Table of Contents

  About the Author
  Books by Bansi Pandit
  What is Hindu Dharma?
  Hindu View of God
  Why Hindus Worship Deities
  Hindu Scriptures
  Principal Hindu Doctrines
  Law of Karma
  Popular Systems 
  Moral & Ethical Ideals of Hindus
  Hindu View ...
  Hindu Reverence for Elders
  Daily Routine of a Devout Hindu
  Hindu Dharma
  Hindu View of Ecology
  Some Philosophical Aspects
  Hindu Response 
  Contribution of Hindus
  Practicing Hindu Dharma
  Timeless Wisdom 
  Swămi Vivekănanda's Address
  Works Cited
  Color Plates
  Download Book

Koshur Music

An Introduction to Spoken Kashmiri

Panun Kashmir


Symbol of Unity


Chapter 7: Popular Systems of Hindu Religious Thought

Hindu religious thought embodies a great variety of ideas, principles and practices, giving rise to various religious schools (sampradăyas). Each school venerates the Supreme Deity, which represents a particular aspect of the Ultimate Reality (Brahman). Each school has temples, guru lineages, religious leaders, pilgrimage centers, monastic communities, and sacred literature. Some of these schools hold such divergent views that each appears to be a complete religion in itself. Yet, they all believe in the central doctrines of Hindu religion, such as karma, dharma, reincarnation, divinity of the ătman, sacraments, deity worship, guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) tradition and the scriptural authority of the Vedas. None of these schools is in any way superior or inferior to the others. They simply represent different ways of approach to the same goal and are meant for various classes of people having different tastes, aptitudes, temperaments, and exhibiting various levels of spiritual development.

The Hindu religious systems have been classified by Adi Shankar-ăchărya into six major paths, called Shad-maths. These are Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shăktism, Gănapathyam, Kaumăram, and Sauram or Jyotiam.


The followers of Shaivism venerate the Ultimate Reality as Lord Shiva. This tradition has been traced back by scholars approximately 8000 years to the Indus Valley Civilization. The archeologists have discovered the so-called proto-Pashupati seals of this civilization, which depict Shiva as Lord Pashupati, seated in a yogic pose. There are many schools of Shaivism, of which the six major systems are Shaiva Siddhănta, Păshupata Shaivism, Kashmîr Shaivism, Vîra Shaivism, Siddha Siddhănta, and Shiva Advaita. These systems differ somewhat in their doctrines pertaining to the relationship between Shiva, the ătman and the world.

Most Hindus worship Lord Shiva as a member of the Hindu Trinity (see Chapter 3). However, the followers of Shaivism, called Shaivas or Shaivites, worship Him as the Ultimate Reality. The predominant philosophy of Shaivism is monistic-theism. According to this doctrine, Lord Shiva is both personal and impersonal. In the personal aspect, Shiva creates, controls, and pervades all that exists. In this aspect, Shiva is what other religions call God. Shaivism declares that there is nothing outside Shiva and, thus, recognizes the oneness of Pati-pau-păša (God-ătman-world). In the impersonal aspect, Shiva transcends all existence and in the liberated state the ătman is one with Shiva.

The main objects of Shiva worship are shivalinga and images of Shiva. Shivalinga means "Shiva symbol." The word linga is derived from the two Sanskrit words laya (dissolution) and agaman (recreation). Thus, shivalinga symbolizes that entity in which the creation merges at the time of dissolution and out of which the universe reappears at the beginning of the new cycle of creation.

Shivalinga consists of three parts. The bottom part which is four-sided remains under ground, the middle part which is eight-sided remains on a pedestal and the top part which is actually worshipped is round. The height of the round part is one-third of its circumference. The three parts symbolize Brahma at the bottom, Vishnu in the middle and Shiva on the top. The pedestal is provided with a passage for draining away the water that is poured on top by devotees.
The linga symbolizes both the creative and destructive power of the Lord and great sanctity is attached to it by the devotees. The bănalińgas are very sacred objects of worship to the followers of Shaivism. These are the elliptical stones of a special kind found in the bed of the river Narmadă, one of the seven sacred rivers in India. Fresh flowers, pure water, young sprouts of Kusha (a holy grass) and dûrvă (called bent or panic grass), fruit, bilva leaves and sun-dried rice are used in the ritual part of the Shiva worship. According to tradition, offering leaves of the bilva tree (wood-apple) is considered very auspicious for the worship of Lord Shiva.

