Hinduism’s Four Denominations

Hinduism’s Four

For over 200 years, Western scholars have struggled
to understand Hinduism, a faith whose followers
seemed (to outsiders) to arbitrarily worship any one
of a dozen Gods as the Supreme, a religion vastly diverse
in its beliefs, practices and ways of worship. Some Indologists
labeled the Hinduism they encountered polytheistic;
others even coined new terms, like henotheism, to describe
this baffling array of spiritual traditions. Few, however, have
realized, and fewer still have written, that India’s Sanatana
Dharma, or “eternal faith,” known today as Hinduism and
comprising nearly a billion followers, is a family of religions
with four principal denominations—Saivism, Shaktism,
Vaishnavism and Smartism. This single perception is
essential for understanding Hinduisim and explaining it
accurately to others. Contrary to prevailing misconceptions,
Hindus all worship a one Supreme Being, though by different
names. For Vaishnavites, Lord Vishnu is God. For Saivites,
God is Siva. For Shaktas, Goddess Shakti is supreme.
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
that each is a complete and independent religion.
Yet, they share a vast heritage of culture and belief—karma,
dharma, reincarnation, all-pervasive Divinity,
manifold Deities, the guru-disciple tradition
and the Vedas as scriptural authority. In this eight-page
Insight, drawn from Satguru
Sivaya Subramuniyaswami’s
Dancing with Siva, we offer a synopsis of these four
denominations, followed by a point-by-point comparison.

Each of Hinduism’s philosophies, schools and lineages shares
a common purpose: to further the soul’s unfoldment to its
divine destiny. Nowhere is this process better represented
than in the growth of the renowned lotus, which, seeking
the sun, arises from the mud to become a magnificent
flower. Its blossom is a promise of purity and perfection.

Hinduism Is
A Splendrous
Lotus with
Four Superb


Saivite Hindus worship the
Supreme God as Siva, the
Compassionate One. Saivites
esteem self discipline and philosophy
and follow a satguru.
They worship in the temple
and practice yoga, striving to
be one with Siva within.


Shaktas worship the Supreme as
the Divine Mother, Shakti or Devi.
She has many forms. Some are
gentle, some are fierce. Shaktas use
chants, real magic, holy diagrams,
yoga and rituals to call forth cosmic
forces and awaken the great
kundalini power within the spine.


Vaishnavites worship the Supreme
as Lord Vishnu and His incarnations,
especially Krishna and Rama. Vaishnavites
are mainly dualistic. They are
deeply devotional. Their religion is
rich in saints, temples and scriptures.

What Is the
Deeply Mystical
Saiva Sect?

Saivism is the world’s oldest religion.
Worshiping God Siva, the
compassionate One, it stresses
potent disciplines, high philosophy,
the guru’s centrality and bhaktiraja-
siddha yoga leading to oneness
with Siva within. Aum.

Seated on Nandi, his bull mount, the perfect devotee, Lord
Siva holds japa beads and the trident, symbol of love-wisdom-
action, and offers blessings of protection and fearlessness.
Mount Kailas, His sacred Himalayan abode, represents
the pinnacle of consciousness.

Saivism 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 Siva worship back
more than 8,000 years to the advanced Indus Valley
But sacred
writings tell us there never
was a time when Saivism did not exist. Modern
history records
six main schools: Saiva Siddhanta,
Pashupatism, Kashmir Saivism, Vira Saivism, Siddha
and Siva Advaita.
Saivism’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
God and back to God, of the soul’s unfoldment
guided by enlightened
sages. Like all
the sects, its majority are devout families, headed
by hundreds of orders of swamis and sadhus
follow the fiery, world-renouncing
path to moksha.
The Vedas
state, “By knowing Siva, 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 Namah Sivaya.

What Is the
Vaishnava Sect?

Vaishnavism is an ancient Hindu
sect centering on the worship
of Lord Vishnu and His incarnations,
especially Krishna and Rama.
Largely dualistic, profoundly
devotional, it is rich in saints, temples
and scriptures. Aum.

Vishnu is the infinite ocean from which the world emerges.
He stands on waves, surrounded by the many-headed Seshanaga,
who represents agelessness and is regarded as an
extension of divine energy and an incarnation of Balarama,
Lord Krishna’s brother.

