Membership, Community, Diversity

Are there anything like denominations or sects within greater Hinduism?

Mark Twain once observed that compared to India, other lands and cultures were paupers in religion. He was referring to the large number of major religious traditions that have been born in India or had a significant impact in Indian history. (Recall, for example, the river imagery used earlier.) Hindu tradition alone accounts for an astounding diversity. Most Hindus belong to one of two major denominations (called sampradaya in Sanskrit, “handing down, tradition”). Devotees of Vishnu and his various manifestations or avatars are called Vaishnavites (or Vaishnavas). Shaivites (or Shaivas) are those for whom Shiva and the various names and forms of divinity associated with him offer the path to salvation.

Two other smaller groups within the greater Hinduism are also important. Hindus who focus on the feminine manifestations of Shiva’s divine power (shakti) are called Shaktas. Shaktism is also sometimes called Tantrism because of its connection with a category of esoteric scriptures called Tantras. So-called “right-handed” Shaktas espouse practices very much like the other bhakti traditions, emphasizing worship of the goddess. Sects described as “left-handed” tend to be more secretive and esoteric. Finally, the term Smarta, as it is commonly used, now refers to Hindus for whom the path of knowledge (jñana yoga) represents the greatest hope of spiritual realization. Some Smartas adhere to the advaita or monistic philosophical teaching of Shankara. Others are devotionally and ritually eclectic, focusing on one of five names and forms of God (Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, Ganesha, and Surya) as their chosen deity. These four designations are still very broad groupings, each of which is made up of a number of sub-denominations or sects.


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