Hinduism is one of the biggest religions in this country but has a variety of cults and sects within its purview. Hinduism is a word that is drawn from ‘Hindu’, which was meant as a term to connote people who lived in the geographical area around the river Indus.

The Concept of Hinduism in India

Hinduism is one of the biggest religions in this country but has a variety of cults and sects within its purview. Hinduism is a word that is drawn from ‘Hindu’, which was meant as a term to connote people who lived in the geographical area around the river Indus.


At the most basic level, Hinduism borrows its basic principles from pre-Vedic and Vedic religious philosophies.

Few Important Facts related to Hinduism

  • The Srutis were revealed to the sages or the rishis.
  • The oldest Veda is the Rig Veda and it consists of about 1,000 hymns about various Gods like Agni, Indra, Vayu, Soma, etc.
  • The Sama Veda is about music and hymns;
  • The Yajur Veda is related to sacrificial hymns related to the Rig Veda.
  • The Atharva Veda is about the magic and medicine.
  • Other literature attached to it are called Arayankas, which are mystical teachings and the Upanishads were speculations on the human being and his lived reality.
  • According to Hindu traditions, kama (pleasure, sometimes sexual) and artha are goals to strive for but after achieving these one has to look towards getting Dharma (righteousness).
  • In the Upanishads, it is specified that there are four stages in life:
    • Brahmachari (celibate students) who then graduates into Grihasta (a householder). After an age he becomes a vanaprastha (a hermit), the last stage in life is of a sanyasi (an ascetic). Once a person becomes an ascetic, he strives for the achievement of moksha or salvation.

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Four Sects under Hinduism


  • Followers consider Vishnu as the Supreme Lord.
  • The tradition has traceable roots to the 1st millennium BCE, as Bhagavatism, also called Krishnaism.
  • The Vaishnava tradition has many sampradayas or sub-schools.


  • It considers Shiva as the Supreme Lord.
  • Shaivism traces its origin before Vaishnaism in 2nd millennium BCE in the form of the Vedic deity Rudra.


  • It considers feminine and the Devi or goddess as supreme.
  • It is known for its various subtraditions of Tantra.


  • It is based on the teachings of Puranas.
  • They believe in domestic worship of five shrines with five deities, all treated as equals: Shiva, Shakti, Ganesh, Vishnu and Surya.
  • Smartism accepts two concepts of Brahman, namely
    • Saguna Brahman – the Brahman with attributes, and
    • Nirguna Brahman – the Brahman without attributes.

Under these four major traditions, there are various sects or Sampradayas. These sects are teaching traditions with autonomous practices and monastic centers, with a guru lineage, with ideas developed and transmitted by each successive generation of followers.

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Other Hindu Traditions


  • This rare community includes ultra-orthodox Nambudiri Brahmins of Kerala.
  • They follow the “Purva-Mimamsa” school of philosophy 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.

Promient Sects under Vaishnavism

Varkari Panth or Varkari Sampradaya

  • The followers in this community are devotees of Lord Vishnu, in his manifestation as Vithoba and the worship is centered on Vithoba’s temple at Pandharpur in Maharashtra.
  • The sect has a strict avoidance towards alcohol and tobacco.
  • Their annual pilgrimage Vari undertakes interesting events.
    • In the Vari, the Varkaris carry the padukas of the saints in palkhis from Samadhi to Pandharpur.
  • Events Ringan and Dhava are held during pilgrimage.
    • Under Ringan, a sacred horse runs through the rows of pilgrims, who try catching the dust particles kicked off and smear their head with the same.
  • Prominent figures under this sect include Jnaneshvar (1275–1296), Namdev (1270–1350), Eknath (1533–1599), and Tukaram (1598–1650).

Ramanandi Sampradaya

  • They adhere to the teachings of the Advaita scholar Ramananda.
  • This is the largest monastic group within Hinduism in Asia, and these Vaishnava monks are known as Ramanandis, Vairagis or Bairagis.
  • They worship Rama, one of the ten incarnations of Vishnu. These ascetics perform meditation and follow strict ascetic practices, but they also believe that the grace of god is required to achieve liberation.
  • They are mainly settled around Gangetic plains.
  • Its two sub-groups are Tyagi and Naga.

