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Religion Library: Hinduism

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

  1. Shaiva
  2. Vaishnava
  3. Shakta
  4. Smarta

Hinduism encompasses a number of major sects, as well as countless subsects with local or regional variations. On one level, it is possible to view these sects as distinct religious traditions, often with very specific theologies and ritual traditions; on another level, however, they can understand themselves to be different means to reach a common end. Likewise, although there is a wide variety of theological and ritual variance within Hinduism, it would not really be accurate to call any single movement, after the major breaks with Buddhism and Jainism, a schism.

It is typically held that Hinduism has four major sects: Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shakta, and Smarta. Although this is in a sense technically accurate, it is also only one of many potential ways of classifying the varieties within Hinduism. In practice, these divisions often overlap, and individual Hindus do not necessarily define themselves in such terms.

List of "principal" Upanishads
(there are over 100 others)
  1. Aitareya
  2. Brhadaranyaka
  3. Taittiriya
  4. Chandogya
  5. Kena
  6. Isa
  1. Svetasvatara
  2. Katha
  3. Mundaka
  4. Mandukya
  5. Prasna

For instance, the term smarta, which comes from the Sanskrit "smrti," or "remembered," generally refers to those Hindus who understand the ultimate form of the divine to be abstract and all encompassing, Brahman. This theological position is most saliently associated with the Upanishads, a genre of literature that posits that the cosmos is permeated by Brahman (indeed, it is Brahman). Title: Shankara AcharyaThe philosopher/saint Shankara (or Adi Shankara, or Shankaracarya), who lived in the 8th century C.E., is often seen as the founder of the Smarta tradition. Shankara is said to have travelled throughout India spreading his theological message, and is credited with founding four monasteries (maths) where monks could live and cultivate his teachings.

Smartas see any particular manifestation of the divine—that is, any single god—as encompassed by this larger divine power. Since everything, and all gods, are a part of Brahman, smartas typically hold that one is free to choose any god or goddess to worship—or, as is often the case, many different gods and goddesses—since in worshipping any individual god, one is really worshipping Brahman. For smartas, then, the divine is both saguna, "with form"—the individual and particular gods—and nirguna, "without form"—the all-encompassing Brahman. Some Hindus who might technically be classified as smartas favor the nirguna understanding of Brahman associated with the Vedanta, and reject any worship directed to any particular form of the divine.


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