Thursday, March 6, 2014


Smaarta Tradition Springs out of Sankara's Five-in-One Worship for All Hindus

(Compilation for a discourse by N. R. Srinivasan, Nashville, TN, March, 2014)

Bhagavdgeeta says that He, the Supreme Lord will respond to the devotees in whichever form they worship Him and in whichever way they approach Him. This forms the philosophic basis to Hinduism for the apparent polytheism of Hindus that has caused progressively enough confusion in the minds of the followers of alien faiths. In America Hindus are aliens.   Thanks to the truly implementing secular status Hindus are enjoying their freedom of worship in Hindu Temple complexes drawn from different traditions. But it bewilders casual visitors from major religion of the country being conducted in a divine language with lot of complex rituals and worships for many deities. Hindus often try to explain it away by the Vedic wisdom of “Eko viprah bahuda Avdanti”—The One pundits call as many, but the confused thought in the mind of casual visitor continues.

During early Vedic period prayers were directed to gods like Indra, Agni, Varuna and others. These Vedic Gods are thirty three--Eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, Twelve Adityas, Indra and Prajapati.  Then during the following Puraanic Age worship was directed to countless number of   gods celebrated in various Puranas and their number has not stopped growing till date including many enlightened human beings elevated as divinities.

Broadly Vedic Hindus branched out into three groups during the later Puraanic period which to a large extent still continues. These are Saivas or those who worship Siva, his sons and his associates; Vaishnavas or those who worship Vishnu and his avatars and associates; and Saktas who worship the counter parts of Siva and Vishnu in the form of their strength worshiped as Devi, but accepting Parvati as their Mother Goddess thus more inclined towards Saivism. This liberty of worship with no proper direction or understanding caused great disarray and confusion to Hindu religion and philosophy over a period.  The Meemaamsakas swore by the superiority of observing Vedic rituals to the exclusion of other means like Jnaana. The Buddhists and the Jains who branched out of Hinduism with discontent were content with ethics and did not focus on Supreme Principal or God. There were as many as 72 schools of philosophy conflicting with one another. In the field of religion and practice of worship the situation was even worse. Large sections, of people were engaging themselves in wild and cruel practices defiling the sanctity and purity of worshiping God and preserving Dharma. Sankara who arrived on the scene, during his short span of life, tried to clear up the whole mess, remove all conflicts and restore Dharma to its pristine glory on a sound foundation. He also brought in a sort of unity in diversity among Vaishanva Tradition, Saiva Tradition and Sakta Tradition which is now called Smarta Tradition, though not very popular confined to South and some pockets in the North like Gujarat. In Karnataka Smaartas are known as Sanketis who speak a sort of Sanskritized dialect of Tamil. They revere Nachiaramma of Tamil Nadu a saint of tenth century of Vadama Iyers. In USA Sanketis have maintained their cultural identity and formed a cultural organization called NASA, North American Sanketi Association, since 1984 who do not fail to meet and discuss annually. They are a group of high intellectuals with strong cultural advancement in Vedic studies and fine arts.

Sankara to start with came out with his Advaita philosophy to silence Buddhism and Jainism who were silent on God. Advaita Vedanta in essence postulates the ultimate Reality behind the entire Universe including the individual souls is One Supreme Soul, Parabrahmam, all the rest being only His own Maayaa Sakti with names and forms. Sankara expresses the same in one sentence: “Brahmasatyam jaganmithya, jeevo Brahmaiva na parah”—Brahman alone is a true entity, the world is false, Self is Brahman alone and not anything other than that. Later philosophers did not pay attention to his Smaarta Concept but focused more on his Advaita philosophy. This gave rise to many other philosophies with regimented compartmentalization that has resulted in various sectarian worship, rituals and festivals in India.   American Hindus are trying to adopt the same with their temple complexes and in the process remain confused  and bewildered not able to convince the new set of generation that is arising out of inter-caste marriages and Inter-racial marriages which tendency is growing day by day.  Today  in India we have four traditions in Hinduism—Saiva,  Sakta, Vaishanava and Smaarta out of which Smaarta Tradition seem to be more logical and apt for Americans which needs detailed explanation.

