Streams of Hinduism

Hindusim is divided into two main streams :
Vaishnavism is the stream of Hinduism whose followers are called Vaishnavas/Vaishnavites. They are the followers of Vishnu-Narayana who is the preserver of the Universe. Vaishnavas believe that Vishnu is the supreme God (“Parambrahman”) and all other living entities are subservient to Him. Vishnu is worshipped in human forms. Vaishnavism is very common in the eastern, western and northern parts of India.

Shaivism is the stream of Hinduism whose followers are called Shaivas/Shaivites/Saivites. They are the followers of Shiva. Shaivites believe that Shiva is simultaneously the destroyer and the creator of Universe. Shiva is worshipped as a “lingam” that represents the entire universe and also in the human forms. Shaivism is more common in South India and in Kashmir.

The Four Denominations of Hinduism


For over 200 years, Western scholars have struggled to understand Hinduism, a faith whose followers seemed (to outsiders) to arbitrarily worship any one of a dozen Gods as the Supreme, a religion vastly diverse in its beliefs, practices and ways of worship.

Some Indologists labeled the Hinduism they encountered polytheistic; others even coined new terms, like henotheism, to describe this baffling array of spiritual traditions.

Few, however, have realized, and fewer still have written, that India’s Sanatana Dharma, or “eternal faith, ” known today as Hinduism and comprising nearly a billion followers, is a family of religions with four principal denominations Saivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism and Smartism.

This single perception is essential for understanding Hinduisim and explaining it accurately to others.

Contrary to prevailing misconceptions, Hindus all worship a one Supreme Being, though by different names.

For Vaishnavites, Lord Vishnu is God. For Saivites, God is Siva.

For Shaktas, Goddess Shakti is supreme.

For Smartas, liberal Hindus, the choice of Deity is left to the devotee.

Each has a multitude of guru lineages, religious leaders, priesthoods, sacred literature, monastic communities, schools, pilgrimage centers and tens of thousands of temples.

They possess a wealth of art and architecture, philosophy and scholarship.

These four sects hold such divergent beliefs that each is a complete and independent religion.

Yet, they share a vast heritage of culture and belief karma, dharma, reincarnation, all-pervasive Divinity, temple worship, sacraments, manifold Deities, the guru-shishya tradition and the Vedas as scriptural authority.

In this eight-page Insight, drawn from Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami’s Dancing with Siva, we offer a synopsis of these four denominations, followed by a point-by-point comparison.

Each of Hinduism’s philosophies, schools and lineages shares a common purpose: to further the soul’s unfoldment to its divine destiny.

Nowhere is this process better represented than in the growth of the renowned lotus, which, seeking the sun, arises from the mud to become a magnificent flower.

Its blossom is a promise of purity and perfection.


Saivite Hindus worship the Supreme God as Siva, the Compassionate One. Saivites esteem self discipline and philosophy and follow a satguru. They worship in the temple and practice yoga, striving to be one with Siva within.


Shaktas worship the Supreme as the Divine Mother, Shakti or Devi. She has many forms. Some are gentle, some are fierce. Shaktas use chants, real magic, holy diagrams, yoga and rituals to call forth cosmic forces and awaken the great kundalini power within the spine.


Vaishnavites worship the Supreme as Lord Vishnu and His incarnations, especially Krishna and Rama. Vaishnavites are mainly dualistic. They are deeply devotional. Their religion is rich in saints, temples and scriptures.


Smartas worship the Supreme in one of six forms: Ganesha, Siva, Sakti, Vishnu, Surya and Skanda. Because they accept all the major Hindu Gods, they are known as liberal or nonsectarian. They follow a philosophical, meditative path, emphasizing man’s oneness with God through understanding.

Sects of Hinduism

Hinduism is one of the major religions in the world.

The term “Hinduism” was actually created by the British, referring to all forms of religion in India.

These forms of religion range from simple to very sophisticated beliefs, rituals, and practices.

Therefore, while the Hindu religion is attributed to the Indian people, the Indians actually refer to their religion as Santana Dharma, meaning “eternal Dharma.” 

Dharma refers to a religion or a duty.

It encompasses the universal moral law that governs human life’s sacred and temporal aspects.

The law of our being is defined as the ordinance of God while fulfilling that law is termed moral law.

Hinduism is the oldest religion/dharma among other religions.

It has no founder and is believed to have existed for a time immemorial.

Hinduism has the largest collection of literature compared to other religions.

Hinduism has billions of followers and ranks as the third most popular religion, after Christianity and Islam.

Hinduism focuses on benefiting all and causing least or no violence to all.

The non-injury/nonviolence concept in Hinduism is referred to as Ahimsa.

Hinduism is comprised of various sects or denominations.

A sect, or denomination, is a subgroup of the main religion, and it arises due to different religious beliefs among the people.

 For instance, various types of Hinduism emphasize a person’s ever-present divine potential while others do not.

The four main sects of Hinduism are:

  • Vaishnavism
  • Shaivism
  • Shaktism
  • Smartism

Most scholars and literature interchangeably use denomination or sect when referring to these four major groups.