Mahăshivarătri (the great night of Shiva) is an annual festival that falls on the fourteenth day of the dark fortnight of Phălguna (February-March), and is dedicated to the worship of Lord Shiva. On this day devotees sing bhajans (devotional songs) in honor of Shiva, recite Sanskrit shlokas (verses) from scriptures, offer prayers in the morning and evening, and some observe a fast throughout the day. People visit nearby temples of Shiva and offer prayers in large crowds. The prayers and worship continue late into the night when the devotees offer flowers, coconut, bilva leaves, fruits, and specially prepared sacred food to Shiva and His divine consort Părvatî.

In mythology, Shiva is the husband of Părvatî, the daughter of the Himalayas. They have two sons, Ganesha and Kărttikeya and daughter Jyoti. Their residence is the snow-clad mountain Kailăsh. The mythology depicts Shiva both as God of terror as well as benevolence. His five powers are revealment (offering grace to the devotees), concealment (obscuring by His power of măyă), creation, preservation, and dissolution. The major scriptures of Shaivism are Vedas, Shaiva Ăgamas and Shaiva Purănas.


Vaishnavism venerates the Ultimate Reality as Lord Vishnu. This tradition began during the Vedic period when its earliest schools Pańcharătra and Bhăgavata became popular around 300 BCE. Modern day Vaishnavism includes five popular schools founded by Rămănuja, Mădhva, Nimbărka, Vallabha and Chaitanya. These schools slightly differ in their doctrines pertaining to the relationship between Vishnu, the ătman and the world.

Most Hindus worship Lord Vishnu as a member of the Hindu Trinity. However, the followers of Vaishnavism, called Vaishnavas or Vaishnavites, worship Lord Vishnu as the Ultimate Reality. Although the philosophy of Vaishnavism includes dualism of Madhva, qualified dualism of Rămănuja, and nearly monistic views of Vallabha, the predominant philosophy of Vaishnavism is dualism. According to this doctrine, there are two categories of the Ultimate Reality. Lord Vishnu as personal God is the Absolute Reality, and the ătmans (individuals souls) are the relative realities, eternally distinct from each other and Lord Vishnu, but dependent on Him.

The doctrine of incarnation (avatăra) is fundamental to all Hindus, especially to Vaishnavas. This doctrine is declared in the Bhagavad Gîtă when Krishna tells Arjuna, "Whenever unrighteous-ness increases and evil becomes triumphant, I incarnate on earth in age after age for protection of the good, for the destruction of the evil-doers, and for the re-establishment of virtue and righteousness." (BG 4.7,4.8) Each avatăra is assumed by Vishnu for a particular end and as the situation demands. The number of avatăras of Vishnu are generally accepted to be ten, with Răma and Krishna being the two most popular among Hindus.

Vaishnavism stresses complete surrender (prapatti) to Lord Vishnu and His incarnations and advocates devotion (bhakti) as the highest spiritual discipline. The objects of worship are the images of Vishnu and His incarnations, and sălagrămas, small stones of different colors (predominantly black) recovered from the bed of the river Gandakî, one of the tributaries of the Ganges river in India. Sălagrămas are river-worn, fossilized ammonite shells with one or more holes in the side, having several spiral grooves resembling the wheel emblem of Vishnu.

Fresh flowers, water, fruit, leaves of the tulasî plant are used in the ritual part of the worship of Lord Vishnu and His incarnations. According to tradition, offering leaves of the tulasî plant to the deities of Vishnu is considered very auspicious in the worship of Lord Vishnu. One of the unique features of the Vaishnava worship is kîrtana, which consists of choral singing of the names and deeds of Lord Vishnu and His incarnations, accompanied by drums and cymbals and synchronized with rhythmic bodily movements. The major scriptures of Vaishnavism are Vedas, Ăgamas, Purănas, Rămăyana, Mahăbhărata, and Bhagavad Gîtă.


