Sects and Denominations: Part-B
Continued from Part XI
In the previous part, four main Sects/Denominations of Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma) i.e. Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Smartism and their popular sub-sects/traditions had been dealt with. To recapitulate it, the Vaishnavas essentially worship Lord Vishnu, more commonly as Krishna or Rama; the Shaivas worship Shiva, more commonly in Linga form; the Shaktas worship Shakti, also known as Devi, Durga, Kali or Parvati; and Smartas worship deities namely Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti, Ganesh and Surya or any other deities of their choice.
In fact, classifying Hinduism among the Sects and Sub-sects is a challenging and enormous task in itself considering numerous branches, their rituals and belief system. Moreover, while classifying they appear as static, well-defined and distinct wholesome groups but in essence they are more fluid, inter-connected and evolving with rather faint and fuzzy boundaries.
More about Four Main Sects/Denominations
Among the followers of the Vaishnavism, the two most worshipped forms of Lord Vishnu being Krishna and Rama whose origin, life and related stories have been narrated at length in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, two most famous and illustrous epics ever written. The adherents of this Sect are usually non-ascetic, monastic and resort to meditative devotion and ecstatic chanting. Apart from the four main Vaishnava sub-sects (sampradayas or traditions) namely Sri Brahma, Sri Laksmi, Sri Kumara and Sri Rudra (Shiva), there are other traditions too of lesser fame and following. More prominent among them are briefly indicated in the following lines.
Ramanandi Sampradaya: This is among the largest monastic groups within the Hinduism that adheres to the teachings of the Advaita scholar Ramananda. These Vaishnavas monks are known as Ramanandis, Vairagis or Bairagis.
Udhava Sampradaya and Swaminarayan Sampradaya: The adherents are believers of the philosophy of Vishistadvaita and largely follow teachings of the Hindu scholar Ramanuja.
Gaudiya Vaishnavism: This is sub-sect is associated with Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness is affiliated to this tradition.
The other lesser known Vaishnava traditions are Manavala Mamunigal sect, Vaikhanasa Sampradaya, Ekasaranism, Thenacharya sampradaya, Krishna Pranami Sampradaya, Mahanama Sampradaya and Varkari Sampradaya.
Among the followers of Shaivism, Lord Shiva is worshipped as the supreme deity - both ingrained and transcendent. Shiva has various forms such as Rudra, Nataraja, Bhairava and Linga, the last being most popular among devotees. Adherents are often seen as ascetic and wanderers with ashen faces engaged in self-purifying rituals and practicing yoga. Main traditions of Shaivas namely Pasupatis, Shaiva Siddhanta, Kashmiri Shaivism, Vira Shaivism (Lingayatism) and Shaiva Asceticism have been explained in the previous part, two other lesser known traditions are Shiva Advaita and Aaiyyanism (an all Dravidian shaivism).
In certain parts of the country, devotion of deities other than Vishnu, Shiva or Shakti is common as core deity for worship. The adherents of these deities treat the respective deity as the supreme manifestation of Brahman (God). Such denominations are briefly indicated in the following paragraphs.
Ganapatism is a denomination of Hinduism in which Lord Ganesha is worshipped as the main deity of the Saguna Brahman. He is also known with other common names as Ganapati, Vinayaka, Pillaiyar and Binayak. This Sect has a widespread following and influence in the Maharashtra and adjacent regions of the contiguous states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka; besides various other Hindu denominations too worship him regardless of affiliations throughout the country. His image is found everywhere and his elephant head makes him distinct for identification.
Ganesha is widely revered as the God of intellect and wisdom, remover of obstacles and the patron of arts and sciences. The Hindu mythology identifies him as the restored son of Parvati and Shiva but he is a pan-Hindu god found in its various traditions. The principal texts on Ganesha include the Ganesha Purana, Mudgala Purana and Ganapati Atharvashirsa. Besides, Brahma Purana and Brahmanda Purana are two other Puranic encyclopedic texts dealing with Ganesha and his stories.
