The Vast Heritage of the Different Sects of Hinduism

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When most people think of Hinduism, they think of the Hindu pantheon's many gods and goddesses. Although the Hindu pantheon is vast, not all Hindus worship all of the gods. Hinduism began to become sectarian in the fifth century CE. The majority of practising Hindus are members of a Hindu denomination or sect, which is a minor subset of a larger tradition. Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism are the most well-known and have the largest followings of these sects. The cults are usually centred on bhakti, or devotion to a single deity. Lord Vishnu is God for Vaishnavites. God is Siva for Saivites. Goddess Shakti is supreme for Shaktas. The choice of Deity is left to the devotee for Smartas, the liberal Hindus. Each has tens of thousands of temples, guru lineages, religious leaders, priesthoods, sacred books, monastic communities, schools, pilgrimage centres, and sacred literature. They have a vast collection of art and architecture, as well as philosophy.

Here let us have a look at a brief synopsis of these four denominations.


The cult of Shiva, like the two great cults of Vishnu and Shakti, has made enormous contributions to the ethos and spiritual grace of Hinduism. Shaivism, which is rooted in the Vedas and fed by secondary writings such as the agamas and Puranas, has grown into a widely recognized and popular religious system that is well-integrated with other systems, sects, and sub-sects within Hinduism.

Shaivism is the religion and philosophy of those who believe that god Shiva is the Supreme Being. Whether Rudra the terrible, or the Vedas and Shiva, the auspicious one, of the ‘non-Vedic and ‘Dravidia’ cults battled for centuries and then blended to emerge as one deity of compromise — Shiva Mahadeva, the Auspicious Great God. 

As the god of destruction and dissolution of the world, Shiva had to be Rudra, the terrible, as depicted in later literature. As a result, pleading with him to be beneficent to one's children, descendants, animals, and property is entirely appropriate. He does, however, have a benign form, Shambhu, the beneficent one. He is the celestial physician who heals and protects one's cattle.

Along with the development of the concept of Rudra-Shiva, there had also been an evolution of the concept and symbology of the linga as the chief emblem of Shiva. The linga resembles a pillar with a semispherical top. Being a rounded surface in all directions, it is perhaps the closest approximation to a god considered as beyond all names, forms and attributes.

Though Shaivism began as a simple faith and manner of worshipping Lord Shiva as the Supreme Being, it has since branched out into several sects and cults. Six of these have made their impact on Indian religious history, however, only two or three are still alive and well.

Mukha-Linga: Linga with a Face (Illustration to the Shiva Purana)


Some strange cults arose over time in response to the harsh portrayal of Rudra in the Vedas. The Kalamukhas are a Hindu sect that worships Rudra-Shiva. The Kalamukhas were so named because they defaced their faces with black marks and symbols.

These Kalamukhas were related to the descendants of a Kashmiri Devavrata Muni. They were quite dominant in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka between A.D. 700 and 1200. The strongholds were the Kedareshvara temple in Balligave, Karnataka, and the temple town of Srisaila, Andhra Pradesh.

Some of the horrifying customs of Kalamukhas were drinking wine in human skulls, covering the victims with crematory ashes, cannibalism, and loose morals, which rendered them social outcasts.


The Kapalikas, a powerful Shaiva sect, were so named because they used a kapala, or human skull, as their begging bowl. They also wore a garland of human skulls. The Kapalikas worshipped tantric deities like Bhairava and Chandi, drinking wine, consuming human flesh and ash, arming themselves with a mace, and engaging in promiscuous sex. They were vehemently opposed to Vaishnavism.

Kashmir Shaivism 

Though Shaivism is an old religio-philosophical system practised in various parts of India, a certain erudite and enlightened teacher from Kashmir produced a unique brand of it. In the annals of philosophical writing of subsequent centuries, this generally came to be known as 'Kashmir Shaivism.' However, a more technical and appropriate title has been 'Pratyabhijnadarsana.' 

Since the created world is an evolution of Shiva, it is identical to him. However, it looks to have its own identity. As a result, this theology acknowledges the bhedabheda hypothesis (both difference and non-different) between God and his creation. Similarly, Jivatman (the individual soul), also known as 'pasu' (bound soul), is Shiva himself. By performing 'pratyabhijna,' the jiva can purge himself of all avaranas (coverings) and unite with Shiva. This is his multiplication or liberty.

