Hindu Denominations

Hindu denominations are traditions within Hinduism centered on one or more gods or goddesses, such as ShivaShakti, Vishnu, and Brahma. Sometimes the term is used for sampradayas led by a particular guru with a particular philosophy.

Hinduism has no central doctrinal authority and many practising Hindus do not claim to belong to any particular denomination or tradition. Four major traditions are, however, used in scholarly studies: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism, These are sometimes referred to as the denominations of Hinduism, and they differ in the primary deity at the centre of the tradition. A notable feature of Hindu denominations is that they do not deny other concepts of the divine or deity, and often celebrate the other as henotheistic equivalent. The denominations of Hinduism, states Lipner, are unlike those found in major religions of the world, because Hindu denominations are fuzzy with individuals practising more than one, and he suggests the term “Hindu polycentrism”.

Although Hinduism contains many denominations and philosophies, it is linked by shared concepts, recognisable rituals, cosmology, shared textual resourcespilgrimage to sacred sites and the questioning of authority.


Hindus subscribe to a diversity of ideas on spirituality and traditions, but have no ecclesiastical order, no unquestionable religious authorities, no governing body, no prophet(s) nor any binding holy book; Hindus can choose to be polytheistic, pantheistic, monotheistic, monistic, agnostic, atheistic or humanist.

Hinduism as it is commonly known can be subdivided into a number of major currents. Of the historical division into six darsanas (philosophies), two schools, Vedanta and Yoga, are currently the most prominent. Classified by primary deity or deities, four major Hinduism modern currents are Vaishnavism (Vishnu), Shaivism (Shiva), Shaktism (Shakti) and Smartism (five deities treated as same). These deity-centered denominations feature a synthesis of various philosophies such as Samkhya, Yoga and Vedanta, as well as shared spiritual concepts such as moksha, dharma, karma, samsara, ethical precepts such as ahimsa, texts (Upanishads, Puranas, Mahabharata, Agamas), ritual grammar and rites of passage.

Six generic types (McDaniel)

McDaniel (2007) distinguishes six generic types of Hinduism, in an attempt to accommodate a variety of views on a rather complex subject:

  • Folk Hinduism, based on local traditions and cults of local deities and extending back to prehistoric times, or at least prior tothe  written Vedas.
  • Shrauta or “Vedic” Hinduism as practised by traditionalist brahmins (Shrautins).
  • Vedantic Hinduism, including Advaita Vedanta (Smartism), based on the philosophical approach of the Upanishads.
  • Yogic Hinduism, especially the sect based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
  • Dharmic” Hinduism or “daily morality”, based on Karma and upon societal norms such as Vivāha (Hindu marriage customs).
  • Bhakti or devotionalist practices
Shaktism is a Goddess-centric tradition of Hinduism. From left: Parvati/Durga, Kali and Lakshmi

Shaktism is a Goddess-centric tradition of Hinduism. From left: Parvati/Durga, Kali and Lakshmi


Main article: Sampradaya

In Hinduism, a sampradaya (sampradāya) is a denomination. These are teaching traditions with autonomous practices and monastic centers, with a guru lineage, with ideas developed and transmitted, redefined and reviewed by each successive generation of followers. A particular guru lineage is called parampara. By receiving diksha (initiation) into the parampara of a living guru, one belongs to its proper sampradaya.