Suryaism (Saurism) The worship of Surya (Sun) has threads in the Vedic traditions. Adherents worship Surya as the main form of the Shaguna Brahman and this tradition was more common in ancient India in various regions. Many Surya temples and idols were built during 800 to 1000 CE, the most famous temple being the Konark Sun Temple at Odisha coast; reportedly, these temples were among the ones most desecrated with images smashed during the Islamic invasions. Surya tradition gradually declined after the 12th century although it still exist as a tradition among some dedicated sauras and smartas who still devoutly worship the Sun God.
Some ultra-orthodox Nambudiri Brahmins of Kerala are known to follow Shrauta - the Purva-Mimamsa i.e. early teachings of Vedas in contrast to Vedanta followed by the majority Brahmins. They place importance on the performance of the earliest Vedic rituals including Sacrifice (Yajna). The Nambudiri Brahmins are famous for their preservation of the ancient Somayaagam and Agnicayana rituals which are no more recognised in the other parts of country.
Kaumaram is another South-Indian Sect of Hindus who worship Lord Muruga Karttikeya as the Supreme God. The adherents, known as Kaumaras, consider Lord Muruga even superior to the famous Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Hanuman - The Monkey God
Though not formally identified as a Hindu Sect but a large number of Hindu devotees, particularly in the north India, have great reverence, devotion and following to Hanuman – The Monkey God. Hanuman is considered as an ardent devotee and chief sewak of Lord Rama and one of the important characters in the epic Ramayana. He also finds a heroic reference at several places in the other great epic Mahabharata. It is common belief among the followers that God Hanuman removes all obstacles and difficulties, and wards off the evil spirits and omen.
Hinduism also flourished abundantly on the island of Java and Sumatra until the late 16th century, when Islamic invaders established their rule and forced a vast majority to convert to Islam or die. Many islander people still follow a form of Hinduism known as Indonesian Hinduism. These adherents are closer to Shaivism in their belief and consider Acintya as the Supreme God, and all other gods as his manifestations.
The Renaissance in Modern India
Consequent to almost seven centuries of dominance by the Islamic rulers particularly in Indus (present day Pakistan, Indian Punjab and Haryana states) and Gangetic regions of India from the thirteenth century onwards and subsequent arrival of the Europeans, especially the British, who came to trade but assumed the role of colonisers thereby greatly influencing (damaging) the Indian economic, socio-cultural and religious life, Hindustan (India) and Hindus were in a state of intellectual and spiritual decadence towards the later part of the eighteenth century. The ancient Indian glory was long lost and the entire country appeared diseased and divided.
The ingredients of the ancient Indian glory according to Sri Aurobindo were "an ingrained and dominant spirituality, an inexhaustible vital creativeness and gust of life, and a powerful, penetrating and scrupulous intelligence combined of the rational, ethical, and aesthetic mind each at a high intensity of action". Needless to mention that the misrule and excesses of the alien rulers and religious oligarchs during the period rendered the entire Hindu community in disarray, shamble and demoralised state but could not destroy these ingredients and ingrained qualities of the age old Indian civilization and Sanatana Dharma.
Following the downfall of Mughals and splintering of India into hundreds of the large and small kingdoms and arrival of the British colonizers, the nineteenth century witnessed a cultural, religious and literary awakening and resurgence among the Hindu masses in India with a revived and enhanced interests in arts, language, culture and religion that remained long suppressed and systematically exploited under many Islamic rulers. While the British colonial powers are often held responsible for plundering the nation through economic exploitation, neglect of agriculture, destruction of cottage industry and handicrafts while simultaneously ignoring industrial and infrastructure development that was the contemporary order in entire Europe and civilised world, it is also true that many social and religious reforms began to manifest in the early nineteenth century largely under the influence and contact with the Western culture and education.
Thus the nineteenth century witnessed a socio-cultural, religious and literary resurgence in India – what is commonly known as the Renaissance in the modern India. It was indeed a period of great upheaval triggering the radical social, cultural and political change. The chief causative factors that enabled the Indian Renaissance were the spread of Christianity on arrival of the Christian missionaries as a new potential challenge and threat to Hinduism, the introduction of English education by side-lining native languages, the Westernisation of many Indians and of course the enthusiastic response of many Indians to these changes. The reawakening of the Indian masses and spirit not only led to the awareness and acceptance of many Western values and practicality in thought and action but also to a revival of interest in ancient heritage of the Indian culture, literature and religion.
