The Branches of Hinduism

As we’ve said here before, Hinduism as a word covers a huge number of behaviors and practices. It’s really difficult to pin down what Hinduism is because it is more a way of being than it is a particular code to follow. There were a number of religious traditions that got swept up into that one word when the British first came to India. These days there are still a lot of different traditions and schools of thought, but there are some main ones that can categorize the beliefs of most Hindus. If you’re new to it, you may have seen people tossing around words like Vaishnava and Shivite. Those are a couple of the big branches of Hinduism. Personally I follow Advaita (also called Smartha).

The four branches of Hinduism:

Shaivites worship Shiva as the supreme God. The Himalayan Society who puts out Hinduism Today magazine are Shaivites. (I highly recommend their books and videos to learn basics of Hinduism. They have some wonderful resources for new Hindus).

Vaishnavas worship Vishnu as the supreme God. It is very common for western converts to become Vaishnavas. I think that’s because the Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishnas) are a Vaishnava organization and also maybe because it has more similarity to western traditions than Smartha does. The devotional worships can be familiar territory for people coming from a Christian background. There are, of course, other sides to Vaishnavism and not just Hare Krishnas.

Smartha are followers of the philosophy of unity (Advaita Vedanta) as put forth by Adi Shankara. He was a philosopher and an interpreter of scriptures who attempted to unite all of Hinduism under the banner of Advaita. This is a more philosophical and less personal approach.

Shaktism is the worship of the divine in a feminine form.

This website has some good detail about the philosophical differences among the sects: http://hinduism.iskcon.org/tradition/1200.htm (It is a site created by the Society for Krishna Consciousness, i.e. iskon).

I can really only speak to Advaita, as that is the religious emphasis that I grew up with and still believe in today. It teaches that all of creation is a manifestation of the divine. There is one divinity and it is so beyond the scope of human minds that we worship it in different forms as different aspects. Ultimately we are not worshiping anything outside of ourselves, rather we are just as divine as every other part of creation. It is the purpose of the human being to realize that he is God and to remember the unity of all things. The real key element is that God is not a separate being. I think a lot of religions, including parts of Hinduism, see God as a superior being that needs to be bowed down to and respected. When Advaitans (and many other types of Hindus) respect God, we are respecting our inner selves.

Advaita can be impersonal and the followers tend to be very intellectual thinkers. It’s a good branch for people who like to question things and want to understand why we do things. I don’t always feel like I fit in with the very serious thinkers around me! But I do my best.

For a while as a teenager, I thought a more devotional approach might suit me better. But I tried and found that I am not at all suited to a devotional path! I think too much and I question too much. I greatly admire people who are pure devotion, but I have not been able to do that myself. [See: You Can’t Just Study: The Three Paths To God]

Even being an Advaitan, the impression I got growing up was that it was more appropriate for the men to ask the philosophical questions and search for answers while women should be devotional. I had many lessons on being a devoted and perfect wife. I ended up at odds with some of my superiors because I thought and questioned too much.  I was not the ideal woman who would sit and smile serenely in the background! No wonder they couldn’t get me married off.

UPDATED TO ADD:

On Reddit’s Hinduism page the other day someone posted this more detailed breakdown of various philosophies and branches:

First of all, we have the four unorthodox schools, which did not hold the Vedas as authoritative, but were still engaged with. These traditions form a completely separate grouping.

  1. Buddhism
  2. Jainism
  3. Cārvāka
  4. Ājīvika

Then we have the six orthodox schools, which held the Vedas as authoritative

  1. Nyāyá, the school of logic
  2. Vaiśeṣika, the atomist school
  3. Sāṃkhya, the enumeration school
  4. Yoga, the school of Patañjali (which assumes the metaphysics of Sāṃkhya)
  5. Mimāṃsā, the tradition of Vedic exegesis
  6. Vedanta or Uttara Mimāṃsā, the Upaniṣadic tradition.

The last school, Vedanta, has 12 divisions

  1. Advaita or Kevalādvaita of Śaṅkarācārya
  2. Dvaita of Madhvācārya
  3. Bhedābheda of Bhāskarācārya
  4. Acintya-Bhedābheda of Baladeva
  5. Dvaitādvaita of Nimbārkācārya
  6. Śuddhādvaita of Vallabhācārya
  7. Viśiṣṭādvaita of Rāmānujācārya
  8. Śivādvaita of Śrīkaṇṭha
  9. Viśeṣādvaita of Śrīpati
  10. Avibhāgādvaita of Vijñānabhikṣu
  11. Śākta-Viśiṣṭādvaita of Pañcānana
  12. Śāktādvaita of Hārītāyana

The Vedanta system has modern branches as well – for example, the Neo-Vedanta of Swami Vivekananda.

Then we have the Shaiva traditions, which held the Shaiva āgamas at a higher level than the Vedas. Number 8 in the above list is a Shaiva tradiiton.

  1. Pashupata Shaivism
  2. Shaiva Siddhanta
  3. Kashmir Shaivism
  4. Siddha Siddhanta
  5. Lingayatism

Shaktism has two major traditions

  1. Srikula
  2. Kalikula

I am sure there are traditions I have missed.


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About Ambaa Choate

Ambaa is an American woman of European ancestry who is also a practicing Hindu. She is fascinated with questions of philosophy, culture, and the meaning of life. Join her in the journey to explore how a non-Indian convert to Hinduism experiences her religion.

