The Great Traditions of Hinduism
Hinduism is thought to be a single monolithic religion which we know is not true. Rather it consists of several hundred sampradayas or spiritual lineages, which are independent, yet share commonness. These hundreds of sampradayas can be group into four large sects, Saivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism and Smarthaism - all of which share some main traditions. These sampradayas and sects are based on several long standing traditions.
1.Two Literary Traditions
There are two Literary traditions in Hinduism in which original Hindu teachings have been recorded; the Sanskrit Tradition and the Tamil Tradition. (There is a third Pali Tradition but it focuses on Buddhism only). Of these three traditions, only Tamil is still a living tradition whereas Sanskrit and Pali are dead for all practical purposes.
Much is known about the sanskrit texts which have been quite thouroughly researched and commented upon. But most Hindus are not aware that the tamil texts are equally voluminous as the sanskrit texts and some parts are thought to be as ancient as the rig veda although admittedly much of these old texts have been lost. These tamil texts are even more profound in its universalist and all encompassing views covering not just Hindus but all mankind, all life.
The tamil texts are approximately half of Hindu literary-shastras. Only now are Hindu scholars beginning to realise this, that all this while half of Hindu shastras are not known to most Hindu scholars, swamis and acharyas in this last century as it is written in tamil. In the last hundred years, most scholars and swamis wrote about Hinduism knowning only about one-half or less of its shastric heritage.
Tamil literature is still growing. More has probably been written on Hinduism in tamil in the last 300 years than compared to sanskrit and all other vernacular languages in the last 1,000 years! Here is a part listings of modern tamil writings at http://www.geocities.com/athens/5180/chrono2.html for a glimpse of the the extent of the growing Hindu shastric heritage!
2.Two Shastric Traditions
Two bodies of texts govern Hinduism as revealed scripture or shruti; the Vedas and the Agamas, and both are in sanskrit. The vedas are well known and is fire-ritual based worship or homas.
The agamas are far more voluminous (28 saiva plus 77 shakta plus 215 vaishnava texts, plus their upa agamas) than the entire vedas and all other smirthis together. But few know much about the agamas or quote from it in their writings. This is because it was entirely written in the south and maintained entirely in south India, and that it was written in the grantha script, not brahmi, nagari or devanagiri. Grantha is old tamil script!
Have a look at grantha at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grantha
In other words the agamas were verbalised in sanskrit and written in tamil. Herein lies the symbiosis of these two great literary and shastric traditions. Sanskrit has two scripts, nagari and grantha, with the vedas in nagari and the agamas in grantha.
Today, Hinduism all over the subcontinent is based on the agamas, and is not vedic as Vivekananda too observed. Agama worship is temple worship, home altar worship, temple ceremonies, holy days and festivals, birth-to-death sacraments, etc, which is what Hinduism is today. While there are commonalities in agama and veda worldviews, they are poles apart in rituals. Even more telling is that they are unambiguous and specific in their teachings, unlike the vedas which is general or deals with general principles only.
We might as well call the Hindu religion as the 'Agama Religion' rather than 'Hinduism' which word is of Iranian origin and now an english word, or even 'Sanathana Dharma' which is a self patronising description and not a name, and besides it contains the word 'dharma' which can quite easily be extrapolated to include varnashrama. The followers are of this religion can be called as 'agamists'.
Most of the agamas are still untranslated and only a few are available in english, french or other languages.
3. Four Sectarian Traditions
There are four main sects as mentioned above,that is, Saivism, Vaishnavism Shaktaism and Smartism. The first three are based on their own sects of agamas; saiva agamas for the saivites, vaishnava agamas which is also called the Pancharatra or Samhitas for the vaishnavaites, and lastly the shakta agamas which is also called tantras for the shaktas.
On the other hand the smarthas are kalpa sutra priests whose texts include the prasthana treya comprising the upanishads, vedanta sutras and the bhagavadgita.
Sutra - 'thread or string'. These texts form the last stage of Vedic literature, with verses written in very technical language, by different writers between 500 and 200 BC. These works developed as a result
of the need to simplify the rites and rituals explained in the Brahmanas. These concise treatises simplify Vedic teachings on rituals and their reasons. They also simplify the concepts of customary law. They are known as the "angas" or limbs of the four Vedas, but are considered smriti. (smirthi is non revealed shastras and has no standing in Hinduism just like astrology, etc.) It is not shruti. As the name implies smarthas are followers of the smirthis not shrutis.
There are three known groups of text called sutras: Shrautasutras, Grihyasutras and Dharmasutras, together known as the Kalpa Sutra, and are considered attached to the Vedas.
Srauta Sutra gives the details of ceremonies to be practiced by priests. It contains short passages of instruction for the performance of the elaborate rituals described in the Vedas. For example, they explain how to lay the sacrificial fire, or how to perform Chaturmasya (workmen's guild rules). The Griha Sutras deal with domestic sacrifices and rites to be performed by the householders (personal ethics of priests). The Dharma Sutras refer to the customary law and practices.
The jyotisha and kalpa sutras are two of the vedangas, but are not the vedas itself. By association to the word 'veda' many claim it to be Vedic. That is incorrect. Followers of kalpa sutras are a class of
*priests* that follow the doctrines of the kalpa sutras and not the vedas.
In later periods the kalpa sutras resurfaced as the Manu shastras; householder rules and customary law of the smartha *priesthood* which was tried to be imposed on the masses, unsuccessfully.
Today smartha priests serve in all agama temples and abide by the agama rules scrupulously.
The non availability of agama texts in english and other languages is what led Hinduism to be presented in an unbalanced and distorted way to the westerners as well as the modern Hindus. The view presented thus far is that Hinduism is veda centric, sanskrit centric and dharma/varna centric, is wholly in error. Almost all the writers from Mueller to Vivekananda to Sivananda and till today wrote based on knowledge of half the literary traditions and half of the shastric traditions, an incomplete, unbalanced and less informed view. Of interest to us here is that there is no varna in the tamil and agama traditions which comprise approximately two-thirds of Hindu heritage. The proper and balanced presentation of The Agama Religion would show that Agamism, is universalist and egalitarian.