Approaches to Hinduism
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.
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The words and beings exist for a temporary period time and withdrawn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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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