Brahma Sampradaya

  • It is associated with Lord Vishnu, the ParaBrahma or Universal Creator (not to be confused with the Brahmadeity).
  • The founder was Madhvacharya.
  • Gaudiya Vaishnavism promoted by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu is associated with Brahma Sampradaya.
  • The ISKCON belongs to this sampradaya.

Pushti marg Sampradaya

  • It is a Vaishnav sect founded by Vallabhacharya around 1500 AD.
  • Their philosophy is that the ultimate truth is one & only one Brahm.
  • The devotion is based on pure love for Lord Krishna.
  • All followers are expected to do Seva to their personal icon of Krishna.

Nimbarka Sampradaya

  • Also known as the Hamsa Sampradaya and Kumara Sampradāya, the followers worship Radha and Krishna deities.

Prominent Sects under Shaivism

The Siddhas


  • They broadly refer to siddhars, naths, ascetics, sadhus, or yogis because they all practice sadhana.
  • Siddhas allegedly attain physical immortality through spiritual perfection.


  • Also known as Siddha Siddhanta, they adhere to the teachings of Gorakhnath and Matsyendranath and worship Adinath, a form of Shiva.
  • They use the technique of Hatha Yoga to transform one’s body into a state of awakened self’s identity with absolute reality.
  • The monks never stay in the same place for long and are floating group of wanderers.
  • They wear loin cloths and dhotis and also cover themselves with ashes, tie up their hair in dreadlocks, and when they stop walking, they keep a sacred fire called dhuni.


  • Also known as Veershaivism, it is a distinct Shaivite tradition which believes in monotheism through worship centered on Lord Shiva in the form of linga.
  • It rejects the authority of the Vedas and the caste system.
  • The tradition was established in the 12th century AD by Basavanna.

Dashanami Sanyasis

  • They are associated with the Advaita Vedanta tradition and are the disciples of Adi Shankaracharya.
  • They are also called “Dash Nam Sanyasi” as they are further divided into ten groups.
Aghoris as part of Hinduism
The Aghoris


  • They are the devotees of Shiva manifested as Bhairava and are monists who seek salvation from the cycle of reincarnation through sadhana in cremation grounds and removal of bonds from their life which are sensual pleasure, anger, greed, obsession, fear and hatred.
  • They indulge in extreme, tamasic ritual practices.

Siddhars or Siddhas

  • Siddhars were saints, doctors, alchemists and mystics all in one from Tamil Nadu.
  • They attain spiritual perfection through special secret rasayanas to perfect their bodies, in order to be able to sustain prolonged meditation along with a form of pranayama which considerably reduces the number of breaths they take.
  • Siddhars were said to have special eight powers.
  • Siddhars are also believed to be the founders of Varmam – a martial art for selfdefence and a medical treatment at the same time.

In the medieval period, Hinduism went through Bhakti movement in North India where the saints translated the Sanskrit texts into vernacular languages and took the message of Bhakti or devotion to the Gods, to the masses.

In South India, the Vaishnavite movement was very strong and it reigned till the end of 13th century. These saints, called Alvars, were the devotees of Vishnu and they sang songs which were collected and made into prabhandas.

Another powerful group in the South was the Shaivites or those who worshipped Shiva. The saints who followed this were called ‘Nayanars’ and we know of 63 major saints there.

In the modern period there was a need to change the highly ritualistic nature of Hinduism. Many problems like the domination of Brahmans, Sati, Child marriage, etc. had crept into Hinduism and the caste system led to large scale discrimination.