Sankara took a veritable task of streamlining Bhaktimaarga (path of devotion) by removing the crudities that has crept in and by re-establishing the six main categories of worship of the Hindu deities from  Vedic period and later, namely, Ganapatyam, Saivam, Vaishanvam, Saktam, Kumaram and Sauram (worship of Ganapati, Siva, Vishnu, Ambika, Skanda and Surya). For the daily worship of a house holder, he prescribed the Panchayatana Puja in which images or symbols of five of the above six deities to be  worshiped together, thereby eliminating possibility of discard among Hindu religious followers. Kumara represents the wisdom of Siva as Guruguha and becomes a part of Siva in this. Sankara assiduously propagated that Eternal One is not just the abstract   Supreme Being of philosophical speculation but could take the form of personal God, full of grace and compassion who can be communicated with and sought after by the common householder to inspire love or personal trust and be an object of reverence, or who can provide refuge or solace, whenever needed. Towards this he spent the latter part of his life in composing many slokas on all the six deities he recommended for worship besides the philosophic verses of Bhaja Govindam, Bhakti leading to Jnaana., which included contributions from his immediate followers.  He kept Brahma out of the Trinity in his Panchayatana worship not to offend the Puraanic lores. But in Temples worship of Brahma became a must to complete the cycle of Srishthi (creation), Sthiti (maintenance) and Laya (dissolution) as the Veda mantras used in worship focused on Saguna Brahaman in these three functions while directing contemplation on Nirguna Brahman. Unfortunately Ganapatyam, Kaumaram and Saivam joined hands together and also attracted Saktam to their fold making Parvati as Paraasakti creating a strong battle field between Vaishnavas  and the majority combined force.  In this conflict Smaarta tradition got confined to small pockets here and there. Had he lived for some more time Smaarta tradition would have come to forefront.  Sankara not only preached Shanmatas but also practiced. His first commentary was on Vishnusahasranama bringing all pervasive Vishnu’s glory as Brahman. It is strange that he did not comment on Chamakam at all which needed more explanation clouded in mystery of numbers!

Few enlightened Vedic scholars after his demise adopted Panchayatana puja and called   themselves Smaartas, accepting Sankara as their mentor. Their Sampradaya or tradition is known today as Smaarta Sampradaya.  Sankara did not start this. This is a sect formed by a group of Brahmin thinkers of Advaita philosophy who follow Shanmata (six schools of worship) concept of Sankara and Panchayatan puja. The term ‘smaarta’ denote a specific, specialized category of Brahmins who specialize in Sruti who hold their ultimate authority to Vedas. They accept all major Hindu Gods recommended in Shanmata (six religious schools) of Sankara and therefore they are liberal and non-sectarian. They follow Advaita philosophical meditative path, emphasizing individual’s oneness with God through understanding. They are not overly sectarian as the other three groups and recognize that Brahman is the Supreme Principal in the universe and pervades all existence as inner controller (antaryamin).  The word Smaarta comes from Sruti. Sruti means what is heard and are scriptures which are believed to have come from purely divine origin. These are the four Vedas. The Smritis are Hindu religious scriptures which are considered to be of human authorship. All Brahmins who specialize in the Karma Kaanda (Samhitas and Brahmanas which are the ritual part of the Vedas) and who study Vedas and Saastras (both Sruti and Smriti) are known as Smaartas. They are today the obvious choice of Hindu Society to chant Vedas during temple worships and rituals even in staunch Vaishnava temple like Tirupati.

It is interesting to examine how ritualistic and   what days Smarta Brahmins focus   as sacred days for worship and have tended to rigidly hold the traditional values of Hinduism. Smartas’ observance of certain religious practices on occasions of astronomical significance, planetary transits, eclipses, equinox’s, Ekadasis, Full-moon days and New-moon days and Uttrayana Sankranti is worth noticing. As festivals they concentrate on few: Chaitra Parva, Pavitraka parva, Damanaka parava, Rama Navami, Ratha Yatra, Janmashtami, Sivaratri, Deepotsava, Akshaya triteeya and Ratha Saptami. These are the popular festivals observed by all traditions. Smaarta tradition focuses more on ritualistic and spiritual aspect of the rituals and festivals and less on the merriment and much less on the enjoyment and merrymaking of the festivals conducted in temples. They are serious and spiritually focused.  Many of their festivals are called pavitrotsava or purification rites. 

It is interesting to note here the traditional Melasti ceremony of Bali Hindus in Indonesia. The purpose of this Melasti ceremony is to purify Bhuana Alit (microcosm) and Bhuana Agung(macrocosm) from bad influences, bad deeds and bad thoughts. Bhuana Alit (Microcosm) is the world of the individual or soul of each individual   while Bhuana Agung is the vast world or this universe. This ceremony imparts very important value to remind and to realize how important this life is for which we need a day (annual cleansing like Upakarma) to purify ourselves and so also the universe. With this ceremony, all the components that live in this world have a clean soul so the world can survive from the threat of evil influences and disturbances. This aims at peace within each individual and praying to God for  universal peace by eliminating all evils.

