Hindu Denominations: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism & Smartism

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has been an adjunct professor of religion at Western Kentucky University for six years. They have a master's degree in religious studies from Western Kentucky University and a bachelor's degree in English literature and religious studies from Western Kentucky University.

Hinduism, like many other faith traditions, has denominations that diverge slightly from the main religion. Compare and contrast the four main denominations that Hindus belong to and learn about the gods associated with each. Updated: 01/19/2022

Hindu Sects

When most people think of Hinduism, they think of the many gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. While the Hindu pantheon is expansive, not all Hindus worship every deity. Starting around the fifth century CE, Hinduism became sectarian. Most practicing Hindus belong to a denomination or sect of Hinduism, which is a small sub-set of a larger tradition. The most famous of these sects, and those with the largest following, are Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism. The sects typically focus on bhakti, or devotion, to one deity. Let's look at each of these sects in turn.

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  • 0:04 Hindu Sects
  • 0:45 Vaishnavism
  • 1:38 Shaivism
  • 2:50 Shaktism
  • 3:54 Smartism
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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In Vaishnavism, Vaishnavas worship primarily the preserver god Vishnu and is by far the sect with the most followers worldwide. Vishnu manifested himself in many forms in the world, including as the ever-popular Krishna, a youthful, blue-skinned god associated with compassion. Vaishnavas typically worship his consort, Lakshmi, as well. The couple is often depicted sitting or lying on a giant thousand-headed serpent that's floating on the ocean of the universe.

Vaishnavas engage in bhakti to Vishnu not just because he is the preserver god. They also believe that Vishnu is the beginning and end of everything in the world. They even believe that Brahma, the Hindu creator god, was actually born from Vishnu's navel, coming out of a lotus flower, meaning that Vishnu created the creator.


Shaivism is the second-largest branch of Hinduism. This might seem strange since the followers, Shaivas, worship Shiva, the god of destruction. His title is not as simple as it seems, though. Shiva is not a malicious destroyer but a transformer. He acts as balance to the creation and preservation already part of the Hindu trimurti, or trinity, which consists of Brahma and Vishnu as well. Shaivas, however, believe that Shiva created everything.

Bhakti to Shiva often involves finding a midpoint between renunciation, separating oneself from the material world, and being part of the material world. This is often a result of meditation, and Shiva is often depicted meditating and with a tiger skin around his waist as well. One of the most important distinguishing factors is his third eye, which, unlike the other two, is looking inward at his mind, symbolic of the ''pure consciousness'' that Shiva represents with his focus on meditation. Despite the fact that he is typically associated with renunciation, he is sometimes worshiped alongside his consort, Parvati, and his son, the elephant-headed god, Ganesha.


While the major Hindu sects focus on bhakti to gods in the trimurti, Shaktism focuses on worship of the ''Great Goddess'' and her many forms. She is typically called ''Devi,'' though ''Shakti'' is another common name and what gives the sect its name. Adherents to this tradition hold the Devi Mahatmyh, or ''Greatness of Devi,'' text sacred. Shaktas believe the Great Goddess was created to kill a buffalo-headed demon who was terrorizing the universe, but could not be killed by a man, so a woman was created, showing that femininity was not equivalent with weakness.

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