HINDU SECTS AND CULTS

HINDU SECTS

Most Hindu sects involve the worship of the gods Vishnu or Shiva or the goddess Shakti. Many others are linked with Krishna and Rama (incarnations of Vishnu) and Durga, Skana and Ganesha (the wife and sons of Shiva). Most Hindus are knows as Shaivas or Shaivites (devotees of Shiva), Vaishnavas or Vaishnavotes (devotees of Vishnu) and Shaktas or Devi Bhaktas (devotees of Shakti). The doctrines and practices of these sects are often quite different. Some Hindus reject popular deities such as Shiva and Vishnu and frown on reveremce of them as idol worship. Some of these Hindus belong to the Aryan Samaj, Kabir Panthi and other fairly modern sects.

Geoffrey Parringer wrote in in “World Religions”: "The Hindu sects rise like small islands, giving structural relief to the vast ocean of Hinduism." Members of different sects are often identified by their marks. Devotees of Vishnu have two parallel lines drawn with clay running from the hairline to bottom of the nose. Devotees of Shiva have three parallel horizontal lines of ash on the forehead. Members of sects go through an initiation where they learn the sect's mantra which is usually "Ohm" followed by the name of the deity the sect worships and usually the mantra is supposed to be kept secret from outsiders. ["World Religions" edited by Geoffrey Parrinder, Facts on File Publications, New York]

Hindu followers in different places follow different Hindu gods and practice different teaching associated with one god or a group of gods. Consequently there is no such thing as Hindu orthodoxy and religious beliefs of different Hindu sects varies widely. The main thing that holds traditional Hindus together is their adherence to the caste system. It has been said that "No [Hindu] is interested in what his neighbor believes, but he is very must interested in knowing whether he can eat with him or take water from his hands." ["The Sacred Writings of the World's Great Religions," Edited by S. E. Frost, McGraw Hill Paperbacks]

Families generally remain part of their given sect from generation to generation. Members of different Hindu sects for the most part have lived side by side relatively harmoniously . There has been some feuds and violence but relatively little over the centuries. There is also a degree of regionalism affecting the sects. Shaivites are particularly numerous in Tamil areas in the south and in Kashmir. Shaktas are big in Calcutta and West Bengal. Vaishnavites are big most everywhere else.

Tradition of the Enlightened Master

A number of avowedly Hindu monastic communities have grown up over time and adopted some of the characteristics associated with early Buddhism and Jainism, while remaining dedicated to the Hindu philosophical traditions. One of the oldest and most respected of the Hindu orders traces its origin to the teacher Shankara (788-820), believed by many devotees to have lived hundreds of years earlier. Shankara's philosophy is a primary source of Vedanta, or the "End of the Veda," the final commentary on revealed truth, which is one of the most influential trends in modern Hinduism. His interpretation of the Upanishads portrays brahman as absolutely one and without qualities. The phenomenal world is illusion (maya ), which the embodied soul must transcend in order to achieve oneness with brahman . As a wandering monk, Shankara traveled throughout India, combating Buddhist atheism and founding five seats of learning at Badrinath (Uttar Pradesh), Dwaraka (Gujarat), Puri (Orissa), Sringeri (Karnataka), and Kanchipuram (Tamil Nadu). In the 1990s, those seats are still held by successors to Shankara's philosophy (Shankara Acharyas), who head an order of orange-clad monks that is highly respected by the Hindu community throughout India. Activities of the acharyas , including their periodic trips away from their home monasteries to visit and preach to devotees, receive exposure in regional and national media. Their conservative viewpoints and pronouncements on a variety of topics, although not binding on most believers, attract considerable public attention. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The initiation of a renunciant usually depends on the judgment of an acharya who determines whether a candidate is dedicated and prepared or not; he then gives to the disciple training and instructions including the initiate's own secret formula or mantra. After initiation, the disciple may remain with his teacher or in a monastery for an indefinite period or may wander forth in a variety of careers. The Ramanandi order in North India, for example, includes holy men (sadhus) who practice ascetic disciplines, militant members of fortified temples, and priests in charge of temple administration and ritual. *

There are other orders of renunciants who lead still more austere existences, including naked ascetics who wander begging for their food and assemble for spectacular parades at major festivals. A few dedicated seekers still withdraw to the fastness of the Himalayas or other remote spots and work on their meditation and yoga in total obscurity. Others beg in populated areas, sometimes engaging in fierce austerities such as piercing their bodies with pins and knives. They are a reminder to all people that the path of renunciation waits for anyone who has the dedication and the courage to leave the world behind.