Folk Hinduism

Main article: Folk Hinduism

McDaniel (2007) classifies Hinduism into six major kinds and numerous minor kinds, in order to understand expression of emotions among the Hindus. The major kinds, according to McDaniel are, Folk Hinduism, based on local traditions and cults of local deities and is the oldest, non-literate system. It is pre-vedic tradition extending back to prehistoric times, or before written of Vedas. Folk Hinduism involves worship of deities which are not found in Hindu scriptures. It involves worship of Gramadevata (village deity), Kuldevta (household deity) and local deities. It is folk religion or tribal religion, polytheist, sometimes animistic religion based on locality, community, form of worship with countless local texts in local language. In most cases these religions have their own priest, most worship only regional deities(in villages or among a subcaste- Kuldevta, Gramadevata) whose myth of origin linked to place of worship or their own pantheon which also includes spirits or defied heroes. Human can often be possessed by these gods or spirits. From the perspectives of Brahmanic or Sanskritic Hinduism, the form of worship are considered impure in many cases, so the folk religion is quite often tension with the Brahmanic hinduism. In the so called folk hinduism, folk form of Brahmanic-Sanskritic Hinduism are usually combined with aspects of folk religion.

Main denominations


Main article: Vaishnavism


Vaishnavism focuses on an avatar of Vishnu, such as Krishna above

Vaishnavism is a devotional sect of Hinduism, which worships the god Vishnu as the Supreme Lord (Svayam Bhagavan). As well as Vishnu himself, followers of the sect also worship Vishnu’s ten incarnations (the Dashavatara). The two most-worshipped incarnations of Vishnu are Krishna and Rama, whose stories are told in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana respectively. The adherents of this sect are generally non-ascetic, monastic and devoted to meditative practice and ecstatic chanting. Vaishnavites are deeply devotional. Their religion is rich in saints, temples and scriptures.

The Vaishnava sampradayas include:

  • Srivaishnavism (Sri-Vaishnava Sampradaya)/Srivaishnava/Sri Sampradaya/Iyengar/Vishistadvaita is associated with Lakshmi. The principal acharyas are Ramanujacharya and Vedanta Desikan. Sri subsampradayas:
    • Thenkalais. Manavala Mamunigal’s sect is the oldest Vaishnava sect in India. This sampraday was followed by Vyasa, Parasara, Bodhayana. The lineage of Acharya is Lord Narayana, next Lakshmi and then Vishweksenar, Nammalwar, Nathamuni, Uyyakondar, Manakal Nambi, Alavandar, Periya Nambi, Ramanujacharya and finally Vedanta Desikan as per the Vadagalai sampradaya.
    • Vadakalais
      • Munitraya
  • Sadh Vaishnavism (Sadh-Vaishnava Sampradaya) also known as Madhva Sampradaya or Bhagavata Sampradaya adheres to the teachings of Madhvacharya and his philosophy Dvaita Vedanta.
  • Ramanandi Sampradaya, also known as the Ramayat Sampradaya or the Ramavat Sampradaya adheres to the teachings of the Advaita scholar Ramananda. This is the largest monastic group within Hinduism and in Asia, and these Vaishnava monks are known as RamanandisVairagis or Bairagis.
  • Brahma Sampradaya is associated with Vishnu, who is the Para-Brahma (Universal Creator), not to be confused with the Brahma deity. The founder of this sampradaya was the Dvaita Vedanta philosopher Madhvacharya. Its modern form is Haridasa tradition.
  • Gaudiya Vaishnavism is associated with Brahma Sampradaya, and is associated with Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (Gaurangacharya). The International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) belongs to this sampradaya. Vaishnavism of Manipur was significantly influenced by Gaudiya Vaishnavism and continues to be followed across Manipur with well-defined traditions and devotional practices.
  • Kumara Sampradaya is the tradition associated with Four Kumaras. The principal acharya is Nimbarka, hence Nimbarka Sampradaya.
  • Rudra Sampradaya. The principal acharya is Vallabhacharya, the founder of Pushtimarg.
  • Swaminarayan Sampraday or Swaminarayanism, based on the teachings of Swaminarayan:
    • BAPS
    • ISSM
    • ISSO
    • NNDYM.

