Classifying the many groups within Hinduism is a challenge more so than with other religions. In so doing, we may unconsciously promote the idea that Hinduism is a single monolithic religion. As mentioned before it is more accurately a “family of religions” with each family member autonomous but sharing distinctive family features. The fact that some Hindu traditions are monotheistic others monistic and yet others polytheistic is a proof that Hinduism is quite different from other world faiths. In trying to discern specific strands within Hinduism we are in danger of over-generalizing, promoting stereotypes and creating false boundaries. Nonetheless, it is useful- even necessary-to establish a somewhat tentative framework for categorizing the numerous groups and sub-groups. The main classification of Hinduism is based on the focus of worship which produces four main traditions:
- Vaishnavism is the largest tradition within the family of religions called Hinduism. It is the oldest monotheistic tradition in the world. Its followers called Vaishnavas worship God under the names/forms of Vishnu (“one who is all-pervading”), Krishna (“the all- attractive one”), Rama (“the source of all-pleasure”) or other less well known names/forms or Avatars. There are four main branches or sampradayas of Vaishnavism and many sub-branches. The theologians/founders of these 4 main branches or sampradayas are: Ramanuja, Madhva, Nimbarka and Vishnuswami. The main Vedic scriptures studied and followed by the Vaishnavas are: Mahabharata, Ramayana, Bhagavad-Gita, Bhagavat Purana and Vedanta Sutras. The main places of pilgrimage for the Vaishnavas are: Mathura/Vrndavana, Ayodhya, Puri, Dvaraka, Tirupati, Gurvayor, Shri Rangan, etc.
- Shaivism is the second largest tradition and has several and important branches. It is commonly associated with asceticism. Lord Shiva himself is often depicted as a yogi sitting in meditation in the Himalayas. The main Vedic scriptures studied and followed by the Shaivites are: Svetashvatara Upanishad, Shiva Purana and the Agamas. The main places of pilgrimage for the Shaivites are: Benares, Rameshvaram, Kedarnatha, Amarnatha, etc.
- Shaktism focuses on the goddess generically called “Devi”. The Shakta tradition specifically worships Shiva’s consort, in her many various forms such as Parvati, Durga, Kali, etc. The main Vedic scriptures studied and followed by the Shaktas are: Devi Purana, Kalika Purana, Devi Bhagavata Purana and the Tantras. The main places of pilgrimage are: Bengal, Calcutta (Kali Temple), Kanyakumari, Madurai, Vaishno Devi, etc.
There is a fourth mainstream Hindu tradition called Smarta. The followers of this tradition are called the Smartas and are traditional and very strict about rules and regulations and emphasize the universality of Hinduism by distancing themselves from the exclusive worshippers of Vishnu, Shiva or Devi. The Smarta Tradition is a relatively new development in Hinduism and many Hindus may not strictly identify themselves as Smartas but, by adhering to Advaita Vedanta ( the doctrine of Monism or Oneness with the Supreme) as a foundation for non-sectarianism, are indirect followers. The main theologian of this tradition is Shankaracharya or Adi Shankara who is reputed to have started the system of worshipping 5 deities. He was the founder of the Advaita School of Vedanta which underpins the widespread notion that all deities are equal. The main scriptures for the Smartas are: Vedanta Sutra, Upanishads and Shariraka Bhasya. And the main places of pilgrimage are: Badrinatha, Puri, Kanchipuram, etc.
Another criterion for classifying the followers of Hinduism is the spiritual processes or paths they choose. Though within Hinduism there are many diverse practices most fall within 4 main paths or margs. Since these paths are aimed at union (with God) they are also called “yogas”. They are:
- Karma Marg/Yoga or the path of (proper) action
- Jnana Marg/Yoga or the path of knowledge
- Raja (Astanga) Marg/Yoga or the path of meditation
- Bhakti Marg/Yoga or the path of devotion
The four main denominations often favor one or more of these paths for example the Vaishnavas favor the path of devotion, the Shaivites favor the paths of knowledge and meditation, the Shaktas favor the path of proper action and the Smartas favor the path of knowledge.
There are other criteria for classifying the different traditions within Hinduism like; the six orthodox doctrines or darshanas (Vaisheshika, Nyaya, Sankhya, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta), the Advaita or monistic/impersonal traditions and the Dvaita or dualist/personal traditions (with many variants). For the Advaita traditions God is impersonal and the soul is entirely non-different from God (but has yet to realize/develop his Godhood) while for the Dvaita traditions God is ultimately personal and the soul remains eternally distinct from God (though both are usually considered Brahman).To attempt to describe these other criteria properly would be impossible in this brief presentation on Hinduism.
Though most Hindus belong to one of the above mentioned traditions or practice one of the above mentioned paths there are many Hindus that don’t identify with any particular tradition or path but several or all traditions and paths simultaneously. There are also many that follow one or several of the many modern Hindu movements many of which are syncretic, adopting concepts and practices from any of the above traditions or paths or even from other world religions and philosophies. Hinduism tends to accommodate people with different concepts of the Supreme so that all can gradually progress towards ultimate self-and God-realization.
The term Hinduism needs to be addressed by the leaders of the many different traditions within it and reassessed. There may be a more original and proper word or term for referring to the different traditions originating in India of following the Vedic scriptures.