What Are the Main Hindu Denominations?

Path to Siva Commentary, Lesson 7


Hinduism's primary denominations are Saivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Smartism. Gurudeva's view of Hindu solidarity is unity in diversity while maintaining sectarian roots and heritage, respecting all Hindu paths. The beauty of Hinduism is that we all believe in a one Supreme Being; though called by different names, they are equal. "Truth is one, sages describe it differently." In our Saiva Siddhanta tradition we hold firmly to our Saiva path. We try to get close to one deity at a time, starting with Lord Ganesha.

Path to Siva, Lesson 7.

Unedited Transcript:

Good morning everyone.

Path to Siva, Lesson 7.

"What are the main Hindu denominations?

"Hinduism's primary denominations are Saivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Smartism. For two centuries western scholars have struggled to understand India's faith. They found it so vast and varied in it's beliefs and practices ways of worship that they could not comprehend or describe it. What they didn't realize is that India's Sanatana Dharma or eternal faith is a family of religions with four principle denominations. For example, seeing so many deities, scholars wrote incorrectly that Hindus have no supreme God. In fact, 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, who are the most liberal Hindus, the choice of Deity is left to the devotee. These strains arose in different geographical and linguistic regions. Each has its own beliefs, scriptures, religious leaders and monastic traditions. Each has its own temples, festivals and ways of worship. Some are more focused on devotion and temple worship; others stress yoga, mantra and scriptural study. Each has hundreds of millions of followers. All four accept the authority of the Vedas and the basic beliefs of karma, dharma and reincarnation. Much of their culture and tradition is the same. Most Hindus follow the same lineage as their parents and grandparents. As Saivites we respect all Hindu paths and we may occasionally visit the temples of other Hindu groups. We join in their festivals and honor their religious leaders, but we hold firmly to our Saiva path. "

We have Gurudeva's quote:

"Whatever our background, we can and we must maintain our sectarian roots and heritage, cultivate our differences and become strong within them."

Comment on that last point first. "...maintain our sectarian roots and heritage..." Gurudeva's speaking about Hindus having a unity. And many decades ago when Gurudeva spoke about this a lot there was a strong thought that well all Hindus should believe the same. We should all have the same scripture which of course has to be the Bhagavad Gita. Should all worship the same deity, etc. There was this idea that if we were all the same we would be united and therefore be stronger.

Gurudeva's saying: No, no, let's not do that. He created 'Hindu Solidarity' which is, remember, it's a unity in diversity. So, that's what he's saying here that we can be united; we agree on a lot but we also disagree on a lot. So let's be united by what we agree upon and be strong but maintain our sectarian differences. We don't have to give them up. Very important point.

A very simple way of describing this main idea here, in fact, Hindus all worship a one Supreme Being. What I say is: "Hindus believe in a one Supreme Being; they just don't agree on the name or the nature." Except there's only one. We don't have to agree on the name or the nature. That's the beauty of Hinduism. It's not trying to be a uniformity of beliefs. It's not trying to say everybody has to believe this way. Very broad in its acceptance.

Couple of stories to illustrate the points in the talk. The first one's from the Hindu Temple of Greater Atlanta. We were invited there many years ago. Couple of times. The first time was for the kumbhabhiskekam. It's a temple that has two different buildings. So the original building is a temple to Vishnu in the form of Venkateswara. And then after many years they created the second building, separate building, for the Saivite deities and it was a kumbhabhishekam for the Saivite deities. So they thought: Well let's have a Saivite swami come and talk. So it went very well. The first event.

Well I ended up moving back and forth from the Vaishnava temple to the Saiva temple and gave most of my talks in the Vaishnava temple. And one of them, to get their attention, to get them listening to me, I used the phrase: "Who is the greater God, Vishnu or Siva?" I think I got all their attention. Oh, better pay attention here. No talking. So, even though they're building a Siva temple the group is mainly Vaishnava in the Telugu form. Telugu form of Vaishnavism is the worhip of Venkateswara. Has a huge number of temples in the U.S., Venkateswara.