Why Are There So Many Branches of Hinduism

Hinduism can be explained as a school of metaphysics that explains inherent, universal elements or abstract concepts like being, time, or space.

It provides different approaches to individuals based on their ability, thus rendering freedom of nature of worship.

This gives rise to so many divisions of Hinduism.

Hinduism acknowledges that everyone is different from each other, with different tastes and preferences.

This allows individuals to choose which deity or superpower to love and worship.

In addition, Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, meaning it has more than one god.

The gods, or supreme powers, are shapeless and invisible.

In Hinduism, the supreme being is Brahma, who is known as the god of creation.

The other notable gods in Hinduism are:

  • Shiva, also known as Mahesh — The god of destruction and regeneration
  • Vishnu — The god of affirmation/preservation
  • Shakti/Sakti — The goddess of creative energy

Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu form the holy trinity (three forms) of Hinduism.

This trinity is called Trimurti.

These deities are represented as three faces on a single image.

Major branches of Hinduism arise based on these deities, or gods.

Each sect chooses to worship one of these gods as its chief deity.


Vaishnavism, mostly called Vaishnavas, has Vishnu , the god of preservation, as the supreme deity. There are about twenty subsects of Vaishnavism. In most of these subsects, the gods worshipped are Krishna, Rama, and Radha.

Vaishnavism has the most followers compared to other groups. The followers of Vaishnavism are called Vaishnavites. They make a U-shaped mark (tilaka) on their foreheads.


Shaivism has Shiva , the benevolent destroyer and transformer, as the supreme deity. The followers of this sect acknowledge Shiva as the creator, destroyer, and sustainer of the universe. The followers of Shaivism are called Shaivites. In addition, they draw three white horizontal lines(tripundra) on their foreheads.

Shiva: The Supreme Deity of Shaivism.

Shaivism has four subgroups: Kashmiri, Gorakhnath, Vira Shaivism, and Shiva Siddhanta. Shaivism considers Shravana as the holy month of the Hindu calendar.


Shaktism has Shakti or Devi as the supreme deity. This group stands out from others since it has a goddess, or female god, as its supreme being. In this group, other goddesses are worshiped, portraying various forms of Shakti. Shakti is believed to be descended from the other deities, i.e., Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. In addition, there is a myth that indicates Shiva is shava, or dead/lifeless/powerless, without Shakti. However, this statement is an insult to the Shaivites, who acknowledge Shiva as their supreme deity.

According to the Hindu scriptures, Shiva existed before Shakti. Therefore, Shakti was nothing and her existence was made possible when she came to Shiva. When Shiva embraces Shakti, she transforms into a goddess mother called Devi.

The followers of Shaktism usually draw a vertical red mark (tilaka) on their forehead.

Shakta Spiritual Teacher Performing Religious Rites.


Smartism is characterized by the worship of many gods and goddesses. However, this group acknowledges Brahman as the supreme deity and the gods and goddesses as his manifestation. The gods worshipped in Smartism are Shiva, Surya, Ganesha, and Vishnu. The goddess worshipped in Smartism is Shakti.

The followers of this Smartism are called Smartas, and their philosophy is called Advaita. Advaita is an example of a nondualism, meaning they believe there is really one true god, Brahman, who is just worshipped in many different ways and forms. Smartas study Smriti, or the remembered texts.

Smartas Performing Their Rites.

Other Hindu Denominations

A denomination is a subgroup within a particular religion comprised of more followers than a sect.

It is widely accepted and has a more extended history than a sect.

A sect can arise from the denomination or the religion itself.

There are numerous Hindu denominations.

Examples of other Hindu denominations are:

  • Ganaptya — This group worship Ganesha
  • Saura — This group worship Surya

Lesson Summary

The Hindu religion is attributed to the Indian people.

The Indians refer to their religion as Santana Dharma, meaning “eternal Dharma.

” Dharma means religion or duty.

Hinduism is the oldest religion/dharma among other religions.

Hinduism focuses on benefiting all and causing the least or no violence to all (Ahimsa). Hinduism is comprised of various sects or denominations.

The four main sects of Hinduism are VaishnavismShaivismShaktism, and Smartism. Hinduism is a polytheistic religion.

Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu form the Trimurti, the holy trinity (three forms) of Hinduism.

Vaishnavism has Vishnu as the supreme deity.

Vaishnavism has the most followers compared to other groups.

Vaishnavites have a U-shaped mark (tilaka) on their foreheads.

Shaivism has Shiva , the benevolent destroyer and transformer, as the supreme deity.

The Shaivites draw three white horizontal lines(tripundra) on their foreheads.

Shaktism has Shakti or Devi as the supreme deity.

When Shiva embraces shakti, she transforms into a goddess mother called Devi. Smartism is characterized by the worship of many gods and goddesses.

The followers of Smartism are called Smartas, and they have Advaita as their philosophy.

Smartas studies Smriti, or the remembered texts.

 Examples of other Hindu denominations are Ganaptya and Saura.