Some illustrations of this revived zeal and interest are the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization (or Harappan Civilization) consequent to the archaeological interests and excavations in 1920s in the Punjab province of British India (now is Pakistan). Initially the Harappa, and soon afterwards the discovery of Mohenjo-Daro, were the natural developments and outcome consequent to the founding of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in 1861 during the British Raj and its committed efforts. While the archaeological work unearthed and established ‘factual evidence’ of the ancient civilizational glory and greatness of the Hinduism, many great Indians like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Rama Krishna, Vivekananda, Dayanand Saraswati and many others tirelessly worked to revive everything native from philosophy, social order, and fine arts to education.
The social, cultural and religious weakness and decay of Indian society was visible in the form of numerous evil practices like child marriage, sati custom, polygamy and illiteracy consequent to many centuries of misrule and discriminatory treatment under the alien rule. Many educated Indians were no longer ready to accept the age old traditional beliefs and practices of Hindu society, who started to work systematically for their removal. Even the traditional Religious Sects and the work of religious scholars/gurus were questioned by them. This movement led to several remarkable reformers and reforms in the Hindu society during the 19th and 20th centuries, the period is often cited as Renaissance in the Indian social and religious context.
During the Indian Renaissance, reformers and reforms were more focussed on the cultural, social and educational aspects of the society. However, this period simultaneously experienced several new religious movements too in the 19th and 20th centuries. These important movements were Arya Samaj, Brahma Samaj (Brahmoism), Prarthana Samaj, Ramkrishna Mission, Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana, Swadhyay Parivar Movement, Ayyavazhi, Sathya Sai Organisation and Ananda Marg etc. It may be worthwhile to talk about the key modern age reformers and reforms including religious movements of Hinduism. However, the list of reformers is inclusive and not exclusive as there may be more personalities and their work that might need citation.
Key Reformers and Reforms
Raja Ram Mohan Roy:
Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a great patriot, scholar and humanist, is known as the “father of the Indian Renaissance”, for his pioneer work and being the central figure in the social and cultural awakening of the Indians. He was born in a small village Radhanagore of Bengal in 1772. He studied Sanskrit literature and Hindu philosophy in Varanasi, Persian and Arabic in Patna and mastered several languages including English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew during the later life. He was deeply pained, agitated and moved with the social evils prevailing in the Indian society, hence out of sheer love and commitment for the country and people, he worked throughout his life for the social, religious, intellectual and political regeneration and resurgence of the Indians.
Ram Mohan Roy decided to settle in Calcutta 1814 and dedicated rest of his life for the eradication of social evils prevalent at the time in the Hindu society, and at the same time bringing in religious reform. He relentlessly fought against the social evils like sati custom, child marriage, polygamy, female infanticide and caste discrimination. He vigorously led a successful movement against the inhuman sati custom that culminated in the Governor General William Bentinck’s passing an effective legislation banning the practice in 1829. He was a staunch proponent of the modern education on the Western pattern and worked for the foundation of the Hindu College in Calcutta (later became the Presidency College). He also established a Vedanta College that offered courses on the Western social and physical sciences along with the Indian learning.
Ram Mohan Roy devoted considerable time the on religious reforms too. Upholding the sanctity of the ancient Hindu texts of the Vedas and Upanishads, he argued that they are essentially based on the doctrine of monotheism. He was a staunch supporter of the Vedanta Philosophy and worked passionately to defend the Hindu religion and philosophy from the onslaught of the Christian missionaries and evangelists. He even translated the Vedas and five key Upanishads in Bengali language. He also founded a new religious society in 1829 known as the ‘Brahmo Sabha’ which in the followibg years took the mantle and shape of the Brahmo Samaj movement on the principles of rationalism and Vedic philosophy. Rightly so at one stage, the poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore remarked, “Ram Mohan Roy was the only person in his time, in the whole world of men, to realise completely the significance of the Modern Age.”
