First of all, it is important to identify Hinduism as a set of religions and beliefs rather than as set orthodox system of beliefs. The current division of sects dates back to the days of Adi Sankara, who organized the Smartist Sect of the Sanatana Dharma, the correct term for Hinduism (also known as the “eternal law”, the “eternal law”) into four primary sects:

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The Saiva Sect

These are worshippers of Shiva.

Shiva is one of the representations of God as creator and destroyer. It is a devotional sect dedicated to the Agamic teachings of South India and Kashmir Shaivism in the extreme north of India. The dating of this group is open to question, but this group has the greatest potential for being connected with the Mohenjo-Daro civilization, as it stresses meditation and quiet, and there is some representations of individuals in apparent meditation in the seals from that civilization. Also, it is the closest of any of the sects to a natural religion, as Shiva has a very strong connection with animals, and one of his many names is Pasupati, or “lord of beasts”. Shiva is essentially considered to be the universe, the Great God, and one of the aphorisms in Indian Yoga is that “Jiva” (the individual soul) is “Shiva”(the universal soul).

Essentially, humans are individual manifestations of the soul of Shiva, and this is the basis of Vedanta (see below) in which the human soul makes its way to the earth in an effort to learn or fulfill some desire, then finally, after awhile, returns to Shiva. A relatively minor deity in the Rig Veda (he starts gaining prominence in the later Yajur Veda), he is called Rudra, the howler. Religious beads called rudrakshas are attributed to Shiva.

Shaiva groups are usually the ones involved in the most extreme forms of asceticism, such as forgoing food, or engaging in extreme penance for extended periods of time. Incidentally, although we shall discuss the concept of nakshatras (essentially, fixed star placements) later, it is interesting to note here that Shiva, despite being an ascetic, has a family, and his marriage to his wife Parvati is alleged to have occurred under the lunar mansion (fixed star) location in Leo (Simha) called Utttaraphalguni, and his son Kartikeya, is said to come from the nakshatra Krittika, (really the Pleiades, also referred to in Indian mythology as the place of the seven sages). Kartikeya is also regarded by many as the ruler of astrology, and he is said to travel from planet to planet on his airship. (Since this deity is a representation of the logical mind, and is said to have wandered throughout the universe, this is a logical conclusion, given Hindu beliefs). Within the Shaivite tradition, he fulfills the functions of Lord Brahma (who fell out of favor for lusting after his daughter, knowledge (Saraswati), but Kartikeya is a renunciant and therefore not subject to lust), and to an extent, Vishnu (see below) as Kartikeya is called in to fight the toughest forces of evil.

The Vaishnava sect

This particular group of devotees, again with no agreed upon origin, swears allegiance to Vishnu, the pervader and preserver of the universe.

Vishnu is considered to be the manifestation of divinity that allowed life to come to the world, by actually visiting creation instead of viewing it from afar. Generally, the most placid of the Vedic deities, stories abound about his patience and benevolence (one great sage Bhrigu kicks him to awaken him and when Vishnu awakens, he asks Bhrigu if the sage has hurt his foot). Incidentally, it is in the avatars that one sees a deliberate reference In keeping with the idea of Vishnu’s life preserving nature and his generosity and grace, he incarnates occasionally to save the world from disaster:

Meena Avatar- Vishnu through Ketu

This avatar showed itself as a huge fish that saved the world from destruction in a flood. This avatar represents Ketu’s ability to swim the spiritual seas and also represents Ketu’s ties with catastrophes that wipe things out—but that also give opportunities for spiritual growth.

Varaha Avatar—Vishnu through Rahu.

This represents Vishnu as a huge boar who swallowed the earth to save it from destruction. The swallowing of the earth represents the need to take drastic, unorthodox action at times, but also shows how Rahu encompasses all the earth as the nature of desire, and how it can win the whole earth—for a time at least!

Kurma Avatar—Vishnu through Saturn.

This avatar appeared when the world was created and needed to be lifted from the depths of the ocean. It, like Saturn, shows the need for foundation, and also addresses Saturn’s nature as a “drying” planet. Kurma avatar was conceived to provide a base for the earth and to allow the earth to be raised out of the sea so the gods could secure the elixir of immortality (the amrita) from the ocean. The most interesting thing about this incarnation is that as Saturn provides this major foundation for the churning of the elixir of immortality, it also sets the stage for the mischief of Rahu and Ketu exhibit in the Vedic chart, for without this activity, the Asura Rahu would never have attained immortality…but neither would the devas!

