Sectarian Worship of Vishnu, Shiva, and Shakti
Although the Indian religion that most Westerners are familiar with revolves around yoga, meditation, and a number of prominent gurus, the practice of religion in india tends to be much more closely linked to sectarian worship three primary deities. Hinduism in the Upanishads focused on Brahman, an abstract Godhead who could be discovered and contacted through a variety of mystical practices. But the increasing dominance of bhaktism — devotion to a specific personal god or avatar, such as Krishna — eventually began to swing the pendulum toward the worship of specific personal manifestations of the Godhead. Three such manifestations eventually became dominant: Vishnu, Shiva, and SDhakti.
By the 7th century, the southern Indian state of Tamilnadu became the stronghold of Shiva worship, or Shaivism. Shaivites, or Shaivas, view Shiva, whose roots go back to the pre-Aryan Indus culture, as the creator, maintainer and destroyer of the universe, and worship him alone. The phallic lingam, usually in the form of a smooth oblong stone, has been a symbol of Shiva from the earliest days of pre-Aryan civilization, possibly derived from a more ancient fertility cult; it is still the main object of Shiva worship today. The Dance of Shiva, portrayed in numerous artworks, represents his maintenance of cosmic order through energy and power. Shiva also apears as a great yoga adept seated in the lotus posture, cradling his trident, symbol of his mastery of the three main channels of the central nervous system.
In the provinces of Bengal, Assam and Orissa, the worship of Shakti probably derived from the ancient cults of the Mother Goddess. Shakti is the feminine counterpart to male deities, representing their “power” or “energy” embodied in the female form, such Kali or Lakhshmi. Its adherents worship Shakti as the force that maintains the universe and makes all life possible. Shaktas worship various manifestations of Shakti or Devi (the Mother Goddess), who can be beneficent, as in Uma and Parvati, or destructive, as Durga or Kali, the fierce black goddess whose form drips blood and is adorned with snakes, human skulls, and dismembered arms.
Shaktism is closely identified with Tantra, a fundamental spiritual practice of Hinduism based on a group of texts in which the divine energy represented by the female aspect of a god is personified as a goddess. The Tantric approach is more body-oriented than most orthodox Hindu teachings, and matter is not shunned as an illusion. Tantra is customarily divided into the so-called right-handed and left-handed paths, the latter involving the “Five M’s”: madya (alcohol), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (parched grain and symbolic hand gestures), and maithuna (sexual intercourse). Over time, the physical use of the 5 M’s gave way to psychophysical practices such as Kundalini Yoga, but some Tantric groups still follow the esoteric practices in secret.
The largest modern Hindu sect, Vaishnavism, is based in the north of India (although members of the three major sects now live side by side). Vaishnavas worship Vishnu (Hari) in his ten incarnations, but primarily as Rama, Sita, and Krishna. The focus of Vaishnavism is generally on image-worship, and devout Vaisnava households keep an image of Vishnu or one of his avatars in the home. Vishnu’s divine body is depicted with four arms, resting on Shesha, king of the serpents, or riding on the great bird Garuda. He resides in Vaikuntha, his paradise, located on Mount Meru or in the northern ocean.