This, however, can only be obtained by service to the guru (spiritual instructor), listening to the teaching of shastras (holy books), reflecting on them, and practising yoga. However, the ultimate deliverance can only be obtained through sivanugraha (Lord Shiva's grace), also known as saktipata (Lord's power's descendent).

Thus, in Shiva's world play, self-forgetfulness (svatmavismarna) and self-remembrance (svatmpratyabhijna) are two scenes.

Lectures on Practice and Discipline in Kashmir Saivism

Pashupati cult

The Pasupati cult, also known as the Pasupata cult, appears to be an ancient one. The use of the words 'pati,' 'pasa,' and 'prasada' in the Svetasvatara Upanishad worship of Shiva as linga,' the practice of trying the Siva linga on the arm as per the stone edict of King Pravarasena(A.D. 428), Shivalingas discovered in Cambodia and assigned to the period A.D. 550—all of this confirms this belief. It is Western India's oldest and most influential sect dedicated to the god Siva. The sect's founder was Lakulisa who felt that God's mercy was required for redemption.

The Pasupata cult is based mainly on the Saivagamas, certain Puranas and a few minor Upanishads of the post-Vedic period. Vayu, Kurma, and Shiva are the puranas. In terms of authority, they have been compared to the Vedas, Vedangas, Mahabharata, and dharmashastras. The agamas date from the first to the fourteenth centuries. They are particularly common in South India, specifically in Tamil Nadu. 

Shaiva Siddhanta

Though the term 'Shaiva Siddhanta refers to the theory of Shaivism in general, it has become specifically associated with the kind of Shaivism that has been prominent in Tamil Nadu over the last thousand years. It is a devotional mysticism religion rather than a systematic and speculative philosophy based on the works of the Nayanmars or Nayanars, who were 63 in number and flourished between the 7th and 12th centuries A.D. Meyankdar in his well-known work Shivajanabodham, brief treaties of 12 aphorisms. It appears to be a Tamil translation of a Sanskrit original.

Next in importance, considered classic in Tamil Shaivism, is the work Shivanjana-sittiyar by Arunadi, a disciple of Meykandar. This work along with its numerous commentaries is most widely read even now. The Shivjnanbodham mentions and defines the three basic concepts — pati, pasu and pasa — deals with sadahna for the pasu to realize pati and the phala or spiritual fruit that accrues to him. The philosophy of Saivasiddhanta is very similar to that of the Pashupati cult.

Saiva Siddhanta with Special Reference to Sivaprakasam (An Old and Rare Book)

Vira Shaivism  

Virashaivism also known as lingayata religion or set is a variant of Shaivism found mostly in the Karnataka region of South India. Though the more orthodox section claims that it is an ancient religion originating from some mythical teachings like Revanaradhya, Marularadhya, Panditradhya and others.

A special feature of Virashaiviam is the supreme importance, reverence and worship given to the Shivalinga or linga as the sole emblem of God Shiva. Hence, the appropriateness of the name ‘Lingayata’, is a religion that considers the linga as the chief support or basis. After receiving it from a qualified guru in Diksha or initiation, it should be worn on the body always, thereby purifying every part of the body.

The chief tenets of this faith are: Shiva is the Supreme God. The linga is his chief symbol or emblem. The panchakshari and Namahsivay is the redeeming spiritual formula. Astravarnas and panchacharas are the main code of conduct. Shaktivisistadvaita is the philosophy behind this system.

As for the process of evolution of the world, the same 36 tattvas or principles given by Kashmir Shaivism have been adopted here also. 

Shiva Linga


Shaktism, along with Vaishnavism and Shaivism, is an important branch of Hinduism. The diversity of Shakti is central to its ideology. The Supreme Goddess has taken on numerous forms for the benefit of the universe. Shakti, the greatest female energy of the Universe, is worshipped in numerous forms. In line with her tasks, Shakti expresses herself in an infinite number of forms.

