The Three Sects
Shaktas, Shaivas & Vaishnavas

 
 
Among Hindus, there are three major groupings: Shaktas who worship a Mother Goddess, Shaivas who worship the god Shiva, and Vaishnavas who worship the god Vishnu. Each devotee has his or her own “chosen deity,” but will honor others as well. The three groupings are not hard and fast boundaries. Ultimately, some Hindus rest their faith in one genderless deity with three basic aspects: creating, preserving, and destroying, in continuing cosmic cycles. (Living Religions, 83)

 
An estimated fifty million Hindus worship some form of the goddess, whose geat power is called shakti. Some Shaktas follow a Vedic path; some are more independent of Vedic tradition. Worship of the feminine aspect of the divine probably dates back to the pre-Vedic ancient peoples of the Indian subcontinent. The goddesses may be worshiped both as a singular, supreme being representing the totality of deity, eternal creator, preserver, and destroyer, and as a figure who appears in multiple forms. ... The general term “Devi” may be used to refer generically to the goddess in all her forms, understood as the supreme Divine Mother, the totality of all the energy of the cosmos. ... The  goddess Durga is often represented as a beautiful woman with a gentle face but ten arms holding weapons with which she vanquishes the demons who threaten the dharma; she rides a lion. She is the blazing splendor or God incarnate, in benevolent female form.
       Kali is the goddess in her fierce form. She may be portrayed dripping with blood, carrying a sword and a severed head, and wearing a girdle of severed hands and a necklace of skulls symbolizing her aspect as the destroyer of evil. What appears as destruction is actually a means of transformation. With her merciful sword she cuts away all personal impediments to realization of truth for those who sincerely desire to serve the Supreme. At the same time, she opens her arms to those who love her. Some of them worship her with blood offerings from animal sacrifices, but some shakti temples are now doing away with this practice, at the behest of animal lovers. (Living Religions, 83-4)
 
Awakening of Universal Motherhood
Mata Amritanandamayi
In traditional Indian society, women are secondary to men. However, there are now strong movements supporting women’s liberation from oppression. The contemporary guru Mata Amritanandamayi ordains women as priests, contrary to brahmin male domination of religion, and she argues for more recognition for women’s important contributions even within the context of the traditional division of labor, in which the woman’s place is in the home, defined by family relationships. “Amma” herself is considered a divine mother by her many followers around the world.
 
 
Mothers are the ones who are most able to sow the seeds of love, universal kinship, and patience in the minds of human beings. There is a special bond between a mother and child. The mother’s inner qualities are transmitted to the child even through her breast milk. The mother understands the heart of her child; she pours her love into the child, teaches him or her the positive lessons of life, and corrects the child’s mistakes. If you walk through a field of soft, green grass a few times, you will easily make a path. The good thoughts and positive values we cultivate in our children will stay with them forever. It is easy to mold a child’s character when he or she is very young, and much more difficult to do so when the child grows up. ...
       The essence of motherhood is not restricted to women who have given birth; it is a principle inherent in both women and men. It is the attitude of the mind. It is love — and that love is the very breath of life. No one would say, “I will breathe only when I am with my family and friends; I won’t breathe in front of my enemies.” Similarly, for those in whom motherhood has awakened, love and compassion for everyone is as much part of their being as breathing.
       Real leadership is not to dominate or to control, but to serve others with love and compassion, and to inspire women and men alike through the example of our lives. Amma feels that the forthcoming age should be dedicated to reawakening the healing power of motherhood. This is crucial. May all nations, all people, and their leaders realize that we do not have a choice. It is vitally important that we restore the lost balance in our world for the sake of humanity and Mother Earth, who sustains us all. (Anthology of Living Religions, 89-90)
 
 
Shiva is a personal, many-faceted manifestation of the attributeless supreme deity. ... As Swami Sivasiva Palani, Shaivite editor of Hinduism Today, explains: “Shiva is the unmanifest; he is creator, preserver, destroyer, personal Lord, friend, primal Soul,” and he is the “all-pervasive underlying energy, the more or less impersonal love and light that flows through all things.” Shiva is sometimes depicted dancing above the body of the demon he has killed, reconciling darkness and light, good and evil, creation and destruction, rest and activity in the eternal dance of life.
       Shiva is also the god of yogis, for he symbolizes asceticism. He is often shown in austere meditation on Mount Kailash, clad only in a tiger skin, with a snake around his neck. The latter signifies his conquest of the ego. In one prominent story, it is Shiva who swallows the poison that threatens the whole world with darkness, neutralizing the poison by the power of his meditation.
Shiva has various shaktis or feminine consorts. He is often shown with his devoted spouse Parvati. Through their union, cosmic energy flows freely,
seeding and liberating the universe. Nevertheless, they are seen mystically as eternally chaste. Shiva and his shakti are also expressed as two aspects of a single being. Some sculptors portray Siva as androgynous, with both masculine and feminine physical traits. Tantric belief incorporates an ideal of balance of male and female qualities within a person, leading to enlightenment, bliss, and worldly success as well. This unity of male and female is often expressed abstractly, as a lingam within a yoni, a symbol of the female vulva. (Living Religions, 85-6)
 
 
 
Vishnu is beloved as the tender, merciful deity ... [who] has been worshiped since Vedic times and came to be regarded as the Supreme as a person. ...
 
 
According to ideas appearing by the fourth century CE, Vishnu is considered to have appeared in many earthly incarnations [to “preserve” the world by restoring order during times of chaos]. ... Many deities have been drawn into this complex, in which they are interpreted as incarnations of Vishnu. Most beloved of his purported incarnations have been Rama, subject of the Ramayana (see p. 79), and Krishna (see p. 81). However, many people still revere Krishna without reference to Vishnu.
       Popular devotion to Krishna takes many forms. If Krishna is regarded as the transcendent Supreme Lord, the worshiper humbly lowers himself or herself. If Krishna is seen as master, the devotee is his servant. If Krishna is loved as a child, the devotee takes the role of loving parent. If Krishna is the divine friend, the devotee is his friend. And if Krishna is the beloved, the devotee is his lover. The latter relationship was popularized by the ecstatic sixteenth-century Bengali saint, scholar, and social reformer Shri Chaitanya, who adored Krishna as the flute playing lover. Following Shri Chaitanya, the devotee makes himself (if a male) like a loving female in order to experience the bliss of Lord Krishna’s presence. It is this form of Hindu devotion that was carried to America in 1965, organized as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and then spread to other countries. Its followers are known as Hare Krishnas. (Living Religions, 87-8)
 
Hindu Rituals
Puja

 
Public worship puja — is usually performed by pujaris, or brahmin priests (typically male), who are trained in Vedic practices and in proper recitation of Sanskrit texts. They conduct worship ceremonies in which the sacred presence is made tangible through devotions employing all the senses. Shiva-lingams may be anointed with precious substances, such as ghee (clarified butter), honey, or sandalwood paste, with offerings of rosewater and flowers. In a temple, devotees may have the great blessing of receiving darshan (visual contact with the divine) through the eyes of the images. The cosmos is viewed as a vibrational field, and therefore the chanting of mantras, blowing of a conch shell, and ringing of bells create vibrations thought to have positive effects. Incense and flowers fill the area with uplifting fragrances. Prasad, food that has been sanctified by being offered to the deities and/or one’s guru, is passed around to be eaten by devotees, who experience it as sacred and spiritually charged. (Living Religions, 98)