Only Christianity and Islam have more adherents worldwide than Hinduism, and in India, the country where it originated, Hinduism has the most adherents. Owing in part to its age -- it dates to 1500 BCE -- Hinduism is a complex religion with many regional subdivisions and local variations, but there are four main sects. Both Shiva and Vishnu have a following, as does the goddess Devi, while followers of one sect recognize no single godhead.
Vashnavism is the sect within Hinduism that worships Vishnu, the preserver god of the Hindu Trimurti, and his ten incarnations. Its five schools date to the Middle Ages, although the worship of Vishnu goes back to at least 300 BCE. Vashnavism is a devotional sect, and followers worship many deities, including Ram and Krishna, both thought to be incarnations of Vishnu. Prapatti is unconditional surrender to Vishnu, who, as Narayana, pervades all things and rests in the ocean of infinite beingness. It is a central precept in Vashnavism. The adherents of this sect are generally non-ascetic, monastic and devoted to meditative practice and ecstatic chanting.
Saivism, the Hindu sect that worships the god Shiva, has indeterminate beginnings and may predate the Vedas, which are the earliest scriptures in Hinduism. Saivists place high value on wisdom, discipline, philosophy and the teachings of the guru. Shiva, the object of worship, is often depicted seated in front of Mount Kailash, which symbolizes the pinnacle of consciousness. He is also sometimes depicted as the fierce, demonic god Bhairava. Saivists are more attracted to asceticism than adherents of other Hindu sects, and may be found wandering India with ashen faces performing self-purification rituals. Six subsets of Shaivism exist within Hinduism.
Cults of goddess worship are ancient in India, going back to the time of the Vedas and even before. The branch of Hinduism that worships the goddess, known as Devi, wasn't recognized until around 300 CE, however. Followers of Shaktism recognize Shakti as the power that underlies the male principle, and Devi is often depicted as the consort of Shiva -- Parvati -- or of Vishnu -- Lakshmi. She is also depicted in other guises, such as the fierce Kali or Durga. Shaktism is closely related with Tantric Hinduism, which teaches rituals and practices for purification of the mind and body.
The term smarta originates from the Sanskrit word "smriti," which generally refers to remembering. It is not as overtly sectarian as either Vashnavism or Saivism. Based on the recognition that Brahman is the highest principle in the universe and pervades all of existence, Smartism invites the worship of more than one god including Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Ganesha, the elephant god and Surya, the sun god among other gods and goddesses. Founded in the 8th century CE by Adi Shankara, or Shankracarya, Smartism is closely associated with study of the Vedas and Upanishads, the early scriptures that form the basis of Hinduism.
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images