Other Vaishnava schools and the principal teachers connected with them are:

  • Balmiki sect.
  • Ramsnehi.
  • Vaikhanasa Sampradaya. The principal acharya is Vaikhanasa.
  • Ekasaranism or Asomiya Vaishnavism, adheres to the teachings of Srimanta Sankaradeva.
  • Krishna Pranami Sampradaya, adheres to the teachings of Devachandra Maharaj.
  • Mahanama Sampradaya, adheres to the teachings of Prabhu Jagadbandu who is considered to be the incarnation of Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu the founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism is considered to be an incarnation of Vishnu.
  • Mahanubhava.
  • Radha-vallabha.
  • Varkari Sampradaya, teaching of bhakti saints of Maharashtra.
  • Vaishnava-Sahajiya.
  • Baul.
  • Gaukulesha.
  • Harivyasi.
  • Vrindavani.


Main article: Shaivism

Statue of Shiva

Shaivism focuses on Shiva.

Shaivas or Shaivites are those who primarily worship Shiva as the supreme god, both immanent and transcendent. Shaivism embraces at the same time monism (specifically nondualism) and dualism. To Shaivites, Shiva is both with and without form; he is the Supreme Dancer, Nataraja; and is linga, without beginning or end. Shiva is sometimes depicted as the fierce god Bhairava. Saivists are more attracted to asceticism than devotees of other Hindu sects, and may be found wandering India with ashen faces performing self-purification rituals. They worship in the temple and practice yoga, striving to be one with Shiva within.

The major schools of Śaivism include:

  • Saiva Siddhanta, adheres to the teachings of Tirumular/Sundaranatha (Nandinatha Sampradaya, the monistic school) or of Meykandadeva (Meykandar Sampradaya, the dualistic school).
  • Shiva Advaita, adheres to the teachings of Nilakantha (Srikantha) and Appayya Dikshitar.
  • Kashmir Shaivism, adheres to the teachings of Vasugupta and his disciplinic lineage, including Abhinavagupta.
  • Pashupata Shaivism, adheres to the teachings of Lakulisa.
  • Aghori.
  • Kapalika.
  • Nath.
    • Adinath Sampradaya or Siddha Siddhanta, adheres to the teachings of Gorakhnath and Matsyendranath.
    • Inchegeri Sampradaya.

Other branches:

  • Lingayatism or Veerashaivism is a distinct Shaivite tradition in India, established in the 12th century by the philosopher and social reformer Basavanna. It makes several departures from mainstream Hinduism and propounds monotheism through worship centered on Lord Shiva in the form of linga or Ishtalinga. It also rejects the authority of the Vedas and the caste system.
  • Aaiyyanism is a religion claiming to be a form of pure Dravidian Hinduism and identifying as a Shaivite branch. It is incorporated in the Aaiyyan World Forum.
  • Indonesian Shaivism.


Main article: Shaktism

Shaktas worship Goddess as Mother Shakti, in different forms. These forms may include Kali, Parvati/Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati. The branch of Hinduism that worships the goddess, known as Devi, is called Shaktism. Followers of Shaktism recognize Shakti as the power that underlies the male principle, and Devi is often depicted as Parvati (the consort of Shiva) or as Lakshmi (the consort of Vishnu). She is also depicted in other manifestations, such as the protective Durga or the violent Kali. Shaktism is closely related with Tantric Hinduism, which teaches rituals and practices for purification of the mind and body.

Animal sacrifice of cockerels, goats and to a lesser extent water buffaloes is practiced by Shakti devotees, mainly at temples of Goddesses such as Bhavani or Kali. The main traditions are Kalikula and Srikula.

The Goddess-centric traditions within Kashmir Shaivism are Trika and Kubjika.


Main article: Smarta tradition


A golden Aum written in Devanagari. The Aum is sacred in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religions.

Smartas treat all deities as same, and their temples include five deities (Pancopasana) or Panchadevata as personal saguna (divine with form) manifestation of the nirguna (divine without form) Absolute, the Brahman. The choice of the nature of God is up to the individual worshiper since different manifestations of God are held to be equivalent. It is nonsectarian as it encourages the worship of any personal god along with others such as Ganesha, Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu, Surya.

