Hinduism - 4 Principal Sects
He is the Ancient One. He created the beings of Earth and Heaven in days of yore in order divine.
The six faiths seek the feet but of the One Primal, Peerless God.
And in them all, He pervades in measure appropriate.
Tirumantiram 1557. Tm
What Are Hinduism’s Principal Sects?
The Sanātana Dharma, or “eternal faith,” known today as Hinduism, is a family of religions that accept the authority of the Vedas. Its four principal denominations are Śaivism, Śaktism, Vaishnavism and Smārtism. Aum.
The world’s billion Hindus, one-sixth of the human family, are organized in four main denominations, each distinguished by its Supreme Deity:
For Vaiṣṇavites - Lord Vishnu is God. For Śaivites God is Śiva. For Śāktas - Goddess Śaktī is supreme. For Smārtas, liberal Hindus, the choice of Deity is left to the devotee.
Each has a multitude of guru lineages, religious leaders, priesthoods, sacred literature, monastic communities, schools, pilgrimage centers and tens of thousands of temples. They possess a wealth of art and architecture, philosophy and scholarship.
These four sects hold such divergent beliefs that each is a complete and independent religion.
Yet, they share a vast heritage of culture and belief—karma, dharma, reincarnation, all-pervasive Divinity, temple worship, sacraments, manifold Deities, the guru-śiṣya tradition and the Vedas as scriptural authority.
While India is home to most Hindus, large communities flourish worldwide.
The Vedas elaborate:
“He is Brahma. He is Śiva. He is Indra. He is the immutable, the supreme, the self-luminous. He is Vishnu. He is life. He is time. He is the fire, and He is the moon.” Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
What Is the Deeply Mystical Śaiva Sect?
Śaivism is the world’s oldest religion. Worshiping God Śiva, the compassionate One, it stresses potent disciplines, high philosophy, the guru’s centrality and bhakti-raja- siddha yoga leading to oneness with Śiva within. Aum.
Śaivism is ancient, truly ageless, for it has no beginning. It is the precursor of the many-faceted religion now termed Hinduism.
Scholars trace the roots of Śiva worship back more than 8,000 years to the advanced Indus Valley civilization. But sacred writings tell us there never was a time when Śaivism did not exist.
Modern history records six main schools: Śaiva Siddhāṅta, Pāśupatism, Kashmir Śaivism, Vīra Śaivism, Siddha Siddhāṅta and Śiva Advaita.
Śaivism’s grandeur and beauty are found in a practical culture, an enlightened view of man’s place in the universe and a profound system of temple mysticism and siddha yoga. It provides knowledge of man’s evolution from God and back to God, of the soul’s unfoldment and awakening guided by enlightened sages.
Like all the sects, its majority are devout families, headed by hundreds of orders of swamis and sadhus who follow the fiery, world-renouncing path to moksha.
The Vedas state:
“By knowing Śiva, the Auspicious One who is hidden in all things, exceedingly fine, like film arising from clarified butter, the One embracer of the universe—by realizing God, one is released from all fetters.” Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
What Is the Magic and Power of Śaktism?
Śaktism reveres the Supreme as the Divine Mother, Śaktī or Devi, in Her many forms, both gentle and fierce. Śaktas use mantra, tantra., yantra., yoga and puja to invoke cosmic forces and awaken the kundalini power. Aum.
While worship of the Divine Mother extends beyond the pale of history, Śakta Hinduism arose as an organized sect in India around the fifth century.
Today it has four expressions—devotional, folk-shamanic, yogic and universalist—all invoking the fierce power of Kālī or Durgā, or the benign grace of Pārvatī or Ambikā.
Śakta devotionalists use puja rites, especially to the Sri Chakra yantra, to establish intimacy with the Goddess.
Shamanic Śaktism employs magic, trance mediumship, fire-walking and animal sacrifice for healing, fertility, prophecy and power.
Śakta yogis seek to awaken the sleeping Goddess Kundalini and unite her with Śiva in the Sahasrāra chakra.
Śakta universalists follow the reformed Vedāntic tradition exemplified by Sri Rāmakrishna. “Left-hand” tantric rites transcend traditional ethical codes.
Śaktism is chiefly advaitic, defining the soul’s destiny as complete identity with the Unmanifest, Śiva. Central scriptures are the Vedas, Śakta Āgamas and Purāṇas.
The Devi Gita extols:
“We bow down to the universal soul of all. Above and below and in all four directions, Mother of the universe, we bow.” Aum Chanḍikāyai Namaḥ.
What Is the Devotional Vaishnava Sect?
Vaishnavism is an ancient Hindu sect centering on the worship of Lord Vishnu and His incarnations, especially Krishna and Rāma. Largely dualistic, profoundly devotional, it is rich in saints, temples and scriptures. Aum.
The worship of Vishnu, meaning “pervader,” dates back to Vedic times. The Pāñcharātra and Bhagavata sects were popular prior to 300 BCE.
Today’s five Vaishnava schools emerged in the middle ages, founded by Rāmānuja, Madhva, Nimbarka, Vallabha and Chaitanya.
Vaishnavism stresses prapatti, single-pointed surrender to Vishnu, or His ten or more incarnations, called Avatāras. Japa is a key devotional sadhana, as is ecstatic chanting and dancing, called kirtana. Temple worship and festivals are elaborately observed.
Philosophically, Vaishnavism ranges from Madhva’s pure dualism to Rāmānuja’s qualified non-dualism to Vallabha’s nearly monistic vision.
God and soul are everlastingly distinct. The soul’s destiny, through God’s grace, is to eternally worship and enjoy Him.
