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 polytheistically; 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 Hinduism 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. For Smartas, 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-shishya 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 share 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.
Table of Contents
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.
Sub-division in Shaiva tradition
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.
Smartas worship the Supreme in one of six forms: Ganesha, Siva, Sakti, Vishnu, Surya, and Skanda. Because they accept all the major Hindu Gods, they are known as liberal or nonsectarian. They follow a philosophical, meditative path, emphasizing man’s oneness with God through understanding.
Sub-division in Vaishnava tradition
Devine Female Power in Hinduism
Although Hinduism is divided into 6 prime sects- Ganapatya, Shaiva, Shakta, Vaishnava, Sourya, and Skanda yet the supremacy of Shakti is present in all sects.
Male Supreme Gods are always accompanied by Female Divine Shaktis. And that is where Shakti, the spouse becomes superior just like her Swami!
Ganapatya Supreme mother is Vinayaki. Vinayaki is not just the Shakti of Vinayaka. But she is the female manifestation of Purna Brahma Ganapati. Mudgala Purana praises her as Purna Brahma, who gives birth to the creation from her womb, she nourishes the creation with her breast milk and she destroys her own creation by consuming it with her mouth! She is both Ganapati and Ganeshani.
Skandas has the same concept on Koumari. Who is indifferent from Devsena, the first wife of Subrahmanya. Koumari is the manifestation of Kartika, in this form Skanda Kumara, gives birth to the universe. She is the Vell of Kartikeya, she is the reason Subrahmanya rules this world as Purna Brahma!
Lakshmi in Vaishnavism has the same place like Srividya in Shaktism. Like srividya she sits on the corpse of her spouse Vishnu. Vishnu is corpse without her! She is the reason Vishnu is jagannatha! We came to see this same philosophy in Ramaet Vaishnavism, where Sita is Adi shakti and Rama is nothing but a toy of her illuminating Leelas. Radha shares the same honor in Goudia and Nimbarka Vaishnavism. Krishna worship the lotus feet of Radha, and that is how Krishna became Golokadhipati.
Shaivaissm may be the only faith, where Shakti doesn’t rule over Male manifestation of Purna Brahma – Shiva. Although Kali to Paras all are glorified equally to Shiva. But Shiva himself is superior to her. Although Shiva and Shakti are one in Ardhanariswara, yet, he is Nariswara ( Lord of his female counterpart ). Shiva represents Nirguna, Shakti is saguna. Thus they together make Purna Brahma.
Shaktas, ignorant of other faiths, claims Shakti is above all. But that is again wrong! Although Shakti enjoys supremacy in all faith, yet, each faith has their own concept of Purna Brahma. Ganapatyas have a neutral form of Ganapati too! Why just two genders enjoy the supremacy! Ganapatya faith introduced to us another gender, where Ganapati is not man nor woman but Neutral! Same happened in Shaivism in case of Ardhanariswara and in Vaishnavism in case of Mohini.
As Shaktas has Mahashodashi for Shakti supremacy, Ganapatyas has Mahocchista Vinayaka, Vaishnavism has Vaikuntha Narayana, Shaivas has Mahapasupati et all. Supreme forms or Purna Swaroopa is present in every faith. Shakti is not the ultimate goal of every sect. But every sect consider their own Ista as Father and mother and guru both! Ganapati becomes Ganeshani, Kumar becomes Koumari, Sita, Radha or lakshmi the veryVaishnavaa deities share supremacy in their own faith. But, many thinks it Srividya or durga rules above all.
The same deity or his spouse becomes supreme in their faith! Yet, Shakti is everywhere! As Devi Bhagavatam says- every faith is Shakta faith! Traditions are different!