The Smarta Tradition accepts two concepts of Brahman, which are the saguna brahman – the Brahman with attributes, and nirguna brahman – the Brahman without attributes. The nirguna Brahman is the unchanging Reality, however, the saguna Brahman is posited as a means to realizing this nirguna Brahman. The concept of the saguna Brahman is considered in this tradition to be a useful symbolism and means for those who are still on their spiritual journey, but the saguna concept is abandoned by the fully enlightened once he or she realizes the identity of their own soul with that of the nirguna Brahman. A Smarta may choose any saguna deity (istadevata) such as Vishnu, Shiva, Shakti, Surya, Ganesha or any other, and this is viewed in Smarta Tradition as an interim step towards meditating on Om and true nature of supreme reality, thereby realizing the nirguna Brahman and its equivalence to one’s own Atman, as in Advaita Vedanta.

The movement is credited to Shankara (~8th century CE), who is regarded as the greatest teacher and reformer of the Smartha. According to Hiltebeitel, Shankara established the nondualist interpretation of the Upanishads as the touchstone of a revived smarta tradition. The Sringeri Sharada monastery founded by Adi Shankara Acharya in Karnataka is still the centre of the Smarta sect.


Halbfass states that, although traditions such as Shaivism and Vaishnavism may be regarded as “self-contained religious constellations”, there is a degree of interaction and reference between the “theoreticians and literary representatives” of each tradition which indicates the presence of “a wider sense of identity, a sense of coherence in a shared context and of inclusion in a common framework and horizon”. It is common to find Hindus revering Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti, and celebrating festivals related to them at different times of the year. Temples often feature more than one of them, and Hinduism is better understood as polycentric theosophy that leaves the choice of deity and ideas to the individual.

The key concepts and practises of the four major denominations of Hinduism can be compared as below:

Comparison of four major traditions of Hinduism
Shaiva Traditions Vaishnava Traditions Shakta Traditions Smarta Traditions
Scriptural authority Vedas, Upanishads and Agamas Vedas, Upanishads and Agamas Vedas and Upanishads Vedas and Upanishads
Supreme deity god Shiva god Vishnu goddess Devi None
Creator Shiva Vishnu Devi Brahman principle
Avatar Major Key concept Significant Minor
Monastic life Recommends Accepts Accepts Recommends
Rituals, Bhakti Affirms Affirms Affirms Optional
Ahimsa and Vegetarianism Recommends, Optional Affirms Optional Recommends, Optional
Free will, Maya, Karma Affirms Affirms Affirms Affirms
Metaphysics Brahman (Shiva),

Atman (Soul, Self)

Brahman (Vishnu), Atman Brahman (Devi), Atman Brahman, Atman
1. Perception
2. Inference
3. Reliable testimony
4. Self-evident
1. Perception
2. Inference
3. Reliable testimony
1. Perception
2. Inference
3. Reliable testimony
1. Perception
2. Inference
3. Comparison and analogy
4. Postulation, derivation
5. Negative/cognitive proof
6. Reliable testimony
Philosophy Dvaita, qualified advaita, advaita Dvaita, qualified advaita, advaita Shakti-advaita Advaita
Videhamukti, Yoga,
champions householder life
Bhakti, Tantra, Yoga Jivanmukta, Advaita, Yoga,
champions monastic life

Other denominations

Suryaism / Saurism

Main article: Saura (Hinduism)

The Suryaites or Sauras are followers of a Hindu denomination that started in Vedic tradition, and worship Surya as the main visible form of the Saguna Brahman. The Saura tradition was influential in South Asia, particularly in the west, north and other regions, with numerous Surya idols and temples built between 800 and 1000 CE. The Konark Sun Temple was built in mid 13th century. During the iconoclasm of Islamic invasions and Hindu–Muslim wars, the temples dedicated to Sun-god were among those desecrated, images smashed and the resident priests of Saura tradition were killed, states André Wink. The Surya tradition of Hinduism declined in the 12th and 13th century CE and today remains as a very small movement except in Bihar / Jharkhand and Eastern Uttar Pradesh. Sun worship has continued to be a dominant practice in Bihar / Jharkhand and Eastern Uttar Pradesh in the form of Chhath Puja which is considered the primary festival of importance in these regions.