So, who is the greater God, Siva or Vishnu? So there I am sitting with my three stripes, you know, in the middle of the Venkateswara temple. They say: Oh no, he's going to say Siva. But I said: "They are equal." So, no one understood that till I explained it. They are equal. Oh, he didn't say Siva is better. Then I went on to explain why they are equal. Because each is the Supreme Being which were different Hindu denominations. In other words, how can, if you have one Supreme Being, one concept of a Supreme Being and another concept of the Supreme Being how can one be superior to the other, right? It's just different descriptions of the Supreme Being. So that's what I was explaining the different concepts of the Supreme Being. Therefore, we need to say that they are equal.

So they were very relieved and I think I woke them all up.

Second story was a professor, must have been a couple of decades ago now. We had a teacher from Baptist University in Texas came. He was on a sabbatical. So I remember the details right, his expertise was in history but they had him teaching world religion. And he knew he was weak on the Asian eastern religions. He was Baptist and hadn't really, at that point, this was maybe what, three decades ago or so, there were still not that many Hindus in Texas. Right now of course, there's quite a few Hindus in Texas. And he came to Hawaii on sabbatical. He went to Oahu to study Buddhism I believe for a week and then he came here for a week to learn more about Hinduism. So he had, you know, a nice attitude. He knew he didn't have it all correct and he wanted to go to the source and learn more about Buddhism and Hinduism.

And early on we found out he was teaching that Hindus believe in the trinity of gods none of which was supreme. Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra. We said: Oh, oh. He is approaching Hinduism on the basis of the puranas. So, that's not good. After a few days he began to understand that we didn't look at it that way here, that, as the statement goes: "Truth is one; sages describe it variously." That's the Vedic statement.

And so, he was very happy to learn that and went back but that is a common position, not so much as it used to be say three decades ago, but still certain text books not written by Hindus tend to say that. They're just quoting the puranic basis of Hinduism. But that's not the way that people believe. Hindus believe that there is a Supreme Being, they just, different concepts and names.

That's our second story, third story is a good one too.

Sometimes I run into at satsangs or temple groups Hindu youth. And in Hinduism youth is anyone 30 years of age or younger in case you don't know. Hindu youth group doesn't cut off at 21, it goes all the way up to 30, a typical Hindu youth group in a temple. And they are concerned about, I'd say, the multiplicity of deities in many temples. Take a look at my note here. Recently I visited, when I wrote this story, two temples, one had 25 shrines and the other had 27 shrines. Each shrine's to a different deity. And in some temples Shirdi Sai Baba was in there along with the deities, Swami Narayan, and in one temple there's even a shrine for the Jains, to Mahavira, so really about the Jains.

So it's confusing if you don't have an overview concept, you know. Look at all these shrines, what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to worship at all 27 shrines?

We went to the Hindu Temple of Greater Minnesota, I think it's called. I think they have 35 shrines. We were there with the temple president. And he said: "What I do is, I just prostrate right here, to all the shrines. One prostration. You can do the same thing if you want to." Don't have to go around the 35 shrines, circumambulate and prostrate, just prostrate right here.

Of course, the temples are trying to be inclusive, they're trying to have a shrine for all the different Hindu groups that are in their area. There's nothing wrong with that in theory. You know Gurudeva, of course, would prefer they didn't do that. But anyway, that was their way of encompassing everyone. The opposite of Iraivan, in Iraivan Temple every image is an image of Siva. There is no image, no deity image in the temple that's not an image of Siva. So, opposite. One Deity. Even Ganesha's not in there. To worship Ganesha you have to go somewhere else. So, we're kind of counterbalancing this. But the point is it's confusing to the Hindu youth. Why can't we just have one deity? Why can't we have one God? That's what they ask.