After the coming of the British and western ideals of equality, several thinkers propelled to change the situation and they started some movements to change the problems in Hinduism such as:

The Brahmo Movement

  • This began with Raja Rammohan Roy who wanted to question the problems in Hinduism.
  • To solve these issues and to find the truth of Vedanta, he started the Brahmo Samaj in 1828.
  • It rejected iconography or the worship of any kind of imagery.
  • It spoke against the evil practices of Sati, which was abolished later after sustained campaigning. He also established two schools to bring education to the masses.
  • After his death the mission was taken over by Devendranath Tagore in 1843.
    • He was a fierce writer who criticised the British and Christian missionaries who were converting poor people.
    • He also urged Hinduism to bring large scale changes so that people would not leave their religion and convert.
  • Another member Keshabchandra Sen started advocating against child marriage, polygamy and caste system.
    • He and some of his followers were very radical and broke from the Brahmo Samaj to form the ‘Bharatiya Brahmo Samaj’.
    • This movement could not sustain itself and led to another bareak into ‘Sadharan Brahmo Samaj’.
  • After all these splits they could not sustain the movement.

Movements by Swami Vivekananda and Ramakrishna Mission

  • There were some movements that concentrated on changing the Hindu philosophies from within like Ramakrishna mission.
  • It advocated supreme devotion to god.
  • It said that god could be formless or in an object but the purpose of man is to find him. This is sometimes called ‘neo-Hinduism’.
  • One of his major followers was Swami Vivekananda or Narendra Nath Dutta.
    • They wanted man to combine his bodily strength with that of the mind and bring a change to Hinduism.
  • The Ramakrishna Mission was established in 1897 and its three-fold philosophy was:
    • To spread the Vedantic spirituality.
    • To strive for a harmonious existence of all world religions.
    • To consider the service to mankind as a service to god.

The Arya Samaj

  • They wanted to revive Hinduism from within and the samaj was founded by the sannyasi (ascetic) Dayanand Saraswati on 10 April 1875.
  • They believed in the supremacy of the Vedas and they said that they formed the repository of all values and knowledge.
  • One of their major policy was to work for the welfare of the mankind.
  • They believed in good education for the masses and established many schools.
  • They followed iconoclasm and wanted to convert non-Hindus into this religion.
  • He started the Suddhi or purification movement through which the conversion could be done.


The word Shramana means one who performs acts of austerity and ascetic. It refers to several Indian religious movements parallel to Vedic religion. The various Shramana schools include:

  • Jainism (Separate Article)
  • Buddhism (Separate Article)
  • Ajivikas
  • Ajnanas
  • Charvakas (Separate Article)


  • The school was founded by Makkhali Gosala in 5th century BC.
  • The school revolves around the Niyati (Fate) doctrine of absolute determinism.
  • It believes that there is no free will and whatever has happened, is happening or will happen is entirely pre-ordained or pre-decided and is based on cosmic principles. Hence there was no use of Karma.
  • It is based on the theory of atoms and believes that everything is composed of atoms and the various qualities emerge from the aggregates of atoms which is pre-determined.
  • Ajivikas led a simple ascetic life, without clothes and any material possession.
  • They opposed Buddhism and Jainism and were atheists.
  • They don’t believe in Karma doctrine unlike Jainism and Buddhism. They consider Karma a fallacy.
  • They also rejected the authority of Vedas like Buddhism and Jainism.
  • However, they believed in the existence of soul (atman) in every living being like Jainism. But they believed existence of soul in material form whereas jainism propounds formless soul.
  • Bindusara (4th Century BC) was one of its followers.
  • Savathi (Sravasti) in Uttar Pradesh is believed to be the centre of Ajivikas.
  • Ashoka’s 7th pillar edicts mention about Ajivikas.
  • The texts of Ajivika sect is non-existing at present. This sect has also lost its glamour in the present era.


  • The ajnana sect believed in radical skepticism.
  • The school believed that it is impossible to attain knowledge about nature. Even if it is possible, it is useless for attaining salvation.
  • This school was a major rival of Jainism and Buddhism. T
  • hey specialized in refutation and were considered ignorant. They believed that “Ignorance is Best”.

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