Smaarta Tradition brought about Hindu Synthesis between non-Vedic and Vedic Gods and traditions, a period of consolidation around   later period of the Puranic age. It is a pity this synthesis could not influence majority of Hindus and was confined to small pockets here and there.  Their great teacher, and according to some, the founder of the sect is Sankara. The monastery he founded in Sringeri of Karnataka continues to be the center of the sect, and the head of the monastery, the Jagadguru Sankaracharya (Teacher of the World) is the spiritual   authority of Smartas in South India and Gujarat.  While all Smaartas are followers of Advaita all   Advaita followers are not Smaartas. It is a pity  that this Tradition purely remained among Brahmins and did not penetrate much  into the whole Hindu Society and even did not influence  Dwijas from other castes (Kshatriya and Vaisya). May  be Sankara could not focus much on his new found Tradition as he was more concerned against fighting nihilism and atheism. Later Vaishnavism came with all force under the leadership of Madhva and Ramanuja who were able to stop the authoritative and dominating Saivism then prevailing to establish their own sectarian Vaishnavism.  Chaitanya and Hare Krishna movement started a separate sub-group of Krishna consciousness inspired by Jayadeva within Vaishnavism. Saktism closely followed Saivism keeping Parvati and Durga as their ideal Universal Mother and did not establish in true sense Sakta worship which did not firmly include Saraswati and Lakshmi (all the Sakti parts of the Trinity). Later Parvati was associated with Durga in certain quarters. Both Durga and Parvati, daughter of Himavan are celebrated  in Upanishads but  not associated with Siva of Puraanas.

According to Smaarta Tradition, Supreme Reality, Brahman, transcendent of all of the forms of personal is Easwara who is both Saguna and Nirguna as revealed in Rigveda. As Saguna, God   exhibits qualities such as an infinite nature and a number of characteristics such as compassion, love and justice.  As Nirguna, God is understood as pure Consciousness Existence and Bliss that is not connected with matter as experienced by humanity in life. Because of the holistic nature of God, these are simply two forms or names that are expressions of the Ultimate Reality.

Many Hindus do not identify themselves with Smaartas but intellectuals among them do recognize Smaarta tradition as visualized by Sankara is the foundation for non-sectarianism and Universal Oneness approach as Vedas proclaim.   “The   emerging Indian nationalism is clearly founded upon a number of cultural movements that for the most part, reimagined as Aryo-centric, non-Brahmin vision of India, which provided the ideology for this hegemonic project. In the Tamil region, such a vision and ideology was closely associated with the Tamil Brahmins and, especially, the Smaarta Brahmins who were considered the strongest   adherents of the pan-Indian Sanskrit Brahminical Tradition” writes Vaitheswaran.  Smaartas showed the way but unfortunately majority Hindus turned towards sectarianism and rigid compartmentalization. Being the cream of Hindus as educated elite that migrated to America it is for them to   seriously think and gradually turn towards non-sectarian Smaarta tradition and then progressively march towards Universal Oneness as Vivekananda Recommends. Vivekananda was one of the prominent Smaartas in the paramapara (line) of Smaartas beginning with Gaudapada namely, Govinda Bhagavatpada, Adi Sankaracharya, Sureswaraacharya, Padmapadaacharya, Hastamalkacharya, Totakacharya, Vachaspati Misra and Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Radhakrishna, President of India,  was a Smarta. It had the beginning somewhat earlier to Sankara here and there at individual level but brought to light openly by Sanakra. Saivasiddhanta in the South and Saivism  in the North became  so strong and sectarian at one time in converting majority to Saivism focusing on Advaita philosophy of Sankara,  the picture we get today is Sankara was a born Saivite and worked all through  towards promotion of Sectarian outlook and his  major role  was in leading people towards Saivism which according to them is inseparable from Advaita. Though born as a staunch Saivite, Sankara practiced Smarta Tradition as is seen today and preached the same to all leading them to Oneness with Self.

