General Essay on Hindu Devotional Groups

The chart refers to devotional sects within Hinduism. Here the use of the word 'sect' is appropriate, for many of these groups have reacted against the rigidity of orthodox Hindu society and teach that devotion is of far greater significance than divisions based on birth and caste. Some even go so far as to reject the institution of caste altogether and urge that the community of devotees should transcend such divisions.

The chart shows the usual three-fold division of Hindu devotional sects - Vaishnava, Shakta and the Goddess - which respectively worship Vishnu, Shiva and the Goddess. It must be noted that adherents of these groups do not necessarily exclude themselves from the ritual or mystical strands of the tradition. Often the deity will be worshipped alongside other gods with the aim of receiving worldly benedictions, and caste rules are often observed as well as the regulations of worship. Furthermore, the devotional sects typically include mystical philosophies of their own which share many of the principal concepts of Vedanta, though generally not the absolute oneness of God and humanity. It is also the case that most devotees practise their worship without commitment to any particular sect or group. They may visit the shrines of different groups and are able to venerate their Deity without feeling obliged to make a formal commitment to one sect or accept the authority of its hierarchy.

Devotion to Vishnu as a monotheistic Deity is referred to for the first time in the Mahabharata, compiled probably two or three centuries before the common era, and it is apparent that devotional groups have been in existence since that period and possibly earlier. These early cults are referred to as Bhagavatas, Pancaratras and Vaikhanasas, and appear to have been strongest in South India. Today these early groups have largely been absorbed into later sects, though Vaikhanasa priests still officiate in a few of the south Indian temples.

The Shri Vaishnavas are today a major sect and are particularly prominent in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. They were founded by the renowned teacher Ramanuja (1018-1137CE) who was himself initiated into the earlier cults of Southern Vaishnavism. Ramanuja taught a devotional form of Vedanta which postulated a Supreme Personal Deity who existed in his own domain and also within each being. Today the Shri Vaishnavas control many of the major Vaishnava shrines in Tamil Nadu with brahmana priests officiating over the temple worship in accordance with strict regulations. They are now divided into two sub-groups, the Vatakalai northern branch and the Tengalai southern branch. Apart from geography, principal differences between the two groups centre on the question of whether divine grace is an absolute path to salvation and on the use of the Sanskrit or Tamil languages.

The Nimavat cult was founded by Nimbarka, a South Indian brahmana who stressed that salvation is gained through the efforts of the devotee in endeavouring to render service to Vishnu or his earthly manifestation as Krishna. The Nimavats have probably always been a small sect, but have shrines and centres spread throughout India.

The Vitthalas or Varkari Panthis are another of the medieval Vaishnava cults. Founded in the 13th century by Vitthala, a Vaishnava saint and preacher, the sect has persisted into modern times with its main centre at Pandharpur in Southern Maharashtra and is notable for its emphasis on the custom of making pilgrimages to the shrines of saints. Within the Vitthala sect a number of prominent Vaishnava saints have appeared including Jnaneshvara, Namdeva, Ramdas and Tukaram, all of whom are renowned and venerated, especially in Maharashtra.

The Vallabhas trace their origin to Vallabha (1479-1531 CE), a Telegu Vaishnava teacher. Vallabha taught the path to salvation through total surrender to the Deity, usually venerated in the form of Krishna as a child whose activities are interpreted symbolically. After the death of the founder, the sect was led by his direct descendants who are known as Maharajas. The Vallabhas became somewhat notorious in the eighteenth century as a result of their sexual practices and attempts at reform were made. The sect still flourishes today with many followers in the state of Gujerat and in the Bombay area. The Swami Narayana sect was begun in Gujerat by Sahajananda (b.1780) at the beginning of the 19th century. Sahajananda, who took the title Swami Narayana, condemned what he regarded as moral shortcomings in the behaviour of the Vallabhas and attempted to establish a movement based on purity of behaviour and devotion to Vishnu. Today the Swami Narayana sect is prominent in Gujerat and amongst Gujerati communities throughout the world.

The Gaudiya Vaishnavas are prominent in Bengal where their founder, Chaitanya (1486-1533) was born and began his preaching mission. There are still a large number of Gaudiya Vaishnavas in Bengal and in other major centres of Krishna worship where they are notable for the practice, inaugurated by Chaitanya, of chanting and singing the names of Krishna and Vishnu. In the 1920s the Gaudiya Math was founded by Siddhanta Saravasti with the mission of spreading Chaitanya Vaishnavism throughout India and the rest of the world, a mission that has been taken up in recent decades by ISKCON, the Hare Krishna movement, which was founded by a disciple of Siddhanta Saravasti and whose followers are a common sight throughout the world.