Narasimha Avatar- Vishnu through Mars

Many years ago, a demon was granted a boon that he could not be destroyed in day or night, inside or outside, by man or beast. Narasimha avatar appeared from a temple column near an entrance, at dusk, and was a lions head and paws on a man’s body. Mars rules accidents and sudden attacks. It also acts as a warrior to right wrongs. The sudden, catastrophic nature of Mars is revealed by this Avatar.

Vamana Avatar-Vishnu through Jupiter.

In Indian religion, there is a perpetual battle between those who attain power and become like the Gods (technically called Devas) and the Devas themselves. In this case, a demon king, Bali, had gained power and the Gods were deposed from their high status. Now Bali was not evil…as a matter of fact he was quite a good ruler and the world prospered under his rule. What had happened was that his rule had distorted the balance of the universe that needed restoration. This avatar took the form of a boy or dwarf priest, who appeared before Bali and requested a boon / favor). Bali, being very honorable, told the small priest to take whatever he wished. The small priest asked for only enough land that he could cover in three steps.

As soon as Bali consented to this, the boy/dwarf grew to enormous size—with one step, he covered the earth, with the next he covered the heavens, and was looking for a place to put his last step. Bali offered his own head. Although Bali lost everything, Vamana granted to Bali the status of being king of the Gods in the next cycle of creation. This illustrates the use of wile and non-violence to achieve ends, shows the graciousness of Jupiter towards his opponents (although delayed for a long while) and demonstrates Jupiter’s legalistic disposition and willingness to support the established order. 

Parasurama Avatar-Vishnu through Venus. (Rama with a Battle Axe) .

Parasurama was a Brahmin Priest with a war-like temperament who killed all of the warriors who lived in his time because they had killed his father. The story shows the passion and loyalty of Venus and its commitment to purification of corruption, sometimes at a considerable cost. There are other stories about Parasurama, including the rather interesting one in which his father requests that he kill his mother for thinking impure thoughts. He must also kill his brothers for refusing to honor their father’s wishes. With unquestioning loyalty, he fulfills his father’s request. His father then asks what Parasurama would like as a reward for granting his request. Parasurama asks that his family be brought back to life. Venus is charged with bringing the dead back to life, and is also the guru or teacher of the demons, or those who desire rapid spiritual progress. So Venus’ role in astrology is to control lust and desire not to provoke it. This also fits in with its rulership of the book of rituals or personal sacrifice, an habitually overlooked aspect of Venus.

Rama Avatara-Vishnu through the Sun.

This is one of the better-known incarnations of Vishnu. Rama is a Prince, who along with his brother, Lakshmana, is exiled from his father’s kingdom because of his stepmother’s wish to have her son, Bharat, on the throne. In the epic book the Ramayana, Rama agrees to exile in the forest to honor his father’s pledge to Rama’s stepmother. He lived there with Lakshmana and his devoted wife Sita, until encountering the demon king (actually a powerful Brahmin priest who acquired great supernatural powers) Ravana, who through a series of events, kidnapped Sita, who is considered by some an analog for the earth. Rama had to fight to defeat Ravana (who had committed atrocities among many neighboring groups) and eventually reclaimed Sita and his kingship.

Sadly, when Sita was reclaimed, even though she had declined Ravana’s advances, many accounts indicate that Rama’s subjects felt her to be unclean because of her presence in Ravana’s company, so Rama acceded to the wishes of his subjects and exiled her. (Some accounts do indicate that Rama and Sita lived to old age together, but this is a far less common account.) Rama is a hero’s hero—he honors his father’s wishes, defeats evil, saves the girl, and even stoically accepts his fate when his wife is forced away because he must fulfill his duty.

The story, especially its conclusion, is about the triumph of duty over desire—a key theme in India and a key element in evaluating spiritual progress. (An interesting side note; Ravana was so powerful he had control over all of the nine planets and used them, turned upside down, as stepping stones to his throne. Saturn suggested that he turn them right side up so Ravana could see their discomfort when he walked on them. However, Saturn’s look has the power to destroy, so when Saturn was able to look at Ravana, Ravana became deranged and started to desire Sita, which was his undoing. Given, Ravana’s immense power, it is no wonder Vishnu needed to manifest through the most powerful graha, the Sun, to defeat Ravana. It represents the eternal light of the Sun, that dispels darkness and evil.)

Krishna—Vishnu through the Moon

Krishna is by far, the most popular incarnation of Vishnu. He is charming and delightful and even as a young child, shows signs of his divinity. There are many stories connected to Krishna, but I find two very telling. He has variety of Gopis –essentially water nymphs—with whom he plays and they all love him. Some conservative groups would say this is a metaphorical love; others report it as actual lovemaking. So Krishna, like the Moon in its myths, has many lovers (the lunar mansions are usually referred to as the Moon’s wives). He shows the ability to enjoy the world without attachment to it.