Main article: Ganapatya

Ganapatism is a Hindu denomination in which Lord Ganesha is worshipped as the main form of the Saguna Brahman. This sect was widespread and influential in the past and has remained important in Maharashtra.

Indonesian Hinduism

Main articles: Hinduism in Southeast AsiaHinduism in Indonesia, and Balinese Hinduism

Hinduism dominated the island of Java and Sumatra until the late 16th century, when a vast majority of the population converted to Islam. Only the Balinese people who formed a majority on the island of Bali, retained this form of Hinduism over the centuries. Theologically, Balinese or Indonesian Hinduism is closer to Shaivism than to other major sects of Hinduism. The adherents consider Acintya the supreme god, and all other gods as his manifestations.

The term “Agama Hindu Dharma”, the endonymous Indonesian name for “Indonesian Hinduism” can also refer to the traditional practices in Kalimantan, Sumatra, Sulawesi and other places in Indonesia, where people have started to identify and accept their agamas as Hinduism or Hindu worship has been revived. The revival of Hinduism in Indonesia has given rise to a national organisation, the Parisada Hindu Dharma.


Main article: Shrauta

Śrauta communities are very rare in India, the most well known being the ultra-orthodox Nambudiri Brahmins of Kerala. They follow the “Purva-Mimamsa” (earlier portion of Vedas) in contrast to Vedanta followed by other Brahmins. They place importance on the performance of Vedic Sacrifice (Yajna). The Nambudiri Brahmins are famous for their preservation of the ancient Somayaagam, Agnicayana rituals which have vanished in other parts of India.


Kaumaram is a sect of Hindus, especially found in South India and Sri Lanka where Lord Muruga Karttikeya is the Supreme Godhead. Lord Muruga is considered superior to the Trimurti. The worshippers of Lord Muruga are called Kaumaras.

Newer movements

Main articles: Hindu reform movements and Neo-Vedanta

The new movements that arose in the 19th to 20th century include:

  • Adi Dharm / Brahmoism
    • Brahmo Samaj
    • Sadharan Brahmo Samaj
  • Ananda Marga
  • Arya Samaj
  • Ayyavazhi
  • Brahma Kumaris
  • Chinmaya Mission
  • Divine Life Society
  • Hanuman Foundation
  • Himalayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy
  • Hindutva
  • Isha Foundation
  • Mahima Dharma
  • Matua Mahasangha
  • Prarthana Samaj
  • Ramakrishna Mission / Ramakrishna Math
  • Sahaja Yoga
  • Sathya Sai Organization
  • Self-Realization Fellowship / Yogoda Satsanga
  • Shri Ram Chandra Mission
  • Sri Aurobindo Ashram
  • Swadhyay Parivar
  • Swaminarayan Sampradaya
  • Transcendental Meditation

Slavic Vedism or Neo-Vedism

Slavic Vedism, Slavic Hinduism, or Neo-Vedism or simply Vedism are terms used to describe the contemporary indigenous development of Vedic forms of religion in Russia, Siberia, other Slavic countries, the Commonwealth of Independent States’ members and generally all the post-Soviet states.

Slavic Vedism involves the use of Vedic rituals and worship of ancient Vedic deities, distinguishing from other groups which have maintained a stronger bond with modern Indian Hinduism, although Krishnaite groups often identify themselves as “Vedic” too. Also some syncretic groups within Rodnovery (Slavic Neopaganism) use the term “Vedism” and worship Vedic gods, mainstream Rodnovery is characterised by its use of indigenous Slavic rituals and Slavic names for the gods.