Debendranath Tagore was born in 1817 in a leading elite family in Kolkata, which is widely regarded to have a key influence on the Renaissance in Bengal. He was a deeply religious man and founded the Tatvabodhini Sabha in 1839 to propagate Rammohan Roy’s ideals, supporting the movement for the widow remarriage, abolition of polygamy, women’s education and the improvement in the condition of peasants. He also promoted a Bengali magazine for carrying out the systematic study and exploring India’s ancient lost glory.
The young Debendranath became an active supporter of the reform measures of Raja Ram Mohan Roy to improve the condition of the Hindu lot in Bengal and elsewhere. In 1843, he merged his Tattwabodhini Sabha with Brahmo Sabha, ten years after the death of Roy, to pursue the Brahmo Samaj (Society of Brahman) movement that aimed to reform the Hindu religion and spiritual way of life. Under his worthy guidance, Brahmo Samaj took the shape of a unique religious movement and social community. He also fathered Rabindranath Tagore, one of the best and all-time great poet, writer and Nobel laureate.
Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar:
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was born in 1820 in a Hindu Brahmin family at Birsingha village in Paschim Midnapore District of Bengal. He was a philosopher, academician, writer, translator, printer and publisher, reformer, philanthropist and a key figure in Bengal renaissance. Among his key achievements were the rationalization and simplification of the Bengali alphabet; persuading the British to pass widow remarriage act; systematic crusade against the caste system, child marriage and polygamy; and enormous growth of the Bengali language including the evolution of the modern prose style in Bengali.
He received the title "Vidyasagar" (i.e., Ocean of Knowledge) from the Sanskrit College, Calcutta owing to his profound knowledge and outstanding performance in Sanskrit studies and philosophy. Besides being a great scholar and reformer, he was a great humanist too with deep sympathy for the oppressed and poor class. He fought against the caste system and prevalent restrictions of admitting non-brahmins to Sanskrit studies and succeeded in opening the admission for the non-brahmin students in the Sanskrit college.
Vidyasagar dedicated his entire life for the social reforms which he considered necessary for modernising India. He particularly favoured the women’s education and helped opening of a number of schools for the girls including the Bethune School, the first school for girls in 1849. Perhaps his greatest contribution lies in the improvement of the status of the widows. Despite opposition from the orthodox Hindu community, he openly advocated the widow remarriage and started a powerful movement in favour of the widow remarriage. After a prolonged struggle, the Widow Remarriage Act for Hindus was finally passed in 1856 by the British.
Ram Krishna Paramhans:
Rama Krishna Paramhans was born in 1836 as Gadadhar Chattopadhyay in Kamarpukur (Hoogli), Bengal and was an accomplished Indian mystic and yogi during the 19th century. From the very young age, he had spiritual leanings towards the contemporary religious traditions, including devotion to the Goddess Kali, Tantra, Vaishnava bhakti and Advaita Vedanta. Though he had no formal education but his discourses were full of wisdom attracting poor and elite equally. He was the chief priest of the Kali temple at Dakshineswar (Kolkata) for a long period and devotees from all walks of life used to flock together to listen his discourses.
Ram Krishna had a liberal outlook towards religion with a firm conviction that there was an underlying unity among all religions; only the methodology of worship was different. Therefore, God could be approached by any route or form of worship so long the devotee has conviction and unclenching faith in devotion. He was so revered that many of his followers started looking upon him as an incarnation of the formless Brahman while others looked upon him as avatara of Vishnu. In due course, Vivekananda became Ramakrishna's most influential follower and trusted disciple, popularizing a modern interpretation of Indian traditions which harmonised Tantra, Yoga and Advaita Vedanta and establishing the Ramakrishna Mission after him.
He was a great preacher and teacher as well who was able to narrate many complex philosophical ideas in a simplified manner to his disciples and all in a language that everybody would understand. He believed that the service to man was, in fact, service to God, because man was the embodiment of God on earth. He was of firm belief that the salvation could be attained through renunciation, meditation and devotion to God. A monastery (Math) was established in Belur near Kolkata which spearheaded religious aspects of people while the Ram Krishna Mission was dedicated to social and religious reforms based on ancient culture and knowledge of India with more focus on spiritualism than on rituals. Under the Mission, a chain of schools, hospitals, libraries and orphanages were opened keeping social welfare of people without any discrimination.