Shakti means "creative energy," and Shăktism means "Doctrine of the Creative Energy." Shăktism venerates the Ultimate Reality as the Divine Mother-Shakti or Devi-of the universe. Archeologists have recovered thousands of female statuettes at the Mehrgarh village in India, which indicate that Shakti worship existed in India as far back as 5500 BCE. There are references to the female deities in the Rig Veda, including a popular Hymn to the Divine Mother (Devî-sûkta, X.125), which holds special sanctity to Hindus in general and Shăktas (the followers of Shăktism) in particular.

Shăktism visualizes the Ultimate Reality as having two aspects, transcendent and immanent. Shiva is the transcendent aspect, the supreme cosmic consciousness, and Shakti is the supreme creative energy. Shiva and Shakti are God and God's creative energy inseparably connected. Metaphorically, Shiva and Shakti are an inseparable divine couple, representing the male and female principle in creation.

Shăktism greatly resembles Shaivism, but Shiva is considered solely transcendent and is not worshipped. Like Shaivism, the goal of Shăktism is to unite with Shiva. Such unity is possible only with the grace of the Divine Mother, Who unfolds as icchă shakti (the power of desire, will and love), kriyă shakti (the power of action), and jńană shakti (the power of knowledge and wisdom). According to the Tantra philosophy, the spiritual center at the crown of the head (sahasrăra chakra) is the abode of Shiva. Likewise, the spiritual center at the base of the spine (mûlădhăra) is the abode of shakti. Normally shakti is latent in the mûlădhăra. Through a spiritual discipline, shakti is awakened and it rises through the spine and unites with Shiva in the sahasrăra. When this energy transformation occurs, the individual attains cosmic consciousness and is said to have realized the Self.

Within Shăktism, Shiva is the unmanifest Absolute and Shakti is the Divine Mother of the manifest creation. The Divine Mother is worshipped in both the fierce and benign forms. The fierce forms of Goddess include Kălî, Durgă, Chandî, Chamundî, Bhadrakălî and Bhairavî. The benign forms of Goddess include Umă, Gaurî, Ambikă, Părvatî, Maheshvarî, Lalită, Lakshmî, Saraswatî and Annapûrnă. The major scriptures of Shăktism are Vedas, Shăkta Ãgamas and Purănas.


Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity (see Chapter 3), represents that aspect of the Ultimate Reality which removes obstacles. Hindus, therefore, invoke Lord Ganesha at the beginning of all undertakings, whether religious, spiritual or worldly, for Lord Ganesha removes obstacles and brings success to the enterprise. Ganesha is also called Vighneshvara, meaning "the Lord presiding over the obstacles." In the Rig Veda (2.23.1), Ganesha is the name of Brihapati, the Lord of prayer (the Holy Word). In mythology, Ganesha is the first son of the divine couple Shiva and Părvatî.

Most Hindus worship Ganesha along with other deities, but Gănapatyas, followers of Gănapathyam, venerate Lord Ganesha exclusively as the form of the Ultimate Reality (Brahman) that is accessible to the mind, senses and (through devotional practices) the heart.

Gănapatyas regard Morayă Gosăvî (1651 AD), the famous devotee of Ganesha, as their spiritual progenitor. Tradition holds that Morayă experienced a series of visions of Ganesha at a shrine at Moragaon, near Poona, India.

An annual ten-day festival, Ganesha Chaturthi, is held in August-September to celebrate the birth of Ganesha. During this time elaborate pujăs are held in homes and temples. At the end of the festival clay images (murtis) of Ganesha are taken in a spectacular procession, called Visarjana, to the seashore, river or lake, where they are immersed in water to symbolize the merging of Ganesha with the ocean of consciousness. In November-December, devotees observe a 21-day festival. During this period daily pûjăs are offered, fasting on water is observed throughout the day, and a full meal is taken after sunset. The major scriptures of this tradition are Vedas, Ganesha Purăna, and Mudgala Purăna.


The followers of this tradition venerate Lord Kărttikeya, also called by other names such as Murugan, Kumăra, Skanda, Subramanya, and Shanmukhanătha, as their Ishta Devată (personal-God). Lord Kărttikeya represents the power of the Ultimate Reality (Brahman) that destroys ignorance, bestows divine knowledge, upholds dharma (righteousness), removes worries, and strengthens human will.

In mythology, Kărttikeya and Ganesha are the two sons of Shiva and Părvatî. In popular pictures and images, Kărttikeya is shown holding a spear which symbolizes His divine power to destroy ignorance and unrighteousness (see Chapter 3).