Another kind of renunciation appears in the cult of Sai Baba, who achieved national and international fame in the twentieth century. The first person known by this name was a holy man--Sai Baba (died 1918)--who appeared in 1872 in Maharashtra and lived a humble life that blended meditation and devotional techniques from a variety of sources. This saint has a small but dedicated following throughout India. A later incarnation was Satya Sai Baba (satya means true), born in 1926 in Andhra Pradesh. At age thirteen, he experienced the first of several seizures that resulted in a changed personality and intense devotional activity, leading to his statement that he is the second incarnation of Sai Baba. By 1950 he had set up a retreat at Puttaparti in what later became Andhra Pradesh and was accepting disciples. His fame spread along with numerous apocryphal stories of his ability to perform miracles, including the manifestation of sacred ash and, according to some accounts, watches or other objects, from thin air or from his own body. The cult has expanded to include publishing, social service, and education institutions and includes an international association of thousands of believers. Devotion to Satya Sai Baba does not preclude attachment to other religious observances but concentrates instead on worship and veneration of the holy man himself, often in the form of a photograph. Thousands of pilgrims have traveled to his retreat annually to participate in group activities, obtain mementos, and perhaps a view of the teacher himself.

Shaivites

The Shaivas or Shaivites (devotees of Shiva) have the largest numbers of followers. These are grouped into numerous subdivisions. Some of these groups trace their origin back to cults that existed at the time of the arrival of the Aryans. Some sects are orthodox. Other are regarded as reformist or even radical. each sect has its own traditions, customs and beliefs, associated with a particular teacher.

Many sadhus (holy men) are Shaivites. They traditionally have worn mated hair and tried to live like Shiva himself. They sometime carry tridents, the symbol of Shiva. Shiva himself was an ascetic for a while and images of him often depict him as one. Some sadhus engage in extreme forms of self mortification. Most shaivaties are more modest and revere Shiva as a god of life and grace.

Shivaism puts great emphasis on the appeasement of evil spirits. Carved wooden lingam Lingams (or lingas) are the phallic symbols that honor Shiva and represent male energy, rebirth, fertility and the creative forces of the universe. They are found in varying sizes in many Hindu temples. A typical one is shaped like an erect phallus and made of polished stone. The vertical shaft is sometimes divided into the parts symbolizing the Hindu Trinity.According to the Shiva Purana “it is not the linga that is worshiped but the one whose symbol it is.”Lingams are usually set on a round base called a yoni , which represents Shakti and the female force. A channel is carved on the base to allow ablutions to flow out. Shiva worshipers like to pour cows milk on lingams, sprinkle them with flowers and red powder and make offering of fruits and sweets. The lingam and the base together are a sort of ying and yang statue that symbolizes the entire universe and the union and interaction between male and female power.

Shaktism

Shaktas are worshipers of the goddess Shakti (also known as Devi)—Shiva’s wife. Members include both lay people, who worship images of the goddess in their homes, and ascetics. who lives in temples and ashrams. The sect revolves around gurus (living teachers) and shakta pithas (sacred places). Kali and Tara are the main forms of the goddess although ten different forms are worshiped. There is also worship of local goddesses such as Manasha, the snake goddess, and other well-known Hindu gods such as Saravati, Durga, Radha, Parvao and Gayatro Devo.

There are two main types of Shaktism in India: 1) Shrikula, (the family of the goddess Sari), which is located in southern India and views the goddess primary as a benevolent sources of wealth and fertility; and 2) Kalikula, which is associated mostly with northern and eastern India and sees the goddess as a force of wisdom and freedom. Kalikula means “family of Kali” (Kali— the Goddess of Death— is a form of Shakti). It is opposed to the conservative Brahministic tradition. Modern Shaktism empathize the universality of all religions and places Shaktism in that context.