"Shakti" means power or energy, and power or energy is considered feminine in the Shaktism tradition. As the metaphysical truth is feminine, the goddess is supreme, according to the Shaktism tradition. This tradition worships several distinct goddesses, and all of the many goddesses are regarded as different manifestations of the same supreme deity. Furthermore, numerous sub-traditions of the Shaktism tradition exist, each of which is focused on devotion to a certain goddess. Two schools of thought are particularly important: "Srikula," which is prevalent in South India, and "Kalikula," which is prevalent in northern and eastern India. The pan-Indian Goddesses are essentially classified into two groups. The Goddesses who personify the inherently benign qualities of strength or energy, such as devotion, knowledge, love, or compassion, and these orthodox Goddesses are Radha, Krishna's lover, Gauri, the golden one, Sita, Rama's dedicated and faithful wife, Sarasvati, the Goddess of learning and wisdom, and Lakshmi, the Goddess of money and wealth and consort of Vishnu. In contrast, the Goddesses that embody the more energetic forces of protection and annihilation of evil are two, namely Durga and Kali. However, both groups are fundamentally benign and essentially ferocious by nature. The majority of the indigenous goddesses are self-sufficient and wild in character. Confined deities are more important than Hindu Pantheon deities. These Goddesses are concerned with local issues and are worshipped for the protection of devotees. One of the most well-known local Goddesses is the Goddess of Small Pox, who is concerned with ailments. In South India, she is known as Mariyamman, but in the north, particularly in Bengal, she is known as Shitala. The sicknesses are also seen to be the Goddess manifesting herself in the hamlet, and the ailment is said to represent the Goddess' grace.

The cult of serpents has been common in India throughout history, and the Goddess of serpents and pestilence, Manas, was worshipped by Sakta followers. Mansa is portrayed in Devbhgavat as the mind-born daughter of  Maharsi Kasyapa, hence she is named Manas, or she who plays with the mind is Manasa. Manasā puja is a tantric ritual in which they sacrifice animals especially goats, pigeons, ducks, fish etc.

Saraswati, the Goddess of Wisdom and Learning, is one of the few currently revered Goddesses whose presence can be traced back to the Vedic period. This Goddess was a river deity in the Vedas, and she became connected with holiness. She was known as the Goddess of Wisdom and Learning during the classical period. The white variant of Tripur Bhairavi is recognised as a Sarasvati position in Kalika Purana. This goddess is adorned with a bin, a book, a rosary, and a water pitcher, as well as a white leaf on the right. She has white skin, wears white clothes, is decorated with white adornments, and stands atop a high mountain on a white lotus. The Sarasvati's Tantrika figure is likewise described in Kalika Purana.

Vrddha Sarasvati is red in complexion who wears a skull garland.

There is a mythological explanation for the genesis of Shakti's sacred sites. This mythical story was explained in a number of Puranas such as Kalaka Purana, Devi Bhgavat, and Tantras such as Yogini Tantra.

Shaktism is neither philosophical nor religious. Neither entirely dualistic nor wholly monistic, However, it is a synthesis of monistic dualism and dualistic monism. As a monism, it maintained that Shakti is the sole ultimate reality and that it resembles metaphysics' supreme reality. However, mind and matter as symbolized by the created universe are Shakti, and she is intertwined with Siva; and both of them, i.e., feminine global force Shakti and masculine impulse provider Shiva, formed the spiritual foundation of the universe.

History of the Sakta Religion


Smartism is a sect of Hinduism that enables its adherents to worship more than one god, as opposed to Shaivism and Vaishnavism, which worship only Shiva and Vishnu, respectively. Smartas, or followers of Smartism, may worship one or more of the five major Hindu gods: Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, Surya, and Shakti. They are all regarded as equal deities. In Sanskrit, this is known as panchayatana puja.

Adi Shankaracharya, a Hindu spiritual leader, developed Smartism. The concept that led to the establishment of Smartism was Advaita Vedanta. Adi Shankaracharya was a firm believer in the Advaita Vedanta philosophy, according to which Brahman is the fundamental and highest reality above all gods. The goal of Smartism was to eliminate certain Hindu customs, such as animal sacrifice, as well as to make Hinduism more modern.

Shankara being the greatest propagator of Advaita Vedanta, holds the view that the basic truth or reality behind this universe of multiplicity, of myriad names and forms, is one and one only, Advaita; the one without a second. This reality called Brahman appears as the many due to the peculiar, indefinable, factor called Maya. Just as semi-darkness hides the real nature of a rope lying on the road (as rope projects itself as a snake) which is not there, so also Maya hides the true nature of Brahman and projects on that base, this manifold universe. Only jnana or the right knowledge removes the illusion brought about by Maya.