Swami Vivekananda was born in an aristocratic Bengali family as Narendra Nath Datta in 1863 in Kolkata and died at the pre-mature age of 39. During his early life, he became a monk, chief disciple of Ram Krishna Paramhans and a key propagator of the Indian philosophy of Vedanta and Yoga in the Western world, particularly the United States of America. It would not be an exaggeration if he is credited with the revivalism of Hinduism and inculcating the spirit of nationalism in the modern India. He is more popularly known for his famous speech introducing Hinduism at the Parliament of the World’s Religion in 1893 in Chicago, USA.
A man of superior wisdom, intellect and analytical mind, his graduation years in the Scottish Church College, Kolkata helped him to learn the Western philosophy. His meeting with Ram Krishna transformed his life invoking a keen desire and interest in Vedanta knowledge of Hinduism. After the death of his coveted Guru, he became a sanyasi and dedicated the rest of his life on preaching and spreading Ramakrishna’s spiritual message to the contemporary society in India and abroad. He was perfectly in sync with his Guru that all the living beings were manifestations of the Supreme Divine; hence any service to the mankind would be a service to God.
Vivekananda was a believer of the oneness of all religions and was against the caste system, religious rituals and superstitions in the society. He toured extensively in the Indian subcontinent to have first-hand knowledge of the conditions prevailing under the British Raj. Later he travelled to the United States, England and many other European countries conducting numerous public and private lectures and sessions disseminating the tenets of Hindu philosophy and dispelling the wrong notions that prevailed in the Western countries about the Hindu religion and culture. In India, Vivekananda is widely respected as a patriotic saint and his birthday is celebrated as the National Youth Day.
Swami Dayanand Saraswati:
Dayanad Saraswati was born as Mulshankar Karasandas Tiwari in 1824 at Tankara, Gujarat. Since boyhood, he had ascetic and scholarly tendencies that helped him to evolve as a renowned scholar of the Vedic lore and Sanskrit language. He founded Arya Samaj in 1875, a religious movement, establishing the infallible authority of the Vedas. He emphasized the belief in one God and rejected the concept of the worship of idols. He insisted on the Vedic doctrine of Karma and Reincarnation and considered Brahmacharya and celibacy important for the spiritual development and upliftment.
Dayanand Saraswati was probably the first Indian to give the call for Swaraj (self-rule) as "Indian for India" in 1876, a call later on adopted by Lokmanya Gangadhar Tilak. There is a long list of distinguished freedom fighters and religious leaders who followed him and derived inspiration from his ideals during the contemporary period and thereafter. The other significant contribution is his efforts in promotion of the equal rights for women, such as the education and reading of Indian scriptures. The President of India and philosopher, Dr S. Radhakrishnan later wrote about him as one of the "makers of Modern India.
He wrote many commentaries on the Vedas in Sanskrit as well as Hindi, for the benefit of the Indian masses. However, his most influential, scholarly and illustrious work was his book ‘Satyarth Prakash’, a scholarly and critical analysis of the subjects like Ishwar (God), Varnashrama (four orders of life or the ashramas), concepts of Karma, Dharma and Moksha, concept of creation, sustenance and destruction of world, gems of Vedic philosophy, and critical commentaries on the Sanatana Dharma, Buddhism, Jainism and major Abrahamic religions. He questioned and denounced many prevailing Hindu customs and rituals such as the polytheism, idol worship and caste system.
Mahadev Govind Ranade:
Mahadev Govind Ranade was born in 1842 in Niphad (Nashik), Maharashtra. He was a distinguished social reformer, scholar and founding member of the Indian National Congress. As a reformer, he was vehemently against the caste system and untouchability, and favoured widow re-marriage, women liberation and emancipation of the oppressed class. In order to bring in reform to the Hindu society, he started the Widow Remarriage Association, the Deccan Education Society and National Social Conference.
He founded of the Poona Sarvajanik Sabha and Ahmednagar Education Society. Inspired by the Brahmo Samaj in Bengal, Ranade worked to establish the ‘Prarthana Samaj’ movement in Maharashtra with his close associates Atmaram Pandurang, Bal Mangesh Wagle and Vaman Abaji Modak, based on the concepts of ancient Vedas. He also published books on the Maratha History ‘Rise of the Maratha Power’ and Indian economics.