Lord Kărttikeya is worshipped in homes and temples throughout the year. On the day of Vaikăsi Vishăkham in May-June, elaborate pujăs and special ceremonies (abhishekam) are conducted in homes and temples. His protection and grace are specially invoked on the day of Skanda Shashthî, which falls on the sixth day after the new moon in October-November. In January-February, another holy festival (Tai Pusam) is observed in honor of Lord Kărttikeya. On this occasion the devotees fast and perform public penance to invoke the Lord's blessings to remove sins, pride and vanity, and bestow spiritual knowledge. Special pujăs are performed in honor of Lord Kărttikeya every month on Krittikă nakshatra and Shashthi, the sixth day after the new moon.


The power of the sun to dispel darkness, illuminate the world, and nourish mankind is recognized by Hindus as an aspect of the infinite power of the Ultimate Reality (Brahman). The worship of this triple power of the Divine, symbolized by the Vedic deity Sûrya, the Sun-god, is called Sauram. Sûrya is worshipped by Hindus as an object of meditation during many physical exercises. Sacred verses selected from the epic and Pûranic literature are daily recited by devout Hindus early in the morning before commencing the day's work. The best known of the hymns to the sun is one from Rămăyana, that was imparted to Răma during his battle with Răvana.

Hindus in general worship the sun every year on the seventh day after the new moon in the month which corresponds to January-February. Sacred mantras are recited for the special worship of the sun, especially on Sundays, birthdays, and at other special functions. Prostrations are made to the sun after each tenth mantra until one hundred and thirty-two prostrations have been completed. These prostrations are done in the form of a physical exercise, called Sûrya-Namaskăra, which consists of adorations to the sun in the form of a set of twelve simple poses in Hatha Yoga.29

The following most sacred Rigvedic prayer, named after its meter, is called Găyatrî, meaning "the savior of the singer." It is considered to be the mantra of all mantras, the most potent mantra, repeated as many times as possible by Hindus daily in pûjă and personal chanting to venerate the sun as the Creator (Savitar). The mystic power of this mantra is so high that it is called Vedămatri, meaning "Mother of the Vedas." Găyatrî Mantra is imparted to a young boy for initiation into Vedic tradition.

"Om bhûr bhuvah svah, tatsavitur varenyam, bhargo devasya, dhîmahi, dhiyo yo nah prachodayăt, Om." (Rig Veda 3.62.10)

"God is the giver of life, the dispeller of miseries, and bestower of happiness. We meditate upon that adorable effulgence of the resplendent vivifier, Savitar. May He stimulate our intellects."

Găyatrî Mantra is a universal prayer, open to the people of all time and clime, without any limitation of color, creed, race or religious affiliation. "This prayer requires us, not to lose ourselves, but to find our true Self, naked and without the mask of falsehood, to live our lives on the highest plane of self-criticism and human aspiration," says Sarvepălli Rădhăkrishnan.5

Religious Tradition Ishta Devată (Personal God) Auspicious Materials of Worship Major Scriptures Auspicious Mantra (see Note)
Shaivism Shiva red China roses, bilva leaves & durva (special grass) Vedas, Shaiva Ăgamas and Shaiva Purănas Om Namah Shivăya
Vaishnavism Vishnu white flowers and tulasî leaves Vedas, Vaishnava Ăgamas and Purănas, Rămăyana, Mahăbhărata, and Bhagavad Gîtă. Om Namo Nărăyanăya;

Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevăya

Shakti lotuses for Lakshmi, yellow flowers for Saraswatî & red flowers for Durgă Vedas, Shăkta Ăgamas and Purănas Om Hrim Chandikăyai Namah
Gănapathyam Ganesha red flowers and durva (special grass) Vedas and Skănda Purăna. Om Sri Ganayshăya Namah; Om Găm Gam Ganapataye Namah
Kaumăram Kărttikeya or Subramanya flowers of all colors Vedas and Purănas Om Kărttikeya Namah
Sauram Sun-god red lotuses Vedas and Purănas Găyatrî Mantra

Note: Each of these mantras is imbibed with mystic power and can be used in meditation for spiritual growth.

Table 3 - Popular Hindu Religious Traditions


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