Hindu theology can be considered as the study and doctrine of the worship and adoration of six forms of the Godhead as Ganesa, Devi (Durga, Lakshmi, Sarasvati), Siva, Vishnu, Surya and Skanda. These aspects of divine worship are known as Shanmatas or the sixfold religious practice of the Hindus.The term Hinduism is most elastic. It includes a number of sects and cults, allied, but different in many important points. Hinduism has, within its fold, various schools of Vedanta; Vaishnavism, Saivism, Saktism, etc. It has various cults and creeds. It is more a League of Religions than a single religion with a definite creed.
Swami Sivananda says that diverse sects and creeds are a credit to Hinduism. There are various types of minds and temperaments and so there are various faiths. This is the cardinal tenet of Hinduism. It prescribes adhyatmik food for everybody, according to his qualification and growth. All diversities are organised and united in the body of Hinduism. It provides food for reflection for different types of thinkers and philosophers all over the world. What appeals to one may not appeal to another, and what is easy for one may be difficult for another. Hence the need for different standpoints.
The Rig-Veda declares: एकं सत विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति (Truth is one; sages call it by various names—Ekam Sat Viprah Bahudha Vadanti_
The Hindus are divided into three great classes, viz., Vaishnavas who worship the Lord as Vishnu; Saivas who worship the Lord as Siva; and Saktas who adore Devi or the Mother aspect of the Lord. In addition, there are the Sauras, who worship the Sun-God; Ganapatyas who worship Ganesa as supreme; and Kaumaras who worship Skanda as the Godhead.
- 1 THE VAISHNAVAS
- 2 THE SAIVAS
- 3 THE SAKTAS
- 4 MISCELLANEOUS
- 5 Other Sanyasi Sects
- 6 References
The Vaishnavism traditions may be grouped within four sampradayas, each exemplified by a specific Vedic personality. They have been associated with a specific founder, providing the following scheme: Brahma Sampradaya (Madhvacharya), Sri Sampradaya (Ramanuja), Rudra Sampradaya (Vishnuswami, Vallabhacharya),Kumaras sampradaya (Nimbarka).. These sampradayas are described below.
Out of various Vaishnava sampradayas, the most ancient is the Sri Sampradaya founded by Ramanuja Acharya. Ramanuja was a great opponent of Sankaracharya's Advaita system of philosophy and propounded the Visistadvaita school of Vedanta Darsana. in particular he is known for his attack on Mayavada of Adi Shankara.
The followers of Ramanuja worship Vishnu and Lakshmi and their incarnations. They are called Ramanujas or Sri Sampradayins or Sri Vaishnavas. They repeat the Ashtakshara Mantra: 'Om Namo Narayanaya' They put on two white vertical lines and a 'central red line on the forehead.
Vedanta Desika, a follower of Ramanuja, introduced some reform in the Vaishnava faith. This gave rise to the formation of two parties of Ramanujas, one called the Northern School (Vadagalai) and the other the Southern School (Tengalai). The Tengalais regard Prapatti or self-surrender as the only way to salvation. The Vadagalais think that it is only one of the ways. According to them, the Bhakta or devotee is like the young one of a monkey which has to exert itself and cling to its mother (Markata-Nyaya or Monkey Theory); whereas, according to the Southern School, the Bhakta or devotee is like the kitten which is carried about by the cat without any effort on its own part (Marjala-Nyaya or Cat-hold Theory).
The Northern School accept the Sanskrit texts, the Vedas. The Southerners have compiled a Veda of their own called "Nalayira Prabandha" or 'Four Thousand Sacred Verses', in Tamil, and hold it to be older than the Sanskrit Vedas. In all their worship, they repeat sections from their Tamil verses. The Vadagalais regard Lakshmi as the consort of Vishnu, Herself infinite, uncreated and equally to be adored as a means (Upaya) for release. The Tengalais regard Lakshmi as a created female being, though divine. According to them, she acts as a mediator or minister (Purushakara), and not as an equal channel of release. The two sects have different frontal marks. The Vadagalais make a simple white line curved like the letter U to represent the sole of the right foot of Lord Vishnu, the source of the Ganga. They add a central red mark as a symbol of Lakshmi. The Tengalais make a white mark like the letter Y which represents both the feet of Lord Vishnu. They draw a white line half down the nose. Both the sects brand the emblems of Vishnu- the discuss and the conch- on their breasts, shoulders and arms. The usual surnames of the Ramanuja Brahmins are Aiyangar, Acharya, Charlu and Acharlu.
