The Hindu Temple, Hinduism's four main sects and scriptual study

Bodhinatha speaks about Hindu solidarity based on diversity not sameness. He also explains Agamic verses Puranic Hinduism-the importance of explaining that all four sects of Hinduism worship a Supreme Being and that confusion may occur when there are two main Gods in the same temple- Vishnu and Shiva. He concludes his talk with the importance of practicing Siddhanta Sravana-scriptural study.

Unedited Transcript:

Good Morning Everyone.

It's nice to have a "full house."

We're working on talks for our trip to Hindu Temple of Atlanta at the end of May for their Memorial Day weekend. As you recall we were there last year, so they've invited us back this year for the annual festival. They're unique in that they have two large temples adjacent to each another one is for Vishnu, one is for Shiva. It's the only Hindu tempe we know of in North America that has done that. Typically temples that have both Vishnu and Shiva, it's in the same temple which creates certain problems.

The talk is in three parts and the first part is the traditional Hindu solidarity part which you've heard and was in an editorial not to long ago. Gurudeva's idea is solidary is good, but it should be a solidary with diversity and not a solidary based on sameness. Hinduism's strength is in it's various traditions and we don't want to give up the traditions for the sake of unity, for the sake of solidary.

The second part we did last phase which was on the oneness of Shiva and Vishnu. We went through some material and then we quoted Bhagwan Swaminarayan for the Vaishnava, Gurudeva for the Saiva and Swami Shivananda from the Divine Life Society for the Vedanta point of view. And showed from all three points of view that each consider Shiva and Vishnu as a One, as the same Supreme Being.

The third part which has two sections. One is on Agamic verses Puranic Hinduism and the importance of choosing the Agamic approach to Hinduism in North America. The second section is on Siddhanta Sravana, listening to the teachings, scriptural listening which is one of the of the niyamas.

The October 2003 issue of our magazine Hinduism Today has an important eight-page article on the four denominations of Hinduism from which I would like to quote.

"Hinduism is a family of religions with four principal denominations: Saivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism and Smartism. This single perception is essential for understanding Hinduism and explaining it accurately to others. Contrary to prevailing misconceptions, Hindus all worship a one Supreme Being, though by different names. For Vaishnavites, Lord Vishnu is God. For Saivites, God is Siva. For Shaktas, Goddess Shakti is supreme, For Smartas, the choice of Deity is left to the devotee."

Said another way, Vaishnavites consider Vishnu alone to be the Supreme Being and are exclusively devoted to His worship. Saivites consider Siva alone to be the Supreme Being and are exclusively devoted to His worship. Whereas, Smartas, or Vedantins, consider both Siva and Vishnu to be the Supreme Being and worship both.

Our Hinduism Today article goes on to compare the four denominations in terms of their history, beliefs, practices and scriptures and is quite informative. We also reprinted the article as a separate pamphlet for use in classrooms as a teaching tool in presenting the topic of Hinduism's four main denominations.

The Hindu Temple of Atlanta is making an important contribution to the clarity of Hinduism in the US by having separate temples for Balaji and Siva. In the traditional Hindu temple, the main sanctum is for the Supreme Being. Balaji is the Supreme Being to Vaishnavites and Siva is the Supreme being to Saivites.

This may seem self-evident but this central point is sometimes missed when both deities are placed in the same temple. With two supreme beings in the same temple, philosophical clarity is easily lost resulting in the youth finding Hinduism to be confusing.

For example we know of Siva Vishnu temples which on their website describe Siva as the destroyer and Vishnu as the preserver. Of course, this is not how knowledgeable Saivites and Vaishnavites look at it. To Saivites, Siva is the supreme being and therefore performs all three actions of creation, preservation and destruction. To Vaishnavites, Vishnu is the Supreme Being and therefore performs all three actions of creation, preservation and destruction. That we worship the Supreme Being is clearly the view of Hinduism's primary scriptures, shruti, the Vedas and Agamas. For example, the Raurava Agama gives this description of Siva: "The birth of the world, its maintenance, its destruction, the soul's obscuration and liberation are the five acts of His dance."

Here in Atlanta if we took the Puranic approach, we would say in the Venkatesavara temple we are worshipping Vishnu, the God of Preservation. In the Ramalingesvara temple we are worshipping Siva, the God of Destruction. In the Agamic approach we would say the Venkatesvara temple is of the Vaishnava denomination of Hinduism which worships the Supreme Being as Vishnu. Temple ceremonies are conducted according to the Vaikhanasa Agama. The Ramalingesvara temple is of the Saiva denomination of Hinduism which worships the Supreme Being as Siva. Temple ceremonies are conducted according to the Kamika and Karana Agamas. Clearly for temples in the USA, the Agamic approach is the approach that is needed to create clarity about Hindu temple worship in the minds of Hindu youth and the non Hindu community.

In other words we always want to say we're worshipping the Supreme Being, that's the point. We don't want to go into a temple and tell people we're worshipping the God of destruction. But that's what some temples are saying, so that's the problem with the Puranas, it can cause that kind of statement to occur and of course it confuses the youth and confuses non Hindus. Non Hindus start to accept the idea that Hindus really do worship a trinity of three separate Gods and of course that's not the case. So that's why the agamic approach is very important and we're trying to make that point. We're not trying to discard the Puranas but we're trying to say focus on the Agamas when it comes to explaining your temple and it's traditions, don't focus on the Puranas.

One last point we would like to make is in answer to challenging questions often asked these days by Hindu youth such as "Why does Hinduism have so many Gods?" "Why do Hindu's not agree on many important points of practice and philosophy?" "Why is Hinduism so complex, other religions seem so much simpler?"

The answer, of course, is that Hinduism is not a one tradition. Let me share with you the story I use in explaining the topic of scriptural study, which is known as Siddhanta Sravana. A young woman initially found her study of Hinduism to be confusing and contradictory. After learning that Hinduism has four different main denominations and that in many ways they differ and on some points even disagree, her study made much more sense. She then decided it was best to just study the teachings of one of the denominations and as a result has since made good progress in deepening her understanding.

The first step in practicing Siddhanta Sravana is simply to study Hindu scriptures. The Vedas and Agamas are Hinduism's core scriptures. They are called sruti, that which is heard. Of these, the Vedas are the primary scripture. And the final section of the Vedas is the Upanishads that contains important truths about spiritual unfoldment and the true nature of the soul. As we know, the Vedas are the world's most ancient scriptures, and the oldest portions of the Vedas are thought to date back as far as 6,000 BCE, making them 8,000 years old.

The Agamas are Hinduism's second authority. Saivism, Saktism and Vaishnavism each have their own Agamas that provide guidelines for their respective forms of sectarian worship, sadhanas and philosophy. Hinduism has a vast body of other sacred literature comprised of hymns, legend, mythology, philosophy, science and ethics. From among these sacred texts each sect and lineage recognizes a select portion as its secondary scripture, called smriti.

Taking Siddhanta Sravana to its second level is accomplished through going beyond reading sacred scripture by listening to the talks of Hindu religious leaders. This is important because it is through hearing that the transmission of subtle knowledge occurs from knower to seeker. The reason for this is that when the speaker has a deep understanding of the Hindu teachings based on his personal insight and experience the listener is able to grasp some of that depth through the sound of the speaker's voice. And of course the deeper the realizations of the speaker, the more knowledge the listener can grasp. It is interesting to note that the Vedas are traditionally taught by listening to the teacher rather than by reading a text. In fact originally the Vedas were not even written down.

Aum Namah Sivaya.