The worship of vishnu, meaning “pervader,”
dates back to Vedic times. The Pancharatra
and Bhagavata sects were popular
prior to 300 bce. Today’s five Vaishnava schools
emerged in the middle ages, founded by Ramanuja,
Nimbarka, Vallabha and Chaitanya. Vaishnavism
stresses prapatti, single-pointed surrender
to Vishnu, or His ten or more incarnations, called
Japa is a key devotional sannyasin, as is
ecstatic chanting and dancing, called kirtana. Temple
worship and festivals are elaborately observed.
Philosophically, Vaishnavism
ranges from Madhva’s
pure dualism
to Ramanuja’s qualified nondualism
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
Him. While generally
nonascetic, advocating
bhakti as the highest path, Vaishnavism
a strong monastic
community. Central scriptures
are the Vedas, Vaishnava
Itihasas and
Puranas. The Bhagavad Gita states, “On those who
meditate on Me and worship with undivided
I confer attainment of what they have not, and preserve
what they have.” Aum Namo Narayanaya.

What Is the
Smarta Sect?

Smartism is an ancient brahminical
tradition reformed by
Shankara in the ninth century.
Worshiping six forms of God,
this liberal Hindu path is monistic,
nonsectarian, meditative
and philosophical. Aum.

Adi Shankara lived from 788 to 820 ce, a mere 32 years, yet
he gave Hinduism a new liberal denomination—Smartism.
Here, wearing sacred marks, he holds his writings and is
flanked by the six Deities of the Smarta altar: Surya the Sun,
Siva, Shakti, Vishnu, Kumaran and Ganesha.

Smarta means a follower of classical
smriti, particularly the Dharma Shastras,
Puranas and Itihasas. Smartas revere
and honor the Agamas. Today this faith is
synonymous with the teachings of Adi Shankara,
the monk-philosopher
known as Shanmata Sthapanacharya,
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
Smarta five-Deity altar—Ganapati,
Surya, Vishnu,
Siva and Shakti—and added Kumara. From these,
devotees may choose their “preferred Deity,” or Ishta
Devata. Each God is but a reflection of the one
Brahman. Shankara organized hundreds
of monasteries
into a ten-order, dashanami
which now has five pontifical centers.
He wrote
profuse commentaries on the Upanishads,
Sutras and Bhagavad Gita. Shankara proclaimed,
“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 Namah Sivaya

As just seen, the spectrum
of Hindu religiousness is
found within four major
sects or denominations: Saivism,
Shaktism, Vaishnavism and Smartism.
Among these four streams, there are
certainly more similarities than differences.
All four believe in karma and
reincarnation and in a Supreme Being
who both is form and pervades form,
who creates, sustains and destroys
the universe only to create it again
in unending cycles. They strongly
declare the validity and importance
of temple worship, the three worlds
of existence and the myriad Gods and
devas residing in them. They concur
that there is no intrinsic evil, that the
cosmos is created out of God and is
permeated by Him. They each believe
in maya (though their definitions differ
somewhat), and in the liberation of
the soul from rebirth, called moksha,
as the goal of human existence. They
believe in dharma and in ahimsa, noninjury,
and in the need for a satguru to
lead the soul toward Self Realization.
They wear the sacred marks, tilaka,
on their foreheads as sacred symbols,
though each wears a distinct mark.
Finally, they prefer cremation of the
body upon death, believing that the
soul will inhabit another body in the
next life. While Hinduism has many
sacred scriptures, all sects ascribe the
highest authority to the Vedas and
Agamas, though their Agamas differ
somewhat. Here, now, is a brief comparison
of these four denominations.

On the Personal God/Goddess
saivism: Personal God and temple Deity
is Siva, neither male nor female. Lords
Ganesha and Karttikeya are also
shaktism: Personal Goddess and temple
Deity is Shri Devi or Shakti, female,
as Rajarajeshvari, Parvati, Lakshmi,
Sarasvati, Kali, Amman, etc. —the
Divine Mother.
vaishnavism: Personal God and temple
Deity is Vishnu, male. His incarnations
Rama and Krishna are also worshiped, as
well as His divine consort, Radharani.
smartism: Personal God and temple Deity
is Ishvara, male or female, worshiped
as Vishnu, Siva, Shakti, Ganesha and Surya
or another Deity of devotee’s
choice, e.g.,
Kumara or Krishna.
On the Nature of Shakti
saivism: Shakti is God Siva’s inseparable
power and manifest will, energy or mind.
shaktism: Shakti is an active, immanent
Being, separate from a quiescent and
remote Siva.
vaishnavism: No special importance
is given to Shakti. However,
there are
parallels wherein the divine consorts
are conceived as the inseparable powers
of Vishnu and His incarnations: e.g.,
Krishna’s Radharani and Rama’s Sita.
smartism: Shakti is a divine form of Ishvara.
It is God’s manifesting power.
On the Nature of Personal God
saivism: God Siva is pure love and compassion,
immanent and transcendent,
pleased by our purity and sadhana.

