Blog Post

Symbolic Rivalry between Shaivism and Vaishnavism

A Blog Post

Few years ago I happened to attend a satsang (a get together) organized by a Hindu temple on the occasion of Mahashivrathri, which is a very sacred day for the devotees of Shiva. The temple arranged a team of singers from the local community to sing devotional songs on the occasion. They put the singers directly in front of the main door that led to the sanctum, where the Shivaling was installed. People could see both the singers and the Shivaling at the same time.

The singers were mostly Vaishnava followers of a particular sect. You could tell it from the marks they wore on their foreheads. They were no doubt very pious people, and you could see it from their demeanor. They played different instruments and joined the chorus while one or two sang melodiously. However, what was striking was their partiality for Vishnu. Although they started singing a few songs in honor of Shiva, they ended up mostly singing the bhajans of Vishnu. They did not care that the occasion was Shiva’s festival and was meant for him. Not many people who attended the event and participated in the chorus took any objection. They went with it, probably thinking that both the deities represented the same ultimate reality.

The rivalry between Shaivism and Vaishnavism is as ancient as the history of Hinduism itself. They are the two most popular sectarian traditions of Hinduism and qualify as religions themselves, each having more following than even world religions like Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism.

Shaivism regards Shiva as the Supreme Brahman, Parvathi as Shakti, and all other gods and goddesses of Hindu pantheon as their numerous manifestations. Vaishnavism holds Maha Vishnu and Maha Lakshmi as the highest. For a long time in the development of Hinduism, the two sects remained at loggerheads with each other, and often resorted to violence to settle their differences.

It was only in the last few centuries, after the emergence of popular Hinduism, there has been a marked reconciliation between the two sects and people from both sides had a change in their attitude. Most Hindus now revere both the gods during domestic worship, on festive occasions or when they visit temples. The differences and prejudice still persist in the extreme elements of both sects, and perhaps it will continue.