to punish the wicked. Many adherents believe that Shakti represents the combined energy and strength of the trinity i.e. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and different sub-sects associate the Goddess with either of these Gods.

Shaktas (followers of Shakti) do not accord much emphasis to the doctrinal sampradayas unlike Vaishnavism and Shaivism, but ideologically they are closer to Shaivism. It’s so because Lord Shiva embodies the male principle of strength and power and Shakti embodies the female part of it, hence the two principles of Shaivism and Shaktism are often treated as complementary. As the Shakti doctrine tends to give importance to the matter and spirit, the Shaktas devotees pray for both the material gains as well as liberation from the Karmic cycle.

In reality, true Shaktas see the Goddess as supreme, ultimate and eternal reality almost in the same manner as is the ‘Brahman’ concept of Hinduism explained in previous parts. The adherents simultaneously visualise Shakti as a source of all creation, its embodiment and preservation, and an entity into which everything will ultimately dissolve. Some scholars have attempted to define Her as "Brahman is static Shakti and Shakti is dynamic Brahman." In Devi-Bhagavata Purana, Shakti has been presented as follows: “I am Manifest Divinity, Unmanifest Divinity, and Transcendent Divinity. I am Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, as well as Saraswati, Lakshmi and Parvati. I am the Sun and I am the Stars, and I am also the Moon. I am all animals and birds, I am the low person of dreadful deeds, and the great person of excellent deeds. I am Female, I am Male in the form of Shiva.”

Historically, the Shaktism too has its roots in the prehistoric times; many archaeological findings reportedly strengthen this concept. Though the Goddess did not find a mention in Vedas but the Epics and Puranas, especially the Markandeya Purana have references and stories to this effect. Shaktism is also well known for the various traditions of Tantra, besides there are numerous names given to the Goddess with different virtues, actions and deeds. Some of the more popular names among devotees being Durga, Kali, Amba, Saraswati, Lakshmi, Parvati and Tripurasundari.

Although Shaktism has a long history but it appears to have grown manifold after the decline of Buddhism in India, wherein Hindu and Buddhist goddesses were combined to form the Mahavidya. The Goddess-focussed tradition is abundantly popular in Bengal, Odisha, Assam, Tripura, North Bihar and Nepal, and the neighbouring regions; Durga puja festival being the most common tradition among the devotees. Shaktism has a considerable influence on Vaishnavas and Shaivas who tend to identify and associate the Goddess with Vishnu and Shiva, respectively.

The most important Shakta festival is Navratri (i.e. the Festival of Nine Nights), which usually falls during the months of October/November followed by the tenth day as Dusshera or Vijayadashami. This celebration highlights the Goddess Durga's victory over a series of powerful demons, the most prominent being the iconic slaying of Mahishasura (i.e. the Buffalo Demon). In fact, the cult of Durga puja which was localized mostly in eastern parts of the country in the past has now spread in almost entire North and Western India too in the recent years. Many Shaktas also practiced the animal sacrifice in reverence of Goddess Kali in various parts of India and more particularly in the eastern states of India and Nepal. Now this practice is on decline in the most parts as many devotees consider it cruel and distasteful but in certain Shakti temples in the eastern India and Nepal, the devotees still resort to sacrificial worship by slaying goat, chicken etc.

The Sruti and Smriti texts of Hinduism are taken as important literature of the Shaktism. Besides, the texts like the Devi-Bhagavata Purana, Devi Upanishad, Devi Mahatmya, Kalika Purana, Mahabhagavata Purana, Lalita Sahasranama etc are considered rich source of religious and spiritual knowledge of Shaktas. The Tripura Upanishad and Tripuratapini Upanishad are considered as the most complete introduction to the Shakta Tantrism defining the Tantra as a Vedic attribute. The important places and temples of Shaktism are Bengal, Assam, Kanyakumari, Madurai, Kali Temple (Kolkata), Kamakhya Temple (Guwahati) and Vaishno Devi (Jammu).


This is the fourth mainstream Hindu Sect, the followers of which are known as Smartas. They are traditional and not particular about worshiping only one deity, and in a way they emphasise the universality of Hinduism by distancing self from the exclusive worship of Vishnu, Shiva or Shakti. Smartas worship five main Gods and Goddesses i.e. Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti, Ganesh and Surya, believed to be introduced by Adi Shankara who was an eighth century Indian philosopher and theologist accredited with the consolidation of the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta as also the synthesis and unification of the concurrent main thoughts and ideologies in Hinduism. The ten orders of sanyasa (dasanam), founded by Adi Shankara too provides for panchopasana (five types of worship).