The followers of Shri Ramananda are called Ramanandis. Ramananda was a disciple of Ramanuja, who propounded the Visistadvaita school of Vedanta Darsana.
Ramananda stayed in Varanasi during the beginning of fourteenth century. Ramanandis are found mostly in the north and are a branch of the Sri Sampradayins. They offer their worship to Lord Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman. The favourite work is Bhakti Mala. Their sectarian marks are like those or the Ramanujas. The Vairagees are the ascetics among Ramanandis.
Vallabhacharins or Krishna Sampradayins
The Vallabhacharins form a very important sect in Bombay, Gujarat and the Central India. Their founder Vallabhacharya was born in 1479. Vallabhacharya propounded the Shuddhadvaita school of Vedanta Darsana. The Vallabhacharins worship Krishna, as Bala-Gopala. Their murti or vigraha is one representing Krishna in his childhood till his twelfth year. The Gosains or teachers are family men. The eight daily ceremonials for God in the temples are Mangala, Sringara, Gvala, Raja Bhoga, Utthapana, Bhoga, Sandhya, and Sayana. All these represent various forms of adoration of God.
The mark on the forehead consists of two red perpendicular lines meeting in a semicircle at the root of the nose and having a round spot of red between them. The necklace and rosary are made of the stalk of the Tulasi (holy Basil). The great authority of the sect is the Srimad-Bhagavata as explained in the Subodhini, the commentary thereon of Vallabhacharya. One of the important centres of this sect is Sri Nathdvara.
This sect is prominent in Bengal and Orissa. The founder, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu or Lord Gouranga, was born in 1485. He was regarded as an incarnation of Lord Krishna. He took Sannyasa at the age of twenty-four. He went to Jagannath where he taught Vaishnava doctrines. His school of thought is called the Achintya Bheda-Abheda school of Vedanta Darsana.
The Chaitanyas worship Lord Krishna as the Supreme Being. All castes are admissible into the sect. The devotees constantly repeat the Name of Lord Krishna. Chaitanya's Charitamirita by Krishna Das is a voluminous work. It contains anecdotes of Chaitanya and his principal disciples and the expositions of the doctrines of this sect. It is written in Bengali.
The Vaishnavas of this sect wear two white perpendicular streaks of sandal or Gopichandana (a kind of sacred earth) down the forehead uniting at the root of the nose and continuing to near the tip. They wear a close necklace of small Tulasi beads of three strings.
The founder of this sect is Nimbarka or Nimbaditya. He was originally named Bhaskara Acharya. He propounded the Dvaita-Advaita or Bheda-Abheda school of Vedanta Darsana. He is regarded as an incarnation of the Sun-God (Surya). The followers worship Krishna and Radha conjointly. Their chief scripture is the Srimad-Bhagavata Purana.
The Nimbarkas or Nimavats are throughout the whole of upper India particularly around Mathura. They have the largest numbers among various Vaishnava sects in Bengal.
The followers wear two perpendicular yellowish lines made by Gopichandana earth drawn from the root of the hair to the commencement of each eyebrow and the meeting in a curve. This represents the footprint of Lord Vishnu.
The Madhvas are Vaishnavas. They are known as Brahma Sampradayins. The founder of the sect is Madhvacharya, otherwise called Ananda Tirtha and Purna-Prajna. He was born in 1200. He was a great opponent of Sankaracharya's Advaita system of philosophy and propounded the Dvaita system. He is regarded as an incarnation of Vayu or the Wind-God. He erected and consecrated at Udipi the image of the Lord Krishna.
The Gurus of the Madhva sect are Brahmins and Sannyasins. The followers bear the impress of the symbols of Vishnu upon their breasts and shoulders. They are stamped with a hot iron. Their frontal mark consists of two perpendicular lines made with Gopichandana and joined at the root of the nose. They make straight black line, with a charcoal from incense offered to Krishna, which terminates in a round mark made with turmeric.
The Madhvas are divided into two classes called the Vyasakutas and the Dasakutas. They are found in Karnataka. Truthfulness, study of scriptures, generosity, kindness, faith and freedom from envy form the moral code of Madhvas. They give the Lord's Names to their children (Namakarana), and mark the body with His symbols (Ankana). They practise virtue in thought, word and deed (Bhajana).
Radha Vallabhis worship Krishna as Radha-Vallabha, the Lord or Lover of Radha. Harivans was the founder of this sect. Seva Sakhi Vani gives a detailed description of the notion of this sect and more of their traditions and observances.