While generally non-ascetic, advocating bhakti as the highest path, Vaishnavism has a strong monastic community.
Central scriptures are the Vedas, Vaishnava Āgamas, Itihāsas and Purāṇas.
The Bhagavad Gita states:
“On those who meditate on Me and worship with undivided heart, I confer attainment of what they have not, and preserve what they have.” Aum Namo Nārāyaṇāya.
What Is the Universalistic Smārta Sect?
Smārtism is an ancient Brahmin tradition reformed by Śankara in the ninth century. Worshiping six forms of God, this liberal Hindu path is monistic, non-sectarian, meditative and philosophical. Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
Smārta means a follower of classical Smriti, particularly the Dharma Śastras, Purāṇas and Itihāsas. Smārtas revere the Vedas and honor the Āgamas.
Today this faith is synonymous with the teachings of Ādi Śankara, the monk-philosopher known as shaṇmata sthāpanāchārya, “founder of the six-sect system.”
He campaigned India-wide to consolidate the Hindu faiths of his time under the banner of Advaita Vedanta.
To unify the worship, he popularized the ancient Smārta five-Deity altar— Gaṇapati, Sūrya, Vishnu, Śiva and Śakti—and added Kumāra. From these, devotees may choose their “preferred Deity,” or Iṣṭā Devatā.
Each God is but a reflection of the one Saguṇā Brahman.
Śankara organized hundreds of monasteries into a ten-order, daśanāmī system, which now has five pontifical centers. He wrote profuse commentaries on the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and Bhagavad Gita.
“It is the one Reality which appears to our ignorance as a manifold universe of names and forms and changes. Like the gold of which many ornaments are made, it remains in itself unchanged. Such is Brahman and That art Thou.” Aum Namaḥ Śivāya.
Ādi Śankara lived from 788 to 820, a mere 32 years, yet he gave Hinduism a popular new liberal sect—Smārtism.
They call Him Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, Agni or the heavenly sunbird Garutmat. The seers call in many ways that which is One; they speak of Agni, Yama, Mātariśva.
Rig Veda 1.164.46. ve, 660
Him who is without beginning and without end, in the midst of confusion, the Creator of all, of manifold form, the One embracer of the universe—by knowing God, one is released from all fetters.
Krishna Yajur Veda, Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 5.13. uph, 407
The Primordial Vastness is the sky. The Primordial Vastness is the sphere of space. The Primordial Vastness is the mother, the father, the son. The Primordial Vastness is all the Gods, the five sorts of men, all that was born and shall be born.
Rig Veda 1.89.10. hp, 114
May I attain to Vishnu’s glorious mansion where the faithful rejoice, where, close beside the Strider, within His highest footstep springs the well of purest honey.
Rig Veda 1.154.5. ve, 152
I am the ruling Queen, the amasser of treasures, full of wisdom, first of those worthy of worship. In various places, divine powers have set Me. I enter many homes and take numerous forms.
Rig Veda 10.125.3. ve, 97
He who bestows life force and hardy vigor, whose ordinances even the Gods obey, whose shadow is immortal life—and death—what God shall we adore with our oblation? Who by his grandeur has emerged sole sovereign of every living thing that breathes and slumbers, he who is Lord of man and four-legged creatures, what God shall we adore with our oblation?
Rig Veda 10.121.2-3. ve, 71
When a man knows God, he is free: his sorrows have an end, and birth and death are no more. When in inner union he is beyond the world of the body, then the third world, the world of the Spirit, is found, where the power of the All is, and man has all—for he is one with the One.
Krishna Yajur Veda, Śvetāśvatara Upaniṣad 1.11. upm, 86
Whatever exists and wherever it exists is permeated by the same divine power and force.
Śuklā Yajur Veda, Īśa Upanishad 1. eh, 45
Recognition of the world as the manifestation of Sakti is worship of Sakti. Pure knowledge, unrelated to objects, is absolute.
Devīkālottara Āgama, Jñāna-āchara-vichara 14. rm, 112
When milk is poured into milk, oil into oil, water into water, they blend in absolute oneness. So also the illumined seer, the knower of the atman, becomes one with the atman.
Devīkālottara Āgama, Jñāna-āchara-vichara 14. rm, 112
Let us worship Him, the pure-formed One, the cloud which, emitting a rain of unthinkable joy, satiates the hearts and eyes of its followers, as if millions of rain clouds had poured down, the stay of the Great Silence, called by many names, described by many religions, the embodiment of ineffable degrees of spiritual happiness.
Tayumanavar 1.2. pt, 14
O God of mercy who performs the dance of illimitable happiness in the hall of inconceivable Intelligence! O thou Preceptor who art named Nīlakaṇṭha! O thou Preceptor of wisdom who art of the form of Vishnu! O thou Preceptor who art of the form of the four-headed Brahma, the author of Vedas! O thou who discharges the duties of a Preceptor in all religions! O thou who as Preceptor enlightens in love those followers who have implored thee not to abandon them.
Tayumanavar 6.5. pt, 34
Worship, by offering sweet-scented flowers, the God who is the Infinite Lord of all. Give reverence to your tradition’s God, who the whole world and all that lives pervades. Before the body falls, revere the God who both the One and many has become.
Natchintanai, “The Wisdom.." nt, 202
Whatever you see, see as Śiva and do not be distressed, O mind! Those who are free from agitation and who the senses five control will surely win the bliss of Śiva. The path prescribed by your religion you should always tread, and live in changeless, silent contemplation. Whatever you see, see as Śiva.
Natchintanai, “Whatever You See.." nt, 68