Adi Shankara (Life And Philosophy)

Smartism adheres to mainstream Hindu philosophy and follows the Vedas, the sacred Hindu literature. God is worshipped by the group as both Saguna and Nirguna. God as Saguna represents the endless essence of the universe. Love, compassion, and justice are characteristics of Saguna. God as Nirguna represents pure consciousness, or Brahman, the creative principle and fundamental concept of Vedas. 

Ganesha, Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu, and Surya are the five forms in which Smartas worship the Supreme. They are characterized as liberal or nonsectarian as they accept all the major Hindu Gods. They use a philosophical and meditative approach, emphasizing man's oneness with God through knowledge.

"Follower of Smriti" was the original meaning of the name Smartha. (Shruti – "that which is heard" – and Smriti – "that which is remembered" – are the two sets of Hindu text.). Other than Surya, the other gods worshipped are ones that are mainly emphasized in Smriti texts like the Puranas, so the Adi Shankaracharya's new sect soon came to be called Smartha. The Smartha came to indicate adherents of Adi Shankaracharya's sect, which he created in an attempt to construct a more streamlined version of Hinduism. 

The Smarta tradition contrasted with the older Shrauta tradition, which was based on elaborate rituals and rites. There has been considerable overlap in the ideas and practices of the Smarta tradition with other significant historic movements within Hinduism, namely Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism.

 Today this faith is synonymous with the teachings of Adi Shankara, the monk philosopher known as shanmata sthapanacharya, “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 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 Saguna Brahman. Shankara organized hundreds of monasteries into a ten-order, dashanami system, which now has five pontifical centres. He wrote profuse commentaries on the Upanishads, Brahma Sutras and Bhagavad Gita. Sankara 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. 


Lord Vishnu is one of the most revered deities in the Hindu pantheon. He is often seen as the sustainer of the world or the all-pervading cosmic deity (from the root verb vis= to pervade). His immense power to occupy and transcend the three worlds as Urukrama (Vamana), his supreme unconquerable strength, his limitless compassion towards his devotees, his being the protector of all and his supremely sweet abode (param pada) have been described in several mantras (vide Rig-Veda).

By the time of the epics and the Puranas, he grows in stature occupying the highest position among the gods of the Hindu pantheon. Being the deity responsible for the sthiti or protection of the created world, he is often obliged to come down as an avatar or incarnation. Gradually, over the centuries, a philosophy and a religion centred on Vishnu evolved into a regular system now called Vaishnavism.

Vaishnavism is centred on the devotion of Vishnu and his avatars. Vaishnavism precepts include the avatar (incarnation) doctrine, wherein Vishnu incarnates numerous times, in different forms, to set things right and bring back the balance in the universe. These avatars include Narayana, Vasudeva, Rama and Krishna; each the name of a divine figure with attributed supremacy, which each associated tradition of Vaishnavism believes to be distinct

Some theorise that it is a "polymorphic monotheism, i.e. a theology that recognizes many forms (Ananta rupa) of the one, single unitary divinity," since there are many forms of one original deity, with Vishnu taking many forms. In contrast, others opine that the different denominations within Vaishnavism are best described as theism, pantheism and panentheism. The Vaishnava sampradaya started by Madhvacharya is a monotheistic tradition wherein Vishnu (Krishna) is omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. In contrast, Sri Vaishnavism sampradaya associated with Ramanuja has monotheistic elements, but differs in several ways, such as goddess Lakshmi and god Vishnu are considered as inseparable equal divinities. According to some scholars, Sri Vaishnavism emphasizes panentheism, and not monotheism, with its theology of "transcendence and immanence", where God interpenetrates everything in the universe, and all of empirical reality is God's body. The Vaishnava sampradaya associated with Vallabhacharya is a form of pantheism, in contrast to the other Vaishnavism traditions. The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition of Chaitanya, states Schweig, is closer to a polymorphic bimonotheism because both goddess Radha and god Krishna are simultaneously supreme.

The Vedas, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Agamas are the scriptural sources of Vaishnavism, while the Bhagavata Purana is a revered and celebrated popular text. Other important texts in the tradition include the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as texts by various sampradayas (denominations within Vaishnavism). In many Vaishnava traditions, Krishna is accepted as a teacher, whose teachings are in the Bhagavad Gita and the Bhagavata Purana.