  • http://www.deafdrummer.org Stephanie Ellison

    I read this in wikipedia:

    “When a person tries to know Brahman through his mind, due to the influence of Māyā, Brahman appears as God (Ishvara), separate from the world and from the individual. In reality, there is no difference between the individual soul jīvātman (see Atman) and Brahman. Liberation lies in knowing the reality of this non-difference (i.e. a-dvaita, “non-duality”). Thus, the path to liberation is finally only through knowledge (jñāna).”

    Does this last sentence mean to say, “knowledge through memory, remembering who you really are?” Basically, you, this (waving, looking around in the air, not at the surroundings of the house, the forest) created this before you were born into the body I see before me. Is that what it’s saying? That is going to be the closest thing I can find to my experience. This MUST explain that feeling of “being put upon” I experienced when my Catholic nanny told me about Jesus dying on the cross. I simply knew it wasn’t true, even though it was the first time I ever heard it. It’s like being told that this staircase we’re standing on is made from aluminum, even though it’s clearly built from wood through and through (because you built it yourself). You immediately recognize a falsehood. I felt the same thing that day. When I went to services and Mass with them (because they had to take care of me on weekends while Dad was at work, and that’s what they did on Sundays), I got the feeling that they were participating in “make-believe.” None of it seemed real to me except for the buildings, the people, and the clothes and things associated with the church. Just material things based on human ideas, which doesn’t change anything and does not reflect my reality as I see it.

    All I can say this morning, as I suffer from contact with poison ivy at this hour, is that all I see is the world around me, which I do believe to be an illusion (after all, how did it get here?) that is manufactured from awareness, consciousness, and then myself. I do not see God, Gods, or lower manifestations. I only sense two things: the corpus or totality of the world through sense organs, and a vague sense of awareness. I seem to be more aware of it (it’s going to sound crazy, but there’s nothing else for me to go on) when I listen to certain music.

    For instance, http://swagmandidgeridoo.bandcamp.com/track/dawn-of-time My didgeridoo was selected PRECISELY because of the pitch of the drone that runs throughout this piece; D natural. It may or may not explain why I listen to the same piece of music for hours on end. When I find a new song and I really like it, I will find myself listening to it about 200-300 times (according to the iTunes counter) within the first six months to a year.

    Again, the world around me, and this vague sense. I know for sure that there is not a sense of two beings, myself and some other presence. It’s more like myself and some, some kind of… I don’t know… Communication interface between myself and the world around me. I learned that when I have a need for something, usually it’s available online or in the area I live in. I did not have to create this or even invent from scratch the parts needed to make this device. It was all done for me, the prototyping, the patenting, the building of factories and its tooling, the hiring of people, interfacing with the government of the country, logistics of sales, etc. All of it. All I have to do is order it or drive there and buy it. All I do is ask the Universe through a desire or feeling, through images, and there it is. I mean, look at this! Everything, my interaction with you, my Jeep, my travel trailer, even my volunteer assignment on the farm, was made possible through the Internet!

    What I struggle with, though, is inherent limitations of the output capability of this Universe, this communication interface between myself and the Universe. Obviously, I can’t become something I’m not, and I cannot ask for $10m, a MacMansion, a boat the size of an apartment complex, never mind physical immortality the likes of Forever Knight or The Originals TV series. There are limitations based upon the physical design of the world. The buildup of relatively incredible wealth depends on things not available in my life; namely greed, disregard for whether I am doing the right thing, being lazy in earning money the honest way, OR a very long line of ancestors and current family members, like many Hindu and other families with a tradition of gold/silver, with a history of saving in tangibles in the face of government-sponsored financial bullying. Some things I can accomplish, but this is not one of them. Instead, I have to be like those ancestors who started saving centuries ago, and hope that I have something to pass on to my cousins. Perhaps my cousins will have more financial power than I will as a result of my efforts.

    What is this describing, anyone?

    • Ambaa

      That quote is very advaitan, which is my sect of Hinduism. It isn’t the belief of all sects of Hinduism, though. There is some disagreement over which of the three paths is the most important: knowledge, action, or devotion.

  • karipodiabdullah

    the real problem here i see that “eeryone finding the cat in the dark room” you neither see the cat, get the cat nor able to come out of the room; unless tehre is a door which will lead to the light stream……my advise to every brothers and sisters in every religion is “just go through the complete Quran’ wherein you will see what you learn from your Bible, Githa Talmoth and the rest of the religious books.; but you must be read with open heart, open mind, without prejudice, truly as “a seeker of truth” if you find it not logic, it is your freedom to opt! so as a person who alightly gone through other scriptures, i see the Quran concludes everything; and i see in it no human addition! enough for me! schientific reserach are now going based on the each quranic verse! as per the scientist! so come to a common agreement which all scriptures insist! “there is a creator! worship that creator only, and do not consider a partnor, associate wit hthe cretor/GOD” why we must need a god for “creation”, another God for “sustain” and 3rd God for “the destruction”?? why can’t one God be able to control everything!!! only one creator, the sustainer!! this is the fundamental believe of every human! now you see the statues/prathima everywhere, which is totally against the God’s command!!!
    any comments, you may kindly write to abdullahkaripodi@yahoo.com

  • manzoor hussain Shah

    There is two types of arguments based on your knowledge right one and wrong one. You can argue and may be that argument is wrong. The right argument is the truth and reality. You can argue and argue about things but the fact is fact. everyone should try to find the truth about the world and its creation. Find the truth this should be your goal. False argument loses its charm when you find the truth.