Broadly, the religious practices in Sanatana Dharma could be classified into two – Smarta and Tantric. They are not mutually exclusive, and are closely related. Literally smarta means following smritis. This means the smritis associated with the Veda, such as the Vedangas and Dharmasastras. Specifically by smarta one means following dharma sastras. Smarta is a frame of practices, and not a religion. Tantra is part of the Agamic literature, that developed parallel to the Smarta literature.
There are six major religions or theistic schools, called Shanmatas. They are Saiva, Vaishnava, Sakta, Saura, Ganapatya and Kaumara. They regard Siva, Vishnu, Sakti, Surya, Ganapati and Kumaraswamy as the supreme-godhead respectively. These are not purely theological, and include many other things along with theology, such as spiritual philosophy and methods of sadhana. Statistically, Saiva, Sakta and Vaishnava are the major religions and followed all over the country. The other three are practiced more in specific regions. It also depends on the region which religion is followed more, because of many factors like the branch of Veda popular in the region. For instance the followers of Krishna Yajurveda are usually Siva worshippers, since Sri Rudram is in the middle of Taittiriya Samhita. And the region where Krishna Yajurveda followers are more, have more smarta-Saivas. While there are many religions or worshipers of many different devatas, Adi Sankara classified these into six major schools.
Each of these religions takes elements from theology, spiritual philosophy, smriti, Tantra. Besides, there are schools in the worship of each devata/religion that take elements from different Tantras, different spiritual philosophies and different smritis. For instance Vaishnava itself has different codes, like Vaikhanasa and Pancaratra. Some flavors of these religions are tightly bound with some spiritual philosophies and some with methods of sadhana. Thus each religion in fact has a wide range and different levels of practices. Besides, some flavors of these religions attach more importance with some of the paths, like bhakti, jnana and karma. A flavor of religion that attaches more importance to jnana is more bound with a spiritual philosophy. A flavor of religion that attaches more importance to bhakti is more bound to the methods of sadhana and so on.
There were brief conflicts between the followers of these religions; mostly they were debates. Each religion/school made commendable contributions to Hinduism, and even their debates against each other were enriching to the traditions. They were very rarely destructive and hate-driven. Most of them are at the philosophical level, and all the schools have commonly agreed bases such as the authority of Veda, prasthana trayi (the threefold foundation of Brahman/Atman belief in the Vedanta : Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Brahmasutra), whose interpretations were diverse. Even worship in the schools has many common aspects.
|Devotional Sect||Pradhana Devata||Spiritual Philosophies||Agamas|
|Vaishnava||Vishnu||Dwaita, Visistadwaita||Vaikhanasa, Pancaratra|
|Saiva||Siva||Advaita, Dvaita||Kashmira, Siddhanata Saiva|
Usually a smriti following person that does not practice any of the specific religions is called a smarta. This is a broad fold under which any of the religion naturally falls (though with some exceptions as can be seen). Smartas take elements mostly from srauta, and practices from Agamas that are in accordance with smritis. The shanmatas take from Agamas in varying degrees. For instance flavors of sakta take even those elements that are in contradiction to smriti, such as the vamacara Tantra. Though different spiritual philosophies are followed, smartas mostly are advaitins. The worship of smartas usually consists of five devatas (pancayatana) – Siva, Vishnu, Ganapati, Surya and Sakti. This is popularized by Adi Sankara.
Vishnu is treated as the Supreme Godhead. He is said to be the sthiti-karaka, the eternal and the cause of all states of existence and the pervader. Vishnu is a Vedic deity. Vaishnavas are almost purely smartas, and the agamas they regard are Vaikhanasa and Pancaratras. The Vaishnava concept of bhakti is most famous. They describe five kinds of devotee-God relations, or five forms of devotion to God. They are santa, dasya, sakhya, vatsalya and madhura. In order, they are calm devotion, being a servant to God, being a friend of God, treating God as a child and treating God as husband. Though these in varying degrees are practiced by all religions they are explicitly categorized by the Vaishnavas. There are also five different forms in which the Godhead manifests according to Vaishnavas - Para, Arca, Vibhava, Vyuha and Antaryami.