Other Vaishnava sects include Charana Dasis, Dadu Panthis, Hari Chandis, Kabir panthis, Khakis, Maluk Dasis, Mira Bais, Madhavis, Rayi Dasis, Sakhi Bhavas, Sadma Panthis etc.
The Saiva Brahmins of the Tamil Nadu have their title Aiyer. They are called Smartas. They wear three horizontal lines of Bhasma or Vibhuti (holy ash) on their forehead. They all worship Lord Siva. The different sects are:
- Vadamas: Vada Desa Vadamas, Chola Desa Vadamas and Inji Vadamas
- Brihatcharanam: Mazhainattu Brihatcharanam, Pazhamaneri Brihatcharanam, Milaghu Brihatcharanam and Kandramanikka Brihatcharanam
- Choliyas: Otherwise called Pandimars and inhabitants of Tiruchendur
Aadi Shankaracharya was from Smarta tradition.
Saiva Brahmins of Malabar
These include Nambudiri, Muse and Embrantiri.
Saiva Brahmins of Bengal
These include Chakravarti, Chunder, Roy, Gangopadhyaya, Choudhuri, Biswas, Bagchi, Majumdar, Bhattacharya
Saiva Brahmins of Karnataka
These include Smarta, Haviga, Kota, Shivalli, Tantri, Kardi and Padya.
Telugu Smartas 
These include Murukinadu, Velanadu, Karanakammalu, Puduru Dravidis, Telahanyam, Konasimadravidi, and Aruvela Niyogis.
They are called Vira Saivas. They arc found in Mysore and Karnataka. They wear on their neck a Linga of the Lord Siva put in a small silver box.
Other Saiva Sects
Akas Mukhis, Gudaras, Jangamas, Karalingis, Nakhis, Rukharas, Sukharas, Urdhabahus, Ukkaras are all Saiva sects.
The Saktas are worshippers of Devi, the Universal Mother. Dakshinis, Vamis, Kancheliyas, Kararis are all Sakta sects.
The Sauras adore the Sun, the Ganapatyas adore Ganesa, and the Kaurnaras adore Skanda.
The Nanak Shahis have seven sub-sects: Udasis, Ganjbakhsis, Ramrayis, Sutra Shahis, Govinda Sinhis, Nirmalas, Nagas. Then there are Babalalis, Prana Nathis, Satnamis, Siva Narayanis.
The founder of the Arya Samaj was Swami Dayananda Sarasvati, who was born in Kathiawar in 1824. This samaj is more of a social institution, with a religious background. It has Gurukulas, schools and Pathasalas. The Suddhi Sabha is a proselytising branch of the Arya Samaj.
The Brahma Samaj was founded originally by Raja Ram Mohan Roy, early in the nineteenth century. The Brahma Samajists do not perform murti or vigraha-worship. Keshab Chandra Sen introduced some changes in the year 1860. There are now two branches within the Samaj, viz., Adi Brahma Samaj which holds to the tenets laid down by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and the Sadharana Brahma Samaj which is a little modern and which follows Keshab Chandra Sen more closely. The Samaj has followers in Bengal.
The four Kumaras (Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanat-Kumara and Sanat-Sujata) were the pioneers in the path of Sannyasa. They refused to enter the Pravritti Marga or worldly life and entered the Nivritti Marga or the path of renunciation. Sri Dattatreya also is among the original Sannyasins. The Sannyasins of the present day all descendants of the four Kumaras, Dattatreya and Adi Sankaracharya.
Adi Sankaracharya, an eminent exponent of Kevala Advaita philosophy, established four Mutts—one at Sringeri, another at Dvaraka, a third at Puri and a fourth at Joshi-Mutt in the Himalayas, on the way to the Badarinarayana shrine. Sri Sankara had four Sannyasin disciples, viz., Suresvara, Padmapada, Hastamalaka and Totaka. Suresvara was in charge of Sringeri Mutt, Padmapada was in charge of Puri Mutt, Hastamalaka was in charge of Dvaraka Mutt and Totaka was in charge of Joshi-Mutt.
- The Sannyasins of Sringeri Mutt, the adhyatmik descendants of Sri Sankara and Suresvaracharya, have three names, viz., Sarasvati, Puri and Bharati.
- The Sannyasins of the Dvaraka Mutt have two names, viz., Tirtha and Asrama
- The Sannyasins of the Puri Mutt have two names, viz., Vana and Aranya
- The Sannyasins of the Joshi-Mutt have three names, viz., Giri, Parvata and Sagara
The Dasanamis worship Lord Siva or Lord Vishnu, and meditate on Nirguna Brahman.
