Approaches to Hinduism

Introduction to Hindu Sects and Schools

Hinduism is the oldest continuous religion in the world, with a long history. It contains within itself numerous schools, sects, subsects and teacher traditions. In its long history of 6000 years, it underwent many changes. It is difficult to define it because unlike other religions it was not founded by any particular founder or prophet. It grew in the soil of India, accumulating the wisdom of countless scholars, spiritual master and divine incarnations and emanations. Currently it is practiced by over a billion people all over the world, with a strong concentration of Hindu population being located in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Mauritius and the West Indies. In Hinduism, the paths to liberation are many. Hindus also worship numerous gods and goddesses. Presently the following are considered the most popular approaches or traditions within Hinduism. This classification is for convenience only. They are not rigid sects or divisions, since they have many overlapping features and many Hindus may practice one or more of them at the same time.

Advaita Vedanta

Nondualism (Advaita) is one of the most popular schools of the Vedanta philosophy, which accepts Brahman, the Supreme Self, as the one and only reality. All other entities in creations, including Nature and the individual self (atman) are is projections or temporary manifestations. The words and beings exist for a temporary period time and withdrawn by Brahman into himself. After a long period of rest, he starts another cycle of creation. The roots of Advaita philosophy can be found in the earliest Upanishads. It was made popular by scholars such as Gaudapada and Adi Shankara. There are variants to the schools such as the pure monism (suddha Advaita), qualified monism (vishishtadvaita) and dvaitaadvaita. More


The school is a subsect of Saivism (or according to some Shaiva Tantra). Followers of the cult regard Ganesha as the supreme Deity and all other deities are either his manifestations or his subordinate aspects. Ganesha has numerous names and manifestations. He personifies knowledge and intelligence and extolled in the scriptures as the lord of obstacles. Ganesha was originally a celibate deity, but subsequently he was associated in his manifested form with two shaktis, namely Siddhi and Buddhi. The sect thrived until the middle of medieval period. However, in modern times, Ganesha became one of the most popular gods of Hinduism. His festival, Ganesh Chaturdasi is celebrated every year with a lot of fanfare. More


Historically, Shaivism is considered the oldest sect of Hinduism. Rudimentary forms of Shaivism might have existed in the prehistoric cultures of ancient India and the adjoining regions, before the Vedic culture took roots in India. According to some historians, the Indus people probably worshipped a deity who was similar to Shiva or Shiva himself in some respects. Shaivism is a religion in itself, with the largest following in India until modern times. It has many subsects and philosophies and rich body of literature including the Puranas, Upanishads, epics, tantras and Agamas. Shiva is worshipped in Saivism as the supreme deity. All others are subordinated to him. He is also the chief deity in Tantra and viewed as the source all knowledge, arts and crafts, including all classical dance and music traditions. He goes by many names and has numerous aspects and emanations. Parvathi or Shakti is his consort, while the River Ganga flows eternally from his head, after falling upon him from heaven. More


Many Hindus worship the Mother Goddess as the supreme deity. As the universal force (shakti), independent and eternal, she is the creator, preserver and destroyer of all. The Trimurthis of popular Hinduism are considered by this sect as passive deities, who do not take part in creation, except as witnesses. The roots of Shaktism are in the Tantras. The followers practice a form of nondualism, accepting Shakti as the only ultimate reality. They practice the ritual worship of women and girls and consider hurting or harming women an affront to the goddess. The Tantras advise men not to abuse women and prescribe punishments for such actions. The goddess is both saguna (with form) and Nirguna (without form). She has both pleasant and unpleasant forms. She may be realized through standard and conventional methods (vedachara) of the Vedic religion or through the unconventional methods (vamachara) of the extreme Tantric sects. In Shaktism, Maya is not a mere deluding power of God, but the real force behind all creation. More


Tantra refers to the harnessing of the powers of the mind and body (tan) to achieve liberation or transcend their impurities and imperfections. Followers of the sect do worship both the Father God and the Mother Goddess as the supreme deities. The male deity represents pure consciousness and the female, represents universal energy. Creation happens only when they are together. They are the aspects of the self-same reality. Followers of the sect mostly worship Shiva and Shakti as the male and female deities. However, some worship Vishnu and Lakshmi or Ganesha and his consorts, according to their beliefs and convenience. At one time Vaishnava tantra was as popular as Shaiva tantra. Some tantra schools follow extreme methods of self-torture and self-denial. Some engage in sexual intercourse to gain control over their minds and body and transform sexual energy into pure energy. More


Just as Shaivism, Vaishnavism is also a religion in itself. It goes by other names such as Bhagavata, Pacharatra, Sattavata and Ekantika. The sect worships Vishnu as the supreme reality and the highest of all. His abode, Vaikunta is the world of immortals, where the liberated souls reside forever in ectasy and oneness with Vishnu. Currently, Vaishnavism is the most popular sect of Hinduism with the largest following. Although, the direct worship of Vishnu is not as widespread as the worship of Shiva in popular Hinduism, when you consider the worship of his numerous incarnations and manifestations, he will emerge as the most popular deity of present-day Hinduism. For example, he is worshipped as Nara Narayana, Krishna, Rama, Venkateshwara, Jagannatha, Vithalnadha, Varadaraja, Ranganatha and so on. Vaishnavism also has several sects, schools and philosophies. Many teacher traditions and vast body of literature are associated with it. The Bhagavadgita is its most popular text. Many schools of tantra are also associated with it, More


Yoga is deeply woven into the fabric of Hinduism. It is mentioned in the Vedas as well as in the subsequent literature such as the epics, the Puranas, Tantras, Agamas and several later day Upanishads. Many texts on the subject of Yoga emerged in due course which throw considerable light upon the yogic practices of ancient times. Patanjali’s Yogasutras is still considered the basis of yoga by many, although it is neither the oldest nor unique. The Bhagavadgita is also a comprehensive text on yoga only, which deals with various types of yoga including the yoga of Knowledge, action and devotion. At one time, yoga was deeply intertwined with the Samkhya philosophy. Its original belief system was derived from Samkhya only. Presently, Yoga is popular throughout the world. However, the emphasis is more upon its outer aspects such as breathing, meditation and posture, rather than spiritual purification and liberation which are its highest goals. Yoga is also practiced by Buddhists and Jains. The Yogachara school of Buddhism was very popular in India and China. More