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Religion Library: Hinduism

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

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.

Title: Hindu god ShivaShaivas and Vaishnavas, in contrast, tend to be more overtly sectarian. The Shaiva tradition (also called Shaivism), is perhaps the oldest sectarian form of Hinduism, emerging out of the Vedas at or around the beginning of the Common Era; the fully developed Shaiva tradition formed significantly later, however, probably between the 8th and 11th centuries. Although it is impossible to date the origin of any of these traditions, the Vaishnava tradition probably emerged slightly later. It too was fully developed in the last few centuries of the first millennium of the Common Era.

Shaivas, as the name implies, worship the god Shiva, who they believe is the creator, maintainer, and destroyer of the cosmos. There are complex theological and philosophical schools associated with the Shaiva tradition, as well as a great variety of devotional practices.

Title: BhairavaSome Shaivas worship the god in the form of the great ascetic; Shiva in this guise is depicted as a semi-naked yogin who rejects the trappings of the material world in order to seek a higher plane of knowledge. He is typically covered in ash and sometimes is quite wild in appearance, with long unkempt hair and blazing eyes, although his devotees see through his outward appearance and know him as the supreme god. Others worship him as Pashupati, the lord of all creators who shelters and nurtures all who follow him. Still others worship one of his fierce forms, such as Bhairava. As Bhairava, Shiva is a fierce, demonic god with long fangs and a frightening cudgel. His devotees, however, see through this and venerate him as a powerful protector.

Ten avatars of Vishnu (clockwise, from upper left): Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Vamana, Krishna, Kalki, Buddha, Parshurama, Rama & Narasimha, and Krishna (centre)As with their Shaiva counterparts, Vaishnavas have developed an incredibly complex philosophical and theological tradition, with dozens of subschools and sects. Vaishnavas worship one or several of the many forms of Vishnu. Vishnu is typically understood to be the preserver of dharma, order. When disorder threatens to overwhelm the world, Vishnu incarnates himself in an earthly form, called an avatara, literally a "crossing down" from the heavens to the earth. There are ten classical avataras, although in local traditions there are many more than that. The most prominent of these are Krishna and Rama.

TEN CLASSICAL AVATARAS
  1. Matsya, the fish-avatar who saved Manu
  2. Kurma, the tortoise-avatar
  3. Varaha, the boar-avatar
  4. Narasimha, the half man-half lion avatar
  5. Vamana, the dwarf-avatar, who defeated the demon-king Bali
  6. Parashurama, sage with the axe who killed the thousand-armed king Kartavirya Arjuna
  7. Rama, the king of Ayodhya and the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana
  8. Krishna, the king of Dwarka, a central character in the Bhagavata Purana and the Mahabharata and reciter of Bhagavad Gita
  9. The Buddha (Gautama Buddha) meaning "the enlightened one"
  10. Kalki ("Eternity", or "time", or "The Destroyer of foulness"), who is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga.
 

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