Hindu Denominations: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism & Smartism

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Most Hindus subscribe to a particular sect that focuses on the worship of one or a handful of gods. In this lesson, we'll explore the sects with the largest following: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism.

Hindu Sects

When most people think of Hinduism, they think of the many gods and goddess in the Hindu pantheon. While the Hindu pantheon is expansive, not all Hindus worship every deity. Starting around the 5th 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.

Vaishnavism: Devotion to Vishnu

Vaishnavism is, by far, the sect with the most followers worldwide. It is not surprising since Vaishnavas, the adherents to this sect, worship primarily the preserver god Vishnu. 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 is floating on the ocean of the universe.

Statue of Vishnu and Lakshmi on giant snake
Vishnu and Lakshmi on giant snake

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: Devotion to Shiva

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 mid-point 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.

Shaktism: Devotion to the Great Goddess

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.

Devi manifests herself over and over again eternally so that she can protect the world, like a mother protects a child. While she is powerful alone, she is sometimes depicted alongside Shiva, as Parvati, his consort, is a manifestation of Devi. In fact, Shiva is sometimes said to be lifeless without Devi. ''Shiva'' becomes '' shava ,'' or a corpse, which is often depicted in artwork of Shiva and Devi as she stands on his limp body.

Devi, in the form of Kali, standing on the body of Shiva
Kali standing on the body of Shiva

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