Many Hindus may not strictly identify themselves as Smartas yet they indirectly fall in the category of followers by adhering to Advaita Vedanta as a foundation for non-sectarianism. The Smarta sect has attempted to integrate varied and conflicting devotional practices, with the concept and practice of panchayatana-puja (i.e. five shrine worship), wherein a Hindu devotee could focus on any deity of choice (istadevata) such as Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, Ganesha or Surya (Saguna upasana), as a prelude towards realizing the Brahman (Nirguna). In essence, Smartism professes that Brahman, the supreme reality, transcends all the forms of personal deities, and Vedas are immutable with the ontological concept of Atman and Brahman.

The Smarta Sect accepts both the concepts of Brahman; the one as Saguna Brahman with various manifestations and attributes like Vishnu and Shiva, and the other as Nirguna Brahman without any attributes. The Nirguna Brahman is the ultimate, eternal and unchanged reality, while the Saguna Brahman is posited as a means to realizing the Nirguna Brahman. Thus the concept of the Saguna Brahman is accepted as a useful symbolism and means for realization of the ultimate reality among those followers who are still beginners or midway on their spiritual journey. The saguna concept is not necessary for those who are enlightened and on right path of the unification of own srealization with Nirguna Brahman.

Thus a Smarta devotee may choose any saguna deity such as Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, Surya, Ganesha or any other god of his choice for that matter, and in Smarta Sect this constitutes an interim step towards realizing the Nirguna Brahman. Many Hindus choose one saguna deity (ishtdevta) and continue to worship a host of other deities as well depending upon their awareness level, for which there is no restriction. Then many Hindu devotees worship multiple gods even without knowing or caring about the particular Sect which they might belong to following the stated norms.

Undoubtedly, Adi Shankara is one of the leading protagonists and scholars of the Smarta Tradition, who is also accredited with the foundation of four most famous monasteries or Mathas in Hinduism among many other achievements. These four Mathas are in Badrinath in the north, Sringeri in the south, Dwarka in the west and Jagannath Puri in the east. Each of these Mathas are headed by an accomplished sanyasi, traditionally called Shankaracharya, who is independently responsible for the Smarta tradition following the Advaita Vedanta in the respective area of influence. Some other common and prominent names of Smarta Sect are Govinda Bhagavatpada, Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda.

Historically, the Smarta Sect is believed to have roots in the Gupta period during the 4th-5th century CE, and was initially dominated by the Brahmin classes only. The tradition gained momentum and more Hindus started identifying themselves with the Sect because of its liberal attributes. As Smartas accept and often worship all the major Hindu Gods, they are considered liberal and non-sectarian. They follow a philosophical, meditative path, emphasizing man's oneness with God through understanding and devotion. Further, many people find the concepts of this tradition as more influential and creative, with the concepts like Harihara (half Shiva - half Vishnu deity) and Ardhanarishvara (half woman - half man deity), and its inclusive nature.

The most relevant and common holy literature of the Smartas comprises of Vedanta Sutra, Upanishads, Puranas and Shariraka Bhasya. The important religious places are Badrinath, Jagannath Puri, Sringeri, Dwarka and Kanchipuram. Besides Smartas are also not averse to visit or worship places and temple famous for the other Hindu Sects due to their liberal and non-sectarian nature.

Elements of Convergence

The Hinduism is broadly found in four major Sects or denominations as explained above and, in turn, these Sects are divided into numerous sub-sects, systems and traditions. Despite multiple philosophies and attributes, surprisingly we do not come across the bitterness and animosity among the Hindu Sects, kind of which we often see in different denominations of the other religions of the world, particularly in the case of Abrahamic religions. The chief reason for this tolerance is perhaps the culture of open debate and dissent along with the freedom of choice and expression as mentioned in the introductory paragraphs. Among these four Sects of Hinduism, there are more major similarities than differences.

All the four Sects have faith and derive inspiration from the Vedas which they consider are immutable and eternal. All four believe in the philosophy of karma, reincarnation and the universal consciousness - the Supreme Being who creates, sustains and destroys the universe only to create it again in the unending cycles. All the Sects strongly believe in the importance of temple worship, in the three worlds of existence and the myriad Gods, devas and lowly creatures residing in them. All the four Sects believe in Maya (with certain variations) and its spinning web in the universe in which humans are so often found trapped; they also agree with the need of the liberation of the soul from rebirth (i.e. Moksha) as the final goal of human existence.