The Dandi sannyasins, who hold staff in their hands, belong to the order of Sri Sankara. Paramahamsa Sannyasins do not hold staff. They freely move about as itinerant monks. Avadhutas are naked Sannyasins. They do not keep any property with them. The Sannyasins of the Ramakrishna Mission belong to the order of Sri Sankara. They have the name Puri. Then, there are Akhada Sannyasins, viz., Niranjani Akhada and Jhuna Akhada. They belong to the order of Sri Sankara.
Other Sanyasi Sects
In South India, there are Tamil Sannyasins who belong to the Kovilur Mutt, Thiruvavaduthurai and Dharmapuram Adhinams. They do not belong to the Sri Sankara order. They are Saivas.
Nagas are Saiva Sannyasins. They remain in a naked state. They smear their bodies with ashes. They have beard and matted locks.
Guru Nanak's order of ascetics are called Udasis. They correspond to Sannyasins and Vairagis. They are indifferent to the sensual pleasures of this world (Udasina). Hence they are called Udasis.
Vairagi is one who is devoid of passion. Vairagis are Vaishnavas. They worship Lord Rama, Sita and Hanuman. They read the Ramayana of Tulasidas. The mendicant Vaishnavas of the Ramanandi class are the Vairagis. This ascetic order was instituted by Sri Ananda, the twelfth disciple of Ramananda.
The founder of this order was Ramcharan born in the year 1718 in a village near Jaipur in Rajasthan. The Rama Sanehi mendicants are of two classes, viz., the Videhis who are naked and the Mohinis who wear two pieces of cotton cloth dyed red in ochre. Their monastery is in Shahapur in Rajasthan. The Rama Sanehi sect has the largest following in Mewar and Alwar. They are found also in Bombay, Gujarat, Surat, Poona, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Varanasi.
Kabir Panthis are the followers of Saint Kabir. They are numerous in all the provinces of Upper and Central India. There are twelve branches. Kabir Chaura is at Varanasi. It is a big monastery of Kabir Panthis. Dharamdas was the chief disciple of Kabir. The followers are expected to have implicit devotion to the Gurus, in thought, word and deed. They should practise truthfulness, mercy, non-injury and seclusion. The followers of Kamal, son of Kabir, practise Yoga.
The Dadu Panthis form one of the Vaishnava cults. Dadu, the founder of this sect, Was a disciple of one of the Kabir Panthi teachers. The followers worship Lord Rama. Dadu was a cotton cleaner. He was born at Ahmedabad at around 1600. The Dadu Panthis are of three classes, viz., the Viraktas who are bareheaded and have one cloth and one water-pot, the Nagas who carry arms and who are regarded as soldiers and the Vistar Dharis who do the avocations of ordinanry life.
The Dadu Panthis are numerous in Marwar and Ajmer. Their chief place of worship is at Naraina, which is near Sambhur and Jaipur. Passages from the Kabir writings are inserted in their religious scriptures.
Gorakhnath was a contemporary of Kabir. He is regarded as the incarnation of Lord Siva. He calls himself as the son of Matsyendranath and grandson of Adinath. There is a temple of Gorakhnath at Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh. Bhartrihari was a disciple of Gorakhnath. Goraksha-Sataka, Goraksha-Kalpa and Goraksha-Nama were written by Gorakhnath. They are in Sanskrit. The followers of Gorakhnath are usually called Kanphatas, because their ears are bored and rings are inserted in them, at the time of their initiation. They worship Lord Siva.
Sri Pirannath is the founder of this sect. He was born in 1675 at Jamnagar, district Rajkot, in Kathiawar. He was the Divan of Raja Jam Jasa. The followers are to practise Ahimsa, Satya and Daya—non-violence, truthfulness and compassion. They study the sacred book, Kul Jam Svarup or Atma Bodha in Hindi, which contains teachings of Sri Pirannath. it contains 18,000 Chaupais. They worship Bal-Krishna i.e. Krishna as a small lad. The followers are found mostly in Punjab, Gujarat, Assam, Nepal and Mumbai. There are two mutts or monasteries—one at Jamnagar and the other at Pamna.
- Swami Sivananda, All About Hinduism, Page 157-170
- E. Allen Richardson (2014), Seeing Krishna in America: The Hindu Bhakti Tradition of Vallabhacharya in India and Its Movement to the West
- Klostermaier, K.K. (1998), A concise encyclopedia of Hinduism, Oneworld