What are the sects and denominations in Hinduism?
Modern Hinduism is divided into four major devotional sects: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism. Vaishnavism and Shaivism are generally regarded as monotheistic sects: each believes in one supreme God, who is identified as Vishnu in Vaishnavism and Shiva in Shaivism.
Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism are the most prevalent Hindu sects; among these, Vaishnavism is the largest. The devotional sects do not generally regard other sects as rivals, and each sect freely borrows beliefs and practices from others.
In addition to the four theistic sects, there are six schools of Vedantic philosophy within Hinduism. These schools tend to emphasize Ultimate Reality as Brahman, the great “Self” who must be realized to attain liberation.
The six Astika (orthodox; accepting the authority of the Vedas) schools of Hindu philosophy are Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Purva Mimamsa (also called just ‘Mimamsa’), and Uttara Mimamsa (also called ‘Vedanta’). Of these six, three continue to be influential in Hinduism: Purva Mimamsa, Yoga, and Vedanta.
Click on the links below for more information on each of these sects and schools of Hinduism.
Four Theistic/Devotional Sects of Hinduism
Six Philosophical Schools of Hinduism
– Purva Mimamsa (Mimamsa)
– Uttara Mimamsa (Vedanta)
Who is a Hindu?
Seven Features of Hinduism Recognized by Indian Law Courts
The Supreme Court of India defined the features of a Hindu in its 1995 ruling of the case, “Bramchari Sidheswar Shai and others Versus State of West Bengal.” At one place, it says that the court identifies the following seven defining characteristics of Hinduism and by extension Hindus:
- Acceptance of the Vedas with reverence as the highest authority in religious and philosophic matters and acceptance with reverence of Vedas by Hindu thinkers and philosophers as the sole foundation of Hindu philosophy.
- Spirit of tolerance and willingness to understand and appreciate the opponent’s point of view based on the realization that truth was many-sided.
- Acceptance of great world rhythm, vast period of creation, maintenance and dissolution follow each other in endless succession, by all six systems of Hindu philosophy.
- Acceptance by all systems of Hindu philosophy, the belief in rebirth and pre-existence.
- Recognition of the fact that the means or ways to salvation are many.
- Realization of the truth that Gods to be worshipped may be large, yet there being Hindus who do not believe in the worshipping of idols.
- Unlike other religions or religious creeds Hindu religion not being tied-down to any definite set of philosophic concepts, as such.
If you’re still confused…
When the question of who is a Hindu is discussed today, we get a multitude of confused and contradictory answers from both Hindu laypersons and from Hindu leaders. That we have such a difficult time understanding the answer to even so fundamental a question as “Who is a Hindu?” is a starkly sad indicator of the lack of knowledge in the Hindu community today. Below are some thoughts on the topic collated from a speech by Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya.
Some of the more simplistic answers to this question include: Anyone born in India is automatically a Hindu (the ethnicity fallacy), if your parents are Hindu, then you are Hindu (the familial argument), if you are born into a certain caste, then you are Hindu (the genetic inheritance model), if you believe in reincarnation, then you are Hindu (forgetting that many non-Hindu religions share at least some of the beliefs of Hinduism), if you practice any religion originating from India, then you are a Hindu (the national origin fallacy).
The Real Answer
The real answer to this question has already been conclusively answered by the ancient sages of Hinduism, and is actually much simpler to ascertain than we would guess. The two primary factors that distinguish the individual uniqueness of the great world religious traditions are a) the scriptural authority upon which the tradition is based, and b) the fundamental religious tenet(s) that it espouses. If we ask the question what is a Jew?, for example, the answer is: someone who accepts the Torah as their scriptural guide and believes in the monotheistic concept of God espoused in these scriptures. What is a Christian? – a person who accepts the Gospels as their scriptural guide and believes that Jesus is the incarnate God who died for their sins. What is a Muslim? – someone who accepts the Qur’an as their scriptural guide, and believes that there is no God but Allah, and that Mohammed is his prophet.
In general, what determines whether a person is a follower of any particular religion is whether or not they accept, and attempt to live by, the scriptural authority of that religion. This is no less true of Hinduism than it is of any other religion on earth. Thus, the question of what is a Hindu is similarly very easily answered.
By definition, a Hindu is an individual who accepts as authoritative the religious guidance of the Vedic scriptures, and who strives to live in accordance with Dharma, God’s divine laws as revealed in the Vedic scriptures.
Only If You Accept the Vedas
In keeping with this standard definition, all of the Hindu thinkers of the six traditional schools of Hindu philosophy (Shad-darshanas) insisted on the acceptance of the scriptural authority of the Vedas (shabda-pramana) as the primary criterion for distinguishing a Hindu from a non-Hindu, as well as distinguishing overtly Hindu philosophical positions from non-Hindu ones. It has been the historically accepted standard that, if you accept the Vedas (and by extension Bhagavad Gita, Puranas, etc.) as your scriptural authority, and lived your life in accordance with the Dharmic principles of the Vedas, you are then a Hindu. Thus, an Indian who rejects the Veda is obviously not a Hindu. While an American, Russian, Indonesian or Indian who does accept the Veda obviously is a Hindu.
The Sacred Texts of the Hindus
According to Swami Vivekananda, “the accumulated treasury of spiritual laws discovered by different persons in different times” constitutes the sacred Hindu texts. Collectively referred to as the Shastras, there are two types of sacred writings in the Hindu scriptures: Shruti (heard) and Smriti (memorized).
Sruti literature refers to the habit of ancient Hindu saints who led a solitary life in the woods, where they developed a consciousness that enabled them to ‘hear’ or cognize the truths of the universe. Sruti literatures are of two parts: the Vedas and the Upanishads.
There are four Vedas:
- The Rig Veda -“Royal Knowledge”
- The Sama Veda – “Knowledge of Chants”
- The Yajur Veda – “Knowledge of Sacrificial Rituals”
- The Atharva Veda – “Knowledge of Incarnations”
There are 108 extant Upanishads, of which 10 are most important: Isa, Kena, Katha, Prashna, Mundaka, Mandukya, Taitiriya, Aitareya, Chandogya, Brihadaranyaka.Smriti Literature refers to ‘memorized’ or ‘remembered’ poetry and epics.
They are more popular with Hindus, because they are easy to understand, explains universal truths through symbolism and mythology, and contain some of the most beautiful and exciting stories in the history of religion world literature. The three most important of Smriti literature are:
- The Bhagavad Gita – The most well known of the Hindu scriptures, called the “Song of the Adorable One”, written about the 2nd century BC and forms the sixth part of Mahabharata. It contains some of the most brilliant theological lessons about the nature of God and of life ever written.
- The Mahabharata – The world’s longest epic poem written about 9th century BC, and deals with the power struggle between the Pandava and the Kaurava families, with an intertwining of numerous episodes that make up life.
- The Ramayana – The most popular of Hindu epics, composed by Valmiki around 4th or 2nd centuries BC with later additions up to about 300 CE. It depicts the story of the royal couple of Ayodha – Ram and Sita and a host of other characters and their exploits.