shaktism: The Goddess Shakti is both
compassionate and terrifying, pleasing
and wrathful, assuaged by sacrifice and
vaishnavism: God Vishnu is loving and
beautiful, the object
of man’s devotion,
pleased by our service and surrender.
smartism: Ishvara appears as a human-like
Deity according to devotees’ loving worship,
which is sometimes considered a
rudimentary, self-purifying
On the Doctrine of Avatara
saivism: There are no divine earthly
incarnations of the Supreme Being.
shaktism: The Divine Mother does
incarnate in this world.
vaishnavism: Vishnu has ten or more
smartism: All Deities may assume
earthly incarnations.
On the Soul and God
saivism: God Siva is one with the soul. The
soul must realize this advaitic (monistic)
Truth by God Siva’s grace.
shaktism: The Divine Mother, Shakti, is
mediatrix, bestowing advaitic moksha on
those who worship Her.
vaishnavism: God and soul are eternally
distinct. Through Lord Vishnu’s grace, the
soul’s destiny is to worship and enjoy God.
smartism: Ishvara and man are in reality
Absolute Brahman.
Within maya, the soul
and Ishvara appear as two. Jnana (wisdom)
dispels the illusion.
Spiritual Practice
saivism: With bhakti as a base, emphasis
is placed on tapas (austerity) and yoga.
shaktism: Emphasis is on bhakti and
tantra, sometimes occult, practices.
vaishnavism: Emphasis is on supreme
bhakti or surrender, called prapatti.
devotional and nonascetic.
smartism: Preparatory sadhanas are
bhakti, karma, raja yoga. The highest path
is through knowledge, leading to jnana.
Major Scriptures
saivism: Vedas, Saiva Agamas and Saiva
shaktism: Vedas, Shakta Agamas (Tantras)
and Puranas.
vaishnavism: Vedas, Vaishnava Agamas,
Puranas and the Itihasas (Ramayana and
Mahabharata, especially the Bhagavad
smartism: Vedas, Agamas and classical
smriti—Puranas, Itihasas, especially the
Bhagavad Gita, etc.
Regions of Influence
saivism: Strongest in South and North India,
Nepal and Sri Lanka.
shaktism: Most prominent in Northeast
India, especially Bengal and Assam.
vaishnavism: Strong throughout India,
North and South.
smartism: Most prominent in North and
South India.

Paths of Attainment

saivism: The path for Saivites is divided into four progressive
stages of belief and practice called charya, kriya,
yoga and jnana. The soul evolves through karma and
from the instinctive-intellectual sphere
into virtuous and moral living, then into temple worship
and devotion, followed by internalized worship,
or yoga, and its meditative disciplines. Union with God
Siva comes through the grace of the satguru and culminates
in the soul’s maturity in the state of jnana, or wisdom.
Saivism values both bhakti and yoga, devotional
and contemplative sadhanas, or disciplines.
shaktism: The spiritual practices in Shaktism are similar
to those in Saivism, though there is more emphasis in Saktism
on God’s Power as opposed
to Being, on mantras and
yantras, and on embracing apparent opposites: male-female,
relative, pleasure-pain, cause-effect,
Certain sects within Shaktism undertake
tantric rites, consciously using the world of form to transmute
and eventually transcend that world. The “left-hand”
approach is somewhat occult in nature; it is considered a
path for the few, not the many. The “right-hand” path is
more conservative
in nature.
Artwork: The Divine is reflected in four pots, representing
Hinduism’s four main denominations, their
common source being the radiant Aum, the sacred
mystic syllable and symbol of Sanatana Dharma.
vaishnavism: Most Vaishnavites believe that religion is the
performance of bhakti sadhanas, devotional disciplines, and
that man can communicate
with and receive the grace of the
Gods and Goddesses through the darshan (sight) of their icons.
The paths of karma yoga and jnana yoga lead to bhakti yoga.
Among the foremost practices of Vaishnavites is chanting the
holy names of the Avataras, Vishnu’s incarnations, especially
Rama and Krishna. Through total self-surrender, prapatti, to
Vishnu, to Krishna or to His beloved consort Radharani, liberation
from samsara (the cycle of reincarnation) is attained.
smartism: Smartas, the most eclectic of Hindus, believe that
moksha is achieved through jnana yoga alone—defined as an
intellectual and meditative but non-kundalini-yoga path. Jnana
yoga’s progressive stages are scriptural study (shravana), reflection
(manana) and sustained meditation (dhyana). Guided by
a realized guru and avowed to the unreality of the world, the
initiate meditates on himself
as Brahman, Absolute Reality, to
break through the illusion of maya. Devotees
may also choose
from three other non-successive paths to cultivate devotion, accrue
good karma and purify the mind. These are bhakti yoga,
karma yoga and raja yoga, which certain Smartas teach can
also bring enlightenment.

Om Tat Sat

(My humble salutations to Sadguru Sri Sivaya Subramuniyaswami ji, Satguru Bodhianatha Velayanswami ji,   Hinduism Today  dot com  for the collection)


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