Jyotirao Govindrao Phule:
Jyotirao Govindrao Phule was born in 1827 near Pune in Maharashtra. He was a social activist, thinker and a prominent contemporary reformist in Maharashtra who worked for the eradication of the untouchability and caste system, and improvement in the condition of the women, poor and marginal class. He was against the domination of the Brahmins and questioned even the continued relevance of the Vedas. He started the practice of organising marriages without the Brahmin priests. Phule also founded an association called the Satyasodhak Samaj (Society of Truth Seekers) in 1873 to fight for the equal rights of people from the lower class, the membership of which was open for the people from all the castes and religions.
Born as Aurobindo Ghose in 1872 in Kolkata, Sri Aurobondo was an Indian yogi, philosopher, guru, poet and nationalist. Young Aurobindo joined the Indian independence movement against the British rule taking keen interests in nationalist activities and revolutionary movement in Bengal. He was even arrested and charged with treason by the British government but could only be convicted and imprisoned for writing articles against the British rule.
During his stay in jail, he had mystical and spiritual experiences, and after release he moved to Pondicherry to continue as spiritual reformer for human spiritual evolution and development. During his abode in Pondicherry, Sri Aurobindo evolved a spiritual practice called ‘Integral Yoga’ which he felt was capable of transforming the human life into a divine life that not only liberated man but also transformed his nature. His spiritual collaborator Mirra Alfassa (commonly known as 'the Mother') assisted him to set up an Ashram known as Auroville (City of Dawn) in 1926 in Pondicherry. In Mirra Alfassa’s own version - “Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realize human unity.”
Sri Aurobindo's concept of the Integral Yoga has been explained in his books; The Life Divine and The Synthesis of Yoga, the former being a compilation of essays explaining various aspects of Yoga and the latter a practical guidance to the same.
Annie Besant (born: 1847) was an Irish (British) socialist, women's rights activist, theosophist, writer and orator, and supporter of Irish and Indian self-rule. Towards the later part of the 19th century, many Europeans were attracted towards the Hindu philosophy. Greatly influenced with the Indian doctrine of Karma, a Russian lady Madame Blavatsky and an American Colonel Olcott had founded the Theosophical Society at Adyar near Madras in 1875. Greatly influenced with Blavatsky, Annie Besant had come to India in 1893 following her death and steered the Theosophist movement to grow and gain strength in India.
Annie Besant spent rest of her life in India, joined the Indian National Congress to participate in the freedom movement, even served as the Congress President for a term, propagated Vedic philosophy urging Indians to be proud of their culture and founded the Central Hindu College in Banaras which later became the Banaras Hindu University . The Theosophist Society worked mainly in south for the revival of the ancient Indian religion and spreading the message of universal brotherhood.
Elements of Commonality in the Reformists’ Movement
While the Sanatana Dharma offered a lot of flexibility, tolerance and choice in selection of deity and mode of prayer offering tenable explanation even to debatable concepts like the idol worship and caste system, all modern reformers largely under the Western influence propagated the idea of the oneness of God, taking threads from the Vedas, and the basic unity of all religions. And in that sense, there was an element of commonality and effort to bridge the gap between different religious beliefs. Almost all reformers criticised rituals, priesthood, idol worship and polytheism in the contemporary Hindu society.
As a result of the centuries of misrule under Islamic rulers and consequent exploitation by the colonial powers, the Hindu society was badly fragmented and divided with many evil practices crept in over a period possibly in response to the adverse stimuli, all reformist movements had a social aspects too in attacking evil practices like Sati custom, child marriage, caste system, eradication of untouchability, emphasis on woman education, widow remarriage, and so on so forth.
The reformers worked to restore the lost glory and credibility of the Hindu culture and religion within India and outside, particularly in the Western countries of USA and Europe. The contribution of Swami Vivekanand needs a special reference and mention in this regard. The overlying emphasis of these great reformists and reform was to unite the people of India transforming into one nation by fostering the spirit and feelings of self-reliance, self-respect and patriotism among all Indians.
Continued to Part XIII