Shaktism is also connected with the Shaivism and the worship of Shiva, the husband of the goddess, but Shakti is treated as the central character and Shiva serves as her assistant. The term shakti means creative power and the power of creation without which Shiva would have no life. Some statues of Kali in Calcutta show her stepping on Shiva, who looks as if he’s dead.

Some Shakti sects use sexual imagery and even employ sexual rites in their worship. Sexual aspects of tantrism often have links with Shaktism. This is based partly on the belief that creation was the result of sexual intercourse between the Supreme God and his spouse, the Mother Goddess. Some see the Mother Goddess as the creator god and supreme deity because without here creation would not be possible.

Shakti Practices

The emphasis of Shaktism is often on the worship of Kali, who is regarded as a loving mother of her children, beautiful on the inside but is fierce-looking on the outside. Often depicted with sharp teeth and a necklace of skulls, she is believed to bring her followers deep insights and positive rebirth. Some worship her communally by chanting mantras, making offerings and partying front of images of the goddess. Others rely on more solitary methods such as practicing yoga and Tantric exercises while sitting alone at a burial ground surrounded by cremation ash and bones. Some exorcisms and trances are done in association with the sect.

Shakti pithas are considered as dwelling places of the goddess and are linked with the story of Sati and her death. Sometimes a sacrificial ceremony is conducted that represents the discovery of the dead Sati by Shiva who went wild with grief and did a dance of destruction while holding Sati’s’s corpse in his arms. Shaktas believed the gods feared Shiva would destroy the world and cut Sati’s body into pieces. Shiva stopped his dance and the places where here body parts fell became pithas, places where the goddess would live forever.

Kundalini yoga is often practiced by Shaktas. The main aim is to awaken the goddess Kundalini, who sleeps on the lowest energy center of the body, at the coccyx, and guide her up the spine to the head, where she unites with Shiva. The technique utilizes breath control and visualizing spiritual channels and deities within the body.

Until the 18th century Shaktism was an esoteric religion practiced mainly by yogis. At that time Shakti devotion poets made the religion accessible to lay people not initated into the complex meditative and Tantric practices of the sect. These people often participated in the sect not to achieve liberation but rather to find a place in the afterlife in Kali’s paradise. Shakti ascetics often dress in red clothing, have long matted hair and wear rosaries ( malas ) made from bone and ruraksha berries.

Vaishnava

Vaishnavas are people who worship Vishnu, either as himself or one of his form or incarnations (avatars). Vaishnava worship revolves around the worship of forms and images of Vishnu. The Bhagavata Purana , the sacred text of Vaishnavas, is thought to have originated in southern India. Often the form that is worshiped is done in certain way specific to a certain place. In West Bengal he is worshiped as Krishna, in Puri as Rama, and in Pandarpur as Vithoba.

Vaishnavas usually come in three types: 1) lay people, who worship Vishnu or one of his incarnation primarily through a household altar and participation in temple festivals; 2) a devotee who lives in a community of a monastery or ashram; and 3) an ascetic who lives in a meditation hut in the forest. Ascetics and monks are initiated in a sect led by a particular guru and vow to lead a religious life.

Vishnuism puts great emphasis on the duty and devotion. Important Vaishnava figures include Caitany (founder of the sampradaya tradition, which including the Hare Krishna movement); Ramanuj, a scholar who preached a god-centered philosophy; and the bhakhti (“devoted to love”) poets. Poets such as Mirabai and Surdas Surdas wrote: “Without devotion to God, you will make yourself into a stale crumb to be eaten by the tiger of Time.”

Bengali Vaishnavas

Among the Bengali Vaishnavas. Krishna is regarded as the supreme deity rather than an incarnation of Vishnu and he his is worshiped with his consort Radha as if they are one. A 15th century mad saint named Caitanya is worshiped as a form of the deity and there is a belief that divinity is best understood through emotions and sublimated eroticism. Followers regard the milkmaids that loved Krishna when he was young as the model devotees and try to emulate their intense love in hopes that it will help them enter Krishna’s paradise after they die. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia, edited by Paul Hockings, C.K. Hall & Company, 1992]

Bengali Vaishnava ascetics and monks often dress in saffron or white robes, have a shaven head and tlaka marks made with white clay on their faces and bodies. They eat little, wake up at 4:00am and chant several lakhs of mantras (one lakh equals 100,000 repetitions).