And so I tell a story about language. Usually this happens in the U.S. but if it doesn't happen in the U.S. then I have to change my story. Say: How many official languages do we have in the United States? Of course, one, right? I think very soon we'll have two. Spanish will get up there. Hasn't happened yet. So we still only have one. And then I say: How many official languages are in Canada. Of course, there's two. English and French. Why are they different? Why would the U.S. and Canada which are right next to each other not have the same official languages? Because their history is different. So, the French had a stronger presence in Canada obviously and stronger cultural presence and so the language stayed. Wheras, in the U.S. it didn't happen, other languages didn't stay. And I ask: Well how many official languages does India have? And I'm surprised, most groups I talk to, not just the youth but the adults don't know. India has 22 official Indian languages, English is also an official language so it makes 23. Twenty-three official languages. And then the article goes on to say that's just the official ones, it has 122 major languages. One hundred and twenty two major languages. So let's just take the 23. So it has 23 languages, U.S. has one language. Why is that? Well, it's because of its history. It's a much older country right? Started much further in the past. Been going for thousands of years not just hundreds of years. And when it started, people are spread out through the Indian subcontinent and you don't have much travel. Travel's a big deal back then. So, groups are much more isolated than we would tend to think. They just don't, you just don't go from say Tamil Nadu up to Rishikesh once a week, you know. There's very little travel. Therefore, diverse languages develop and a diverse concept of religion develops. It's very natural.

So the reason Hinduism has so many deities and different religious traditions is the same as the reason India has so many official languages is it's an old country, a huge country and it started thousands of years ago. Therefore, because there's no travel all these differences arose. You know, it's like looking at Europe. If you were to look at Europe as a one country. How many languages, how many traditions does it have? Well that's more like what India is. So, it impacts the religion. And then that's why there's a diversity and we need accept the diversity but we to focus also which of course doesn't apply to us but it applies to someone who doesn't have a specific tradition within Hinduism. Encourage them to focus on one deity. So that's called "Ishta Devata." That approach to the deities.

And I'd just like to read the last story. This was in Maryland we were working with the group there of devotees of the Murugan Temple. Been going every year for 15 years. Watch the kids grow up, go off to college and some of them now are getting married. So this I think he was about 14 or 16. Very sincere young man asked me: "I'm feeling very close to Lord Ganesha. Is it okay if I focus on him and not on the rest of the deities?" Nice question, you know, for a 14 or 16 year old to ask. So I explained: Well yes, yes. It's called Ishta Devata. It's natural to focus on one deity at a time. If we go to a temple we don't ignore the other ones but you know, we pay our respects to all the deities even at a temple with 35 shrines, you know but we focus on the deity that we're trying to get close to. So, that's the counter-balance to many deities is we're not trying to focus on all of them at once. That wouldn't work. We try and get close to one deity at a time. That's the approach in that tradition.

In our tradition Gurudeva makes it very simple. Start with Lord Ganesha. Period! So, once you feel close to Lord Ganesha move on to Lord Murugan. It's not that we don't worship Lord Murugan when we're getting close to Ganesha but we're trying to get close to one deity at a time. Not multiple deities at a time. Doesn't work.

And I'm told there's a wonderful chapter on that by Ma Navaratnam in our "Loving Ganesha" book that I'd forgotten about. It's in the current book, right, too? So if you're wondering about moving from Ganesha to Murugan to Siva. I had forgotten. Read the book so long ago that there's a chapter where Ma Navaratnam, she wrote a number of books on Yogaswami in Saivism. She has a chapter in our book that we took from her writings on that, moving from one deity to another. So you'd enjoy looking at that.

And have a wonderful day.

Aum Namah Sivaya

Photo of  Gurudeva
As you sit in meditation in a darkened room, practice directing your consciousness inward, to the center of your brain. If you are able to perceive light within your body, you are on the path to immortality.
—Gurudeva