Movements and Leaders – The Four Main Denominations

Top Left: A lady wears the V or U-shaped clay mark (tilak) that denotes a follower of Vishnu. Her neck and prayer beads are made of wood from the sacred Tulsi plant.
Top Right:Tilak consisting of three horizontal white lines denotes a worshipper of Shiva. The young priest shown here has added a fourth, horizontal line in yellow (perhaps denoting his specific tradition). Shaivites wear Rudraksha beads, of which their rosaries are also made.
Bottom Right:A sannyasi of one of the ten orders founded by Shankara. Although aligned to the Smarta practice of worshipping five deities, they often tend to favour Shiva. This man’s staff is a single rod (eka-danda) to distinguish him from the Vaishnava sannyasis whose staff is made of three rods (tri-danda).
Bottom Left: Worshippers of Durga (Shakti), who do not usually bear any clear distinguishing marks, though they often wear the red dot (chandlo) in between the eyebrows.

Classifying the many groups within Hinduism is a challenge, and not so easy (as, perhaps, with other religions.) In so doing, we may inadvertently promote the idea that Hinduism is a single monolithic religion. It is, more accurately, a family of religions, with each family member autonomous but sharing distinctive family features.

In discussing all religious groups, we may imply that they are static, homogeneous and well-defined “wholes.” In actual fact, they are fluid and evolving traditions, internally diverse and contested, and hazy at the edges. In trying to discern specific strands within Hinduism, therefore, we are also in danger of over-generalising, promoting stereotypes and creating false boundaries. Nonetheless, it is useful – even necessary – to establish a somewhat tentative framework for categorising the numerous groups and sub-groups. Here we categorise them according to three criteria:

  1. focus of worship
  2. doctrine
  3. preferred process or practices

Four main communities can be identified, each according to its respective focus of worship (these four communities are discussed in the Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smarta pages). Each community, which we loosely term here a “denomination,” favours its own specific deity or deities (below).

The Four Main Denominations

  1. Vaishnavas worship Vishnu (usually as Krishna or Rama)
  2. Shaivas worship Shiva (often in the form of the linga)
  3. Shaktas worship Shakti, also known as Devi (especially Parvati, Durga, Kali)
  4. Smartas worship five deities i.e. Vishnu, Shiva, Devi, Ganesh, and Surya

In the UK many individuals and temples will not specifically align themselves to one (or more) of these traditions. They worship deities from all these traditions. They often describe themselves as “Sanatanist” to reflect their more inclusive nature. Underpinning them, there is often a leaning towards the monistic Smarta conclusions of Shankara.

Shaivism and Shaktism are often closely related, especially within tantric traditions, which explore the male-female symbolism of Shiva-Shakti.

Six Doctrines and Four Paths

Although Hinduism can be primarily classified into four main denominations according to their respective focuses of worship, there are two other criteria that help account for the tradition’s diversity. They revolve around (1) the different doctrines, and (2) the various processes of realisation.


There are six orthodox darshans (ways of seeing) to which the various groups and sub-groups subscribe. (They are outlined in detail in the Hindu Doctrine section). Of these, Vedanta is often considered the culmination and represents the theologically developed strands of contemporary Hinduism. Vedanta, however, has not entirely rejected the other five schools, but has tended to accommodate and assimilate them.

Vedanta is often exclusively associated with the Advaita Vedanta of Shankara. However, there are two main approaches, as shown to the right. These two poles are combined in various ways to form ten main schools of Vedanta (see Vedanta and Mimamsa).

For most purposes it is best to familiarise ourselves with the basic notions of these two schools, the impersonal and the personal. They can also be termed monism and monotheism, keeping in mind that the latter is almost always “inclusive monotheism” (see God: Two Main Understandings).


Within Hinduism there are diverse practices, but most fall within four main paths or margs. Since these are aimed at union (with God) they are also termed “yogas.” They are:

  1. karma-yoga – the yoga path of action
  2. Jnana-yoga – the path of knowledge
  3. Raja (astanga) yoga – the path of meditation
  4. Bhakti-Yoga – the path of devotion

Some authorities list only three paths by excluding Raja yoga, which is often closely associated with jnana-yoga, because of the common emphasis on renunciation (see also Four Main Paths).

The four main denominations often favour one or more of these processes, and will also lean towards a particular doctrine (below).

Advaita: Monists or Impersonalists

who believe that,

  • God is ultimately impersonal.
  • the soul is entirely non-different from God (but has yet to realise/develop his Godhood).
Dvaita: Dualists or Personalists

who believe that,

  • God is ultimately personal,
  • the soul remains eternally distinct from God (though both are usually considered Brahman).

The Four Denominations and their Favoured Doctrine/Path

  • Vaishnavas are mostly personalists and favour the path of bhakti-yoga.
  • Shaivas are often impersonalists with tendencies towards jnana- and astanga­yoga (closely linked to sankhya-yoga). There are, however, notable personalistic, bhakti strands, especially in South India (e.g. the Lingayats).
  • Shaktas tend to be impersonalists, and their worship often focusses on material benefit (karma-yoga). Their theology tends to be less developed and draws largely on Shaivism.
  • Smartas follow the impersonal (advaita) doctrine of Shankara and favour the path of jnana, featuring renunciation and philosophical inquiry.