Vaishnava worship revolves around the worship of forms and images of Krishna. This is done at temple gatherings, festivals, worship ceremonies and processions. The gatherings often include music, chanting, singing and the telling of stories of Krishna’s life. There is an egalitarian and ecstatic aspect of Bengali Vaishnava. The goal of many of these ceremonies is to achieve a spontaneous state of love like that of Krishna’s milkmaid devotees, without members of the Brahmin caste. Caitanya was famous for the intensive frenzies of joy and sorrow he experienced when thinking of Krishna. Sahajiya or Tantric Vaishnavism incorporates sexuality onto both its beliefs and practices.

Hare Krishna

The International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON, more commonly known as the Hare Krishnas) is a branch of Bengali Vaishnavas. Known throughout the world for their shaved heads, saffron robes, chants and brain-washing techniques, the sect is headquartered in Vrindavan (30 miles from Agra). Hare, Krishna and Rama are all names of gods. The sect is based on Vedic teachings with an ancient tradition of bhakti or devotion to God and is credited with adapting Bengali Vaishnavas for the Western world.

The Hare Krishna movement was founded by Acyuta Dasa Bkaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada who arrived in the United States in 1965 with some scriptures and 40 rupees in his pocket after he was told by his guru to spread the spiritual love of Krishna to the West. The Hare Krishna movement started when he began chanting “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare Rama...” at a Lower East Side New York park.[Source: Harvey Arden, National Geographic, May 1990]

Hare Krishna don’t have funerals they hold a "disappearance day" ritual when someone dies. They believe someone never dies he simply returns to "Krishna's spiritual abode."

Hare Krishna Robots

A new Hare Krishna temple that opened in New Delhi in 1998 features a 150-seat theater where life-size, garishly-colored, lip-synching robots of the god Krishna and the warrior Arjuna act out one of the most well known scenes from the Mahabharata. There is also a robot of the Hare Krishna founder, Swami Prabhupada and four of his disciples.

The robots blink their eyes, raise their eyebrows, tilt their heads and have humanlike gestures. They were designed by the same company that made the mechanical dinosaurs for Jurassic Park . The temple also contains motion simulators like those found in amusement parks take visitors on a "Vedic airplane" described with ancient Hindu texts.

Theosophical Society

One of the first Indian influenced religious organization to win a large following in the West was the Theosophical Society, a pseudo-religious organization founded in India by a lawyer and popular journalist named Henry Steel Olcott and a mystical Russian aristocrat named Helana Petrovna Blavatsky. After meeting in 1874 at a Vermont seance in which Blavatsky acted a medium for an Indian maiden, the couple set up a lamasery with snakes, lizards, stuffed fowls and tiger skins in Manhattan and later set up a headquarters for the Theosophical Society in Madras.

Incorporating elements of American Indian spiritualism, modern science, European mysticism and a hodgepodge of Eastern religions, Theosophism preached that human beings evolved through reincarnation to a perfect understanding of the Absolute as determined by the laws of karma and the ancient knowledge of Egypt, India and Tibet. Moreover, its leader said, the tenets of there religion could be proved with science.

Olcott and Blavatsky toured India, Europe and America, promoting their blend of theology and philosophy along with a condemnation of British colonialism. Olcott was described as a man with "a Hindu heart and Saxon energy" and Blavatsky was referred to as "a woman of extraordinary powers...whose life is full or romance and hairbreadth escapes." Among those impressed by Blavatsky's mystical skills was a young law student named Mohandas Gandhi and a poet named W.B. Yeats.

The couple was eventually investigated by police who declared Blavatsky a sham and Olcott as deceived by his own pseudoscience. The Theosophical Society continues to exist. Its headquarters in Madras is still open and the society has 33,000 members and branches in 50 countries.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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