The two famous Vedantic philosophies Visistadwaita and Dwaita, propounded by Ramanujacarya and Madhvacarya, are followed by the Vaishnavas. The followers of Ramanujacarya are Sri Vaishnavas and the followers of Madhvacarya are Madhvas.
There are many different schools in Vishnu-worship or Vaishnava: Smarta (Bhagavata mata) Sri Vaishnava (followers of Ramanujacarya - Visistadvaitins) Sad-Vaishnava (followers of Madhvacarya - Dvaita) Gaudiya Vaishnava (Bhedabheda) Vallabha Sampradaya (Shuddhadvaita) Nimbarka Sampradaya (Dvaitadvaita)
Siva is treated as the Supreme Godhead. He is said to be the eternal, and the first cause of existence. Siva is a Vedic deity. There are many forms of Siva-worship, in smarta as well as Tantra. The smartas who are worshippers of Siva are usually advaitins. There are dvaita versions of Saiva too. There are many sects in Saiva, such as Bhairavas, Kapalikas, Veera Saivas. These are worship modes and worships of different forms of Siva and not different spiritual philosophies. The Saiva Agamas are twenty eight in number. There are two kinds of Saiva Agamas, Kashmira and Siddhanta. The former are followed in north and latter in south India.
Sakti, the Mother-Godess is treated as the Supreme Godhead. She is said to be the primal rhythmic energy, and the cause of all manifestation and action. Sakti could be found in multiple forms in the Veda, like Durga, Gauri, Saraswati, Dakshina, Bharati and Sri. There are both smarta and Tantric forms of Sakti-worship. The Sakti worshippers are usually advaitins.
There are ten forms knowledge of Sakti or Mahavidyas, namely Kali, Tara, Chinnamasta, Bhuvaneshwari, Bagala, Dhumavati, Kamala, Matangi, Sodasi and Bhairavi. They include the philosophy, methods of worship with mantra, Yantra and Tantra.
The worship and knowledge of Sakti, is called Sri Vidya. There are schools like Pancadasi and Sodasi, which expound the philosophy of Sri Vidya. While Pancadasi is purely smarta, sodasi being a Mahavidya includes Tantric part too. The Sri Chakra or Sri Yantra is the one used in Sri Vidya. The devata is called Tripurasundari again called with names like Lalita and Bala.
Sakti is worshipped in three major forms, as a child or maiden (Bala), as the consort of Siva (Parvati/Uma) and as Kali. Because of this, many schools worship Siva and Sakti together.
Surya is treated as the Supreme Godhead. He is said to be the giver of life, and the soul of all beings. Surya/Aditya/Savitr is a Vedic deity. Saura is a comparatively less practiced religion, but was more in practice a few centuries ago. There are few famous temples of Surya, like the ones in Konark (Orissa) and Arasavalli (Andhra Pradesh).
Though Saura as an exclusive religion is not very famous, worship of Surya (as Savitr devata) is done by every practicing Brahmin in his Sandhya vandana thrice a day. Savitri is the sakti associated. She is said to be in three forms, Gayatri, Savitri and Saraswati (in the three parts of the day).
Ganapathi is treated as the Supreme Godhead. He is the leader of all the forces or the pramadha ganas. In addition, Ganapati is the deity of obstacles and is to be worshipped before beginning any major work. He is said to reside and rule the muladhara or the base of energy centers. This is in fact the reason why He should be worshipped first, before any other deity. Thus, Ganapati is also said to be all the four forms of vak or word (para-pasyanti-madhyama-vaikhari). Ganapati is found as Brahmanaspati in the Veda.
Though worshiped all over, exclusive Ganapati worship is found more in Maharasthra and Karnataka. There are variedly eight, sixteen and thirty two forms in which Ganapati is worshipped.
Besides, there are many Tantric forms of worship of Ganapati, like Lakshmiganapati, Pingalaganapati, Uchchishtaganapati and Urdhvaganapati.