Chapter 7: Popular Systems of Hindu
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-păa (God-ătman-world). In the impersonal aspect, Shiva
transcends all existence and in the liberated state the ătman is one with
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
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)
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
&ATILDE;gamas 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
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
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
Devată (Personal God)
Materials of Worship
Mantra (see Note)
||red China roses, bilva
leaves & durva (special grass)
||Vedas, Shaiva Ăgamas and
||Om Namah Shivăya
||white flowers and tulasî
||Vedas, Vaishnava Ăgamas
and Purănas, Rămăyana, Mahăbhărata, and Bhagavad Gîtă.
||Om Namo Nărăyanăya;
Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevăya
||lotuses for Lakshmi, yellow
flowers for Saraswatî & red flowers for Durgă
||Vedas, Shăkta Ăgamas and
||Om Hrim Chandikăyai Namah
||red flowers and durva
||Vedas and Skănda Purăna.
||Om Sri Ganayshăya Namah;
Om Găm Gam Ganapataye Namah
||Kărttikeya or Subramanya
||flowers of all colors
||Vedas and Purănas
||Om Kărttikeya Namah
||Vedas and Purănas
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