American Hindu temples are temple complexes housing many deities with individual sanctums for each deity to please the three main traditions. In principle their worship is meant to be directed to Trinity in Saguna form to meditate on Nirguna Brahman as explained in my previous lectures. It is proper to call such temples as “Temple of Trinity”. It should not be forgotten that Ten Days of Annual Festival in all temples with various mounts of deities is called Bramhotsava which needs to be presided by Lord Brahma. Also every temple needs to have a niche for Brahma’s idol.  Hence the worship in true sense is to Trinity only.  But sectarian Aagma trained priests give an impression that it is focused on the individual Puraanic deity or Ishtadevata (one’s chosen deity) all the time.  Probably this may be because the temple is named after a sectarian deity and priests have to please the sectarian outlook temple trustees or founding fathers! Though the worship is executed with several Veda mantras that direct everything towards Supreme Brahman this message is not properly reflected or understood or its impact felt by the devotees while performing the worship. So it all ends up as sectarian worship. In my opinion Smaarta Tradition of worship is ideal for such complex crowds with so many deities. A number of pure Smaarta temples are found in South India while in the North they are fewer.  Following Smaarta tradition of these temples should not be construed as violating any sectarian Aagaama mandate. Smaarta sect is an orthodox Hindu sect composed of the members of Dwijas, twice born or initiated upper classes, who are confined to  Brahmin followers today  and are characterized by allegiance to all the gods of the Hindu pantheon and   are known for  their adherence to rules of ritual and conduct laid down in the ancient Sutra texts. It would be appropriate therefore to bring in trained priests from India who are Smaartas, as they are well read Vedic scholars and well trained in Hindu temple worship in Panchaayatana worship. That way temple authorities need not have to force conservative sectarian aagama trained priests to conduct worship on all deities wounding their feelings who have been attracted to the rich and prosperous country of America hoping  to better their future as well as educating their  children in lucrative professional studies like medicine and engineering as other migrants.

Yet another concept  could be that of Bhuvaneswar where Linga and Saalagrama are worshiped together both with Bilwa leaves and Tulasi used in Siva and Vishnu worships respectively chanting both Rudram and Purushasooktam. Abhishekam performed on such Vykta-Avyakta form would save lot of food material going to the sewers which could find its way to charity food bank, a noble service for feeding the poor.

It is interesting to note how the thinking is changing in the major Christian religion of the country to-day where Hindus are living enjoying their religious freedom. Pope Francis in his recent speech says:  “All religions are true and the truth is one and only kind. We all love and worship the same God. God lives in us and in our hearts. Hell as projected in Bible is a literary device. All souls will be united in love with God”. This very much reflects the wisdom of Vedas which emphatically says all can attain salvation, only time differs based on one’s past deeds. It does not speak of hell like later Puranas. Pope Francis even feels Holy Bible needs a revision as it is a man-made document. Upanishads and Bhagvadgeetaa are eternal and relevant for all times. They do not warrant any revision with changing times   like the Holy Bible.  American Hindu   mass worships and rituals in temple complexes should be based on One Truth and One Tradition.  

Smaarta Brahmins hold on to orthodoxy and have tended to rigidity to hold the traditional values of Hinduism. They are Vedic scholars mostly and are active in all branches of Scripture learning and have earned the honorary titles of Saastri and Dikshitar or in Tamil Nadu Aiyaaval which title often follow their names.  Even their proper names have a preference for Sivaraman, Sivaramakrishnan, Sankara Narayanan, Subbalakshmi, Vaishnavi-Sambhavi, Venkata-subramaniyan, Subbaraman, Ganesha Ram etc., blending names of Siva and Vishnu to show their non-sectarian philosophy. Smaartas are recommended to follow the Brahma form of Vedic marriage (a type of arranged marriage or accepted by both sides coming out of mutual attraction). The marriage ceremony is derived from Vedic prescriptions.  This is the most popular form of Hindu sacred marriage for celebrating in temples even overseas. Women acquire the traditions of her husband's family upon marriage. Lineage is an important continuity for the Smaartas. It is called the Gotra. Each Smaarta family belongs to a particular Gotra which is the progeny of an identified Rishi. People belonging to the same Gotra are deemed brothers and sisters and hence cannot marry each other.

1.      Balakrishnan S., Sankara on Bhakti, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavasn Mumbai, India.
2.      Swami Harshanada, Hindu Gods and Goddesses, Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India.
3.      Swami Bhaskarananda,   Essentials of Hinduism,   Ramakrishna Math, Chennai, India.
4.      Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia and other Internet Sources.
5.      Naijaurban, Latest Revelations of Pope Francis, December29, 2013, Huffpost.
6.      Srinivasan N.R., Why Hindu Temple Outer Prakaras have Red and White Stripes, Hindu Reflections:<>

 [This is a prepared lecture compiled from above references and others for a discourse at Sri Ganesha Temple, Nashville and to benefit those who are not able to attend the same in person. You are free to download and use it for your reading and reference as well as circulate to others to spread the wisdom of Vedas and Hindu values which good act will be appreciated.]