Other Vaishnava sects include the Ramavats, the Haridasis, Kabir Panthis and Dadu Panthis. The Ramavats were founded by Ramananda, a 14th century Shri Vaishnava teacher, who taught devotion to Vishnu's manifestation as Rama and dismissed the strong emphasis on caste and ritual typical of the Shri Vaishnavas. Kabir was a follower of Ramananda from Varanasi who, like his teacher, denied the significance of caste in the worship of God. He also condemned the worship of images and for this reason is respected by Muslims as well as Hindus. The followers of Kabir are known as Kabir Panthis and are today divided into twelve separate groups, each with their own centre and leadership. One disciple of Kabir was Dadu who like his predecessor condemned the caste institution, the worship of images and all external features of piety, stating that love and devotion to the one God was the only valid form of religiosity.

Whilst the Vaishnava cults venerate Vishnu as the Supreme Deity, the Shaivites regard Shiva as the absolute creator and lord of all the world. Sects devoted to Shiva have been in existence from an early date and several are referred to by the Mahabharata. Devotees of Shiva are found throughout India and amongst Hindu communities elsewhere in the world, but Shaivism is most prominent today in the South of India and in the northern state of Kashmir.

Emerging out of Kashmir Shaivism is Trika Shaivism. The Trikas follow the teachings of Abhinava Gupta (993-1015CE), and the name Trika is derived from the three groups of scriptures venerated by the cult. Although they worship Shiva as the supreme Deity, the Trikas hold beliefs that are clearly influenced by Vedanta and Tantra, stressing that after the guru has awakened his disciple's spiritual energy salvation is attained in the form of absolute union with Shiva.

Tamil Shaivism is largely based on the devotional teachings of Shaiva Siddhanta and the writings of the Nayannars, the medieval Tamil poets. In Tamil Nadu today, the Shaiva Siddhantins remain a prominent Shaivite sect, and the collected works of the Nayannars, the Tirumarai, has a status equal to or even exceeding that of any of the Sanskrit texts. The Goraknathis are a Shaivite Yogic sect who claim to follow a system of yoga taught originally by Shiva himself and articulated more recently by Goraknatha, who flourished in the medieval period sometime between 900 and 1200 CE. There are traditionally twelve sub-groups of Goraknathi Yogins who live in a number of monasteries, the largest of which is Gorakhpur.

The Ganapatya sect cannot strictly be designated as Shaivite as they venerate the god Ganesha, the son of Shiva, as their central Deity. Ganapatyas are found throughout India, but are most prominent in Maharashtra where they flourished especially from the 17th to the 19th centuries CE under the patronage of the Marathas. There are eight major Ganapatya shrines in Maharashtra, the most notable being in Poona and the village of Cinvad, the birthplace of the sect's leading teacher, Moraya Gosavi (d.1651CE).

The worshippers of the Goddess, usually referred to as Shaktas, are found throughout India, but are most numerous in Bengal, Bihar and Tamil Nadu. Goddess worship has largely ceased to exist as a sectarian tradition, flourishing instead on a localised basis without any wider form of organisation. Many local goddesses are revered in the villages of India and these are frequently identified with the Goddess of Sanskrit literature, though sectarian forms of adherence are rare.

The practice of Tantric forms of Yoga is often linked to Shaktism and Shaivism, though Vaishnava (and Buddhist) forms of Tantrism also exist. Tantric teachings are complex and varied, but generally aim at providing the adept with the means to harness divine potency in order to gain salvation. Tantrism was most prominent in India between the 8th and 14th centuries CE, when its teachings were widely disseminated, most especially in Kashmir, Bengal, Orissa, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh. The Vaishnava Tantric sects have links to the followers of Chaitanya and are found mainly in Bengal where they are known as the Sahajiyas and Bauls. Elsewhere Tantrism is most commonly associated with the worship of Shiva, the Goddess or both.

It is unlikely that Tantric Yoga was ever a part of the religious beliefs and practices of a majority of Hindus, and today it is less significant than in previous centuries. Nonetheless, numerous Tantric sects still exist in India, though adherence is usually confined to a small number of followers surrounding a particular teacher.

Important movements that have emerged from within the Tantric tradition are Shri Vidya and the modern day Sahaja Yoga and Rajneesh (Osho) movement. Shri Vidya dates back to the 10th or 11th century; its devotees seek liberation from the cycle of birth and death through unity with the Goddess Tripurasundari. The founder of the Osho Movement, Rajneesh Chandra Mohan (known as Osho meaning "friend"), was a Tantric master who affirmed the value of the body and sexuality in the quest for spiritual development and enlightenment. During the 1970s the movement began to attract Westerners and became the fastest growing New Religious Movement at that time. Sahaja Yoga was founded by a former disciple of Osho, Sri Mataji Nirmala Devi (b. 1923). The movement seeks to enable its followers to achieve spontaneous unity with the divine through practising kundalini yoga.


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