Besides, all the four Sects also believe in Dharma, need for a Satguru to assist the person (soul) in achieving the goal of self-realization, and Ahimsa (non-violence). The adherents in all Sects wear the sacred marks and tilak on their foreheads as sacred symbols. Barring exceptions in certain circumstances, all the Sects favour cremation of the dead body, with the belief that the soul will find another body in the next life. While Hinduism has many sacred scriptures in the form of Vedas, Upanishads, Shastras and Agamas, Puranas and epics, all the four sects subscribe to the high value and authority of Vedas; however, their Agamas and Puranas are different to a considerable extent.

Elements of Contrast

All the four Sects are geographically widespread in their followings and area of influence. However, while Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Smartism are more pronounced in the North and South India, Shaktism is more prominent in the Northeast particularly Bengal, Assam and Odisha.

Vaishnavas worship Lord Vishnu and his incarnations Rama and Krishna along with their consorts as personal God and temple deity; Radharani is also worshipped with Krishna as his divine consort. Saivites’s personal God and temple deity is Shiva, in many places they worship His Linga form; His consort Parvati, Lord Ganesha and Kartikeya are also revered. Shaktas worship Shakti or Durga and Her various forms as personal Goddess and temple deity. Smartas worship Ishvara (God) in the form of Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti, Ganesha and Surya or any deity of their choice as personal God and temple deity; Being the most liberal and non-sectarian among Hindu Sects, many of them often simultaneously worship multiple deities too at the home and temples.

Nature-wise, God Vishnu is considered loving, caring and easily pleased by surrender and devotion; God Shiva is compassionate, immanent and transcendent, pleased only through austerity and sadhana; Goddess Shakti is both compassionate and fierce, pleasing and wrathful and pleased with the sacrifice and submission. God Vishnu is considered to have ten or even more incarnations for the welfare of mankind; Shiva is known to have forms but not the formal incarnations; Goddess Shakti and many other deities too are known for incarnations.

On spiritualism, Vaishnavism emphasise on bhakti or surrender in usually devotional and non-ascetic form; In Shavism go for bhakti, but emphasis is more on austerity (tapas), sadhna and yoga; Shaktism emphasises on bhakti and tantra which at times take the form of occult practices; Smartism focus on preparatory sadhanas as bhakti, karma and raja yoga with high emphasis on knowledge to achieve jnana for salvation.

On the paths of attainment too, the four Sects vary to a considerable extent:

(1) The majority Vaishnas believe that through the bhakti and sincere devotion, one could achieve darshan (glimpse) of the Gods and Goddesses and their kind grace. Among the common devotional practices of Vaishnavas is systematic and synchronised chanting of the holy names of the Avataras, which they believe is suffice to please the God ensuring liberation from samsara (the vicious cycle of rebirth).
(2) According to Shaivism, the goal of liberation is attained through four stages of belief and practice called charya, kriya, yoga and jnana. The souls evolve through these stages in ascending order which can be achieved through austere bhakti and yoga, contemplative and devotional sadhanas.
(3) The spiritual practices in Shaktism are somewhat similar to that in Shaivism, though there is more reliance on Goddesses's bhakti as also on mantras and yantras. Certain sub-sects of Shaktism also resort to tantric rites, consciously using the world of form to transmute and eventually transcend that world.
(4) Smartas believe that the moksha is achieved through jnana yoga alone which is an intellectual and meditative path. The progressive stages are shravana (scriptural study), manana (reflection) and sustained dhyana (meditation). The good karma and purity of mind is considered necessary under the guidance of a realized Guru for initiating self for these practices. Three other non-successive paths viz. bhakti yoga, karma yoga and raja yoga are also believed to bring enlightenment.

Shared Divine Perspective

Each of the Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma)'s philosophies, schools and lineages shares a common objective: to purify and refine the soul to continue the journey to its divine destiny. The deities and attributes may be different in different Sects but the ultimate goal is known and well defined. Every soul seeks merger with the Supreme soul i.e. Brahman to achieve moksha and get rid of the arduous cycle of karma and reincarnation. The human soul is like the beautiful lotus flower which is so aptly given a sacred place in Hinduism, which in the quest of seeking Sun (light), rises through the messy and muddy water, to ultimately evolve in a magnificent flower, reminding the similar quest of the soul to achieve the purity and perfection.

Continued to Part XII


More by :  Dr. Jaipal Singh

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