There are no census data available on demographic history or trends for the traditions within Hinduism. Estimates vary on the relative number of adherents in the different traditions of Hinduism. According to a 2010 estimate by Johnson and Grim, the Vaishnavism tradition is the largest group with about 641 million or 67.6% of Hindus, followed by Shaivism with 252 million or 26.6%, Shaktism with 30 million or 3.2% and other traditions including Neo-Hinduism and Reform Hinduism with 25 million or 2.6%. In contrast, according to Jones and Ryan, Shaivism is the largest tradition of Hinduism.

According to Galvin Flood, the Shaivism and Shaktism traditions are difficult to separate, as many Shaiva Hindus revere the goddess Shakti regularly. The denominations of Hinduism, states Julius Lipner, are unlike those found in major religions of the world, because Hindu denominations are fuzzy with individuals revering gods and goddesses polycentrically, with many Shaiva and Vaishnava adherents recognizing Sri (Lakshmi), Parvati, Saraswati and other aspects of the goddess Devi. Similarly, Shakta Hindus revere Shiva and goddesses such as Parvati (such as Durga, Radha, Sita and others) and Saraswati important in Shaiva and Vaishnava traditions.

Cross-denominational influences

Atman Jnana

Main articles: Jnana and Moksha

Jñāna is a Sanskrit word that means knowledge. In Vedas it means true knowledge, that (atman) is identical with Brahman. It is also referred to as Atma Jnana which is frequently translated as self-realization.

Bhakti movement

Main article: Bhakti movement

The Bhakti movement was a theistic devotional trend that originated in the seventh-century Tamil south India (now parts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala), and spread northwards. It swept over east and north India from the fifteenth-century onwards, reaching its zenith between the 15th and 17th century CE. The Bhakti movement regionally developed as Hindu denominations around different gods and goddesses, such as Vaishnavism (Vishnu), Shaivism (Shiva), Shaktism (Shakti goddesses), and Smartism. The movement was inspired by many poet-saints, who championed a wide range of philosophical positions ranging from theistic dualism of Dvaita to absolute monism of Advaita Vedanta. Scriptures of the Bhakti movement include the Bhagavad Gita, Bhagavata Purana and Padma Purana.

As part of the legacy of the Alvars, five Vaishnava philosophical traditions (sampradayas) has developed at the later stages.

Schools of Indian philosophy

Main article: Hindu Philosophy

Hindu philosophy is traditionally divided into six āstika (Sanskrit: आस्तिक “orthodox”) schools of thought, or darśanam (दर्शनम्, “view”), which accept the Vedas as the supreme revealed scriptures. The schools are:

  1. Samkhya, an atheistic and strongly dualist theoretical exposition of consciousness and matter.
  2. Yoga, a school emphasizing meditation, contemplation and liberation.
  3. Nyaya or logic, explores sources of knowledge. Nyāya Sūtras.
  4. Vaisheshika, an empiricist school of atomism
  5. Mimāṃsā, an anti-ascetic and anti-mysticist school of orthopraxy
  6. Vedanta, the last segment of knowledge in the Vedas, or the ‘Jnan’ (knowledge) ‘Kanda’ (section).

The nāstika schools are (in chronological order):

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

However, medieval philosophers like Vidyāraṇya classified Indian philosophy into sixteen schools, where schools belonging to Saiva, Pāṇini and Raseśvara thought are included with others, and the three Vedantic schools Advaita, Vishishtadvaita and Dvaita (which had emerged as distinct schools by then) are classified separately.

In Hindu history, the distinction of the six orthodox schools was current in the Gupta period “golden age” of Hinduism. With the disappearance of Vaisheshika and Mimamsa, it was obsolete by the later Middle Ages, when the various sub-schools of Vedanta (Dvaita “dualism”, Advaita Vedanta “non-dualism” and others) began to rise to prominence as the main divisions of religious philosophy. Nyaya survived into the 17th century as Navya Nyaya “Neo-Nyaya”, while Samkhya gradually lost its status as an independent school, its tenets absorbed into Yoga and Vedanta.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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