Vaishnavism, just like all Hindu traditions, considers the Vedas as the scriptural authority. All traditions within Vaishnavism consider the Brahmanas, the Aranyakas and the Upanishads embedded within the four Vedas as Sruti, while Smritis, which include all the epics, the Puranas and its Samhitas, considered as "exegetical or expository literature" of the Vedic texts.

Stylized Visnu Dashavatara Panel with Three Vaishnava Symbols and Wicks (Wall Hanging in Hoysala Art) 

Various schools of Vaishnavism

The basic structure of Vaishnavism as revealed in some of the earliest sources like the Narayaniya advocated the supremacy of Vishnu-Narayana as god and bhakti or devotion to him as the chief means of moksha or liberation. However, different ways of expounding it by various acharyas gave rise, in course of time, to different sects and sub-sects of Vaishnavism.

The more prominent ones are described briefly below:

The Alvars

They were the earliest Vaishnava teachers known to history. They belonged to Tamil Nadu and lived probably during the 2nd to 8th century A.D. among them were saints from all castes and included a woman (Goda Devi) also. Thye taught that VishnuNarayana was the supreme god and bhakti to him was the means of liberation. They accepted the avatars of Vishnu such as Rama and Krishna and advocated the importance of ritualistic worship with the strong faith that God descends into the icon in a subtle form during the worship.

Philosophy and Theistic Mysticism of the Alvars


To Ramanuja, the brahman or Ishvara of Vedanta is actually Narayana inseparably associated with Sri or Lakshmi. Narayana creates the world with his twofold Prakriti (basic nature), the acit (insentient matter) and the cit (sentient beings, the jivas or individual souls). He sustains it and at the end of a cycle withdraws it. Sri or Lakshmi is his divine consort, the personification of his compassion. She intervenes with Narayanan on behalf of the jivas and gets them what they want, including liberation. Devotion to both of them is the chief means of liberation. Since Ramanuja gives equal importance to Sri along with Vishnu Narayana, his system is known as Sri Vaishnavism.

Vaishnava Acharya Ramanuj: A Biography and Spiritual Doctrine of Ramanuj (Bengali) 


The credit for establishing Vaishnavism on a firm basis and making it popular among the masses should go to madhva or Madhavacharya. His philosophy, known as Advaita Vedanta can be summed up as follows: Sri Hari (Vishnu-Narayana) is the highest truth that can be known only through the Vedas. The created world is real. The jivas are all different from one another and are dependent on Srihari. Among them also, there are differences in quality and status. Mukti or liberation is actually the experiencing of one real nature as ananda or bliss. This can be acquired through pure devotion to Srihari. From this philosophy of devotion to Vishnu evolved the various corollaries such as ritualistic worship and devotional singing, giving rise to a singular movement of saints of devotion.

Madhva’s Philosophy of the Visnu Faith: An Old and Rare Book 


Prominent among the leaders of the bhakti movement of the middle ages, Kabir was a disciple of Ramananda. Devotion to Rama ignoring the many social conventions was the path he accepted and preached. In course of time, his followers formed a separate sect in his name and came to be known as Kabirpanth.

Spread of Vaishnavism

Vaishnavism is an important aspect of the bhakti movement spread all over the land-the Indian peninsula-right from the 13h century up to the 18th century. Broadly, there were two important streams centred on Rama and Krishna, the latter being much more popular.

The Rama sect was ushered by Ramananda and Kabir, was sustained and developed by Goswami Tulsidas, Samartha ramadas, Bhadracala ramadas and the great musician saint Tyagaraja as also their disciples. As regards the Krishna sects they are legion. The saints of Maharashtra led by Sant Jnaneswar and followed by other saintly devotees such as Namdev revolutionised the way of life of the common folk with the Panduranga-Vitthala cult. Closely akin to it and on almost parallel lines was the Krishna bhakti movement of the Haridasas of Karnataka like Purandaradaasa. In the Hindi belt of North India, it was left to the blind saint Surdas and the queen saint Mira to popularise devotion to Krishna.

The bhakti movement of these musician-saints made religion simple and practical for common people. It also successfully reclaimed many of them who had gone outside the Hindu fold.




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