Likewise, in the Mahabharata, the great epoch tale of war between clans in India, Krishna joins in the war, not as a fighter, but as a charioteer. He is the charioteer for Arjuna, whose name means “the shining mind”. Arjuna is a great warrior , but he has pangs of conscience about killing his relatives. And Krishna, as his guide who keeps the horses of his chariot (his wavering nature) under control, tells him he must fight! But the things that Krishna is telling Arjuna to fight are not people so much as desires. Because if he does not fight and kill these desires, they will block his path to spirituality and, even more importantly, to fulfilling his duty or obligation—and he must fulfill his destiny. This dialogue is contained in the Bhagavad Gita, a part of the Mahabharata, which is a condensation of the spiritual principles contained in Hinduism (also called the Sanatana Dharma, or the eternal or unchanging law).

Some authorities interpret the Bhagavad Gita more literally, and this makes sense to them; but the Moon as one of the luminaries, guides the shining mind, almost like a mother would guide an errant child, as Krishna guides Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. The difference between Rama and Krishna is fascinating; one shows the way by doing (Rama); the other through discrimination (Krishna). Krishna is also more like us than the other avatars. He has fun, he fights, he plays pranks—he is the most human, apart from Buddha, of the Avatars, and he understands our human frailties. So, like the Moon, even as he changes, he guides.

Buddha Avatar—Vishnu’s incarnation through Mercury.

This incarnation is very interesting, as most of us are at least somewhat aware of the life of Buddha. First of all, he is a verifiable historical figure. (Some would maintain that all the avatars are!) but Buddha has left a definite legacy. He founded a method to liberation, not a religion per se. He had been sheltered from the outside world as a young prince and only had beauty and youth around him when he was growing up; he wanted to see the world outside, and his father objected, but he determined to go anyway. He saw old age, disease and poverty. It was then that he started to question his life and he left his family to study with spiritual teachers. He studied with Indian Priests and their ornate rituals, but this did not satisfy him as he found the rituals too complicated for him to think about reality. When he went with the ascetics, who mortified their flesh, he found that this also distracted. So he went back to moderate eating and drinking. He then realized the nature of reality by sitting under a tree and meditating. He involved the ascetics, some of whom joined him.

Brahmin India absorbed many of his ideas into the Hindu fabric…so much so that Buddhism is almost non-existent in its native country of India. It exists in Sri Lanka and throughout most of Southeast Asia as a wide spread religion, but was absorbed into Indian mainstream though. Buddhism is atheistic, in that it does not need a creator God to explain the creation of the world—the world works according to the rules of karma. So it is a very scientific religion, well suited to rationalistic civilizations in its purest form. One can readily see Mercury in this pattern as Mercury can see all dimensions of an argument and about reality. This rationalistic impulse can also treat religion as a concept, and spiritual liberation as an intellectual exercise, but it is also good for our perspective, as it helps us realize everything is transient, and passing.

This sect views deity as being an activist god, someone who comes down to earth to write wrongs. In this way, this God comes closer to the Christian conception of God, but he arrives on the earth more frequently. The most popular incarnation of God in this sect is Krishna, and the group known in the West as the Hare Krishnas come from this group.

The view of the soul is somewhat different from the Shaivites, in that the soul is viewed as separate from God, and not able to reform with God, because they are individually created souls. While the Shaivites dream of re-merging with God, the Vaishnavas dream of achieving liberation through attaining Vishnu’s blue heaven and bathing in the bliss of his company.

Shaktism is a system of worship dedicated to the divine mother, in all her aspects, from the benevolent and giving Lakshmi to bloodthirsty Kali. The sect essentially believes in using a variety of techniques, such as mantra (sacred words), Tantra (sacred rituals), Yantra (sacred illustration and diagrams, yoga (physical and mental union with God through exercise and meditation) and puja (specific worship of the gods. This is the closest of all the traditions to the Western magical tradition, as devotees use these acts to open the kundalini—energy at the base of the spine that, when activated, can force union with God. The view of the soul, is, as in Shaivism, is that the soul can re-establish unity with Shiva or God—so the soul can be liberated. So, it is prevalently viewed as a Vedanta system as it advocates union with God—not sitting in his company.

Smartist Sect

The name of the Sect derives from the fact that this is a ritualistic sect. Founded by Adi Sankaram, it is a universalist Hindu sect that welcomes all. Individuals can choose whichever gods (from a set of about 6) it wants to worship. So, the Ishta Devata the person wishes to worship will determine what one believes the soul will be. One could choose Vishnu as deity and have a dualistic (separate god and soul) belief system. The others would lean towards the non-dualistic belief system of the other deities.